Instead of a Rifle, Bring a Violin

Here’s something beautiful: Sudanese protesters outside the army headquarters in Khartoum, about a week ago. The sign reads, “Instead of a rifle, bring a violin.”

Meanwhile, I suspect you’ve seen some of the videos this week, of singing in the streets of Paris — onlookers joined together in song as they watched the flames engulf Notre Dame. Here’s one of those videos, if you missed it:

This is something that history teaches — that it’s hard to find any singing more powerful than the singing of ordinary people in the streets.

P. S. For Easter,  here’s yesterday’s radio show: an hour of sanctified, sacred, and spiritual song — and the story of Gatemouth Moore, the blues crooner turned gospel evangelist who staged his own death and resurrection one Easter in Birmingham. Give it a listen. 

Some Birthdays & Obituaries & Lives Well Lived

Lately we’ve been losing some greats — musicians, poets, and icons of various stripes. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Gerald posted these words on Facebook:

The recent passing of Dick Dale (81), W. S. Merwin (91) and earlier this year Mary Oliver (83) has caused me to reflect on how my heroes have changed. When I was young I worshiped artists who flamed out early: Ian Curtis, Arthur Rimbaud, Jimi, Janis and Jim. The list goes on. Now, I’ve come to admire artists that not only live a full life, but those who continue to do their work until they pass.”

Hear, hear. I’d add to this list the poet Donald Hall, who died last year at the age of 89, and whose Essays After Eighty I adore. For the last few years I’ve kept by my bedside either that book or its follow-up, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I look to Donald Hall’s last books for their wisdom and their wit but above all, I think, for the simple beauty of their sentences, each laid carefully after the next. I hope that something in those books will rub off on me and that somehow, someday, I’ll write sentences that seem so effortless and clean.

Then there’s Andre Williams, the outrageous R&B wildman original, who was funny, creative, irreverent, raunchy, prolific, and gleefully strange all the way up to his death, just a couple of weeks ago, at the age of 82.

He’d released his last album at the age of 80. It’s called Don’t Ever Give Up.

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Some of our creative elder-heroes still walk among us. Austin Kleon’s new book, Keep Going, opens with a quote from Willie Nelson. “I think I need to keep being creative,” Willie says, “not to prove anything but because it makes me happy just to do it…. I think trying to be creative, keeping busy, has a lot to do with keeping you alive.”

Willie Nelson turns 86 this month. Last year he released his seventy-third album. It’s called Last Man Standing.

And then of course there’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, still with us at the age, now, of a hundred. For his birthday a couple of weeks ago, he released a new book, Little Boy. City Lights bookstore threw him a huge birthday party. (I couldn’t make it to San Francisco, but I did make him a card.)

Meanwhile, a little closer to home: last Saturday, in Petal, Mississippi, the British-born ballet dancer Henry Danton celebrated his own centennial. He still actively teaches and dances and is writing down the details of his long and celebrated career.

“I don’t have a lot of free time,” he told the Hattiesburg American. “And I want it that way. I don’t want to retire.”

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Stories like these keep popping up into my news feed lately. A week or two ago I read about Delana Jensen Close, who just published her first book, a novel called The Rock House, at the age of 95. She started writing it sixty-plus years ago, back in 1955. She told the Associated Press that “It had to come out” and compared its long-awaited release to the birth of a child. “In the days after it was published,” the A. P. reports, “she literally treated it that way — carrying the book around in a basket with a baby blanket.”

The Indie Book Awards gave Close the prize for this year’s best historical fiction. She has two new novels underway.

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Maybe, like I did, you grew up on Beverly Cleary books. This Saturday, Cleary turns 103.

Back when she was just a hundred, someone asked her the secret of her longevity.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.

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And here’s my favorite story from 2018: “Alabama man turns 99 this Fourth of July, plans to cast his first vote.” John McQueen of Montgomery voted for the first time in his life last summer, in Sen. David Burkette’s runoff election. (Burkette won.) According to Al.com, McQueen stays active today, working in his garden and singing gospel music. “I still work,” he told the paper. “I ain’t never stopped…. I believe if I stop and rest I won’t last long.”

Here’s McQueen, just before his ninety-ninth birthday, singing at a rally for Sen. Burkette: “You Don’t Know What the Lord Done For Me.”


*   *   *

All this has gotten me thinking about Stranger Malone, a musician I interviewed at length some years ago and wrote about for the Old-Time Herald magazine. The first time I laid eyes on him he was already past ninety, performing onstage at a summer outdoor festival in Western North Carolina, blowing a clarinet and playing the bones, standing in the hot sun in a heavy corduroy suit. Long before that, way back in the twenties, he’d played clarinet on records by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers and Clayton McMichen’s Melody Men. After he died, he was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest working recording career in history, one that stretched from 1926 to 2003.

Stranger didn’t care to make distinctions of musical genre. “I like sentimental music,” he told me, defining the common thread in his repertoire. “I feel sentiment about life: I think life is a marvelous thing, and I think we should take care of it. And I like songs that express that idea, that this is a marvelous world, we better take care of it.

“So I like that type of music. But the nonsense I leave behind.”

Malone died in 2005, at home and in bed in his Rome, Georgia, apartment. A musician friend found him there, after he’d failed to show up for a recording session. By his hand was a book called Life is Worth Living.

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And then there is Doc.

My dear friend, the late Frank “Doc” Adams, told me, in our very first conversation, about his cousin, Arthur “Finktum” Prowell. Finktum was a roustabout, an old carnival worker, a comedian and singer. He was a dirt-poor rambler and a lifelong bachelor; he refused to profess religion, and his own family declared him no good. Doc adored him. No matter what others thought, Finktum was wholeheartedly and unrepentantly himself.

“And,” Doc told me, “when he died, he died singing: ‘Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.’ See, he could sing, man, and he died.”

That, I think, is the way to go.

Doc himself died at the age of 86, in 2014. That may sound old to you, but the news of his death shocked everyone who knew him: Doc was so alive, so fundamentally full of youth and vitality, that the thought of his dying just didn’t compute. He and I had published a book together in 2012, and Doc was still brimming with new ideas every time we met. At the time of his death, he was trying to reunite some old musician friends for a recording session in his basement. He had some poems he was planning to set to music And he’d been working on a barbecue sauce he intended to market — he’d just perfected the recipe and was working on a design for the label. The ideas just poured out of him — for collaborations, research projects, presentations, performances, recording dates — and it sometimes breaks my heart to think of those projects that never reached fruition.

But then again, that’s the only way it could have been, and that was the beauty of the man. If he hadn’t been still working on a million new ideas at once — if he’d finished everything and just sat back and slowed down — he wouldn’t have been Doc.

In our book, I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, and he said this:

“I want to be remembered as a person who didn’t quit.”

And that’s the thing about all these creators — Stranger Malone and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Dick Dale and Doc Adams and Delena Jenson Close and Henry Danton and Andre Williams and Mary Oliver and all the rest of them — they’ve shown us how to keep going, to keep creating, to never give up, to continue the work. They didn’t, don’t, and won’t quit.

And, listen: I know we’re just lucky to be here at all, that we’ve got to make the most of the days we’ve got. I’m not betting on making a hundred, or even forty-five. Of course, I can’t help but hope I’m here a long, long time, still creating new things, still getting closer to my best, all the way up to the end; and that when I do come to die, I’ll die singing, like Finktum.

In the meantime, for however long I’m here, I’ll just be doing my best — to learn from a wealth of ancestors and elders, to keep my hand on the throttle and my eye on the rail, and to leave the nonsense behind.

*

Thanks for reading this blog. If you’d like more, take a minute to hit the “follow” button. You can find my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram and Facebook, and find my book Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man wherever you buy your books. If you’re in or around Montgomery, Alabama, this weekend, stop by the Alabama Book Festival on Saturday (April 13); I’ll have a table there with the Doc Adams book and a whole bunch of zines. Hope to see you around. 

Happy one hundred.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti — poet and publisher and bookseller, one of my creative heroes — turns one hundred years old today.

Ferlinghetti!

One hundred!

To celebrate, he’s releasing a new book, Little Boy, and City Lights — the iconic San Francisco bookstore he opened, back in 1953 — is throwing a birthday party for the public.

I wish I could be there to celebrate, but since I can’t, I made and mailed him this drawing.

IMG_3492

If you need some Ferlinghetti to read, to help celebrate the big day, let me recommend his fantastic little book, Poetry As Insurgent Art, which he published at the age of 88. t’s small enough to fit into your back pocket and is rewards frequent returns. Or of course his first book, from 1958, A Coney Island of the Mind. (If you’ve never read it, the poems numbered 11 and 15 (“The world is a beautiful place…” and “Constantly risking absurdity”) are great and obvious starting points — also “I am Waiting” and “Dog.” I look forward to picking up Little Boy this week.

So happy birthday, Ferlinghetti, and thanks.

Talk On, Talkers (Playlist)

Talk on, talkers. Mind your own business. Clean up your own back yard. Etc. 

Here’s the playlist for this morning’s edition of The Lost Child. If you missed the broadcast, you can hear the whole thing here.

  1. The Golden Crown Quartet: Scandalize My Name
  2. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Bad Reputation
  3. Jimmy Hughes: Neighbor, Neighbor
  4. Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers: Ain’t Nobody’s Business
  5. Mississippi John Hurt: Nobody’s Dirty Business
  6. Frank Stokes: ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do Part 2
  7. Fats Waller and his Rhythm: ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do
  8. Ray Charles: Sticks and Stones
  9. A. W. Nix: Throwing Stones
  10. The Staple Singers: Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw
  11. Elder Charles Beck: Talk On Talkers
  12. Bishop Manning and the Manning Family (Lead, Marie Manning): Talk About Me
  13. Hank Williams: Mind Your Own Business
  14. A. W. Nix: Mind Your Own Business
  15. Elvis Presley: Clean Up Your Own Backyard
  16. Jeannie C. Riley: Harper Valley PTA
  17. Cal Smith: The Lord Knows I’m Drinking
  18. Ike and Tina Turner: Ain’t Nobody’s Business
  19. Jerry McCain: Somebody’s Been Talking
  20. Mitty Collier: Let Them Talk

This is really a kind of reboot of a very early Lost Child show. The original, Episode 16, aired in the summer of 2012, three hundred and twenty-nine episodes ago, when Birmingham Mountain Radio was still a little, online-only operation; so I figured you probably missed the original, or at least have forgotten it, and I’ve updated the old playlist with some new songs. A few of my favorite recordings are in this mix. Some of the highlights:

1. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers’ 1927 recording of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” I was a sophomore in college, and I’d never heard anything like this — it seemed like it exploded what I thought a song could be. First there was the wild and screeching Georgia fiddle, then the wild and screeching Georgia vocals. And I’d never heard lyrics like these on a record from so long ago:

“Morphine’s a-gonna run be crazy, cocaine’s a-gonna kill my baby, the pretty girls are gonna cause me to lose my mind. It’s nobody’s business, nobody’s business, nobody’s business if I do.” 

Then, a few verses later, this masterpiece of surreal imagery, all from the imaginations of a decade-and-decades-old, rural Georgia string band:

“She runs a weenie stand, way down in no-man’s land, nobody’s business if I do.”

That line alone has a lot to do, I think, with the person I am now, twenty years later. I heard those words and played them over and over and wondered what else might be out there.

2. The last hundred-ish years of American music have produced numerous variations on the “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” theme, though none quite as weird as Earl Johnson’s. Today’s radio show includes a few of the others, but doesn’t even get to Bessie Smith’s (1924) or Billie Holiday’s (1949). (Warning: Smith’s and Holiday’s are outstanding performances, but are marked by some uncomfortable, regrettable lyrics.)

3. Also on today’s show: Elvis Presley, “Clean Up Your Own Backyard.” This scene from 1969’s The Trouble With Girls is surely one of the greatest, coolest things to come out of an Elvis movie:

4. Finally, today’s show ends with a bang: my friend Patrick introduced me, just a few years ago, to this incredible performance from Birmingham native Mitty Collier. What she does with just two minutes and forty-two seconds is pretty extraordinary. Today, Mitty Collier is a pastor in Chicago.

Thanks for listening. See you next time. Be careful of the stones that you throw.

— Burgin

P. S. I’m working on a book and could use your help on the pitch. Check out this synopsis and let me know what you think.

P.S., also. Yesterday was International Women’s Day. Here are a few of my favorite woman-centric episodes of The Lost Child, which you can revisit this weekend: Mighty Soul Women, Parts One and Two, and the country sequel, Badass Country Women. And a few tributes from this blog to some extraordinary women in history: Montgomery’s librarian-activist Juliette Hampton Morgan, and Birmingham educator-singer Ethel Harper (Parts One and Two).

Tell me what you think.

Okay, friends and strangers, I could use your feedback.

Here’s a short, working synopsis of my book in progress. I invite your input (on content, style, or any nitpicking details) in the comment section below. To chime in, you need zero prior knowledge of the subject matter, just an honest gut reaction. I’d like to know what works for you here and what doesn’t, and what could work better—anything you think might better persuade a person to pick up and read this book.

Thanks for taking a look.

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Magic City Bounce and Swing tells the story of one of American music’s most essential unsung communities.

In an era of pervasive segregation, African American educators in Birmingham, Alabama, created a pioneering high school music program that offered students a life outside the local mills and mines. After graduation, students trained under John T. “Fess” Whatley and other Birmingham bandmasters fanned out all over the country, joining the nation’s top jazz bands. They backed Bessie Smith on stage and on record and populated the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and others. The Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, an ensemble full of Birmingham players, became one of the swing era’s most popular and enduring dance bands, and their biggest hit—“Tuxedo Junction,” a tribute to their hometown scene—became an American anthem. When the country went to war, other Birmingham jazzmen filled the ranks of the Army, Navy, and Air Force bands that provided a soundtrack for the cause.

Often making their mark from the sidelines or behind the scenes—as composers and arrangers, sidemen, businessmen, mentors and teachers—Birmingham musicians exerted a broad influence on the popular culture of the nation. Drummer Jo Jones pioneered the shimmering, propulsive rhythm that came to define the sound of swing. Bandleader Teddy Hill helped launch the careers of some of the giants of modern jazz and, as manager of Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, became a catalyst for the bebop revolution. Sun Ra—one of American music’s most inventive, iconoclastic originals—pushed the jazz tradition to its furthest-out, most exploratory fringes, communicating a new music for the cosmos. Other players remained in Birmingham, shaping the local scene and passing the tradition to new generations. The contributions of these musicians and others meant more than mere entertainment: long before Birmingham emerged as battleground in the struggle for civil rights, its homegrown jazz heroes helped set the stage, crafting a unique tradition of achievement, independence, innovation, and empowerment.

Drawing on troves of previously untapped sources—interviews, news reports, home recordings, and more—Magic City Bounce and Swing reveals, for the first time, the story of this remarkable community. Tracing the intersecting lives of its unforgettable cast of characters, the story crisscrosses an America that’s been largely forgotten: from segregated high school band rooms to the swanky gala dances of the South’s black elite, from jazz-fueled religious revivals to smoky urban night clubs, from touring vaudeville tent shows to the world’s most glittering ballrooms. What emerges is nothing less than a secret history of jazz—and a joyful exploration into the hidden roots of America’s popular culture.

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That’s it. Thoughts? 

P. S. Thanks for reading (and commenting)! If you’re curious about the book above, please in the meantime check out my previous book, Doc, which was just reissued in paperback. If you’d like to see more of this blog, look for the “Follow” option at the top of this page. If you want more music-related stuff, please check out my radio show. And if you just want to say hello, just say hello!

Tornados & Snow (& some music)

1.

A little over a week ago, Wetumpka, Alabama, a town I love, was hit very hard by a tornado. The beautiful, historic sanctuary of its First Presbyterian Church — built all the way back in 1856 — was demolished. But here’s a small something: Bertha, the church’s standup bass, still stands.

“We are okay,” says bassist/pastor Jonathan Yarboro: “We do not need anything at the moment other than prayers. We are so blessed to live in the caring community we live in.”

Yarboro’s message continues: “Love your peeps. That’s all that really matters.” And to that I say amen. But still, I’d ask you to find some way to help out Wetumpka and its Wetumpkans, if you can. (Yarboro encourages those who want to send financial help to his church to send it instead to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance fund.)

In the meantime, I urge you to celebrate small miracles (like the miracle of Bertha) where you find them, and — yes, and always — to keep loving your peeps.

2.

Here’s what happened five years ago this week:

Pete Seeger died, and Alabama was consumed by ice and snow.

I spent the night of the snowstorm on a wrestling mat in a high school gymnasium, surrounded by a couple hundred screaming teenage boys. (Plenty of others had it worse than that.) On the radio that Saturday, I played a bunch of songs about cold snaps and winter weather and traffic jams — did I mention the traffic jams? — along with a bunch of Pete Seeger songs. You can hear that show in its entirety, archived here:

It’s supposed to snow again tonight, by the way, and the governor has gone ahead and declared a state of emergency. So I advise you hunker down, and to enjoy the #wintrymix above.

Be safe, everybody.

Love,

Burgin

Salute to Freedom ’63

For Martin Luther King Day, an excerpt from my book in progress: the story of Birmingham’s “Salute to Freedom ’63” concert, a star-studded, integrated fundraiser from the height of the Civil Rights Movement…

salute to freedom

In August of 1963, just weeks before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Birmingham played host to a special variety show, the “Salute to Freedom ’63.” Organized by the American Guild of Variety Artists and its president, Jewish comedian Joey Adams, the event was an unprecedented gathering for the city, presenting an integrated stage of artists to an integrated audience, with all proceeds going to the efforts of the movement. The line-up included an impressive variety: headliners included Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, the Shirelles, and Johnny Mathis, along with author James Baldwin, comedian Dick Gregory, and former heavyweight champion Joe Louis. There were dancers, comedy, speeches—even a magician. The entire Apollo Theatre orchestra came down from Harlem, and Birmingham’s own civil rights singers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, led the audience in freedom songs. Under the direction of singer-composer Carlton Reese, the choir had become by now a rallying force in Birmingham’s mass meetings and marches, and the group’s signature songs—“I’m On My Way To Freedom Land,” “We’ve Got a Job,” and more—gave powerful voice to the struggle. The entire event was funded by donations and fueled by volunteers; with production costs all but eliminated, proceeds went to the upcoming March on Washington.

From the get-go, city officials attempted to undermine the event. The concert had been scheduled for Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium (the same site, a few years earlier, of the attack on Nat King Cole), but at the last minute the auditorium canceled, offering an unconvincing excuse: thanks to a double-booking “error,” the space had been scheduled to be repainted on the very day of the concert. The paint job, apparently a matter of some urgency, could simply not be postponed. Organizers regrouped, and the concert relocated to Miles College in Fairfield, just five miles from downtown Birmingham. Volunteers scrambled to ready the space: in 98 degree heat a plywood bandstand was erected and lit on the football field. Audience members paid $5 admission and brought their own seating from home, many traveling several miles on foot for the show, folding chairs in hand. Some 20,000 attended.

A.D. King—brother to Martin Luther King, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ensley, and one of the event’s principal organizers—declared the production “the first integrated show and audience in the history of Birmingham.” On stage, James Baldwin underscored the historical import of the moment: “This is a living, visible view of the breakdown of a hundred years of slavery,” he told the crowd; “it means that white man and black man can work and live together. History is forcing people of Birmingham to stop victimizing each other.” Martin Luther King sat beside the stage, leaning forward intently to hear the Shirelles and other acts perform. Even purely apolitical pop tunes—the Shirelles’ biggest hits included “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Mama Said (There’ll Be Days Like This),” and “Dedicated to the One I Love”—became charged with social significance when performed for the cause of freedom. All night long, the threat of violence hung over the event: organizers had received warnings of attack, and the city police force refused requests for protection. During Johnny Mathis’s performance, a section of the makeshift stage collapsed, severing an electric line, and the whole field went suddenly dark. For a moment, performers and spectators imagined they’d been bombed—the city had seen so many bombings already—but inspection revealed no other culprit than shaky construction. In the uneasy darkness, the movement choir broke into a freedom song, and the audience joined in, thousands of voices filling the air like they’d filled the churches, streets, and jails of Birmingham all through the past spring and summer. In half an hour the show resumed, the stage repaired and the lights re-connected. Salute to Freedom ’63 continued without further incident, the music and speeches lasting until well past midnight.

Notes:

Grey Villet, a LIFE magazine photographer, captured some extraordinary images from the concert, but they were never published. Fortunately, you can see them now, here. I strongly encourage you to check them out. 

This excerpt belongs to my book in progress, on the history of Birmingham jazz. The chapter at hand looks at the role jazz musicians and other performers played in Birmingham’s civil rights struggle. More to come. 

Every day this month, I am posting to Instagram and Facebook images from Birmingham’s important and unsung jazz history. Every day this MLK weekend, I’m posting images from the intersecting histories of Birmingham, jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Some related listening from The Lost Child radio show:
>  Music for Martin Luther King  (Lost Child episode 44)
 > “We’re in the Same Boat, Brother” (Lost Child episode 216)

Some related reading from this blog:
 > “Singing for Freedom, Singing for Change”
>  Juliette Morgan Hampton, unsung civil rights pioneer
>  Picturing Birmingham Jazz (including the Nat King Cole attack)
Make America American Again