Evolution of a cardboard box (Part 1)

The Saturday before last I stopped at Crestwood Coffee for a cup of caffeine and an empty cardboard box. For a few years they’ve been supplying me with these great big  boxes that their coffee cups come in, and I’ve been drawing pictures on the boxes. I spent much of the day that followed at The Jaybird (open Saturdays, 11 to 4!), seeing what I could do with this latest swath of cardboard.

Leaving The Jaybird, I grabbed some barbecue from Saw’s and headed up to Camp McDowell for the Alabama Folk School‘s concert that night: an evening of singing from China and Mary Ann Pettway, two of the celebrated Gee’s Bend quilters, plus a showcase from a stageful of bluegrass greats, including Tony Trischka(!!) and others. Back in my room, I got back to work on my box, moving back and forth between drawings of Peetie Wheatstraw, Roscoe Holcomb, and Los Penguinos del Norte.

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Yesterday and today I got in a little more time with the drawings, mostly with Roscoe. I thought I’d post the work in progress here; I’ll post some more updates once I have them, and then the finished things.

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The impetus to share these unfinished creations comes in large part from spending time with the writings of Austin Kleon (I much recommend his newspaper blackout poetry), who tirelessly advocates that you show your work — that you take people behind the scenes, sharing not just your finished products but the messy, private process itself, that you become a documentarian of what you do, keeping track of and exposing for others the vulnerable, daily ins and outs of how you go about making things. Kleon says you should share something small every day, creating some form of “daily dispatch.” Not only does this challenge open up your process to others; it frees you to think in modest, accessible chunks, rather than having you bank on some impossibly ambitious opus to come. “A good daily dispatch,” writes Kleon, “is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out — you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.”

I don’t intend to do this every day; I don’t think anyone’s that interested, and other things anyway encroach on my time, all the time. But this blog, really, was inspired by Kleon’s challenge: I created this site for the sake of sharing the process behind whatever I’m working on. These are the DVD extras — but, more than that, the real purpose of these posts is to keep me accountable and working.

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Here’s something Kurt Vonnegut, quoting an old professor, wrote in his book Timequake and repeated on at least a few other occasions:

“Artists … are people who say, ‘I can’t fix my country or my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly, I can make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelve bars of music, exactly what they ought to be!'”

I’ve always liked that. Nevermind that these words are delivered by someone (the professor) who’d in the fullness of time swallow potassium cyanide and die. Life, and people, are complicated. It’s still a fair definition of the artist — even if I could never entirely relate to this idea. Rarely if ever have I gotten a sheet of paper, either by way of my words or my drawings, to become what I think it should be. Certainly I can’t control the chaos of the world around me, but most of the time I can’t control, either, a small white sheet of typing paper — or the surface of an empty cardboard box.

(I have a feeling, of course, that the same was true for Vonnegut — perhaps once or twice in his life he managed to wrangle his empty pages into exactly the thing he wanted. But whatever the failures, I imagine the process — and the clunky products at the end — must have been, for him, worthwhile.)

So! We beat on, boats against the current. And! This afternoon, when I could have been doing something less fun, I listened to lots and lots of Roscoe Holcomb, and I fell more deeply in love with — and became more acutely attuned to — his music.

And, this: I made a cardboard box on its way to the garbage much more interesting than it otherwise would have been. Because drawing on a cardboard box — drawing anything! — can always, only, make it better, whatever happens to it next.

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And, so: onward!

Share your work. Stay tuned. See you next time.

Peace.

Burgin

P.S. The italicized phrases a few paragraphs above are chapter headings or subheadings from Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work.

Spring! Poetry! Can-openers! Dirt!

“Meanwhile, SPRING, which has been approaching for several pages, is at last here.”
— William Carlos Williams, Spring and All

Sometime in the last ten or twelve years or so, I fell in love with spring poems. When spring arrives each year I pull them back off the shelf and I reread them often; I keep them close at hand, too, the rest of the year, for when spring feels impossibly far away.

Today—it’s Easter, and April Fool’s, and it’s a beautiful day outside—feels like as good an excuse as any to share a few of those poems here, starting with my favorite: “The Cast Off,” by Marge Piercy. Technically Piercy’s poem says nothing about spring itself—nothing about the seasons or weather or nature, about fresh blooming things or the calendar—but it’s a poem for new beginnings, for openings, for awakenings and rebirths, and to me it’s always been the perfect poem for the season. It also happens, unexpectedly, to be a love poem:

This is a day to celebrate can-
openers, those lantern-jawed long-tailed
humping tools that cut through what keeps
us from what we need: a can of beans
trapped in its armor taunts the nails
and teeth of a hungry woman.

Today let us hear hurrahs for zippers,
those small shark teeth that part
politely to let us at what we want;
the tape on packages that unlock
us birthday presents; envelopes
we slit to thaw the frozen
words on the tundra of paper.

Today let us praise the small
rebirths, the emerging groundhog
from the sodden burrow; the nut
picked from the broken fortress of walnut
shell, itself pried from the oily fruit
shaken from the high turreted
city of the tree.

Today let us honor the safe whose door
hangs ajar; the champagne bottle
with its cork bounced off the ceiling
and into the soup tureen; the Victorian lady
in love who has removed her hood, her cloak,
her laced boots, her stockings, her overdress,
her underdress, her wool petticoat, her linen
petticoats, her silk petticoats, her whalebone
corset, her bustle, her chemise, her drawers, and
who still wants to! Today let us praise the cast
that finally opens, slit neatly in two
like a dinosaur egg, and out at last
comes somewhat hairier, powdered in dead skin
but still beautiful, the lost for months
body of my love.

*

Next is one of e. e. cummings’s many spring poems. Even if poetry and spring are natural and frequent mates, it’s hard to imagine a poet more in love with the spring than cummings. Here’s a great one, a poem about humanity’s naive insistence on defining, categorizing, and pinning down something that’s so much bigger than us. (This blog software, sadly, resists my efforts to replicate the spread of cummings’s poem across the page; you can read it, with all the original spacing, in numerous e. e. cummings collections.)

O sweet spontaneous
Earth how often have
the doting

fingers of
prurient philosophies pinched
and poked

thee
,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
thy

beauty          .how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy
knees squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
gods
(but
true

to the incomparable
couch of death thy
rhythmic
lover

thou answerest
them only with

spring)

*

The next poem, “Loss of Vitality” by Alice Walker, is another that I keep in my stash of spring poems, even if the connection’s again just metaphorical. It’s a good poem to hang onto for all your metaphorical winters, no matter what time in your year they may fall.

Loss of vitality
Is a sign
That
Things have gone
Wrong.

It is like
Sitting on
A sunny pier
Wondering whether
To swing
Your feet.

A time of dullness
Deadness
Sodden enthusiasm
When
This exists
At all.
Decay.

You wonder:
Was I ever “on”
Bright with life
My thoughts
Spinning out
Confident
As
Sunflowers?

Did I wiggle
My ears
& jiggle my toes
From sheer
Delight?

Is the girl
Grinning fiercely
In the old photo
Really me?

Loss of vitality
Signals emptiness
But let
Me tell you:
Depletion can be
Just the thing.

You are using
Have used
Up
The old life
The old way.

Now will rush in
The energetic,
The flexible,
The unmistakable
Knowing
That life is life
Not mood.

*

I’ll end this post with a couple of those good old, silly, giddy Elizabethan springtime songs. The first one, by Thomas Nashe, comes from the 1592 play, Summer’s Last Will and Testament. It deserves (like every poem, ever) to be read—or, better still, sung—out loud.

Spring, the sweete spring, is the yere’s pleasant king,
Then bloomes eche thing, then mayds daunce in a ring,
Cold doeth not sting, the pretty birds doe sing:
Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo.

The Palme and May make countrey houses gay,
Lambs friske and play, the Shepherds pype all day,
And we heare aye birds tune this merry lay:
Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo.

The fields breathe sweete, the dayzies kisse our feete,
Young lovers meete, old wives a-sunning sit,
In every street these tunes our eares doe greete:
Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo.
Spring, the sweete spring.

And here’s one from Shakespeare, a little springtime ditty from As You Like It:

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And, therefore, take the present time
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crown`d with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

*

(An aside—besides helping us celebrate the spring, here is something else poetry is good for (perhaps, even, the thing that poetry is best for): helping us celebrate, rediscover, and live for a moment inside language. Because what is poetry but a feast of language?

“those lantern-jawed long-tailed humping tools”
“upon their scraggy knees”
“sodden enthusiasm”
“hey nonino”
“Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo!”

And so on.)

But, back to spring—I’d like to end for now with this: not a poem, but a line from a short story (“Unearthing Suite”) by Margaret Atwood, and a proper reminder for the season—

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Alleluia. Hey, nonny. Amen.  

P.S. Don’t forget this great spring poem, which I shared last January.

Girl Scouts, Lost Heroes, & the Soul of Man

One Saturday last April my radio show was visited by a troupe of Girl Scouts; they were working on their music badges, and one of the moms (my friend Marnie) asked me to talk to them about radio and share a little music history. I decided to focus on some of the Alabama music that I play on the show, and as a kind of handout I made them a little zine they could take home: “The Girl Scouts’ Guide to Alabama Music Heroes, Volume 1.”

The girls and their moms and a few dads came, and we talked about Alabama music and zines and radio. I recorded them singing a couple of songs, one of which I played over the airwaves a week later. “Make new friends,” the girls sang, “but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.” After the show, the troupe went on to make new friends at Seasick Records for Record Store Day, in further pursuit of their music badges.

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Troupe 30672 visits The Lost Child radio show, 2017

Originally there only existed about a dozen copies of the zine, and each was the property of a Girl Scout. But last month, for the opening of an art / history / photo show I put together at Crestwood Coffee, I decided to make some more copies for the general public, giving the zine its worldwide, non-Scout debut. If you want one, you can pick up a copy at the coffeeshop or at The Jaybird in Birmingham, or you can email me for one (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). They’re $3 each (plus shipping), or just $1 for Girl Scouts.

The show on the coffeeshop walls, both its content and design, was actually inspired by the original Girl Scout zine. “What is the Soul of Man?: The Roots of Alabama Music” highlights many of the state’s music heroes and traditions, with historic photos and original text. Included are more than a few forgotten heroes a handful of legends, all of whom made substantial marks on their musical communities and culture. It’s a history that incorporates jazz pioneers, old-time fiddlers, blues women, country brother duets, civil rights foot soldiers, rural singers, rock-and-roll harbingers, and more. The show is only up for another couple of days, through Tuesday, March 6, so I invite you to come out to the coffeeshop before it closes and check it out.

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After I take this down I think I’ll continue expanding it for some other location. There are a few segments I meant to get to before it went up, but never did — Muscle Shoals soul, Sacred Harp singing, Gennett Records’ 1927 Birmingham sessions, and so on — so hopefully there’ll be more to come, somewhere down the line.

In the meantime, come check out the current installation while you can. Hopefully you’ll find some history there that’s news to you.

“Have you ever heard any music like this before?”

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Kids, Collinsville, Alabama, c. 1898.

I spent a couple of hours today at the library, working on a project I’ll fill you in on later. I didn’t find a whole lot of what I went to the library looking for, but I did stumble into this happy tangent: photos of music and musicians from the history of Alabama’s DeKalb County.

All of these images come from various installments of the DeKalb Legend, a publication from Landmarks of DeKalb County, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation. Landmarks put out a bunch of these books in the ’70s, compiling photos that stretch back into the 19th century. Included are all sorts of scenes from daily life, spanning much of the region’s history — but the images that got my attention, one or two of them every hundred or so pages, were those of the county’s musicians and singers. The Louvin Brothers grew up in DeKalb County; so did members of the band Alabama. But these scattered photographs give some insight into the everyday music of everyday people, a glimpse into a narrow geography’s wide-ranging musical culture.

It’s an incomplete record, of course, and we’re left to imagine the sounds themselves. But a dozen such photos from every county in the country would open up to us a history we’ve, at best, hardly heard.

Take a look:

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Photograph captions in the DeKalb Legend offer some details but leave others to the imagination. Here, “two unidentified ladies serenade Jesse B. (Peter) Horton, Jr. about 1902.” Beyond that the Legend simply adds: “Horton died in 1904.”

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“Joe Shields and his singing group at DeShields School — 1910.”

IMG_1146A blurry image from Chavies, Alabama, c. 1915: a big crowd for the “First Sunday in May singing.”

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A “patriotic musical” from 1918.

IMG_1170DeKalb County High School band, 1927. F. S. Thacker, band director, at right.

IMG_1140“Prayer Changes Things”: a scene from the Monroe Tabernacle, a “non denominational church built by Mrs. J. P. Monroe,” pictured here sometime in the 1930s. There’s a lot to look at in this one. I’m interested in the man outside, seen through the window, and in the moments (not pictured) when the boy, more or less center, picks up the small guitar in front of him. I’m curious too about Mrs. J. P. Monroe.

IMG_1129Sacred Harp singers, Mt. Herman Baptist Church, 1949. Leading the singing are Jack Stiefel and Riley Garrett: “the young and the old,” the caption says.

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“An old tradition: fox hunters dancing in the streets of Fort Payne about 1950.”

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“Newly formed band at Frederick Douglass High School in 1952,” directed by Lillie L. Trammell.

IMG_1151A political rally in 1956, Williams Avenue School, Fort Payne. Adlai Stevenson for President: “For All Of You.”

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“Musicians who specialize in modern spiritual music” — posed in front of a historic home in Fort Payne, sometime (undated) in the ’60s or ’70s.

And speaking of the modern — check out teenage rockers the Viscounts, also from Fort Payne, playing the “weekly hootenanny” at the DeKalb Theatre, 1963:
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The second Viscount from the left, by the way, is Jeff Cook, age thirteen; later he and a couple of cousins would form the band Alabama, a group clearly steeped as much in rock and roll as in country.

I’m going to leave you with this: a record the Viscounts (or VT-Counts) cut in 1964, “(This Is) Our Generation” — a 1960s Alabama teenage manifesto I’ve become kind of obsessed with. Give it a listen. I’ve transcribed the text, as I hear it, underneath the link.

Greetings and salutations
And all words indicative to a hearty welcome,
My celestial friends
This is Sweet Daddy Whitley
Talking to you cats and chicks about our generation.
Have you ever heard any music like this before?
This is our generation.
We made it what it is today.
Talk about the good old times
There were no good old times
This is it
There’s no need to wait around
This is it
This is our generation.
And his soul cries out: let me hear some more of that guitar

[solo]

That was the high priest, Jeff Cook, on lead guitar
And in the background you can hear bassman Bailey
The high
esteemed
bassman
And along with him is
Rhythm Ray
the DJ
on rhythm guitar
This age where rockets, satellites
Hot rods
Drag strips

And his soul cries out,
This is our generation

As I count the (ways of life? waves of rye??)
One
Two
They cry out, let me hear some more of that swinging sound

[solo]

That’s soul music
It comes from the heart
And soul
They think they had music a long time ago
This is our music
And before I close I would like to remind you
This is our generation.
This is it.
Live it up.
Smile a while.

*

That’s as good a place as any, I guess, to end this post:

This is it. Live it up. Smile a while.

Thanks for reading.

*

P.S. Okay, one last photo: I have to add that my favorite image of them all doesn’t take music as its subject, but I couldn’t leave it out. The image, which I included also at the top of this post, is labeled only “Collinsville School Boys, about 1898.” No explanation beyond that is offered, other than the boys’ names.
FullSizeRender-1They are, for the record, from left to right: Jesse Green, Victor Hall, Stanley Brindley, Charlie Hall, L. B. Nicholson, Carl Norwood, and Carl Brindley.

May they rest in peace.

Finally, a beginning.

So,

I’ve been working on this one book for the last few years, and most of the time it seems like it’s never going to end. Some chapters and sentences have undergone ten and twenty and almost certainly thirty drafts, and when I reread them for the hundred-and-fiftieth time all I see is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I imagine a curious Glory leafing through the huge stacks of pages that are scattered around our house and discovering with horror the same familiar text repeated ad infinitum. (Don’t worry, The Shining analogy ends there, but it’s enough already to be terrible: the discovery that our hero has long forgotten how to write anything at all, has lost his mind in the process, and has spent all this damn time doing nothing — all of that is horror enough.)

Much to most of the book exists by now in draft form, but I’ve put off writing the intro(!) all this time, painfully aware that I don’t have a book — and can’t sell a book, either — until I have a beginning.

And then today, when I least expected it, a breakthrough! 

I don’t want to give too much of it away: but the first two paragraphs of this thing will take place in Tuxedo Junction, Alabama, in the summer of 1985. And the next two paragraphs will take place at — of all places — Birmingham’s The Nick, in the summer of 1988.

After that, and a few more introductory remarks, the book proceeds as planned all along: rewinding to the close of the 19th century and proceeding forward to the close of the 20th.

The new opening scenes make explicit, too, the most essential of the book’s themes: more even than music or race or Birmingham or education or segregation or jazz or any other thing that this book is also about, it’s above all a book about home: about what “home” means, and doesn’t mean, and might mean.

I couldn’t be happier to have finally found my beginning.

Stay tuned;

and thanks.

— Burgin

 

Jaybird Art: Elnora Spencer & Roger Stephenson

Last September, Lloyd Bricken, Lillis Taylor, and Glory and I opened up this little space in Birmingham called The Jaybird. We’ve got books and zines for sale, and we’re also the home of the Alabama Zine Library, a reading room and archive of independent, DIY, handmade publications. We have live music once a month, and an art opening every other month. This whole thing is a community-driven, homegrown creative experiment not intended for profit. We don’t intend to be here forever, but we’ve promised at least 12 months of programs and gatherings and are doing are best to facilitate a series of beautiful, warm, and inspiring moments. So far, so good.

A couple of weeks ago, we opened our third art installation, and it’s been a great pleasure to spotlight the work of two local artists, Elnora Spencer and Roger Stephenson. It’s a visual exhibit that’s deeply steeped in music, especially in the blues: Roger’s photography offers portraits of blues and jazz musicians in performance, and Elnora–who is best known for her own sensational, soulful singing–invests her painting with the same depth of feeling, rhythm, and passion that’s at the heart of her music.  This Friday, February 9, Elnora will be the featured performer on our stage, and we can’t wait for her to fill our little room with her giant voice, surrounded by her own artwork and Roger’s intimate musical portraits.

If you live in Birmingham, I hope you’ll come see this art show–and Friday night’s performance would be the ideal time to come check it out. We’re also open every Saturday from 11 to 4, which gives visitors a good chance to get up close to the art; this show will be on our wall until sometime mid-to-late March. And for Elnora’s upcoming concert, we’re adding to the walls a good bunch of brand new paintings and drawings not included at our opening. On the blog today, I’m posting a bit of information about the installation, but most of all I hope you’ll come check it out in person.

*

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Roger Stephenson is a freelance photographer specializing in performer and performance photography. He is an official photographer for the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge and is a contributing photographer for Living Blues Magazine. His photos have been featured in numerous publications across the world and have appeared on musicians’ websites, album covers, and concert posters. You can find more of his work at www.rogerstephensonphotography.com.

Stephenson’s distinctive eye celebrates the soul of the blues, the buoyancy of jazz, and the intimacy and energy of live performance. His subjects include both legendary performers and the unheralded masters of the blues and jazz traditions. Among the portraits in this show you’ll find the faces of many of Alabama’s own homegrown musicians, from jazz legends Dr. Frank Adams and Cleve Eaton to blues hero Willie King—and you’ll encounter such iconic musical landmarks as Gip’s Place and Freedom Creek. There are even a couple of recent images taken here at The Jaybird—and a portrait of this show’s other featured artist, Elnora Spencer.

Stephenson calls this series “Listen, Can You Hear the Music?” and he hopes the images will appeal to the ear as much as the eye. “I feel my photograph achieves its objective,” he explains, “if you feel you are there at the venue with the musician.” If you can hear the music, he says, the image has done its job.

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Elnora Spencer paints the world as she sees it. Her paintings and sketches range from the autobiographical to the mystical, from the humorous to the profound. “My paintings,” she says, “are my view of the world—they show the good that I see in the world. Some of it’s what I want the world to be, my view on the way the world should work.” Many of Spencer’s paintings come to her in dreams. “I put the visions I see in my head into the painting, and it makes me feel better. Sometimes I feel like I’m in that world while I’m painting.” All in all, Spencer hopes to capture in her art what she calls the mystery of life: that mix of good and evil, of highs and lows and striving and dreaming that makes up our time on this earth. One of her key themes is that anything can change in the blink of an eye. And throughout her work there are angels, the protective spirits that look out for and watch over us. Through all of life’s ups and downs, she says, “the angels are always there.”

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“In a Green Dream,” by Elnora Spencer

It’s no surprise that there is a musical quality to many of Elnora Spencer’s paintings. In addition to her work as a visual artist, Spencer is best known as a dynamic and beloved blues, soul, and jazz vocalist. She’s worked with and opened for many blues icons—B. B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Koko Taylor, and others—and she’s long been a mainstay of the Birmingham scene, routinely bringing down the house with her own powerhouse vocals. She will be performing at The Jaybird on Friday, February 9—a night we can guarantee you don’t want to miss. Here’s a little preview–video recorded last year during a series of engagements in Argentina.

Once again, we’re grateful to get to work with these artists, and we’re grateful too to everyone who’s come out already to check out the installation. We hope to see you soon at The Jaybird.

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