25 January 2010

Caroline Herring and Si Kahn

Only very rarely is it almost an epiphanic moment when I discover a writer or singer I'd never heard of before, but I felt such a moment when I received this quarter's edition of Oxford American, a journal originally published by Ole Miss, but now produced by the University of Central Arkansas. This issue is the 11th Southern music one, and contains two CDs with a wealth of singers I was totally unaware of. I was particularly impressed by Caroline Herring's 'The Dozens' from her Golden Apples of the Sun (2009) album. Herring comes from the small town of Canton just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. She wrote this song in memory of her friend Larry Levine, author of Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977). The Dozens is a toughening game in which blacks take turns to insult others playing the game, and frequently insult the mothers of the others. The winner is the person who keeps his cool. The full words from the album are available on Herring's website.

The Austin Chronicle called Lantana (2008), her previous album, 'the best modern Southern Gothic album since Lucinda Williams’ Sweet Old World', although her style has now changed from country-influenced to folk. Her website mentions Judy Collins as a major influence, but I frequently hear Joan Baez in there, and Joni Mitchell too very occasionally. She doesn't write all her own songs, but those she does often have a definite literary background, as with 'The Dozens', and she also makes references on her current album to Wendell Berry, Pablo Neruda, and - more obviously, of course - W. B. Yeats. But you'll have a hard time finding any mention of her MA in Southern Literature from Old Miss, or her PhD in American Studies from Austin, Texas.

Another song on Golden Apples of the Sun is
'Tales of the Islander', which she wrote about the startling artist and writer Walter Anderson (1903-65), of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Beautiful stuff.

And another singer who impressed me on one of the CDs is Si Kahn, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and who is also a folk singer, but more in the left-wing protest style of Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs. Much concerned with civil rights, picket line songs, etc, Kahn is well known for such anthemic songs as 'Gone, Gonna Rise Again', 'Aragon Mill', and 'Wild Rose'.

Other songs I really like include:
'Hutto', about T. Don Hutto's detention centre in Taylor, Texas, where the young children of illegal immigrants are detained with their parents.'Clarence Kailin'
, a tribute to the then 95-year-old veteran left-winger, and a sample of which is:

'Ask Clarence how to lead a life of purpose and direction
He simply says you have to make a left at every intersection.'

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