Evolution of a cardboard box (Pt. 2)

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:

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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.

IMG_1903IMG_1900IMG_1899While 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 Independent Kids, 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:

FullSizeRender-1Of 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.

Peace.

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.

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.

Girl Scouts, Lost Heroes, & the Soul of Man

One Saturday last April my radio show was visited by a troupe of Girl Scouts; they were working on their music badges, and one of the moms (my friend Marnie) asked me to talk to them about radio and share a little music history. I decided to focus on some of the Alabama music that I play on the show, and as a kind of handout I made them a little zine they could take home: “The Girl Scouts’ Guide to Alabama Music Heroes, Volume 1.”

The girls and their moms and a few dads came, and we talked about Alabama music and zines and radio. I recorded them singing a couple of songs, one of which I played over the airwaves a week later. “Make new friends,” the girls sang, “but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.” After the show, the troupe went on to make new friends at Seasick Records for Record Store Day, in further pursuit of their music badges.

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Troupe 30672 visits The Lost Child radio show, 2017

Originally there only existed about a dozen copies of the zine, and each was the property of a Girl Scout. But last month, for the opening of an art / history / photo show I put together at Crestwood Coffee, I decided to make some more copies for the general public, giving the zine its worldwide, non-Scout debut. If you want one, you can pick up a copy at the coffeeshop or at The Jaybird in Birmingham, or you can email me for one (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). They’re $3 each (plus shipping), or just $1 for Girl Scouts.

The show on the coffeeshop walls, both its content and design, was actually inspired by the original Girl Scout zine. “What is the Soul of Man?: The Roots of Alabama Music” highlights many of the state’s music heroes and traditions, with historic photos and original text. Included are more than a few forgotten heroes a handful of legends, all of whom made substantial marks on their musical communities and culture. It’s a history that incorporates jazz pioneers, old-time fiddlers, blues women, country brother duets, civil rights foot soldiers, rural singers, rock-and-roll harbingers, and more. The show is only up for another couple of days, through Tuesday, March 6, so I invite you to come out to the coffeeshop before it closes and check it out.

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After I take this down I think I’ll continue expanding it for some other location. There are a few segments I meant to get to before it went up, but never did — Muscle Shoals soul, Sacred Harp singing, Gennett Records’ 1927 Birmingham sessions, and so on — so hopefully there’ll be more to come, somewhere down the line.

In the meantime, come check out the current installation while you can. Hopefully you’ll find some history there that’s news to you.

New Year’s Hankathon

Tomorrow, New Year’s Day 2018, marks the 65th anniversary of the death of Hank Williams; and to commemorate the date I’ve got four hours of Hank tributes from The Lost Child — the perfect soundtrack, I think, to your black-eyed peas and new year’s greens.

First, here’s the extended edition of this weekend’s show, the Hank Death Show. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and this 65th anniversary seemed like good timing: we listened back to Hank’s historic funeral and heard some of the (many!) Hank tribute songs released in the wake of his death, along with some original Hank records and radio broadcasts. The extended online version includes more of the funeral than I could squeeze into my usual broadcast hour, plus a further look into all those tribute records.

That show was a sort of epilogue to this show, Hank at 90, the three-hour tribute I aired on the 90th anniversary of Hank’s birth, back in 2013. “Hank at 90” pulled together into one place many years of Hank collecting and obsessing on my part, and it’s still one of the most popular episodes of The Lost Child. There are Hank classics and obscurities, reflections from Hank’s old bandmates, a look into the roots of Hank Williams (including the evolution of the “Lovesick Blues” and “Jambalaya”), and, best of all, a world of Hank covers — including gospel, conjunto, soul, zydeco, doo-wop, ’60s psychedelic Thai pop  covers, and more. Here’s the playlist, if you’d like to follow along:

  1. Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
  2. Dean Martin: Wedding Bells
  3. Johnny “Guitar” Watson: Cold, Cold Heart
  4. Conjunto Atardecer: Jambalaya
  5. Hank Williams: Settin’ the Woods on Fire
  6. Johnny Cash: I Heard that Lonesome Whistle
  7. The Maddox Brothers and Rose: Honky Tonkin
  8. Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams: Live on the Grand Ole Opry, 1950
  9. Hank Williams: Next Sunday Darlin’ is My Birthday (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, WSM, 1951)
  10. Piano Red: Hey Good Lookin’
  11. Billy Lee Riley: Kaw-Liga
  12. Papa Cairo: Grand Texas
  13. Chuck Guillory: Grand Texas
  14. Hank Williams: Jambalaya (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
  15. Louis Keppard: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
  16. Washboard Sam: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
  17. Hank Williams: My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It (demo)
  18. Esther Phillips: I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)
  19. Hank Williams radio interview with Mack Sanders, WFBI, Wichita, KS, 1951
  20. Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter: Ramblin’ Man
  21. Louis Armstrong: Your Cheatin’ Heart
  22. Isidro Lopez: Kaw-Liga
  23. The Five Crowns: You Win Again
  24. Kenneth “Jethro” Burns: You Win Again
  25. Bill Monroe: I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome
  26. Braxton Shooford (Braxton Schuffert): Rockin’ Chair Daddy
  27. Big Bill Lister: Countrified
  28. Big Bill Lister: There’s a Tear in My Beer
  29. Big Bill Lister: Story Behind “There’s a Tear in My Beer”
  30. Hank Williams, Sr. & Hank Williams, Jr.: There’s a Tear in My Beer
  31. Bob Log III: Settin’ the Woods on Fire
  32. Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter: A Picture from Life’s Other Side
  33. Elvis Presley: Men with Broken Hearts (Las Vegas, 1970)
  34. Dinah Washington: Cold, Cold Heart
  35. Hank Williams: You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave) (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1949)
  36. Audrey Williams: Tornado of Love
  37. Lloyd Clarke: Half as Much
  38. Lum York: Memories of Hank Williams (My Life and Times with Hank Williams, Sr.)
  39. Hank Williams: Mother’s Best radio show excerpt, featuring “I Saw the Light” (1951)
  40. Emmett Miller: The Lovesick Blues
  41. Rex Griffin: Lovesick Blues
  42. Hank Williams: Lovesick Blues
  43. Porter Wagoner: Porter and Marty (Men With Broken Hearts / I Heard That Lonesome Whistle)
  44. Link Wray: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  45. Silver Sand: Kaw-Liga
  46. Hank Williams: How To Write Folk and Western Music To Sell
  47. Zelenáči (Greenhorns) & Miroslav Hoffman: Posledni hrana (Long Gone Lonesome Blues)
  48. Hank Williams: Weary Blues from Waitin’ (demo)
  49. The Golden Crusaders: Hey Good Lookin’
  50. Hank Williams: On Top Of Old Smoky (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, 1951)
  51. Preston Fulp: Wedding Bells
  52. James Brown: Your Cheatin’ Heart
  53. Hank Williams: radio interview with Bob McKinnon, Alexander City, AL, 1950
  54. Jack Cardwell: The Death of Hank Williams
  55. Dr. Henry L. Lyon: Hank Williams eulogy (excerpt), Highland Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, 1953
  56. Johnnie and Jack: Hank Williams Will Live Forever
  57. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama: I Saw the Light
  58. Hank Williams: I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing

Hank Death Show copy

In Birmingham the night before New Year’s each year is Hank Night, bandleader Chad Fisher’s annual tribute to the music of Hank Williams (Hank spent the night of January 30, 1952 in Birmingham, on his way to the gig he never made). Each year it’s an incredible night. For the last three years I’ve had the honor of introducing the band onstage and saying a few words about Hank. This is more or less what I said last night:

Happy Hank Night.

65 YEARS AGO TONIGHT(!!)
Hiram Hank Williams
pulled into the city of Birmingham
in the middle of a snowstorm

in his eggshell blue Cadillac convertible
on his way to a New Year’s gig in Canton, Ohio

He checked into the Redmont Hotel downtown and got a room for the night.
It was his last night in any bed
And the last night whose morning he’d live to see.

In the morning Hank got back on the road
but somewhere in the dark hours
between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
he breathed out his last breath; and
somewhere around Oak, Hill, West Virginia
his driver pulled over to discover him dead.

In life Hank wrote a litany of hits:
     “Hey Good Lookin'”
     “Jambalya”
     “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
     “Cold Cold Heart”
     “I Saw the Light”
     “Kaw-liga”
     And too many others to name

When he died DJs all over the country saturated the airwaves with his songs
and put also onto their turntables a world of Hank tribute records
so many musical eulogies they constituted a kind of miniature genre unto themselves

Songs like:
     “The Life of Hank Williams”
     “The Death of Hank Williams”
     “In Memory of Hank Williams”
     “Ode to Hank Williams” 

     “A Tribute to Hank Williams, My Buddy”
     “Hank Williams, That Alabama Boy”
     “Singing Teacher in Heaven”
     “Guest Star in Heaven”
     “Heart’s Hall of Fame”
     “That Heaven Bound Train”
     “When Hank Williams Met Jimmie Rodgers”
     “Hank Williams Will Live Forever”
     “Hank Williams Isn’t Dead”
     “Hank, It Will Never Be the Same Without You”
     And more

One of Hank’s recent hits, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” was still on the charts
And that song, which a few months ago had just been a jokey, catchy novelty tune

Became suddenly endowed with a tragic, near-mystic significance

Hank’s record label rushed to release a posthumous anthology of all the records Hank
     had made as Luke the Drifter
     his moralizing, sermonizing alter-ego,
a collection meant to assure Hank’s fans that for all the hell-raising for which Hank was
known
Hank had believed above all in mama and God and sweet sacred things and home.

The DJs read out over the airwaves the home address of Hank’s mama, Lily Stone in
Montgomery
urging their listeners to send their condolences
So a flood of cards and letters

poured by the hundreds into her mailbox
and filled up as best as they could the empty spaces in her home

There were letters from housewives
and farmers
teenagers
and aspiring songwriters
from black listeners and white listeners

and GIs stationed in Korea and in Germany.

A letter from Eua Claire, Wisconsin, was addressed to “The Mother of Country Music”
and said, quote:
     “I’d love to come to your home and see Hank’s room
and feel his nearness everywhere.
     Do you think Hank would care?”

I grew up in Montgomery some years after all this
and Hank’s nearness could still be felt if you knew how to look for and feel it.
When the Hank Williams Museum got ready to open there in 1999
a headline appeared on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser
     my hometown paper
announcing the appearance of what seemed to be Hank’s ghost
in a piece of plywood
at the museum’s construction site.
A contract painter, the paper said, had discovered in the wood grain
–o
n December 31, of all possible dates, just days before the museum’s opening–
the image of a cowboy hat
and then of a guitar
and next to that the letters HW;
a few days later, a cowboy boot had “appeared” in the grain
and the museum’s owner told the paper:
“We don’t know what will appear next.”
Quote: “It’s strange”

But strange things happen in country music
and God knows strange things happen in Alabama

David Allen Coe in the ’80s and Allen Jackson in the ’90s both wrote new sorts of tribute
     songs, describing run-ins with Hank’s ghost in and around Montgomery
and Waylon Jennings’s tour bus always kept one empty bunk open for Hank’s ghost,
which Waylon said came around often for the ride and a talk.

Hank just can’t seem to leave us alone.
And we can’t leave him alone either.

Hank Williams seems to fill for millions of us some kind of essential need
and 65 years after he last pulled through this town

we still have limitless room for his Ghost.

For nine years Chad Fisher has brought to Birmingham one of the greatest nights this
     city knows,
assembled on this stage one of the most joyous and inspiring lineups of talent we might
hope to hear
and it’s a joy to be with you all here tonight
for Hank Night Nine.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors,
     Chad Fisher
     and the Hank Night Band.

One last thing or two for now, speaking of musical New Year’s traditions: here’s 20 minutes’ worth of “Auld Lang Syne” to help ring in the new — and a blog post from this time last year, with still more(!!) New Year’s listening from The Lost Child.

Happy new year, and long live Hank Williams. See you in 2018.

hank!

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.