The “Singing School Marm” & Sun Ra: The Ethel Harper Story, Part One

Ethel Harper described a certain “bulldog tenacity” as her most distinguishing feature. She was independent, resilient, energetic and strong-willed, and she knew how to get things done. But she was also a bottomless well of generosity, full always of compassion and charity—for children and the elderly, especially. She was elegant and refined, full of grace, poise, and glamor. She had several careers, all successful—was an educator, an entertainer, and a civic leader—and her impact was broad, most notably in her adopted home of Morris County, New Jersey.

I went to Morris County a few years ago to learn more of Harper’s story. Her personal papers are housed in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, in the lowest level of the beautiful, old Morristown library. The papers include news clippings, speeches, original poetry, and an autobiography, self-published in 1970. I went there hoping to fill in some gaps in my research on the Birmingham, Alabama jazz story. Harper’s career started in Birmingham, and she was one of the few women to emerge from the fertile scene there. Indeed, if she’s remembered at all today, it’s likely for this curious footnote: her first band, Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys, included in its lineup a young player named Sonny Blount. Blount would emerge as the band’s star musician, eventually replacing Harper as the group’s leader; soon after that he’d move to Chicago and become Sun Ra—one of the most iconoclastic, inventive, and utterly unclassifiable figures in the history of jazz.

But Harper’s own history is interesting and illuminating in its own right. After Birmingham she’d perform on Broadway and in Europe, and she’d tour, broadcast, and record with a popular vocal group, the Ginger Snaps. In her later years, in Morristown, she’d become a tireless and respected champion of numerous social causes, a voice for both the youth and the aged, an advocate for education, black history, civil rights, and the arts. When she died in 1979, newspapers around the country (among them the New York Times and Washington Post) remembered her in their headlines for one of her longest running—and ultimately most controversial—roles: as Quaker Oats’ “Aunt Jemima,” a character she portrayed in live appearances through much of the 1950s. It was a character steeped in stereotype, but Harper had sought to bring the job a dignity and grace, even a kind of authority. In the 1960s Jemima was increasingly denounced as an icon of American racism, but Ethel Harper, a vocal proponent of civil rights, took a staunch pride all her life for her work in the role.

Last week, for International Women’s Day, the internet was full of images, quotes, and stories of inspiring women, some famous and others not. I found myself thinking of Ethel Harper, a unique and complex figure whose story has been all but forgotten but very much deserves to be told. This week on this blog I’ll try to tell some part of that story, as I understand it.

Here’s part one: on Birmingham, Sun Ra, and (as Ethel Harper was for a while called) the singing “Bama School Marm.”

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Ethel Harper was born in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1903. At the age of nine she was orphaned and came to Birmingham from Selma to live with an adult brother and his wife. Her autobiography describes her anticipation for the “big city with the bright lights and big crowds,” a city that weighed in her imagination with a thrilling and terrible kind of mythological power: she’d been told the train as it pulled into town would pass right over the giant Sloss Furnace, and the idea of it haunted her. “I thought that to get into Birmingham,” she wrote, “one had to cross the fiery furnace on the train; if the furnace was open and the passengers could see the fire, all would be destroyed”—the train itself melted along with the iron, the passengers consumed in molten steel and flame.

As a new student at Industrial High School, Harper joined the school’s Dramatic Club; a performance with that group at the the upscale Jefferson Theatre downtown inspired in her the desire to spend her life on stage. In her earliest career, she’d balance her passion for the stage with an equal passion for the classroom: at the age of seventeen she graduated from the the State Teachers College in Montgomery (now Alabama State University), and she landed her first job at an elementary school in North Port, Alabama. Her salary there was $62.50 a month—“a small fortune”—and she picked up some extra income offering private music lessons on the side. North Port Elementary had a faculty of seven, and the teachers shared a range of duties. Harper took charge of the choir, “my first big adventure in the music field.”

Soon, though, she was back in Birmingham at Industrial High, the state’s largest high school for blacks and her own alma mater. There she organized the Girls’ Minstrel, an annual musical and theatrical showcase, one of the most popular events of the school year (there was a Boys’ Minstrel, too, and competition was high between the genders). At the behest of the superintendent of schools and to much local acclaim, she coordinated a thousand girls in an elaborate, costumed, and choreographed military drill at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Meanwhile, she pursued her own opportunities to perform.

Her memoir picks up the story: “Permission was given me by the principal of the high school to form an orchestra with some of the boys from the band department.” Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys “made quite a name for themselves, playing for social affairs through the state.” Harper fronted the group, acting as singer and emcee, and the band was a hit. It was the era of the fierce if friendly “jazz battle,” with local groups competing onstage for the acclaim of their fans, and Harper and her boys held their own, besting such popular Birmingham bands as Fred Averytt’s Society Troubadours, another collective of Industrial students. In the summers, Harper took the band on the road. “Miss Ethel Harper,” the Chicago Defender reported, “popular teacher of the Industrial high school, left Monday in a special chartered Greyhoud bus,” accompanied by “her newly organized rhythm boys orchestra whose ages range from fourteen to sixteen years…. Miss Harper,” the paper went on, “is to be commended. This is her second trip to New York. She worked last summer in a night club in Chicago.”

After a while, though, the school intervened. “It was with regret,” Harper later wrote, “that finally the Board of Education felt I must relinquish this activity because it was too strenuous along with my teaching chores. The boys in the orchestra remained together and some of them went on to become top musicians and today are members of some of our leading name bands.”

One of those Rhythm Boys who remained was the pianist and arranger Sonny Blount—Sun Ra—who was already distinguishing himself as one of the city’s most creative and promising musicians. As he would later tell it, the real reason Harper left was a bit more sensational than Harper herself let on: the school’s leadership simply wasn’t comfortable with a female teacher—young and glamorous, dressed in an evening gown and crooning sweet love songs—fronting a stage loaded full with her own male students.

“Well,” Sun Ra explained to brothers Peter and John Hinds for Sun Ra Research, “everybody talked about fifteen or sixteen fellows being up there under a woman. They talked about her because she was a schoolteacher … and it was a big scandal.” Harper herself was “very dignified,” Sun Ra said—nothing ever but pure professionalism—but “a lot of people were jealous of her.” The gossip mill churned, and “the fellows in the band got worried.” The upshot was that Sonny Blount found himself fronting his first band.

“Everybody was talking about her, so some kind of way, they voted to give me the band,” Sun Ra said. “And the next thing I know I saw my name out there—and I didn’t ask for it, they just said I was the person that should be the leader of a band.” He never wanted the job, he’d always insist; it was just part of a larger, transcendent design. “So my destiny in music was determined by other people—not me.”

“Change seems to be part of my destiny,” Ethel Harper wrote of the incident, echoing Sun Ra at least on that point—that a greater force was at work. The moment would mark the beginning of Sun Ra’s career as a bandleader, but it also marked the real beginnings of Ethel Harper’s own professional career. Her break with the Rhythm Boys—and with Industrial High School and Birmingham—presented more an opportunity than a setback.

Her ambitions anyway lay elsewhere.

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In 1936, after twelve years in the classroom, Ethel Harper left Birmingham for New York. She took with her two students, Albert Phillips and William Keyes, both dancers. “I had made a promise to the boys’ parents,” she wrote, “to try and get them started in their chosen field of dancing.” She planned to spend the summer performing where she could, getting all three of them gigs; in the fall she’s continue her own education in the graduate program at Columbia University.

Again, though, destiny intervened.

Harper was beautiful, talented, and charismatic, and the local black press quickly took notice of her arrival in town. The New York Age announced matter-of-factly that “Miss Harper, who divides her time between teaching high school and leading a band, will try her hand at night club entertaining while in New York.” Her first week there she performed at the local Poosepahtuck Club, and a few days later the Age reported this gossipy tidbit (with a slight geographic inaccuracy): “Just because Ethel Harper … a singing chick from Montgomery, Alabama has come to town, Fats Savage, whom you remember if you’ve ever sipped a cocktail at the Poosepahtuck, went and rigged himself out in a brand new linen suit.”

How Fats and his suit came out went unrecorded, but Ethel Harper appeared several more times that summer in the papers. She performed next at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Hour, and she won: her rendition of “Without a Word of Warning” earned her a weeklong engagement at the theater, where she was billed “The Singing School Teacher from Alabama.”

Her background in the classroom made her something of a novelty—and good copy for the press. “Bama School ‘Marm’ Wins Amatuer Hour,” reported the New York Amsterdam News: “Miss Harper teaches English in Industrial High School, but in her leisure she dances and sings torch songs for the fun of it and within the walls of her own home.” “The piece de resistance of the night,” the New York Age reported of the Apollo show, “was the big timey singing of Miss Ethel Harper, a reformed school teacher from Alabama.” That paper, though, qualified its praise: Harper may have been good, but talent guaranteed little in the big time. “If she’s smart,” the paper concluded, “she’ll stick to her pedagogy as the existence of singers is for [the] most part precarious…. That night club songstress can sing but so do oodles of other people whom I know. No she isn’t likely to set the world on fire.”

That warning notwithstanding, the Apollo gig boded for Harper a greater financial success than any classroom might offer. For a week’s performances she netted $125; and “by comparison with my teaching salary of seventy-five dollars per month, one can readily see how I could be lured away from the world’s most honored profession”—even though, she was quick to add, all her life, “my love for children exceeded my love for the theatre.”

Ethel Harper called off her plans with Columbia. There were still bigger stages waiting.

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Later this week on this blog—the Ethel Harper Story, Part Two: Broadway; Shakespeare in swing; Aunt Jemima; a civic life; more.

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“Western wear invited. Sportswear accepted.” Happenings ’69.

I was working on my next couple of blog posts, “Adventures in Basements” (Parts 1 & 2), when I got a call from my friend Patrick. “Adventures in Basements” will chronicle my favorite discoveries rooting through archives and library stacks around the country. But in the meantime Patrick called to say he wanted to pass on to me a small but generous chunk of his own archival collection.

Over the course of a lifetime Patrick Cather has built an incredible collection of books, records, memorabilia, artifacts, and ephemera related to (among many other things) Birmingham’s history and music. We got to know each other several years ago through a mutual friend, Frank “Doc” Adams. My book-in-progress includes a lengthy, important chapter on Patrick, Doc, and the boogie-woogie pianist Robert McCoy.

About a year ago Patrick entrusted to me a couple hundred R&B and soul records, mostly from the 1960s. This week he shared with me enough 78’s to make my car sink from the weight: Bessie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers, Fats Waller, the Mississippi Sheiks, Erskine Hawkins, and all sorts of other things. There’s even one from Clifford Hayes’s Louisville Jug Stompers and a couple of the V-Disc records, issued during World War II for the soldiers overseas.

Among the papers I got from Patrick was a single issue of Dick Coffee’s Birmingham Doin’s, dated November of 1969. It’s a periodical survey of late 1960s (white) Birmingham nightlife, consisting mostly of advertisements. As such, it’s an interesting glimpse into this city’s nightclubs—a segment of them, anyway—a half a century ago.

I asked Patrick, flipping through the pages: Did you ever go to the Original Boom Boom Room?

Many times, he said, and added: the Boom Boom Room had a chicken in a cage, and it would dance on demand. 

Only one of the establishments listed below is still in business: the Red Lion in Homewood, a place I love. Long may it run.

I’ll be posting many more archival finds in the weeks ahead—including some excerpts from Glare magazine, the glossy 1950s magazine devoted to Birmingham’s black entertainment and social life. For now, here are some Birmingham Doin’s.

Don’t miss the talked about Blaze.

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Postscript:

While I was going through his records, Patrick got a call from the family of Joe Rumore, Birmingham’s late, longtime radio personality: a chunk of Rumore’s estate, it happened, was going on sale in the morning, and Patrick passed the tip along to me.

I went to the Rumore sale, but I only purchased one item. There were lots of framed, signed photos of old country music stars, all out of my budget—and autographed head shots don’t do much for me, anyway.  More my speed, and priced at just a few dollars,  was this photo from radio station WSPG in Anniston, Alabama: a trio identified as Mary Frady, Jerry Frady, and Ruby Fallon. I’ve got a decent collection of photos like this—images of forgotten, mostly anonymous musicians—and I find all the details in them wonderful. For starters: from a distance the pattern on Jerry’s shirt might look likes flowers, but it’s cowboys and lassos.

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Really I love everything about this photo. The mic placement, obviously. The rolled cuffs of Jerry’s pants. The younger woman and the older woman, and their symmetry. That fringe, just under their knees. How everybody’s wearing boots. The look on Ruby’s face. The look on Mary’s. Jerry’s absolute earnestness.

I’d like to have heard him sing.

(Incidentally, about this time last year I compiled some of my photos of “lost and found” musicians in a little collection, titled “Melodies Unheard.” You can get a copy here.

More soon.)

The Birmingham Sessions

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I’ve got an article in this month’s issue of The Old-Time Herald exploring Gennett Records’ 1927 trip to Birmingham. For two months the label set up shop in the Starr Piano store and waxed records of all sorts of local music makers: blues musicians, old-time string bands, jazz bands, Sacred Harp singers, society dance orchestras, gospel quartets, and more. The records, seldom heard today, offer a kind of cross section and time capsule of Alabama music as it sounded 90 years ago. My article dives into the specifics of these Birmingham sessions, placing them in the context of other “location recording” expeditions of the era—and takes a look at the many performers who came to the Starr store to record.

For many years, The Old-Time Herald has documented both the history and contemporary state of old-time string band music and other related traditions.They make room for long articles like this one, and they take great care with their photos and illustrations—as you can see in the spreads below. My article on the Birmingham sessions is a much-expanded version of a piece I published last summer in Birmingham magazine.

A quick excerpt follows. To read the whole thing, subscribe to the OTH. Thanks to the magazine’s editor, Sarah Bryan, for all her help—and to Joyce Cauthen for loaning some great photos, like the two below.

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From “The Birmingham Sessions: Gennett Records and the Sounds of 1920s Alabama”:

“Southern Artists To Make Records,” a headline announced in July of 1927: “Making Of Phonograph Discs Is Birmingham’s Latest Industrial Effort.” Gennett Records had come to Birmingham from Richmond, Indiana, with a load of equipment and a team of engineers. The company planned to set up a temporary studio in the Alabama city and hoped to attract talent from across the South. Ambitions were high all around. The Birmingham News imagined the city becoming “a musical center of the South,” drawing in new streams of profit and acclaim; in a town whose name had been built from steel and coal, music was a local resource so far untapped—and it could be the foundation, the papers imagined, of a whole new industry.

Gennett had plenty to gain, too, from the enterprise. According to one trade magazine, the company expected from its Birmingham base “to make a specialty of Alabama negro folk songs.” Gordon Soule, the studio’s chief recording engineer, spoke auspiciously on his arrival: “The nation looks to the South,” he said, “for its Dixie melodies, its jazz orchestras, its ‘hot’ music. Our initial reception here in Birmingham has been beyond our expectations.”

The very same month, up in Bristol, Tennessee, the Victor label set up a temporary studio of its own, likewise inviting local musicians to audition. Victor’s twelve days in Bristol have become the stuff of American musical mythology: the sessions produced the first recordings of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, two iconic acts that helped shape the sound and the business of country music for generations to come. Scholars, fans, and tourists have all flocked to Bristol for years, and the impact of those sessions is well known […] Less familiar are the other field recording sessions conducted, in the same decade, by Victor’s contemporaries. Gennett’s trip to Birmingham offers a single case study.

As it happened, the Gennett sessions did little to advance the careers of the musicians who participated; most of these artists never recorded again. Birmingham, for all the newspaper’s excitement, wasn’t reborn into a mighty music hub. There were no game-changing discoveries, no Carters or Rodgers as there were that summer in Bristol. But the recordings made in Birmingham that July and August—nearly 170 sides altogether—represent a unique and valuable cross-section of the region’s musical culture. There are jazz bands and country blues singers, old-time string bands, gospel quartets, a ragtime pianist and singers of the Sacred Harp—a rich diversity of local sounds, all testament to a community steeped in music….

Happy Birthday, Doc

“I was born—they tell me I was—on Groundhog’s Day: February 2, 1928.”

This is how Doc Adams started our first interview together, one Saturday afternoon in August of 2008. We’d met only once before, but I’d been eager to meet him again. I’d told him I wanted to write an article about him and his music—he’d played with Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and others and had been a mainstay of the Birmingham jazz community for years—and he agreed to an interview. I arrived with three pages of questions, none of which I got around to asking. The moment I turned on my recorder, Doc launched into his story, starting at his birth and proceeding chronologically from there, laying out his life in remarkable, loving, specific detail—describing, even, the tile on his parents’ living room floor, whose pattern he’d studied from infancy.

Doc had many gifts; just one of them was his power in storytelling. At the end of two hours, he was about to graduate from high school—and I’d abandoned my notebook of questions altogether. As the interview came to a close, he found a place to pause his reminiscence: with the letter of recommendation his early mentor Sun Ra (then still “Sonny Blount”) sent on his behalf to Howard University. It was an effective cliffhanger.

“We’re going to have to have another session,” Doc told me. I happily agreed and came back the next week. And the week after that. For two and a half years we did it again, every Saturday and occasional Sundays, until his story stretched out across a hundred cassette tapes. Eventually I started asking questions. What was going to be an article turned into a book—and, more than that, a life-changing friendship.

Doc died in 2014. For his birthday today I’d like to share this remembrance I wrote after his death for the weekly paper Weld. Of all the things I’ve ever written, this is easily the most meaningful to me. I hope you’ll click the link below to read the full story—and join me in remembering Dr. Frank Adams, with gratitude and love, on this, the anniversary of his birth.

Happy birthday, Doc.

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Remembering “Doc” Adams
November 11, 2014 // WELD for Birmingham 

Like a lot of people, I knew Frank Adams most of all as “Doc,” but over the course of an extraordinary life he went by a variety of names. To many among his friends and family he was first and foremost “Frank,” and to years upon years of students at Lincoln Elementary he’d always be “Mr. Adams,” the much-loved teacher and role model.

As a high school student in the ‘40s, he traveled with comedian Mantan Moreland’s Hot Harlem Revue, and Moreland dubbed him “Juniflip,” a name for the young and unpredictable, the energetic but untested. (“You’re just a little Juniflip,” Adams liked to explain in later years: “You might flip over into greatness, or you might flip back into mediocrity.”) Other, older musicians in those days knew him as “Youngblood.” In college at Howard University, his bandmates called him “Francois” — a name which they on some occasions extended to Francois DeBullion (“I never knew where they got that DeBullion,” he said), but which on other occasions, as he launched into an especially hot solo, they might abbreviate to just “’wa.”

“Get it, ’wa!” they’d shout from the sidelines, and — as he’d do from many stages, for many decades to come — he’d get it.

He had an insatiable appetite for education — his students’ education, of course, but also his own — and so he pursued a series of degrees, culminating in the one that made him “Dr. Adams.” The title suited his role as gentleman and scholar, but he shook loose its stifling formality every opportunity he got.

“Please,” he’d plead, “just call me Doc.”

Click HERE to read the rest of this article…

P.S. We are lucky that one of Doc’s students, Jessica Latten, documented his spirit so beautifully in her photographs. The photo on this page is hers; others are included in the Weld story, and she’s taken many(!) more just as good. Thanks to Jessica for sharing these loving portraits of a man whose memory means so much to so many.

Table(s) of Contents

I said when I started this blog that one big purpose of the site was to complement my book in progress, my history of Birmingham jazz. I promised to share updates and outtakes, excerpts and footnotes, and to shed some light on the daily(ish) struggle of getting this thing onto paper, and (eventually) out to the world.

I haven’t posted a word about the book since then, so I thought I’d finally get to it today—and a table of contents seemed like a good, simple place to start. Sooner or later I’ll tell you more about why I’m writing this book, why I think the story’s so important, and what the overall gist of it is. In short, for now, it’s the story of how the unlikely city of Birmingham, Alabama helped shape the world of jazz—and of how jazz helped shape the city of Birmingham.

It’s a story that, for the most part, just hasn’t been told—at least not widely. People here in Birmingham don’t know it; neither do jazz lovers elsewhere. The book covers more or less a full century, revealing how the music programs of the city’s segregated black schools became a training ground for legions of jazz sidemen, arrangers, and a few notable bandleaders. I explore how a unique tradition of jazz musicianship helped generations of local players craft identities and experiences that transcended the limitations of the Jim Crow South—and examine how Birmingham players contributed actively, if largely from the sidelines, to the national culture of jazz. At the heart of the book is the swing era of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but we see also how Birmingham helped beget bebop—and how one Magic Citizen, the iconoclastic, otherworldly Sun Ra, pushed jazz to its furthest limits, even as he drew from his own Birmingham roots.

My working table of contents follows. The chapter titles may be a little cryptic on their own; my notes in the margins add a little bit of detail, but a table of contents is inherently a sort of tease. All but two of these chapters exist in some form now, though some are  further along than others. The book title you see here—Magic City Bounce and Swing—is one I intend to discard once I finally find something better. I’ve been brainstorming for a few years now and for the life of me can’t come up with a title I like. I’ve searched song lyrics and quotes for the right phrase, and I keep coming up with nothing. I invite your title suggestions in the comments.

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While we’re on the subject, an aside:

I spend a lot of time making lists of things, and the lists I’ve always enjoyed making most seem to be tables of contents. When I was a kid I was always making little books and filling them with stories, and always kicking them off on page one with a handy table of contents. I recently came across a little blank book my mom brought me home from the drugstore once, which I filled with two tiny novels: “Who’s Who?” and “The Christmas Mess.” It’s signed and dated 1988, so I guess I was eleven. It’s a pretty ambitious work, and it starts, of course, with a table of contents. For “Who’s Who” the TOC reads:

  1. Wadsworth – 1
  2. Spies – 9
  3. The Switch – 17
  4. Problems – 23
  5. Vampire Bob – 41
  6. Trouble – 47
  7. The Plan – 53
  8. Goodbye, Spies – 59
  9. Pop’s Diary – 63

Who wouldn’t want to read on, after that promise of things to come?

By seventh grade I was filling up notebooks and floppy discs with more tables of contents for more books I wanted to write or was secretly writing. In seventh and eighth grade I discovered real, written comedy: somehow before the internet ever happened, I’d managed to get my hands on copies of Monty Python’s two original Flying Circus books, published in the ‘70s, and Steve Martin’s absurdist collection Cruel Shoes, as well as The Complete Prose of Woody Allen, a compendium of Without Feathers and Getting Even and Side Effects. (I remember the Woody Allen book was on the sale table at Walden Books at the Montgomery Mall for $7.99 in a massive hardback, and I got a beat-up little blue and tan copy of Cruel Shoes at Montgomery’s one used-book store (that’s where I got Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, too—see a previous post about that). I don’t know where I got the Monty Python books, maybe from a Signals catalogue or something similarly nerdy.)

Needless to say, my tables of contents reflected what I was writing, which reflected what I was reading: so in those days it was short, absurdist sketches and and silly comic essays. Every time I produced a few new pieces, I’d rearrange it all with a new table of contents.

In high school I discovered seriousness and poetry and I wrote many more tables of contents, outlining both my current writings and my future, unwritten—but carefully outlined—ambitions.

There were other tables, to be sure, in the years that followed. But jumping ahead to the table at hand:

Frank “Doc” Adams and I published our book Doc in 2012, and some months before it was done I wrote out my first table of contents for the book I’m writing now, the book outlined above. I’ve tweaked and rewritten this table of contents a million times. The contents and sequence have changed very little since I first charted it out: as the project has grown some chapters have split into half, or into three, but the overall flow sticks close to my initial conception. Sometimes I have to remind myself that rewriting the table of contents in my notebook, with minor adjustments, does not constitute writing, does not make a day’s work. Sadly, frankly, it’s on some days all I can do. Its’ tempting to let list-making stand in for true creative productivity; I remind myself often to resist the urge.

I might add this uncomfortable confession: that writing this book for so long I finally appreciate—I mean really appreciate—The Shining, a movie I’ve always loved but never before thought relatable. It’s not a happy revelation. I image Glory, horror-stricken, flipping through pages and pages of what I’ve written so far and discovering it’s all the same thing, over and over again. The same table of contents, the same chapters, the same sentences, revealing in their endless repetition my descent into madness. All work and no play… My own stomach sinks when I pick up my latest print-out: haven’t I typed out and held these words in my hands a thousand times already? I flip through my notebooks and find uncountable iterations of the same basic sequence and titles: IntroductionRootsAn Industrial Education 

I do make progress, though, little by little. And I stand proudly by my table—as the contents themselves slowly catch up to its promise.

(In the meantime, please: somebody send me a title.)

 

I’m On My Way: Singing for Freedom, Singing for Change

When I was a teenager my concept of music changed forever. I became convinced that music could change the world.

It was the middle of the nineties but somehow I’d fallen in love with the folk revival of the sixties, and I may have gotten dogmatic about my revelation: music should change the world, I’d come to feel, or there was no use in making it. The whole purpose of music was to enact change, to bring people together, to combat injustice, to do good, to set the world right.

I’m a lot less dogmatic in my thinking now—or, really, I’ve widened my understanding of the ways in which music can do active good. I tend to think music is good, period. But I’m still shaped by that teenage revelation, which upended whatever I’d previously thought music to be. I’d always loved music, to be clear—I spent all the hours I could just browsing the CD stores—but I’d never considered it more than entertainment.

Before I was sixteen, I’d never considered music’s power or potential.

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I was in tenth grade when one afternoon my dad gave me a cassette tape of music by Woody Guthrie. I’m not sure where or why he got the tape, but I was delighted at the gift—I knew that Woody Guthrie had been a hero to some of my own music heroes, to Bob Dylan and others. Guthrie’s own music took some getting used to, but soon I was driving all over Montgomery with these creaky old songs—about Pretty Boy Floyd and the buffalo skinners and the Cumberland Gap—all pouring from the tape deck. At a used book store the same year I found a copy of Bound for Glory, Guthrie’s autobiography, which was then out of print. I bought it and consumed it.

I’m a high school English teacher now, and I’m always impressed by my students who manage to read for fun. I read voraciously as a kid, but once I hit high school all those assigned readings—Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice—seemed to occupy all my book time. I couldn’t wait to graduate, just so I could choose what to read again. Bound for Glory is the one book I remember picking out for myself and reading end to end, little by little, night after night. I read it in increments: I remember, lots of nights, reading three pages and waking up later with my face between the pages. Woody Guthrie’s prose had as much music as his music. And then there were his illustrations: there was that one awful one, the one with the kittens and the bullies, which I could never get out of my head.

As easy as that, Woody Guthrie got into my system. I sought out more of his music. Guthrie sang old songs, but he made up new ones too, sometimes made them up out of the old ones, refitting the tunes to the times. The songs he’s best remembered for now are all those that spoke some sort of message. Even “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the outlaw song, became by its final verses an anthem for social and economic justice. Even “This Land Is Your Land”—if you sang all the verses—did, too. And lately I’ve had in my head “Deportees,” Guthrie’s song for migrant laborers, written in 1948; the relevance of that song’s lyrics today is, on some days, overwhelming.

*

Through Woody Guthrie I came to Pete Seeger. Still in high school, I’d started subscribing to Sing Out! magazine, and in the back of its pages they’d advertised Seeger’s own autobiography, newly published—Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies. I already knew Seeger’s music, and I sent for the book. I didn’t read this one from start to finish like Bound for Glory or any other ordinary book but skipped around all over it like Seeger wanted you to; I reread often my favorite parts and learned to play on guitar some of the songs interspersed, with lyrics and music, throughout the text. More than anything I think I studied the drawing on the cover, by Eric Von Schmidt: a sprawling, Sergeant Pepper­-style gathering of muses and ancestors. Pete himself stands in the front, tall and sinewy, dressed in a carpenter’s apron with a banjo slung over his shoulder; behind and around him stand all sorts of figures, musical, political, literary and otherwise. Mostly they’re musicians. There’s Woody and his son Arlo, Beethoven and Bach, John and Yoko, Shakespeare, Leadbelly; there’s Sacco and Vanzetti and José Martí, Rachel Carson, Paul Robeson, Cole Porter, even Charlotte and her web. I wondered how long it took to draw that picture. And I wanted to know who all those people were.

I’ve always known how important Bound for Glory was for me. Only very recently (in the last couple of months?) have I realized what a role Pete’s book played in shaping those teenage years, and everything that followed.

*

“Songs are funny things,” Pete Seeger said. “They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells. I always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history.”

That’s the idea that intrigued me. Both Seeger and Guthrie devoted much of their lives to that idea: that you could change the direction of history with song. But for me nothing spoke more directly, more concretely to this notion than the songs that came from the Civil Rights Movement.

I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, but years after the movement. The city was still segregated, but I didn’t understand how much. There was history on every corner, but I didn’t know how to see, hear, or feel it. My introduction to these songs, like all those other songs before, was through compact discs, cassette tapes, and the printed page. Back in the sixties the Folkways record label issued several albums documenting the sounds of the movement as the whole thing unfolded, disseminating and preserving the songs, chants, and speeches of a revolution still in progress. Most of these recordings came from Guy and Candi Carawan, a couple of white musicians and activists from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee; they’d lugged to the mass meetings and protests their tape recorders and microphones and captured whatever they could on the reels. In Birmingham Bull Connor arrested them on the steps of the New Pilgrim Baptist Church—black people and white people couldn’t sing together in Birmingham—but after two days in jail they snuck back to the church. They recorded speeches there by Abernathy and King, and songs by the local choir. One singer, Mamie Brown, sang a fiery and powerful anthem, “I’m On My Way to Freedom Land.” I heard that song and others on a compilation called Sing for Freedom and was electrified and moved. There were professional, topical singers in those civil rights days, too—people like Seeger and Dylan spinning protest ballads from the headlines—but these songs weren’t those. The Folkways records were reports for the frontlines. The singers were ordinary people engaged in extraordinary acts, buttressed by prayer and by song. The songs weren’t made to be played back on somebody’s turntable or CD player, the way I was doing them.

These songs were the sound of the world changing.

*

Here’s why I’m writing this essay, tonight.

Last Monday night I had an opportunity I will cherish forever. I met Birmingham’s original civil rights choir, the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the historic, local epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. This group formed in 1959 as the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, their mission to sing the songs that would fuel the mass meetings and marches of the rising movement.

The group’s director, Carlton Reese, died in 2002, and the choir renamed itself in his honor. They still perform today, singing the songs of the movement and sharing their stories. Several original members and local foot soldiers still sing with the choir.

I first head them in person a few years ago and have tried to hear them often since. To have them on my radio show was a dream come true. The show will air this Saturday, and I hope you can hear it.

There were lots of highlights that stand out for me from last Monday night. But what stands out the most was Mamie Brown Mason, telling her story and singing her signature song—“I’m On My Way to Freedom Land”—all these many years later. In about three weeks she’ll turn 87. She still belts out that song as fiery and as powerful as ever. And as far as I’m concerned, we need it as much as ever. We need all the songs, and all the singers, we can get.

Thanks in part to this choir, my teenage idealism’s still intact. The world has changed before—even here in Birmingham—and it can change again.

We’re all going to have to start singing.

*

Postscript:

From 1963, here’s Mamie Brown singing the song described above. It first appeared on the record Birmingham Mass Meeting, 1963.

She adapted the song from an old gospel tune she’d heard back in Oreville, Alabama, “I’m On My Way to Canaan Land.” On a visit to the Highlander School in 1959, she reworked it into a freedom song. And that version has gotten around. It’s been recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Odetta, and it’s helped give voice to other protests beyond Birmingham. Mavis Staples recorded it in 2007 for her album of civil rights anthems, We’ll Never Turn Back. By now the song’s considered “traditional,” like it sprang up out of nowhere. I’m a huge Mavis Staples fan. But her version has nothing on Mamie Brown Mason’s.

Please note, this broadcast of The Lost Child will air from 9 to 10 a.m. (Central) on Saturday, December 17, on Birmingham Mountain Radio: 107.3 FM in Birmingham, 97.5 in Tuscaloosa, and streamable anywhere at http://www.bhammountainradio.com. It will air again on Tuesday, December 21. Finally, you can hear it on Saturday, December 31 from 10 to 11 a.m. (still Central) on Radio Free Nashville: http://www.radiofreenashville.org.