Stace England

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Greetings from Cairo, Illinois:As a city crumbles, local artist sings its history

CARBONDALE - "Greetings from Cairo, Illinois" is not so much an album as an auditory history of the city that haunts singer/songwriter Stace England.

One listen to the CD and the audience will be haunted as well.

Cairo is the cultural metropolis that should have been, and England's seminal work lyricises the political corruption, incompetence and racism begetting the once-great river city's downfall.

The time is ripe to sing this history. Soon enough, Cairo will not be able to tell its own story. Commercial Street's antebellum businesses are rapidly crumbling. Its brick guts are shipped away to places like New Orleans where its rich history means tourism dollars while Cairo struggles in poverty.

"It's a heart-breaking thing to witness," says England, a Cobden resident who has been making pilgrimages to Cairo for the last five years.

"No other city in the United States sprawls the confluence of two great rivers, Northern and Southern culture, and unlimited potential and broken dreams quite like Cairo," England writes in extensive CD notes that give the historical background of each song.

England's years spent researching Cairo's history and meeting its people inspired the album, which features some 50 other musicians with local ties.

In "Equal Opportunity Lynch Mob," Americana favorite the Woodbox Gang helps tell the tale of one of the most infamous lynchings in American history.

The Nov. 11, 1909 hanging, shooting and burning of Will James, a black man accused of raping and killing a white girl, was photographed and sent in a series of postcards publicizing the event throughout the nation and beyond.

That same night, the vigilante mob's bloodlust turned to Henry Salzner, a white man accused of killing his wife. After midnight, the mob dragged Salzner out of prison and hanged him.

The powerful and well-executed chorus of "Lynch Mob" manages to be both hummable and chilling.

"We marched to God's drummin'/when they had it comin'/Justice should be colorblind."

In each of the CD's 11 songs, a new story from Cairo's past unfolds with the help of a band whose mood and style backs it.

The Implications provide the funky "Shaft" inspired beats for "Jesse's Comin' to Town." The song captures the excitement of Jesse Jackson's July 24, 1969 visit to Cairo joining blacks in boycotting downtown merchants.

England composed all of the songs except for two original roots pieces: the 1858 "Goin' down to Cairo" performed with the Little Egypt Barbershop Chorus, and "Cairo Blues," first recorded in 1929 and performed here with Robert Russell.

The resulting mix is required listening for social activists and history buffs as well as for anyone who appreciates Southern Illinois' diverse and wildly talented home-grown musicians.

The music is also resonating beyond our borders, particularly because of the publicity generated by its contributors who forwent pay and carved out precious studio and touring time to satiate England's historic passion.

Alt-country pioneer and SIU grad Jason Ringenberg, who collaborates on a modern track, "Prosperity Train," introduced the album to fans in Europe, where it is being lauded by British, Italian and Dutch roots reviewers.

Hugh DeNeal, witty songwriter for Woodbox Gang, thinks this is just the beginning of a long and hardy howdy for "Greetings from Cairo." DeNeal lauded the "ambitious project" for both its historical significance and its sound.

"I think it will turn some heads from the right people," DeNeal says. "We're definitely proud to be a part of it."

The Woodbox Gang will perform separately and with England at 10 p.m., Friday at the Hangar for the album's release party in a multi-media show that includes projected photographs.

Many of these images come from Preston Ewing's "Let My People Go," a photographic documentation of Cairo's civil rights struggles. England credits the moving book as a major inspiration for the music.

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words; well this was worth a million words," says England, who was stunned to learn of Cairo's significant role in the civil rights struggle.

"It's the most remarkable place. It seems to have a thickness to its history. There's layer after layer of history and racial tension. You peel back a layer, and there are 10 more there."

England hopes "Greetings from Cairo" will inspire us, those left standing in Cairo's ruins, to see solutions instead of looking away.

"Even though it's mightily struggling, there are wonderful people in Cairo who are caught in a cycle they don't seem to know how to get out of," England says. "I closed the record with 'Can't We All Get Along' because there is hope and potential if we start working together."

 - Marleen Shepherd