A blues potluck. Fiddlers. The Beatles. Many hours of music. Hank Williams’s birthday. A party at The Jaybird. Video. More.

There’s a lot of good music in this post.

I’ve uploaded, for you to stream anytime online, several new and old episodes of my radio show: check out last week’s blues potluck episode, with exclusive performances by Alabama blues artists; or this look at Alabama fiddle traditions, with guests Joyce and Jim Cauthen; or this wide-ranging tribute to The Beatles, with soul, funk, and classic country takes on the Beatles, plus covers from Cambodia, Ghana, and more — or celebrate Hank Williams’s birthday this week with a truly epic Hank-a-thon from 2013 or with our Hank Death Show from last December.

Also in this post: details about this Saturday’s Blues Potluck at The Jaybird, a fitting big finish to our beautiful Jaybird year.

1. First, the radio shows:

For the last two weeks on The Lost Child, we’ve dug pretty deep into the roots of Alabama music. Two weeks ago, Joyce and Jim Cauthen joined me to talk about their work, over the last 30+ years, documenting and preserving Alabama’s fiddle traditions and tunes. We listened back to some of their original field recordings, talked about some of their favorite old-timers, and enjoyed some of their own live music in the studio. We also investigated the history of “The Lost Child,” the tune that gives this radio show its name.

Last week, the show turned its attention to Alabama blues, with music from these great performers: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis, Jock Webb, Elnora Spencer, Rob Harris, and Sam Frazier, Jr. — each of whom you can hear at The Jaybird’s Blues Potluck this coming weekend (Saturday, 9/22/18). All the music in this hour was either recorded live at The Jaybird (thanks to Dennis Tyler for the recordings) or was originally performed and broadcast live on past editions of this radio show. It’s a special hour. On the Jaybird recordings, you can hear the energy, warmth, and good humor of that room; near the end of the show Elnora Spencer brings the house down. On the Lost Child segments,  you can hear these players discuss the meaning of the blues, as well as their own personal roots in the music: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis describes growing up in Eutaw, Alabama, and having to decide between the blues and the church, while Jock Webb and Sam Frazier describe the rich music communities of Rosedale and Edgewater, Alabama, where they first encountered the blues in backyard parties and neighborhood shot houses. Along the way, of course, there’s a lot of great music.

And more Alabama music(!): since this week marks the 95th anniversary of the birth of Hank Williams, I’m posting once again the three-hour tribute I put together for Hank’s 90th. Included in this show is a mighty mix of rarities and classics, reminiscence from old friends, covers from a wide range of artists and genres (soul, gospel, funk, country, conjunto, 1960s Thai pop, and more), a look into the Hank’s musical roots, live and rowdy recordings, historic radio broadcasts, and other musical offerings. And, on a darker note, here’s my Hank Death Show, featuring excerpts from Hank’s funeral, songs about his death, and more.

For a long time I’ve been meaning to do a Beatles tribute show, and a few weeks back I finally did. Check it out here.

These radio hours posted online represent just a fraction of the shows we broadcast over the airwaves. You can hear new episodes of The Lost Child every Saturday morning (9 to 10, Central) and Tuesday night (11 to midnight) on Birmingham Mountain Radio. Thanks for tuning in. Thanks for telling your friends.

2. Back, now, to that Blues Potluck: 

On September 22 of 2017, some friends (Lloyd Bricken, Lillis Taylor, Glory McLaughlin (my wife!)) and I kicked off a year of events at a new space we were calling The Jaybird. Our goal was to create a season of special events rooted in grassroots community, creativity, and the arts. We’ve had an extraordinary year of monthly concerts, bimonthly art shows, and much more along the way — poetry, zines, workshops, books, food, craft fairs, and other collaborations and gatherings. This weekend — on September 22 of 2018 — we’ll have one more Jaybird concert; it’ll be a doozy of a thing, and the perfect way to ring out our Jaybird year.

For Saturday’s Blues Potluck we’re inviting back to the Jaybird all the blues artists who have played our stage in in the last twelve months. The gates swing open at 5; music starts at 5:30; dinner will commence at 6. We’ll start with an acoustic set of music, outside. As the night gets darker and the music gets louder, we’ll move inside, from 7 ’til 10. We’ll probably hang out for a while.

I, for one, can’t wait.

To be clear: it’s a real potluck. If you’re in town and plan to come, bring a dish to get $5 off the $15 cover. (We’ll be eating all night, so even if you arrive after the dinner bell rings, I guarantee your food will still find a stomach.)

I’ll be writing more here soon about our Jaybird year, and about what you can expect from this space in the future. But I’ll end this post with some glimpses of the artists you can plan to see if you come out and join us this Saturday.

Thanks, y’all.

Here’s Sam Frazier, Jr., with his song “Inherit the Blues”:

Here are Clarence “Bluesman” Davis and Jock Webb at the 49 Navy Tavern in Pensacola:

… and at the Carver Theater, for an event with the Alabama Folklife Association:

Last year, Elnora Spencer flew down to Argentina for a series of shows. Here she is with the band Fede Telier:

… and here she is at The Jaybird in February: “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right.”

Every Wednesday night, Rob Harris leads the house band for the open mic at the Red Wolf Lounge. Here’s some video from the Red Wolf, with Rob and Jock Webb:

And one more time: You can hear all these artists on last week’s edition of The Lost Child radio show, streamable anytime right here online.

Our sponsor for this event is Dorsey Cox Design and the Stream.

Thanks to Yellowhammer Creative, for one more great poster:

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There’s a lot to take in in this post. We live in a beautiful world.

If you’re in driving distance of Birmingham, we hope to see you Saturday.

Book of Ancestors: William Levi Dawson

William Levi Dawson, the latest from my Book of Ancestors, a work in progress:

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I started the
Book of Ancestors  a few months ago. It’s divided into three sections — “Family,” “Music,” and “Movement” — and will feature tributes to a range of “ancestors,” both literal and figurative, all from my home state of Alabama. (The “Movement” subtitle refers not only to figures from the Civil Rights Movement, but to a range of social movers whose lives represent numerous sorts of momentum, progress, and positive change.) I plan to be working at this off and on for a good little while, and thought I may as well post occasional developments here.

I made this tribute to Dawson last night while listening to his Negro Folk Symphony and to performances of the Tuskegee University Choir, recorded under his direction. I’d never heard of Dawson until very recently. A few weeks ago I came across this description in the WPA’s Alabama guidebook, first published in the 1930s:

William Levi Dawson, director of the School of Music and the choir at Tuskegee Institute, is probably the State’s leading contemporary composer. Born in Anniston in 1899, Dawson has written in all forms and won the Rodman Wanamaker contest for composition in 1930 and 1931. Among his works are Negro Folk Symphony No. 1, first performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in 1934, “Out in the Fields,” and “Ain’-a That Good News,” a cappella choruses, and “Break, Break, Break,” a choral with orchestra. Maude Cuney-Hare, in Negro Musicians and Their Music, estimates that Dawson is the first among “present cultivated Negro composers of whom much may be expected in the way of producing what will be the future American music.”

Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was a huge deal when it was first performed. It was lauded by Alain Locke, one of the principal architects of the Harlem Renaissance, singled out as both a masterwork in itself and as a harbinger of great things to come. The original Philadelphia audience broke custom by erupting into applause more than once before the first performance was finished; when it was over the crowd called Dawson out for multiple bows. Performances followed at Carnegie Hall, whose crowds were similarly enthusiastic and unrestrained. Listeners across the country tuned in to hear the piece performed live over the radio waves. “One is eager to hear it again and yet again,” cheered a critic for the New York World-Tribune. A review in the New York American newspaper declared it “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has been so far achieved.” It was 1934, and Dawson was a black man from Alabama; his achievement was an historic one.

In the original program notes, Dawson wrote this:

“This Symphony is based entirely upon Negro folk-music. The themes are taken from what are popularly known as Negro spirituals, and the practiced ear will recognize the recurrence of characteristic themes throughout the composition… . In this composition the composer has employed three themes taken from typical melodies over which he has brooded since childhood, having learned them at his mother’s knee.”

Two years before the symphony’s debut, Dawson had explained his ambitions to a reporter for the Associated Press. “I’ve not tried,” he said, “to imitate Beethoven or Brahams, Franck or Ravel — but to be just myself, a Negro. To me, the finest compliment that could be paid my symphony when it has its premiere is that it unmistakably is not the work of a white man. I want the audience to say: ‘Only a Negro could have written that.”

Regrettably, in the years since its debut, Dawson’s landmark work has faded into obscurity. Dawson remained a respected public figure for years to come, but not for his orchestral compositions: under Dawson’s direction the Tuskegee University Choir gained international renown, touring and broadcasting widely and performing for the likes of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Dawson emerged as an influential choral arranger and composer, and many of his spiritual arrangements have became American staples. He revisited and revised his original symphony several times in the years after its debut, but his attentions no longer centered on orchestral composition. In recent years, a few scholars have wondered over the gradual neglect of Dawson’s symphony and have advocated for its place in the American canon (see, for example, Gwynne Kuhner Brown’s “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?” or John Andrew Johnson’s “William Dawson, ‘The New Negro,’ and His Folk Idiom”). While many of Dawson’s choral arrangements are still performed today — his most active lingering legacy — the name William Levi Dawson has been largely, and unjustly, forgotten.

So here he is, in my growing Book of Ancestors.

More to come.

Stay tuned.

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P. S. Want to see more things like this? Stay in the loop by following the blog: you can sign up on the top, righthand side of this page (or scroll to the bottom, if you’re viewing on a phone) to receive new posts in your email inbox. You can also follow @lostchildradio on Instagram and “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can also(!!) purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

Tom Joad’s Last Words

Saturday was the 106th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, and (to celebrate) on The Lost Child I played about an hour’s worth of Guthrie’s Library of Congress recordings, his epic 1940 series of sessions with folklorist Alan Lomax. At the end of the show I slipped in, also, a couple of excerpts from “Folk Songs of America,” a radio broadcast from later the same year, in which Guthrie appeared as guest, trading songs with Leadbelly.

One of the songs from that old radio program — and the performance that ended my own show, last Saturday — was “Tom Joad,” in which Guthrie distills The Grapes of Wrath‘s 700 pages into a seven-minute, 16-verse ballad. He borrows the melody from “John Hardy,” the outlaw song, and the tune frames Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl refugee — and, by association, a whole generation of real-life migrants — as another kind of outlaw-hero. (Similarly, Guthrie would rework the popular ballad “Jesse James” into “Jesus Christ,” reading the New Testament, too, as an outlaw tale.)

Near the end of Steinbeck’s novel, the protagonist Joad — inspired by the Christ-like Preacher Casy, and on the run for his life — gives a farewell speech to his “Ma.” His words go like this:

“Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one — an’ then—“

“Then what, Tom?”

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build–why, I’ll be there. See?”

Henry Fonda made the speech famous. Here’s how it goes in John Ford’s 1940 movie of the book:

And here’s how Woody Guthrie boils all that down into song:

“Ever’body might be just one big soul
Well it looks that a-way to me
Everywhere that you look, in the day or night
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be

Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain’t free
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be”

I suppose Woody Guthrie (who was something of an outlaw, himself) is in all those places too, now, today. He’s well worth looking for and listening to, and fighting alongside.

So happy birthday to him.

Here’s “Tom Joad”:

P. S. If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page (you’ll get about 2 posts a month in your email inbox); follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

Sunday listening: “The Legend of Buford Pusser”

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This Sunday’s listening, purchased a few days ago at Secondhand Sam’s in Jasper, Alabama: Eddie Bond Sings The Legend of Buford Pusser, 10 songs on the life & death of the McNairy County, Tennessee, sheriff known for waging war against organized crime, prostitution and moonshine in south Tennessee. This album’s notes describe Pusser as “an American folk hero” and “rugged symbol of honest law enforcement”; he carried a huge wooden stick as all-purpose weapon and was famous (his memory still celebrated by many admirers today) for his relentless, ruthless approach to the law. Pusser made lots of enemies and was subject to a few assassination attempts. His wife was killed in 1967 in an ambush meant for the lawman; Pusser survived the attack, his mangled jaw put back together with wire mesh.

Eddie Bond was a one-time rockabilly singer who’d also served as Buford Pusser’s deputy — and who, at the time of this recording, was “the singing police chief of Finger, Tennessee” (a job, by the way, that Pusser helped him land). Eddie Bond Sings The Legend of Buford Pusser was produced by “Cowboy” Jack Clement and released in 1973 on a subsidiary of the STAX record label(!!); its release helped inspire Walking Tall, a movie about Pusser, which led to two sequels and a short-lived TV series. (A 2004 remake starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the Pusser role but gave the sheriff a new name and backstory.)

I’ve got The Legend of Buford Pusser on the turntable right now, and it’s something — all hero worship and country twang. In “Buford Pusser Goes Bear Hunting With a Switch” (a mouthful of a song title) the sheriff gets full-scale tall-tale treatment:

On the day that he was borned he weighed 42 pounds
He jumped out of bed and he stomped on the ground
He said, Listen here, doc, don’t hit me no more
If you do, you’re going to pick yourself off of the floor

He’s Buford Pusser! He goes bear-hunting with a switch
Ain’t a moonshiner in the county that big Buford can’t get

And so on.

A few other songwriters have remembered Pusser less favorably. Jimmy Buffett had a drunken run-in with the sheriff, himself — Pusser allegedly pummeled him and pulled a tuft of hair out of his head, after Buffett walked across the hood of Pusser’s car in golf shoes — and he alludes to the incident in a couple of songs, “Semi-True Stories” and “Presents to Send You.” The Drive-By Truckers devote two angry songs of their own to Pusser on their 2004 album, The Dirty South, both looking at the man from the vantage point of those who faced his brutal brand of justice. In “The Boys from Alabama,” singer Patterson Hood promises to tell “the other side” of the Pusser story, and in “The Buford Stick” he sings:

Now Sheriff Buford Pusser’s gotten too big for his britches
With his book reviews and movie deals

Down at the car lot making public appearances
For breaking up our homes and stills
I know he likes to brag how he wrestled a bear
But I knew him from the funeral home
Ask him for a warrant, he’ll say “I keep it in my shoe”

That son of a bitch has got to go
That son of a bitch has got to go

Pusser had already laid down his badge by the time his legend really took off outside McNairy County. In 1970, term limits prevented him from running again as sheriff; when he did run in 1972, he was defeated, even as his national celebrity was on the rise. Eddie Bond’s album and the first Walking Tall both appeared in 1973, and for a little while Pusser rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous, and powerful. On August 21 of 1974, he made a deal to play himself in the next movie about him, this one to be titled just Buford; he was feeling good, and maybe a little drunk, as he drove to his home in Adamsville, Tennessee. His bright red, custom Corvette, paid for with Walking Tall money, hit an embankment at high speed, just four miles from home, and Buford Pusser was thrown from his vehicle. He was killed on the spot. Rumors of foul play abounded. The legend grew.

And what of Eddie Bond? Poor fellow! When he died in 2013, the first sentence of his New York Times obituary emphasized what may now be his greatest claim to fame: that he “once told a teenage Elvis Presley that he would be better off driving a truck than trying to make it in music.” Well over half of the Times obituary is concerned with this story, which Bond had spent years trying to explain away; the rest of Eddie Bond’s life — including an unsuccessful run for sheriff of Shelby County, Tennessee — is presented as afterthought, condensed to a few sentences.

The Elvis story, for what it’s worth, goes like this: the unknown singer auditioned for Eddie Bond’s band in May of 1954. Bond was three years older than Elvis and already established in the Memphis music scene. He told the kid to keep his day job — but two months later, Elvis cut his first sides at Sun Records, and his truck-driving days were history.

A few years later, en route to Hollywood for the making of Jailhouse Rock, Elvis confided to a friend that Bond’s advice “broke my heart.” But, he said: “I wonder what Eddie Bond thinks now.”

P. S. If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page (you’ll get about 2 posts a month in your email inbox); follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

HOT BOIL PNUTS (& other works in progress)

Three works in progress this week:

1. Fifteen or twenty years ago I started taking pictures of boiled peanut signs on the side of the road. Over the years I’ve developed a pretty sizable collection of these images, and for the rest of this summer (through sometime in early August, when a new school year starts), I’ll be posting one boiled peanut photo a day on Instagram. If you’re an Instagrammer, take a moment to follow @lostchildradio to stay abreast of the progress.

I’m seven days into the series so far. Here’s some of what’s up there already.

 

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2. This week I’ve been trying to reorganize one of the most important sections of my book on Birmingham jazz. A stack of index cards has proven useful. Below is my reshuffling of a chapter on John T. “Fess” Whatley, Birmingham’s extraordinary and influential “Maker of Musicians.” (The notecards might be cryptic to you, but know that they represent progress — at the bottom of today’s post, I’ll post a few paragraphs from this chapter.)

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3. Yesterday I was asked to give a talk in Tuscaloosa on the late Sumter County, Alabama, singer Vera Hall. Here is a recording of Vera Hall singing. And here’s Moby’s famous 1999 remix of one of her songs, “Trouble So Hard” (reimagined by Moby as “Natural Blues”). And here are a few illustrations from my talk…

First a drawing I made of Vera Hall:

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Not totally finished, but here’s a tribute to other Sumter County singers, part of my “Book of Ancestors” project, described in a recent post:

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And here’s Ruby Pickens Tartt, who introduced the singers above to many visiting folklorists and writers, including the father and son John and Alan Lomax. (Anticipating the abundance of T‘s in “Tartt” I got carried away with the letter R and added an unnecessary extra. Oh well; I will try her again another time.)

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Here’s, lastly, what Vera looks like on the big screen:

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Thanks for reading. Finally, if you’re curious to read some of the Fess Whatley chapter outlined above, here are a few quick paragraphs. My book explores the ways in which Birmingham’s black community, through much of the 20th century, fostered an overlooked but significant jazz tradition. The schoolteacher-bandleader John T. “Fess” Whatley was at the heart of this culture, sending scores of his pupils and band members out into the larger worlds of jazz. A previous chapter describes Fess Whatley’s own musical roots and his rise to prominence in Birmingham’s segregated school system; the chapter outlined above delves deeper into his story, exploring the unique nature of his influence and the creation of his larger-than-life persona. Here’s an excerpt:

Whatley’s corporal reprimands were legendary. Fess would count off a tune, recalled trumpeter Amos Gordon, “One, two, three, four”—and “if you didn’t come in, he’d crack you across the head with a stick.” J. L. Lowe, perhaps the most avid of all Whatley’s admirers, remembered the ritual of Fess’s rappings: “He hit me three times a day,” Lowe said. “One was to start me off, the second lick was if there was a mistake, and the third lick meant ‘that’s enough.’” Fess was known even to strike his students on stage, mid-concert, if they’d played a wrong note. In the town of Gadsden, about sixty miles east of Birmingham, trumpeter Tommy Stewart experienced Whatley’s disciplinary style when his mother arranged for a private lesson. “My mama knew that I needed to have some contact with him,” Stewart said, “because that was the man who had developed so many [musicians] already. When I first came in, he hit me on my knuckles—I hadn’t even played. He said, ‘I know, Mr. Stewart, I’m going to have to get you for something, so hold your hand out.’ Bap! He hit me on the knuckles and told me to start playing.”

Other Whatley stories were embedded in Stewart’s family history. Years ago, Stewart’s grandfather had started a community band and, the story goes, “they got Fess to come down here once a month to help develop the band. When Fess walked in, he said, ‘I want to hear some music. I don’t want any mistakes’—and pulled out his .45!” Whatley kept the gun visible on the table throughout the rehearsal. “He carried a .45 with him all the time,’ Stewart laughed. “Never shot nobody, but he always kept everybody intimidated.”

In Fess Whatley’s band, explained Sammy Lowe, “everything was done in a businesslike way.” For starters, everyone in the band had his jobs: “One guy would set up the music stands, another would put the music out—and by the way, each fellow had to keep his book in numerical order or risk a fine—other members would help the drummer set up, and so on down the line.” Most importantly: “According to Fess, there was no excuse … I repeat: no excuse but death … to be late.” For Whatley, time was everything. Gigs began—and, just as important, no matter how well the night was going, no matter how eager the audience, gigs ended—on the precise minute advertised: with a bit of “Home Sweet Home” Fess and the band signaled the end of each evening’s performance, ushering dancers out the door and back to their sweet homes. Tardiness was the greatest sin, a preoccupation remembered by all Fess Whatley’s players: for every sixty seconds a player arrived late, he’d incur a separate fine. “One night,” remembered Sammy Lowe, “we were to leave for a gig at 7:00 P.M. At exactly 7:00 PM Fess said, ‘Let’s ride.’ We started off just in time to see a band member rushing around the corner. Fess kept on driving, refusing to wait for him. That night Fess fined him for being fifteen seconds late.”

Years after Fess’s death, his old students and disciples still referred to what they called “Whatley Time”: that strict adherence to the clock the bandsman had ingrained in his musicians. “If I had an appointment with the devil himself,” he’d told them, “I’d get there fifteen minutes early—to find out what in hell he wanted!” Fess seemed even to move with the built-in timing of a human metronome. “Even the way he walked,” said J. L. Lowe: “it was with rhythm in his mind. One, two, three, four. It was always like that with him.” Like a lot of Whatley’s musicians, J. L.’s brother Sammy insisted late in life that the Whatley training instilled in him an unbending sense of punctuality: after a long and prolific career he could count on one hand the number of times he’d arrived anyplace late. For the Lowes and others, Whatley Time, reinforced by knuckle-raps and fines, became an instinct.

Okay; all for now. More later. Happy Saturday to you.

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.

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.