Writer Tillie Olsen died in 2007, at age 94. During her life, she worked at many jobs—as a union organizer, waitress, hotel maid, and factory worker, among others—and, with her husband, raised four daughters. That didn’t leave a lot of time to write. But once Olsen got to it, publishing her first story at the age of 43—she made a name for herself, writing elliptical, realist short stories and often angry essays taking on the plight of working people, social injustice, and the many ways that creativity is stifled.
Several years before she died, Olsen recruited her grandson Jesse Olsen Bay to help her move out of her San Francisco apartment. Olsen Bay is a musician and singer, and in the move he came upon a couple of boxes of what his grandmother called “blueys.” Named for the light blue type-writer paper Tillie Olsen favored, they contained writing of all sorts—poems, story ideas, phrases, ideas. Jesse was captivated by what he found on these “blueys” and asked his grandmother if they could collaborate on setting them to music. She agreed, and the result is an album called Makings. It has just come out, and Jesse Olsen Bay speaks from his home studio in Sebastopol, Calif., with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about the kind of grandmother Olsen was, what Olsen Bay found so compelling in these text fragments, and how her Jewishly grounded activism informed his life.