sing a new song

black brown white

Memoriam. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

The last few months, while we’ve all been sheltering-in-place, I have been teaching my grandniece and grandnephew some painting and music lessons. We live about 3,000 miles apart, so, these wonderful Sunday events are brought courtesy of phones, meeting software, and social media – anything that can help us keep a connection. Recently, we sang old folksongs together – some by Woody Guthrie and others traditional. The children are very young – for them they are sweet songs, they don’t yet know the stories behind them.

When I was their age I began to learn to play the guitar and sing. A few years later, when I was about eleven I discovered the great song collector and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. At my music teacher’s shop there was a big thick book of more than 600 pages that fascinated me. It was Lomax’s 1960 Folk Songs of North America: In the English Language that included the melodies and guitar chords transcribed by Peggy Seeger, sister of the beloved folk singer Pete Seeger. Somehow I scraped the money together, and about a year later, I bought this treasure chest representing all regions of the United States, song stories about sailors, farmers, pioneers, railroaders, hoboes, dam builders, cowboys, folks in good times and folks in bad times, and singing the stories taken from the countries of immigrants transplanted to this new country, many from the British Isles. The book includes a section called The Negro South where spirituals, work songs, ballads, and the blues are archived. In the 1960s it was a victory to say that African-Americans had a history, had a part in the American Story. A generation ago that was a step towards the light yet, as I opened the book to prepare for teaching my grand ones a few things about folk songs, the label used for the collection of African-American songs hit me hard. The framework is dated. It is a record documenting that era, but how do I tell little children about the pain and suffering that comes from the racism, which is the source of some of these songs? How do you tell that story? What do they need to know? As a historian and archivist, I understand and appreciate the book’s artifactual value, but from the perspective of an uninformed reader, without any context, I wonder. History is complex; when and how do you introduce the complexities? Some fifty years later, that book has traveled with me across the country and across my many paths. It’s been a constant in my life; and as I grew the music taught me empathy and I began to learn about the complexities. It opened the door to so much wonderful music – music I’ve played and sung, and music I’ve listened to and helped me become an archivist and historian. It put me on the path to discover the stories behind the songs. The book is a catalog of our roots, Americana, a music visited by many artists during the 1960s ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead, and more recently by musicians such as Dave Alvin and Tony Dubovsky. That wonderful big black book and the stories it tells has played an important part in my life. And perhaps that is what I tell my grandniece and grandnephew; learn the truth about what was and with empathy be part of writing the new story and writing their new song.

Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who wrote and copyrighted more than 300 songs – some of his songs are included in the Folk Songs of North America. The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings also captured Mr. Broonzy singing both some of his songs and traditional songs like Trouble in Mind, C.C. Rider, and Midnight Special. On late nights, I love listening to Mr. Broonzy then turning around and trying to play his songs myself. I do OK on the singing, but he was a master guitarist, so I just try to get the rhythm guitar going. Born in Mississippi, he worked as a sharecropper, preacher, soldier in World War I, and later, after moving to Chicago as a Pullman Porter, a foundry worker. But through it all, there was always the music he wrote, played and recorded including folk songs, spirituals, country blues, urban blues, and some jazz. His voice is authentic, it is strong, it is ironic, it is sad, it is angry, it is wise, it is brilliant, and it is beautiful.

One of Mr. Broonzy’s most poignant blues compositions is the Black, Brown, and White Blues. It’s a song about the relentless Jim Crow…it always finds some place to roost. Mr. Broonzy “had written this protest song, which addressed the experiences of black war vets and the painful issue of preferential treatment by gradations of skin color, in 1945 and had offered it to RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and several of the newly formed independent record companies, but none of them wanted to record it. As a result Mr. Broonzy had to wait until 1951 before he could record the song commercially in Europe for a white and overseas audience. In the US it took until after his death in 1958 to be released and was titled Get Back.” Relentless. I share the lyrics below. The Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery giving the benediction paraphrased the song at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama stating “we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

And here we are in May 2020, and once again we are a nation pushing the contours of its historic founding documents, hoping that those long cotton threads are strong and flexible. We are engaged in a mighty struggle. What vision of America will triumph: the fearful authoritarian contraction or the confident democratic expansion? Will our Bill of Rights be torn to pieces as we fight oppression with our questions, our demands, and our protest? Taking inspiration from Dr. Lowery, it is a good time to write and sing a new song about these struggles. The new song will be righteous, like Bill Broonzy’s, but it will sing a story about the struggle for justice and a vision of political power, economic opportunity, and respect for all.

**********

Black, Brown, and White Blues

This little song I’m singing about,

People you know its true.

If you’re black and got to work for a living’ boy,

This is what they’ll say to you:

Chorus:

Now if you’re white, you’re all right,

And if you’re brown, stick a-round,

But as you’s black, O brother

Get back, get back, get back

 

I remember I was in a place one night,

Everybody was having fun,

They was drinkin’ beer and wine.

But me, they sell me none.

(Chorus)

 

I was in an employment office,

I got a number and got in line.

They called everybody’s number

But they never did call mine.

(Chorus)

 

Me and a man was workin’ side by side,

And this is what it meant.

They was payin’ him a dollar an hour

And they was payin’ me fifty-cent.

(Chorus)

 

I helped build this country,

I fought for it too.

Now, I guess you can see

What black man has to do

(Chorus)

 

I helped win sweet victory

With my plough and hoe.

Now I want you to tell me brother,

What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

 

Now if you’re white, you’re all right,

And if you’re brown, stick a-round,

But as you’s black, O brother

Get back, get back, get back

Jesus and Woody

Taos

Taos, New Mexico. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Taos, New Mexico is a beautiful place. Imagine a warm summer evening sitting by a creek that rolls quietly to the river Rio Grande; you feel the magic of water in the desert. Water grants life; renews life. So precious is a life. My mind’s eye travels miles in seconds. Looking down from the bridge that crosses the narrow Rio Grande gorge, I toss a pinyon branch and I watch it travel through the canyon by the pueblos on it’s journey to Santa Fe; and then at Albuquerque where the river flattens and widens and water birds play along the shore; and on past El Paso where the river becomes the border between Texas and Mexico – a shallow river – a place of crossings for wild things – those beings naturally wild, we call free and others made wild by violence and fear, tired, poor and hungry seeking relief and asylum. Precious lives. There is no need for brick and mortar; we have built a wall of fear. An informative article in the April 23, 2018 New Yorker “A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall” sought to inspire discussion; discussion and compromise all seem so romantic now as we enter this the latest chapter of shock and awe.

Blessed am I able to freely sit and breathe and feel the special magic of a place. On this solstice day may the light shine and illuminate our way.

Happened upon the new Ry Cooder recording The Prodigal Son. It’s a good one. Keep thinking of the lyrics of his song Jesus and Woody inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song Jesus Christ where Woody (writing in 1940) speculates modern capitalist society would kill Jesus too. Listen to Woody sing here on YouTube. Ry’s lyrics – singing from Jesus’ perspective –  stick with me:

“so sing me a song ‘bout this land is your land’

and fascists bound to lose

you were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too…..”

“…..some say I was a friend to sinners

but by now you know it’s true

guess I like sinners better than fascists

and I guess that makes me a dreamer too…..”

 

embrace and see

 

Seebeyondmask

Robin L. Chandler, 2018

Some memories are like small towns on country roads;

once well travelled, now enigmas signifying an interstate exit.

Sister reminded me Mom’s favorite perfume was Faberge’s Tigress.

Dad bought her Tigress every Christmas.

Tigress: the sleek bottle containing the amber liquid crowned with a tiger skin stopper.

Unconscious memories no longer a mystery.

“Comprehend without your head

and without your ears, listen

to noiseless, un-mouthed words.”[1]

My mother was a Tigress – that was no mask.

She comprehended the noiseless, un-mouthed words of others.

Listening without her head and ears she always saw the truth behind other’s masks.

No matter how deep it cut-to-the-bone she always spoke her truth.

See suffered no fools.

And she always gave herself away for the benefit of others.

Across time and space I see you.

I embrace you.

I love you Tigress for all you did and hoped for me.

Namaste.

Written while listening to Caetano Veloso singing Cucurrucucu Paloma en Vivo inspired by the lyrics translated from Portuguese to English.

[1]A quote from Attar’s poem The Conference of the Birds, translated by Shole Wolpe

Round Midnight

roundmidnight

Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

 

bittersweet

hope tinged with sadness

lonely cup of coffee with Hopper’s Nighthawks

searching for something; wishing to share

rounded body of all things in one

painting

rough and smooth

wet and dry

loosing yourself in the the act, life emerges

rounded body of all things in one

 “things that gave way entered unyielding masses,

heaviness fell into things that had no weight.”

From Ovid’s TheMetamorphoses, Book I, translated by Horace Gregory

Written listening to Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan play Round Midnight on Mulligan Meets Monk recorded in New York City; August 12 – 13, 1957

A field in winter

Field

Robin L. Chandler, 2018

Winter has brought short days, cold nights, and muted colors. But even in this grey rainy gloom, you can find light. Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of hearing the pianist Roger Woodward and members of the Alexander String Quartet play Dmitri Shostakovich‘s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 67. It was January 20, 2018, the morning of the Women’s March marking a year since the Presidential inauguration. Shostakovich’s deeply moving music was inspired by the tragic discovery  – as the Nazi armies retreated from their failed siege of Leningrad – of the Russian atrocities committed against Jewish People. I found the sobering music – particularly the strong chords of the opening of the third movement “Largo” appropriate for my reflections both political and personal. What was inconceivable has become all too real: capitalism flirts actively with fascism, and democracy is gravely challenged. Illness has struck my loved ones. Like standing in a field in winter, life seems almost absent. Time slips through your fingers; silence roars. Shostakovich’s music breaks your heart, but mends it just the same. Life continues, sleeping underground.

hold on

holdon

Music was her life. As a child she had run and jumped and played, but as she grew older the disease encoded in her DNA began shaping her body, and over time leaving her limbs increasingly useless…hands, arms, and legs noodle like and unresponsive to her wishes….unable to hold on to someone’s hand, and making standing impossible without holding on to crutches for support. It didn’t happen overnight. It was gradual, the strength ebbing a little more each day. Family photo albums revealed the truth. A young child jumped rope, played hopscotch and softball; looking at the pictures, you could almost hear her giggling and screeching with delight as she played tag with her friends. Only later, when she reached adolescence, did the braces, the crutches, and ultimately the wheelchair, banish her to the wings, while others moved their bodies effortlessly on center stage. Thankfully the disease would not reach her heart and lungs for years to come. But when she sang, she felt free and unbound by the disease that gripped her body. When she sang, she soared, holding on to each note fully, cherishing the place where the music took her. She deeply loved Brahms‘ Requiem. And when she took her place as a soprano in Robert Shaw’s chorus, performing the masterpiece at San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, I cried for joy. Because in those moments, her inner self ran unchained at the speed of light, living fully outside her body’s limits, roaming freely and playing, defying all gravity’s laws.

love and change

Cottonwood in the Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler 2016

Cottonwood in the Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler 2016

The lights dimmed and the spotlight focused on the figure center stage guitar in hand; she began to sing, the voice a little smoky and raspy, working towards the high, round notes so clear in my memory. Soon, “Saint” Joan Baez sang two of my favorites by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie respectively, “With God on Our Side” and “Deportee,”. Both songs are stories of love and tragic loss.  Each story holding forth the possibility of redemption, that we can learn from our mistakes and take right action.

Election eve, the significance of this sainted singer was not lost on any of us in the audience. This deeply disturbing election season nearly over, we drank deeply of the songs offered us, believing in the promise of a world where all persons count, no matter their origin or identity, and that the fabric of our society is stronger, when our diverse threads are woven together. Listening, my heart responds, I will march again to her call to action to build a better and loving world.

Between songs, she spoke about her belief in the ideas and aspirations expressed by Bernie Saunders as he crossed the county this year connecting with the hopes and ideals of a new generation. But she also spoke admiringly of the courage of Hilary Clinton, withstanding the barrage of lies and intimidation hurled at her these last months.

On my recent trip to the Eastern Sierras, many a cottonwood was growing, singularly, isolated from other trees in the valley, telling a story, stately and proud. In some cases, it was unclear if a tree was near death because of lack of water, or if it was merely beginning the long winter sleep. These trees standing statuesque on a parched landscape, with the majestic sierras as their backdrop, called to mind the elm trees, deemed Liberty Trees by the colonists turned patriots at the time of our Revolution. The first such elm was located in Boston and celebrated in the revolutionary poetry of Thomas Paine. Soon Liberty Trees were anointed in towns and cities throughout the colonies; these majestic trees witnessed calls to action, celebrated victories, and mourned defeats. Trees bear witness to our story, and with this act they become part of our own story, symbols of strength, longevity, knowledge, loss, and redemption.

We are participating in the most historic election of our time. The stakes are high; it feels like the future of our nation and perhaps the world weighs upon our ballot box. At times, I have been paralyzed with fear of what may come. But I also know that there are persons, my fellow citizens, who think differently than I and will vote differently than I, and they too are fearful of change. And yet, we are all part of the same country, and we must move forward together, whatever changes comes. I think of the lone cottonwood in the Owens Valley, thirsty. Is the tree telling a story of suffering brought on by a changing climate?  Is it hanging on for dear life hoping for the redemption winter snow in the mountains will bring? Is this cottonwood a symbol of my republic gasping, near death? Listening to the tree, my heart responds. While I fear the change that the election could bring, I will be strong like a tree, making connections, bringing the long-view, and sharing all the knowledge and wisdom found deep in my core. I will take right action continuing to build a better and loving world respecting the rights of all living beings.

 

you are my sunshine

Bad dreams. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Bad dreams. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

September brings cooler nights and turning leaves. The fruit trees are bringing forth figs, pears and persimmons and our thoughts turn to the harvest holidays. Morning skies are gray and foggy and afternoons are blessed with golden sunshine from a southern exposure. A melancholy rests lightly on my shoulders, realizing we’ve nearly completed the ritual cycle round the solar system, another year gone, mourning lost loves, preciously cradling what we hold dear, the future a mystery.

Picking on the guitar, I start to sing You Are My Sunshine. Bob Dylan called it our best American Song, and he recorded in with his friend and fellow roots musician Johnny Cash in Nashville, Tennessee, 1969. I speculate Dylan’s high honor stems from the sprightly tune in a major key, strong contrasting imagery of bright sunshine/gray skies, happiness/tragedy, and because it touches a root deep in the American psyche: lost or unrequited love.

The song’s roots lay in Depression riddled Georgia, written and first performed in 1933 by Oliver Hood, a poem to lost love. A local bard, Hood’s authorship remained anonymous for many years, a man who loved music and making music every Sunday after church and dinner, sitting on his front porch with his friends and neighbors sharing songs and tunes. As Alan Lomax writes in The Folk Songs of North America  describing the white ballad singer of roots music “carefully tune [s] his voice…his latent emotions must be kept under control…his solo…an act of memory, almost ritualistic.” A sharer of songs, Hood was not concerned about copyright in the early years of his music writing. Governor Jimmie Davis, bought the rights from the Rice Brothers, who recorded the song in 1939 claiming authorship.

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.

 

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

 

I’ll always love you and make you happy,
If you will only say the same.
But if you leave me and love another,
You’ll regret it all some day

 

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

 

You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between.
But now you’ve left me and love another;
You have shattered all of my dreams

 

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
In all my dreams, dear, you seem to leave me
When I awake my poor heart pains.
So when you come back and make me happy
I’ll forgive you dear, I’ll take all the blame.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

 

down in the valley

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

The White Mountains are a high desert range situated between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Great Basin Desert and overlooking Death Valley to the South and the Owens Valley to the West. White Mountain Peak at 14,252 feet is third highest mountain in California following Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson. A big, empty, solitary place, created by dynamic geologic forces; it is a place where, Ancient Bristlecone Pines teach pilgrims about a higher consciousness. Time stands still, and peering down in the valley, pilgrims can see life’s journey, the forks in-the-road ahead, and path choices, guided by the wisdom discovered amongst trees – like the Bodhi Tree –  over four thousand years old.

In the late 1930s, the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax preserved for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song Down in the Valley. Captured in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, the song is written from the perspective of an empty, solitary, place – prison – where time also stands still. Peering into space, cut off from the earth and sky, the prisoner sees deep into life’s chasm, the forks in the road behind, and reflects sadly on choices made.

Down in the valley valley so low
Hang your head over hear the wind blow
Hear the wind blow dear hear the wind blow
Hang your head over hear the wind blow.

Roses love sunshine violets love dew
Angels in heaven know I love you
Know I love you dear know I love you
Angels in heaven know I love you.

If you don’t love me love whom you please
Throw your arms ’round me give my heart ease
Give my heart ease love give my heart ease
Throw your arms round me give my heart ease.

Build me a castle forty feet high
So I can see him as he rides by
As he rides by love as he rides by
So I can see him as he rides by.

Write me a letter send it by mail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail
Birmingham jail love Birmingham jail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail.