The 11th Annual Southern Music Issue of the Oxford American

A wiser woman than me would not court controversy two years in a row. But I can be nothing other than myself.

I’m not going to repeat myself about the music. This is as true this year as it was last year

The music is always so damn interesting.  It’s not always good, but it’s always one after another of “What the fuck am I hearing?”  And, in the best years, once the novelty has worn off, you’re left with some songs you want to hear for the rest of your life, like, for instance, “Grits ain’t Groceries.”  Will there ever be a day when you don’t want to hear “Grits ain’t Groceries?”  I hope not.

I want to talk about the writing. Listen to this, how Roy Kasten describes the Frank Frost song you can hear on the disc, “The words barely matter. Everything Frost knows and feels is contained in that delirious, disturbing, inarticulate moan, and in the phrases spilling out from his harmonica, like the voice of a shadow twin echoing around the room.”

Holy shit.

I mean it. If that doesn’t both give you the willies and make you want to listen to that song, I don’t know what will. I read that and I know why I’m being asked to listen to that song. And I am so jealous that I didn’t write that sentence. I almost want to type it again just so I can pretend for a few minutes that it came from me.

And I am biased in my love for Barry Mazor’s writing, but when he says, “We can hear that. The counterforce against the sheer reliability of Burch’s music is that the rhythms and tones he’s relied on over the course of his seven albums never stand still. the recordings constitute an autobiography in beats.” you know what he wants you to appreciate. I probably didn’t need to go on. You can pretty much sum up why Mazor’s writing about music is so effective in “We can hear that.”  The inclusiveness of it, the careful joy of really hearing.

And again, it makes me want to listen again to the song, to listen more carefully.

But there’s Bruce Eaton’s piece about how “If your girlfriend were still your girlfriend and was here right now…” a bit of mock inclusiveness that does just the opposite; it draws a line about who can listen to music and write about it that excludes a lot of people. It’s not that I mind the personal stuff. I found Alice Randall’s piece to be really moving and thought-provoking, wondering what it must have been like for a black woman just past the segregation era to stare up from the stage of the Ryman and see the Confederate gallery. And I use “you” all the time when I mean “me,” but for me, in this instance, it doesn’t work. It makes me feel like writing about and giving a shit about music is for a specific “you,” the “you” it’s always been.

And almost every piece on the blues is about that story of the blues, you know the one–how these wild, half-criminal men make this authentic depressing half-protest music about how shitty their lives were and then some other men, often white, come along and preach the sermon of the shittiness of the blues singer’s life while we all sing along to the holy hymns.

And I’m not saying that there’s not some truth to that.  It wouldn’t have stuck around as such a compelling narrative if there wasn’t some truth to it. Each article of this issue that deals with the blues wouldn’t have draped so nicely over that skeleton of narrative if the skeleton weren’t designed to fit.

But how can you listen to more than one Muddy Waters tune, for instance, and think that his primary concern was how much his life sucked? Or how can you listen to “Trouble in Mind” and not hear “I won’t be blue always. The sun is going to shine in my back door some day.”?

Isn’t it time that the story of the blues was a little more complicated?

People, this is party music. You don’t get asked back to juke joints if the owner is afraid you’re going to commit a felony and then mope around with your guitar while people wonder if they’re going to get to dance.

One little thing about the music, I think the two CD set-up works well. One CD is music from all over the South and the other CD is music from Arkansas. Each year, from here on out, they’ll fill that second CD with music from another Southern state. I think it’s a really cool idea and I can’t wait to see what the hell they do for South Carolina, which is the only Southern state I can’t immediately think of musicians from. So, I hope they do South Carolina next and school my ass.

5 thoughts on “The 11th Annual Southern Music Issue of the Oxford American

  1. B! How could you not know that Josh Turner is from SC? I’m shocked well, not very surprised, actually. But … beach music is from SC (and some other places) and the OA even had a wonderful piece about it years back.

  2. Perhaps you can attempt to goad my talented friend Roy Kasten into doing a book. I’ve never been successful at that, though I’ve tried. He’s got lotta subjects.

    (And thanks for the kind shout out.)

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