Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Valerie June grew up in Tennessee, between the small towns of Humboldt and Jackson, moving to Memphis after finishing high school. While her original songs bear her distinctive style, their roots are planted firmly in the rich soil of southern traditional music. “Once I discovered country blues and straight-up old-time country, I never left it,” she said.
Smithsonian Folkways had the pleasure of hosting Valerie for a visit and tour of our office and the Ralph Rinzler Archives a few months ago. Her excitement for the music and material, including Lead Belly’s letters, Elizabeth Cotten master recordings, and Woody Guthrie drawings, was contagious. In the spirit of sharing that enthusiasm, we asked her to curate a playlist of some of her favorite recordings in our collection. What she came up is a diverse compendium of southern music, drawing heavily on our award-winning Classic Series and the Virginia Traditions from the Blue Ridge Institute collection, while demonstrating her love and intimate connection to that material.
Notes for “A Southern Songs Playlist”
by Valerie June
Track 1 & 2: “Shake Hands with Mother Again” by The Allen Brothers and “I’m Going to a City” by the Indian Bottom Association.” From Classic Southern Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways
I was raised on classic southern gospel music. If you can imagine this tune a capella, then you’d know what church singing was like for me growing up.
Track 3: “You’ve Got to Move” by Two Gospel Keys from Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways
This tune reminds me of Memphis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. It’s nice to see music of my birthplace as it’s traveled the world and developed a life of its own.
Track 4: “Low Down Death Right Easy” by Dock Reed from Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways
Track 5: “Omie Wise” by Doug Wallin from Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways
Doug Wallin’s voice tells the tale of this murderous tragedy without much need for any other instrumentation. It’s haunting and makes me think he could be a six o’clock newscaster telling the tales of modern-day tragedies of love gone wrong.
Track 6: “All Our Lives” by New Harmony Sisterhood Band from …And Ain’t I a Woman?
I found this song in a lyric book after I had written “Workin’ Woman Blues.” I like it because it’s a kindred spirit to my song. I’m not the only woman singing about a woman’s work.
Track 7: “Late Last Night” by Sam and Kirk McGee from Classic Old-Time Music from Smithsonian Folkways
Track 8: “Jay Bird March” by Etta Baker and Cora Phillips from Classic Old-Time Music from Smithsonian Folkways
With summer upon us and spring just leaving, there’s nothing like starting a new day with a cup of coffee and this simple song. If you enjoy sitting outside in the morning, then this song definitely carries the happiness the birds have in their songs on a spring day.
Track 9: “Won’t You Be Kind?” by Luke Jordan from Virginia Traditions: Western Piedmont Blues
This is my favorite song on the playlist! My grandmother makes the BEST yeast rolls ever, so hearing Luke Jordan say his Aunt Dinah has “a good old soul, she makes her livin’ by cookin’ light rolls” is heaven to me.
Track 10: “Slow Drag” by Turner Foddrell from Virginia Traditions: Western Piedmont Blues
This is a gentle, breezy tune. You just take whatever worry and let it gently rock and roll its way out of your troubled mind.
Track 11: “Don’t the Moon Look Pretty” by Clayton Horsley from Virginia Traditions: Western Piedmont Blues
You’ve got to have the happy blues on any playlist. This tune makes me smile! Not all blues has to be sad.
Track 12 &13: “Little Massie Grove” by Ruby Bowman Plemmons from Virginia Traditions: Ballads from British Tradition and “The Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine” by Helen Cockram from Virginia Traditions: Native Virginia Ballads and Songs
I was curious about these two women because I’d never seen their names on any of the old records I’ve listened to.
Track 14: “Rabbit Stomp” by Rabbit Muse from Virginia Traditions: Western Piedmont Blues
This song is my dance track. I love the kudzu or jug sound in this tune!
Track 15: “The Three Maids” by Polly Johnson from Virginia Traditions: Ballads from British Tradition
I chose this tune because Polly Johnson coughs in the recording. I love it when recordings have imperfectly perfect things in them.
Track 16: “Tennessee Dog” by Jimmie Strothers from Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music
Jimmie Strothers was a fine banjo picker. This tune shows off his skills.