Southern songs, southern stories
The flowers of an Alabama spring time, a white dress shining in the sun, a burning bus, fear, conviction, and the courage to ask for a glass of water: from these elements singer and songwriter Caroline Herring builds her song White Dress, a story based in details of the experience of Mae Frances Moultrie, the only African American woman on the original Freedom Ride through the deep south in 1962. The song is on Herring’s album Camilla.
Herring is a southerner, raised in Mississippi, with time spent in Texas and the DC area, as well as her current base in Georgia. Through her words and her shimmering alto voice, Herring offers a poet’s perspective of events which resonate through landscapes both historical and personal.
She often turns to landscapes and stories of the south to frame her ideas. Summer Song travels southern landscapes while acknowledging hard times and reminders of perseverance that may be found in nature. Black Mountain Lullaby is lament, protest song, and lullaby all in one; a story drawn from true events when a young child was killed when a boulder fell on his house in Virginia, a boulder dislodged by mountain top removal mining. Traveling Shoes, inspired by a story by Eudora Welty, asks thoughtful questions about journey and returning and what we mean to each other along the way. Camilla, the title track, is drawn from a civil rights-era situation in the town of Camilla, Georgia, in which a pregnant woman was beaten.
Facing hard times and seeing what may be learned from them is a thread which runs through Herring’s work on the album. It is a clear-eyed resilience, recognizing hard times and hard emotions, sorrow and grieving and questions with no easy answers,. There may be no easy answers in Herring’s world, but there is always hope. Southern landscapes and southern voices resonate across all the stories too, from that of a child catching fireflies of an evening to a woman grieving to Mae Frances Moultrie on her Freedom Ride.
Images of past, present, and future come together on the song Maiden Voyage, which was inspired by a trip Herring and her young daughter took to see President Obama’s inauguration in 2008. Images of the day, the history, the time, and being a parent fill the tale. On the chorus, Herring sings, “Honey, it goes like this, you take your hand. you lift it up, you put it on your heart, and there you stand -- singing This land is your land, this land is my land...”
If Caroline Herring’s music intrigues, you might also like to take a listen to recent releases from two other artists born and raised in the American south: Jimmy LaFave and Dulcie Taylor.
LaFave’s territory is Oklahoma and Texas, a red dirt history that infuses all the music he makes, whether writing his own songs about family, travel, love, and landscape or singing music from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Gretchen Peters, or Bruce Springsteen. His latest album is called Depending on Distance. His haunting, unique, high lonesome with a touch of blues style frames eight new songs from his own pen, among them Red Dirt Night and Bring Back the Trains, as well as three from Dylan including Red River Shore and Tomorrow is a Long Time, the 1980’s classic Missing You, and Springsteen’s Land of Hope and Dreams. Grit and grace with red dirt authenticity are what you get any time you listen to Jimmy LaFave, and Depending on Distance is another fine chapter in his story.
Grit and grace from a very different perspective and in a quite different voice are what you get from Dulcie Taylor’s music, as well. Her southern background is from growing up in South Carolina and living for a time in Virginia. She wrote or co-wrote each of the eleven tracks on her recording Free of This Sorrow. There are stories that become three minute movies observed, as with Everyday Tragedy. There is a gentle love song where the personal moves sweetly into details that will resonate with many who hear it in Man of Few Words. There is All Along the River, an insightful story set in Civil War times that glows with the grace of Taylor’s gentle soprano and thoughtful phrasing. Those elements illuminate the song Dark Blue Velvet as well, in which Taylor gives a not often heard in song perspective to the end of a marriage. To bring this fine collection of songs to a close, fittingly enough, there’s a song of faith that holds both questions and answers. A touch of bluegrass, a tinge of folk, really nice dulcimer playing, and songwriting that illuminates tales that could be told on front porches across the south -- those things fill Dulcie Taylor’s Free of This Sorrow.
Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com
You may also find her work at Music Road, Strings, Perceptive Travel, and other places online and in print.
Feature photo of Caroline Herring courtesy and copyright Kerry Dexter