Priority Gal: A World War II Story

I was born in 1952, during Korea, but too late for World War II.  Still, it’s stories about the Greatest Generation that get to me, because both my father and grandfather were in that war, and for once it isn’t all hype (as it can be for sports figures). Some of these men and women really were heroes. I watch a lot of reruns of Combat! starring Vic Morrow, a show that was on when I was young and impressionable.

Priority Gal

“Priority Gal” and her crew. (Air Force photo)

And then there are World War II books. I came to The Final Mission: A Boy, a Pilot and a World at War (Westholme) by Elizabeth Hoban and (her father) Lt. Col. Henry Supchak via a circuitous route.

final mission

The Final Mission tells–very well–an untold story of World War II heroism.

Jim Allyn, a wizard of a multi-instrumentalist and producer, recently appeared on my WPKN radio show. I knew Jim’s wonderful work on mandolin and other instruments from the first few Terence Martin albums. He has just completed his first album, Backyards of the Brave, and I was immediately taken by the song “Priority Gal.”

Jim-Allyn

It’s a true World War II story. Allyn’s wife’s uncle, Henry Supchak, was a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot in the European theater of operations. He flew “Priority Gal supported by a crew of eight. He was on his 33rd combat mission, about to be sent Stateside, when on July 31, 1944, his plane was shot up over Neustift, Austria.

B-17

The B-17 Flying Fortress, seen here with her bomb bay doors open, was a fearsome weapon of war. It carried a crew of nine. After 60 years, Supchak finally flew one again–and kept it to an arrow-straight course. ((American Air Museum)

With no hope of reaching neutral Switzerland, and shrapnel embedded in his right knee, Supchak ordered his crew to bail out. “I was alone in a crippled bomber with no hope of reaching England,” Supchak writes in the book.

“I released myself from the seat and glanced up through the caustic fumes enveloping the cockpit. “Priority Gal” was headed straight toward a village at the base of the Alps. Her current course would wipe out most of the town and its residents.”

It didn’t matter that this was enemy territory. The village was full of non-combatants—civilians, women and children.

“Instinctively,” Supchak and Hoban wrote, “I jumped back in the seat and readjusted the controls to a maximum leftward flight pat and flipped the wing trim tabs. Forcing the extreme turn was not an easy task and it took some muscle and no room to spare to get my ‘Gal’ to make a 90-degree turn. Her riveted metal seams groaned in protest to the drastic maneuver, but she cooperated and veered clear of the village.”

Henry Supchak

Henry Supchak at the controls of “Priority Gal.” (courtesy of Elizabeth Hoban)

Supchak bailed out, and landed in an Alpine knoll, where he was quickly arrested. His dramatic change of course had been witnessed on the ground by a six-year-old shepherd boy, Ander Haas. Even at that age, he recognized that this airman had saved their village, Neustift. He and his aunt made their way to the German outpost where Supchak was held, distracted the guards, and slipped food to the prisoner over the course of several days. He might have starved to death otherwise.

Miraculously, the whole crew of “Priority Gal” survived the jump, and all were in prison camps until the end of the war. Supchak suppressed the bad memories of the prison camp after the war, but repeated bad dreams eventually convinced him he needed closure. Supchak lived a very long life that included 20 years of service as a process engineer at the Ford Motor Company, and he eventually went on the road and looked up all the surviving members of his crew. Only one died before that reconciliation could occur.

supchak and hoban

Elizabeth Hoban and Henry Supchak in later years. (courtesy of Elizabeth Hoban)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ander Haas—by now a successful developer of Alpine resorts—hadn’t forgotten about the airman who saved his village. He erected memorials to “Priority Gal,” and dug up parts of the buried plane. And when Supchak was 91 years old he went back to Neustift for dedication ceremonies. It’s all in the beautifully written book. I read it (in China!) and recommend it highly.

Jim Allyn and I talked about all this on the radio show. He was particularly taken by the fact that Haas’ bar has a drink—a strong one—called the Henry Supchak. So here’s a video of the song, and the lyrics are below. Supchak is no longer with us, but what he did will live on forever.

“Priority Gal” by Jim Allyn (used by permission)

Twas in the year of ‘44, the last day of July/Twenty thousand feet and falling/over German countryside/the plane they call Priority Gal was spinning in dive/and out jumped eight brave souls/as one remained at the controls

Here’s to all we knew so well/the Bride of Mars, the Memphis Belle/Jack the Ripper, Old Maxine/Careful Virgin, Sweet Seventeen/and to you old friends and pals/and the man who flew Priority Gal

There’s a little town in Austria/where they drink all night long/and there’s one they make called the Henry S./and they make it good and strong/for long ago, as that plane dove/‘twas Henry at the wheel/spinning as he gripped it tight/somehow he set those wings aright/five hundred feet above the ground/with one last turn he spared that town/he spared that town

Here’s to all we knew so well/the Bride of Mars, the Memphis Belle/Jack the Ripper, Old Maxine/Careful Virgin, Sweet Seventeen/Lady Luck, the Nine-O-Nine/Desperate Journey/Bachelor’s Bride/Just Plane Lonesome, Red Wing, Nightmare/Anxious Angel, My Baby/My Prayer/and to you old friends and pals/and the man who flew Priority Gal

Taking Chances: The Brooklyn Folk Festival 2019

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—The 11th annual Brooklyn Folk Festival, in its long-time home of St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, is about the agony and the ecstasy. The agony of sitting in hard, upright church pews for days at a time, and the ecstasy of a sublimely curated festival of folk music (using the most creative interpretation of that genre) for three whole days.

 Ozark Highballers

The Big Dixie Swingers brought their energy with them. (Jim Motavalli photo)

We walked in Friday evening as Tenares de Alelerúe was just starting. It’s a vocal quartet that sounds like a cross between barbershop music and shape note singing. They gathered in close to sing, holding each other’s shoulders. Has Joe Biden heard about this?

Little Nora Brown

Little Nora Brown is gaining control of that foghorn voice, and adding stage presence, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The repertoire was Sardinian and Corsican, and I thought that’s where these folks came from, but when the talked, lo and behold, Americans. What kind of Americans, bred on Top 40, decides to take on ancient European vocal traditions? Well, welcome to the Brooklyn Folk Festival, where this kind of dedication is commonplace.

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton was a wunderkind on every instrument he picked up. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Up next was Jake Xerxes Fussell, whose Columbus, Georgia songs I’ve played on my WPKN show. “Did you ever see peaches growing on a sweet potato vine?” he asks. Fussell is getting known; he has a strong tenor voice and an even stronger guitar style. Some of his songs are a bit odd at first, but would probably wear like old boots. “Jump for Joy”; I want to hear that one again. He played a song he described as coming from Duke Ellington, but it sounded like 60s singer-songwriter.

The Downhill Strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers: Brooklyn’s house band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jackson [Lynch] and the Janks play R&B from New Orleans, where Lynch is now resident. Unusual instrumentation: steel guitar, sax and drums. Lynch is a master fiddle player, guitarist and folklorist; I like him better solo or with the Downhill Strugglers (featuring curator Eli Smith and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers).

Frank Fairfield and Meredith Axelrod

Frank Fairfield and Meredith Axelrod. Fairfield seemed to be having a bad day. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Big Dixie Swingers, also from the Big Easy, were my hit of the day. “Western swing, that’s mostly what we do,” said fiddler/vocalist Aaron Bushnell Gunn, but there’s a really big dose of New Orleans jazz in there too, thanks to Aaron Olwell’s clarinets and Nathan Wolman’s heavily Louis Armstrong-inspired trumpet. They swung like a gate. They also have a gem in vocalist/banjoist Elizabeth Gunn Bushnell, who conjures the crackly vocals off an old 78. Ruth Etting, maybe? Points for repertoire, too, with tunes like “On a Chinese Honeymoon.” Sample lyric: “We will live on love and kisses/On our Chinese honeymoon.”

Jontavious Willis

Jontavious Willis is still in college, but already a strong performer. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jontavious Willis is still in college, but showed enormous promise as a young bluesman, particularly in his stellar harp and “talking” guitar playing.

The Old Plantation.

The Old Plantation. See the granddaddy of the banjo? (Jim Motavalli photo)

At this point I took a break from a music and walked up the winding stairs to the workshop room, where a lecture on the origins of the banjo was in progress. Scholars Pete Ross and Kristina Gaddy were knowledgeable and funny. The earliest banjos we know about were found with slaves in the 18th and 19th century Caribbean. They are seen in old paintings of revels at the slave quarters, and were made from a wooden stock stuck in to a sliced-open gourd (often with a sheepskin or hide covering)

Baby Gramps

Under that beard somewhere is Baby Gramps. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They’ve found them in Surinam, Haiti, Barbados, Madera, Jamaica, and in the U.S. too. A song—played during the workshop—was transcribed around 1687 by a visiting European from “the best musician there.” Was it called “Strum Stomp”? By 1736, there were references to slave instruments called “bangers” in New York (and from Congo Square in New Orleans, circa 1819). One definitive reference point is a 1792 painting called “Old Plantation,” with a banger and drummers and women waving scarves (also seen in Caribbean depictions).

Jim Kweskin

Jim Kweskin, with music unaffected by the passage of time. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues reminds me of a group that might have been seen in Washington Square around 1969. A visit to the Square didn’t turn up much music now, though somebody had mysteriously left record albums (Lionel Ritchie, anyone?) strewn about the benches. The vocals of Samoa Wilson, sometimes heard with jug band pioneer Jim Kweskin, were a highlight.

Nat Polly was one of the musicians brought from eastern Kentucky by the Appalshop group of folklorists. He wasn’t stuck in the past—he did a song about the opioid crisis. “That song moved in next door to me,” he said. Also strikingly contemporary were the Local Honeys, two Appal Shop women with clear voices and a strong political conscience. Fiddler Linda Jean Stokley’s song about the coal mining czars was biting, specific and on-target.

singalong

Kids singalong at the Fest. (Jim Motavalli photo_

I’ve written so much about the Mammals I won’t go into detail here. I usually see them upstate at their Summer Hoot. But they met in the city, and it was particularly appropriate that they did their Woody Guthrie-lyrics New York subway song in Brooklyn. (Guthrie lived out on Mermaid Avenue.) Mike Merenda wore a shirt celebrating Greta Ernman Thunberg, the young climate activist, and then performed “Sunshiner” (his renewable energy song). Ruth Unger’s interpretation of an Etta James song reaffirmed what a great vocalist she is.

Little Nora Brown (just 13) is getting better and better, and is developing both stage presence and vocal command. Opening with a Shaker song, she calmly informed us that it had just been recorded for a Shaker tribute that also features Yo Yo Ma. She was joined by Anna Roberts-Gevalt of Anna and Elizabeth, and at one point played a banjo that had been used by Roscoe Holcomb in New York.

The Lovestruck Balladeers

The Lovestruck Balladeers were awe-inspiring on every level, with a ragtime repertoire. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Ozark Highballers do a wonderful job of keeping alive the music in and around their Ozarks hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. They’re an old-time string band with a great respect for the tradition, and have a new album out on Jalopy Records (the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook is the parent organization of the festival.) The Highballers have a wonderful asset in the vocals of guitarist Aviva Steigmeyer, but don’t avail themselves of it enough—she sang lead on only one song.

The absolute high point of the festival for me was a set by the recently formed Lovestruck Balladeers. It’s a supergroup of sorts, with stars from a variety of ensembles. Everyone is a multi-instrumentalist, and the repertoire is ragtime and early jazz.

I saw the amazing fiddle playing of Aaron Jonah-Lewis last summer on tour with Roochie Tootchie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings, and he’s even more amazing with the Balladeers. Dennis Lichtman, also a monster on mandolin and fiddle, is most often seen with a clarinet (and also plays in The Brain Cloud, regulars at Barbes). Pianist Dalton Ridenhour knows his Scott Joplin; guitarist Jake Sanders has Django licks and more, and Sean Cronin had the audience in awe on bass. At one point, the whole front line was on mandolins.

Meredith Axelrod and Frank Fairfield were having an off night. Something was clearly bugging Fairfield, and his incessant tuning prompted Axelrod to quip, “Tuning is important. It’s more important than having a good show.” When they did play, they were great, especially an antique tune called “On the Brandywine” that was in the original Wizard of Oz stage play, circa 1905.

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton was captivating on a bunch of instruments, including fiddle, guitar, harp and more. He’s not bad on piano, either. He started one tune, then noticed that the audience’s hand clapping was out of sync. “It’s a waltz,” he said. “The African-American contingent of the audience is now up to at least half a dozen, and they should be the ones to set the tempos.”

Paxton was joined later by Jonah-Lewis and Fairfield for two trio dazzlers.

I wish I was more awake for Kashiah Hunter and friends. Sacred steel is amazing live, and there were two players on the instrument—one Hunter’s uncle. In full cry it always reminds me—for some reason—of the Allman Brothers. If they were spiritual, of course.

Tamar Korn

Tamar Korn was made to front a tight jazz/swing band like The Brain Cloud. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Brain Cloud, featuring Lichtman and the vivacious vocalist Tamar Korn were still cranking when we left for the night. There’s only so much bench time one’s nether quarters can take, and we were worried about the subways still running. Lichtman is the best kind of historian, and he told a long and fascinating tale about “My Window Faces the South” being first recorded by Fats Waller in 1937. Now it’s a country swing classic and sounds positively corn-fed.

On Sunday, events started with a kids’ singalong of Pete Seeger material sponsored by Smithsonian Folkways. Seeger would be 100 now, and his legacy is large. The kids seemed happy enough singing “This Land is Your Land” with Emily Eager and Chris Q. Murphy.

It was just as Pete would have done it, but surely an update with some new songs is permitted. The kids would become an issue later when their running around and yelling got in the way of the quieter performances. Host Eli Smith handled it properly, telling the parents that they were loved dearly, but the kids had to be corralled.

Jim Kweskin, who’s 79, is still singing and playing at the top of his game. Kind of amazing. He even looks good. A set from him is like hearing music in your own living room. On his own, instead of with his trademark jug band you get a musician strongly influenced by Mississippi John Hurt, which isn’t a bad thing. He did Uncle Dave Macon’s “Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train,” gave “Eight More Miles to Louisville” another go-round and sang a hilarious song about the life of a guitar player—to the tune of “Swinging on a Star.” Inspirational wisdom: “My buddy Geoff Muldaur likes to say we play for old people—and their parents.”

John Harrod

John Harrod and friends. Don’t let the baseball cap fool you. (Jim Motavalli photo)

John Harrod, a Kentucky fiddler, sounded great and did a set that was strongly regional in flavor. One song was from a guy who had to be gotten out of jail to record it. But don’t let the baseball cap fool you—Harrod went to Oxford, and his accompanist wife to Vassar. Harrod made a strong pitch for his state’s music, Appalshop, and the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School (held the last full week in June). Indeed, many of the performers on Sunday had attended it.

The Downhill Strugglers were in rude good health, with Jackson Lynch in particularly fine form on fiddle and songs like “That’s All Right.” Eli Smith played a delicate banjo tune, “The Wild Goose Chase,” that was perfect for Sunday in church.

I’d describe the much-anticipated film The Ballad of Shirley Collins, about the British balladeer who accompanied Alan Lomax on his southern adventures, but the video player didn’t work. Oh well.

Ian Felice of the Felice Brothers looked like he just rolled out of bed, and his songs were in that same spirit. They were more like random journal entries than actual songs. For his information, Fred Neil did not write “Shake Sugaree”; Elizabeth Cotton did.

Molsky, Trischka and Daves

The dynamic trio of Molsky, Trischka and Daves. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I can’t say too much about the uniting of Bruce Molsky, Michael Daves and Tony Trischka. As Trischka pointed out, they have busy schedules and don’t get together all that often. But when they do, sparks fly. All three are giants in old-time (and progressive) circles, and they played at blistering tempos when they weren’t making you cry with ballads like “The Blackest Crow.” The breakneck finale, a workout on something called “I Get My Whiskey from Rockingham,” was just awe-inspiring. Here’s video (but not of that song!):

Anna Roberts-Gevalt, half of Anna and Elizabeth, appeared earlier accompanying several of the acts (including John Harrod and Little Nora Brown), and was totally well-behaved. But her own set on Sunday night was the most avant-garde folk performance I’ve ever seen. One song was accompanied by the amplified sound of her washing her hands in a basin. In duet with Robbie Lee, she played the viola and he the alto sax, and they walked towards each other from corners of the church. It was dramatic, to say the least.

Anna Roberts-Gevalt

Anna Roberts-Gevalt reinvents folk music. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Other songs had her wailing like Yoko Ono, deconstructing the standard “Careless Love,” and radically re-interpreting the purpose of the banjo. Bravo for taking chances. The same should be said of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Long may it wave.

The 11th Brooklyn Folk Festival is Here!

BROOKLYN, NY—This year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, the 11th, offers one of its best lineups ever, strong this year on Southern folk and country or, if you prefer, Americana. The musical trees and their offshoots, presented by Red Hook’s famed Jalopy Theatre, grow in Brooklyn April 5-7 at St. Ann’s Church, 157 Montague Street.

jackson lynch

Jackson Lynch, an MVP at the Brooklyn show, playing old-time country and New Orleans R&B.

Eli Smith, both the curator and the main announcer, said that string bands from Georgia and Kentucky will be featured this year. There will be three bands, a pair of films, a workshop and square dance presented by Appalshop, the nonprofit folk arts aggregation based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. And, as always, they’ll be plenty of blues and gospel. As well as a slightly smaller dose of music from New York’s immigrant diaspora, though there’s Tenores de Aterúe (a Sardinian vocal quartet), La Cumbiamba NY (playing music from Colombia) and Ukrainian Village Voices.

One of the Appalshop films is Catfish Man of the Woods, about a fifth-generation herb doctor living near Glenwood, West Virginia. Speaking of films, I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary about British folk singer Shirley Collins’ Southern adventures with folklorist Alan Lomax in the late 1950s.

jerron paxton

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton dazzles on just about any instrument. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As usual, a lot of the music is new to me, but it all looks intriguing. The Ozark Highballers and the Dixie Swingers? I’m there. “A good part of my job is knowing what’s happening and bringing it either to the Jalopy or to the festival,” Smith said. “I hear music on the road with my band [The Downhill Strugglers] and via word of mouth,” he said.

The Brooklyn event seemed packed to me last year, and the fact that it’s a younger crowd is encouraging. Is it growing? “It can only grow so much if we’re going to stay at the 800-seat St. Ann’s which we definitely want to do,” Smith said. That said, the audience turns over quite a bit during the weekend, and there’s lots of room (f instance) Sunday afternoon and evening. I’ve done the whole thing several times in the last few years, and there’s never a flat spot—or sets you’ll be glad you missed.

little nora brown

Little Nora Brown will be back, 365 days older. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Groups I do know about and am looking forward to seeing include: Jake Xerxes Fussell (Friday evening), Jackson and the Janks (Friday evening, featuring the versatile Jackson Lynch), The Mammals (Saturday afternoon; their Summer Hoot is also strongly recommended), Little Nora Brown (Saturday afternoon), the workshop on the early African-American history of the banjo (Saturday afternoon), a panel on the impact of the late folk impresario Izzy Young (Saturday afternoon), Frank Fairfield and Meredith Axelrod (Saturday night), The Brain Cloud with Tamar Korn (Saturday night), Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton (Saturday night), Jim Kweskin (Sunday afternoon), the Downhill Strugglers (Sunday afternoon), the trio of Bruce Molsky, Tony Trischka and Michael Daves (Sunday night) and Anna rg of Anna and Elizabeth (Sunday night).

brooklyn 2019

A great festival find: Meredith Axelrod, appearing with Frank Fairfield. Don’t think the 40s, think the 20s and 10s. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The church pews are kind of hard, but you’ll get wrapped up in the music and won’t notice it. There’s good food on the premises, restaurants a-plenty just outside the door, and the opportunity to buy records from Jalopy’s own label. I recommend the albums by Jerron Paxton, Tamar Korn and Mamie Minch, the Downhill Strugglers, Jackson Lynch, and the Whiskey Spitters.

The Downhill Strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers take old-time into the city–as the New Lost City Ramblers did. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I asked Smith why he’s so successful at attracting young audiences. A graying crowd is a big issue at other events. “We have young bands, and they have young followers,” he said. Makes sense. Smith said the event is holding its own, but “on a shoestring every year. It would be nice if we didn’t have financial problems.” All the more reason for you to get your can down to Brooklyn.

Smith is working on an oral history of folk music in New York, 1935 to 1975. That covers a lot of territory, and I’m looking forward to it. Researching that will make him a better curator. He’s already revived The Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders (or at least a piece of them).

I’m telling you, this is a good event. Don’t miss it. The Brooklyn Folk Festival kicks off the summer season in fine fashion. For details, visit the website or email lynette@JalopyTheatre.org.

This video captures the spirit of the event, though it was recorded in Texas. The duo will be in Brooklyn Saturday evening: