The Home Key #3:

An Interview with Cornelius Eady


Rick Moody

Cornelius Eady’s poetry is well known and enduring, has commanded a goodly number of prizes, all more than well deserved; the poems are profound for their emotional heft, their disinclination to tiptoe around, their thoughtfulness, their art, their grace, their disarming courage, and their formal simplicity and beauty. Eady, that is, is a great American poetical voice, a poet of the first rank. (Brutal Imagination, and Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, are excellent places to start.) But what is additionally interesting about Eady is the idea that poetry is not at all all he can do. I knew of his poetry first, of course, for travelling in writing circles myself, but seven or eight years ago, I came to hear his music, in a period in which I was doing the same improbable thing, attempting in public to be a writer who also likes to play.  

There are many problems inherent in practicing more than one artistic form.  (Eady, it bears mentioning, does quite a bit besides write poems and play music: he has also been a playwright, a curator and arts administrator at the venerable Cave Canem, which he co-founded, a teacher, and so on.) This hydra-headed artistic ambition can cause a reputation for lack of resolve, lack of seriousness; it can appear as if you are spread too thin. But such arguments, in my view, ignore common-sense ideas about creativity and how it works. Specialization in the arts is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it emerges from a non-wholistic view of how people make things. What of the myriad examples to the contrary? Picasso’s play. Salvador Dali’s movies, Bob Dylan’s paintings, Yves Klein’s symphony, Ornette Coleman’s paintings, Audrey Flack’s string band, John Ashberry’s novel, Jim Jarmusch’s band, John Lurie’s paintings (and memoir, and television shows), Andy Warhol’s writings, and so on. My excitement about Cornelius Eady’s music was considerable, when I encountered it, and not only because I assumed (and I was correct) that the lyrics would be really good. But some other truths quickly became evident in this music, namely that Eady has really great ears, likes stuff that is hybrid, beyond easily definable genre, likes, for example, folk, jazz, soul, blues, rock and roll, likes interesting textures that are infrequent in contemporary music, like the dulcimer, has a really unusual and fascinating singing voice, gritty and melodious both, shaped by doing poetry readings (perhaps), and by soul music and punk and the dramatic arts. He has a fascinating musical voice. It delights in turning around certain syllables, drawing them out so they’re unmistakable. It is not comforting, his music, but it is frequently beautiful and important. It’s  obvious: the guy really loves music, is voracious for it, knows untold amounts, and listens to everything.

And: this music of Cornelius Eady, it turns out, was crafted in and around a particular band, a set of collaborations, notwithstanding his own ability to play guitar and dulcimer, and so it has been about the community of music making, which is a principal and exceedingly valid reason for being a writer who wants to play music: it causes you to be around other people, other makers of art, and causes you to listen well, to develop your ears. I watched and listened to various recordings of these players over the years (and this introduction allows me to say that more music by this band is imminently, on November 11, to be released by June Appal recordings, under the title Don’t Get Dead), the players with whom Eady worked, and I delighted in the unfolding of new ideas, and new ambitions. In particular, Eady has been ever more able and confident about allowing the songs to be as openly political as the poems have been, and has gotten to a point where the two media share a purpose and some profound overlapping concerns. It was no great surprise, therefore, when Cornelius got put up to a project by the Poetry Society of America—they asked if he would consider setting the poems of a great black poet of the early and mid-twentieth century named Sterling A. Brown.

Think carefully about this: if you’re a writer making music, the thing you most want to do, for the validation of the activity, is to set someone else’s poetry. Because you already know, to some extent, how to write lyrics. Remember when Bob Dylan said he wanted to make an instrumental album? Remember Warren Zevon’s  whole thing about writing a symphony? These are the kinds of ambitions that people who are really good with words get up to. Eady’s  settings of the Sterling Brown poems are really organic and simple, blues-inflected, in ways that are admirable, and this is not only because Brown wrote like a writer who still had one foot in the blues, and in the form known as the spiritual. Brown was made to be set to music. That is true. But Eady’s  settings are also good because he had a great band, great collaborators (the album also includes some fine readings of Brown’s  poems not by Eady, but by Rowan Ricardo Phillips), but also because he was stretching out and trying to be a musician who was a musician first, a songwriter. The result, which is available on Bandcamp ( is a really powerful conjoining of a first-rate poet with a first-rate musician, a great application of poetry to a particular band, and just a fine, compelling thing that reminds us of why Sterling A. Brown was an essential American voice.

It also leads one back to Eady’s other songs (, which are just as good when he is the lyricist himself. You should listen to all this music.

This interview took place in the late winter, and in that way one can be with a writer who is a little bit older, and a little bit more experienced, who has seen a bit more, knows a bit more, I especially wanted to do justice to the work. Even in the brief time we had to chat, though, Eady was remarkably enthusiastic, and warm, and generous, and, perhaps most of all, he’s a great supporter of, and example of, the need for artists to feel free to experiment outside of their form. He does the thing called creativity with his whole heart, with his whole self, for the history of it. What a body of work, for all of us.

Rick Moody: Let’s talk first just about music in your youth and how much playing, singing were involved as you were coming up. And how did they relate to a practice of poetry?

Cornelius Eady: When I think about it, it was basically one of those things where—I’m a kid of the sixties and seventies, right? So basically poetry and music were pretty much entwined. So this is when the Beatles were around, this is when Motown was hitting its stride, this is when Paul Simon was starting to release, blend poetry and music, with Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen doing their things. So all those were influences on me. But also weird stuff because Rochester is like a flyover town in upstate New York, and even though you’ve got the Eastman School of Music which was also a good influence on music as I was growing up, it’s a place where you would read about an album. If it wasn’t mainstream, the odds of you actually hearing it were nil, right?

RM: [laughs]

CE: So the only outlet I had for that was the public library, the local public library that sometimes got the avant garde and small label stuff because the record stores just didn’t handle that stuff. That’s how I got to hear Van Dyke Parks, that’s how I got to hear that guy from Syracuse University that made his own instruments, that’s how I got to hear Moondog, that’s how I got to hear all these other people that I wouldn’t have, and had an unguided tour of music because of that. My sister of course got all the Black 45s from the neighborhood music shop, so on the one hand I was listening to all the King records, and on the other hand I was listening to all this weirdo stuff, and that sort of influenced my musical taste, which is very strange. You could call it catholic in a way. Whatever I found that I liked, we’d be listening to. A lot of records I heard for the first time I would hear from the library, and a lot of records because I didn’t have my own record player. My sister had a little 45 player that she kept to herself.

I had a friend, a buddy of mine that was into electronics—Paul Holly, coolest guy in the world—he had reel to reel. Remember reel to reel? That was cutting edge, that was digital back then. So the first time I listened to The Doors was on reel to reel. The first time I heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?, his first album, it was reel to reel. He’d bought the reel to reel of it. He cobbled together a little record player for me. It wasn’t stereo. Still to this day I’ll listen to a record online or something like that and suddenly I’ll hear the stereo mix of it, and think, Oh my god, that’s the stereo separation of that song, I’ve never heard the stereo separation of that song. So I’m still having revelations even though I’m 67 years old. So songwriting and poetry was pretty much parallel stuff for me. It wasn’t like a choice between one or the other. The musicians and songwriters that I was really admiring were using a lot of poetic devices, right? They weren’t happy with this moon, June, croon kind of stuff, they were trying to say some stuff. But I also want to mention, of course, since I’ll jump at the opportunity, one of the best, first rock poets of course is Chuck Berry. His lyrics are just amazing. There’s rock lyrics and then there’s Chuck Berry lyrics, which are just gorgeous. Mouth music, on top of that. Just reciting it. And the music on top of that. So those are the people I started gravitating to, and I try to emulate. I played acoustic guitar before I played electric guitar, I was in a couple of local groups with friends like most people during that time, but at some point poetry took over. For a while. That seemed to be the way the path was working towards. So I started gravitating more towards poetry and less towards songwriting but I never fully gave it up, and basically my catalyst for going back to music full time was I sold my papers to a university and as I was collecting it I was finding, listening to all these unfinished tracks, like you know, they’re not that bad. All I’ve got to do is go in and start freshening them up, finishing up some of these tracks. My first instinct was simply to say to put it all in the box and have some grad student figure it out.

But they’re not bad songs. I don’t know why I stopped doing this stuff.

So I started posting them online. Then I got an instant message from my friend Robin Messing, old friend of mine, a poet-novelist who is also a singer, and we started kidding each other, like, You should sing on some of this sometime, Robin, it would be kind of fun to do that. We went back and forth for a while, and then we finally got around to doing it. Robin came over and she started putting some vocal tracks on it. That led to meeting her daughter, Emma Alabaster, the bass player. I was working with Marvin Sewell, actually—I’m conflating a lot of stuff here, I’m sorry, this is not going to be a linear thing—but I was also working for my theatre work with Deidre Murray who knew the guitarist Marvin Sewell and I started to get Marvin to come in and putting some guitar tracks on as well.

There was a moment when Marvin couldn’t do it because he was on the road with Cassandra Wilson, and I asked Robin, Do you know any guitarists, or violinists? It was a track that needed a violin, and I was using Garageband violin, which is just loops, which is just [blows raspberry].

So I asked Robin, do you know anyone who is a violinist, and she turned me on to Concetta Abbate and Charlie Rauh, who were a duo at that time. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to Rough Magic. And that’s how I got back into it. But as a kid, this idea of a porous thing between poetry and lyrics that’s always been one of the things that fascinated me. Also of course the influence of rhythm and blues, of people like Muddy Waters, I love the truth telling of the blues, the truth telling of country music, all that stuff got mixed into me. Also of course I’m a very big fan of the Fairpoint Convention, very big fan of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. I listened to a lot of stuff.

RM: I really want to talk about that British Folk thing, but give me a second. When you were making songs, when younger, with a guitar, did you do words first, as though words were the way in, or did you use the guitar like a guitar player would use it?

CE: I’m not a guitar player. I say that straight up. I use the guitar as an instrument, as a writing tool. But I’m not a guitarist–not in the same way that Charlie and Lisa are. But when I started, of course, Rochester New York was—and it still is—a very big folkie town, and everyone walked around with acoustic guitars, so that was my way in. Easy to do, strumming the chords, come up with something. If you can sing “Goodnight Irene” you can sing something else. I was also aware of—I never did it—but I was aware of the tradition of song swapping, which is called sampling now, right?

RM: Yeah.

CE: If you go through a lot of early Bob Dylan records you see a lot of melodies he just lifted fully and put his own words on. So it was easy for me, I guess because of that, to say I can simply do that. Back then it was guitar—it was lyrics first. I’d write the lyrics and then I’d try to figure out the melody that goes with the lyrics. Iambic pentameter, you know, rhyming, and then try to figure out some music to go with the rhyming. These days, a lot of the times, lyrics last. Not always, but a lot of times, lyrics are the last things I put on.

RM: Do you improvise melodies now? Does Rough Magic do a groove, and you’ll sort of come up with a melody, or what’s the process of generation?

CE: Well Rough Magic isn’t a band anymore—we broke up a few years ago, and now I’m working with the guitarist in the band, Charlie Rauh, and Lisa Liu, and also sometimes Concetta Abbate on violin and vocals. But when I started Rough Magic, that would be it. I’d basically do a rough demo on Garageband, and send the demo to everybody. I’d say this what I got, and then let them loose to do their own instruments on it. Some of those demos just become tracks. Emma would come over and put something on, Concetta would come over and put something on, Robin would come over and put a vocal track on then we’d just mix it. But also a lot of times the demo would be the jumping off point for the band version of the song. And that would be like all hands on deck. Everyone would sort of figure out a way to make it work, for the six of us. So different attacks, different approaches to it. Never one way, always, about songwriting.

RM: I was sort of curious, because of how prevalent the folk influences are, how much if any improvisation happens compositionally for you. Do you ever generate lyrics on the spot?

CE: Yeah—the second song on the EP I did with the musician Jenny Johnson is called “The Knee,” right, and it’s about George Floyd. I started the melody on a dulcimer, and then I just simply started singing “Officer, I can’t breathe. My O, my, I’m going to die. My, O, my, I don’t know why.” That’s the entire song. I did that, and the vocal take you hear was me recording it in that moment. I didn’t know what the lyrics were going to be, I didn’t know what I was going to think, that was simply just totally an improvisation. So that’s the song, when you hear the track, that’s real time. So yeah, I have done that, but a lot of times a song is simply just like a poem, like you have an idea, some sort of germ that you want to deal with, and the question becomes just how does it work. Back in the day, when I was working with Rough Magic, the way I’d set the demo up was I’d look for a good rhythm track. I’d go to this location called Looperman and find a good rhythm track, something I could play with, and then work on that, sometimes coming up with a melody, sometimes coming up with a—you know, run the loop, pick up the guitar, dulcimer, figure out if you can get some chords out of that that kind of make sense. After you get that down, then you start thinking about what you want to say. But you’ve got an idea of what it is. Robin was really good at being a muse. A lot of Rough Magic was Robin saying you should try this, this is a really good idea. She’d send me some article, like for example “The Pickle King” came from Robin sending me an article from The New York Times. The Times had this whole site on slavery –this was before The 1619 Project- and Robin sent me an article about this guy, Sam Bolton, whose master loaned him out to work on the Confederate railroad in Virginia. And Sam figured out that…that’s a road. He just simply walked away into the Union line, and then used the same process to get his wife off the plantation—he just used it as a highway. Then he came back as a scout for the Union when they were doing their march. He helped them out with that, and then he retired to Long Island and he got a reputation for making pickles.

RM: [laughs]

CE: So sometimes Robin has been the spark for writing a song. You know, it’s not a co-write, but I wouldn’t have gotten the idea without that. And, again, you don’t know—like a poem, what the in is going to be, but it’s always fun to figure it out. That’s where the adventure of it is. Not knowing everything beforehand is sometimes a good thing.

RM: When did the dulcimer become an instrument for you? Was that at the same time as the guitar, or later than the guitar?

CE: Later than the guitar. Way later than the guitar. I found a dulcimer that someone had put together with a kit at a garage sale in Massachusetts. I was teaching a summer workshop and my wife and I were just doing some garage-sale hunting and I found a dulcimer. I liked it, it was kind of fun, but I didn’t really do anything with it until three or four years ago, when basically I was working and I needed a different sound on this thing. Like, guitar is all right, but something else. And I remembered the dulcimer, I had it with me, tuned it up, and started playing with it. And for a while I was just using it as an writing instrument, but Charlie and Lisa encouraged me to keep using it, and also encouraged me to bring it with us when we started playing live. So I played dulcimer when we were performing, and I was using it as a tool, but also as an instrument with the band. It really thickens our sound. The thing about the dulcimer that I really love is that it taps into all that teenage folkie stuff, number one. And number two, I love the instrument. It’s a fun instrument to play. I don’t make a claim to being a great player on the dulcimer. I know my betters. Joni Mitchell is a fantastic dulcimer player, and Richard Fariña was. Richard Fariña, I read someplace, had an order in for a dulcimer with an electric pickup before he died.

Just imagine what would have happened when he had his electric dulcimer. There’s no right way or wrong way in playing a dulcimer, I’ll just figure out how to do it. And I’m using the Fariña method, he’s my guy. [laughs]

I’m just playing the way I play it—I play it with a pick. And it’s a really cool instrument. It gives me a lot of freedom. It’s also really nice in terms of being an instrument you use to play with other people. So I can do that, I do that with Charlie and Lisa, I’ve done that with Concetta in our side band Bow and Verse. Including instrumentals, which is really a lot of fun to do.

RM: Can I ask about The Sterling Brown Project, which I think is so great. You’re not writing any of the lyrics here. Was it an interesting challenge? How did you approach generating just the musical piece? Did that seem exciting?

CE: It was exciting, because Sterling’s stuff is just so musical on the page. It’s really meant for recitation. It’s really meant for, like you’re at a party—it’s really a precursor to open mics and rap and stuff like that. You can also see that. It’s a Black voice at the mic, proclaiming about experience. There it is. He’s like one step away from it being that. The poems are very tight, they work very well on the page, but they’re also meant to have the human voice. It’s singing. A different way of singing, at least the way I approached it. And for me, it was really super easy to put a melody to his work. This came out of a commission from the Poetry Society of America in 2013. Alice Quinn was then the president of the PSA, and I’m on the board of the PSA as well. But she approached me to say she was doing this course at Columbia called “Iconic Black Poets of the 20th Century” and they invited me to do a celebration reading of that at Cooper Union in 2013. Alice approached me, knowing I played music, to see if I would be interested in setting music to three of Sterling Brown’s poems for the event. But she didn’t tell me which three.

RM: [laughs]

CE: So I took out my old, dusty collection of Sterling’s collected poems, and just started thumbing through them until I got to “Maumee Ruth,” I think “Maumee Ruth” was the first one. And it was simply just like I started doing some chords and suddenly it was [singing] ‘Might as well bury her / And bury her deep, / Might as well put her / Where she can sleep.’ All I had to do was come up with a little bit of an intro on the guitar, do the melody, and that was the song. The second was “Mose,” and that was again a really beautiful song about a working guy who sings, so it just went from there. I got the three, and I couldn’t stop.

I just couldn’t stop, I was, like, Oh my god this is so crazy, this is so incredible. I started checking around the internet, to see, because I was like maybe we should do this as a band project, but you know it’s probably been done by now. I mean the work is there, you’d find out that Taj Mahal did it and I missed an album, right? Or the Carolina Chocolate Drops did it and I missed the announcement. Nobody’s done this! [laughs] Nobody’s done this in a long form. Occasionally someone does something, I think that one of the Rolling Stones, Ron Wood, did a version of “Old Lem” on their own with some other people. But really very few people, and only one poem at a time. As far as I’m aware of, no one’s done a full album of Sterling Brown’s poems, and they should, because he’s a remarkable poet. I call him the Poet Laureate of the Jim Crow South, which he actually is. Nobody has this down the way he does. Black life, Black survival, Black humor, Black joy, all of that beautifully written. So for me, my interpretation of his poems is what the project actually is. And at a certain point I realized that, as I was getting along in the process, that it would be good to have the listener actually listen to the poems as poems, which is how I got Rowan Phillips to record some of those poems just as poems, so you have a contrast between how I’m interpreting the poem, and how a poem of his actually sounds being read by a human, by a really good reader.

RM: His readings are great. But how come you didn’t read them yourself? You might have read them yourself.

CE: I could have read them myself, but I wanted to have a different voice. And I thought it was important not to hear me just simply carrying it all the way through. But in my mind I thought it would be nice to have something like first you hear an interpretation of it by song, and then you hear somebody else come in and say this is also how it really sounds without the music. The music without the music. Without the melody. And Rowan was a really good reader. He was also a part of the PSA event. What he did for us was he would read the poem before we could play the song, the musical interpretation. So that the audience would understand, would not miss anything. And I thought that was really a good idea so I kind of duplicated that for the project.

RM: The effect of it is that even those readings are musical, too. This reinforces the fact that there’s music in the poems themselves.

CE: Exactly. That was the point I was trying to make.

RM: Which just creates movement and development in the album as a whole in a nice way.

CE: I feel odd talking about my own project, as if I’m a scholar on my own project. But really to me it’s a project where it behooves you to sit down and listen to it all the way through. I know most of us don’t do that anymore, music doesn’t work that way anymore and so it might be kind of like an antique, a throwback to the way a record album used to roll, but it is like that kind of a record. It really is the sort of thing you sit down for like an hour and listen to it all the way through. You get this really nice journey, and a sense of who he was—as a poet, and what he was up to, and how strongly it resonates with how we’re living right now, what we’re living through right now. You get to see the bridge between there, that version of Jim Crow, and our version of Jim Crow. How the players have shifted, but the core of it is still around. Unfortunately.

RM:“He Was a Man” is the song on the album that really has the British folk Influence on it.

CE: [laughs] Uh-huh, yeah.

RM: If you thought about setting Sterling Brown, if you were going to just sketch it out and be obvious, you would think blues forms and soul/r&b forms, but this is a really counterintuitive musical form for this particular piece. So I’m interested in how you got there, and what role you think that idiom serves.

CE: I wanted it to be counterintuitive. That’s exactly right. If you buy the version on Bandcamp, you get to see all the different ways we are playing with it. I wanted not to simply go with blues, and rhythm and blues, and what you would expect to get from Sterling Brown. I wanted to frame the songs in such a way that they would stand out differently. The song “He Was A Man,” which was really a rough song, I thought it would be counterintuitive not to have it as a blues or as a dirge, but as something with folk rock tension to it. Because it’s still a ballad. A ballad is a ballad, and that’s how it struck me. This is when I was starting to incorporate the dulcimer—I wrote the song on the dulcimer, then I got Concetta to come along and contribute a violin part, so it’s just me and Concetta on that track. I had to fight for that one. I had to fight for that one a little, because the band really wanted it to be closer to that idea of like [singing in the style of a dirge] “He was a man…” And I was like yeah, right, but that’s the obvious way of doing it. Because suddenly it’s a shock, suddenly it’s like oh, yeah. Hopefully you paid more attention to that track because it goes on and it’s seven minutes long and it gets worse and worse and worse as you go along, right?

RM: Exactly.

CE: It’s me, Concetta and Robin on that track. One where it wasn’t the full band. The band had really gotten into this head that every track had to have everyone in the band on the track all the time. And I was like, well, yeah, I don’t think so. We can have some variation here. We recorded it—the band pressured me and we re-recorded it—and if you buy the Bandcamp version you can hear it as a the bonus track. It’s a very, very lovely, mournful thing. And I just felt—that was the one track I put my foot down on. I simply said, you know what, no. I want that different tension on that song. The other version, which is very lovely, beautifully sung, beautifully played—number one it’s too slow and number two I just felt like it was sort of too [singing] “He was a man, they laid him down…” And that was the tension of the poem; he’s not mourning him, saying it’s so sad, he’s saying, Look what they did to this man. It was horrific. Look what these white people did to this man. This is what it is, and there has to be some tension on that track, at least in my mind, for that to play. And that was the one where I simply said I’m sorry guys, I’m vetoing, this is the way we’re going to go on this one. Because it is counterintuitive.

RM: This might serve transitionally to lead me to your recent “One Good Man” recording, which you sent me the other day, and which I think is extremely moving and memorable too. It reminded me of a remark that Pete Seeger made about folk music, that folk music had a responsibility to be the news for listeners. So “One Good Man” strikes me as incredibly powerful not only because it’s a great track and has an infectious groove but also because you apparently produced it instantaneously. The story (of Eugene Goodman, Capitol police officer on January 6, 2021) of which it tells is only two weeks old!

CE: [laughs] It’s not instantaneous—going back to the working process, I’ll tell you how that started. That guy [Eugene Goodman, the subject of the song] needs, like, at the very least, a raise. He deserves a medal, but at the very least he deserves a raise. And I had the title in my head: “One Good Man”. The first line was in my head: “The odds were a thousand to one.” That’s what it was for a few days, I kept running around with it, I actually had a couple of guitar and dulcimer bits that I’d recorded beforehand and thought maybe I could fit it into whatever I set up. It didn’t work for me. So I kept thinking how am I going to do this—but then the guy from the BBC , Mark Burman, was doing this show on BBC Radio about the pandemic folk songs I wrote since last March. And he kept saying what about that “One Good Man” song, and I said I’m writing it, I’m on it. I went back and kept figuring out what I wanted to do with it. And in the conversation I had with Mark, he was talking about the folklore tale of John Henry. And I kept the John Henry thing in my head. And then finally I was thinking about another track that I did, “Razor Blade,” which is kind of a song about survival, and I set that one up as a work song, or my version of a work song. [singing] ‘Captain tossed me in a boxcar, filled with razor blades / Captain tossed me in a boxcar, filled with razor blades / Walked out the next morning with a trim and a shave.’ And I started thinking about that with “One Good Man,” so that became [syncopated clapping, humming] and off it goes. So my demo track was simply just me, an a capella track with handclaps and me singing the melody. I sent it off to Charlie and Lisa and they went bananas. [laughs]

RM: [laughs]

CE: They just went to town with this. We’ve been working this way since mid-March, and we got some really good tracks out of that, but every so often I’ll have something that I call “all hands on deck,” where basically for some reason it’s always been good, but there’s that little extra something. And that was definitely one of those tracks. We all sort of dug in. So Charlie comes up with a bass percussion track, sends it back to me, and I re-record my vocals on that. Charlie sends it to Lisa and Lisa does the keyboard and the electric guitar parts on it. And Charlie I think mixes it and that’s it, that’s the track. Every so often that’s what happens. It was like, this guy at least needs a song. Because he basically saved the country. If he hadn’t led them away from the Congress, and they had gotten in before they were able to spirit them out the back door, maybe we’d be having a different conversation right now.

RM: The more you look at the video of Goodman the more incredible it is. He looks down the hall towards the Senate, and he knows that if they go that way, somebody’s going to get shot. And then he looks at them and he knows they’re going to follow him, and he goes up the staircase. It gives you the chills.

CE: I know–you see his calculation with that. You see the calculation, and also, in my mind, he’s also thinking, this is how I’m going to die.

RM: Yeah, the bravery …

CE: Because at a certain point, he’s probably expecting that someone’s going to say, Dude,all you have is a nightstick. Or he’s going up the stairs and he trips. Or they just get bored and they swarm him. And that’s the end of it, right? And we know that’s a possibility because that’s exactly what they did to one of those other cops. They did kill them, they did beat them to death. And it’s so complicated because, there you have it, a Black man defending the culture that puts their boot on his neck. And it’s like that story’s been replicated in different ways all through this country’s history. And there you have it again—defending the country that doesn’t defend you fully. But he does it. He fulfills his duty. That’s his duty, That’s what I’m going to do man I’m laying my life down for this thing. If it’s up to me, they’re not going to get into that chamber and they’re not going to kill people. Because that’s what they’re up for—they want to kill people. That’s the thing that’s amazing about that day, they weren’t just out to stop the vote. They were out to destroy the government. They were out to kill Congress—that was the goal of that day. At the end of that day there would be—if they had gotten what they wanted—there would be no more Congress after this. And that’s what he stopped.

There’s this great documentary on this guy who supposedly saved the world, this Russian seaman that saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He’s on a nuclear sub that’s off the coast of Florida and the Navy has found it. They have radio silence, and they also have the autonomy to launch the missiles on their own without having to double check with Moscow that they feel they’re under attack. So the Navy finds them out, catches them, starts rolling depth charges, thinking this is going to persuade them to surface. The Russians see it as an attack, they think they’re being attacked. They’re thinking as far we know this might be the start of the fucking war—right? So the missiles are launched by three keys on the sub: the captain, the political officer, and whoever that third guy was. The captain goes, I think we’re under attack, gets the first key, clicks it. The political officer agrees, turns the key, clicks it. The third guy, it’s up to him—he doesn’t turn the key. And the only reason he doesn’t turn the key is because three years before that he was on another nuclear sub that had a reactor breach, and he saw what it did to his shipmates, how much damage that radiation did. That stayed his hand. If he had turned that third key… [laughs] Goodman’s the same thing—I think historically Goodman’s the same guy. He doesn’t turn the key. He does something that is razor thin and then finally it goes the other way. You know? And if that guy doesn’t get a medal, god, shame on all of us. [laughs]

RM: And the song very effectively celebrates that. It’s significantly moving.

CE: I was hoping that that came across. Also, I need to talk to Sonia Sanchez because I likely stole one of her famous lines. It says “Can you resist?” As I was doing my re-recording of my vocals, it just started bubbling up—I can’t sing this because it’s Sonia’s. Can I sing this? It’s Sonia’s line. But I said, I’ll ask for forgiveness instead of permissionand hope she’s not offended by it. But it just fit that moment: Can you resist? Because he does, he does. He resists. It’s also folk song-y in the sense that it’s kind of like a broadside.

RM: That old responsibility of the folk song, the immemorial responsibility.

CE: The idea of like a folkie broadside, like when Woody Guthrie was singing “Do Re Mi,” it’s kind of a warning for people trying to leave the midwest for California. “But believe it or not you won’t find it so hot / If you ain’t got the do re mi.” It’s a little bit of musical news.

RM: Last question; what’s next musically?

CE: Right now, it’s the Pandemic Folk Songs, getting that project out the door, and the Sterling Brown project—the theater version of my book, Brutal Imagination, was bought by Audible, and they’re going to release a recording of the show with the original cast of Joe Morton and Sally Murphy—what a joy it was to see those two put on those old skins again!—it’s going to drop at the end of April, but I’ve been playing with the idea of trying to expand the Brown project into something larger—performance piece, dance—something. Might figure something else out with the Trio. (And, of course, the Pandemic isn’t over yet.) Lots of songs left in that tank.