Cabbagetown singer Joyce Brookshire to be remembered at celebration

Joyce Brookshire

Joyce Brookshire, who died this past June at age 76, will be celebrated this Saturday, Nov. 25, with a concert featuring musicians who knew her and worked with her during her long career.

John McCuthcheon and Elise Witt will be among many Atlanta performers celebrating Brookshire’s life and music at the Chosewood Ballroom, 420 McDonough Boulevard,  starting at 4 p.m. Also performing are DeDe Vogt, Brenda Bynum, Bill Fleming, Craig Rafuse and Jeff and Johnny Mosier. Admission for the concert is by donation at the door. A potluck will follow at 6:15 p.m. and a dance ($10 at the door) with Tommy Dean and Band du Jour at 7:30 p.m. There is free and secured parking for the event.

Brookshire was born in the North Georgia mountains and moved with her family to  Cabbagetown where her mother worked in the Fulton Bag and Cotton Company. She began writing songs at age 9 but it was not until she was a young adult working at The Patch, a drop-in center for troubled youth, and met folksinger Esther LeFever did she begin pursuing music as a professional.

She toured with folksinger Guy Carawan and recorded her first solo album for Foxfire Records in 1977. Her songs ranged from ballads to satire and were included in a number of theater productions. She recorded three albums and performed with many other musicians in Atlanta and the Southeast. Two of her most frequent musical collaborators and friends spoke with Atlanta INtown and reflected on Brookshire’s legacy.

John McCutcheon, one of today’s most notable and beloved folk musicians, met Brookshire at the Highlander Center in east Tennessee in the mid-70’s.

“I was a young musician trying to learn to play old-time music honestly and well and, at the same time, how to write songs honestly and well,” McCutcheon recalled. “I was constantly on the lookout for folks who grew up in traditional communities who also wrote songs. Joyce was like a beacon in the dark for me. Plus, she was a big personality and a ton of fun to be around.”

McCutcheon was part of the team of musicians who helped Brookshire make her first album. “I was kind of the utility player back then: fiddle, banjo, guitar, piano, harmony vocals. So I was put in the lineup. After the initial nervousness, Joyce really relaxed and there was as much laughter as there was music. It taught me how much fun recording could be. These days, if recording ain’t fun, it probably ain’t good music.”

Elise Witt, one of Atlanta’s musical treasures, knew Brookshire for 38 years. “It’s the same thing that I love in Woody Guthrie’s music: always remember where you’re from, what you’re trying to say, and for whom you’re writing. And tell the truth. That’s good writing in a nutshell and Joyce had it down.”

“Because Cabbagetown was a very tight knit community, everyone knew Joyce and her songs,” Witt said. “Every year at the Cabbagetown reunion, she would sing and everyone would hear themselves in her songs. ‘Whatever Became of Me,’ the title song of one of her CDs, paints a vivid portrait of so many Cabbagetown folks.”

Some of Brookshire’s songs are biting satire reflecting politics or public affairs. Her song “John Phillip Sousa” is as relevant today as it was when she wrote it during the Reagan administration:

Cause you can’t eat John Phillip Sousa
And you can’t make a foxhole a home
And on the streets of America, old soldiers are dying alone
And there ain’t no rich people soldiers
And there ain’t no Senators poor
But they wrap themselves up in Old Glory
And brag about winning the war

Here is a video of Joyce Brookshire, Elise Witt and friends singing “Back Home in My Georgia.”

F?ranklin Abbott’s new CD is Don’t Go Back To Sleep: New Songs and Selected Poems.?