Caught by the River

Jeb's Jukebox

Jeb Loy Nichols | 2nd April 2013

16. the music is the magic

The Music Is The Magic
Abbey Lincoln


Last month, listening to Sharon Jones, I mentioned Abbey Lincoln. It got me thinking and, as usual, one thing led to another. That’s the way things work with me; one plus two equals five.

When I was eighteen, newly arrived in New York, there was a place I went near Washington Square. I couldn’t afford to eat so I sat at the bar and pretended to drink. I picked up abandoned glasses and moved around. I kept to the shadows. I struck poses that implied I was waiting for someone.

Mostly I listened to Abbey Lincoln. She played there most weekends. Just her and a pianist. Sometimes a bass player. I was too young to understand what I was seeing. How could I understand such tenderness, such intensity? I took her for granted; I thought this was what singers did. I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have.

I compared her to the bluegrass singers I’d seen while I was growing up. Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Carl Story, Jimmy Martin. She had the same blind devotion. She was singular, a one off.

Abbey Lincoln was a magician.

It would be years before I understood how sloppy and lazy, how uncommitted most singers are.

Recently Bob Dylan wrote about another New York singer/magician, Karen Dalton. Everything he wrote I could say about Abbey Lincoln; a blues singer, funky, lanky, sultry… she went all the way with it.

I heard later that Karen Dalton was living around the corner, struggling through hard times. I might have seen her, might have sat next to her, we might have been listening to Abbey Lincoln together.

As I said: one thing leads to another.

I would have liked to have heard them sing together, two high priestesses of busted beauty. I imagine that this song, The Music Is The Magic, is what it might have sounded like.

Jeb Loy Nichols.