Music Editor John Freeman talks with Cornelius Eady about the relationship between poetry and music, musical influences, and recording at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
You are obviously an incredibly accomplished poet. In what ways does your poetry inform your lyrics? Do you ever borrow from poems to write songs?
Cornelius Eady: No—I seem to have a pretty clear line set, at least in my head, between what will work as a poem, and what will work as a lyric. There’s probably some mysterious trigger somewhere inside that tells me “good poem” or “good song” when I set down to write, but I’ve never taken a line from a poem of mine, or a draft of a poem that isn’t working, and “saved” it by adding a melody. At least, not yet! I HAVE set other poets poems to music—Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, Aliki Barnstone, Edna St Vincent Millay, but that’s a slightly different deal—the trick there is adding music to a text that was never intended to be sung in a way that supports but doesn’t overrun the poems lyric intentions.
What was it like to record at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and how did those sessions come about?
About a year ago, Lisa Liu went down to Memphis with her wife, Sue, just for a vacation, but of course, being a guitarist, she had to check out Sun Studio, which is a museum by day, and a working studio at night. She struck up a friendship with one of the engineers that worked there, and when she got back to New York, I think she came to rehearsal wearing a Sun T-shirt, and was fired up—Charlie and I caught her fever. Given the themes of some of the songs we were working up—“Pickle King”, “Sleep, Brother, Sleep”, “Bree”—it seemed like Memphis would be the perfect place to record them. We talked to Sammy Greenspan, the publisher of Kattywompus Press, who has been underwriting most of my poetry/music chapbooks these last few years, and she agreed to fly us down there and record the project, now titled, 706 Union Ave—the address of the studio—and it’s hard to write briefly about the town, and recording in that studio, on a lot of the same equipment that was used back when Elvis, Jerry Lee, so many blues singers first recorded. I can tell you that Sam Philips was a fucking sound engineer genius—it was raining cats and dogs the evening we recorded, the studio itself is right on the street—but none of that filtered through, and we recorded live, without headphones. That’s just the way he set it up, and why the 45’s that came out of that studio sounded so good. It’s one thing to read about the secret of that room, quite another to sit and play in it.
“Pickle King” possesses such a profound sense of history. How did you become familiar with the story of Sam Balton, and what was your process for writing this song?
“Pickle King” came about thanks to Robin Messing, my friend and bandmate in my old group Rough Magic. The New York Times has a website filled with stories about the Civil War, and Robin sent me Sam Balton’s story. She has a pretty good track record as a Muse; she also sent me a story about John Punch (or Bunch), who had the unfortunate honor of being the first African slave in the Colonies. His blood line also includes Pres. Obama on his mother’s side. Both songs appear on the Rough Magic CD “Singing While Black”. The “Singing While Black” version of “Pickle King” started life as a drum/oud loop. After we started the Trio, I believe Charlie Rauh suggested we try an acoustic version.
Could you explain for our readers the historical significance of The Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad and how it relates to Sam Balton, the narrator of “Pickle King”?
It’s a Confederate railroad. In the song, (and the true story), Sam’s master loans him out to work on the tracks, and it’s the route Sam uses to walk to freedom. I think that’s what grabbed me—he just saw a road out of there, and took it. What’s that term? “Making a way out of no way?” That’s how it struck me. It was songwriter’s luck that those initials made a perfect refrain.
How long have you been playing guitar and singing, and what is your musical background like in terms of influences and training? Did you come to music or poetry first?
It’s pretty much a dead heat; I’ve been playing since I was a teen, and poetry struck pretty much at the same time. I was born and raised in Rochester, NY, which is actually a pretty good town for music—the Eastman School is there, great players like Tony Levin and Steve Gadd studied and lived there, and it has a strong folk scene. I took a few guitar lessons with a friend at a music store near our high school—got VERY bored with scales, and I’ve been seeing what I could get away with ever since. I stopped songwriting for a bit in the early 90’s, around the time I was deeply involved with the theater pieces I did with Deidra Murray–if you were friends with me before 1992, you’d get the occasional, rough cassette mixtape of new songs that I’d record on a Tascam–I collected some of those, and released it as a bonus CD with the first edition of my poetry book, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A JUKEBOX (Carnegie Mellon University Press). So they both were always around- I was playing and writing songs before I was a published poet in Rochester, I was playing and writing songs when I lived in New Jersey, I was playing and writing songs when I first moved to New York, I was playing and writing songs when I lived in Virginia, etc. and so on, but these last few years, music has appeared to have really pushed its way back in. As for influences, I’ve always been influenced by guitarists I’ll never play as well as–Kinloch Nelson, Stanley Watson and Don Potter when I was growing up in Rochester, Glen Campbell, all the guitarists Davy Graham influenced. Son House, who I actually met as a teen in Rochester, Mississippi, John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotton, Chuck Berry, who made the great riff that couldn’t be topped. Emily Remeler, Grant Green, John Lennon, who I think was one of the greatest rhythm guitarists Rock ever produced. Muddy Waters, Andy Gill, Marvin Sewell, Scrapper Blackwell, Scotty Moore. One of my favorite records to this day is ANGEL ALLEY by Linda Cohen, a neo-classical guitarist who lived in Philly. I could go on and on. It’s a long list of betters.
Tell us a bit about your musical collaborators in The Cornelius Eady trio, Charlie Rauh and Lisa Liu. How does the process for your collaboration work? I guess I’m particularly interested in whether you bring versions of song and arrangement to the table more or less fully formed and to what degree Lisa and Charlie are involved in writing and/or arrangement.
These days, I pretty much record a demo on Garage Band, then rough mix it and email it to Lisa and Charlie to hear, then we go to work when we meet to rehearse. The melody is always set by the time they hear it, but there’s a lot of space left for the two of them to operate in terms of the arrangements. The demo for “Bree” for example, sounds nothing like the way we play it, except for the basic melody. That is where the fun comes in. That, and the whiskey afterwards!
The song “Arrogance” seems, sadly, both timeless and timely. Could you speak about the role of the protest song in resisting contemporary social ills like police brutality?
“Arrogance” was written after a police officer on cable TV said that the real reason Sandra Bland was dead was that she was “arrogant”. Her “arrogance” was to ask “why?” when a cop, who had stopped her for a broken tail light, (not the cop on TV) told her to put out her cigarette. Three days later, she was found dead, hung in her cell in a Texas jail. No one was held accountable. That turned into the title and first verse of the song. Sometimes, a protest song is a way to mark what it feels like when news like that hits—Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner—you can’t bring them back, but you can bear witness.
Who are some of your central songwriting influences and why?
I’ve just turned 65, so as you might imagine, it’s the usual gang, as Mad Magazine used to say, of 50’s 60’s and 70’s songwriters, the usual suspects, to which I’ll add, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Garland Jefferies, Lou Reed, Laura Nyro, Janis Ian, Townes Van Zandt, Lowell George, Van Dyke Parks, and yes, Yoko Ono (Fly, and Approximately Infinite Universe was in heavy rotation in one of the places I lived as a teen in Rochester. Turning social-political rage into musical art? Sorry, punks—Yoko got there first). So many folk and folk-blues writers—Son House’s “Grinning in Your Face”, Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train”, “Muddy Waters “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had”—Woody Guthrie, Willie Dixon, Leadbelly, Melvina Reynolds–so many songs written by Trad. I once sang the entire LP of the Kink’s Arthur-every song-aloud to high school friends on a road trip—it was the first record I’d ever heard that acknowledged the dangers and the joys of the class system—so yeah, Ray Davies, too. They all taught me that though their styles are different, the words have to be as powerful as the melody.
Can you tell when songwriters are readers of poetry, and do you see an appreciation of poetry as requisite for songwriting? Or are those generic distinctions between poetry and song even important?
Yes—you can guess that Chuck Berry grew up in a family that read, but I don’t think there’s any “right” way to become a songwriter—it’s just jump in the pool and start swimming! There are a lot of dumb songs with great lyrics (Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” comes to mind), that I love, and great melodies with dumb lyrics (“Wild Thing”, anyone?), but you can’t help but move to whenever you hear it. I do tend to gravitate towards songs with sharp lyrics, but there’s a lot of songs out there. I guess it comes down to what kind of “songwriting” you’re looking for.
Finally, as someone who writes prolifically in both verse and song, what was your reaction to Dylan’s Nobel?
It was one of those “you’ll remember where you were” moments; I was about to board a commuter plane in Columbia, MO, probably headed for New York, when the alert flashed on my phone—I think I thought, “that settles it”.
National Book Award winner and Pulitzer prize nominated poet Cornelius Eady has set his poetry to song with the Cornelius Eady Trio. Eady’s songs tell the story of passing time, the Black American experience and the blues in the style of Folk & Americana music. Guitarists Charlie Rauh & Lisa Liu join Eady to create layered and graceful arrangements to bolster Eady’s adept craftsmanship as a songwriter, lyricist, & poet.
Cornelius Eady Trio has performed at Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, AWP Conference, Peabody Essex Museum, and Hill-Stead Museum and recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, TN.