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Sean's intro to his mom's songbook:
Since I was 12 years old I have been explaining to people about my mother, Lu Mitchell. It hasn’t always been easy, especially in recent years after I got gray hair. Strangers often find it curious or possibly a fiction that someone with gray hair can have a mother who is a practicing, card-carrying folksinger. But explaining about my mother is a burden I have gladly carried ever since she first let me up on stage to play the bongo drums on "Tingalayo" someplace in Fort Worth back in 1962.
Growing up, friends of mine had mothers who did the usual motherly things like drive them to dancing class, stencil their camp socks and bake cookies. My mother did those things, too, but on weekends she was in front of an audience somewhere singing and playing the guitar. Now, this was different. And I guess I thought it was pretty cool.
She was a born performer. She and my father met, after all, while doing community theater back in eastern Pennsylvania.
After setting out on the great post-War migration to Texas, they were sitting in Hermes and Mary Nye’s living room just off Lee Park one evening when she picked up a guitar for the first time. Hermes was a rogue lawyer who was happiest singing Child ballads and cowboy songs, and in the late ’50s and early ’60s his art-lined living room was probably Dallas’ first coffee house. There was a great spirit there of something fresh and democratic happening in popular music, something apart from the remote classicism of Tin Pan Alley and the Hit Parade. Even as a kid I sensed this and felt the excitement of the adults in that room as they strummed those big Martins and Gibsons and shouted "Wimoweh" and "This Land Is Your Land" and traded versions of songs by the Weavers and Joan Baez and the wonderful satires being written by Tom Lehrer, Malvina Reynolds and Tom Paxton. I remember meeting Pete Seeger there one night (he told me it was past my bedtime) and watching intently as he wrote out the lyrics to a song for someone. I know it was the first place I heard my mother perform.
Encouraged by Hermes and others, she was soon singing at the two main local folk clubs in Dallas, the P.M. and the Rubaiyat, and she started to write her own topical songs, much influenced by the wit of Lehrer and Paxton and Reynolds, whom she always referred to simply as "Malvina." She recorded her first album in 1963, and, while I was not asked to play on it, I was pretty excited. I figured she’d probably be opening for the Kingston Trio any day. (Actually, it took another 22 years for that to happen.) She was, rightly, leery of show business and even after she was getting bookings in Austin and Tulsa and beyond, she didn’t give up her day job as an executive secretary at a great American film corporation. Like so many talented women of her generation, she was underutilized and underpaid for her years as a member of the office corps, but she can tell you all about that in "The Paper Shredder," a song of revenge as purely inspired as anything that ever put an Uzi in the hands of Charles Bronson.
She has always told people that singing keeps her sane, that she writes her songs to vent a little of the vexation that we all feel at the small indignities and larger idiocies of modern life, from the pompadoured posturings of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker to the farcical tap dances of car salesmen and Dr. Ruth. In the tradition of the English broadside balladeers and cabaret satirists, Lu has looked no further than the newspaper, late night TV or her last visit to the doctor for the words to put to music.
I was so happy back in 1983 when I heard she was going to take early retirement from her office job because it meant she would finally be able to devote herself to singing and writing as she always dreamed. Yet I did not foresee—who could have?— that in her "second" career she would reach a wider audience than ever, make six new albums, put together a crackling three-piece backup band, open for John Prine (as well as the Kingston Trio) and play over a 100 dates a year. I mean, it has been kind of amazing.
In all, there have now been nine albums and over time she has had frequent requests for lyrics to the songs, which is why she has put together this song book. There are 51 of her songs included here— lyrics and chords—and it should serve as a companion piece for those who have the records and tapes. But just browsing the pages is likely to bring back memories to anyone who has followed her since those days in Hermes Nye’s living room. Maybe you were there somewhere along the way, at the Dallas Folk Music Society meetings, the live album at Poor David’s Pub, the Kerrville Folk Festival, the Unitarian Church programs staged by my father, Gene, the countless benefits for peace, human rights and the environment, her annual appearances at Musikfest in Pennsylvania, and the whole new chapter that began in the ‘80s and coincided with the flowering of Uncle Calvin’s and the church coffee house scene in Dallas and elsewhere.
I have not lived in Dallas for some years now, but I get back from time to time and when I’m in town it seems that mother is usually playing somewhere. A couple of summers ago she was playing at Poor David’s Pub and I went down with my dad to see her. Just before she went on, she came over and told me that David Card, the owner, was not available to introduce her and would I do it? It suddenly occurred to me that I had never done this before, never in all these years introduced my own mother in public. It is not something that every son has the occasion to do. So I got up on the stage and started talking about her, sort of like I’m doing now, except I didn’t let on at first that I was related to her, figuring that very few people would recognize me as the bongo player from 1962. I thought it might be a nice surprise for some in the audience to realize that this bright-faced, youthful looking woman in her mid-60s had somehow managed to have a son old enough to have gray hair, so I waited until the end of the introduction, and then I said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am proud to present to you, my mother, Lu Mitchell." I think I spotted a few puzzled smiles out there, but it was never so easy to say those words because I was proud. I am proud. And I always will be.
SINGING FOR HER SANITY
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955 E. Campbell Rd., Suite 600
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