November 19, 2019

Notes on the songs from our 21st Southern Music Issue Sampler featuring South Carolina.

It is fitting that this Southern Music Issue (the Oxford American’s twenty-first) devoted to South Carolina should come in 2019, as the nation moves to better recognize the tragic anniversary of the first sale of enslaved Africans on American soil, in August of 1619. About forty percent of the enslaved people brought to America came through Charleston; today most African Americans have roots in the city (some estimates go as high as eighty percent). Or to put a finer point on it, as Joshunda Sanders writes in this issue, “No Black person has a family tree that has not been pruned by slavery.” Acknowledging, parsing, and reckoning with this history is the prominent theme of this South Carolina music issue—as is celebrating the immense wealth of cultural heritage that has sprung from this small, proud place.

November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue. 

Growing up, Taj encountered a music that sounded like it was “disappearing.” “It was black music, but it was also country music. It turned out to be this fingerpicking that gave me a feeling of being connected to an older style of music that I assumed was African, though I didn’t know.” I said that might be the truest definition of the Piedmont blues I’d ever heard. “It was that little . . . somethin’-somethin’,” Taj said. “I didn’t have no ‘ethnomusicological’ term for it. My name for it was stumblepicking.” Stumblepicking? “Meaning,” he said, “you’re kinda stumbling over the notes to make them. That chord of Etta Baker’s on ‘Railroad Bill,’ it was like an E7 going into an F but it doesn’t stay there. It moves. It jars you. I found something close to it by accident once, and I could probably spend my whole life trying to find it again.” 

November 19, 2019

A Points South essay from the South Carolina Music Issue.

I didn’t even know if I knew how to let go of the pain of my past. It has, after all, made me the woman I am.

November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.

I remember the dB’s. I was eighteen. It was 1982. The band was still together. 

I remember time and space were different then, and information moved incrementally through these media. Only a handful of things ever happened to everyone all at once—things like John Lennon’s murder, or Reagan’s election.

November 21, 2017

A Points South essay from the Kentucky Music Issue. 

The last time I heard Jimmy Raney play was at Bellarmine College in Louisville. To know that a master like Raney had gone deaf was to know that a Rembrandt was burning. He played alone because he could no longer hear well enough to play with others.

November 19, 2019

A Points South essay from the South Carolina Music Issue.

We call it the Stono Rebellion because it started in a plantation district (a “general area of settlement,” in one scholar’s suitably vague phrase) known as Stono, which had taken its name from the river that ran near it, the Stono River, which had taken its name from a Native American tribe, the Stono or Stonoe or Stonowe, who when Carolina was founded in 1663 were settled close to Charles Town. By one of those dark coincidences history delights in, the Stono themselves are remembered principally (almost entirely) for having started an uprising against the colony.

November 21, 2017

A Points South essay from the Kentucky Music Issue. 

Over Labor Day weekend last year I called a distant cousin, Mitch Cundiff, to ask if he could take me to Paradise. The old town is just a few miles from his home in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where my grandmother grew up. He told me he was happy to, but there was nothing there to see. “It’s like the John Prine song says,” he explained. “They hauled it away.” 

November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.

As deeply in love as I was with blaring guitars, exploding amps, and metallic raving, I’d also been listening to James Taylor’s more intimate style of music since his first album, James Taylor, came out in 1969, issued by Apple Records, the Beatles’ label. I owned a prized 45 of the original (and still my favorite) version of “Carolina in My Mind,” the song on which Paul McCartney and George Harrison (“the holy host of others standing ’round”) played bass and sang harmony. “I was homesick when I wrote it,” Taylor has said of the tune that he composed in London. That number made even us sixth-graders at Glenwood Elementary indulge in a kind of premature nostalgia. Kids we might have been, but we too could hear the “highway call”; we too could see those “geese in flight and dogs that bite.” The lyrics and melody induced in us an aching yet pleasurable homesickness for the place from which we hadn’t yet departed. 

November 19, 2019

A Points South essay from the South Carolina Music Issue.

Men and women—sometimes pairing off, sometimes dancing alone—cluster in the center of the club, lightly prancing just off their heels. In unison, the dancers then form a circle, shifting to the side counterclockwise from time to time, giving each other just enough space to continue moving their feet and legs. At times, they wind their bodies in place, moving unpredictably like twisting leaves in the wind. Whether they know it or not, for a moment or two, the dancers are linked back to their ancestors in coastal South Carolina in the previous century and, further back, in West Africa, also dancing—for tradition, for religious beliefs, for sheer joy. 

November 21, 2017

I used to imagine the Holy Ghost as a fog that slept in the rafters of our church. I thought our music, singing, and shouting woke the Spirit. When It looked down and saw us, It was reminded of how lonely It was, how much It loved the children of God. Like the wind, the Holy Ghost wasn’t visible, but we could still feel Its power. It gave those It touched the ability to speak in tongues, the word of God pouring out of their mouths in garbled consonants and rolling vowels.