Draw Your Ancestors

1. Classroom Faces

At the start of this school year, I moved into a new classroom and had a new, big, blank cinder-block wall to fill. So I used one of those giant printers to print out life-sized and larger-than-life photos of a few American literary icons, and I arranged their faces into a huge collage:

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(Left to right, this is Eudora Welty, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Walt Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison.)

I think of it as a (partial!) Mount Rushmore of American writing, a wall of literary ancestors. Their job is to remind us that our words, too, can change the world.

Over the course of my Creative Writing course, we’ll read at least a little something by most of these writers, and sooner or later we’ll talk — at least a little — about the rest. To be sure, it’s a subjective and incomplete wall of ancestors, filtering the “canon” through my own biases and tastes, but it’s a start. (I keep in the hollow space of my podium a huge, rolled up head of Kurt Vonnegut, whose impish sidelong glance I just couldn’t fit, physically, anywhere into that puzzle of faces. Later I may create a second line-up on another wall; in the meantime, when Vonnegut comes up in discussion, I can whip out and unfurl his image.)

2. Student Drawings

Especially because Creative Writing happens to be the first period of the day — and because I think some “mindless” drawing can awaken some playful, spontaneous, unpredictable part of the brain — I sometimes like to start the class by asking students to draw for five or six minutes. I’ve asked them to reserve the first three pages of their Creative Writing notebooks for these start-of-class drawings and doodles, so that by the end of the year those pages will be crammed with all sorts of images — images which will serve as untamed and untranslatable intro to all the words that will follow. Of course, half the class complains that they “can’t draw,” which is the real point (it turns out, they can). But because they only have five minutes for the drawings, the perfectionists have to abandon perfectionism and the slow-to-starters have to jump in, ready or not. There’s no time to think, and everybody is equal.

I started the year’s drawing times by having students choose one of the big literary faces on the wall and try, quickly, to draw it. At the start of the year, they’re likely to know something about one or two of these writers — probably Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes — but the rest, so far, are strangers to them. Ultimately you have to choose your own creative ancestors, and I know my students haven’t chosen these particular writers as theirs. But that’s part of what I like about these first drawing activities: I tell them to just choose whichever face stands out or interests them the most, and spend a few minutes with it. Maybe later a voice or a meaning, or some historical weight or baggage, will attach itself to the face and the drawing. But for now you’re just moving your pencil or pen across a sheet of paper, waking up your brain.

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Later on, students will add to the same three pages their own self portraits — and self portraits of themselves as superheroes or supervillains — and they’ll look up pictures of their own creative heroes and their own creative ancestors and draw their faces, too. The ones on the wall are just our starting point, and I absolutely adore the results:

Another reason I like starting with the same limited group of faces, before students branch out into their own, is because I love the variation you get from a few repeated, recognizable images. Each Gertrude Stein reflects its drawer’s personality above all; the result is part Gertrude Stein and mostly that student. No two Gertrude Steins are alike — but they’re just enough alike to make those differences magical.

You can see a few of the students’ own heroes and ancestors mixed in among these sample drawings; I’ll post some more later on in the year. (One day I gave them the option of drawing anything in the room. A student in my film class had recently brought in a wonderful, creepy E.T. mask that her father had made her, out of felt, years ago, as a Halloween costume; it was still hanging on a hook in the front of the room, which is why you see that E.T. There are a couple of stuffed Kermit the Frogs on my bookshelf, too.)

So:

3. Your Turn

Here’s an assignment, if you want one. I recommend starting your day with this, to warm yourself up — if not first thing in the morning, then right before you begin the most productive part of your workday. Take about five minutes to draw one of your own creative heroes or ancestors (a writer, artist, musician, filmmaker, comedian, teacher, lawyer, whatever — maybe choose somebody you admire from your own line of work, someone whose example reminds you why you do what you do).

Keep it to about five minutes. That way it’s not a huge time commitment, and it takes the pressure off: you can’t expect it to be super-accurate, and you can’t worry about whether it’s “good.”

When your five-ish minutes is up, look back upon your creation. Don’t ball it up or throw it away. Take a picture or scan it, and send me a copy (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). Then put the original on your refrigerator or over your desk, or leave it in a public space for a stranger to find.

Here’s an idea, if you want to really go all-in: get a notebook just for this. Spend five minutes doing this, every day for 30 days — or, if you like, for 365 days. Set a goal and keep it up. Create a diary of five-minute faces, a one-of-a-kind, homemade, ever-growing book of ancestors. Occasionally send me pictures (again: burgin@bhammountainradio.com).

Or, finally, an alternate assignment, if you prefer the mystery of losing yourself in a stranger’s face: Google “Czech authors” or “Ugandan authors” or “Indian” or “Hungarian authors” (someplace whose literacy ancestry is unknown to you). Choose the face that most arrests you, and spend five minutes drawing it. Be sure to write the author’s name beside, around, or under the drawing, and maybe (quickly) add to that a book title, birthdate, or fun fact, whatever you get when you click that person’s picture.

I am certain that you will create something magical that otherwise would never have existed. Give it five minutes and see.

P. S. This week I got my hands on the new book by Lynda Barry, Making Comics, and it’s wonderful, offering many of Barry’s own exercises to draw your way into unexpected and extraordinary, imaginative places. Don’t let the title fool you: her book isn’t for aspiring comics artists (although those people should get it, too), nearly so much as it is for the rest of us — especially those of us who quit drawing pictures around the same time we stopped being kids.

P. P. S. Here are a few of my favorite things from the drawings above: Langston Hughes at an enormous, blank typewriter; all the Toni Morrisons; the bored, tired, or mildly annoyed Whitmans; “powerful.” Also this truth: that sometimes when you’re drawing, your pencil produces something your brain didn’t mean or want (a “mistake”) and you just have to run with and reclaim it. So Zora Neale Hurston becomes “Evil Zora Neale Hurston” — which is pretty wonderful in itself.

Don’t forget to send me your drawings! Thanks for reading.

whiteboard cinema & royal alpacas

Yesterday in my neighborhood some little girls were selling their drawings, lemonade-stand style, for 25 cents apiece. I bought this one, which I imagined was a family of royal alpacas. It turns out they are unicorns.

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Also this week, we’ve wrapped up my Film Studies class for the year. All year, I’ve been tracing onto the white board paused scenes from the movies we’ve been watching, as backdrops for our discussions. I started an Instagram account for these last semester (@whiteboardcinema), and I’ve posted a few of the drawings on this blog. Here are some more from the last few months. One of my students, Sydnee H., did this one from Raising Arizona:

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Here’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with a freehand Spiderman by Zaida W.)…

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…  and a few stills from The Godfather (Parts I and II) …

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sonny godfather

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… Strangers on a Train 

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… and, most recently, Moonrise Kingdom:

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I’m compelled by art that’s designed to be temporary, made to evaporate, wither, or vanish: jack-o-lanterns, sand castles and mandalas, whiteboard or Etch-a-Sketch drawings, fresh magic markings sold to strangers like lemonade. I think it’s good practice, to create something special from scratch and then to let it go.

I don’t have anything especially deep to say about any of that, I just think it’s a good thing to do.

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.”


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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.

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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. 

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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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Voices Unearthed (some great news)

I’m really excited.

This May is huge for lovers of oral history, like me–and for anyone with an interest in American culture, identity, literature, music, history, social movements, or art–thanks to a couple of major releases, out now. First, a previously unpublished book from Zora Neale Hurston–Barracoon, the true story of the last survivor of the last American slave ship–finally hit the stands on May 8. And today(!!) the Studs Terkel Radio Archive has unleashed unto the world a new website with nearly 10,000 hours of radio interviews from 45 years of Terkel’s legendary Chicago radio show.

I am beside myself, and can’t wait to dig into it all.

Hurston and Terkel were two of the first writers I fell in love with, and there aren’t many artists whose voices and visions have made a larger impact on my own way of understanding the world. Both of them were devoted to sharing the stories of “ordinary” people,  believing fiercely in the epic quality of everyday lives. Both advocated a grassroots, street-corner, front-porch, backstage approach to history, centering on those women and men who might otherwise be invisible, voiceless, marginalized, or forgotten. Both were champions of the spoken (and sung) word, the power of the human voice, and the hidden poetries of our day-to-day talk. And while both celebrated humanity in all its forms, with an eye always on the universal, both were uniquely and utterly American. A sense of place pervades their work–for Hurston it’s her native South (particularly Eatonville, Florida) and her adopted Harlem, while for Terkel it’s Chicago–but both artists capture in the sweep of their work a wide range of American experience, complete with all the complexities and contradictions, heartbreaks, struggles and beauty that that experience entails.
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Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” tells the story of Olalule Kossola–or, as he was called in America, Cudjo Lewis. Born in West Dahomey, Africa (today’s Benin),  Kossola was kidnapped in 1860 and illegally smuggled to America aboard the Clotilda, the last of the trans-Atlantic slave ships. He was enslaved for five and a half years on a south Alabama plantation; after Emancipation he and other survivors of the Clotilda established their own, independent community just north of Mobile, a place they called Africatown. Hurston traveled there in 1927 and 1928, and over the course of multiple visits she recorded Kossola’s story in his own words. Hurston was unable in her own lifetime to find a publisher for the book that resulted, and all these years later her original manuscript (edited by Hurston scholar Deborah G. Plant) is finally seeing the light of day. It’s a slim book, but a major contribution both to the historical record and to the literary canon.

The bulk of Barracoon presents Kossola’s story in his own words, an approach Hurston believed was essential for the project: contemporary publishers urged her to rewrite the story in her own voice but Hurston refused, insisting that the narrative belonged to Kossola, in his terms. Hurston’s voice is itself a crucial piece of the work, though, as she frames Kossola’s storytelling with brief descriptions of her visits to his home. They eat peaches or watermelons or crabs together and talk; he tends to his garden; she drives him here or there or offers him a hand with his day’s work. Some days he is gregarious and warm; other conversations are tense and brief. Hurston observes the awful weight of heartbreak and homesickness that shapes Kossola’s life, and she honors his need, some days, not to talk at all. I’m only midway through the book, and already Barracoon is proving invaluable for its presentation of Kossola’s unique voice and experience–from Africa through slavery to Emancipation and beyond–but it’s a treasure too for anyone with an interest in Hurston herself: a creative force whose mission, process, and personality inform all aspects of this book.

Then there is Studs. Over the course of a long career he published numerous books of oral history, most famously the landmark Working (subtitle: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do)–a book which I first encountered as a teenager and which, like Hurston’s Mules and Men, had a huge impact on the sorts of things I’d one day want to write about myself. In other books Terkel tackled the subjects of race, death, class, music, the movies, the Great Depression, World War II, the American Dream, social justice, and more. But alongside all those remarkable books he was building an equally impressive body of work through his radio talk show, broadcasting for nearly half a century on Chicago station WFMT. Nearly 2,000(!) hours of these broadcasts are now available at the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which unveiled its new website today–and which promises many more hundreds of hours to come. The wealth of conversations here is staggering: Terkel talks to civil rights leaders, musicians, authors, historians, filmmakers, anthropologists, scientists, actors, activists, and a whole host of other culture makers. As in his books, he shares the voices of the unknown and unsung; but here he also speaks with an enormous cast of iconic personalities, engaging in conversation some of the most influential figures of the last century. I’m looking forward to listening to interviews with (for starters) Muhammad Ali, Dizzy Gillespie, and my cousins Cliff and Virginia Durr. Then there’s the 1965 interview with Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday; in it Wolfe discusses his just-published first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Additional interviews are still being added: I hope that soon we’ll be able to hear Terkel’s talks with Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, and others. There are, of course, lots of musicians here: like Hurston, Terkel had a deep love for music–in particular for blues, jazz, and folk song–and his work, like Hurston’s, is informed at every step by music. But take a look around the archive, yourself, and see what jumps out. There is plenty here to explore.

For years I’ve wanted somebody to write a good biography of Studs Terkel; of all the unborn books waiting to be written, this is the one I’m most eagerly awaiting. Hopefully someone out there will get on that soon. In the meantime, we can keep ourselves busy and inspired with this incredible archive, and with Hurston’s Barracoon. I’m grateful to every person who had a hand in bringing either of these projects into the world.

I think pretty soon it’ll be hard to imagine how we ever managed without them.

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.

This Is What You Shall Do

This one’s quoted often but rewards frequent revisits. So — from the original preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855 …

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“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

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