Inspiration often springs from strange sources. Atlanta songwriter Alice Swoboda found it in a burly Mets outfielder, from whom she took her performing surname, and a Samuel Fuller noir, from which she derived her dirge for the poor, “Potter’s Field.” Baseball and gangster films are hardly associations that the song evokes. But then there’s much mysterious about this performer, whose entire recorded output is four sides put to wax in the early 1970s.
That Swoboda never recorded again seems a major loss, judging by the inventiveness and voice of “Potter’s Field,” which the Chicago record label Numero Group disinterred in 2008 and which can now be heard on the Oxford American’s Georgia Music CD. The artist doesn’t quite look at it that way, though. The music is still with her, but her heart lies outside the studio.
Swoboda appears to have never given a published interview about her brief recording career. When I called her recently in Atlanta, where she still lives, she was surprised to be addressed by her stage name. She spoke in a smooth and tempered manner, not unlike her singing voice, and at a remove from her past life behind the microphone.
“Potter’s Field” really is a striking song. Could you tell me what your inspiration for it was?
The song was written in the seventies. At that time as it is today, my heartbeat was for the homeless, the hopeless, the helpless. I sat down with the guitar and I started to write this song, because I had to. I watched a movie with Richard Widmark [Pickup on South Street, 1953] and he played a gangster, a two-bit gangster, in the movie and this lady is trying to save her money so that she wouldn’t have to be buried in potter’s field. Potter’s field is actually called the field of blood by many because it was purchased for Judas with the pieces of silver. 1
And you are aware that potter’s fields are located within major cities, right? For those who are unable to afford burials.
Is the song about a specific potter’s field that you’re aware of? Or is it all what you saw in the movie?
Basically, it was regarding the one that was in the movie, because it was located in New York City and so you would be aware of how they would take the indigent and bury them in potter’s field, but anyways, long story short: He wanted her money and she would not give it to him and he said, “Well, I will kill you.” And she said, “Ok, then, there’s always potter’s field.” And I never forgot it. Again, the homeless, the hopeless, the helpless that we see in today’s society, it was also prevalent in the seventies as well, so my heartbeat has always been for those who couldn’t help themselves.
I think that’s very clear in the lyrics, they are very moving. But in combination with the music it’s especially striking. Did you write both the lyrics and the music to the song?
Yes, I did.
Tell me a little about your musical background and how the song was recorded. Am I correct that it was recorded in Muscle Shoals?
No. This particular one was recorded here in Atlanta. The one that I recorded first, “I Think It’s Time,” was recorded in Muscle Shoals. On the flip side of “Potter’s Field” is “The Devil’s Peace.” That’s about war, and at that particular time my manager and producer allowed me to have some input in what we were going to record and so I did that.
“I Think It's Time” was very different, kind of upbeat and almost danceable. What’s the story of that song?
Well, my manager wanted something upbeat to record. Although my leaning was more toward folk, more toward “Potter’s Field,” they wanted something more contemporary, so we recorded “I Think it's Time.”
And did you like that one as well?
So the only way now to find your songs is the Numero compilation, which has “Potter’s Field” and “I Think It’s Time.” What was the B-side of “I Think It’s Time”?
The flip-side was “I’m Going Down.”
And are those the only four songs you recorded at that time for the Note label?
What happened after that? Did you continue to record? Did you perform live?
I did some college tours around the region, and that was basically it. No more recording after that.
So it was a pretty brief time in your life.
And the notes of the Numero album said that you found the label through an advertisement and responded to it when you were working at the IRS. Is that correct?
That is correct, but in actuality I only wanted to sell the songs. I never wanted to be the performer.
That’s funny because you obviously have a talent for it.
Well, thank you.
Did you decide that you no longer want to record? Did you continue to write songs and try to sell them? What happened after those two singles?
As I said before, I did some college concerts, and I played a couple of clubs—supper clubs—and that was basically it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the city of Atlanta, but they had a club here called Down the Hatch in Underground Atlanta. I played that. It was never my desire to be a performer in the first place. The music will always be a part of me. I didn’t stop writing, but I never went to auditions or anything like that.
How do you incorporate writing in your life?
I entertain myself.
Will we find some unknown Alice Swoboda songs in a shoebox some day down the line?
Not really, because I haven’t recorded anything else. Those were the only four songs that I recorded. And I haven’t recorded anything else, not even on a CD.
Not even on a home recording? Or a tape?
No. I still write. I’m always going to have a guitar somewhere nearby. For that brief and shining moment it was great. It gave an avenue for some of the things that I had been writing in my room for so many years before.
You said you had a place for the hopeless and the homeless. Is that what your current work is directed toward?
I still do. I donate to charities and I volunteer. I’m in the ministry, and so we visit the sick and try to take care of the homeless, the hopeless, the helpless—those who just don’t see a way out.
Is there a place for music in that work?
Well, in actuality, our pastor’s wife is a fantastic pianist. My husband told her one day in a meeting that I played bass guitar—because I did morph into playing the bass for my entertainment as well—and so I played the bass at our church. I accompany her, so I still am able to get some of the music out.
I’m wondering about the performing name, Swoboda. And the Numero notes say you picked it because of the Mets player, Ron Swoboda, and it grabbed you. In fact, you wanted to perform solely as Swoboda, but they told you that you should keep Alice. What more is there to that?
That’s true, very much so. I wanted to just use Swoboda, but it was finally agreed on that we should use my first name Alice.
Had you seen him play? Are you a baseball fan at all?
Not really. I loved the name. It resonated with me. And I have to share this with you: When you called me, and you asked for me, very few people know me by that name. So I was curious.
Did you think it was a good thing or a bad thing?
I think it’s a very good thing.
Do you still get recognition from these four songs?
It’s relatively anonymous because it was done in the seventies, and today more people are into rap and whatever. So no. There’s no recognition.
Well, I think plenty of people still love this kind of music, and I think it’s a shame that the songs aren’t better known.
It’s interesting because my manager at that time told me that we’re in the wrong location. He said, “You’re writing light years ahead of your time and you would be better recognized if we were in the Bay Area,” “Frisco” or somewhere.
But it is what it is, and it was what it was.
The Numero liners talk a little bit about your musical inspiration—Odetta and Leonard Cohen. Who else would you include among those inspirations?
I would include Carole King. I love her writing. To me she’s an awesome songwriter. Believe it or not, the Beatles. Not so much their singing, but the writing. There’s a song that they wrote called “Blackbird”—just absolutely awesome. And, let’s see, who else . . . voice-wise, I love Streisand. Barbra. But as far as the writing is concerned, Carole King, Odetta, Nina Simone, and Leonard Cohen. There are some others who influenced me, I’m sure. And it was just a different time. During that time, in the seventies, there was such a vibe, and there was such a connection with people. And to me there was more love than you see in today’s society.
Was that true in Atlanta, do you think? Was there a community of musicians you were able to connect with even if your recordings didn’t get as much exposure as they could?
Not really, only because—well, let me take that back. When I was in the studio recording “Potter’s Field,” one of the musicians called—I can’t think of his name now—but [the person the musician called] wrote this song that was so popular during that time, called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” [The musician] said, “You must hear this song.” And so he played for him over the intercom, but nothing ever came of it. He just wanted him to hear it. But at that time, there was not a lot of interaction with other musicians.
“Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” I think I know that one. I’ve got a CD by—I’m looking at it right now—Willie Hightower, who performed it, and it says the author is South. Maybe Joe South, does that ring a bell?
Yes, Joe South! Thank you. Joe South.
So was it the studio who brought you down to Muscle Shoals? Was it the owner of the label?
It was the owner of the Note label. He was my manager, a former musician. He was considered a prodigy when he was a teenager. He played saxophone. His name is Jesse Jones. I think that he was ahead of his time as far as the music industry, and I don’t think he ever received credit for trying to record the artists here in Atlanta. Of course, now it’s very popular, but not back in the day.
Were you familiar with your label mates, other people that he recorded?
Only one: Eula Cooper. We were in the studio at the same time. We went to Muscle Shoals at the same time and recorded there.
And the studio in Atlanta when you came back, was that something your manager owned?
Actually we rented it out, you know—we had studio time. It’s been so long I can’t remember where, but . . .
I’m asking you about events of very long ago, and in the grand scheme of things they were just really a minute or two, right?
I’m sure you’ve got a much richer and fuller life than just these few songs, but it’s such an interesting aspect of what you’ve done.
I loved it, and I still enjoy the music. I really do. It’s a different time, and different season.