An installment in our weekly series, The By and By.
Winding through these towns, behind buildings and homes, across fields—I am struck by the train’s intimate perspective. The very idea that I was looking into people's backyards felt voyeuristic; I could not avert my eyes. The fields seemed close enough to touch as we plowed through. I could almost feel the wind, the tall stalks of grass.
An essay supplement to our North Carolina Music Issue.
It’s easy to become bored with common things—a four-lane highway, or a daily schedule at the nursing home, or a type of bird or music. But maybe these days we make too much of what awes us or infuriates us, and too little of the regular life in the middle. What’s common only became common, after all, because it adapted and learned to fit in. A cliché was once original. Country music was once meaningful. Walking was once easy. A common robin once saved Jesus.
Sun Ra—master jazz pianist, composer, visionary, and astral traveler—is why many jazz listeners entered the Space Age before there was a Space Age. And June Tyson gives vibrational birth to Sun Ra’s visions.
If I’d been asked, I might’ve said I was held hostage, and truthfully I kind of was. Platt sang and her voice sank its claws into me and I didn’t move. One song bled into the next and I sat there until she was finished. I would’ve sat there for days if she’d kept singing. When the show was over, I pulled out what little money was in my wallet and shoved those crumpled bills in a jar by the stage for the only album the Honeycutters had at the time, a record called Irene. I played that record on a loop for months.
Ella had grown up in the Smoky Mountains, first on farms and then in lumber camps, where she and her mother took in laundry while singing old mountain ballads. According to accounts, Ella’s singing voice was deep and seasoned with pain, and her lyrics reflected the plainspoken style of her speech.
Mentor to Alice Gerrard, beacon to all of us North Carolina folkie wannabes, revered by those of us with any musical knowledge, and—music’s highest compliment—sung by many of us who don’t know how we know the words. This Chapel Hill woman is the very heart of what we call Piedmont blues.
This is the second time I’ve heard him play in the past few months and it’s always the same: nobody knows who Malcolm Holcombe is, except those who do. And those who know really know. You listen to him and you become evangelical about his music, this scarecrow of a man folded over his Martin guitar.
Then there’s the stripe of love-sickness where you’re not even sure it’s hurting. The pain often masquerades as energy, even optimism, yet there is always, in Johnson’s phrasing—in the way she hesitates against the beat—the hint of denial and delusion, and the suggestion, in those seconds where her voice rises and cracks, of trouble ahead. It might let you sleep, but it will be with you first thing, and stay with you all day.
They were part of a dying tradition: musicians from the community playing functional music for social dances, not to make a living but because that’s simply what they did. They were also among the last living links to a vast black string band tradition that used to be spread all over the South and other parts of the U.S. but had slowly disappeared until very few were left. And they were swallowed up by the wider societal notion that fiddle and banjo music was strictly a white preserve.
Notes on the songs from our 20th Southern Music Issue Sampler featuring North Carolina.
The profiles, eulogies, and essays herein boast of remarkable achievements of North Carolina’s musicians across eras and genres: from unassailable legends (High Point’s John Coltrane, Tryon’s Nina Simone, Chapel Hill’s James Taylor) to contemporary masters (Snow Hill’s Rapsody, Jacksonville’s Ryan Adams, Raleigh’s 9th Wonder) to the seen-afresh (Dunn’s Link Wray, Kannapolis’s George Clinton, Winston-Salem’s dB’s, Charlotte’s Jodeci)—and, of course, the often-overlooked and in-between (Winston-Salem’s Wesley Johnson, Morganton’s Etta Baker, Chapel Hill’s Liquid Pleasure, Kinston’s Nathaniel Jones, Black Mountain’s period of hosting John Cage).