An old mill (Loray Mill in Gastonia, NC) with a storied past (see my prior posts about the mill strikes, Ella May Wiggins, and taking part in a cd project) gets a spectacular renovation into condos but with a nod to the past with the creation of the Alfred C Kessell History Center in the mill. I enjoyed playing music for the open house (hundreds of people turned out--many with connections to people who worked in the mill).
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.)
If there's anything better than creating music, it is creating music with other people. I'm looking forward to playing in Charlotte's best listening room (The Evening Muse) on March 16 with a great audience (Charlotte's Folk Society is hosting the evening, so there's a full line up of musicians) and talented fellow band members (singer/songwriter and guitarist Mike Alicke, drummer Paul Walker and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Edan Aldridge). It will be a treat to have some of my bluesy/rockin' songs given a full treatment with instrumental solos and full drums. West Art Videos is taping the evening for me, so I'll post some videos at a later date. I'll play a couple of songs that I premiered a couple years ago at the Muse (Laughin' Through My Tears, Never Enough) and a rocking fast arrangement (thank you Dan Hood) of a jazzy song that I will close out the evening (Play Me) along with a number of new songs.
Last March when Si Kahn challenged me to write a song commemorating the 1929 Loray Mill Strike for the Mill Mothers Lament project last March, I studied Si Kahn’s Aragon Mill and Eric Taylor’s “Deadwood”. After about an hour analyzing these songs, I was thoroughly depressed. I realized I had sauntered into the Sistine Chapel to figure out how to paint.
One of the most difficult tasks for an artist (story-teller, poet, journalist, songwriter, painter, photographer, etc.) is to convey a controversial story in a complex way that touches an audience’s emotions without being preachy or moralistic. The best artists tell a story by painting a picture (either literally or with words and music). The details, colors, shading, inflections and angles draw the audience in allowing them to discover the meaning however they wish. Painting a compelling picture is the secret. So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, can one song be worth a thousand words? And if you are master songwriter, can you make one word worth a thousand stories? If you are Eric Taylor, the answer is yes.
In his song “Deadwood” Eric Taylor writes about the death of Crazy Horse (one of the Indian chiefs who soundly defeated the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment [“Custer’s Last Stand”] at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876). The first verse sets the scene by describing men in a saloon in colorful detail—subtly conveying who, what, when, where, and even why by hinting at tantalizing layers of many more stories:
The good times scratched a laugh
From the lungs of the young men
In a Deadwood saloon, South Dakota afternoon
And the old ones by the door
With their heads on their chests,
They told lies about whiskey on a woman’s breath
Yes, and some tell the story of young Mickey Free
Who lost an eye to a buck deer in the Tongue River Valley
Oh and some tell the story of California Joe
Who sent word through the Black Hills
There was a mountain of gold
We know these men; we’ve heard their stories (many times). And when Eric Taylor sings the song he smiles with an awareness that we might even see him in that Deadwood Saloon. We settle back, ready for a familiar story. Then he launches into the chorus and slips the hook in without our even knowing it: “The gold she lay cold in their pockets.”
That single word "she" is a word most songwriters would not have thought of inserting. But by personifying gold—the object of the men’s desire—as a woman, Taylor surreptitiously causes the listener to instantly recall a thousand stories, movies and songs we know: the unrequited love of a passionate man, a hard-hearted prostitute who duped an unwitting man, a young woman murdered by a greedy man. The hook is in. Whether the men are victims or villains (or both—it’s up to the listener), we care about the story. We want to know what happened. The chorus continues while our unease grows until the sharp pull of the last line sinks the hook deep in our hearts, and we realize we’re caught.
And the gold she lay cold in their pockets
And the sun she sets down on the trees
And they thank the Lord
For the land that they live in
Where the white man does as he pleases
It gets better (or worse!) from there. The subtle bigotry in the second verse creeps in on you like a fog. And the very last line (with another single descriptive word about a boy sweeping the floor) will make you gasp out loud with the pain of recognition. I will follow my own advice and not ruin the song by talking about it, so listen to it here. But be warned: Eric Taylor plays for keeps. This song will never let you go.
For the holiday season enjoy the music video "In the Bleak Midwinter" with winter photos that my Dad and I took. Or join me live next week when I'll be singing Christmas music and original songs with Lucinda Lucas on December 16th at Eaglespeak coffee house in Charlotte (details here) AND Looking forward to reprising the Tony Abbot's "Angel Dialogues" (poetry and music) in Lexington with Staley Jordan as the angel on December 13. See below and prior post (Poetry Performance with Tony Abbott) about the event:
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."
Sally Barris rocked the house last Saturday and then on Sunday led the best songwriting workshop I have ever attended. She returns to Charlotte in November with her new cd "The Road in Me" in hand (hosted by Charlotte songwriters Tim and Sarah Geis Williams who co-wrote songs on her upcoming release). Sign up for my newsletter to get invitations to house concerts like this, find out about projects I am working on, hear videos and more.
It's not often new songwriters get to record their songs along with famous artists, but that's exactly what happened for me. Thanks to Si Kahn's invitation, I have a new song premiering at a cd release party on August 22. I will be taking the stage with David Childers and DeWitt Crosby--performing my song "Dark Clouds" AND premiering Si's new song, "Here in Gastonia" (Si had previous engagements he could not change) at Zoe's Coffee House in Gastonia. I will post links to buy tickets for the event on my Facebook music page and in my newsletter (sign up using the contact form on this page if you haven't already!). For more about Ella May and the event, see my post "Songs for Ella May Wiggins and the Loray Mill strike". To read about the song I wrote, see "Dark Clouds": my song for Ella May". Here's a link to listen to the song. Contact me to purchase the cd; all proceeds from cd sales and the event will benefit the Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee.
Sally Barris returns to the porch for a house concert on August 29th and a songwriting workshop on August 30th. She will be singing songs from her new cd "The Road in Me" (which she is currently recording); see her pledge music campaign to learn more about the project and support it. Sally is not only a wonderful singer and writer, but a great teacher, mentor, and collaborator as well. Local Charlotte songwriters Timothy Scott and Sarah Geis Williams, who co-wrote the title track with Sally, will attend. Tim will join Sally in performing "The Road in Me," and I will contribute some harmony on a couple of my Sally favorites ("Wilder Girl" and maybe a new one!) Contact me for details! Listen to her song about her boyfriend (whom I've gotten to meet...the story ends well...) below.
I hosted Craig Carrothers and performed in 2 house concerts in June (thank you to Sarah and Geoffrey Curme and to Katya Lezin and David Lieberman for hosting me). Link to article in Charlotte Observer here.
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
In the early to mid-20th century, textile jobs were about the only large source of jobs in small Southern towns; the demand for textiles in WWI drew many people from rural areas with the prospect of better wages and lives for their families. But, as demand for textiles lessened after the war, those jobs demanded longer hours (with danger to health and welfare) for less and less pay. Unions in the North often brought better pay and labor conditions, but unions were fiercely resisted in the South. Few people know that one of the deadliest battles over unionizing took place in Gastonia, NC at the Loray Mill in 1929. Two people died: a sheriff (Chief Aderholdt), who was shot during a raid on the striker's headquarters, and textile worker, mother, activist, and songwriter Ella May Wiggins, who was helping union organizers. Over 30 people were jailed for the sheriff's murder, but no one was ever charged for Ella May's murder. The union efforts failed, but because the strike was so controversial (union organizers included some communists and union leaders from the North), it wasn't until April 2013 that the state finally erected a historical marker commemorating the Loray Mill Strike. A few years ago descendants of Ella May Wiggins and other citizens and supporters of Gastonia formed the Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee to "establish a significant and proper physical memorial honoring her life, labor, sacrifices, and unifying ideals for Gaston County's textile workers and community on which she had a profound and lasting impact." The committee has organized annual textile art exhibits, an indiegogo campaign with donations of songs and writings from artists to raise money for the memorial. (See the website and their Facebook page for more details.)
In spring 2015, Gastonia resident David Childers, whom Bob Crawford of The Avett Brothers calls "the most prolific NC songwriter alive," organized various local musicians to record a cd of Ella May's songs used in the strike (see lyrics to some of her songs here). The cd will also contain songs by Si Kahn, who has spent many years advocating for civil rights--including rights of textile workers. Si's 1970 song "Aragon Mill" (already in history books about folk songs) will be on the cd (sung by David) as well as several other of Si's songs including his new song commemorating the Loray Mill Strike ("Here in Gastonia"). Si, generous mentor that he is to me, recruited my friend DeWitt Crosby and me to write songs which are also included on the cd. For more information about my song "Dark Clouds," see this post.
The CD release party will be held on August 22 at Zoe's Coffee Shop in Gastonia at 7:00pm. All proceeds from the cd will go to the Memorial Committee.
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