A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.
Funk can be a sense of place, transmigratory memories filtered through the nose. For George Clinton, the smell of pig shit crosses state lines. “I remember feeding them pigs. I was knee deep in pig shit. Cosmic pig slop. That’s why you make the same face when something smells. Funk tickles the same muscle. That Southern vapor. Up in there with the biscuits and bacon. Your mother cooking with that iron stove, especially on Sunday morning. That was that same good smell that make you frown like you hear that funky blues.”
A feature essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.
I wanted to start with the wild weeds and the creaking wood on the front porch, walking up to Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina. I wanted to start where she started, imagining her daddy playing jazz standards on the piano, her mama cooking something good and greasy in the cramped kitchen with siblings zooming around. I envisioned myself, like Alice Walker looking for Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave, shouting Nina in the derelict home, hoping somehow she would appear, gloriously phantasmagoric, and answer all of my incessant probing questions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A feature essay from the North Carolina Music issue.
I don’t know if Kenny Mann has ever been in therapy, but I do know that he is exceedingly honest and possesses an uncommon sense of self-awareness. He willingly raises and struggles with difficult issues, like when he volunteered, “There’s an injustice to it but only eight percent of our income comes from African Americans,” and then followed up that insight with, “The number-one worst thing in this industry is racism.”
“Do you ever feel like you are disrespecting yourself?” I asked Mann after he recounted all the times he’s made jokes at the expense of himself to put white people at ease.
“Sometimes, but what clown doesn’t?”