whiteboard cinema

I teach a film class to high school kids, and since it’s only a fifty-minute class, we usually have to pause mid-way through each movie and finish it up the next day.

We started the year with Psycho, and after class the movie was paused on a close-up of Janet Leigh’s face. I pulled up the screen and traced her picture with an Expo marker on the whiteboard underneath.

Since then I’ve been tracing scenes from all the movies we’ve watched. Sometimes the drawings compete for space on the whiteboard with notes from this or another class.

Here are a few of the films we’ve watched so far this year:

Psycho 2

ET

Kane 1

Kane 2

Modern Times

If you’d like to see where we go from here, you can follow my brand new(!!) Instagram account, @whiteboardcinema, where I’ll post more drawings as they come up in class. I’ll also be asking my students to send me their own drawings of their own movie favorites, and I’ll post those drawings there too along the way.

(It’s my firm belief, by the way, that everyone should draw pictures, like most of us did at some point when we were kids. You don’t need to be good at it; being “good” is entirely beside the point. And speaking of movies, did you know Roger Ebert liked to draw? I invite us all to embrace his example.)

Book of Ancestors: Juliette Hampton Morgan

Juliette Hampton Morgan, the latest in my Book of Ancestors (a work in progress):

Juliette Hampton Morgan

Morgan is one of the many unsung heroes from behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. Her story is inspiring and utterly tragic, her life one of the heartbreaking casualties of the era.

She grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, like me, but a couple of generations before I came along. For   high school research papers, I spent time in the downtown library that’s named in her honor; I’d never noticed the library’s name, and I certainly never knew the story behind it.

There’s more fine print on this portrait than on most of my Book of Ancestors tributes; I wanted to get as much of this story on the page as I could fit, since there’s so much here to tell, so much that might otherwise be overlooked. So, here’s that fine print, in case you had trouble making it out, above:

Juliette Hampton Morgan (1914-1957): Montgomery Librarian & A Champion Of Justice “One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days…” – Letter to the editor, Montgomery Advertiser, Dec. 12, 1955. * A granddaughter of the Confederacy, born into Montgomery’s social elite – as an advocate for racial justice, she was vilified, shunned, and harassed. Morgan frequently protested injustice in letters to the editors of Alabama newspapers, she attended & organized interracial prayer meetings in Montgomery, and she argued for anti-lunching legislation, the elimination of the poll tax, and the end of segregation – all while friends & family abandoned her. “The cuts from old friends, the ringing telephone with anonymous voices, I know how it feels when butterflies in your stomach turn to buzzards.” In July of 1957, a cross was burned on her lawn; the next day she resigned from the library. That night, she took her own life. Today, the Montgomery central branch library is named in her honor. “The angels laid her away; may she rest forever in power.”

… And still, for lack of space, plenty more details had to be left out. There’s this: that white citizens of Montgomery demanded the library fire Morgan for her outspoken politics; and when the library refused — a notable stance, for that time and place — angry citizens burned their library cards in protest.

Think of that.

And there’s this: that Morgan suffered from panic attacks all her life and as a result couldn’t drive a car. Otherwise a woman of her social position wouldn’t have found herself relying daily on public transportation. But it was on those Montgomery buses, in the years leading up to that landmark boycott, that Morgan’s social consciousness found its essential cause. More than once, when she saw a black passenger mistreated, Morgan pulled the bus’s emergency brake and brought its wheels screaming to a halt. In one letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, she took care to single out by name the few white drivers who treated their black passengers well (Mr. Alton Courtney, Mr. Eliot I. Newman); then she turned her pen angrily toward the others, those drivers who hurled slurs and insults and took their black patrons’ money, then sent them to the back entrance of the bus, only to shut their doors and speed away.

She compared the protestors in Montgomery to Thoreau and to Gandhi.

Some old friends declared her insane.

One night during the boycott, Martin Luther King spoke to a meeting of the Council of Human Relations in Montgomery. Juliette Morgan sat that night with Virginia Durr: another white woman, another descendent of privilege, and another outspoken advocate for change. A member of the racist White Citizens Council infiltrated the meeting, and Morgan recognized the man.

“You know,” she told Durr, “I feel like somebody is pointing a gun at me.”

Dr. King remembered Morgan in Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the boycott. “Miss Juliette Morgan,” he wrote, “sensitive and frail, did not long survive the rejection and condemnation of the white community.” Because here’s, tragically, what happened in the end. For a while Morgan stayed her pen – the library said they’d stand by her, but finally asked her to lay low with the letters – until in 1957 she wrote the editor of the Tuscaloosa News. Attempts to integrate the University of Alabama, her own alma mater, had erupted in violence from the local white community. The News publicly editor denounced the violence, and Morgan commended his stance in a private letter — which, with her permission, he printed in the paper.

In Montgomery, the sky fell. Since the library wouldn’t fire her, the city of Montgomery reduced the library’s funding, by exactly Morgan’s salary. Things started happening fast, and the story veered to its gut-wrenching end. The Klan burned its cross in Morgan’s yard. Morgan resigned from the job she loved. Then she took her own life.

*

In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Pete Seeger brought to Carnegie Hall in New York a program of the songs that he’d learned and sung in the mass meetings and marches down South. As he led the audience through “We Shall Overcome,” he introduced the final verse like this:

“The best verse,” he said,

was made up down in Montgomery, Alabama.
It says, “We are not afraid.”
And here you and I up here,
like every human being in the world,
     We have been afraid.
But you still sing it!
     We are not afraid.
We are not afraid.

In that last, best verse, the familiar someday of the refrain becomes, powerfully, today — “We are not afraid, to-day” — and somehow in the singing the singer is transformed. Because in belting it out that we’re unafraid, in pretending aloud that we’re fearless, we gain power. We become what we say we are, for at least as long as we’re singing.

When I learned about Juliette Morgan, this verse — born in Montgomery, like her — came to my mind. Morgan’s story’s end is heartbreaking, because finally that fear caught up with her, the consequences of her courage became too much for her to bear.

But the end of her story will never change this: that her courage along the way was profound, her example a lesson for us all.

Because there’s no bravery whatsoever in not being afraid. Real bravery means being terribly afraid, and acting anyway like you’re not.  Because courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s how you live in fear’s presence.

My heart breaks that Juliette Hampton Morgan didn’t make it through. But I’m grateful for what she did, and for who she was, while she was here.

*

Note: Most of what I’ve learned so far about Juliette Hampton Morgan comes from her entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama or from this article in the Montgomery Advertiser, which quotes one of her letters to the editor in full. The exchange with Virginia Durr appears in Durr’s autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle, and the MLK quote appears in Stride Toward Freedom. After writing the paragraphs above, I ordered a copy of Morgan’s biography, Journey Toward Justice, by Mary Stanton. I’m about thirty pages in, and it’s a fascinating read.

A blues potluck. Fiddlers. The Beatles. Many hours of music. Hank Williams’s birthday. A party at The Jaybird. Video. More.

There’s a lot of good music in this post.

I’ve uploaded, for you to stream anytime online, several new and old episodes of my radio show: check out last week’s blues potluck episode, with exclusive performances by Alabama blues artists; or this look at Alabama fiddle traditions, with guests Joyce and Jim Cauthen; or this wide-ranging tribute to The Beatles, with soul, funk, and classic country takes on the Beatles, plus covers from Cambodia, Ghana, and more — or celebrate Hank Williams’s birthday this week with a truly epic Hank-a-thon from 2013 or with our Hank Death Show from last December.

Also in this post: details about this Saturday’s Blues Potluck at The Jaybird, a fitting big finish to our beautiful Jaybird year.

1. First, the radio shows:

For the last two weeks on The Lost Child, we’ve dug pretty deep into the roots of Alabama music. Two weeks ago, Joyce and Jim Cauthen joined me to talk about their work, over the last 30+ years, documenting and preserving Alabama’s fiddle traditions and tunes. We listened back to some of their original field recordings, talked about some of their favorite old-timers, and enjoyed some of their own live music in the studio. We also investigated the history of “The Lost Child,” the tune that gives this radio show its name.

Last week, the show turned its attention to Alabama blues, with music from these great performers: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis, Jock Webb, Elnora Spencer, Rob Harris, and Sam Frazier, Jr. — each of whom you can hear at The Jaybird’s Blues Potluck this coming weekend (Saturday, 9/22/18). All the music in this hour was either recorded live at The Jaybird (thanks to Dennis Tyler for the recordings) or was originally performed and broadcast live on past editions of this radio show. It’s a special hour. On the Jaybird recordings, you can hear the energy, warmth, and good humor of that room; near the end of the show Elnora Spencer brings the house down. On the Lost Child segments,  you can hear these players discuss the meaning of the blues, as well as their own personal roots in the music: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis describes growing up in Eutaw, Alabama, and having to decide between the blues and the church, while Jock Webb and Sam Frazier describe the rich music communities of Rosedale and Edgewater, Alabama, where they first encountered the blues in backyard parties and neighborhood shot houses. Along the way, of course, there’s a lot of great music.

And more Alabama music(!): since this week marks the 95th anniversary of the birth of Hank Williams, I’m posting once again the three-hour tribute I put together for Hank’s 90th. Included in this show is a mighty mix of rarities and classics, reminiscence from old friends, covers from a wide range of artists and genres (soul, gospel, funk, country, conjunto, 1960s Thai pop, and more), a look into the Hank’s musical roots, live and rowdy recordings, historic radio broadcasts, and other musical offerings. And, on a darker note, here’s my Hank Death Show, featuring excerpts from Hank’s funeral, songs about his death, and more.

For a long time I’ve been meaning to do a Beatles tribute show, and a few weeks back I finally did. Check it out here.

These radio hours posted online represent just a fraction of the shows we broadcast over the airwaves. You can hear new episodes of The Lost Child every Saturday morning (9 to 10, Central) and Tuesday night (11 to midnight) on Birmingham Mountain Radio. Thanks for tuning in. Thanks for telling your friends.

2. Back, now, to that Blues Potluck: 

On September 22 of 2017, some friends (Lloyd Bricken, Lillis Taylor, Glory McLaughlin (my wife!)) and I kicked off a year of events at a new space we were calling The Jaybird. Our goal was to create a season of special events rooted in grassroots community, creativity, and the arts. We’ve had an extraordinary year of monthly concerts, bimonthly art shows, and much more along the way — poetry, zines, workshops, books, food, craft fairs, and other collaborations and gatherings. This weekend — on September 22 of 2018 — we’ll have one more Jaybird concert; it’ll be a doozy of a thing, and the perfect way to ring out our Jaybird year.

For Saturday’s Blues Potluck we’re inviting back to the Jaybird all the blues artists who have played our stage in in the last twelve months. The gates swing open at 5; music starts at 5:30; dinner will commence at 6. We’ll start with an acoustic set of music, outside. As the night gets darker and the music gets louder, we’ll move inside, from 7 ’til 10. We’ll probably hang out for a while.

I, for one, can’t wait.

To be clear: it’s a real potluck. If you’re in town and plan to come, bring a dish to get $5 off the $15 cover. (We’ll be eating all night, so even if you arrive after the dinner bell rings, I guarantee your food will still find a stomach.)

I’ll be writing more here soon about our Jaybird year, and about what you can expect from this space in the future. But I’ll end this post with some glimpses of the artists you can plan to see if you come out and join us this Saturday.

Thanks, y’all.

Here’s Sam Frazier, Jr., with his song “Inherit the Blues”:

Here are Clarence “Bluesman” Davis and Jock Webb at the 49 Navy Tavern in Pensacola:

… and at the Carver Theater, for an event with the Alabama Folklife Association:

Last year, Elnora Spencer flew down to Argentina for a series of shows. Here she is with the band Fede Telier:

… and here she is at The Jaybird in February: “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right.”

Every Wednesday night, Rob Harris leads the house band for the open mic at the Red Wolf Lounge. Here’s some video from the Red Wolf, with Rob and Jock Webb:

And one more time: You can hear all these artists on last week’s edition of The Lost Child radio show, streamable anytime right here online.

Our sponsor for this event is Dorsey Cox Design and the Stream.

Thanks to Yellowhammer Creative, for one more great poster:

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There’s a lot to take in in this post. We live in a beautiful world.

If you’re in driving distance of Birmingham, we hope to see you Saturday.

Listen! Choking on the Ties that Bind

One or two Saturdays a year, the radio station computer becomes overwhelmed and ornery and attempts to sabotage my show. This was one of those Saturdays. After some initial glitches, I went on the air late and briefly recovered — and then the last chunk of the show refused to air at all. I was pretty bummed; I’d been looking forward all morning to the Swamp Dogg tune coming at the end of my hour.

You get a chance to hear each Saturday’s show every week on the Tuesday rebroadcast — eleven to midnight, Central, on Birmingham Mountain Radio — and tomorrow night I’ll play a corrected version of this Saturday’s program. But in case you’re not awake at that hour, I’m posting the whole show, as it was meant to be heard, right here. Click the link to listen anytime. Share it with your friends. And so on.

Some weeks my radio show has a theme. Other weeks it doesn’t. The unthemed shows try to cover a wide swath of downhome American roots music in its many forms. This one features old-time fiddling, Alabama country brass bands, one-string guitar blues, and conversation with Blind Willie McTell, recorded by John Lomax in 1940 in an Atlanta hotel room. There’s also music by Dan Penn, Link Wray, Peg Leg Sam, Rose Maddox, and the Louvin Brothers, plus a radio broadcast from Hank Williams. Also, that Swamp Dogg. And more.

Here’s the link, again: The Lost Child, Episode 312, “Choking on the Ties that Bind.”

P.S. / Also:

Since today’s Labor Day, a couple of work songs, as bonus:

If you’ve never seen this video of Lee Dorsey singing “Working in a Coal Mine” in a British record store please watch it.

And lest you think it’s all(!) hokum, I should mention that Lee Dorsey’s life and music was always deeply rooted in work. Dorsey served in the military and, as “Kid Chocolate,” was a successful boxer. He studied auto repair on the G.I. Bill and got work at a garage owned by the New Orleans DJ Eddie the Whip; he made a bunch of records and scored several unforgettable hits (including the song above) and is remembered as one of the great New Orleans singers. In the meantime, he opened his own garage, advertising himself locally as “the best body man in the Ninth Ward.” Internationally revered for his records, he ran the shop up until his death. A lot of Dorsey’s songs —  “Work, Work, Work,” “Gotta Find a Job,” and others — dealt with what it was to work, and Dorsey knew what he was singing about.

There are, of course, a ton of coal mining songs out there. A lot of them have come to us by way of Hazel Dickens, one of my musical heroes. Here’s one of them, “Coal Tattoo”:

And here’s a great union song from Hazel:

Maybe next year for Labor Day, I’ll host an hour of work songs, or even an hour of coal mine songs (West Virginia and Kentucky have produced a lot of those, but Birmingham has produced a few of its own as well).

In the meantime, one more time, do check out this show that meant to air on Saturday.

And tune in this Saturday: my guests Joyce and jim Cauthen will talk about Alabama fiddle traditions, play some live tunes in the studio, and share some of their unreleased field recordings of Alabama fiddlers. It’ll be a great time, with no technological glitches.

Thanks, everybody. See you soon.

Book of Ancestors: William Levi Dawson

William Levi Dawson, the latest from my Book of Ancestors, a work in progress:

William L Dawson framed

I started the
Book of Ancestors  a few months ago. It’s divided into three sections — “Family,” “Music,” and “Movement” — and will feature tributes to a range of “ancestors,” both literal and figurative, all from my home state of Alabama. (The “Movement” subtitle refers not only to figures from the Civil Rights Movement, but to a range of social movers whose lives represent numerous sorts of momentum, progress, and positive change.) I plan to be working at this off and on for a good little while, and thought I may as well post occasional developments here.

I made this tribute to Dawson last night while listening to his Negro Folk Symphony and to performances of the Tuskegee University Choir, recorded under his direction. I’d never heard of Dawson until very recently. A few weeks ago I came across this description in the WPA’s Alabama guidebook, first published in the 1930s:

William Levi Dawson, director of the School of Music and the choir at Tuskegee Institute, is probably the State’s leading contemporary composer. Born in Anniston in 1899, Dawson has written in all forms and won the Rodman Wanamaker contest for composition in 1930 and 1931. Among his works are Negro Folk Symphony No. 1, first performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in 1934, “Out in the Fields,” and “Ain’-a That Good News,” a cappella choruses, and “Break, Break, Break,” a choral with orchestra. Maude Cuney-Hare, in Negro Musicians and Their Music, estimates that Dawson is the first among “present cultivated Negro composers of whom much may be expected in the way of producing what will be the future American music.”

Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was a huge deal when it was first performed. It was lauded by Alain Locke, one of the principal architects of the Harlem Renaissance, singled out as both a masterwork in itself and as a harbinger of great things to come. The original Philadelphia audience broke custom by erupting into applause more than once before the first performance was finished; when it was over the crowd called Dawson out for multiple bows. Performances followed at Carnegie Hall, whose crowds were similarly enthusiastic and unrestrained. Listeners across the country tuned in to hear the piece performed live over the radio waves. “One is eager to hear it again and yet again,” cheered a critic for the New York World-Tribune. A review in the New York American newspaper declared it “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has been so far achieved.” It was 1934, and Dawson was a black man from Alabama; his achievement was an historic one.

In the original program notes, Dawson wrote this:

“This Symphony is based entirely upon Negro folk-music. The themes are taken from what are popularly known as Negro spirituals, and the practiced ear will recognize the recurrence of characteristic themes throughout the composition… . In this composition the composer has employed three themes taken from typical melodies over which he has brooded since childhood, having learned them at his mother’s knee.”

Two years before the symphony’s debut, Dawson had explained his ambitions to a reporter for the Associated Press. “I’ve not tried,” he said, “to imitate Beethoven or Brahams, Franck or Ravel — but to be just myself, a Negro. To me, the finest compliment that could be paid my symphony when it has its premiere is that it unmistakably is not the work of a white man. I want the audience to say: ‘Only a Negro could have written that.”

Regrettably, in the years since its debut, Dawson’s landmark work has faded into obscurity. Dawson remained a respected public figure for years to come, but not for his orchestral compositions: under Dawson’s direction the Tuskegee University Choir gained international renown, touring and broadcasting widely and performing for the likes of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Dawson emerged as an influential choral arranger and composer, and many of his spiritual arrangements have became American staples. He revisited and revised his original symphony several times in the years after its debut, but his attentions no longer centered on orchestral composition. In recent years, a few scholars have wondered over the gradual neglect of Dawson’s symphony and have advocated for its place in the American canon (see, for example, Gwynne Kuhner Brown’s “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?” or John Andrew Johnson’s “William Dawson, ‘The New Negro,’ and His Folk Idiom”). While many of Dawson’s choral arrangements are still performed today — his most active lingering legacy — the name William Levi Dawson has been largely, and unjustly, forgotten.

So here he is, in my growing Book of Ancestors.

More to come.

Stay tuned.

William Levi Dawson scan

P. S. Want to see more things like this? Stay in the loop by following the blog: you can sign up on the top, righthand side of this page (or scroll to the bottom, if you’re viewing on a phone) to receive new posts in your email inbox. You can also follow @lostchildradio on Instagram and “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can also(!!) purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

Baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby

A year or two ago my family and I watched for the first time together Little Shop of Horrors — easily my favorite musical, and a great movie, too, from director Frank Oz. You may remember there’s a kind of doo-wop Greek chorus in it, inspired by the “girl groups” of the sixties; watching the movie inspired me, later that night, to draw a couple of those original groups. After that I put them aside until this just week, as I scrambled to get together some works for my art show, which opens this(!!) Saturday. I added the Chiffons to the two groups I already had (the Ronettes and the Crystals — I had to throw out a kind of disastrous Supremes, saving them for another project, some other time), and I fashioned them all together into a single tribute. Here’s the week’s progress and final result:

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I’m excited to have my first-ever public showing of my drawings, something I thought I’d never do; I’m only doing it now thanks to the encouragement of some very fine friends. And I’m delighted to show these drawings alongside the photography of Jared Ragland, an artist whose work I very much admire. If you’re in Birmingham, I hope you’ll come to the opening: it’s at The Jaybird this Saturday, August 11, from 7 to 9. We’ll have music provided by djcasequarter (the illustrious Kevin Nutt), and a short set too from Tiny Montgomery. We’ve got the ingredients for a very fine night.

(For more drawings, see this previous post, or this one.)

P.S. Usually I write here about the outsides of empty cardboard boxes — but stay tuned in the next week or two for a post about the insides of this cardboard box, which arrived at our house yesterday — and about whose contents I’m positively giddy.

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P. S., also: For the last thirty days I’ve been posting to Instagram daily photos I’ve taken over the years of boiled peanut stands and boiled peanut signs. Today marked the last day in the series, with this portrait of the artist, a photo taken in Florida a few years back by Susan Shoemaker. To see the whole set — as well as additional drawings not seen on this blog, and posts about my radio show and the roots of American music — check out @lostchildradio. Thanks, everybody.

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Letters to Norah

1.

This week, my step-daughter Norah is away at camp. So, apparently, are her guinea pigs, Sylvester and Sebastian, who’ve been sending her letters. Hopefully, she’s having as much fun as they are:

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2.

Speaking of letters to Norah, here’s something I’ve been meaning to share — somewhere, with somebody — for nearly two years.

At the start of her third grade year, Norah was worried about needles: a year before, kids had been able to take a spray of flu mist up their noses, instead of rolling up their sleeves for the usual flu shots. But for 2016 the mist had been declared ineffective, and school systems were requiring the shots again.

Norah wasn’t having it. She went to her room and carefully wrote out a letter expressing her concerns. Then she sent it off to the Jefferson County Department of Health.

Needless to say, we did not expect a response. But a few days later, a letter addressed to Norah appeared in our mailbox.

Here are both letters in the exchange. If you have any doubts that there are beautiful souls left in our world, please read the thoughtful, inspiring response Norah received from a stranger, a doctor and public health official from Jefferson County, Alabama; be sure to read through to the last couple of paragraphs.

We really weren’t sure just where to tell Norah to send her letter, but clearly it wound up on the right person’s desk. I like to imagine the care with which Mark E. Wilson, MD, a busy man, sat in his office and composed these words. Watching Norah open and read the letter remains one of my favorite family memories to date.

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Norah got the shot, without complaint.