This is a selection of music drawn from my early childhood. These tunes still loom large in my memories of that time in my life–music that had an enormous impact on me, even at a tender age.
Of necessity, the selection reflects the music my parents, their friends and my grandparents chose and were surrounded by–a historical snapshot of a musical (and political) era. This is what my youthful parents–Altina Waller and Louis Wilson–listened to at home, in the car, and sang out loud to my brother Andrew and I.
In building this playlist, I chose tunes actually remembered (rather than music I’ve since learned about). Many were old tunes revived and performed by multiple artists. If I couldn’t remember which artist I’d heard do the song, I made a choice based on what I know of my family’s history, which artists recorded during that period and what they likely would have been exposed to.
As you see, I was mostly–but not exclusively– a child of folk music. As an adult, I’ve explored that important period of our history when Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Joan Baez, Odetta and others revived old tunes passed down through generations and made them not only accessible and popular, but the catalyst for the most important anti-war movement this country has ever known and the soundtrack that inspired the the civil rights movement.
My parents and grandparents weren’t political activists, at least then. But they were modern, optimistic and progressive. They melded the old with the new. The music to which I was exposed represented that spirit. Perhaps the most emblematic, for me, was the mournful and moving “Freight Train,” written and performed here by the extraordinary Elizabeth Cotten.
And here’s the first portion of the playlist. Enjoy.
Note: “Beautiful Brown Eyes” is a remarkable song, covered by artists ranging from Leadbelly to Pete Seeger to the Kingston Trio and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. My father Louis Moore Wilson sang it to my brother Andrew and I at bedtime on many occasions. The only lyrics I remember are from the refrain: “beautiful brown eyes, I’ll never love blue eyes again.” But as an adult, looking up the song’s history and provenance, I learned that it’s not exactly a children’s song. Instead, it’s a dark tale, narrated by a woman who chooses to be single rather than married to an alcoholic man. Since it’s among my earliest musical memories, I have no concrete knowledge of which version my father would have heard most, so I reviewed the options in light of my father’s age and the song’s recording history, and settled on the version by Roy Acuff, a “cowboy” musician of the late ’40s and 50s.
Here’s part II of the playlist.
The standout tune, from the folk genre–and in my memory–was this, by Sam Cooke. To this day, it is one of my great regrets that I never got to hear him sing live.
In assembling the playlist, I researched about who had done renditions of the songs–both then and now–and there were a few surprises. The biggest one, and the most compelling, was this version of Woody Guthrie’s Red River Valley, an old Canadian cowboy standard, by the great contemporary jazz artist Cassandra Wilson. If this doesn’t move you to tears, nothing will.
Finally, the late Kurt Cobain, of Nirvana, did a startling rendition of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” some time in the early 1980s. I think it might be the best version of them all, and that’s saying a lot!