Mining Love and Truth in Music: Ain’t We Brothers by Sam Gleaves

By Daniel Garrett

Sam Gleaves, Ain’t We Brothers, Community Music Inc., 2015

Gore Vidal, The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, Doubleday, 2008

  1. Commentary on Sam Gleaves, Music, and Culture

Old plants are transformed by place and time into rock; buried beneath the earth, the old plants, compact, hardened, combustible becomes valuable black rock—coal, which began to be mined in Virginia in the mid-1700s and has been used for heat, electricity, and manufacturing.  The hard work of men digging for coal has led to the growth of families, disease, and both radical and reactionary politics.  Yet, such experience rarely makes it into popular culture (very rare are films such as the John Sayles 1987 drama Matewan, about labor organizing among miners in early twentieth-century West Virginia, or Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, covering an early 1970s Kentucky coal miners’ strike)—the details of hard labor and labor politics are more likely to be noted in folk culture, the kind of culture that inspired musician Sam Gleaves.  The album Ain’t We Brothers is a collection of songs by the singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Sam Gleaves; and it contains songs of family, love, labor, community, and struggle.  Sam Gleaves plays banjo, dulcimer, fiddle, guitar, and autoharp but Gleaves does perform with admired friends.  With the fiddle of Tim Crouch and the banjo of Cathy Fink, Sam Gleaves sings “Working Shoes,” about a woman observing the efforts of a hardworking husband, efforts that do not change the fact of family impoverishment.  Hard work and low pay has been a fact of life for many Americans for too many years, but usually popular culture ignores that for stories of glamour and success.  Folk music has been exceptional for its respect for the real stories of human lives.

“Just Like Jordan” is a love song on Sam Gleaves’ album Ain’t We Brothers; and the title song “Ain’t We Brothers” is a first person declaration of community and difference.  “I’m from the central Appalachian region—the mountains in southwest Virginia.  The music that’s native to there is really beautiful and has a lot of cultures,” Sam Gleaves told Terri-Lynne Waldron of Windy City Times (October 11, 2015).  “There were Anglo-American settlers there but also African-American music is a huge part of the tradition—the banjo being an African instrument—and the spirituals and all of that stuff melded with those Anglo traditions and made a very diverse music,” said Sam Gleaves.

The song “Ain’t We Brothers,” about community and same-sex love and conflict, was inspired by the story of a coal miner whose sexuality was discovered by co-workers who then harassed him.  “Ain’t we flesh and blood all through—and ain’t we brothers too?” asks the song; although miner Sam Williams, the man who inspired the Gleaves song, received a resounding answer: No!  The coal miner suffered surveillance and harassment from co-workers, people who knew him—which is hateful; and Williams quit his job, but sued the company, despite lack of legal protection for homosexuality. Sam Williams sued for sexual harassment at work, and there was an out-of-court settlement—facilitated by the business that bought the company that had harassed the worker.  The fired worker, Williams, is now a manager at a retail store.  That harassment is a reminder that the larger American culture—the culture that knows of performers such as Little Richard, Andy Bey, Elton John, Morrissey, Bob Mould, Stephen Merritt, Ricky Martin, Rufus Wainwright, Rahsaan Patterson, Edward Droste, Kele Okereke, and Frank Ocean or of films such as Death in Veniceand It’s Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in which He Livesand Fox and His FriendsMy Beautiful LaundretteLooking for LangstonEdward IIWild ReedsTotal EclipseHappy Together, and Kinsey—as well as Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain—does not seem to have affected the consciousness of many parts of the country.  Sam Gleaves, informed by local customs, may be able to reach those other people—even more celebrated artists and thinkers—have not reached.  On Sam Gleaves’s album Ain’t We Brothers, a comforter in times of trouble and turmoil is featured in the song “Angel in the Ashes,” and “Come Into Your Own” seems to be about trust despite disappointed love; and “The Golden Rule” is a request for fairness and compassion from religious people, including pastors and priests, asking them to live out their moral creed.  “Two Virginia Boys” is a love young, featuring two young men.

The human body is our fundamental orientation for being in the world, although not the limit of our experiences.  Sexuality is a fact of human life, of animal life; and, consequently, sexuality is a principal subject in science and art, in music as well as fiction and poetry and painting and film and sculpture and dance.  Decades ago, the great writer Gore Vidal, an aristocrat and a radical, said that “The obsessive concern with sexuality which informs most contemporary writing is not entirely the result of a wish epater le bourgeois but, more, the reflection of a serious battle between the society man has constructed so illogically and confusedly and the nature of the human being, which needs a considerably fuller expression sexually and emotionally than either the economics or morality of this time will permit” (The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, Doubleday, 2008; page 12).  In the early 1950s, when Gore Vidal (1925 – 2012) made those observations about sex as a popular topic for writers, Vidal was in the midst of discussing the leading writers of the 1940s; and it is fascinating to think that while sexual mores have become looser, more indulgent, there are still sexual anxieties and taboos—as the story of the beleaguered worker Sam Williams illustrates.  Sexuality was only one of Gore Vidal’s subjects, as Vidal created a literature of experience, heritage, invention, and satire: Vidal, a warrior and a wit, is the author of novels Williwaw, The City and the Pillar, Julian, Myra Breckenridge, Two Sisters, Burr, Kalki, Creation, Lincoln, Live from Golgotha, and The Smithsonian Institution; the plays The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet; and the essay collection United States, featuring fact, insight, and good guidance, too much of it ignored.  Gore Vidal’s first novel was named after a threatening wind and focused on men on an army supply ship near the Aleutian islands during war, Williwaw; and his second novel was The City and the Pillar, which presented two high school boys who have a sexual encounter during a camping trip, the memory of which stays with one of them as he makes his way through various jobs and an entrance in the military, but the book—like The Great Gatsby and Giovanni’s Room—is less a love story than a portrait of arrested development that cannot be corrected as the surrounding society is immature, shallow, and malicious.  Vidal wrote about the beginnings of western civilization in novels such as Julian and Creation and the building of the United States in book such as Burr and Lincoln and Vidal offered funny critiques of culture and change in Myra Breckenridge.  Vidal, principled and playful, meditated on and mocked the myriad ways of malignant power, whether exercised in the worlds of culture or politics; and Vidal, the creator of the memoirs Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation, is the provocative and wise subject of the 2014 film documentary by Nicholas Wrathall, The United States of Amnesia, a work that showed Vidal at his homes in Italy and California, and interviewed his friends and associates such as Joanne Woodward and Jay Parini, a work of encouragement and entertainment.

“In literature, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion.  Whether or not such candor is of interest to a reader depends a good deal on the revealer’s attitude,” wrote Vidal (Selected Essays; page 159), amid a discussion of critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote literary essays collected in Axel’s Castle, and an intellectual study of socialism, To the Finland Station, and the novel Memoirs of Hecate County, as well as kept detailed diaries of Wilson’s own sexual experiences.  The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal is a book impressive for the eloquence, intelligence, and range of the writer’s concerns and evaluations: classic and modern literature, including Montaigne, William Dean Howells, Tennessee Williams, and Italo Calvino; and tendencies and trends in academic criticism, including a desire for innovation for its own sake; political events and interpretations, including the American government and its deceptions, the military-industrial complex and the national security state, the Arab-Israeli conflict; the Kennedy family and its myths; and the dangers of monotheism, and social and sexual bigotry.  Gore Vidal appreciates the essayist Montaigne’s panoramic views of subjects private and public, and Montaigne’s wit—a comprehensive perspective and an incisive wit are qualities Vidal shares with Montaigne.  Montaigne thought laws should be few, simple, and general—and Vidal as well wants restraint in official interferences in the lives of citizens, protection of rights rather than prohibition of liberties.  Yet, it is difficult, always difficult, to fight ignorance and malice—knowledge and understanding, and courage and will, are required.  “The American passion for categorizing has now managed to create two nonexistent categories—gay and straight.  Either you are one or you are the other.  But since everyone is a mixture of inclinations, the categories keep breaking down, and when they break down, the irrational takes over.  You have to be one or the other,” wrote Vidal (“Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” Selected Essays; page 340).  Of course, one must respect the self-definitions of others, even when they are limited—but one does not have to accept those limited definitions for one’s own identity or experiences.

The Appalachian singer-songwriter Sam Gleaves, a student of folklore and a graduate of Berea College, and an international traveler, and teacher, is a self-declared gay man.  “I’ll admit that it’s jarring to hear him sing an unbridled love song to another man—not because I disapprove, but because I’m used to hearing country and bluegrass singers croon nostrums about ‘traditional values,’ whatever the hell they are,” wrote Rob Weir of the internet log Off-Center Views (October 30, 2015), after acknowledging Sam Gleaves talent and courage and before saying, “Most of the songs on the album are, in some form or other, about different kinds of love: same-sex love, love of the South, love of humanity,” and asserting the possibility of Gleaves talent and themes affecting even those who might have been prejudiced.

On Ain’t We Brothers, after the instrumental “Creek’s Frozen Up” is an intimate, strong, and surprising performance of a traditional song, “Johnny,” a plaintive song about young love that persists despite parental disapproval—usually sung by a girl, it is just as touching when sung by a male.  The opposition to love is more palpable, more vivid, if anything.  Another traditional, “My Singing Bird,” achieves a similar moving effect.  It is pretty, too.  Here, also, are “My Dixie Darlin’” and “Let Myself Believe” and the album ends with “If I Could Write A Song,”

An Internet Interview with musician Sam Gleaves

So much of folk music was born in country life—and it is also true that much of the modern novel had its roots there too: people lived with and transformed both nature and self, forming communities and developing manners and culture.  Folk music in Virginia—drawing on the music of the English, Scots, Irish, and African music—go back many years, hundreds of years, to the founding of Jamestown.  The banjo and the fiddle are customary instruments.  The old music traditions have influenced more recent music.  Some Virginia musicians of note are Dock Boggs, Ruth Brown, Bluegrass Buddies, John Cephas, Roy Clark, Clarence Clemons, Patsy Cline, D’Angelo, Bruce Hornsby, John Jackson, Aimee Mann, Jason Mraz, Glen Smith, Ralph Stanley, The Statler Brothers, Virginia Mountain Boys, Wade Ward, and Pharrell Williams.  A sense of tradition was not difficult for Sam Gleaves to find in Virginia—there are different traditions.  A more significant question might be: What would Sam Gleaves make of tradition?  Sam Gleaves, who has a good relationship with his storytelling family, was attracted to the community folk music gathers, and he has said that the music has given him a compass with which to build his life around.  “I didn’t have to hide in my life or in my writing,” Gleaves has been quoted as saying.  Gleaves first came to my attention when I received notice about his work from Ron Kadish, a publicist with Rock Paper Scissors.  I was intrigued by what seemed a unique sensibility, one informed by region, rigor, and romance, and I proposed a written exchange of questions and answers, an internet interview—and Kadish and then Gleaves agreed.  (I sent the questions November 3, 2015, and received the answers, as requested, ten days later, November 13, 2015.)

Garrett: What do you see as being the purpose of your music?

Gleaves: To be honest.  I’m passionate about singing and playing traditional music from the Appalachians and writing songs about my experience being from there.

Garrett: What was the production of your album Ain’t We Brothers like, in terms of schedule, planning, organization, and collaboration?

Gleaves: I met Cathy Fink at Common Ground on the Hill, a great week of traditional arts workshops at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.  We were both teaching there and I sang “Ain’t We Brothers” at the concert.  Cathy was waiting backstage, and after she asked if I had ambitions of making a record, she said she would help me in any way she could.  Cathy helped me launch a crowdfunding campaign, advised me on songs and arrangements, and connected me with the amazing musicians who play on the album, assembled a publicity team and helped with a hundred other things.  Most of all, Cathy encouraged me to believe in myself and commit to making the project as solid as possible.  We recorded in Nashville with a great engineer, Ben Surratt, with most of the tracking done in a week.  Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer were very generous to add a few outstanding vocal and instrumental parts from their home studio.  We took our time in the post production and were rewarded with top notch mixes by Jim Robeson and mastering by Bill Wolf.  What meant the most to me was the chance to collaborate with Cathy and the whole cast of musicians in the studio, everyone from my partner Tyler Hughes to Tim O’Brien.

Garrett: The song “Working Shoes” is a terrific composition, its lyrics capturing generations of family, work, and worry.  How long did it take to write?

Gleaves: Thank you!  I wrote “Working Shoes” in about an hour, and I edited it some over the years as I sang it.  I remember writing the song in my dorm room at Berea College.  I studied Folklore there and took a lot of Appalachian Studies classes, so we read a lot about coal mining history in the region.  I had also heard Jean Ritchie’s brilliant “West Virginia Mine Disaster” and I think that influenced me to write “Working Shoes” from a woman’s perspective.  My great grandmother, Lillian Alexander Bradberry, grew up in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia, so I think of her when I sing the song.

Garrett: Traditional folk music—whether Appalachian bluegrass, African-American delta blues, and other folk and country music, the music of mostly rural people—contains a record of the difficulties of ordinary working lives, something that is obscured in great classical music and modern commercial popular music, even in contemporary popular country music.  How does the music you make relate to other kinds of widely available music, past and present?

Gleaves: Well, no musician in this day and time can live in a vacuum.  Of course I grew up hearing pop music and commercial music—two of the singers I first loved in my teens were Stevie Nicks and Tina Turner.  But I was lucky to grow up in Southwest Virginia where I was near a lot of musicians in touch with much older traditions.  I’m fortunate to have learned from many of those musicians in person and also to have studied the wealth of field recordings documenting those traditions.  I have always loved stories because my grandparents and my father are such gifted storytellers, though they might not admit it.  I love songs that carry an imprint of the singer’s life, so I suppose I try to write those kinds of songs.

Garrett: You have grown up and lived in Virginia.  What are the political discussions like where you live?

Gleaves: More diverse than the American public might think.

Garrett: You studied folklore at Berea College. What kind of materials did you work with, and do you now incorporate some of that in your musical work, in terms of perspective, form, or content?  

Gleaves: I love archives.  The whole staff at Berea College’s Special Collections and Archives have been very helpful in connecting me with some powerful materials over the years.  Check out their collections online.  I’ve also done a lot of oral history interviewing, which I think is a critically important kind of listening in our time.  All these gave context to my performing traditional music and my writing.

Garrett: Who are some of the other composers and musicians, in whatever genres, that have inspired and influenced you?

Gleaves: Hazel Dickens, the great singer and songwriter from West Virginia, is a huge influence, as is Alice Gerrard, an incredible writer, singer, preservationist.  Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer are a true inspiration, as are many of their mentors like Ola Belle Reed, who might be the most powerful and prolific songwriter from the Appalachians.  My friend Sue Massek of the Reel World Stringband is an incredible songwriter who blends tradition and activism in her work, one of the first I knew personally who followed that path.  Jim Lloyd, a great fingerstyle guitarist and banjo player originally from Southern West Virginia, taught me to play stringed instruments, so his influence is behind everything I do.

Garrett: “Angels in the Ashes,” another song on your album Ain’t We Brothers, has such strong guitar playing.  Who is playing?  And what was it like to meet and work with Janis Ian?

Gleaves: Thanks again!  I played the fingerstyle guitar on that track.  Janis Ian was incredibly gracious and encouraging to me.  My Mom is a real fan, so Janis was kind enough to send her a book and a CD.  Throughout this project I feel like I’ve had strong hands on my shoulders guiding me through and Cathy bringing Janis in was one of those moments.  It was also a real thrill to watch Janis work—she’s brilliant at bringing her technical knowledge to a heartfelt voice.

Garrett: The title song, “Ain’t We Brothers,” about the trouble—disapproval and harassment—a coal miner with a male life partner has with coworkers and community, is a true story.  What kind of responses have you had to that song thus far?

Gleaves: I’m so grateful that the song has been well received by Sam Williams, the coal miner the song is written for, and most audiences.  I’ve never received any kind of negative comment regarding the song, which must say something.  I think people who appreciate the honesty and dignity of working class people connect with the song.  One of the greatest honors was singing the song for Shirley Collins, the legendary English folksinger and scholar, who was moved to tears.  Shirley told me she very much believes that the working class never got due credit for their contribution to the arts through folk music and I agree.

Garrett: What do you think is the source of joy of life?

Gleaves:  Generosity.   So many people have given me their best listening and devoted many hours of work to my efforts this year.  I’m so grateful and I’ll be passing it as I go forward.

Garrett: How important is discipline, for a man and for an artist?

Gleaves: I don’t know that I’m really that disciplined, but I am committed to represent Appalachia and its traditions with dignity and to stay true to what I believe in.  I think my family instilled that in me and also allowed me to be sensitive and in touch with my emotions, which is invaluable to any artist.

Garrett: Who are the writers of literature—novels, short stories, poetry, and essays—that you admire or enjoy?

Gleaves: I consider so many of the songwriters whose work I love to be poets, and also all those unsung writers who contributed to the enduring folk collective.  I love Southern and Appalachian writers like Lee Smith, James Still, Silas House, Jason Howard, the list rolls on.  I especially love reading autobiography—thank God Dolly Parton’s reading of her own autobiography is now on YouTube (all 5 hours of it!).

Garrett: How would you like to see American culture develop?

Gleaves: We have miles to go toward being inclusive, to truly valuing diversity and fighting inequality in this country.  I would like to be more committed to making those changes, through the difficult conversations and re-evaluation of our habits and ways of thinking.

Garrett: What do you hope for yourself?

Gleaves: That I can be more attuned to helping others.

Thank you Sam Gleaves for your time and attention. I wish you health, creativity, and joy.

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Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: or