Recommended Reading: Darren Hanlon on Billy Bragg, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

As y’all have probably noticed by now, I like reading about music nearly as much as I like listening to music. In the last couple of days I’ve come across two pieces that are worthy of your attention.

First comes Darren Hanlon, on growing up with Billy Bragg’s Back To Basics:

The words unraveled and I took them in and by the end of the song my mind had become a haunted house: Some windows blew shut while others opened. I was back at the beach in that tent with the strange girl and it began to fit together. And this time I was ready.

I walked home turning it over in my mind. I didn’t know it yet but a path was opening up before me, right there in my 10th year of High School . I ordered that same album in Hoopers Music Center in Gympie and the staff had to trawl their catalogs to prove its existence. I mined the record stores in Brisbane to find his other albums. At night in my room I memorised the lyrics and learned the chords on guitar and offered to play them at school assembly. I attempted to talk with an exaggerated British accent.

It was the way he sang with his own thick accent that made Billy Bragg sound like a regular bloke, an approachable everyman. But he wasn’t afraid to sing about love, even adolescent love, and hurt and sex and the human condition, openly. He affirmed my own burgeoning juvenescence when pervading popular song just graced lightly over it. It was delivered up in earnest, was accessible, and sounded like poetry; words laid bare.

Hanlon is opening for Bragg on his current tour. I imagine that’s what drove Hanlon to write this piece in the first place. It’s a beautiful look at the way certain artists can help us accept the way things work as we grow up (which is something that’s certainly true for Hanlon and me; see also “The Unmade Bed”). Read the whole piece here.

Next up is a story that focuses less on the interior life and more on some good history. Via NPR, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm:

Seen through the peculiar lens of 1940s Mississippi law, Wong wasn’t out of place in a largely black orchestra — her Chinese face was as nonwhite as a black one. For the moment, then, the Sweethearts were able to evade the social consequences of race mixing and the arm of Jim Crow.In 1941, however, the Sweethearts turned pro. New talent was brought in, including two white players. One of them, saxophonist Rosalind Cron, says she was hardly noticed in cities like New York and Chicago — but in the Deep South her presence was criminal.

“We got to Baltimore and I asked Millie Jones, who was part American Indian, part black, if she’d like to go downtown on a bus with me to window shop,” recalls Cron. The two stopped into Woolworth’s for a soda, and found they couldn’t get service. ” I said to Millie, ‘I’m just going to stop this waitress and find out why she’s ignoring us,’ ” says Cron. “She got very excited and jumped up and ran up those stairs. She was really frightened.”

Later. the road manager explained the facts of life in the South. “They called me in and explained that Jim Crow was a series of rules and laws, and explained what life was going to be like from now on,” says Cron. The crew offered her the option of going home, but she resolved to stay the course. “After that Baltimore episode, I made up my mind then and there,” she says. “I wasn’t going to back down.”

It’s important to know that there have been groups willing to cross boundaries of race and gender for the sake of good music, and that those groups have existed for decades. It can be hard to find traces of these groups in history, as NPR points out, but they existed, and they’re just as much a part of American popular music as anyone else. I’m glad that NPR wrote this story — I learned something, too.

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