I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. Click here to subscribe!
Danielle A. Jackson is the editor-in-chief at Oxford American. Each year, the magazine devotes a single issue to music and, in the process, puts out some of the year’s best writing on music. What follows is a quick interview with Danielle about this year’s issue.
Tell me a little bit about what’s in this year’s magazine.
We wanted to do something different—something expansive and interesting and also rooted in place in a way that the pandemic could not disrupt. The OA has a history of collaborating with artists and musicians of the specific locales we focus on, bringing our volumes to life via in-person events, last year’s plans for a state-focused issue had to be reconfigured. We produced instead a “greatest hits” edition of reprints and along with a small number of newly commissioned pieces. One of those new pieces, written by Alice Randall, envisioned a country-soul triangle that also included Detroit, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois as influential cities in the creation of Southern sounds by way of the Great Migration. This “map” resonated so much with my own life, as a Black woman born in Memphis to a woman whose mother migrated there, as well as Chicago and Detroit, over the course of her life, from a farm near Clarksdale.
The term ‘Up South” was coined by migrants who fled north seeking freedom and peace but found humiliations and limitations in their new locales. Still, they made homes out of their surroundings, through constant improvisation and innovation. Aside from heritage, living in my own body has meant feeling the feeling of home in Chicago and Harlem and the eighteenth arrondissement in Paris, vis a vis the food, or the music, or the rhythms of conversation of people I met and the warmth with which I have been received. I wanted an issue that could approximate this transient way of thinking about place, music history, and Southern identity, which was created out of an urgent necessity yet produced boundless beauty.
The issue opens with a beautiful piece by Lynell George on the memories of music her mother brought to Los Angeles from New Orleans when she moved west for college. George talks about the sounds of Paul Gayten, Papa Celestin, and an intimate patois as an inheritance, passed down through the kind of ritualistic listening you do as a child eavesdropping on grown folks’ talk. Miles Marshall Lewis writes about looking for Vigon, a Moroccan-born vocalist who picked up on the idioms of rhythm & blues while living in Paris and eventually opened for Stevie Wonder and Sam & Dave. He was signed to Atlantic in the sixties and recorded as part of a trio as recently as 2015. So we aren’t only highlighting heritage acts. There’s a deep dive on an Alabama-born Philly DJ Jimmy Bishop that I’m thinking a lot about now. Not only was he a jock at the highly influential WDAS, he was also an A&R and producer who worked with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The features, on Fontella Bass, Johnny Bristol, and Tina Turner, are as much about these enormously important musicians as they are about the scenes in which their art blossomed. Artists who bring their creations to new spaces need informed, receptive audiences.
This year we went back to compiling a CD to accompany the issue. In an old Pitchfork review, the writer described Oxford American music issues as a magazine of liner notes meant to support the music we license and compile. I’m really proud of the variety of this sampler, but also the groove, swing, bluesy-ness of many of the tracks. Hopefully people enjoy them.
Why does the Oxford American do music issues?
This is the 23rd edition of the OA music issue, which started in 1997 as a sort of spectacular grab bag of Southern music. Articles by or about artists like Al Green, Rosanne Cash, Sam & Dave were featured; Robert Palmer wrote what’s been described as a definitive essay on the blues, “Why I Wear My Mojo Hand.” In his intro letter, founding editor Marc Smirnoff wrote about how the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sent him, in a “clean progression,” to loving other musicians. State themes began with Arkansas in 2009. Most years, a CD compilation was bundled with the issue, except 2020, when we commissioned about two dozen curated playlists from folks like Brittany Howard and Adia Victoria.
I find myself returning often to Smirnoff’s editor’s letter from that first issue. “It would be impossible to put out a comprehensive issue on Southern music…The hope is that we have succeeded in reminding you…there is much to consider; much to return to; much to learn.” We publish the issue to celebrate the bounty of our region and to dive into it, deeply, with nuance and immense love and care. We put them out because readers love them and are invested enough to tell us what we get right and what we get wrong every year. We put them out because we believe understanding the South is a pathway toward understanding the whole country.
What are some highlights of past music issues for you?
I enjoyed working with Brittany Howard on her essay, as well as with others who wouldn’t ordinarily consider themselves prose writers: Joi Gilliam, Alex Lewis, Terence Blanchard. Those stories, from a practitioner’s point of view, through the eyes of an artist from another discipline help me think about writing, especially writing about music, much more sharply and intuitively every time I work on them. The essay by Anjali of Diaspoura from the South Carolina issue made us re-evaluate the way we compensate musicians for being part of the project. We had for so many years relied on gratis licensing, and this year paid all rights holders. We are a small nonprofit that relies on donor and grant funding, but we are also committed to the sustainability of the arts in our region, so we’ll compensate people for the creation of physical media from now on. Personal favorite stories of mine include Kiese Laymon’s essay on Outkast from the Georgia issue, Daphne Brooks on Geeshie and Elvie and the intimacy of women’s blues, and Cynthia Sherer’s story on Janis Joplin and Port Arthur, Texas.
Where do you see Oxford American heading next with music stories?
I’d like us to produce multi-modal music stories all year! Not just focused in the Winter edition. 2022 is the 30th anniversary of the Oxford American, and according to a reader survey from earlier this year, readers will be really appreciative of us making that commitment.
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