For over five years, I have been making a monthly music mix—not precisely a mixtape because I’m not using my old Sony boombox, the big black one with two tape decks. I don’t live the agony of calling the radio station to request a song and waiting there patiently, finger poised over the button, so that I can press record and miss as little as possible of the song I needed. But a mix, yes. Making a monthly mix has become a ritual for me. The time spent culling and curating, listening and listing offers a way for me to reflect what is happening in my life and the world outside and to send emissarial messages into the month for me and those I love. The songs envisage, forecast, echo and reflect inner and outer landscapes. I find solace and redemption in music and so too in the curation of a mix that honors the beauty and complexity of life in a particular place and time.
I’m careful not only about the songs I include: trying to include a broad range of styles, content, tempo but also how they end and blend into one another. Where does each song fit? How can they serve as complements and as foils? Where do I want soft blurs? Where hard edges?
I’ve decided to try adding to the ritual of curating the music with curating thoughts about the mix. I listened to the individual songs as I wrote about them so the descriptions are infused with the bends and lilts.
Here’s my mix for January 2016: Of Rivers & Rising
TRACK 1 : Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air/Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Marie Knight & The Sammy Price Trio
In December, a video came through my stream of Sister Rosetta Thorpe wielding her electric guitar and singing “Didn’t It Rain.” I’d heard her and heard of her, of course. But I hadn’t seen her sing and there was something transformative about watching her belt out that song. Called The Original Soul Sister, Tharpe was gospel’s first crossover artist. Her guitar-playing, her voice, her expression: pure and powerful emotion. Up above my head/I hear music in the air. This is a perfect first song of mix for the first month of the year because of the promise delivered in the music in the air, overhead.
TRACK 2 : Stay/ Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs
I was home for the holidays. Home is New Orleans. Growing up in New Orleans is a huge part of who I am but I always feel this the most when I’m home. The city stews in me and I feel it most palpably not when I’m driving under wild oaks dripping with Spanish moss or walking cobblestoned streets or staring up into ornate ironwork in the quarter but rather when I’m listening to WWOZ or out seeing live music. I was with some friends passing by a bar on the way from Frenchman Street to beignets at Café Du Monde when I heard the wail of brass and the solid heartbeat of a sousaphone pouring out of a corner bar and I couldn’t stop myself from dancing in the middle of the sidewalk. The friends I was with were first-time tourists and I didn’t want to deny them the pleasure of 2 a.m. beignets but I also could not walk away from the music. The pull was magnetic. The doorman kept trying to coax me inside, but let’s face it, I was already in there. So we went and listened as the brass band played a rendition of “Stay,” most memorably for me from Dirty Dancing (You know, the scene where Patrick Swayze—man of my dreams when I was ten, and, let’s be real, still now—and Jennifer Grey are walkdancing on the log high over a body of water.The innocent and the bad boy. She’s in white jeans and a white shirt. He’s all in black—pants and a tank that reveals his muscular arms, swoon—and he’s trying to show her how to meld her feet into the bark of the tree.) The brass surges through the air and the people can’t keep from moving. This memory layers upon that one and I’m home, here, home, here. Stay.
(I couldn’t find a brass band version of the song online—somebody, get on that!—so this is the original)
TRACK 3 : River is Waiting/Irma Thomas
I shazammed this song which a DJ played on WWOZ while driving around New Orleans on the days following Christmas. As always, conversations at home involved some degree of talking about before the storm, during the storm, after the storm. The city is changing so much now and I, like many others, am wary of those changes that seem to benefit everyone but New Orleanians. Property is being bought up way over asking from people coming from out of state and the jump in asking prices and rent is pushing people who have lived in neighborhoods for generations—many of them historically Black and/or working class communities—out of the city. Culture is being commodified, sold to the highest bidder, for those who love it here but don’t have roots here. The city and people need the money. But is the cost a diluted version of what was once real here? One of the things I appreciate most about and am grateful about New Orleans is its realness, its genuine quality—in both celebration and struggle this rings true. The light, the grime, the brass, the missing street signs, the power of a river that could drown you but also provides what you need. Something about Irma here—the Soul Queen of New Orleans—and the voices corralled behind her, ushering into her as her voice lifts higher, provide me with a palpable feeling, a quivering of something like trust and hope. For the city. For all of us. I have always, for as long as I can remember, loved ships, loved sailboats, loved the sea. Most of all, I have loved the idea of a physical and a metaphorical journey over and through water, one we are all one, alone together. Sail On/Sail On/River Sail On.
TRACK 4 : Hoy Hoy/Johnny Jones
Baby’s kisses taste like cherry pie/My baby’s kisses taste like cherry pie/Hoy hoy hoy/Hoy hoy skip. I assumed that hoy hoy was one of those words people make up to try to convey those emotions that feel so hard to encapsulate. I didn’t realize that Hoy Hoy was the name for a certain genre of music. According to Urban Dictionary: “the jumpier subgenre of rhythm and blues from 1948-1954. created by wynonie harris. mixture of gospel, blues, and rnb. also known as the earlier form of rock n roll.” Hard-driving keys and drums, fierce sax, and the singer who sure as hell sounds like he has a “baby” in mind while he’s singin’.
TRACK 5 : Lisa Sawyer/Leon Bridges
She was born in New Orleans, New-ew-ew-ew Orleans, Louisiana. Branded with the name Lisa Sawyer. My name is Lisa. I was born in New Orleans. Also, I can’t get enough of Leon Bridges. I found him on a music site and put him on a music mix last month but I had no idea that he was a new artist. I assumed that with the smooth sound his voice, the chorus of backup singers, the cool pull of the brass in the back, he was an artist from the late fifties or early sixties that I’d never heard of before. They are love, love, love, rich in love. Heart warm like the Louisiana sun, voice like a symphony.
TRACK 6: Work Song/Hozier
It all begins with a clap. A clap and some ooos. When my time comes around/Lay me gently in the cold dark earth/No grave could hold my body down/I’d come back to her. I was late to the Hozier train. I had seen Hozier perform “Take Me to the Church” on some awards show but was really moved when I saw Ballet Dancer Sergei Polunin perform to the song. I hadn’t heard this song until a student brought it in for an exercise where I ask them to analyze a music video of their choice. Something about the piano and his voice enveloped in claps and chorus. That and the dancing in the video, which showcases desire and longing in a way that didn’t even make me mad about the glimpses of vampire teeth.
TRACK 7: Novels of Acquaintance/Rising Appalachia
I saw Rising Appalachia for the first time this spring. They dedicated this love song to their audience. The two sisters who lead the group played twin fiddles and rotated off to also play banjo and guitar. But one of the coolest instruments was the giant half-gourd that their drummer pounded. That insistent thump filled the room like a collective heartbeat. I have always loved letters and letter writing as a medium to attempt to convey with immediacy the unconveyable: feelings of love, gratitude and appreciation, deep vulnerability and truth, intimacy, desire. The idea of whole novels of acquaintance sets me in need of a fainting couch. Fine tune me with patience/I’ll write you novels of acquaintance.
TRACK 8: You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman/Aretha Franklin
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind/ But you’re the key to my peace of mind/ ‘Cause you make me feel/You make me feel/You make me feel like a natural woman. I watched Aretha Franklin saunter over to the piano, glittering dress and fur coat, and pound the key, before she stirred the song into motion, from light to bellow, singing this song in honor of Carole King at The Kennedy Center honors. True and full embodiment. Owning everything about the song and the stage. So much so that Carole King couldn’t disguise her complete glee and the audience rose into a standing ovation long before the song ended. I’m working on walking through life like this:
TRACK 9: The Way/The Bell Rays
A local DJ Hannah Levin at KXCI in Tucson posted sometime in the last couple months about The Bell Rays, who I had never heard of, and that video pulled me into a long and winding, hours long youtube listening session. I thought about including “Anymore,” which was the first song I saw by them and which I love, on here. But it’s not really a new year song. This one opens into the way you want it to be.
TRACK 10: Coffee Pot/Big Sam’s Funky Nation
I spent New Year’s Eve 2014 dancing my ass off to Big Sam’s Funky Nation at The Maple Leaf in New Orleans. He and fellow female singer who slayed that night. I heard Big Sam interviewed on WWOZ when I was home and this song sent me smiling and into fits of car dancing. She’s hot/Hot like a coffee pot/Too hot to trot/Once you get a taste, you can’t stop/Girl’s got booty, booty galore/Feels so good you hit the floor/ The girl got legs/Legs for days/I want her so bad/I ain’t too proud to beg.
TRACK 11: Move Your Body/Rebirth Brass Band
All I really wanna do is see you do is move your body/move your body/move your body/move your body.
This is your invitation to SHAKE IT to wild brass. Rebirth yourself. You’re welcome. From hometown legends.
TRACK 12: Night People/Allen Toussaint
I heard this song on WWOZ just after “Coffee Pot” (see TRACK 10) and I was like “YES, THESE ARE MY PEOPLE!!!!” Allen Toussaint, a hometown hero who I had the privilege of meeting and who just recently, unexpectedly, passed away (a devastating loss, he was a kind and down to earth ambassador for New Orleanians), can speak for all of us: Night people/Hanging out/Looking at each other/Waiting for something to happen//Night people/While the day world is sleeping/Night people creeping/Hanging out/Looking at each other//When the day world stops moving/Night people start grooving/Hanging out/Waiting for something to happen…
TRACK 13: Tainted Love/Gloria Jones
Sometimes I feel I’ve got to—run away. I’ve got to—get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me. In November, one wonderful Saturday afternoon, I sat drinking mimosas and eating brunch with a group of fabulous friends. But unfortunately, the soundtrack to our day drinking was the “Super Crappy Emo and Pop Covers of Your Favorite, Now Ruined, Songs” Pandora Station. This included the most saccharine and depressing version of “Tainted Love” I’ve ever heard. I was in high school in the ‘90s and some of my favorite memories are jamming out to 80s hits like Tainted Love on the dance floor. Only Tainted Love wasn’t an 80s hit, a friend at that brunch told me. When I got home, I looked up this version immediately and it instantly became my favorite.
TRACK 14: Oo Wee Baby/The Ivytones
I’ve got a girl as sweet as can be/I’m all about her, she’s all about me. I heard this song on WWOZ during the same show as Track 4. I’m a sucker for sweet love songs and solid harmonies, especially those that involve call and response and ooooohs of any kind.
TRACK 15: Lighthouse Fire/Josh Ritter
When I first saw the title of this song, I wondered if “Lighthouse Fire” was a good thing or not. Is it the fire that keeps the lighthouse going and burns brightly to guide ships safely to shore. Or was it a lighthouse on fire. The hard-driving song and overlay of vocals reinforce the good kind of fire, the hottest heat. My love is a lighthouse fire…Out where the high and the highway meets the sky meets the sky meets the sky meets the sky.
TRACK 16: Bleeding Out/The Lone Bellow
All the buildings they lean and they smile down on us/ and they shout from their rooftops words we can’t trust/like “you are dead,” “you are dying,” “you’re ruined,” “you’re ruined,” “you’re dust,” “you’ll amount to nothing like tanks full of rust”/But we scream back at them from below on the street/All in unison we sing of times been redeemed/We are all of the beauty that has not been seen/We are full of the color that’s never been dreamed.
The first time I heard the Lone Bellow I was walking into a festival in Massachusetts. People scattered over the green grass, sprawled across striped blankets and under big umbrellas. Lone Bellow’s voices carried over the crowd into the same air where yellow and red and blue hot air balloons lifted up into the sky. This song speaks to what it is to be human and always reminds me of that day and watching those balloons carried off into the air by fire and fuel and pressure. Because this song too is a kind of buoy.
TRACK 17: Lonely/Jillian Bessett
You are not alone. From a local Tucson singer/songwriter/musician whose music I’ve had the privilege of getting to know in the last several months. What it means to be lonely and alone and how we find grace in knowing that we are never alone, that opportunities for connection are everywhere—even in recognizing others are experiencing emotions and struggles as we are.
TRACK 18: Father, Father/Laura Mvula
While I’ve heard other songs by Laura Mvula, I only recently heard this song when a friend posted a dance by Alvin Ailey dancers. Now my experience of the song is entwined with the power of that dance and all that these dancers were able to convey in their movement. From the rehearsal video description: “What impact does prison have on families? Choreographer Kyle Abraham explores in his latest work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.”
The layers of their movements mirrored the layers of voice in the song. The choreography speaks to how mass incarceration has impacted black families in United States and is an emotional complement to the Ta-Nehesi Coates’ wonderful recent article in The Atlantic. Let me love you/Let me love you…Father, father, why you let me go? Father, please don’t let me go.
TRACK 19: Moon River/Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this song. There is such an earnest tenderness about it. A yearning. And a desire to meld with something bigger than oneself. The lyrics were inspired in part by Mercer’s childhood in Savannah, Georgia. The waterways of his home and picking huckleberries in the summertime.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end/Waiting round the bend/My Huckleberry friend/Moon River and Me.
The song was written for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One of my favorite versions of the song is Audrey Hepburn’s, because it is the moment in in the film when we glimpse and see the woman underneath Holly Golightly’s persona. I love the simple beauty of the tune.
TRACK 20: Mourning to the Moonlight/Monica McIntyre
The first time I heard this song was when I was home in New Orleans in December of 2014. My dad and I had just visited the Cabildo where we saw Fats Domino’s piano on display. Five conservationists had worked for more than five days to restore the mold-covered piano after it was taken from his Lower Ninth Ward home after Katrina. Then they displayed it in the museum. After we drove by the old Ursulines Convent, one among only a handful of buildings to be spared in the 1788 fire. When I went to Ursuline Academy for grammar school, we were told over and over again how a statue Our Lady of Prompt Succor was placed in a convent window to protect the sisters. I could see it in my mind’s eye: the statue, the curtains fluttering about her. They said Our Lady saved the convent.
As we drove, Monica McIntyre, who I would later meet and see perform in Tucson, was being interviewed on WWOZ: talking about the making of her new record and the blending of singing with the cello. Then she sang this song.
For several years, I have partaken in a ceremony on New Years’ Eve for Shedding and Beckoning. Letting go of what holds me back and beckoning in what I want in the New Year. What I’ve realized over the years is that some things are easy to shed and other things need to be released over and over again. The ceremony of it is vital to me. Letting go and calling in. Clearing space, making room for what needs to come.
Over the last several years, different friends, healers, and artists have inspired me in their rituals around giving the earth what you cannot manage and drawing energy back up through the earth. In this song, McIntyre gives away the difficulty of life so they can be transformed: I gave away my fear to the river/Gave away my pain to the wind/Gave away my sorrow to the sunshine, I’m free again// I gave away my grief to the treefolk/Gave away my shame to the wind/Gave away my mourning to the moonlight/I’m whole again//I am the change I’ve been waiting for.
TRACK 21: My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)/Regina Spektor
My dear acquaintance, it’s so good to know you/ For strength of your hand/That is loving and giving/And a happy new year/ With love overflowing/ With joy in our hearts/ For the blessed new year
Raise your glass and we’ll have a cheer/ For us all who are gathered here/And a happy new year to all that is living/ To all that is gentle, kind, and forgiving/ Raise your glass and we’ll have a cheer/ My dear acquaintance, a happy new year
This is one of my favorite songs for the new year. But the beautiful sounds of Spektor’s ethereal voice, the piano, and a choir are also interrupted with sounds of sirens and gunshots. Because there is not peace for everyone. We must remember that. And work to change that. So that all might have peace. So that all might be made whole.
TRACK 22: Auld Lang Syne/Andrew Bird
A twangier take on an old classic. Fiddle reels. Guitar pickins’. Punctuated notes.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
May your cups be brimming over and spilling out with kindness in 2016 and always.
BONUS TRACK: Unforgettable/Natalie Cole I’ve been working on this mix the last several days but today, January 1, Natalie Cole died. I always appreciated the smooth, clear quality of her voice. My dad and I danced to the song “Unforgettable,” a posthumous duet she did with her father Nat King Cole, at my sweet sixteen. Rest in Peace, Ms. Cole. Thanks for your music.
One last note: You may have noticed that many of the songs on here are by Black musicians. I didn’t set out with the intention of doing this but it’s clear to me the way in which these artists words, work, songs permeate my life and enrich my way of seeing the world. When I grew up in New Orleans, the city was 60-70 percent Black and the culture of the Black community in New Orleans permeated everything. The Mardi Gras Indians, Second Lines, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, jazz, blues, bounce music. Because I grew up with this culture, along with everpresent racism that I saw around me, I also felt (and continue to feel) a tremendous gratitude to the Black artistic expression in this city and beyond. One of the things I have been most grateful for in 2015 is the power, beauty, and activism of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In the face of tremendous suffering and struggle, Black artists and activisms have risen up, grown community, made art, and spread awareness of racism and police brutality towards Black people in this country. I’m excited for the changes this work is bringing and will bring.
Wishing you a wonderful month and a wonderful start of 2016. May it be full of light, art, beauty, music, love, and too many blessings to count.
You can also find the entire playlist on youtube here.