Musings on Oh Suzannah

Chord choices and accompaniment can transform the meaning of words. Oh Suzannah is my icon for that. It matters what chords I use, to help other people (and my own heart) understand just what I mean.

When I was a kid I loved the song – as bouncy and exciting as a ride in the back seat of an old Plymouth in a hurry on a gravel road with potholes. I had a clear image of Suzannah. She was a chubby white girl with freckles, maybe 8 years old, with her hair tied back in pigtails so tightly that it pulled the skin at the corners of her eyes. She was running down the hill with those braids flapping in the wind, with crumbs (and even some chunks) of buckwheat cake flying in all directions. The nonsense was just nonsense. The song was just fun.

When I was about 19, I heard James Taylor sing Susannah on his first album. The world just stopped. I wanted to burst into tears. I want to now, just remembering. He had something NEW to say about that song, at least for me. All those major 7ths and plaintive suspensions. The tenderness.

Suddenly, I got it! Susannah was black, and BEAUTIFUL. Slender and sad and worried, REAL, going about her daily life but thinking always of the singer (lover? husband? father? sister? mother? child?) sold away, lost, and longing for her too. She’s coming down that hill, and they both know where every bush and tree on that hill is, just where the little flowers poke their heads up in the springtime. It’s home.And she has the taste of home on her lips, and on her breath. Did they grow that buckwheat?

     It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry.

A break in the summer drought; everything washed clean.

     The sun so hot, I froze to death.

No matter what the weather does, I can’t shake the cold terror at the bone about what might have happened to you while I’ve been gone all this time. And of what might happen to me as I try again today to find my way home past all these strangers.

    Suzannah, don’t you cry.

All I can offer is that I’m coming as fast as I can. I’m sneaking my way across the land, hiding behind this banjo, pretending just to be a harmless musician. Amusing the white people, looking cute. With a subtext for my own people to hear. Maybe someone has news of her. And, I want to imagine her smiling, not with those helpless tears trickling down her cheeks, as they do down mine.

And then there’s this verse, which wasn’t on James Taylor’s album, but which is in the original:

     When I get to New Orleans I’ll look all around

     And when I find Susannah, I’m gonna fall right on the ground

     But if I do not find her, you know I’ll surely die

     And when I’m dead and in my grave,

    Susannah don’t you cry.

A wise man I used to know (Harvey Jackins) once said that people need love two ways. That we need to be loved as deeply and urgently as we need water. We’ll dry up and die without it. But, needing to give love, that’s like air.

Thanks for giving so much, and for receiving…

Another wise man I know, John Knowles, told me that someday, when we have truly solved racism, then we will go back, together, and look at Stephen Foster and his music. Right now that history is still deeply tangled with the vicious racism of so many of the original lyrics. I’ve learned not to sing many of his songs in nursing homes because it can trigger some elders to launch into the minstrel song versions, which are so damaging to our humanity.  It’s the past we have inherited, and we need to face it. I hope we can find ways to pull the jewels out of the dross. It’s going to take many long conversations with all the stakeholders. I love the work Rhiannon Giddens has been doing in that direction.

I don’t have answers, but I think the best education comes from seeking useful questions, rather than from learning “correct” answers.


Fl!p Breskin


Lullabies For Activists

A couple friends and I played and sang lullabies last week to help young activists rest. A new setting for a most ancient human activity. We enjoyed it enough we plan to do more. If you’d like to come to one, RSVP and I’ll add you to my contact list so you hear about them. This is not a jam, and not a concert either. A small group of professional musicians who are particularly skilled at lullabies will do our best to actually help you fall asleep for an hour or so. Bring a sleeping bag, pillow and mat. Activists could use a bit of reassuring rest!

I have always loved lullabies. Here are a few with me playing that have been recorded over the years:

With long-time Puget Sound Guitar Workshop collaborators Richard Scholtz on autoharp, Janet Peterson on cello, and Laura Smith on banjo. I love the way the four of us have figured out how to slow time down with and for each other. Banjo is not often thought of as a lullaby instrument, but in Laura’s hands, it can do anything. Written by Andy Cutting, an accordion player from England.  Andy plays it very fast, but I have taken liberties.

Sweet And Low
A cradle song written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the 1860s and set to music by Joseph Barnaby. My mom used to sing us to sleep with it. My brother introduced me to Aimee Ringle the night before. In course of staying up all night playing music, we discovered that both our moms sang it. So in the morning we went over and sang it to my mom, Maryann Breskin, who joined in a bit. My brother Joe Breskin recorded us.

Burning Of The Piper’s Hut
With my friend Richard Scholtz, who also played on FlatWorld. He and I have been playing together for almost half a century. Traditional Scottish pipe tune. No video. Just sound.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
This last was recorded by an audience member with a cell phone. Mostly what you hear is the audience singing. This was not a children’s concert. I loved how people found their own early memories of these songs. My husband Zeke Hoskin joined in on his mandolin from the front row towards the end.


Zeke Birthday Concert

Monday November 25th, 8:00 PM

Greene’s Corner, 2208 James Street, (south of Trader Joe’s).

Zeke & Fl!p will be celebrating Zeke’s 73rd birthday at Irish & Folk Mondays. Here’s a rare chance to hear Zeke’s quirky satiric songs and cheerful mandolin tunes at a local venue. Zeke can be funny even when he’s playing instrumentals! He’ll also have at least his alto horn, and who knows? Maybe more. Fl!p will accompany him and egg him on. She might even sing a few. If you’ve got requests you would particularly like to hear, contact us in advance so we can dig through the archives.

(Photo by Carol Baker)

Lopez Island Concert

7pm Thursday Oct 10, Center Church on Lopez Island

Suggested $20 donation

Reserve [email protected]  301 257-3081 or 301 257-2981

Old favorites, hand-made songs, old songs given new meanings by a changing world. Fancy mandolin and sweet guitar instrumentals. Alto clarinet leads on Swing, blues, and the occasional outrageous song parody. Hold your breath as Zeke creates new verses on the spot, in real time, based on audience suggestions. Zeke tap dances one-legged on a metaphorical musical high wire while Fl!p is deeply grounded in her music, enfolding listening hearts in calm compassion.

The concert will feature appearances by the Celebrated Twangoleum (pictured above when it was new in the late 1890s). Yes, it’s as odd as it looks, but sounds awfully sweet. You might even get to try playing it…

Sing along with your neighbors, under the protection of Fl!p, an experienced complaint department for shy singers. Back in the 1960s, no one ever had to audition to sing along with We Shall Overcome. It’s time to bring those days back!

Lopez Island Ergonomics Workshop


Ergonomics Workshop Wednesday Evening Oct 9

kayke[email protected], 301 257-3081 or 301 257-2981.

Musicians are invited for a 6:30 dinner at our house, 127 Lopez Road #14 with parking at Vortex, followed by Flip’s famous workshop, that she leads at the annual Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, which she founded 45 years ago near Port Orchard.

Here’s what Flip says about her workshop:

“Ergonomics For Musicians: how to be your own coach for form. Musicians are small muscle athletes. Learn how your hands, arms & shoulders work and how to apply that to an instrument. For example, guitarists will learn how to play an F chord with no pain and no strain.

If playing an instrument catches your heart, you are likely to make specific gestures a million times in your life. It’s good to know how to avoid setting up repetitive motion injuries. Problem  habits can be hard to spot since resulting injuries can take years to show up. We’ll look at How To Practice – how your brain and body interact. You can have shorter practice sessions with better results. I’ll also show you a helpful strategy for neutralizing stage fright.”

Please forward this amazing opportunity to any other musicians who might be interested in coming.

Flip requests a $20 donation.  RSVP in advance [email protected] so we can plan dinner.  Bring your favorite beverage or appetizer, s.v.p.

Any questions? Email [email protected]  or 301 257-3081 or 301 257-2981.