American Quilt by Paula Cole Track by Track

by Carl Wiser

As a singer, songwriter and producer, Paula Cole crashed the gates in 1996 with her album This Fire, becoming the first woman nominated for the Producer of the Year Grammy Award without a male accomplice. "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" and "I Don't Want To Wait" were the hit singles; if mention of the latter brings on waves of nostalgia, that's because it was the theme song to Dawson's Creek.

Her latest album, set for release on May 21, 2021, is American Quilt, a collection of songs from yesteryear that chronicle the American experience. Here, Cole takes us through these songs, explaining their histories and what drew her to them.
This is my album American Quilt - a patchwork of music from the cities and the mountains, the fields and the rivers, from movies to melodies from across the ocean now woven in our complicated history.

You Don't Know What Love Is

"You Don't Know What Love Is" was written for an Abbott and Costello movie in 1941 but was made known by Miles Davis' recording in 1954. Many artists have covered it since, but I bow to John Coltrane's version, recorded in 1962 for his Ballads album. I wanted to honor Coltrane in this delivery which is true to his performance.


Wayfaring Stranger

"Wayfaring Stranger" has an unknown origin - some believe it comes from a German hymn from the late 1700s, others believe it comes from Scotland. The song made its way to the Appalachian Mountains, through the prisons of America, and out to the West of the New World. It's now a traditional American song.

We all relate to the story of the struggle of human existence, longing for belonging in the afterworld, over Jordan, with our loved ones who've passed on.

I've always loved Emmylou Harris' version of this classic. Her Roses In The Snow album is extremely dear to my heart and influential to my path.


God's Gonna Cut You Down

"God's Gonna Cut You Down" is a traditional folk song covered by a huge variety of musicians from every genre. It is a warning. It is a morality tale. The sinner will suffer. God will find you. I've heard Odetta and Johnny Cash both sing this song. We need reminders of morality in our culture more now than ever, and especially from a woman's point of view.


Shenandoah

"Shenandoah" is a traditional folk song of unknown origin. It's believed it's from the early 1800s, possibly named after the Oneida chief Shenandoah. It takes us on a canoe journey down the Missouri River, when fur traders led a lonely life and sometimes wed Native American women, hence the verse "I love your daughter." Those going down the Mississippi River met up with clipper ships whose sailors then sang "Shenandoah" as a sea shanty across the Atlantic to The UK and around the world.

I've loved this song my whole life. I wanted to honor it with this arrangement that has become somewhat cinematic. The arrangement traverses land and sea as the song has done: The penny whistle lures us ashore somewhere in Ireland. The gospel feel of the choral ending transports us to an American church. The lap steel delivers us back to the river, moving and flowing.


Black Mountain Blues

I heard "Black Mountain Blues" because I love Bessie Smith. I love Bessie Smith and I love Janis Joplin who loved Bessie Smith. Both women sang this song. It is strong like good coffee and brings out something different in me as I honor the legacy of two great artists who identify with the lyrics of "Black Mountain," where appetite and violence rule - and softness must yield to steeliness. Bessie and Janis related to these lyrics. And I do too.


Good Morning Heartache

"Good Morning Heartache" is a well-known American standard first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1946 and has since become a well-loved standard. This track was from my Ballads sessions. It was the 31st song we recorded, the last of the sessions.

Everyone was tired. But I love that everyone was tired. You can hear the relaxed nature in our fatigue. I added clarinet parts and asked for an underwater-reverb to give it even more spookiness, longing, a feeling of being lost. I like to add my clarinet to every album I make. It's my Alfred Hitchcock cameo appearance.


Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out

"Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" is an old-time blues standard written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 during the Prohibition Era, and it tells the story of someone once wealthy and successful who then spiraled downward.

I learned it from listening to Bessie Smith. It has particular poignancy to me knowing the incredibly hard life Bessie lived as a bisexual woman of color in a racist America. She grew up poor, singing for pennies in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then became at one point the highest paid entertainer of color in the States. She rode in her own 72-foot-long train car.

In Bessie's day, the big blues stars were women, and the lyrics she sang are absolutely incredible. Her lyrics empower women, they tell cautionary tales, they give advice to other women to possess self-respect, to not feel shame for being strong and being yourself! Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin both credit Bessie, "The Empress of The Blues," as their biggest influence. Janis Joplin helped pay for a proper tombstone for Bessie's unmarked grave.


Bye, Bye Blackbird

"Bye, Bye Blackbird" is another classic American standard first recorded in 1926 and made best known by Miles Davis. It is an easy swing tune that bridges the folk to the blues to the jazz in the context of this album.

I love and adore vocal improvisation. I've studied and sung jazz for years and years but have always been shy about it. I decided to finally release a recording of me improvising even though I'm reticent. The track is spare, the acoustic guitar and upright bass swing, and it's simple. It feels redemptive to show this aspect of myself.


Steal Away / Hidden In Plain Sight

"Steal Away" is a traditional gospel song that doubles as a protest song. It brings back the time of our horrific American past of slavery in which Christian hymns became veiled double meanings. In this case, code for people of color preparing to flee.

"Steal Away" is the intro for the next song, an original. I needed to write a song to more deeply reflect upon and acknowledge our tragedy of slavery. Africans essentially built the American economy through its rice, tobacco, sugar and cotton trades. The cultural influence they brought to music is indescribably profound. This history is a vital aspect of our proverbial American Quilt.

I had heard some historical stories regarding slave quilts, so I did some research and composed "Hidden In Plain Sight." It is said that these women artists created clues and secrets within their quilts and hung them in plain sight to serve as guidance for other slaves seeking to flee to the Underground Railroad. It was women's work after all, so nobody paid any attention! And it was a radical act! In this song, each verse represents a quilting pattern and advice for the traveler. Monkey's wrench and Flying geese are quilting patterns, as are Bear Trail and Crossroads.


What A Wonderful World

Everyone knows and loves "What A Wonderful World," made famous by Louis Armstrong's recording in 1967. We can't talk about American music without honoring Louis Armstrong, a genius if ever there were one. "Pops" stitched together classical music with Dixieland with swing with pop. He unified both black and white audiences. He practiced daily and had tremendous "ears" – he vocally improvised on a level rarely attained. He heard the chords and the guide tones. He lived inside the music and possessed palpable joy. Louis helps anyone who takes the time to just listen, to feel better.

It is said that one of the composers of "What A Wonderful World," George David Weiss, wrote the song specifically for Louis Armstrong in the hope that it would bring people of all races together, and I think it does. At this time in our American history, we have recently endured some hellish years and I felt quite sad when I recorded the song. I think you can hear the sadness in my voice, and it gives the track a little pathos, which I like.

Together these songs make an American Quilt, a patchwork of heritage, a stitched-together history of culture both painful and sweet. I hope the listener will step inside the canoe and float down the Missouri River of their mind. I hope they will hear the gospel of the country, and taste the liquor in the speakeasies. I hope they will feel the freedom in the jazz of the cities, heed the call to morality in the spirituality of a day's hard work, and the call to the Great Beyond from the Appalachians.

~Paula Cole

May 17, 2021

Information on how to stream or buy the album is at paulacole.com

Further Reading:

Our 2016 interview with Paula Cole, where she talks about her songs, the Lilith Fair, and touring with Peter Gabriel.

Daniel Lanois interview

Kristin Hersh interview

photos: Ebru Yildiz

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