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Southern Boogie (reading division):  A great magazine
New: Nov. 2, 2006

If you're a fan of southern American roots music, you have to pick up the annual Music Issue of Oxford American magazine. ("The Southern magazine of good writing"). It comes out in the fall... and doesn't last long on magazine stands.

Below is an appreciation of the 2006 issue. The 2008 issue will be out sometime soon after Dec. 5.


 It's a publication I had never heard of until I spotted it recently on a magazine rack, in the music section. (Any magazine with Sam Cooke on the cover will catch my attention). 

The magazine is published quarterly, and this issue is the 8th Music Issue. It’s a treasure.

The CD

At the heart of the magazine is a cover-mounted CD that puts on display some of the superb variety and soul of southern American music. There are accompanying articles about each of the 23 artists featured on the CD.

 What a great selection, and a great mix! Just check how it starts:

  • Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers performing “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” (1950), one of the greatest songs ever about that city.

  • Jeannie C. Riley, “Words, Names, Faces".

  • Uncle Dave Macon, “I’ll Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” (That’s “Greazy” as Macon sings it).  Recorded in 1935 by the classic banjo player.

It ends with a fabulous assembly of songs; the music is as wonderful as the unexpected changes the CD reveals in its last 5 cuts:

  • Eartha Kitt (“The most sensual voice ever?” the liner notes ask. Maybe.) Singing (and the word doesn’t do her justice) purely in French: “C’est Si Bon”.

  • From there, to the hard-edged, superbly titled punk song “(I Belong to the) Blank Generation”, performed by the equally well-named Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

  • From hard to soulful... “The best singer who ever lived, no contest” in the words of the great music producer Jerry Wexler. (And he should know -- Sam Cooke reveals “Tennesse Waltz”. But then, I’d listen to Sam singing from the phone book.

  • After that gorgeous rendition, we drop down into some serious emotional depths, with Townes Van Zandt, one of the great American songwriters of the last few decades, and the veritable definition of 'tortured soul", performing “Nothin’” :

And if you see my friends
Tell them I'm fine
Not using nothin'

Almost burned out my eyes
Threw my ears down to the floor
I didn't see nothin'
I didn't hear nothin'

  • And finally, while still keeping one virtual foot in the south, we leave this planet for Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra performing “We Travel the Spaceways”. I recently heard local music promoter Gary Topp recount one of his experiences with Sun Ra. There was a problem with immigration at the airport:  Sun Ra of course explaining he had nothing to do with this process, since he was from Saturn.

In between, you'll find the great, the interesting, and the oddities. Tex Williams & His Western Caravan with "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)"; the phenomenal North Mississippi guitar soul of Junior Kimbrough; gospel from The Swan Silvertones; one of the great honky-tonk artists, the tragic Gary Stewart with "Single Again"; Muhammed Ali, "Theme from Ali and His Gang vs Mr Tooth Decay" (yup!) and Andy Griffith with "Mama Guitar".

The writing

The writing lives up to the magazine's slogan. One of my favourite southern music writers, Chet Flippo, writes a fascinating profile of Jeannie C. Riley. Of course I knew her hit "Harper Valley PTA", but not her story. She was a secretary at a music company on Music Row in Nashville, and was pretty angry (to put it mildly) learning that her recording opportunity was to be what she considered a pop song. "She fairly spat out the words" in two takes, but was impressive enough that the normally blasé session players wouldn't leave, and listened to the song "ten or twelve times".

The sultry photo of Riley is as good as the article.

Other articles are written by Peter Guralnick (Sam Cooke's biographer), Roy Blount on Bob Dylan, and many other excellent writers, with articles about the CD artists, and others, including a great profile of the owner of the best used record shop in Arkansas (located in Bee Branch, pop. 65).

Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash & Jimmy Rodgers

One fascinating story (and a great photo) concerns Louis Armstrong's final television appearance. He was ill enough at the time that his doctors advised him not to play trumpet anymore. He was a guest on the Johnny Cash show, appropriately since his newest album (his final recording) was of country songs. This was nothing new for Armstrong; in 1930, he played trumpet on Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 9".

On the Cash show, he sang a number of songs from the album, together with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family, and finally sat down with Cash to recreate the Rodgers recording.  Cash sang Rodgers' part, and Satch -- contrary to his doctors orders -- played himself, blowing the trumpet piece he recorded 40 years prior. (To "top off" the piece, there's an amazing picture of Louis with biggest damn cowboy hat I've ever seen).

The Armstrong article is available online, as is a short video clip about Louis, including his performance with Cash.

Great magazine, tough to find

All in all, a superb collection of the breadth and soul of southern American music. But, be warned: the issue will be hard to find in Toronto at this point. It's carried only by a small number of book stores (the ones with the better or larger -- not necessarily the same thing! -- magazine racks). Many who do carry it are now sold out.

If you want a copy and can't find it, it can be ordered from the publisher