Author Archive

Jonathan Ward

September 19, 2014


excerpt of interview with 78 RPM collector Jonathan Ward (of, from

My main inspiration was the music on the records themselves, and sitting and listening to records at fellow collectors’ homes. But, compilations definitely inspired me, and they’re all pretty well known: The Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo, the Times Ain’t What They Used to Be series also on Yazoo, Music of the World’s Peoples on Folkways, anything compiled by Richard Spottswood or Bruce Bastin, just to name a few. Equally as influential to me were articles and books on early non-Western recordings and the music industry by Paul Vernon, Rodney Gallop, Pekka Gronow, and Michael Kinnear.

Hearing Malagasy 78s for the first time in the 1990s made me utterly flabbergasted at their beauty and, I soon found out, their scarcity. At the same time I was also amazed at how little I knew about both that music and the record industry, and it opened my eyes to the sheer volume of material that was produced and released all over the world on the 78 format, as well as how little access I had to it. These were commercial recordings, not ethnographic recordings. I wanted to hear more, so I began to collect, read, learn, and most importantly, talk to other collector friends and musicians who knew a lot more than I and who were willing to share—they have always been one of the most significant influences for me..

I sometimes wonder if people have this idea that 78 collectors are white-robed saviors, scouring the earth in Land Rovers like post-colonial Indiana Joneses, pilfering 78s from the hands of starving people of color in order to haughtily bequeath them to their audience, treating them like starving children. Maybe the (entirely true) stories of blues collectors knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods in the American south has helped to prop up this myth. But Pat Conte, the curator of the Secret Museum CD series and owner of the one of the most unparalleled collections of historic global music on the planet, admitted in print that he’d never ventured outside the United States.

Although it’s true that some collectors, especially 45 collectors, extensively travel, even they, too, have ‘finders’. I think all of this unfortunately props up the myth of the record collector as some kind of modern day sage, which I don’t espouse, and takes us all away from the real focus, which is the music. Beyond developing a core body of arcane knowledge, I’m not sure if it takes any talent whatsoever to be a record collector—just a bank account, patience, and some competitive edge. It should just be fun.

Uncle Dave Macon video

September 19, 2014

View entire 58 minute video here.

Wolf, Johnson, and Rodgers

September 18, 2014

Tommy Johnson


In Peter Guralnick’s interview with Howlin’ Wolf in “Feel Like Going Home,” the blues colossus claims that the yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers was the source of his hair-raising wail.

Wolf surely heard the Singing Brakeman during the late ’20s when, as a teenager, he lived and worked on the Dockery plantation in northwestern Mississippi. Yet Wolf’s trademark howl also owes a debt to Tommy Johnson, a tremendously influential, if today relatively unsung, blues singer whose lilting 1928 recording of “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” provided the blueprint for Wolf’s 1956 Chess single, “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”, right down to its lupine moan. Play Johnson’s blues alongside Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” (a.k.a. “T For Texas”), and the similarities between the two records, released just months apart, render arguments about Wolf’s “real” source so much academic hairsplitting.

Their shared twelve-bar, AAB format (swap out lines from one record and see if they don’t fit perfectly into the other) is obvious enough. So is the way the two Mississippians draw on the same storehouse of verses and lyric fragments that virtually all of their blues and songster contemporaries did.

Not only that, but in something of a reversal of roles, “Blue Yodel” finds Rodgers playing an outlaw akin to Stackalee, an anti-hero more popular with black than white audiences, while in “Cool Drink”, Johnson adopts the persona of a freight-hopping rounder much like the one who frequents many of Rodgers’ train songs. What’s truly uncanny, though, is the resemblance between Johnson’s crying, field holler-inspired falsetto and Rodgers’ blue yodel, singular devices that each man tacked onto the end of vocal lines to heighten their emotional impact.

Of course Rodgers’ more measured diction, something of a cross between the parlor singing of Vernon Dalhart and the blackface minstrelsy of Emmett Miller, evinces fewer of the hallmarks of African-derived singing — the coarse, dirty timbres, say — employed by Johnson. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” also sounds jauntier than the blues man’s heavier, more percussive “Cool Drink”, although Johnson’s music is quite lyrical, even country-sounding, compared to the brooding, declamatory style of his Delta counterparts.

Indeed, as accompanied by Ishman Bracey and Charlie McCoy on mandolin and guitar, Johnson’s music fairly resembles that of black string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, who not only played hillbilly material at white dances, but recorded tunes based on those of the Singing Brakeman and other country and pop acts as well. In other words, despite their differences, “Blue Yodel” and “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” display an undeniable affinity, most notably between Rodgers’ and Johnson’s vocal contortions and melodicism — their manifest theatricality, too.

None of which should be surprising, given that Rodgers and Johnson grew up a few miles from one another in Central Mississippi, and were born just a year apart. Each almost certainly would have heard the other’s records, even if establishing direct influence at this point is impossible.

What we do know for sure is that, after 1928, the two singers’ careers diverged sharply. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” sold more than a million copies, making him a celebrity and affording him the chance to leave behind a sizable body of work before his death from tuberculosis in 1934. Johnson, by contrast, worked just one more session, even though he was a star of the magnitude of his running buddies and fellow Delta heavy hitters Charley Patton and Son House. He continued to perform publicly for nearly three decades, until he died of complications related to chronic alcoholism in 1956.

Today, the legacies of Rodgers and Johnson are more discreet than ever, but oh for the chance to have tagged along with either of them, if only to learn what, if anything, they heard and stole from each other.

Ballads and Songs of Tradition

September 17, 2014
Various Artists - Ballads and Songs of Tradition

Ballads and Songs of Tradition

Various Artists

Folk-Legacy CD-125
Reviewed by Ed Cray


Since he first met the Beech Mountain, North Carolina-native Frank Proffitt at the 1961 Chicago Folk Festival, Sandy Paton, his wife Caroline, and Lee Baker Haggerty have sought out traditional singers to record their songs and ballads. Paton, Paton, and Haggerty have spent the better part of a lifetime scraping and scrimping to fund the next trip to the Appalachians, Ozarks, or upper New York state, making time to edit the tapes, writing and printing the unusually thoughtful notes that marked their records and tapes, and selling the successive releases that made Folk-Legacy a recorded resource of Anglo-American traditional songs and singers second to none.

In all of the releases, there have been some choice recoveries of the muckle ballads thought long-since dead: Sandy Paton lists among them Sara Cleveland’s Queen Jane, a version of The King’s Daughter Lady Jean (Child 52) never previously recorded in the United States; Frank Proffitt’s Bonny James Campbell (Child 210); Jeannie Robertson’s superb Twa Brothers (Child 49); and Joe Estey’s Hind Horn (Child 17), of which there have been but seven other versions reported in the New World.

If nothing else, the Patons and Haggerty have proven these great song-stories are not dead at all—an oral tradition survives. In fact, Sandy Paton notes, the songs of the parents are preserved by the singing of the children. Frank Proffitt, Jr., sings his father’s repertoire; Colleen Cleveland sings her grandmother’s. As it was, so it is; time without end.

Which brings us to Ballads and Songs of Tradition, the first of a planned series of anthologies of traditional songs and ballads Folk-Legacy is to release. Here are 21 ballads by 13 singers recorded in North Carolina living rooms and Scots croft kitchens. They have been culled from the Paton archives. Many of them are previously unreleased—all of them are choice.

The Patons being comparative folklorists at heart cannot resist a touch of gentle scholarship in their choices. They provide contrasting versions of three ballads: Gypsy Davy (Child 200), The House Carpenter (Child 243), and a British 19th-Century broadside (?), which IS new to me, The Old Arm Chair. Of the 21 tracks, it is difficult to select favorites, but Scots housewife Lizzie Higgins’ My Bonnie Boy is a marvel of delicately ornamented phrases. (Ms. Higgins comes by it naturally; she is the daughter of Jeannie Robertson and Donald Higgins, a master of the Highland pipes.) Her mother’s Twa Brothers (Child 49) is truly gripping: six and one-half minutes of blood-drenched drama. Similarly, Marie Hare of Strathadam, New Brunswick, retells the grim fate of Lost Jimmie Whalen (Laws B 1); her sheer artistry compels attention, no matter how familiar or inevitable the story.

All of which, I think, is the point of this anthology. Paton, Paton and Haggerty are intent on demonstrating that folk singers do possess an aesthetic sense. It is surely different from that of the classically trained or popular singer, but nonetheless it is real — and underappreciated. Voice, instrument, even self are subordinated to the words, to the narrative. That is the anything but simple artistry of the 13 traditional singers presented in this excellent first collection of a promised series of anthologies drawn from the Folk-Legacy archives.

Sacralizing Space

September 16, 2014


by Jeff Todd Titon:

It was in the 1990s when I visited the Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky that I encountered people who spoke explicitly of sound transforming and sacralizing space, whether singing in the coal mine or the sound of the singing coming down from the mountains or echoing outside the churches on a Sunday morning, heard by the children playing up and down the creek beds.

Their words about sound may be heard on the first of the two CDs that Smithsonian Folkways released from my field tape recordings: Songs of the Old Regular Baptists. To close out the CD we chose to present excerpts from some of their statements about the singing, and many mentioned the sound and its “drawing power.”

Elwood Cornett, the moderator (head) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, said: “When I came into this life there was that sound. I hope that when I leave here, that I leave the same sound that I found when I came here.” The Old Regular Baptists weren’t thinking about their music as music; they were talking about the power of its sound to open a communication channel in the co-presence of the divine.

Secular sounds sacralize place, memorialize people. The names of fiddle tunes–“The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” (memorializing the last battle in Pike Co., Kentucky, during the Civil War); “Bill Brown” (memorializing a peddler who was murdered); “They Swung John Brown from a Sour Apple Tree”–these are among tunes I play, and they invoke co-presence. Often an old-time string band fiddler will say the name of the person from whom he or she learned the tune, just before or after playing it, invoking the co-presence of the source musician.

Fijian String Band music

September 15, 2014



FIJI: Songs of Love and Homeland: String Band Music (Smithsonian Folkways CD)
From island villages of Fiji in the Melanesian South Pacific, the songs known as
sere ni cumu are music of a special time and place. These 1986 recordings represent social
songs that brought life and togetherness to the beer- or kava-drinking gatherings of the 1920s and
Drawing from pre-European texts and music styles, as well as European melodies
and harmonies and ukulele and guitar accompaniment, they mark the sound of Fiji village
life of their era. 58 minutes, 22-page notes.
The three guitars used are all standard acoustic guitars, but they
function as “lead,” “rhythm,” or “bass” in the songs. The use of
three guitars with such functional roles and designations is unusual in
sere ni cumu village groups on Taveuni and Kadavu,
and is based on the practice of electric Western and Fijian
The rhythm guitar had only the bottom five strings at
the time of recording, while the bass had only the bottom three
strings in place, and the ukulele had three strings instead of
four. The three strings of the ukulele were tuned to form a
major chord.
The tuning of the three guitars generally followed
the standard sequence of intervals, but not all guitars were
tuned to the same pitches and were fingered or barred
idiosyncratically. The rhythm guitarist and the ukulele strum
chords, while the bass guitar picks out bass patterns.


Thomas Hart Benton

September 14, 2014




Thomas Hart Benton was eighty-four in 1973, when he came
out of retirement to paint a mural for the Country Music Hall of
Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. His assignment was
to describe the regional sources of the musical style known as
“country,” and Benton couldn’t resist the opportunity to paint
one last celebration of homegrown American traditions.
Benton himself was a skilled harmonica player who had been raised on
the old-time music of the Missouri Ozarks. It was during his life-
time that the multimillion-dollar country-music industry in
Nashville had replaced the community-based music of rural
America. As an artist, he had gained a popular following in the
1930s with works that spoke to ordinary people.
The Sources of Country Music presents five distinct scenes to sur-
vey the music of ordinary Americans. The central subject of a
barn dance, with a pair of fiddlers calling out sets to a group of
square dancers, describes the dominant music of the frontier.
A comparatively calm scene shows three women in their Sunday
best with hymnals in their hands, suggesting the importance of
church music in Protestant America. In the foreground, two
barefoot mountain women sing to the sounds of a lap dulcimer,
an old instrument associated with Appalachian ballads. In the
opposite corner an armed cowboy, one foot on his saddle,
accompanies himself with a guitar. An African American man,
apparently a cotton picker in the Deep South, strums a tune on
a banjo, an instrument slaves brought with them to the New
World. Beyond him, on the other side of the railroad tracks, a
group of black women dances on the distant riverbank. Despite
the range of regional styles, instruments, and customs, the
mural seems to pulsate to a single beat, as if Benton took care
to ensure that all the musicians played the same note and sang
their varied American songs in tune.
The mural preserves an image of American folkways that were
rapidly disappearing. Benton’s characteristically dynamic style
expresses the powerful rhythms of music while suggesting the
inevitability of change. Many of the robust, nearly life-size figures
balance on uneven, shifting ground. The fiddlers look liable to
fall into the mysteriously bowed floor, and the log on which the
banjo player sits threatens to roll down the steep slope of the
red-clay landscape. Even the telephone poles seem to sway in
the background. The steam engine, an indication of change,
represents the end of an agrarian life and the homogenization
of American culture, which necessarily entailed the loss of
regional customs.
The mural pays homage to the country music singer and
movie star Tex Ritter, who had helped to persuade Benton to
accept the Nashville commission but died before it was com-
pleted. Benton represents Ritter as the singing cowboy who
turns to face the coal-black engine steaming along the horizon.
The train itself was modeled on the Cannonball Special, driven
and wrecked by Casey Jones, the hero of an American ballad;
it also calls to mind “The Wabash Cannonball,” a popular folk
song about a mythical train that glides through the country,
then rumbles off to heaven. The engine, which may signify the
positive as well as the negative aspects of American
progress is the only element of the complex composition that Benton
felt he couldn’t get quite right. Unfortunately, we will never
know how he wanted the train to look. Benton is said to have
died of a massive heart attack while standing before the mural
in January 1975, trying to decide whether to research and
repaint the train. Whether the story is true or not, his final
work was never signed


Robert Winans

September 13, 2014

“I Could Just Smell the Records.”

September 13, 2014


excerpt from Burkhard Bilger (

“Wanna see something that’ll knock your eyes out?” Joe Bussard told me when I visited. He plucked a tobacco-colored sleeve from the wall and spindled its shiny shellac on the turntable. Bussard’s collection was unmarked and unalphabetized—the better to thwart potential thieves—but he knew the location and exact condition of every record. This one was a mint copy of “Revenue Man Blues,” by Charley Patton, one of perhaps three or four in the world.

“Try and get that on eBay!” Bussard said. His gray eyes were bulging beneath bushy white brows, his gaunt features twisted into a happy leer. “Haw! Haw!” Then the music came on and he was quiet.

Patton may be the greatest bluesman ever recorded and one of the hardest to listen to. The few records he made were pressed out of too soft shellac and worn down by constant playing. (Victrola needles were made of steel, easily dulled, and designed to be discarded after a single use, though they rarely were.) Not this one.

Bussard had found it in a drugstore in Georgia, in the early sixties, in a stack of 78s that had lain untouched for thirty years. There was no crackle, hardly any hiss. You could hear the hoarseness in Patton’s voice—the growling authority of it—and the stutter and snap of the strings. You could hear the hollow thump of his palm against the guitar and the sharp intake of his breath. Bussard shook his head: “This is as close as you’ll ever get to him, kid.”

When Bussard started collecting, such finds weren’t uncommon. The music he liked was out of fashion, its format obsolete. (“Do not throw away your old gramophone records,” one magazine article urged in the thirties. “Instead, turn them into decorative wall vases, bulb bowls or miniature garden containers.”) “I guarantee you, eighty per cent of these records would have been destroyed if I hadn’t got them,” he said.

“I went into Richmond when they had them big riots. Went into the black section and hunted house to house and alley to alley. I’d beat the backwoods. Look for houses without much paint on ’em—lace curtains, old rusted coffee can on the front porch. In Virginia in the sixties, the houses looked terrible, but inside they were like mansions. I could just smell the records.”


September 12, 2014




Smithsonian Folkways (SFWCD40211)

Pink Anderson, Bill Williams, Little Brother Montgomery, Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, Warner Williams, Peg Leg Sam, Snooks Eaglin, Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly and more…

Another dip into the deep well of their extensive archives, this time the good folk at Smithsonian Folkways have taken on the compilation of 21 songs from ‘songsters’,  the meaning of which has long eluded me. Thankfully, it does not seem that it is just me being a little dense, as respected music scholar Barry Lee Pearson acknowledges the problems of such a definition in his introductory essay to the impressive 40 page booklet that accompanies this CD.

Having spent much of his essay exploring and explaining these difficulties, he identifies the working premise that the label adopted when selecting titles for inclusion here – ‘a non-blues compilation encompassing songs that preceded blues, hybrids of blues and other song forms, and a variety of genres including old-timey string band standards, ragtime, country and Tin Pan Alley pop.’

Clear now? Me neither. Fortunately, it matters not a jot as the music on offer is exemplary throughout, featuring big-names a-plenty plus a few who may be new to most.

Proceedings get off to an excellent start with a lightweight but enjoyable live version of the traditional Bring It On Down To My House by Warner Williams With Jay Summerour, artists new to me who also contribute a lovely version of Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose. Another unfamiliar name whose performance here shines out is Marvin Foddrell, a singer and guitarist from Virginia whose version of Reno Factory is both quietly haunting and delightful. As  is the closing track from Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Howard Armstrong, a ragged live take from 1986 of They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree.

More familiar names usually associated with the songster tag include Mississippi John Hurt, with a 1964 version of Monday Morning Blues featuring his reliably charming vocals and intricate finger-picked guitar, and John Jackson, who contributes an authoritative version of Nobody’s Business If I Do and masterful reading of Charlie Poole’s Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.

Despite long being a personal favourite of mine, I wouldn’t normally associate Little Brother Montgomery with being a songster but his Alabama Bound is present and very correct, full of his sumptuous piano rolls and warm, expressive vocals.

Another winner therefore in a popular series of themed compilations from an extensive archive, beautifully balancing big names and performances with plenty of rare and little known material.

Olive Dame Campbell

September 11, 2014

imagesexcerpt from:







September 10, 2014



from notes to “Hillbilly Wobble” by  Mick Kinney:

The term cracker has been around for centuries in reference to jovial storytelling or witty banter.  Shakespeare used it in that context, similar to the more modern wise cracker.  The resurrected Gaelic spelling craic meaning “fun times” is now common in hip Irish circles.

As far back as colonial times in America, cracker became a stereotype for rural white southerners.  In addition to the word’s Anglo origins, another one suggested is “So poor they had to crack their own corn,” that is, not able to afford the price of milling.

Although regarded nowadays as somewhat of a derogatory slur, Georgia was widely known, until fairly recently, as “The Cracker State.”  In a most ironic twist, before racial integration the capital city’s Negro League team was called The Atlanta Black Crackers, a spinoff of their Southern League counterpart.

During the early 20th century, quite a few musical acts went by some variant of “Georgia Crackers.”  Okeh records actually had two on their label: the Cofer Brothers, Paul and Leon, took the name for some of their cuts while Macon jazz singer, Emmett Miller, used it for his stellar studio side musicians.

Others in the hillbilly catagory include the Canova family band, “Three Georgia Crackers,” in 20’s Columbia catalogue,

Mento, Not Calypso

September 9, 2014


mNOTcSmallMento, Not Calypso: the Original Sound of Jamaica (2 cds, Fantastic Voyage)

Though often erroneously regarded as simply a variation of Calypso, Jamaican Mento is a distinct musical style that developed independently from its similarly styled Trinidadian cousin. The genre remained Jamaica’s most popular form of indigenous music from the post war years up until the development of Shuffle Blues and its immediate successor, Ska, in the early sixties.

The distinctive sound produced by early exponents of the style was a result of the combination of vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar, hand percussion and a rumba box, all frequently enhanced by homemade saxophone, clarinet or bamboo flute.

Mento, Not Calypso! features some of the earliest recordings in the genre, dubbed directly from the original Jamaican 78s, with many featuring on CD for the first time. Compiled by Mento aficionado, Mike Murphy, the 2CD set is unquestionably the most definitive collection of the style yet to see issue and as such will appeal to those seeking to discover the origins of modern Jamaican music as well as the less discerning buyer simply wishing to enhance their summer barbecue!

Omer Forster

September 9, 2014


See also here.

John Sharp

September 8, 2014

John Sharp often woke up his family before daylight with a cheerful imitation of the cardinal’s song, a fiddle tune named “Redbird.” Their bedtime would just as likely be preceded by fiddle music, or put off for hours if music-loving friends or relatives stopped to visit. Fiddlin’ John Sharp loved music with emotional intensity.

A daughter recalls watching with the other children through a little ‘cubby hole’ window in the loft of their house for their father’s return one miserable, sleeting winter night in 1937. When their father, a stocky, tough man, came into sight, he was crying. Crippled since boyhood by a leg injury, he had fallen and cracked the record, “Carroll County Blues,” that he had just walked five miles to buy at a Stearns Company Store. Placing it on the Victrola, he found the record would play and, overjoyed, stayed up past midnight to learn the tune.

Sharp always began a fiddle tune with the fiddle under his chin, standing or sitting straight. When the music started, his body began twisting, bending, and crouching, his eyes shut tight, his mouth worked along with the tune, and his arms swung the fiddle about, playing around his feet or above his head. Sometimes he would wind up on his knees, playing and whooping, or shaking the fiddle to make the rattlesnake rattles inside the instrument sound out.

John Sharp was born September 2, 1894 in the ‘Washington Young Place,’ a log house just on the Kentucky side of the state line, now said to be the dwelling with the longest continual occupation in the state of Kentucky (since 1792). John’s mother found him at age 6 hiding behind a door playing “Rye Straw.” His father, a fine fiddler, taught him tunes like “Wild Goose Squall,” and “Fourteen Wildcat Scalps,” even humming one the day he died for John to learn. John joined a small exodus to the farmland of Iowa in 1916, with his new bride Bonnie. He stayed long enough to learn a few Midwestern tunes, but was back in Kentucky via Oklahoma by 1919.

The next year he moved to Tennessee to work on the Slick Ford – Stockton pole road, a railroad-like system of tracks made with small poles for mule teams pulling carts loaded with logs. Except for a few years back on the Washington Young Place, he spent the rest of his life in Tennessee near Sharp Place, working in the log woods, farming, and playing music. He was a neighbor for a while to his second cousin Will Phipps, whose large repertoire of unusual solo fiddle tunes was much admired. Bonnie Sharp remembers Burnett and Rutherford riding up on two fine looking mares in July 1929 to spend a week-long visit with John, a new acquaintance they had made at the courthouse gatherings in Monticello.

In 1931, John was approached by Virgil Anderson – who had once been a close neighbor- to form the Kentucky Wildcats string band. Later, eight of his children took up instruments, and each one at some point traveled with him to play for Democratic political rallies, dedication ceremonies, family reunions, and weekly dances at Pickett State Park.

In 1949, Sgt. Alvin York invited Sharp down for an evening to try out a new record cutting machine. York recorded about 20 sides for his lifelong fiddling friend, who sent most of them away as presents. These disks, with John Sharp Jr. and Clyde Evans accompanying on rhythm guitars, are the best existing examples of Sharp’s abilities. Just a year before he died, in 1964, he recorded several more tunes for his family on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 8.43.36 PM

The Guitar of Joseph Spence: DVD

September 7, 2014

spence dvdfrom
The Guitar Stylings of Joseph Spence (DVD)

To order online, go to the Guitar Workshop site.
For related music, check out my Bahamian Blind Blake page.

I saw Joseph Spence only once, when I was 12 years old, in a concert at

Harvard University with the Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb. I can’t say I

remember very much about that particular concert, but I have been listening

to his music as long as I can remember, and he has always been one of my

favorite musicians.


I worked out one of his arrangements for the first time in the late 1970s,

among the first pieces I ever tried to learn note for note off a recording.

I can’t say I got very close to his fingering, but I came pretty close to the

rhythm, and that was what first fascinated me about his playing. I was

used to the straightforward rhythms of ragtime-blues, and Spence opened

up new possibilities that would eventually lead me to the Congo and lessons

from players like Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo.


Over the next thirty years I learned about a dozen of his pieces, but it was

only after Ernie Hawkins put me in touch with Stefan Grossman and Stefan

agreed to do this video that I really buckled down and tried to get the pieces

right. The last three years have involved months of intensive woodshedding,

as well as many long conversations with Guy Droussart. (more…)

Do the Modal

September 6, 2014


from Ken Perlman (

In the early 20th century an English collector of traditional songs and dances named Cecil Sharp published a book called “The English Folk Song: Some Conclusions.” Sharp, who about a decade later would also become the first serious collector of Appalachian music, made an impassioned plea in this book aimed at those who sought to perform the tunes he had collected.

He pointed out that quite a number of these tunes were not connected with the major and minor scales that had dominated both European classical and popular music for the previous few centuries. Instead these tunes followed older musical scales, or modes, and that consequently they were governed by different rules of tune organization and harmony.

Sharp then identified the scales he felt were actually in use among the folk tunes he collected, namely a set of diatonic scales often referred to as the “Church Modes” (you get a diatonic scale by starting on any white key of the piano and going up the white keys in sequence for a distance of one octave). These Church Modes have since become household names among folk-music aficionados: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Sharp argued persuasively that new performers of collected tunes should not change the melodies to conform to rules that apply to major and minor scales, and that they should also avoid applying to those tunes conventional harmony progressions from the major and minor world. All these were excellent points, and added considerably to the ability of later generations to understand and appreciate what British, Irish, and North American traditional music was all about.

The problem was that Sharp’s argument didn’t go far enough, and he in fact substituted a new set of unrealistic constructs for the old one. Although the Dorian and Mixolydian scales, for example, described the melodies of some folk tunes far better than had the labels “major” or “minor,” this still only represented part of the story.

Many folk tunes, for example, are made up of pentatonic or fundamentally pentatonic scales (you get a pentatonic, or 5-note scale by starting on any black key of the piano and going up the black keys in sequence till you reach the same note an octave up). Given that pentatonic scales have only five tones, they cannot be definitively assigned to any one Church mode. For example, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian modes in G is whether the seventh tone of the scale is F# or F-natural. Where then do you put a pentatonic tune in G that has no F in it of any kind?

Alternatively, there are many, many folk tunes that feature multiple “inflections” for a given pitch. For example, there are tunes in G that feature both F#’s and F-naturals at the seventh tone of the scale, and tunes in A that have both C#’s and C-naturals at the third tone. Again, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian G-modes is whether the seventh tone is F# or F-natural. In that case, where do you put a tune in G that has both these pitches? In the key of A, the difference between the Dorian and Mixolydian modes is whether the third tone of the scale is C-natural or C#. Where then do you put a tune in A in which both tones are present?

Further complication is presented by tunes which contain still more pitch inflections, namely those pesky pitches that fall between conventional scale notes. I’m talking, for example, about a pitch that is between C-natural and C#, or between Bb and B-natural. Sometimes I’ve heard such pitches referred to as “C-neutral” or “B-neutral,” but my favorite nickname for them comes from my fiddling friend Iain Fraser of Jedburgh, Scotland, who uses the term “C-supernatural.”

Bai Konte

September 5, 2014


A 6mm film by Oliver Franklin and Marc Pevar, “Alhaji Bai Konte,” depicts a day-in-the-life of the now-deceased Gambian Mandinka kora virtuoso, Alhaji Bai Konte, shot on location in Brikama, Gambia (plus one scene in Dakar, Senegal), West Africa, and narrated by world-famous bluesman Taj Mahal.

Alhaji Bai Konte’s son, Dembo Konte, accompanies in the performance, and various family members and friends make cameo appearances. His wife, Nafi Kouyate, appears in the final scene, praying. Kora is a 21-stringed harp unique to the Mandinka, played by Griots who are oral historians as well as musicians. This group of Mandinka preserve and propagate genealogical and historical information through song and story, and are a source of immense pride and identity to the Mandinka people.

Alhaji Bai Konte was the first griot to introduce the kora widely throughout North America, where he toured major folk, jazz and blues festivals, gave private concerts and mingled with many professional musicians. His tours continued for seven years in the 1970’s, often accompanied by Dembo Konte and Malamini Jobate, whose excellent musical skills were also a delight to their audiences.

Washington Square Park Folk Festival: NYC 9/14/14

September 4, 2014


1pm – The Down Hill Strugglers
1:45pm – Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton
2:30pm – Lightning in the East
3:15pm – Radio Jarocho
4pm – Square Dance!  with David Harvey of NYC Barn Dance

Organizers are happy to announce the upcoming 4th Annual Washington Square Park Folk Festival.  This festival is free and open to the public and is set for Sunday Sept. 14th, from 1-5pm.  The festival stage is located by the Garibaldi statue on the East side of Washington Square Park, seating will be provided.

This year the festival will feature blues music from Jerron “Blindboy” Paxton, two old time string bands; the Down Hill Strugglers, recently featured on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and Lightning in the East, featuring banjoist Steve Arkin, and Radio Jarocho playing Son Jarocho style music from the Veracruz region of Mexico.  The festival will close with a community square dance!  The dance is always great fun, and will be called by David Harvey of NYC Barn Dance.

The festival celebrates and continues the long tradition of folk music performance in Washington Square Park. This tradition goes all the way back to the 1940’s and the birth of Folk music in New York City, with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger coming together on Sunday afternoons to play music and socialize in the park.  This tradition continued up through the 1960’s where the park welcomed a young Bob Dylan to the folk music scene in the city, and it continues up until today.  The Washington Square Park Folk Festival is the first formal festival presentation of Folk music in Washington Square Park’s history and we are proud to see the festival enter its 4th successful year

History of Weems String Band

September 3, 2014

Seeger, Hartford, Grisman

September 3, 2014


Retrograss is Mike Seeger, John Hartford, and David Grsman.  The band’s only album, the 1999 Retrograss (Acoustic Disc), is an inconsistent, fascinating mess: the old-timey treatment doesn’t flatter Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” quite the way it does the Beatles’ goofy “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Hartford’s mannered vocals are the disc’s most serious flaw, especially on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and the Redding tune–he often sounds like he’d rather be somewhere else.

And on “Hound Dawg,” a sparse arrangement of the Big Mama Thornton song Elvis made famous, Hartford and Grisman’s stilted enunciation comes off as almost parodic. Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” on the other hand, works fine as a Dock Boggs tune, and Berry’s “Maybellene” sounds appropriately hot-blooded propelled by the boing-boing of Seeger’s mouth harp and Hartford’s bluesy banjo–probably because Berry adapted it from a country song in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, Retrograss does just as well, if not better, when it covers folk and bluegrass tunes: Randall Hylton’s “Room at the Top of the Stairs” prickles with existential dread, Hartford’s fiddle bawling convulsively over Seeger’s obsessive single-chord banjo patterns, and standards like Earl Scruggs’s “Flint Hill Special” and Jimmy Martin’s “My Walking Shoes” practically catch fire.

“Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey”

September 2, 2014



The Sharp Wood series of reissue CDs titled “Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey” ended last year with vols. 20 and 21, but there’s lots to be explored and I am constantly on the lookout to complete my set. It’s a modest enough shelf but already expanded considerably over the 10-inch LPs that were issued in the fifties (with Tracey’s inimitable spoken introductions), including many previously unreleased gems of roots music as well as the unexpected pleasure of the modern dance band sets that wind up the list.

Sharp Wood has put out a new sampler that grazes the surface and gives one track from each album. This is welcome enough, even if you have most of the CDs, because it is well programmed, but here’s the kicker: there are SIX bonus tracks of previously unreleased recordings from the famous 1952 Tracey encounter with Jean Bosco Mwenda.

This is the cornerstone of modern African guitar music and anyone with any interest in soukous, benga, mbaqanga, makossa, or any of the other Central African pop sounds, needs to get hold of this crucial set to hear how a genius guitarist took the likembe style of interwoven arpeggios and turned it into sublime guitar patterns.

You will hear an eerie Zulu reedpipe orchestra that is followed by the punk rock thrum of the nguni, also from South Africa, timbila xylophones, thumb pianos, and another of Tracey’s notable guitar discoveries, George Sibanda, giving us his classic “Guabi guabi.” I find myself singing along to “easy weechy lay banana…”

And then the big bomber: the song I consider Tracey’s single most outstanding recording, “Chemirocha,” a paean to Jimmie Rodgers (yes, the country singer) by some Kenyan girls. The song is haunting but made more so by Tracey’s introduction on the LP record (not included on the CD): “The mysterious singer and dancer Chemirocha has been turned into a local god Pan — a faun — half man, half antelope. He is urged by the girls to do the leaping dance, familiar to all Kipsigis, so energetically that he will jump clear out of his clothes… Who could resist such an offer?” Tracey concludes. The charm of the spoken introductions is they make each record like a radio show with real educational value.

Hugh Tracey (1903-77) was an English farmer in South Africa who couldn’t understand why no one was interested in native music or traditions and set out to document it. His archive constitutes the collective musical memory of half the continent. He had great taste and superb skill with the simple recording equipment he used.

The Bosco material is particularly important because two songs, “Masanga” and “Mama na mwana,” were included on the breakthrough GUITARS OF AFRICA record (Decca LF1170 1952) and one of them, “Masanga,” was picked to lead off the African Music Society’s LP BEST MUSIC FOR 1952.  Consequently Pete Seeger and other American folkies learned to play it and the finger-picking style of Bosco became a test of musical prowess for young guitarists.

Resisting the Gentrification of Old Time Music

September 1, 2014

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As Sheesham Crow explains it, there is no utility in resisting a euphonium or trumpet in an old timey band. “If I walked across the holler, and I happen to bring an accordion, (my friend) wouldn’t say, ‘Wow, I’m playing old time. You can’t play that accordion.’”

“The thing that bugs me is the gentrification of old time music. You can lose some of that crusty, wild energy that comes from the real old time music.  Our job as traditional musicians is to keep singing other people’s songs because they’re important and they’re dead. So they can’t sing them. It’s a huge responsibility to maintain this, and, yes, you can listen to it on a record, and sure, you can go to the Smithsonian and listen to the archives or the Library of Congress or whatever, but 80%, 90% of the population up here has never ever heard of the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress.”

So, if you said, ‘Oh, the Lomax Collection,’ some people know, but they’re not going to find the stuff. It’s still a total mystery, and people think that half the stuff we sing is our own in spite of the fact we say, ‘This is from 1933.’

The honesty is in music now again. Honesty in the new meeting the old, and an honest take on the music they love to hear and make and the genuine honest reactions that we get from our music. When we play on the street, everybody reacts in usually a positive way. We get everybody – rockers, punk rockers, total emo, whatever they’re called. No matter who, everybody stops and goes, ‘You guys, that’s really something I’ve never heard.’ So often people come to the shows, and they say, ‘You know, if somebody had told me we’re gonna go see this old timey band, I probably wouldn’t have come.’ Or they see us and say, ‘I didn’t realize I love this music so much.’ “

“Yodelers, Guitars, and Accordions”

August 31, 2014


by Elijah Wald:

Classic Kikuyu Music:  Yodelers, Guitars, and Accordions (available from

This CD combines two extremely varied cassettes of Kikuyu music sold in Nairobi in 1990. The music ranges from the wonderful Jimmie Rodgers yodeling of Sammy Ngako (the only performer I could identify by name) to a cappella choruses and accordion numbers.

Many of the songs show a clear debt to American country and western, in one case even including a fiddle intro. Others are obviously based on traditional local rhythms, and still others reflect combinations of these styles and even a hint of Harry Belafonte-style calypso.

There is both fingerstyle and flatpicked guitar, and while none of the performers are astounding virtuosos, there is a startling variety of approaches to the instrument. As for the accordion, it sometimes suggests a relationship to zydeco, though that is clearly a matter of shared roots rather than direct interaction.

The a cappella pieces sound quite traditional, and include two by a wonderful female singer with responses by a backing chorus. There are also two electric numbers, including one that uses the tune of the old English children’s song “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night.”

All in all, while the sound is sometimes muddy, it is well worth it for the startling mix of music. Much like American “hillbilly” or country music, this collection reflects a rural population that loved its traditional styles but also sought to blend them with the new sounds arriving on the phonograph and radio, and the breadth of styles reflects the broad tastes of the Kikuyu audience of the time.



The Doc Watson Principles

August 30, 2014


by Kent Gustavson (from

As I prepared for a memorial concert after Doc Watson’s passing last year, I thought about what I could offer the discussion about Doc and his life. I paged through my biography of Doc, dog-earing various pages and passages, but I felt uncomfortable sharing anecdotes from the book, because they had little to do with my personal feelings about this great man. Instead, I decided to note a few things I had learned from Doc besides simply his music.

I came up with the following five Doc Watson Principles — things that, as I researched and wrote a book about him over six years of my life — Doc Watson taught me about my own life.

Doc Watson Principle #1: Honoring Tradition

Doc respected and honored his parents, his culture, his religion, and the people around him, both in Deep Gap — his home of 89 years — and around the country, where he played music on both little and big stages. He honored his fans by always coming out after shows, signing hats, shirts, records and CDs for anyone willing to wait in line to shake the aging bard’s hand. But most importantly to me, he honored his traditions.

As a Swedish-American, I grew up eating Swedish cookies at the holidays, and hearing my grandmother sing Tryggarye Kan Ingen Vara (Children of the Heavenly Father) in dulcet tones when she would visit. I will pass those traditions along to my children someday. But the audience for those traditions is only a few people; my work every day has less to do with my heritage than it does with my interests. But Doc was different; he brought the heart of his Appalachian family to the world in his seven decades on stage.

A great illustration of this is the great story Doc always told about his granny’s old cat. Doc told the story so many times in his countless interviews through the years that he often forgot a detail here or there, and other times would add a precious snippet I hadn’t heard before. I did my best to compile the entire story into one cogent narrative in my book. The following is my feeble attempt to create a cliff notes version of that narrative.

Doc’s grandmother had an old, ailing cat, and she wanted the Watson boys to put it out of its misery. She gave them a coin for their effort, and they humanely killed the animal, then — following the careful instructions of General Watson (Doc’s father’s given name, not a rank), they skinned the cat. General worked on the tough hide, and tanned it until it was paper thin. Doc had a banjo at the time that his father had made for him, but its drum was covered by a groundhog hide, and it didn’t make much sound — the skin was too tough. General took the tanned catskin and pulled it taut over the banjo head and secured it in place. Doc swore his entire life that this little catskin banjo was the best sounding banjo in the world.

That catskin banjo infused Doc’s playing as a boy with the blood of the land, the ancient stringiness of the hills, and the sound of the mountains. He never could shake that sound, whether in his hip, rocking electric guitar in the 1950’s (listen to the new Milestones compilation from Nancy Watson, Doc’s daughter), or in his incredible, blistering steel-string guitar solos in the 1960s and beyond. Doc always honored the sound of that humble catskin banjo, whether on stage in front of presidents or during living room jam sessions with famous pickers who would stop by his home.

That should inspire us to look back at our roots, talk with the old-timers in our own lives, bring out dusty old volumes and take another look. I need to do a better job of honoring my true self and my traditions. (more…)

Roger Sprung

August 29, 2014



edited from

Roger Sprung: My brother used to go down to Washington Square to sing folk songs every Sunday. For years he wanted me to go down and I always said no. Well, I went down one time; I was seventeen and I saw all these people playing music, and it was nice; there were guitars, banjos, some fiddles, not too many basses—this was in 1947. I heard people like Tom Paley, Billy Faier and Pete Seeger, who didn’t come to the Park often. And I have to give credit to George Margolin for starting that whole Washington Square scene.

I liked the music I’d heard at the Park a lot. I stopped playing the piano and took up the guitar. My grandfather owned a pawn shop and he got me a guitar. And then I heard people like Tom Paley, who used to be in the New Lost City Ramblers, and John Cohen, and other people, and I said, I want to play the banjo. So, I started ‘Pete Seeger picking’ a little, and just learned the banjo. Pete really was a big first influence.

Billy Faier [an early, highly innovative eclectic 5-string player] had a house rent-party where there was picking, and you pay a little money to help him pay the rent. I played there and he told me about Earl Scruggs. I went to Rosalie Allen’s record shop and bought Earl’s records, which started me on bluegrass. The record that I really tore apart to learn to play was My Little Georgia Rose, with a very nice solo by Earl. When I had that 78 record you could see the grooves where I kept repeating the banjo solo. I liked that song; it was clean and crystal; it wasn’t fast, so I tried to get the fingering.

To me there are four styles—there’s more, but there’s bluegrass, which is a roll, then there’s clawhammer or frailing, then there’s classical, or ‘classic’ on the nylon, and there’s Seeger style, which is half up and half down finger picking. Bascom Lamar had a style of his own, and Will Keys who used to go to Galax, had a style of his own—two-finger. There’s all kind of styles, and all kind of tunings too.

In 1950 I started heading south. Harry West and Jeannie West played at the Asheville Folk Festival that was headed by Bascom Lamar Lundsford, ‘The Minstrel of the Appalachians.’ He sang songs that I liked, because it was all mountain music and I liked mountain music. In the old days these mountain bands did not clawhammer, except for maybe one or two bands; most of it was finger-picking. Charlie Poole, you know, two fingered.

I combined them. I’d go to all the mountain festivals and pick and I haven’t had any complaints yet… I went to the Asheville Festival for about 25 years straight. I learned a lot, and met a lot of big people: Samantha Bumgarner, Bill Mecklreath, Obray Ramsay… Byard Ray, who taught me The Wild Goose Chase, which is my theme song. George Pegram, who played banjo, and Red Parham, who played harmonica.

They didn’t think much right away, but word got around; they labeled me ‘the big Jew from New York’—but without malice; just the novelty of it. Bascom said some nice things to me; he had private parties at his house. I recorded Dry Bones, one of his numbers that he taught me.

My first group was the Folksay Trio, around 1954; we were Erik Darling, Bob Carey [later of the Tarriers], who I met playing down in Washington Square, and I. Our first recording was on Stinson, and that’s where we did Tom Dooley. I was told that the Kingston Trio grabbed that one, and Bay of Mexico, for their own album five years later.

Playing in various places I had a chance to meet a lot of people, old timers:Buell Kazee and Dave Appalon, and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner, and many more; it was fun. And thank goodness they all liked my playing. I teach, buy and sell, and perform… I teach in Manhattan as well as Connecticut and I have a way that if you have patience and you practice a little, you’ll play. It’s methodical. People say, ‘I can’t make my fingers go that fast’—well, I have ways that they will; it’s human nature to go faster once you know something well. And, playing the banjo is a love of my life.











St. James Sessions

August 28, 2014

edited from Jack Neely (

The St. James sessions of 1929-30 are a rare window onto a fertile time and place in the history of American popular music. The 1920s saw the dawn of music on the radio, and improvements to recording technology that saw the introduction of mass-market recordings of popular music. And the Roaring ‘20s was accompanied by a surprisingly worldly stew of folk music, blues, show tunes, jazz, Hawaiian, and vaudeville novelties that all played a part in the evolution of what we now know as popular music.

Knoxville, Tennessee, was in the thick of it. In the 1920s and early ’30s, it was a city of more than 100,000 blacks and whites. It was a teeming, dirty, lively, arrogant, complicated place with two railroad stations, two daily newspapers, three radio stations, a dozen movie theaters, a comprehensive electric streetcar system, and a small airport. Knoxville was one of the industrial centers of the South, a national center for textiles, marble, furniture, and railroad equipment.  Prohibition was still in effect, and Knoxville was a national black-market distribution center for moonshine, with connections to organized crime in Chicago and elsewhere.

But the city was also on the very fringe of the country, surrounded by some of the most remote hollers in America, where folk, blues, and country music were evolving Galapagos-like, in eccentric patterns. The Tennessee River flowed free and damless through Knoxville, and flooded every spring.

Knoxville’s interest in music was already deep. Before the Civil War, Knoxville had been a center for the otherworldly style of singing known as Sacred Harp. After the war, it was home to one of the South’s first orchestral groups, and by the early 1870s, the city had a European-style “Opera House.” In the 1880s and ’90s, Knoxville hosted major classical-music and opera festivals that drew some of the great talents from New York and Boston. But Knoxville was still in the middle of the South, where most new American forms of music were in various stages of gestation: blues, ragtime, jazz, hillbilly, bluegrass. By the turn of the century, young men playing new styles of guitar or fiddle, were making a living in the streets.

Many of those early musicians were blind. Musicians were mostly people who couldn’t do anything else for a living, because music wasn’t much of a living. Before the 1920s, which saw both the dawn of radio and the beginning of record companies’ interest in recording popular and folks music, the best a folk or country musician could hope for was a Mercury dime in a tin cup.

There were no real recording studios in Tennessee at the time—in the 1920s, Nashville had no reputation as a recording center, and most country-music recordings were still made in New York. So when one of the nation’s most famous record companies, the Brunswick/Vocalion label set up a temporary studio in the St. James Hotel in downtown Knoxville, hundreds of musicians came, from miles around, to take a turn behind the microphone. (more…)

Almeda Riddle

August 27, 2014



Almeda James Riddle (1898–1986)

Discovered by a ballad collector in the 1950s, Almeda James Riddle of Greers Ferry (Cleburne County) became a prominent figure in America’s folk music revival. Her memory of ballads, hymns, and children’s songs was one of the largest single repertories documented by folksong scholars. After two decades of concerts and recordings, she received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for her contributions to the preservation of Ozark folksong traditions.

Almeda James was born on November 21, 1898, in the community of West Pangburn (Cleburne County).

Riddle was a widow caring for her mother and living near her grown children in Greers Ferry when John Quincy Wolf, the first “ballad hunter” in the area, found her in 1952. Wolf, a Batesville (Independence County) native teaching English at what is now Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, realized that many of Riddle’s songs dated back to seventeenth-century Scotland, England, and Ireland. In his chance meeting with Riddle, Wolf had found a prolific tradition bearer. Thirty years later, the National Endowment for the Arts would pay tribute to Riddle as “the great lady of Ozark balladry,” noting that “she once listed a hundred songs she could call to mind right then, and later added she could name another hundred if she had the time.”

Recordings in 1959 by another folklorist, Alan Lomax, brought Riddle the first of many invitations to sing on college campuses around the country. At the age of sixty-two, after her mother’s death, Almeda found herself starting on her new career “of getting out the old songs,” as she put it, in person, in print, and on tape.

By the early 1960s, America’s folk music revival was picking up momentum. Riddle and other traditional singers and musicians were appearing at festivals literally coast to coast. She traveled by bus to Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, and the Newport Jazz and Folk Festival, on to Yale University and Harvard University, to Montreal and Quebec in Canada, to Chicago and Minneapolis, and to the West Coast at UCLA and Berkeley. She frequently shared the stage with Doc Watson and Pete and Mike Seeger, as well as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and other dynamic new performers.

Young audiences heralded both the traditional songs and plain singing style of Riddle, an authentic contrast to formula lyrics, packaged sounds, and exaggerated performances from the contemporary music industry and entertainers. Asked when she herself first noticed the sea change in American music since her childhood, Riddle pointed to the popularity—and popularizing—of Elvis Presley. “Elvis was a good boy, and I liked him alright,” she admitted, “but he and others got to performing. They got out in front of the music. And performance took over music.”

With the help of folklore scholar Roger Abrahams, Riddle recorded more than 200 of her childhood favorites, fifty of which were transcribed in the book A Singer and Her Songs: Almeda Riddle’s Book of Ballads. Abraham’s book challenged the stereotype of traditional singers as uneducated hill people. To the contrary, their “high, lonesome” style was learned, and many could read music. Riddle’s own father taught at singing schools held in summers between planting and harvest. “He made us learn the round note, but the shape notes are quicker read,” Riddle said of her father. “We learned both the four and the eight note system. And anything I know the tune to,” she told Abrahams matter-of-factly, “I can put the notes to.” (more…)

German Labels Search for the Real Sound of America

August 26, 2014
Richard Weize
Richard Weize of Bear Family Records

edited from

For three decades, the German labels Bear Family Records and Trikont have rescued classic American music from obscurity. From hillbilly to deep-fried Southern funk, anything goes — as long as it’s got soul.  Munich’s Trikont label is, by any standards, one of the world’s most eclectic. Recent releases span everything from US immigrant folk songs, Mexican boleros and 1970s punk to Depression-era yodellers and Cajun swamp music.  Trikont’s compilation CDs are put together by experts and collectors, but as label founder Achim Bergmann said, they’re aimed at a general contemporary audience.

“We want to put things in a new light and show people where rock and popular music came from,” Bergmann said. “We want listeners to see themselves as part of a tradition.”

Trikont’s program is unusual but accessible. The label evolved in 1971 out of the radical left-wing book publisher of the same name. German Volksmusik had been discredited by its association with the Third Reich, and the label’s search for the authentic sounds of everyday working people led it to what cultural critic Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America” — the land of cowboys, hillbillies, bootleggers, drifters, sharecroppers and others who made music beyond the confines of commerce.

Ironically, the left-wingers at Trikont were introduced to much of the music they came to cherish by the Armed Forces Network, the radio station that serviced American soldiers in post-war Germany and continues to broadcast to US troops around the world.

“It was like a second liberation,” Bergmann said. “The music they played had changed a whole century. It had an existential side that German music lacked. Also, the idea of quality and mass culture was unknown in Germany.”

Meanwhile, Trikont publishes material that’s largely unknown in the US itself. “When we go to music trade fairs, Americans are sometimes surprised,” said Bergmann. “They come up and say, ‘What is this? This is something we don’t have.'”

“It’s like a kind of cultural anarchy with a critical eye toward capitalism,” said Detlef Diederichsen, a record critic and the musical director of Berlin’s House of World Cultures concert hall. “They’re raiding the archives of big companies who can’t deal with their own back catalogues.”

If Trikont is about breadth, Bear Family Records, located in a small village near the northern German city of Bremen, is about depth. Since 1975, the label has specialized in exhaustively researched, painstakingly produced compilations of mostly country and rockabilly artists.  Label founder Richard Weize said he spends weeks at a time in America, investigating archives, searching through recording-studio vaults, negotiating contracts for rights and trying to locate collectors.

“Without collectors, I’d be dead and buried,” Weize said. “And luck also plays a role. You do your research, contact people, but in the end it’s often accident.”

Trikont’s Bergmann said the reason German labels have played such a large role in cultivating older American music was that, as foreigners, they had a keener eye for hidden gems. Weize, on the other hand, thinks the reasons are economic.

“You have to be crazy to do this,” Weize said. “All our editions sell in the long term. But you can’t be primarily profit-oriented.”

Does the rise of MP3s and downloaded music present a threat to labels like Trikont and Bear Family? Are they afraid their small market of passionate collectors and people who want to discover the uncanny sounds of yesteryear will dry up?

“I’m not afraid,” said Weize. “The CD is dying, as are many of its customers. You can be sad about that, but it’s a fact. So there’s no reason to fear anything.”

Bergmann added that a change in format could have less of an impact on focused labels.

“Major label music today is mostly about selling ring tones,” Bergmann said. “But passion and respect for real music will remain, and there’ll be a mix of CDs and other formats.”

The secret to these two independent labels’ survival may be that they target a selective audience of music fanatics — and those who want to be like them.

“When people have everything at the disposal of their computer, they need experts,” Diederichsen said. “They need to be guided by someone with a personal taste who explains and comments on the music.”

And guiding listeners on sonic expeditions through the old, weird America is something both Bear Family and Trikont have been doing for 30 years.

Mamady Kouyate

August 25, 2014

Please click here to view the video.

For lovers of old time West African instrumental music, here is an extraordinary video demonstrating the remarkable fluency of 2 New Yorkers who accompany veteran guitarist Mamady Kouyate.  This is an excerpt from the Griot Summit performance that took place in Summer 2011 at Wave Hill, a public garden overlooking the Hudson River.  This trio was comprised of Mamady Kouyate (Guinea) on guitar, Andy Algire (USA) on Balafon and Sam Dickey (USA) on guitar.  The tune is the Manding griot classic, “Kaira.”


by Banning Eyre (from

Mamady Kouyaté was born to musical royalty. The Manding (or Mande) ruled West Africa in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the Kouyaté family served as the kings’ traditional griots (virtuoso musicians and praise historians). Guinea’s Kouyatés are famously linked to the wooden-slotted balafon, but by the time Mamady was born in 1956, guitarists were transposing balafon riffs onto guitar.

Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Kouyaté worked the scene, leading a regional band for ten years, and subbing for guitarists in national bands. In the late ’90s, he helped resurrect the legendary Bembeya Jazz, and played next to guitar hero Sekou Bembeya Diabaté on the group’s 2003 comeback album Bembeya, and two world tours. Back in Conakry, he labored to revive classic bands using young players, but the callousness of Guinea’s politicians angered him.

“Musicians had put in 40-year careers for their country,” says Kouyaté, “and they couldn’t even feed themselves. I said this publicly, and I went to prison four times. They said I was trying to sabotage the government.”

In March 2004, Kouyaté fled a fifth arrest and came to New York. He located a young relative, Mohammed Kouyaté—who is also a talented guitarist—and formed the Mandingo Ambassadors. The duo located veteran Guinean singer Émile Benny Soumah—former star of the national band Balla et ses Balladins—who despaired of finding musicians to accompany him, and had lived in obscurity in the New York area without performing for ten years.

“When we rehearsed for the first time,” says Kouyaté, “Émile spent the whole night crying.”

It’s not hard to see why. The group is spot-on with percussion, balafon, bass, drums, two vocalists, and two guitars. Kouyaté’s sound is pointed and fierce when soloing at spit-fire velocity, and smooth and sweet when accompanying. In addition, his picking technique—learned from guitarists back home who were hesitant to use effects because they might break and become impossible to replace—produces varied and evocative tones.

“If you want to blend, you play in the middle of the strings,” he says. “If you want to create a slightly different feeling, you move a little up toward the neck. If you want to go crazy, and make the sound that really hits, you move all the way to the bridge.”

And when Kouyaté “goes crazy,” the glorious sound and spirit of 1960s Guinea lives again.


No More Cane on the Brazos

August 24, 2014

A 1902 political cartoon depicts an attempt by Cuban farmers to export sugar cane to the United States via a reciprocity agreement, rebuffed by tariff-wielding sugar growers. Though the gate to reciprocity is blocked, the doors to annexation swing open, and Puerto Rico, symbolized on the far right, has entered through them. / Udo J. Keppler, Library of Congress.

Excerpt from Ground Down to Molasses: The Making of an American Folk Song by David Byrne (

The Brazos River flows from Texas’s northern tier, at the confluence of the Salt Fork and Double Mountain Fork. It then flows south for 840 miles through east central Texas before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The story of “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” is a tale of confluence as well, with a mystifying series of tributaries. As it mutates, the song can be located at certain way stations, but the origin of “Ain’t No More Cane” is a grand vanishing act.

Here it is, 1933, almost 200 years to the day since the Molasses Act was passed. John and Alan Lomax are lugging their 315-pound disk recorder around Texas, talking their way onto prison plantations and making the first recordings of Texas work songs. The earliest known performance of “Ain’t No More Cane” is attributed to a group of prisoners at Central Unit on the Brazos—Ernest Williams, Iron Head Baker, and anonymous “others.”

But it ain’t no more cane on the Brazos
yeah yeah yeah
they done grind it all in molasses
oh, oh, oh.

This is generally regarded as the lyrical model for the versions to come, but it cannot be considered by itself. Another work gang singing the song “Go Down, Old Hannah” complicates things. There is no Brazos in it, but it is essential to understanding later renditions of “Ain’t No More Cane.”

As Alan Lomax wrote eloquently, “Go Down, Old Hannah” is strident and apocalyptic, a choral fury aimed upward at the unrelenting Texas sun—old Hannah—and downward at the circumstances that could trap a man in the hell of Brazoria County. You could force yourself to cut cane all day under the spell of this terrifying song. You could sing it, too, while driving a rusted stake into your oppressor’s heart. Here are the opening lyrics, with the choral phrases emphasized:

old Hannah / well, well, well / you’re turning red / you’re turning red / well I looked at old Hannah / it was turning red / well I looked at my partner / well, well, well / he was almost dead / he was almost dead.

Scores of online folklorists and living-room strummers attribute “Ain’t No More Cane” to Huddie Ledbetter—one gentleman sings a jumped-up version at Ledbetter’s gravesite—but Ledbetter never recorded it. What he did record was “Go Down, Old Hannah.” Ledbetter is associated more closely with Louisiana’s Angola prison, but he had also done time at Central State, the same Brazos prison farm where Iron Head Baker and Ernest Williams were locked up. He starts his version with the usual invocation of the sun:

Don’t you rise no more / and if you rise in the morning / bring judgment sure / it was soon one morning / when the sun did rise / and I was thinking ’bout my good-looking baby / I would hang my head and cry / go down old Hannah / please don’t rise no more / and if you do rise in the morning / set the world on fire.

Ledbetter is well into the song before the Brazos, unnamed, appears: “If you had been on the river / somewhere in 1910 / they was driving the woman / just as hard as they do the men.”

When Ledbetter is finished singing, the recording continues. Someone, I presume it is John Lomax, says to Ledbetter: “First time I ever heard you sing that many verses.” And Ledbetter replies, “Well, you can just put, you know, just make ’em right on up, you know.”

We should run from the notion of seminal documents in such settings. What we can say is that one recording introduces the disappearance of cane from the Brazos, one song laments the sun, one song laments the sun on the Brazos, and another introduces the Brazos in a lament of the sun. None of these recordings comes close to the original: they just happened to be what was voiced on particular days by particular men when happenstance arrived with a recording machine. Before that, and forever after, Old Rattler is shit out of luck: the trail is too old.

The origins of the specific words disappear along with the songs. Lomax continues the conversation with Ledbetter:

‘Old Hannah is the sun?’

‘Yeah, they call it Old Hannah ’cause it was hot, they just give it a name. . . . Boys talking about Old Hannah. I kept looking and I didn’t see no Hannah . . . but they looked up, said, that’s the sun, that’s all.’

The ancestors of slaves might have known where the name came from. In Hausa, a language widely spoken in areas of West Africa where the slave trade was common, the word for “sun” is “raanaa.”

That African music and oral tradition shaped this music is a truism. It is possible, though, that the language along the Brazos during these years maintained especially close ties to its African roots when compared to what was spoken in areas of the American South that had complied with restrictions on the slave trade.


Bo Carter

August 23, 2014



The Mississippi Sheiks grew out of a string band formed by members of the highly musical Chatmon family, who resided on the Gaddis and McLaurin plantation just outside the small town of Bolton, Mississippi. The father of the family was Henderson Chatmon, a sharecropper of mixed racial origins who had been a fiddler since the days of slavery. With his wife Eliza, he reportedly had thirteen children, eleven of which were sons who all played musical instruments.

From around 1910 until 1928, seven of them formed a string band known as the Chatmon Brothers, and they performed at country dances, parties and picnics. As Sam Chatmon related to Paul Oliver in 1960: “We started out from our parents-it’s just a gift that we had in the family.  …I played bass violin for them, and Lonnie, he played lead violin and Harry he played second violin. And my brother Larry, he beat the drums. And my brother Harry, he played the piano you see. And my brother Bo (Carter) he played the guitar too and he even used to play tenor banjo.

On his landmark trip to the United States in 1960, Paul Oliver came across Bo Carter and recounted the following in Conversation With The Blues:

“Sharing a corner in the bare, shot-gun building on South 4th Street where Will Shade lived, was an ailing, blind, light-skinned man whom the occupants knew only as Old Man. By a lucky hunch I guessed he might be Bo Carter and the sick man brightened to hear his name.

At first he could hardly hold down the strings of his heavy steel guitar with its worn fingerboard. But he slowly mastered it and in a broken voice, that mocked the clear and lively singing on his scores of recordings under his own name and with the Mississippi Sheiks, he recalled incidents from his varied life and some of the songs that had made him one of the most famous of blues singers. Baby When You Marry he had recorded nearly thirty years before (OK 8888) in 1931 and in the years since he had worked on medicine shows, farmed and begged.”

As Carter related: “Well, we called us the Mississippi Sheiks, all of us Chatmons, cause my name’s Bo Chatman only they called me Bo Carter. We toured with the band right through the country; through the Delta, through Louisiana down to New Orleans… …Tell ya, we was the Mississippi sheiks and when we went to make the records in Jackson, Mississippi, the feller wanted to show us how to stop and start the records. Try to tell us when we got to begin and how we got to end. And you know, I started not to make ‘em! I started not to make ‘em ’cause he wasn’t no muscianer, so how could he tell me to stop and start the song? We was the Sheiks, Mississippi Sheiks and you know we was famous.”

American Standard Time Presents John Cohen

August 22, 2014

The Spring of Sixty-Five

August 21, 2014


Joseph Spence & The Pinder Family – The Spring of Sixty-Five (Rounder CD)


These recordings come from two separate occasions. Six tracks were recorded in New York City during Joseph Spence’s first tour of the U.S., and prominently feature Spence’s guitar and vocals, with harmonies and occasional lead vocals from his sister Edith Pinder. The other seven selections were recorded at the same sessions that yielded the Nonesuch Real Bahamas album, recorded in the backyard of the Pinder family, with Spence accompanied by incredible vocals from the Pinder family, Edith, Raymond, and Geneva.

Their vocals have the same rough-hewn rightness as Spence’s guitar, and the voices intertwine and create spontaneous counterpoint like some sort of coarse Bahamian vocal Dixieland ensemble. Or, as Jody Stecher says in the liner notes, “When the Pinders sing ‘When Jesus Calls Again’ they remind me of a big old living pump organ, complete with leaks and squeaks, and completely irresistible.”

– The Nassau Guardian:“Joseph Spence: The Unforgotten Legend”

Spence, as he was endearingly called by his siblings, his wife and inevitably everyone who came to know him, was raised with his sister and four half-brothers. In his youth, the Out Islands were still largely unpopulated, this meant that there was no access to mainland music. The influences that Joseph Spence did absorb came in the form of Baptist anthems, rhyming spirituals, Tin Pan alley songs, Trinidadian calypso, children’s songs and even Christmas carols. The ingenious guitarist broke new ground finding ways to combine and derive these musical genres into a format that better suited his own voice.The gifted Androsian was most heavily influenced while still in his teens, during a stint as a sponge hooker. Spence would take his guitar with him on these trips. The men whom he accompanied would often spend months at a time out in the “Mud” – the shallow waters where natural sponges were often found and harvested. The choral style developed on the Out Islands known as “rhyming” emerged when spongers were unable to return back to port in time for Sunday fellowship. Instead, they took bible verses, a few basic chords as well as an innate sense of rhythm adaptability and sang out their own service and prayers on the boats, utilisng a call and response format. Spence took hold of the approach and transformed it into something of his own creation. The teenager left the sponge industry one year before the great sponge blight in 1938, which wiped out 90 percent of the Bahamas’ sponge population.

The very first time that Charters heard Joseph Spence playing he was sitting on a wall at a construction site. Charters is said to have checked behind the wall for another guitarist, so layered and rich was Spence’s finger picking approach.

Some years later, in 1964, Fritz Richmond of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band visited the islands on behalf of Vanguard Records as a sort of fact finding trip to see if Joseph Spence was still around. Upon locating the elusive Spence, Richmond sent a a telegram back to the record company saying, “Spence lives. Bring 12 sets of metal bronze strings and a tape recorder.”


Online Music Depositories and Archives Around the World

August 20, 2014

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Music Depositories and Archives around the World

1. International Library of African Music

The International Library of African Music (ILAM) was founded by the great Hugh Tracey – whose efforts to record African music can be found in the History blog – in 1954. What is particularly significant about this African Music archive is that it is actually in Africa; on its website, it boasts the accolade of ‘The Largest Archive of African Music in sub Saharan Africa’. When it was originally founded by Tracey, it was located in the Gauteng province of South Africa but, when Tracey died in 1977, private funding had dried up. His son, Andrew Tracey, took over as Director and Rhodes University, in the East Cape province of South Africa, agreed to host the ILAM.

Its aims are ‘to discover, record, analyze, and archive the music of sub-Saharan Africa, with the object of establishing a theory of music making in Africa and assessing the social, cultural, and artistic values of African music’ and, as it is owned, with the exception of the instrument collection which is owned by the Tracey family, by Rhodes University, it also enables the university to offer undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in Ethnomusicology that include training in performance of African music.

Diane Thram became Director in 2005 and, under her leadership, an online listening library has been created, in line with the cutting edge of content access, to allow anyone to listen to Hugh Tracey’s recordings, with work currently being done to also make the Dave Dargie and Andrew Tracey Collections available for online access. There are over 12000 30 second recordings from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

2. Global Music Archive

This archive is housed within the Anne Potter Wilson Music Library in Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, which is located in Nashville, Tennessee, and was founded in 2003 by Gregory Barz, Associate Professor of Musicology (Ethnomusicology) at Vanderbilt University and the Anne Potter Wilson Music Library. There is currently 1849 recordings available to listen to online in the Digital Collection of East African music, which were recorded by the Ugandan ethnomusicologist and performer Centurio Balikoowa. The Global Music Archive’s (GMA) main aim is ‘to provide access to sound recordings and images of indigenous music from communities in Africa and the Americas’ and, as it is a public facility, it achieves this aim by allowing public access to the archive onsite and online.

 3. British Library: World & Traditional Music

Under their World & Traditional Music collection online, they have sub-divided their content into continents, making the African material easily accessible in one place. In the African section, there are 11 separate collections.

The British Library has approximately 3.5million sound recordings in total available to listen to onsite, with a Reader Pass. However, thanks to the Archival Sound Recordings project, from 2004-2009, the British Library was able to make over 50,000 of these available for listening online. The first phase of the project only enabled online listening to higher and further academic institutions, but this was then extended and now most of the material is made available for anyone to listen to, where copyright permits.

 4. Smithsonian Folkways

Smithsonian Folkways is a not for profit record label, set up by the Smithsonian Institute, the world largest museum and research complex in America. Incoporated in 1948, under the name Folkways Records & Service Co., in New York City by Moses Asch and Marian Distler, it was one of the first record labels to offer world music as a viable commercial product and became incredibly successful. After Asch’s death in 1987, Folkways was acquired by Smithsonian and, under the terms of the contract, Smithsonian had to keep nearly all of the albums ‘in print’ forever, for posterity. It honours this through its custom order service: “Whether it sells 8,000 copies each year or only one copy every five years, every Folkways title remains available for purchase.” Their mission, which the legacy of Asch, is ‘to document “people’s music,” spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world’ and is committed to ‘to cultural diversity, education, increased understanding, and lively engagement with the world of sound.’ They currently have more than 3,200 albums and 45,000 tracks and, through the dissemination of audio recordings and educational materials, are seeking to expand this legacy.

Their vast content is relatively easy to search – though of course it helps to know what you are looking for – and one can either search a location or artist in the search bar, or browse through the various collections. The International Library of African Music has many of its albums available to download, under the ILAM collection. As it is a record label, its material must be bought, which is of course a barrier to access, but it is still an incredibly valuable resource for traditional music and enables it to have some sort of commercial value, though it is not for profit.

5. BBC Radio 3: World Music Audio Archive

Presented by Lucy Duran, the World Routes programme on BBC Radio 3 is a mixture of interviews with top performers, live concerts, a monthly CD round-up, and special location features. For 13 years the programme has been exploring the globe and making on site recordings of world music, whilst also giving some background on the culture and history of the recording. From East Africa, they have a 60 minute episode on Kenya – you can listen to recordings of the singer Suzanna Owiyo in Nairobi, the rain songs in the north of the country which frequently suffers from terrible drought and the Massai who sing of the dangers of cattle raiding – and two others on Uganda; one featuring the Bugandan Royal Court Music and the second is about the Busoga Kingdom.

Masters of Mento

August 19, 2014


Chin’s Calypso Sextet


On  June 27, 2014, Ivan Chin, a remarkable figure in the history of Jamaican music, passed of pneumonia at the age of 90.   Chin’s Calypso Sextet is one of the most prolific and most fondly remembered mento acts of the golden age [1950s]. Chin’s was consistently a strictly rural mento band, with lead singer Alerth Bedasse’s mento voice and an instrumental line up of bamboo instruments, banjo, acoustic guitar and rumba box. The band was named for producer Ivan Chin rather than for any of it’s musicians.

Ivan Chin: The band consisted of a rumba box, a bamboo saxophone, a bamboo Flute, a banjo, a guitar, a floor bass guitar with four strings, a maracas and two heavy sticks called clave, which they knock together. All the instruments were made in Jamaica with local wood, bamboo and other things.

Although a handful of Chin’s tracks have appeared on compilations, most have never been compiled, and many of the original 78s are incredibly rare, even by mento standards. Most of these tracks have not been available since their initial release on 78 RPM singles in the 1950s. Many of these singles were limited to just one pressing of 400 copies, making them ultra scarce, even by mento standards. Some of these recordings were never pressed to vinyl at all, being released for the first time in any form almost 50 years after they were recorded.

In 2004 Ivan Chin began to (re)issue Chin’s Calypso Sextet, personally handling all aspects of this project. Ivan even provided his personal recollections that shed more light on this seminal golden age mento and label act than has been available before.

These CDs, though made by Ivan Chin, are being marketed by CD Baby.  The CDs collect nearly all of the 84 released Chin’s tracks, plus some that were never released. There is not a bad song in the bunch and the music, vocals and lyrical content are nicely varied. This is hard-core rural mento. The melodies are strong and catchy and the playing is excellent, as almost all the tracks have little jams between banjo, bamboo sax and/or flute.


Been Listening All Day

August 18, 2014




When I Stand Before The King, Everybody Got To Be Tried, Just Before Jordan, C&O Blues, Goin’ To Rest Where Jesus Is, The Storm Is Passing Over, Take Your Burden To The Lord, Coal River Blues, Keep On The Firing Line, Been Listening All Day and more…


The latest release from a promising new label, launched in late 2013 with three splendid CDs of early blues recordings. Here we have the fourth in the series, and with every one a gem so far, this is already a series well worth collecting.

Featured here are 22 sides from Blind Joe Taggart, one of the pioneers of the school of ‘guitar evangelists’ that arose during the early years of blues recording in the late 1920s. While a less distinctive stylist than the evangelists who have captured most of our attention, most notably of course the fierce fire and brimstone commitment of the incredible Blind Willie Johnson, Taggart’s gentle approach, lightness of touch and stylistic variety make these recordings a very satisfying listen.

This CD presents most of Taggart’s recorded output from between 1926 and 1934 but it is not designed and presented with completists in mind. For this, you would need to go to the two volumes on Document Records (DOCD5153 and DOCD5154) – though DOCD5153 is currently out of print. Elsewhere, 31 of Taggart’s sides are included on JSP’s 4CD overview of guitar evangelists (JSP7759 – Rev Gary Davis And The Guitar Evangelists Volume 2).

This notwithstanding, this is an excellent overview and  great selection of most of his very best sides and well worth having. It offers his earliest religious sides singing duets with Emma Taggart (now thought to be his uncle’s wife) and his later singing duets with wife, Bertha. There are solo vocal recordings involving just Joe on guitar, accompanied by the second guitar of a young Josh White, and even in the company of  unknown supporting violinists and vocalists on a few songs.

As with the other three releases in the series, the packaging is excellent, the sound quality as good as can be hoped for and the notes informative. And the price is not too shabby either! What’s not to like?

Hugh Tracey

August 17, 2014


edited from

When a young Englishman arrived in what was then Rhodesia in 1921 to run a tobacco farm, his workers expected him to be just like the other colonial overlords they’d known. He would be their master; they would be his servants. They would obey his every command, and they would speak to him only when he spoke to them.

After all, he was white and they were black. They were dependent on him for their daily bread. Rhodesia was ruled by the British, and the country’s black people had no rights whatsoever.

But, from their first interaction with him, Hugh Tracey’s laborers saw that he was different. Besides immediately learning the Karanga dialect of their Shona language and sweating with them at work in the fields, the farmer constantly asked them about their culture…and especially their music. Tracey learned Shona folksongs and sang along with his workers as they toiled together among the tobacco crops.

Hugh Tracey went on to become the most important field recorder of African music in history.

Three big trucks – packed with metal lathes, reel-to-reel recorders, heaps of pancake-shaped tapes, hundreds of yards of electric cables and assorted microphones, military tents, tarpaulins and tinned food, a half-ton diesel generator, hundreds of gallons of fuel and five people.

Those were just some of Hugh Tracey’s requirements when he undertook what modern day musicologists consider to be one of the greatest musical journeys ever.

“My father started recording in the late 1920s and 1930s using a lathe on acetate discs in the field, but most of his recordings were done in the 1940s on a quarter-inch, open reel tape. The machines in those days, until the 1960s, used to need (a power supply of) 220 volts, hence the need for that massive generator,” Andrew Tracey explained.

From the 1920s until his death in 1977, Hugh Tracey, an Englishman based in South Africa, lugged his equipment throughout sub-Saharan Africa with one mission – to record as much of the indigenous African music he loved as possible

“He had a vision,” said Andrew Tracey. “And that was to preserve this music for future generations.”

Today, a single person with a palm-sized, battery-driven digital machine with a built-in high quality microphone is able to make broadcast-quality music recordings. In Hugh Tracey’s time, it was very different. “His recording technique was to hold a microphone in one hand, and a stopwatch in the other, to time recordings. The microphone was on a short boom, and he’d move around following the sounds of the musicians,” said Andrew. “It was a physically taxing effort.”

Hugh Tracey’s microphone was linked with a long cable to a large lathe, and later to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, operated by an engineer who would control the sound levels and ensure that the tape ran smoothly.

“Recording had to happen as far away as possible from the noise made by the generator, so my father needed really long cables,” said Andrew.

After his field trips, Hugh Tracey made meticulous notes about each piece of music he’d recorded – on the people making the music, the instruments they used, the recording venue and so on.

He stored his notes and masses of tapes at the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in South Africa, which he established in 1954. Library staff recently digitized Hugh Tracey’s recordings, using the latest technology to improve the original sound as much as possible, and stored it on computer.

Check here for CDs of Tracey’s collection.

Uncle Wade: the last 15 years

August 16, 2014


by Eric Davidson and Jane Rigg (from notes to “Uncle Wade” FA 2380):

In 1956 and 1957, Wade Ward was visited by Michael Seeger and myself and this began a phase of widening contacts and ever-increasing fame which lasted until his death.    In contrast to the old days of the pre-war Lomax visits, electricity was now available in the mountains, and it was now possible to make a thorough study of the whole of Wade’s repertoire.

Comparison with the earlier recordings shows that at this time he had lost none of his famous precision and speed. Later this was no longer routinely true, though on occasion, particularly in the excitement of playing with others, he could still summon his old brilliance.

In 1962, Wade was featured on two records assembled by the writer and others: Traditional Music of Grayson and Carroll Counties”, FS 3811 (Folkways, 1962), and “The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward”, FA 2363 (1962).    Half of the latter album was devoted exclusively to his music. In 1963-66 we made an attempt, in which Wade enthusiastically cooperated, Wade together with Glen Smith, a very excellent old time fiddler from Hillsville, Virginia. For some of these sessions Fields Ward, who happened to be in his home country at the time, was also present. “Band Music of Grayson and Carrol Counties, Va.” (1967) includes some of the pieces then recorded. Wade exulted in the pleasure of playing the old time banjo-fiddle music, and his performances were often as good as in the best of his younger days, though he was already well over 70.

Wade’s years with Mollie, a sweet and generous woman, were happy ones, and he was devastated by her death from cancer on August 4, 1961. While Mollie was alive, and for several years thereafter, her mother, Granny Porter, then in her 80’s, also lived in the Peachbottom Creek house. Granny was as pithy, sharp and humorous as Uncle Wade, and together they made a memorable pair. Once a banjo picker herself, Granny Porter too had deep roots in old time music, having come of the family of a legendary old time fiddler, Van Sage. Occasionally Granny and Wade made music together. Wade accompanies Granny on a striking rendition of “Barbr’y Allen” in “Songs and Ballads of the Blue Ridge Mountains”, (AH 3831, 1968) Asch Records (Folkways).

As the 1960’s wore on Wade was invited to visit the great urban centers of the Northeast to perform there. This he was reluctant to do, finally being persuaded to come to the Smithsonian Festival at Washington in 1967. On the way he stopped in Richmond and performed for the governor, Mills Goodwin. He was 75, and it was virtually the first time Wade had taken his music out of his native hill country.

Thereafter he made several other trips to Washington and on one trip in 1969 performed with Fields in Maryland.  Recognition was his finally, and as a recent article by John Cohen put it, “the trip to Wade’s house was part of the homage to old time music that one paid.”  But it was very late in his life. By now Wade had outlived not only his two wives and all his brothers, and the two generations of old time musicians he had played with during his long career, but also the isolated mountain culture from which he and his music grew. He died on a chilly, late May day, a day on which he had done just what he always did, picked the banjo at the land sale, stopped in to see Katy Hill, and gone home to sit on his porch and look out over Peachbottom Creek

John Storm Roberts

August 15, 2014
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John Storm Roberts

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The pioneering anthologies of traditional Caribbean and African music produced by John Storm Roberts for his Original Music record label provide a wonderful portal to worlds of music which bear a very close relationship to our own.

After a teenage fascination with calypso and flamenco and learning several languages at Oxford, John Storm Roberts reviewed local records for a newspaper in Nairobi, and then returned to England to produce programs on African music for the BBC before coming to America in 1970 to work at another African newspaper.

In 1982, Roberts and his wife, Anne Needham, created Original Music, a company devoted to disseminating African and Caribbean music, and issued a number of LP compilations drawn from commercial singles or their own field recordings.  Original Music was a mail-order company distributing world music books and records to non-city dwelling Americans, who, in a pre-internet age, had found them almost as hard to come by as the young Roberts had in postwar Britain.

Long before the term was bandied about,  Roberts was listening to, seeking out and reporting on what is now called world music. He wrote several seminal books on the subject for a general readership, most notably “Black Music of Two Worlds” (Praeger, 1972) and “The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States” (Oxford University, 1979).

By placing value on music that had been relegated to the fringes, seen as having marginal academic worth or as music only worth dancing to, he opened new vistas of appreciation.

John Storm Roberts: “There’s a royal road to bankruptcy, which is to put out and make available a really terrific range of genuine music. I don’t care how esoteric it is, but it’s got to be terrific.”

Look here for a complete discography of Roberts’  Original Music label.

The following John Storm Roberts recordings might be of most interest to readers of Old Time Party.  Though mostly out-of-print, they can frequently be found in library collections.

Street Music of Panama (Original Music LP)

Under the Coconut Tree: Music From Grand Cayman & Tortola (Original Music LP)

Mento/Merengue/Meringue: Country Dance Music from Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic (Original Music LP)

Caribbean Island Music: Songs and Dances of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica (Nonesuch CD)

African Elegant:The Kru-Krio Calypso Connection (Original Music LP)

Before Benga, Volume 1: Kenya Dry [Acoustic Guitar] (Original Music LP)

Bayard Tunes Online

August 14, 2014


Treasured by folklorists, folk musicians and American culturists, all 61 recordings from the Samuel Preston Bayard folklore recordings playlist are digitized and available to the public for listening as a YouTube video playlist. Among the tunes are “The Dublin Jig,” “Devil’s Dream,” “Jay Bird,” “Froggie Went a Courting,” and “Down in Lock Haven.” The videos are structured by performing artist and, where available, feature images of sheet music, lyrics, and song title lists taken from Bayard’s own field notes.

Bayard, famed folklorist, conducted fieldwork collecting folk songs, even before he enrolled at the Pennsylvania State College. He graduated with an bachelor of arts in music in 1934, and received a master of arts in English from Harvard two years later. In 1945, Bayard was hired to teach freshman composition at the Pennsylvania State College and his scholarly output dealing with folk music grew tremendously.

He was appointed assistant professor of English composition in 1945, an associate professor in 1956 and became a full professor of English literature in 1960. Despite retiring in 1973, he continued teaching and writing articles, and in 1977, he was awarded the title of professor emeritus of English and comparative literature. Bayard was regarded by scholars and folk-music enthusiasts as one of the foremost authorities on Anglo-American folk songs. He died in 1996.

The Bayard folklore recordings digitization and video project was implemented and executed by Melissa Foge as a Special Collections Library archival internship project. She was assisted by, Timothy Babcock, coordinator of Special Collection’s Audio-Visual Collections. The rare recordings, now accessible to the public, will be of interest and valuable to musicologists, folklorists, music history researchers, and folk music enthusiasts.

For more information or for questions about the physical access provided, contact Babcock at 814-863-2911 or

Enitre content of Bayard’s book is online here.

Walter Vinson on Smelling Mules

August 13, 2014


from “Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow,” by Karl Hagstrom Miller:

Many working-class musicians, far from seeing their music as an extension of their labor, described their music as an alternative to it.

“I always felt I could beat plowin’ mules, choppin’ cotton, and drawin’ water,” the black artist Muddy Waters recalled.  “I did all that, and I never did like none of it.  Sometimes they’d want us to work Saturday, but they’d look for me, and I’d be gone, playin’ in some little town or some juke joint.”

Other musicians told similar stories.  The African-American musician Sam Chatmon explained why his brother Lonnie Johnson played music.  “All of ‘em farming but one,” he stated.  “Lonnie didn’t like to work.  He always stayed on the road somewhere, him and Walter Johnson.  That’s the reason Walter was playing with us ’cause he didn’t want to work and Lonnie didn’t want to work and they’d stay gone, playing music.”

Bill Broonzy noted that when white listeners discovered his musical skill. “We would be playing and sitting under screen porches while the other Negroes had to work in the hot sun.”

The African-American youngster Deford Bailey was a domestic worker until his wealthy white boss learned that he could play parlor songs on his harmonica.  “From then on, she had me stand in the corner of the room and play my harp for her company,’ he recalled.  “Before she found out I could play, I had to work like the rest of thehelp.  From then on, I just fooled around…I never did no more good work.  My work was playing the harp.”

The black singer and guitarist Walter Vinson [of the Mississippi Sheiks] simply stated that he played music because he “got tired of smellin’ mule farts.”



Palm Wine Guitar

August 12, 2014
The History of the Palmwine Guitar by Ed Keazor (edited):

The Palmwine Guitar sound is a distinctive Folk sound, which originated in West Africa at the turn of the 20th century. As the story goes, the style emanated from Sierra Leone, where the Portuguese and Spanish sailors whose ships berthed on Merchant ships on the West African Coastal ports of Freetown (Sierra Leone) , Lagos (Nigeria), Monrovia (Liberia) and Accra/Tema (Ghana) lent their Guitars and style to their African shipmates who formulated a unique style fusing native rhythms with the Latin style bequeathed by their Latin benefactors and resulting in an expressive twangy, melodious Guitar sound.

The early African Guitar pioneers, primarily played on the ships in their spare time to entertain themselves, often raw and rudimentary, a revolution was nonetheless taking place. The Guitars were often played to accompany Native vocal renditions, varied in their content but often centred around themes of Love and peace , Native wisdom, satire and often times personal angst and social commentary.

As time went on the Guitar moved away from the exclusive preserve of the African sailors to the general populace and the local musicians adopted the Guitar, Violin, Mandolin, Banjo (and rather annoyingly that dreadful Instrument- The Kazoo) as elitist forms of expression. A word of note, West African musicians in general played in the Traditional form (using Traditional instruments) at Funerals, Weddings, Religious Feasts and Festivals and to entertain Royalty in Court and not much else- these were the elite.

At the lower end of the rung were the Bards and Minstrels, who would go round houses and local bars in the evening (when self respecting people had come back from work) and get a few cowries or pennies for their troubles, often walking several miles on this beat, kind of like Mobile buskers (this practice continues till today). Their Guitar heroics being accompaniment to tales of joy and pain and mostly praise singing of their often inebriated and mostly ego-possessed clients, they would often move around solo or accompanied by Native drummers or Thumb Pianists (Agidigbo in Nigeria) and a variety of other Native Instruments.

The Palmwine Guitar style evolved over the years and fused with various forms, became most popularly known as Highlife, being a fusion of Big Band Native rhythms and indeed the Palmwine Guitar style. one of the biggest superstars of this fusion was the Ghanaian Tenor Saxman- E.T.Mensah and his Tempos Band formed in the 30’s, whose popularity stretched far beyond Ghana.

However the purists have refused to be swayed and the old boys and young hawks have stayed faithful to the Sailors and Minstrels of yore.

The New Kings of Old Time

August 11, 2014










from and

SHEESHAM, LOTUS & SON: 1929 – The New Kings of Old Time (Sepiaphone Records)

Anyone wanting to eke out a living from playing music in the U.S in the early decades of the 20th century had to diversify. Charlie Patton, known by many (including me!) as the ‘Father 0f the blues’ didn’t only play the blues, or as it was then known ‘race music,’ but also included some bawdy ‘hokum’ as well as the popular ‘hits’ of those days. Just playing the solemn old blues at a Saturday night dance on one of the plantations would very soon have led to the termination of the performance, perhaps even the performer!
This tremendous trio of Canadians consists of Sheesham Crow on fiddle, harmonica, kazoo, whistling and vocals, Lotus Wight, tenor and five string banjo, kazoo and vocals and ‘Son Sanderson on sousaphone, an instrument that goes a long way to giving this album it’s ‘jug band’ sound. All arrangements are by the trio and the whole album is recorded in mono, live off the floor through a single G7 tubular microphone. Some may argue that this is taking the ‘authenticity’ too far, but ultimately what does it matter?

Certainly many of the old timers would have liked to use the modern day recording technology, with the recording equipment used back in those days being Spartan by comparison, but it could be argued that if this band of ‘throwbacks’ feel comfortable with the equipment then why not use it? The sound is quite distinctive and other than a few of the old bands from the 1920s and 30s their sound is like no one else I can think of.

Their raw musicality creates an incredibly evocative atmosphere and because of the lyrics of some of the songs a humorous element is rarely far away. That is not to say this is a comedy album, far from it. It just seems that they are a band that can bring an authentic tongue in cheek feel to the songs that have a slice of humour, although to make an album of this quality a tremendous degree of skill and concentration is required, as well as a natural feel for these decades old songs, something there is an abundance of with their instrumental prowess and the raw untutored vocals.

Speaking of the songs, album opener and title track, Sam Allison’s ‘1929’ pretty much sets the scene for what is to follow with it’s vaudevillian bluesiness, the raw evocative harmonies, banjo, sousaphone and kazoo ensuring there is no doubt about the musical content of this hugely entertaining album. Next is Keep It Clean, an excellent version of the old blues singer/guitarist Charlie Jordan’s bawdy song, complete with authentic atmospheric sousaphone giving a heavy bassy jug backing that contrasts well with the banjo and fiddle, as well as the, as usual, atmospheric vocals.

Next we have Jackson Stomp an instrumental written by Cow Cow Davenport, the old time blues, jazz and vaudevillian musician, with hard driving fiddle and banjo, underpinned by the sousaphone. In the case of the ‘classic’ Drunken Nights, this version is probably played as the song was intended to be played, again backed up by the bassy sousaphone with sawing fiddle, banjo and what sounds very much like two drunken singers doing their best to blend their slightly discordant harmonies on this tale of an aggrieved drunk!

Daniel  Williams of the legendary East Texas Serenaders wrote the groundbreaking instrumental Mineola Rag, a tune
that blended early Texas swing with what would one day be known as ‘bluegrass.’ Naturally this trio’s version includes the sousaphone on the fiddle driven, incredibly evocative recording that thanks in part to that sousaphone, exhibits a similar originality to recordings made eighty years ago.

Marcus Martin video

August 10, 2014

Viola Lee Blues

August 10, 2014


Some thoughts on Noah Lewis’ song “Viola Lee Blues” by Fritz Richmond (
Noah  Lewis recorded “Viola Lee Blues” with his band in September 1928. He also recorded it with Gus Cannon’s band. It is one of the most beautiful of all the old jug band songs.
“The judge he pleaded, clerk he wrote it

Clerk he wrote it down indeedy

The judge he pleaded, the clerk he wrote it down

If you miss jail sentence you must be Nashville bound.”
In an American court the judge does not plead, the lawyers plead, and the court reporter writes everything down in shorthand with a steno machine. (Shorthand is a method of writing English as fast as a person can speak. It can be done either with paper and pencil or a machine.) The clerk has other duties in the courtroom. “Indeedy” is a way of saying “indeed” with extra emphasis.

At the end of a trial, if there is a jury, the jury will decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant. If there is no jury, the judge decides. The defendant, if found guilty, will then be sentenced by the judge. Depending on the type of case, the judge can issue a decree, an opinion, an order, or a ruling. In the verse here, maybe what Gus meant was: “The judge decreed it.” It sounds very similar to “The judge he pleaded” and makes better sense.

The last line, about going to Nashville, is the key to a sad episode in American justice. Black men arrested in the southern U.S. were sometimes not sentenced to jail for crimes, but were sent to places where they had to work very hard, such as turpentine camps and sugar cane farms. Turpentine is a solvent refined from pine trees. The workers were virtual slaves. It was a very bad thing to get sent there. The men were sent to Nashville to be taken to the work camps. I don’t think this happens any more.
“Some got six months, some got one solid

Some got one solid year indeed, Lord

Some got six months, some got one solid year

But me and my buddy both got lifetime here.”
To say “one solid year” sounds like a longer time than “a year.” He’s bragging that he and his friend are such bad men that they’ll be in prison for the rest of their lives, which is impressive, but not true. These guys were not criminals.
“Fix my supper, Mama, let me go to

Let me go to bed indeed, Lord

Fix my supper, let me go to bed

I been drinking white lightning, it’s gone to my head.”



White lightning is any sort of illegal liquor, especially corn whiskey. Manufacture of alcohol was illegal when this song was written, but every big city had its secret breweries and distilleries. However, the quality varied widely, as did the alcohol content of any white lightning one might find for sale.

When alcohol again became legal in 1933, most of the country rejoiced, but several factors kept some areas dry; that is, without legal alcohol. The constitutional amendment repealing prohibition gave the states complete power to regulate the manufacture, distribution, and sale of liquor. At the same time there was a nation-wide religious revival, spread by radio broadcasts and traveling tent shows, which was particularly popular in the South. These religious zealots and their followers were very critical of what they called “the evils of alcohol.”

This continuing climate of anti-alcohol was very favorable to the local bootleggers (sellers of illegal liquor) and moonshiners (operators of illegal distilleries) who were doing good business in the Great Depression and had money to influence local elections about liquor laws. They wanted to continue operating and did so. When I lived in Alabama in 1959, I was in a dry county. In order to get any booze, I had either to drive to the nearest wet county or buy moonshine or smuggled liquor.
“I wrote a letter, I mailed it in the

I mailed it in the air indeedy

I wrote a letter, I mailed it in the air

You know by that I have a friend somewhere.”
This is the most beautiful verse of the song. It is only on Noah Lewis’ version. How simple, how poignant it is. We know he has a friend, a very special friend, somewhere far away. Airmail was a new thing in 1928; it had only been available for a year or so before the song was recorded, and it was a big deal. It cost over ten times as much to send a letter by air than it cost to send it by regular mail. We also know from this verse that the man can write a letter. Not all blacks in the U.S. got much schooling in those days. He’s bragging again. He says: not only can I compose a letter, but I can spare the money that would buy lunch and dinner just to send it by airmail, and I know someone in a distant city who’ll be glad to hear from me.

Joe Birchfield and the Sex Pistols

August 9, 2014

Screen shot 2014-08-07 at 6.40.35 PM

Janice Birchfield doesn’t ruffle easily. The washtub-bass player for the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers even seems nonplussed about the day the Sex Pistols spent at her family’s homestead in Roan Mountain, Tenn.

“They were very nice,” she says of Johnny Rotten, the late Sid Vicious and company.

The same goes for Boy George, who, according to Birchfield, “just showed up in our driveway one day.

“He’s a nice person,” she adds. “He’s just an exhibitionist.”

The above-mentioned flock of British bad boys became aware of the Hilltoppers when punk icon Malcolm McLaren — famous for producing the Sex Pistols’ work — sampled some of the mountain band’s music on his own 1982 hit, “Buffalo Girls.” The song held fast on Billboard‘s Top 10 list for months, and was re-sampled by Eminem on his 2002 recording “Without You.”

“We had a pig roast and a dance,” Birchfield remembers of the Sex Pistols’ visit to Roan Mountain. “They loved it. They wanted us to teach them how to dress like mountain people, with coonskin caps and so on.” (Quite a mental picture, that — the pale, snarling, overtly British, heroin-addled Vicious decked out in overalls and sundry other Appalachian regalia.)

The Hilltoppers themselves are not about to go punk anytime soon: “We play the way our family always has,” says Birchfield. “Straight, traditional sounds.”

Pure, hard and unyielding — maybe it’s not such a stretch to call them punk after all.

The tight-knit group was born in the early part of last century on a farm in the East Tennessee mountains, when brothers Joe and Creed Birchfield began learning old-time ballads from their father and uncles. Creed, who passed away in 1998 at age 93, first learned to play a fiddle made from a wooden cigar box, and later moved to his true calling — banjo — on an instrument he once described as “made out of cherry wood and groundhog hide.”

Joe started out on banjo, then took over the fiddle when Creed declared his preference for the former instrument. But the death of Joe and Ethel Birchfield’s 7-year-old daughter, Ella Mae (the girl is immortalized in the band’s song “Blue Eyed Angel”), so devastated him that he vowed to never play fiddle again … and he kept his word for nearly 30 years.

Buffalo Gals

August 8, 2014

Dancing starts at 0:58

edited excerpt from

The origin of “Buffalo Gals” is often given as having been composed by the minstrel show performer John Hodges under his stage name “Cool White” in 1844.  It is an early example of a song sung by a white man who performed in black face using a mock African American dialect. Just one year later another white group who performed in black face, The Ethiopian Serenaders, published sheet music for “Philadelphia Gals,” (1845) with similar lyrics and no attribution for a composer or lyricist.

Minstrel singers often changed the name of the song to reflect the name of the town where they performed, in order to appeal to local audiences. In 1848, The Ethiopian Serenaders published another version, “Buffalo Gals” (presumably for Buffalo, New York), also unattributed. This is the first sheet music version of the song as it is most familiar to us today.

Fiddle players in parts of Virginia and West Virginia call this tune “Round Town Gals,” “Round Town Girls,” or “Midnight Serenade.”  In 1987 Chris Goertzen and Alan Jabbour published an article that traced the tune to an 1839 publication of dance tunes, Virginia Reels, Selected and Arranged for the Piano Forte, by G.P. Knauff with the title “Midnight Serenade,” providing evidence that the melody existed as a dance tune in this region before the minstrel show song versions were published.

As Goertzen and Jabbour pointed out in their article, the titles “Round Town Gals” and “Midnight Serenade” suggest the possibility that calling girls to come out and dance may be the point of the tune as it is in the song “Buffalo Gals,” and that there may have been similar lyrics that preceded minstrel show versions as well.

Was there a song or a dance call that asked “Round town gals won’t you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon?” Who are those buffalo gals?  The bison is a symbol of America, especially the American west. As the song takes on new life, the “gals” may be women of the west, pioneers, cowgirls, or perhaps fancy women.

“A cracked violin, a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol”

August 7, 2014



by Mike Seeger (excerpt from liner notes to “Early Southern Guitar Styles”):


The turmoil following the Civil War was transforming Southern life.

Industrialization was beginning, leading to urbanization and giving

former rural dwellers money in their pockets.


For those who remained on the farm, cash crops established their part

of the dollar economy.  Traveling salesmen and general stores were

becoming active in small towns. Towards the end of the century, railroads

and a postal system made possible mail order of almost anything,

including guitars.


Emancipation gave African Americans some measure of freedom of

movement and livelihood for the first time. It freed black musical creativity.

General consciousness of black music and singing could be less subject to

white interpretation than in the heyday of the minstrel shows…


Community-made music continued to be popular in rural areas, especially

throughout the South.  Musical tastes were evolving. Factory production

made possible the very inexpensive guitars that were offered by mail-order

houses and furniture or music stores from about 1890 onward.


The advent of the three-dollar guitar put the instrument into the hands of a player

for the equivalent of three or four days’ wages rather than the month’s required for

a Martin or Haynes. These instruments…could compete and mix with a banjo

or fiddle.


Evidence of working-class playing of these guitars is sparse during this

period.  I came across one intriguing, reliable report by writer Lafcadio Hearn

describing an African American string band consisting of “a cracked violin,

a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol” at a lively 1875 waterfront square

dance in Cincinnati.  I think it’s significant that this combination of

instruments appeared at an African American dance only a decade after



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