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
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).
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.
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 (email@example.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.
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.
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:
Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
Dean Martin: Wedding Bells
Johnny “Guitar” Watson: Cold, Cold Heart
Conjunto Atardecer: Jambalaya
Hank Williams: Settin’ the Woods on Fire
Johnny Cash: I Heard that Lonesome Whistle
The Maddox Brothers and Rose: Honky Tonkin
Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams: Live on the Grand Ole Opry, 1950
Hank Williams: Next Sunday Darlin’ is My Birthday (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, WSM, 1951)
Piano Red: Hey Good Lookin’
Billy Lee Riley: Kaw-Liga
Papa Cairo: Grand Texas
Chuck Guillory: Grand Texas
Hank Williams: Jambalaya (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
Louis Keppard: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
Washboard Sam: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
Hank Williams: My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It (demo)
Esther Phillips: I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)
Hank Williams radio interview with Mack Sanders, WFBI, Wichita, KS, 1951
Hank Williams: On Top Of Old Smoky (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, 1951)
Preston Fulp: Wedding Bells
James Brown: Your Cheatin’ Heart
Hank Williams: radio interview with Bob McKinnon, Alexander City, AL, 1950
Jack Cardwell: The Death of Hank Williams
Dr. Henry L. Lyon: Hank Williams eulogy (excerpt), Highland Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, 1953
Johnnie and Jack: Hank Williams Will Live Forever
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama: I Saw the Light
Hank Williams: I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing
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
–on 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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