Copyright ©2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Americans aren't known for their mastery of history. And we are often quick to dismiss anything before our time. But two singers called the Kentucky Sisters are trying to introduce a new generation to their grandparents tunes. Commentator Gwen Thompkins says it's working because while the songs may be so old, they sound so good.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Did you know that John F. Kennedy was a Republican? Neither did I. But that's what one of my college students guessed in a course on news writing. I asked another kid - what period followed the industrial age? And she said - the Golden age? We moved on. But whenever I'm tempted to despair about a generation that looks ever forward, I buy a cupcake and a big mug of coffee. That's because Launa Reed works at a cafe in New Orleans that sells the best cupcakes in the history of cupcakes. You can quote me on that. And her friend, Jo Morris, manages a coffee shop that sells a mighty fine drip. They're not yet 30-something.

LAUNA REED: Well, I'm Launa.

JO MORRIS: And I'm Jo.

REED: And we're the Kentucky Sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPKINS: The Kentucky Sisters live on Kentucky Street, in the Ninth Ward. And they sing old-time harmonies, mostly from the 1920s, '30s and '40s. But they don't know much about the songs they sing. Morris and Reed find old hits on YouTube, work out the harmonies, add the ukuleles, and give the songs an even more vintage style - circa 1928. Morris says that's their sweet spot.

MORRIS: I think for me it's - I've always had like a little voice. And I think it's been very - it sort of lends itself really well to this kind of music. And I'm a sentimental sucker. I mean, we - our favorite things - we love to talk about songs that we choose, about how, like, we romance ourselves while we're singing them. They're just so dreamy and also very classic.

THOMPKINS: These women, who perform in nightclubs right here in New Orleans, are on an emotional tour through musical history. They learn songs by Johnny Mercer, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael and serenaders like The Prisonaires. Morris says her skin tingles when a song feels right.

MORRIS: It's like this electric glow. And it's all about the goosebumps.

THOMPKINS: Goosebumps are crucial to learning. And particularly to learning history because without some form of emotional involvement, the past is a snore. Launa Reed and Jo Morris are from a generation whose parents listened to Billy Joel and Queen. So these women found their old-timey songs all by themselves. They're not experts on American musical history, but they're working on it. The Kentucky Sisters are curious about the songs that they sing. And curiosity leads to knowledge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE")

THE INK SPOTS: (Singing) I don't want to set the world on fire.

THOMPKINS: Right now, they're just mad about The Ink Spots, who made such an indelible mark on harmonic singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE")

THE INK SPOTS: (Singing) And when your admission that you feel the same, I'll have reached the goal I'm dreaming of, believe me.

REED: There's a singy and a talky and then they end it with a singy. And I just really think that that's a really sweet formula. And if you listen to an Ink Spot's album from beginning to end, it's all exactly the same. Like even the beginning, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE)

REED: Yeah, that's an Ink Spot's song. And it's just...

(LAUGHTER)

REED: ...Really sweet, and I really love it, and I love them for that. So...

THOMPKINS: So ladies and gentlemen, here's a singy and a talky and a singy from The Ink Spots, via the Kentucky Sisters. It's called "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire." If they were my students, I'd give them an A.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE")

KENTUCKY SISTERS: (Singing) I don't want to set the world on fire. I just want to start a flame in your heart.

WERTHEIMER: Gwen Thompkins is a writer and host of New Orleans public radio station WWNO's program "Music Inside Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, I DON'T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE")

KENTUCKY SISTERS: (Singing) I - I just want to set a big old flame in your heart. In my little old heart I have...

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.