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The Godmother of Soul

Issue 111, Winter 2020

Illustration by Three Ring Studio

I read a lot of previous music issues of the Oxford American for inspiration in creating this playlist. I also spent some time digging into my own library. None of these artists are completely new to me, but I went a lot deeper into individual bodies of work and gained renewed appreciation for them all. I had barely scratched the surface of Skip James’s catalog before reading Peter Guralnick’s wonderful 1997 essay on him from the first music issue, which sent me on a Skip James expedition. It’s been a revelation and a joy to immerse myself in his music, and that of a few others who were only familiar to me in a general way, as well as artists who have been beloved to me for nearly my entire life, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ry Cooder, and Charlie Rich. There are some here whom I discovered very recently, like Erin Rae and Erin Enderlin, a few as close as family, and some actual extended family assimilated in the list. I also included a track of my own, “Time,” which was first released on an album of women singing the songs of Tom Waits. (Forgive the self-dealing.)

These songs are quintessentially American and reflect the astoundingly rich tradition of roots music, from soul to folk, blues to gospel to country, and even one (“Elisha”) that might be called a hybrid of country and punk. They are all born out of longing, memory, craving, suffering, injustice, and lust, and include songs of freedom, revelry, regret, and desire. They are expressed through prisms of our shared humanity, from slave songs to the music of the civil rights era, into post-modern country music. One in particular, the Avett Brothers’ “We Americans,” speaks to this very moment in our history, this excruciating season of upheaval and awakening.

We are all “running from ghosts,’” as Erin Enderlin sings, but sometimes we run right into a beautiful mystery, and sometimes that mystery, plus rhythm and rhyme, turns into a song. I’ve collected together some of those mysteries with backbeats, stories that rhyme, and voices that break your heart or lighten your spirit, by some great and iconic artists, as well as by those who are on their way to greatness.

Go deep and savor the remarkable gifts of these exceptional musicians—all you good rockin’ daddies, you queens and saints, you who were born under a bad sign, or live on straight street: you, my neighbors.

Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash is a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, as well as the author of four books, including her best-selling memoir, Composed. She is the recipient of the 2021 Edward MacDowell Medal.