Weekend Listening: Frantz Casseus’s “Haitian Dances”

In the 1940s, Frantz Casseus emigrated from Haiti to the U. S. because he wanted to meet Fats Waller.

That’s about as fine a reason to go someplace as I can imagine.

Sadly, the two men never met — Fats died about the time Casseus got to New York — but Casseus, a gifted classical guitarist and composer, went on to write and record some beautiful music of his own, adapting Haitian folk songs and styles to European classical traditions. “Frantz came here with the ambition to compose a distinctly Haitian classical guitar music,” wrote the guitarist Marc Ribot, for whom Casseus became a mentor. Casseus released three records on the Folkways label, creative and poignant works steeped in the rhythms, textures, and traditions of his native culture.

Here’s his 1954 album, Haitian Dances, my recommended listening for you on this cold weekend. It’s a short album: you can listen to it back-to-back-to-back, three times in a row, in about an hour. I’ve probably played it six or seven times already today.

P.S. It goes without saying. But thank God for Haiti and Haitians, and for Haitian-Americans — for Frantz Casseus, for example,  and the wonders he wrought in this country, his second home.

Frantz Casseus

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam

For the last several years, the first semester exam for my high school creative writing class has come in two parts, spread out over a few class periods.

For Part One, students receive a small slip of paper that says “CREATE YOUR OWN CREATIVE WRITING EXAM,” and just a couple of sentences’ instruction. They have one 50-minute class period to create an exam for the course, and the only requirement is that they use the entire period. They may take the full 50 minutes to make the exam, or if they finish it before the period is over, they can actually take the exam themselves. One or two students usually panic, afraid that they won’t do it “right”; I more or less refuse to give any other direction, but if a student is sincerely worried I’ll just tell them, “Create an exam you would like to take” or “Just be true to the spirit of the course, and I promise you’ll be fine” — and after a little hand-wringing they start writing.

Somehow I usually manage to convince at least most of the students that Part Two of the exam will be completely unrelated to Part One, that Part One is a stand-alone exercise, a warm-up for something more exam-ish. But of course it is all a set-up: before they come back for Part Two I compile questions and prompts from all twenty-something exams into a single, epic document. They have a little more than two hours, over two days, to accomplish as much as they can. They can skip any questions and go in whatever order they want. Again, the only requirement is that they use the entire allotted time: they shouldn’t try to do it all, just to do as much as they can.

Both parts of the exam are always great fun for me to read. I’m always impressed by how funny and poignant, how creative and absurdist and profound these students can be, even in the middle of exam week, and I’m always reminded how glad I am to know all of them.

In case you would like to take this year’s exam for yourself, I am posting it in the link below. Set a timer for 60 or 90 minutes or whatever feels right and see what you can do. I did not create any of these questions; each one was created by a sophomore, junior, or senior in high school.

Good luck.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam 2017

P.S. A couple of students’ questions reference the wonderful artist and writer Lynda Barry and this 14-minute video, which we’d recently watched in class — and which I recommend also to you.

New Year’s Hankathon

Tomorrow, New Year’s Day 2018, marks the 65th anniversary of the death of Hank Williams; and to commemorate the date I’ve got four hours of Hank tributes from The Lost Child — the perfect soundtrack, I think, to your black-eyed peas and new year’s greens.

First, here’s the extended edition of this weekend’s show, the Hank Death Show. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and this 65th anniversary seemed like good timing: we listened back to Hank’s historic funeral and heard some of the (many!) Hank tribute songs released in the wake of his death, along with some original Hank records and radio broadcasts. The extended online version includes more of the funeral than I could squeeze into my usual broadcast hour, plus a further look into all those tribute records.

That show was a sort of epilogue to this show, Hank at 90, the three-hour tribute I aired on the 90th anniversary of Hank’s birth, back in 2013. “Hank at 90” pulled together into one place many years of Hank collecting and obsessing on my part, and it’s still one of the most popular episodes of The Lost Child. There are Hank classics and obscurities, reflections from Hank’s old bandmates, a look into the roots of Hank Williams (including the evolution of the “Lovesick Blues” and “Jambalaya”), and, best of all, a world of Hank covers — including gospel, conjunto, soul, zydeco, doo-wop, ’60s psychedelic Thai pop  covers, and more. Here’s the playlist, if you’d like to follow along:

  1. Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
  2. Dean Martin: Wedding Bells
  3. Johnny “Guitar” Watson: Cold, Cold Heart
  4. Conjunto Atardecer: Jambalaya
  5. Hank Williams: Settin’ the Woods on Fire
  6. Johnny Cash: I Heard that Lonesome Whistle
  7. The Maddox Brothers and Rose: Honky Tonkin
  8. Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams: Live on the Grand Ole Opry, 1950
  9. Hank Williams: Next Sunday Darlin’ is My Birthday (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, WSM, 1951)
  10. Piano Red: Hey Good Lookin’
  11. Billy Lee Riley: Kaw-Liga
  12. Papa Cairo: Grand Texas
  13. Chuck Guillory: Grand Texas
  14. Hank Williams: Jambalaya (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
  15. Louis Keppard: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
  16. Washboard Sam: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
  17. Hank Williams: My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It (demo)
  18. Esther Phillips: I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)
  19. Hank Williams radio interview with Mack Sanders, WFBI, Wichita, KS, 1951
  20. Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter: Ramblin’ Man
  21. Louis Armstrong: Your Cheatin’ Heart
  22. Isidro Lopez: Kaw-Liga
  23. The Five Crowns: You Win Again
  24. Kenneth “Jethro” Burns: You Win Again
  25. Bill Monroe: I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome
  26. Braxton Shooford (Braxton Schuffert): Rockin’ Chair Daddy
  27. Big Bill Lister: Countrified
  28. Big Bill Lister: There’s a Tear in My Beer
  29. Big Bill Lister: Story Behind “There’s a Tear in My Beer”
  30. Hank Williams, Sr. & Hank Williams, Jr.: There’s a Tear in My Beer
  31. Bob Log III: Settin’ the Woods on Fire
  32. Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter: A Picture from Life’s Other Side
  33. Elvis Presley: Men with Broken Hearts (Las Vegas, 1970)
  34. Dinah Washington: Cold, Cold Heart
  35. Hank Williams: You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave) (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1949)
  36. Audrey Williams: Tornado of Love
  37. Lloyd Clarke: Half as Much
  38. Lum York: Memories of Hank Williams (My Life and Times with Hank Williams, Sr.)
  39. Hank Williams: Mother’s Best radio show excerpt, featuring “I Saw the Light” (1951)
  40. Emmett Miller: The Lovesick Blues
  41. Rex Griffin: Lovesick Blues
  42. Hank Williams: Lovesick Blues
  43. Porter Wagoner: Porter and Marty (Men With Broken Hearts / I Heard That Lonesome Whistle)
  44. Link Wray: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  45. Silver Sand: Kaw-Liga
  46. Hank Williams: How To Write Folk and Western Music To Sell
  47. Zelenáči (Greenhorns) & Miroslav Hoffman: Posledni hrana (Long Gone Lonesome Blues)
  48. Hank Williams: Weary Blues from Waitin’ (demo)
  49. The Golden Crusaders: Hey Good Lookin’
  50. Hank Williams: On Top Of Old Smoky (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, 1951)
  51. Preston Fulp: Wedding Bells
  52. James Brown: Your Cheatin’ Heart
  53. Hank Williams: radio interview with Bob McKinnon, Alexander City, AL, 1950
  54. Jack Cardwell: The Death of Hank Williams
  55. Dr. Henry L. Lyon: Hank Williams eulogy (excerpt), Highland Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, 1953
  56. Johnnie and Jack: Hank Williams Will Live Forever
  57. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama: I Saw the Light
  58. Hank Williams: I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing

Hank Death Show copy

In Birmingham the night before New Year’s each year is Hank Night, bandleader Chad Fisher’s annual tribute to the music of Hank Williams (Hank spent the night of January 30, 1952 in Birmingham, on his way to the gig he never made). Each year it’s an incredible night. For the last three years I’ve had the honor of introducing the band onstage and saying a few words about Hank. This is more or less what I said last night:

Happy Hank Night.

65 YEARS AGO TONIGHT(!!)
Hiram Hank Williams
pulled into the city of Birmingham
in the middle of a snowstorm

in his eggshell blue Cadillac convertible
on his way to a New Year’s gig in Canton, Ohio

He checked into the Redmont Hotel downtown and got a room for the night.
It was his last night in any bed
And the last night whose morning he’d live to see.

In the morning Hank got back on the road
but somewhere in the dark hours
between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
he breathed out his last breath; and
somewhere around Oak, Hill, West Virginia
his driver pulled over to discover him dead.

In life Hank wrote a litany of hits:
     “Hey Good Lookin'”
     “Jambalya”
     “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
     “Cold Cold Heart”
     “I Saw the Light”
     “Kaw-liga”
     And too many others to name

When he died DJs all over the country saturated the airwaves with his songs
and put also onto their turntables a world of Hank tribute records
so many musical eulogies they constituted a kind of miniature genre unto themselves

Songs like:
     “The Life of Hank Williams”
     “The Death of Hank Williams”
     “In Memory of Hank Williams”
     “Ode to Hank Williams” 

     “A Tribute to Hank Williams, My Buddy”
     “Hank Williams, That Alabama Boy”
     “Singing Teacher in Heaven”
     “Guest Star in Heaven”
     “Heart’s Hall of Fame”
     “That Heaven Bound Train”
     “When Hank Williams Met Jimmie Rodgers”
     “Hank Williams Will Live Forever”
     “Hank Williams Isn’t Dead”
     “Hank, It Will Never Be the Same Without You”
     And more

One of Hank’s recent hits, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” was still on the charts
And that song, which a few months ago had just been a jokey, catchy novelty tune

Became suddenly endowed with a tragic, near-mystic significance

Hank’s record label rushed to release a posthumous anthology of all the records Hank
     had made as Luke the Drifter
     his moralizing, sermonizing alter-ego,
a collection meant to assure Hank’s fans that for all the hell-raising for which Hank was
known
Hank had believed above all in mama and God and sweet sacred things and home.

The DJs read out over the airwaves the home address of Hank’s mama, Lily Stone in
Montgomery
urging their listeners to send their condolences
So a flood of cards and letters

poured by the hundreds into her mailbox
and filled up as best as they could the empty spaces in her home

There were letters from housewives
and farmers
teenagers
and aspiring songwriters
from black listeners and white listeners

and GIs stationed in Korea and in Germany.

A letter from Eua Claire, Wisconsin, was addressed to “The Mother of Country Music”
and said, quote:
     “I’d love to come to your home and see Hank’s room
and feel his nearness everywhere.
     Do you think Hank would care?”

I grew up in Montgomery some years after all this
and Hank’s nearness could still be felt if you knew how to look for and feel it.
When the Hank Williams Museum got ready to open there in 1999
a headline appeared on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser
     my hometown paper
announcing the appearance of what seemed to be Hank’s ghost
in a piece of plywood
at the museum’s construction site.
A contract painter, the paper said, had discovered in the wood grain
–o
n December 31, of all possible dates, just days before the museum’s opening–
the image of a cowboy hat
and then of a guitar
and next to that the letters HW;
a few days later, a cowboy boot had “appeared” in the grain
and the museum’s owner told the paper:
“We don’t know what will appear next.”
Quote: “It’s strange”

But strange things happen in country music
and God knows strange things happen in Alabama

David Allen Coe in the ’80s and Allen Jackson in the ’90s both wrote new sorts of tribute
     songs, describing run-ins with Hank’s ghost in and around Montgomery
and Waylon Jennings’s tour bus always kept one empty bunk open for Hank’s ghost,
which Waylon said came around often for the ride and a talk.

Hank just can’t seem to leave us alone.
And we can’t leave him alone either.

Hank Williams seems to fill for millions of us some kind of essential need
and 65 years after he last pulled through this town

we still have limitless room for his Ghost.

For nine years Chad Fisher has brought to Birmingham one of the greatest nights this
     city knows,
assembled on this stage one of the most joyous and inspiring lineups of talent we might
hope to hear
and it’s a joy to be with you all here tonight
for Hank Night Nine.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors,
     Chad Fisher
     and the Hank Night Band.

One last thing or two for now, speaking of musical New Year’s traditions: here’s 20 minutes’ worth of “Auld Lang Syne” to help ring in the new — and a blog post from this time last year, with still more(!!) New Year’s listening from The Lost Child.

Happy new year, and long live Hank Williams. See you in 2018.

hank!

Audio Archive: Frank “Doc” Adams remembers…

This weekend marks the five-year anniversary of the publication of my book with the great, much-beloved Alabama jazz hero, Dr. Frank Adams: a master performer, educator, family man, community icon, storyteller, and history-keeper known to many around here as “Doc.” Our book — Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man — tells Frank Adams’s story in his own words, drawing from more than two years of weekly interviews.

To celebrate the anniversary of the book’s publication, I’ve uploaded the first few minutes of the first interview I conducted with Doc, from July of 2009 (in the recording below, I attribute this interview to 2002, not catching my verbal typo). At the time, I thought I’d write an article about Doc and about the history of Birmingham jazz community. Most of all I wanted to preserve some of this man’s remarkable story and storytelling for posterity; beyond my vague ideas for an article I didn’t have much of a plan. But this interview turned into many more interviews, which turned in turn into our book — and eight(!!) years later, I’m still very hard at work on the book that’s grown out of that one, a history of jazz in Birmingham, and of Birmingham in jazz.

Doc died two years after the publication of this book — three years ago this month. It’s a joy to hear his voice again in this recording. I remember vividly the day of this interview, sitting across from Doc in his office, engrossed in his stories and his spirit. I had no idea that we’d record ninety-something more of these interviews, no idea that this recording would become the opening pages of our book. I certainly did not anticipate the friendship and collaboration that would grow out of this first session. For that friendship, above all, I’ll be eternally grateful.

IMG_20140222_151410

When the book was finished, Doc constantly instructed me: “Keep the book in front of people.” He believed, and I believe, that it told an important story — a story about more than jazz, and more than Birmingham — and a story that ought to be widely shared. He didn’t want it collecting dust on book shelves but wanted it to pass through as many hands as it could. So I’ll remind you on its anniversary that’s it’s still available from Amazon — and right now available at the best price I’ve seen on it yet. Maybe your library has it, or maybe you can get your library to get it. If you’re in Birmingham, we’ve got it for sale at our new store, The Jaybird. However you get your hands around it, I hope you’ll spend some time with this book and with Doc.

Meanwhile, here’s how this whole thing started: Dr. Frank Adams sitting in his office, age 81, talking about his father and his brother and his mother, and about his first musical performance — a brothers’ duet of “The Old Rugged Cross,” performed for the congregation of Birmingham’s Metropolitan A. M. E. Zion Church.

“That,” he said, “sort of hooked me on music.”

Happy anniversary, Doc.

Remembering Ralph (1928-2017)

Tomorrow on The Lost Child: You might not know Ralph Lewis, but you should. The seventh son of a seventh son, he was born into the Great Depression in the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina. By five or six he was getting his hands around a mandolin and soon was sitting in with brothers Ervin and Blanco, The Lewis Brothers, a popular regional act. When Blanco was killed in WWII, Ralph joined Ervin as half of the brother duet, developing a following around Niagara Falls, New York. By the late forties Ralph had landed in Detroit, where an audience, made largely of displaced Southerners, packed out local venues to hear his mixing of mountain music tradition with a creative, propulsive, high-energy bent: “I was playing rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t know it,” he later said, suggesting an affinity with modern sounds that would last his whole life. He moved back to North Carolina and played in a number of bands before joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1974, at a peak in Monroe’s career. After touring the U.S., Japan, and Europe with Bill Monroe, Ralph returned to Madison County, choosing to develop a band with his young sons, Marty and Don.

I first encountered Ralph, Marty, and Don when I moved to Asheville, NC, in the year 2000. Their band, The Sons of Ralph (Featuring Ralph) was an enormous local favorite, especially at Jack of the Wood, the downtown stage they made their headquarters. As he always had, Ralph mingled his family’s mountain music traditions with a wide-open, innovative embrace of influences, and with Marty and Don at his side Ralph was more than ever pushing the boundaries of bluegrass–really forgoing boundaries altogether–and mixing in an eclectic, electric range of sounds from rock and roll to reggae to Cajun music and beyond.

Ralph remained a fixture of the area’s musical culture and scene until his death last Saturday at the age of 89. I am grateful for the opportunities I got to see him and Marty and Don and their band, live on stage–grateful for the opportunities to participate in a community and family that extended beyond the stage to every person in the room.

I’m going to do my best tomorrow to play/pay tribute to Ralph on the radio. I’ll play a bunch of Sons of Ralph songs, and a recording or two of Ralph playing with Bill Monroe in Japan. I’ll play a few excerpts from an interview I recorded with Ralph in 2002. I will leave some things out, I’m sure, but it will be a heartfelt tribute anyway to a musician and a man I’ll always admire. You should tune in.

ralph

The Lost Child airs Saturday morning from 9 to 10, Central, on Birmingham Mountain Radio: 107.3 in Birmingham, Alabama; 97.5 in Tuscaloosa; and streaming online every & anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. It will air again on Tuesday evening, 8/15, from 11 to midnight (also Central), at the same places. And it’ll air a final time at Radio Free Nashville a week from tomorrow: on Saturday, 8/19, from 10-11 (Central again). You can hear it there around Nashville, Tennessee, at 103.7 & 107.1 FM, or you can stream it anywhere at www.radiofreenashville.org.

Thanks, Ralph. Rest in peace–or, better than rest: keep having a raucous good time up there. You’ll be missed down here.

Blues for Sunday Morning

I woke up this morning and made a sweet lazy Sunday playlist of (mostly) downhome blues. You can listen to it here, or just scroll to the bottom of this post.

Included is an epic story song, “Jaybird,” by Scott Dunbar, recorded in the summer of 1968 on the bank of Lake Mary, Mississippi, by folklorist Bill Ferris. Ferris describes “Jaybird” as “a cante-fable — a sung story — about a young man who courts his sweetheart. He brings corn whiskey to her parents to make them fall asleep, and then he courts their daughter through the night.”

Scott Dunbar says this of the song: “I made that one up. That’s the jaybird in the air. I made that one about how you cut out the momma and the poppa so you can talk to the daughter.”

This playlist draws, among other things, from some really wonderful collections of field recordings. I suggest you check any and all of them out:

+ The George Mitchell Collection, Volumes 1 – 45 

+ Art of Field Recording: Traditional Music Documented By Art Rosenbaum

+ Drop On Down In Florida: Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music, 1977-1980

+ The Blues: Music from the Documentary Film by Sam Charters

+ Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices from the Mississippi Blues, by William Ferris

+ In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley

+ Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia 

There’s also music here from Elizabeth Cotten, Pink Anderson, Algia Mae Hinton, Precious Byrant, Jesse Fuller, and others. Mississippi John Hurt sings this prayer, from his last recording sessions, in 1966:

Blues all on the ocean, blues all in the air
Can’t stay here no longer, I have no steamship fare
When my earthly trials are over, cast my body out in the sea
Save all the undertaker’s bills — let the mermaids flirt with me.

The lovely accompanying photo of John Hurt with Elizabeth Cotton was taken by Joe Alper at the Newport Folk Festival, 1964.

Hope you enjoy the mix. Happy Sunday, and peace.

 

Make America America

In about a week we start another school year — my thirteenth year teaching, and my first to teach eleventh graders.

I’m excited for the new class. There’s a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, so this week I started pulling down and rereading some favorite poems and stories, trying to decide which texts to share with my kids. I’ve been flipping especially through the giant Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, one of the first books of poetry I ever bought. It’s been a while since I’ve read “Let America Be America Again,” first published in 1936; I look forward to reading it with my students in the new age of #MAGA.

If you don’t know it, check it out, below. If you do, why not slow down to read it again?

Langston Hughes.jpg

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a ‘homeland of the free’.

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

*   *   *

P.S. I kind of took a summer break from this blog; hopefully I can get back again soon into the habit of regular posting. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s something good you can store away for a rainy day (or a sunny one) soon: Langston Hughes speaking at UCLA in February of 1967, just months before he died.

Peace.