Thursday
Sep202012

THE STORY BEHIND CAMILLA

The song Camilla is about Marion King, an African-American resident of Albany, Georgia, who visited her maid's daughter at the Camilla jail in July of 1962 during the Albany Movement. The young woman had marched in a civil rights demonstration; local authorities arrested her and, due to the overcrowding of area jails by civil rights demonstrators, sent her to an outlying jail. Mrs. King was six months pregnant, and she took her young children with her to visit. Marion King joined a group of visitors outside the jail and started singing with them. I first read about Marion King in Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters:

pp. 615-616
"Irritably, to cut down on the noise and bother, the deputies shooed the waiting visitors away from the fence. All skittered backward except for a woman with two small children, who backed up slowly and silently, seemingly unaware of the commition. Marion King did not move fast enough. Something about her prompted the sheriff and one uniformed deputy to walk briskly outside. "I mean you!" one shouted. King retreated steadily. She had seen Ella Mae in the jail window and did not want to set an example of cowering in fear. A split second later, the sheriff slapped her sharply across the face. Three-year-old Abena went sprawling from her arms to the pavement. One year-old DuBois shrieked. As the sheriff slapped her again, the deputy kicked her in the shins, knocking her feet from beneath her, and then kicked her several times more on the ground."

Marion King soon after miscarried. You can watch television footage of King interviewed in her hospital bed at this link:
http://crdl.usg.edu/export/html/ugabma/wsbn/crdl_ugabma_wsbn_44817.html?Welcome

Marion King is one of the thousands upon thousands of heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike many others, she did not die, though her unborn child did. At Marion King's funeral in 2007, Dr. Vincent Harding described her as a 'social midwife', one of the many women and men brave enough to birth a new era. I love that term, and wonder if songwriters, at their best, are such a vehicle. I wrote about Marion King, I suppose, because she was a mother, and because I could watch the television footage of her describing her beating. I also liked writing about another King besides MLK, Jr. There were many. Also, Marion King later went to law school and became and assistant Attorney for the city of Atlanta. That's sort of a happy ending.

When I was a freshman at Ole Miss (the nickname for The University of Mississippi), I lived on the top floor of the twin towers, in the girls' building. On that top floor lived the honors students and the minority students, or at least that's what I saw very clearly as I went to and fro from day to day. That year I also watched all the episodes of Eyes on the Prize at a Civil Rights and Journalism conference on campus. And that fall, for an American History class project, I compared newspaper headlines of the New York Times and Jackson MS Clarion Ledger's coverage of James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss. There was quite a difference in those headlines. The culmination of these three things made me thirsty, at age 18, for more knowledge about the heroes of my region. Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, given to me by my old girls' camp director, helped. So did David Halberstam's The Children, and many other books.

I would love to write more about the U.S. South Civil Rights movement. Another of the songs on my album Camilla is about Mae Frances Moultrie, one of the original 1961 Freedom Riders who stumbled off a firebombed bus outside of Anniston, Alabama, in a white dress. In this 50th anniversary era of the Civil Rights Movement, I wish more would watch Eyes on the Prize, and read Parting the Waters and The Children, and make a pilgrimage to the areas where heroes stood. That might be quite a trip, though, as heroes stood everywhere.

And they all deserve a song.


Friday
Aug312012

DEAR ENGLAND

I just returned from a week in England, and as always I am grateful, overwhelmed, and inspired by my experiences there. There is too much to learn in this world of other traditions, but I have gotten a special view into one aspect of English folk music through my associations with musicians and music promoters there.
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This is precisely how I felt after living in Texas. When I moved to Texas in 1999, I had barely heard the accordion played live. After a few months there, I knew the specifics about zydeco, cajun, czech polka and conjunto accordion styles. Certainly the accordion is a mainstay of English folk music, but for me it's now it's the mandola, the cittern, the bouzouki that I've discovered - in all of their varieties. Jim Moray showed me his brand new tenor bouzouki (or was it a mandola?) styled like Robert Johnson's guitar (picture below).
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Of course one also finds out more about one's own traditions when traveling abroad. I met and heard Jonathan Byrd from North Carolina, and was thrilled to talk with someone who has traveled a path so similar to mine. He is excellent. See us all playing with the Sweetback Sisters in the picture above. And then there are The Sweetback Sisters, who are on my record label, and who sing the prettiest country and gospel harmonies I've heard.
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Lastly, Maddy Prior. I didn't even know who she was when I was up on that stage in Shrewsbury a couple of days ago. I do now: Maddy Prior is a English folk queen, a member of Steeleye Span and in the Silly Sisters with June Tabor. I might have shrunk from the stage if I had known such information.
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Of course, I treasure above all playing with dear friends. There is something about this music business that makes me cling to fellow musician mothers, and I will always treasure playing with Kathryn Roberts on the main stage at Shrewsbury, though I think a 4000-seater tent may be beyond me. I do like the smaller venues best, and tremble a bit when looking out at all of those little faces in such a big place. I also loved playing with Patsy Reid, a Scottish fiddler and singer of the highest order. Perhaps I have never met such a kind person and consummate professional. I would love to travel her beautiful country and play with her days on end. I wish i had a picture of us playing together at Shrewsbury, as I would treasure it. As I've learned over the past two years, England and Scotland are worlds apart.
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Thanks for viewing my photo montage. Now I'm home, and the cd release season is upon me. Goodbye for now, dear England.

Tuesday
Aug212012

The story behind Black Mountain Lullaby

I saw a comment last night on Facebook - from Silas House.


"Eight years ago today, three year-old Jeremy Davidson was killed in his own bed in Appalachia, VA when a half-ton boulder--dislodged by a dozer cutting an illegal road at 2:30 in the morning on an MTR site--crashed through the exterior wall of the Davidson trailer, two interior walls, and came to rest on Jeremy's bed. He was an Appalachian child...". 

I thought it fitting to mention it here because it was Silas, in a way, who brought my attention to Jeremy Davidson in the first place. On February 19, 2011, Silas wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "My Polluted Kentucky Home." And this was the last paragraph:

"As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since."

Last March I participated in The Cecil Sharp Project, a life-changing collaboration between myself, one Canadian, and six folks from the UK in a Shropshire farmhouse. The English Folk Song and Dance Society & The Shrewsbury Folk Festival invited us to work for six days and then present a body of work based on Cecil Sharp, the famed English folk song and dance collector who spent the better part of three years in Appalachia collecting over 2,000 versions of English folks songs which transported themselves to the United States.

I did not go with any preconceived ideas, but I had just read Silas' essay when I went to the farmhouse. Quickly we all realized that ours was a herculean task, and immediately we racked our brains for any leads. I thought of the essay, and of the plight of Appalachia, and of mountaintop removal, and how Jeremy's story seemed to fit right in with the ballads that real people sang and sing about life's hardships. The English ballad tradition is brutal - they are afraid of nothing when it comes to subject matter - and I can see now why certain song traditions are so important to people. Songs help people survive. As a mother of young children, I wondered if songs had helped Jeremy's mother survive.

The Project group immediately embraced my song idea about Jeremy Davidson and mountaintop removal, and Kathryn Roberts even found a lullaby song fragment from one of Sharp's collection. The next day we had a song: Black Mountain Lullaby. I wrote the verses, but it happened because of the urgency of the project (and because Silas quickly answered his emails, guiding me to newspaper articles). It is a terribly sad song, but ends with a mother bracing herself against life's cruelty by celebrating the memory of her son.

The 'Sharpies', as we call ourselves, decided that we should sing this song on the BBC in London when we went in for the full interview. You can hear that interview on my music page under The Cecil Sharp Project BBC 3 Radio 'In Tune" interview. Two of the members of the group told me they thought this song was the most important thing we did all week. I humbly agree.

I wonder, do we exploit people, and situations, when we write about their tragedies? I've worried about that with Jeremy Davidson, and i think the folks who fight against mountaintop removal in Appalachia worry about it, too. I, we, wrote this song tenderly, and with respect for Jeremy's family and for his life. I think we honor him. And I think we honor the sanctity of life when we care enough about it to fight against injustice. I have never been prouder of a song than I am of this one.

***
See the video:
http://carolineherring.squarespace.com/black-mountain-lullaby/

Cecil Sharp Project:
http://www.cecilsharpproject.com/

BBC 3 In Tune Interview (under Cecil Sharp Project)
http://www.carolineherring.com/music-2/

The Cecil Sharp Project singing Meadows of Dan (view HERE)
(Sharp's first visit to Appalachia was to Meadows of Dan, Virginia in 1916)

Articles about the death of Jeremy Davidson, mountaintop removal and me:
http://www.roanoke.com/news/nrv/mountaintop/wb/71870
http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/caroline-herring-sings-a-black-mountain-lullaby
http://www.stilljournal.net/caroline-herring-interview.php

***

Published in THE COALFIELD PROGRESS, Norton, Virginia, April 29, 2011
by GLENN GANNAWAY /STAFF WRITER

A brief mention of a Wise County tragedy in a New York Times editorial resulted in the composition of a haunting song that stirs memories of a dark day in 2004 and connects it to the long tradition of Appalachian ballads. On Aug. 20, 2004, three-year-old Jeremy Kyle Davidson was asleep in his bed in the Inman community when a halfton boulder dislodged by a bulldozer widening a mine site road crashed through the side of his parents Dennis and Cindy Davidson’s home, killing the child.

Read the full article HERE

Lyrics:

Gather round my table

Say grace with me

In my little trailer

In the mountains of Wise County

Grief is mine forever

Sadness my story

Down in Inman Hollow

In the mountains of Wise County

Bye baby baby bye

little baby bye bye

Mountaintops are made of

1,000 pound boulders

that roll down the hills

and on to our shoulders

Lord, let me bear it

for safe keeping

Lord, let me shield it

From my dearest Jeremy

Bye baby baby bye

little baby bye bye

Mama will rock you

til you’re sleeping

Angels will hold you

in their keeping

Powerful men will

make their money

Your name will live here

in the mountains of Wise County

Bye baby baby bye

little baby bye bye

My little baby bye bye.

Friday
Aug172012

Caroline and Joe: a press release

It’s not unusual for a husband and wife to be in the same line of work. It is unusual, however, that singer-songwriter Caroline Herring and her husband Joe Crespino, a historian at Emory University, do the same kind of work from such different angles.

Caroline and Joe both are set to release new works—for Caroline, her album Camilla on Aug. 28; for Joe, his book Strom Thurmond’s America on Sept. 4—that bring to life the struggles of civil rights-era America and challenge listeners and readers alike to reconsider the legacies of that divisive period. As the nation approaches what is sure to be a heated, partisan election, these two artists remind us of the power of music and history to enlighten and enrich our understanding of our country and ourselves.

“It’s tricky writing about iconic events in 3 and a half minute songs,” Caroline observes. “I’ve tried to tell a few more intimate stories of those days that, though small, can capture turning points in the lives of individuals that, when you think about it, become the turning points in the lives of so many of us.”

album_cover1.png

One track on Camilla addresses a famous event—the Freedom Rides of 1961—by focusing on a chance encounter on an Alabama roadside. Another explores lesser-known showdowns from the civil rights era, such as the beating Marion King suffered in 1962 in the tiny Georgia town for which Herring named her album. And Herring connects such histories to today with her unforgettable account of one mother’s pilgrimage with her 4-year old daughter to Barack Obama’s inauguration.

strom1.png

Joe wrestles with similar issues by re-examining one of the most familiar and controversial figures from the era, longtime U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Best remembered as the segregationist who fathered a black daughter, Crespino shows the paradox at the heart of Thurmond's career: he was one of the last of the Jim Crow South’s demagogues, while at the same time one of the first of the Sunbelt conservatives who led the rightward march of the modern Republican Party. Crespino argues convincingly that whether you’re on the right or the left, Thurmond is a figure that has to be taken seriously to understand American politics today.

The Grammy Award-winning Mary Chapin Carpenter says that Caroline’s album Camilla presents “an artist who is unafraid and uncompromising in her work. As a witness, a historian, a truth teller, a gypsy, a mother, a sister, a lover, Herring takes the listener on a journey with her head and her heart, and there is no more enlightening experience one could have.”

Not to be outdone, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin calls Joe’s book “a thoroughly terrific and important work, for it makes clear the continuing impact of Thurmond’s legacy on our politics today.”

Both Mississippi natives now living in Atlanta, Caroline and Joe remind us that history is not reserved simply for the historians, nor is lyricism merely possible for the lyricists. In the works of this unusual couple, music and words, the past and the present, come together in lovely and surprising ways. Don’t miss them.

For more information about Joseph and Strom Thurmond's America, please visitwww.macmillan.com/StromThurmondsAmerica.Joseph Crespino is the author of In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution and the co-editor of The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from Stanford University and his writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico.

Caroline Herring has released five critically acclaimed albums and has been featured on national radio programs such as NPR’s Weekend Edition and A Prairie Home Companionwith Garrison Keillor. Herring was the only American member of the Cecil Sharp Project, a collection of musicians commissioned to compose songs based on the famous song catcher. Herring will embark on a North American tour to support Camilla beginning Sept. 7 in Atlanta. For more information, please visit www.carolineherring.com.

Monday
Jul162012

Making a Video

Thanks to Tom Fahey, an ATL fashion photographer/cupcake store owner/yard sale aficionado, we made a music video last week. I've never performed quite in this way before, though I've put out a couple of videos for previous albums (see the video page for those). Tom brought in his brother-in-law and film editor Corey, and off we went into the world of Chattahoochee Nature Preserve fireflies. The video is based on the song "Fireflies", one the radio singles we picked a few weeks ago.

I love the song, especially because Bryan Owings played chains on it, as well as drums. But my favorite part of the video process was playing seated next to a standing fireplace in the middle of the woods. My daughter also participated in the video, because the main line of the song is "Little girl in your nightgown/chasing after fireflies". She did an amazing job running around on tree stumps and roots.

We also did a band filming, which we couldn't film outside because of an Atlanta thunderstorm. Oh well. My friends had an amazing foyer that worked perfectly as a stage setting. Fats Kaplin drove over from Nashville with his wife Kristi Rose, and we filmed for a few hours with bassist Kris and drummer Darren. Thanks guys.

Perhaps I most enjoyed meeting Amber, the stylist, who has lived in Atlanta for just over a year, but she knows every fun restaurant and meeting place. She vamped me up quite nicely, and also told me about a place where you can get a carrot hot dog. That's impressive. Video release date? Around August 1st. Good luck, Tom and Corey!