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.

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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.

 

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.

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

These songs were the sound of the world changing.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all going to have to start singing.

*

Postscript:

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

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

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