Charlie Daniels sang often about the land that he loved
by Arsenio Orteza
The great Charlie Daniels was 83 when he died from a stroke two days after celebrating one of his favorite holidays: the Fourth of July. Who else but a proud, fiddle-playing lover of the Red, White, and Blue would have recorded enough patriotic songs to release a 15-song compilation titled Land That I Love as Daniels did in 2010? It’s almost as if he’d foreseen Donald Trump’s problems with getting permission to use the music of liberal rock stars for his rallies and said, Here, Mr. President. You can use these instead.
And, despite the prominence of the adjectives “country” and “bluegrass” in his obituaries, Daniels was a rock star—a Southern-rock star to be specific. Several of his biggest hits, “Uneasy Rider,” “Still in Saigon,” and “The South’s Gonna Do It,” didn’t even scrape the country charts.
It wasn’t until “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in 1979 that country’s gatekeepers fully relented, making that song his only No. 1 hit on any chart and guaranteeing him a radio audience right up through 2001, when he responded to 9/11 with the endearingly, and characteristically, unsubtle “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag.” His inductions into the Grand Ole Opry (2008) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (2016) were faits accomplis.
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Noteworthy new or recent releases
by Arsenio Orteza
George Crumb: Metamorphoses (Book I) by Marcantonio Barone: The subtitle: Ten Fantasy-Pieces (After Celebrated Paintings) for Amplified Piano. The composer: a nonagenarian who shows no signs of slowing down. The paintings: Two apiece by Klee and Chagall, one apiece by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Dalí, Whistler, Kandinsky, and Johns. The best way to listen: by looking at the relevant paintings and trying to imagine which details—colors, brush strokes, subject matter—correlate with the range of sounds made by Barone’s playing of the keyboard, his playing of its strings (Crumb composes for the whole piano), his “playing” of whatever’s making the crow sounds in the Van Gogh piece, and his approximation of Polynesian grunting (the Gauguin). The ad campaign: A Pictures at an Exhibition for our post-representational times.
Rough and Rowdy Ways by Bob Dylan: In Cubism, says Wikipedia, “objects are analyzed, broken up, and reassembled in an abstracted form” and “the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.” Hence Dylan’s beginning with “I Contain Multitudes,” his attaching lyrics alluding to Ricky Nelson and Augustine of Hippo to a 66-year-old Sun Records tune (“False Prophet”), his Cubist-by-definition Frankenstein fantasy (“My Own Version of You”), and his recurring juxtaposition of religious B.C. lingo (gods and Muses) with its A.D. equivalents (the Holy Spirit, old-time religion, the gospel of Love). Hence also the musical schema, wherein barbed-wire blues alternate with the tenderest original melodies of his career.
The Explorers Club by the Explorers Club: Even if you think his commitment to mid-to-late-’60s AM-radio sunshine pop makes Jason Brewer a nostalgia act, you have to admit that he’s really good at what he does. Not only does he sing and arrange like someone intent on giving the Turtles and Paul Revere & the Raiders a run for their money, but he writes his own songs too, songs that imply Laurel Canyon moved on too fast when it abandoned their kind for country-rock and that there’s something to be gained from what got left behind. And if you like Brewer’s originals, you’ll love his note-for-note re-creations of 10 mid-to-late-’60s AM-radio sunshine-pop nuggets on his Club’s also just-released To Sing and Be Born Again.
Hush… by Joanne Hogg & Phil Hart: Twenty years ago, Phil Hart and Joanne Hogg (the lead singer of the Christian progressive-folk band Iona at the time) collaborated on these nine lullabies, all of which are child (and parent) appropriate and enough of which are appropriate for everyone to make their belated appearance (in their original demo form) seem providential. First Worlders, after all, have more reasons to have trouble falling asleep these days than they have in many a year. Believers know better than to let their hearts be troubled or to let the sun go down on their wrath, but some things are easier said than done. These songs will help. And they sound pretty good when you’re wide awake too.
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Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center/Library of Congress/Association for Cultural Equity
A cappella gospel
The enduring relevance of Bessie Jones
by Arsenio Orteza
Although she died in 1984, Bessie Jones is a woman for our times. The granddaughter of a slave, she grew up in rural Georgia and at 30 underwent a transformative Christian experience, eventually becoming a one-woman, gospel-folk-song revival. In 2014, Tompkins Square released Get in Union, two CDs of mostly a cappella recordings made by Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers for Alan Lomax in 1960. An expanded, digital-only edition has just been released by Global Jukebox. In the following edited exchange, Nathan Salsburg, the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, discusses Jones’ enduring relevance.
Why did you reissue Get in Union? It was out of print for several years and never available digitally. A central part of my role as the archive’s curator is to make and keep Lomax’s recordings available, so it seemed that a reissue was overdue.
How and when did you discover Bessie Jones’ music? I don’t remember, but it seems as if I’ve been hearing her sing all my life (which might be the case, as my parents were folkies in their own ways). I certainly can’t imagine my life now without her music.
Jones obviously took her faith seriously. What would you say to nonreligious listeners who might think that she has nothing to say to them? I subscribe to no religious faith in any traditional sense and am more nonbeliever than otherwise, but I would distrust anyone who heard music like that made by Ms. Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers and rejected it for its religiosity. To not be moved—or at least intrigued—by the performances’ power and heft, the depth and breadth of their emotion, and their profound humanity would call into question such a listener’s capacity to engage with music any deeper than, say, the Eagles.
What about listeners who simply find a cappella folk music too strange or exotic? I would be surprised if anyone found Jones’ music too exotic, as many of her tunes and much of her performance style has become deeply, intuitively familiar to fans of black music, whether they’ve experienced their echoes in or through gospel, blues, R&B, hip-hop, or any other Afro-diasporic tradition.
Get in Union was reissued shortly after the George Floyd protests had begun. In what sense is it “just what the doctor ordered” during these unnerving times? I don’t feel equipped to answer this with any objectivity (and certainly not authority), not least because I’m a white man, but also because I’ve listened to Bessie Jones’ music for so long, it has always felt like what the doctor has ordered. But in the midst of all the righteous anger that this moment has brought to a boil, I’ve been heartened by the seriousness with which white people are seeking out, learning from, and amplifying black voices and perspectives. And for those who are taking the time to listen to Bessie Jones sing now, to reckon with her references, influences, aspirations, and her own commitment to honoring the voices of those she called “the ancestors,” I hope they’ll also be moved to investigate the many enduring points of connection between what we call past and what we call present.