HELLO STRANGER: Get to Know our Fall 2021 ‘Ghosts’ Journal + Playlist
Cover art by Tim Wakefield, Soundwaves Art Foundation. It's a sound wave from The Carter Family song "No Depression in Heaven."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Managing Editor Hilary Saunders’ letter, below, opens our current quarterly journal, reflecting on the issue’s theme, “Ghosts.” We invite you to dive into the issue’s 100+ pages of stories about the history, folklore, stories, and legends that pervade roots music by buying it in print or digitally here. Better yet, start a subscription with this issue and help support No Depression’s music journalism all year long.
It’s a scorching Saturday in June and I’m making the Titanic pose with my arms spread wide on the back of a baby blue electric moped, whizzing around Brooklyn Heights in search of Adam Yauch Park. The streets are quiet in this fancy, tree-canopied neighborhood, even though it’s just a few blocks off the honking gridlock of Atlantic Avenue. Renovated, yet iconic brownstones line these streets, with cars neatly sitting curbside, puffed up with petticoats of bumper pads so as not to damage each other if parked too close together.
The late Beastie Boy didn’t craft what’s traditionally considered roots music, but the beloved trio blended styles of music ranging from hardcore to hip-hop to funk to grunge into a sound reflective of so many different types of people living so densely together in New York City. And sounds of the people are indeed at the core of the type of music we at No Depression love and cover.
It’s not the first time I’ve paid tribute to a musician whose art and work and messages have impacted my life. In grad school in the UK, my friend and I took a train down from Liverpool to Cheltenham to chase the ghost of The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. A few years later, when I drove cross-country, I rerouted my journey more than 100 miles out of the way just to drive the undulating two-lane roads of Mississippi’s green Hill Country — from Clarksdale to Chulahoma to Holly Springs — to honor blues ghosts like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. In 2016, I wrote an essay for Brooklyn magazine about the time I got lost in an Iowa cornfield searching for the ghost of Buddy Holly.
I’ve listened to the walls of Electric Lady Studios in New York City, goading them to tell me their stories, brought my copy of Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to the empty block where the venue once stood in Miami, and held my own private bed-in in the same room as John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.
But like writer Katie Moulton muses in her “Grace Lands” series interspersed throughout this issue, the reasons why we — as members of the roots music community and as fans in general — go in search of these spirits are not uniform. And our journeys to get there are hardly direct.
I’d like to think there’s as much an element of joy as there is mourning in such pilgrimages. So many of us seek out these sites to honor what these songs have given us, learn more about the context in which they were made, and celebrate how this music has enriched our lives.
So while this issue of “Ghosts” may come during “spooky season,” carrying negative or eerie conations, we approached the theme wide-eyed and with a sense of wonder. Stories, including Katie’s, explore journeys of the body and soul. Profiles on Hiss Golden Messenger, Amy Helm, and No-No Boy examine the concept of “Ghosts” through spirituality, legacy, and lineage.
Of course, others dared tackle the theme more directly. Ian Brennan and Marilena Umuhoza Delli shared an original essay and never-before-seen photographs from their time in the witch camps of Ghana, recording the songs that would become the evocative album of field recordings, I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used to Be. Writer Mark Kemp examined the history and ghostly legacy of Naomi Wise, the real-life subject of the murder ballad made famous by Doc Watson. Singer-songwriter Jolie Holland closed out the issue with a Screen Door essay on her new ghost stories podcast.
One of my favorite things about music is just how ethereal this artform really is. We can contain it in physical media like records and CDs and keep it meticulously organized in digital files and apps. We can even see music sometimes, in sheet music and scores, as well as in cover artist Tim Wakefield’s renderings of sound waves.
But music itself is rather ghost-like — at once haunting, comforting, mythical, and fleeting. It lives in our heads and we can experience it together until it’s gone. Here in the Fall 2021 issue of No Depression, we did our best to capture that ephemeral magic in a way you can savor and refer to for as long as you want.
Here’s a playlist of songs and artists featured in the Fall 2021 journal: