“Come All You Blackface Freaks and Hillwilliams: 200 Years of Roots-Rock Revival (A Memoir)”

At my new venture, work-titled Hogeland’s Publishing WorkSpace, I’m posting what we now call a “long read”:  “Come All You Blackface Freaks and Hillwilliams: 200 Years of Roots-Rock Revival (A Memoir).” (A note on the title is in the “About” section on the other site.) Here’s the opening:

1. Coon Song

When I was in grade school, cheerful, pretty young women led me and my classmates, well-kept kids born in the 1950′s, in singing doleful lyrics set to catchy melodies. “All the world is sad and dreary,” we sang. “Gone are the days,” and “my heart is bending low.” The songs were written by Stephen Foster, the best-known American pop composer of the nineteenth century. His work had great longevity. A century after his death, I knew it by heart.

But it’s not Foster’s long survival or even his Victorian melancholy that startles my memory now. It’s his most enduring theme. I was born after Brown v. Board of Education. When the first Civil Rights Act of the 1960′s was signed I was entering the fourth grade. Yet throughout my childhood I sang of black people’s unquenchable longing for their days in slavery.  Read more…

“The Cuckoo”

oh the cuckoo
she’s a good bird
and she warbles
and she flies

and she never
hollers cuckoo
till the fourth day
of July

I’ve been making the somewhat unconventional move of introducing my talks on Declaration with a few verses of an old song, “The Cuckoo,” accompanying my singing (or maybe let’s call it “vocalizing”) with five-string banjo, or maybe even more accurately, accompanying my banjo-playing with some vocalizing.

Warming up the crowd? Maybe. Maybe not. The song has close British-isles antecedents (many older American songs that sound as if they have such antecedents actually don’t), and the Anglo versions I know are all fairly straightforward: “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies, she brings us glad tidings, she tells us no lies,” etc. All of the American versions I know are stark and strange. With its gapped modal scale (no chords), which vibrates somewhere between archaic England and African America, the droning and scraping of the archetpyal American instrument, and the incommensurable reference to the cuckoo’s silence before starting to holler on July Fourth, the song, which I’ve been trying to sing and play almost all my life, has seemed to resonate lately with the surprising story of America’s coming into being, which I tell in the book. It’s meant to be sung by the untrained.

A note on the arrangement: Based on my ceaseless 1972-73 listening to the Holy Modal Rounders’ mid-1960’s version, on their first album (which everybody who likes this kind of thing should hear), with Peter Stampfel alone on banjo and vocal, an arrangement I think I may later have discovered was influenced by a recording in the Harry Smith anthology. I’ve added and subtracted a few banjo elements, out of my ensuing decades of clawhammer-style banjo playing in somewhat different veins, but still, the basic, repetitive motif is indebted to the 1960’s Stampfel, whose playing on that recording I’ll never come up to, in any vein; the vocal, which just because its so stark and simple seems to further challenge my already very limited approach to singing, is also inspired by his eerier approach.

I may give it another go at the NYC Upper West Side Barnes & Noble on Monday 6/14.