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The Power of Music: Suffrage Songs

Today is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In other words, it finally gave American women the right to vote and be represented.

Congress ratified this amendment on June 4, 1919, but it still needed to be affirmed by 3/4 of the states in order to become law. Suffragettes and their supporters had been working for this day since 1832, and the very first amendment for women’s right to vote was introduced in 1878, taking 42 years to reach ratification. The road was long and hard with women fighting through words, negotiation and diplomacy, and acts of civil disobedience to gain the right to vote. American democracy has been a beacon to many outside our shores, but it makes one pause to think that women only gained this basic right 100 years ago.

A line of women crowd in front of a building. They are wearing early 20th century clotes, and one of the women looks out from the line and directly at the camera.
Women line up to vote for the first time in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, after passage of the 19th amendment. Image courtesy of Bristol Historical Association

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is fortunate to have two poster exhibits that explore this complex history, the people who fought to be recognized, and the acts that brought them to victory on August 18, 1920. The first – Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence – comes to us from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This exhibit traces the story of women’s suffrage, of inclusion in and exclusion from the franchise, and of our civic development as a nation while also examining the relevance of this history to Americans’ lives today. The second – To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote, created by the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives – digs deep into the history of the woman’s suffrage movement, Tennessee’s dramatic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the years that followed. Both of these exhibits will be on display by September 1 and are definitely worth a visit over the next few months!

Right: The introductory panel for Votes for Women bears text and images on the subject, including a woman dressed in classical garb in front of a government building and a portrait of Ida B. Wells. Center: The graphic poster reads "Votes for Women" and "Equality is the sacred law of humanity" and bears the image of a woman's head with wings at her hair and a sculpture of a double-headed axe behind her. Left. The introductory poster for To Make Our Voices Heard has portraits of several suffrage leaders, text, and a picture of suffragettes marching.
Right and left: The introductory panels to the Votes for Women and To Make Our Voices Heard exhibits. Center: Graphic poster from the suffrage movement. Equality Is the Sacred Law of Humanity, c. 1903–1915; Lithograph by Egbert C. Jacobson Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

As a music museum, there is one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact, and so I wanted to explore some of the songs that helped fuel the suffrage movement. Artists have long used songs to throw light on the world around them – for instance, Hazel Dickens and other musicians who highlighted the tribulations and dangers of Appalachian coal mining communities or the anthems, often with their origins in African American spirituals and traditional hymns, that powered Civil Rights activists in the struggle. Music is a way for people to express their contemporary burdens and their dreams for a better future.

The women of the suffrage movement also lifted themselves up with song, highlighting the rights they were fighting for and inspiring them in that fight. The lyrics to these songs were often set to popular tunes or traditional hymns, thus making them easier to sing and remember. For instance, “Human Equality,” written in the 1870s by William Lloyd Garrison, was sung to the tune of another popular song used in support of labor reform and abolition. While not about women’s right to vote, the poem”Rights of Woman,” written by “A Lady” in 1795, declared women free and was later set to the tune of “My Country Tis of Thee.” “Daughters of Freedom” was published in 1871 and was composed by Edward Christie with lyrics by George Cooper, while a song by Frank Boylen from 1881 asked “Shall Women Vote?” America being the melting pot that it is, some songs also came from immigrant sources, such as “Damen Rechte (Suffragettes),” a popular Yiddish song that not only called for women’s right to vote but also extolled other freedoms and equality in society at large. Some songs were also written specifically for suffrage marches and meant to be played by brass bands, such as “Fall in Line.” Around 1880, D. Estabrook wrote “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” which on first glance seems to be anti-women’s rights with various men declaring that women should stay in their traditional roles and not expect equal rights. However, the last verse turns this notion on its head with the assertion:

I asked him “What of woman’s cause?”
The answer came sincere —
“Her rights are just the same as mine,
Let woman choose her sphere.

Left: The sheet music cover has bold script with the title of the song, and notes that it is for solo quartet and records the names of the composer and lyricist. Center: A female suffragette band marches down a wide city street. Left: The cover of the Songs of the Suffragettes album is bright pink and has an illustration of a suffrage meeting, with several people around a large table and an audience ranged behind them.
Right: Cover of the sheet music to “Daughters of Freed! The Ballot Be Yours.” Library of Congress. Music Division, Microfilm M 3500 M2.3.U6A44
Center: National American Woman Suffrage Association parade held in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. LC-B2- 2505-7, Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress
Left: Unfortunately, very few suffragette songs were recorded at the time of their usage, but you can hear many of these rousing songs on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight.

Where there was a fight for women’s rights, however, came societal and political push back – also expressed through music. Songs that mocked the suffragettes’ struggle and emphasized women’s “proper” place abounded, such as “Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette,” “The Anti-Suffrage Rose,” “Mind the Baby, I Must Vote Today,” and “Your Mother’s Gone Away to Join the Army” both published in the early 1910s. Various songs also questioned the other changes women were embracing, often deemed as “unladylike.” This was especially true as women pushed for less restrictive clothes like the “Bloomer costume,” which was attacked in the 1851 song “The Bloomer’s Complaint.” Women riding bicycles were also seen as a sign of these times; indeed, Susan B. Anthony viewed bicycles as doing “more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.” “Eliza Jane,” a song from 1895, brought all these horrors together – less restrictive clothing, bicycles, and the desire to vote!

Was there any connection between suffrage and the songs of early country music? I don’t know of any hillbilly songs that embrace the suffrage movement in song, but there are certainly a few songs that reflect the changes that were happening on this front and give hints to women moving beyond their stereotypical roles. For instance, The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions and sung only by Sara and Maybelle, contrasts the freedom of the singleton with the restrictions a married woman bears taking care of husband, babies, and home. And as with the anti-suffrage songs, there were also reactions from hillbilly musicians to the ways women’s roles were changing. Blind Alfred Reed, another 1927 Bristol Sessions singer, later recorded “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?,” which declared that “every time you bob it, you’re breaking God’s command,” and “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since,” which bemoaned the early days of Eve in the Garden of Eden and all the ways women were trying to be like men in contemporary society. More disapproval of women’s ways can be found in Ira and Eugene Yates recording “Powder and Paint” from the Johnson City Sessions in 1929.

Finally, it’s worth noting a couple of great songs that teach the history of the suffrage movement and celebrate its achievement. The first is from a much-loved slice of my childhood, Schoolhouse Rock“Sufferin’ till Suffrage,” sung by the wonderful Etta James. And then, of course, there is Dolly Parton (it’s ALWAYS Dolly…). In 2018, she contributed to 27: The Most Perfect Album, “a collection of songs about the Constitutional amendments that have shaped our democracy, and yet are often at the center of fierce political debate.” Dolly’s song about the 19th amendment starts with a brief spoken introduction to the suffrage story, and soon transitions into a rousing song about the fight for the vote.

Real Folk: A Few of My Favorite Things

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, in partnership with the Virginia Folklife Program. While the COVID-19 situation meant that for three months no one was able to visit the exhibit – except virtually – we have now reopened, and the exhibit is waiting to be enjoyed through its closing date in August!

This is one of my favorite special exhibits that we’ve had on display at the museum – the images by photographers Pat Jarrett and Morgan Miller are stunning, the stories of the master artists and apprentices told by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman are fascinating, and the range of crafts, trades, and traditions astounding.

Here are just a few of the interesting things I’ve learned from Real Folk:

A Virginia Town’s Salty Past

Saltville – found in the Southern Appalachians – is named for its unusually high number of salt marshes, or as locals call them, salt licks. Not only is the salt source extensive here, but the salt from Saltville is also especially salty – around 10 times saltier than ocean water! Saltville’s natural salt deposits have influenced the history of the region from the late Pleistocene period, when they attracted Ice Age mammals and Paleoamericans to the area, to early European traders to the Civil War when nearly two-thirds of the South’s salt was produced in Saltville and two bloody battles were fought here.


Jim Bordwine’s family has lived in and around Saltville since the 1770s. He has dedicated his life to educating the public about Saltville’s history and continuing its traditional craft of making salt, including passing down this knowledge to son Baron through an apprenticeship. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Quilt Signals

We have quite a few quilt connections in our museum – from the huge Birthplace of Country Music quilt hanging in our atrium to the quilt “tapestries” on sell in The Museum Store to the museum’s color scheme based on old quilts and flour sacks. Master Artist Sharon Tindall has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages integral to the success of the Underground Railroad, codes that told enslaved people about what to expect next on their journey and how to find safe haven.


Sharon Tindall specializes in early African American quilt patterns and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She shared her experience with apprentice Nancy Chilton. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

A Connection Between Music and Language

The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord or one-stringed instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Playing the đàn bâu can create microtones capable of imitating the six essential tones and variations of the Vietnamese language, nearly impossible to achieve with any other instrument. Traditionally, it is also used as an accompaniment to Vietnamese poetry readings.


Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing an instrument called the đàn bâu at 17, later touring and performing throughout the United States with her family. She is seen here with her apprentice Anh Dien Ky Nguyen. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

From Everyday Object to Musical Instrument

Music has often been made from everyday objects – for instance, think of a washtub bass or the spoons. The steel drum, or “pan” as it is called in the Caribbean, was invented in Trinidad around World War II, when island locals resourcefully crafted these instruments from oil drums left behind by the U.S. Navy. Contemporary pans are created when a 55-gallon steel oil drum is hammered concave, a process known as sinking. The drum is then tempered and notes are carefully grooved into the steel, resulting in a melodic percussive instrument that can play three full octaves.


Master Artist Elton Williams, who worked with apprentice Earl Sawyer, grew up in Trinidad and immersed himself in every aspect of steel bands. He is a musician, composer, tuner, and now one of the few steel pan makers in the U.S. © Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program

For the Love of Fonts

Prior to the advent of photocopiers, short-run quick print, email, and social media, the local letterpress was the primary producer of the vast majority of materials for mass communication – from church bulletins to wedding announcements to commercial advertisements, and so much more. My favorite elements of letterpress are the individual letters used in the printing process (and so many possible fonts!) and the wonderful act of rolling out the ink ready to print. We have our own letterpress studio here in Southwest Virginia at the Burke Print Shop in the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts.


Left: Images from the letterpress apprenticeship between Garrett Queen and Lana Lambert in the Real Folk exhibit. Right: Letter blocks at the Burke Print Shop. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program; © Rene Rodgers

Different Dulcimers

When I used to think of a dulcimer, I thought of one particular type – an hourglass-shaped instrument – because we had one like that hanging in our home when I was a child. Since then, I’ve learned there are many types of dulcimers (all from the zither family) that are played in many places throughout the world – from the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer to the banjo dulcimer and the bowed dulcimer – with different shapes and different ways of being played. The dulcimer from my house – and the one most familiar around our area – is the mountain dulcimer, a fretted string instrument that first appeared in the 19th century among Scots-Irish communities. It is also known as the lap dulcimer.


Left: Phyllis Gaskins, seen here with apprentice Anna Stockdale, plays the Galax dulcimer, which is lozenge-shaped, has four strings all tuned to the same note, and is played with a turkey or goose quill. The Galax dulcimer is intended to be an equal instrument in old-time string bands, mirroring the fiddle. Right: Master Dulcimer Maker Walter Messick apprenticed Chris Testerman, an award-winning fiddler who is already considered one of the great up-and-coming luthiers in the region. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

An Unorthodox Route to Creativity

The late Pastor Mary Onley, known as “Mama-Girl,” was a self-taught artist who came from generations of farm laborers, working in the fields herself at the age of 12. Severe allergies resulted in several hospitalizations, and during one of these, she reported being visited by a spirit who instructed her to create art out of paper and found objects – something she had never done before. She went on to become one of the most celebrated folk artists on the East Coast, creating lyrical newspaper and glue sculptures that reflected her inner visions and unique creativity.


In 2016, Mama-Girl taught son David Rogers her unorthodox artistic techniques and how to open his mind to receive his own divine artistic inspirations. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

The Day Live Music Died

Singin’ the COVID-19 Blues

The emotional and financial devastation of the global COVID-19 crisis is TBD – like so many gigs that musicians and venues have cancelled until further notice. The lives and safety of humans is priority one, and social distancing has become the catchphrase for 2020. But with the sheer volume of full-time touring musicians out of work, the pandemic is forcing artists to get creative with new revenue streams now that touring – their numero uno source of income – has ceased.

Earleine and Momma Molasses performing “Coronavirus Blues,” a song they wrote to the tune of Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues.”

The moguls who make up the big labels and agencies will likely be okay. It’s the little guys that are suffering most, the singer-songwriters and bands that pack up their used Econolines and hit the road singing for their supper in bars, breweries, and small venues. Many of them also lack health insurance because they can’t afford to pay the premiums, let alone the high cost of hospitalization if they become ill, in general or with the severe symptoms of COVID-19.

They say in Bristol you can’t swing a banjo without hitting a musician, and that about sums it up. A majority of them keep day jobs and gig on the weekends, while some depend on live performances to pay the rent. Growing up in Bristol’s music scene, I’ve been blessed to develop some very dear friendships among artists and agents, and I’m really feeling for them right now. I’ve reached out to a few locally to see how this massive industry lock down is affecting their livelihoods. Among those I spoke with, there was some fear, but an overwhelming amount of optimism. But they all agreed with one thing: social distancing is the right thing to do to keep their fans safe.

Amythyst Kiah wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt and black hat with a fan wearing a similar hat.
Amythyst Kiah posing with a fan at a Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019 meet-and-greet.

In mid-March, pre-lock down, I caught up with Amythyst Kiah, who spends part of the year touring internationally. Fresh from a Grammy nomination, her tour schedule was packed with gigs that included dates opening for Yola and an event on a cruise ship embarking from Canada. It all screeched to a halt when the pandemic hit. She’s now hunkering down at home with her dad Carl Phillips in Johnson City.

“We both got COVID tests just to see if we were asymptomatic carriers, and we are in the clear,” said Amythyst. “Doing what we can to stay informed and safe during this crazy time!”

Amythyst has hooked up with some killer live stream events like Shut In & Sing, Martin Guitar Presents Jam In Place, Sixthman Sessions – Mi Casa, Su Casa!, and Parlor Room Home Sessions, most of which are available for online viewing.

Ella Patrick, a.k.a. Momma Molasses, wearing a colorful plaid bandana as a face mask.
Ella Patrick, a.k.a. Momma Molasses, in her homemade COVID-wear, the hottest style of the season!

Ella Patrick, a.k.a. Momma Molasses, moved to Bristol from North Carolina to pursue a full-time career in music. She hosts a show on WBCM Radio Bristol called Folk Yeah! and pays the bills gigging in breweries and venues across Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina full-time. She recently performed to a stay-at-home audience for Believe in Bristol‘s Border Bash Social Distancing Series – a show that, during any other time, would have been held outdoors on State Street.

“I think in some ways, you know, it’s a blessing and curse because it’s forcing musicians like myself to really delve into the internet-land and reach people online,” said Ella in a recent interview with WCYB News 5. “I’ve done several live streams and made enough to pay my rent, so that’s good!”

I get the feeling that a lot of great music (and COVID babies!) will be born during the pandemic, like the song Ella and East Tennessee singer-songwriter Earleine collaborated on during the first couple weeks of the quarantine when their entire spring gig schedules got axed. Like so many great folk songs, the underlying tragedy described in “Coronavirus Blues” is only slightly elevated by a light and playful melody.

B&W image of Bill & the Belles sitting on a front porch. Kalia and Helen wear face masks with Kris sitting on the stoop below them and the words Farm n' Fun Time hang on a banner above them.
Kalia Yeagle, Kris Truelsen, and Helena Hunt of Bill and the Belles in a promo pic for Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time Home Edition, produced during the quarantine.

Kris Truelsen, producer at WBCM Radio Bristol and bandleader of the indie group Bill and the Belles, discussed some of the more creative ways artists are working to connect without the benefit of touring.

“Many artists are using their Patreon accounts to develop closer interaction with fans,” said Kris. “As artists are unable to travel, they want their fan base to know how crucial they are to them. Many are developing specialized content for their top fans which, in turn, is helping to generate some income and help them feel connected during this trying time. Some are teasing new songs, or even playing rough drafts of songs for fans, some are giving a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process. Others are hosting VIP concerts for only a few close fans.”

Kris continued, “Last week I sat in on the Barefoot Movement’s weekly online concert where viewers are encouraged to donate and to participate in the show through commenting. The band has been doing these since mid-March and has also been spotlighting a few artists a week to sit in, play a few songs, and chat. They also play fan favorites while each member is self-isolated in a different location, sing a weekly cover song as voted on by fans, and more. It was a really cool way to see how effective this format can be for artists that have a dedicated fan base.”

Kris hosts Radio Bristol’s monthly variety show Farm and Fun Time with Bill and the Belles (the show’s house band) live from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which has closed temporarily due to COVID-19. The trio went live from Kris’s front porch for a special Home Edition in April and are planning another from his home on May 14.

Beth Snapp in overalls wearing a dark blue denim face mask.
Beth Snapp sporting the latest pandemic fashion accessory: a denim face masked made by L.C. King Mfg. in Bristol, Tennessee.

Kingsport-based singer-songwriter Beth Snapp works in healthcare but says she hasn’t concentrated much on selling her music during the quarantine.

“Nope,” Beth commented. “Honestly I’ve not been pushing hard for it because I’ve had a lot of illness and have been working at the hospital – at least for now, probably will lose hours there too. Stressful times. I do think, however, people have to focus on essential purchases right now and money for a new piece of merch is likely not in the budget. I know it’s not for me, so I’m certainly not judging anyone for the same. I [was] excited to do a live streaming show…(my first one!) not necessarily for the income, but to see who tunes in. I’ve missed playing for folks.” Beth performed for the online Border Bash Social Distancing Series on Thursday, April 30 on Facebook Live.

Kris Truelsen says he’s not pushing merch sales either, but Bill and the Belles have seen a spike in sales. “For my band, personally, we have seen merch sales go up from the onset of COVID-19, though we haven’t been pushing sales too hard for income. We all are lucky enough to have remained employed by our other jobs. I really feel for full-time artists right now as they are struggling.”

Jon McGlocklin's face mask is high-tech black!
Jon McGlocklin, CEO of Middle Fork Records, in all black, mask included.

Small regional booking and artist management agencies are also among the casualties of COVID-19, including Middle Fork Records. Bristol resident and Southwest Virginia native Jon McGlocklin founded the agency in 2017 and it’s his full-time job. He manages and books gigs for the group Virginia Ground (of which he is a founding member) and handles booking for a number of regional concert series, festivals, and venues including The Pinnacle, Beech Mountain Resort, and 7 Dogs Brewpub, to name a few.

“When this pandemic set in, I spent my days canceling everything I had spent months on booking,” Jon revealed. “Middle Fork Records has helped raise money for artists and bands, but hasn’t made money since February. The online support started with a bang but seems to have slowed with the effects of prolonged quarantine and patrons facing layoffs and being furloughed from their jobs. What was thought to be a 2–3 week quarantine has turned into something entirely different. Different but necessary. Staying healthy and safe and flattening the curve is still priority #1 amongst the arts community from what I am seeing.”

Middle Fork Records has partnered with Beech Mountain Resort to produce a Virtual Watch Party Series featuring Jamen Denton, Morgan Wade, Josh Daniel, and others. The company is also working with ElextraLand Radio in Gainesville, Florida to produce an international series. And 100% of the virtual tips collected through these ventures will go to the artists.

At the end of the day, gigging musicians are running a small business, and without paying gigs the entire chain of artist management and booking agencies break down. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music pay mere pennies to indies unless they generate millions of plays. Online tip jars aren’t a replacement for contracted guarantees at venues. Additionally, artists must front the cash to order more merch before they can sell it to fans online, and online stores also take a cut of the profits. The trickle-down of business loss will affect CD suppliers, graphic designers who make tour posters, promotional product companies, etc. The long-term effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen, but many are hopeful these winds of change will wake up the existing music industry and that things will change for the better.

“This issue isn’t going to resolve once the stay at home order ceases,” Truelsen concluded. “This will be an ongoing issue for career development for a long time to come. I hope it can bring some positive change as the career of a full-time artist has gotten more and more difficult to navigate over the past few decades and the industry in many respects has taken advantage of artists. If anything, this crisis has shown that artists are incredibly resourceful and in many ways can generate sufficient income without the industry.”

“The struggle is real, but we’re going to come out of this and throw some of the most epic events in the region when everyone can start gathering again!” added McGlocklin.

Amen, brother. AMEN.

Speaking of epic events, all of the folks I spoke with for this blog post are scheduled to perform at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this September. There are no plans to cancel or postpone the festival at this time, and it will be a great party if everyone to continues to practice social distancing and looks out for each other! Stay safe out there, franz!

Radio Bristol Book Club: Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of the month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The cover of Clapton's Guitar shows a Wayne Henderson guitar upright beside the title text.

The cover of Allen St. John’s Clapton’s Guitar.

This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Allen St. John’s Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, published in 2005. This book is the telling of the author’s journey to find the “world’s greatest guitar” and how he instead stumbled upon local luthier Wayne Henderson, the “world’s greatest guitar builder.” The author spent lots of time with the humble and quiet Henderson as he plied his trade, in the process learning about the traditions and craft of guitar building but also about community, history, and friendship. This book is sure to be a local favorite as Wayne Henderson is a luthier from our neck of the woods.

Wayne and Jayne Henderson measure the fretboard on a guitar-in-progress in Wayne's cluttered woodshop.

Wayne Henderson working on a guitar with his daughter Jayne. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

Allen St. John has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Village Voice, The Washington Post Book World, and Men’s Journal. Much of his writing is focused on sports, and in 2003 he worked with radio personality Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo to co-author The Mad Dog 100: The Greatest Sports Arguments of All Time. St. John has won several writing awards during his career. A self-professed “guitar geek,” St. John now owns his very own Henderson guitar.

Make plans to read Clapton’s Guitar and then join us on Thursday, May 28 at 11:00am as we discuss this wonderful book! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deeply researched story about a craftsman beyond measure.

Our Radio Bristol Book Club pick for June is Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

* If you are interested in other instrument-building craftspeople, along with those who are working to keep a whole host of other traditions and folkways alive, check out this blog post about our current special exhibit, Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. You can experience the exhibit virtually starting next Thursday, May 7 via our website. Wayne Henderson participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, mentoring his daughter Jayne in 2013.

Pick 5: Songs to Celebrate 50 Years of April’s Earth Day

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! This month’s “Pick 5” focuses on nature songs in honor of April’s Earth Day, chosen by Stu Vincent.

April marks 50 years of Earth Day (April 22), and as a newcomer to WBCM, I was honoured to be asked to write a blog article in celebration of this anniversary. By way of introduction if you have not listened in to my show Hillbilly Boogie, my playlist is always varied and often contains a little “surprise.” I think that you will find that this is also reflected in my choice of five pieces of music for Earth Day!

When thinking about this post, there were so many songs and pieces of music that I would associate with Earth Day. And so I decided that I might take you through an imaginary day (no, no Pat Metheny in this blog article, though he was nearly included!), sharing with you some of the music that might actually be playing on my headphones or might just run through my mind at different times of the day.

“First Light,” Brian Eno

I am often awake very early in the morning; though sometimes I wish that it were not so, one of the advantages is that I can go out with my camera while most people are still asleep and watch the daybreak. I have seen the sun rise over still-smoking fires at festivals and over hills as I have travelled on overnight coaches while all (but the driver) slept fitfully, but to be out in the open with my camera and my thoughts is the perfect way of starting a day. For me, watching the sun rise is an opportunity to think about what might be done, how to approach a problem, or just to clear the mind in readiness for whatever the new day might bring – and one piece of music typifies this for me: Brian Eno’s “First Light.”

“The Lark Ascending,” Vaughn Williams

One of my fondest memories from when I was a child was wandering off into the fields by myself. Before my family moved to Wales, I lived in a tiny hamlet and my father worked on one of the two farms there. While there were two other boys my age in the hamlet, I would sometimes just wander off – maybe because they had been taken shopping with their mother, maybe we had had a fight…it doesn’t matter. I would walk into the fields and lay on my back and watch the clouds drift by and listen to the birdsong. Such a simple thing to do, but something that youngsters now might not have the opportunity to do; those living in built-up areas (as I do now) might never know that pleasure – no traffic noise, no distractions from phones, just drifting clouds and birds singing, calling and feeding. Recalling those days now, one piece of music immediately comes to mind: Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending.”

“River Stay ‘Way from My Door,”

After my family moved to Wales, one of my greatest pleasures was to play the second-hand records that my father brought back from auctions – probably bought for just (then) a few shillings. Perhaps this is where Hillbilly Boogie came from! I would go through the box and there might be some ragtime by Winifred Atwell, opera – I remember trying to listen to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas…my ears needed a few more years before I appreciated that!, I remember Indonesian music recorded in Covent Garden, and I remember Paul Robeson.

It was not until years later that I learned more about Robeson (including from an older work colleague who showed me a picture of her sitting on his knee). One song that made a huge impression on me then – and is applicable now for this Earth Day selection – was “River Stay ‘Way from My Door.” I was in school in Wales when the Aberfan disaster occurred, a tragic event not dissimilar to the Buffalo Creek flood (the latter being described in song by Corey Lee McQuade). While, as a very young child, I watched the clouds floating by, all too soon I was made aware of the incredible power of Nature, and how despite it being so dramatic and beautiful, it can also be dangerous, particularly when warnings are not heeded or dangers ignored.

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

“SW9 9SL,” Four Tet

Now…I hope that you’re still with me, as here is (perhaps) the biggest surprise. While I predominantly listen to acoustic music, I also enjoy listening to EDM – particularly trance and especially when I am concentrating on a task.

I am not fond of cities – while I love to visit for concerts or exhibitions, I would rather be out of cities wherever possible. Perhaps this is a reaction to having worked in London for so many years, I don’t know…but when I do go into London, I will generally walk everywhere as I know my way around fairly well and I always leave time to wander, a great chance to watch everyone in their hurrying and scurrying as I just take my time.

Of course, cities are important and busy places and, consequently, the people living and working in cities often maintain a very different rhythm to my own. I will confess that after a concert, I will usually hail a taxi to take me back to the train station for my homeward journey. I will sit in the back of a cab, watching the frenzied life of London, watching the impatience of the drivers and pedestrians, the late-night shops, and the Underground stations with their constant flow of people ascending and descending. And at such times, Four Tet’s “SW9 9SL” will come to mind. (SW9 9SL is the post codeZip Code for the Brixton Academy, a famous music venue.)

“Hills of Home,” Trisha Gene Brady

And now, time for home…

As mentioned before, I am not fond of cities and, while I live in a large town, I am fortunate enough to have a small but peaceful garden and to have neighbours who care and are respectful.

If I were to imagine my ideal place on Earth, it would be in the mountains. It would be where the pace of life was slower. It would be where the wisdom of people who have lived on the land for generations is respected and carried forward to the next generation. It would be where the music that I love the most is sung, played, and heard such as the beautiful “Hills of Home” by Trisha Gene Brady.

Wherever you live, I hope you will have your own “Hills of Home”… Be safe, be well. And be kind to the Earth!

Catching Up with Virginia’s Real Folk

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Two weeks later the museum closed its doors in accordance with the state mandate in response to the COVID-19 situation. Sadly that has meant we haven’t been able to share this wonderful exhibit with very many on-the-spot visitors, but happily we are able to share some of it with our virtual visitors! The curatorial team is hard at work on pulling together a virtual tour of Real Folk (so watch this space!), but in the meantime, we wanted to give you the chance to learn a little bit about the exhibit and the apprenticeship program right now.

Since 2002, the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program has drawn from a wide range of communities and traditional folkways to pair more than 150 experienced master artists with dedicated apprentices for one-on-one, nine-month learning experiences, in order to help ensure that particular art forms are passed on in ways that are conscious of history and faithful to tradition. The master artists are selected from applicants in all forms of traditional, expressive culture in Virginia – from decoy carving to fiddle making, from boat building to quilt making, from country ham curing to old-time banjo playing, from African American gospel singing to Mexican folk dancing. These crafts and traditions come from the Appalachian hills to the Chesapeake shore to new immigrant traditions brought to the state  – and everywhere in between! The Folklife Apprenticeship Program helps to ensure that Virginia’s treasured folkways continue to receive new life and vibrancy, engage new learners, and reinvigorate master practitioners.

Out of these apprenticeship pairings, deep friendships and relationships have grown as the master artists pass on their knowledge, skills, and passion for the various crafts and traditions, along with the history and cultural importance that attaches to each. For instance, Sharon Tindall, who worked with gifted quilter Nancy Chilton in 2014, specializes in early African American quilt patters and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She is also a quilt historian and has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages that were integral to the success of the Underground Railroad.

Close up of Sharon Tindall's hand holding a bright red pin cushion, filled with yellow head pins, over a red and white cloth.
Sharon Tindall holds a pin cushion above some brightly colored cloth. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

Several apprenticeships have focused on music, from music making to instrument building to the related art of dance. The variety of traditions on display within this realm is astounding, including African American gospel, Chickahominy dance, bluegrass fiddling, mandolin making, Sephardic ballad singing, steel drum making, and so much more. Because music is so central to the cultural heritage of southwest Virginia, numerous musicians, singers, and makers from this area have taken part in the program. Musician and luthier Gerald Anderson spent more than 30 years apprenticing in the shop of legendary instrument builder Wayne Henderson in Rugby, Virginia. Fellow musician Spencer Strickland recognized his mastery and skills, and asked if Gerald would take him on as an apprentice. Their time working together in 2005 turned into a deep friendship, musical partnership, and one of the longest running and most successful apprenticeships in the program’s history. Though barely out of his teens at the time, Spencer took to building instruments immediately, and the two soon opened their own shop in Gerald’s home in Troutdale. They also played and toured together as a duo and with the Virginia Luthiers. Gerald passed away unexpectedly in 2019, and Spencer has continued to build instruments and carry on Gerald’s memory.

Black-and-white image with a close up of two hands carving the body of a mandolin.
Working on a mandolin in Gerald Anderson’s workshop. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Morgan Miller

Many of Virginia’s cultural traditions have been brought here by immigrant communities, and the state is all the richer from this. These immigrants have shared their heritage not only within their own communities, but also more widely through educational programs, touring and performances, the creation of larger cultural organizations, and partnerships with other groups. For instance, Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing the đàn bâu at 17, later touring throughout the United States with her family as the Nguyen Đinh Nghĩa Family and performing at prestigious concert halls and festivals. The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord (one-stringed) instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Guitarist Anh Dien Ky Nguyen met Nam Phuong while playing at a music club, and he asked her to teach him the đàn bâu, partnering with her in the apprenticeship program in 2011.

Nam Phuon Nguyen in a green dress stands beside a seated Anh Dien Ky Nguyen in a brown vest. He is playing the instrument while she instructs. The shelves behind them are full of knick knacks, bottles, and sculpture.
Nam Phuon Nguyen and Anh Dien Ky Nguyen work together on mastering the art of the đàn bâu. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

These few images are just a taste of this fascinating and beautiful exhibit, and we hope that you will be able to visit it later in the year. In the meantime, you can engage with the exhibit in another way by listening in to Radio Bristol’s Toni Doman as she talks with Virginia Folklife photographer Pat Jarrett about his work with the apprenticeship program — check out Episode 60 on March 12, 2020 in the Mountain Song & Story archives here. And you can support the artists who are so important to Virginia’s cultural heritage by going to Virginia Folklife’s website and exploring TRAIN (Teachers of Remote Arts Instruction Network). Created in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on the livelihoods of artists, TRAIN connects interested students of all skill levels with a diverse range  of master musicians, craftspeople, and tradition bearers offering online instructional opportunities. Start your lessons today!

Finally, keep an eye on our website for a virtual tour of Real Folk coming soon!

A Rose by Any Other Name…Celebrating Musicians through Flora and Fauna!

Today is the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s birth date. He was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of sharecroppers who were struggling through the Great Depression. Despite – and indeed, perhaps because of – this early hardship, Cash went on to become one of the most iconic and influential country musicians in the history of the genre.

Johnny Cash in a black decorated shirt and holding his guitar on stage in front of a mic; he smiles out at the audience.
Johnny Cash on stage. From the Robert Alexander Collection at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

So, what you ask, does this have to do with the naming of flora and fauna species, or binomial nomenclature as it’s known in the scientific community? Johnny Cash and his musical impact is rightly celebrated and recognized in a variety of different ways – through a US postage stamp with his image to a museum dedicated to his life and legacy in Nashville to numerous industry and national awards and honors to the many artists who have been inspired by Cash and his songs. I, of course, knew all about these honors, but then I found out that he had also been celebrated in a really interesting and relatively under-the-radar way: by having a spider named after him!

First, a little bit about how binomial nomenclature works. This “two-term naming system” is a formal way to name species of living things. Both names are based in Latin grammatical forms, but they do different things: the first name is called the generic name, identifying the genus that the species belongs to; the second name is called the specific name, identifying the species within the genus. Therefore, scientific names for flora and fauna can share the first name because the genus may cover many species, but their second name will always be unique. And that second name is where scientists get creative!

Now, back to Johnny Cash: In 2016, a previously unknown tarantula species was discovered in the course of a larger research project. This particular species was found in abundance near Folsom Prison in California, and its coloring was dark, almost black. And from these two links – Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “The Man in Black” nickname – the tarantula was named Aphonopelma johnnycashi.

Image of the Aphonopelma johnnycashi tarantula -- a large black spider with a hairy abdomen and long legs.
A male Aphonopelma johnnycashi. © Dr. Chris A. Hamilton

Johnny Cash isn’t the only musician who has had a species named after him. While the specific names within binomial nomenclature can be inspired by many things – such as the location where they were found, to commemorate a scientific mentor or teacher, inspired by another language or culture where the meaning matches the animal or plant in question, etc. – there are many species names after celebrities.

Here are just a few:

  • Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, a species of trap door spider discovered in 2007 (the scientist loves Neil Young’s music)
  • Scaptia beyonceae, a species of horse fly with a shiny golden abdomen discovered in 2011 and named after Beyoncé
  • Synalpheus pinkfloydi, a type of shrimp discovered in 2017 (this shrimp stuns and kills its prey with small “sonic booms” made by its snapping claws – kind of like standing too near an amp during a Pink Floyd concert!)
  • Orectochilus orbisonorum, a species of whirligig beetle, black on top and white on the bottom, that was discovered in 2008 and named after Roy Orbison
  • Cirolana mercury, an East African isopod (crustacean); this species is found off the coast of Zanzibar (where Freddie Mercury was born)
  • Gaga germanotta and Gaga monstraparva, where both genus and species within a group of ferns honor Lady Gaga and her fans (due to the appearance of the fern being akin to some of Gaga’s costumes and her “paws up” salute; even more interesting is that the DNA for this potential new genus of ferns had GAGA spelled out in its base pairs!)
  • Macrocarpaea dies-viridis, a type of night-blooming flower discovered in Ecuador and named after the band Green Day (dies-viridis is Latin for green day)
  • Anillinus docwatsoni, a species of ground beetle discovered in 2004 and named after Doc Watson
  • Desis bobmarleyi, an Australian intertidal species of spider discovered in 2017 and inspired by Marley’s song “High Tide or Low Tide”
  • Japewiella dollypartoniana, a type of lichen so-named due to its abundant growth in the mountains of East Tennessee
  • Phialella zappai, a species of jellyfish discovered in 1987 (named in a ploy to meet Zappa after the musician said “There is nothing I’d like better than having a jellyfish named after me.”)

These are just a few of the MANY plants and animals with names inspired by musicians and other well-known people. And referring back to the great Dolly Parton, while it’s not related to binomial nomenclature, she has also been honored through naming in another scientific endeavor – the genetic cloning of Dolly the Sheep in Scotland in 1997. Dolly was named after Parton because part of her DNA came from a mammary gland cell of a Finn Dorset sheep. Knowing Dolly Parton’s self-deprecating humor and her graciousness, one imagines that she found this interesting honor both amusing and wonderful!

A close-up shot of Dolly the Sheep on display at the National Museum of Scotland.
Dolly the Sheep passed away in 2003 and is now preserved in taxidermy form at the National Museum of Scotland. From Wikimedia Commons, image courtesy of Toni Barros

And so with that, we can marvel at the wide-ranging inspiration that comes to scientists as they go about their important work – and how it connects to our love of music. Sometimes a celebrity-inspired name is the perfect way to get people engaged and excited about the biodiversity of our planet. As Dr. Chris Hamilton, namer of our Cash-monikered spider, notes: “It’s a really important mechanism for reaching out to the public and getting them involved,” Hamilton said. “We want the public to love these new species, too.”

Pick 5: Coal-Mining Songs

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! This month’s “Pick 5” focuses on coal-mining songs and is from Rich Kirby, host of Radio Bristol’s Old Kentucky Bound airing Thursdays at 2:00pm!

The coal mining era is coming to an end in southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. Coal has had its share of booms and busts over the decades, but this time it looks like the elevator is going to go to the basement and stay there. What with cheap natural gas, cheap solar and wind power, and our awareness of the climate crisis, coal plants are shutting down, and no new ones are being built. Coal will still be used for steelmaking, but that’s only a small share of the market.

But what a ride it’s been! Coal has sustained mountain communities for well over a century with good-paying jobs and an important place in the national economy. However, as with so many things, these benefits have come at a price. For instance, 100,000 miners have died on the job since 1900, and Black Lung Disease and other occupational ailments have helped make coalfield communities some of our least healthy. Strip mining has left hundreds of mountains scarred. And despite the coal jobs, income is low, and this area consistently ranks at or near the bottom of quality-of-life measures.

As you would expect when such an intense way of life meets a culture with a strong musical tradition, there is a ton of coal-mining music – more, I believe, than from any other industry. Mining songs shine a light on the many ups and downs of the mining life. Here’s just a small sampling (and despite the “Pick 5” title, I couldn’t pick just five, so you get a bonus song for six!):

“Which Side Are You On,” written and sung by Florence Reece

The Great Depression hit coalfield communities hard. Desperate companies cut wages to the bone, then cut more, to the point where miners were facing actual starvation. Desperate miners tried to unionize, an action which companies met with armed repression – especially in Harlan County, Kentucky, where coal completely controlled the county government. Harlan miner Sam Reece, an organizer for the National Miners Union, worked in hiding with a price on his head. One night his wife Florence had had enough. “When the thugs were raiding our house off and on, and Sam was run off, I felt like I just had to do something to help. The little children, they’d have little legs and a big stomach. Some of the men staggered when they walked, they were so hungry… We didn’t even have any paper, so when I wanted to write ‘Which Side Are You On?’ I just jerked the calendar off the wall and sat down and wrote the words down on the back.”

Her powerful song went on to become an anthem of the labor movement, sung on countless picket lines and recorded by everyone from Pete Seeger to Natalie Merchant.

“’31 Depression Blues,” written and sung by Ed Sturgill

The Union – specifically the United Mine Workers of America – brought miners and their communities out of the pits of despair and into the middle class. Ed Sturgill managed to get all that history into two minutes and forty-two seconds. From the days of scrip (company money) and miners paid by the ton (with the company doing the weighing) to FDR’s New Deal and the UMW Welfare and Retirement Fund to a plea to miners to stick with the union – it’s all here in this one song.

Ed Sturgill was from either Harlan or Wise County – I’ve heard both. His banjo style tells us he was likely a good buddy of Dock Boggs.

“Coal Miners Boogie,” sung by George Davis

Listen to a lot of mining songs, and you can get the idea it’s all strikes and disasters, and indeed there have been plenty of both. But a lot of old miners like to remember the camaraderie of men whose lives were in each others’ hands, and the freewheeling excitement of coal towns on Saturday night. George Davis, “the Singing Miner,” did daily radio shows in Hazard and Pikeville, Kentucky. His songs capture a lot of this strong, cheerful spirit.

“West Virginia Mine Disaster,” written and sung by Jean Ritchie

I once sang this at an open mic in Portland, Oregon. Afterwards a young woman came up in the throes of great emotion. Seems her grandfather had been a West Virginia coal miner who had died recently of Black Lung Disease. She told me she’d been holding all her feelings inside until suddenly Jean’s piece gave her permission to grieve. Such is the power of a great song.

“Dyin’ to Make a Livin’,” written by W. V. Hill, sung by Foddershock

Living in the hills of Dickenson County, Virginia – Clinchfield Coal Company’s historic center – W. V. Hill knows firsthand the toll that mining can take on a human body, and the drugs that give the promise of being able to go on another day. This song was part of the Grammy-nominated Music of Coal collection that appeared in 2007.

“Black Dust Fever,” sung by the Wildwood Valley Boys

Black Lung Disease should have been wiped out by health and safety laws that require adequate ventilation in the mines, but shoddy enforcement has kept that goal out of reach. After years of decline, Black Lung is again on the rise. I’ve been unable to find who wrote this song, or where the Indiana-based Wildwood Valley Boys got it. I can’t imagine a pithier way of expressing the existential dilemma of coal communities than the chorus:

      “The black dust has taken my last dying breath / But the mines kept my family from starving to death.”

Long Dark Night…Dancing with the Boogeyman

Things are weird in the holler…teen sweat and anxiety mixed with gasoline fumes and a fear of being found out.

Always a fear…

The Cramps with their short five-song gem Gravest Hits was the soundtrack to this time for me. Gravest Hits, a compilation tape and record that came out in 1979, included their first two 45 rpm singles plus a bonus track of swamp rockabilly madness…the gravest of all!

So, in the late 1980s I was a young teen who had been playing music since I was nine years old, and that was all country songs from country’s early days to the poppy 1980s style that was coming out of NashVegas at the time. It was not feeding my pubescent soul. Then along came the Ford Country Squire that belonged to the Swiney boys’ dad, with a warblin’ noise coming out of the tape deck. Reverb garglin’ mess, it was…the tape, not the Ford! I was intrigued and hooked immediately.

I had to have this sound in my heart…. I had to have it in my hands…. I was to be one with it…. I was it, and it was me.

The car sped off down a gravel road leading into the mountains while Lux Interior belched out:

“I’m a human fly

I spell [it] F-L-Y!

I Go BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ

And it’s just becuzz.”

I too felt unhuman and something to be swatted out of existence…

The Swiney boys laughed and thought this tape was just funny, but to me it was serious business. I must find out more about this bunch of miscreants!

I started looking for the name The Cramps in every music publication I could get my hands and eyes on, all the while blaring my recent copy of the Swineys’ Cramps tape. The band showed up in Rolling Stone and in some books on rock-and-roll that I checked out at the library. There was also the name of the record’s producer, which showed up in all kinds of magazines and books – the late great Alex Chilton!!!! He was responsible for making this record sound so creepy, and oozy as an infected sore…

Alex Chilton, the man-child who sang the soulful sound of Memphis, Tennessee’s own The Box Tops in the 1960s! And as with The Box Tops, The Cramps recorded Gravest Hits at Ardent Studios in Memphis. More reverb! I’m begging you – REVERB! Even though the band was NYC-based, they chose another Memphis studio (Phillips Recording) with Chilton again at the helm for the 1980s follow-up, full-length LP Songs the Lord Taught Us.

The years have passed by, and yet this five-song EP still oozes its way into every music endeavor I write and record… Thank you, and Godspeed, Alex Chilton…rest easy, Lux Interior.

  • “Human Fly”
  • “The Way I Walk”
  • “Domino”
  • “Surfin’ Bird”
  • “Lonesome Town”

The Cramps – Gravest Hits

We all live in a world of mystery & deceit…

The Cramps – “Domino”

Pick 5: Not-So-Traditional Christmas Songs for Traditional Christmas

Christmas Day is over, and all of the traditional Christmas songs have also gone away – for the past month (and sometimes into November), you couldn’t go to any public place with a sound system without hearing these yuletide tunes on repeat. I’ve never been one for traditional Christmas music; I blame my parents for playing Josh Groban’s Christmas album Noel over and over during the holiday season when I was younger. However, it is still officially Christmas, the 12 days of Christmas, in fact. And so, I’ve gathered a list of some alternative Christmas songs that I’ve grown to love and appreciate over the years to carry us through to the end of the season on January 6.

“Hard Candy Christmas,” Dolly Parton

This Dolly Parton classic wasn’t conceived as a Christmas tune. Originally written by Carol Hall for the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, “Hard Candy Christmas” became a bona fide Christmas song once Dolly put it on her collaborative album with Kenny Rogers, Once Upon A Christmas, and after she performed the song on Bob Hope’s Christmas special in 1988. I love this song because it starts off so sad. And then there’s so much possibility and hope for the future with every ‘maybe’ Dolly croons – life and the holiday season may be hard, but we have the opportunity to make of it what we will. Dolly lets us know that it will all be fine.

“I Just Wanted to Say,” My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket, one of those quintessential early aughts indie bands, released a Christmas EP entitled My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style in 2000, which was very early in their career. And, with artists like Nick Cave listed in the composer credits the EP is anything but a fiasco. My favorite song of the bunch is “I Just Wanted to Say.” The song has a sad indie sound with some alt-country guitar twang, but it’s actually a very endearing and sweet song lyrically – Jim James just wants to be a little part of your cheer.

“River,” Joni Mitchell

“River” is another song that was not meant to become a part of the Christmas song canon, instead being merely written with the temporal setting of the Christmas season. The song borrows melodies from classic Christmas songs that give it that Christmas feel, but the melancholic and nostalgic lines and winter imagery by the Queen of sad and thoughtful lyrics are what really make this a spectacular Christmas song for me.

“Christmas in Harlem,” Kanye West, CyHi da Prynce, Teyana Taylor

Anyone who knows me knows I love and am fascinated by Kanye West, and I try to find any excuse to talk about him. And so, of course, his Christmas song would be on my list! “Christmas in Harlem” was released in 2010 as a part of his GOOD Fridays free music giveaway series. Like most of the other songs on this list, the lyrics speak to the sadder side of Christmas like not being able to be with family and the disillusionment with the consumerist culture surrounding the season.

“It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!,” Sufjan Stevens

This is definitely the happiest track from my list! The song comes from a box set of five different Christmas and Christmas-related EPs the singer Sufjan Stevens released between 2001 and 2006. Sufjan is known for his haunting lyrics and unique banjo playing, and what this Christmas song lacks in haunting lyrics, it more than makes up for in unique and wonderful banjo sounds! I picked this song out of the long track list just because I thought you all deserved at least one genuinely happy sounding Christmas song – and who doesn’t love a banjo-filled Christmas?