May 10, 2013 by folkchris
I have never written a collection of songs (intended for the same release) which have changed shape as quickly and as noticeably as these ones did.
In February 2013, I began to write songs for a self-released EP. While there was an option to release just one song as an individual download, for example, I felt that recording and releasing 3 (or 4) tracks, would provide an ideal opportunity to tell a story through the music- as well as make for a nice EP.
The songs started life as a collection of poems about Glasgow. Originally this was going to be an experimental ‘spoken word’ effort. While I liked the idea of this, I felt that I was portraying an ever so slightly negative image of my home city:
‘My dear Green Place/ Your Friday nights are a symphony of wailing sirens…streets that run red from clashes with blue and green…’
To ‘tell a story’ through this work I would either have to continue down this line or jump to a happier vantage point. The former may make for a gloomy EP, while the latter may be confusing in such a short time frame…additionally, a spoken word record, would make this more of a literal ‘story telling’ exercise rather than story telling through the music. After two nights of writing I went back to the drawing board.
As I began to seek inspiration, I began listening to Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti’ album. This is effectively a concept album, before the concept of the concept album was ever even considered. In this Guthrie tells the story of the wrongful arrest and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti , through narrative, letters and writing as different characters.
Around the same time, I began watching Robert Mulligan’s 1962 movie adaptation of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and began to play around with the idea of retelling this story through an EP. Through several viewings of this (many in the one day) I scribbled down just about everything that seemed to be in any way significant in order to form the basis of songs; themes (bravery, racism, appearance and reality) events ( Jem and Scout finding their ‘cigar box treasures’, Tom Robinson’s ordeal) and characters central to the themes and story telling (Boo Radley, Miss Dubose, Tom Robinson, Scout and Atticus Finch)
These ‘significant’ moments would form the foundations of what would be created. However, the evolution process of what would eventually be recorded was still not complete. Upon the advice of my university lecturer, I began to investigate and consider further possibilities of the direction in which the story might take.
Upon researching the piece, I was surprised that the events of Harper Lee’s novel were based on real events that had happened in 1931 in Scottsboro, Alabama, and was even more surprised when I made the connection between this and the Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) song- the Scottsboro Boys and ‘To Kill Mockingbird’.
To write a song or collection of songs, based on events that actually happened, one has to be aware of the facts, especially in the story telling of an event as sensitive as this. In failing to do this, it is quite conceivable that the record would be branded as bias or one dimensional. In this case, creating a concept EP, which re-told the story, all the known facts had to be considered in the music. Given that an EP does not afford the luxury of listening time which a Long-Playing album does, to communicate all of these facts would be problematic as well as potentially ‘too deep’.
In order to combat this, I had to find a happy medium. This ‘happy medium’ came by looking at the facts and incidents of the Scottsboro case and in doing what Lee did for her novel and created my own narrative, based on the real events. In this way, the ‘facts’ of the narrative were as described only in the recording and what exactly happened could be negotiated in the song writing process, to either be diluted or deep as I felt necessary.
Inspired by Guthrie, Leadbelly, Harper Lee and of course real events, what had started life as a poem about Glasgow, became a three track EP titled ‘The Trial of Oscar Jackson’.
The story begins inside of the court in which the freedom of Oscar Jackson is threatened by the greed and lies of his accuser Ruby Haycomb . The whole county turns out for it, not to see that justice prevails, but for the gossip associated with the story:
‘The scene was a courtroom, the whole town was there, gossip and freedom hung in the air.’
Ruby lies about what happened and the judge sides with her. What exactly Jackson is accused of and whether Jackson is black or white is of left up to the listener. All that is known is that he is accused of a crime he couldn’t have committed, while apparently on board train heading for Danville. Ruby Haycombe comes from a relatively rich family and her only witness from the train, is a former Preacher , who was ‘too drunk to see straight’.
The short story begins to unravel over the course of the three songs, while paying homage to the vastly different, yet thoroughly communicative writing styles of Woody Guthrie and Harper Lee.
The link below is the second track from the EP based on the words from a letter sent by Jackson from Harrowsville Prison to his mother.
Guthrie W (1945) Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti [CD] Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40060
James C (2013) The Trial of Oscar Jackson [CD]
Lee H (1960) To Kill a Mockingbird . Arrow Books: London
Ledbetter H . The Scottsboro Boys. Library of Congress Recordings
Mulligan R (1962) To Kill a Mockingbird [DVD] Universal Pictures