On the radio for this New Year’s Eve morning I played a series of new year’s blues and jive and “Auld Land Syne,” and took a look back at some of the musicians we lost in the last year. I’ve uploaded the show to the internet, so you can hear it here.
“This is a new year, people, the year 1936,” sings Mary Brown in “Happy New Year Blues”: “I tell all you people, I must get my business fixed.” During an instrumental break she instructs the musicians: “Play it for me ‘til I get young again!”
On January 1 of 1943 Woody Guthrie filled two pages of a notebook with 33 “New Year’s Rulin’s,” surrounded in the margins by his characteristic doodles. “STAY GLAD” is # 18 in his instructions for the new year. “DANCE BETTER” is 26. 33 is “WAKE UP AND FIGHT.”
I used to put together for The Lost Child an annual show, usually two back-to-back shows, I called “Where Dead Voices Gather” (the title came from the Nick Tosches book): a year-end celebration of all the musicians who’d died in the last twelve months. I’d feature the same sorts of people you might usually hear on my show—bluegrass players, rockabilly guitarists, small town fiddlers, New Orleans parade musicians, radio personalities, soul singers, and more, especially those players whose deaths might have been overlooked in the media at large—and I’d end with a roll call of all the last year’s musical dead, from any genre, calling out as many as I could name. I’d solicit names from friends to include members of music communities around the country: names of record store and venue owners, church organists, music writers, folklorists, and others. The lengthy roll call was inspired by Birmingham’s beautiful Day of the Dead Festival, with a nod too to the Anglican Prayers of the People.
“Where Dead Voices Gather” was my favorite Lost Child tradition, but it was a lot of work. In 2015 the list of the dead was just so big, and my November and December were so hectic and stressed that I just scrapped the whole thing. I figured I’d scrap it this year, too, daunted again by the task. But as I put together this week’s playlist of new year’s tunes I thought it’d be nice to include some Ralph Stanley and some Merle (“If We Make It Through December” seemed fitting). And then I built around those two a long set of other musicians we lost in 2016—not so much the songwriters, singers and players who’ve been so widely eulogized this year already, but some of the contributors whose deaths drew fewer tributes: people like Joe Ligon, the incredible lead singer for the Mighty Clouds of Joy. He died earlier this month at the age of 80. (His memorial service is on Youtube and, not surprisingly, it’s full of powerful gospel.) And then there was Billy Faier, banjo playing iconoclast, traveling companion of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, contemporary of Kerouac and the beats. Today’s show included his wonderful banjo reworking of “You Won’t See Me,” the Beatles song.
Next year I’ll bring back the full obituaries show. In a single set like today’s, there’s just so much omitted. I left out, for example, Tommy “Weepin’ and Cryin’” Brown, an old Atlanta R&B stalwart who made his name with the vocals on this song:
Check out his “Southern Women,” too:
Rest in peace—and thanks—to Tommy Brown, and to all the others.
And to all the musicians who were born in 2016, whose music is yet to come: Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.
One of my two favorite songs in the world is “Auld Lang Syne.” (My other favorite is the gospel song, “Glory, Glory.” One day I’ll write about both of these songs, maybe here or someplace else.) If you’re reading this post on New Year’s Eve, I hope you’ll sing the song tonight at midnight.
But here’s a link, too, to an online special I posted two years ago: 20 minutes’ worth of “Auld Lang Syne,” multiple iterations of it back to back to back. There’s a little overlap in this mix with this morning’s show, but there are some fine recordings here that aren’t there—like Aretha Franklin’s duet with Billy Preston from a 1987 TV special. There’s a nice instrumental version by James Allen Shelton, Ralph Stanley’s guitarist. And there’s one version that’s technically not “Auld Lang Syne” at all, it just shares the tune. “Plenary” is an old Sacred Harp song with lyrics by Isaac Watts—really dark ones, full of “certain gloom” and “walking … to the tomb.”
The lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” itself, of course, are attributed to the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. Here’s my favorite verse, the last verse, in the original Scottish dialect. When you sing this verse you’re supposed to join hands with your fellow singers in a circle, reaching to your left with your right hand and your right with your left hand, tying your friendship in a knot:
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.
Your “fiere” is your friend; a “gude-willie waught”—those words are a joy to say, let alone sing—is a goodwill draft.
Happy New Year’s, and cheers. Stay glad. Wake up and fight. See you in twenty seventeen.
P.S. Here’s Woody Guthrie’s complete rulin’s.