Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Music of North Carolina

The music of North Carolina, or better said North Carolinians is both fascinating and diverse. I learned this at an early age growing up in a house full of music, as my mother was a pianist and piano teacher and I grew up singing, playing stringed instruments (guitar and violin, and piano-- yes it is a stringed instrument).

One of the things that impressed me immediately was the incredible diversity of the music that came out of the soul of North Carolinians. On the jazz end of the spectrum there was the unequaled excellence of John Coltrane, probably the greatest saxaphone player ever, and I am proud to say he grew up in my home town-- High Point. But there were so many other great jazz musicians from N.C.-- Theolonius Monk, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and we could go on. This music of course was grounded and founded in the experience of black Africans most of whom came to this country against their own will as part of the shameful practice of slavery. But in the case of Coltrane in particular, who learned to play the clarinet whilst in the William Penn High School Marching Band, his approach to jazz was deeply spiritual and indebted to the Christian faith of his Baptist relatives who raised him. You can see this in much of his work, but especially in his classic albums such as 'Ballads' and 'A Love Supreme'. There has been in San Francisco, and may still be a church whose hymn tunes are taken from Coltrane's many soulful numbers.

On the white side of the ledger the music that was brought to North Carolina, already beginning in the 17th century was the ballads and folk tunes of English, Irish, and Scots persons. It is this music which is the ancestor of both 'mountain' music, and bluegrass music to some extent, and the modern pop ballad, more particularly the folk pop ballad. It was the inspiration of troubadours like James and Livingston Taylor from Chapel Hill N.C. (yes James and his family are also from Boston, but they grew up in N.C. and that is where their musical roots come from).

When I was at UNC Chapel Hill James' dad was still involved with the med school there, and James and Livingston would regularly show up at this or that venue to play, as would other members of their family (Kate and Alex for example). The haunting and beautiful ballads of James Taylor owed much to the English, Irish, Scottish folk tunes brought over to the New World and played on make-shift instruments. And in truth there had been a long tradition of such lilting music in the Carolinas and Virgina where most people knew by heart songs like 'Shenandoah', or 'The River is Wide' or 'The First of May' and other classics. I knew immediately when I first heard 'Fire and Rain' by James Taylor what well he had been drinking from-- and it was a deep one, full of pure and clear water.

North Carolinians were forward enough looking people educationally that they realized that a land's culture is carried forward in large measure by its music, and so we were taught this diverse heritage from an early age in public schools and were expected to sing and play instruments. This was not usually optional but rather required. I began to play in the orchestra in the third grade and stayed with it through the twelfth grade and on into my beginning college years in the N.C. Chamber orchestra, even though my first love was the folk and rock music of my generation. In those days Beethoven had some stiff competition from some southerners like the Allman Brothers of Georgia and the Marshall Tucker Band from S.C. and Charlie Daniels and James Taylor from N.C. on my turn table, and of course from the British invasion. It seemed that we needed another infusion in N.C. of good music from the motherland.

Music is the sound of the soul of a person, a group, a culture, and it tells us a lot about what's going on in those souls if we would but listen. Still to this day, I cannot listen to John Coltrane's lament 'Alabama' without thinking of the horrors of the violence of the turbulent years of the rise of the civil rights movement. One of the things most people do not realize about the Barack Obama phenomenon, whatever you think of his politics, is that he represents a great symbol and sign to most African Americans and many others as well, especially young people, that perhaps we have finally, finally turned the page on that sort of racism that prevented African Americans from being all they could be in our land. Perhaps the 21rst century could be a new day in race relations in our country.

But as for the music of James Taylor, it also reaches me in places that are hard to articulate. Listen for example to 'Copperline" or 'It's Enough to be On Your Way' or 'Country Road' or 'First of May' or 'Shower the People' and so many more. It is that combination of the lilting and pensive voice combined with joy and sorrow and ringing strings that speaks to so many of us from North Carolina.

So I must ask you--- what sort of music is your 'soul music' the music which resonates with who you are? I have deliberately left out whole other fields of music like classical and Christian music and rock and roll which have also been so much a part of my life because in this little discussion I am talking about the music of the land of one's birth and early childhood, the music that rings from the local culture that has spoken to you from out of its depths and has left a lasting and positive impression for good.

For those of you unfamiliar with music from North Carolina titans like John Coltrane and James Taylor, here is a brief discography to get you started:

John Coltrane-- the greatest ensemble jazz lp ever was his collaboration with Miles Davis and Bill Evans on 'Kind of Blue'. Also the best selling jazz lp ever. I would also commend starting with 'Ballads' and the CD entitled 'Spiritual'. 'A Love Supreme' is a much more complex jazz classic and requires repeated listenings to understand what is happening as Coltrane goes into doxological mode reminding us that we need the love of God to fill and stir our souls. I love the old classics like the lps entitled 'Lush Life' and 'Stardust' as well.

Like with Coltrane, there are simply too many good songs and lps to mention but here is a short list of first rate ones: 1) Fire and Rain: 2) Mexico; 3) the Shower the People lp; 4) Never Die Young; 5) Hourglass (the latest of his to win the Grammy for best lp of the year.

I leave you with a famous line from John Donne--

"Since I am come to that holy room
Where with thy choir of saints for evermore
I shall be made thy music; As I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before."

How are you tuning up for the heavenly choir?


Dan Price said...

Ben, you should check out The Avett Brothers who are from NC. They are really interesting. I can't stop listening to them!

Ben Witherington said...

Roger Wilco--- will do.


Ray Fowler said...

Well, I did not grow up in North Carolina, but the early roots of music for me were people like James Taylor, John Denver, Jim Croce and Cat Stevens. I enjoy all types of music, but there is still something about someone singing meaningfully with an acoustic guitar that stirs my heart like no other music. (I grew up just north of Boston.)

Ben Witherington said...

Yep those Avett boys, they be stylin' and they can pick and grin too. They sound like refugees from one of our bluegrass and mountain music festivals, with occasional rock interludes. Maybe they took lessons from Flatt and Scruggs.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ray:
Well I can certainly relate to that locale-- anywhere near South Hamilton where I used to live?


Marc Axelrod said...

I like the Tannahill Weavers, especially their cd "Capernaum" and their cd "Alchemy." Both are available on iTunes. Celtic music is my favorite. I also like Arlene Faith - she is a tremendous harpist and fiddle player.

Cynthia Lynn Douglas is also a great harpist and her Celtic cd is wonderful.

I also like Boys of the Lough - Midwinter Night's dream is a great cd.

This music ministers to my soul. I can also feel the healing balm of God drenching me as I listen.

I also like Michael Atkinson's Gaelic Heart CD. i heard it while browsing at a used bookstore in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin on Door County and fell in love with it.

As far as jazz goes, I really like John McLaughlin! I have an iTunes download of him and Paco De Lucia and Al Dimeola in concert - I think it's called Guitar Trio. Tremendous! I also like Mclaughlin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra on My Goal's Beyond.

Phil Keaggy's instrumental acoustic cd The Song Within and Lights of Madrid are also great. Very soothing!

As far as recent rock, I love Rhett Miller's True Believer, Sufjan Stevens, and the recently deceased Grant McLennan.

Leslie said...

I just moved to Wilkesboro at the beginning of 07, to work as a youth minister (my hometown is Pensacola). Be it found in the well-known Merlefest, or in the cable-access show where a bunch of guys get together and play, it has been made clear to me that here, bluegrass is the music of choice.

This was made particularly evident to me the other day when I volunteered to help with a music class at a local preschool. I whipped out my electric and played some blues for the kids, and much to my dismay, several of them plugged their ears. I was told that a few days before they had played some bluegrass for the kids though and they all loved it. What can I say ... they get 'em young here!

Ray Fowler said...

Hi Ben,

Yes, I grew up right next door in the town of Wenham. I went to Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School and later attended Gordon-Conwell in Hamilton.

Ray Fowler said...

Oh, and don't forget David Wilcox. David is a wonderfully talented singer, songwriter, guitarist from Asheville, NC.
David Wilcox Home Page

Anonymous said...

Nobody would dispute Kind of Blue. For me, though, Davis and Coltrane (and company) in 1964 in the live My Funny Valentine concert is a better album. The fury and anger under the surface of the music creates a genuine fear in the listener that these guys are actually having a fist-fight with music. It creates a dangerous, scary musical experience despite the fact that it does not sparkle the way Kind of Blue does.,

Anonymous said...

My mistake on one point...Coltrane isn't on the 1964 live album...but otherwise, this is my nomination for most frightening jazz performance.

Odgie said...

I grew up in Northern Virginia, close to Washington, D.C. Around here, urban blues has always been the music of choice, and the D.C. area has contributed a great number of fabulous (if less well known) guitarists to American music. This list includes (but is not limited to): Danny Gatton, Dave Chapel, Roy Buchanan, and Link Wray. Of course, the great state of VA is known for its bluegrass music and contributions to rock (Bruce Hornsby, for one) and country (the legendary Patsy Cline).

Ben, you are probably familiar with them, but for my money the two best musicians out of North Carolina right now are Warren Haynes (of the Allman Brothers Band and Gov't. Mule) and Ryan Adams.

Anonymous said...

If you ever get to the Moore County area, specifically Carthage, you should visit Maness' Music Barn on Hwy 24/27, six miles north of Carthage. It is run by Lyin' Clyde Maness and features live music on Tuesday evenings. There is no cost, but donations are appreciated. Added features are jam sessions outside of the performance area and food brought by the ladies, also at no cost. The music is bluegrass and old time mountain music. Bring your "geetar" or fiddle!



Hey, Ray, I want to say, this very day if'in ya digs meaningful music go google Neil Innes.

Stay on groovin' safari,

Marc Axelrod said...

I think music is a very personal thing. It's like conversion. I think God has to work something in your life to open you up to other kinds of music.

I like James Taylor. I remember reading that he is Rick Warren's favorite singer.

There is an accomplished bluegrass/mountain music group in our church: The Voices of Peace. They're about to release their 4th cd. They have a website:

I bought two guitars for my niece for her bat mitzvah. I showed her how to play Rockin' Robin :)


Mark Baker-Wright said...

I can't let this thread go by without mentioning my own personal favorite North Carolina-based singer-songwriter, David LaMotte (often confused with the better-known David Wilcox, mentioned earlier, from pretty much the same region).

Rob Penn said...

I grew up in Arkansas. When I was still in elementary school, my favorite artist was Geroge Strait.

But, now, I can't for the life of me remember why I liked his music so much. I can't stand country music now, with the exception of an occasional Cash binge.

My favorite kind of music now is artists like Yellowcard and Emery. I don't have a preference for Christian music over secular music, as long as the secular music I'm listening to isn't increadibly sexual or vulgar. That just gets on my nerves.

I have a very peculiar taste in music. I want Rock music, but I also want to have inteligent chord progressions and key changes and meter and tempo changes that classicaly trained composers put into their music. It's hard to find such a combination, and I'm not a talented enough musicion to create it. I've tried. It makes me sad.