The South will rise against the state
The show begins innocuously enough in the basement of the Hildebrandt House, a Guilford College student residence, with a guy named Red (so named for his prodigious helmet of flaming red hair) who is dressed in a long skirt and a grandmotherly gray sweater, swigging from a 40 ounce beer bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag and bobbing his head to the music of Dire Straits.
Boxcar Bertha bass player Daniel Bayer arrives around 9 p.m. on this Thursday night dressed in his green trench coat, a lumberjack flannel shirt and an insulated hunting cap. Bayer ‘— or Danny, as he’s known affectionately in this circle ‘— works a day job as production director for the Carolina Peacemaker, a newspaper that serves Greensboro’s African-American community.
Drummer and backup singer Larkin Carroll, clad in ripped blue jeans and a red sweatshirt, thunks out a couple beats on her kit and decides it sounds all right.
Lead singer, songwriter and guitar player Nego Crosson plugs in her acoustic and does a quick sound check with a similar lack of fussiness. She wears a loud red T-shirt that reads ‘Remember Gilbert Barber’ on the front, and ‘Fight Police Brutality’ on the back.
Before the members of Boxcar Bertha begin their set of strident political folk music, the festivities begin with a thunderous performance by the Cackalack Drum Corps, a samba percussion ensemble that performs as a marching band at rallies for left-wing political causes. Namon (last name withheld) stands in the center of the drum circle with a whistle around his neck. Between pieces, he invites audience members to join the drum corps for practice every Sunday.
Namon outlines the spirit and purpose of the night. The concert is to raise money for two causes: the Anarchist People of Color conference taking place in Asheville in two days, and the local Copwatch project, which publishes a newspaper that highlights police brutality and supports families that protest what they consider unjust use of force by police officers.
Of the samba drumming, Namon says: ‘“It’s a music of resistance that originates in Africa and comes from South America through a melding of cultures in colonial and slave times. We’re a bunch of white folks, so we play it in a spirit of solidarity.’”
This is Greensboro’s political underground music scene, a network of fellow travelers strung together from house party to house party whose art generally falls beneath the radar of the cover band-oriented bar scene of the Gate City. The audience members ‘— mostly Guilford College and UNCG students, as well as graduates who’ve stuck around town ‘— share some general tendencies towards advocacy of bicycle transportation, feminist politics, anti-war activism, and punk and folk musical tastes.
Mainstream audiences may not be taking notice of Boxcar Bertha and their ilk, but Nego thinks another kind of audience might be paying close attention.
Early in their set, Boxcar Bertha launches into a song called ‘“High Profile’” that features energetic acoustic strumming, strident vocals and a loping bass line, and evokes the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco. The song mocks the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation Boxcar Bertha and its fans see as a blank check for government repression of civil liberties.
Nego declares in the song that the so-called ‘“good ol’ boys’” have had her under surveillance since long before Sept. 11, 2001: ‘“I been slippin’ through their fingers cos my set is tight/ High profile, North Caroline/ Gotta keep my wits about me/ My resume looks like a hit list on this system, what can I say?’”
During the chorus, Larkin’s voice melds with Nego’s, lending a caressing melodic counterpoint to the lead singer’s punk fire, as she pounds the skins. Danny, who resembles a good-natured headbanger with his long blond hair and thick-framed glasses ‘— think Garth in Wayne’s World ‘— adds an interesting male dynamic to the twin estrogen attack of Nego and Larkin.
Like many of Boxcar Bertha’s songs, ‘“High Profile’” periodically escalates into breakneck-paced bar chords and a tightly-wound bass notes that create a punk edge.
All three members of Boxcar Bertha maintain a degree of commitment to the political causes that their topical songs cover, but with Crosson handling most of the lyrics, the songs most closely resemble the life she’s lived.
Nego, who is 31, moved to Greensboro from Hickory in 1992 to attend Guilford College. She was born in Fort Rucker, Ala., where her father was stationed in the military. Her father got out soon after she was born, and jumped on a corporate fast track of promotions that created a rootless lifestyle of constant relocation for the family.
of ‘“High Profile’” in many ways, with her aversion to a conventional career path and her vocal opposition to the US government.
She dropped out of Guilford College and transferred to UNCG. Before graduating from UNCG in 2002, she left school for four years.
‘“I got my self-education where I learned about the history of Greensboro, the importance of doing local grassroots organizing on local issues,’” she says.
Work is mostly projects that aren’t rewarded with a paycheck. After teaching English as a second language to immigrant adult students, she recently decided to take some time off to work on editing and designing the Copwatch newspaper, producing Boxcar Bertha’s new CD Guilty County Stomp, and shooting a video of the behind-the-scenes organization for the Fayetteville anti-war rally taking place on March 19.
‘“None of those answers your question about how I pay the bills,’” she says. ‘“I’ve been doing medical studies for money, part-time tutoring, some babysitting’… I start a full-time temp job on Tuesday at Measurements, Incorporated. I’m going to be scoring essays.’”
Nego describes Boxcar Bertha’s songs as ‘“anarcha-feminist country punk,’” which encompasses as well as any other phrase the elements of a life of activism in quest of authenticity.
‘“I never really related to punk music especially, but I liked the politics and community of it,’” she says. ‘“I’m much more of a folkie. I love mountain music and harmony. I love fiddles and banjos.’”
Boxcar Bertha developed as a collaboration between Nego and Larkin about four years ago.
Larkin also moved to Greensboro to attend Guilford College. She grew up in Nashville, where she studied classical music in high school. She arrived in Greensboro in 1987, and has ended up teaching English as a second language at GTCC and the African Services Coalition.
Despite both women being Guilford College alumni and sharing some political ideas, they didn’t meet until 2000, when they were introduced by Scott Trent, guitar player for the Greensboro punk band Crimson Spectre.
‘“She gave me a tape of her singing,’” Larkin says of Nego. ‘“I told her I was a drummer. I drove down to Florida to see my grandmother, and all through the trip I was listening to the tape. It was so straight from the heart. She was just screaming out what she believed in. It made me really like her and want to play with her.’”
Larkin says she likes being in the background as a drummer and backup singer.
Boxcar Bertha’s sound gained an extra charge when Danny joined in May 2004, an addition that coincided with Nego’s acquisition of a distortion pedal for her acoustic.
‘“I saw them when they opened for the Dolly Ranchers two years ago,’” Danny says. ‘“I thought they sounded really great. I told them: ‘If you want a bass player I’d love to join.’ It really clicked.’”
Bayer, who at 36 is the oldest member of the group, has played in many Greensboro bands since he arrived on the scene in 1990. He played in Sugar Coma, a pop rock band he describes as a cross between No Doubt and the Cranberries, in the mid 1990s, and played in a blues band for several years. He even played in a beach music band called the Mission Impossible whose members dressed in matching suits.
‘“I like playing original music best,’” he says. ‘“The whole original thing, whether it’s political or not, doesn’t fit here.’”
Like his music, his day jobs have followed a varied course. He worked in factories and warehouses until 1999, when he managed to land a reporting job at the Eden Daily News. A year later, the Carolina Peacemaker hired him.
After Boxcar Bertha’s last song, a younger band called Piedmonster, who play a zany brand of dance punk complete with Where the Wild Things Are-style animal costumes and brightly-colored wigs, take the stage.
While they’re tuning up, an African-American man named Butch Stewart drops in on the white activist gathering to give a talk about the work of Copwatch. He takes the microphone.
‘“I don’t want to hold up your party, people,’” he says. ‘“In 2001, my son was inhumanely murdered by the Guilford County cops. We try to expose things they do to ordinary citizens. People don’t like you for it, but they done took my son, so I really don’t care. I’m in a fight against the damn corrupt system.’”
Nego says all the proceeds from the sale of Guilty County Stomp will go to the Gil Barber Justice Fund, which was named in honor of Stewart’s son.
The fund helps out families of police brutality victims with extra cash.
‘“If anybody in your family gets killed by the police, there’s a really good chance that you’re poor,’” Nego says. ‘“Ordinary people don’t have ten thousand dollars lying around to pay for an investigation or a forensic test.’”
To comment on this story, contact Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org