Lady Muleskinner Press: Writings of Burgin Mathews
Lady Muleskinner was an independent, living-room press and the publisher of Singing Governors, Fiddling Senators, and Other Country-Music Politicians, as well as of other eventual short works. (Note: See “Cheap Buys” for subsequent publications.)
Ladymuleskinnerpress.com was the internet home of writings by Burgin Mathews.
Selected content is from the site's archived pages providing just a small sample of what Burgin Mathews offered his readership.
Interested in Burgin Mathews? He is the host of THE LOST CHILD which brings one hour of jam-packed hour of down home American music: honky-tonk country, blues, gospel, old-time fiddle & banjo, Western swing, jazz, soul, Cajun gold, rock & roll, boogie-woogie, zydeco, bluegrass, high lonesome hokum and more. Available only at Birmingham Mountain Radio: listen online locally at 107.3, or stream it--wherever you are--at www.bhammountainradio.com. Each Saturday's show is rebroadcast Tuesday nights, 11 to midnight.
Burgin Mathews is a writer and teacher in Birmingham, Alabama.
Lady Muleskinner is an independent, living-room press and the publisher of Singing Governors, Fiddling Senators, and Other Country-Music Politicians, as well as of other eventual short works. (Note: See “Cheap Buys” for subsequent publications.)
Ladymuleskinnerpress.com is the internet home of writings by Burgin Mathews.
(About the name)
The name of the press and website comes from Dolly Parton’s “Muleskinner Blues.”
There is no song more representative of country music’s tangled history—few songs, perhaps, more representative of the entire tangle of American music history—than “Muleskinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8).” It is the Leonard Zelig of country songs, cropping up over and over in different guises at various milestones of the music, beginning with the original 1930 recording by its composer, the esteemed “Father of Country Music,” “Blue Yodeler” and “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers. A few years later it became a staple in the repertoire of the Monroe Brothers (Bill and Charlie) and, as brother Bill and his Bluegrass Boys begat a new sound of their own, “Muleskinner Blues” would be invented all over as one of the hallmarks of the new genre bluegrass.The Boys’ “Muleskinner Blues” announced the arrival of a whole new thing: listen to the 1939 version from The Music of Bill Monroe boxed set and to the 1973 version from Monroe’s Bean Blossom album for the ultimate expressions of the bluegrass drive. If the first performance unleashes a new kind of energy and sound from an old standard (“The number’s a hot one,” the Grand Ole Opry announcer predicts)—the first sounds of what would before long become a distinct musical genre—the later Bean Blossom recording represents Monroe reveling in the full-fledged force of the bluegrass thing.
(Fiddler Jim Shumate, one of the earliest Bluegrass Boys, quoted in the notes to the Monroe box: “‘Muleskinner Blues’ was hot as a pistol when I was with Bill Monroe.I’d say, ‘Bill you’re going to have to lay the mule on ‘em.’ He could always lift them with ‘Muleskinner.’”)
When, then, Dolly Parton picked up the thread in 1970 she was herself consciously partaking in history-making. The song already was rich with connotation (it had also, in the 50s and 60s, been reworked as an early rocker, each in turn by Lonnie Donegan, Joe D. Gibson, and the Fendermen). To re-imagine, again, “Muleskinner Blues,” was to build on Rodgers and Monroe and the others and to re-imagine, again, the very rules of country music.Dolly had debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in 1959, at thirteen; in 1960 she cut “Puppy Love,” her first single, for the Goldband record label and in 1967 she had her real breakthrough with “Dumb Blonde.”Porter Wagoner hired her onto his TV show and they recorded a string of successful duets, but she was unable really to sell herself as a solo act until “Muleskinner Blues.”Play the song and, even now, it announces, wildly, its own whole new thing, the opening hook and Dolly’s first whistle and whipcrack onward.
It is a great song, and it sings of revolution. Just as Aretha Franklin, a few years previous, had altered forever the meaning of Otis Redding’s “Respect” by recording, and crucially re-gendering, it (“All I’m asking is for a little respect when you get home,” as danceable as it was sung by Otis, was suddenly not only more danceable than before but also, sung by Aretha, loaded with social and political meaning that transcended the tradition of the “cover” song)—so does Dolly’s Blue Yodel transform the meaning of the old song and transform, at that, the very possibilities of the man’s-world of country music. As with Aretha’s “Respect,” this was more than mere cover-ing. When, in the second verse, Dolly adjusts the familiar lyrics to announce “I’m a lady muleskinner, from down old Tennessee-way, hey hey,” it is clear that there is no going back.
As significant a moment as this may be, and as significant as the song’s overall career may be, I should admit that there may be no overarching message in the selection of that line as the name of this new press. Or the overarching message, if it exists, could be incidental or even a happy accident, I’m not sure. I do know that since I first heard Dolly Parton’s “Muleskinner Blues” some years ago that phrase has captivated my imagination. I have imagined it on homemade t-shirts (black puffy letters ironed onto a dark blue or deep yellow) and have thought it a good idea for a band name; I can imagine also a drag queen adopting the title. When I needed a name for my press, at any rate, this was the first phrase to come into my head and it would not leave.
Lady Muleskinner Press’ first offering, after all, plumbs the history of country music, offering a guide to fiddlers, crooners, guitar- and banjo-pickers who have doubled as politicians; other writings on this website also tend to lean heavily on themes of downhome music. Or the theme, more broadly, of Southern culture—see the essay on W.C. Rice, or the links to Speak Magazine and Railroad Bill, the Alabama outlaw. But ultimately the website will grow more general than that, too, encompassing whatever my writing or my living-room press decides to take on. An upcoming essay will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of The Muppet Movie, and there is a small book of poetry afoot and, later, more. Other interests will very gradually follow. For all of that, though, I expect that this will remain primarily a downhome operation, heavy especially on the music. And though I can not claim the operation itself revolutionary maybe some of that spirit will rub off, too, and maybe some of the high-geared hell-for-leather energy that is part of the “Muleskinner Blues” legacy, lady-muleskinner and otherwise.
Finally, and while I am at it: if you have not ever done so, or not done so lately, tonight you should listen back-to-back to every version of “Muleskinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8)” you can obtain, downloaded or however; certainly to the versions listed above.But there are also these good ones, and more, too: Woody Guthrie’s; the Maddox Brothers & Rose’s; Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s, from the opening scene of the movie The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, recorded originally for The Johnny Cash Show; Odetta’s; the Cramps’. Kilby Snow has a great instrumental take on the autoharp. Listen to them, ideally, in chronological order. Harder to find (available as far as I know only on LP) is the Parton-influenced take by Otis Williams (African American r&b-turned-country singer) and the Midnight Cowboys. And there are other, if less crucial, manifestations. The Meat Purveyors did it as “Lady Muleskinner,” and a number of bluegraass acts have recorded it in pretty straight covers of either the Monroe or the Parton molds. Also related, vaguely (compare it to the Fendermen record for the clearest connection), is this 1970s Levi’s commercial.
Laughing Levis Commercial
Enough about the name and enough about what this all is. Thanks for visiting Lady Muleskinner Press. Check back when you can for updates and additions.
– November, 2008
NOTE: Jocelyn Neal exhaustively and insightfully explores the rich and winding career of “Muleskinner Blues” in her book, The Songs of Jimmy Rodgers (Chapter Two: “Why Everybody Wanted to Be a Muleskinner.”) My own thinking about the song was doubtlessly influenced by conversations in Neal’s graduate course on country music at the University of North Carolina, circa 2004. The book, a recommended read, examines the lasting impact a handful of Rodgers’ songs have made on our culture — and the interesting impacts, also, our shifting culture has made on those songs.
POSTS FROM 2012 -
The Magic Sun: An Interview with Filmmaker Phill Niblock
FRIDAY, MAY 25, 2012, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and Birmingham Mountain Radio’s The Lost Child will present A SUN RA CELEBRATION: an evening of music, film, reminiscence, and poetry in honor of jazz legend and spaceways traveler, Herman “Sonny” Blount, aka Sun Ra. (For more on Sun Ra and on this event.) The evening—which will also feature live music, poetry performance, and a short talk by “Doc” Adams, one of Sun Ra’s earliest bandmates—will conclude with a screening of Phill Niblock’s short (sixteen-minute) film, The Magic Sun. Filmed between 1966 to 1968, The Magic Sun captures three performances by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra: “Celestial Fantasy,” “Shadow World,” and “Strange Strings.” Rather than simply film the musicians at work, Niblock creates a sort of visual equivalent to the band’s abstract, other-worldly expressions. His film is a unique and hypnotizing experience in sound and image, full of extreme close-ups, shifting black-and-white imagery, abstract movement, and its own kind of visual rhythm.
Niblock is himself a prolific and influential experimental composer based in New York City. In the interview below, he describes the process of creating this early film, placing it in the context of his evolving career.
How did the Sun Ra project come about?
A mutual friend [Martin Bough] who is a photographer and also a jazz musician, and we worked together extensively a year or so before, shooting sessions for United Artists—photographing. He knew Sun Ra, and Sonny was talking to him about a film; so he asked me if I would be interested, because I had since then began to shoot film. So, in ’66 I had this idea of something I could shoot in twenty minutes and that would be the film; that would be enough. Two years later, I was still struggling to find the right stuff—but I did. We shot many times, and there was an extensive amount of research: in working with film stocks, print stocks, and lab tests.
Tell me more about that research—you mean, in terms of the technical production of the film?
Well, I decided to do the high-contrast stuff, and the idea is that you don’t see anything in the black; you should not see the frame, either, of the film. So part of it was picking stocks, and I eventually evolved to shooting on a high-contrast, black-and-white stock normally made and used just to shoot titles. It’s a very slow speed, so that required a lot of light to get a good exposure. I solved that partly because I was shooting directly into a light bulb: so in the second two-thirds of the film, the light you see in the frame, the sort of sun shape, is actually a 60-watt light bulb—or more, I’m not sure how big the wattage was—and I’m just silhouetting fingers and stuff like that, against the light. The first part of the film actually was shot with the reversal stock. It appears to be negative, because it’s printed on a negative stock.
And up to then your work had primarily been as a still photographer? Where were you, professionally, at that point?
Well, I was doing jazz musicians myself as an amateur photographer in ’60, ’61, to ’64. Then there was a couple of years, for a year and a half, where I was photographing for United Artists, doing sessions, and Martin and I did that together. But I began to make films in ’65, and I was also printing a lot of stuff—I had a one-man show in the only photography gallery in New York at that time, in ’66, and after that I just stopped doing darkroom work; I stopped printing, and concentrated much more on making films. So ’66 was a very early time for film for me—I learned a lot in the next three years, while I was finishing the Sun Ra film.
What can you tell me about the experience of working with Sun Ra himself?
He was very nice to work with. The whole band was nice to work with. We shot the second two-thirds in the apartment they had, where they lived very communally on 2nd Ave. and 2nd St.—that’s what I remember the address was. The first part was shot on the roof of the same building, on a bright, sunny day: just went out on the roof one day in the summertime and shot the material. I don’t even know where I shot the other stuff—because it’s all in cans somewhere and I haven’t looked at it since ‘65 or ‘66, ‘67.
He was playing a lot at Slug’s, which was a club on the Lower Side on Third Street, Avenue C—which was a very hip place, but it was a very rough area because it was a very heavily drug-infested area in those days. And I would take a 16-mm projector down and project the film on the bandstand, as I was making different versions of the film; so it showed on a wall behind, but it also showed on the musicians themselves. I must have done it, like, a dozen times. And then in ‘69 Sun Ra had a concert at Carnegie Hall, and we showed the film on the back of the stage, something like thirty-five feet wide, with a xenon arc projector. By then it was finished, so the film is what you now see.
About the time you finished the Sun Ra project, you were transitioning, yourself, from film to music, which has been the focus of most of your career. Can you describe how you came into music, as a composer and performer?
I began to film with a filmmaker and choreographer, Elaine Summers, who eventually founded Experimental Intermedia, which is the organization I’m now director of, since ’85. She was very connected to the Judson Dance Theater, which was the real seat of post-Cunningham dance in New York—so an incredible amount of experimentation. I began to film dancers and do stuff for choreographers, myself, making intermedia performance with multiple image projections and sound and sections of live dance. I had some collaborations under my belt, and I didn’t like collaborating; I knew what I wanted for music, and I didn’t want to go about trying to get it from somewhere else and not be satisfied—so I just started making music. And the ideas that I had for making music are exactly what I have worked with since—they haven’t really changed.
How would you define those ideas?
Well, I’ve been working with tones that are very close together in pitch but produce other resultant tones; and especially working with instrumental sounds, not with electronic sounds, so that the rich timbre of the instrument itself creates an incredible range of overtone patterns, as the tones that are pushed together in pitch meet against each other.
Phew. How’s that?
Note: Since the birth of Experimental Intermedia in 1968, Niblock has hosted over a thousand performances in his legendary SoHo loft space. At seventy-nine, Niblock remains today a true creative force—as a composer, performer, curator, and kind of avant-garde guru.
This interview was conducted by phone in the spring of 2012. The advertisement for “A Sun Ra Celebration,” included on this page, features a black-and-white still from Niblock’s film. Photo of the Carver Theatre by Burgin Mathews.
“He Was What He Was”: Alabama Jazz Legend “Doc” Adams on the Life and Music of Sun Ra
— Sun Ra, The Birmingham News, 1988
FRIDAY, MAY 25, 2012, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and Birmingham Mountain Radio’s The Lost Child present A SUN RA CELEBRATION: an evening of music, film, reminiscence, and poetry in honor of jazz legend and spaceways traveler, Herman “Sonny” (Sun Ra) Blount.
Sun Ra was one of jazz music’s most creative, prolific, and outrageous personalities, a composer, bandleader, poet, and philosopher whose home, he said, was outer space and whose mission was to communicate cosmic truths—via his band, the Intergalactic Arkestra—to the lost citizens of this poor planet. Through the medium of music Sun Ra sought to expand the narrow consciousness of mankind, tuning us in to the interplanetary vibrations and opening us up to a greater harmony with ourselves, with each other, and with the larger universe.
Sun Ra was devoted entirely to his task, consuming himself, his whole life, with his music and outer-space philosophy. If, with his colorful gowns and ceaseless talk, he was an eccentric, his eccentricity was no put-on or cheap gimmick. As a musician his tastes were diverse, his ear acute, and his talents wide-ranging; he bended musical genres, taking in and riffing on the broad sweep of the jazz tradition, while pushing his musicians and his listeners into strange—and sometimes liberating—new places. His critiques and observations of the human race, if often couched in bizarre and convoluted discussions of space and mythology, contained moments of eye-opening and original insight. And he believed, wholeheartedly, in his mission.
Sun Ra returns to Birmingham for a legendary concert at the Nick, 1989 / photo courtesy Craig Legg
The upcoming Sun Ra Celebration will pay tribute to Sun Ra and his Birmingham roots in a variety of ways. First, Birmingham jazz legend Frank “Doc” Adams, who, in the 1940s, played in Sun Ra’s original band, will perform his own tribute to Sun Ra and discuss his experiences with his early bandleader. Birmingham spoken-word poet Voice Porter will present selections of Sun Ra’s original poetry. Prizes will be given out throughout the night, courtesy of The Lost Child and Sun Ra Research, a California-based operation which, for going on three decades, has been devotedly documenting the Sun Ra story. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame’s museum and bar will be open to visitors throughout the evening. Finally, Phill Niblock’s classic short film, 1968’s The Magic Sun, will be shown on the big screen of the Hall of Fame’s historic theatre. A program booklet will offer additional context on Sun Ra’s life and music.Editor's note: In an effort to find a complete catalog of Sun Ra's works, we hired a data science developer to gather as much data from as many sources as possible. He then put us in touch with a consultant for DevOps who helped us create a special app to sort through the huge amount of literature on this artist. We had over 50 gigs of records, notes and articles, so a data savvy developer was really helpful. It's hard to believe that a single artist inspired so much content, but we're glad he did and our understanding of his life and work has benefitted greatly from this work.
What follows, here, are two excerpts from a recent interview with Frank “Doc” Adams, in which he discusses the constellation of musicians that formed around Sun Ra in 1940s Birmingham. Adams, who played in Sun Ra’s band as a teenager, was also a member, at that time, of John T. “Fess” Whatley’s Vibraphone Cathedral Orchestra, Birmingham’s preeminent “society” dance band. In the years to follow Adams would play alongside Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, and many others. Today, he is the Director of Education, Emeritus, for the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. He is a lifelong educator, whose decades-long work with music in the Birmingham schools has left a tremendous impact on his community. His new book with Burgin Mathews, titled Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, is due out in October of 2012 from the University of Alabama Press and tells the story of Adams’ remarkable life in music. (Chapter Five, “Outer Space,” focuses specifically on Sun Ra and his Birmingham years.)
Frank "Doc" Adams, 2011 / photo by Garrison Lee
The following interview excerpts were recorded in Adams’ office at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. (Note: an interview with filmmaker, composer, and multimedia artist Phill Niblock, discussing the making of The Magic Sun, will appear soon on this website. The two advertisements featured on this page for A Sun Ra Celebration include black and white stills from Niblock’s film.)
Interview excerpt no. 1: “He was what he was.” Doc Adams on Sun Ra’s bandmates, part 1 (10:24)
Interview excerpt no. 2: “He was able to get out of people things that we weren’t able to get out of ourselves.” Doc Adams on Sun Ra, part 2 (7:11)
(Note: Big Joe Alexander, mentioned in the first interview clip, later played in the big bands of Woody Herman and Tadd Dameron. Also: in the second clip, Adams mentions local composer Dan Michael, who wrote some complex arrangements for Sonny Blount’s early band; he does not mention in this clip the fact that Michael was also a gifted one-armed pianist.)
For more info on A Sun Ra Celebration, join the Facebook invite page.
Do That Birmingham Stomp: Twenty Birmingham Songs
The city of Birmingham, Alabama, has inspired many musical tributes over the years, from the pens and instruments of natives and non-natives alike. For a few of these Birmingham songs, the place name may be more or less inconsequential, offering a convenient rhyme and rhythm and a generic southern locale; most Birmingham songs, though, are invested with a deeper sense of place and homegrown experience. While some extol wholeheartedly the draw and pleasure of the Birmingham life, others confront both the pain and the power of the city’s legacy. Taken together, these songs capture a broad sweep of our city’s story and sound.
The following essay appeared originally in the inaugural issue of Pavo, the late online magazine of arts and culture in Birmingham. Expanded to “Thirty Birmingham Songs,” a revised, enlarged and updated version was released in November 2011 as a pocket-sized guidebook from Lady Muleskinner Press. (See CHEAP BUYS for more info.)
The songs below are not arranged according to any strategy of ranking, and are not listed chronologically, but instead simply offer the ultimate Magic City playlist.
1. “Birmingham Boys,” Birmingham Jubilee Singers (1926). In the 1920s and ‘30s the Birmingham area boasted an African-American gospel quartet tradition whose impact stretched far: for years to come the harmony styles shaped in Jefferson County would prove a lasting well of influence for African-American vocal groups, both sacred and secular, across the country. Several local groups—The Famous Blue Jays, the Dunham Jubilee Singers, the Bessemer Sunset Four, the Kings of Harmony, and more—recorded commercially, and many toured the country professionally, spreading the gospel of the Birmingham Sound. By the 1940s traveling Birmingham groups had established bases in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, Cleveland, Dallas, and other cities, building wide followings and effectively changing the landscape of American gospel. One of the most successful of these outfits was the Birmingham Jubilee Singers, led by Charles Bridges, a quartet-trainer who had helped mold a number of groups in the local tradition. “Birmingham Boys,” the flipside of their first record, was the Singers’ calling card. A secular song in a mostly secular repertoire, “Birmingham Boys” is nonetheless typical of the area’s harmony-rich, a cappella quartet style, and it fittingly introduces new listeners to the home of the Jubilee movement. “Birmingham, Birmingham, Birmingham boys are we,” the lyrics proudly announce: “if you could live a Birmingham life, how happy you would be.”
2. “Fat Sam from Birmingham,” Louis Jordan (1947). One of many songs to make much of the easy rhyme of “Birmingham” with “Alabam,” “Fat Sam” is a swinging number about a larger-than-life character (“as wide as he is tall”) who hangs out in “front of Shorter’s bar” and, genial hook-up to whatever mischief you might need, serves as the ultimate good-times ambassador. It is pure and classic jumping ‘40s jive, shot through with Jordan’s characteristic relish. Not to be confused with Western-swinger Hank Penny’s “Big Footed Sam” from Birmingham (“his size fourteens really rock the floor…”), which is not so bad a tune itself.
3. “Birmingham Daddy,” Gene Autry (1931). A perfect little recording, among the very first sides cut by future cowboy-crooner Gene Autry. Before rising to Hollywood horse-opera stardom or entering his jingle-jangle jingles into the Christmas-pop canon, Autry recorded his share of earthier “hillbilly” blues. These first Autry recordings clearly evoked the style of the immensely popular Jimmie Rodgers, borrowing Rodgers’ yodel and some of his repertoire, but managed to showcase a voice that was nonetheless unique, and eminently listenable—edgier, too, than Autry’s soon-to-develop good-guy image would allow his future output. Among these early recordings is “Birmingham Daddy,” an Autry composition blessed by the jazz-infused banjo backing of string virtuoso Roy Smeck. The song deserves quoting: “If love was liquor, and I could drink, I’d be drunk all the time / I’d go back to town, in Birmingham, with the loving mama of mine.” Yodel-a-hee-hey.
4. “Birmingham Bounce,” Hardrock Gunter (1950). “In the heart of Dixie, in Alabam, there’s a place we love, called Birmingham.” So began Hardrock Gunter’s “Birmingham Bounce,” recorded in 1950 for the Bama record label—and so did Birmingham partake in the birth of rock and roll. The recording became a regional hit, Gunter’s first and biggest, and riding its success the Birmingham singer toured the Southeast, playing in empty airplane hangars, other venues apparently too cramped for his crowds. Gunter’s thing was part Western swing, part boogie-woogie—“a funny little rhythm with a solid sound,” the song said—and an immediate precursor to rock and roll. (Gunter himself was one of the first to use the phrase “rock and roll,” in 1950’s”Gonna Dance All Night,” recorded soon after the “Bounce.” It would still be another year before Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner cut “Rocket 88,” often lauded today as the “first” rock and roll record; four years still until Elvis; five until Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”) “Birmingham Bounce” spawned over 20 cover versions, extending the song’s reach far beyond Gunter’s tour circuit. Quick on the heels of the original, Red Foley took it to the number-one position on the country charts, and a striking variety of musicians released their own versions: country musicians Leon McAuliffe and Tex Williams; rhythm-and-blues pianist Amos Milburn; Big Band leaders Lionel Hampton and Tommy Dorsey. And so it was that in the days leading immediately into rock and roll, all over the country people were gearing up and getting primed—bouncing—Birmingham-style.
5. “Great Day for Me,” Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir (circa 1963). In 1956, in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, state officials banned the NAACP from Alabama. Seeing the need for a new group that would challenge discrimination, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth spearheaded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Where the NAACP had used the courts to fight racist laws, the ACMHR called for more of a direct, confrontational, and community-rooted approach. In 1963, the group teamed with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to launch “Project C” (for “Confrontation”), a period of direct and sustained demonstrations in the Birmingham streets. From April 3 to May 10, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church served as the home base for the demonstrations. Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and Birmingham law enforcement responded violently, sparking outrage across the country.
As it did in all the movement’s battlegrounds, music provided significant fuel for the mass meetings and demonstrations in Birmingham. The ACMHR Choir, led by Carlton Reese, performed nightly at the Sixteenth Street church. One of their songs, “Great Day for Me,” adapted a gospel standard to the Birmingham moment:
Great day for me, great day for me
I’m so happy, I want to be free
Since Jesus came to Birmingham, I’m happy as can be
Oh, great day for me.
Neither Birmingham, nor the rest of the nation, would be the same again.
6. “Birmingham Mistake,” Sammi Smith (1973). Sammi Smith scored a major hit in 1971 with her version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” a success which should have marked the start of a celebrated career; sadly, and despite some powerful performances to her credit, Smith never quite pulled off the larger success that her deep, sultry voice may have deserved. “Birmingham Mistake” is the story of a woman whose bad luck began with her own unwanted birth and her subsequent abandonment, in a basket, on a run-down Birmingham doorstep. The singer’s plight hinges on the chance turns of her fate, beginning with the sorry doorstep selected by the mother she never knew: “I wish now that I’d been put down,” Smith sings, “in a better part of this town, when she got rid of a Birmingham mistake.” Despite some uninspired lyrics (“Life ain’t been a bed of roses / People still look down their noses / I was born without the icing on the cake”), Smith’s world-weary, soul-drenched delivery manages to give the story real credibility and pathos. Nobody sang country soul so forsaken and low as Sammi Smith.
7. “Birmingham Blues,” The Birmingham Jug Band (1930). A raucous instrumental stomp-down from a great, forgotten Birmingham band. The Birmingham Jug Band recorded only eight songs at a single date in 1930, and though the band’s membership remains cloudy, the group’s prominent, blustering harmonica may be that of Jaybird Coleman, the Bessemer harp-blower who recorded a number of impressive solo sides in his own right. Ben Curry, a medicine-show entertainer also known as “Bogus Blind” Ben Covington (“Bogus” because he could in fact see), was likely another member of the group, alongside other players known to us only as “Dr. Ross,” “One-Armed Dave,” “Honeycup” (on jug) and “New Orleans Slide” (washboard). The hell-for-leather harmonica, steady low-blowing jug, and a wonderfully ragged mandolin give the tunes a drive unsurpassed by any of the era’s other jug bands. Almost half of the songs recorded by the Birmingham group consist of essentially the same melody—their “Birmingham Blues” closely echoes their “German Blues,” “Giving it Away,” “Getting Ready for Trial,” and others—but each time and with some variation the band proves it can play the hell out of that particular tune. Other instrumental odes to the city would be recorded in later years (Duke Ellington’s “Birmingham Breakdown” is a good one, besides the two discussed elsewhere in this Top Twenty), but Birmingham has never sounded better, freer, or wilder than in this blues. (Anyone out there, incidentally, who believes the worn stereotype that the music of the blues is a depressive and mournful thing had better listen to this record and get right.)
8. “Backin’ to Birmingham,” Lester Flatt (1972). The story: A novice trucker, unable to get his rig out of reverse, backs a semi full of steel from Chicago to Birmingham. A throwaway novelty number, but performed with authority and good humor by bluegrass legend Lester Flatt.
(Several other road songs, while we’re on the subject, make stops in Birmingham: Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham”; John Hiatt’s “Train to Birmingham”; Keith Whitley’s “Birmingham Turnaround.” Birmingham occupies a significant space in the center of Chuck Berry’s hit “Promised Land,” arguably the best of all American road songs. In that song “motor trouble” turns into “a struggle, halfway across Alabam,” the Greyhound bus breaking down and leaving the singer “stranded in downtown Birmingham.” Mirroring the tumultuous 1961 route of the Freedom Riders from Virginia to New Orleans, Berry’s song positions Birmingham at the heart of an unwelcoming South, a stopover point decidedly in contrast to the ultimate “Promised Land” of the title. The song ends with the singer boarding a plane and finally touching down (“Swing low, chariot, come down easy”) in Los Angeles.)
9. “Alabama,” John Coltrane (1963). John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” recorded in November 1963 for the Live at Birdland album, stands today as one of the most celebrated works of an established master. According to most commentators, it is at least in part a reflection on the deaths of four Birmingham girls, killed by explosion only two months earlier. Some listeners have claimed that Coltrane built the composition on the cadences of a speech by Martin Luther King, possibly his funeral oration for those girls. Coltrane himself was more oblique in defining his inspiration: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” What comes out of Coltrane is profound, mournful, and—ultimately, above all—beautiful. LeRoi Jones, in the original liner notes: “I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.” The song works in a kind of tragic idiom that parallels Shakespeare or Sophocles. Coltrane exposes us to the loss, the waste and hurt of human experience, but, as in the great tragedies, we can see reflected in the suffering suffering’s own antithesis: in the face of our capacity for destruction we remember again our capacity also for beauty, our profound potential to do better. Coltrane’s “Alabama,” like any art that lasts, transcends its historical moment, opening up the broader human experience, and leading us further toward understanding.
10. “Birmingham Jail,” Darby and Tarlton (1927). The most ubiquitous of all Birmingham song lyrics is the old, slow-waltzing ballad verse, “Write me a letter, send it by mail / Send it in care of the Birmingham jail.” The tune, commonly known as “Down in the Valley,” was a traditional folk song dating back before the turn of the 20th century, but in the 1920s the song, with the famous verse, became equally well-known as “Birmingham Jail.” The addition was apparently the work of Jimmie Tarlton, who claimed to have spent time in the jail on charges of moonshining. Tarlton recorded it in 1927 with his musical partner Tom Darby, and the song and its flipside—“Columbus Stockade Blues”—both became major sellers and staples of the southern country repertoire. The duo’s success with the tune moved them to record it again the following year, releasing it as “Birmingham Jail No. 2,” and in 1930 they gave the public more of what it wanted with an entirely new composition, titled “New Birmingham Jail.” The Magic City seemed to capture the imagination of these singers, who also recorded songs titled “Birmingham Town” (which boldly announces of San Francisco, “She’ll never be a town like Birmingham”) and the instrumental “Birmingham Rag.” “Birmingham Jail,” meanwhile, would be often recorded: by Alabama’s Stripling Brothers, by Eddy Arnold, by Peggy Lee, by Roy Acuff and Leadbelly and more. Little remembered today, Darby and Tarlton recorded over 60 sides between 1927 and 1933, helped pioneer the use of the slide guitar, and, with their heavy-harmonied, often-bluesy sound, proved influential to the development of country music. Interestingly, the Birmingham jail would become world-famous a few decades later, not for a letter sent to it but a letter sent from it, Martin Luther King’s historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
11. “15 Miles from Birmingham” and “Back to Birmingham,” the Delmore Brothers (1938, 1940). Another song about Birmingham letters (“Got a letter from Birmingham just today”) and Birmingham jails (“Oh, the jails in Birmingham sure are gay”), the Delmore Brothers’ “Back to Birmingham” is loaded with nostalgia; even in those jails, the song reminisces, “they give you conditioned air.” For all the wanderlust rambling of their repertoire (“Leavin’ On That Train,” “Ramblin’ Minded Blues,” “Honey, I’m Ramblin’ Away,” and a whole catalogue of songs about rivers and railroads), the Delmore Brothers sang often also of a sharp yearning for home. “Back to Birmingham,” though quick-tempoed and sometimes humorous, reflects a characteristic Delmore sadness, a longing for rootedness. “It’s the best place I have found,” the brothers sing of Birmingham, one of many hometowns in their real, nomadic career: “gonna quit my running round.” Born in Elkmont, Alabama, into a family of sharecroppers, the Delmores proved a profoundly original and influential country music act in the 1930s and ‘40s, known for soft harmonies, speedy guitar work, and a bottomless songbag of brother Alton’s sophisticated compositions. Both of their Birmingham songs contain all of the classic Delmore ingredients: the interplay of guitars and harmonies, the competing themes of wandering and home, the competing tones of amusement and deep-seated sadness. From “15 Miles”: “So sing a song, it won’t be long ‘til I come back again; I’ll ramble back again.”
12. “Tuxedo Junction,” Erskine Hawkins (1939). In the first decades of the 20th century, Ensley’s “Tuxedo Junction,” marked by the intersection of two streetcar lines, was a small but busy commercial hub, and a center of African American social life. In its heyday the Junction boasted a string of shops (one of them sold tuxes), black fraternal organizations, and night clubs, wherein dancers moved to live music from Birmingham’s best jazz players. People came from all over, the song said, “to get jive, that southern sound”: “to dance the night away.”
Trumpeter Erskine Hawkins was born in Birmingham and attended Industrial High School, where he studied under the legendary music instructor Fess Whatley. In college he became bandleader to the already-celebrated Bama State Collegians, whose members followed him to Harlem in 1934 to become the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. In 1939 they cut “Tuxedo Junction,” an instrumental number which Hawkins named in honor of the hometown scene where he had once played. Originally relegated to B-side status (behind “Gin Mill Special”), “Junction” surpassed expectations to become Hawkins’ most popular song. New York lyricist Buddy Feyne, working from Hawkins’ description of the place, added words. Glenn Miller recorded it and it hit number one. An anthem of the World War II era, it jumped and swung from jukeboxes across the country, but nowhere more proudly or frequently than in Ensley. In 1940, a Birmingham Post article described the song’s constant playing on Junction nickelodians: “A shoemaker down the street drives his nails all day long to the swing of the music. Waiters in a café on the other corner do their jobs to its beat. Even the dishes seem to catch the rhythm of the piece. A barber up the street cuts hair to it.” The reporter continued: “All that music means nickels coming in, and Tuxedo Junction’s cash drawers can use some nickels now. It’s not the corner it used to be.” Sure enough, though the dance halls and businesses still stood in 1940, the tune was then already an homage to fading glory. Streetcar service ended, and the Junction was no longer a junction. All but one of the original Junction buildings (the historic Nixon building) were razed. When segregation came to Ensley, white residents pulled out in large numbers. The steel plant, long the heart of the Ensley economy, closed down. Poverty, crime, and homelessness went up. In the ‘80s the Nixon building was revived briefly as a music venue, this time for punk rockers, but that too passed.
Today the famous tune lingers as a reminder of a heyday past, and as a call to rise again. Around Ensley “Tuxedo Junction” is not yet forgotten: this summer the Erskine Hawkins Park, situated behind the Nixon Building, hosted its 24th Function at the Junction, an annual music festival (Hawkins himself was a regular participant at the event until his death in 1993). Plans for a Nixon Cultural Center, spotlighting the spot’s cultural legacy, are also underway.
13. “Birmingham,” Drive-By Truckers (2002). The Drive-By Truckers’ “Birmingham” is a sweat-stained and beery anthem to the roots and future and passion and swelter of the city. “Most of my family came from Birmingham,” it says; “I can feel their presence on the street / Vulcan Park’s seen its share of troubled times, but the city won’t admit defeat.” Frontman Patterson Hood variously drawls and slurs and yells and moans the lyrics which near the end of the song turn into a scraggy incantation guaranteed at any live show to really stir up the hometown crowd. The song is a part of the Truckers’ 2001 double-album, Southern Rock Opera, a loving and unflinching statement of the “southern thing” at the turn of the 21st century. The album offers a loose, semi-fictional storyline that plunges deep into southern mythology and identity, pulling into its scope Muscle Shoals soul, the Civil Rights struggle, the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane-crash, booze and family and the Devil—and, out of it all, loud and intemperate, gut-busting Rock. Birmingham figures prominently into the whole thing, nowhere more so than in this blistering hymn. Patterson Hood, deep into his spell-casting, is just about screaming by now—“Magic’s City’s magic’s getting stronger”—and the song concludes: “No man should ever feel he don’t belong, in Birmingham.” The song ends and the hometown crowd is in a frenzy; somehow its members too have become as sweat-soaked as the band.
14. “Birmingham, Alabama,” R.B. Greaves (1969). R.B. Greaves, nephew of soul-stirrer Sam Cooke, had one of the least likely bios in soul music history. Born Ronald Bertram Aloysius Greaves III on an Air Force Base in Guyana, South America, he was raised in the United States, on a Seminole Indian Reservation. In the ‘60s he relocated to England, where he fronted a group called Sonny Childe and the T&Ts, before returning to America to pursue an R&B career and a brief flirtation with country music—but ultimately joining the ranks of the one-hit-wonder for his only real success, 1969’s “Take a Letter, Maria.” Recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, “Maria” was itself something of an oddity for a hit record, framed as the first-person narration of a businessman who, the previous evening, caught his wife cheating and now dictates to his secretary his plans to get a divorce and split town. In the process of dictation, he realizes his love for the secretary and incorporates her into his escape plans, beginning with a romantic dinner after work. (Maria is ambiguously Hispanic, and the song’s mariachi horns suggest that perhaps the two, in their “new life,” will head somewhere south of the border.) On the whole, Greaves’ work languished between the poles of Lou-Rawlsian smooth pop and the earthier soul for which Muscle Shoals was better known, and beyond “Maria” Greaves met with little success, his recorded output limited and spotty.
Of interest here, though, is another song from the self-titled 1969 album that gave the world “Maria.” Written by Murray MacLeod and Stuart Margolin and covered also by Harry Belafonte, “Birmingham, Alabama” isn’t exactly hit material, but it’s catchy enough—and the way Greaves consistently belts out the city and state name will at least make any local listener feel good. The song’s best line: “Jesus says, ‘You’ll be shuffling coal till your dying day – in Birmingha-a-am, Alabama.’”
15. “A Small Town They Call Bessemer,” Jazz Gillum and Memphis Slim (1961). A separate, if shorter, list might be compiled of the best Bessemer songs—among them, Ma Rainey’s “Bessemer Bound Blues,” Tampa Red’s “Bessemer Blues,” and Big Joe Williams’s “Bessemer Baby.” The best of the Bessemer songs, arguably, is “A Small Town They Call Bessemer,” in which the singer threatens to get “mean and evil” and move from Bessemer “back to Birmingham” if his woman doesn’t treat him right. Gillum had recorded the song back in the ‘30s as “Birmingham Blues,” but the 1961 version benefits from Memphis Slim’s funky electric organ vamping and rolling and jumping beneath Gillum’s drawl.
16. “The Magic City,” Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra (1965). Sun Ra biographer John Szwed contends that “1965 was a turning point” for Sun Ra’s music; and that year’s album The Magic City, Szwed notes, “was the clearest signal of the change.” If Sun Ra had already played at the outer limits of jazz, here he stretched his soloists and listeners further into unmapped experience. The album’s title track swallowed the entire first side of the record, sketching for a near half-hour a sonic landscape that is part Birmingham, part outer-space: it was a kind of homecoming, but on Sun Ra’s terms, a revisioning of the city in which the man and his music were first born. Sun Ra plays (sometimes simultaneously) piano and Clavioline, an early synthesizer evoking the ominous explorations of late-night black-and-white space flicks. The instruments play against and with each other, interacting also with the comings and goings of bass, drums, clarinet, piccolo, and flute. Fifteen minutes in, the performance explodes, instruments erupting at once. There are five saxophones, sometimes screaming. Throughout the piece, as in much of Sun Ra’s work, an alternate universe emerges from the shifting layers of sound. In the Arkestra’s hands, the Magic City bends, opens, and expands—a city of magic, of Magi, of imagination—to become portal into a deeper cosmos. (For more on Sun Ra, see the feature article in this issue.)
17. “Birmingham Bull” (“Didn’t He Ramble”), Ernie Marrs (1963). Matching new words to old tunes was a common practice among participants of the Civil Rights Movement (as with the revised “Great Day for Me,” # 5 above). Nineteenth-century spirituals were revived, their lyrics often adjusted to link the contemporary freedom struggle to the struggle begun in slavery (“Oh, Freedom,” “Gospel Plow,” “Wade in the Water”); union songs lent their activist stances to the Civil Rights cause (“Which Side Are You On?”); commercial pop songs were retooled to reflect the times (“Hit the Road, Jack” as “Get Your Rights, Jack,” “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” as “Freedom’s Coming and It Won’t Be Long,” even “Land of 1,000 Dances” reclaimed as a freedom chant). A number of topical folksingers emerged from the Northeastern college and coffeehouse scenes to give their hands and voices to the movement, adding still more songs to the cause’s songbook. Ernie Marrs (best known for his version of “Plastic Jesus”) recreated the old standby “Birmingham Jail” as “Bull Connor’s Jail” in the crucial year of 1963. The same year he borrowed from the traditional English ballad “The Darby Ram” and the New Orleans Dixieland staple “Didn’t He Ramble” to cut down to size one of the most notorious villains of the movement. Pete Seeger picked up Marrs’ song in Birmingham and performed it in June of ‘63 at his famous Carnegie Hall concert. The protest-rooted Broadside Magazine ran the song the same month. A few of Marrs’ verses:
As I went down to Birmingham upon a summer day
I saw the biggest Bull, sir, dry up and blow away.
And didn’t he ramble, didn’t he ramble
Didn’t he ramble till his size was whittled down.
His belly it was huge, sir, you should have seen it flop
It dangled to the ground, sir, till I thought his skin would pop…
His rear was round and fat, sir, how large I cannot tell
His head was even fatter, you should have seen it swell…
The song ends with this advice:
But if you see a Bull, sir, that tries to throw a scare
Just give his tail a pull, sir, and let out all his air
18. “Birmingham Black Bottom,” Charlie Johnson’s Original Paradise Ten, featuring Monette Moore (1927). “Stompin’… rompin’ … do that Birmingham stomp!”: it is a tune which, literally, demands dancing. The “Black Bottom” was a popular dance style that, during the Jazz Age heyday spread from urban black America into the flapper culture and—briefly, at least—into the mainstream national consciousness. The term “Black Bottom” played on several levels at once, allowing for it a popular and flexible usage within the jazz vocabulary. Many black neighborhoods in urban spaces across the country picked up the label “Black Bottom,” and from one or more of these “bottoms” emerged a dance of the same name. In an era of overnight dance crazes, this one caught on, popularized in such recordings as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp.” (The term’s further, punning meaning is evident in Rainey’s declaration, “Wait until you see me do my big black bottom, it’ll put you in a trance.”) In the late 1920s vocalist Monette Moore sang with pianist and bandleader Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten, the house band at Small’s Paradise, one of Harlem’s top jazz clubs. Their “Birmingham Black Bottom,” while lacking much more than a titular connection to the city, has everything a listener, or a dancer, could want from the black bottom tradition—a lively beat, boisterous and wailing instrumentation, gleeful vocals, and sweet invitation to sheer abandon.
19. “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974). What do we say of “Sweet Home”? While some would doubtless argue that it does not belong on this list at all, others would rank it as the ultimate Birmingham song—even if its reference to the city is brief (and, well, complicated). Whether you love “Sweet Home Alabama” or hate it, or feel for it a simultaneous attraction and revulsion that is neither love nor hate or is, maybe, both—surely, in the end, you must confront it as one of our city’s unavoidable songs, perhaps even its defining song.
“Sweet Home Alabama” is, after all, on most of our license plates now (replacing another tune, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a song most Alabamians have by now forgotten). This song, moreover, is in our blood. American tourists—people who have never set foot in this state—will hear it suddenly in far-off countries and will identify, will feel a kind of patriotic rush, and will sing along. Because the song isn’t even about Alabama anymore, if it ever was; it’s about home. And it is catchy, and it is loud. A few years ago, a Birmingham tourism group came close to adopting “Sweet Home Alabama” as its own motto, adjusting the lyrics to inspire both pride and commerce: “in Birmingham,” a proposed slogan ran, “they love the shopping.” I wish I was kidding.
That is, after all, the crucial line—the controversial line, the one that incorporates (for we are the they) all of us. Forget the mythic Neil Young squabble (a legend artfully debunked on the Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera, mentioned above). What are we to do with a line like “In Birmingham, they love the governor,” recorded during the long reign of George Wallace? Some Skynyrd apologists have claimed that the doo-woppy chant, “Boo, boo, boo!” which follows that line signals the band’s actual rejection of Wallace and all that he stood for. But surely that is far-fetched, revisionist and wishful thinking. So what do we do with the line? Does liking the song mean loving the governor? Does loving the governor have to mean supporting his segregationist poses? Or is this merely a celebration of populism—or a defiant pride in who we are, despite all our obvious warts? What, exactly, does it mean when Alabama football fans adopt a song (Roll, Tide, Roll!) that claims support for the man who famously stood in their own schoolhouse door to block black arrivals? Does the song speak to Wallace’s alleged repentance and transformation, already underway by 1974? Ambiguities pile higher with the song’s next mysterious line, “We all did what we could do.” If only we knew what this meant, the song’s mysteries would stand revealed. And, really, how can Watergate not bother these guys? Is that swaggering indifference okay, even in a pop song?
What I guess I am saying is: should my conscience bother me if this song is, defiantly, in my bones? What does that song, and that line, mean for Birminghamians now?
I have written more about this song than I meant to. The upshot: “Home” is a complicated thing.
20. “Birmingham,” Randy Newman (1974). On 1972’s Sail Away, Randy Newman’s satirical and sometimes scathing voice inhabited such songs as the title cut, in which a slave trader, like a tacky salesman, hawks America to potential slaves; “Political Science,” which espouses a blanket American foreign policy of dropping “the big one” to “see what happens”; and “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” in which a cynical, contemptuous Creator torments his people with plagues and gross destruction simply because He can, and because His ridiculous victims will, absurdly, love Him anyway. Later, Newman’s only real hit, the Jonathan-Swiftian “Short People,” would inspire protests among groups of, well, short people who took the song’s satire seriously. But Newman’s sarcasm, bite, and voice-throwing shenanigans were at their sharpest on the concept album Good Old Boys, 1974’s follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Sail Away. At first glance Newman may seem a snarky outsider further maligning a cracker culture which, for all of its faults, may not deserve cheap shots from a far-off California hipster. But Good Old Boys is a complicated, challenging, and empathetic work which has become a southern classic. The opening track, “Rednecks,” takes the perspective of one of the good old boys of the album’s title, and does something that only Randy Newman would attempt on a could-be pop album: it crafts a catchy chorus—one that gets stuck in your head, one with which you are immediately compelled to sing along—around the phrase “we’re keeping the niggers down.” And then, just when we are ready to put the album’s rednecks in an easy and predictable box, our sense of moral superiority all afire, we encounter the record’s second track: “Birmingham.”
Again the perspective is first person, the song’s speaker a steel mill worker (the same redneck-speaker of the previous song?) with a wife named Mary but called Marie and a dog named Dan. Again, the chorus is catchy and singable, proudly proclaiming Birmingham the “greatest city in Alabam.” If Newman’s work drips often with irony and satire, and if the song immediately previous had lambasted the South and its unthinking rednecks, “Birmingham” feels disarmingly, perplexingly genuine: the way Newman sings “the greatest city in Alabam,” he may as well be proclaiming it the greatest city on the planet. (The song is convincing enough that Del McCoury could later cover it as a bluegrass song—straight-faced, no trace of irony or condescension anywhere—and again it works.) Two tracks into Good Old Boys, then, we are forced to reconsider what Randy Newman is up to. By the time the record’s first side is over, we have been able to somehow, simultaneously laugh at, loathe, pity, feel for, laugh with, and even identify(!) with Newman’s rednecks: they have played into and quickly escaped our stereotype, confronted us and confounded us as real, complex personalities. Despite everything else, even the worst, for three minutes and twenty seconds we can believe whole-heartedly that “There’s no place like Birmingham,” and that for this place we are lucky.
This one could be our city’s theme song.
Greencup is Dead: A Eulogy
Note: The following article, eulogizing Birmingham, Alabama’s Greencup Books, first appeared in the November 2009 edition of Pavo, the “online magazine” of arts and culture in the “Magic City.” Like Greencup, Pavo is now also defunct and, I think, its absence is a loss to the community.
Each month, Pavo organized itself very loosely around a different theme, and in keeping with the Thanksgiving season, the theme for November ‘09 was “gratitude.” Elsewhere on the website that month, Pavo contributors were asked to name a few things for which they were grateful. For what it is worth, here is my list, followed by the eulogy:
The last page of The Great Gatsby; the first two pages of Tropic of Cancer; page thirteen of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; the guitar solos in “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Pale Blue Eyes”; Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon; Lily Tomlin’s face in that one scene in Nashville; carrot juice; Buster Keaton; my parents, and brother, and sister-in-law, and nephews; fried oysters; early bedtimes.
Greencup Books is dead.
Long live Greencup Books.
This is not easy to write—hopefully you know it already, and I am not the one breaking the news—but Greencup is officially no more. Struggling since it opened to keep its head over water, the not-for-profit bookspace on Richard Arrington Boulevard has finally closed its doors for good.
Of course, the day was bound to come. As owner Mike Tesney has been saying a lot lately, “It was never a question of if; it was a question of when.” For months, Greencup’s website had been soliciting donations in an effort to keep things going, relying on the community’s faith in and support of the vision. Certainly, there were lots of factors behind the final decision. Turnout for Greencup events had always been unpredictable at best; a new construction project across the street recently consumed a good stretch of the store’s parking, making things worse. Greencup’s own building, meanwhile, needed a few thousand dollars to get itself quickly up to code. Many locals considered the very premise of Greencup hopelessly quixotic from the get-go. When, in October, word came that the store only had a few weeks left, the announcement, however unwanted, surprised nobody.
Greencup ended, with a fitting touch of symbolism, on the Day of the Dead, Sunday night, November 2. Next door the Bare Hands Gallery hosted its annual Dia de los Muertos parade and festivities; all night, skeleton-faced revelers passed by Greencup’s open doors, some of them stopping in for a read, for conversation, to make a purchase or use the bathroom. Some walk-ins browsed the store that night for their first and last time. Friends came in and paid their final respects. And a kind of death hung over everything.
I am a twelfth-grade English teacher, and for the first few minutes of class every Friday, my students write about whatever they want. Topics range widely. Several Fridays ago, one of my students wrote this:
“I went to Greencup Books for the first time yesterday. I’m usually a Barnes and Noble kind of guy,” the student admitted, “but I was hanging out with my friends and we needed someplace to go. It was really exactly like I expected, except that it smelled like smoke instead of used books. I used to read books from the same series at the library and the person who read them last always wore really strong perfume. But I digress.
“The thing I noticed about the bookstore: at surface level, it’s really not as good as a megachain. I could only find one of the books I looked for (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and the place was hardly organized at all. So I’ve been trying to figure the appeal of these used books stores, and all I can chalk it up to at this point is that reading must not be as much of an individual event as I thought it was. I think books need to be passed hand to hand. That’s why I like to find used books instead of buying them new, and that’s why people who love to read love libraries.”
While it lasted, Greencup hosted rock shows, art shows, writing workshops and readings, and it offered local writers design and publishing services for their own work—but the followings that resulted never established enough of a steady momentum to keep things running in the face of great odds. Russell Helms opened the store in February of 2008; Helms moved to Kentucky and Tesney took ownership in July of the same year. From its inception, Greencup was an anti-capitalist venture—a concept, Tesney says, which most people had trouble swallowing. (“I got tired of explaining it,” he says, adding that the idea of an anti-capitalist bookstore caused some visitors to laugh outright.) But Greencup’s thing all along was about fostering creativity and community, about facilitating good reads and conversation, and doing so within a framework that defiantly rejected the machinery of money-making. Books were cheap. Workers volunteered their time and were paid in food and maybe gas money. More than a store—the word “store,” in fact, is almost entirely misleading—Greencup existed above all to offer a community space rooted in art and music and books. It boasted comfortable old couches and a wide selection of politically radical zines. Performers came from all over the U.S., even from outside the country, to perform in the upstairs space; the standing cover was “about five bucks” for any show. Last year, Greencup hosted an alternative media fair for zinesters, do-it-yourself bookmakers, and indy record labels across the Southeast. When Cave 9, the all-ages punk venue, closed its own doors earlier this year, its operations moved briefly into Greencup. The founding ideal, Tesney says, was to be “an open space for everybody.” The design was aggressively anti-establishment, and there was in the whole thing a particular spirit of youth.
“I’m disappointed that more people didn’t take advantage of this place,” says Devon Thagard, the store’s most loyal volunteer/worker, currently a student at the University of Alabama. “Overall I am grateful for the experience and all the things I got to learn while working there. I only wish that more people could have had the same experience.”
One of the last scheduled events at Greencup was a return performance by Insurgent Theatre, a radical theatre troupe from Milwaukee. A description of their show, “Ulyssess’ Crewmen,” ran on Greencup’s website: “We join the struggle against the imperial economy arranged by bureaucratic trade regimes that make us all complicit in the exploitation and destruction of others. We question and investigate the psychosexual underpinnings of both this bureaucracy and those of us attempting to rebel against it. We use Homer’s Odyssey as a framework to stage these struggles in a single claustrophobic scene between two people, one of whom is bound and gagged.”
Also on the ticket that night: Mangos with Chili, “The Bay Area’s only cabaret show for transgenders of color.”
In Birmingham, a line-up like that could only happen at Greencup.
The box-store chains and internet booksellers have, for some time now, made it easy to quickly obtain any book you may want; but a few months back a friend commented that he still preferred to let the tricks of serendipity dictate his reading life—to let, in other words, his reads find him. I tend to agree with that philosophy. The best of the books that I have accidentally discovered hold a certain kind of power in my memory; there is the sense that book and reader stumbled upon each other unsuspectingly, through some turn of fate, forging something unique in the encounter. At McKay’s in Chattanooga I discovered Appreciation by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, and the book became, for me, an unexpected personal classic; at the Alabama Booksmith I came across Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! and Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South, two of the funniest books I have ever read; I left a store in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, with Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, a 1940s noir title I never would have sought out, but a read which now hangs heavily over my memory of a favorite road trip; and once I found, deep in the recesses of a Chapel Hill bookstore, a well-worn copy of Woody Guthrie’s Born to Win, a book I had sought since I was sixteen and, having finally forgotten it, found by mistake a decade later. Bought and read by accident, these books carry a particular kind of weight and mystery in my reading experience. Though serendipity can do its work in a Barnes & Noble too, the really meaningful accidents seem to occur in smaller, less predictable environments.
This was one Greencup’s greatest assets: it was the best place in town for the unexpected find.
Some titles I’ve acquired from Greencup over the last couple of years:
• The Life of Black Hawk
• A book of conversations with Eudora Welty
• Jerry Kozinski’s Being There
• The second issue of “8 Letters,” a zine on knuckle tattoos
• A copy of Beowulf
• The first issue of Cumulus
• “Klaudt Family Specials,” a bio-songbook from the gospel-singing “Klaudt Indian Family” of Doraville, Georgia
• “Well Glory!” – another paper-bound songbook from the Willcutt family, the “sunrise devotional group” at Birmingham’s WBRC radio
• John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction
• Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280
• Scratchy 45s of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll,” Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” and (in its original sleeve, no less) the Mick Jagger/Jackson 5 “State of Shock”
• The Alabama Wurlitzer at its Best, a long-playing record from 1986 featuring “Big Bertha,” the Alabama Theater’s signature organ
• From 1980, a Japanese handbook of “handy” English phrases (“I’m getting out of this crummy business”; “My wife goes through my pockets”; “He becomes a victim of Demon Rum”; “I hear you’re some pianist”; “It’s a job with sexual flavor”; “Some typewriter I got”; “Somebody framed you!”)
Some of these I bought with money. Most I got as trades.
As I write this, I am listening to the Alabama Wurlitzer.
The Saturday after its official closing, Greencup hosted a final, cash-only, friends-only sale, everything 50% off to Greencup supporters. “This is a thank-you sale,” Tesney announced, “not a let’s make more money thing.” Visitors were encouraged to bring flashlights in case the power had already been cut off.
I was not there, and I do not know if there was electricity or not. But it does make for an effective image of how Greencup finally ended: quietly, stubbornly, its most faithful followers rummaging with flashlights through stacks of old books.
Pavo’s theme this month is “gratitude”: a good fit, I think, for this eulogy.
Much could be said about the ups and downs of Greencup Books—the trials, the successes, the frustrations—but let’s leave it for now at a simple “thanks.” For offering, for a little while, an important community space; for encouraging good reads and the exchange of ideas; for providing a wide-open venue for music and experiment; for reminding us that, perhaps, reading is not as much of an individual event as we might think.
Mike Tesney is moving to Tuscaloosa, where he plans to try it again with a similar bookspace; besides the books, the Tuscaloosa outfit will be equipped with a recording studio, and Tesney is already working with connections at the University of Alabama to build a collaborative base. Up in Kentucky, Greencup founder Russell Helms works towards an MFA and writes. Birmingham, meanwhile, is left with a hole that wants filling.
And so, I say, a toast:
Here’s to further Birmingham endeavors as impossible, as maddening, and as necessary as our late store.
Long live Greencup Books.
Kirk Withrow, Cigar Box Guitarist
Cigar box guitar by Kirk WIthrow
Kirk Withrow is a head and neck surgeon at UAB. He is a husband and father and an avid rock climber. He is also, passionately, a cigar-box guitarist and prolific “garage luthier,” a creator and player of unlikely hand-crafted instruments. He has just finished his latest collection of songs, home-recorded on homemade guitars: a kids’ album of animal songs, called Cows and Crocs and Dirty Socks.
Withrow has a lot going on. It’s not easy, he admits, balancing his creative life with family and career. “You have to cut things out—like sleeping and eating, and exercise.”
Weighty sacrifices, perhaps, but cigar box guitar enthusiasts are fueled by an uncommon drive and intensity of purpose. The instrument comes to embody, for them, a whole philosophy of art, self-expression, and living. It becomes an obsession. It gets inside you, and changes you.
“The type of people,” Withrow says, “that would make and pursue the cigar box guitar, they’re always a little bit different.”
Every cigar box guitarist seems to have his conversion story: on this day, the story goes, and in that moment, everything changed, and everything ever since has been different.
Withrow’s moment occurred four years ago. A patient—Phil Draper, a cabinet-maker from Decatur—gave him his first cigar box guitar. Draper had spent a few days in the hospital and Withrow had gotten to know him during his stay; Draper had told him about the guitars and Withrow was intrigued. He began researching the instruments online, where he discovered an entire community. When Draper gave him a guitar of his own, he fell in love.
Ironically, Withrow remembers, he had been determined to get out of his shift at the hospital the night Phil Draper came in—he was supposed to help a friend move that afternoon, and afterwards, he hoped to relax with a couple of beers. No one, though, would switch shifts with him; he reported to work, and his fate was sealed.
“It’s interesting to think what would have happened if he had not come in,” Withrow says, “or if I had gotten out of my shift.” As it happened, though, the chance encounter left a huge impact on Withrow’s life, an impact which has been much more than merely musical.
“It’s made a huge difference. It changed the way that I act, the way that I think, and a lot of the people I’ve met. Without it,” he speculates, “I guess I’d have to watch football or something—and I don’t want that to happen.”
That first guitar set off a chain reaction that is still going. Once he’d played a cigar box guitar, Withrow discovered he had to make one; then another one and another, each time searching for a new design and a new sound. With a couple of climbing friends he started a band, Buckeye, and recorded an album, Box Fetish: a collection of “very-much amateur recordings,” he says, a lot of old blues and banjo tunes and some originals, played dirty, raw, and loud. His next two CDs, Hogtie the Devil and Yesterday Will Be Better, both self-produced solo efforts, featured for the most part a repertoire of traditional old-time songs. Another project, Monks of the New Order, was an experiment in avant-garde noise. Then there’s the kids’ stuff: two years ago, after the birth of his son Silas, Withrow recorded Lullaby, a collection of instrumental tunes performed on original instruments and crib toys. “I imagined it,” he says, describing his concept for the album, “as the last day in the womb and the first day out of it,” a sonic chronicle of a child’s emergence into the world. Cows and Crocs and Dirty Socks is Withrow’s latest effort.
It’s hard for Withrow—or for anyone who visits his workshop and music room—to believe that it has been only four years since his cigar box conversion. He estimates that in those four years he has given away or sold about fifty handmade instruments. He has several on display and for sale locally at Naked Art, and he also sells them online, through websites like eBay and Etsy. The online sales, he says, go primarily overseas: he’s had customers in Spain, Italy, Israel, and elsewhere.
To make a simple, fretless, unamplified guitar, no inlay or frills, takes Withrow only about an hour. A more involved design will take ten or twenty. Fully functional instruments, the guitars double as works of art: carefully constructed out of found objects, each has its own aesthetic and personality. There is, also, the obvious novelty factor. “People will stop and look at it,” Withrow says. “People are surprised you can get that much sound out of it.”
That is, after all, the goal: to extract sound from the smallest, most ordinary, and least likely of sources; to create something useful and new out of something useless and old; to find and experiment with the music that is embedded in just about anything.
Before his moment of conversion, Withrow had struggled to find a musical voice or vehicle for his pent-up creative energies. On the guitar (the store-bought, non-cigar-box kind), he sounded, he says, like every other guitar player. He took up the banjo, but felt that he had quickly reached his own limits in exploring what that instrument had to offer him: “Banjo,” he explains, “is a versatile instrument, but I could never get it to sound like anything but a banjo.” He wanted to take it someplace else, to “stretch beyond the normal range” of that instrument’s voice, but he found himself stuck and uninspired.
Withrow describes his music, in those, pre-cigar-box days, as stale. “It had gotten mundane, and I hadn’t been doing much—certainly not anything creative.”
The cigar box changed everything, opening up a well of creativity—not only as a musician, but as a woodworker and artist—which he had never before experienced. Once Withrow made his first guitar, he found himself hungry to make a second, then a third; each creation, he discovered, was distinct. “The next one will have a different sound,” he says, working on one. “I’ll make a guitar, then I’ll make one electric. Maybe I’ll make a volume and a tone control. Then I start working with battery-operated, self-contained amplifiers.” In the process of making guitar after guitar, he discovers ever-increasing possibilities to pursue the next time: an idea for an inlay design, for a handwound pick-up or for a resonator. The guitars multiply, fast.
“I’d never done any kind of woodworking,” Withrow confesses, but with the first efforts to make a guitar came a simple, empowering epiphany: “You just realize that you can do it.” Withrow’s guitar-making quickly led to other projects: paintings made from spray paint, scrap wood and Sharpies; charcoal-and-marker sketches; pendants and jewelry; wood-carvings and wall-hangings. After making so many guitars, he found that he had quality wood he didn’t want to throw away, and from those leftover materials he began making boxes, which he has also started selling.
* * *
The practice of making stringed instruments from cigar boxes—often with screen-wire strings strung down a broom-handle neck—is about a century and a half old. In recent years, a scattered community of musicians has developed from the cigar box tradition a culture of its own: what some practitioners go so far as to call a “revolution.”
“The biggest force behind that,” says Withrow, “is Shane Speal” of York, Pennsylvania. The self-proclaimed “King of the Cigar Box Guitar,” Speal started, in 2003, a Yahoo forum for “CBG” enthusiasts, attracting a membership of over 3,000. Speal is the producer of Uncle Enos, an irregularly published homemade magazine which bills itself as “the lo-fi voice of the Prim Rock Underground.” In its pages, he and other writers articulate a kind of running manifesto for their homemade music—and, more broadly, for the DIY (do-it-yourself) approach. “If you’re a musician,” Speal writes in one issue, “I encourage you to build a cigar box guitar or one of the other instruments highlighted in this issue. If you are in other arts, try something just as primal. Take toy camera photographs. Create comic strips using only rubber stamps…. Sing thru tin cans and wire. Drum on plastic buckets. Research and write the history of some forgotten hero in your hometown. Write, create, and produce your own zine.
“Because let’s face it, the world needs more deep art and new heroes.”
For the modern-day cigar box guitarist, the search for what Speal calls the “primal” is an attempt to strip music and art to their barest bones and most basic: to create something from scratch, and to do it yourself. “We want to play something true again,” Speal writes in another issue. “Something deep.”
There is often in the voice of cigar box players and makers a kind of missionary zeal, a cigar box mysticism and cigar box evangelism manifested in the telling of conversion stories and in the sharing of the cigar box gospel. The instruments are not simply means to creating music; for the true believers, the instruments are an entry point into a lifestyle and perspective that transcends the music to become something larger.
Community is a critical part of this culture. Spurred largely by the efforts of Speal, a network of like souls has developed, linking musicians and sparking friendships across the US and around the world. With several enthusiasts across the state, Alabama has become one focal point in that community. In 2005, Huntsville tattoo artist Matt Crunk launched the Alabama Cigar Box Extravaganza, an annual event featuring workshops, a guitar-building contest, and a line-up of performers from around the country. In 2008, the University of Alabama’s Max Shores spotlighted the festival and its community in a documentary film titled Songs Inside the Box. The film features performances by and interviews with a number of musicians, including Speal and Withrow. “They’re an odd bunch of characters,” Withrow says in the film, describing his fellow musicians, “but they’re about the nicest people that you’ll run across.”
* * *
Some instruments are born with something to say built-in already inside them: they come to life with a voice and a message beyond the control of their maker or player. In these instruments, indeed, the roles are reversed and the instrument plays its player; the musician becomes the means through which the wood and strings make their own inevitable statement heard. There are old stories and eerie ballads of fiddles and harps and guitars that possess their players, instruments that sing their own insistent songs as soon as they are touched—a fiddle, for example, that will only play “The Wind and the Rain,” or a flute that blows the story of a poor girl’s murder.
Kirk Withrow speaks of the songs that exist inside specific instruments, songs which belong to a particular guitar, that seem to emerge full-voiced from the new creation. “You make instruments for songs,” he says—“or, certain songs come with an instrument. The way you tune it up, a song pops out of it that you haven’t been able to play before.” In Withrow’s experience, a new instrument will liberate a particular song which no other instrument can get quite right. The discoveries of new songs within new constructions keeps him always working on the next instrument and toward the next sound. In this music, a dynamic, collaborative relationship links the maker/musician, the instrument, and the song.
In its origins, the cigar box guitar was chiefly the domain of the poorest segments of society—of resourceful musicians creating music on the cheap, from homemade and found objects—or it was an invention for children, a household experiment from which curious kids could coax their first musical sounds. The cigar box guitar (or fiddle, or banjo, or mandolin), historically, has been a kind of stepping-stone instrument, a player’s first entry into making music, abandoned sooner or later for a “real” guitar or banjo: for an axe, that is, of the store-bought variety.
Today’s cigar box guitar movement reverses the pattern. Here the cigar box instrument—the music it unleashes and the statement in makes—is the ultimate end. Its players are mostly middle-class and middle-aged (in his early thirties, Kirk Withrow is younger than many of his musical peers), and many of them have set aside fancier, far-pricier electric guitars—with all their bell-and-whistle, store-bought accessories—in order to go cigar box. Withrow and other devotees speak of their “liberation” from the dominant guitar-store culture, wherein pickers ogle each other’s high-tech gadgetry and mechanically swap note-perfect Stevie Ray Vaughan licks.
The cigar box guitar represents for players like Withrow the final step (whether forward or backward or somehow simultaneously both) in an instrumental evolution and musical-spiritual quest. Encouraged by a spirit of group camaraderie, that quest is nonetheless fundamentally individual. Withrow points out that many cigar box guitarists perform as one-man bands. He mentions a few—John Lowe (aka Johnny Lowebow), Richard Johnston, Ben Prestage—adding that people hear them and are amazed that “you can get all that sound out of one person.” The one-man band, after all, is the logical extension of that do-it-yourself spirit that fuels the cigar box guitarist in the first place: there is the same desire to singlehandedly create something from scratch, and to unpack as much sound as is possible from so seemingly small a source. On his homemade CDs, Withrow himself does it all: he writes or arranges the songs, builds and plays the instruments, and records the tracks, all in his own home.
The word Withrow uses again and again is “freedom.” He describes his own, uninspiring trips to the guitar stores: “You see guys sitting around and showing off the same barre chords they learned from some tablature book. Then you realize it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s a liberation from that.
“It knocks down so many barriers when you realize you don’t have to go and buy a guitar. It’s not that you can’t afford it, you just don’t want to go and buy a guitar.” Then, he says, there is the pride that comes from doing it yourself: “the pride that you make a guitar, and you play a guitar, and you make the recording.
“From the very beginning, you do all of it.”
Hank Penny’s Cowboy Swing
There was a time—and these were great and glorious days—when country music teemed with Hanks. Consider the following dialogue from Charles Portis’ 1966 novel Norwood:
“I’m trying to get into show business myself. Hillbilly music. You probably don’t like it.”
“On the contrary, I do. Some of it. Hank what’s his name–?”
Other Hanks would follow: guitarist Garland and songwriter Cochran and—later—descended from the honky-tonk’s preeminent and most essential Hank (Williams), Hanks Jr. and III. Donning a hat and boots and moving, himself, to the honky-tonks, ‘70s rocker Leon Russell would take up the alias Hank Wilson, branding himself whenever he bore the new name as unmistakably country.
Occupying a unique space in this pantheon of Hanks, though, was a jazz-fueled string-band swinger—a son of Birmingham and a slick bandleader, creator of what one song title dubbed “Hillbilly Be-Bop” and another called “Cowboy Swing.” His name, this Hank, was Penny.
* * *
He was born Herbert Clayton Penny and re-christened at the start of his career, playing with “Happy” Hal Burns and the Tune Wranglers over Birmingham radio station WAPI. “I worked hard trying to please Hal,” Penny later recalled, “trying to please the audience and trying to please myself. I worked on the radio show for six months before Hal ever called my name. And finally he started calling me ‘Hanky-dank.’” From there it was whittled to Hank, and the hero of our story was born.
Though his career would ultimately take him across the country—besides Birmingham, there were stints in New Orleans, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and more—Hank Penny made his name first as the leading southeastern apostle of the Texas swing style. The sound, which would come to be known more generally as “Western Swing” (a label Penny resisted), was born in the 1930s, most notably through the work of two major groups, Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies (Wills’ and Browne’s careers were both launched during early stints with the seminal radio act, the Light Crust Dough Boys). The music was a rich amalgam of seemingly disparate sources, a melting pot of American sound that merged Big-Band-inspired jazz with so-called “hillbilly” repertoires and instrumentation, incorporating also elements of polka, Mexican border music, and blues. A product first and foremost of the Texas dance-hall, it was lively and loud, pioneering the use of amplified electric instruments and encouraging a culture of instrumental, improvisational virtuosity. It defied the stereotypes of “hillbilly” music (as country was known in that era), offering instead a slick and modern, uptown sound that moved beyond the barroom shuffle of, say, your typical country Hank.
Among fans of the music, Hank Penny is remembered as one of the greats, even if he never reached the success of Wills or Brown or of Spade Cooley, the self-proclaimed “King of Western Swing,” with whom Penny at times performed. Penny did score a handful of hits—“Steel Guitar Stomp,” “Let Me Ride In Your Little Red Wagon,” “Bloodshot Eyes,” “Get Yourself a Redhead”—and was among the most consistent country swingers of the ‘40s and ‘50s. He played with many of the era’s biggest stars and finest musicians, fostering the early careers of a few notables, and was one of the first and most successful performers to bring “Western Swing” out of its native West. He was strong-willed and stuck to his guns in the face of contrary producers and bosses; he was a sharp-witted songwriter and a skilled comedian; he was handsome and hip and left behind a string of wives; and on his records, his most lasting testament, he was sheer, swinging fun.
* * *
Eugene and William Penny, Hank’s grandfather and great uncle respectively, had migrated south from New York to Alabama in the 1870s. “The story goes that they followed the railroad tracks down to Alabama,” says actress Sydney Penny, Hank’s daughter. “This could be true or metaphorical since in the 1870s the new spur to southern Alabama offered employment opportunity.” The two brothers married sisters, Annie and Elizabeth Pitts; Eugene and Annie had four children; the eldest, William Columbus Penny, grew to marry Inez Azalea (pronounced “Az-a-lee”) Gregory; and this union produced in turn ten children. The youngest of these was Herbert Clayton who in time would be Hank. He was born in Ensley in September 1918.
Hank’s father worked in the coal mines but, in the months before the boy’s birth, fell victim to a near-fatal mining explosion. Three days after the explosion William Penny was rescued with a piece of slate embedded in his head (it would never come out), and he never performed physical labor again. Instead, he turned inward, developing a fascination with the human mind: he studied poetry and hypnotism, and dabbled as an inventor. One invention aimed to increase productivity on a poultry farm: hens would be separated into separate roosts, each laying her eggs behind closed doors. When an egg emerged, the private door swung open, alerting the farmer to which hens were doing their job. William Penny possessed also a dark and fiery religious zeal which frightened the young Herbert, who was nonetheless drawn to what he considered his father’s genius. According to Sydney Penny, William “would often quiz young Hank on what he had in his pockets, to test his memory. For the rest of his life, Hank was always able to give a complete inventory of what he carried on his person.”
After his accident, William also took up the guitar, helping spark for his son an early interest in music. As he reached his teens, Herbert gained his first experience as a comedian, performing comedy with his brother-in-law’s band, the Straener Brothers. Penny’s penchant for the comedy routine remained a constant throughout his career, and he was long in demand as an emcee; moreover, his characteristic sense of humor would be embedded in his many recordings (consider, for example, his “Bloodshot Eyes” or “Taxes, Taxes”).
In the early 1930s, the teenaged Penny was hanging around Birmingham radio stations, learning from the local musicians and angling for a chance to get on the air. When he decided to audition for a spot with Happy Hal Burns, his mother pitched in to buy him an Epiphone guitar from E.E. Forbes’ music store. Late in life Penny composed a memoir, unpublished to date, in which he explained his first audition: “I took my new ‘ax,’” he wrote, “and headed to the WAPI studios.”
I sat nervously through the broadcast. Afterwards I sauntered over to where “Happy” Hal was busy putting his guitar away. I ventured a very weak “hello.” Hal looked over at me and his sparkling personality completely overwhelmed me. I managed to say, “You don’t need a guitar player, do you??”
He smiled and said, “No, but I could use a good banjo player. Can you play banjo?”
Penny couldn’t, so he lied. Yes, he said, sure; he played the banjo. Burns told him to come back the next day, with his banjo, and audition.
“Back to the music store I went,” Penny recalled, “and I traded them my beautiful, sharp-looking Epiphone guitar that I had bought only hours earlier for a … a… banjo??. Yes, a banjo!” He would have to fake his way through the audition. The next day he tuned the instrument like the first four strings of a guitar and strummed his way effectively enough through a couple of numbers to get the job. He was on the air.
Never mind that he didn’t really know how to play the banjo. Right away Penny took up lessons with Bill Haid, a local, and inventive, tenor banjo player. “On a show,” Penny later remembered of Haid, “he would play a slow feature number and on the second chorus he would use a fiddle bow to play the banjo with, instead of a pick.” The bowed banjo sounded like an organ, Penny remembered, “and it was beautiful.”
The gig with the Tune Wranglers gave Penny the opportunity to do some more comedy, and to soak in the professionalism and showmanship of his mentor, Happy Hal. For decades, Hal Burns reigned as the cowboy-suited emcee of Birmingham radio and, later, television. He had starred in Hollywood cowboy pictures at the start of the 30s; a mentor to local musicians, he helped jumpstart the careers of players like Penny, and was known well beyond Alabama as a songwriter, showman, and country music promoter. For all of his life, Penny considered Burns a kind of father figure. “Whatever I may be, or hope to be, in show business,” he would recall, “I owe to ‘Happy’ Hal Burns. I think of the many nights that I have stood on the stage with Hal. He was my straight man. Behind his hand or during laughter he would give me stage direction: ‘Don’t move. Stand still. Hold it! Let ‘em laugh!’ He had an uncanny control over the audience. And he could manipulate them!”
Penny joined the Tune Wranglers at the heart of the Depression, and work was scarce. When he wasn’t playing his gig with Burns, he continued studying under other local musicians and making the rounds at all the radio stations. “Learning to play a guitar,” he wrote in his memoir, “was a good investment for me at that time…. Most every day was just like the last day. Just hang out at one of the radio stations. Maybe there would be a cancellation and we would get to do a show. There would be no money, but at least we would have the opportunity to hone our skills.” Penny cited local musicians Earl Drake, Ted Brooks, and Julian Atkins as early models, as well as a fiddler named Arner Hermanson. “That was his name,” Penny adds of Hermanson, “when he played first violin for the Birmingham Civic Symphony, but when he worked with the various country groups his name would be ‘Gap’ Johnson. Boy, how I loved sitting with him and playing all of the old hornpipes, schottisches and polkas! This we did just for fun. It was a tremendous learning process for me.”
In 1936 Penny relocated, briefly, to New Orleans, where his music underwent a significant transformation: it was here that he fell for the Texas sound, which he would bring, only a few months later, back to Birmingham and on which, elsewhere, he would build his reputation. By the time his New Orleans stay was up, he had evolved from apprentice to bandleader, and from his very beginnings in that role, he exhibited what would be a lifelong tendency to seek out and surround himself with the strongest possible talent.
Penny’s first recruit—and, off-and-on, a longtime collaborator—was steel guitar player Noel Boggs, whose prowess on that instrument would soon become legendary. Driving from Birmingham to New Orleans Penny tuned into some great fiddling over New Orleans station WWL; he drove to the station and met the fiddler, Sheldon Bennett, a Port Arthur, Texas, musician who Penny convinced to move to Birmingham. Through Bennett Penny met Louis Dumont, a tenor banjo player: “Now,” Penny wrote in his memoir, “my plan started falling into place.” Penny went back to Birmingham “with great plans swirling in my imagination”; the bandmates—Boggs, Bennett, and Dumont—were to meet him there a few weeks later. Mentor and friend Hal Burns lent his enthusiasm to the project, predicting great success.
It is worth quoting Penny’s memoir at some length:
Here, I had better explain my thinking on having this style group on the air in Alabama. In Oklahoma there were the Hi-Fliers in Oklahoma City; Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, in Tulsa. Louisiana had The Shelton Brothers, The Sunshine Boys and Jimmie Davis and his Group. Texas had a good group in most any good-sized town. There were Bill Boyd and his Cowboy Ramblers, The Lightcrust Doughboys, W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys, Milton Brown and his Brownies, The Sons of the West, The Modern Mountaineers, just to name a few.
All these bands played virtually the same style of music. It was N-O-T Country. It was definitely N-O-T Hillbilly. In those days, a group like the aforementioned was referred to as a “Texas Fiddle Band”. Sometimes the record company would bill this type band as a “Hot String Band”. This was to give this style of music a distinction. These groups performed a great deal like the “Pop” bands of the day, ie: there would be an introduction by the band, then the singer would come in and sing the melody. After the singer, one of the musicians would “take off”: improvise on the melody. You would probably never hear the melody again until the singer came back in and reprised the song.
I never started out to form this kind of band, but after hearing The Brownies, The Playboys and The Lightcrust Doughboys, the die was cast. I found complete musical satisfaction with this kind of presentation. I could not see anything but repetition in playing the melody over and over. What would be the point in having great musicians like Bob Dunn, Cecil Brower, Cliff Bruner and their ilk, if you were just going to play the melody? Ludicrous! I am proud to say any band that I fronted always had its share of the finest musicians available. What the hell? If I had wanted the melody hacked to death and overworked, I could have taught a chimpanzee to do the job!
I had no desire to play Hillbilly music. I wanted my group to swing. I wanted good musicians, and I wanted them to play to the full extent of their ability. I always told my musicians that I would be the weakest musician in our unit. I reminded them that I would be the really commercial performer and they should complement that with being as good as they possibly could be.
Penny’s thoughts on music labels are instructive here. He goes on to describe his dissatisfaction with the “Western Swing” term: “Somewhere along the line someone described these kinds of groups as ‘Western Swing.’ What a misnomer! We, who played that kind of music, never heard of the phrase ‘Western Swing’ in those days.” “The phrase,” he wrote, “belongs soley to Spade Cooley,” who coined the term in naming himself “King of Western Swing.” As far as Penny and others were concerned the label fit Cooley’s sound perfectly, but the term defined only Cooley’s thing. A broader, and better, term was the “Texas fiddle band.”
“No matter how hard we tried to prove our point,” Penny’s memoir complains, “some writer, maybe thirty years old, would do a story and hang the phrase ‘Western Swing’ anywhere they pleased. ‘Hey, they’re playing fiddles and guitars, ain’t they? Hell, man, that’s Western Swing!’ Bullshit. They would write these things never caring if he or she was warping musical history a bit. So, a little warp there and the first thing you know, all the facts are gone and we are living a fantasy.” The music of Penny and his compatriots owed more to the jazz and pop traditions of the day; Penny’s greatest instrumental influence, after all, was jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Sydney Penny says of her father: “I remember him, even as an older man, listening to [Reinhardt’s] music to learn new chords, new variations.”
Whatever it was called, the music had been the unique property of the Western states, and Penny, having caught its fever, sought to stake a claim for it back East. “I thought we would do fine in Birmingham because we were different,” he wrote, but confesses: “How wrong I was! Alabama was and is, strictly Grand Ol’ Opry territory. I don’t think anyone in the Southeast ever knew what we were trying to do.”
Penny and his band—he named them the Radio Cowboys—played hard but struggled to pay the bills. Boggs had opted for a high-paying gig in Oklahoma City (he and Penny would reunite in later contexts), and Penny enlisted in his place Sammy Forsmark, who played steel in a Hawaiian-style group over WAPI. A local singer and guitarist, Julian Akins, added his bass to the group. “Everything,” Penny recalled, “seemed to be coming together as I had hoped it would.”
Radio station WKBC was willing to give the Cowboys howevermuch airtime they wanted, and Penny managed, periodically, to bring some big out-of-town guests to the show. “Once Tom Mix dropped by,” Penny says, remembering the iconic screen cowboy: “I was fascinated by the jingle of his spurs.”
Despite this activity, the Radio Cowboys struggled to build a large enough following to make a living, and found themselves playing a lunch-rush restaurant gig in exchange for a free meal apiece. Hank received offers from other groups out West, but he was determined to make his own group a success. Ultimately this would mean leaving Birmingham. “If you just want to ‘live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to Man,’ then Birmingham is the place,” Penny wrote. But “there was just no way to make a living there!”
Birmingham and its music community had served as Penny’s training ground, but he seemed to have squeezed from the city all it had, professionally, to offer him, and his aspirations were larger. He would build his career in other places, but not before leaving an impact on younger local performers. Not long ago, Penny had sat admiringly at the feet of the more talented, older players; as he refined his own performance, he gained followers of his own. Birmingham musician Hardrock Gunter, whose 1950s recordings would foreshadow the sound and ethos of rockabilly, was a diehard Penny disciple, emulating Hank’s comedy and stage manner as much as his music. “I would walk like him,” Gunter recalled, “tried to talk like him, I listened to everything he did, I told the same stories he told, and did everything.”
* * *
After Birmingham, Penny’s career was nomadic and wide-ranging in its activities. Leaving the Magic City, the Cowboys followed an opportunity at a Chattanooga radio station, where they could earn fifteen dollars a week apiece, a substantial pay raise from their Birmingham work. From Chattanooga they relocated to Atlanta and a still more prestigious gig on station WSB’s “Crossroad Follies.” They cut their first records. By 1942 Penny was fronting a group called the Plantation Boys on the “Boone County Jamboree” at Cincinnati station WLW, working alongside country acts Grampa Jones, Merle Travis, and the Delmore Brothers, and even backing pop sensation Doris Day. In Cincinnati he signed a contract with Syd Nathan of King Records, initiating a rocky relationship but a solid run of records. In 1945, he moved to Hollywood, where he continued to record while also developing his comedy career; for Spade Cooley’s televised variety show he unveiled the persona of “that plain ol’ country boy” from Remlap, Alabama, a character his act would incorporate for many years. He worked as a dee-jay, hosting his “Penny Serenade” radio show daily. In 1946, he scored his first and second hits, “Steel Guitar Rag” and “Get Yourself a Redhead.” He took bit parts in Western movies and, with a business partner, opened a couple of nightclubs, including the celebrated Palomino Club, which served up swinging hot music alongside black-eyed peas and cornbread. In the 1950s he took up for several years in Las Vegas. After some less-than-productive years in Nashville and Wichita, he retired to California where he died, of a heart attack, in 1992.
Today Penny is often celebrated for his refusal to yield to or compromise with his alleged superiors, an obstinance which may have cost him some career opportunities but may also have kept him his artistic integrity; whatever the prize, Penny would not play Faust. Once the Grand Ole Opry offered Penny a spot—the most prestigious gig, in those days, in the field—but offered it with one provision: that Noel Boggs, keeping with the Opry’s acoustic policy, trade his electric steel for a dobro. Penny turned the offer down, choosing instead to stick it out where he was, with Boggs’ steel intact. On another occasion, Penny’s group worked as house band at the Venice Pier Ballroom in Santa Monica; his Ballroom boss, Foreman Phillips, frustrated by the band’s jazz-infused improv, put signs up in the group’s dressing room, demanding “WHERE’S THE MELODY?” Finally Foreman insisted Penny fire three of his backing musicians—Boggs again, fiddler Harold Hensley, and guitarist Jimmy Wyble. Instead, Penny offered his own resignation. Penny clashed often, too, with King Records head Syd Nathan. A blowout erupted between Nathan and Penny during the recording of the instrumental “Cowtown Boogie”; before release, Nathan re-titled the record, fittingly, “Penny Blows His Top.”
Despite his reputation as a man with a temper, what comes through in the records is Penny’s smooth charisma and good humor. One of Penny’s best-known songs was 1950’s “Bloodshot Eyes,” which protests to a wild-living lover gone woefully astray, “Don’t roll them bloodshot eyes at me.” “Your eyes look like two cherries in a glass of buttermilk,” Penny complains, adding in another verse: “Your eyes look like a road-map, I’m scared to smell your breath / You’d better shut those peepers ‘fore you bleed yourself to death.” Penny took the song to #4 on the country charts, the same spot occupied earlier by both “Steel Guitar Stomp” and “Get Yourself a Redhead”; that #4 slot would be his favorite, and highest, stop in the charts. “Bloodshot Eyes” crossed over into R&B, proving a hit in the same year for jump blues legend Wynonie Harris, another artist on the King label. (It would be covered in time by many others: Hardrock Gunter, still under his idol’s spell, cut a good version in 1958, and Pat Benetar would rock it out in 1991.) On the original Penny is surrounded as usual by a crack team of musicians, and he presides over the proceedings with characteristic relish and cool.
Seldom heard today, Hank Penny’s music is worth a listening; worth, in fact, lots of listenings. Years later, these records still can swing.
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Notes: This article appeared originally, in the fall of 2009, at PAVO, the late online magazine of art, music, and culture in Birmingham, Alabama.
Excerpts from Hank Penny’s unpublished memoirs are available through the generosity of Sydney Penny and the Penny family. Ms. Penny is currently preparing her father’s manuscript for publication and has recently launched a website, www.hankpenny.net. Quotes from Ms. Penny are from her correspondence with the author, 2009. Her contribution of resources and background were invaluable to this article.
Hardrock Gunter is quoted in the liner notes to Gonna Rock ‘n’ Roll, Gonna Dance All Night, available from Bear Family Records.
Hank Penny’s music is available on several CDs. Two great collections are Proper Records’ two-disc King of Hillbilly Bebop, and Bloodshot Revival’s Crazy Rhythm: The Standard Transcriptions. The liner notes to those collections provided additional biographical info for this essay.
The Last, Great, Real-Hillbilly DJ: An Interview with Darwin Lee Hill
Darwin Lee Hill, 2007
Darwin Lee Hill is the host of “Darwin Lee’s Real Hillbilly Music Hour,” a vintage country show on AM radio station WHVW in Poughkeepsie, New York. He has hosted the Sunday afternoon show for over fourteen years. He has been a country music collector almost all his life.
WHVW is locally owned and operated, profoundly original, and, in an era of corporate ownership and formula programming, entirely unlikely. Since its sale in 1992 to “Pirate” Joe Ferraro, this self-proclaimed “hip spot on your dial” and “best station in the nation” features a line-up of American roots music rarely heard elsewhere, much of it spun from old 78-rpm recordings. The Real Hillbilly Music Hour fits nicely into the station’s eclectic mix of early rock and roll, classic R&B, doo-wop, gospel, and country. Darwin Lee is himself contemptuous of “what passes for country music” these days, let alone what passes for country radio. His show, like WHVW itself, is a last stand against musical homogenization, a bittersweet reminder of days when radio might be idiosyncratic, spontaneous, intensely local, and, even, sometimes, downright strange.
Darwin Lee still lives in the house in which he grew up; today he occupies the upper level, his mother the downstairs. “You’ll get a kick out of this place,” he says: “it’s a regular little hillbilly museum.” And it is. One wall is covered with 8-by-10 framed glossy photos of classic country music stars (Little Jimmy Dickens, George Jones), many of the photos signed. Although you couldn’t tell by looking, most of the photos are digital reproductions; the originals are stored away in scrapbooks to avoid exposure to sunlight or other damaging elements. There is a Jimmie Rodgers corner, crammed with songbooks and framed photos of the country-music legend; there’s a Hank Williams section, a Jimmy Martin section. (A favorite Hank shot: Williams shaking hands with a young, beaming, cowboy-suited boy whose first name, coincidentally, was Darwin.) Rebel flags hang over radiator units. Both the double doors which open into the den from the bedroom are covered with old songbooks from Ernest Tubb and others. In one corner of the room there’s a typewriter. In several places there are racks and leaning stacks of CDs.
There’s a large space devoted to Elvis, and in the back room an impressive chunk of Darwin Lee’s record collection. Records are arranged by genre (Western Swing, Brother Duets) and in some places by subject matter (Drinking Songs, Trucking, Broken Hearts).
For several years Darwin Lee made his living driving a truck; now he’s a courier for an area health system. His evenings are often spent putting together the coming Sunday’s show. (The radio work is all volunteer.) For a number of years now, he has been interviewing for the program old-timers from the country trenches, dusty names most of the world has forgotten: Chester Smith; Norma Jean; Yodeling Kenny Robertson; Red Simpson; Braxton Shuffert; Slim Bryant. He has coaxed remarkable interviews from the legendarily closed-lipped Bill Bollick (half of the classic brother-duo the Blue Sky Boys) and Big Bill Lister (a Hank Williams compatriot and one of the great performers of country beer songs).
Darwin Lee Hill is a wild, breathing encyclopedia of country music esoterica, his three hours on Sunday a refreshing reminder of what radio can be. The interview below was conducted in 2002. In 2009, he is still going strong behind the mic.
I’m from Poughkeepsie. My band used to do–are you familiar with the song, “Are You From Dixie?”–we used to do “Are You From Poughkeepsie?” Complete with mentioning local bums and everything in it. But, yeah, I’m from Poughkeepsie: born and raised here, went to public schools here, graduated in ’77 from Poughkeepsie High School. Didn’t wind up going to college, just–well, I was working. I worked semi-fulltime when I was in high school, so … there really wasn’t money for it, and I never applied myself to school enough to get a scholarship at anything, and I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do, anyway–I was seventeen. So I went to work for the local newspaper, loading trucks at night and things like that-that lasted long enough till I rode a bicycle through the press room when they were running the newspaper off one evening, and I got fired. It worked out well, though, because a couple weeks later I went to work at a local record store chain called the Book and Record, down on Main Street. Number 315 Main Street. It’s right across the street from where WHVW is now, so I’ve come full cycle.
My dad worked for the wholesaler that used to stock those stores; he was the record buyer for them. So it was kind of neat, I could get my stuff wholesale. When albums were $6.98, they cost me about three and a quarter. That works pretty good when you’re working for a step up above minimum wage.
I’d been collecting records long before that. I started when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, something like that. I can remember–in fact, I told Merle Haggard this when I met him, and I didn’t make it up, either. That lawnmower outside reminds me of it. That girl’s over there mowing my next-door neighbor’s lawn; I used to do that for the people that owned that house. I did that, and I used to do it for the people across the street, and the doctor that lived way over there … I saved up the money and I’d get the new Merle Haggard album or something. We’re talking probably 1970, 1971. They were three or four bucks. But it meant something to me, and it also taught me to take care of records. Worst thing you can do is scratch one and have to buy it over–that meant mowing two lawns to get one record.
With Merle Haggard on Haggard's tour bus; Long Island, 1991
I’m more of a music collector than I am a record collector. I’m not always choosey, you know. Say it’s a choice between the 78 or CD, well, I’d like to have both but, you know: whichever it’s easier to get at the time.
When did you get your first 78s?
I started picking them up at flea markets and stuff like that. I used to have a little battery-operated record player to play em on. I was probably thirteen, fourteen–no, maybe even closer to fifteen when I started buying 78s. I’d pick em up here and there. And what got me into 78s and 45s in particular was: I don’t remember what artist it was, but it was somebody that only made a handful of albums and so I got em all. I was like, “Yay. I finally got the whole collection on him.” Dad says, “What about the B-sides?”
“Oh, well, there’s B-sides, there’s probably some special promotional interviews they put out-you don’t have it all!“ So that got me curious into all the other stuff.
Then I started buying 78s here and there, and then–the turning point with the 78s, what got me going on them, I can tell you. It was the spring of 1976. It was an ad I caught on the radio. One of our local stations had a thing where you could call if you had stuff for sale. And this lady, I can still remember her name: Frances Bruin, and she lived in New Windsor, and she had 78s for sale she wanted to get rid of. She had about, oh, probably seven or eight hundred all together. So I went over to look at em, and it was mostly big band and pop stuff-a lot of stuff that if I’d bought, to this day I probably never would’ve done anything with or bothered with, you know. And there was a definite year range there. She started buying em about 1938 or ’39, and stopped about 1952. But. They were all in their original sleeves, not one of em even had a fingerprint on it. Some of them might be worn, but none of them were scratched or cracked. Every one had been taken perfect care of properly, the way they should have been. If a record like, for instance “Cattle Call” by Eddy Arnold, got to be a bit worn-buy another copy. Or, if it’s a record that she knew she was gonna put some wear on, she’d buy two, or maybe three of them. So, no matter what, there was always at least one copy in there that was clean as a whistle.
I went and looked at em, figured out what the country stuff was. It was a little over 200 of em. She said, “Well, make me an offer.” I offered her 50 bucks and almost got thrown out of her house. I wound up giving her–what the hell did I give her?–a hundred. For about 220 of em, 230 of em, something like that. About a week later she called me up and she goes, “Wait a minute. I found more country records out in my garage. The price includes them, too, just come out and get em.” This was the 78 album sets, like Bob Wills, and all that cool stuff. In there was a nice run of Hank Williams on MGM. You never find Hank Williams records clean; these were like brand new. Lots of Bluebird stuff, lots of Elton Britt; there was Delmore Brothers, Blue Sky Blues, plus Eddy Arnold, tons of Roy Acuff … I always refer to that as: “That was my 78 starter kit.” Because now I had 250 there, plus probably 50 or so I already had. I said, “All right, let’s get to town. Let’s see how many more…” Cause now I had something to build around. I had a real nice helping of ’40s stuff, early ’50s stuff, a smattering of ’30s stuff. Ok, let’s go backwards; let’s get some of this stuff from the ’20s.
In fact, I can remember-you’ll get a kick out of this; it’s a good story, too-Eck Robertson, “Sally Gooden.” 1922, Victor. I found that at the Maybrook Flea Market for fifty cents. I must have went through a thousand records–I was like, “Well, if that’s there, what else is in there?” And there wasn’t another record in there that was worth bringing home! But that’s the first-recorded country record. Fiddlin’ John Carson’s was the first one released, but Eck’s was the first one actually recorded. And I found it for fifty cents, in the original Victor sleeve, and everything.
On Hank Snow's tour bus, August 14, 1976: "two days before my eighteenth birthday."
My collection’s spread all over this house. There’s some of my rock collection in a special basement room with a dehumidifier so nothing happens to it, I’ve got stuff down in my mother’s apartment, I’ve got stuff here–I don’t have anything in the attic, but–. And I don’t really have any idea how many records I actually have, either.
Yeah, I was about to ask–
I’ll give you the same answer I give everybody else: I’m too busy buyin’ em and grabbin’ em to count em. Listenin’ to em. It’s true: the count would change every day. I mean, today I went up to the station to pick up my mail and I had four CDs. That’s seven so far this week, and it’s Wednesday.
Do you still come across a fair amount of 78s?
Not really, not really. I mostly get them out of record auctions now. But–I knew it would come one day, too–the old country stuff, the kind of stuff that interests me and that I like to collect, is getting real pricey now. And I think there’s two things that make that. This is just my opinion, but the two things I think that are making it: number one is the internet, there’s more people have access to the stuff, and number two, ever since Nashville and the powers that be destroyed real country music, where else does it exist? Nashville–well, we can get to Nashville later on. When I think of all that … Next question.
But this guy, Jim King: he was fun. He invited me up, I think it was the first time ever done in the Hudson Valley, at least until I did it again a couple months ago, where somebody decided to do all thirteen of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels in a row, uninterrupted, on the air. Just seemed like a good concept, you know. But he didn’t have all the blue yodels. I did, so…
Then we came up with–”Hey, Dar, what do you think: you want to do two hours of Jerry Lee Lewis? You bring your records, I’ll bring mine.” And he gave me a little hands-on experience with cueing up the records. “Here, I’ll show you. There’s nothing to this, kid, just read this,” you know. And when I was in high school I was interested in English and stuff like that, in writing; I took debate classes, elocution lessons. Even took a course up at Dutchess Community College in communications and broadcasting. What a waste of time that was-because I never really needed any of that knowledge in later years, especially how I came into radio. Kind of fell into that.
Anyway, he gave me the idea, I thought it might be a cool thing to do when I got out of school. Till I started asking around and found out what these guys made. You hear this guy, big booming voice; you ride by the station later on at night, the guy’s out there emptying the garbage. I was like, “Some radio personality! What is this shit?” You know? And to a fifteen-, sixteen-year-old kid, that just wrecked the illusion of that. No, no, no, no, no. No, I’ll go work in a store or drive a truck or something; at least that’s honest and people know, what they see you doing is what you’re doing.
About twelve, thirteen years ago, my buddy Stewart I went to high school with–he’s probably got as many records as I do. His tastes are a little different, so his collection varies. But he got a show on WVKR. I don’t remember, I’ll have to ask him sometime; I forgot how he got that show. But he got it, and it’s the Jukebox Jamboree. It’s a good show. It’s an open-ended concept, so you can do damn near anything with it, you’re not locked into any particular kind of music, as long as it’s something that would hold somebody’s interest on a Friday night while they’re partying. That’s a good concept. So, it didn’t take him long, he started dragging my ass up there. He’d come over here and start going through my records and borrowing records off me to use for his show. I was like, “Why don’t I just come up and do the show for you?” “Oh. Ok.” In fact, we’re doing one on Elvis’ death anniversary, August sixteenth. Cause it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary this year. That’s also my birthday-Elvis died right on my birthday.
So he’s like, “Let’s do an Elvis show together. Can you come up with something?” He kept calling me: “Can you come up with something?” So I remembered that over the years I collected a lot of the original newscasts when Elvis was discovered dead, and then the funeral and stuff. So what I’m gonna do for the twenty-fifth anniversary, the concept is: “Elvis is Still Dead.” I’m just gonna run all these interview clips with the family, the newscasts, the bulletins, and then splice it with his records. No commentary needed.
I’ve done other Elvis shows with Stewart, too. We did one five-hour Elvis show, was nothing but songs from his movies. The last Elvis show we did about five years ago, we didn’t play anything by Elvis. We just put together two solid hours of all the songs he covered, starting with “That’s All Right, Mama,” running up to “My Way,” by Frank Sinatra. And we just documented his whole career without playing anything by him. That was the hardest show to put together; that took us about a week to pull all those records, and sequence it in a way that would make sense. [Laughs] So that you would have everything from Bill Monroe, to Arthur Crudup, to Wayne Newton and everything, all in there, and have it make some kind of musical sense. It wasn’t easy.
But I started going up there and doing shows with him and, I don’t know, we come up with some wild-ass concepts. We were doing these goofy shows from time to time. Then Pirate Joe took over WHVW and made it all country. So me and Stewart used to sit around and go, “Why don’t we show them what a real country music show would sound like?” So we went up there one night, we picked out the most hillbilly-sounding, outrageous country records imaginable. Stuff like-one was this guy imitating Alfalfa singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Troy Hess doing “Mama, Please Don’t Go Topless.” This song about a guy killing his dog, called “Psycho.” Along with red-hot rockabilly and everything else, you know. And in between the sets and in between the songs we were making fun of everybody that worked for WHVW. Pirate Joe was dubbed Pirate Schmoe, and everything.
Pirate Joe heard the show. I already knew him at that point, not too well. And he said, “Whose records were they?” I said, “They were mine.” He goes, “Did you ever think about working for WHVW?” I was like, “Sure!” He goes, “No, not with the schtick! That’s gotta go.” [Laughs]
At WHVW studios, 1990s
So, yeah. That’s how I came here, by a series of goofs and mishaps. I wasn’t at all serious about it.
Can you describe the format of your show at WHVW?
Kind of evolved over time. Took about a year and a half before I figured out what in hell I was doing. I used to just go up there and spin records, say, throw the phone lines open and see–people tell me what they like and don’t like. They’ve always been good at that. Still are. And I decided there were certain things I needed to play. There needed to be a place for some bluegrass in the show. One thing the guy that does the German hour insisted on, he said, “You got to have a portion of the show set aside for Western music. Nobody plays Gene Autry or Tex Ritter or anything anymore.” So that got me thinking, let’s just have Western music period, both old and new.
I’ve got one record right now, I haven’t figured out where it’s gonna go yet, but I got Bing Crosby doing “Y’all Come.” Don’t laugh, it’s a hot record, but people are gonna go, “What the hell is he playing that for?” when I do play it.
Yeah, it just kind of evolved over time. I just wanted to touch on a little bit of all the genres, subgenres, of country music in the space of the show, and go from the old to the new, and hopefully present a whole bunch of stuff that’s not easy to hear. Not just old records but also there’s a lot of independent artists, not only in this country but other countries, make great music, needs to be heard. And so, over time–like, now I start with bluegrass. Then I got–the latest new feature–the Hillbilly News. It’s news about people in the industry, the old-timers, stuff like that. Requests. “Here’s something new I want to lay on you.” Bad-a-bing, that’s first hour.
Hour number two used to start out with a yodeling set, but I just got burned out putting that together, so I went to the old-timey set, which is stuff from the ’20s and ’30s. But after a while that all sounds alike to me, too, so I alternate–basically I put the show together now like a Chinese menu: pick some from Column A, pick some from Column B. All right, what are we going to have this week? All right, yeah: let’s have a train set, a trucker set, you know … But there’s certain essentials that always need to be there: you always got to have some songs about love gone wrong, and drinkin’. Gotta be in there. And you gotta end with a song for our sick and shut-in friends who like a good inspirational tune. Other than that, anymore, the show’s getting to be pretty freestyle. Best way I could describe it. But I keep switching up on it, because I don’t want the listeners to get bored with it, and I don’t want to get bored with it, either. When you tune in every Sunday, you know I’m gonna start with some bluegrass, but other than that it’s really hard to tell where I’m gonna go with the show.
What about your listeners? Do you have a sense of who they are?
Very demanding. They know what they like; they really know what they don’t like. They’re not afraid to express themselves. And there ain’t no simple demographic for it, either. I thought when I first started doing it, it’s gonna be all older people listening to it, anyway. Nope. All age groups seem to like it. And I’ve gotten to be friends with some of them. They’re funny, you know. One time I was just riffin’ away on the air. I was playing drinkin’ numbers. “Yeah, boy, man, my liquor cabinet could use restocking.” This guy Don from Newburg calls me up: “Whaddaya like?”
So I was being smart: “Why don’t you bring me a bottle of Johnny Walker Black?” About three days later it comes to the station. [Laughs] I was only kidding with the guy, you know. Then he calls me up the following Sunday: “Did you get it?” I was like, “Well, damn, that was awful nice.” He says, “Well, you played my request a month ago.” Hm. Ok.
Are there any especially memorable shows that you’ve put together over the years? Memorable to you or otherwise really popular with the listeners?
I can tell you one they hated: I did an all female one. I figured it’d be fun, just to trace the evolution of the female in country music history. “Where’s the Hank Williams?” And I think the kicker was: “I ain’t playin’ Hank today, but I’m playin’ his wife!” You ever heard his wife’s records? [Laughs] ‘Nuff said? They weren’t amused by that. You know, I was playing yodelers and all sorts of stuff, I thought I was doing great–the Dezourik Sisters–I was playing stuff that you’d never hear!
Nope, they didn’t like that.
With Jim and Jesse McReynolds, 1997
The shows kind of all run together after a while. But since I’ve started doing the taped phone interviews with country musicians and country music legends-now, those things on their own merit are all extremely memorable. I think Big Bill Lister was the first one. He’s kind of burned out on talking about his buddy Hank Williams. That’s all anybody ever asked him about-that’s why he has an unlisted phone number, that’s why you sent him registered letters and they’d come back and everything.
When I finally did get in touch with him, I explained to him that I didn’t want to bug him about Hank, I wanted to talk to him about what he had done and all the people he’d crossed paths with. He thought that was fabulous-nobody ever approached him about him. They just wanted to know about the people he worked with, they didn’t care nothing about the records he made or anything. And the guy’s a great storyteller, one of the best storytellers I ever had on this show. I got a fabulous interview out of him.
I talked to Jett Williams a couple weeks ago, Hank’s daughter. Oh, she had a great Hank story-you’ll like this one. This is one of the best Hank stories I heard in a long time.
Hank was working out in California with Freddy Hart. Freddy Hart’s the guy that did “Easy Lovin’” in the ’70s. But this story happened early on.
Freddy Hart had bought a brand new Martin guitar. You know, they’ve never been cheap, and I’m sure for a guy just starting out in the music business it was quite an investment, back in the early ’50s. Freddy’s opening for Hank. Hank keeps bitching that his guitar don’t sound right: it must be out of tune or something wrong with it, maybe it’s defective. And Hank puzzled over this and then finally he figured it out: he says it didn’t have that country soul. It didn’t have the right ring to it.
“Freddy, I can fix that for you.”
Freddy: “Well, ok, Hank.” He respected him, you know; figured some little trick …
So what Hank did was took his brand new Martin guitar; he opened up a Jack’s beer; he poured the entire contents of the beer into the guitar; sloshed it around; poured it out; and then started pickin’ on it. And he goes, “There. Now it has country soul. Now it’s a real, hillbilly-sounding guitar.”
I think most people who had a new Martin would be upset if somebody did that to em. Certain people, Hank would of wound up wearin’ that guitar after that.
Have you ever had people over the years get in touch with you, looking for a record?
You mean, listeners or artists?
Yeah. Sometimes some of these people move around a lot and they didn’t keep a lot of their stuff. Like Red River Dave, he’s since passed away, but I can remember calling him up, cause I’d made a recording of a song he wrote called “The California Hippie Murders.” It’s about Charles Manson. It’s done to the tune of “Never No More Blues” by Jimmie Rodgers; it’s got yodeling and everything in it, it’s classic. It’s one of these things Dr. Demento would cream over, it’s just so bizarre. And so I contacted him and said, “Hey, guess what, we do one of your songs: ‘California Hippie Murders.’” He’s like, “Really? Well, I’ll take your word for it, I don’t remember it. I don’t have it.” [Laughs] So I sent him a tape of it, along with a tape of our version of it. He says, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember that now.” He says, “Yeah, I put that record out and the DJ’s were just horrified, nobody’d play it.” Said, “I don’t even know-how the hell did you get a copy of it?”
So then we started talking about other things. It turned out–now here’s a guy, probably made six, seven hundred sides over the years–he maybe had a hundred of em when I talked to him. So I put as much of his stuff as I had on tape for him. And he in turn put on tape for me a bunch of demo recordings and stuff that he recorded for release but never did get released. And now that he’s gone, God knows what happened to his masters of them, but at least I have copies of them.
And Liz Anderson, she had a house fire about twenty years ago and lost all of–all of her stuff. Her awards and everything. The thing that really bothered her was she lost all of these recordings that she had of dozens and dozens of artists, their recordings of songs she had written for them. That’s one of the projects I’ve got going on right now: finding those records. When I find em, I just send em to her. I figure that’s my way of giving something back to these people that have provided me with so much entertainment over the years. Like, Liz Anderson is an example of somebody who I’ve always really admired. Always went out of my way to buy her old records and stuff. Then I get to know her and she’s a real sweetheart, she’d do anything for you. Calls me up on my birthday, calls me up on the holidays and stuff. Drop me a note at least once a month: “How you doing? What, have you been sick; why haven’t I heard from you?” You know, it’s like-this is pretty damn cool. Somebody that I admire that’s that nice, you know. And most of the people I deal with are pretty nice. The ones that aren’t, I don’t deal with. I haven’t run into any real scumbags yet, knock on wood. I’m sure I will, somewhere along the line.
You’ve mentioned your own band. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Don’t have it no more! Which one? I had a bunch of different ones over an eighteen-year period. My first one was a punk band–it was called the Pukes. We sought to invade Dutchess County with this new phenomenon called “Puke Rock.” Even had a song called “Going to a Puke Party.” The locals that hung out and drank in the park, we called em pukes–that’s where it all came from. Cause invariably you got these assholes together and that’s what one of em would do. So we were covering Sex Pistols and rockabilly and stuff, and then–I had a bunch of bands over the years. I had a Southern Rock band. Bunch of rock bands.
I had one band, the only one that made any money, was called “Filler.” Cause that’s all they were. We played ’70s rock and disco. I had those shirts and flared jeans-I used to go to the Salvation Army to shop for stuff like that, to wear for that band. We would only do songs from K-Tel albums that cost less than 50 cents; I mean, we had real guidelines for this band. We did a lot of Grand Funk tunes, and James Brown rave-ups; “Kung Fu Fighting,” we used to do that.
See, we’d take something like “Kung Fu Fighting,” right? You know how hippie bands, the big thing was they’d have an extended jam on something, they’d take some song and flog it for five to ten minutes? Well, we took that concept-we’d take a song like “Kung Fu Fighting” and play it for fifteen minutes! And just as irritating as we could be. And … people liked us. I never understood it.
We had a song called “Do the James Brown.” Where all it was, was the guys would just play one riff over and over and I’d be going: “Umphh! Good-God! Ain’t it funky now! Get back! How bout everybody way back there!” You know, and stuff like that. We had some ballads we did, too. We used to do that song Styx did, “Lady.” Except I’d sing it in a Jerry Lewis voice-so I’d come out: “LAAAADYYYY!!” Stuff like that.
We just tore em up with that band. And it actually made money. I could not understand it, cause the more horrible we got, the more people seemed to like it. Nobody got the joke. So you can never underestimate the tastes of the average music fan.
Then there was the hillbilly band: there was the Higgins Brothers Gang. Originally–let’s see–that grew out of a rockabilly band. Called Dixie Refried. Not to be confused with Dixie Fried, because that had another front-man. That guy moved–Chip–moved back down to Mississippi, I became the front-man, then it became Dixie Refried. Then the guys got good and sick of me, so then it evolved into the Higgins Brothers Gang. Then it evolved into a full hillbilly band. Again–way ahead of our time. Except, that band, I couldn’t sell that band for shit. Dixie Refried I remember playing at a bowling alley down in Wappingers; I think we made eight dollars and thirteen cents apiece after playing two sets. I was like, you know, I love playing music, but not that much.
Darwin Lee Hill, center, with Dixie Refried, 1992
But the Higgins Brothers Gang, we had some pretty good gigs. We played for the Moonies over around Port Jervis–that was real interesting. That was weird. We got that gig cause some other guy had booked it, he canceled out and got us. Said, “Oh, no, I got a conflict, I got another gig that day; you guys will have to take it!” And once we got there I saw why. But we went up there and did our usual nonsense, you know. Everything from “Everybody’s Truckin’” to “Okie from Muskogee” and back. The killer, “Yodeling Song.” We had a fiddler and everything. Our fiddler was a classically trained violinist, it was hard to get her to play bad enough to match the rest of us. And we had a few personnel changes here and there and eventually that just went by the wayside. I wouldn’t have gotten so disgusted with it, but I wasn’t making any money off it, and it was taking up what little time I had left that wasn’t taken up by the radio show and collecting records. So.
Well, maybe should we talk a little bit about the industry now; about Nashville?
Oh! Where do I begin. “The industry now.” Oh, they’ve done the industry up righteously. Around Christmastime–you must know about that, right?–the original Coutnry Music Hall of Fame, down around 16th Avenue? It’s now the Country Hole of Fame. They bulldozed it, the day after Christmas.
It was nice. One thing they had, all around the perimeter of the building and in through the lobby, was called the Walkway of the Stars, and it was set up like down in Hollywood Boulevard, where the stars would have their star and their name and everything. The goddamn Country Music Association didn’t pay for that, the fans paid for them. Bulldozers tore that all to pieces. And that stuff–I put out money for the Lefty Frizzell one myself. But they have no respect for anything down there. The music business is so frigged up anymore–well, Nashville got out of the country music business about twenty years ago, anyway. But they finally had to get rid of that stinkin’ embarrassment that was 16th Avenue.
That’s where I always used to go. Now there’s no reason for me to even go back to Nashville. They had the wax museum, they had the Family Tradition Museum. Hank, Jr. ran that. Big sign out front: “Come in and see: Hank’s Death Car!“ [Laughs] That was my idea of–that’s Nashville. And lower Broadway, they cleaned that up; they put a Planet Holywood in there. But you’d go block after block and it was nothing but strip clubs, gin joints, and honky-tonks where live bands played. Whatever kind of basic entertainment you wanted, it was there, and it was cheap. Half of these bars that had live bands didn’t even have a cover charge to get in. You just tipped the band if you liked something.
My dad called this one years and years ago. My dad’s been gone thirteen years. And he said, “The time’s gonna come when the music business–all types of music–they’re gonna run it like they ran the pop music industry years ago. Everything’s gonna be geared to the lowest common denominator. There’s gonna be no such thing as quality. And as far as artists-back in the ’60s they called em eighteen-month wonders, cause that was the shelf-life of an artist. Like an American Bandstand artist. Well today it’s, what, a three-year wonder. Cause they make their first album, it takes two or three years to get the second one out. Say the first album sells ten million, second one sells five. Second one only sold five, it’s a failure. You’re gone. Plus, you owe us all this money off of whatever royalties you had coming for what we spent to promote this freakin’ thing that didn’t sell to our expectations. That’s the way it’s run today.
And radio–Clear Channel owns 75% of the radio stations in this country today, you know, so what you hear on the air–on FM, anyway–is dictated by probably no more than a dozen people. And it doesn’t matter. They’re either in Los Angeles or New York City, they don’t give a damn what somebody in Arkansas wants to hear. Because their demographic is-I think it’s 20- to 30-year-old now-female. That’s their target audience. And I don’t want this to be perceived as a knock against women or anything, or age. But damn it, there’s older people, there’s younger people, there’s men, there’s every–you know, there’s people out there that have more interest than just that. They don’t give a shit, that’s not what they’re in business for. They got their target audience.
Look at country music. When’s the last time you heard a regional accent on somebody on a major label? On a major label, or on CMT or something? Never.
That’s why now I’m damn glad I call it “Darwin Lee’s Real Hillbilly Music Show.” So people don’t tune in thinking they’re gonna hear that crappy Nashville corporate country. I started calling it that cause I got tired of people calling up for Garth Brooks and shit like that. [Laughs] “Come on, man, it’s a hillbilly show, you know I don’t play that.” Or Anne Murray or any of that stuff you see on Late Night.
No, they’ve ruined it. But there is hope. I mean, there’s great stuff I get; every week I get stuff, some of it’s outstanding. But it’s only on little pissant labels that people ain’t gonna get to hear, unless they hear it on my show. And as far as country music in Nashville, it’s doomed. But, not to worry: there’s great country music coming out of Texas, out of California, out of Chicago, out of North Carolina. The Two Dollar Pistols, they’re the best honky-tonk band on the scene right now, and their home base is Chapel Hill.
As far as real country music goes, I say give it a generation or two in this country and it’ll disappear altogether, anyways. Not overseas. They love it. In Japan they have country-western bars and stuff. And it’s just so bizarre: go in there and have a T-bone steak, and listen to a honky-tonk band. And they dig it. Well, America’s always been big on basically shitting on its own culture anyway. People all around the world love our culture better than we love it anymore. It ain’t just country. Look at what R&B used to be and soul music used to be, and look at what it is now.
Country was just one of the last things that hadn’t been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.
Webb Pierce's car--in the old Country Music Hall of Fame--1997
- Note: To the disappointment of its far-off fans, WHVW does not, yet, stream its programming online. To hear the show, visit the Poughkeepsie area and tune to 950 AM. The “Real Hillbilly Music Hour” airs Sundays.
All photos are courtesy Darwin Lee Hill.
The Muppet Movie at Thirty
Thirty years ago the Muppets made their first feature movie. In the years to follow they would make others—good ones, too (and some, a little later, not so good)—but that first one, the one titled, simply, The Muppet Movie, is surely their greatest. It is, for that matter, one of the greatest-ever movies period, Muppet or otherwise.
Midway through the film, Kermit the Frog hands a copy of The Muppet Movie screenplay to Dr. Teeth, organist and frontman for the great psychedelic Muppet rock-band, the Electric Mayhem. After reading to himself a few of the scenes we have just watched, Dr. Teeth shakes his head: “This,” he announces, “is a narrative of very heavy-duty proportions.” And it is.
The Muppets already had a successful TV show in 1979 (titled simply, of course, The Muppet Show), and before that creator Jim Henson had made Kermit and company familiar to audiences of Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show; the Movie presents itself as the pre-history of the group, as “how the Muppets really got started”—or, as Kermit concedes before the movie-proper begins, “sort of approximately how it happened.” The movie introduces us, one by one, to each Muppet—and each Muppet is introduced to the other—as the cast sets out from various starting points toward a common destination: Hollywood.
The Dream Factory; the Magic Store.
I was hardly born when this movie hit theaters; consequently, although I can’t pinpoint the moment that I first saw it (as I can with The Muppets Take Manhattan, and, much later, The Muppet’s Christmas Carol), I have the good fortune of being able to remember this movie as far back, more or less, as I can remember anything—and I have the kind of privilege of sharing (more or less) my own milestones with it.
At the time of this writing, I am myself thirty. This seems to me a significant milestone for us both.
Thirty years ago, The Muppet Movie did things that, then new, are now commonplace. Before this film, parents were not expected to especially enjoy the children’s movies to which they dutifully took their kids; but here was a kids’ movie designed specifically for adults to also enjoy, with jokes and pop-culture references only the adults would “get”: the running gag about Hare Krishna, for example, or Mel Brooks’ ex-Nazi mad-scientist. The same formula had already proven successful for audiences of The Muppet Show. Besides that show’s sophisticated humor, it could also keep parents’ attention with its weekly guest stars; the movie built on this tradition, too, by incorporating as cameos a parade of 70s celebrities—Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Elliott Gould, Telly Savales, Carol Kane, Madeline Kahn—as well as older luminaries, like Bob Hope and, in a crucial scene, a larger-than-life Orson Welles as fictional movie producer Lew Lord. The then-ancient Edgar Bergen appears with his dummy Charlie McCarthy; Bergen died before the movie was completed, and, in a moving tribute to a man in many ways the ancestor of the Muppets, the film is dedicated to him.
In the three decades since this movie arrived, it has become an expectation that each new kid-film attract parents as well, with adult jokes and celebrity voices or cameos; it is worth remembering how new all this still was in 1979.
Jim Henson—a saint, I increasingly believe, among men—was very careful not only to include adults in his vision of an audience, but also to honor the potential and the creativity of his kid-audience. Paul Williams, longtime Muppet collaborator and songwriter for the Movie, has remarked that the key to Henson’s gift was in the way he approached his viewers. “To me, it’s not a children’s movie,” Williams told an Austin, Texas, audience in 2006 (a video excerpt of that talk is on youtube). “The big thing about working with Jim was, he said: ‘respect your audience and never, never … write down to them.’” Few children’s entertainers were then or are now so respectful of their audience. Kids are not only entertained by The Muppet Show and Movie; they are also empowered. All of this thanks, of course, not to Henson alone but to an impressive behind-the-scenes crew, including Williams and Kenny Ascher on music, director James Frawley, writers Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl, and, providing the voices, the Muppet Performers.
Henson and his collaborators made a trilogy of Muppet movies, following up the original with 1981′s The Great Muppet Caper and 1984′s The Muppets Take Manhattan. Other Muppet movies followed Henson’s death, but the essential gift of the creator somehow did not make the transition completely intact. None of the later films stand alongside the three classics; even if they have their moments, they seem to miss Henson’s mark, often resulting in disappointing or even embarrassing shadows of the originals. One gimmick has been to cast the Muppets in revisions of classic stories—1996′s Muppet Treasure Island or 2004′s made-for-TV Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, the latter featuring Ashanti as Dorothy and the Muppets themselves in the supporting roles. (This kind of lopsidedly-cast classic adaptation began with 1992′s The Muppet Christmas Carol, the first Muppet movie made after Henson’s death, and the first to replace Kermit-as-protagonist with a human actor—Michael Caine, as Scrooge; Kermit was relegated to a supporting Bob Cratchet.) There are other problems with the later Muppet movies. Why, for example, remake of all things The Wizard of Oz with Muppets, when it has already been done, subtly and more skillfully? The Muppet Movie itself was already a Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy refigured as Kermit, Oz as Hollywood, and the man behind the curtain as Welles’ Lew Lord; even “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was remade to become “The Rainbow Connection,” a song about rainbows and about songs about rainbows. It was a smart, effective retelling. But the new Muppets do not allow for such subtlety; it is easier to write down to kids.
One of my college professors once off-handedly remarked that The Muppet Movie is the most quintessentially American of all American movies; and it is. Certainly it participates actively in the tradition of the American road movie, evoking the broader-still tradition of Whitman and Kerouac, Huck Finn and the Joads. It is, in part, a Western, complete with a High Noon stand-off near the end. Consider also The Muppet Movie’s Kermit alongside R.W.B. Lewis’s description of “the American Adam,” our national-heroic archetype: he is “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources…. His moral position was prior to experience, and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent. The world and history lay all before him.” Kermit the Frog, inventing himself and his destiny in the symbolically charged landscapes of the American highway and, finally, the West, bridges the theme of self-reliant individualism with its flipside American impulse of community, building about him a family of like-minded and wide-eyed-innocent American dreamers. And, like any truly great road-story or Adam-story, this one transcends the national myth to evoke broader and timeless mythic archetypes.
A brief recap here of the plot: the very beginning of the movie features the Muppets arriving at the premiere of their movie, settling into their seats, and finally quieting down as the lights are lowered and the film itself—the one we, too, have come to see—begins. Music swells; credits roll. The camera begins in the sky, among the clouds, and follows a rainbow to the earth and into a swamp, finally closing in on a frog on a log (Kermit), strumming his banjo and singing “The Rainbow Connection” (the movie’s best-known song, which would become a hit—Oscar-nominated and often covered: by the Carpenters, Willie Nelson, Sarah McLachlan, and others). (I have always believed, incidentally, that the model for Kermit was Pete Seeger : the lilt of his voice, that lankiness, the unending optimism, and, above all, the long-necked banjo.) A Hollywood talent scout played by Dom DeLuise paddles by in a canoe, lost, and suggests to Kermit that he is just the thing Hollywood is looking for. With some reluctance, Kermit leaves his home for the promise of “making millions of people happy”; along the way he is joined by Fozzie Bear, Rolf the Dog, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy and others, each in search of his or her own dream. Kermit and Piggy fall for each other, which complicates things. Early on, Kermit is spotted by the Colonel-Sandersesque fast-food entrepreneur Doc Hopper (played by Charles Durning), who wants to use Kermit as a mascot for his franchise of frog-leg restaurants. When Kermit refuses (he imagines “thousands of frogs on tiny crutches”), Hopper pursues him and his gang across the country, bent on gaining Kermit’s cooperation, dead or alive.
I am a high school English teacher outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and my seniors begin their year by looking at The Muppet Movie. We watch it in conjunction with our summer reading book, Paulo Coelho’s big-best-selling The Alchemist, in which a boy crosses the desert in search of his “Personal Legend,” that dream that he was put on the planet to realize. We talk about Joseph Campbell’s heroic-journey archetype and apply the stages of that model to both Kermit’s story and The Alchemist—the hero is born both ordinary and exceptional; receives the call to journey; at first resists but finally follows the call; crosses a symbolic threshold into the realm of adventure; receives both supernatural help and the help of fellow travelers; enters and returns from the “belly of the whale,” a realm which others are barred from entering and from which our hero returns with a charm or new wisdom; slays the (literal or metaphorical) dragon; confronts and emerges from death, undergoing an actual or symbolic death and resurrection; and—in the end, coming full circle—returns home.
The Muppet Movie very nicely illustrates the phases of that universal journey. There’s the early scene, for example, in which Kermit crosses the archetypal threshold into his adventure-realm, the crossing enacted symbolically as he pushes through the colorful beads hanging at the entrance of the El Sleezo Café, a seedy bar populated by a bizarre assortment of characters (think of the intergalactic bar that marks the beginning of Luke Skywalker’s travels in Star Wars). This is the borderland between Kermit’s old world and the world of his quest: it is here that the innocent Kermit first witnesses all kinds of depravity; it is here that he meets his sidekick, Fozzie; and it is immediately upon exiting the bar that he is first propositioned by the evil Doc Hopper. The quest and its principle conflict are fully established, the point of turning-back passed. Other scenes plug equally easily into the subsequent stages of the heroic journey.
Coelho’s The Alchemist fits just as neatly into the Campbell model and, besides that, engages directly with themes, such as following one’s dreams, that are at the heart of The Muppet Movie. Teenagers, and a lot of other readers, tend to love The Alchemist, with its themes of self-empowerment and dream-seeking, and its easy, aphoristic quotability. Although I admire the message and style of that book, and teach it and the Muppets together for their similarities in theme and structure, I have to admit that I find Kermit to be by far the superior hero to The Alchemist’s likeable-enough boy Santiago. The Alchemist teaches us that we all have a “personal legend,” that thing which, if we listen to and understand our calling, it is our destiny to do and be, and which is achievable so long as we believe in it and resist the superficial distractions along our journeys. Santiago’s personal legend is to find treasure (figurative, of course, but literal, too: he dreams about gold, and eventually finds it); later his marriage to a girl from the desert is also incorporated into his personal legend. Naturally, along the way he discovers a great deal about the universe and about himself, understandings which are more significant than the treasure or even the girl; but still, Santiago’s concept of the personal legend always strikes me as self-centered, essentially selfish, and this troubles me. You might at least expect him in the end to discover that his treasure is purely internal and to be happy with that—because certainly this is one of the book’s obvious messages—but, no, he does in fact find treasure treasure too and the book concludes with Santiago, conveniently, both wise and rich.
Not Kermit. It is, after all, not Hollywood’s promise of becoming “rich and famous” that appeals to him (the cash proves alluring to all the other characters, but not to the frog); it is instead the possibility of “making millions of people happy” that pushes Kermit to leave his swamp. Part of what makes The Muppet Movie such a profound and lasting story, besides making Kermit for my money a more noble hero than Santiago, is this: that his personal legend is to help others achieve their own personal legends. This, that is to say, is Kermit’s dream: to help us achieve our dreams. Such a quest—such a brand of heroism—is somehow almost unheard of in literature and film.
So he begins with the other Muppets, gathering around him a bear and a dog and Lady Pig and a thing (whatever Gonzo is) and a psychedelic rock band, all of whom have their own dreams of hitting the big time—and with Kermit’s help, those dreams (and thus his own) become realized. But the clincher only comes in the final scene, when the narrative blows wide open and turns almost desperately to us, the audience—we, too, are characters in this thing—and our dreams.
In this final scene, the Muppets have finally made it. They have just started filming the movie of their journey across the country to Hollywood (the very movie, in other words, that we have been watching all along), when Gonzo, recreating an earlier scene from the film, is carried away by a bunch of runaway balloons and in the process destroys the set; Crazy Harry plays with electricity; sparks fly; a light explodes; the set collapses; a hole is blown through the roof; and the Muppets’ shot at greatness seems as if it may be over before it began. You want to cry. Kermit wants to cry. The other Muppets gather around him to see if he’s ok. And then, before anyone can speak, a rainbow shines through the hole in the roof. Kermit starts to sing, slowly, and the others join in, picking up the tempo—
Life’s like a movie
Write your own ending
We’ve done just what we’ve set out to do
Thanks to the lovers
—and trusting the fate of his Muppets to the hands of small children, Jim Henson has bestowed on his young audience the power to determine not only the outcome of the movie and of the Muppets but to determine also the course of their own lives. Sometimes I really do watch this final scene and believe that the disaster is so great that the Muppets’ big break has been damaged irrevocably, that it is all over for them (even if the very existence of The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie indicate that this is not the case, the set-disaster sometimes seems so final); and Henson allows me—recklessly, he allows even a child—to come to this conclusion. That after all of this, the Muppets fail.
And he allows me also, instead, despite everything, to continue believing the dream.
Usually this is the ending I choose.
* * * *
Some final thoughts, here, about that rainbow.
There are rainbows all over this film, and somehow they become tied up early on with the notion and language of dreaming. (“Someday we’ll find it,” Kermit sings famously at the beginning of the movie, “the Rainbow Connection: the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”) The movie begins and ends with images of a rainbow, and throughout the story, rainbows underscore the running dream-motif. While Kermit and Fozzie sleep, the Electric Mayhem, armed with buckets of paint and psychedelic vision, disguise their car as a rainbow, so that for a period of the movie the rainbow becomes their very mode of transportation. (Doc Hopper, to his assistant Max: “Max, find me a bear and a frog in a tan-colored Studebaker.” Max: “Gee, Doc, all I can see is a bear and a frog in a rainbow-colored Studebaker!”). Miss Piggy’s suitcase is stamped with a rainbow sticker. Twice in the movie, Gonzo flies recklessly and joyously through the sky holding onto a bunch of multi-colored balloons, themselves reflecting the rainbow image. As students of mine have pointed out, the Muppets themselves are still another kind of rainbow, representing a wild array of color but held together by a common goal or bond. In the final scene of the film, as the rainbow shines through that hole in the roof, the camera pulls back to reveal a huge cast of Muppets. They have multiplied exponentially from the small group we have been watching all along; gathered together into a crowded, colorful circle at a very literal end-of-the-rainbow, they resemble the famous pot of gold—they themselves are the treasure; transformed, they are “what’s on the other side”: the Rainbow Connection.
In the hands of another storyteller, this all might come off as hokey or hackneyed. But there is a depth and sophistication here that transforms what might be easy and obvious symbolism. The movie is very adult in its acknowledgment that rainbows are believed by most of the world to be “visions, but only illusions“; our dreams, too, might be nothing more than that. The movie even admits that most-of-the-world may be right and the visions/rainbows/magic/dreams unreal, ephemeral only and unobtainable. Kermit is convinced otherwise, that there is a very real “other side” where dreams come true, but there is always in this movie a tension between the real-world and the dream-world, a tension which at times seems irreconcilable. It is the lovers and dreamers alone who can one day reconcile these worlds, and we are invited to join that group. Ending in Hollywood but stopping short of a Hollywood ending, The Muppet Movie lets us decide for ourselves where we stand.
As in any heroic journey, we come full-circle, back to where we started. Kermit, of course, does not literally return to the swamp but instead re-creates it, with his new family and in his new home, on a Hollywood sound-stage. “The Rainbow Connection,” the song that began our journey, also ends it, with one significant difference. The refrain, “The lovers, the dreamers, and me [that is: Kermit],” is now, in the final line of the movie, “The lovers, the dreamers, and you [that is: me, i.e., you; that is, the audience].” This thing, then, has been about us all along.
This is a narrative of very heavy-duty proportions.
According to Joseph Campbell’s heroic cycle, the hero at some point in the journey receives guidance, advice, perhaps some kind of talisman, from a wise helper: often an elder, often supernatural. In Lord of the Rings, this would be Gandalf; in Harry Potter, Dumbledore. In Star Wars, both Obi-Wan and Yoda fill this role.
In the last scene and final sung verses of The Muppet Movie, the design of that story becomes clear: Kermit the Frog is not this movie’s hero. I—both as viewer and as a character, acknowledged throughout in occasional asides and directly incorporated into the closing song—I am the hero of The Muppet Movie. Kermit is the helper, his purpose to assist me in achieving my dream, to fulfill my personal legend and quest.
Like this movie, I recently reached thirty. I still watch The Muppet Movie, and it still reminds me—every time, kid or not—to keep going.
Notes: The quote from R.W.B. Lewis is from The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955, page 5. The Paul Williams talk, as noted, can be caught—incompletely and fuzzily. My thinking about this movie has been shaped in part by wonderful conversations with my students and my teaching colleagues, for whom I am always grateful. A few final thoughts on The Muppet Movie, left out of the essay, will be available soon, below.
Ernest Mostella was a fiddle maker from Alabama’s St. Clair County, a rare practitioner of African American fiddle traditions surviving into the 21st century. When I met him he was in his nineties and full of excited vitality, still operating a power saw to carve his fiddles out of the raw trees. He lived alone in a one-room trailer in Ashville and talked and sang for as long as any visitor would listen.
I have included four samples of his singing here. I made these recordings of Mostella in 2000, in his home. The sound quality is not perfect, but I think the recordings are worth the listen, capturing the energy, humor, faith and passion of the singer near the end of his life. Hopefully in the future I will be able to make more of Mostella’s recordings available. Maybe others have also recorded him over the years.
1. Eat Fried Chicken, Uncle Ned, Uncle Joe (0:37)
This is a song Mostella used to play on the fiddle. When he sang the da-dee-da’s at the end of this recording, Mostella moved both hands in the air to mimic the playing of the instrument.
2. Nearer My God / The Titanic / Sad When That Great Ship Went Down (2:03)
The sinking of the Titanic inspired a number of songs, and provided Mostella with one of his favorite subjects. During our visits, Mostella would return again and again to the Titanic, singing the songs and often talking at length about its sinking.
A real regret of mine is that in all of our visits I never heard Earnest Mostella fiddle. (All the sound files on this page are pureunaccompanied singing.) Mostella’s handmade fiddles were unwieldy contraptions, each of them with a look and dimensions of its own: blocks of hollowed-out walnut or pine, depending on what he could find (he would cut down the trees himself; long leaf pine, he said, was best), clunky fiddles strung up with twine, huge tuning pegs extending horizontally from either side. For most of his life he used a sturdy homemade glue to hold things together, a mixture of egg yolks and sawdust; later, if he could get a ride into town and if he had the money, he’d use carpenter’s glue. The bows were equally rough, strung with the same twine, and, like the fiddles, varying widely in size. These instruments were fascinating works of art as much as instruments. I was eager to know what kinds of sounds these things could produce in the hands of perhaps the one man in the world who knew how to play them.
Though spry and hilarious in his nineties, perhaps the older age had somewhat slowed his fiddle-making and -playing. Ernest Mostella was always at work, though, even at that age, and he sold the fiddles as soon as he finished them. (In the very last years of his life, he raised their price from 25 to $35; he might ask for a quarter down upfront if, before he had one ready, a customer pre-ordered a fiddle.) By the time I knew him he did not keep a fiddle around for his own use, perhaps because he could not keep up with demand, perhaps also because he could no longer play himself. Whenever I came around, he would have a fiddle made and no bow or a bow made and no fiddle–to this day my fiddle lacks a bow–and thus I never heard him play. Before he died Mostella was moved to an assisted care facility in nearby Atalla; his woodworking abruptly stopped, though he would entertain the nurses with his enthusiastic singing and his ceaseless talk. Somewhere out there there must be a tape of him playing one of his fiddles. I think that to hear whatever music he could coax from one of those instruments would be a revelation and a joy.
Mostella did sing, though, all the way to the end, and for me his singing was revelation and joy enough. “Nearer My God to Thee”; “The Titanic”; “The Boll Weevil”; “St. Louis Blues”; “Muscle Shoals Blues”; “Let Me Be Your Sweetheart”; “Careless Love”; “Columbus, the Gem of the Ocean”; “God Bless America.” He made up songs of his own and strung together old songs with loose chains of association. His talk worked the same way, jumping from one association to another but somehow coming back suddenly to where it started: he would preach on Noah and the Ark and somewhere in his monologue the Ark would become the Titanic, leading him to speak of John Jacob Astor and rich men’s drowning maids and “Nearer My God to Thee”; and then he would be talking again of the people and animals saved in the flood of the Bible. This talk would be interspersed constantly with snatches of song, and with numerous reminiscences about his late wife Rosetta. A coal miner for most of his life, Mostella had long preached on Sundays (he was known in the neighborhood as “Preacher”). Sermonizing and story-telling came naturally to him.
3.Shape notes (0:30)
Here Mostella sings a brief melody in the tradition of the Sacred Harp, singing the names of each notes (do mi do, etc.) and ending in prayer.
Ernest Mostella’s grandfather–Gus Cochran, born into slavery–was a locally celebrated fiddler in his own time. He taught himself to play, Mostella said, after whittling a key to open the cabinet which housed his master’s fiddle. Cochran was about seven feet tall, an imposing character, and was in high demand as a musician. Mostella learned to play by watching this grandfather. One of his favorite tunes was the novelty number “Mockingbird.”
There were two decorations in Mostella’s trailer: a photograph of himself with a fiddle, and a much older, faded photo of Rosetta as a young woman. Mostella was especially eager to talk about her. He explained once that in his old age he had all but stopped sleeping; he would be up all night, alone, often passing the hours by singing to Rosetta. The recording included below suggests a good idea of what those late nights must have sounded like. The song is a kind of stream-of-conscious tribute to Rosetta; scenes from his courtship and marriage, expressions of grief, and interspersed lyrics and melodies of familiar tunes (“Corrina, Corrina,” “You Are My Sunshine”) weave in and out of the performance. I can not think of a real and raw expression of love and longing as moving or profound as these eight minutes; I do not expect to ever forget witnessing the tribute, watching Ernest Mostella disappear deep into the song. I hope that this and the other recordings included here will provide some small window, however incomplete, into this man’s character, his originality, his music and kindness.
4. Rosetta (8:20)
Note: The above photographs of Ernest Mostella were taken by Colleen Cook Stonbely.
I have included below the lyrics to Mostella’s improvised song to Rosetta. As Mostella himself sometimes said after singing a particularly emotionally- or spiritually-charged tune: “That song will make you cry.”