Neko Case has called her pal Kelly Hogan “the Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll.” Her name appears in the credits for albums by Mavis Staples, the Mekons, Will Oldham, Matt Pond PA, Amy Ray, Giant Sand, Archer Prewitt, Alejandro Escovedo, Drive-By Truckers, Jakob Dylan, Tortoise and many others, Case included. Hogan’s fourth album has been a long time coming, in part because she’s been busy as a crucial part of Case’s band (anyone who’s seen Case live has witnessed Hogan’s amusing banter), in part because of the nature of the project. For I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (Anti-), Hogan sent letters to her songwriter friends, many of whom she’d sung with, asking them if they would send her a song, either one written specifically for her or one that “you think I could do right by,” as she said. That process started several years ago, and results yielded songs from a veritable who’s who: Vic Chesnutt, Stephin Merritt, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford, Janet Bean, M. Ward and others. Hogan will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our recent feature on her.
Hogan: “Breakin’ up big rocks on the chain gang! Breakin’ rocks and serving’ my time! Breakin’ rocks out there on the chain gang! ‘Cause I been convicted o’crime! Hold her steady right there while I hit it—ungh! Yeah, I reckon that oughta get it! Been workin’… and working’ … but I still got so terrible long to go … ”
When “Work Song” busted up out of my stereo back in 1989, I knew I had just accidentally bought a life-changing record. I found it in the “new arrivals” bin at Wax ‘N’ Facts in Atlanta—a used copy of Sin & Soul, by the great Oscar Brown Jr. Oscar Brown Jr.: the poet, the actor, the playwright, the singer, the songwriter, the crusader for human rights—yes, he was all of these things and more, but all I knew when I bought that vinyl was that it was released on Columbia in 1960 and that the dude on the front looked cool. And then all I knew at the moment when the needle touched the groove was “Right on, this record kicks ass!”
The singing was dramatic, joyful, soulful, ebullient. The songs told great stories with sly humor, pathos, razor-keen intelligence and a sexy energy. Oscar Brown Jr. was on fire. He was clever. He was deft, an operator—even his more political lyrics made my underpants ball up. It was obvious he was a believer—a believer in music, in humanity, in equality, in love—and he sure made an Oscar Brown Jr. believer out of me.
Years later, in 1997 (after collecting all the Oscar Brown records I could find and playing them for anyone who would listen), I was in Chicago on a fact-finding mission during a frigid January. I was thinking about moving away from my hometown, trying to decide if I could live up north and leave my Atlanta family and friends behind. Over a cup of coffee, while checking the local music listings in the Chicago Reader, I saw that Oscar Brown Jr. was not only still alive (remember this is pre-internet, people!) but he was playing that night at a church in Wilmette (wherever that was…) So I borrowed my Chicago host’s pick-up truck, bought a map, and set out solo in a snowstorm to hear Mr. Brown.
Well, it turned out that Wilmette is a fancy northern suburb of Chicago where mostly rich white people live, and the church was ornate and huge—and it was packed with rich white people to see Mr. Brown. The in-house preacher spoke first, and explained that the church gig had come about because Oscar Brown Jr. had been eating in an outdoor cafe on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, and the preacher had walked by and recognized him and asked him to come sing for his congregation—a crazy kind of kismet, and one that made me really happy. I’m a complete hippie about music’s power to bring people together, and my heart felt like it was shining through my shirt that night.
Then Mr. Brown began to sing from the pulpit—and invited the crowd to sing along. He sang the aforementioned “Work Song,” and then the waterfall just kept flowing: “Signifyin’ Monkey,” “Dat’ Dere,” “Afro Blue,” “Bid ‘Em In” (Mr. Brown’s horrifying slave auction tale that I first heard Maya Angelou perform in a high school gym in Atlanta), “Forbidden Fruit,” “Somebody Buy Me a Drink,” “Hazel’s Hips,” “Mister Kicks” and his crazy hilarious “But I Was Cool” with hound dog wails and all. I couldn’t believe I was finally in the same room with my hero, with nothing between his music and my ears except air. Yes, I was sitting on the edge of a wooden pew, but it would have felt like church to me, no matter where I was.
I did end up moving north later that year (I think that night in the church definitely tipped the scales in Chicago’s favor) and in April of 2005, after campaigning very long and hard to score the booking, I had the supreme honor of hosting Oscar Brown Jr. and his band for two shows at the club where I worked, Chicago’s little-bitty house of love, The Hideout. We billed the show as “Oscar Brown Jr. Welcomes Spring!” and the tickets were printed on packs of flower seeds for folks to take home and plant. The shows were beyond sold out. People of all ages and classes and races squeezed into the back room to hear Mr. Brown and his daughters, Africa and Maggie, and his killer band, play his joyful music on that tiny stage in the glow of a couple dozen strings of christmas lights.
A month and a half later, I was checking email in a hotel lobby, about to fly back to Chicago from a family wedding, when I found out Mr. Brown had passed away. It was a kick in the guts. My little brother was bringing me a cup of coffee and found me crying at a public computer kiosk. I had to leave town again to go on tour two days later, and it still kills me that I couldn’t go to his funeral. But I hope there was singing there. I hope fingers were popping and hands were clapping and all different kinds of people were speaking the same language.
We gotta keep practicing what Mr. Brown taught us—to use the power of language; words of hope and love and joy and anger and truth—to keep fighting for what’s right for all people. His legacy is huge. His influence is profound. And, pssssst! Hey! His music is a gas! Pass it on!