Peter Francisco

July 28, 2014 by

edited from


The tune “Peter Francisco” (listen below) appears in George P. Knauff’s Virginia Reels, volume II (Baltimore, 1839) in the key of F Major. It is known as a North Carolina tune, perhaps in part because Peter Francisco, who was from either North Carolina or Virginia, was a Revolutionary War legend whose deeds were widely celebrated.

Francisco’s history is remarkable. It is probable that he began life as Pedro Francisco on July 9, 1760, born at Porto Judeu, on Terceira Island in the Portuguese-held Azores.  He was either kidnapped as a boy, or was sprited away to the New World—no one is sure—but he eventually came to the attention of Anthony Winston, a local Virginia judge and uncle to firebrand Patrick Henry. Winston put the boy to work at chores around his 3,600 acre plantation of Hunting Tower in Buckingham County, Virginia, taught him English and guided his growth to manhood.

His growth was prodigeous: it is said he grew to six feet, six inches, nearly a foot over the man of average height in his day, and he weighed 260 lbs. He was as strong as he was large, performing legendary feats of strength throughout his life; yet he was also known for being good-tempered, temperate and charitable.

After hostilities broke out with England, Francisco at the age of 16 received Winston’s consent to enlist in the 10th Virginia Regiment as a private. He subsequently fought at Brandywine (where he was wounded), Germantown, Fort Mifflin, Monmouth (where he was again wounded), and Stony Point (wounded a third time). His three year enlistment being up in 1779, Francisco returned to Virginia.

Soon, however, the active portion of the war shifted South, and Francisco joined Continental forces in the Carolinas, fighting in the disaterous defeat of the Battle of Camden under Gates, and the more successful action at Guilford Courthouse with Greene. He became the most famous enlisted man of the war. Benson Lossing reported in his 1850 Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, that Francisco, “a brave Virginian, cut down eleven men in succession with his broadsword. One of the guards pinned Francisco’s leg to his horse with a bayonet. Forbearing to strike, he assisted the assailant to draw his bayonet forth, when, with terrible force, he brought down his broadsword and cleft the poor fellow’s head to his shoulders!”

Francisco was wounded a total of five times, but survived to attended the British defeat at Yorktown. After the war he worked as a blacksmith and continued his education, marrying several times after the death of each wife and fathering several children. In 1825 he was made Sergeant-at-Arms for the Virginia Legislature. He passed away on January 16, 1831. His shoes are preserved to this day at the Guilford Courthouse Battlefield, near Greensboro, N.C.

The New Barnyard Serenaders play “Peter Francisco”:

John the Revelator

July 27, 2014 by



Maybe the greatest “guitar evangelist” of all time, Blind Willie Johnson remains quite a mysterious figure, with only a few biographical hints to help us understand his life and his music.Like many blind african-american in the 1920′s and 1930′s, music was one way to scratch a living, singing on street corners and maybe, if you had a special talent and a little luck, on a recording studio for a phonograph company. In fact, we can find many examples of Blues guitar players from this era who were blind, played on the streets and had many religious songs in their repertoire: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and Reverend Gary Davis being the most well known.

We don’t know if Blind Willie Johnson played secular songs as well, as all of his 30 recordings are religious pieces and even if his records sold well during his time, he had to rely on busking throughout all of his life to make a living. As a performer, he remains one of the most intense singer and guitar player ever recorded, influencing many others during his lifetime and ever since. His superb slide guitar playing and his powerful harsh voice are the most distinctive elements of his musicianship but he could also play some intricate guitar bass runs and sing with a warm tenor on some sides.

Son Lynch and Mara Eagle sing Blind Willie Johnson’s  “John the Revelator.”

Frank and Ann Warner

July 26, 2014 by

from “Folk Music: More Than a Song” by Kristine Baggelaar and Donald Milton:

Frank Warner and his wife Anne are two of the most devoted and renowned collectors, preservers, and interpreters of American traditional folk music. Their enthusiasm and their pursuit of this genre have brought to the attention of the general public such names as Frank Proffitt, Yankee John Galusha, and Lena Bourne Fish — and a wealth of folk material from the fertile areas of the Southern Appalachians, the North Carolina Outer Banks, Tidewater Virginia, New England, and upstate New York.

Frank Warner was born on April 5, 1903, in Selma, Alabama. He spent most of his boyhood in North Carolina and enrolled at Duke University in 1921.  After he received his degree from Duke, Warner joined the staff of the YMCA in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he stayed for five years. He then came to New York to join the National Council of the YMCA and eventually became executive director of the YMCAs on Long Island.

Throughout his professional career, he maintained, as a hobby, his singing and lecturing on folk music. In 1935 he and Anne Locher were married, and together, during their vacations, they traveled and collected folk material from rural areas all along the eastern seaboard. In 1937 the met South Carolina folk song collector Maurice Matteson, who had a dulcimer made by Nathan Hicks of Beach Mountain, North Carolina.

The Warners wrote to Nathan Hicks and ordered a dulcimer, which he eventually sent them wrapped in a gunny sack and accompanied by a phonetically spelled letter full of archaic words and phrases. The Warners decided they had to pay the Hickses a visit, and Anne Warner describes their first trip to Beach Mountain the next year:

“We were so fascinated that we decided to go down, not with the idea of collecting, but just to meet these people. This was before there was electricity in the mountains, and the roads were almost impassable once you got back from the highways, and the Hickses lived way back! When we got there we found Nathan Hicks with a group of kinfolk and neighbors who had to come to meet us, and they were all sitting around the front yard.  Among them was Frank Proffitt, Nathan’s eldest son-in-law.”

On that first day, Frank Proffitt thought the Warners the song “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” which Frank Warner sang in concerts for the next two decades and recorded on the Electra label in 1952.The Warners were largely responsible for the recognition given to Frank Proffitt and were instrumental in bringing him North to perform at the first University of Chicago Folk Festival and other festivals and concerts.

In 1939 the Warners traveled to the Adirondacks, where they collected songs from eighty-one-year-old Yankee John Galusha. The following year, they began to collect in New England — especially from Mrs. Lena Bourne Fish of East Jaffrey, New Hampshire. As Anne Warner recalls:

“We had a recording machine by this time and small discs. This was long before tape, and because our supply of discs was short, we would record two stanzas of a song — to get the melody — and stop the machine. The fortunate aspect was that I got them all down correctly then and there.  From then on, we spent our month’s vacation, which we each had each year from our regular jobs, working as hard as we did any other time — usually spending two weeks in the South and two weeks in the North. We have collected, I suppose, more than a thousand songs. And we have collected, too, many, many friends. So many of these people lived close to the roots of America, and they have given us a feeling about the country that I don’t think we could have gotten in any other way.”


Down South Blues, pt. 2

July 25, 2014 by


Dock Boggs Recorded Live at Appalachian State University – November 11, 1966 (from

Dock Boggs:  It’s a pleasure for me to have the opportunity and honor of coming over to this college and get to play here. Since I’ve started playing music in the last three and a half, four years, why I’ve visited eighteen to twenty different colleges besides the festivals and [?] I went to.

I didn’t know whether I’d start playing, but I decided for old time’s sake I’d get my old banjo back. I bought it in 1928, so when I went back to get it, I’d let a fellow keep if for me that was a single man, and when I went back to get it he was a grandfather. His wife’s a teacher too. She teaches school at Hayman, Kentucky. Been teaching for the last thirty years, or longer.

We don’t, I don’t conduct my programs I put on like a lot of people do. We just mix ‘em up. Play. And my way of playing, I’ve got my own style of playing music and I have to tune sometimes, change tuning of my banjo, in order to play it in the old traditional time style.

So, this piece I’m fixing to play you is a piece I tried out on when I got my first opportunity to make phonograph records in Nineteen and Twenty-seven. In Norton, Virginia, I was working on the coal machines at [?] Virginia. I started to play this piece and they stopped me—I played about a verse of it—there’s three of them, papers on their knees, and they took down the number of the piece and they marked “good” on the end of it. I started to play “Country Blues,” and I’ll tell you, I played about a couple of lines of that and they marked “Good” on the end of that, and the next thing was a contract.

I was on my way to New York to make phonograph records in about three weeks. It surprised me because I was working in the mines. After that my wife she didn’t care too much for me making music. In order to keep her, keep the family together—I didn’t have nobody but her—I quit play music for twenty-five or twenty-six years. After I retired I said, just for sentimental reasons, I’m going back and get my old banjo. When I went back and got it, it cost me a hundred and ten dollars to have it fixed up, but it’s in good shape now and I’ve played and made several hundred dollars with it since.

And I’m going to play you “Down South Blues.”

Nothing is Simple

July 24, 2014 by


by Bruce Molsky (from interview at

Old-time music is what people played in their communities as part of everyday existence. It wasn’t meant to be performance music. But when radio came along in the ’20s that approach wasn’t well–suited to a professional performance medium. For one thing, in old-time music you just start a tune and everybody plays until they’re done. There’s not enough structural diversity to keep it interesting on the radio—that’s my personal theory.

What we call old-time music was the ballads your mother sang in the kitchen. It was what people played for square dances or for their own entertainment. It was just as much about the musician as it was about the listener. Old-time music was community music. That’s why, when it became popular in the early 1950s, the music immediately became associated with left-wing politics, because it wasn’t meant to be owned.

It’s a visual thing. If you’ve ever spent any time in parts of West Virginia, it’s dark, it’s lonesome. The mountains are really high and steep and block out light half the day and the hollers are kind of dank and it’s just got a really strong vibe, and that very lonesome music. That’s the kind of image I see when I’m playing.

The picture I see can evoke people, or a story, or a color, or a time and place, even if it never existed—so much of what initially attracted me to this music was my perception of a simple world that probably never was, but the music pointed to that, you know? Simple life and hard labor with good rewards. Peace in your life and spiritual fulfillment. I liked this kind of music because it had a really simple message. Nothing is simple, I learned later. But that’s what the music has always meant to me. Even though I’m old enough to know better, I still like feeling that feeling I had when I first heard it.

Charlie Poole’s 13 Week Bender

July 23, 2014 by


edited from “Linthead Stomp” by Patrick Huber:

Charlie Poole extolled the raucous, wild life of society’s outcasts on his famous reinterpretation of the great African American composer W.C. Handy’s 1917 blues composition, “Beale St. Blues.”  It remains unclear whether Poole actually visited Memphis’ famed Beale Street during his travels.  But what is certain is that he fully participated in the raucous subculture he depicts in “He Rambled” and “Ramblin’ Blues,” drinking bootleg whiskey, gambling, getting into fistfights and close scrapes with the law, sobering up in small-town jails, and perhaps even soliciting prostitutes.

Far from a homebody himself, Poole may have recorded songs about life’s seamy underside because their antisocial ideology so closely corresponded with his own.  Both of these selections elevate the selfish pursuit of excitement and pleasure over steady productive labor and responsible citizenship.  As such, they promote immediate gratification rather than a New South capitalist ethos of industry, self-discipline, and thriftiness.

And unlike the North Carolina Ramblers’ sentimental ballads, neither of these songs expresses any regret for or guilt about someone or something left behind or lost.  Nor do the colorful characters within them aspire to a respectable working-class life of family, home, steady jobs, and church attendance.  These gamblers and rounders clearly prefer instead to live a shiftless, nomadic life on the margins of “decent” southern society.  Like Poole, they found their own social and cultural niche outside of the American mainstream.

Several of Poole’s biographers have stressed the correlation between what is know about Poole’s life and the many rounder songs that he and the North Carolina Ramblers recorded.  “If any old-time country music singer ever ‘lived’ the words he sang,” writes Kinney Rorer, “then surely it was Charlie Poole.  One could almost string together a biography of Poole from the words to the seventy songs he recorded between 1925 and his untimely death in 1931.”

In February 1931, a Hollywood motion picture company hired him to bring his band to California to perform in a low-budget western.  Poole celebrated by assembling a crew of his hard-drinking buddies and embarking on a marathon thirteen-week bender, part of which he spent carousing in southwestern Virginia and playing music when the mood struck him.

On May 21, 1931, less than two weeks before he was to leave for California, Poole collapsed from a heart attack on the front porch of his sister’s home in Spray, NC.  He was thirty-nine years old. His death certificate listed his occupation not as a musician or recording artist but as “mill worker” and noted that his heart attack was brought on in part by “intoxication 13 weeks.”

The State of Arkansas

July 22, 2014 by



“The State of Arkansaw”

The ballad, or narrative folksong, usually titled “The State of Arkansaw” has been a principal exhibit in Arkansas’s recurrent laments about its disreputable image. It is a clear example of the expressive culture of the late nineteenth century that depicted Arkansas pejoratively.

The story, which the ballad relates in first person, has its protagonist—known by several names, including “Sanford Barnes” and “John Johanna”—leave his home, most frequently “Buffalo town” or “Nobleville town,” to seek employment. He hears of job opportunities in Arkansas, sets out by railway, and arrives in an Arkansas community, variously identified as Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Van Buren (Crawford County), Little Rock (Pulaski County), or Hot Springs (Garland County).

There he meets a “walking skeleton” who conducts the narrator to the state’s finest hotel. One night in these accommodations convinces him to leave Arkansas immediately. His host, though, persuades him to take a job draining some land. Several weeks of hard labor in an ague-producing climate subsisting on the poorest rations (“corndodgers” and “sassafras tea”) have the narrator claiming, “I never knew what misery was till I came to Arkansas,” a refrain for several of the ballad’s stanzas. In some versions, he prefers marriage to a “squaw” in Indian Territory to life in Arkansas.

The earliest printed text of this song may be that which E. C. Perrow published in Journal of American Folklore in 1913. The earliest sound recording is probably the one by Kelly Harrell and the Virginia String Band, done in a studio in Camden, New Jersey, in 1927. One of Vance Randolph’s Ozark consultants, however, suggested that he knew the song from the 1890s.

Writing in Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Robert Morris proposed an earlier origin date, in the 1870s. Several commentators, including Library of Congress folksong researcher Alan Lomax, hypothesized that the song was of Irish-American origin. It does bear some resemblance to “The Spalpeen’s Complaint to the Cranbally Farmer,” which Patrick Weston Joyce published in 1909. Ballad scholar D. K. Wilgus reported a text of the song from Ireland and proposed that it had originated there and was imported to the United States in the late nineteenth century.

When G. Malcolm Laws created his catalogue of what he called “native American ballads,” he included “The State of Arkansaw” as the first entry in his chapter “Ballads on Various Topics.” He also contributed to some confusion about the song by titling it “The Arkansas Traveler.” Though it has been reported under that name—along with “The Arkansas Navvy,” “A Hobo in Arkansas,” and “The Arkansas Emigrant,” among others—“The State of Arkansaw” has no connection with the skit and fiddle tune to which Laws’s title usually refers. It more likely derives from the tradition of complaint songs popular in the nineteenth century, which responded to the failure of westward migration to meet media-generated expectations. “The State of Arkansaw” joins “Michigan-I-O,” “The Dreary Black Hills,” “Nebraska Land,” and “The Lane County Bachelor” in a category of “folk dystopias,” hyperbolic descriptions of frontier disappointments.

Emily Dickinson Responds to the Rise and Fall of Paramount Records box set

July 21, 2014 by


by Matthew Fluharty (

On the eve of 2014, when all was calm at Art of the Rural headquarters, we received a communication from Emily Dickinson via our patented multiverse – channelling fax machine.

Though the only identifying title of the document read “298,” I sense that it was her response to the much-celebrated Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1 set released in late 2013 by Third Man Records (and its head, Jack White) and Revenant Records (led by Dean Blackwood). With a discussion at the New York Public Library including the set’s designers alongside Greil Marcus and Daphne Brooks, and a subsequent appearance on Charlie Rose, the music, mythos, and social history of the lives entwined in the story of Paramount Records is receiving a welcome rush of public attention.

Billed as a “wonder-cabinet,” the physical material of this set is impressive: 6 LPs, a hardback book with history and advertisements, a huge book of liner notes, a packet of ephemera, and, beneath all of that, a usb flash drive shaped like an old-time phonograph stylus assembly that contains 800 songs, even more images, and a web application with which to navigate its archive. All this is in contained in a hefty quarter-sawn oak cabinet with exquisite upholstery and metalwork.

As Grayson Currin noted in his otherwise ecstatic review in Pitchfork, the price tag ($400, which only allows Third Man/Revenenant to break even on the project), places this extraordinary work beyond the reach of the general public. Both in terms of its gorgeously tactile presentation and the depth of its contents, The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1 feels like an apex of the last decade’s “reissue movement” just as it underscores many of its cultural and aesthetic contradictions.

In this light, Ms. Dickinson’s communique illuminates the power and ambiguity within this set, as well as the need to come to terms with last century’s massive African-American rural diaspora — so many of whom stood before the recording machines for Paramount and its contemporaries:

Alone, I cannot be -

For Hosts – do visit me -

Recordless Company -

Who baffle Key -

They have no Robes, nor Names -

No Almanacs – nor Climes -

But general Homes

Like Gnomes -

Their Coming, may be known

By Couriers within -

Their going – is not -

                   For they’re never gone

The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records

July 20, 2014 by


The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-1932)

edited from Grayson Currin (

The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records: Vol. 1 (1917–1932) arrives like a family of nested matryoshka dolls. Sent by post, the 22-pound compendium comes in a wide and thick cardboard box, with the name and address of Paramount’s parent enterprise, the long-extinct Wisconsin Chair Company, branded on the side for the sake of authentic anachronism. Inside, two-inch walls of Styrofoam and a plastic sheath protect what Third Man and Revenant Records, the project’s operational partners, call The Cabinet of Wonder.

The hinged-and-clasped oak Cabinet bears Paramount’s iconic medallion on the outside, an eagle with its wings spread and head cocked, talons locked into the label’s name and positioned in front of a grooved record that suggests a morning’s rising sun.  The set smells of varnish and glue and furniture—sweet but a little sour, too.

Clasp popped, five distinct layers of wonder follow: a batch of six marbled brown LPs housed in an old-fashioned wooden binder; a velum envelope containing replications of ephemera from the earliest days of the recording industry; a hard-cover volume that tells the story of that troublesome start and its biggest stars; and a phone-book sized catalogue that does its best to detail nearly every performer included and, for the first time ever, name each of the thousands of records Paramount released in its two-decade lifespan.

The littlest doll, wedged into a specially cut hole in the green felt platform that lines the box, is a tarnished brass flash drive, playfully dubbed a Jobber-Luxe. The contraption is crafted to look like the reproducer-and-needle assembly of one of the Wisconsin Chair Company’s Vista Talking Machines, the reason they got into the nebulous and uncertain business of selling records, anyway.

It is the ultimate fulfillment of the set’s creative anachronism. The drive contains 800 songs culled from Paramount’s first decade, a fitful and suddenly fertile period that, in many ways, shaped the landscape for the rise of a recording industry anchored on jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and country music. Taken together, these recordings are no less than one blueprint of what has become American music.

Through scrupulous research, audacious design, and ostentatious packaging, this two-volume collection’s first installment does precisely what the best box sets intend to do—add proper deference and context to music that remains vital and significant. Retailing for $400, The Rise and Fall is no doubt expensive, especially considering that there’s a second and complementary volume forthcoming. But at once, it’s a history lesson, a dance hall, a bandstand, and a smoky blues parlor, all tucked neatly into one sturdy box. This is the Cabinet of Wonder, indeed. Read the rest of this entry »

Broken warnings from beyond the grave

July 19, 2014 by

Screen shot 2014-05-11 at 10.27.15 PM

edited excerpt from “Distant Music: Recorded Music, Manners, and American Identity” by Jacklyn Anne Attaway (

As relics of the past, older phonograph recordings demonstrate the hauntological aesthetic effect simply by being replayed and heard in the present. Because 78 RPM phonograph recordings sound old and of the past, they seem ghostly and strange.

In “The Revenant,” an essay accompanying Revenant Records release American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939), Dean Blackwood describes what an acoustic recording session was like. Blackwood says:

[...The operator of the] machine that is connected to the horn, [winds] a small handle in the machine‘s side. A platen at the base of the machine has a flat wax disc on it. The man releases a lever and the disc starts to spin. [...] When the [operator] likes way the wax disc is spinning, he lowers [the recoding apparatus] in place [...and signals the performers to begin...]. A sharp wire connected to the narrow end of the horn traces out a circular pattern in the spinning wax surface, vibrating all the while, etching a code of tiny zig-zags within each groove. The singing men can see little wax shavings falling like snow onto the floor. [...] After three minutes of singing, the [operator signals them to wrap it up...]. The singers know they have 15, 20 seconds, tops, to finish.
Acoustic recording processes involved a great deal of physicality and technological imprecision. The spinning motion of the wax disc is triggered by a cranked lever that begins too fast and is then monitored and measured by a recording technician in order to begin at the moment of the most correct speed and end when the disc begins to spin too slowly. If the disc is spinning too fast when the recording begins, the voices will sound too high-pitched and sped up. If it is spinning too slowly, the vocals will sound too deep and too slow. If one of the performers or technicians makes a mistake, the record reflects it.
Any extra noises made in the recording room are captured on the disc. While the recording device is preserving the voices and musical accompaniment, it is also preserving other sounds: the space and the air in the room, the people‘s breath, the movements of the performers and record technicians, and the sound of the technology working itself.

Accompanying the 1997 reissue of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Greil Marcus‘ essay ―The Old, Weird America, notes  that the pre-amplification singing style—articulated through the acoustic recording processes of eliminating extreme highs and lows —made singers sound like prophetic spirits, shouting broken warnings from beyond the grave.

Marcus, observing the strange sound of early recording artists, notes, ―”[...One] quality that unites the singers here is that they sound as if they‘re already dead.”

Blackjack Grove

July 18, 2014 by


Blackjack Grove: Walter McNew (cassette tape, $8.00)

Walter McNew is a fiddler from Rockcastle County, Kentucky. As a boy, he listened to his father, a telegraph operator for the L&N Railroad, play late into the night at the train depot. His music idol, however, was Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts from Madison County.

As a young man, Walter won a fiddle contest in Louisville but passed up a chance to enter show business on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, preferring to lead a quiet life at home. Walter’s music reflects a mixture of styles but stands apart from “modern” or “contest” fiddling commonly heard today.

Some rare tunes like Blackjack Grove and Pinetop are included, and Doc Roberts’ fans will be amazed to hear Walter’s rendition of pieces like All I’ve Got’s Done Gone and Brickyard Joe. Also included: Cluck Old Hen, The Cat Came Back, Rickett’s Hornpipe, Waynesburg, Billy in the Lowground, The Lost Girl, Hawk Caught a Chicken, Martha Campbell, Callahan, Dreamy Georgiana Moon, Goodnight Waltz, Mamie Potts’ Schottische, and ten other great fiddle solos. Field recordings and liner notes by Stephen Green.


Songs Of The Homeland: History of Tejano Music

July 17, 2014 by


Nice footage of Narciso Martinez, Flaco Jiminez, etc.

Narciso Martinez has been called the “father” of the modern conjunto for promoting the accordion and the bajo sexto and for his creativity as an accordionist.

Searching for a way to stamp his personal style on the accordion, in the 1930′s Martinez abandoned the old, Germanic technique by virtually avoiding the bass-chord buttons on his two-row accordion, concentrating instead on the right hand, treble melody buttons. His sound was instantly distinctive and recognizable. Its brighter, snappier, and cleaner tone contrasted with the older sound, in which bajo sexto and the accordionist’s left hand both played bass-and accompaniment, creating a “thicker,” drone-like effect. Martinez left bassing and chordal accompaniment to the bajo sexto of his most capable partner, Santiago Almeida.

Narciso Martinez’s new style became the hallmark of the surging conjunto, just as Almeida’s brisk execution on the bajo sexto created the standard for future bajistas. Together, the two had given birth to the modern conjunto, a musical style that would challenge even the formidable mariachi in cultural breadth and depth of public acceptance. Indeed, by the 1970s it could be said that the conjunto, known in the larger market as musica nortena, was the most powerful musical symbol of working-class culture.

Martinez, however, remained an absolutely modest folk musician until his death. He never laid claim to anything but a desire to please his public. Yet, as Pedro Ayala, another of the early accordion leaders, acknowledged, “after Narciso, what could the rest of us do except follow his lead?”


One More Time: The Life and Music of Melvin Wine

July 16, 2014 by
Cover of Melvin Wine DVD/CD set
One More Time: The Life and Music of Melvin Wine

Executive Producers: Margo Blevin and Gerald Milnes.
Produced by Jimmy Triplett and Marilyn Palmer Richards with assistance from many.
DVD and CD-ROM, 2-disc set $30. (CD-ROM is available for Windows only)

Melvin Wine was never without a song to sing, a story to tell, or a tune to play, and his familiar “one more time” still rings in our hearts. He was born in 1909 at the mouth of Stouts Hollow in Braxton County, West Virginia. Melvin’s chiseled smile was a very familiar sight around many West Virginia music events for the 40 years leading up to his death in 2003. How appropriate that he was laid to rest on the first day of spring just a stone’s throw from his birthplace.

Hundreds of fiddlers have learned about playing tunes and living life from Melvin, and through this project, many more will have opportunities to continue learning from him.

The interactive CD-ROM contains many tunes, stories, and photos, plus biographical information from Melvin’s remarkable life. A tune can be slowed down or stopped to allow you to study his playing, his bowing techniques, or simply to catch the melody. The DVD contains four films from periods of Melvin’s life: “Melvin Wine: Old-Time Music Maker;” a film made on his porch at home; a Copen Community Center jam and dance; and Melvin’s last Augusta concert.

Melvin Wine won many distinctive awards and honors and traveled widely because of his music to events in Washington, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and many other places. It wasn’t the places he remembered; it was the people he met. They, and we, will always remember him. Finally in 1991, he was honored as a National Heritage Fellow. The awards weren’t as important to Melvin, as were his many friends. We’re sure he’s still humming “In a Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old.” In memory of Melvin Wine: 1909-2003.


How to play the 5 string banjo

July 15, 2014 by


edited from Michael Eck (

In the 1940s, Pete Seeger did have a unique perspective on the banjo.  Ever since hearing Samantha Bumgarner frailing on a five-string at the 1936 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, Seeger had become an avid student of the banjo, soaking up its history, its styles and the peculiarities of players like Pete Steele, Rufus Crisp, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Uncle Dave Macon.

When Seeger self-published the first edition of “How to Play the Five String Banjo” in 1948, it was a compendium of information, with tidbits about the instrument’s evolution from “a possum hide stretched across a gourd” to its contemporary incarnation; advice on tuning and tablature; and a selection of picking patterns and samples of folk songs (including the tune that inspired Seeger’s first longneck, “Viva La Quince Brigada”).

“It was 41 pages and it sold for $1.59,” Seeger says, “and I sold 100 copies in four years.” In the burnished manner of a man with an oft-told tale, he continues. “Then I ran off the mimeograph stencils again–or rather, somebody ran them off for me. I printed 500 copies, and they sold within four years. Then I got ambitious and I rewrote the book a bit and I rented an IBM typewriter and printed it by photolithography and ran off 2,000 copies, and that sold in four years. That was ’54, I think.

“In 1962, I got my family to help, my children and my wife, and I pasted up 72 pages. The 1962 edition has now sold 100,000 copies; it’s my best seller. No other book I ever wrote sold 100,000 copies.” In a lesson recorded in 1991 for Homespun Tapes, also called How to Play the 5-String Banjo, Seeger says proudly of the book, “It put my kids through school.”

By the time it expanded to 72 pages, Seeger’s book had already been massively influential, with revisions covering trends like the pioneering three-finger, bluegrass wail of Earl Scruggs (which, according to Neil V. Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, Seeger first heard around 1950) and the similar but less aggressive style of Ralph Stanley and his forward rolls. Seeger’s half-brother, Mike, is credited in the book with “assistance in preparing this [bluegrass] chapter,” but the younger Seeger humbly says that his contribution was essentially one night’s work.

(In his book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, music historian Robert Cantwell notes how Seeger distilled the famous “Basic Strum” from elements he’d learned from the rough-hewn Rufus Crisp. “By nestling a resonant chord between two precise notes,” Cantwell wrote, “a melody note and a chiming note on the fifth string, Seeger gentrified the more percussive frailing style, with its vigorous hammering of the forearm and its percussive rapping of the fingernail on the banjo head.”)

Eric Weissberg says, “It was the only thing like it at the time, as far as I know.  Before that, most of the knowledge was handed down from person to person, and not much of that was happening up in the North. That was mostly a down-South thing, so as far as the urban development of banjo players, it was vital.”

A condensed version of the book appeared within the sleeve of the 1954 Folkways LP The Five-String Banjo Instructor with Pete Seeger, a recording that, like the book, has long been supplanted by an entire shelf of hot-shot instruction manuals with attached CDs. But it was Seeger’s book–which coined the terms “hammering on” and “pulling off,” among others, in its landmark pages–that returned the instrument to American music.


Amanda Petrusich

July 14, 2014 by



excerpt from interview at

Do Not Sell at Any Price looks at what makes 78 rpm collectors tick, paying special attention to the service they’ve provided by researching and reissuing wonderful music that might otherwise have stayed lost forever. Petrusich, 34, interviews veterans such as Pete Whelan and Joe Bussard (who focus on jazz and blues) as well as relative newcomers such as Ian Nagoski and Christopher King (who have much broader tastes).

When you were doing the reporting, how important was the realization that just about every collector was a white male?

Petrusich:  I went into this project thinking, “All right, here is the sort of archetype in place regarding what everybody thinks a 78 collector is.” It’s Steve Buscemi or the comic-book guy from The Simpsons. I went into the reporting thinking, well, that can’t possibly be true, and this would be great to write about, to show that lots of people like and collect 78s. But it did unfortunately turn out to be mostly true.

There’s one African-American collector, Jerron Paxton, and then there’s one female collector, Sarah Bryan, who also pops up toward the end of the book. I’m not sure Sarah self-identifies too heavily as a collector—she sort of buys what she likes, so her collection is really personal, in a lovely way.

Coming to this as a music writer, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar—it’s kind of a dude activity. It surprises me, because some of this music is so beautiful it should theoretically transcend all of that. I did have the opportunity to speak to this fantastic neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins about why this is such a male hobby. He had some interesting theories, one being that the collecting impulse is related to addiction, which also skews a little bit more male. Certain forms of OCD and autism have also been shown to trend a little more male.

How would you say your relationship with music has changed? Or has it?

I am a better listener now. Prior to writing this book, there were a lot of these records I hadn’t heard before. I think of Blind Uncle Gaspard, who was a Cajun performer who recorded a handful of sides for Vocalion in 1929. Chris King was the first person who played me a Gaspard record, and I remember feeling like I was having a stroke. I always think of that Barry Hannah line in Geronimo Rex, where he hears a piece of music and it’s so unbearably beautiful to him—like the kind of thing that makes you want to take a rifle and shoot yourself in the heart because it’s too much.

You work as a critic for long enough and you start to think, “Oh, I’ve heard everything.” You get a new record, and all the record people are all excited about it, and you put it on and you’re like that cranky old person: “Oh, it sounds like the last 50 bands that sound like the prior 50 bands.” And some of this stuff, recorded in 1929, sounded so unprecedented to me that it reawakened that excitement. “Aw, there are still records out there for me. There are still things that can really make me cry and make me feel all these things that I maybe thought I was done feeling from pop music.”

I think I have a sense of prewar recordings now. I have a pretty rich understanding of how it’s so unlikely we even have them at all. I thought I was turning into an incredibly lazy listener prior, and I really feel like that’s changed for me.

An Introduction and Guide to the Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings (#3)

July 13, 2014 by


 The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings by Agustin Gurza (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, paperback)


“Invisible behind this large-format (8” x 11.5”) paperback is the reason for its existence: the archive described in its (also large-format) title. Nobody else in the roots music and collector world was interested in Mexican- American and Mexican music when Chris Strachwitz started acquiring all the discs – and photographs, posters, catalogues and other ephemera – he could lay his hands on.

Buying up radio station and distributor stock, and the inventory of record labels that went out of business, was usually more productive than junking; records that survived in private hands had often been played to death. The Strachwitz Frontera Collection comprises – deep breath – 33,472 performances on 78s, some 50,000 on 45s, 4,000 LPs and 650 cassettes, and is, needless to say, by far the largest archive of this music in existence.

Thanks to grants from various foundations, and notably to a share in $500,000 from regional superstars Los Tigres del Norte, by late 2010 all the 78s and about half the 45s had been digitised, and entered into a database at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. This is accessible via <>, although for copyright reasons only the first 50 seconds of each recording is available to computers off-campus.

The book under review explores some of the possibilities for research enabled by this resource. First, though, there are chapters about Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records, and an account of how the Frontera Collection came into existence, through Chris’s encounters with the late Guillermo Hernández, a professor of literature who turned to studying border music and corridos after seeing Les Blank’s film, ‘Chulas Fronteras’, and learning of the existence of Strachwitz’s collection. Chris himself contributes a short history of the recording industry, with particular reference to Mexican music. Read the rest of this entry »

Fate Norris (#2)

July 12, 2014 by

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Click here for PDF.

Afel Bocoum

July 11, 2014 by

from and

Born in 1955 in Niafunké, Afel Bocoum has been immersed in its music since early childhood. “My father, Kodda Bocoum, was the best-known player in the region of the one-string fiddle, the njarka, and of the little lute, the njurkel. These are the two most typical instruments of the Sonrai. They’re powerful instruments, you must be well prepared spiritually to play them, otherwise, they can be dangerous, because they have connections with the spirit world. As a musician, if you don’t approach these instruments in the right way, it can revert back on you.  My father is not a griot; he chose music for a profession. He specialized in a style of music called Se galarare, a kind of free-rhythm music for wedding celebrations.”

As an established and respected musician and member of the community, Afel strives to combine philosophical commentary on society today with an active participation in community activities such as the Flamme de la Paix – the commemorative ceremony that recreates a pioneer burning of weapons marking the end of the Tuareg rebellion in 1996. By playing at such events, Bocoum hopes to influence others to take their future in their own hands.

“Africa has spent too long relying on others to solve its problems.  It is time that we listen to each other and create our own solutions.” He does this eloquently in a style reminiscent of the “desert blues” sound of Ali Farka Toure, but conveys a stripped down version to reveal the roots of the music. More firmly focused on the acoustic and traditional sounds of the surrounding cultures, he uses a one- stringed fiddle (njarka), a two-stringed guitar (njurkel) and calabash percussion with his acoustic guitar and impressive vocals – that intertwine fluid melodies and circular rhythms, inducing an image of the ebb and flow of the forces of the river and desert that surrounds them.

An introspective mood is created, wrapped within social commentary against greed and arranged marriage, as well as encouraging the need to respect your elders.  As Bocoum comments, “when an old man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.  People have begun to forget and have become lazy – if we don’t realize this today, tomorrow we will be lost.”

Down South Blues, pt. 1

July 10, 2014 by
Clara Smith

Clara Smith

excerpt from “The Three Doc(k)s: White Blues in Appalachia,” by William E. Lightfoot:
When Dock Boggs was a small boy, he became fascinated with the music of a black man named “Go Lightening” (probably “Golightly”), who would walk along railroad tracks playing his guitar. Young Boggs would follow the man and beg him to play: “and I’d follow him … a lot of times to get to hear him play two, three, four pieces and I a lot of times heard him play ‘John Henry’ and I learnt it partly, learnt some of the words from him”.   This experience may have been Boggs’ first exposure to the open-tuned slide guitar style, the way in which “John Henry” is usually played; he would have been unable to apply the style to his music, however, because a slide implement does not work very well on a banjo.
Boggs did, however, learn his finger-picking banjo style from an African-American man. When he was twelve years old and already working full-time in the mines around Norton, Boggs attended a dance in Dorchester, a mostly black coal town. The all-black band consisted of a fiddler, a guitarist, a mandolin player, and most striking to young Boggs, a banjoist. Dock was much impressed with the banjoist’s finger-style technique: “I heard this fellow play the banjo …    [and] I said to myself, I want to learn how to play the banjo kinda like that fellow does. I don’t want to play like my sister and brother [who frailed in the old "clawhammer" or"knockdown" style]. I am gonna learn just how to pick with my fingers.”
What developed from this experience was Boggs’ personalized banjo style, which combined the minstrel thumb-lead clawhammer technique with up-picking: his thumb thumped melody notes down on the lower strings while his fingers sounded both melody and accompanying notes on the two upper ones, his index finger on the second string and his middle finger on the first, with both picking up. Although her fingers were doing different work (i.e., brushing down and up), it was this basic thumb-lead style that young Maybelle Addington was applying to her Stella guitar some twenty miles southeast of Norton in Nickelsville, Virginia.
Three of the four songs Boggs recorded that came close to the blues were learned from records made by African-American women. His best-known effort is “Down South Blues,” which he remembered hearing in the early 1920s and which featured a black woman vocalist with piano accompaniment. Alberta Hunter recorded the song twice in May 1923, once with Joe Smith on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano and once with Henderson only.
But Hunter could not have been Boggs’ source; although the melody is similar, her lyrics differ radically from
Boggs’. Tony Russell  believes that the singer was Clara Smith.
In Dock Boggs’ 1927 recording of “Down South Blues”he  punches out each note, both vocally and instrumentally, in an aggressive staccato attack. He clips off his words abruptly rather than playing around with them. Moreover, as Seeger points out, Boggs turns the “three-cornered” blues of the women into two-line stan- zas, about six bars each. He also rushes impatiently from line to line, cutting measures short, precluding any kind of call-and-response activity.
Boggs seems to want to get through the song as quickly as possible; the tempo hovers around 114 bpm, and the performance is intense. The most unsettling feature of Boggs’ blues, however, is the singer’s sense of time, which gets derailed right from the beginning and never gets back on track. Unlike the many blues and jazz musicians who play with meter like they play with melody notes, lagging a little here, anticipating there, or playing against the beat (e.g., three against two), Boggs plays apart from the beat as though it has no relevance in his song.
There is a huge difference between the controlled polyrhythms of black blues players and Boggs’ out-of-time music. These differences are due not so much to the latter’s misreading of the women’s performances as to a less-than-com- plete reading; certain important elements of the blues that Boggs heard simply did not register solidly in his consciousness. Boggs’ so-called receptive competence for African-American music, in other words, was compromised by culturally determined factors over which he had no control.
While he sang the song’s bluesy lyrics (which make little sense from a man’s perspective) and threw in a few scattered flatted thirds, Boggs clearly did not understand the blues that he had heard sung. On the other hand, Smith and Henderson would perhaps not have absorbed fully the grainy power and mystery and edginess of some of Boggs’ most artful songs, such as “Sugar Baby,” “Pretty Polly,” “Oh, Death,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Prayer of a Miner’s Child.”

Elizabeth LaPrelle

July 9, 2014 by


edited from  Beth Macy (

The Voice hits you first. You’re sitting on your folding chair at the Floyd Country Store, atop a hand-sewn cushion, and you’re content because you’ve just slurped down some rib-sticking Brunswick stew.

As The Floyd Radio Show begins, you think you’re in for a treat—A Prairie Home Companion meets Grand Ole Opry, only situated in the funky, single-stoplight town of Floyd, Virginia, where hippie yurt dwellers bump elbows with fourth-generation farmers and flatfooters. And you’re right.

Except there is no planning for the Voice—and no accounting for it, either. It comes from a pale wisp of a thing who’s twenty-five years old and maybe a hundred pounds. She’s wearing a dark shapeless dress, something your grandma might have worn to a funeral, say, in 1962.

She closes her eyes as she sings. At first you think Elizabeth LaPrelle is shy, but later you figure it out: She’s having a private moment, in front of a hundred-plus people, while she belts out an ancient ballad, resurrecting the same high, lonesome sound that crossed the Atlantic more than a century ago and once echoed across ridgetops in these southwest Virginia hills.

LaPrelle’s shimmering resonance has been compared to that of Emmylou Harris, her ornamental trill to the church-influenced work of Ralph Stanley and Iris DeMent. “Soul,” says Joe Wilson, a Virginia-based folklorist and Library of Congress Living Legend. “Those notes go back to the beginning, to the place where, as Bill Monroe once put it, ‘the ancient tones reside.’ LaPrelle’s voice could keep a muskmelon in the air at a hundred yards.”

But The Floyd Radio Show counts on more than just the Voice to sustain it. There’s the Fiddle, too: Anna Roberts-Gevalt, LaPrelle’s twenty-six-year-old cohost and an acclaimed musician in her own right (she sings as well and also plays the banjo and guitar). Where the Voice is small and still, the Fiddle is energetic and rangy, all elbows and legs. 

Looking back on their chance meeting in 2010, at a house concert in Blacksburg, their musical partnership was practically fated. A native of Rural Retreat, Virginia, LaPrelle developed an affinity for traditional music at the folk festivals and fiddlers’ conventions her mother, the singer Sandy LaPrelle, took her to as a child. While her friends listened to Britney Spears and Maroon 5, LaPrelle found herself deep in the archives of old-time ballad singers. 

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” she says of the first time she heard North Carolina novelist and balladeer Sheila Kay Adams. “There was something very magnetic about hearing just that one voice, seeing the potential it has to focus attention like a laser beam.” At the College of William and Mary, she majored in a self-designed program of traditional Appalachian performance. She studied mid-twentieth-century singers like Texas Gladden (who grew up not far from the LaPrelles’ Smyth County farm) and learned to recite the provenance of fifteenth-century ballads from the British Isles. 

Up in her native Vermont, Roberts-Gevalt followed a similar path. Her final college project had her traipsing across eastern Kentucky, fiddle in tow, interviewing traditional musicians and listening to them play. She’s since spent time all over Appalachia, especially in Virginia’s New River Valley, where she met a bassist named Joseph “Joebass” Dejarnette who was putting together a CD called The New Young Fogies, a collection of songs by budding old-time musicians. The Fiddle had heard about the Voice and sent her an e-mail, asking her to sing on the CD.

After the house concert where the two met, the ignition of LaPrelle’s rusty Chevy Cor-sica refused to turn. For the next twenty-four hours, the newest of the young fogies were stranded together, and the music never stopped. They sang. They played. Then Roberts-Gevalt showed LaPrelle a creation she’d made in college, called a crankie, inspired by a project of the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater. When set to music, the handmade storytelling scroll unlocked “a new possibility for what a song could be,” LaPrelle says. Both knew the words to an obscure folk ballad in which a Scottish wife follows her man to a colonial war in India, dressed as a man—only to have him die, after a battle, in her arms. That their voices complemented each other was almost beside the point.

Nine months later, they performed one of their first public crankies at the Floyd Country Store. As the Fiddle cranked the hand-sewn panels inside a homemade wooden box, pictures appeared. At the same time, the Voice sang the haunting ancient Scottish ballad, her lyrics lining up perfectly with the passing images. The venue’s owner, Woody Crenshaw, was so blown away that he asked the duo to put on a live monthly variety show. The ancient songs would not only stream live from the Floyd Country Store via the non-ancient Internet, they would also be available on iTunes.


Music of Williamsburg

July 8, 2014 by


by Shlomo Pestcoe, Banjo Roots Research Initiatives

Music of Williamsburg” (DVD dir. by Alan Lomax, 1960,
, was an educational period docufiction ‘short’ produced by Colonial Williamsburg to present, through costumed historical reenactment, the various different kinds of music and music instruments that might have been heard on a single day in 1768 in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Appropriately enough, a recreation of the early gourd banjo would appear in the film along with other early African American folk instruments – the cane fife, the  jawbone, and the ‘goombay’ drum – to provide the music for a dance gathering of the portrayed enslaved blacks.

The idea of recreating a slavery-era gourd banjo for use in Music of Williamsburg was the brainchild of trailblazing folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002). He had been brought on board to program music for the film[2] appropriate to the African Americans  of Williamsburg (mostly enslaved, though there were some free black families), who “probably constituted about one-half” of the population of Virginia’s capital during the colonial period. [3] In this capacity, Lomax would assemble “a remarkable cast of talented folk musicians representing early Southern music, including the Sea Island singers [Bessie Jones, John Davis, Henry Morrison, Alberta Ramsay, and Emma Ramsay]; Bahamian drummer Nat Rahmings, who had come up from Miami; Mississippi hill country fife player Ed Young; Virginia Tidewater jawbone player Prince Ellis; and Virginia mountain multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith.”

The talents of all of these tradition-bearers would be showcased in a major scene in the film showing the portrayed enslaved blacks coming together after dark for an informal social dance gathering, traditionally referred to in African American folklore as a ‘frolic’. As Bessie Smith Jones (1902-1984), the Sea Islanders’ lead singer, would put it in her reminiscences about growing up in rural Georgia during the early 1900s: “In those days we didn’t have parties – so-called parties – we had frolics.”

For the film’s suppositious recreation of an 18th century slave frolic, Lomax chose Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rolling Under, a song that he had uncovered in his research that he posited as being “the oldest published black dance song from Virginia.”  He taught it to the performers, who embraced and ‘folk-processed’ the song, thereby making it their own:

“The Sea Islanders sang with slavery-era accompaniment; the [cane] fife, the one-headed drum, and a replica of the four-string, fretless banjo. Hobart Smith picked the bowl-shaped ‘slave’ banjo with abandon, Ed Young blew thrilling litany phrases on his cane fife, and Nat Rahmings played a drum of a type once used in St. Simons [the second largest of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the home of the Georgia Sea Island Singers] and still played in the Bahamas. I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed music, but the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sacred Harp on JSP

July 7, 2014 by



Dye’s Sacred Harp Singers, Denson Quartet, Fa Sol LA Singers, Roswell Sacred Harp Quartet, Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers, Elder Golden P Harris, Alabama Sacred Heart Singers, Pioneer Sacred Harp Singers, Bassett Quartet & more…


Here we have another stunning set from JSP, further broadening the range and scope of re-discovered musical gold from the first half of the twentieth century.

This time around, they again set off into more unchartered territory, with 81 tracks featuring the under-appreciated music of sacred harp. As usual, JSP co-opt knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides – on this,  the respected musicologist and archivist, Chris King, has made available his own private collection and JSP’s ‘go-to’ expert on country music, Pat Harrison, was on hand to compile and annotate the collection.

And I (for one) have been leaning heavily on the help and guidance in the notes provided to enhance my enjoyment and appreciation of this atmospheric and primitive but surprisingly accessible music. I can’t make any real claim to prior understanding of sacred harp and have been reliant on the ’I don’t know about art but I know what I like’ rule. And, boy, do I like this!

Sacred harp is a form of American music that sits somewhere between folk, old time country and gospel. As defining characteristics go, it is predominantly sung without any musical accompaniment, is protestant Christian music in content and context, and the vocal harmonies of the songs are invariably complex and multi-layered, providing a hauntingly ethereal quality.

And from start to finish, these tracks offer a spine-chilling musical experience. The notes outline which of the featured artists were most influential, popular or typical of the genre, but I have yet to de-lineate this or pick out favourites or differences – I am still in the early stages of hoovering up everything about this sensational music and indulging my latest enthusiasm.

Do yourself a favour, don’t miss this!


July 6, 2014 by

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This website is a work-in-progress by Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold of Duke University. Our goal is to showcase our research on the history of the banjo in the Afro-Atlantic world, including historical documents, visual materials, material objects, and musical transcription and analysis. We focus particularly on Haiti and Louisiana, but also provide information from other areas along with the transcriptions of a wide range of banjo music.

Joe Bussard

July 5, 2014 by


excerpt from article by Burkhard Bilger

Joe Bussard lived in a plain brick ranch house on the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland. Its rooms were mostly shuttered and dusty with disuse, the yard overgrown. To find him, Ledbetter had to go underground, to a special listening room in the basement where Bussard spent most of his waking hours. It was a long, low-ceilinged space with pine panelling and bright banks of fluorescent lights—part bunker and part shrine. A mahogany Victrola stood on one side, an Edison cylinder player on another, a modern turntable across from it. The rest of the wall space was given over to records: some twenty-five thousand rare 78s and wax cylinders, stacked in wooden cases six rows high.

Bussard was born in 1936 and wished that he’d been born half a century earlier. His was the collector’s mind-set taken to an extreme. He had never lived outside of Frederick, apart from a stint in the National Guard, and hadn’t had a full-time job since sacking groceries in high school. He lived off a small inheritance, occasional radio work, and shrewd buying and selling. “Collecting, to Joe, is like a predator-prey relationship,” Ledbetter told me. “And if you’re a fellow-predator the claws can come out.”

Bussard bought no folk or jazz recorded after 1933—“The Depression killed everything”—no country made after 1953, when Hank Williams died. Popular music had been homogenized by mass media, he said, coarsened by drums and drugs, made meretricious by multi-tracking and other studio gimmicks. (On Duke Ellington’s big-band period: “Dullsville. Like watchin’ paint dry.” On Johnny Cash: “You mean Johnny Crack?” On the Beatles: “Oh, geez, please. Yuck.”) The records in his basement, he once said, were the “sound of American music before the modern world fucked it up.”

“Wanna see something that’ll knock your eyes out?” he told me when I visited. He plucked a tobacco-colored sleeve from the wall and spindled its shiny shellac on the turntable. Bussard’s collection was unmarked and unalphabetized—the better to thwart potential thieves—but he knew the location and exact condition of every record. This one was a mint copy of “Revenue Man Blues,” by Charley Patton, one of perhaps three or four in the world. “Try and get that on eBay!” Bussard said. His gray eyes were bulging beneath bushy white brows, his gaunt features twisted into a happy leer. “Haw! Haw!” Then the music came on and he was quiet. Read the rest of this entry »

Vinyl Archaelogy

July 4, 2014 by
Frank Gossner in gas mask

 The archaeologist of African vinyl

It was in the US 10 years ago that Frank Gossner got hooked on African vinyl. He was rifling through a stack of 200 or 300 records from the Nigerian Tabansi record label in Philadelphia, when he came across “a crazy really psychedelic Afrobeat” disc by Ghanaian musician Pax Nicholas.

“I really got into that record,” he says. He tried searching for more like it, but it wasn’t easy. The internet proved to be no help. “In a few months, I decided to pack up and leave and move to West Africa,” he says.

Gossner started out in Conakry, the capital of Guinea in 2005, only to discover, fairly quickly, that vinyl was ancient history there.

“It actually pretty much happened overnight in Africa that LPs got replaced by music cassettes,” he says. “Within only a short amount of time basically there was no more market interest.” A single 20-foot container in Conakry was the only official vinyl store he found in West Africa.

But after a while, he began to locate hoards of vinyl records that had been thrown into storage and forgotten – in back rooms, “half-bombed government buildings” and abandoned warehouses.

One find in Nigeria was sensational. It was in the basement of a building owned by a hotelier who had run a record label and a chain of record shops. When LPs became obsolete he had shovelled his stock into the huge space. Records and debris filled the 10ft-high room to a depth of 6ft. Gossner and his friends waded through them, trying not damage any that were salvageable.

“The windows, most of them were broken so you had insects coming in and nesting within those records. It was just like a tsunami of vinyl that flooded the entire space, there was no rhyme or reason, no kind of sorting and no way to get around.

“It was so hot in there too. During the rainy season it gets so humid and so wet that you have mould growth. And then it gets dry again, and then the mould eats away at the paper and the cardboard. This process happens year after year after year – mould, wet and then everything gets dry again, brittle and it starts falling to dust.

“So after two or three decades, you’re fanning all the dust and most dangerously the mould spores into your face and inhaling them and that can seriously make you ill, that’s why I was running around with a dust mask.”

One way Gossner located records was by making posters with the brightly coloured covers of the albums he was looking for – plus large “WANTED!” signs and his contact information.

“The thought of a European going into Africa and buying what they see as very limited and locally valued resources – for a lot of people this might seem exploitative,” he says. “If you don’t really know anything about the topic then you might even agree on it.”

He says he is just trying to save the music.

Wanted posters


Mike Seeger

July 3, 2014 by


Mike Seeger- Mike Seeger







Mike Seeger
Vanguard 79150

reviewed by Gary von Tersch (from

The timeless, home-grown music of the late mulch-instrumentalist and folklorist Mike Seeger nostalgically evokes a bygone age of old-time rural music, early acoustic blues and pre-World War II country strains – all “performed with the affection and dedication of a true scholar,” as a reviewer for the American Record Guide put it back in 1964 on the occasion of the original Vanguard release.

This album was recorded as the influential group he had recently co-founded, the seminal old-time revival trio New Lost City Ramblers, was adjusting to the sudden departure of fellow co-founder Tom Paley (first to Sweden then to England, where he remains active at 84). Seeger effortlessly breathes new life into songs from a wide swath of styles, all emblematic of the Southern folk tradition and including the riotously satirical “We Live A Long Long Time To Get Old,” a relatively recent composition by Knoxville, Tennessee, hillbilly musician Jimmy Murphy.

Nice-to-hear-agains also include a trio sourced to the Carter Family (Seeger’s clear-voiced recall of A.P.’s inviting “Hello Stranger” and his bluesy version of “It’ll Aggravate Your Soul” and Maybelle’s English folk song-oriented “Fair And Tender Ladies”) as well as the a cappella “Young McAfee On The Gallows” (a cautionary “goodnight” ballad by Jean Ritchie), a droning dulcimer-rhythmed “Waterbound,” the banjo-driven instrumental “Leather Breeches” and an optimistically melodic redo of Grandpa Jones’ hit “I’ve Been All Around This World.” It’s great to have this classic available once more. Informative liners by both John Crosby and and D.K. Wilgus.

“Son” Sims

July 2, 2014 by














Some Bluesmen acquire legendary status without appearing in front of an audience of more than a couple of hundred, never making a broadcast or selling any records at all. One of these is Henry ‘Son’ Sims, a fiddle-playing plantation worker who made some seminal recordings with founding fathers of the Blues; who made a telling contribution to their careers with his distinctive instrument; but who remains a footnote in the story of the Origins of the Blues.

Henry ‘Son’ Sims was born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, just off Highway 61 south of Clarksdale, in 1890. He was taught to play the fiddle by his grandfather, an emancipated slave, and he counted Charley Patton among his childhood friends. When Henry returned from Army service in WWI, he began playing with a local string band, The Corn Shuckers, at local dances, fish-fries and parties, where he would have met up with Charley and other men who lived at Dockery Plantation from time to time, like Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson.

When Charley was invited to record for Paramount Records in 1929, Henry and Son House went along with him to Grafton WS. Henry played fiddle on 13 of Charley’s songs and recorded four of his own compositions, which were later issued on compilation records. Henry’s eloquent fiddle playing made him a popular addition to any string band, and he continued to play the juke-joints with Charley until the wild man of early Blues passed away in 1934.

by Gayle Dean Wardlow (from 78 Quarterly vol. 9):

1234Henry Sims plays “Farrell Blues”:

Voyager Golden Records

July 1, 2014 by

A gold-plated copper disc that contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. “ Sounds of the Earth includes 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, 90-minutes of musical selections from different cultures and eras (curated in part by folklorist Alan Lomax), and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages.


In 1977, as preparations were being made for the launch of the two unmanned Voyager spacecraft, Alan Lomax was contacted by Carl Sagan. Sagan had been tapped by NASA to chair a committee to gather images, sounds, and songs that would represent Earth on a set of phonographic records — to be affixed to the outside of both spacecraft along with stylii and graphic instructions on playing them — and he hoped Lomax would help make the musical selections. Alan ultimately suggested fifteen of the twenty-seven performances that were launched with the probes on what are now popularly known as the “Voyager golden records.”

Here are the selections ultimately included on the Voyager record. Items in bold signify Lomax’s selections.

  • Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
  • Java, court gamelan, “Kinds of Flowers,” recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43
  • Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08
  • Zaire, Pygmy girls’ initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56
  • Australia, Aborigine songs, “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird,” recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26
  • Mexico, “El Cascabel,” performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi Mexico. 3:14
  • “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
  • New Guinea, men’s house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20
  • Japan, shakuhachi, “Tsuru No Sugomori” (“Crane’s Nest,”) performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51
  • Bach, “Gavotte en rondeaux” from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
  • Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
  • Georgian S.S.R., chorus, “Tchakrulo,” collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18
  • Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52
  • “Melancholy Blues,” performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
  • Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30
  • Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
  • Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
  • Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
  • Bulgaria, “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin,” sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59
  • Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
  • Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, “The Fairie Round,” performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17
  • Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12
  • Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38
  • China, ch’in, “Flowing Streams,” performed by Kuan P’ing-hu. 7:37
  • India, raga, “Jaat Kahan Ho,” sung by Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar. 3:30
  • “Dark Was the Night,” written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
  • Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37

In 1990, the Voyager probes moved beyond the orbit of Pluto (then, of course, still considered a planet), and entered empty space. It will be 40,000 years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system and, as Sagan frankly stated, “the spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Take a Look At That Baby

June 30, 2014 by










Take A Look At That Baby

reviewed by Gary von Tersch (from

Helmed by intrepid guitarist, mandolinist, vocalist and dedicated record collector John Heneghan along with kazoo, resonator ukulele and fetching vocalist Eden Brower, the East River String Band’s delightful fourth CD release is, once again, introduced to us by some inventive cover art courtesy of the legendary cartoonist and Cheap Suit Serenader, Robert Crumb.

Crumb also adds his infectious fretwork to four of the fourteen traditional titles revived here, including entertaining renditions of both the James Cole String Band’s eternal question “Where You Been So Long?” and “Too Tight Rag,” originally committed to shellac in the early 1930s by a group of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky coal miners led by one Everett Eugene Hack. Other old-time influenced musicians accompanying the irrepressible Brower and Heneghan include harmonica whiz Ernesto Gomez (Brotherhood Of The Jug Band Blues), Pat Conte and Blind Uncle Otis (Massapequa Parkaneers), banjo and quills ace Dom Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and mouth-harpist Joe Bellulovich of the Otis Brothers.

Jackson Lynch of the Down Hill Strugglers also adds fiddle accents to a rousingly good-timey recall of Bo Carter’s “Baby How Can It Be.” Heneghan and company particularly shine on their blues numbers – favorites are Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues,” Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad” – as well as on all-out shenanigans like “Old Jaw Bone,” “Diamond Joe” and “Got A Letter From My Darling.” It recalls the wildly energetic and appealingly eclectic music created by the Alan Wilson-led Canned Heat outfit in the 1960s, who were all record collectors as well.

Harouna Samake

June 30, 2014 by


Kamélé n’goni (« young men’s harp « ), is a six to twelve strings harp-lute closed to the kora. About 150 cm long, it consists of a half-gourd covered with a skin (usually goat) through which the handle. Strings, in two rows, follow the same line as the neck. Like the kora, it’s alternately played by plucking the strings on the right and left of the big bridge.


“My hair stood up on end”

June 29, 2014 by

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. “In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.1 “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.’”2

John Cohen map, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Two girls, KY, 1959
Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.
John Cohen, Two girls walking, Vicco, KY, 1959.

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”

“Over there in that house,” they replied.

Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.

“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.

“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.

Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.” “My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?’”4

- See more at:

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. “In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.1 “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.’”2

John Cohen map, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Two girls, KY, 1959
Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.
John Cohen, Two girls walking, Vicco, KY, 1959.

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”

“Over there in that house,” they replied.

Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.

“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.

“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.

Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.” “My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?’”4

- See more at:

Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.

Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.

excerpt from “John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Holcomb During the Folk Revival,” by Scott L. Matthews:

Scott L. Matthews,
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at:
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at:
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at:

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers.

“In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.  “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.’”

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”
“Over there in that house,” they replied.
Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.
“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.
“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.
Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.”

“My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?’”

Allan Block (#2)

June 28, 2014 by



Final Notes, Allan Block by Sarah Jane Nelson, with Jeff Todd Titon (from

Although fiddler Allan Block faded from view during the last decade of his life due to a lengthy illness, news of his death this past fall traveled quickly, and people shared stories and recollections (often humorous) of how Allan touched their lives both as an individual and as a mentor. One week after his passing I found myself at Fiddle Hell down in Concord, Massachusetts. During an afternoon jam session headed by Boston fiddler Alan Kaufman, longtime dance musicians such as George Fowler and Art Bryan volleyed “Allan tunes” amongst themselves—“Big Sciota,” “Georgia Railroad,” “Ebeneezer,” “Rochester Schottische,” and many more. I could think of no better tribute to his life and influence.
Allan started life as a classical violinist back in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. His great-uncle Nathan, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, was a violinist himself, and often came to the house and played music with Allan’s father, a pianist. Allan became a fairly accomplished violinist—he proudly recalled tackling the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor at age 11 or 12, and being one of the first youngsters to play live over the radio in Madison. In fact, the radio was a major factor in the development of Allan’s musical tastes: he loved hearing “Music Americana,” as he called it. He fondly recalled radio music hours on Saturdays and Sundays that were filled with the American pop music of the 1920s, by Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby, or the lively concoction of music, story, and wit from performers like Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny.

As has been well documented elsewhere in recent months, Allan’s life as a fiddler really began in New York City. The first job he got after World War II was working for $38 a week at People’s Artists, an organization that brought folk artists to New York from all over the country. They also published the magazine People’s Songs, which was a precursor to the modern-day Sing Out. Allan did clerical work in the office while being exposed to the music of Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Doc Watson, Clarence Ashley, and Dock Boggs, among many others. He felt a particular kinship with Ashley: “Whenever I open my mouth to sing, I am a partial replica of Clarence Ashley…with his wonderful high tenor voice in the early days.”

In 1950, when Allan was starting a family and needed some steady income, he opened the Allan Block Sandal Shop on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. The shop’s success grew out of a magical alchemy of Allan the leather craftsman and Allan the musician. This integration of work and art was a theme throughout Allan’s life. When professor emeritus and musician friend Jeff Titon remarked on this in their 1989 interview at Brown University, Allan replied, “My life is all of a piece…I don’t even think about it very much. But people look at me and say, ‘you’ve got it made.’” Read the rest of this entry »

The Life and Times of Ray Hicks

June 27, 2014 by


from Daniel Allar ( and David Holt ( The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: Keeper of the Jack Tales by Lynn Salsi. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2008. $34.95.)

Lynn Salsi’s The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: The Keeper of the Jack Tales is a biography of Ray Hicks, a master storyteller from Banner Elk, North Carolina. Hicks farmed in the Appalachian Mountains his entire life, and the “Jack Tales” referred to in the title of this book were passed down through his family in that area. He had very little money his entire life, worked from sunup to sundown just to keep his family fed, and spent most of his free time telling the stories he had learned from his grandfather or playing the French harp.

Although the book is basically a rundown of some of the most important aspects and events in Hicks’s life, some reoccurring themes emerge. For example, Hicks was very proud of the fact that he stayed home, cared for his mother, and was not bound by material items. Hicks was also proud… that he was the “true” holder of the “Jack Tales,” which were stories featuring a poor character from the mountains—Jack—who behaved much the way Hicks did. In fact Hicks repeatedly claimed that he and Jack were the same person.

He and his wife, Rosa,  lived the old-time way, raising their own food, collecting and selling ginseng and herbs, cooking and heating with wood in the same house where Ray was born. “Cut your own wood and it warms you twicet.”

He was a 19th century man in a 20th century world. He knew more about the old timey ways than anyone I have ever met. Last time I saw him he was telling me how they used to put dirt in a wound or cut to heal it…but he said you can’t do that anymore…no dirt in the world is clean enough now.

He was what we call an all day talker. He would start talking the minute you got there…start right in on a story. He had the most amazing accent, kinda talked way back in his throat. He’d say, “Jack seen a man comin down out of the woods with a great big head and he was knocking big trees down and hittin big rock boulders and wasn’t even hurtin’ a hair in his own head… he said, ‘Hello there. Who are ye?’ ‘ My name is Hardy Hard Head.’ ‘Well Hardy hard Head you must be…into my ship.’ ”

By the end of the day he’d still be talking, telling you the story. You’d get up and say, “Ray, it’s gettin late, gotta go.” He’d follow you all the way up to the car standing in the road still telling the tale. You’d just have to put down the window, wave and say, “Ray, I’ll see you” and drive off with him still standing there still telling the story in the middle of the dirt road.


Friends of Old Time Music

June 26, 2014 by


edited excerpt from Staging the Folk: New York City’s Friends of Old Time Music by Ray Allen:

In March 1961 the New York Times music critic Robert Shelton announced that “Five farmers from the Blue Ridge Mountains brought a ripe harvest of traditional music to the city Saturday night.”   The farmers turned out to be a group of unknown mountain musicians led by Tennessee banjoist ClarenceAshley and featuring the blind guitar virtuoso Arthel “Doc” Watson.

The concert, held at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, was sponsored by a loosely knit organization of urban folk enthusiasts with the down-home moniker the Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM), a group Shelton characterized as “a sort of Anglicized, folk-oriented Pro Music Antiqua.”

A month prior to the Ashley/Watson presentation the FOTM had staged their inaugural concert with Kentucky banjoist and songster Roscoe Holcomb, and over the next four years would sponsor performances by an array of country, blues, and spiritual singers.   FOTM artists Mother Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Almeda Riddle, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Gus Cannon, and Bessie Jones, along with the aforementioned Ashley, Watson, and Holcomb, would become heroes to  folkies who favored homegrown southern styles over the sanitized commercial folk music that had reached a national audience in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

John Cohen admitted that:

“There was a misconception about Clarence Ashley by many of us who had heard him originally on the 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music LP. Here is this man with an incredible, high, clean voice, carrying on with great naiveté the purity of this music, the Appalachian sound. And this old guy comes out on stage, snapping his suspenders—he was a Vaudeville entertainer—in that tradition. And then we found out he had done blackfaced comedy. He was a great entertainer, but we couldn’t cast him in the mold of the pure mountaineer, when the pure mountaineer wasn’t so pure.”

The Friends of Old Time Music’s attempts to present white mountain musicians in the heat of the civil rights movement to a progressive New York City audience steeped in the leftist folk song tradition of Guthrie and Seeger proved politically sticky. John Cohen recalls a group of young students hanging out at Izzy Young’s MacDougal Street Folklore Center in early June 1961 wondering out loud if the upcoming FOTM concert would showcase “those southern white guys in the white sheets.” When the March 1961 Ashley/Watson program ended with all the participants singing a powerful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Cohen observed that the secular, heavily Jewish audience was deeply moved at what some New Yorkers might have viewed as a display of redneck Bible-thumping. Later he realized:

“The act of finding linkages between people who would otherwise be opposed to one another was interesting and political. We were putting our stamp of approval on these white guys who [whose culture] until that time had been stereotyped as racists, lynchers, and all those nightmarish things about the South. We were trying to turn Ashley and Watson and the Stanleys into real people, and I thought this was a good thing—acknowledging those people and their culture was political. … We were looking for deeply human, positive connections rather than confrontations.”

Thirteen thousand 78s in a dumpster

June 25, 2014 by



excerpt from Amanda Petrusich’s forthcoming book “Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records”:

Even otherwise-reasonable authors go a little loopy when writing about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Muisc  inexplicable allure. In When We Were Good, Robert Cantwell’s treatise on the folk revival, he describes it as “strange, even sinister: a closet-like enclosure from which the world is shut out, spangled with occult symbols whose meaning we have not yet learned, fitted to an obscure design or purpose and harboring a vague threat, like the gypsy’s tent or the funhouse, that by some unknown force will subject us to an ordeal over which we have no control and which will leave us permanently marked.”

Greil Marcus, meanwhile, conjures a place called Smithville, and in describing the first side of Songs, writes: “The streets of Smithville have been rolled up, and the town now offers that quintessential American experience, the ultimate, permanent test of the unfinished American, Puritan, or pioneer, loose in a land of pitfalls and surprises: Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen! Enter the New Sensorium of Old-Time Music, and feel the ground pulled right out from under your feet!”

I understand—deeply—the impulse toward hyperbole, the desire to speak of the Anthology as a contained spiritual experience that incites certain epiphanies. It is, after all, a thing you can inhabit if you want to: there are alehouses to drink in and Stetson hats to bicker over and corn to hoe and people to marry and love and betray and maybe murder.

The story of what actually happened to Harry Smith’s 78s still gets muttered between collectors as a warning, an illuminating parable with a worrying end. The collector and producer Chris King was the first to tell it to me. “By the time [Smith] had basically exhausted his mental faculties or his ability to manage his collection, he had amassed over thirteen thousand 78s, which would be a lot of hillbilly, a lot of blues, and a lot of ethnic music,” King explained. At some point, well after Smith had submitted the bulk of his records to the library for safekeeping, the collector Richard Nevins had received a call to purchase a few Fiddlin’ John Carson records plucked directly from Smith’s collection and marked as such. But how had they become separated from everything else? King heard that the library had junked most of Smith’s donation. “Deacquisitioned. It was all put in a Dumpster and destroyed.” He shrugged. “So basically thirteen thousand 78s and a man’s life—just snuffed away, just like that, in a dumpster.”

“The Music of Coal”

June 24, 2014 by


Music Of Coal: Mining Songs From The Appalachian Coalfields (Lonesome Records & Publishing CD 071)

Hardcover Digibook (70 pages) and 2-CD Set.Incredible collection of memorabilia, photos, notes and song lyrics plus 48 haunting recordings (145:32 Min.)


The work of coal miners has long been commemorated in song, disasters have led to contemporaneous ballad type songs and personal acquaintance with victims of the industry has led to intense, heart-rending insights into the side-effects of working below ground.

Many songs have been found during song-catcher expeditions – some of those recording are found here, others have been written by those with a social conscience as a form of protest at times of strife. As well as embracing the social ramifications, political, historic and economic aspects of life in coal mining communities.

The collection is sub-titled Mining Songs From The Appalachian Coalfields and, in fact, the music chosen is pared down to music from southern Appalachia and to that by local talent. There is a mixture of styles – big band, jazz, old-time (in its various sub-sets, including string band), traditional country, bluegrass, folk, blues, boogie-woogie and choral.

The recordings themselves span a century, beginning with the opening song on the first disc – Down In A Coal Mine an excerpt from The Edison Concert Band and made in 1908. Other recordings from the early part of the last century include Mining Camp Blues by Trixie Smith (1925); He’s Only A Miner Killed In The Ground -Ted Chestnut (1928); Coal Miner’s Blues – The Carter Family (1938) and Sprinkle Coal Dust On My Grave – Orville Jenks (1940), sung to the same melody as Sunny Side Of The Mountain..

As concept albums go, this collection takes its place among the finest. Presented in a book format measuring approximately 10 inches by 6 inches, it contains two CDs with a total of 48 tracks. The book itself has an Introduction, written by producer Jack Wright, a Sanctus contributed by Archie Green, the doyen of coal mining music scholarship with his book Only A Miner, and to whom the anthology is dedicated, and Foreword by Jon Lohman of the Virginia Folklife Program. Additionally, it comprises a brief essay giving some background to the song and/or the singer, innumerable black and white photographs, most courtesy of Helen Lewis and lyrics.

Also, the book remembers that mining wasn’t an exclusively male preserve with a few brief references to the experiences of female mine workers. Of course, women were significant in holding their, often large, families together, supporting their men folk domestically as well as often championing their causes in their invariably shared tumultuous lives.

Music Of Coal is a very valuable documentation from the perspective of the workers in a treacherous industry that is nevertheless so necessary as it provides a fundamental need in all our lives. It does well to remind us of the many sacrifices that have blighted lives and the landscape in earlier times of Appalachian coal mining.

Juldeh Camara

June 23, 2014 by


Juldeh Camara was taught to play by his blind father, who himself was taught directly by the djinn. Playing the ritti, a one-stringed fiddle and West African ancestor of the violin, he participated as a griot (a West African poet, praise singer and repository of oral tradition) in traditional Fula society in the Gambia.

“The djinni took his eyes and gave him the violin, the gift to play on it and the gift to see what other people cannot see.” This is Juldeh’s story about how his father became a musician. Juldeh’s grandfather was a hunter, and he wanted his son Serif to become a great hunter as himself, but when Serif was 15 years old he disappeared in the forest. Everyone thought he was dead, killed by the hyenas. One year later his father still went every day to the forest to look for his son. Suddenly he could hear a sound from a tree. He came closer and he saw his son sitting in the tree playing a golden violin.

He understood that Serif was hypnotised by the djinni and after many hours he managed to drive the djinni away, but at the same time the violin was gone. Serif followed his father home, but every day he went back to the forest to learn more from the djinni. When the time came, and Serif had become a fully trained musician and Marabou, the djinni took his eyesight in return. Juldeh grew up in Sariyalla in Casamance, West Africa, with his blind jali-father as his teacher. When one listens carefully one can hear the sound of the djinni in Juldeh’s music.

Edden Hammons

June 22, 2014 by

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 5.42.42 PM

excerpt from “Edden Hammons – Portrait of a West Virginia Fiddler”:

Of all Edden Hammon’s musical acquaintances the Hammonses speak most vividly of the notable Randolph Countian Wren McGee, who died in the 1930s. The undisputed champion of his region, McGee reportedly held the Elkins championship for many years running before relinquishing the crown to his nephew and understudy, Gus McGee. Smith remembers several visits to the McGee home on Riffles Creek about 1915 or so and states that his father learned ‘Birdie’ among other tunes from the elder fiddler. Currence Hammons, Edden’s musical sidekick during his stay in Randolph County, corroborates Smith’s belief in telling his eyewitness version of the first meeting between the two champions.

Here come Edden, a-carrying his fiddle in a flour poke – oh be one of those twenty-five pound flour pokes, you know, and the bow would stick up about that high out of the top of the poke … He come there, ‘Come in,’ it was a-sprinkling rain and Wren was a-setting there playing the fiddle, you know. Oh, Wren was a good fiddler, there’s no question to it, but he’s a tall slim feller. I’ll bet you his fingers, was way oh, my Lord, not much longer than mine. Just little old peaked things.

Well, he was a-playing, Edden came in. Well, when Edden come in, Wren kinda quit playing a-standing there. Edden said ‘Now don’t quit playing, I want to hear that music.’ And Wren, he got in to play one, and finally they said to Wren, said, ‘Ah, Mr. McGee, play that ‘Birdie.’ ‘

Edden said, ‘ ‘Birdie’? ‘Pon my honour I never heard that.’ And now I never’d hear’d it. I never did hear till I hear’d Wren play it. And I was sitting there by him and I said, ‘No, I never hear’d it.’ ‘ ‘Pon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘Play it, I want to hear that.’ Well Wren, he played ‘Birdie’, Edden said to him, he said, ‘Play ‘Be All Smiles Tonight’ ‘ and Edden could play that. He played that, he played it.

And now he said, ‘Mr Hammons, I’ve heard a lot of talk about you. I want to hear you play one.’ ”Pon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘I can’t play. But,’ he said, ‘I’ll try.’ He went to get his fiddle, you know, and Wren said, ‘Here, play on mine.’ Edden looked over, ‘Oh no, on my honour, I’ll get mine.’ He just went over and pulled her out of the flour sack. And the flour sack was wet, you know. It’d rained on it, it was really sprinkling rain when he’d come in.

Pulled her out and tucked the fiddle and knocked the old flour out of it and blowed it off. Wren just stood and looked at him. Now, he never took his eyes off him. Indeed that fiddle was white of flour all over it. Took an old handkerchief out of his pocket and knocked it off of the strings and swept it off. Well, he played, ‘Be All Smiles Tonight’, the first one Edden played. Wren stood and listened at him. Wren never said a word.

But Edden, Edden said to him, he said, ‘Mr. McGee I want to hear you play that ‘Birdie’ again.’ He said, ‘I never heard that piece and my honour that’s a good one.’ Well Wren got his fiddle. He went to playing it, you know. Edden a-standing there and listened at him. After he played it, Edden said ‘On my honour, I wonder if I can start it?’ He went to fooling over the fiddle, trying to get the notes to ‘Birdie’, and he found them.
I’m a son-of-a-gun if he didn’t show Wren McGee how to play ‘Birdie’. Wren just stood and listened at him and when he got done playing it, Wren took his fiddle and put it in the case and shut it up. He would not get his fiddle out of the case anymore that night. He said, ‘He’s got me beat,’ he said, ‘I don’t know how to play the fiddle.’

Currence notes that his Uncle Edden routinely toted his instrument around in a flour sack, much to the amusement of those around him.

“The violin had a weasel head on it, you know, at the end of the neck over here where the keys was – a weasel head and ah, had its tongue a-sticking out … that’s the one he carried in the flour poke. That’s the one that me and him played down here at Elkins for the first prize we won first prize with. I never hear’d such hollering and laughing as people [did] in my life. Edden, oh they had them nice one hundred dollar fiddles and them they said was cheap, and they said, well, it come Edden’s turn he just walked over to the corner and picked up the flour poke and they all got to looking to what he was getting. He pulled that old fiddle out and flour was all over it. He dusted it off, blowed it off, you know. Some of them went to laughing and hollering about that flour.

‘Upon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘that’s just as good as the best cases made,’ he said, ‘that flour makes her play good.’ I never will forget that.”

Wayne Perry (#2)

June 21, 2014 by
Wayne Perry

Wayne Perry

Looks like the complete Wayne Perry  Library of Congress recordings are available here.  More about Wayne Perry here.


This site is a digital resource for the study of the 1934 John and Alan Lomax trip to lower Louisiana, where they recorded a diverse array of songs in English and in Louisiana French. The recordings they made are part of the Lomax Collection, housed at the Library of Congress in the American Folklife Center. This website was developed by Joshua Clegg Caffery, author of Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, which contains transcriptions, translations, and annotations of these recordings.

The audio on this site is organized by parish and performer name, and it corresponds, more or less, with the Table of Contents in Caffery’s Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana. An image of the Library of Congress cards from the original catalog of the Archive of American Folk Song accompanies each audio selection. These images are hyperlinked to the corresponding record in the American Folklife Center’s online interface. All Library of Congress photos of performers are also hyperlinked to their corresponding page in the Library’s Division of Prints and Photographs.

In many cases, the titles and information given on this website may conflict with information in the original card catalog. The original cataloging of these materials contained a number of mishearings, misspellings, misidentifications, and other errors. This cataloging was done, after all, at a time when there was practically no scholarship at all on the vernacular music of south Louisiana.

The goal of this site, and of the book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, is to update these efforts in light of contemporary knowledge and to make corrections where appropriate.

See also here.



“The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

June 20, 2014 by

JIMMIE RODGERS: “The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

excerpt from Imogen Smith (

American popular culture has had few better days than July 16, 1930, when Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, went to the Victor Studio in Hollywood and recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner),” backed by none other than Louis Armstrong. Actually, “backed” is the wrong word; the recording is a duet, and you can hear Armstrong respond with delight to Rodgers’s vocals, and Rodgers drink up the fire of Armstrong’s trumpet. Satchmo went uncredited on the record, however, and his presence was only suspected until Nolan Porterfield finally tracked down hard evidence while researching his 2007 biography of Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers fully deserves his title as the “father of country music,” but it fails to capture his real nature as a one-man melting pot for country, blues, jazz and pop. His music was both urban and rural, blissfully indifferent to categories imposed later. He was accompanied at different times by fiddles and banjos, growling clarinets, jug bands, tubas, blues pickers, Hawaiian steel guitars and ukuleles, as well as his own rudimentary but effective guitar riffs. On “Blue Yodel No. 9,” his twanging, clarion voice—sharp and resonant as a locomotive’s bell—weaves dazzlingly with Armstrong’s bright, hard, leaping trumpet.

Racially integrated recordings were not uncommon at the time, though black and white musicians couldn’t perform together publicly, and when the great guitarist Eddie Lang (an Italian-American, born Salvatore Massaro) recorded with black artists like Lonnie Johnson for the Okeh label (producer of “race records”), he was credited as “Blind Willie Dunn.” Fortunately, microphones were blind. Piedmont bluesman John Jackson recounted how he cried all night when he learned that Jimmie Rodgers was dead, and was shocked the next morning when he saw the obituary and realized his idol was white. Rodgers himself defined country music as “the white man’s blues.”

Some time in the late 1940’s, the Kipsigis tribe of Kenya first heard recorded music courtesy of a windup gramophone. They were particularly taken with the performer they called “Chemirocha,” and wrote their own songs in tribute, inviting him to come and dance with them. Such a recording can be heard online; it sounds too good to be true, but all evidence points to it being legit. Alas, Rodgers could not accept the invitation, since he had died of tuberculosis in 1933, aged 35, in the Taft Hotel in Manhattan. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 1924, and he told us exactly how it felt in his macabre, angry lament, “T.B. Blues”:

When it rained down sorrow, it rained all over me,

                        ‘Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.

According to the veddy British announcer who introduces the ethnographic recording, the Kipsigis women insisted that Chemirocha was “no ordinary creature” but in fact a faun, half-man, half-antelope. It’s a fitting image, somehow. Bob Dylan, who produced a tribute album, called Rodgers “the voice in the wilderness of your head.” He seems a kind of American Pan, a deathless goat-hoofed spirit of cultural fertility, a ghost capering across the fields of American music.

See also here, here, and here.


Ian Nagoski

June 19, 2014 by



excerpt of interview with 78 RPM collector Ian Nagoski (of Canary Records), from

In my mid-teens, shortly after buying Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America book, I heard the ‘Social Music’ volume of Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology (still my favorite volume) and began to take his premise of listening for the Big Picture (the “voice of God”?) seriously. From my late teens through my twenties, I studied the first generation of collector/anthologists of Americana (Pete Whelan’s Origin Jazz Library, Nick Perls’ Yazoo, Chris Strachwitz’s Folklyric and Arhoolie, Don Kent’s Herwin, etc, etc) and came to think of them as artists as much as the performers that they were presenting, as sculptors, bricoleurs, and composers in the same sense as Joseph Cornell, Bruce Connor, Pierre Schaeffer, etc. I was at university and having a very difficult time finding my way when Pat Conte’s Secret Museum series was released and I felt that he had more to say about the truth of music than anyone in a hundred mile radius of the town where I lived.

When I was thirty my daughter was born, so I gave up my music because it was too time-consuming and only lost me money. But I’d been into 78s for about ten years at that point, and a buddy of mine suggested that I make a CD collection for his label. So that became Black Mirror on the Dust-to-Digital label. Then that lead to a relationship with Mississippi Records and got me interested in doing more research and writing about old music. I saw that there were some great stories not being told and saw a way to deal with some of the same concerns regarding memory and musical meaning that I’d had as a composer in a relatable form, so I started doing that.

I’m driven by a desire to respect the work of the people who made this beautiful music—to say simply and clearly that their lives mattered. I feel connected to them when I hear them play, and I want to know them and share the quality and meaning of their lives to the extent that I can know it. Secondarily, I want to shake people up a little, Americans in particular, and remind them (us) that we haven’t been told the whole story, that we don’t know enough about who we are, that the world is a big place full of beauty and wonder, and that simply agreeing on a few icons and symbols and songs is not good enough. It leads to amnesia and complacency and ultimately reinforces the devaluing of human life and creativity.

(The ‘secret history’ and, especially, ‘old, weird America’ tropes mean nothing to me. There’s nothing particularly ‘secret’ or ‘weird’ about any of it. It’s all perfectly normal, and the answers could be available if the questions were asked to the right people…)

Black Bottom Rag

June 18, 2014 by

From the Green Mountain wilderness.  I hear music….


June 18, 2014 by
Dennis McGee: Himself  (Valcour Records) 
Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections) by Chris King

Few people can be justifiably regarded as both an originator of a particular style of music and also as a conveyor of an older style of folk music in its own right.  Fewer still are those who were aurally documented in the 1920s & 1930s and in the 1970s & 1980s who showed little loss of skill or recollection of repertoire.   One such artist was the unique Cajun, Dennis McGee.

Not only did McGee record from 1929 to 1934 with such artists as Amédé Ardoin, Sady Courville, Wade Fruge, and Angelas Le Jeunne, but he also later recorded two “studio” albums in 1972 and 1977 with Sady Courville for Morning Star and Swallow, respectively.   Every recording mentioned above was done either with a second fiddler and with McGee providing the vocals, or in the role of the accompanying fiddler behind an accordion player and vocalist.

This new CD, Dennis McGee – Himself, presents McGee in the role of solo fiddler, playing mostly previously unheard instrumentals without the company of a second fiddler or an accordion player. It is a revelation on par with “junking” a stack of unknown & unissued test recordings by one of the most majestic and unique fiddlers ever to draw a bow.

Since McGee was one of the earliest Cajun artists to record commercially, most musicians, collectors, and scholars regard him, along with the black accordion player, Amédé Ardoin, as the source of most traditional Cajun tunes and the techniques developed to play them; the true vine, as it were.  What has been lacking, up until the release of this material recorded in 1975 by Gérard Dôle, were recordings of McGee performing unaccompanied and, perhaps more importantly, performing the more archaic and obscure types of Cajun fiddle tunes that were popular in the 19th century.

This is essential since mazurkas, polkas, gallopades, varsoviannas,  and cotillions held a strong place in the early Cajun fiddle and dance repertoire but became less popular with the introduction of the diatonic accordion.   One of the most revealing aspects of this collection, though not explicitly stated, is that traditional Cajun fiddle music is defined more by its repertoire than by its style. Read the rest of this entry »

Beaters, Phrasers, and Noters

June 17, 2014 by


excerpt from “Music, Mediation, Sustainability: A Case Study on the Banjo” by Jeff Todd Titon:

The old-time melody usually comes to the player’s consciousness initially in one of three ways: beats, phrases, or notes. This is true for fiddlers as well as for banjo players learning a tune while it is being played. Based on my conversations with players, and also on my own experience, I divide musicians into “beaters,” “phrasers”, and “noters.”

To the beater, the tune presents itself to consciousness as a formal structure, at first in large chunks rather than differentiated into phrases and notes. The beater tries to resolve this undifferentiated structure by dividing it into its largest sections or parts–usually two, but sometimes three and occasionally four; and then how long each part is; and then whether the tune’s structure is regular or “crooked” (that is, irregular). Regularity means that the melody is played over a standard number of beats, usually sixteen, before either repeating or moving on to the next section. To figure this out, the “beater” begins to count the beats as they go by, often using the fingers to count instead of playing; and then with this framework in mind, proceeds to try to grasp the melody itself in the hands and fingers as it proceeds, either as a phraser or as a noter. A “beater” feels more comfortable with a regular tune than with a crooked one, and learns it more quickly.

A “phraser” does not count beats. Instead, the tune reveals itself to consciousness one melodic phrase (a phrase generally runs through one or two beats) at a time, as the musician compares these phrases to others he or she may have heard before and stored somewhere in a phrase-memory (both pitch and rhythm) that is both in the brain and, seemingly, in the hands and fingers. The rhythmic figures are fewer in number and often predominate. Tentatively at first, the phraser will bring out these remembered melodic phrases or something like them on the banjo, and then proceed to test them against the phrases that are heard as the melody goes by. Gradually the phrases combine and come more and more to resemble the fiddler’s melody, but they retain the character of a banjo realization. At some point the phraser also becomes a noter and adjusts a note here and there to get a more satisfying rendition. Usually the phraser is barely aware of whether the tune is regular or crooked; it is in the mind primarily as a sequence of phrases.

A “noter” does not count beats and does not hear the melody in phrases at first. What presents itself to the noter’s consciousness is an unphrased skeletal outline of the melody, consisting chiefly of stressed notes that come at particular points in tune–the downbeat notes, and not all of these, either. The player finds these on the banjo, and often plays them in bumm-diddy style, the bumm bringing out the stressed note on the downbeat. Sometimes the noter also encases these in chordal or part-chordal formations with the right hand, to fill out the sound. Gradually, the noter finds more of the melodic core and rhythmic figures, some on weak beats and some on offbeats. Certain tones and tone combinations turn out to be easy to play, others more difficult, and a few impossible–these latter are left alone. Licks emerge from the noter’s fingers through a kind of rhythmic hand-and-finger memory that sets the melody in a banjo-like way. The noter tends to accentuate the downbeat melody notes that coincide with the fiddler’s melody.

Lonesome Whistle

June 16, 2014 by


Lonesome Whistle – An Anthology Of American Railroad Song (4 CD Proper Box Set)


This 100 track collection celebrates the impact the railroad had on USA’s population.  The constant movement of people away and towards better or worse situations and the trains that got them there are a large part of the lyrical consciousness of all American Folk music.   In this extensive Proper Records collection we have a cross-section of genres that perfectly illustrate the impact the railways had on the movement, sound, and consciousness of musicians from all strands of the Folk music of the USA.
Before super highways and relatively cheap internal air travel, during the latter part of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, railways – or railroads, as they say in America – were the throbbing arteries for freight and public transport across the vastness of the USA. Poor folk either watched the monsters pass them by, hammered the tracks, hopped a freebie in a cattle truck or sat in the cheap seats.

Rich folk enjoyed pampered service in swanky saloons. The toffs are not renowned for their railroad reminiscences. Poor blacks and whites, principally of the southern states, wrote and recorded about it aplenty. This 4-CD box set celebrates 100 of the most pertinent and poignant examples, from early blues and country recordings of the 1920s to rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s.

You don’t need to be a train-spotter to climb aboard this anthology; just an open ear for the noble art of storytelling, thematically linked out of different social stations and gradually evolving along the line from acoustic to electric performance. Many legendary artists are featured together with an equal number of ‘never heard of them before but now note their names’ reasons to enjoy the bittersweet romance of railroads.

Here are tales of tragedies, opportunities and loves lost or found, escapes and escapades, of famous railroad companies and forgotten locals. The better known troubadours and raconteurs include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Furry Lewis, Jimmie Rogers (The Singing Brakeman), Mississippi John Hurt, The Carter Family, Charley Patton, Bukka White, Blind Willie McTell, Walter Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, The Delmore Brothers, Meade Lux Lewis, The Monroe Brothers, Little Brother Montgomery, Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Leadbelly, Arthur Crudup, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Johnny Burnette’s Rock ’n’ Roll Trio.

Various Artists compilations often come across as a jumble of odds ’n’ sods if they are not coherently compiled and annotated. This one, enclosing an informative 24-page booklet, is just the ticket

“In Griot Time”

June 15, 2014 by


edited from Roderic Knight (Ethnomusicolgy, winter 2003) and

For seven months in 1995 and 1996, guitarist Banning Eyre lived on the compound of one of Mali’s greatest and best-known guitarists, Djelimady Tounkara of Bamako, Mali.  “In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali” is a chronicle of Eyre’s apprenticeship to Tounkara.

Eyre tells of his experiences– hours at night spent playing duos with his teacher, the humdrum round of wedding gigs, the grand and tedious music spectacles staged for TV in vast football stadiums, the reddish Bamako smog, the exhilaration of playing with the famous Rail Band.  Those who have been there will say “namu” (“yes, true”) to his every sentence.

With a perceptive eye and compassionate heart he captures the interpersonal realities of trying to make a musical living in a contemporary African city. We sit in on sessions with kora player Toumani Diabate, drop in at hidden-away bars where improvisation thrives, listen as a husband-and-wife duo haggle over the logistics of their performance and the division of proceeds.

Eyre has also done his research, and frequently steps aside from the illuminating dialogues and character descriptions to discuss broader topics such as kingship, patronage, slavery, history versus oral narrative, the politics of post-colonial Mali, and the nature of Islam in African society.

In the course of the book, Eyre freely acknowledges his debt to John Miller Chernoff’s , perhaps one of the best books ever written about African music for a Western audience. The parallels between Eyre’s experiences and Chernoff’s are many. Both went to Africa—Eyre to Mali and Chernoff to Ghana—to learn to play music. Both knew that playing the music well required them to understand something about the culture and history that created the style in the first place, and both strove hard to immerse themselves as much as they could. Chernoff’s immersion was perhaps more successful: He emerged from his experience with a book that reads in parts like a Rosetta Stone to understanding Ghanian drumming in particular and African music generally. As a musician myself, I am still learning from Chernoff’s book, and it’s been ten years since I read it.

Eyre’s book, by design, doesn’t have that kind of insight. Unlike Chernoff, he doesn’t dwell on how the music is put together so much as what it was like for him to learn how to play it. While it seems clear that he played music for at least a couple hours a day, most of the book is about what happens to him when he’s not playing music—the conversations he has with people, the things he sees and does, the other musicians he hears—all written with a clear eye, an astonishing sensitivity, and a willingness to wrestle with some difficult questions about cultural frictions and the legacy of colonialism. The result, I believe, is a much more accessible book than Chernoff’s.

Where Chernoff’s book is perfect for people who already love African music—particularly other musicians who are trying to figure out how to play it—Eyre’s book is just the thing to make people who don’t know much about African music want to learn more about it. Its own effect on me has already been profound. Chernoff’s book in some ways scared me away from trying to play African music even as it made me want to all the more. But it was Eyre’s book (and Eyre himself, who I finally took a lesson from) that finally made me pick up a guitar and try to play. I know that I’ll never play like either Chernoff or Eyre—let alone the African musicians they have played with—but In Griot Time gave me the courage to play with the required humility, and evident joy.

Populist Banjo

June 14, 2014 by

R.D. Eno of Cabot, VT

Clawhammer Becoming the ‘Populist’ Banjo,

There’s a new banjo sound emanating from the Green Mountains that is catching on with players and audiences. While the ripping-fast percussive sound of a banjo in bluegrass music is familiar to most, the more melodic, somewhat slower paced clawhammer style is gaining with local listeners.

At open sessions in Montpelier, VT at Bagito’s or the Skinny Pancake, old time music has caught on and an integral part of that style comes from the clawhammer banjo style.

Eno, a keen observer of traditional musical styles, says clawhammer banjo has become popular because “it’s archival. It preserves in the music and execution a style and sensibility of the past.”

“Clawhammer repertoire provides a window into the mid-19th century intermingling of African and white Celtic  sensibilities,” he explains.

Eno also sees in the music that clawhammer exemplifies a tradition that has come down through the years.

“It’s a sense of intimacy that partly accounts for the folk music revival itself,” he said. “Old time music invites participation. It’s easy to pick up the style but difficult to master – but you don’t have to be a master to participate.”

Eno says the banjo is a fairly uncomplicated instrument, which appeals to many potential players today.

“Everything about the banjo is visible,” he said. “There is nothing arcane about it. There is no special glue, bracing, carving like in violin or guitar making; the banjo is very simple, a drum with a broom stick.”

If you want to hear traditional old-time music or join in there are two sessions in Montpelier: 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sundays at the Skinny Pancake; and a monthly session at Bagitos 6 to 8 p.m. each third Tuesday.

Steel Band and Buck Dance

June 14, 2014 by

The Grand Old Virginia Repertory

June 13, 2014 by

edited from  Alan Jabbour (

My wife and I were on a car trip in West Virginia, visiting Oscar Wright and his son Eugene Wright. They were wonderful musicians. Oscar played fiddle and banjo and sang with a high tenor voice. He played old time tunes—in fact, he was playing a lot of tunes I’d never heard before. I asked him where he got these unusual tunes, and he said, “Oh these tunes come from ‘old man Henry Reed’.” Well, I imagined he was talking about someone long since passed away, and I said something to that effect. And he said, “Oh, no! Last I heard, he was still around. He’s ten or fifteen years older than me, but he’s still playing the fiddle, as far as I know.”

So, he gave us directions to Glen Lyn, Virginia, which is right across the border from Princeton, West Virginia, and Karen and I drove there and met Henry Reed. We had a great session. I recorded about forty tunes that evening, and at least half of them were tunes I’d never heard before. Not because he made them up, but because he’d preserved this great old Virginia repertory that virtually everyone else had forgotten. He had it all, he played all those tunes, actually hundreds of them. It was an amazing experience!

He must have been about eighty-one. He was born in 1884 and died in 1968. That meant that he learned his repertory from long before radio and records. In fact, he had already learned a lot of music by the turn of the century. He was also one of those musicians who acquired tunes wherever he went. He would play any tune that he liked, and so he added new tunes and didn’t forget the old tunes. He had a magnificent repertory. I recorded six or seven sessions with him, and at the last one, he had twenty more new tunes. We weren’t anywhere near the bottom of his repertory.


A lot of the tunes he played were included in a collection called Virginia Reels, published by a Virginia music master in 1839. This is one of our only windows into what fiddlers were actually playing in early 19th-century America. And Henry Reed was playing about half the tunes in that collection; this was the grand old Virginia repertory, going back to the late 18th and early 19th century.

It was brought into the Appalachians by Virginia settlers who moved there in the 1840s. His own mentor, Quince Dillion, was born in 1826 and moved up with his family from the Danville, Virginia, area, up into the mountains in the 1840s. That gives you a sense of how deep that tradition is. Quince Dillion played fiddle, but he also played fife before and during the Civil War. This man was born in the Jacksonian era, and died in 1903, but before he died, he taught a lot of music to Henry Reed. I like to see myself at the end of a long time-line, from today, 2012, going back to 1826; and right there in the middle is this man Henry Reed.


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