Remembering Ralph (1928-2017)

Tomorrow on The Lost Child: You might not know Ralph Lewis, but you should. The seventh son of a seventh son, he was born into the Great Depression in the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina. By five or six he was getting his hands around a mandolin and soon was sitting in with brothers Ervin and Blanco, The Lewis Brothers, a popular regional act. When Blanco was killed in WWII, Ralph joined Ervin as half of the brother duet, developing a following around Niagara Falls, New York. By the late forties Ralph had landed in Detroit, where an audience, made largely of displaced Southerners, packed out local venues to hear his mixing of mountain music tradition with a creative, propulsive, high-energy bent: “I was playing rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t know it,” he later said, suggesting an affinity with modern sounds that would last his whole life. He moved back to North Carolina and played in a number of bands before joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1974, at a peak in Monroe’s career. After touring the U.S., Japan, and Europe with Bill Monroe, Ralph returned to Madison County, choosing to develop a band with his young sons, Marty and Don.

I first encountered Ralph, Marty, and Don when I moved to Asheville, NC, in the year 2000. Their band, The Sons of Ralph (Featuring Ralph) was an enormous local favorite, especially at Jack of the Wood, the downtown stage they made their headquarters. As he always had, Ralph mingled his family’s mountain music traditions with a wide-open, innovative embrace of influences, and with Marty and Don at his side Ralph was more than ever pushing the boundaries of bluegrass–really forgoing boundaries altogether–and mixing in an eclectic, electric range of sounds from rock and roll to reggae to Cajun music and beyond.

Ralph remained a fixture of the area’s musical culture and scene until his death last Saturday at the age of 89. I am grateful for the opportunities I got to see him and Marty and Don and their band, live on stage–grateful for the opportunities to participate in a community and family that extended beyond the stage to every person in the room.

I’m going to do my best tomorrow to play/pay tribute to Ralph on the radio. I’ll play a bunch of Sons of Ralph songs, and a recording or two of Ralph playing with Bill Monroe in Japan. I’ll play a few excerpts from an interview I recorded with Ralph in 2002. I will leave some things out, I’m sure, but it will be a heartfelt tribute anyway to a musician and a man I’ll always admire. You should tune in.

ralph

The Lost Child airs Saturday morning from 9 to 10, Central, on Birmingham Mountain Radio: 107.3 in Birmingham, Alabama; 97.5 in Tuscaloosa; and streaming online every & anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. It will air again on Tuesday evening, 8/15, from 11 to midnight (also Central), at the same places. And it’ll air a final time at Radio Free Nashville a week from tomorrow: on Saturday, 8/19, from 10-11 (Central again). You can hear it there around Nashville, Tennessee, at 103.7 & 107.1 FM, or you can stream it anywhere at www.radiofreenashville.org.

Thanks, Ralph. Rest in peace–or, better than rest: keep having a raucous good time up there. You’ll be missed down here.

Blues for Sunday Morning

I woke up this morning and made a sweet lazy Sunday playlist of (mostly) downhome blues. You can listen to it here, or just scroll to the bottom of this post.

Included is an epic story song, “Jaybird,” by Scott Dunbar, recorded in the summer of 1968 on the bank of Lake Mary, Mississippi, by folklorist Bill Ferris. Ferris describes “Jaybird” as “a cante-fable — a sung story — about a young man who courts his sweetheart. He brings corn whiskey to her parents to make them fall asleep, and then he courts their daughter through the night.”

Scott Dunbar says this of the song: “I made that one up. That’s the jaybird in the air. I made that one about how you cut out the momma and the poppa so you can talk to the daughter.”

This playlist draws, among other things, from some really wonderful collections of field recordings. I suggest you check any and all of them out:

+ The George Mitchell Collection, Volumes 1 – 45 

+ Art of Field Recording: Traditional Music Documented By Art Rosenbaum

+ Drop On Down In Florida: Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music, 1977-1980

+ The Blues: Music from the Documentary Film by Sam Charters

+ Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices from the Mississippi Blues, by William Ferris

+ In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley

+ Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia 

There’s also music here from Elizabeth Cotten, Pink Anderson, Algia Mae Hinton, Precious Byrant, Jesse Fuller, and others. Mississippi John Hurt sings this prayer, from his last recording sessions, in 1966:

Blues all on the ocean, blues all in the air
Can’t stay here no longer, I have no steamship fare
When my earthly trials are over, cast my body out in the sea
Save all the undertaker’s bills — let the mermaids flirt with me.

The lovely accompanying photo of John Hurt with Elizabeth Cotton was taken by Joe Alper at the Newport Folk Festival, 1964.

Hope you enjoy the mix. Happy Sunday, and peace.

 

Today’s playlist (illustrated)

Here’s an illustrated playlist for this morning’s episode of The Lost Child:

Version 2

Hobart Smith (1887-1965), pictured top left above, opened today’s show with these unaccompanied lyrics, his take on an old Big Bill Broonzy tune, “I Feel So Good”:

I got a letter, come to me by mail
Says my baby’s coming home, and I hope that she don’t fail
‘Cause I feel so good
Yes, I feel so good
I feel so good, I feel like ballin’ the jack

I love my women
Crazy ’bout my garden gin
When I get high, my baby,
I feel like floating round in the wind
‘Cause I feel so good
Yes, I feel so good
I feel so good, I feel like ballin’ the jack

Happy Saturday, everyone.

Mother Songs

It’s been longer than usual since I’ve posted something here, and this one will be brief: just a link to my Mother’s Day playlist, and a question for you.

First, the playlist: Last year on The Lost Child I broadcast this two-hour Mom Day special. You can stream it at the link anytime. It’s full of mother-themed blues, gospel, lullabies, classic country, southern soul, swing, ska, bluegrass, & more — plus some listener dedications, shouts-out, and remembrances.

On this year’s Mother’s Day show, which aired yesterday, I featured a different sort of mom songs, with music from these three albums: Songs My Mother Taught Me, a collection of historic recordings from civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, released in 2015 by Smithsonian Folkways; Songs My Mother Taught Me and More, Ralph Stanley’s 1998 tribute to his mom and the clawhammer banjo style she taught him; and Songs We Taught Your Mother, the great 1961 reunion of three 1920s blues women — Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, and Victoria Spivey — backed by some of that earlier era’s legendary instrumentalists. Not exactly mother songs, that last one, but close enough — I’ve always loved that album title.

Fannie L Hralphsongs we taught

At any rate, the Fannie Lou Hamer and Ralph Stanley albums got me thinking (here’s the question I promised above): what songs did your mother teach you, or sing to you? It strikes me as an important category of human experience, the songs passed down from mothers. Since yesterday I’ve started brainstorming a project based on this theme; if anything comes of it, I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I invite and strongly(!!) encourage you to post your own answers to the question in the comments. I’ll get us started:

My mom has a beautiful singing voice. When I was a kid I remember it was not uncommon after church that someone in the next pew would come up after the service and compliment her singing. My dad always brags on her voice, and on her piano playing. At Christmas at our house we always have gathered around the piano and sung carols, often with company. At our Christmas parties my parents make guests act out the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and (in costume, with props) “We Three Kings.” But our shared family favorite may be “In the Bleak Midwinter.” There’s also the “Cradle Song” version of “Away in a Manger,” another melody we love to sing. I have always believed Christmas carols are the most beautiful songs.

I have an especially fond memory also of bedtime when I was very small, when my mom would sing me to sleep. What I mostly remember was “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” My mom would sing them a cappella and end on these wonderful, pure, soaring high notes. I am grateful for those memories and for the care she took in singing by our beds.

What about you? Did (or does) your mom sing to (or with) you? Are there songs you learned from her or associate closely with her? What are your mom songs? Please let us know in the comments.

Postscript: On Mother’s Day we’re inundated with images and sentiments pertaining to the occasion. I know my radio show (and today’s post) in some small way contributes to the annual barrage. And I know I’m very fortunate, personally, in the mom department. But on Mother’s Day my heart goes out especially to those for whom the holiday isn’t easy –including some very good friends of mine. There are lots of reasons this weekend can be hard. So if you’re celebrating today, please don’t forget to support and uphold those friends who might not be sharing in the celebration.

Thanks, everyone. Peace.

 

A Right Gude Willie Waught, & Musical Obits

On the radio for this New Year’s Eve morning I played a series of new year’s blues and jive and “Auld Land Syne,” and took a look back at some of the musicians we lost in the last year.  I’ve uploaded the show to the internet, so you can hear it here.

“This is a new year, people, the year 1936,” sings Mary Brown in “Happy New Year Blues”: “I tell all you people, I must get my business fixed.” During an instrumental break she instructs the musicians: “Play it for me ‘til I get young again!”

On January 1 of 1943 Woody Guthrie filled two pages of a notebook with 33 “New Year’s Rulin’s,” surrounded in the margins by his characteristic doodles. “STAY GLAD” is # 18 in his instructions for the new year. “DANCE BETTER” is 26. 33 is “WAKE UP AND FIGHT.”

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I used to put together for The Lost Child an annual show, usually two back-to-back shows, I called “Where Dead Voices Gather” (the title came from the Nick Tosches book): a year-end celebration of all the musicians who’d died in the last twelve months. I’d feature the same sorts of people you might usually hear on my show—bluegrass players, rockabilly guitarists, small town fiddlers, New Orleans parade musicians, radio personalities, soul singers, and more, especially those players whose deaths might have been overlooked in the media at large—and I’d end with a roll call of all the last year’s musical dead, from any genre, calling out as many as I could name. I’d solicit names from friends to include members of music communities around the country: names of record store and venue owners, church organists, music writers, folklorists, and others. The lengthy roll call was inspired by Birmingham’s beautiful Day of the Dead Festival, with a nod too to the Anglican Prayers of the People.

“Where Dead Voices Gather” was my favorite Lost Child tradition, but it was a lot of work. In 2015 the list of the dead was just so big, and my November and December were so hectic and stressed that I just scrapped the whole thing. I figured I’d scrap it this year, too, daunted again by the task. But as I put together this week’s playlist of new year’s tunes I thought it’d be nice to include some Ralph Stanley and some Merle (“If We Make It Through December” seemed fitting). And then I built around those two a long set of other musicians we lost in 2016—not so much the songwriters, singers and players who’ve been so widely eulogized this year already, but some of the contributors whose deaths drew fewer tributes: people like Joe Ligon, the incredible lead singer for the Mighty Clouds of Joy. He died earlier this month at the age of 80. (His memorial service is on Youtube and, not surprisingly, it’s full of powerful gospel.) And then there was Billy Faier, banjo playing iconoclast, traveling companion of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, contemporary of Kerouac and the beats. Today’s show included his wonderful banjo reworking of “You Won’t See Me,” the Beatles song.

Next year I’ll bring back the full obituaries show. In a single set like today’s, there’s just so much omitted. I left out, for example, Tommy “Weepin’ and Cryin’” Brown, an old Atlanta R&B stalwart who made his name with the vocals on this song:

 

Check out his “Southern Women,” too:

 

Rest in peace—and thanks—to Tommy Brown, and to all the others.

And to all the musicians who were born in 2016, whose music is yet to come: Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.

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One of my two favorite songs in the world is “Auld Lang Syne.” (My other favorite is the gospel song, “Glory, Glory.” One day I’ll write about both of these songs, maybe here or someplace else.) If you’re reading this post on New Year’s Eve, I hope you’ll sing the song tonight at midnight.

But here’s a link, too, to an online special I posted two years ago: 20 minutes’ worth of “Auld Lang Syne,” multiple iterations of it back to back to back. There’s a little overlap in this mix with this morning’s show, but there are some fine recordings here that aren’t there—like Aretha Franklin’s duet with Billy Preston from a 1987 TV special. There’s a nice instrumental version by James Allen Shelton, Ralph Stanley’s guitarist. And there’s one version that’s technically not “Auld Lang Syne” at all, it just shares the tune. “Plenary” is an old Sacred Harp song with lyrics by Isaac Watts—really dark ones, full of “certain gloom” and “walking … to the tomb.”

The lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” itself, of course, are attributed to the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. Here’s my favorite verse, the last verse, in the original Scottish dialect. When you sing this verse you’re supposed to join hands with your fellow singers in a circle, reaching to your left with your right hand and your right with your left hand, tying your friendship in a knot:

       And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!

       and gie’s a hand o’ thine!

       And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,

       for auld lang syne.

Your “fiere” is your friend; a “gude-willie waught”—those words are a joy to say, let alone sing—is a goodwill draft.

Yum.

Happy New Year’s, and cheers. Stay glad. Wake up and fight. See you in twenty seventeen.

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P.S. Here’s Woody Guthrie’s complete rulin’s.

woody-guthrie-resolutions

 

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Corridos para Trump y Clinton

Technical glitches seem to be common on my radio show lately: the first twenty minutes of today’s live broadcast were lost somewhere in the stratosphere before the signal finally went out to listeners.

The show opened with a couple of Mexican corridos for, or about, the American President Elect, and I’m sorry these didn’t successfully air. I recorded the whole hour, though, so I’ve uploaded it and am posting it here. You can listen to it anytime.

Corridos have been part of Mexican and Mexican-American culture since the 1800s; they’re narrative ballads, usually rooted in topical events of the day, and for many years now they’ve transformed the latest events – the headlines, the tragedies, the heroes and the villains, the underdogs, lovers, politicians, criminals, and ordinary laborers – into the stuff of compelling, storytelling song. The corridos are significant especially in the border culture spanning both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

This year’s election was full of talk of that border. Not surprisingly there’s a wealth already of Donald Trump corridos — and we can be certain many(!) more will emerge in the days, months, and maybe years ahead. We heard just a few of the first ones today; we also heard a Trump tune from Cuba and Vicente Fernandez’s “El Corrido de Hillary Clinton,” released back in September by the celebrated King of Ranchera Music.

One of today’s songs — “Donald Trump … Yo Soy Mojado, No Soy Criminal,” by El Mustang de la Sierra — suggests in its title the overall tenor of these Trump songs, rebuking Trump’s depiction of immigrants (mojados) as criminals. Some corridos are impassioned and earnest; some are sardonic and comical. Here’s one we didn’t hear on the show today:

I hope someone’s keeping track of all these new corridos. They’ll make for a vital record of our time.

Also on today’s show, we heard songs for the late John Glenn (see my previous post for more about John Glenn songs). We heard a bunch of recordings, too, without much to do with anything in particular — but good songs anyway by Sam and Dave, Esther Philips, John Hartford, George Jones, and others.

I was bummed that this show didn’t air in full. I hope you’ll give it a listen.