Here's what I've been listening to this summer--my soundtrack to this pandemic, police brutality, trumped-up summer of 2020.
This is a 3-disc set of most of Bland's earliest recordings, during his big, hit-making heydays at Duke, with arranger Joe Scott and many accomplished musicians. Not as comprehensive and clear sounding as MCA's 1992 4-disc compendium that was mastered from the original recordings, this is an uneven collection by London's Not Now Music Limited, a so-called grey market producer, that apparently remastered these tunes from other CDs, since the original Duke masters were destroyed by a warehouse fire in 2008. But, still fun.
I love gospel music and the gospel music I love most is the soulful, blues-based, tight vocal harmony of groups like the Holmes Brothers, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. This male quartet, of Anthony Daniels, Antwan Daniels, Marcus Sugg, and Dexter Weaver, is from rural North Carolina, near Greenville, and keeps alive this rollicking gospel tradition. Recorded in Memphis with local musicians, the album also hearkens back to the good ol' days of STAX, Sun, and Hi recordings of the 1960s and '70s. If this disc doesn't set your toes to tappin', nothing will. Can I get a witness? Hell, yeah!
Well, what can be said of Bob Dylan that hasn't been said before? He is truly the voice of my generation, and, now pushing 80, he remains as astonishing as he was in 1962 when his first of 39 studio albums was released. Yeah, his voice is more gravelly than ever, and his lyrics often rambling and obscure, but also as welcoming and refreshing as a summer shower. You'll find folk, country, rock, and blues here, done simply in the Dylan style. And, most importantly, you'll hear a delightful blend of all of these that results in the closest thing to a panacea for a pandemic that we're likely to experience this summer.
Ruthie Foster is best known as a blues, gospel, roots singer/songwriter, but here she fronts a big band (guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, ten horns, three backup singers, and conductor John Miller), as she did at the outset of her career, 25 years ago, as a vocalist for the U.S. Navy Band. Most of the songs are Foster originals, except for the concluding classics, "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Mack the Knife." I love big band music and soulful blues singers, and this album brings them both together in a satisfying and superbly arranged (John Beasley) and produced (Denby Auble) power pack.
This is Norah Jones's seventh album, since her breakthrough smash debut, "Come Away With Me" in 2002. Since then, the nine-time Grammy Award winner has dabbled in rock, country, and pop. But here she returns to her jazz piano roots with eleven original tunes (two with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy) that are perfect for relaxed, rainy quarantined afternoons.
John Lewis died this past week, and the country is poorer for his passing. Born down in Troy, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers and the great-grandson of slaves, he worked ceaselessly for decades to correct injustice wherever he found it. He was arrested 45 times and beaten repeatedly by police and white supremacists, most notoriously, on March 7, 1965, while leading marchers for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
It took a lot of courage to face those Alabama state troopers who attacked with an arsenal of tear gas, clubs, guns, and bullwhips. But courage was something the young activist demonstrated then and throughout his long and illustrious career, right up until the end. We didn't know that Lewis was suffering from pancreatic cancer when we marched with him over the old, iron span this past March 1. It would turn out to be his last crossing, but his legacy lives on.
Fifty-five years ago, federalized National Guard troops, FBI agents, and federal marshals were called in to protect the protesters as they finally crossed the bridge and marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Today, in a tragic twist, federal storm troopers in army outfits are attacking protesters in Portland.
Despite the ups and downs of his fight for freedom, Lewis seemed never to become discouraged, continuing the battle always. Of the new generation of protesters who emerged in the wake of George Floyd's murder, Lewis said they might just "redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself."
Maybe so, but only if we continue by following Lewis's example of calling out injustice, protesting racism and police brutality, and voting out the bigots.
So what do you do in the middle of summer in the middle of a pandemic? Well, if you're a reader, writer, librarian like me, you, of course...read! After all, theaters are closed, sports are on hold, and TV sucks, so...
I started off with Jo Nesbo's latest thriller, Knife. Nesbo is Norway's best crime writer, and most of his novels feature the on-again, off-again alcoholic detective, Harry Hole. He's back on the bottle in this one, but it doesn't stop him from tracking down, through Oslo's sordid underbelly, the notorious murderer and rapist Svein Finn. Great fun, with lots of splashing blood and Nordic noir.
Next, came the gentler, humorous essays by Rick Bragg, Alabama's best living author. My Southern Journey: True Stories From the Heart of the South contains short articles and reminiscences that first appeared mostly in Southern Living where Bragg writes a regular column entitled Southern Journal on the magazine's back page. Anyone who knows Alabama will recognize the familiar truths in these homespun tales of country living in a kinder, less troubled time and place.
Next, I read Vladimir Nabokov's classic Lolita, an expansive, witty novel of obsession and American life in the 1950s. It is at the same time funny and heart-breaking, as well as masterful in its meditation on love and the depths of madness.
A new first novel, My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, has been compared to Lolita, since it deals with the same subject matter: the psychological dynamics of a romantic relationship between an under-age girl and an older manipulative man. While Lolita is told from the perspective of the male seducer, Humbert Humbert, My Dark Vanessa is recounted by the victim herself, and is all the more sad and troubling because of it. Warning: neither is a light read, but both are well worth the ride.
After that pair, I needed something more on the escapist side, so I turned to one of my favorite authors, James Lee Burke, and his latest detective novel, The New Iberia Blues, that features, as most of his novels do, New Iberia Parish's crack detective Dave Robicheaux who, regardless of what evil lurks down in southern Louisiana's bayou country, is forced to confront the region's many ghosts, its racial complexities, and the ever invasive incursions of the New South. This is Burke's 37th novel and thankfully Dave and his faithful sidekick Clete Purcel have not aged or eased up a single lick.
I next read Sierra Crane Murdoch's Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country. This one is the true story of a 2012 murder on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. But more than a murder mystery, it's the story of one woman's obsession (Lisa Yellow Bird) and the history and study of the Native Americans in the Northwest. Coupled with Michael Powell's Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation, that I read a few months ago, you'll find a fascinating exploration of Native American culture today and the historical antecedents that led to it.
Finally, I just finished Lauren Wilkinson's debut novel, American Spy, that updates the espionage thriller in unusual and original ways, since the spy in question is both black and female and, as you might imagine, at continuing odds with her identity. Reminiscent of Sam Greenlee's classic 1969 novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, this book is about African political drama, romance, family, and what it's like to be a black women in America today. Read it!
"Hope" is the state motto of Rhode Island, America's smallest state. But hope is amplified there with a healthy dose of practical action, at least as far as fighting the COVID-19 virus goes.
I flew there (a whole other story) last week to visit my son in Providence. Like a Corona Coward, I escaped from Alabama, one of the fastest COVID-19 spiking states (average of 1,100 cases per day during the past week) to Rhode Island, the state with the fastest decrease of the disease in the past three weeks (average of 64 cases per day to just 32 cases during the past week).
And landing magically from one state to another, it was readily apparent why the Ocean State was way ahead of the Yellowhammer (it's a bird) State in combating the pandemic. Led by a strong, straight-ahead governor, Gina Raimondo, aggressive measures were put into effect early on and remained in force until the number of cases declined substantially this past month. Compared to Alabama where Governor Kay Ivey, affectionately known here as Memaw (Southern for Grandma), is so afraid of offending someone that she is all but ineffective.
In Rhode Island, virtually everyone wears a mask, even the street people. Hand sanitizers and social distancing measured reminders are ubiquitous, inside and out. Most restaurants are open now, with tables at least six feet apart, but very few diners enter, opting instead for outside tables only, where completed tracing forms are required before orders are taken by masked and gloved wait-people. Wooden barriers no longer block residential streets, but they can still be seen on the side of intersections, waiting quiescent just in case people movement needs to be restricted again.
So "hope" is good, but even better when coupled with strong, scientifically-based action. Instead of Memaw's hemming and hawing and Alabama's feckless, somehow (in the context of our lamentable history) vaguely racist slogan of "We Dare Defend our Rights."
Microwave Dave Gallaher and his band, the Nukes, have been a fixture in Huntsville, Alabama, since 1989. Their music has provided a soundtrack for the city every since then.
We are fortunate to have them: Dave on guitar, Rick Godfrey on bass and harmonica, and James Irvin on drums. Their scorching repertoire of original and covered blues, blues/rock, and R&B tunes are appreciated and applauded throughout the Southeast and at music festivals all over Europe. Their 1995 cover of Bo Diddley's "Road Runner" became a soccer stadium smash in Paris and a favorite of fans everywhere.
Dave and the band are not only generous with their music, but they are also an integral part of the community, giving freely of their time and talent to all kinds of benefits and area schools via concerts and the Microwave Dave Music Education Foundation that was formed in 2015 to integrate music with learning by bringing musicians into the classroom.
So for the last five years, Huntsville's mayor has declared a day in June as Microwave Dave Day, and Dave and the band have hosted a big celebration of not only their own music, but also all kinds of Huntsville music and the talented musicians who make it.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the special day will be held virtually via YouTube livestream on Sunday, June 28, at 3:00pm. On board for the party are R&B songstress Victoria Jones, local classic rock favorites 5ive O'Clock Charlie, roots group Cletus Puckett Experience, young funkster Lamont Landers, keyboardist Kevin Canada, blues duo Chris Simmons and Jesse Suttle, and, of course, the headliner Microwave Dave & the Nukes. Don't miss it!
Microwave Dave, me, and my son Sam at a past Microwave Dave Day.
This is not a good time for blues musicians, since most tours and events have been canceled, at least for the foreseeable future.
A number of organizations are trying to help. If you would like to assist them by donating what you can, here are some places that are directly providing aid to needy blues musicians.
The Blues Foundation has created the COVID-19 Blues Musician Emergency Relief Fund. Donate at
The Music Maker Relief Foundation was founded several years ago to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time. Donate at
The Jazz Foundation of America has created the COVID-19 Musicians' Emergency Fund for both jazz and blues musicians who need help. Donate at
The Sweet Relief Musicians Fund provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians and music industry workers who are struggling to make ends meet. Donate at
The Equal Sound Corona Relief Fund provides direct financial assistance to musicians who have lost work as a result of Corona-related event cancellations. Donate at
The Recording Academy and its affiliated charitable foundation MusiCares have established the COVID-19 Relief Fund to help those in the music community affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. Donate at
Also, remember that, during the pandemic, many musicians are giving virtual concerts and requesting monetary aid. Follow them on Facebook, enjoy the music, and give!
With all the teargas in the air, it's getting harder and harder for all of us to breathe.
So what do we do when all this police violence continues to occur? George Floyd being one of the most recent victims, as peaceful protests in the aftermath of his tragic death continue to be met with teargas, rubber bullets, flash bangs, night sticks, and bellicose threats--all condoned and encouraged by the bully-in-chief, the guileless thug #1, the bigoted, Bible-toting Donald himself.
As in past civil rights protests, most of the violent protests are incinerated by police who continue to embrace a militant, combative, us-against-them mentality. Hell, what are you to do if you're a God-fearing, peaceful protester and are met with an army or storm-troopers, complete with shields, helmets, flack jackets, nightsticks , guns, tanks, and armored vehicles? Looks like war to me. Armed to the teeth, it's only too easy for the cops to take a I-dare-you stance, so they'd have still another excuse/chance to bash some black and brown heads.
What to do?
Continue speaking out. We can't let this thing drop. Until people of color are stopped being murdered, beaten, abused, and marginalized, everyone needs to protest.
Listen to our real leaders. The fearless few who continue to fight for equal rights and respect for people of all colors and classes. Just to start with, those we marched with over the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma a few months ago: stalwarts John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton, as well as the new breed: Stacey Abrams, Doug Jones, Kamala Harris.
Get involved locally. Join civil rights organizations, attend city and county government meetings. volunteer to serve on police oversight boards. Make a difference.
Vote. Like George Floyd's brother admonished. Vote the scoundrels out and the good guys in. Here in Alabama, don't let an inexperienced, unemployed, ex-football coach replace a true civil rights hero in the U.S. Senate.
Don't give up. Or, as the old saying goes, "don't let the bastards grind you down." We've had more than 400 years of racist exploitation in this country, and it's not going to end tomorrow. But, for God's sake, lets do what we can to make it better for the next generation.
As Eldridge Cleaver warned, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
Edward Abbey (1927--1989)--a cranky environmentalist, anarchist, curmudgeon, and crazy romantic--remains one of my favorite authors. He wrote about nature and the earth like a lover speaks of his beloved--that is with an open and honest heart. He could be contrary and outrageous in his passion for our world, while holding all governments and developers in well-deserved contempt.
I am reading this week a compendium of excerpts from some of his many books. Entitled The Serpents of Paradise and edited by John Macrae, the book captures some of Abbey's best writing. My favorites are: Desert Solitaire, a soliloquy on the desert, the love of which I share with the author; Black Sun, a genuine romantic love story that celebrates what true love is all about; and, of course, The Monkey Wrench Gang, at once a comic farce and a manual for guerrilla environmentalists everywhere.
Like Abbey, I have always prized the out-of-doors, and, hopefully, I have instilled this appreciation in my kids who I have dragged on endless hikes, wild whitewater raft trips, and primitive wilderness camping jaunts. So I dedicate this blog to them, and to the Ferguson family who have so often joined us, as well as to my female partners who have endured maybe more of this unvarnished nature that they thought they were signing up for.
"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountain rise into and above the clouds."
Me and my oldest sons, Ian and Dai, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Emily, Sam, me, and Jacob atop a ridge in the Wind River Range in western Wyoming.
Charles Farley is an author who lives and writes in Huntsville, Alabama.