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:

FullSizeRender

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.

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.

A Right Gude Willie Waught, & Musical Obits

On the radio for this New Year’s Eve morning I played a series of new year’s blues and jive and “Auld Land Syne,” and took a look back at some of the musicians we lost in the last year.  I’ve uploaded the show to the internet, so you can hear it here.

“This is a new year, people, the year 1936,” sings Mary Brown in “Happy New Year Blues”: “I tell all you people, I must get my business fixed.” During an instrumental break she instructs the musicians: “Play it for me ‘til I get young again!”

On January 1 of 1943 Woody Guthrie filled two pages of a notebook with 33 “New Year’s Rulin’s,” surrounded in the margins by his characteristic doodles. “STAY GLAD” is # 18 in his instructions for the new year. “DANCE BETTER” is 26. 33 is “WAKE UP AND FIGHT.”

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I used to put together for The Lost Child an annual show, usually two back-to-back shows, I called “Where Dead Voices Gather” (the title came from the Nick Tosches book): a year-end celebration of all the musicians who’d died in the last twelve months. I’d feature the same sorts of people you might usually hear on my show—bluegrass players, rockabilly guitarists, small town fiddlers, New Orleans parade musicians, radio personalities, soul singers, and more, especially those players whose deaths might have been overlooked in the media at large—and I’d end with a roll call of all the last year’s musical dead, from any genre, calling out as many as I could name. I’d solicit names from friends to include members of music communities around the country: names of record store and venue owners, church organists, music writers, folklorists, and others. The lengthy roll call was inspired by Birmingham’s beautiful Day of the Dead Festival, with a nod too to the Anglican Prayers of the People.

“Where Dead Voices Gather” was my favorite Lost Child tradition, but it was a lot of work. In 2015 the list of the dead was just so big, and my November and December were so hectic and stressed that I just scrapped the whole thing. I figured I’d scrap it this year, too, daunted again by the task. But as I put together this week’s playlist of new year’s tunes I thought it’d be nice to include some Ralph Stanley and some Merle (“If We Make It Through December” seemed fitting). And then I built around those two a long set of other musicians we lost in 2016—not so much the songwriters, singers and players who’ve been so widely eulogized this year already, but some of the contributors whose deaths drew fewer tributes: people like Joe Ligon, the incredible lead singer for the Mighty Clouds of Joy. He died earlier this month at the age of 80. (His memorial service is on Youtube and, not surprisingly, it’s full of powerful gospel.) And then there was Billy Faier, banjo playing iconoclast, traveling companion of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, contemporary of Kerouac and the beats. Today’s show included his wonderful banjo reworking of “You Won’t See Me,” the Beatles song.

Next year I’ll bring back the full obituaries show. In a single set like today’s, there’s just so much omitted. I left out, for example, Tommy “Weepin’ and Cryin’” Brown, an old Atlanta R&B stalwart who made his name with the vocals on this song:

 

Check out his “Southern Women,” too:

 

Rest in peace—and thanks—to Tommy Brown, and to all the others.

And to all the musicians who were born in 2016, whose music is yet to come: Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.

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One of my two favorite songs in the world is “Auld Lang Syne.” (My other favorite is the gospel song, “Glory, Glory.” One day I’ll write about both of these songs, maybe here or someplace else.) If you’re reading this post on New Year’s Eve, I hope you’ll sing the song tonight at midnight.

But here’s a link, too, to an online special I posted two years ago: 20 minutes’ worth of “Auld Lang Syne,” multiple iterations of it back to back to back. There’s a little overlap in this mix with this morning’s show, but there are some fine recordings here that aren’t there—like Aretha Franklin’s duet with Billy Preston from a 1987 TV special. There’s a nice instrumental version by James Allen Shelton, Ralph Stanley’s guitarist. And there’s one version that’s technically not “Auld Lang Syne” at all, it just shares the tune. “Plenary” is an old Sacred Harp song with lyrics by Isaac Watts—really dark ones, full of “certain gloom” and “walking … to the tomb.”

The lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” itself, of course, are attributed to the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. Here’s my favorite verse, the last verse, in the original Scottish dialect. When you sing this verse you’re supposed to join hands with your fellow singers in a circle, reaching to your left with your right hand and your right with your left hand, tying your friendship in a knot:

       And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!

       and gie’s a hand o’ thine!

       And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,

       for auld lang syne.

Your “fiere” is your friend; a “gude-willie waught”—those words are a joy to say, let alone sing—is a goodwill draft.

Yum.

Happy New Year’s, and cheers. Stay glad. Wake up and fight. See you in twenty seventeen.

*

P.S. Here’s Woody Guthrie’s complete rulin’s.

woody-guthrie-resolutions

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.