By June in Raleigh, we’re dreaming about pools, rivers and beaches… and so are these North Carolina musicians.
by David Menconi
Summer is the wettest time of the year, and not just because of the humidity. It’s when we tend to spend the most time around bodies of water, whether it’s alongside the Atlantic Ocean, down by a lazy river or hiking toward a waterfall. In honor of this most aquatic of all seasons, here is a playlist of North Carolina acts from over the decades, doing songs in which water plays a starring role.
The Foreign Exchange (Featuring Carlita Durand), “Dreams are Made for Two” (2013)
In this dreamy tune, Phonte Coleman, the cofounder of North Carolina hip-hop legends Little Brother, croons about scenic beaches.They’re lovely, of course, but, the lyrics ask: “Who wants to view it alone?” Summer getaways are as much about who you’re with as where you’re going.
Let’s Active, “Waters Part” (1984)
Waters can rise, recede or divide. And on rare occasions when the interpersonal chemistry is just right and the planets align, they part. Let’s Active frontman/ guitarist Mitch Easter notes the movements of moons and tides before concluding, “Waters part when our eyes see together.”
Sylvan Esso, “Slack Jaw” (2017)
Water can also stand in for things you’re trying to keep your head above. “Slack Jaw,” a moody downtempo song from Durham electronic duo Sylvan Esso’s splendid What Now album, finds vocalist Amelia Meath sounding shellshocked in the wake of some unspecified calamity: “Sometimes I’m above water/ But mostly I’m at sea.”
James Taylor, “Cooperline” (1991)
Sweet Baby James spent his formative years growing up in Chapel Hill. “Copperline,” co-written with North Carolina novelist Reynolds Price, is a fond remembrance of summer days spent splashing around Morgan Creek. Nowadays there’s a sign reading James Taylor Bridge on a stretch of Highway 15-501 across that same waterway.
Nina Simone, “I think it’s Going to Rain Today” (1969)
Sometimes water does not rise from below but falls from above, whether or not you’ve got outdoor plans. Tryon native Simone covered this Randy Newman classic about a mood as grimly dark as an afternoon thunderstorm that blacks out the sun.
H.C. McEntire, “River’s Jaw” (2020)
Singer/songwriter McEntire’s 2020 album Eno Axis uses the song to explore the Orange County river she’s lived alongside for nearly a decade. Possibly the most aqueous-sounding song on it is “River’s Jaw,” with atmospheric spaghetti-western soundtrack vibes that sound like you’re hearing them underwater.
Link Wray, “Black River Swamp” (1971)
A master of dirty roots-rock guitar, Wray grew up in the vicinity of Dunn. And while his childhood was not entirely happy, he remembered those days enough to write these lyrics: “I can hear them bullfrogs croaking/ In the blackness of the night/ Calling me back to my childhood/ Down here in Black River Swamp.”
Coastal Cohorts, “Down by the Edge of the Sea” (1996)
Coastal Cohorts are a spinoff from the eclectic Chapel Hill stringband Red Clay Ramblers, and they’re best known for the 1996 musical King Mackerel and the Blues are Running. From that musical, “Down by the Edge of the Sea” is a zippy, finger-snapping number.
Doc Watson, “Deep River Blues” (1964)
A folk-guitar legend from Deep Gap, Watson could play lightning-fast yet still make it feel as relaxed as ambling alongside a lazy river on a hot summer day. Recorded in 1964, “Deep River Blues” stands as proof that sometimes pretty surroundings aren’t enough to cheer you up.
Rhiannon Giddens & Franceso Turrissi, “Waterbound” (2021)
Equal parts classical siren and down-home banjo player, Greensboro native Giddens just won a Pulitzer Prize for her opera Omar, written with Michael Abels. But as far as she’s traveled, home is never far away in her music. From her most recent Grammy-winning album, They’re Calling Me Home, “Waterbound” contemplates water as a barrier “down in North Carolina.”
Brownie McGhee, “Deep Sea Diver” (1960)
A song that puts the “body” into “body of water” as metaphor. It’s a ribald little tune in which Piedmont blues legend McGhee boasts of his prowess as a lover.
Loudon Wainwright III, “The Swimming Song” and “Westchester County” (1983)
Swimming pools are a recurring location for Durham native Wainwright, including “The Swimming Son” from his Attempted Mustache album. A decade later, he offered up the song “Westchester County,” on which he intones, “We were richer than most/I don’t mean to boast/ But I swam in the country club pool.”
“The Fishin’ Hole” (1960)
We close with this easy-going whistled instrumental, which you might know as the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show. The long-running television series went off the air in 1968 but is no doubt airing in syndicated reruns somewhere at this very moment.
Listen to the NC Water Playlist here!
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Walter magazine.