MC Shy D brought hip-hop to Atlanta. Or anyway, he brought Atlanta to hip-hop—in the mid-eighties, he was the first rapper from the city to break out of it, to tour the country and make a name for himself. He became an object of adulation to the whole region.
A feature story from the North Carolina Music Issue.
The Wrays had an old-world, Keatsian melancholy. It bloomed in the kitchen of their 6th Street home in Portsmouth, Virginia, where, from about 1951 to ’55, they recorded songs on a one-track, mostly originals written by Vernon. This was back when the music was fun, before it became a business. It’s the sort of thing that’s dashed off and then mislaid and vanishes somewhere. Sherry found the masters in a box of her dad’s stuff that, horrifyingly, was bound for the dump. She rescued them, and named the disc 6th Street Kitchen. The vibe is Elvis doing Dylan’s Great White Wonder: gushy, drunken ballads, some barely a minute long, and rapturous in the way that the smallest beginnings can express enormous feeling.
Bessie Jones nurtured a prodigious repertoire of songs—hundreds of them, for work, play, worship, instruction—as both a rite and as a vocation. Her vision was one of radical egalitarianism, inspired by the enduring collective, expressive folk traditions—occupational, recreational, spiritual—of the black rural South and her ardent faith in a kind of ecstatic liberation theology, which found activist application in the civil rights movement.
A few seconds in, there came this sound. It filled the song and then it filled the room I was listening in. What was that? Like a fiercely shaken box of tacks. Like wind rattling dry leaves on a tree. But not either of those. Comparisons couldn’t capture it.
During Sweet Auburn’s heyday, a brotherhood of gifted guitar-playing soul singers, though largely unknown by a wide audience today, formed a loose collective. They wrote songs together, recorded them, encouraged one another, and competed fiercely, each believing in a coming personal glory that never came.
An installment in our weekly series, The By and By.
Music is a mystery that does not want thinking. The act of doing anything with feel—writing, making love, playing freely—requires something beyond thinking and eclipses the need for even talking when done right. What I tell myself when I sing: Listen and Give. As far as I can tell, that’s the whole shebang. Annie Dillard is correct—my feelings about my work are pretty unimportant and beside the point; mosquitos to be slapped down.