Author Archives

Tom Maxwell
I communicate. Then with music, now with words. I like how the two inform each other.

A History of American Protest Music: Come By Here

AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2019 | 9 minutes (1,738 words)

 

Sometime between mid April and early May 1926, Robert Winslow Gordon, the first head of the Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, D.C., recorded a man singing on a wax cylinder. That man, known only as H. Wylie, was from the Georgia Sea Islands and sang in a Gullah accent. The song he sang, “Come By Here,” is an invocation. “Somebody need you, Lord, come by here,” he sings in an insistent lilt. The lyric is a repetitive incantation.

Gordon recorded three other wax cylinder versions of the same song in Georgia between 1926 and 1928, ones with the refrain “come by here” or “come by yuh,” indicating the Gullah dialect. Accordingly, he cross-referenced the recordings in his organization’s archive card catalog. Of those, one cylinder broke and another was lost. In addition, the archive was in possession of a written manuscript containing a version of the song from Alliance, North Carolina, called “Oh Lord, Won’t You Come By Here,” collected in 1926 and sent to the archive the following year. The repetitive lyrical structure is the same as in the Georgia recordings. “Somebody’s sick, Lord, come by here,” it read. “Somebody’s dying, Lord, come by here.”

Read more…

Remembering Singer Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson autographing fans' photographs at Los Angeles High School,1967. AP Photo

Listening to Nancy Wilson’s “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” over a half century after she recorded it is like taking a master class in voice control and phrasing. She incorporates Eartha Kitt’s tart enunciation and Dinah Washington’s melodic upticks in the verse. By the 22-second mark Wilson is stretching out the word “you” into its own little story of restrained passion in a way few singers can. This is Ella Fitzgerald-level breath control. When Wilson effortlessly leaps up the arpeggiated steps of “and you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know…how glad I am” in her first chorus, it’s a marvel of clarity and precision.

Nancy Wilson died on December 13, after an extended illness. She was 81.

Released in the summer of 1964, “How Glad I Am” broke the Top 20 and earned her a Grammy. Wilson, then five years into her recording career, already considered herself a pop artist. “People labelled me as jazz,” she said at the time. “I don’t like that designation. I want to be able to reach everybody, not just the jazz crowd.”

Although never quite able to dodge the label of jazz thrush, Wilson considered herself “a song stylist,” as she told The Washington Post. “That’s my essence,” she explained, “to weave words, to be dramatic.” Regardless, Time magazine once called her Ella Fitzgerald’s heir apparent. “At her opening at Los Angeles’ Coconut Grove last week,” they wrote in 1964, “the crowd of 1,000 voted her everything but the deed and title to the place.”

When she was 15, Wilson had her own television show called Skyline Melodies in Columbus, Ohio, singing pop tunes by request. She later played night clubs in the Bronx and Chicago, but it was venues like the Coconut Grove that encouraged Wilson to up her game. “Now I have to really entertain,” she told Music Business in 1964. “You can’t just get up there and be soulful in clubs like these. They expect a show and you’ve got to give them one. But this is something new and fresh and exciting for me. Even if I’m tired it doesn’t get me bugged.”

It’s a perfectly American thing to delineate forms of musical expression, assigning them to differing demographics for both performer and audience. The word ‘blues’ was tacked onto the end of many of what were called “race record” titles in the 1920s to serve more as a racial signifier than song description. Jazz, initially a product of black subculture, became the pop music of the 1930s and ’40s once accepted into the white American mainstream. Rock ‘n’ roll helped transform American teenagers into a lucrative consumer group in the 1950s, just as it signified that whites had started making and consuming black music.

These race and genre-based boundaries eventually dissolved. Producer Norman Granz asked jazz icons Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to record an album of mostly white show tunes in 1956, to astounding success. Black entertainers like Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis soon gained access to mainstream stardom without the old restrictive labels.

Wilson came to prominence at a time when jazz, blues, and pop had become intertwined in the public consciousness, allowing her to move farther down the path blazed by her hero Jimmy Scott. Thus she was able to make jazz records with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, slow burners like “Our Day Will Come,” and standards. “The Very Thought of You” was recorded by Billie Holiday years before, but Wilson’s early ’60s reading is more intimate and engaged. She stands perfectly poised between the earlier era of vocalists like Lena Horne and Anita Baker, and those — like Natalie Cole and Nnenna Freelon — whom she would inspire.

“In the ‘great tradition’ of blues, torch and jazz singers that began with Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson leans toward the left wing, where pop meets jazz, a translator of popular standards into the jazz idiom,” Time wrote. “Her repertory is a treatise on variety and taste, spun by a voice of agile grace and knowing jazz inflection and phrasing.”

By the mid 1960s, Wilson was behind only the Beatles as Capitol Records’ best-selling artist, outselling Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. Her short-lived NBC program The Nancy Wilson Show earned an Emmy.

Wilson scored another hit in the late ’60s with “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” then embarked on a second career of ubiquitous television guest appearances. She again expanded her audience in the late ’70s with funky tracks like “Sunshine.”

By the end of the 1990s Wilson had issued more than ’60 albums and gathered up awards from the NEA, Urban League, Playboy, and the NAACP. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was recognized for her work in the Civil Rights Movement by the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

Successful before she was famous, and beloved until her death, Wilson stands almost alone in career consistency. Now we’re left with what Time called her “treatise on variety and taste.” The best tribute we can pay is some close listening.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

Shelved: The Lady of Rage’s Eargasm

Earl Gibson III / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,118 words)

 

Robin Allen started writing rap lyrics in the 6th grade. By her senior year, she needed an MC name. When a classmate jokingly referred to her as the Lady of Rage, she thought the moniker good enough to tag on the wall of the high school bathroom.

A singular rapper in her own right, Rage would go on to become known as a collaborator, appearing on Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s extraordinarily successful debut albums. Her 1994 hit single “Afro Puffs” perhaps illustrates her artistic potential as much as what she was eventually able to achieve: Rage’s first solo album, Eargasm, was shelved and never completed. Named by Dre, who would have also co-written and produced it, the album would have been made at the height of the rapper’s powers and released during Death Row Records’ incredible winning streak. That Eargasm never came to fruition kept Rage’s career dependent on men — in the form of collaborators and label bosses — rather than resolutely her own.

Read more…

Remembering Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley performing at the Marvin Festival, Mexico City, 2018. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley has died of a heart attack. He was 63.

To my ears, Buzzcocks were always a pop band with punk sensibilities, rather than the other way around. The craftsmanship behind songs like “Why Can’t I Touch It” or “What Do I Get” demonstrate an ambition beyond provocation. Pete Shelley was Ray Davies’ legitimate heir: smart, sincere, and acerbic with an unerring ear for musical hooks. The early Buzzcocks albums Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites, and A Different Kind Of Tension are each their own kind of greatest hits compilation.

Still, Buzzcocks had an impeccable punk pedigree. Peter McNeish, as he was originally known, organized the June 1976 Sex Pistols gig in his hometown in Manchester. That appearance, though sparsely attended (“I think there were about 42, 43 people there,” Shelley remembered), was the catalyst for almost the entire post-punk Manchester scene, as some of the attendees went on to found Joy Division, The Fall, the Smiths, and Factory Records. The next time the Pistols came through town, McNeish’s new band opened. His stage name was now Pete Shelley, which his parents would have called him had he been born a girl.

The first Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch, was released in January 1977 on their own independent label, New Hormones. “We made quite a bit of money from Spiral Scratch,” Shelley said. “It ended up selling about 16,000 copies and we were able to buy some new equipment.”

Once Shelley took over as principal songwriter and vocalist later that year, the band released a series of extraordinary singles, characterized by breakneck tempos, breathless canny lyrics about unrequited love, and ingenious chord changes pumped out by buzzsaw guitars. There’s not a rock star guitar solo in sight. Shelley sings with a petulant Manchester yelp. He turned this material out with seeming effortlessness.

It’s an impressive collection, from the delirium of “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” to the confessional testimony of “I Believe,” to the ceaselessly catchy “You Say You Don’t Love Meall created by a man who was 26 when his band broke up in 1981.

Shelley did not come out as bisexual until years later, although anyone listening to his romantic complaints and genderless lyrics would have already understood. “Ever Fallen In Love With Someone (You Shouldn’t’ve),” the band’s masterpiece, was inspired by a line from Guys and Dolls. “You spurn my natural emotions,” Shelley sings. “You make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt.”

And if I start a commotion

I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse

Ever fallen in love with someone

You shouldn’t have fallen in love with?

“I wrote it about Francis, who was the social sec at Warrington Tech,” Shelley remembered. “I was going through self-discovery, shall we say, a fertile ground for writing songs. In the initial courtship he was resistant to my charms.”

Punk decluttered popular music, and Shelley, already a fan of pared down acts like the Velvet Underground and Can, was prepared to fill the void. “There are plenty of musicians that I enjoy watching that are entertainers,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “But I wouldn’t want to be that, because the thing with an entertainer is that there is always that dishonesty, which is what punk tried to get rid of.”

“It was like, you’re not pretending to be something you are not,” he continued. “You are just what you are.”

He applied this approach to his lyrics as well, always smart but never contrived. “See, with me, I’m never really happy unless everything sounds like it’s conversational,” Shelley told The Quietus a few years ago. “That’s why I find it hard to write lyrics, to simplify it to the point where it sounds like there’s no writing there. So a lot of time and effort goes into me rejecting things.”

Shelley went solo after the Buzzcocks broke up. An early single, “Homosapienbanned by the BBC because of its “explicit reference to gay sexwas actually written in 1974, before Buzzcocks formed. But the influence of Shelley’s former band was still rippling out through mainstream culture.

The Fine Young Cannibals’ 1988 cover of “Ever Fallen In Love” reached the top-10  in the UK, which “financed our comeback,” according to Shelley. The band’s reunion lasted almost 30 years. In the meantime, college radio, indie rock, and Nirvana all advanced and receded. Buzzcocks music informed them all.

Punk fizzled, like any musical trend. Its most durable aspects of emotionally direct, vulnerable, aggressive, and unornamented communication have remained. Buzzcocks embodied this approach. Long live Pete Shelley.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Matt Giles

Shelved: Jimmy Scott’s Falling In Love Is Wonderful

Frans Schellekens/Redferns /Getty

By 1962, Ray Charles had fully crossed over. It started with his 1959 Top 10 hit “What’d I Say,” continued with the Grammy-winning “Georgia On My Mind” and “Hit the Road, Jack,” and culminated in two smash country music albums, yielding the number one single “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Proficient at bebop, fluent in country, and having practically invented soul, it seemed there was no style of popular music Ray Charles couldn’t master. Beyond his prodigious songwriting and piano playing abilities, Charles was most famously a vocal interpreter. With his newfound wealth, he founded Tangerine Records in 1962. The first thing he did was produce and release a record by one of his favorite singers, Jimmy Scott.

Jimmy Scott had been recording since the late 1940s and made several notable if unprofitable albums with Savoy Records in the 1950s. His work was almost universally loved by the most influential vocalists of the era, a group that included Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, and Billie Holiday. Ray Charles implicitly understood the singer’s potential and believed he had the key to Scott’s elusive success.

Read more…

Shelved: The Sound of Big Star’s Self-Destruction

Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (3,146 words)

 

In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the first commercial long-playing record, which revolved at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and could hold more than 20 minutes of music per side. The older technology, 78-rpm records, couldn’t hold more than three and a half minutes per side. It was now possible to make a self-contained album.

Prior to that, the term “album” was used to describe a printed collection of short classical music pieces, such as Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Later, 78 records would be bound in volumes called albums, which would allow the limited medium to communicate longer orchestral works. By the same token, the books that contained family photos also became known as albums.

With the new technology, it wasn’t long before albums were used to communicate a collection of songs united by a common theme. Frank Sinatra is widely credited with releasing the first concept album, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours. All of the songs were arranged by Nelson Riddle and were united in their themes of love, loss, and romantic dissolution.

Read more…

Shelved: Bill Evans’ Loose Blues

Bill Evans. David Redfern / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,248 words)

 

“Loose Bloose” has a beguiling head riff. Such motifs are played at the beginning, or “head,” of a jazz or rock song. They’re typically repetitive and simple enough for musicians to remember — an arrangement kept in one’s head, not written down. Pianist Bill Evans changed that. The head riff on “Loose Bloose” is too complex to not have been notated. Played in unison and in octave harmonies on piano and tenor saxophone, it is somehow both intimate and imperious. It moves with the strange grace of a mantis. It is a part of Evans’s legacy that is without either parent or descendant.

That is partly because “Loose Bloose,” and the album with which it nearly shares a name, was shelved. Thought lost, Loose Blues remained in vaults for 20 years. It was created during a time of grief and addiction, formed from necessity and ambition, and frustrated by financial limitations. It was conceived by a man in the middle of an intensely creative period, only to be released after his death; recorded by a group of ad hoc players not fully prepared for its compositional intricacies; and produced by a man who didn’t fully believe in the project.

Recorded in two days in August 1962, Loose Blues was the product of extraordinary recording activity for a normally reticent artist, one who took almost two years to record a second solo album. “The burst really began,” remembered producer Orrin Keepnews, “when Evans surprised me by announcing that he was ready to record with his new trio; eventually it meant that he was in three different studios on a total of eight separate occasions between April and August 1962, creating four and a half albums’ worth of solo, trio, and quintet selections.”

“I don’t know how impressive that sounds to anyone else;” Keepnews wrote in the Loose Blues liner notes, “to me, who was on hand for all of it, it is still overwhelming.”

Read more…

Remembering Pioneering Studio Engineer Geoff Emerick

Ringo Starr of The Beatles congratulates EMI recording studio audio engineer Geoff Emerick on his Grammy Award in 1968. Photo by Monti Spry/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

I once met legendary record producer George Avakian, who worked with everyone from John Cage to Ravi Shankar to Dave Brubeck. I was especially interested in his sessions with Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, and the incredible stand up bass sounds on those records from the 1950s.

“What mics did you use, George?” I asked, certain I was about to acquire some arcane and sacred knowledge. “Oh, I never touched the mics,” George said quickly. “I was the producer.”

The recording engineer, as opposed to the producer, is the one person actually responsible for what we hear. The musicians write and perform the music, the producer (at least in the previous century) concerns themself with song selection and arrangement, and the engineer captures the sound. The latitude for personal expression here is incredible: there is the size and shape of the studio room, and its relationship to the microphones. There are all manner of musical instruments, some acoustic, some amplified, and how they sound when recorded. There is a wide spectrum of microphones: ribbon mics, condenser mics, dynamic mics, mics with diaphragms large and small, each contributing a sound engineers variously describe as “dark” or “bright” or having “air on top.” It’s been my experience that most people can’t hear a good performance through bad production. Engineers bear the brunt of that responsibility. So, at least to my mind, Duke Ellington’s dictum “If it sounds good, it is good,” applies to the recording process as much as anything else.

Geoff Emerick died on October 2, 2018. Having engineered late period Beatles records, he was one of the best known and most innovative engineers of the twentieth century. Many modern recording techniques are the result of his work. The best way to illustrate this is to focus our attention on one day: Wednesday April 6, 1966. Emerick was 19. As a 15-year old intern, he had witnessed the Beatles’ first recording session, the one which produced “Love Me Do.” This day was his first as the band’s engineer. He was terrified.

This ‘66 session was the first for the Beatles’ new album, Revolver. The first song to be recorded was also the album’s most sonically ambitious: John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Lennon, never technically minded and always looking for a way to disguise his voice, asked producer George Martin to “make me sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop.”

“Got it,” Martin said. “I’m sure Geoff and I will come up with something.”

Emerick’s solution was brilliant. After securing Martin’s blessing, he instructed the maintenance engineer to wire a certain amplifier to use for Lennon’s vocal. “The studio’s Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie,” Emerick recalled in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, “a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers, one that carried low bass frequencies and the other that carried high treble frequencies; it was the effect of those spinning speakers that was largely responsible for the characteristic Hammond organ sound. In my mind, I could almost hear what John’s voice might sound like if it were coming from a Leslie.” No one knew exactly what that sound would be, as it had never been done before.

After recording the first take, the band listened to the playback in the control room. The effect worked perfectly. “It’s the Dalai Lennon!” Paul McCartney shouted.

Lennon was amazed and asked for an explanation; he got one he didn’t understand. “Couldn’t we get the same effect by dangling me from a rope and swinging me around the microphone instead?” he asked. It’s hard to imagine now, but Emerick’s lasting contribution here is that he did something that had never been done: Leslie amplifiers were designed to use with Hammond organs, not with human voices. Once this experimental door was opened, any combination of artistry and technology was possible.

Before the day was done, Emerick would make another major contribution to modern sound engineering. To do so, he had to break house rules. EMI, who owned Abbey Road studios, did not allow microphones to be placed closer than two feet from a bass drum. The concentrated “wallop” of low end frequencies can damage sensitive microphones. Excessive low end would also make phonograph needles skip, which is why there are no bass drums on early jazz recordings. Drummers used bass drums, but engineers banned them.

Inspired by the slightly muffled sound of Ringo Starr’s snare drum a side effect of the heavy smoker keeping his pack of cigarettes handy Emerick grabbed a nearby wool sweater. “As quickly as I could,” he remembered, “I removed the bass drum’s front skin the one with the famous ‘dropped-T’ Beatles logo on it and stuffed the sweater inside so that it was flush against the rear beater skin. Then I replaced the front skin and positioned the bass drum mic directly in front of it, angled down slightly but so close that it was almost touching.” He then purposefully overloaded the circuitry of some outboard gear to affect the drum sound. The result was punchy, exciting, and unprecedented.

The heavily compressed drum sound set the template for almost all British pop music for the rest of the decade, from The Jimi Hendrix Experience to Led Zeppelin; the dampened, close-miked kick drum technique is still in use. After Revolver, Emerick went on to engineer the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road.

With his first work day over, Emerick took the waiting car back to his parents’ house, where he lived.

There are home studio plugins for all these outboard effects now. You can run your vocal through a virtual Leslie cabinet, or employ a faux Fairchild limiter to make your drums sound more Beatles-y, or distort your Neumann microphone, or a digital facsimile, to sound like Lennon’s voice on “I Am The Walrus.” But these innovations were made during a time when engineers at Abbey Road wore white lab coats and ties and could be fired for any misuse of studio equipment. Geoff Emerick, who was part of the Beatles’ career when they began using the studio as an instrument, was as much responsible for their iconic sounds as anyone. “He was smart, fun-loving and the genius behind many of the great sounds on our records,” McCartney remembered. “God bless you Geoffrey.”

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Shelved: The Velvet Underground’s Fourth Album

The Velvet Underground at The Record Plant on May 6, 1969, during a session for VU. L to R: Doug Yule, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, engineer Gary Kellgren. Photo by William "PoPsie" Randolph.

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2018 | 18 minutes (3,669 words)

 

The Velvet Underground album VU is the binding agent in a career of releases that differ so dramatically one from another as to be almost artistic reversals. VU has the dark majesty of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the neurotic strut (if not the head-wrecking dissonance) of White Light/White Heat, the tenderness and emotional insight of The Velvet Underground, and the pure pop sensibility of Loaded. In its 10 tracks, it contains refined versions of what the band did well during the four years they lasted. The irony is that VU wasn’t released until more than a dozen years after the Velvet Underground disbanded.

Recorded primarily in 1969, after the ouster of multi-instrumentalist John Cale, and later cannibalized by principal songwriter Lou Reed for his solo career, the recordings that make up VU were shelved for 16 years. They stayed in the MGM vaults, mostly unmixed, until discovered during the process of reissuing the band’s catalog in the early 80s. As a result, VU benefitted from much improved audio technology and was released to a world not only better prepared for the Velvet Underground, but one that had largely absorbed its lessons. The album made a beautiful tombstone for the band’s career, at a time when all the members were alive to see it.
Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: Which Side Are You On?

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Tom Maxwell | Longreads | August 2018 | 8 minutes (1,536 words)

 

It’s axiomatic: In hard times, the vulnerable suffer most. Although the Great Depression left no American untouched, those who lived in the penury of Kentucky coal country bore a greater burden.

“In the early thirties I had one of my babies starve to death,” recalled Kentucky singer Sarah Ogan Gunning in Voices From the Mountains.

It literally happened — people starved to death. Not only my own baby, but the neighbors’ babies. You seed them starve to death too. And all you could do was go over and help wash and dress ‘em and lay ‘em out and sit with the mothers until they could put ‘em away.

On February 16, 1931, the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association reduced their employees’ wages — already at subsistence level — by 10 percent. The miners responded by organizing a union. Union members were either fired and evicted from their company-owned homes, or beaten and killed. Soon there was a general strike. Thus began a period of harassment and violence known as the Harlan County War, or more simply, Bloody Harlan. The sheriff’s department acted as enforcers for the mine operators.

Sam Reece worked as an organizer for the National Miners Union. “Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to our house in search of Sam — that’s my husband — he was one of the union leaders,” remembered musician and activist Florence Reece. “I was home alone with our seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, waiting to shoot Sam down when he came back. But he didn’t come home that night.”

The next morning, Florence, in her words, “tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall,” and wrote a new lyric to an old melody.

Come all of you poor workers, good news to you I’ll tell

Of how that good old union has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?

 

If you go to Harlan County, there is no neutral there

You’ll either be a union man or a thug for JH Blair

Which side are you on?

Reece couldn’t have known that what she created would become the most durable anthem of the labor movement, and a template for protest songs for decades to come. “Which Side Are You On?,” written from acute personal trauma, has been universalized, both in lyric and musical modality. After making its way out of Harlan County and into a New York recording studio, it got modified to fit the message of countless underdog protagonists.

“Which Side Are You On?” quickly became an anthem in the union halls and picket lines. Jim Garland, another organizer and songwriter, immediately used it as a tool for protest. “In the course of such fights, songs expressed people’s feelings in a manner that allowed them to stand together,” he said. “Rather than walking up to a gun thug and saying, ‘You’re a bastard,’ which might have resulted in a shooting, we could express our anger much more easily in unison with song lyrics.”

In December, 1931, Garland and his cousin Aunt Molly Jackson travelled to New York to give concerts to raise money for the striking miners. They performed “Which Side Are You On?”, where it ultimately caught the ear of Pete Seeger.

By the early 1940s, Seeger was changing the face of American popular culture. He formed a band called the Almanac Singers with folk hero Woody Guthrie and singers Lee Hays and Millard Lampell. They sang folk songs — some they wrote and some learned from others — that were pro-union and anti-war. “They did not perform in costume, either of the concert stage or of the radio barn dance,” wrote Robert S. Cantwell in When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, “and yet their street clothes, in which they ordinarily appeared, ranged from pieces of business suits in various permutations and combinations to dungarees, workshirts, and construction boots….”

“Back where I come from, a family had two books,” remembered Arkansas-born Lee Hays. “The Bible to help ’em to the next world. The Almanac, to help ’em through the present world…We became the Almanac Singers.”

The first Almanac Singers album, Songs for John Doe, sold well enough in Communist bookstores to merit a new record. Talking Union was recorded in the same Central Park studio in May, 1941, and released on Keynote records in July. “Which Side Are You On?” was the last of its six songs. Even though they didn’t change Reece’s original melody or lyric, the Almanac Singers took “Which Side Are You On?” from the personal to the universal. It’s instructive to hear both versions. First, Reece, singing her composition in later years.

The melody for this song originated centuries ago in England, and is known as modal music. Modal music doesn’t have a key or chords in the way we would understand from, say, a Beatles song. Traditional Irish and Scottish folk music, which became the basis for Appalachian folk music, is modal, and predates 1650.

Reece’s performance is declarative and singular. She sings as an individual, without accompaniment or harmony. She sings to us as a group of individuals, each with a decision to make. “You have to be on one side or the other,” she once said. “In Harlan County there wasn’t no neutral. If you wasn’t a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be.” She is asking us to decide, because even if the idea of community, in the form of a union, was comforting, the reality is that people were being picked off one by one.

The Almanac Singers’ version of “Which Side Are You On?” is an example of tonal music. (Again, think of a Beatles song, with chord changes and harmonies.) Pete Seeger begins with a stark, descending banjo riff — a foil for the upcoming single-string guitar melody — and then sings the first verse. The chorus is a haunting response to his call, sung by a group of voices. A community has formed, and what they sing is as much indictment as encouragement. Florence Reece’s modal melody, an artifact of Appalachian fiddle music, has been incorporated and expanded. We hear harmonies now, as sympathetic as a friend, as organized as a union.

Jim Garland, who brought “Which Side Are You On?” to New York, stayed and became part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, one largely founded by people like Seeger and Guthrie. It was an alternative world, one informed by a mix of races and cultures and classes. These folk artists collected and composed songs of the people, performed them in small clubs, union halls, and regional festivals, and made them available through recordings, virtually none of which were available to Florence Reece back in Kentucky.

Seeger had a knack for popularization. Remember, it was he who changed “I Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger also identified “Which Side Are You On?” as being pliable to other applications. He penned some new lyrics in support of the National Maritime Union in 1947:

The men who hate our union, they say we dodged the draft

Not one of those damn liars knows his forward from his aft

From there the song gained immortality. The Freedom Singers, a group formed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962, rewrote the lyric to reflect their Civil Rights struggle.

Come all you Negro people, lift up your voices and sing

Will you join the Ku Klux Klan or Martin Luther King?

They certainly employed, to great effect, the Almanac Singers’ call and response arrangement, bringing altogether more church into the proceedings.

Len Chandler, a topical singer from Greenwich Village who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, wrote his own version:

Come all you Northern liberals, take a Klansman out to lunch

But when you dine, instead of wine, you should serve nonviolent punch

Through the rolling years, “Which Side Are You On?” has been adapted and covered by myriad artists, including Dropkick Murphys and Ani DiFranco. The question renews itself as each generation struggles against inequality.

The melody proved as durable as the lyrics proved malleable. Although Reece claimed to have borrowed the melody from an old Baptist hymn, the truth is much less sanctified. A listen to an a capella version of “Ho Lily Ho” by Appalachian singer Sarah Hawkes reveals the song’s origin. This is an ancient tune, also known as “Jack Monroe.” In most of its iterations, the song tells the story of a young woman who dresses like a man to find her lost lover in battle. In every version, fearlessness defines her:

‘Your waist is slim and slender, your fingers they are small

Your cheeks too red and rosy to face a cannon ball’

 

‘My waist, I know, is slender – my fingers they are small

But it would not make me tremble to see ten thousand fall’

Even if Florence Reece, the young and beleaguered Kentucky housewife, did not know the original song’s themes of transformation and bravery when she wrote her lyric, she carried them forward nonetheless.

Now it’s our turn. The new lyric has yet to be written, but the circumstances that will inspire it are with us daily. There may indeed be one humanity; there may indeed be “no such thing as other people’s children,” but right now this world is binary, and we are called to choose. Which side are you on?

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel