Jug Bands!

“Wake up, mama, hear your rooster crow. One at your window, one at your door.”
— The Birmingham Jug Band,
“Wild Cat Squawl,” “Getting Ready for Trial,” and “Giving it Away” (rec. 1930)

A couple of Saturdays ago Birmingham Mountain Radio was beset by technical glitches, and my radio show hit the airwaves late — and even then in fits and starts. Because I didn’t want any of the music to get lost (I’d devoted the hour to one of my longest-running musical loves, the jug bands of the 1920s and ’30s) I cleaned up the broadcast and, while I was at it, added an extra half hour of music and history. I’ve uploaded it to the internet, here, so you can hear it anytime. Check it out.

As I explain in more detail on the show, the jug band craze of the ’20s and ’30s had its real start in Louisville before it found its greatest expression in Memphis. Other communities across the South could boast their own jug bands, and a handful of those bands made records. The extended version of Saturday’s show includes a couple of tunes from our own hometown group, The Birmingham Jug Band. I didn’t say much about this group on the air, so I thought I’d fill in a few blanks here.

One of the band’s members was Bogus Blind Ben Covington (Bogus Blind Ben, because he wasn’t really blind–how about that?), a banjo player and medicine show entertainer who also recorded a small handful of sides as a soloist. Mississippi bluesman Big Joe Williams claimed to have played in the group and cited Bessemer, Alabama, harmonica player Jaybird Coleman among the band’s other members; blues scholars have debated the accuracy of that claim ever since, and I won’t wade into it here. The remaining players come to us only as a string of evocative, shadowy nicknames: there was “Dr. Scott” and “One-Armed Dave,” a jug blower called “Honeycup,” and a washboard player known simply as “New Orleans Slide.” (How about that?)

An aside: right after I graduated from college, I got my first writing job as a freelancer for the All Music Guide, contributing artist bios and album reviews that still circulate, for better or worse, around the internet today. If you seek information online about the Birmingham Jug Band, you’ll end up looking at the couple of paragraphs I wrote a couple of decades ago. I learned a good deal while writing all those old bios, but I’m embarrassed now by a fair amount of the writing. Oh, well: I just reread the Birmingham Jug Band bio and it’s not so bad.

Here’s some of what it says:

“Of all the jug bands of the ’20s and ’30s, the Birmingham band had one of the most distinctive sounds on record, though their repertoire was significantly less diverse than that of groups like the Memphis Jug Band or Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Probably the only full jug band from south of Memphis to record, the group had a more rural sound than its contemporaries, reflecting the aesthetics of the country string band as much as the popular jug band. The group’s eight recordings are characterized by a prominent lead mandolin and equally prominent harmonica; gruff, heavy vocals; and a throbbing rhythm enforced largely by the insistently pounding jug. Also recording in the same Atlanta studio that day was King David’s Jug Band, another little-documented group; together, these two outfits produced some of the liveliest and most intriguing records from the height of the jug band era.”

I will certainly stand by that last statement: these are great records, rowdy and raucous and entirely infectious.

(A further aside: for the jug band bio I was awarded fifteen dollars and a byline. I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, at the time and waiting tables for a regional restaurant chain that described itself as “an upscale Applebee’s.” My income was supplemented with a few other money-making schemes, besides the All Music gig: I substitute taught, delivered the Yellow Pages, and put new strings on guitars and banjos at a bluegrass-minded music store. With two other friends I produced one issue of an oral history magazine, before we all moved on to other places and projects. For fifty dollars a month I rolled the trash cans at my apartment building to the street twice a week, and for another fifty I did the same thing at another building nearby. It was almost always sunny and I rarely thought about the future.)

But this was supposed to be a post about jug bands. I’ll leave it at this: I have been in love with jug bands for a long, long time, ever since I first discovered them in high school on a couple of Folkways records. Saturday before last I was lucky enough, even with the technical glitches, to play a bunch of those old songs over the radio. In case you missed it, or didn’t get enough, you can now stream the extended mix anytime your heart desires.

So. Give it a listen. Be well. Thanks.

P. S. I just remembered something else I wrote about the Birmingham Jug Band (I’ve spent a lot of time over the years contemplating this mostly forgotten band): I included them and their instrumental breakdown, the “Birmingham Blues,” in my little collection of “Thirty Birmingham Songs,” published in 2011. This is some of what I said then:

“Almost half of the songs recorded by the Birmingham group consist of essentially the same melody—their “Birmingham Blues” closely echoes their “German Blues,” “Giving it Away,” “Getting Ready for Trial,” and others—but each time and with some variation the band proves it can play the hell out of that particular tune. Other instrumental odes to the city would be recorded in later years … but Birmingham has never sounded better, freer, or wilder than in it does in this blues. (Anyone out there, incidentally, who believes the worn stereotype that the music of the blues is a depressive and mournful thing had better listen to this record and get right.)”

I’ll only add to that that I find all the repetition in this band’s repertoire totally endearing. The lyric at the top of this post appears in three of their eight recordings, running as a refrain through their work. “Wake up mama, hear your rooster crow–one at your window, one at your door.”

You have to admit, it’s a good line.

The School Week (highlights)

In a lot of ways, the school year that’s wrapping up now has been an especially frustrating one. But several moments this week have reminded me of what I like most about this job. For what it’s worth:

1. My first period Creative Writing students have been writing some extraordinary, inspiring words lately–and a group of them have started performing their poetry out loud in some really powerful ways. We’ve snuck off for the last couple of weeks to a little room off the back of the library, and while nobody else is looking they’ve been doing the most amazing things.

2. The same group has been goofily experimenting with various approaches to reading other people’s poetry out loud. The goal has been to get us thinking about the limitless ways in which our voices and our bodies can interact with the spoken word–whether enhancing, complicating, or undercutting the meaning of a text. Earlier this week we were seated around a big glass-topped conference table, and one student walked across the top of it in his socks while reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” I was surprised how much this very literal approach to the poem–in which a poet is compared to an acrobat–actually managed to reshape my experience of Ferlinghetti’s words, which I’ve read many times. Lines like “…whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience…” feel different when the poet is actually performing above the heads of his audience; the same goes for “balancing on eyebeams” and “paces his way / to the other side”–and all the other lines. And then there was this: we were all a little terrified the whole time that the table would break. Both the performer and the audience were physically engaged in a way I hadn’t expected: just as if they were watching a tightrope walker or acrobat, students around the table were holding their breath or clenching their teeth until the poem was over. Some where leaning in; others were leaning out. It was pretty special.

Luckily the table did not break.

3. Same class: a group of students read Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” as if they were reading it to their dogs–in those funny, high-pitched voices people use just for addressing their pets. There is something hilarious about “You can’t beat death / but you can beat death in life, sometimes” when it’s read in a “You’re a good boy, yes you are” voice. (If you don’t believe me, try it.)

4. Another student read “The Laughing Heart” as if he was being slapped in the face with every word. And then, a second time, as if he was being tickled.

5. Two students read an excerpt from Green Eggs and Ham with such genuine drama that the class demanded they finish the rest of the book, so we’d know how it turned out.

6. Meanwhile, in my twelfth grade English class, we had some leeway in the end of our year, so I decided for the first time to throw The Catcher in the Rye into the mix. The first large chunk of it was due today. Luckily, the students are into it so far, and it’s a very refreshing change of pace from everything else that class has read this year. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t like this book–or think it’s overrated, or whatever–but I don’t need to hear it. (My students are welcome to tell me they don’t like it–I just don’t want a bunch of haters chiming in in the comments below.) I liked the book fine when I first read it in high school, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I remember the wisdom was that if you’re going to read this book, you need to read it while you’re still in high school, because the older you get the less it will resonate. I assumed that was true, and like I said I liked it just fine, even if it didn’t change my life or anything. A few years ago I read this book for the first time as an adult, and I discovered how wrong this wisdom was; it meant much more to me then than it had meant the first time. And now that I’ve read it a couple times more I absolutely, wholeheartedly adore it. Reading a few chapters before school today made my morning. That kid breaks my heart in the most beautiful ways. He really does.

7. Then there was this. In my eleventh grade class today, a kid pointed out a disturbing trend: “In every book we’ve read this year, a woman gets slapped.” We all stopped and thought about it. Desdemona had just been slapped by Othello. Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan slaps his mistress Myrtle (really, he smashes her nose with his open palm). Tea Cake slaps Janie (and her previous husband is also abusive). No women get slapped in Of Mice and Men, but one does get shaken to death. And she’s the only woman in the book, and we never even know her name.

I’m not sure what to do about all this, but it surely doesn’t sit well. There’s no question, for starters, that we need to be teaching more women’s voices in our English classrooms, and that a wider range of voices brings in a wider range of experiences. I know that some schools have done better than others at opening up their curricula, but most places I think this is (still) a slow work in progress. As for this theme of literary slaps: if handled well, it can certainly (but doesn’t necessarily) generate some useful discussion about domestic violence, or about the portrayal of women in the “canon” that still shapes so much of what’s taught. I’ve tried to facilitate some good talks along these lines this year, with varying results. But I don’t think those conversations go far enough in counterbalancing a year’s worth of slapping. The worst slap of them all, by the way–because its author, unlike the others, seems so okay with it–is the one Janie receives from Tea Cake, the love of her life, in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Of all these slapping scenes, this is the only one that was written by a woman. It’s an uncomfortable acceptance of violence near the end of a beautiful book that’s (on most of its pages) empowering and ahead of its time.

It’s tough.

But here’s the part that made me happy: a student noticed the trend and pointed it out today, and got the room all worked up about it before the bell.

So all in all, it was a good day.

*

A P. S.: on teenagers, adults, guns, protests, Greek tragedy, and learning to listen…

Speaking of favorite moments in the classroom, a definite highlight of my year–albeit a heavy one–was the series of conversations some of my classes had about gun violence, student walk-outs, and other issues sparked by the Parkland shootings. I won’t go into all that here now, but feel free to ask me about it if you see me around.

What I do want to say here is not political. I don’t especially care what you think about guns. But I do care what you think about teenagers.

I’ve heard and seen so many adults in the last couple of months, especially on social media, bashing student protesters–mostly bashing those Stoneman Douglas kids–for taking a stance on guns. A popular punchline to a hundred memes suggests that “the same kids” who were eating Tide Pods a few weeks ago are demanding gun control this week. Ha, ha: it’s a dumb generation, goes the joke. I was recently sent–because it was supposed to be inspiring–a  viral “open letter” in which a retired schoolteacher somewhere in America patiently explains to the kids of today exactly why they’re wrong. (“This is not a tweet or a text,” the letter begins, thinking condescension an effective way to make teenagers listen. “It’s called a letter; lengthy and substantial. Do you really want to make a difference? … First of all, put down your stupid phone…”) A whole lot of people, meanwhile, have been pointing out that teenagers are too emotional or too uninformed to participate in an important national conversation. Some have claimed that teenagers, unable to think for themselves, have just become pawns in the schemes of liberals or the media, whose opinions they’re brainlessly parroting. The worst extreme of all this, of course, is the sad bunch adults who have publicly attacked these young people in Florida or have cooked up conspiracy theories about those students’ true identities. It’s reprehensible stuff. But even the more benign, apparently well-intentioned forms of this teenager bashing–that open letter, for example–make me furious.

All I want to say is this. If you consider yourself an adult, please: go ahead and think what you’re going to think about guns. But don’t discount or discredit the young people. For the love of God, don’t bully them, and don’t use them as punchlines.

I’d ask you, even, to listen to them. And learn from them, and with them.

Before we started The Catcher in the Rye, my seniors were reading Antigone, an ancient Greek drama and the third installment in Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy. My favorite character in that play has always been Haimon, the son of the bull-headed king Kreon. This year Haimon’s words seemed more timely than ever. He’s trying to convince his dad to listen to reason, but his dad is incapable of listening to anything or anyone, let alone his own son–a kid.

“Men our age, learn from him?” Kreon sneers. But what if, says Haimon, “I happen to be right? Suppose I am young. Don’t look at my age, look at what I do.

That’s my favorite line in that play. I live in Birmingham, after all, and kids in this town have been known, before, to change the world.

But if you still don’t believe that the kids have something to say–some things we haven’t thought to say, ourselves, and some things we all need to hear–then please: come listen in on my first period class sometime. They will get you straight.

*

One more P. S.: recommended reading, listening, and viewing…

Before I sign off, a few recommendations relevant to this post:

A week ago today I got a copy of the wonderful book Syllabus by the great Lynda Barry. For the last seven days it has made my world brighter. I recommend it to anyone whose life could use some creative inspiration.

And speaking of creativity and (see above) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti–as another source of perpetual inspiration I will always recommend Ferlinghetti’s book Poetry as Insurgent Art, which he published at age 88, and which is small enough to fit in your pocket.

And here’s a video of Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart” by Bukowski.

(Near our school, by the way, there’s a walking/running path that goes through the woods, and there’s this empty little one-room house just off the path. I heard from some students several years ago that they snuck into the house and the words to this poem were written on the wall.)

Here’s one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

And speaking of how young people in Birmingham changed the world, here is a 40-minute film I show every year to my students, Mighty Times: The Children’s March. Every year it knocks me out. Every person should watch it. If you’re an educator, you can contact the Southern Poverty Law Center for a free copy and teaching materials (or just watch it at the Youtube link above).

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

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.

cardboard 2

cardboard 3

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.

cardboard 4

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. 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