'Oxford American' Digs Into Alabama's Music Every year, the Southern magazine the Oxford American publishes a music issue featuring rare recordings from a particular state. This year, they've chosen to focus on "the Heart Of Dixie."
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'Oxford American' Digs Into Alabama's Music

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'Oxford American' Digs Into Alabama's Music

'Oxford American' Digs Into Alabama's Music

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

(Soundbite of song, "Rubber Room")

REVEREND FRED LANE (Singer): (Singing) I'm sick of my job. I'm sick of my wife. I'm sick of your face. I'm sick of this life...

CORNISH: That's the Reverend Fred Lane from 1983. Ignore his demeanor for now, and try to figure out why he's on a new CD along with the Maddox Brothers and Rose from 1948.

(Soundbite of song, "Mule Skinner Blues")

MADDOX BROTHERS And ROSE (Band): (Singing) Good morning, Captain. Howdy, gal. Good morning shine. I'm a shining. Do you need any of the new skinners down on that new mud line? I sure do...

CORNISH: And they're joined on that new CD by Eddie Cole and His Gang from 1950.

EDDIE COLE AND HIS GANG (Band): (Singing) Ahbeelabip, ahbeelabepop, ahbeelabip, ahbeelabepop, that simply drift that goes like this. Ahbeelabip...

CORNISH: Essentially, three very different songs and performers. What do they have in common? It's geography. The three are from the state of Alabama and it's the featured state in the Oxford American Magazine's 12th annual Southern Music Edition. You can find 26 more songs on that CD.

Some of the artists are well-known outside the state. But there's more obscure, such as King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan.

(Soundbite of song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord)

KING BRITT PRESENTS SISTER GERTRUDE Morgan (Band): (Singing) Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on and let me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am worn. Through the storm, through the night. Lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord. Lead me on.

Marc Smirnoff is editor of the Oxford American, and the man who decided what was included in this collection. Smirnoff says he spent about a year researching all the genres in Alabama.

Mr. MARC SMIRNOFF (Editor, Oxford American): You know, there's still people out there that we missed, I'm sure. But that was pretty fun and straightforward. But what we found when we were done with it was that we had a wealth of great material. Our definition - I mean, we'll be a little loose once in a while with it - but our basic definition was that the artist had to be born in Alabama.

CORNISH: So, Marc, one of the opening tracks we hear is called "Matchbox," and it's by a gentleman named Ralph Soul Jackson. We're going to play a little bit of it first.

(Soundbite of song, "Matchbox")

Mr. RALPH SOUL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) I'm sitting here wondering will a matchbox hold my clothes. Said I'm sitting here wondering would a matchbook hold my clothes. I ain't got no matches but I still got a long ways to go...

CORNISH: OK, Marc, so that is just the most - I mean literally, Soul is this guy's middle name and that's what this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: ...this particular track sounds like. Tell us who he is.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: He's kind of a mystery man in one sense. He's never released a full album. But his career - he's been around since the '60s singing, has consisted of putting out these fine, rare 45 records. They never did much commercially. But when you hear them, there's nothing wrong with the guy. I mean he just sounds like the soul man that he or other people have claimed him to be.

(Soundbite of song, "Matchbox")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) And I got to have me a little matches, baby. I've been sitting here for a long, long time. And oh, I got to have, got to have me a matchbox...

CORNISH: Another song that's more in the vein of country music is "Stop Your Knocking."

(Soundbite of song, "Stop Your Knocking")

Mr. CURLEY MONEY (Singer): (Singing) Stop your knocking. Bada-rah-rah-bada-rah. Stop your knocking. Bada-rah-rah-bada-rah. Stop your knocking. Bada-rah-rah-bada-rah. Stop your knocking. Bada-rah-rah-bada-rah. Stop your knocking, stop your knocking. Stop your knocking and come on in...

CORNISH: And that is a song where we're hearing fiddles. We're hearing guitars and a little bit of a Hank Williams influence maybe? And I was wondering if you could talk about the artist behind this tune.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Curley Money, in some ways, he's kind of one of a hundred, even though, you know, he has a distinct personality that comes out immediately. There's this honest drive to it, and you feel this energy and this personality comes through.

Alabama is very rich in the hillbilly, old country sounds. And for a lot of us that means a lot, because that's where you can find country music that is almost like soul music.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy Date")

CORNISH: There's a song called "Crazy Date."

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Right.

CORNISH: And the artist has this amazing deep...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: ...voice and it's a very sort of cool, hip song.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy Date")

CRAZY TEENS (Band): (Singing) I called my baby 'bout a quarter of eight. Hmm. I asked my baby if she wanted a date. I said I'd meet her at the corner at nine...

CORNISH: And then when you track him down, it turns that the original "Crazy Date" artist was a group called Crazy Teens, and it was like a kid who was 15. Right?

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Right, and very innocent. The song, you know, comes across as something that, I don't know, that you could hear in a David Lynch sock-hop. But the kids who wrote it were actually kind of innocent and thought the song was, for them, you know, the equivalent of holding hands with a girl.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy Date")

CRAZY TEENS: (Singing) Listen here, baby, don't be in such a stew. It's Friday night, there should be plenty to do. Hmm...

Mr. SMIRNOFF: To me, the story is about how a song sort of - when everything clicks and the artists are good and lucky, the song can sort of take on a life of its own. And it sort of can become bigger than the artist and even have different meanings. And maybe even sound a little bit different than what the artist originally intended.

CORNISH: Marc, we focused a lot on artists who are unknown. But it's - the album was also an opportunity for you to publically reclaim well-known artists who had their roots in Alabama.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Right.

CORNISH: Two that I noticed right off the bat: one was Dinah Washington and another was Odetta.

(Soundbite of song, "The Times They Are A-Changing")

ODETTA (Singer): (Singing) Come gather 'round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown. And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone. And if your breath to you is worth savin', then you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changing...

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Oh, well, here's the thing for me about Odetta, is sometimes - I mean she's got such a powerful voice. I mean she trained in opera and sometimes she can overwhelm a song. When somebody can sing like that they almost become a little reverent.

And what we liked about the track that we found for her was "The Times They Are A-Changing" by Bob Dylan. But there's something just so natural and pure and a little bit contained by her performance of this Dylan song, that for people who have heard Odetta, maybe they haven't heard her quite like this.

While we do kind of pride ourselves in finding artists who are not as well-known as we think they should be, we also like to ground every CD that we do with a few big names. But we don't like to treat the big-named artists in the usual, expected, cliched manner.

So like with Dinah Washington of Tuscaloosa, we found that she had recorded two different versions of a Hank Williams hit called "Cold, Cold Heart." And, of course, Hank, like Dinah, is also from Alabama. And the double whammy of having them kind of speak to each other via Dinah's performance was too good to pass up.

(Soundbite of song, "Cold, Cold Heart")

Ms. DINAH WASHINGTON (Singer): (Singing) I've tried so hard my dear to show that you're my every dream. Yet you're afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme. A memory from your lonesome past keeps us so far apart. Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart.

CORNISH: A lot of these songs are from the '50s, '60s sort of period, and I wanted to know from you if you learned anything about how, say, the battle over desegregation affected the development of artists or of the music scene from the state?

Mr. SMIRNOFF: That's a good question, Audie, and I don't know if I'm qualified to address it. I have thought a lot about it. My own take is that when people think about the South, we usually think about all the racial hardships and ugliness.

While we absolutely have to own up to it, but let's also honor the black and white and other musicians who created this lasting art during those times because that was real, too.

CORNISH: Now, in the South, places like Tennessee, obviously Memphis and Nashville, Mississippi and in Georgia, Atlanta, they're big, great music-industry hubs for publishing, for writing, for artists. And do these areas kind of siphon talent away from Alabama? I mean, has that kind of put it in an also-ran state?

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Yes and no. It's kind of complex, but really the answer is no. It's true that artists do gravitate toward the well-known music hubs, but in fact in Alabama, we have Muscle Shoals, which produced so many great soul albums in the '60s and '70s. And people from all over the world literally came down to - I mean, Cher made an album in that area, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker. People in the know, people with great ears, were treating Alabama as a place to aspire to.

CORNISH: That's Marc Smirnoff, he's an editor with the Oxford American. He helped curate their latest CD for the 12th Annual Southern Music Issue. Marc Smirnoff, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Thank you, Audie.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) We're going to rock 'n' roll while we dance all night. First you listen to the rhythm. Then you shuffle your feet. We play an old-time boogie just to make things right. We're going to rock 'n' roll while we dance all night.

Well, everybody's having a good, good time. Now look out. Everybody dance.

Well, what's with you? Say you just can't dance? That don't seem right. You ain't give it a chance. Seems you're having a bit of trouble with your feet. Well, just listen to the music, you'll catch the beat.

First you listen to the rhythm. Then you shuffle your feet. We play an old-time boogie just to make things right. We're going to rock 'n' roll while we dance all night. We're going to rock 'n' roll while we dance all night.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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