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.

Corridos para Trump y Clinton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Eats When They Come To My House: The Lost Child’s Thanksgiving Leftovers

As your holiday weekend winds its way down and you sift through your Thanksgiving leftovers, please make room for this final feast from my roots music radio show, The Lost Child: ninety minutes of food-themed songs to accompany your own holiday menu. The Lost Child’s Thanksgiving special is streamable anytime (and not just at Thanksgiving — you can save it as soundtrack for your next big day or night in the kitchen). Not a lot of turkey and dressing in the mix, but a lot of downhome soul food.

There are plenty of highlights here. The Bad Livers provide a funky banjo reworking of an old tune, “Crow Black Chicken,” an ode to chicken pie first recorded in 1928 by Mississippi’s Leake County Revelers and later revived by the New Lost City Ramblers (“Easiest work ever I done,” the lyrics confess, “was eating that chicken pie”). There are two numbers from the great, hilarious, ever-eccentric Andre Williams: first witness his desperate attempt to get his hands on some biscuits, and later revel in his extraordinary celebration of “Pig Snoots.” “‘Cued po’k sho is good po’k,” his Natural Bridge Bunch proclaims in that latter tune, and Williams announces his tireless dedication to that fact: “Aint got no sandals, put on my boots / Come all the way across town to get me some snoots.”

Then there’s the Carolina Sunshine Trio, from a broadcast over radio station WPAQ (Mount Airy, NC), offering this happy picture of romance: “Cornbread and butterbeans, and you across the table / Eatin’ beans and makin’ love as long as I am able.”

Joe Penny, an early alum of Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, likewise offers in “Southern Fried Loving” a mix of appetites both gustatory and romantic, providing his own recipe for love: “I like my lovin’,” he sings, “just like my chicken / Heat it up until it starts to fry / Then add the seas’ning and starting cooking / That’s how you make lovin’, Southern-fried.”

Bessie Smith delves into full-fledged double-entrendre with her “Kitchen Man”: “How that boy can open clams,” she proclaims of her multi-talented personal chef: “No one else can touch my ham…” Other cooks, though, are less monogamous: see, for example, Roy Dunn’s lament, “She Cooks Cornbread for her Husband (And Biscuits for her Back Door Man).”

Some singers and musicians are narrowly focused on their favorite menu items: see Louis Jordan’s “Cole Slaw” or fiddler Joe Thompson’s lively, delightful “Pumpkin Pie.” The Maddox Brothers and Rose are smitten with “Fried Potatoes”; Baby Little and the Heartbreakers eat nothing but “Neck Bones Every Day.” And speaking of neck bones — in “Cracklin’ Bread,” Ed Baron turns hard times and a thin wallet into a triumphant menu: “Gonna serve some beans and neck bones,” he sings, “so we can carry on!” Still other artists celebrate the whole range of southern foods: Rufus Thomas, the Soul Sisters, and “Stick” McGhee all run down their own litanies of downhome fare. And Cab Calloway offers the ultimate tune for the Thanksgiving table, “Everybody Eats When They Come To My House.” “Have a banana, Hannah; try the salami, Tommy” — Cab has got something for everyone, and it all comes too with the cook’s classic admonishment: “Work my hands to the bone in the kitchen alone — you’re gonna eat if it kills you.”

Anyway, tune in here, and enjoy. Happy leftovers to you and yours. Be sure to share your bounty.

 

Picturing the Lost Child: A Few Drawings & Posters

Since 2012, I’ve hosted a roots music radio show called The Lost Child. To promote my Woody Guthrie centennial show that year, I drew my first Lost Child poster; I’ve done several others since then. This has gotten me back into the habit of drawing, a habit I’d abandoned for more than a decade. Here are a few posters I’ve done for The Lost Child, including the most recent: the Leon show aired last Saturday and the Pete show airs this Saturday. Click any image to enlarge it. I’ll post more of these here in the future. And my next blog post — or, anyway, one of the next — is about how I stopped drawing pictures, and how I started again.

I’m grateful to friends who’ve encouraged me to draw more pictures and make more posters in these last few years. At their encouragement, I’ve made prints of some of these for sale on my Etsy store — and I hope to host my first art show in a few months.

Stay tuned.