What do these folks have in common? Nat King Cole. The Delmore Brothers. Emmylou Harris. W.C. Handy. Sonny James. Sam C. Phillips. Wilson Pickett. Lionel Richie. Sun Ra. Toni Tenille. Dinah Washington. Hank Williams. Sure, they’ve all been involved in music, one way or another, and some of them have made large contributions to our national heritage. But what links them is even deeper. Answer in just a moment.
How about these non-musicians: Helen Keller. Weary bus-passenger Rosa Parks. Actors Tallulah Bankhead and Jim Nabors. Novelist Harper Lee, author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Olympic runner Jesse Owens. Prize fighter Joe Louis. Hall of Fame baseball players Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
The answer? Everyone on the list hails from the State of Alabama. And, needless to say, the list could have been a lot longer. With the exception of jazz musician Sun Ra (who claimed to have been from the planet Saturn), each one of these folks was proud of his or her heritage. As Alabama license plates told us way back in 1955, Alabama is “The Heart of Dixie.” As state nicknames go, that one isn’t bad. Alabama had previously tried for “The Cotton State” but just about every one of its neighbors had an objection to that. Even earlier on, Alabama was known as “The Lizard State.” None of its neighbors objected, but cooler heads prevailed.
Alabama and its native sons and daughters have played a major role in the development of American music and culture. If the aforementioned Ms. Parks hadn’t refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man, Montgomery, Alabama might not have become a touchstone for the civil rights movement that blanketed the entire south and spread to the nation in the 1960s. In fact, try to imagine the past half-century of American culture without the contributions of all the people listed above. Just focus on Hank Williams and Sam Phillips (founder of Sun Records) and the face of American popular music and culture would be altogether different.
No one has yet written a song about Alabama’s state flower, the lovely camellia, although that flower has only been officially recognized since 1959 (a vintage later than many of the songs on this album). Before then, Alabama held the goldenrod as its state flower. Presumably a rash of allergic sneezing caused the legislature to modify its selection. Likewise, the boll weevil doesn’t get any attention on this CD, although the folks in Enterprise, Alabama erected a statue to the marauding insect in their town square, presumably acknowledging his role in devastating their cotton crop and forcing the state to move to a broader agricultural base. Both Fats Domino and Brook Benton have enjoyed hit records about the boll weevil, but neither confined the insect to Alabama.
The songs on this CD are a true musical smorgasbord. The achingly pure country harmony of the Louvin Brothers tells us about an Alabama that may have all but disappeared in the past half century. That old-time charm is also evident in Pee Wee King’s Alabama Moon - a track that includes a lovely and unexpected 4-bar steel guitar solo. Wilf Carter was from Nova Scotia, but that didn’t stop him from singing the state’s praises (at breakneck tempo) on Alabama Saturday Night. Likewise, pop vocalist Ella Mae Morse, who hailed from Texas, tells us all about Birmingham in a decidedly brassy big band style. Two of the biggest hits on this collection are Red Foley’s Alabama Jubilee and Cowboy Copas’ Alabam.
The death of country superstar Hank Williams brought shock and sadness to his fans and fellow musicians, but also provided much inspiration for memorial songs. Amazingly, not a decade has passed since Williams’ death on January 1, 1953 that hasn’t produced a Hank Williams-related song. We offer two examples here, both of which allude to his Alabama roots. Denver Duke’s recording dates from 1954, when the Hank Williams tribute industry was still in high gear, whereas my own record (Montgomery, Alabama) with steel guitarist Winnie Winston -doing his best to sound like Williams’ steel player, Don Helms - was recorded a quarter of a century later in 1978.
Ricky Nelson, who went several distinct directions in his musical career – including rockabilly, teen idol, country and folk – never made a more pop-sounding record than Stars Fell on Alabama. His dad Ozzie must have been mighty pleased with this one. In contrast, Curtis Gordon tried as hard as he could to join the nascent rockabilly revolution with his 1956 track Mobile, Alabama but couldn’t shake his country ways. Just listen to that steel guitar work! Rex Griffin’s Down In Old Alabama takes us through a time warp that lands squarely on somebody’s back porch in another century while, for stark contrast, listen to Rod Morris’s Elvis-tinged 1958 recording of Alabama Jail House. Or Gene Summers rocked out Alabama Shake from the same year. And, speaking of contrast, both of Louis Jordan’s recordings offer as much of it as you can imagine. Jordan – a true national treasure - not only tells us about a very different (and infinitely more hip) Alabama, but also conveys his message in a jump & jive musical style that might have come from another universe than the one spawning most of the tracks on this CD. Talking about another universe, chanteuse Lotte Lenya makes an unexpected appearance to perform Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song, in a style unlike anything else on this collection.
Leaving Jordan’s (and Lenya’s) planets for a moment, imagine yourself at a 1950 county fair. The long afternoon has turned to evening. The young kids – well fed and all played out –are asleep. The prize-winning heifer and pie-baking contests are over and now it’s time for the adults to dance. The string band unpacks its well-worn instruments and the vocalist steps up to the stage. Here, in that role, Bill Monroe – the father of bluegrass music – offers what may be the highpoint of this collection. On Alabama Waltz, written by Hank Williams, Monroe provides a lovely soaring vocal that retains its country purity while revealing, yet again, that country music was often rich in the blues. Likewise, the Delmore Brothers – no strangers to the blues – offer an early (1935!) and arresting version of Alabama Lullaby.
Any self-respecting Alabaman will tell you that the unofficial state anthem has become Sweet Home Alabama. With all the good music written about the state, you’d think the Legislators could do something about the official State song, which has been in place since 1931. No offense to Julia S. Tutwiler and Edna Gockel Gussen, but this is a heck of an anthem for anybody to be saddled with:
Alabama, Alabama, We shall aye be true to thee
From the southern shores where groweth
By the sea thy orange tree.
To thy northern vale where flowereth,
Deep blue the Tennessee
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee.
There are 43 more lines, but we won’t go any further here, which means we’re saving you from some priceless couplets about the Coosa-Tallapoosa and Moses climbing Nebo’s Mount.
No southern state is immune to humor about itself, not all of which is devised by evil Yankees. Alabama seems to have drawn its fair share, like the one about the Alabama State Trooper who pulls over a pickup truck and says to the driver “Got any ID?” To which the driver replies “’Bout what?” And, of course, there’s the joke about the $3,000,000 Alabama State Lottery. The winner gets $3 a year for a million years.
When you’re talking about Alabama, you have to take the bitter with the sweet. There’s certainly much to be proud of in the land and the people. The first electric streetcar in the world ran down Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, and the first rocket to put a man on the moon was built in Huntsville, subsequently known as “Rocket City, USA.”
On the other hand, the state educational system has not always received highest marks. In that spirit, we should ponder the words of Miss Alabama as she competed for the 1994 Miss USA contest. When asked “If you could live forever, would you and why?” she wrinkled her purty ‘lil nose and did her home state right proud. “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.”
Inspiring words, but we can end on an even more upbeat note. As Stephen Foster’s subject told his loved one,
“Oh Suzannah, don’t you cry for me!
‘Cause I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.”
That’s a fine reason not to cry for any man.