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.
In clubs and bars they played ninety-minute shows, at the least, filled with three- to four-minute narratives about living in a town and wanting to get out, being away from home and wanting to return, hating a job, being unemployed and willing to work for the worst boss ever. Unrequited love. Main Street drag racing. Bad, bad radio station formats. Moon Pie was a mix of Springsteen, the Modern Lovers, Hank Williams, and the Blasters. Some years later I saw Jason and the Scorchers—a band I love—and thought, Moon Pie, back in the day.
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.
“Bad Case of the Blues” shouldn’t be compelling, but it is—because of Martell, the way she guides, colors, and shades the song. She infuses it with the dissonance of self-knowledge, even as she takes her problems home to Mama in the country and deprecatingly calls herself “Miss Smarty.” The track shares a title with torch songs by greats Dinah Washington and Dusty Springfield and seems to warn of the perils of holding down-home values in the big city.
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.
It might sound like kitchen-sink music at first, seemingly made with whatever junk was lying around and played by whoever happened to be there. It might seem off, even uncomfortably so. But listen closer. The warble of stretched tape, the loose tuning, the home-recorded hiss. It’s all a disguise. At heart, lots of his catalog is strange, charmed pop music, wry without being goofy, ineffably simple, personal and universal at the same time.
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.
Established in early 1933, the Plantation Echoes were made up of fifty Gullah field hands who enjoyed singing spirituals, most dating back to slavery. A handful of the singers were, in fact, former slaves themselves. Heyward’s praise of the Plantation Echoes was effusive. “The entertainment is not only highly unique but enlightening,” he later remarked. “There is an electrifying quality to the ‘shouting’ and the performers’ ability to shift from one time to another in perfect unison is a revelation.”
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.
“I know a different echo to that,” she said, and proceeded to sing a version of “Hold On,” delivered without accompaniment, in hushed intonations, the refrain “keep your hand on the plow, hold on” replaced, after one verse, by words that are not found in any transcriptions of the song previously cataloged by folklorists: “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”