It’s the darkest time of a very dark year. I write to you all from the safety of my house and the snugness of my little office, greeting each with the very best wishes of the season. I want to tell a discursive story about one of my favorite Christmas carols; one which includes Christian mysticism and apocrypha, self-mortification, the extraordinary difference between form and spirit, and the everlasting power of music. It begins at the end of the 13th Century.
This is a piece I wrote on Patreon some weeks ago that I’m sharing now. I hope you’ll consider becoming a patron.
Patron Scott Thill wrote me the other day. “Found a song you should write about,” he said. “A bit too perfect for our times.” You better believe I’m gonna write about it.
The song is “Democrat Man” from John Lee Hooker’s 1960 album That’s My Story. Have a listen.
It’s never a bad time to hear John Lee Hooker, for reasons eloquently expressed by The New York Times’ reviewer Robert Shelton in 1961: “Mr. Hooker’s voice is immediately arresting, a deep, dark-leather-timbred instrument that turns sullen, nostalgic, brooding or sensuous. He has a rhythmic sense that sets a firm, heart-beat pulse against which he embellishes a smoldering vocal line. He projects his voice in an urgent and intimate fashion that almost makes the listener feel Mr. …
On America’s Necromarket
I see that Kanye West gave his wife Kim Kardashian a hologram of her late father as a 40th birthday present. Kardashian described it as “a gift from heaven” and “so lifelike!” My feelings on the matter differ significantly: since the time Kim Kardashian was born, we’ve used technology to create a platform for dead celebrity content. It’s ghoulish.
In 1982, country legends Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves appeared together on a duet, which charted at #54 on the Country Singles chart. The accomplishment was all the more extraordinary because both singers had died in separate plane crashes some twenty years before. Using the isolated vocals from two different performances sung a semitone apart, producer Owen Bradley matched the pitch, then added new orchestration and backing tracks. …
The Greatest Blues Song of Them All
This is a sister essay to my piece on Skip James, which can be found here.
L.V. Thomas was born in Houston, Texas on August 7, 1891. “I started playing guitar when I was about 11 years old,” she told researcher Robert “Mack” McCormick. “There were blues even back then. It wasn’t so big a part of music as later but there were blues. I can’t hardly name them — I don’t know that those songs had a name. …
Menace as sexy energy.
Saxophonist Otto Hardwick described his band mate James Wesley “Bubber” Miley as “a happy-go-lucky, moon-faced, slim, brown boy with laughing eyes and a mouth full of gold teeth.” Born in Aiken, South Carolina in 1903, Miley moved with his family to New York when he was six. At 14, he could play a little trombone and cornet. By 1921, Miley was recording with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds.
Or, The First Time Most White Americans Heard African-American Music
In 1866, Fisk University was chartered in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first American college to make a liberal arts education available to “young men and women irrespective of color.”
“It was the period after the American Civil War, and there was such a large question about whether or not the former slaves, the African American, was educatable,” Dr. Reavis Mitchell, professor and chairman of the Fisk history department, said in an interview. …
The Music of Skip James
I’m taking the unusual step of publishing an essay originally written for Patreon, so y’all can see what I’m up to over there. If you’d like to read more of my writing about music and other musings, I hope you’ll consider becoming a patron.
The little town of Bentonia is in Yazoo County, Mississippi, near the bottom lands of the Big Black River. It lies not in the famed Mississippi delta, but above it in the Loess Plains. Henry “Son” Stuckey was born on a plantation near Bentonia in the mid-to-late 1890s. Although he never recorded, Stuckey is credited with starting the “Bentonia School” of music. …
A Musical Case for the Genius of Community
Think of your favorite music scene. Was it the punk wonderland of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s? Or maybe Seattle’s grunge of the 90s? It could be the jazz, blues, and swing that came out of Harlem in the 1930s. As soon as you have a scene in mind, you’ve probably already thought of two or three of your favorite musicians who emerged from it.
We tend to think of scenes as defined by the extraordinary artists they produced. I think it’s the other way around. “There are often places in the world,” composer and producer Brian Eno once said, “where it’s suddenly quite easy to do something quite brilliant.” I believe this is true — even self-evident — and answering the resulting question “Why?” will lead to a rethinking of the nature of individual talent and communal creativity. Are we just fortunate that highly creative people tend to bunch up in certain locales at certain points in history, or is there something else going on? …
Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood / Join the mob
Some art gets dated quickly, like sci-fi movies or disco hits. Other art exists closer to the unmoving hub of culture’s spinning wheel. It can seem prophetic to us, but only because what’s being communicated is never irrelevant; never subject to fad. A good example of the latter is Tom Wait’s “God’s Away On Business,” released 18 years ago but suddenly, bitingly descriptive of our unhappy present situation.
The song starts like an aggro Kurt Weil stomp, with oompah brass and trash can drums. Waits then delivers some uncanny lyrics in a raspy mutter that occasionally turns into a strangled Howlin’ Wolf overtone. …
“It is a good lesson — though it may often be a hard one — for a man…to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Lady A controversy. It’s one of those play-within-a-play moments in our culture, where the macrocosm is played out in microcosm. For those whose attention has been elsewhere, here’s a primer:
In 2006, Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood, and Hillary Scott — all white musicians — formed a band called Lady Antebellum. “When we set out together almost 14 years ago, we named our band after the Southern ‘antebellum’ style home where we took our first photos,” the band wrote in a recent statement. “As musicians, it reminded us of all the music born in the South that influenced us…southern rock, blues, R&B, gospel, and of course country.” On June 11, during the massive, nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the group decided to drop the “antebellum” part. …