[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]
On Tuesday, The Spacebomb Sound hosted a really candid and informative roundtable on race that aired on Red Bull Music Academy Radio. Tiffany Jana, Reggie Pace, Kelli Strawbridge, Devonne Harris, Cameron Ralston, and Matthew E. White participated, and while I’m not sure if audio is available to be replayed, RBMA just posted a fairly extensive transcript of the discussion. I hope you’ll read it and share — read to absorb the ideas and experiences that were relayed on Tuesday, and share to keep the momentum going so honest, substantive discussions like this one keep happening all over the country.
One song they played during the show was Sharon Jones’ version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I hadn’t heard her version until recently, but I’ve grown very attached to it in that short time. It’s amazing how much gravity her voice adds. Growing up, I didn’t realize how political the song was — depending on which verses people choose to include, it can still seem apolitical and/or downright hypocritical — but I had a conversion experience last year when Dave Rawlings Machine closed their November show at The National with it. The verse about the signs and private property and how signs say nothing on the back… I don’t know whether I hadn’t heard that verse before or if I just wasn’t listening intently, but when Dave Rawlings sang it, it felt powerfully subversive. Got goosebumps and everything.
Here’s how Jones sings it:
As I was walking, they tried to stop me
They put up a sign that said “private property”
On the back side, it said nothing
That side was made for you and me
Sharon Jones — “This Land Is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie cover) [Spotify/iTunes]
Does quicksand have grains?
I ask because the first time I started writing about Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain Of Sand” and the outstanding cover version just released on the new Blind Boys of Alabama album, the post got dragged down and consumed by religious — or irreligious, as the case may be — hand-wringing. The idea was that I would talk about how Dylan’s so-called “Christian-period” weirds me out, and how that’s probably unfair, because his born-again faith gave us this amazing song, and besides, there’s tons of great gospel music out there, and who am I to judge someone else’s religious beliefs when my own are somewhat complicated…
And that’s when the post became more about how my mom became a priest when I was in college and about how long it had been since the last time I’d gone to a Sunday service regularly than about how Justin Vernon helped the Blind Boys craft a recording that deserves way more attention than it’s currently getting.
So here we are. Take two. Without wiggling too far into the same quicksand I ended up in the first time, I’d like to make two points — one about the religiosity of the lyrics in “Every Grain Of Sand” and one about this recording of it.
The last week saw some especially noteworthy moments in RVA music writing, so I wanted to pause to celebrate them and provide some links.
On Monday, Andrew of RVA Playlist shared some exciting news — his blog, which provides a wonderfully supportive and comprehensive overview of Richmond’s music scene, had been included in a New York Magazine Travel feature about spending a weekend in Richmond. Given all that Andrew does for RVA musicians and music fans, it’s rewarding to see his signal boosted in this way, and the thought of curious New Yorkers poking around RVA Playlist and learning about the amazing bands that call Richmond home makes me very happy. Click here to see for yourself.
On Wednesday, Paste posted a new installment in their “50 States Project,” and I was excited when I saw who they enlisted as tour guide to Virginia’s musical offerings: Reggie Pace — the trombone-slaying, Bon Iver-collaborating, No BS! Brass Band-co-founding multi-instrumentalist who has become one of Richmond’s leading cultural ambassadors. (Don’t believe me? Check out No BS!’s Tiny Desk Concert, or the making-of video for The Blind Boys of Alabama’s new album, or this video of Pace performing with Bon Iver on Saturday Night Live, or this picture of Pace with Stephen Colbert.) He’s clearly a busy dude, and it’s great seeing someone whose exposure has skyrocketed taking the time to shine a light on the acts who are making waves at home. Click here to have a look.
On Friday, One Way Richmond posted a heartfelt appraisal of the state of Richmond music festivals that was penned by WRIR and Commonwealth of Notions Presents organizer Shannon Cleary. Part diagnosis and part call to action, Cleary’s piece digs deep to discover how our city can do a better job of making festivals year-over-year success stories. His words on this subject carry a weight that few in the city could summon, and I for one plan to run with the torch he’s lit by making the most of Fall Line Fest, which takes place on September 6 and 7 and boasts an impressive, stylistically diverse lineup. Click here to read Cleary’s piece and click here to buy Fall Line Fest tickets (I just did).