Jolly Coppers


Recently I got a vinyl copy of Randy Newman’s Little Criminals. Played it and loved it. But one song in particular, “Jolly Coppers on Parade”, stopped me in my tracks. I must have played it ten times in a row. And then again the next day. I think it’s a perfect song- beautiful, tasteful instrumentation, lyrically impressionistic and paints a picture of a scene with little added commentary or narration. Not to mention it resonates strongly and stands in contrast to today’s current climate of cases of police brutality, overreach, veiled racism and fear, and machismo on the part of many. The lyrics are pure as a childlike dream. But one may choose to infuse it with irony and an undercurrent of protest as a piece of subversion. Randy Newman’s a genius songwriter and phenomenal musician. And with such a singular, effortless voice. It occurred to me- a music fan and songwriter who pays attention to music, new and old- that this perfect song has been out and about in the world for nearly 40 years (released in 1977) and I had no clue. It does seem a little bit criminal if we have not heard this great record. It’s a gem- how did we (I?) miss it? But that’s the power of a song and music- almost forty years after its release I was introduced to and moved by it, and it added a layer of beauty to the world in my eyes. That’s a profound thing. If my music can be heard by listeners now and for years to come, and if they can gain something by it- a feeling, inspiration, enjoyment, if they may be somehow touched by it- then that’s all I can ask of my work. Hope you’ll dig in to my growing catalogue (I have four more albums of written material I’ll be trying to record and release in the coming few years) and find something you like, something meaningful. But for now, take in the understated majesty of “Jolly Coppers on Parade”. Here’s the album version on YouTube plus an insightful interview here with Newman about his process and writing from 1989.

“Jolly Coppers on Parade”
They’re comin’ down the street
They’re comin’ right down the middle
Look how they keep the beat
Why they’re as blue as the ocean
How the sun shines down
How their feet hardly touch the ground
Jolly Coppers On Parade

Here come the black-and-whites
Here come the motorcycles
Listen to those engines roar
Now they’re doin’ tricks for the children
Oh, they look so nice
Looks like angels have come down from Paradise
Jolly Coppers On Parade

Oh, mama
That’s the life for me
When I’m grown
That’s what I’m want to be

They’re comin’ down the street
They’re comin’ right down the middle
Look how they keep the beat
Why they’re as blue as the ocean
Oh, it’s all so nice
Looks like angels have come down from Paradise
Jolly Coppers On Parade

Pocahontas County & the Bullfrog

Well, we’re having a fabulous night in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Took a beautiful drive from Durham, NC, up into Virginia, and over to West Virginia today. Stunning land and ride. Excited to drive past Rocky Mount, VA, home of the Great Moonshine Conspiracy trial of 1935 documented in Matt Bondurant’s book The Wettest Country in the World, which I read and enjoyed not too long ago. Enjoyed playing to a crowd of new friends at The Schoolhouse. Played a few of my West Virginia-inspired songs solo which stem from my previous visits here, then we did a pseudo-unplugged band set. Didn’t amp the guitar and no vocal mic, but it worked out nicely.

This is a lovely place- great people doing excellent work in the region. Got gifted fresh, homemade goat cheese and a loaf of bread to take with us on the road. Sold some new CDs and I’m glad these songs will be wafting through the Monongahela air. We’re staying at my friend Emily’s (and Lynnmarie, who’s away now) place directly next door to the Pearl S. Buck birthplace and homestead. This is magical stuff. Listened to some records, saw a sky full of clear stars, heard about Emily’s war bride grandmother, and we’re listening now to tonight’s show which Pozz videotaped. Tomorrow’s a 6+ hour drive over to Easton, Maryland. Playing in what looks to be an excellent room, Stoltz Listening Room at Avalon Theater. Heard there’s a nice scene of listeners in Easton. Hope to meet and play for them tomorrow.

Last night was a slow Wednesday night in Durham, but some friends came out and we got to catch up a bit and listen to the wonderful and sometimes raunchy songs of Bullfrog Willard McGhee. This guy’s incredible. Great stories of the blues players of today and the past. Bullfrog knows where everyone is buried. Here’s some white man blues that are too real- intricate piedmont blues picking, gruff voice, authentic in form and delivery. Close your eyes and Bullfrog could be a blind ole picker from a long time back.

Yesterday was the start of the tour, and it felt great to get the group of guys together to head out on our weeklong music adventure. First time I’ve brought a band out of the southeast, and I’m psyched to bring these songs and arrangements to everyone. We think this should be heard. Come see us sometime. We’re only two shows in, feeling good and pretty tight. It’s a thrill to be
out here, playing and touring. Booked a Daytrotter session, so we’ll be making our way up to Rock Island, IL, and Chicago on a long weekend July 18-20. Hopeful we can do some more runs in the coming months, too. Any touring acts looking for an opener.. get in touch and let’s make a plan with The Wild Fires.

Off to sleep for some sleep and vocal rest. Be back next time..

For my friend Jim

Spring is upon us. Season of brightness and rejuvenation. New birds sing from the ground and the air. But winter leaves, taking away another precious life. My friend Jim McGown passed away suddenly last week. It’s a big loss. Jim was a radiant man, a man of peace, filled with goodness, kindness, and love. His spirit wondered at the world- its beauty, grace, and abundance, as well as the perversity of man’s wars, social inequities, and the devastation of our lands by our own hands. He spoke out for freedom and the oppressed from his humble place in Athens, Georgia. He happened to have been my Boy Scouts den master, I suppose it’s called, and I have a vague memory of lasso-ing a fake bull in a church social hall. I’m pretty sure Jim arranged that. But more important than helping my nine-year-old self actualize any western dreams, we became friends and colleagues when I worked at University of Georgia for nearly three years. We connected, and my respect for Jim has always been deep and massive. We worked together loosely, but mainly I enjoyed our conversations and lunches discussing religion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, travels, life, and all sorts of topics he was excited about and considering at the moment. Jim was one of the first and only “adult” colleagues with whom I established a meaningful relationship. You had to meet him. He was one of those few people whose care for the world, and every individual, was palpable and otherworldly. And he took action for the betterment of others. He wore his emotion on his sleeve and was a joy to spend time with. I would bump into him around town and always loved stopping, catching up, and getting into a great conversation. He spoke of having my parents and I over for a kosher dinner every so often. Sadly we just never set plans and made it over.

This weekend there was a memorial service for Jim, and it was one of the most powerful and beautiful services I’ve ever experienced. Todd and Evan, his sons, spoke, each in their own unique manner, and they captured his spirit and essence perfectly. Fitting, inspiring, and inspired tributes.

I’ll carry Jim’s memory on always, and am fortunate to have known this great man and been his friend. I hope I can bring to this world the same goodness and wonder that Jim shared. If you follow a faith tradition, consider Jim, as a Pastor said in his eulogy, a modern day Biblical prophet in Birkenstocks. His was the kindness of Abraham, and he loved the world and its people as Jesus exhorted unto his followers.

I wrote a song today for Jim. It’s not necessarily finished, but here’s where it stands, below. The final line about the peach tree is from Todd’s closing words.

I lost a friend/ we’ll never get him back again
and we’ll never hear him laugh again
I’ve lost a friend

Bright as the sky/ with his arms always open wide
and his heart it was Everest-sized
bright as the sky

*All the wreckage/ just a beautiful pain
and we may never be the same
but you taught us to be better
than our foolish ways

An artist holds a pen/ she draws forth the spirit within
she builds what cannot be built again
the artist and her pen

The words he once spoke/ read like a hidden note
echo like words from a long time ago
the words that he spoke

*All the wreckage/ just a beautiful pain
and we may never be the same
but you taught us to be better
than our foolish ways

Two weeks ago you put mulch below your peach tree
on a March afternoon
now the peach blossoms bloom

When the saints go marching in oh when the saints go marching in
how I long to be in that number when the saints go marching in

Swing low sweet chariot coming for to carry me home

I’m gonna sing I’m gonna shout I’m gonna praise the lord out loud
when those gates are opened wide I’ll see our star up in the sky
I’m gonna sing I’m gonna shout I’m gonna sing

RIP Jim McGown. I’ll miss you.

Here’s to Craig..

The Athens music community has lost a great friend and supporter. Craig Lieske passed away unexpectedly two weeks ago. I’ve been in and out of Athens a bit since then, mostly in Atlanta, and missed yesterday’s memorial service @ the 40 Watt, get-togethers at Flicker.. Wanted to take a moment to share my experience of Craig here.

Craig was a man about town- one of those figures you bump into downtown in a place like Athens, and can’t help but be intrigued by, and then get to know. Our interactions tended to be in passing, some short pleasantries as either I or both of us moved around the western edge of Washington Street. His laugh was a crazy cackle and he moved in sharp, constant gestures. Always shifting.

As many people have written or stated in memorials, he was a really supportive and encouraging guy. He seemed like an older statesman who believed in me and knew there were more and better songs to come, and even better presentations for my music. It was unspoken, but Craig knew you have to live your way into your songs, voice, and music. I didn’t mind when he said my albums were too clean. We both know it’s noble to keep writing, working, and finding different aesthetics for your songs. Too bad he didn’t get to hear the new album- it would definitely have been his favorite. He liked all kinds of music, but really seemed to love a performance that was beautifully rough and raw. He told me once I should break up with my girlfriend, get sad, and write some songs of real heartbreak. He also told us he’d dance at our wedding. Maybe he knew something we didn’t.

I hadn’t seen him play in a while, and he’d always let me know he was sorry to miss my latest show. But in Craig I felt a kindred spirit and someone who cared about me and my work. I was offered his copy of Neil Young’s new book at Avid Bookshop, but passed.. I’d wait for another one to be ordered. Hope he read and enjoyed it. The last night he played I’d played my Malian music set during happy hour at the Green Room and wandered down to the 40 Watt afterwards to listen to a few songs. I was standing outside and for a moment I could see Craig rockin on stage to Springsteen through a small shaft in the open door. He was epic. How awful and sobering that a life can just suddenly end in its prime. What do you do in the face of that? Hopefully you be true to yourself, find meaning and fulfillment in your interests, friends, and community, and bring light to others in small and unspeakable ways, as Craig did. I’m sure when I record and release my most raw albums I’ll think of him. I’ve got one in mind.

Update on Mali

These are tough times for Mali, a place that’s supremely important to me. Please visit the links below for a description of the past few months’ storyline. Since January we’ve seen the Tuareg rebellion in the desert north with subsequent human rights violations and refugee issues as well as a coup d’etat in the capital, Bamako, that has shaken the foundations of Malian democracy. Currently, problematic factions are vying for leadership in the self-declared but unrecognized Azawad (Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, the radical Islamist shariah law-enforcing Ansar Dine, and the rebel group, MNLA). All of this amidst a growing food crises throughout the region.

Read about the grave issues relating to Mali’s north and south in these following articles/sites:
Huffington Post
New York Times (on Azawad)/ New York Times (on the coup)
Bridges From Bamako
Time Magazine

The following organizations are aiding Malian refugees in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. Many are sending supplies into northern Mali and working to resupply medical supplies and other needs:
MSF (Doctors Without Borders)
Red Cross
Cri de Coeur
African Sky
See a map of the refugee movement (dates April 22nd) here.

Please consider making a donation to one of the above organizations and spread the word.

With hope for peace, freedom, and civil liberties throughout the world..
Ala ka nogoyake, Ala ka Mali yiriwa