Sunday, September 2, 2012

Caroline Herring – Camilla

Signature Sounds

Camilla, the latest album by Caroline Herring, one of the very finest singer-songwriters to emerge from the American south in the new millennium, is a beautiful, often profound, meditation on such themes as the civil rights movement, grief, and hope.

Several songs are directly inspired by events, and heroes, of the civil rights movement. “Camilla,” is inspired by the story of Marion King, an African American woman who was beaten in 1962 by police in Camilla, Georgia, in front of her children and while she was six months pregnant, when she went to the jail to visit the daughter of a friend who was a jailed civil rights demonstrator. (The Civil Rights Digital Library has a news clip of King being interviewed from her hospital bed as she recovered from her injuries at this link.)

In “White Dress,” Caroline sings from the perspective of Mae Francis Moultrie, one of the original Freedom Riders whose bus was fire bombed in Alabama on May 14, 1961. “I’m 24 years old/I won’t live this way anymore,” she sings as Moultrie, who was wearing a white dress on the bus, in reference to the Jim Crow south the Freedom Riders were determined to change. (Moultrie is seen outside the burning bus in the FBI photo at right.)

My favorite song on the album is “Traveling Shoes,” which was inspired by Eudora Welty’s 1941 short story, “A Worn Path,” about an old African American woman encountering various impediments on a Christmastime journey into town to get medicine for her sick grandson. The imagery in Welty’s story metaphorically represents the inequality of the races in the American south of that time and Caroline’s song is based on a scene in the song when the old woman asks a passerby for help in tying her shoe. The a cappella arrangement of “Traveling Shoes” features sublime harmonies from Mary Chapin Carpenter and Aoife O’Donovan. (Read "A Worn Path" at this link.)

Another favourite is “Maiden Voyage,” about a trip Herring took with her four-year-old daughter to Washington, D.C. to witness history on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States; a day that saw the fulfillment for many of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which Caroline tells her daughter to sing with her hand on her heart. (See a video of Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger leading hundreds of thousands in singing “This Land is Your Land” at the pre-inauguration concert at this link.)

Several other songs including “Until You Go,” the tragic “Black Mountain Lullaby,” and the ultimately hopeful “Summer Song” deal with various stages of grief.

While most of these songs deal with difficult subjects, Caroline’s beautiful voice, her insightful, carefully crafted lyrics – which are often open to evolving interpretation – her superb melodies and excellent mostly-acoustic arrangements make we want to hear them again and again.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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