If you've ever been to the Northwest of the United States, you know how precious water is. Even in places people think of as rainy (like Seattle), the quantity of rain is much less than most cities in the Eastern United States get. A few summers ago I was driving across a long wide stretch of prairie and saw a thunderstorm way off in the distance. There was a dark line extending underneath the length of the storm system, and I realized the rain was evaporating before it could reach the earth: all that parched land, water just above and none of it reaching ground. It reminded me of the way we want so badly to connect to the people we love the most--and how often we fail. (Video by Wes Cobb.)
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Ever encounter a big talker who loves himself/herself more than anyone else in the world?...that's the inspiration for this song. I wanted to write a fun blues song that virtuoso blues pianist Bob Malone could play for my first cd of original songs. (But Bob was not the subject of the song!) I wanted to give the piano player a chance to show off (and personify the big talker in the song). Mike Alicke does a nice job on the guitar solo in this version (with Edan Aldridge on bass and Paul Walker on drums). Video by Wes Cobb.
The older I get, the more grace I have for mistakes other people make. Sure it's entertaining when the occasional politician "hikes the Appalachian trail" or a vain celebrity makes a fool of himself or herself, but upon reflection, I think we all realize it's never wise to throw stones. Most of us end up falling on our face at some point or another. Why not have compassion for folks who are down on their luck--or perhaps have never been dealt a fair hand...because in the end, we are all only "two steps from disaster"....
This song will be on my first cd of original songs due for release in the fall.
(Video from "Folk Society Night", March 16, 2016 at The Evening Muse in Charlotte, NC with Mike Alicke (lead guitar), Paul Walker (drums), and Edan Aldridge (bass). Wes Cobb: videographer.)
I had the great privilege of getting to hear this beautiful song, "Dear Sister" by Claire Lynch and Louisa Branscomb performed live at the International Bluegrass Music Association's conference in 2014 where it won song of the year. The song is a letter from a soldier to his sister that uses the image of home--a longing we all share--to call for peace for all humankind.
The song "Love at the 5 and Dime" describes the complicated "dance" of a couple's journey: from young love, marriage, infidelity, forgiveness through old age--describing the whole arc with brief but poignant details ("showing not telling"): "Rita...made the Woolworth counter shine; Eddie was...a darn good dancer". "...married up in Abilene, lost a child in Tennessee".
One of my favorite lines encapsulates the jealousy, insecurity, the "what if" of a midlife crisis in two lines: "One of the boys in Eddie's band took a shine to Ms Rita's hand; so Eddie ran off with the bass man's wife." And then regret and forgiveness; "Oh, but he was back by June; singin' a different tune. And sporting' Ms Rita by his side."
The whole song (and the couple's love) is held together by music--by dancing. And the poignancy of the dance grows deeper and takes on a slightly different meaning with every verse: "Dance a little closer to me.... 'Cause it's closing time and love's on sale tonight at this 5 and Dime". The first verse repeats as the last verse in a lovely return to the beginning.
Beautiful writing and imagery, lovely melody. Nancy has a wonderful intro talking about the harmonic being evocative of the Woolworth store's elevators. (She ends the live recording of this song "...going up.") When I was writing my song "When Dragons Were Real" for my children I wanted to use a harmonic chord to evoke magic, so I used tuning and a couple of chords from this song (knowing, too, I could pair the songs in a set!). Thank you, Nanci Griffith.
I've been rehearsing with a new band (Mark Larson, Duane Centola, Tom Hanchett, Paul Walker). We're calling ourselves "Latta Jazz." Old school jazz standards but some new stuff, too. Here's a peek at rehearsal--a "video selfie". I'm singing the end of "My Funny Valentine."
As I researched Ella May Wiggins in order to write a song for a cd commemorating her life and work (see posts: about the project, the cd release party, and the Gaston Gazette article), I was fascinated by the fact that Ella May Wiggins (a white woman) chose to live in Stumptown (a majority black neighborhood) during the segregated south. Her advocacy was not only for poor whites but poor blacks as well, so I wrote a song with a gospel, call and response feel. I used a simple structure with the repeated response "dark clouds are lookin' like rain" and a methodical, driving rhythm so that the song sounds as if it could be used on a picket line or in a field picking cotton. I recorded the demo using only finger snaps and mostly sing it a cappella. It’s meant to be sung by a group in a loose, improvisational style with people making up vocal riffs or even verses on the spot.
The verses I wrote do not directly refer to Ella May or the Loray Mill strike. I used general descriptions of injustice to refer to historical (as well as current day) problems such as the increasing disparity between rich and poor and the violence visited upon those without power ("shoot you down" referring to Ella May and numerous other historical activists as well as unarmed black men that have been killed by police). The oft quoted "Nothin’ to lose but chains...” is a direct reference to the Marxist roots of the strike. The song is unapologetically dark and defiant to pay homage to those who have lost their lives fighting for justice. But the last verse contains an edge of hopefulness that if we can all pull together we could perhaps avoid the coming storm.
For more about the song and why I wrote it, see my blog post: New single: “Saving the Whales” (Saving the Humans!). The song can be purchased at cdbaby and on iTunes or streamed on numerous sites. Pictures by Jack Oates used with permission. All other pictures (except mine) are published under the creative commons license on flickr. Attribution and links (in order of appearance in video):
- My children taking pictures of the Seattle skyline, Katie Oates, 2014 (For my family to get together at Thanksgiving 3 of us flew across the country, 2 of us drove 8 hours, and 1 took a bus for 8 hours: high use of gas and oil...).
- My computer and plasma tv, Katie Oates, 2015 Computers and tvs use lots of energy. In NC, unless you are "off-grid," energy can only be bought through one regulated utility [Duke Energy in my case], so I have an agreement with Arcadia Power to buy the equivalent of my home energy usage in renewable wind energy.
- My website entry of "Saving the Whales", Katie Oates, 2015. My website server host (1and1) uses green energy and employs energy efficient practices, but much of the energy I and others use is not renewable.
- "King of the Trash Hill" Buckhorn Mesa Landfill, 2013, by Alan Levine, 2013
- “Polluted Earth” Hudson Park, New York, 2007, by Vincent
- "Friends of Coal", 2006, by Noricum
- "Mountaintop Removal Mine above Homes in Eastern Kentucky", Pike County Kentucky 2010, by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices
- "Runoff From ‘Reclaimed’ Mountaintop Removal Mine in Kentucky" Magoffin County Kentrucky 2010, by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices
- “Coal Mining in Brazil” Criseluna, Santa Catarina 2011 by United Nations photographer Sebastiao Barbosa
- "Coal Fired Power Plant" Pacific Corp/Rocky Mountain Power near Price, Utah burning coal mined nearby in Eccles Canyon, 2009, by ArbyReed
- "Gathering" (birds at shopping center), 2011, by Nicholas A Tonelli
- “A creek runs under it. Somewhere.” 2012, by Washington State Dept of Transportation Scatter Creek Bridge near Enumclaw, WA, In 2014 as part of a seismic retrofit to a bridge, the concrete and rebar from the prior bridge that had collapsed in 1965 was finally removed from the stream.
- "Whales!" Orcas in Victoria, British Columbia, 2011, by BohemianDolls
- "Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, Virginia", 2011, by Universal Pops
- Centennial Mountains, Idaho-Montana border 2010 by Jack Oates
- Family on boardwalk at Pacific Beach, California by Jack Oates 2015
- “Paved Paradise”, 2009, California by fishfoot
- "The San Ardo Oil Field From the Coast Starlight", 2009, California by Loco Steve
- "Why East Kentucky Kids Use Orange Crayons to Draw Streams" Magoffin County Kentucky, 2010 by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices
- "Water pollution in China" 2009, Inner Mongolia by Bert van Dijk
- Pelican on Madison River near Ennis, Montana, 2014, by Jack Oates
- Pelicans taking flight at Pacific Beach, California by Jack Oates 2015
- Fish at Birch Aquarium, Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California by Jack Oates 2015
- Gull on sand at Pacific Beach by Jack Oates 2015
- Cedar waxwing, Missoula, Montana by Jack Oates, 2009
- Sunset at Pacific Beach by Jack Oates, 2015
- Sunset at Pacific Beach by Jack Oates, 2015
- Mountain Range in St George, Utah by Jack Oates, 2015
- "Hump Back Whale, South Island, New Zealand" 2007 by Gemma Louise Lowe
- My children, 2000, at Pawleys Island, SC by Katie Oates
Last summer I attended a songwriting workshop led by John McCutcheon at The Highlander Center in the foothills of Tennessee. Kim Buchanan and I were randomly paired up and told to write a song honoring the kitchen staff. Unfortunately, the handful of songs I have written took me months to write. Kim and I had 40 minutes.
For most of my music career I have been a singer and performer but not a songwriter. I never imagined I could write a song that I would be interested in singing--much less a song someone else would want to listen to or sing. But at midlife I had finally realized that the only thing worse than trying something new and failing was not to try at all. So here I was at a songwriting workshop struggling to come up with ideas with Kim…and doing a good job of failing. John came by to listen to our progress about 30 minutes in to the exercise and delicately suggested that we scrap our song and start over. Time was up, and we were the only pair of songwriters who didn’t have a song to share. It was pretty much the worst possible outcome. Kim and I were both embarrassed and discouraged. We resolved to meet during our down time and come up with something we could share with the group the next day.
Looking back it’s hard to know what clicked for us on our second effort. It helped that we had heard everyone else’s songs and heard John McCutcheon sing a few of his songs. By this time I had also learned that Kim was a pastor on a sabbatical focused in part on songwriting. She was not going to give up—which is what I would have done if it had been a solo exercise. It was one thing to let myself down, but I was letting Kim (and by proxy) an entire congregation down by fixating on my own insecurities. Feeling slightly panicked by Kim’s determination, I started to act like I knew what I was doing and work harder. I would believe in myself—and us—for Kim’s sake if not for my own. Egos aside, we began putting ideas out there, dividing up tasks and going with our gut. We didn’t even have time to second-guess ourselves. I kept changing the melody on every pass until Kim finally said (just before we stood up to present it to the group), “I’ll play; you sing”—both of us knowing we had no idea what would come out. We took a leap of faith and not only did John and the other workshop participants like the song, the kitchen staff loved it. The video in this post was taken by Lou Dominguez of Kim and me singing the song for the kitchen staff (with tears and hugs at the end). You can hear John McCutcheon laughing and singing along!
I have always loved James Taylor's version of "In the Bleak Mid-Winter." The lyrics are from a poem by Christina Rossetti which she wrote while sick with Graves disease. She died before it was published. As my mother noted in an email to me reflecting on this advent song: "we are all waiting for better race relations, waiting for hurting people, waiting for children with cancer...waiting for 'Joy to the World.'" Receiving this beautiful reflection from my mother made me think of mothers and their love for their children. But, also, of the grief of mothers who are separated from their children or whose children are sick, have died, or were murdered. Oh if only we could all be healed by a mother's love. And so I recorded this song in my home on my own piano, and I dedicate it to my mother and my mother-in-law who have supported, encouraged, nurtured and loved me for so many years. Winter pictures for the video were taken by my Dad, Jack Oates (a talented photographer and painter) and by me. http://youtu.be/d7voq9P1vtQ
There are lots of issues I care about and support, and most (if not all of them) come down to this moral question: do my actions (or that of my community and nation and humankind) lead to abundance for myself and others or to destruction, fear and scarcity? Can we, as humans, learn to live more like trees (every part of a tree's life-span and even death creates more life) or will we commit the ultimate irreversible sin and destroy the very ecosystem that all life depends on? Five years ago on a Thanksgiving trip across the southeast, I spent hours looking at the changing leaves and the deep blue skies and thinking about how often we sacrifice the things we need for things we want. As I drove, this song, "Saving the Whales" began taking shape in my head. I tried to keep the song light and funny (with a peppy beat), but the message is serious (a poet friend of mine immediately dubbed it "Saving the Humans"). Can we save ourselves?
Si Kahn produced the recording. Si's current project is uniting musicians to sing out about protecting one of the world's last great wild spawning fisheries--the last best source of wild cockeyed salmon: Bristol Bay, Alaska. More info here.
I had the opportunity to sing this solo (Precious Blood Medley) in a shared Palm Sunday service between 1st Baptist Church West and Park Road Baptist Church in 2006 and 2007. It's a rough recording (you can hear the guy who recorded it singing along at times), and I am singing over a full choir (with no microphone). The acoustics in the church and the high notes at full volume helped. If you listen to the end you'll hear me sing a high C (the note at the very top of my range at the loudest volume I can muster--my entire body rocked back and forth with the effort).
Singing with an African American choir with a very palpable history of generations of blood spilled—murdered—during slavery and in the many years of injustice that followed, made me feel it in my bones. I am chilled by the thought of ancestors of mine who took part in oppression and murder (or stood silently by) and, perhaps, of my own ancestors who suffered and died in oppression. Who wouldn't want to be liberated from that evil?
And so when the elderly black gentleman approached me after the concert, I could see he had something weighty on his mind. He just stood there quietly looking me up and down; my heart sank a little. I thought maybe I had offended him. Why had they let a white woman sing that powerful solo? Finally he smiled and said "Young lady, I believe you've got some soul in you." He couldn't have summed up that moment more perfectly for me. I just beamed back at him and said, "Yes, sir. I believe I do."
Anthony Abbott (a former professor of mine at Davidson College) and I have collaborated to add music to his most recent poetry collection and narrative titled "The Angel Dialogues." A montage of the July 2014 performance with Marla Brown can be viewed here.
Several months ago I wrote a song about the experience of waking in the middle of the night and being filled with doubt and existential angst (as the poet in Tony's book is bereft of inspiration and filled with doubt). I based the melody on the Westminster Chime--which any insomniac with a grandfather clock knows by heart. As I researched the piece, I discovered that the chimes (with its play between 4ths and 5ths music intervals) also inspired Handel's "I Know My Redeemer Liveth". The juxtaposition of Handel's aria declaring absolute theological certainty and the haunting chime was an intriguing setting for 2am angst--and a perfect musical riff for Tony's poet's crisis of faith.
Two pieces from my CD Going Over Home also fit perfectly: "He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him"--continuing with the Handel riff--and "Wayfaring Stranger". I'm also excited about premiering one of my favorite original songs that I just finished: "When Dragons Were Real." My friend and co-band mate, Cheryl Hoover, requested that I write about the experience of watching our oldest children say goodbye to childhood and leave home. It took half a year, but I finally finished it just a couple months ago.
You never know where a class, a friend, a song, a poem will lead you.
A jazzy-bluesy homage to the seductive power of music. Words and Music by Katie Oates. Joined by Mark Larson (keyboard) and Cheryl Hoover (bass).
One of my more "rollicking" songs. Joined here by Mark Larson on keyboard and Cheryl Hoover on bass.
Words and music by Katie Oates. Cheryl Hoover joins me on bass and back-up vocals.
Several friends and co-songwriters performed with me at the Muse on January 15, so I started my set dedicating this song to them and to all the folks who have been supporting us (that would be YOU!). We all get discouraged and wonder if anything we do makes a difference, so remember: the song is in the singing and the reason's in the rhyme, so find your own muse and sing your little song blues.
Performing an original song at The Evening Muse on January 15 with Cheryl Hoover on bass and harmony (for description and pics of the evening click here). I dedicated the song to my friend, Katya Lezin, who was in the audience. See prior post on Katya and how she was part of my inspiration for this song. Watch video here:
Here's a free song for sharing or downloading. I arranged this old advent hymn for guitar using all minor chords to keep that haunting sound throughout and changing some phrasing so the wording isn't so awkward. This live recording is from last week's service at Park Road Baptist Church. Much of my singing career has been in churches, so I rarely have a recording of it (for obvious reasons…what??it's not all about me??!!), so thank you Bruce Holliday for the recording and picture.
"What is it about old friends?" I have written a fairly unsentimental answer to this question. Sometimes it's hard to stay connected to friends or family who are so different from who we are today, so I acknowledge that difference (and the arrogance of either friend in thinking the fault lies with the other) in the first verse. And in the second verse I also completely dismiss the idea that old friends are special because of some inherent specialness about either person; my husband hates that line…:-). In the end I argue that old friends are special because we orient each other to our past, present and future. I use the metaphor of an old friend being like the prime meridian (historically the "brass line" at O degrees longitude at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich England). I had an opportunity to visit the observatory several years ago. While I'd known the observatory had once kept track of time by the sun (and that that standard was used to calculate time for the world), I hadn't known about how important the discovery of how to calculate longitude was to travel (particularly by ship). Ships can navigate somewhat by distance travelled (longitude) and orient by the stars and the sun, but that's not always accurate or reliable (cloudy day or night). The only way to truly know where you are is to know how to measure longitude (distance on the North/South axis) and latitude (distance on an East/West axis). Likewise, friends may travel in different directions (or an old friend may stay in one place while you move to many places), but the divergence actually can help us reorient. Old friends truly are "gold"--to be treasured. For any music theory buffs: I wrote the song in the key of C--kind of like home base for the piano and music theory. Yeah, I know, pretty nerdy….