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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Mavis Staples and the Grandness of Musical History (video)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Who doesn’t love the remarkable and enduring Mavis Staples? And teaming up with Jeff Tweedy? Well, the Grammy voters couldn’t resist her charm either, awarding her Best Americana Album for her latest work, You Are Not Alone. Which is a perfect opportunity to share these two videos of her and Wilco front man Tweedy performing acoustic versions of both songs he composed for the album: the title track “You Are Not Alone” (above) and “Only the Lord Knows” (below).

Mavis Staples' "You Are Not Alone"Her win also gives us a chance to remember her family’s legacy in the American civil rights movement. As Dr. Vincent Harding reminds us in an upcoming show, artists like The Staples Singers (“Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”) and Curtis Mayfield created a soundtrack of hope for the movement. In the liner notes of Mavis Staples’ 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back, she wrote this personal letter reminding us of this history and the need for positive change going forward:

"When we started our family group, The Staple Singers, we started out mostly singing in churches in the South. Pops saw Dr. Martin Luther King speak in 1963 and from there we started to broaden our musical vision beyond just gospel songs. Pops told us, "I like this man. I like his message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it." So we started to write "freedom songs," like "Why Am I Treated So Bad," "When Will We Be Paid for the Work We’ve Done," "Long Walk to DC," and many others. Like many in the civil rights movement, we drew on the spirituality and the strength from the church to help gain social justice and to try to achieve equal rights.

We became a major voice for the civil rights movement and hopefully helped to make a difference in this country. It was a difficult and dangerous time (in 1965 we spent a night in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas and I wondered if we’d ever make it out alive) but we felt we needed to stand up and be heard.

So for us, and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes. And that seems to be missing today. Here it is, 2007, and there are still so many problems and social injustices in the world. Well, I tell you ¬ we need a change now more than ever, and I’m turning to the church again for strength.

With this record, I hope to get across the same feeling, the same spirit and the same message as we did with the Staple Singers — and to hopefully continue to make positive changes. We’ve got to keep pushing to make the world a better place. Things are better but we’re not where we need to be and we’ll never turn back. 99 and 1/2 just won’t do!”

A good way to kick off your Friday.


You’ll Never Hear Kumbaya the Same Way Again

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

There are a few moments from behind the glass that stop me dead in my tracks — times during an interview when a wise voice creates a new opportunity to hear something differently. To challenge a conceit. To envelop the listener in the womb of silent storytelling and place one in a position of listening profundity. Vincent Harding did just that.

In the audio above, the theologian and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. creates that vulnerable opening and ever so gently corrects, without admonishment, when the “Kumbaya” is referred to as a soft and squishy moment of song:

"We Shall Overcome" (1964)"Whenever somebody jokes about "Kumbaya," my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types to come and help in the process of voter registration and freedom school teaching and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation. …

In group after group, people were singing:

Kumbaya. “Come by here my Lord. Somebody’s missing Lord. Come by here.”’

I could never laugh at kumbaya moments after that. Because I saw that almost no one went home from there. This whole group of people decided that they were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together, Kumbaya.”

I know I’ve used this this reference to a “kumbaya moment” in a slightly pejorative way. This no longer holds true. I can no longer judge using this label. Let Vincent Harding’s story be a lesson for us all.

We’re producing the radio show now and it’ll be released on February 24th.


Atheists Don’t Have No Songs

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

Watch Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers sing a special song, since they say atheists don’t have any.


"A Minor American Miracle": Orrin Hatch’s Rockin’ Hanukkah Song
Trent Gilliss, online editor

A quick scan of this morning’s edition of the Tablet Daily Digest e-mail prompted me to read the lead article, "Hanukkah: A Guide for the Perplexed," which was fun and quite helpful. And then I moved on.

It wasn’t until I was checking my inbox this afternoon that I saw what should have been at the top of the page: a video by songwriter and senior senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch. How the song came into being is actually a rather heart-warming story, as Jeffrey Goldberg tells it. I had no idea the Sen. Hatch liked to write spirituals.

But, it is a wonderful testament to the spirit of the season that such things can happen so freely and spread a little joy during an afternoon at work. Also, the idea that an Arab singer backed by the vocals of a the Jewish magazine staff sings a song written by a Mormon politician who “possesses a heartfelt desire to reach out to Jews” gives one hope that year-end holidays can bring out the best in people — and a will to understand one’s own traditions and the rituals of others:

"I know a lot of Jewish people that don’t know what Hanukkah means," he [Hatch] said. Jewish people, he said, should "take a look at it and realize the miracle that’s being commemorated here. It’s more than a miracle; it’s the solidification of the Jewish people."

And, yes, I do consider this another one of my Friday “video snacks.” *grin*


The Right to Live in Peace (in song)

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

In looking for potential music for this program with Mercedes Doretti, we came across a rich collection of artists in both Argentina and Chile who’ve documented, in song, the dark times of Argentina’s “dirty war” and General Pinochet’s regime in Chile.

Some of the artists were exiled, as was the case for Mercedes Sosa, whose song, “Sera Posible el Sur?,” became an anthem for the people of Argentina. This song refers to the state-sponsored terrorism used in Argentina to “disappear” thousands of people and dismiss the mothers looking for their children as crazy. Here is a rough translation of the first stanza:

Will the South be possible?
will it be possible with so many stray bullets
to the heart of the village,
and so many mothers are deemed crazy
and all of the memory in a prison

"Sera Posible el Sur?" by Mercedes Sosa

Mercedes Sosa’s lullaby, “Pequena,” was used in the program and can be found on the SOF Playlist.

Victor Jara was an outspoken supporter of Salvador Allende’s populist politics and helped to get him elected president in 1970. Upon the coup of 1973 and General Augusto Pinochet’s grasp of power, Victor Jara was arrested, brought to the national stadium with thousands of others, and over three days was electrocuted, his hands broken, and finally shot to death on September 15, 1973. According to his wife, with broken hands he wrote his last poem on scraps of paper that were smuggled out of the stadium by survivors. The final words of which include:

"Silence and screams are the end of my song."

Although the Pinochet regime managed to destroy many of the master recordings of Jara’s works, here is a YouTube video of Jara performing, “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (The Right to Live in Peace)”:

Many others have written homages to Victor Jara:

"The Hands of Victor Jara" by Chuck Brodsky

"Victor Jara’s Hands" by Calexico

"Washington Bullets" by The Clash


"Everything Will Be Alright"
» download the recording (mp3, 4:34)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer

Last month, on a sub-zero Minnesota winter night, I drove to Minneapolis to record a live event in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. My spirit was a bit depleted with the raw, dry cold and a feeling of looming uncertainty about the future. I convinced myself that getting out and being around people (not to mention making a little extra cash) would do me some good.

I wasn’t wrong. That evening, the Minneapolis-based musical troupe Sounds of Blackness was booked to perform. I hadn’t ever heard them before, and boy was I in for a treat. I sat at the back of The Basilica of Saint Mary with my headphones on and let their sweet gospel melodies pour into my ears. One song in particular shook me out of my worried, wired monkey brain. I think the song is called "Everything Will Be Alright." What you’re listening to here is a really great recording of that live performance.

Recently Trent blogged about the music that helped him get through a hard time after being laid off from his dot com job when he was living in England. And Mitch conducted a lively phone interview with author Mary Doria Russell where we learn about the 1980s big hair bands that inspire her. What songs are inspiring or consoling you these days?


I Am Not As Devout
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

I am not as devout a yoga practitioner as my colleagues, Kate and Krista, but I usually do about 20 minutes of yoga after a half hour on the elliptical — don’t ask me how often THAT happens. Actually, it is exactly 20:27, during which I go through a series of poses that I learned from a few yoga classes as well as a some instructional DVDs. I have an iTunes playlist on my computer called “Mitch-Yoga” that I put on and I know that I will start when the music starts and stop when it is done, measuring the time spent on each pose to where I am on the playlist. It is interesting to see if I am rushing through it or if I am necessarily taking my time.

Well here are the rest. The first track is Bebel Gilberto’s “All Around,” have a listen:

2. “Madman’s Honey” performed by Wire

3. “Ceu Distante” performed by Bebel Gilberto

4. “The Boy with the Gun” performed by David Sylvian

5. “Maria” performed by David Sylvian

I don’t think this is for everyone, but it does put me in a place that helps me relax and get into my body. What do you like to listen to while you do yoga? Silence?


Leonard Cohen in a 19th Century Vernacular
Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern

Last week I took a microphone to a “singing” that happens regularly at the University Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where a group gathers to sing four-part a cappella spirituals from a book called The Sacred Harp. We’ve had several listeners over the past few months write in to suggest producing a show about this folk singing tradition (and we have been looking for a music show). Developed in the southern United States in the late 19th century, it’s called Sacred Harp singing, after the title of its song book, and there are now groups all over the country who meet weekly to sit in a square and sing together.

The sound clip here is of the University of Minnesota Student Singing last week. Each singing begins with an hour of song, followed by brief announcements and a short break, then another hour of song. Any of the participants can propose a song, stand in the middle of the hollow square (the name for the square sitting formation), and direct the rhythm. There is no official leader. The first thing you’ll hear on this recording is preparation for the song: a woman announces the number, 455. You can hear silence as people find the page. A bus goes by outside. Then they begin to tune, deciding where the pitch of the song should be. They raise the pitch. They sing the first chord together, then the whole song once through on the syllables fa, sol, la, mi. Then, finally, they sing the song once through on the words, “I want a sober mind, an all sustaining eye.” After the song is over the next song is proposed, and they begin again (though, as you’ll hear, there is no rule against a joke in between).

I am fascinated by this tradition, in part because of its unusual musical notation, which you can see in the image above. More deeply moving, however, is the enthusiasm these songs inspire in the singers and the communities that grow up around the songs. Small groups are proliferating all over the country. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association lists singings in 35 states. From Hoboken, Georgia, where there is a group of singers (mostly family, mostly Baptist) who have been singing together for so long that they don’t know how long, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the singing takes place above a bar, people in many parts of the United States are finding connections across the hollow square.

I am moved by the joy and kindness these people demonstrate to each other, and I am excited about one woman’s project to arrange Leonard Cohen for her Sacred Harp group. Maybe there, some day, we’ll find our music show.


Your Help Is Our Musical Gain

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Just a few notes regarding the songs on this week’s SOF Playlist. Thanks, to Padraig for his suggestion of Lasairfhiona Ní Chonaola’s music, which I was able to find and place in this week’s program. Also, many thanks to Gerard O’Shea who wrote about attending a John O’Donohue memorial in his blog. In which he mentions that at the end of the service a gentleman named Jack Carley got up and sang “The Vale of Fermoyle,” in the sean-nos style (see blog entry below for more info and a beautiful example). Fermoyle is the birthplace of John O’Donohue and this song was one of his favorites.

Anyway, Gerard ordered a copy of that CD on Tuesday and was kind enough to e-mail a version of that song to me the very same day. Hats off to Cois na h-Abhna, Dooras in County Clare for providing the CD, There’s a Spot in Old Ireland. Though I was not able to use that song in the program, I’ve included it as a bonus track on the show’s playlist.

I also just wanted to provide an excerpt of the lyrics to Iarla O’lionaird’s version of Taimse im’ chodladh, which I have found translated as “I Sleep” “I am Sleep” “I am Asleep”, but I think you get the gist. Thanks to Bill Jones’ website, which offers a translation of the Gaelic. Here is an excerpt:

I am sleeping, do not wake me
I hear you calling
Come back again, I’ll show you how
I am sleeping, do not wake me
The day is dawning
Come back again, don’t wake me now
Just look high and low, and search round the town
For the wildflower where we met the first time
If you pull the petals all the spell may be broken
Come back again, don’t wake me now

This song ends the program and I felt that this was a nice image of someone sleeping to round out the homage to John O’Donohue, not that I knew what the words meant when I was placing the song! Sometimes you get lucky. Anyway, that’s about it. I hope you enjoy the music.