December 2018 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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The Power of Music: Five Songs for Civil Rights

Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, we’ve spent the past month and a half exploring the power and impact of visual imagery through the NEH on the Road exhibit For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights (on display until January 7, 2019). But we’re a music museum, and one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact too.

And that is certainly true when you think about the music of the Civil Rights movement. Many of these songs had their origins in traditional hymns and African American spirituals, and while they weren’t all originally about freedom and social justice, their message was clearly relevant. Some were also revised to include new lyrics that spoke directly to the issues people were facing, such as voting rights. Others grew out of the musicians’ personal experiences or observations of the discrimination around them.  These songs – often and rightfully called anthems – inspired determination and bravery, helped to lessen fears and steady nerves, focused activists’ passion and energy on the task at hand, and acted as motivators to protesters and observers alike. They were delivered by professional musicians and groups like the Freedom Singers, but more importantly they became the unified voice of ordinary people displaying extraordinary courage at rallies, marches, and protests and in churches, meetings, and workshops.

The album cover shows the CORE logo, the title, and a series of music notes in the form of diner counter stools.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) produced a record of “sit-in songs” in 1962, which included “We Shall Overcome.” The musical notes are in the form of diner counter stools. This record went along with the Freedom Highways project, when activist volunteers worked to integrate chain restaurants along the main federal highways. Image from https://library.duke.edu/exhibits/johnhopefranklin/civilrights.html

There are many accounts of this music history and the songs of the Civil Rights struggle in books, audio collections, and films such as Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World, Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966, Freedom Song: Young Voices and the Struggle for Civil Rights, and Soundtrack for a Revolution (screened at the museum in November). All of these are worth exploring to get a better understanding of the place and significance of music in the fight for civil rights over the years.

A blog post about this music would be incredibly long – it’s a long and interesting history and each song has a story! And so, we’ve chosen just five songs that highlight the power of this music, including a brief history or description of each, to get you started on an incredibly inspiring musical journey.

“Uncle Sam Says,” Josh White (1941)

Josh White’s 1941 record Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues, co-written with poet Waring Cuney, was called “the fighting blues” by author Richard Wright, who wrote its liner notes. One of its songs, “Uncle Sam Says,” highlighted the frustration felt by African Americans when faced with the continuing effects of Jim Crow even as they fought and gave their lives for their country. It was inspired by White’s visit to his brother at Fort Dix in New Jersey where he saw the segregated barracks and unequal treatment of the black servicemen. After the album was released, White was invited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House for a command performance, the first black artist to do so.

“This Little Light of Mine,” Rutha Mae Harris

For many of us, “This Little Light of Mine” is a song of our childhood sung at school or church. But the song has a much more interesting history within the Civil Rights movement and beyond as a “timeless tool of resistance” – check out this NPR piece from August 2018 that celebrated the song as a true “American Anthem.” The song, both a spiritual popular in the black churches and a folk song, became even more impactful when it was employed by Civil Rights protesters and activists who often personalized the lyrics to the situation or as a way to name the oppressors they were facing. Original Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris demonstrates the energy and power of the song as she leads a contemporary group in its verses at the Albany Civil Rights Institute:

“I Shall Not Be Moved,” The Harmonizing Four (1959)

This African American spiritual is based on Jeremiah 17:8—9, reflecting the idea that the singers’ faith in God will keep them strong and steadfast. The song became a popular resistance anthem during the Civil Rights movement, especially in relation to sit-ins; it was also used as a labor union protest song. As with “This Little Light of Mine,” the lyrics were sometimes altered to speak to the specific cause. Maya Angelou’s poetry collection I Shall Not Be Moved was named after the song.

“Why Am I Treated So Bad?,” The Staple Singers (1966)

The Staple Singers met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 after a performance in Montgomery, Alabama. Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the band’s patriarch, said afterwards: “I really like this man’s message. And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.” The group went on to write and perform many Civil Rights songs, including “March Up Freedom’s Highway” and “Washington We’re Watching You.” “Why Am I Treated So Bad” was written in reference to the treatment of the nine African American children at the forefront of integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. It became a particular favorite of King’s and was often sung before he spoke to a crowd.

“We Shall Overcome,” Mahalia Jackson (1963)

One of the most well-known songs of the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome” exemplifies the resilience, determination, and hope of the activist leaders and the everyday protesters alike. Its origins stretch back to the early 20th century with Charles Tindley’s “I Will Overcome.” Striking workers took up the song in the 1940s, later sharing it with Zilphia Horton at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a center for social justice and activism. White and black activists came together at Highlander for workshops and planning during the Civil Rights movement, and some of that work involved learning songs and how to employ them in protests. Musical director Guy Carawan learned a version of the song from Pete Seeger; Carawan later introduced the song at the founding convention of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. (To hear Candie Carawan talk about the work at Highlander and the power of music during the Civil Rights movement, check out December 19’s archived On the Sunny Side show on Radio Bristol; her interview is towards the end of the show.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTyKJjj2oC0

Finally, did you know that there is a connection between Carter Family favorite “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and civil rights? The song has been sung by various activist musicians, including Jimmy Collier and the Movement Singers and Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, and an audio history of the Civil Rights movement takes the song title on as its name.

A Holly, Jolly Farm and Fun Time: It’s the Best Time of the Year!

Everything was merry and bright with Farm and Fun Time back at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s Performance Theater on December 20 with another Christmas Spectacular! Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was able to bring Farm and Fun Time to not only those in the audience or tuned in to WBCM-LP, but to viewers far and wide via Facebook Live. Be sure to like WBCM – Radio Bristol on Facebook to tune in every month!

Left pic: The four musicians in Bill and the Belles all dressed in red lean into the microphones for their first number; right pic: The audience shows their appreciation for the show, focused in on several audience members clapping.
Bill and the Belles, festive in red, warmed Farm and Fun Time‘s full house up for a night of Christmas favorites and toe-tapping tunes. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Host band Bill and the Belles kicked the show off and took the audience on a festive trip to the islands with a rousing rendition of their “Santa’s Hula Holiday.” After the packed audience imagined themselves celebrating Christmas on a hot and sunny beach, our first featured musical guest – Sally and George – came on stage. Though the band is based in Nashville, Tennessee, Sally and George can trace their origins to right here to Bristol. The duo first met on State Street during Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion many years ago, and they’ve been blending their voices and songwriting prowess ever since. In addition to Christmas favorites, such as “What Child is This?,” the duo performed an original by George called “Pipe Dream,” a piece that described the duo’s initial meeting and an imagined future together. This was sweet start to an evening that would soon get much sweeter.

Three pics of Sally and George: (left) George kneeling in front of Sally as she plays the bass; (top right) The duo in front of the large Farm and Fun Time audience; (bottom right) A close up of Sally and George leaning into the mic and singing together.
Sally and George shared their sweet story in song with a rapt crowd and brought the Christmas spirit with some traditional favorites. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

The “Heirloom Recipe” segment was presented by our good pal Denise Smith, a true Appalachian in every sense of the word who is dedicated to preserving our region’s heritage. Denise told us about her family’s recipes for fruitcake. While fruitcake is a controversial dish to say the least, Denise’s family has not one, but TWO fruitcake recipes! Both recipes call for the dessert to be soaked in alcohol, one in a more traditional brandy and the other in bourbon, which Smith attributes to her mother’s family’s proximity to Kentucky. To commemorate this beloved and boozy holiday favorite, Bill and the Belles sang an appropriate jingle: “Fruitcake, Fruitcake.”

Denise Smith looks out at the audience as she reads her "Heirloom Recipe."
Denise Smith’s funny tale of fruitcakes made the audience think differently about this oft-maligned Christmas treat. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our next musical guests were Carolina Blue, a hardcore bluegrass band that taps deep into the roots of the music. In the holiday spirit, the band performed a few Christmas classics such as “Silver Bells,” and bluegrass standards including “Rocky Road Blues” and “Rawhide.” While many traditional bluegrass bands are content to cover the work of the masters, Timmy Jones and Bobby Powell have penned many of their own original songs in the traditional style. Farm and Fun Time is a program that was crucial in the development of bluegrass as a genre, so it only seems right that a band so steeped in these traditions would play on such a historic stage.

Left pic: The full band of Carolina Blue on stage at Farm and Fun Time; center pic: A close up of the mandolin as it was being played; right pic: The lead guitarist and fiddler of Carolina Blue.
Carolina Blue’s virtuoso bluegrass players brought cheers from the audience throughout their set. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For this month’s “ASD Farm Report,” we visited Roan Valley Tree Farm in Johnson City, Tennessee. Roan Valley Tree Farm has been in Steve Ayers’ family for decades, and in 1993, the farm even provided a tree for the White House. And, of course, there’s no better time to visit a tree farm than at Christmas!

Wrapping up the evening’s performance was The Church Sisters. Originally from Dickenson County, Virginia, The Church Sisters have been blending their voices since they could talk. Drawing from their early experiences in bluegrass and looking forward, they appeared this evening with a full country band, featuring keys and electric guitar, to perform Christmas classics and some of the songs that have been earning them acclaim everywhere they go.

Three pics: (left) The Church Sisters, both in red, and full band on stage; (top right) A close up of The Church Sisters singing together; (bottom right) A close up on the keyboard player's hands.
The Church Sisters and full band brought intertwined vocals and powerful songs to the Farm and Fun Time stage. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to everyone who came out to make this a wonderful evening of fun and music, and a Happy Holiday to all! There are still a few tickets left for January’s Farm and Fun Time, a chance to be a part of our live audience and celebrate Appalachian balladry with Amythyst Kiah, Elizabeth Laprelle, John Lilly, ETSU Old Time Ramblers, and host band Bill and the Belles!

Pick 5: Merry and Bright Christmas Favorites

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol!

When the chilly winds begin to blow through the hills and hollers of Appalachia, everyone knows that the holidays will soon be upon us. With tinsel and bright lights glimmering everywhere and friends and relations making merry, it’s hard not to be in the holiday spirit. If you need a little extra push to get in the Christmas spirit, however, look no further! For this month’s “Pick 5,” we turned to some of our BCM staff to select their favorite holiday tunes, ones to help our listeners feel merry and bright. Here are their selections:

“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” Summer Apostol, Frontline Associate

“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” is my favorite Christmas song because of how ridiculously cute it is. What kind of kid asks for a hippo for Christmas? And are you sure nothing else will do, Gayla? The song just continues to baffle and stupefy you as you start to think about the logistics of obtaining a hippopotamus for a young child in Oklahoma City. I was first introduced to the song when I was ten years old. My best friend at the time made me a CD with “essential songs” I should know. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” was an instant favorite from this CD for me (“Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira was a close second favorite on this mix). I would play the song on repeat and sing the song to my purple hippopotamus ty baby, imagining he was a real hippo. It’s not just nostalgia that makes this Christmas classic one of my favorites, it’s also the fact that 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, the original singer, was actually gifted a hippopotamus by a local promoter who oversaw a campaign to buy a real hippo for her based on the song’s popularity and Peevey’s local roots! Gayla donated her Christmas gift to the zoo, where he spent the remainder of his life, happy and content knowing that he made a little girl’s Christmas wish come true.

“Merry Christmas Everybody,” Scotty Almany, Digital Resources Manager

There were a few songs in contention for my favorite, but in the end, I chose the 1973 glam-era gem “Merry Christmas Everybody” from the British band Slade. I have been a huge fan of 1970s glam rock since my mid- to late teens, so the style of the song appealed to my everyday tastes in music, and I also like that it is a light-hearted tune that you can sing along with and enjoy. I also like the way the song was written. It seems like a lot of non-traditional holiday songs tend to be ironic or insincere, often coming across as hokey or just bad, but Slade seems to really be having fun in every performance I have seen or heard of the song. “So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun!”

“Happiest Little Christmas Tree,” Kim Davis, Director of Marketing

Christmas songs are my FAVORITE. In fact, I start listening to Christmas songs NON-STOP beginning November 1 and continue through to the end of the year. My current favorite is “Happiest Little Christmas Tree” by Nat King Cole. The song was released in the late 1950s on Cole’s Christmas album; however, I just discovered the song this year, nearly 70 years later. Just listening to the song will bring a smile to your face, especially, if you listen to it while looking at your festively decorated tree!

“Oh, I’m the happiest Christmas tree
Hoo hoo hoo, hee hee hee
Look how pretty they dressed me
Oh, lucky, lucky me.

I got shiny bells that jingle
And tiny lights that tingle
Whenever anyone passes by
I blink my lights and I wink my eye…”

With lyrics like that, how could you not get a smile on your face?

“Where Are You Christmas?” Erika Barker, Sales & Business Development Manager

“Where Are You Christmas?” is my favorite Christmas song in part because it was sung by my favorite character in my favorite Christmas movie: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). When I was little I loved the Christmas season, and I wanted to be just like Cindy Lou Who, I would put my hair up in crazy Who-Hairstyles and dance around the house singing this song. As I have grown up, this song still resonates with me because as my world has changed each year so has the way I experience Christmas. Just because I am not the little girl pretending to be a Who in my parents living room anymore doesn’t mean the joy of Christmas has gone away. The magic of Christmas is still here if we just know how to look for it!

“Arthur McBride,” Emily Robinson, Collections Manager

I learned about this song from Rosanne Cash’s New York Times article about her favorite ballads a few years back. She says that she listened to it a thousand times. I did too. Paul Brady’s beautiful, lilting voice, his precise and intricate guitar playing… this gorgeous, haunting song should be on everyone’s Christmas playlist.

Making a Living Living Your Passion: How Lefty Frizzell and 10-Cent Records Inspired a Dream

Anyone who knows me, knows how important music is in my life. This not only includes my experiences as a musician and audio engineer, but also includes my longtime passion for collecting and listening to music on vinyl records. When I think back to how it all started, I can trace my love of vinyl records to two specific memories.

The first memory: A secondhand box of 45rpm singles from my grandparents that contained “Always Late with Your Kisses” by Lefty Frizzell, “Cathy’s Clown” by The Everly Brothers, and “Downtown” by Petula Clark. I still love all of the songs, but the signature voice of Lefty was “the one” for me. My 12-year-old mind was never the same, and I have been a fan of classic country-and-western music from that day forward.

The second memory is tied to my parents and their hobby of getting up very early and going to flea markets. When I was around 10 years old, I began pet-sitting, shoveling snow, and babysitting for extra money. This was in the mid-1980s and CDs were becoming THE musical format. Folks were dumping their vinyl and selling off records for 10-25 cents each at local flea markets. With five dollars, I could come home with STACKS of records and explore anything and everything I desired. One day I brought home the album After the Goldrush by Neil Young and was floored. The artwork and music blew me away, and I knew I had to keep looking for that next great album.

Fast forward 35 years. I now own two businesses devoted to records. One is called Well Made Music, where we cut master discs for the vinyl record industry. Records are pressed from PVC plastic, and the discs we create are coated with metal and formed into stampers that can press pucks of plastic into playable records. Prior to about 1948, this same process was used to make records out of shellac, a brittle and less durable compound from which 10” 78rpm records were made. These old, interesting records remain in demand for collectors of pre-WWII music.

The second business is The Earnest Tube, a recording studio devoted to recording artists in much the same fashion as Ralph Peer did on his fateful trip to Bristol in 1927. My business partner Dave Polster and I use a cutting lathe made around 1945 to cut audio onto blank lacquers discs. This technique is called “direct-to-disc” recording and was the way almost all recordings were made prior to about 1950. To be completely fair, Ralph Peer probably used actual wax to carve the grooves during the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but that technique went by the wayside in the 1930s and lacquer discs have been a staple in the industry up to, and including, today.

The picture to the left shows the author brushing a cut record as it spins on the lathe; the picture to the left shows a man peering into the inner workings of the machine cutting the record master.
Clint Holley records direct to disc on a vintage Rek-O-Kut recording lathe (left); Dave Polster watching a master being cut (right). © Clint Holley, The Earnest Tube

Recording direct-to-disc is totally different from modern computer recording. On a computer, the artists can record, edit, and manipulate the sounds they record in an infinite amount of ways. Rarely is any of the music you hear a complete performance. It is most likely many performances edited together to create the illusion of a complete song.

A large lit up sign reading "Recording" in front of the recording equipment at The Earnest Tube.
When the recording light comes in, it’s time to play! © Clint Holley, The Earnest Tube

Direct-to-disc recording is a “one take” process that leaves no room for the artist to hide. We place one, possibly two, microphones in the room with the artist or ensemble; we move the microphone (and musicians!) around the room until the desired “mix” is achieved; and then, we lower a sapphire cutting needle (stylus) onto the surface of a blank disc. The “Recording” light is turned on, and in the following moments, the artist performs the entire song – carving the grooves into the surface of the disc as he or she sings and plays, a direct representation of that performance – magical, personal, one-of-a kind, warts and all!

This raw energy is what gives music from the pre-war period, and especially the Bristol Sessions, that “special something” that draws in new fans almost 100 years later. “Single Girl, Married Girl” by The Carter Family is as urgent today as it was on those hot days of 1927, and the conviction of Alfred G. Karnes makes you want to join in with him as he sings “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.”

Although there are some people who think music recorded in this fashion is quaint or outdated, we have found quite the opposite. The artists who have recorded at The Earnest Tube have approached the process with an open mind and heart. A great example is Tim Easton’s Paco and the Melodic Polaroids. Easton, a repeat performer at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion (BRRR), recorded this entire album after BRRR 2017 at The Earnest Tube with one vintage RCA microphone. Easton has had great success with this album – indeed, it has been named a top album on many “Best of” lists of 2018.

The long road from Lefty Frizzell to Bristol and The Earnest Tube has been personal and long, but it has been more than worthwhile. I love the history of recorded music, and I love the place that Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia has in that story. It is my hope that The Earnest Tube can help continue to tell that story – as a humble witness and participant alongside others who have a passion for music and history, and with great institutions, such as the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.