Since 2012, I’ve hosted The Lost Child radio show, a weekly hour of traditional, classic, historic, & downhome roots musics, spotlighting a wide range of sounds: old-time string-bands, rhythm & blues, field hollers, rockabilly, gospel, southern soul, & more.
In 2021, I’d like to invite you to support The Lost Child by becoming a Friend of the show. Every month for 12 months, you’ll receive something cool in the mail, including Lost Child art prints and original booklets / zines like the one below, featuring music history, writing, research, artifacts, & drawings. Here’s a glimpse of January’s gift to The Lost Child’s Friends: “Bright Glory: Voices of Sumter County, Alabama,” a tribute to the historic community of powerful singers from that region.
For more information, and to sign up, please visit The Lost Child’s new Patreon page. (You can also knock out some holiday shopping by giving a 12-month subscription to a friend or family member.) Please know that your contribution will directly support original, creative, fiercely local radio, helping cover the cost of bringing new(/old) music and research to the airwaves each week. I can’t thank you enough for your support, but I’ll try: it’ll be a good year of radio, and I’ll be working hard to make these monthly mailings something meaningful and unique.
By the way / while I’m here — I apologize that it’s been such a slow year on this blog, with very occasional posts. Most of my writing time this year has been devoted to wrapping up my book, and the website has gone largely neglected. But hopefully there will be some good / big / long-awaited news on the book front in a few months — so stay tuned.
(When I say “long-awaited,” by the way, I really mean by me: this spring will mark ten years since I started writing this thing.)
In the meantime, here’s another piece of good news, and another worthy cause to support: a beloved magazine, The Old-Time Herald, has just launched its shiny new digital platform online. My (long!) story on the music of Alabama Governor “Big” Jim Folsom — a story which began with short posts on this blog, then led me down all sorts of rabbit holes, and finally appeared in full in The Old-Time Herald‘s print edition, last winter — is available to subscribers on the new site. There are several subscription options, both for the print and online versions; you can access the full site for as little as $15 a year, which is a genuine steal. The Folsom story is my own favorite thing I’ve written in a while, and I’m grateful to the OTH for allowing writers like me the space to tell complex, unlikely stories like this one.
Today’s Halloween edition of The Lost Child is mostly made up of southern haunting and supernatural tales, with stories of ghosts, witches, zombies, and haints. A few spooky tunes for the season are scattered in also, along the way.
Even better, perhaps, than the ghostly specifics of the stories themselves, the true highlight of today’s episode may be its gathering of warm and wonderful accents. I hope you’ll give it a listen.
Here’s the playlist and source info:
Sandy Shelor: Giant cat ghost Recorded by Kip Lornell, Carroll County, Virginia, 1970s Digital Library of Appalachia
Cora Jackson: Ghost story, ten-foot woman Recorded by Kip Lornell, Fairfax County, Virginia, 1977 Digital Library of Appalachia
The Phantom Five: Graveyard Skull Records, 1964
Ed Harris: Haunted house Recorded by Kip Lornell, Chilhowie, Virginia, 1977. Digital Library of Appalachia
11 and 12 year old girls: Conversation about ghosts Meadville, Mississippi, c. 1972-3 Library of Congress
Bessie Jones: Ghost story about a haunted church Recorded by Alan Lomax, Greenwich Village, 1961 Bessie Jones lived in St. Simon Island, Georgia. Association for Cultural Equity
Aunt Jenny Wilson: Witch Story #1 Recorded by Fred Coon, Peach Creek, West Virginia, c. 1960s from Aunt Jenny Wilson: Recordings from the collection of Fred Coon, Field Recorders’ Collective, 2007.
Kip Tyler: She’s My Witch Ebb Records, 1958
Margarie Quinlin: Lamb of God story Recorded by Kip Lornell, Patrick Henry Community College, Martinsville, Virginia, 1985 Digital Library of Appalachia
Burl Hammons: Turkey in the Straw (story) Recorded by Carl Fleishchauer and Alan Jabbour, Stillwell, West Virginia, 1972. From The Hammons Family: The Traditions of a West Virginia Family and their Friends, Rounder Records, 1998.
Quincy Higgins: Hant tale and witch story Recorded by Patrick Mullen, Sparta, North Carolina, 1978 Library of Congress
Herbert Fulk: Witch stories Recorded by Patrick Mullen and Blanton Owen, Toast, North Carolina, 1978 Library of Congress
Lilia Huddie: Broom test for Liz Deavers Recorded by Roddy Moore, Wytheville, Virginia, 1970s Digital Library of Appalachia
Lou Rawls: Season of the Witch from The Way it Was — The Way it Is, Capitol Records, 1969
Texas Gladden: Ghost story of Civil War soldiers and a haunted house Recorded by Alan Lomax, Manhattan, New York, 1946. Texas Gladden was from Saltville, Virginia. Association for Cultural Equity
Eartha White: A ghost story Recorded by Robert Harrison Cook, Jacksonville, Florida, 1940 Library of Congress
Lightnin’ Hopkins: Black Ghost Blues from Soul Blues, Prestige Records, 1964
Zora Neale Hurston: Haitian zombies Mary Margaret McBride Show, 1943
Bessie Jones: Ghost story about a haunted wood Recorded by Alan Lomax, Greenwich Village, 1961. Bessie Jones lived on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Association for Cultural Equity
Lee Morse and her Blue Grass Boys: ‘Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones) Columbia Records, 1930
The Phantom Five: Graveyard Skull Records, 1964
Kathryn Tucker Windham: Don’t be afraid of ghosts Alabama Folk Sampler Stage, City Stages, Birmingham, Alabama, 1998. Kathryn Tucker Windham was from Selma, Alabama. Alabama Folklife Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Here’s something: quarantined Italians, from their windows and balconies, joining their voices in song:
There are several of these videos cropping up. Journalist David Allegranti captured the moment below, adding this caption(translated here to English): “In Sienna, the city to which I am very much attached, you stay at home but you sing together as if you were on the street.” The song here is “Canto della Verbena” (“And While Siena Sleeps”), whose lyrics proclaim “Long live our Siena, long live our Siena!”
Meanwhile / FYI … if you’re under quarantine, you can stream today’s episode of The Lost Child anytime & often, here. On this episode: an hour of vintage country radio broadcasts, featuring Crazy Water Crystals, speaking in tongues, a musical saw, kid stuff, and cigarettes. The old country radio shows typically included a shout-out for “all our shut-in friends” at home. Now we’re all shut-ins, so this one goes out to everyone. In the days to come, I’ll be updating The Lost Child’s Mixcloud archive with additional shows to help fill your shut-in hours, including some just-for-the-internet specials.
For what it’s worth, here’s Henry Miller, from the second page of Tropic of Cancer. A bit out of context, maybe, but I adore this opening, and those singing Italians brought it to mind.
“To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”
Y’all be safe out there (or in). Wash your hands. Don’t hoard all the toilet paper. Don’t be afraid to open your windows and sing.
P. S. If you liked that post, you might like this post.
Henry “Gip” Gipson started throwing backyard blues parties at his Bessemer, Alabama, home back in the 1950s. Half a century later, those parties were still going, and “Gip’s” became famous as one of the last surviving juke joints in the country. Acts came in every Saturday night, from all over the country and all over the world. Both Gip and Gip’s became local icons.
Gip kicked off each weekend’s show with a prayer and a few blues tunes of his own. For the rest of the night, he’d work his way through the crowd, shaking hands, or he’d sit on the side of the stage, soaking in the scene he’d made possible.
Gip passed away on October 8. To help celebrate his legacy, I broadcast on The Lost Child an hour of historic, never-released performances from the Gip’s stage, which you can now stream anytime, right here:
This hour includes performances by several great Alabama blues players and singers, recorded live at Gip’s in 2008 and 2009: Willie King, Elnora Spencer, Jock Webb, and, of course, Gip Gipson himself. Lenny Madden kicks off the proceedings with the house rules. Ray Gant made the recordings. Roger Stephenson made them available for radio play. Also included are a couple of tunes from Gip’s only album, Nothin’ But the Blues.
It’s an honor and a privilege to share these recordings with a larger audience. Not only do they offer vivid entry into the sound and spirit of Gip’s Place, a tribute to “Mr. Gip”‘s great legacy; they also provide testament, along the way, to another of Alabama’s most remarkable blues heroes, the late Willie King. He died in 2009, just a few months after these recordings were made.
At Gip’s funeral, friends and family described a man who’d changed their lives — through his music, his faith, his example, his unique approach to the world. Visitors to his juke joint described it as a kind of sacred space where everyone was welcome and everything was steeped in love. Jock Webb played a little blues harmonica, some “traveling music” to send Gip home, and there were two performances of “Amazing Grace” — by singer Tara Sabree and harmonica player Randy Guyton — Gip’s favorite song.
Pastor Alfonzo January described in his eulogy a scene from the movie The Color Purple, when the blues singer Shug Avery leads her crowd, dancing and singing, straight from the juke joint and into the church — where the two groups, long separated by custom, prejudice, and pride, are joyously united. “When the juke joint and the church get together,” Pastor January preached, “it’s going to be a time” — and Gip Gipson was a man whose life symbolized that union. The pastor, whose own church is around the corner from Gip’s, noted that there were a couple of church pews in the place, and he joked that he knew he was missing one or two. At Gip’s Place, they fit right in. At the end of his eulogy, the pastor implored Gip’s family to keep the juke joint going — which is what they intend to do.
Here’s something beautiful: Sudanese protesters outside the army headquarters in Khartoum, about a week ago. The sign reads, “Instead of a rifle, bring a violin.”
Meanwhile, I suspect you’ve seen some of the videos this week, of singing in the streets of Paris — onlookers joined together in song as they watched the flames engulf Notre Dame. Here’s one of those videos, if you missed it:
This is something that history teaches — that it’s hard to find any singing more powerful than the singing of ordinary people in the streets.
P. S. For Easter, here’s yesterday’s radio show: an hour of sanctified, sacred, and spiritual song — and the story of Gatemouth Moore, the blues crooner turned gospel evangelist who staged his own death and resurrection one Easter in Birmingham. Give it a listen.
Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers: Ain’t Nobody’s Business
Mississippi John Hurt: Nobody’s Dirty Business
Frank Stokes: ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do Part 2
Fats Waller and his Rhythm: ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do
Ray Charles: Sticks and Stones
A. W. Nix: Throwing Stones
The Staple Singers: Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw
Elder Charles Beck: Talk On Talkers
Bishop Manning and the Manning Family (Lead, Marie Manning): Talk About Me
Hank Williams: Mind Your Own Business
A. W. Nix: Mind Your Own Business
Elvis Presley: Clean Up Your Own Backyard
Jeannie C. Riley: Harper Valley PTA
Cal Smith: The Lord Knows I’m Drinking
Ike and Tina Turner: Ain’t Nobody’s Business
Jerry McCain: Somebody’s Been Talking
Mitty Collier: Let Them Talk
This is really a kind of reboot of a very early Lost Child show. The original, Episode 16, aired in the summer of 2012, three hundred and twenty-nine episodes ago, when Birmingham Mountain Radio was still a little, online-only operation; so I figured you probably missed the original, or at least have forgotten it, and I’ve updated the old playlist with some new songs. A few of my favorite recordings are in this mix. Some of the highlights:
1. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers’ 1927 recording of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” I was a sophomore in college, and I’d never heard anything like this — it seemed like it exploded what I thought a song could be. First there was the wild and screeching Georgia fiddle, then the wild and screeching Georgia vocals. And I’d never heard lyrics like these on a record from so long ago:
“Morphine’s a-gonna run be crazy, cocaine’s a-gonna kill my baby, the pretty girls are gonna cause me to lose my mind. It’s nobody’s business, nobody’s business, nobody’s business if I do.”
Then, a few verses later, this masterpiece of surreal imagery, all from the imaginations of a decade-and-decades-old, rural Georgia string band:
“She runs a weenie stand, way down in no-man’s land, nobody’s business if I do.”
That line alone has a lot to do, I think, with the person I am now, twenty years later. I heard those words and played them over and over and wondered what else might be out there.
2. The last hundred-ish years of American music have produced numerous variations on the “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” theme, though none quite as weird as Earl Johnson’s. Today’s radio show includes a few of the others, but doesn’t even get to Bessie Smith’s (1924) or Billie Holiday’s (1949). (Warning: Smith’s and Holiday’s are outstanding performances, but are marked by some uncomfortable, regrettable lyrics.)
3. Also on today’s show: Elvis Presley, “Clean Up Your Own Backyard.” This scene from 1969’s The Trouble With Girls is surely one of the greatest, coolest things to come out of an Elvis movie:
4. Finally, today’s show ends with a bang: my friend Patrick introduced me, just a few years ago, to this incredible performance from Birmingham native Mitty Collier. What she does with just two minutes and forty-two seconds is pretty extraordinary. Today, Mitty Collier is a pastor in Chicago.
Thanks for listening. See you next time. Be careful of the stones that you throw.
P. S. I’m working on a book and could use your help on the pitch. Check out this synopsis and let me know what you think.
P.S., also. Yesterday was International Women’s Day. Here are a few of my favorite woman-centric episodes of The Lost Child, which you can revisit this weekend: Mighty Soul Women, Parts One and Two, and the country sequel, Badass Country Women. And a few tributes from this blog to some extraordinary women in history: Montgomery’s librarian-activist Juliette Hampton Morgan, and Birmingham educator-singer Ethel Harper (Parts One and Two).
For next Saturday’s radio show, I created an exclusive illustrated playlist, in the form of a full-color, 16-page, pocket-sized zine. I decided not to announce the song titles and artists on air as I play them next week, but instead to make available this little guide you can use to follow along at home.
The best part: all this can be yours(!!) for a donation of $5 or more to The Lost Child.
Just shoot five bucks, via PayPal, to email@example.com. Or, if you like, email me at that address for other payment options. I’ll get it in the mail to you ASAP. Your $5 covers the cost of printing and shipping and handling; any dollars over those first five will be considered a generous donation to this radio show and will help support further endeavors like this.
If you use PayPal, be sure to include your name and address in the notes.
The illustrated show began as a playlist of unaccompanied ballad singing and other sorts of a cappella song; but I started breaking it up with a few soft instrumental ditties and other odds and ends to mix up the flow of things. One highlight: a Galician immigrant to the U. S. — a badchen, or wedding entertainer, recorded in the 1950s by folklorist Ruth Rubin — performs a series of wedding tunes on the fiddle, songs he’d brought with him from the old country. And a Polish immigrant to the states, also recorded by Rubin, sings a beautiful, wordless Chassidic tune. Another favorite moment in the mix: a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York, recorded by Tony Schwartz in the ’50s, translates into English the lyrics of a jukebox lament — a record about the Puerto Rican experience in New York, no less — while the song plays in the background. There’s also preaching by Brother Claude Ely, hokum by Peg Leg Bates, and a lonesome field holler by Livingston, Alabama’s Annie Grace Horn Downson. Plus ballads, spirituals, and lullabies from North Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, and more. And for just five dollars American, it’s all illustrated and annotated for your own eyes and ears.
(To hear the show, tune in Saturday, November 17, to Birmingham Mountain Radio, from 9 to 10 a.m. (Central). It will rebroadcast Tuesday, November 20, from eleven to midnight. You can listen in Birmingham at 107.3 FM or stream it online anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. After that, I’ll post it on The Lost Child’s Mixcloud site, where you can stream it anytime.)
Before I sign off for today, here’s a little tribute I just made to the Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, for my ongoing “Book of Ancestors.”
The Delmores had a great signature tune called “The Brown’s Ferry Blues,” which included such lyrics as this — “Hard luck poppa, counting his toes, you can smell his feet wherever he goes” — and which also offered this sad testimony: “Early to bed and early to rise, and your girl goes out with other guys … If you don’t believe me try it yourself; I tried it, and I got left.” The Delmores were born to a family of tenant farmers in Elkmont, Alabama, and they grew up to pioneer first a trendsetting style of soft country vocal harmonies and then a rollicking brand of amplified “hillbilly boogie” guitar. They spent their youths down the road from Brown’s Ferry, Alabama, and as members of the Grand Ole Opry they formed the Brown’s Ferry Four with country superstars Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones. Today the spot their music memorialized is home to the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Point.
Someone should write a song about that.
Thanks for following along with this blog. See you next time.
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.
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:
Back in April, I started drawing on a big, empty cardboard box, and I promised to share the results here as they unfolded, posting occasional updates until I could share the fully finished outcome. (Here’s the original post, where you can see where I started and read my reasons for posting the progress.) There haven’t been any updates since then, because for about two months I didn’t touch the box again. So it goes.
For better and/or worse, this is the way I do tend to operate: it’s usually the way I draw pictures, and the way I write. I get two-thirds or three-quarters the way through something and then get stuck and put it aside — sometimes for a few years at a time. If I’m lucky, I’ll eventually come back to whatever it is and finish it. There’s something worthwhile, of course, in letting things gestate or simmer, but on the whole I wish I had the discipline to push things through to their end more quickly. Ah, well. I guess we all do the best we can, however we can.
One reason progress is slow is that I always take up and get distracted by other projects in the meantime — so, to show how this one box has evolved, here’s, first, a bit of what’s been evolving alongside and taking me away from my original box. For a couple of upcoming radio shows I decided to make a couple of unusually large radio advertisements, also on cardboard, which will appear around town over the next couple of weeks. Next week on the radio I’ll be spotlighting Leadbelly’s last sessions, from 1948; a week after that, I’ll be playing Woody Guthrie’s Library of Congress recordings, from 1940. So, while listening to all those recordings, trying to narrow down the playlists, I made these:
Meanwhile, I’ve begun a larger project I’m calling my “Book of Ancestors”: a series of tributes to various change-makers, icons, and half-forgotten heroes from my home state of Alabama, all made up out of historic photos, handwritten text, and stately thrift-store frames. There will be more than a hundred of these when I’m done; so far I’ve got a good dozen or so. There’s an entire sub-section-in-progress featuring the women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For example, Irene West:
Poor Glory! She lives in a house full of cardboard boxes, half-covered in Sharpie drawings, stacked against the walls alongside piles of clunky brown thrift-store frames. Her patience and encouragement are remarkable. I am lucky.
But back to the real point of this post: last weekend I did at last make some progress on my box, X-acto knifing it into its separate segments and adding some color and words — and a little birdie (there are so many little birds in Roscoe Holcomb songs!) and some star stickers like you used to get in second or third grade. I think Peetie Wheatstraw is probably as done as he’ll get; there’s a little text left to add to Roscoe Holcomb, but I went ahead and put him aside for now. Los Pinguinos del Norte are still where I left them last, with half a Pinguino and 3.5 Pinguinos to go. So, wish me luck and stay tuned.
While working on all these pieces of cardboard, I came upon a great little article in the Sunday New York Times: “Thinking About the Box,” a tribute to the endless potentials of the cardboard box. The author, Alexandra Lange (whose book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes IndependentKids,came out earlier this month) begins by citing several recent high-profile appropriations of the good old cardboard box — by the likes of Google, Wal-Mart, and Nintendo. Lange explains cardboard’s enduring appeal like this: “These 21st-century storytellers turned to cardboard,” she writes, “for the same reasons that children have long preferred the box to the toy that came in it: cardboard is light and strong, easy to put up, quick to come down and, perhaps most important, inexpensive enough for experimenting. Cardboard constructions can be crushed, painted, recycled and stuck back together. Cardboard furniture can be adjusted as children grow, and cardboard creations become more sophisticated as children gain skills: It is as malleable as the body and mind.” To all that I say only amen. Lange goes on to explain how the cardboard box became a fixture in the imagination of the American child, “an avatar of inspiration, no charging required.” It’s a short read well worth your while:
Of course, as an art supply cardboard also has these obvious benefits: there’s plenty of it to be found, for free, and you can mess around with and draw on it without creating more waste in the world. In short, you have nothing to lose. My friend Lillis Taylor, one of my favorite artists (please check out her March Quilts project and her non-profit sew-op, Bib & Tucker), likes to quote these lines from Howard Finster, and his words seem relevant here — and relevant, really, to anyone interested in making new things out of old things:
“I took the pieces you threw away
And put them together by night and day Washed by rain and dried by sun A million pieces all in one.”
And that, too, reminds me of this: how just this week an unexpected email from a stranger brought me happily back to an old friend, Ernest Mostella, who used to carve these extraordinary homemade fiddles out of chunks of longleaf pine. He was in his nineties when I met him some twenty years ago, and he whittled the pieces down with a chainsaw, pieced it all together with carpenter’s glue (sometimes he made his own glue out of sawdust and egg yolks), and strung it up with thick, ropey twine. I’m reminded I need to pick up a project I started, all those years ago, to document his fiddles and his voice and his story, and I look forward to digging back into it all very soon. As usual (see above), I got distracted, but this too will get done.
Finally, also, while I’m at it, this: I’m so happy to have stumbled at last upon #drawgandhi, a practice in progress by Birmingham’s own Glenny Brock. You should check it out on Instagram, and see Glenny’s talk, “What I Learned By Drawing Gandhi.”
That’s all for now, friends. Everybody, go make something.
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.
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.
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.
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