Sing Out for Freedom

It was 50 years ago today that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial during The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One of the attendees and participants was Charles Neblett of The Freedom Singers. I knew Mr. Neblett’s voice from recordings of the Civil Rights movement and the 1963 Newport Folk Festival where he and The Freedom Singers joined in the encore performance of “We Shall Overcome.” But it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary celebration of The Ash Grove at UCLA in 2008 where I saw The Freedom Singers perform that I could to put a name to the voice.

According to a profile of Charles Neblett in The Park City Daily News, it was his strong bass voice that made him a natural leader of sing-alongs as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When I saw him sing nearly half a century after he joined SNCC, the power of his voice to lead had not diminished one bit. Indeed, Mr. Neblett’s voice carries a unique power to lead others to stand, to join, to sing. It is strong and resonant and certain of the way; the perfect voice for the arduous work of nonviolent resistance that ended Jim Crow and brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a remarkable voice singing the most important song of all.

Someone was kind enough to compile all of the available music from the 1963 march in honor of today’s anniversary. You can see The Freedom Singers at 7:20 singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” with Charles Neblett on the left. Let freedom ring!

In 2010, The Freedom Singers sang at The White House as part of celebration of music of The Civil Rights Movement:

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For my Valentine

In honor of Saint Valentine, Patron Saint of lovers, happy marriages and bee keepers, I wanted to write a quick post about my wedding song. At our lovely reception in Georgetown, Maine, my wife and I danced to “Treasures Untold” as recorded by “The Father of Country Music” himself, Jimmie Rodgers. The song is a beautiful little waltz with a lovely slide guitar part. We had a wonderful band in The Hunger Mountain Boys and Teddy Weber (of late to be found in The Wiyos) played those dobro parts beautifully.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours! And may your honey bee continue to bring you sweetness!


Postscript: I recently learned that it was the uncle of late, great dobro player Mike Auldridge who played dobro on those Jimmie Rodgers RCA recordings. The talent obviously ran in the family.

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The Father of the Delta Blues

In the history of American folk music, the guitar was a late-comer to the party. It only found its way into many rural parts of the country with the advent of mail order catalogs like that of Sears & Roebuck. When the guitar did finally arrive it seems from the old records that players spent many years trying to make it sound like something else, something already familiar to audiences like a fiddle, banjo, or piano.

Third Man Records will be releasing vinyl editions of some great early blues sides, among them Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell. These two players are good examples of the guitar’s identity crisis in early American music. The great early blues players were part of a process of understanding what the guitar could do like nothing else by understanding what it could do like everything else. On these early recordings, players showed just how the guitar could approximate another, more popular instrument like a fiddle or piano and in doing so they laid the path for others to find what made the guitar unique. Continue reading

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Louder. Faster. Less Distortion.

Punk rock is now decidedly middle-aged along with the teenagers that made up its early audiences. Those mosh pits have dispersed into all corners of society and I thought it would be fun to start exploring how the music itself has taken up residence within other genres.

The new Bad Religion record, True North, was released yesterday – their 16th in over 30 years. A major Bad Religion booster in my hometown was Chris Jay, now front-man for Army of Freshman. Before the all-ages shows we’d play together in Cape May County, New Jersey, Chris and I would often talk music and I particularly remembering him telling me all about Bad Religion and which records I should start with. What drew me to their sound was the speed and the melody; two characteristics that are found in abundance in one of my other favorite genres of music – bluegrass. Continue reading

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A colleague of mine who has been living and working in the Democratic Republic of Congo for about the past year recently hipped me to some of the great music she’s found while living in Kinshasa. Here’s a song I particularly enjoy by Staff Benda Bilili. The principal members of this group all suffered from paralytic polio and began performing together as buskers in the neighborhood around the Kinshasa zoo. Songwriters take note of how many issues they manage to address in this very catchy, three minute song.

Staff Benda Bilili is touring in support of a new album and will be performing at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on October 24th.

Polio is now endemic in just three countries – Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. But eradicating the disease is proving difficult. In July, a community health worker was shot and killed in Karachi, Pakistan while working on the World Health Organization’s Polio Eradication Initiative. Continue reading

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Andy Boarman, Part II – An Interview with Darrell Sanders

Last summer I wrote a post about Andy Boarman, “The Banjo Man of West Virginia.” My father-in-law knew Andy in Hedgesville and often wondered about the local barber who moonlighted as a player and builder of banjos and was rumored to have an impressive list of friends in the bluegrass world with whom he’d sit in whenever they came to town. Libby Files of Stoney Creek Bluegrass Band came across my post and was kind enough to put me in touch with Darrell Sanders – Stoney Creek’s own banjo man, formerly of Bill Harrell and The Virginians, and a former student of Andy’s. My good friend and great banjo player, Scott Linford, helped me come up with some questions for Darrell about Andy, his unique style, and his lasting influence.

How did Andy come to play in his “classical” style? Did he name it “classical”?

Yes, Andy called his style “classical”. His mother played the banjo and began teaching Andy when he was young. Later, he spent time with his mother’s brother in Virginia who was a classically trained banjo player who could read music. Andy learned the classical style from him but played by ear. Andy played without picks as classical players did, but used steel strings and a resonator banjo like bluegrass players.

Some of the tunes on “Mountain State Music” sound like parlor guitar pieces. Did Andy play much guitar?


What were the banjos he made like? Open-back, resonator, mountain style? Fretless or fretted? All of the above?

Andy made very nice bluegrass style banjos. He refurbished existing banjos and also made his own Dixie Grand line of banjos. Continue reading

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The TB Blues

Last weekend my wife and I were walking along Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade and we happened across a fine new group busking out on the street calling themselves The Buffalo Skinners. They played a raucous, Levon Helm-inspired version of “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” and as they finished the song I overheard a woman reciting the lyrics back to her husband with a chuckle – “T for Texas, T for Tennessee. T for Thelma, that gal who made a wreck out of me.” I gathered from her amusement that she was only hearing those lyrics for the first time. But that funny little number was first recorded at the Victor Studios in Camden, New Jersey in 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman.

Since his untimely death at the age of 35, the brief but remarkable recording career of Jimmie Rodgers has earned him the title, The Father of Country Music. Indeed, Rodgers could be the prototype of the modern country superstar. The Singing Brakeman was big in his day – really big, selling a half million copies of “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)”, touring with Will Rogers, and starring in a motion picture short. And he did it all with the kind of plainspoken sincerity that people have always admired in great country singers. Pete Seeger once recalled a man in a Montana saloon saying to him of Jimmie Rodgers – “Everything he sings is true.” Seeger called this “the highest praise a folksinger could ever have.* ”

Rodgers suffered with tuberculosis (TB) for the last six years of his life and succumbed to the disease on Saturday, May 26, 1933. Last Saturday, March 24, was World TB Day – an international day of recognition for a disease which continues to claim millions of lives around the globe. Jimmie Rodgers wrote about his illness in the songs “The TB Blues” and “Whippin’ that old TB.” In the spirit of my post on coal mining songs, I wanted to communicate to you, reader, that while some songs grow older, their stories remain as contemporary as ever. Continue reading

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