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Music starts after 1 minute.
The Manding Empire was founded in the 13th Century by the emperor Sunjata. It swept from one end of West Africa to the other, from Casamance on the Atlantic coast all the way to Burkina Faso, thousands of miles to the east. Sunjata used a hitherto unheard of weapon to bind all his disparate peoples together: music. Music became a formidable political tool and turned the hereditary Manding musicians or djelis (griots) into a powerful caste.
Today, having survived centuries of change and turmoil, that caste is still flourishing. Drawing on themes as old as the Empire itself and melodies learned in childhood, the modern griots still mediate for social order. It explains how an artist such as Kassé Mady Diabaté can rise to such a degree of excellence and become a national treasure in Mali.
Kassé Mady was born in 1949 in the village Kéla. His aunt was the great griotte Siramori Diabaté, while his grandfather was known as ‘Jeli Fama’, which means ‘The Great Griot’, thanks to the gripping quality of his voice. When Kassé Mady was 7 years old (a significant age in Manding culture), the elders of the family, including Siramori, realised that he had inherited his grandfather’s vocal genius. They schooled him and encouraged him, until he was able to launch his own career. He would go on to play a role in the most innovative moments in Malian music over the next five decades, first in his own country and later with landmark international collaborations.
In 1970 he became lead singer of the Orchestre Régional Super Mandé de Kangaba. Kassé Mady’s remarkable singing won the group the national Biennale music competition in the Malian capital Bamako. The festival had been set up by the government, as part of a Cultural Authenticity initiative across all of the newly independent West African states, encouraging musicians to return to their cultural heritage.
In 1988 Kassé Mady left Mali and the Badema National behind and moved to Paris, where he recorded his first solo album for the Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla. He spent the next ten years in Paris, recording Fode, then Kéla Tradition, an acoustic album of Kéla jeli songs.
Moving back to Mali in the late 1990s, several collaborations followed, many of which have become landmark recordings: Songhai 2, the album he made with the flamenco group Ketama and Toumani Diabaté, and Koulandjan, on which he collaborated with Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabaté, an album which was famously cited by Barack Obama as one of his favourite albums of all time. Both of these albums were produced by Joe Boyd and released on his Hannibal label. Collaborations with Toumani Diabaté continued and he starred in Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra and Afrocubism projects, both recorded by World Circuit.
Now he has gone back to his roots, with some crucial outside help. This is an immaculately recorded, intimate set in which Kassé Mady is backed by a classy acoustic band of n’goni, balafon and kora (from the celebrated Ballaké Sissoko). The ancient African instruments are joined, sometimes surprisingly, by delicate cello work from producer Vincent Segal.
excerpt from “Dock Boggs in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia”
by Greil Marcus
Representations, No. 58 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-23
Dock Boggs was twenty-nine when agents of the Brunswick company-a major New York label with separate lines for “hillbilly” and “race” records-arrived in Norton, Va. to audition mountain talent. Boggs showed up at the Norton Hotel on Kentucky Avenue with a borrowed, second-rate banjo.
Even with a half-pint of Guest River whiskey in his stomach he was intimidated by the crowd of pickers and fiddlers: “I stood around and pitched them high as a dollar, dollar and a half at a time-I mean nickels, dimes, and quarters-to hear them play. They wasn’t doing nothing but playing and I was working on a coal machine.” A. P. Carter of the Carter Family failed the audition; Boggs passed.
He cut eight sides, four 78s, in New York City; the company wanted more but he demurred. Before traveling out of the Virginia mountains for the first time, Boggs went to the Norton haberdashery for a new suit, shoes to hat, socks to underwear; determined to walk the city streets with pride, he insisted on clothes that would draw no northern smiles.
Dock Boggs quit the mines after his records were released, drew crowds to schools and houses, formed the Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, and signed a booking agent, but the records sold mostly where he carried them. Boggs recorded only four more songs in the 1920s-generic blues and sentimental parlor lyrics written by a Richlands, Virginia, variety store owner named W. E. Myers.
Myers would send his “ballets,” or poems, to musicians he liked, hoping they would put his words to music. He’d release the results on his own Lonesome Ace label, which featured both a picture of The Spirit of St. Louis and the slogan “WITHOUT A YODEL,” because Myers loved Charles Lindbergh and he hated yodeling.
Boggs cut “Will Sweethearts Know Each Other There,” “Old Rub Alcohol Blues,” and two other Myers efforts in Chicago in 1929; then the Depression destroyed the southern economy and Myers went bankrupt. Boggs pressed on, writing to record companies, traveling to Atlanta for a session with Okeh, which shut down just before he arrived, finally surrendering when a recording date with Victor in Louisville fell through because Boggs, knocking on the doors of his now penniless friends and relatives, could not raise the train fare.
He drank hard, leaving home, even leaving the state for a week at a time, running to where no one would recognize him on the last day of a ten-day drunk, always returning home, where his wife looked right through him. Again and again his wife gave him the same ultimatum: she refused to sleep with him unless he gave up his music, and finally, not long into the 1930s, he did.
from “THE QUEST OF THE LONESOME TUNES” by HOWARD BROCKWAY; June 1917:
We stepped out of New York into the life of the frontier settler of Daniel Boone’s time! Here are people who know naught of the advance which has been made in the world outside of their mountains. It surpasses belief. Many of them neither read nor write, and their knowledge is summed up in the facts of their daily life. In woodlore they shine, in planting and cultivating their corn, raising “razor back” hogs, carding, spinning, weaving and the distilling of their white ”moonshine.”
The next day a young matron, perhaps some twenty-five years old, sang for me the beautiful old ballad of “Sweet William and Lady Margery” the while she unconcernedly suckled a tiny babe. Here again both tune and intonation were perfect and the text but slightly altered. It is intensely interesting to hear these people sing of things which lie entirely out of their ken.
Had they the power of reading, one could not wonder at anything, but to hear these mountain folk born into the frontier life of the eighteenth century and spending their days amongst these isolated hills, sing of “ivory combs,” of lords and ladies, of castles and moats, of steeds and knights, is an astonishing matter.
It brings home to one the whole process of transmission, stretching back through the generations into the period when such things were of the Present. One old man had sung a ballad which contained the word “steed.” He was asked what the word meant. He scratched his head for a moment and slowly replied, “Wall, I reckon hit is some sort o’ hoss animile.” The context had assured him of that! We were told in answer to a similar query as to a certain word: “Shucks! Hit jus’ comes that way.” These people are the real simon-pure Americans!
IN THE FIELD BEHIND THE STAGE – RECORDINGS FROM GALAX OLD FIDDLERS CONVENTIONS – 1967 & 2010 OLD BLUE CD-708
At first glance, the cover photo may look like an RV convention. But die-hard Old-Time and Bluegrass fans know that every year in early August, the nooks and crannies of this crowded field are a hotbed of the best traditional music you’ll ever hope to hear. Though many inspirational performances occur on the stage of the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia, some of the finest musical gems can be heard behind the stage, in this maze of RVs, cars and tarps. This CD captures some of those magical performances played in 1967 and 2010. As you listen, you’ll notice that the quality, talent and musicianship have remained consistently high throughout this 33-year span.
The Greater Galax area has long been a hot-bed of great rural music. In the 1920s musicians like Ernest Stoneman; his brother, George; the (original!) Hillbillies; Wade, Fields and Crockett Ward; Ben Jarrell; Frank and Oscar Jenkins; to name just a few, traveled afar to Richmond, Indiana, Asheville, New York, Bristol to record. Even the Carter Family falls within that 60 mile radius circle. Many of these musicians played at the early Galax Old Fiddlers Conventions and are certainly one of the reasons that those contests got off to standing room only starts.
It was just as easy in the 1960s to go to the Galax and hear equally great musicians; even sometimes the musicians who got started in1920s. Clark Kessinger, who recorded over 70 fiddle tunes for Brunswick between 1928 and 1930, is on everyone’s top five list of old time fiddlers. In the ‘60s whenever I asked a Texas fiddler where they got their tunes, they would mention Clark. He started fiddling again in the 1960s; his band took home the blue ribbon at the 1965 Galax convention. And he got the fiddle blue ribbon in 1970 when he was 74 years old! Buddy Pendleton was second and Otis Burris, Joey’s grandfather, third.
The three 1967 fiddlers, Leake Caudle, Oscar Jenkins and John Ashby, are sadly gone. The sixteen 2010 fiddlers, Eddie Bond, Bill Birchfield, Joey Burris, Andy Edmonds, Jerry Correll, Billy Hurt Jr., Corrina Logston, T.J. Lundy, Buddy Pendleton, Adrian Shepherd-Powell, Kilby Spencer, Kirk Sutphin and Betty Vornbrock, happily continue to make powerful, compelling music.
The bands heard here are equally important. Their drive, tightness and imagination are necessary ingredients of every winning performance. The 34 tracks on OB 708 work out to over 73 minutes of music. 34 tracks; 16 different fiddlers – ages 20s to 70-plus; 39 different musicians! If Clark were alive today, he would say something like: “Great job! I’d enjoy playing with – or against – any of you.”
The rare-record business is booming, despite the recession and the devaluation of music as a physical product. “Prices have been rising at a phenomenal rate, as people take money out of the stock market and out of different real estate investments and look for a place to put it,” said John Tefteller, a collector who makes his living dealing in rare records.
Although most collectors subspecialize by genre, whether jazz or classical or country, it’s early American rural blues — loose acoustic laments, recorded before 1935 and performed by artists who were born in or near the Mississippi Delta — that inspires the highest prices and the most fevered pursuits. “The early blues material from the ’20s and ’30s is the hottest material of all,” Mr. Tefteller said in a phone interview. He said that on average a rare jazz 78 might sell for $1,500 to $5,000, whereas sales for a comparable blues record would start at $5,000.
Blues music is in part mythological; its legend involves sweltering juke joints, homemade whiskey and Faustian bargains at rural crossroads. A furniture company in a largely white Midwestern suburb is rarely evoked in these reveries, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s Paramount Records — an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a manufacturer of wooden phonograph cabinets in Port Washington, Wis. — became an unlikely home for blues legends like Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Skip James. Paramount’s blues releases — especially its “race” records with label numbers in the 12000s and 13000s — are among the most coveted records in the world.
These particular records, he explained, are a finite commodity. “I would doubt that there are a hundred total Charley Patton records left in the world,” he said. Other artists’ discographies are even more limited: only eight copies of various 78s by Son House (who recorded eight sides, or four records, for Paramount) and 15 copies of discs by Skip James (who recorded 18 sides) appear to remain.
The stakes are high from a preservationist standpoint. If collectors weren’t tracking these records, the songs might be lost entirely, and speculation surrounding Paramount’s missing metal masters (the original transcriptions of a performance) has only amplified the significance of the remaining 78s. According to Alex van der Tuuk’s book “Paramount’s Rise and Fall” (Mainspring Press, 2003), in 1942 the bulk of the masters — by then corroded — were carted off by rail for reuse in World War II.
“The building where the metal masters had been stored didn’t have any insulation, and pigeons came into that building, and you can imagine what a bird does to a metal master,” Mr. van der Tuuk said by phone from his home in the Netherlands. Still, rumors — that they were hurled into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled former employees, or used to patch rat holes in chicken coops — persist. In 2006 the PBS program “The History Detectives” arranged for a team of divers to scour the bottom of the Milwaukee River. They came up empty-handed.
Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, by Steve Lowenthal (Chicago Review)
reviewed by Steve Danziger (http://online.wsj.com):
John Fahey was a composer, musician and absurdist bard of the American suburbs. An acoustic guitarist who combined traditional finger-style technique with an avant-garde sensibility, he called his style American Primitive. He drew from blues, Indian ragas, Gregorian chant, hymns, musique concrète and seemingly anything else he heard to make music of great delicacy and often harsh beauty, infused with yearning and anguish.
Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore called him a “secret influence,” a designation that could be made by admirers from Pete Townshend to Sufjan Stevens. He was also a notorious flake, difficult to fathom in the best circumstances. Steve Lowenthal’s patchy biography “Dance of Death” offers the outline of his life but little insight, leaving Fahey impenetrable as he was influential.
Dance of Death
Fahey (1939-2001), lonely and meek as a child in Takoma Park, Md., eased his alienation by allowing his imagination to go berserk. He and his friends invented “a secret race of cat people” and a “local demigod, whom they named ‘the Great Koonaklaster.’ ” By age 13, his whimsy had teetered into darkness, beginning a lifelong preoccupation with death.
Records saved Fahey. Hearing Blind Willie Johnson sparked a “hysterical conversion experience,” so he bought a $17 guitar and fed his obsession with records from the 1920s and 1930s that he found by trolling thrift stores and by going door to door in black neighborhoods. In 1959, he started his own label and pressed 100 copies of his first album, “Blind Joe Death.” The imaginary bluesman of the title became an alter ego and an outlet for Fahey’s bizarre sense of humor. Later liner notes would include faux-scholarly histories of both Fahey, who “made his first guitar from a baby’s coffin,” and Blind Joe Death, “the old blind negro [he led] through the back alleys and whore-houses of Takoma Park in return for lessons.” (more…)
by Frank Matheis (www.thecountryblues.com):
Meet Jerron Paxton, a modern day songster, minstrel and bluesman. He is truly the living embodiment of the true blues in the 21st Century, but he plays it all in the true songster tradition: ragtime, hokum, old-time, French reels, Appalachian mountain music and blues and more – and whatever he plays sounds great .
The young bard was born in 1989, but his vast talent rivals the greatest in the genre. He is the whole package. He’s witty, fast rhyming, poetic, fun, exciting, wonderfully skilled as a musician and a fine singer, he is the continuation of a proud tradition, literally and figuratively. It’s hard to tell at times when Jerron Paxton, a consummate entertainer, is putting on an act, when he takes his act to real life and when life starts and the act ends.
He seemingly appeals to audiences into the old-times look and sound, but it could also be, as he told the countryblues.com “I just like wearing overalls.” The artist has even reported to be the real-life son of Robert Johnson’s cousin. At first glance he looks like he’s playing the part of a bluesman in a Hollywood movie, dressed with theatrical retro-schtick, with some type of various hats, from Derbies to Orthodox Jewish kippa.
The tall, corpulent young man almost looks like a young Willie Dixon, and he is smart to make hay when the grass is high, marketing himself directly to the segment of the blues community with a great nostalgic hunger for authentic musicians that accurately portray the image of the romanticized 1930s rural minstrel. It could be that for now, his closest local support group is the Jalopy Theater scene in Brooklyn, where there is an active old time community. (more…)
Department of Redundancy: the books mentioned below have previously been featured on oldtimeparty, but this essay is too good to pass up.
by Barry Mazor (www.newrepublic.com):
In mid-April, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story that might have been taken as a sign of a leap in interest in pre-World War II acoustic blues. It concerned the utterly obscure Depression-era singers Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. In fact, while John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” presented sensational aspects of the two women’s stories (a murder; closeted lesbian lives on the run), it had, at its heart, something else entirely.
The unpublished information about the duo was tracked down in the early 1960s by the fabled, troubled blues researcher and record collector Mack McCormick and then clandestinely poached from his files by a research assistant. Constructed to maximize suspense, that story—and the peculiarities of white, educated blues obsessives—was the element that justified the article’s prominence in a publication not otherwise known for introducing forgotten music by minor artists of earlier eras.
The magazine’s editors are not alone. In the weeks since then, new books have been published that take up related themes: stories of middlemen blues researchers and record collectors, often, of guys who’ve been both. What’s going on here?
Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, Elion Paz’s lavish new volume of photographs depicts obsessive record collectors and their shelves upon shelves of immensely prized possessions. The book offers colorful photos of fanatic young collectors—standing in front of LPs with covers of certain colors, of all the David Bowie recordings, of private pressings with covers that are pure kitsch. And yet, articles about the book at Slate and Esquire have focused on the only pre-war singles collector in the 416-page volume, the jocular but cranky blues, early jazz and hillbilly specialist, Joe Bussard, age 76, possessor and caretaker of one of the largest private collections of 78 rpm records in those fields.
What drives collectors of old 78s like Joe to organize so much of their lives around relentless searching for and organizing of coveted rarities? Those questions are central in the latest book by journalist Amanda Petrusich, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, which looks in on the obsessive collector subculture, and blues 78 collectors in particular. To see what manic searching for rare records feels like, Petrusich goes hunting with the Grammy-winning engineer Chris King and brings us along. While more interested in the music than in collecting, King shows her where unaccounted-for blues sides might still be lurking. (Inside old Victrola cabinets for sale in the South, is one place.)
Like many of the hardcore blues collectors—and collectors of anything—Petrusich has idiosyncratic opinions and strong responses to the music on those venerable, scratchy original 78s. She’s graphic when she describes her own intense, agitated physical reactions: “I felt like every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bubbling up into my esophagus … I wanted to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it,” she says of hearing an original pressing of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues” for the first time. She also describes her strong predilection for blues records that are unremittingly bleak. That’s not an unusual preference for a member of a generation raised on the notion that caressing the texture of devastation and disconnection in art is profound, for whom lighter blues is unthinkably upbeat.
In the most colorful adventure in Do Not Sell, Petrusich dons a wet suit and searches for the legendary master recordings from Paramount that were, according to some accounts, thrown into the nearby Milwaukee River when the manufacturer went out of business. She doesn’t find any. The George Plimpton-style role-taking, intended to demonstrate how strong an obsession finding a rare record can be, perhaps better illustrates the lengths a writer might go to enliven a chapter.
She also reiterates the story of the “Blues Mafia,” the tight gang of white blues collectors of the 1950s and ’60s, some of whom turned into impresarios, some into recluses, who played such an influential role in changing the idea of which blues mattered. The specialists who coveted rarely heard records came to elevate rarely heard performers. If today people so often take Mississippi delta blues (Skip James, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charley Patton) for heart of the form, it’s in no small measure because the collector-researchers of the ’50s and ’60s, and the blues rockers who followed their lead, taught us to think that way. In fact, those edgy, relatively marginalized, rural guitar players had, for the most part, been little-known artists with limited sales among the black Southern audience, which generally saw blues as dance music. But they presented challenging sounds and images irresistible to the white collector specialists.
Blues radio veteran Steve Cushing’s new 355-page anthology, Pioneers of the Blues Revival, gathers together detailed interviews with 17 of the key collector-researchers, particularly those who became constructive blues activists (Sam Charters, Paul Oliver, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Dick Spottswood, David Evans). These collectors founded reissue and new issue labels, created detailed discographies and blues histories, and most productively, enabled late-in-life coda careers for performers they “rediscovered,” including Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Skip James. Cushing’s detailed discussions with significant blues revival researchers tell crisscrossing artist- and record-rediscovery stories, portraying a close-knit scene with its own rituals, famous incidents, lost heroes, and well-recalled ne’er-do-well connivers. One of the classic blues revival stories is the tale (recalled by multiple researchers) of how a number of leading lights of the Blues Mafia—including eventual guitar hero and label executive John Fahey—raced to be the ones to locate Skip James in Mississippi.
Crucially, all the interviewees in Cushing’s book could still meet and talk with the blues originators directly. Fifty years after 1964, we’re a lot further away from the height of the mid-century blues revival than the revival was from the era of acoustic recorded blues. This points to one reason we’re hearing a lot about the blues collector revivalists now: The gents who had direct contact with the music-makers are themselves aging and dwindling in number.
Nothing has yet made the middlemen more vital or interesting than the music they organized around and collected, however—and nothing could. Attempts to find fresh stories may keep moving us, layer by layer, further away from the music itself—one more Russian stacking doll away from the music at the center.
edited from Mike Yates (www.mustrad.org.uk):
JSP records were formed in 1978 by London-based blues promoter John Stedman. (JSP actually stands for John Stedman Promotions.) Over the past few years they have been slowly issuing classic box sets of early 78rpm recordings, not only of blues singers, but also of old-timey and country music, jazz, music-hall, and an assortment of so-called ‘ethnic’ recordings; the latter including Jewish Klezmorin, Greek Rembetika, Cajun and both Bulgarian and Slovenian singers and musicians.
The two volume set of Uncle Dave Macon recordings are, to my mind, amazing (JSP7729 & JSP7769), especially when you consider that a similar German re-issue set can cost you in excess of £200. Likewise the outstanding Charlie Poole set (JSP7734), which is again far cheaper than the offerings of some other re-issue companies. Some anthologies, such as Serenade in the Mountains –Early Old-Time Music on Record (JSP7780), contain really outstanding performances, although in one or two cases, Classic Field Recordings (JSP77131) springs to mind, some of the performers are not quite in the same league.
One other performer, Riley Puckett, whose sometimes eccentric guitar runs and vocals were a feature of the Skillet Licker’s recordings, surprised me when I heard his 4 CD set – Riley Puckett: Country Music Pioneer (JSP77138). Here was a performer, I thought, who would not have enough good material to fill 4 CDs. Well, I was wrong and I have to say that Puckett’s singing, even on songs such as Little Brown Jug, Red Sails in the Sunset, Moonlight on the Colorado, When I Grow too Old to Dream and South of the Border seems to get better each time I play these albums.
Three of my favourite old-timey sets are Worried Blues (JSP7743), which contains all the recordings made by Frank Hutchinson and Kelly Harrell (as well as recordings by the Tenneva Ramblers and the Blue Ridge Highballers), Serenade in the Mountains (JSP7780), with recordings by the likes of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Nation Brothers, the Carolina Tarheels and the Floyd County Ramblers, and Mountain Frolic (JSP77100), another anthology with superb recordings by Buell Kazee, Al Hopkins, the Crockett Family and many, many more.
I should also mention Appalachian Stomp Down (JSP7761) which contains the recorded works of two of my favourite performers, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter. Grayson, a lovely old-time fiddler, was descended from the sheriff of that name who arrested the legendary Tom Dooley.
There are solo sets by the Delmore Brothers (JSP7727, JSP7765 & JSP7784), Cliff Carlisle (JSP7732 & JSP7768), Darby & Tarlton (JSP7746), and J.E.Mainer (JSP77118 & JSP77124). If you are looking for early bluegrass recordings then I would suggest Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys: All the Classic Releases 1937 – 49 (JSP7712), the anthology Bluegrass – Classic Recordings Remastered. Early Cuts from 1931 – 53 (JSP7731), another anthology Authentic Rare Bluegrass – Independent Label Sides 1951 – 54 (JSP77110), which contains some wonderful tracks, and Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers (JSP7724). I really do like the Stanley Brothers’ early recordings, especially their version of the old English folk song Oxford City (here titled The Little Glass of Wine).
During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
Among the artists were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded hits like “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” there. These songs launched them to stardom and their successes were only the beginning for Peer, who popularized the genres of country, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin music.
Peer had already been recording “hillbilly” songs — what is now known as country — across the Southern United States for five years before the Tennessee recordings.
A new book by music journalist Barry Mazor, “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,” follows the arc of both Peer’s life and the music industry.
His story begins in the era of the wind-up crank cylinder and ends in the age of color television. In that span of time, he navigated performance rights and recording contracts, emphasizing that songwriters and producers each received their share of the profits.
“I think Ralph Peer did more than anyone, any other one single person, to change the popular music we hear,” Mazor told Art Beat. “Yet people don’t necessarily know the name.”
But the names of artists he worked with are recognized as musical greats: Mamie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Perez Prado, Buddy Holly. The list goes on.
While Mazor was working on his previous book, “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century,” he learned about Peer’s relationship to Rodgers. Mazor was fascinated by the man who recorded and produced so much of the music he personally enjoyed listening to and writing about. (more…)
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie (Compass Records)
edited review by Donald Teplyske (http://lonesomeroadreview.com):
Spending time with the music of Jean Ritchie quickly sends one down a rabbit hole of interpretations, variations, fragments, and re-imaginings of Scotch-Irish-English story songs. It can be fascinating to trace a tendril of one ballad to the chorus of another and the thread of a re-worded version of a third. It can also be exhausting.
Rather more pleasant is allowing Ritchie’s unvarnished voice sweep one away to a world of Unquiet Graves, Maids Freed from Gallows, Rosewood Caskets, House Carpenters, and Orphaned Children. Because woven into Ritchie’s ballads of courtship, disaster, crime, wonder, sentimentality, and loss are cautionary tales, tragic ballads, and ‘sparking’ songs that connect with motivated modern listeners by the very power of their antiquity and timelessness.”
While a handful of the performers on this CD have considerable name recognition, the overwhelming majority are less familiar—at least to me-—but their contributions provide substantive flesh to the beautiful skeleton that would have existed had only ‘stars’ been included. Traditional singers like Magpie (“Farewell to the Mountains,”) the incredible Molly Andrews (“Now Is the Cool of the Day”) and Elizabeth LePrelle (“Fair Nottamun Town,”) Riki Schneyer (“Blue Diamond Mines,”) and Kathy Reid-Naiman (“Pretty Betty Martin”) continue the art Ritchie has inspired for the past fifty and more years, and kick no small amount of major vocal arse in doing so. (more…)
edited excerpt from “The Southern Textile Song Tradition Reconsidered,”
by Doug DeNatale and Glenn Hinson
Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 28, No. 2/3
The conditions of cotton mill life had a dramatic impact on the shape and social context of Southern music in general. Mill musicians themselves perceived music more often as a means for self-advancement than as a vehicle for mass protest. The development of the fiddlers’ convention as a paying contest and the increased popularity of small travelling shows first suggested the possibility of an alternative source of cash to mill musicians.
It is no coincidence that Henry Whitter and Fiddlin’ John Carson, the very first Southeastern musicians to make commercial recordings, were textile workers. Other mill workers such as G. B. Grayson, Ernest Stoneman, Kelly Harrell, Charlie Poole, J. E. and Wade Mainer, and many others soon followed their example. The number of mill workers who became significant recording artists in the 1920s and 1930s is impressive, and indicates the extent to which mill workers attempted to cash in on their musical abilities. The story told of Charlie Poole’s departure from the Spray mill captures the sense of optimism many must have felt:
They came early in the morning, before the looms started, to draw their last paychecks. Bringing their instruments into the mill with them, they sat down at the end of one of the rows of looms. As their fellow mill workers gathered around, they played Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. When they finished, Poole spoke up and said, ‘Goodbye, boys, we’re gone.’”
R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country (Abrams Books, 238 pages, CD incuded))
by Terry Zwigoff (excerpt from R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country):
Robert’s original idea was to include a single music card with each Yazoo LP, in much the same spirit as the established trading card tradition that dates back over a century. It was Nick Perls [Yazoo Records founder] who wanted to package the cards as a thirty-six-piece boxed set. That gave Nick an additional item to sell rather than a bonus premium to give away with his paltry LP sales.
He also had Robert design beautiful point-of-purchase store displays for the card sets, which are rare and collectible items today. I remember walking around the West Village with Nick as he tried to talk the local merchants into carrying the card sets. He was pretty successful. The cards were appealing and colorful and sold well right from the start.
Numerous printings were done over the years, and the rights passed from Nick to other publishers. After Nick died, the original artwork for the cards was sold and today is owned by a successful film director in northern California.
Initially, Robert wanted to draw only the country string bands for the country set, but he was persuaded to include Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and a few more well-known entertainers. Robert liked these artists, but he seemed to get a bigger kick out of celebrating the lesser-known bands. Perhaps he wanted to give them a well-deserved bit of recognition after all their years of obscurity.
The existence of available photographs partly determined the musicians he chose to include. It’s a minor miracle that someone had a photo of Mumford Bean and His Itawambians, a band so obscure that their one existing 78 has only been heard by maybe dozen hard-core country collectors, and has never been reissued.
Recorded music can serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes it entertains, sometimes it empowers, and sometimes it merely documents the weaving of a particular thread in our cultural fabric. At various points in the last half-century these songs might have done all three. Of course, musically speaking, 1952 wasn’t so long ago. And the story of how these recordings came to be is central to understanding the document itself.
In 1952, Charles McNutt was a young anthropology student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was also a student of the banjo, and he developed an interest in the instrument’s African (and African-American) roots. Influenced by the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax, McNutt set out to locate and record an African-American banjo player near his home of Memphis, Tennessee. His journey led him to Will Slayden, a sharecropper in his 60s who had given up the instrument when he became a Christian some two decades prior. McNutt rented a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, loaned Slayden an $8 banjo, and captured an afternoon of history using a hand-held microphone.
Slayden’s style seems distinct from other banjo players. His banjo is tuned from a half-step to a full step below open G, and his drop-thumb or “drag-thumb” technique is largely percussive. Slayden consistently emphasizes the low strings, and he rarely plays up the neck or moves into higher registers. His sound bears little in common with the clawhammer style of old-time players throughout Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolinas.
This music was obviously a product of the Delta region. (To put Slayden’s life and music in greater context, one should note that he was born more than a decade before Robert Johnson.) His repertoire included a mix of folk songs, spirituals and blues. Religious numbers such as “When The Saints Go Marching In”, “God Can Use You”, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and “So Glad” are only slightly more prevalent than the more worldly “Spoonful”, “Ain’t Had None In A Long Time” and “Good Thing I Got More Than One”. Also included are such standards as “John Henry” and “The Old Hen Cackled”.
This disc contains twenty selections with fully transcribed lyrics, plus comprehensive liner notes by McNutt and musicologist David Evans. Ultimately, there are very few recordings of black banjo players from any time period. That fact alone makes this collection valuable.
In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music, by Ben Wynne (Louisiana State University Press)
In the early 1960s an unlikely audience latched on to the blues of the Depression era: college students and record collectors from New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Berkeley. “The blues mafia,” as they liked to call themselves, studied rare 78s, so rare that sometimes, as in the case of Skip James’s “Drunken Spree,” there was only one known copy of a record. And a few thought about driving south to locate the men whose voices they heard coming from their turntable. But where to start? There were no biographies, no press releases to consult or Wikipedia page. The songs were all they had.
In 1963, Tom Hoskins, a member of the so-called blues mafia, drove to a general store and post office in the southeast corner of the Mississippi Delta. On old maps this spot was labeled “Avalon,” and more than three decades before, Mississippi John Hurt, a figure revered by the blues mafia, had recorded a song called “Avalon Blues.” At the store Hoskins got directions to Hurt’s house. Hearing that he was from Washington, D.C., Hurt initially believed Hoskins was a revenue collector. Finally, Hoskins was able to convince Hurt of his true purpose, and was also able to convince him to come north and begin recording again. A few months later, Hurt, who had not made a recording since the 1920s, was appearing on the Johnny Carson Show and at the Newport Folk Festival.
That same year, a guitarist named John Fahey sent a letter to
Booker White (old blues singer)
c/o General Delivery
“I’m sitting down in Aberdeen, with New Orleans on my mind,” sang White in his 1940 song “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.” When the letter was forwarded to him, White, who was now living in Memphis, replied to Fahey, and the following year Fahey decided to track down the most elusive bluesman of all, Skip James. In June of 1964 he left Berkeley with Bill Barth and Henry Vestine, friends and fellow guitarists. (more…)
Lead Kindly Light, by Sarah Bryan and Peter Honig
Description: 176-page hardcover, clothbound book with 2 CDs featuring recordings of Rural Southern Music: Old Time, String Band Music from Appalachia, extremely rare Country Blues and African American gospel singing from 1924-1939.
159 Photographs from the Collection of Sarah Bryan reproduced in full color
46 Audio Recordings from the 78 RPM Record Collection of Peter Honig
A portrait of the rural American South between the dawn of the twentieth century and World War II, Lead Kindly Light brings together two CDs of traditional music from early phonograph records and a fine hardcover book of never-before-published vernacular photography. North Carolina collectors Peter Honig and Sarah Bryan have spent years combing backroads, from deep in the Appalachian mountains to the cotton and tobacco lowlands, in search of the evocative music and images of the pre-war South.
The music of Lead Kindly Light presents outstanding lesser-known recordings by early stars of recorded country music, as well as rarely- and never-reissued treasures by obscure country, blues, and gospel artists. The photographs, mainly images of the rural and small-town South, are richly textured depictions of family life, work, and fun, and the often accidental beauty of the vernacular snapshot.
The Scotch-Irish Influence on Country Music in the Carolinas: Border Ballads, Fiddle Tunes and Sacred Songs, by Michael Scroggins (The History Press)
For someone with the impossible task of selecting the average living traditional banjo player, Virgil Anderson’s nomination would be as easy as any to defend. The evidence – two LPs featuring Virgil’s music (“On the Tennessee Line,” County 777; and “Music of Tennessee,” Heritage 042) – demonstrates his superb technical ability to pick delicate melodies, chord creatively, knock out syncopated dance tunes, utilize novel effects, and freely improvise. Even into his eighties, Virgil continued to learn and create new songs and to perform with enthusiasm and unconservative abandon.
“My mother failed to dish my brains out the back door when I was born,” is his own reasoning for his uninhibited condition. Other details of Virgil’s birth in 1902 are more certain. His birthplace was Palace, Kentucky, an edge of Wayne County bordering the Cumberland River. His father floated log rafts to Nashville, split barrel staves at company tent camps, and unloaded steamboats in Russell County in the years up to Virgil’s birth:
“He was apickin’ that banjer biggest part of the time. And that black man [on the steamboat] would slp him whiskey, and just keep him about half drunk apickin’ that banjer He’d slip him different extra food, you know, cake and pie. The rest of ‘em wasn’t gettin’ it. He was the cook and he’d give him the very best, cause he’d pick that banjer.”
Virgil soon joined the music-making and dancing:
“I’d be in the bed, my mother said, until I was two or three years old aplayin’ the banjer – tunes that she could understand what I was playin’. I knowed nothin’ about it. Can’t remember nothin’ about it. It’s unbelievable. Ain’t nobody believes that, but my mother told it. Same way by dancin’. I never could hear a racket, if it was like an engine runnin’ or something another, I’d want to dance after it. That’s the reason after my great uncle Green Johnson achurnin’ with that old time churn. He was settin’ on the kitchen porch on the steps outside, setting there a churnin’. And that went so good to me, I had to get with it. I had to keep time with it. Well, he couldn’t stand it. “You stop that, Virgil!” Well, when he’d stop, I’d stop. When he’d start again, I’d hit her again. And he’d holler for my daddy. And he comes I had to “sell out, Doc!” I had to stop.
Virgil’s father soon took the family into the unsettled life of “following the public works,” moving to a different logging or stave camp every six months or so. At the age of eighteen, in a rough logging camp just north of the Tennessee state line, he had an eye-opening encounter with a prominent black Tennessee string band, the Bertram brothers.
“The first time I heard ‘em, me and my dad was going through the camp. Big, long band mill camp. And we kept walking down there and directly he said, “I believe I hear music.” Got a little piece further and they was playin’ at the bandmill, where the lumber comes down on the shoots. And such a crowd, looked like the whole company was there. We just crowded right on through ‘em, and got close to ‘em. See’d that they was colored people. Boys I’m atellin’ you they was singing. They’s getting’ that alto. Just almost make you cry. That guitar and banjer. Then they’d lay the guitar down and take the banjer and fiddle. Oh, just so handy as a goose going barefooted, you know. Well, I just tied right in with ‘em. I remember I bought an old guitar, but I didn’t know much about it. But when I see’d them agrabbin’ those chords just like that, I knowed to get with it. Just grab ‘em all at once. Naturally, it was awkward for two or three times trying it, but I see’d what had to be done. If I done it, I was gonna do it; if I didn’t I was out of it.
Virgil’s conversion was to a fuller, more sophisticated “chord music,” with a blues touch, and he was no longer satisfied with just “noting out” the simple dance tunes his father played. The blues and the Bertram’s chord music, represented by a wide variety of songs and tunes of both black and white origin, became Virgil’s love.
“It’s the drive, and the time, and the beat that they have. They don’t get too fast or too slow… They look like they’re gonna get plumb off it, but they’ll never lose their time.”
By 1931, the Depression resulted in a shutdown of the sawmill camps, so to earn money from some of his children’s winter clothing, Virgil recruited John Sharp and his brother in law Clyde Troxell to perform in the still busy coal camps as the Kentucky Wildcats. As Burnett and Rutherford were traveling the same route just ahead of them, Virgil would ballyhoo at the entrance of the schoolhouses they rented: “we’re come down here to pick up what they’re leavin’ out: it ain’t me atalking – we’ll prove it by these strings. It’s coming fresh off these strings to prove it to you, that we are pickin’ what they’re leavin’ out.”
Virgil finally settled down and took up residence in Griffin, Kentucky in 1937. The homesite’s remote location and the demands of farm life took Virgil away from the rough and tumble excitement of the public works, but he and his wife soon adjusted and raised a large family of musicians. One son, Dillard, became lead guitarist for Orangie R. Hubbard’s original Cherokees, a rockabilly group that recorded for the Lucky and King labels in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another son, Willard, continued to develop a blues guitar style, led by Virgil’s interest in the music.
Art Rosenbaum’s Old Time Banjo Book: Forty-Seven Old-Time 5-String Banjo Tunings and Picking Styles
“As is the case with all of Rosenbaum’s recordings, you feel as though you are sharing a quiet evening with a generous master traditional musician…Rosenbaum plays banjo in many tunings and many styles, including down-picked and up-picked frailing as well as 2 and 3 finger pre-bluegrass styles.
He is adept at the more recent ‘melodic clawhammer’ style… He is one of a relatively small number of urban musicians who has developed a convincing and personal traditional Appalachian vocal style.” – Steve Senderoff /Old-Time Herald
Art Rosenbaum is one of America’s foremost performers and teachers of traditional five-string banjo playing. He has a long-time interest in the myriad old-time tunings that give breadth and richness to mountain and old-time banjo picking, and has learned first-hand from old-timers in the South and Midwest.
Pete Seeger praised the inclusion of 23 tunings in Art’s 1968 Oak Publications book “Old-Time Mountain Banjo.” The present book and 2-DVD set doubles (plus one!) that number of tunings. Art groups the tunings into “families” and shows how they can be used, with various picking styles, in playing banjo tunes and string band music and in song accompaniment.
Experienced players will broaden their knowledge of unusual and interesting tunings and styles, and novice players can get started with “common” tunings for easy pieces like “Cripple Creek” and “Shout Lulu” – the first tunes many old-timers learned.
240 minutes • 112 page book • Level 2/3
The Blues House: A Documentary (Avalon Films)
The Blues House is about the search for two forgotten blues singers, carried out in Mississippi during one of the most violent periods of the civil rights movement.
1964 was a year of transition. The Beatles landed in America. Soul became a fixture on the airwaves. Lyndon Johnson began his War on Poverty and resolved to escalate the fight in Vietnam. And in June, hundreds of college students, eager to join the civil rights movement, traveled to Mississippi, starting what would be known as Freedom Summer.
That same month, two carloads of young men visited the Mississippi Delta. Strangely, neither party was aware of the other, though each had come on the same errand: to find a singer and coax him out of retirement. One group was after Son House, the other Skip James. Thirty years before, House and James had recorded some of the most memorable blues of their era, but now they seemed lost to time.
Finding them would not be easy. There were few clues to their whereabouts, and it was not even known for certain if they were still alive. And Mississippi, that summer, was a tense and dangerous place. With hundreds on their way to teach in freedom schools and work on voter registration, the Ku Klux Klan and police force of many towns–often one and the same entity–vowed that Freedom Summer would not succeed. Churches were bombed, shotguns blasted into cars and homes. And just as the searches for Son House and Skip James were drawing to a close, three people were murdered.
The Blues House follows the music’s unlikely path from the plantations and commissaries of the South to the festival circuit, concert hall and coffeehouse. The film ponders questions of race and identity highly relevant to our own day. And it pays tribute to a pioneering generation of musicians. With a wealth of interviews plus all-new performances by Lucinda Williams, Valerie June, Chris Thomas King, Jimbo Mathus, and more, The Blues House is sure to inspire debate as well as renew appreciation for one of America’s oldest and most vital musical forms: the blues.
Louisville journalist and author Michael L. Jones has established himself as something of a jug music expert. Jones wrote his most recent book, “Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to National Jubilee,” as a way to celebrate Louisville as the heart of a musical tradition that dates back to turn-of-the-century America.
I interviewed Jones recently about the often misconstrued origins of jug music, its influence on current tunes, and how it continues to be an enduring part of Louisville’s music scene.
You mention in the book that “the main purpose of this book is to liberate jug music from misconceptions surrounding it.” What are some of those misconceptions?
In the 1920s, when the recording industry started, the record companies segregated white and black artists. Music by black artists was marketed as “race records” and music by white, rural artists was “hillbilly” music. But white, rural artists and black blues artists all drew on the same group of songs, which has come to be called the “common stock.” They are tunes likes “John Henry,” “Stagolee,” and “In the Jailhouse Now,” which was recorded by both country star Jimmie Rodgers and the Louisville Jug Band, among others. There were also more than 20 interracial recording sessions in the early days of country music, including a 1931 session between Rodgers and the Louisville Jug Band that occurred in Louisville. But when you see a discussion of jug music or country music in general, these black artists are totally ignored.
My point is the evolution of American music is not as cut and dry as people think. Much of what we think about its development is obscured by record company marketing plans. Even the Carter family had an African American collaborator.
You also say in the book that “jug music played a role in developing a lot of music people listen to today.” Do you have any examples of that correlation?
Gus Cannon had a jug tune called “Walk Right In” that was a hit in the 1960s for the Rooftop Singers. Jug music spawned a craze for skiffle music in 1950s England. The rock musicians that started out in skiffle bands include Jimmy Page, the Beatles and Van Morrison. On the American side, many of the bands popular in the folk revival of the 1960s got their start playing jug songs. John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful is currently a jug band musician, the Grateful Dead had a side group called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, and Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band was a popular 1960s act that actually recorded Louisville jug music.
How did our view of jug music become disenfranchised from the original African American influencers?
Jug music went out of vogue with the general public after the Great Depression. This also coincided with the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Basically, the jug music (and the banjo itself) was tied to Antebellum images in most people’s minds. African Americans wanted to move away from that image and that was reflected in the music they listened to. And, as I said before, the record companies were actually promoting that image of the good old days to white record buyers of country music.
During the folk revival, young white musicians could look back to an earlier America where a man had more freedom. That did not appeal to African American musicians, which is the reason that there were few African Americans involved in the scene although it was actually celebrating African American culture. Also, a lot of jug music songs were passed through the minstrel show or written during the “coon song” era, and that also did not appeal to a black audience.
Louisville, especially at the turn of the century, was home to a diverse population. How did that affect jug music?
After the Civil War there was an influx of ex-Confederates in Louisville. They brought along with them some of the Southern prejudices. Before 1900s, African Americans lived all over the city, but at the beginning of the 20th century we began to see all-black neighborhoods like West Parkland, modern Park DuValle, which was called “Little Africa.” This also impacted music.
Before the Civil War there were many interracial bands in the city. But after the war, most bands were either all white or all black. This forced professional African American musicians to form groups with African American folk musicians. It is the combination of the two that gave birth to Louisville jug music, which is different from other regional styles of jug music because of its use of jazz instrumentation. The other big jug band, the Memphis Jug Band, was more of a tradition string band because, being close to Mississippi, those musicians were greatly influenced by Delta Blues. Louisville musicians were more influenced by Dixieland Jazz because of the constant river traffic between Louisville and New Orleans. So, you see saxophones and other brass instruments along with the regular members of a string band.
by Amanda Petrusich (edited from http://www.oxfordamerican.org):
In his film “Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass,” Alan Lomax corners poor old Roscoe Holcomb, who’s just finished singing, and demands “Where does it hurt you?”
Holcomb, a patriarch of Kentucky’s high lonesome sound (and, it turns out, eternally well-mannered), points to his lower throat. Lomax leans forward, a little too close, white-knuckling a microphone stand, and asks him if he’s ever had to cough (“Ever do that?”).
Lomax is a divisive character (there are complicated arguments to be made about cultural imperialism and nationalist pedagogy) but anyone with a pair of functional ears would be hard-pressed to feel anything but grateful for his work. He is singularly responsible for many of the thousands of hours of interviews and field recordings held by the Library of Congress, and he worked tirelessly to collect and preserve strains of vernacular music that might not have endured otherwise.
The Lomax-founded Association for Cultural Equity, which controls his archive, remains in the source material game even now, a decade after his death. Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass is an official commercial release, but the organization’s YouTube channel, maintained by its young, percipient curator, Nathan Salsburg, proffers a vibrant, sometimes staggering array of footage for aspiring visionaries to mine.
What Lomax and his peers accomplished is of historical and archival import, but what is in some ways more compelling is what it inspired and continues to inspire, what people who suddenly have [via youtube] access to Mississippi Fred McDowell’s propulsive grooves, or to polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), might do with that information.
Obviously, the machinery is in place for a generation of self-documenting American artists to build their own mythologies and to borrow freely and anonymously from ancient and emerging traditions. And yet: seeing Lomax flit about his apartment, or catching the Tennessee fiddler Fred Price giving the camera side-eye, or watching Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers shush the room, or hearing Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim lock into some intense, iniquitous rhythm, it’s hard not to feel like something vital, something extramusical, is being communicated here.
“Pike’s Peak” from Ted Sharp. Played here by Clarke Buehling (banjo), Seth Shumate (harmonica), Roy Pilgrim (fiddle), and Aviva Steigmeyer (guitar). (Key of C).
Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance
by Phil Jamieson
In Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics, old-time musician and flatfoot dancer Phil Jamison journeys into the past and surveys the present to tell the story behind the square dances, step dances, reels, and other forms of dance practiced in southern Appalachia.
These distinctive folk dances, Jamison argues, are not the unaltered jigs and reels brought by early British settlers, but hybrids that developed over time by adopting and incorporating elements from other popular forms. He traces the forms from their European, African American, and Native American roots to the modern day. On the way he explores the powerful influence of black culture, showing how practices such as calling dances as well as specific kinds of steps combined with white European forms to create distinctly “American” dances.
From cakewalks to clogging, and from the Shoo-fly Swing to the Virginia Reel, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics reinterprets an essential aspect of Appalachian culture.
“Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics is an outstanding book on Appalachian dance in all its wondrous variety. It is one of those benchmark books by which we will all measure how our view of a subject has changed. Phil Jamison has examined reams of evidence on dance history, both recent and distant, and the result is a fresh and in many cases astonishing new view of that history.
His focus is on the Appalachian forms of group, couple, and solo dancing, but in the process he illuminates the history of American folk dance more broadly. Too often the histories of Appalachian folk music and dance are reduced to oft-repeated truisms about what trait came from where. This book revolutionizes Appalachian dance history, beginning with a careful analysis of the ways in which Cecil Sharp’s influential ideas about Appalachian culture have proved mistaken.
Most important, Jamison analyzes not only the disparate strands but the evidence in Appalachian dance of new American cultural syntheses that incorporate creative contributions from British and European, African American, and Native American traditions. The roots may be separate strands, but the result is a grand intercultural American creative synthesis.”–Alan Jabbour, founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
CLASSIC FIELD RECORDINGS 1936 to 1940 – LANDMARK COUNTRY SESSIONS FROM A LOST ERA (JSP77131 4 cd set)
Johnnie Barfield, McLendon Brothers, Dewey & Gassie Bassett, Roy Shaffer, Four Pickled Peppers, Tennessee Ramblers, Pine Ridge Boys, Happy Valley Boys, Pete Pyle, Walter Couch & The Wilks Ramblers, JH Howell, Walter Hurdt, George Wade & The Caro-Ginians, Hinson Pitts & Coley, Smith’s Carolina Crackerjacks, Julian Johnson & Leon Hyatt, Grady & Hazel Cole, Hill Brothers with Willie Simmons, Blind Fiddler, Jack Pierce, Lester Pete Bivins, Gwen Foster, Louisiana Lou, The Southern Melody Boys, The Rouse Brothers.
The records used on this 100 track box set were made on various field trips organised by the RCA Victor Company in the 1930s for release on their brand new Bluebird label. Sales in country music had dropped dramatically since big sellers like Jimmie Rodgers, Gid Tanner and Fiddlin’ John Carson had died or retired and times were tough so record buying was a low priority for southern folk. It was a risk, but Bluebird knew that in the hills and hollers of the southern mountains there were some great musicians just waiting to get on record and hit the big time.
Auditions were set up in New York, Chicago, Charlotte and Rock Hill, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. Most of the new discoveries never made the big time but they did sell well in their own territories and, thanks to collectors like the award winning recording engineer and record producer Chris King, they’ve been preserved and are now getting another moment in the spotlight thanks to this box set.
It is a box full of obscurities and unknowns but the eagle eyed among you will pick out Gwen Foster, late of the Carolina Tarheels and Clarence Ashley outfits on two songs; the chirpy How Many Biscuits and a re-make of his old hit Sideline Blues with, it’s assumed, The Three Tobacco Tags as backing musicians. Foster fills both tunes with his hundred miles an hour harmonica solos and there’s some pretty hot fiddle in there as well. (more…)
Home Sweet Home
This song comes from the opera, Clari or The Maid of Milan, which opened in London on May 8, 1823. The music was composed by Henry Bishop and the lyrics by John Howard Payne.
On the eve of the Battle of Murfreesboro/Stones River, the Federal and Confederate bands serenaded the troops. Each band strove to outdo the other. As remembered by Sam Seay of the 1st Tenn.: “Finally one of them struck up Home Sweet Home. As if by common consent all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies, as far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain.”
The soldiers of both sides lifted their voices and joined the bands. Some began to shed a tear as their thoughts turned to home. In a similar situation, a few weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, as the combatants encamped on opposite banks of the Rappahannock River, both Union and Confederate military bands took turns serenading the armies.
The impromptu concert ended when a Federal band struck up Home Sweet Home and thousands of Northerners and Southerners pondered if they would see their homes again. When the Federal band ended a Confederate band repeated the tune. Then one regimental band after the other in both armies joined in. Some soldiers began to sing the lyrics.
Leander Cogswell of the 11th New Hampshire wrote, “As the sweet sounds arose and fell on the evening air all listened intently, and I do not believe there was a dry eye in all those assembled thousands.” Confederate Joseph Brown pondered how “Men who faced each other but a few weeks ago in one of the bloodiest battles of the world could unite on a mere suggestion of a song.”
Harlem Street Singer, recently released on film, tells the story of Reverend Gary Davis, the great blues and gospel musician whose unique style and remarkable skills on the guitar inspired a generation of musicians. The film traces Davis’s journey out of poverty in the Deep South to his iconic status in the folk and rock scene in 1960s New York.
Interviews with celebrated folk and rock musicians who knew and studied with Davis, including Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott are combined with rare archival footage and photographs. The film includes never seen before concert footage of both Davis and Peter, Paul & Mary from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The film is co-produced by guitarist Woody Mann, who received his first music schooling in Davis’s living room.
Born poor and blind in rural South Carolina in 1896, Davis was a guitar prodigy. At age seven he made his first crude stringed instruments out of his grandmother’s pie tins, and by age 14 he was already performing in a professional string band. Over the next decade he developed an innovative style combining church music, ragtime, blues, early jazz, marches and almost any other music he heard.
In Durham, North Carolina in the 1920s and 30s, Davis played blues and popular songs for tips in the tobacco warehouses and on the streets. In 1937 he became an ordained minister and focused his playing solely on religious music. A few years later, he and his wife, Annie, moved to New York to seek out a better life. Davis’s talents were quickly recognized and he soon found himself jamming with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Brownie McGhee. But with no steady employment, he continued his marginal existence, often living in condemned buildings, playing on the street and preaching in storefront churches.
Davis’s fortunes finally changed during the Folk Revival movement in the early 60s, when he gained a following of young musicians who saw him as both mentor and father figure. As his reputation spread, many of these artists began covering his music, and when Peter, Paul and Mary recorded his song, Samson & Delilah, Davis’s royalties from the record enabled him to finally stop playing on the streets and buy his own home. In his last years, Davis played for audiences of thousands in music festivals around the world. He died in 1972.
In addition to interviews, the storyline features contemporary musical sequences produced by Woody Mann featuring blues vocalist Bill Sims Jr. , Dave Keyes, piano and Brian Glassman, bass. Harlem Street Singer celebrates the beauty and spirituality of his music as well as the human qualities that made Reverend Davis a much beloved teacher and minister. This is the exciting story of an American musical icon whose legacy continues to live on in today’s music scene.
Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities, by Susan Eike Spalding (University of Illinois Press)
In Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities, Susan Eike Spalding brings to bear twenty-five years’ worth of rich interviews with black and white Virginians, Tennesseeans, and Kentuckians to explore the evolution and social uses of dance in each region.
Spalding analyzes how issues as disparate as industrialization around coal, plantation culture, race relations, and the 1970s folk revival influenced freestyle clogging and other dance forms like square dancing in profound ways. She reveals how African Americans and Native Americans, as well as European immigrants drawn to the timber mills and coal fields, brought movement styles that added to local dance vocabularies.
Placing each community in its sociopolitical and economic context, Spalding analyzes how the formal and stylistic nuances found in Appalachian dance reflect the beliefs, shared understandings, and experiences of the community at large, paying particular attention to both regional and racial diversity.
edited from http://civilwarband.com:
The mission of the 2nd South Carolina String Band is to present Civil War music in as authentic a manner as possible. In their recordings the listener will hear the music of the 19th century played on 19th century period instruments in the appropriate style. This is the music as it truly sounded to the soldiers of the Civil War.
The 2nd South Carolina String Band was formed in August of 1989 by five riflemen of Co.I, 2nd SC Volunteer Infantry, a unit of Civil War reenactors that was very active during the five years of events celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Civil War – and for many years to follow. After the battles, drills and inspections, the boys who had instruments played and sang around the campfire while members of the unit would often join in and sing along. This was the beginning of the 2nd South Carolina String Band.
Without recognizing it at the time, the group, comprised of mostly amateur musicians playing banjo, fiddle, and guitar, tambourine, bones and military drum – had coalesced into a 20th century recreation of a typical American Civil War camp band. In the beginning they played mostly at night around their company camp fire as they enthusiastically began to explore and perform the music of the War Between the States. Soon they began performing for reenactment dances and concert audiences.
The songs and instrumental tunes performed by the 2nd South Carolina String Band would have been considered the “pop” music of the period beginning in the late 1820′s and running through the 1860′s and beyond. In the years following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Americans were determined to reject European classical musical forms and were searching for their own distinctly American musical “voice.”
They found it in the frontier tradition of tall-tales about larger-than-life American characters such as Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyon, Old Dan Tucker and John Henry. Composers such as Joel Sweeney, Daniel Emmett, Stephen Foster, and George Root soon arrived on the scene; men who wrote music for a living that appealed to the masses. This music was unique in that it had no classical background. Its roots were in Celtic, American and African folk melodies. Its songs were filled with the language, slang, and experiences of the common man rather than the intellectual elites and its impact on American culture echoes down to the present day.
The 2nd South Carolina String Band plays the songs and music that moved the American people of the early and mid-eighteen hundreds. They play the music that was in the hearts and minds and on the tongues of the citizen-soldiers that made up the ranks of the armies of the North and the South as they marched off to take part in the cataclysmic struggle that was to become the defining event of our nation’s history. They play it on instruments of the era and in an authentic manner and style that carries the listener back to simpler times. They play with a verve and excitement that infects even the most reserved listener with their own enjoyment and brings back to vibrant life the tumultuous energy of the American experience during the War Between the States. To experience the 2nd South Carolina String Band is, for a moment, to reach out and touch the past – “to eavesdrop on history.”
excerpt from Ted Olson (http://encyclopediaofappalachia.com):
Due to its broad scope of inﬂuence both within and outside the region, Appalachian music has been a powerful perpetrator of regional stereotypes. Although originating outside Appalachia, nineteenth-century minstrel show performances featuring white musicians derisively exaggerating black culture adversely affected the social standing of African Americans in the region after emancipation.
In the twentieth century, the barn dance—which achieved national popularity via radio and which sustained that popularity into the 1990s through such television programs as Hee Haw—provided steady work and signiﬁcant exposure for many Appalachian musicians. But in order to represent rural culture, which held novelty appeal for main- stream audiences, producers directed Appalachian musicians to project a hillbilly identity.
The stereotype inevitably left far-ﬂung audiences with negative and inaccurate impressions of Appalachian people. These barn dances particularly misrepresented two aspects of the region’s culture: Appalachian speech and Appalachian clothes. Musicians were encouraged to exaggerate their regional speech and to wear standardized hillbilly dress, including bib overalls and straw hats.
Likewise distorting general understanding of Appalachian regional culture during the twentieth century were attitudes toward Appalachian people of some of the musicians associated with the century’s several folk revivals, whose representations of Appalachian culture, whether earnest or intentionally exploitive, were rendered un- trustworthy by both positive and negative stereotyping.
Positive stereotypes included the revivalists’ romanticized portrayals of Appalachian musicians as mountain sages or noble savages; negative stereotyping involved the unfavorable characterization of Appalachian people as “rubes,” “hicks,” or “degenerates.”
Universally recognized as one of the greatest blues artists, Memphis Minnie (1897-1973) wrote and recorded hundreds of songs. Blues people as diverse as Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Big Mama Thornton, and Chuck Berry have acknowledged her as a major influence. At a time when most female vocalists sang Tin Pan Alley material, Minnie wrote her own lyrics and accompanied her singing with virtuoso guitar playing. Thanks to her merciless imagination and dark humor, her songs rank among the most vigorous and challenging popular poetry in any language.
Woman with Guitar is the first full-length study of the life and work of this extraordinary free spirit, focusing on the lively interplay between Minnie’s evolving artistry and the African American community in which she lived and worked. Drawing on folklore, psychoanalysis, critical theory, women’s studies, and surrealism, the authors’ explorations of Minnie’s songs illuminate the poetics of popular culture as well as the largely hidden history of working-class women’s self-emancipation.
This revised and expanded edition includes a wealth of new biographical material, including photographs, record contracts, sheet music, and period advertisements, which further vivify this portrait of an African-American musical legend. Complete, updated discography included.
Paul Garon is a co-founder of Living Blues magazine, and author of The Devil’s Son-in-Law and Blues and the Poetic Spirit. Beth Garon is a painter and collagist. The Garons operate a rare-book business in Chicago and have been associated with the U.S. Surrealist movement for many years.
Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels, by James Revell Carr (University of Illinois Press)
Hawaiian Music in Motion explores the performance, reception, transmission, and adaptation of Hawaiian music on board ships and in the islands, revealing the ways both maritime commerce and imperial confrontation facilitated the circulation of popular music in the nineteenth century.
James Revell Carr shows how Hawaiians initially used music and dance to ease tensions with, and spread information about, potentially dangerous foreigners, and then traces the circulation of Hawaiian song and dance worldwide as Hawaiians served aboard American and European ships.
Drawing on journals and ships’ logs, Carr highlights the profound contrasts between Hawaiians’ treatment by fellow sailors who appreciated their seamanship and music, versus antagonistic American missionaries determined to keep Hawaiians on local sugar plantations, and looks at how Hawaiians achieved their own ends by capitalizing on Americans’ conflicting expectations and fraught discourse around hula and other musical practices.
He also examines American minstrelsy in Hawaii, including professional touring minstrel troupes from the mainland, amateur troupes consisting of crew members of visiting ships, and local indigenous troupes of Hawaiian minstrels. In the process he illuminates how a merging of indigenous and foreign elements became the new sound of native Hawaiian culture at the turn of the twentieth century–and made loping rhythms, falsetto yodels, and driving ukuleles indelible parts of American popular music.
AFRICAN ROOTS REVIVAL (Rough Guide RGNet1269)
The roots music showcased here is not traditional folk-in-aspic but rather a vibrant movement that is ever-evolving, with instruments often born out of necessity. Large plastic jugs can be used over and over for carrying or storing liquids, they can also be beaten to make a satisfying thud.
Africans have long made thumb-pianos from wood and nails, and more recently flattened tin cans and other recycled metals, which can also be fashioned into guitars, with bicycle wire strings. I was keen to check this out because, apart from Staff Benda Bilili, Konono Numero Un, Kasai All Stars, Seprewa Kasa and a few other familiar names there were some unknown to me.
So I am thrilled to discover the Bedouin Jerry Can Band, whose music still sounds traditional, even when played on scrap ammo boxes backing their flute and five-stringed lyre. Then there are the bands that use more convention instruments such as mbira or ngoni.
Two East African mbira groups are represented: Hukwe Zawose’s offspring, known as the Zawose Family from Tanzania, and Zimbabwean Mbira Dzenharira who play lovely meditative cyclical music on their massed thumb pianos. Other thumb pianists are Konono, Kasai All Stars and, new to me, Papa Kourand, who all hail from Congo.
Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba have become quite well known in the West with their bluesy Malian music featuring the (also pentatonic) ngoni. Before we get lost in the mellowness of it all, the abrasive electric likembes of Konono No 1 jar us awake, from their Live at Couleur Café album.
I predict Jagwa Music will emerge to become more widely recognised, like Staff Benda or Konono. Then we get three lesser-known but accomplished acts, two of them from worldmusicnet’s own Riverboat series: Zulu musician Shiyani Ngcobo and Mamane Barka, a harp player from Niger. This is portable, intimate music and the disc represents a good cross-section of current artists renewing their own musical traditions.
Surrounded by old photos of his “Malian Elvis” days, 60-year-old musician Boubacar Traoré rests his head on his guitar and unfurls a precise pop-folk lament, his fingers moving in blues formations, his lithe voice coiling in a hypnotic muezzin drone. “Kar Kar” never addresses director Jacques Sarasin’s camera, instead blessing his own biography with mournful, journeyman performances.
Friends recount the revolutionary non-griot’s 1960s radio wake-up calls heralding a free Mali. They tell of his departure from music to raise a family, the subsequent loss of his wife, and his life as an immigrant in France. As the stories unfold, lingering shots of everyday life amid the craggy Dogon hills and the bustle of waterway commerce recall the observant modes of Abderrahmane Sissako or Abbas Kiarostami.
The resurrected relic plays his trusty Takamine in unlikely public spaces, duetting at points with kora player Ballake Sissoko and Ali Farka Touré. The reverent pacing lags a bit, but the film’s meditation on the struggle to find spirituality that reconciles Islam with tribal belief systems is powerful in its understatement, and its wordless observation of France’s Malian community quietly evidences daily cultural preservation amid the hard labor.
Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, by Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson (University of Illinois Press)
In Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson present a transatlantic history of folk’s midcentury resurgence that juxtaposes the related but distinct revivals that took place in the United States and Great Britain.
After setting the stage with the work of music collectors in the nineteenth century, the authors explore the so-called recovery of folk music practices and performers by Alan Lomax and others, including journeys to and within the British Isles that allowed artists and folk music advocates to absorb native forms and facilitate the music’s transatlantic exchange.
Cohen and Donaldson place the musical and cultural connections of the twin revivals within the decade’s social and musical milieu and grapple with the performers’ leftist political agendas and artistic challenges, including the fierce debates over “authenticity” in practice and repertoire that erupted when artists like Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio carried folk into the popular music mainstream.
From mountain ballets to skiffle, from the Weavers in Greenwich Village to Burl Ives on the BBC, Roots of the Revival offers a frank and wide-ranging consideration of a time, a movement, and a transformative period in American and British pop culture.
reviewed by Justin Brooks (www.popmatters.com):
Absolutely none of these cuts should be familiar to the average person. All apologies to my distant relatives The Carter Family, but “Denomination Blues, Part 1” by Washington Phillips is the only track on this compilation that I’d ever actually heard before. A good deal of the artists were familiar to me by way of my immersion (sorry, couldn’t help myself) in Dust-to-Digital’s staggering Goodbye, Babylon box. Evoking that former release, the compilers make no effort to segregate the music in any way: string bands and hillbilly hollers jostle grittier blues and folk numbers for breathing room.
Unlike Babylon though, the sermons included here are interspersed throughout, making for a slightly more diverse listening experience. While we are on the subject, this reviewer sees Take Me to the Water as-among other thing-a beautifully packaged addendum to the already splendid Goodbye, Babylon.
There are 25 tracks on the disc that accompanies this set and quite frankly, most of them are jewels. As with any compilation or proper album, a certain song may strike you just the right way on a particular day, so with material of this quality, the best cuts ultimately depend on the listener.
Washington Phillips, a ‘jack-leg preacher’ of the first degree, is represented here with “Denomination Blues Part 1”, in which his delicate vocal is accompanied by a strange zither-esque “novelty instrument.” This cut may be the catchiest pre-war gospel/blues since Skip James’ “Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader.” Now that may mean a little or a lot, depending on how far down the rabbit-hole of this kind of music you want to go.
By far the most popular artist represented here is The Carter Family, whose “On My Way to Canaan’s Land” may just be an artistic representation of Mother Maybelle’s actual baptism. Classic call and response of the hillbilly variety is accounted for too with the Carolina Tar Heels’ “I’ll Be Washed”. The intermingling of the sermon fragments—which often break out in song—with the tunes is a sly move on the part of the compilers, as the preachers’ intonations always take on a rhythmic quality and the fiery intensity helps move these pieces, and the set itself, forward.
Longing for the Past, The 78rpm Era in Southeast Asia, is a lavish four CD box-set covering recordings from 1905 to 1966, with an accompanying 267 page book, released on the Atlanta-based boutique label Dust-to-Digital. It won the 2014 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research, in the category Best Historical Research in Recorded Folk or World Music.
In recent years, Dust-to-Digital has created a name for itself, if not an entire niche market, with high quality box-sets that, as the website explains, “combine rare, essential recordings with historical images and descriptive texts to create high-quality, cultural artifacts.”
“Longing for the Past” editor David Murray: I’d been listening to world music from the 78rpm era for quite awhile via CD reissues. Everything from American blues, hillbilly, and Cajun recordings to Irish, Ukrainian, Greek and more. These were mostly reissues on the Arhoolie label or the Secret Museum of Mankind series, which was just then being released. I was learning to play old banjo and fiddle music and soon got hooked on playing the Greek bouzouki in a style called Rebetika. Rebetika is famously known as the music of the Greek hashish dens, which is at least partially true.
Living in San Francisco (at that time) I began to wonder if there was a style of music associated with the city’s Chinese opium dens that had been widespread in the second half of the 1800s. Unfortunately, I could find no hint of a style of music tied to the opium dens, but in the process I heard old recordings of Chinese opera for the first time. Cantonese recordings had been made in San Francisco very early, 1898 or so. I was instantly obsessed with the sound of this music and spent the next several years amassing Chinese 78s. I followed the music of the Chinese diaspora, which led to Southeast Asia.
I hope that more collectors will focus on world music. There are enough blues collectors already! I never understood why somebody would take the time and money to build a collection of blues and hillbilly records that already exist on CD reissues and have been thoroughly researched. For me, the thrill is finding great recordings that are truly on the verge of being lost. A Burmese record from 1911? Who’s going to hold onto that? And when it’s gone it may be gone for good.
The more of these records we can salvage the better our understanding of music and our history will be. There are a few younger collectors who are interested in world music, but not many. The goal of my projects is just to get the music out there. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen after that, but I’ve done my part.
Many thanks to Susie James for these photos. Read her article on Narmour and Smith here.
The unveiling of the Narmour and Smith marker was done by Chip Narmour and sister Laura N. Oakes, both children of Willie’s son, the late Coleman Narmour, who shared his dad’s story of how “Carroll County Blues” came into being.
Hands carefully removed Willie Narmour’s fragile old fiddle with its hand-whittled turning peg out of its carrying case to show the public on Narmour & Smith’s big day in their county seat of Carrollton, Mississippi.
Narmour and his partner, Shellie Walton Smith, were “Narmour & Smith,” who in 1929 recorded a rousing tune they had created, “Carroll County Blues.” The duo made other recordings as well, but the Depression stunted the growth of the recording industry for years. Like John Hurt, Narmour and Smith were poor farmers — though talented musicians.
John Hurt was first recorded in the late 1920s after a neighbor, fiddler Willie Thomas Narmour, recommended him to a traveling record producer. Had it not been for these early recordings, which were found and enjoyed by some men from the Northeast during the folk music revival of the 1960s, it’s unlikely Hurt would have been “rediscovered.”
As people from that era often observed: Nobody had any money back then. Hurt would at times “spell” other musicians, including Narmour & Smith, at house parties, which comprised much of the entertainments throughout the countryside.
As it was, the late Tom Hoskins had, through listening to a number of “78s,” learned of several early talents from Carroll County around Avalon. Hoskins determined to see if some were still kicking. He came through the area in early 1963 trying to find one of them in particular: John Hurt, whose output had included “Avalon Blues.”
A soft-spoken farm worker who at the time lived in the same shotgun cabin that in July 2002 was dedicated (in a different location than from when the Hurts lived in it up on the Perkins place a bit east of the Valley Store) as the Hurt Museum, John Hurt had kept busy during the intervening years playing guitar and singing mostly for neighborhood events.
Local heroes Anthony Pasquarosa, Zac Johnson, and Ian Logan recorded under the moniker Heaven And Earth Magic a tape for High Ledges Tapes. The name is borrowed from a really weird one hour long stop motion experimental film from the late fifties, by Harry Smith (see above).
There was one track that grabbed my attention and when I looked closer, it wasn’t even their own song. They recorded a version of Uncle Dave Macon “Oh lovin’ babe“. I heard about Macon, a key figure of early country music, with a huge output, but I’ve never heard this particular song.
So the surprise, how the original banjo driven song translates into the band’s psych rock sound was quiet huge and I wanted to find out more.
Regarding the lyrics: It looks like Uncle Dave Macon wasn’t able to keep it in his pants when he was traveling and so he got kissed by a pretty, strange woman, because men cannot help themselves in those cases. When his wife wants to leave him, he tries to make her guilty with the old story about the garden of eden and Eve and the apple she gave to Adam. I might be wrong with my interpretation, please correct me. Macon also was more an entertainer than a preacher so he’s probably not that serious about the bible and stuff.
Another interesting bit:
Charles Wolfe noted: ‘Oh Lovin’ Babe is another song never before issued (Rounder issue 1979) and nowhere else recorded by Macon. The unusual melody for the song seems to have been adapted from the verse of ‘Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose’, an old coon song written in the ragtime era by one B. Harney. Macon had recorded ‘Mister Johnson’ with Sid Harkreader in 1929 with the melody (but not the words) to the verse identical to what is heard here … The juxtaposing of the sacred (verse) with the profane (chorus), common enough in Macon’s music overall, was seldom illustrated so dramatically in a single song’. (source)
On the Rumba River (FIRST RUN FEATURES dvd):
Available on Netflix.
You’ve never heard of him, but Antoine Kolosoy, a/k/a Wendo, a/k/a Papa Wendo, is perhaps the most beloved musician that the Democratic Republic of Congo (a/k/a Zaire, a/k/a Belgian Congo) has ever known. The peripatetic Wendo got his start as a teenager, traveling up and down the Congo River as a mechanic, boxer, and part-time musician.
He ascended to the ranks of the mono-named in 1948, when his first album became a massive hit and established him as the father of a new genre: Congolese Rumba. After 12 years of megastardom, though, the rise of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the ’60s reduced Wendo to homelessness—until he was rediscovered in the ’90s.
With On the Rumba River, yachtsman-cum- documentarian Jacques Sarasin has compiled a meditative ramble through the highlights of Wendo’s career, told entirely through song and interviews with Wendo’s musician-colleagues. As a filmmaker, Sarasin has an extraordinarily light touch—a good thing for those who want to sit back and enjoy the music (the toe-tappingly spirited rendition of Wendo’s biggest hit, “Marie-Louise,” is a highlight), a bad thing for viewers unfamiliar with Congolese history and in need of a little context with their rumba.
Wendo Kolosoy was a former boxer and ship’s mechanic from the Congo who in 1948 recorded a song called “Marie Louise” as Papa Wendo. Wendo’s music, an infectious blend of Latin and African rhythms, took the nation by storm and he became an overnight star among the Congolese. However, while the sound Wendo created proved to have a lasting influence in the Congo, his own fame waned, and as he slipped into obscurity, he watched the sad history of his nation unfold, as the end of colonialism led to wave after wave of bloody violence. Wendo’s music, however, has been discovered by a new generation of music fans, and the aging musician continues to perform as often as he can.
This alternately poignant and playful documentary views his achievements from a context of political oppression and economic deprivation. Now 83, Mr. Kolosoy is seen enjoying a reunion with former band mates while dodging his wife’s pleas to get a job.
“We got our independence, but all we do is kill each other,” he tells us while the camera tracks through the misery of the Kinshasa slums, their squalor a shocking counterpoint to the effervescence of the music. Whether proclaiming the indifference of politicians or the thrill of infatuation, the songs — heavily influenced by the music of Cuban seamen in the 1940s — offer a welcome distraction from poverty and civil war.
Filming in late 2004, the director uses his eyes but not his voice, allowing his subjects to guide the story. In the background, the vast expanse of the Congo River flows with a neglected beauty; the country may be falling into ruin, but the songs remain the same.
edited from http://www.collectorsweekly.com:
Amanda Petrusich: I think a lot of collectors end up turning to 78 rpm records because they feel alienated by modern culture or not satisfied by it in some ways. Your collection becomes a way of insulating yourself from the facets of modernity that you find distasteful, unsustainable, or not nourishing. A lot of these guys had no interest in modern or contemporary music at all.
For them, it ended with World War II, or with Hank Williams. Everything that came after that, they don’t even want to know about it because they think it’s garbage. It’s frustrating for me as music fan and critic, because I’ll be like, “Wait, there are all these amazing people making amazing records,” and they have no interest in them.
Most collectors are white men who started collecting in the second half of the 20th century and have enough money to travel and buy records. They’re coming from a place of extraordinary privilege for sure. It’s these privileged white people collecting this music from disenfranchised African Americans. There is something uncomfortable, I think, for a lot of people, myself included, about that exchange.
I always get nervous talking about this because these are such big generalities. But socioculturally speaking, just in my experience, I think women are more comfortable listening to music and having an emotional reaction to it. We have the vocabulary for that. We’re socialized that it’s okay for us to do that.
With men, it’s a little more complicated. For a man to hear a song and be moved to tears by it, I think it can be a frightening experience or maybe an experience he has not been socialized to find acceptable. So collecting and organizing is a way of trying to de-fang those intense emotions and also figure them out through meticulous research, learning as much as they can about the record, owning the record. There are all these different ways you can mediate a very emotional experience to make it more concrete, more digestible, or less scary.