A Spring Playlist...
In February, I had the honor of participating in a Hedgebrook’s 2019 Songwriter Residency. If you haven’t heard of Hedgebrook, it’s an organization that supports women writers by a process they call “Radical Hospitality”. (Want to learn more? Check out Hedgebrook here. )
During my time at Hedgebrook I wrote a few songs, did a lot of reading and research for an album I’ve got in the works, practiced fiddle with abandon, and- my favorite part- I got to spend my evenings exchanging ideas with five other women songwriters. One of our evenings together, we decided we should each come up with a 10-song playlist to share with each other, of music that has been inspiring us/capturing our interest/stuck in our heads etc. I really liked the playlist I came up with for this challenge so I decided to share it here as well, along with some commentary:)
Track 1: Bonaparte’s Retreat by Ola Belle Reed
I dare you to find a dulcimer part as groovin as the one in this song. It is basically a party unto itself.
Bonaparte’s Retreat is an interesting song in that it’s had a lot of lives. From what I can gather, it started out as one fiddle tune on one side of the Atlantic and then morphed into a slightly different fiddle tune on the other side of the Atlantic. Then Pee Wee King put words to it and released it in 1949, and since then it’s become a whole slew of other things (I highly encourage taking a deep dive into different versions of this song/tune- it’s pretty fascinating!).
I think that Ola Belle does a masterful job of grounding the song in it’s fiddle roots while also rocking the socks off it. Her playing, combined with the unabashed strength of her voice keeps me coming back to binge-listen to this song on repeat. I simply can’t make it through the full 2:51 without thinking, “F*** Yeah!” at some point.
Track 2: Long Hot Summer Days by John Hartford
I am inspired by curiosity. Many of the people I admire most are those who go out of their way to cultivate curiosity in their lives. I think it’s brilliant when people navigate the world asking “What if?”, and then set out on whatever adventure is going to give them an answer. I feel like John Hartford is an example of a person who really embodies that- it’s clear in his music. His wizardry on so many instruments, combined with playful and expressive songwriting, combined with his musical creativity and proclivity to improvise- all leads me to believe he must’ve been a person with a deep and profound love of learning and exploration. I aspire to that wealth of knowledge, and ease of expression.
I chose this particular song of his partially because I thought it carried through some of the groove from “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, and also because I feel like it’s a strong example of being deeply rooted on the intricacies of a number of musical styles, while still managing to be inventive and playful. As someone who plays a lot of solo shows, I also really dig hearing someone who can thoroughly capture you with just a voice and a fiddle.
Track 3: Pretty Bird by Hazel Dickens
Hazel Dickens is a a hero of mine. She was someone with so much power, vulnerability, and authenticity in her voice. She wrote important songs about important things. She spoke her mind through her music and she led the way for a lot of women in bluegrass/old time. This song was my introduction to her and her work, so it is one that holds some meaning for me personally. It’s also just a stunning example of unaccompanied Appalachian singing, which is a tradition that I draw a lot of inspiration from. Like that last John Hartford song, it’s an example of an original song that draws strongly on a long history of musical tradition.
Track 4: I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape by The Nugrape Twins
If you don’t already know about the Nugrape Twins, stop everything you’re doing and go listen to their music (it won’t take long- only six of their songs were ever released). From what I could find, the Nugrape Twins were Mark and Matthew Little (b. September 16, 1888 in Tennville, GA). They recorded six songs in 1926 and 1927. Two of those songs are commercials for Nugrape soda, and the remaining four are gospel songs (“City Built of Mansions” is especially beautiful, I think). I think I read somewhere once that their piano player also wrote the gospel songs they sang, but now I’m having trouble finding the source of that tidbit…time for more research!
I chose this song for a few reasons. First, I love the interplay between Mark and Matthew’s voices. I love the way that their voices have their own individual character and sort of blaze their own path, while still complimenting each other and landing together with ease. Second, I think the rhythm in this song is fascinating. I think it’s awesome that so much groove can be communicated with such a rhythmically straight delivery. So cool! Third, I love the combination of voice and piano- I love that the piano part at once seems totally incongruous with the vocals and also seems to perfectly match. I also feel like style of the piano sets the song in a specific time and place in a really cool way.
I learned about the Nugrape Twins a couple years ago in a workshop taught by John Miller at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. Big thanks to John for expanding my musical horizons! John also introduced me to Blind Roosevelt Graves (see Track 6).
Track 5: Single Girl, Married Girl by The Carter Family
I couldn’t make a playlist of songs/artists I love without including something by The Carter Family. I think it’s hard to be a person who loves traditional American music and not carry a lot of gratitude for the contributions made by The Carter Family. In addition to writing their own songs, they collected, arranged, and recorded many more from all over the American south. The Carter Family discography is a huge resource for me- both to learn old songs and for reference with my music students.
I find The Carter Family to be especially inspiring because in addition to being one of the first recorded country music acts and arguably the most influential group in the history of country music, they are a band whose music is powered by two badass women. The band was made up of three people- A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter. While A.P. Carter was responsible for collecting a lot of the songs recorded by The Carter Family- the bulk of the musical contributions came from Maybelle and Sara, who arranged and performed all the music. And don’t get me started on Maybelle’s iconic guitar style! Oof. I could go on, but I’ll spare you for now. If you’d like to learn more about the Carter Family, and the history of the song “Single Girl, Married Girl” in particular, I highly recommend a documentary called, “The Winding Stream”, which is all about The Carter Family.
[Sidenote: I mentioned song collecting, basically meaning the act of going around to different places (often rural or out-of-the-way places) to learn local folk music for the sake of transcribing or recording. Song collecting is an important, deeply meaningful part of the folk music process and essential to the preservation of traditional music. However, it can also be a very fraught topic. Recorded music became a thing during a time of extreme cultural and racial inequality, and that is reflected in who profited monetarily from the recording and sale of traditional music. This continues to be a problem today, and I believe it has also worked to alienate many folks from exploring the history of folk music in America. I have a lot of feelings about this and hope to delve into it more in future posts.]
Track 6: Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus) by Blind Roosevelt Graves
This song is my jam. All cards on the table, I’m not a person who is intimately acquainted with Jesus. But I wake up in the morning with this song on my mind all the damn time. First- those voices. The melody is catchy and great, but the harmony line is truly incredible. From the call-and-response moments, to the bass runs, to the rhythmic syncopations, to the unexpected intervals- mmmmmm! So good! Can’t get enough.
Second- the guitar. I love it. It makes me 100% full of happiness. I think his playing is really interesting and compelling and it grooves so freakin hard. I also love how much it speeds up throughout the song. It’s like it’s embodying the experience of being fully swept up in excitement and possibility.
And whatever your religion, this song is a great reminder about the power of starting your day with love and intention, commitment and hope and delight.
Track 7: Diggy Liggy Lo by Doug and Rusty Kershaw
I am definitely not an expert on Cajun music. But based on what I do know, I think it’s a pretty beautiful example of the way that music can evolve to incorporate contributions from many different cultures (Cajun music embraces a hodge-podge of French, Indigenous Canadian/American, Spanish, German, and Afro-Caribbean musical elements). While there’s been a history of Cajun music and culture being treated as something “other” within a broader “American” context, it strikes me as a really important facet of American culture. I mean, if the US is truly a melting pot, Cajun music is what’s cooking.
Also, dancing. I think Cajun dancing just might be the most fun you can have standing up. Once again, I’m not expert and I probably look comparatively awkward on a Cajun dancefloor, but there’s something about relaxing into that dance and feeling the groove of the music that is pretty magical.
So anyway, I wanted to include some Cajun music on this playlist, but I also wanted to include something that sort of showcases the link between Cajun music and country (which is HUGE) and I thought Doug and Rusty Kershaw would be a great place to start. If you’d like to learn more about the history of Cajun music and more specifically the work of Doug and Rusty Kershaw, this episode of the Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast is a great jumping off point. And then learn some Cajun fiddle tunes. And go dancing.
Track 8: You’re Running Wild by The Louvin Brothers
I have a deep and abiding love for the Louvin Brothers’ music. For many reasons, which I intend to delve into in a video lesson about this song (stay tuned for that!). The Louvin Brothers used harmony in a lot of really interesting ways, and provided a blueprint for many musical acts that came after them. That’s all I’ll say for now, but trust that there is more to come!
Track 9: Today, Tomorrow, and Forever by Patsy Cline
I have very vivid memories of being seven years old and becoming obsessed with Patsy Cline. I remember scouting out moments when no one else was around so that I could blast my “Best of Patsy Cline” CD and dance around the living room of my family’s single-wide trailer, imagining myself someday singing on a big stage. And I definitely haven’t grown out of that particular behavior… Patsy Cline is another vocal hero of mine- her voice is such a brilliant combination of emotion and constraint. It’s like she’s laying all the big feelings out on the line but still keeping some mysterious part for herself. She’s an artist that represents a lot of strength and grace to me.
Track 10: Gotta Travel On by Rose Maddox
Rose Maddox is a badass. There’s just no denying that. She’s got a powerhouse voice and she made huge contributions to country and rockabilly music. Her story is pretty incredible- she and her family moved west to California from Alabama during the depression, riding freight trains to get there. When the family arrived in California they had no money and scraped together a living doing farm work, which, with the mass westward migration of the time, was hard to find and not well-paying. To escape picking cotton, her brothers decided to try and make some money playing music on the radio. They needed a singer, so Rose (just a kid at the time) was recruited to lead the band. And so they became The Maddox Brothers and Rose, going on to be highly influential in the California country scene.
Every time I listen to Rose Maddox sing, I feel really emboldened as a person and musician. Her singing is a force to be reckoned with. Studying the way she sings taught me a lot about vowel production and vocal tone- lessons that I use all the time in my own study, and as an example with my students (more on learning vocals by studying country singers coming soon!)
If you made it all the way through to the end- Congratulations! You might be as nerdy as me. I could definitely go on much longer (gushing about music that I love and draw inspiration from is clearly one of my favorite things to do). So if you liked this post and want to see more like it, please let me know! I had a lot of fun making it and would be more than happy to make more playlist articles in the future. Cheers!