Nothing has ever changed my music-listening habits so thoroughly as the pandemic.
Since I was a teenager in the 1970s, I have always been attracted to the newest music, always willing to dive into new genres as they developed, always ready to see a new band based on nothing more than one friend’s recommendation.
Over the last 13 months, I could probably count on two hands the number of new albums I’ve listened to. I don’t think my interest in the new is gone forever. I expect that when we get back to something that looks like normal, I’ll get musically curious agin.
But as I’ve languished through this never-ending plague, I needed something different from my music. I did not need to be challenged. I did not need to be spurred to action. I needed comfort.
I found it by diving into a lot of music by musicians who were performing long before I was born. So I’ve put together a list of five artists whose music gave me the comfort I needed during the pandemic.
The Blind Boys of Alabama
The Blind Boys have been singing gospel music since 1939. Of course, the members have changed over the years, but the group has never gone out of existence. The group emerged originally from the chorus of the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Alabama. I can’t wait for the return of live shows, because the experience of seeing the Blind Boys in person is simply transcendent. It feels like you’re going to church, because you are.
The Carter Family
There’s a town called Bristol that sits astraddle the Tennessee/Virginia border. Ralph Peer, a record producer from New York City, traveled to Bristol in 1927 in search of “hillbilly” musicians to record. The days Peer spent in Bristol in late July and early August of that year are now called the “Big Bang of Country Music.” Among the musicians Peer recorded was the Carter Family — A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. No other group ever had such broad influence on the evolution of an entire genre of music. Their music transports any listener to the Appalachian mountains, with a sound that’s as timeless as the mountains themselves.
Just as the Carter Family essentially invented country music, there’s a strong argument that jazz would never have evolved as it has without the work of Louis Armstrong. A product of New Orleans, Armstrong emerged as a pioneering trumpeter in the 1920s, and he retained his influence on jazz until his death in 1971. Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who produced a multi-episode history of jazz for PDF, once said, “Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel." But I think Armstrong might did something neither Einstein nor the Wright Brothers could do: He brought delight to everyone, every time he picked up his horn.
If you want to go really deep into the roots of American music, the people to help you reside at the Music Maker Foundation in Hillsborough, North Carolina. For more than 25 years, Music Maker has preserved the music of blues, folks, and gospel musicians who were rarely heard outside their own communities. (Bonus: Music Maker also helps these musicians meet their daily needs.) I spent a lot of time rummaging through the vast Music Maker catalog over the last few months, and the most precious thing I found was a woman named Precious Bryant, who was born in Talbot County, Georgia. Her fingerstyle blues picking and her warm voice found a special place in my heart.
There are several places around the South that folks say gave birth to soul music. Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Birmingham, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans, Louisiana. But too many folks forget to mention Macon, Georgia, the hometown of Otis Redding. In the early 1960s, Redding met Macon record producer Phil Walden, who would later turn Macon into the birthplace of Southern rock with the Allman Brothers Band and others. But to my ears, Walden’s greatest discovery was always Redding — the Big O. He died far too young, only 26, when he died in a Wisconsin plane crash, but he left behind an amazing body of work, all created with a voice that was like no other before or since.