From Jukeboxes to Digital Downloads – Sharing the Experiences of two Generations of Musicians

Note: Sue Barrett is a music journalist from Australia who is an occasional contributor to FolkBlog.  This piece appears by her gracious permission and she retains all rights to this article.

By Sue Barrett

And I thank my lucky stars/
And whoever’s up there in charge/
That I have music/
Cause I wouldn’t know where to start/
Without these songs inside my heart/
To show you who I am, who I am

‘Nullarbor’

(lyrics: Jessie Vintila; music: Jessie Vintila/Emma Royle)

Amongst the regulars at the local record store is a burly man who is an expert on all-things Bruce Springsteen. Recently, however, his focus (and one of his hands) was on the store’s advance copy of My Heart – the new CD from Doris Day (the same Doris Day who sold a million copies of ‘Sentimental Journey’ in the 1940s, who won an Oscar for the song ‘Que Sera, Sera’ in the 1950s and who received Golden Globe Awards as the world’s favorite actress in the 1960s).

Another album that has been playing on rotation at the record store is Suzi Quatro’s In The Spotlight. Like Doris, Suzi’s work covers more than just music – with Suzi appearing in a number of television shows, including Happy Days, Dempsey & Makepeace (‘Love You To Death’, Series 2) and Bob the Builder. Early in her music career, Suzi performed with her sister Patti (who went on to join the 1970s rock band, Fanny).

Coincidently, June and Jean Millington (both key members of Fanny) recently released a new CD, Play Like a Girl. As with Jessie Vintila, from the Australian indie/folk band The Lucky Wonders, June Millington has written about the importance of music to her inner self – “There’s nothing like the sound of music/To take my spirit home” (‘Ladies on the Stage’). These days, a large part of June’s time is taken up with The Institute for Musical Arts (www.ima.org), including its rock ’n’ roll programs for girls and young women.

With older musicians continuing to perform, and young musicians emerging, FolkBlog turned its attention to the experiences of two groups of musicians who are separated, in age, by around forty years.

A.O. (from the lost bois) and ALYNDA LEE SEGARRA (from Hurray for the Riff Raff) are in their 20s; whilst LUI COLLINS and GAYE ADEGBALOLA are now in their 60s…

A.O. [the lost bois]

A.O. was born and raised in Washington, DC, USA. While attending Mount Holyoke College (Massachusetts), where she was an English major and a Gender Studies minor, A.O. performed with the Diversions a capella group. In addition to making music, A.O. works as a pre-school teacher and dreams of becoming an editor.

B.Steady was also born in Washington, DC, growing up in a very low income neighbourhood. She graduated from Oberlin College (Ohio) and is now attending Howard University (Washington, DC) in pursuit of her M.F.A. in film. In January 2011, B.Steady released her first self-produced album (Malcolm X Park) on iTunes. In April 2011, she won two Howard University Paul Robeson Awards (Music Video; Cinematography) for her video, Bones (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xlw9IxxBP7c).

A.O. and B.Steady met as twelve year olds in middle school in Washington. They went on to attend the same high school, where they successfully auditioned as vocalists for the jazz band. One summer, during college, A.O. and B.Steady founded the female queer rap trio, The Q Crew. In late 2009, A.O. and B.Steady formed the lost bois, appearing since then at Black Pride celebrations and at colleges and universities across the United States. The lost bois’ music is available through iTunes and SoundCloud and on YouTube and they are currently working on their debut album.

 When did music first enter your life?

[A.O.] It’s interesting, because me and B found our musical feet at the same time. We were in middle school, I believe, so eighth grade, ninth grade, something like that. And then we tried out for jazz band at our high school. I wouldn’t say that music wasn’t a part of our lives before that, but it started to become more prominent from that point on.

 Is there music from when you were growing up that remains important to you?

[A.O.] Oh, absolutely. Music, a lot of times, just gets better with age and, like everything, it recycles, it always comes back.

What are the most important sources of music for you these days?

[A.O.] It is getting harder and harder to find new music that we relate to. It’s rare to find new music that strikes the chord. B and me both depend on people, on friends, to find new music. The radio is not a great place [to find new music]. Sometimes actually Pandora works well [personalized internet radio - www.pandora.com].

 How did you come to be a performer?

[A.O.] I’ve always loved music. Performing was not so much about having people see me doing it, it was about me connecting with music in a space where other people did the same thing. When we graduated [from college], there was no more music happening and we realised there was something missing and we just decided to start writing music. Then people started asking us to perform. I don’t think that we thought that we would perform on stage like we had in the past, but it happened that that became an option for us. We usually only have our voices, although we can both play chords on guitar.

Over the years, recorded music has come in a number of formats. What are your favorite formats and what is it about them that you particularly like?

[A.O.] I grew up, from middle school, making mix tapes, making cassette tapes. Making a mix tape for somebody was SERIOUS. There was so much work that went into it. My parents have vinyl, and I know that people are getting back into that now, but I don’t actually know how to use one. Honestly, I don’t even think that I would know how to make a cassette tape anymore!

Tell us about your first recording experience

[A.O.] We are multi-media artists, so we started out making videos to the music that we wrote, as a way to keep on going in music.

In recent times, Midtown Dickens, Brandi Carlile and Arcade Fire, as well as Hurray for the Riff Raff, have all released recordings on vinyl. Is there any chance of a vinyl recording from you?

[A.O.] Ooooh, I don’t think that anybody would ever ask us to do that. But if they did…I think definitely we’d have to have somebody come to us and say that they were going to do vinyl.

In a world that is now full of such things as electronic mailing lists, digital downloads, ringtones, internet radio and television, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and video blogging, how do you go about publicising your music, booking gigs and distributing your recordings?

[A.O.] For us, YouTube has been incredible. When we started, we couldn’t sell our songs, then people found out about them on YouTube. We now have some of those songs available on iTunes and there is a new website called SoundCloud which has more of our stuff.

 What do you see as the role of music within communities and across society more broadly?

[A.O.] As a performer, there is an interpersonal relationship that you have with your audience. People can relate to someone even though they have no idea who they are, through a song because they have had the same experience with that song.

 How important is it for children to have access to a range of musical experiences?

[A.O.] Every type of music that there is, I listen to and I appreciate. And it’s really important, I think, that we have lots of different perspectives, because music is also about perspectives, not just about melody. When you just listen to one genre, a lot of times you are desiring one sort of feeling. But if you have all these different perspectives, it makes you a well-rounded person.

As a young performer, what surprises/intrigues you about older performers?

[A.O.] I think what intrigues me most is how they are still doing what they do. I LOVE making music and I LOVE performance, but I don’t know if I could see myself doing it at the same level, at the same intensity, that I’m doing it now for generations.

 What’s been happening in your life this past year? And what are your plans for 2012?

[A.O.] We are working on a [debut] album and it’s going well, with the release date probably being 2012. I’m hoping that we’ll have a release party – I can’t tell you how many people will be there, it might just be me and B! There are a lot of people who have helped us and our parents have put up with a lot – so it would be nice to thank them.

In the song ‘Nullarbor’, Jessie Vintila (The Lucky Wonders) sings: “And I thank my lucky stars/ And whoever’s up there in charge/ That I have music/ Cause I wouldn’t know where to start/ Without these songs inside my heart/ To show you who I am, who I am.” Aside from your career as a performer, what does music means to you?

[A.O.] Music, to me, is a way to express my emotions. There is always a song, always a good song that is more able to show me how I’m feeling than I could tell myself. I think that’s pretty universal. For my generation, with text messages, we have a harder time talking on the phone. Music is something that can speak for you, or capture what you are feeling, in a way that is sometimes better than you could do – regardless of whether there are lyrics or not.

Apart from music, what are some of the things that mean the most to you in life?

[A.O.] I love my dog. The relationships that I cultivate with other people – I have a lot of acquaintances, but I only have a few very strong connections to people and I cherish those. It’s easy to find people that you like and get along with, it’s harder to find people who you feel connected to. I love food. I love Greek food. I like Israeli food. I like Southern food a lot – my Grandmother is from the South – so fried chicken, fried everything. I like to cook, I like to cook a lot. And I am absolutely, absolutely, a savoury food person! I like knowing myself and knowing what things I don’t like and what things I do like. A lot of people go through their lives, not quite knowing themselves. It’s important for me to be who I am – I like to wear myself on my sleeve. I like to go hiking. I like to be outside. I don’t like being very cold. It’s nice and warm here [in Washington], but the winters are getting worse and worse. I like books. The type of writing that I like is narrative non-fiction and, right now, if I want to have a good time reading, I read science fiction – in my house, when I was growing up, there were boxes and boxes of science fiction books. I love driving, I love driving my car. And I want to buy a motorcycle – not to ride fast, because that scares me – but the idea of being able to work on it yourself, that is really awesome!

ALYNDA LEE SEGARRA [Hurray for the Riff Raff]

Alynda Lee Segarra was born in Bronx New York (Einstein Hospital), USA, raised in Bronx and is now based in New Orleans, Louisiana. After leaving home in her late teens, Alynda Lee spent a couple of years riding freight trains across the USA. Since then, Alynda Lee has been part of The Dead Man Street Orchestra (playing washboard and banjo) [Sundown Songs; Why are we Building such a Big Ship?] and The Loose Marbles. In 2007, Alynda Lee formed Hurray for the Riff Raff, a band “influenced by the sounds of classic country, 1960s rock ’n’ roll, and master songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young”. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new album, Look Out Mama, is due for release in the USA on 1 May 2012, with release in the UK scheduled for August 2012.

 When did music first enter your life?

As a child I was in love with 1950s musicals, I was a big fan of Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and especially Judy Garland. I would learn a lot of songs from the movies and try to imitate their singing style but Judy was my favorite. I’d sing a lot for myself but occasionally when I’d visit my dad he would play keyboard along with me.

 As a child, what were the most important sources of music for you? And is there music from your childhood that remains important to you?

I still am very influenced by doo-wop and rock and roll from the ’50s to the ’60s. I grew up with that music on the radio and it was the first to really excite my imagination musically. I still feel very connected to that music and I think a lot of that early rock and roll came from a very sincere place. It taught me to strive to make people feel something, and to try your best.

What are the most important sources of music for you these days?

I still listen to mostly older recordings. I get most of my music from a local record store in New Orleans called Domino Sound, they specialize in early reggae but they’ve got everything you could ask for. Mississippi Records is my favorite record label today (based out of Portland, Oregon) – they put out a large number of compilations of early blues, gospel and world music. But besides that I listen to my friends, I’m lucky enough to know some amazing songwriters and musicians. Kate Cavazos, Sam Doores and the Tumbleweeds, The Alabama Shakes and Big Kitty are some of my favorite musicians.

How did you come to be a performer?

I started performing when I was a child, I’d put on shows in my living room and make my brother and aunt watch me lip synch. After that I got very involved in the drama program in my middle school. I had an amazing drama teacher, Ms Ann Ratray. She used drama as a therapeutic tool for us, we put on three different shows she directed: one on the Vietnam War, one on the Holocaust, and one on the Civil Rights Movement. Not your average middle school plays. It was with her that I really gained some confidence and realized that I had a lot of emotion to give to an audience. My first ever class with her was in sixth grade, and she asked me to get on stage and tell the class the saddest moment I had experienced. I was an insecure 12 year old kid, and I had a choice to either tell the truth, or get spooked and walk off. I decided to tell them, and it was a moment of true freedom and expression. I was hooked, the class was very receptive and I became really close with those kids. We all told the truth, we all let our guards down and worked through a lot of pain throughout the years of 6th to 8th grade together. It was a really beautiful thing.

Over the years, recorded music has come in a number of formats. What are your favorite formats and what is it about them that you particularly like?

I love anything on tape, and I love vinyl. A lot of people say that you can’t really tell the difference between digital and analog but I think maybe those people have lost some of their hearing…haha. There’s warmth and presence to recordings done on analog tape, but it also has a lot to do with how everything’s miced and the equipment used. So that being said you can get a great sound on digital if you use some awesome old mics and know how to use em. But I love analog for more than the sound, I love the product you have in your hands afterwards. There’s nothing cooler than holding a big reel of tape you just recorded.

 Tell us about your first recording experience

I recorded something when I was in high school with some friends of mine, we got drunk and asked our friend to press play on their 8 track. We sang some dumb songs we wrote about NYC teenage life and I still have the tape today. It’s hard to listen to but it brings me joy. After that, the Dead Man Street Orchestra recorded in the Royal Street Laundromat in New Orleans. It was a 24 hour laundromat we’d all hang out and play music in and it was where a lot of our first musical experiences together happened. Our friend Kyote recorded us on a rainy night, we drank and played for a couple of hours before the cops showed up.

In recent times, Midtown Dickens, Brandi Carlile and Arcade Fire, as well as Hurray for the Riff Raff, have all released recordings on vinyl. How did Hurray for the Riff Raff come to release Young Blood Blues on vinyl and is there any chance of another vinyl recording in the future?

We will always strive to put out records on vinyl, we were lucky enough to have some help financially and put out the record ourself. There will be more in the future!

In a world that is now full of such things as electronic mailing lists, digital downloads, ringtones, internet radio and television, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and video blogging, how do you go about publicising your music, booking gigs and distributing your recordings?

We use the internet for the majority of our booking, I admit that I don’t enjoy using the internet but it’s a tool you gotta use these days if you wanna tour. I can’t understand Twitter and ringtones are beyond me, but we use a lot of Facebook to keep in touch with fans.

What do you see as the role of music within communities and across society more broadly?

Music is a very powerful tool. It can be used as a tool to lift people up or it can be used to distract them and take their money. I am interested in how to use music as a tool to promote peace and equality amongst all people. We are living in very strange and exciting times, there’s a lot of social change happening right now and music should be at the heart of every progressive movement like it has in the past.

As Woody Guthrie said:

“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”

That pretty much sums it up doesn’t it?

How important is it for children to have access to a range of musical experiences?

Your musical experience as a child can change the course of your life, it can make you take pride in yourself and can help you connect with people who come from a very different culture than your own. Children, especially those that are born into poverty and hard times, need music in some form in order to grow into productive, happy humans.

As a young performer, what surprises and/or intrigues you about older performers?

I’ve been wishing for a mentor lately, an older woman who has been living and playing for much longer than me that I could learn from. I want to know about their experiences with keeping their creative process fresh and alive. I am so in awe of people who have been writing great songs for 20 odd years, it’s a beautiful thing that I hope I am a part of some day.

 What’s been happening in your life this past year? And what are your plans for 2012?

I’ve been working on a new record [Look Out Mama] and developing more of our live show. I’m proud of the record we made, the band is made up of the folks we toured with for the past year – Yosi Perlstein, Sam Doores and Dan Cutler. I spent a lot of the year touring the country with these guys and their band Sam Doores and the Tumbleweeds. Riff Raff was able to do a tour of England and had an amazing time. I met some people I hope to work with for a long time. The person who recorded our new album, Andrija Tokic, has an amazing ability to help you achieve the sound you want. I feel blessed to have met him. It’s been a year of growth for me as a live performer and hopefully as a person. I learned a lot from the people I travelled with this past year, there was a lot of hilarious times and plenty of grumpy ones too – that’s the touring life for ya. In 2012, I hope to keep writing and keep trying. I hope to spend more time with my family, my Aunt Nereida who raised me and my Uncle Joe. I hope to see my father Jose more and my brother Pablo. I plan on getting out of the country again, travelling some more and playing hundreds of more shows.

Apart from music, what are some of the things that mean the most to you in life?

Love, friendship, feminism and family.

In the song ‘Nullarbor’, Jessie Vintila (The Lucky Wonders) sings: “And I thank my lucky stars/ And whoever’s up there in charge/ That I have music/ Cause I wouldn’t know where to start/ Without these songs inside my heart/ To show you who I am, who I am.” Aside from your career as a performer, what does music means to you?

Music is therapy, faith, love and relief for me. It gives me strength and it keeps me humble. It teaches me about what it is to be human. It makes me strive to be a more helpful and loving person. It also makes me dance and have a good time. Without music I would be lost.

LUI COLLINS

Lui Collins was born in Vermont, USA and currently lives in Massachusetts. She played violin and French horn in her high school orchestra, the Vermont Youth Orchestra and the orchestra and concert band of the University of Connecticut. In the 1970s, Lui began performing folk music professionally, with her first album (Made in New England) released in 1978. Lui has a long-standing interest in music for children, including recording the album North of Mars (1995) and establishing Lui Collins’ Upside-Up Music, which includes Music Together (an early childhood music program for babies, toddlers, preschoolers) and Kids’ Jam. In addition to playing violin, French horn, piano, guitar and banjo, she recently began playing bossa nova guitar and clarinet. Lui Collins’ most recent album for adults is Closer (2006).

 When did music first enter your life?

Way back, early on, there was music in my life. My mother used to sing to me a whole lot and my dad as well, I think. My mum still sings, she’s 88 and she has Alzheimer’s, and she still sings and she remembers the words to all these old songs, which is really cool. I remember singing as a child and making up songs. I started formally studying music when I was eight – when I started taking piano lessons – and I would have been singing in the church junior choir and carol choir before that. Although I kept singing, my main focus through school and college was instrumental – I studied piano, then took up violin the next year in fourth grade, started playing French horn in high school and picked up guitar on my own (it was just a fun thing, I never studied it formally) in high school also.

As a child, what were the most important sources of music for you?

The most important sources of music would have been Broadway music and probably some of the old classics that my mom used to sing. We had in the house, all the time, one musical or another – whatever was popular in the ’50s and ’60s. And we also had classical music – if it wasn’t musicals playing, it was classical music playing in the house – a lot of Beethoven – and it was, of course, classical music that I was studying on the instruments.

And then, when I was in high school, my aunt and uncle went to a Joan Baez concert and came back raving about her – there had not been traditional music in our house before that. I got a copy of her songbook and learned so many of the songs in it – that was my non-classical food for a while and what really got me excited about singing and playing guitar.

Of course, I listened to the radio, like everybody in high school, and heard all of the popular songs. But after Joan Baez, I started getting introduced to people like Peter, Paul and Mary (who were popularizing a lot of traditional music), then Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins.

In 1968, I spent the entire year in Brazil, as an exchange student, and that was just an influx of completely different music. I had heard some of the music in high school – because Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass were very popular, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto and João Gilberto had done an American version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and Brazilian music was starting to get into our culture. But when I was in Brazil, what I was hearing was the authentic Brazilian music. And it was amazing, totally amazing.

The night that I flew back into the United States from Brazil, my sister sat me down with Joni Mitchell’s first album – my sister was in college at the time at UVM [The University of Vermont]. I flew into the Burlington airport, my parents picked me up, we went to my sister’s apartment and she said, “Oh, you’re going to love this” and put on Joni Mitchell – and the family lost me for the next hour.

What are the most important sources of music for you these days?

I actually listen to music less than one might think for a musician – I tend to have so much going on in my head that I often don’t have music playing.

I’ve been in an austere period of my life over the past few years. I haven’t been going to concerts much at all, although I actually went to a John Gorka concert recently and bought a couple of his albums and have been enjoying those.

I’m in the midst of creating a music curriculum for five to seven year olds and for the past five years or so that’s been a main source of music. What I’ve ended up doing is adapting a lot of traditional songs and I’ve been writing a lot during this period too.

The other thing that has been happening is going back to the Brazilian music. I’ve managed to get some wonderful, wonderful Brazilian music and I’ve been studying bossa nova guitar and studying Portuguese again (because I was fluent in it when I left Brazil in January of 1969).

 How did you come to be a performer?

It was something that chose me, more than me choosing it. I started playing and singing for people when I was in high school and really enjoyed it. In college, we had some informal coffee houses in the dorms – totally unpaid things, where anyone could volunteer to do a few songs. Then in the summer of 1970, I got my first performing job at a place called Tubbs Inn, in East Montpelier, Vermont, which was actually owned by my older sister and her husband. They hired me to sing every Wednesday – I got paid $15 a night to sit on a stool and sing for three hours. It was really good for me – I had to find three sets worth of songs to sing and, as there was no PA, I had to learn how to hold people’s attention and draw people in. After that summer, I began playing at some of the little coffee houses and bars and restaurants in the area.

I started out singing traditional songs and also songs by people like Joni Mitchell. I didn’t really start writing the songs I sang until I was probably about 23 – the first song that stuck was the ‘Mushy One’, which is on my first album.

I went to school to study music theory. I had had a piano teacher who taught me tons of theory – her name was Nora Akley – and I just loved it. She was actually the organist for our church and the choir director for some of the choirs I was in in the church. I went to visit her a few years ago when I was touring in Florida – she had moved down there – and I thanked her for teaching her students so much theory, which was such a huge, wonderful gift. And she said, “Oh, I didn’t do that for everybody, you know. I think there was only you and one other student who were interested.” I was flabbergasted, I thought this was just the way she taught – but she was such a good teacher, she totally responded to my interest and fed me. And when I was going off to college, I wanted to study more theory. I ended up with a sociology degree, but managed to take a whole bunch of music theory classes and to play in the orchestra and in the concert band.

After I graduated, my folks came down and took me out for dinner and my Dad asked me what I was going to do. I said, “Sing.” He practically choked on his food, poor man. And he said, “Don’t you want to get a real job, something with security?”.

I started out playing six nights a week and I could pay my $50 a month rent!

Originally, I performed songs that I loved that had already been recorded, although often obscure songs. Then when I started working in folk clubs and at festivals more, I began learning songs directly from the people who wrote them. And one of those people was Julie Snow, who lived in Cambridge [Massachusetts]. A friend of hers came to my concerts regularly when I was performing at Passim in Cambridge and one night she said, “I’ve got a friend who is a songwriter and she’s amazing. And I think you would really like her songs.” Meanwhile, she’d been saying to Julie, “I’ve been listening to this woman who sings at Passim and I think she would really sing your songs well. You two have to meet.” So I called up Julie the next time I was in town and we got together and, oh man, her songs were amazing. I ended up recording three of Julie’s songs on my first album and three more on my second album.

One of the hardest things about performing and touring is that I would meet people and have these amazing conversations with them and then say goodbye. I made friends and said goodbye over and over again. Now that I’m teaching music, I see the same families year after year after year and I get to see these kids growing up. I love this. And it’s very rich and fulfilling in a way that all of those goodbyes could never be. I never thought that I wanted to teach music – I thought that I would be on the road forever.

Over the years, recorded music has come in a number of formats. What are your favorite formats and what is it about them that you particularly like?

I loved the big covers, the big record jackets, on the vinyl LPs – that gave you so much space to do an absolutely beautiful cover. I think that artwork is part of it, it is part of what draws someone in to listen to music. And I loved being able to put lyrics on my album. I think CDs are great – I like CDs a lot – they are a nice compromise – and you can still put a booklet in them. However, with my last full length grownup album, I did not include the lyrics (they are on my website – all of my lyrics are now on my website).

Tell us about your first recording experience

My first album [Made in New England] was recorded in 1978. I had talked to Philo Records about recording an album for them and they had said that they wanted to put it out on the Fretless label. They gave me, I think, five days in the studio. It was a great deal – all I had to do was agree to buy a certain number of albums, which was easy because I was performing all the time and I had a strong following. So I went up to Vermont to the wonderful Philo studios [Earth Audio Techniques] (which no longer exist) in North Ferrisburg, and went into the studio with four or five friends – Julie Snow sang some harmonies, there was Guy Wolff who I had performed with, Horace Williams who I performed with as a duo in college and Bill Lauf – and we just had a blast.

My idea about recording, at that point, was that I wanted it to sound live. On the first album, we recorded basically live in the studio, with very little over-dubbing. Later I came to believing that the studio is different to playing live and that it is okay to do it differently. But with my recent Kids’ Jam CDs, I’ve done them live in the studio again, with one other musician – a wonderful multi-instrumentalist named Anand Nayak, who is the guitar player with Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem. He and I go in the studio, just the two of us, and we sit down facing each other, with mics set up, and we record the songs. And I love recording that way again, I really, really love it.

How important is it for children to have access to a range of musical experiences?

For the music curriculum project, I’ve been writing a lot – where there has been a need for a song about a topic or a musical need. I wrote a song at one point for Kids’ Jam in Phrygian mode because I wanted to stretch children’s ears totally. In Music Together, which is a program for very young children (from birth through five), they do a lot of exposing children to different modes and complex rhythms, things that they don’t normally get in our culture – I think of it as giving kids big ears.

I do not believe in singing down to children – what children really want is knowledge of their world and the bigger world around them – they want to know about nature, they are curious about so many things. And so the songs that I am finding and choosing and adapting and writing are about something that is much bigger than only for children. Children learn music from their parents singing with them, so the songs also have to engage the parents. And the parents have got to want to listen to the songs over and over and over again, ’cause that is what children are going to want to do if they are liking them. So when I’m writing songs for children, I’m also writing them for their parents, and I’m also writing them for myself. I’m finding that all the pieces of me are involved in this curriculum project – all of the pieces of me are coming together in this work, including parenting three children and grand parenting two grandchildren.

 In a world that is now full of such things as electronic mailing lists, digital downloads, ringtones, internet radio and television, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and video blogging, how do you go about publicising your music, booking gigs and distributing your recordings?

I’ve finally got all of my recordings available on CD Baby – people asked me and asked me and asked me – so people can now buy the CD or they can download an entire album or individual songs.

One limitation is that I live in an area where I haven’t been able to get anything but dial-up internet. The centre of town has had high-speed internet, but we haven’t out here in the boonies. Some things are just very difficult to do on dial-up internet – for example, putting videos on YouTube. But the satellite companies are coming out with a faster version of satellite that is pretty good, so I’ve just entered the 21st century by signing up with them. It’s still prohibitively expensive to use it for a lot of downloading or uploading, so I’m careful about how I use it. No movie watching for me! But I’m now able to do much more on the internet than I was with dial-up service and it’s made a huge difference for me overall.

What do you see as the role of music within communities and across society more broadly?

Music is one of our most basic human forms of expression. And I think, in our culture, we have to a great extent lost that, we have given music away to professionals. The truth is that music comes totally naturally to babies, their visual and aural systems are all in sync at three months. As a society, we really need to put music back in the families.

I have been a solo performer for most of my career and I love to take music and share it with an audience and I love to have people sing with me, but I also love to sing for them. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with listening to someone play music or sing for you, but I think music goes far beyond that. As a child, I grew up playing in orchestras and being one little piece of a very big, big sound. I love making music with other people and as a solo musician I missed that, I missed making music in a group. I actually just joined a new band in my town, my little town of 1800 – we have an Ashfield Community Band now – mostly people who haven’t played their instrument since high school or college – I went in with my French horn and, because they had some “loaner” instruments available, I’ve started playing clarinet. It’s sounding very rough, right now, but there is something about making music that lifts us into another place.

In the song ‘Nullarbor’, Jessie Vintila (The Lucky Wonders) sings: “And I thank my lucky stars/ And whoever’s up there in charge/ That I have music/ Cause I wouldn’t know where to start/ Without these songs inside my heart/ To show you who I am, who I am”. Aside from your career as a performer, what does music means to you?

Right now, one of the things that fills me is my grandchildren – I have two little grandsons, who are three and one. And music for me, as a grandmother, is lullabies and making up little songs about what is going on and engaging my grandsons in life through songs and singing together and playing instruments together.

Music is also about finding comfort for myself, giving comfort to other people. It’s about sparking ideas. It’s about reaching into those parts of me that need to be reached into, whether it’s through singing or through listening to someone else sing.

Music for me, and singing in particular, is about reaching down into the earth through my feet – I have an image of music coming up from the earth through the soles of my feet and resonating through me and coming out of me. When music moves through us, our bodies vibrate with that music and our bodies change and there is healing energy.

As an older performer, what surprises/excites you about young performers?

That energy! And that naivety! There is a wonderful depth that comes from performing for people for years, but there is something in young performers that has an energy and a sparkle and a newness that is very exciting.

 And what do you have to say to young performers?

Follow your heart and trust your intuition. Make your decisions with integrity, based on what is really true for you. Find out your various strengths. Find out who you are – musically, personally – and express yourself as that person.

GAYE ADEGBALOLA

 

Gaye Todd was born in 1944 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA. Her father was a planner/estimator, artist, jazz musician and founder of the Harambee 360º Experimental Theatre. Her mother (now aged 99) was a community organizer who spearheaded the local civil rights struggle and worked at the Youth Canteen. Gaye was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia in the 1960s, later becoming an activist in the Black Power Movement in New York City and forming the Harlem Committee of Self-Defense. Gaye is a graduate of Boston University (biology/chemistry) and Virginia State University (educational media). In the early 1970s, Gaye began a teaching career, working as an educator in the Fredericksburg City public school system for 18 years. From 1984 until 2009, Gaye was part of the music group, Saffire – the Uppity Blues Women, touring nationally and internationally. Gaye released her first solo CD, Bitter Sweet Blues, in 1999. As well as her work with Saffire and her solo work, Gaye performs “industrial blues” with her son Juno (in the duo, Blue Mama Black Son), classic blues (mainly ’20s and ’30s) with pianist Roddy Barnes and as the front person for Miz A & The Freedom Band. Gaye also lectures and presents workshops, including on blues vocal techniques; song writing; the history of women in the blues; civil rights and civil wrongs; and gay rights versus civil rights. Gaye Adegbalola’s most recent solo albums are Gaye Without Shame (2008) and the children’s album, Blues in All Flavors (2012).

 When did music first enter your life?

Music entered my life at a very early age. My dad always had music in the household and he had a little jazz combo that he played in on weekends. And my mom was the director of the Youth Canteen – so she brought the records home off the jukebox when they changed the jukebox. It was The Drifters, The Clovers, young Etta James and Ruth Brown – that’s the music I grew up dancing to – then it moved on into Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Little Willie John and all those people.

Unlike so many black people my age, I didn’t come into music through the church. I went to church, and we had a youth choir, but it was a very traditional group, it was not somewhere where I learnt how to sing.

I first experienced blues, which is my passion, when I around ten or eleven years old. Remember, everything was segregated then. If you wanted any kind of entertainment, we would go to Washington, DC – we didn’t have it in our little hometown, which was Fredericksburg, Virginia. My dad used to love to go see Ella Fitzgerald. And my mom would always go to see the Harry Belafonte concerts. Every year, he [Harry Belafonte] had somebody different opening for him – one year he had Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – and when I heard that music, that was Piedmont style blues, I knew it was my music.

I really didn’t get into music – lock, stock and barrel – until I was in my early 20s, and I heard a Nina Simone recording – Nina is perhaps my number one mentor – and she was playing ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl’ and over the intro she whispered, “Bessie Smith, y’all”. Once I heard that, I researched Bessie, and my life has not been the same.

So I guess I came into music in many different stages – yes, I had it in my youth, then later on I had it in my pre-teens, then later on as a young adult I really came into the kind of music that I love.

Going back to your mother, can you tell us about Youth Canteen

Youth Canteen is where the teenagers would gather, it was actually in an Elks hall (the Elks is a fraternal group). Downstairs, on the first floor, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, teenagers would gather and they would play cards and checkers and ping pong and dance to the jukebox. You didn’t have to have membership to belong, any teenagers could attend.

The white children had something comparable at the Community Centre – but blacks weren’t allowed in the Community Centre. The same thing in the summer – City Parks had playgrounds in the summer, but the playgrounds were segregated.

Everything in my growing up experience was segregated. I was going into my senior year in high school when the sit-ins and the protests came to Fredericksburg. The sit-ins and the protests were basically coordinated by the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – and all down through the South, we hit the same chain stores, so that everybody felt the same financial burden at the same time. It was scary – quite a few evenings, as we would exit the stores, throngs of whites would gather and call you names and make all kinds of racist remarks and your heart would pound. It was mainly the young people who had to fight this battle because so many of the older folks worked for white people. My mom coordinated the sit-ins, she made the schedules and she arranged who was going to be where when so that we could close down a counter, a lunch counter. There was no McDonald’s back then, so when people would go out to eat, they would eat at chain stores, at the luncheonette counters.

Do you still listen to the type of music that your mother brought home from Youth Canteen?

Oh yes, oh yes, for sure. I don’t think there is a better singer than Etta James. So when I teach my blues classes in the summer, I usually start each class by playing Etta James. And I’m also very proud to say that Ruth Brown was a friend to me – she’s another Virginia lady.

What are the most important sources of music for you these days?

I guess it’s probably live performance – festivals and concerts. The other source is my son – who loves music – and, every so often, he will make his mama a CD – he says he’s got to keep me current! It was my son who introduced me, for example, to Jazmine Sullivan. It was him who introduced me to Janelle Monáe. When I hear something really good, I get excited. With Macy Gray – someone was playing Macy Gray when I was doing a sound check and I had never heard anyone sound quite like Macy Gray and her lyrics are unbelievable. My ears are always open, but it’s usually blues or blues-based that will catch my ear. Sometimes, especially being on the road, I will tune into VH1 and look at the videos to just see who is doing what – like right now, I love Bruno Mars. I know I have to get Etta’s CD, The Dreamer. The last CD I bought was Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers – which is from the 1930s! Gus was one of the greatest banjo players and now I see how there’s been a resurgence of banjo music. The banjo is one of those instruments, when we look at history, that black people really played, that was brought over from Africa and then white folks started using it in bluegrass and then black folks stopped playing it – it had a very negative connotation. But now people have resurrected the banjo – people like Keb’ Mo’ and Alvin Youngblood Hart and Otis Taylor. And the other CD that I’ve listened to quite a bit lately (her previous CD), and I love her, is Ruthie Foster.

How did you come to be a performer?

As a teacher, I taught eighth grade science for the most part – science was my calling. I had always loved music, but I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 35 and didn’t go on the road until I was 44 (I’m going to be 68 next week). What happened was, I raised my son by myself and I needed another job – my son was a sick child and I needed more money than school teaching paid. One night I went to a bar, where Ann Rabson usually played, she wasn’t there, but somebody was playing and when he was taking a break he called out, “Does anyone want to play?”. I went up and played a song and the manager came up and asked whether I wanted to work. So I started playing solo in this little bar, three nights a week. Then I got a call to play in a bigger room than what my little guitar would fill – so I contacted Ann and asked her to help me. We formed Sapphire in 1984 – we did not set out as a women’s group to prove anything or to be anything – and we went on the road in ’88. You won’t get rich playing the blues unless you’re B.B. King or Etta James, but we had the good fortune to make a living doing what we loved.

 Over the years, recorded music has come in a number of formats. What are your favorite formats and what is it about them that you particularly like?

I’m afraid I don’t have a mp3 player – so I’m behind the times in that department! I’m not a technophobe, it’s just that there aren’t enough hours in the day to learn it all at this point. I just moved in December – and prior to that I had two huge yard sales – at this last sale, I probably sold three hundred 45s, at least, and at the sale before that I sold hundreds of cassettes. I still have my vinyl – because I know where everything is on my vinyl. And I’m just starting to empty my CDs. Also, at Blues Camp last year, I took a huge batch of CDs, and told people to pay as they were able, and ended up with $250 toward a scholarship for somebody else to come to Blues Camp. So I’ve gotten rid of a lot of music, a lot, a lot of music in the past year. I’ve still got a lot more to go through. I have boxes of video tape too, I’ve even got some Beta tapes to go through. I bought a machine that changes VHS to DVD and at some point I hope to do that.

Tell us about your first recording experience

My first recording experience was pre Sapphire – I guess it was ’78, ’79, something like that – with a fellow [Franklin Golding] who would sometimes sit in with me at the club where I first started playing. A local music store – Picker’s Supply – did a compilation and they invited about eight different artists to contribute to this recording. Franklin and I had two songs on that recording – ‘Middle Aged Blues Boogie’ and a song that Franklin wrote, ‘Blues at The Palms’ – The Palms was the name of the club. The compilation was called Picker’s Supply – Volume One, I do believe, and I was absolutely thrilled. Later on, when Sapphire recorded ‘Middle Aged Blues Boogie’, it won a W C Handy Award, a Blues Music Award. Picker’s Supply [www.pickerssupply.com] is still operating – as a mater of fact, I was down there on Saturday.

 In a world that is now full of such things as electronic mailing lists, digital downloads, ringtones, internet radio and television, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and video blogging, how do you go about publicising your music, booking gigs and distributing your recordings?

Up until the end of Sapphire, which was 2009, we were on Alligator Records, which was the best blues label, so we had their staff that worked with us – they had publicists and radio people and whoever – and also we had a manager and a booking agent and a road manager. Post-Sapphire, these past few years, for Gaye Without Shame, I got distribution through VizzTone. And for the new CD (Blues in All Flavors) – this is a whole new ball of wax for me – I’ve hired a children’s marketing agency and they have an umbrella distribution deal (it’s going to be distributed on NewSound, which is the largest children’s distributor). I do my own e-mailings and I’m on Facebook and my web mistress, if you should go to my website, just posted sound bites and extensive learning activities for each song from the new CD.

What do you see as the role of music within communities and across society more broadly?

I think blues has had the same role all along – I see the blues as being the poor person’s psychiatrist. I see the blues as being healing music – a lot of people think that the blues is sad, but it’s not sad, it’s to get the pain out. Blues is a liberating music – it either gets the pain out or it allows you to shake your ass on Saturday night – either way, you feel better. I don’t think the role of blues has changed. Gospel music, which is so much a part of the black community, gospel music is about salvation later on, after you die. Blues is about salvation right now, because you’ve got to get up tomorrow morning and go to work with a broken heart. I think that the communities have changed – there are no longer juke joints, there is no longer the segregation that used to exist – so a different audience is hearing my music. Another impetus for doing the children’s CD was to allow kids to hear blues, because it’s not on commercial TV or commercial radio. When I did Gaye Without Shame, part of that mission was to take blues to the gay/lesbian community – when you talk about gay music and when you talk about lesbian music, a lot of it is very folky or a lot of it is very disco-y. So I’m trying to put my music into some different places, as best I can, to increase the community, as opposed to changing the music.

How important is it for children to have access to a range of musical experiences?

I think it’s really, really important, so that they can enjoy the world better. People speak the same musical language, but they don’t. Getting a broad musical background is a way to get to meet and understand other cultures.

As an older performer, what excites you about young performers?

In general, what excites me is when I see something that I haven’t seen before – that really, really turns me on. In the blues world, I get excited when I see young people carrying on the tradition – which is why I’m so in love with Ruthie Foster.

And, as an older performer, what do you have to say to young performers?

Be true to yourself – and that’s a hard thing to do. Try to credit the songwriters more. Don’t be afraid to tackle topical material – maybe one song per CD that speaks to the human condition. Write some songs about marginalised people (God bless Lady Gaga – ‘Born this Way’, what a wonderful, wonderful thing). And I would like to see more artists, especially artists who are making money, write in a positive way and let their money grow in a positive and peaceful way.

What’s been happening in your life this past year? And what are your plans for 2012?

Musically, the new CD (Blues in All Flavors) is coming out. The second thing is that I just moved out of my home that I’ve owned for many, many years (it’s on the market now). Being in music as I’ve been in music, I haven’t really had a retirement plan, so the only way I will have some comfort in my latter years is to get this house sold. And the third thing, which I’m very eager to share, is that I have a new love in my life. My former partner and I, we broke up in the beginning 2009 – and I must say that I really fought some depression and I had just kinda given up on the rediscovery – but now I believe in miracles again. The new love in my life is a doctor – I met her at [The Blues Foundation’s] Blues Music Awards in 2010 – her great-uncle Gus Cannon [who died in 1979] was being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and she and her sister and her mother where there to receive the award. She moved here in November from San Francisco, hence the new house – she’s in a group called Nubii and we’ve been doing some singing as an a cappella trio (The Wild Roots).

Apart from music, what are some of the things that mean the most to you in life?

Family – there is nothing that takes the place of the love of family. And I have a best friend, who has been my best friend since I was twelve – so that’s 56 years of being best friends – she’s quite like a sister – I talked to her this morning (she lives in Pennsylvania). I enjoy my community – I was born, raised, still live, right here in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I love seeing the flowers bloom. I love being in love. I love writing, I love the process of creating. And I can have just as good a time making music on the front porch as I can on the stage with thousands watching – I have a front porch on the new house, I’ve always had a porch!

In the song ‘Nullarbor’, Jessie Vintila (The Lucky Wonders) sings: “And I thank my lucky stars/ And whoever’s up there in charge/ That I have music/ Cause I wouldn’t know where to start/ Without these songs inside my heart/ To show you who I am, who I am”. Aside from your career as a performer, what does music means to you?

Music has been my salvation. It’s been my joie de vivre. As a young person, I loved to dance – I went to a dance where Ray Charles was playing for the dance – from the first note to the last note, I was dancing. I still get great joy from dancing – dancing is a way to say, “yes, I’m alive and it feels good and thank you Lord”. So the music gave me the dance and the dance gave me life. Through the music of Nina Simone (who has been my greatest musical influence), I also learned to love myself. She gave me that gift. She was one of the few performers in the early ’60s who had an Afro, just for starters – and it was so important to say “I love me and I’m okay being me”. She did a lot of material that echoed who I was. I think that a lot of times the only way we can see ourselves is when the music reflects our images to us – again, blues is the poor person’s psychiatrist. Music has kept me sane. They say that when you sing, you pray twice. And I always like to say that when you sing your own song, you pray thrice.

 

LINKS

A.O./ the lost bois

 Alynda Lee Segarra/ Hurray for the Riff Raff

Lui Collins

 Gaye Adegbalola

SUE BARRETT is an Australian music writer, who got a computer with dial-up internet last century in order to access music websites, then moved to broadband internet this century for the music videos.

THE LUCKY WONDERS (www.theluckywonders.com) will be recording their second album in May 2012 (with a planned release date of July 2012) – support for the recording of the album can be pledged through the Pozible crowdfunding platform: www.pozible.com/index.php/archive/index/5520

© 2011/2012

 

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