The American south is a land of bustling cities, thriving small communities, and people and landscape that hold both diversity and connection, history and present and future. This contemporary American south is the territory singer and songwriter Caroline Herring walks in her work.
She holds her knowledge of the place in her bones, through her own history. Herring was born and raised in Mississippi, where she studied southern literature and was a founder of Thacker Mountain Radio, a series of songwriter concerts held in a bookstore. Pursuing her academic career, Herring relocated to Austin, Texas. It was in that live music capital of the world that she was drawn to focus more directly on her own songwriting and music. After time in in the Washington DC area, Herring moved to Atlanta, where she is currently based. Though she has traveled from China to the Netherlands to England and all across the United States with her music, it is the life and history of the American south that forms the warp and weft of Herring’s music.
The story in title track on her album Camilla comes from a time in 1962 when a woman from Albany, Georgia, went to see a friend’s daughter at the jail in the small town of Camilla. For singing and for standing too close to the jail she was beaten and miscarried her child. Herring has the gift of asking good questions and leaving the right questions up to the listener to answer in this song. Black Mountain Lullaby, framed in a melody which sounds as though it could have come from centuries ago, also deals with loss and change,. It comes from a true event as well, the death of a child who was killed by a boulder dislodged by mountaintop removal work in Virginia.
With images of landscapes across the south, Herring considers what strength may be found in facing hard times in Summer Song. A more intimate side of change and letting go is the story of Until You Go while the hymn Flee as a Bird, the only song in the collection Herring did not write, begins “Flee as a bird to the mountain…”
This all may make Herring’s work seem rather grim. It is not. Forthright, yes, asking questions, yes, and always with a poetic voice and a perspective of respect for resilience and the hope in the human spirit that rise up through hard times and good ones, and with the intertwining of history and present that make up the American south as part of the fabric of her work. Her work has inspired me to sign up for takelessons so I can follow in her footsteps.
Fireflies is a fast paced story of a young girl chasing fireflies — and perhaps a few other things. White Dress stems from a moment of connection from the story of the Freedom Riders. Maiden Voyage is a collage of images and stories from a trip Herring and her small daughter made to see the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009, an interweaving of poetry, history, weather, parenthood, and love for family and country. “ It goes like this,” Herring sings in her shimmering alto, “ you take your hand. you lift it up, you put it on your heart, and there you stand — singing This land is your land, this land is my land…”
Whether you know the American south well or not at all, Caroline Herring’s music will add to your understanding of this part of the country.
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