Author Archive

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


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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










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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


Quotes of the Day (#5)

August 6, 2014

Clayton McMichen’s bar in Louisville, ca. 1948 (from Toby Denham)

Norm Cohen, in JEMF Quarterly VOL. IX, PART 2, SUMMER, 1973, No. 30 

In truth, the frequency of appearance of the Child ballads on hillbilly records is 
quite small. Of approximately 20,000 different recordings released between 1922 
and 1941 less than 60 are Child ballads--or a mere 1/4%.

From a letter to Norm Cohen by fiddler Clayton McMichen:

      "Don't ask me any more questions about that bunch of nothing down there in 
Atlanta.  They were all a bunch of stab-you-in-the-back no-goods...and the longer 
I can keep them forgotten, 
the better."

from T-Bone Burnett (musical director of “Inside Llewyn Davis”):

"It’s American, American music. Traditional—I call it traditional American music. 
I don’t know what else to call it really because it’s, 
it’s the music of the poor people. And it’s beautiful. 
Like all of the great cuisines, all the great food 
innovations not all of them but so many of them—were 
peasant foods; barbecue for instance down here in the South. 
They invented barbecue sauce because they would get the 
meat that would go bad, and they’d have to cook it for two weeks 
to get it, to get it, you know... It would taste so bad they would put 
barbecue sauce, they’d put all kinds of crazy sauce on it. So that’s 
this connection... to the kind of music this is. It’s the kind of 
music that grows out of that same situation."

Charles Faurot

August 5, 2014

Charles Faurot

edited excerpt from Tom Mylet (

In the 1960’s Charles Faurot moved to New York. “I was married, working for a major bank in Manhattan, living in Brooklyn. I was buying tapes of 78s from Dave Freeman (of County Recordings) but hadn’t met him. One nice Sunday morning I’m going for a walk, out to get the paper. As I’m walking by a rowhouse, the apartment on the first floor had its window open and I could hear someone playing the dobro. So I stopped and…I couldn’t reach the window but said; Hey in there, I hear you playing the dobro. I like that kind of music. Can we get together? And the guy comes to the window and says: We just got out of bed. Why don’t you come back in a couple of hours? So I did and that guy was Bill Vernon.” (Bill had a well known bluegrass radio show in NYC and later Roanoke, VA.)

Bill and Mary T. Vernon lived in this nice little apartment. Because he collected 78s there were all these shelves taking up most of the space. Bill, of course, knew Dave Freeman. Bill introduced us and Dave took me to concerts at Loy Beaver’s. Loy would put on bluegrass bands that were passing through. All the money went to the bands. Besides collecting 78s, Loy was also a mortician and embalmed Franklin Roosevelt.”

In November of 1964 Charlie recorded Wade Ward. The following summer, during the Galax Fiddler’s Convention he recorded Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham and George Stoneman. Charlie was taken with how differently they all played and asked Dave Freeman who was also at the convention if he would want to issue the recordings. According to Charlie, the original record jacket “was like a Folkways…heavy cover with the notes on the inside. We had Peter Bartok do the mastering. He had done the New Lost City Ramblers album and happened to be Bela Bartok’s grandson.” A classical composer, Bela Bartok based some of his music on the folk music of his native Transylvania.

The summer of 1967 found Charlie and fellow old time enthusiast Richard Nevins renting a house in Galax, VA to use as their base to record. A veritable who’s who of old time banjo recorded for Charlie and Rich: Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Oscar Jenkins, Kyle Creed, Esker Hutchins, Matokie Slaughter, Dan Tate, Oscar Wright, Willard Watson, Gaither Carlton, Sidna Meyers. A similar number of bluegrass and old-time bands were also recorded. These recordings became the cornerstone of the old time music revival.

After almost fifty years playing and recording banjo and other old time music Charlie sees a lot he likes and some things he’s not so fond of. “I think these organized jams, with three or four fiddles and banjos playing exactly the same are taking the music in the wrong direction.” In light of the fact that Charlie’s idea when he and County put out “Clawhammer   Volume 1″ was to show how differently the styles of the four banjo players were, it’s hard to disagree.

See also here and here.

Miasma of Weirdness

August 4, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-19 at 6.34.36 PM


Art Rosenbaum’s “Art of Field Recording” CDs have led to inevitable comparisons with two towering figures of traditional-music collecting: field recording legend Alan Lomax and archivist Harry Smith. Indeed, Rosenbaum has an affinity for, and connections with, both men. He met and interviewed Lomax while he was a college student, and he says Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music “blew my mind” when he borrowed it from the Indianapolis public library as a 15-year-old.

Rosenbaum is a different sort of collector than Lomax, though, focusing solely on old music and working not for the Library of Congress but in service of his own particular interests. And he doesn’t entirely buy the “Old Weird America” meme that has been attached to Smith’s work since rock scribe Greil Marcus coined the term to describe the supposed strangeness of the music.

“I really like what [music archivist] Nathan Salsburg wrote in his preface to Volume 2, that our collection reveals and humanizes rather than mystifies and myth­ologizes these old traditions. I think Pat Boone is weirder than Dock Boggs,” Rosenbaum says with a laugh, referring to the eccentric old banjo player brought to renown on Smith’s anthology.

“That doesn’t take away the strength or power of some of these old tragic songs or very intense blues. I mean, there certainly is this poetic and musical intensity—but the singers and musicians are human beings. They’re not mythical characters in some miasma of weirdness.”

Bois Sec Ardoin and Clark Kessinger

August 4, 2014

Lawrence Gellert

August 3, 2014



Lawrence Gellert (1898-1979) was born in New York City to Hungarian immigrants. When he was in his early 20s, he moved to Tryon, North Carolina for health reasons. He edited a newspaper there and began making friendships among the African Americans who lived in the area. Motivated by leftist political ideologies and inspired by the music-making of his neighbors, he began making recordings to pre-grooved zinc discs on a device of his own construction. The recordings he made were dangerous–both to himself and those who performed for him.

In the deeply segregated south, making any kind of recordings among African Americans created risks for everyone involved and these recordings went beyond the kinds of songs that whites would have been aware of. Gellert was able to record songs that were more explicit in their complaint against the conditions of segregation than any other scholar before the 1960s. For this reason, in the 20 years he made these recordings he was careful not to document who made the recordings. The result was a body of songs so unprecedented that when Gellert published Negro Songs of Protest in 1936, some accused him of making up this collection of song texts himself.

At a time when segregation was embedded in the law and the culture and prevailing notions saw African Americans as satisfied with these conditions, Gellert documented hundreds of songs that countered those ideas. The songs he recorded demonstrated that rather than accepting their condition passively, African Americans chafed against the way they were treated. Gellert worked outside of academic circles and even outside of the folksong movement, antagonizing several key figures such as John Lomax and Josh White.

His work and the songs he documented did not receive the attention they deserved at the time and it wasn’t until after his death that more of the recordings were commercially released. The performers on these recordings come primarily from North and South Carolina, but Gellert also made recordings in Georgia and Mississippi. His collection contains more than 600 songs and half of them can be called songs of protest.

100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own

August 2, 2014






Dick Weissman: I wrote a book which is called 100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own. I found a couple books that I read specifically for the project that stood out above others. One of them was a book about a mysterious character named Lawrence Gellert. He was a guy who was collecting protest songs in the 1920s in the Carolinas and in Mississippi. His work paralleled the Lomaxes’ but he and the Lomaxes were not friends; he accused the Lomaxes of treating Lead Belly like a plantation slave. And the Lomaxes were not a family that took well to people disagreeing with their approach or attitude in any way.

So he’s sort of…I use an expression of people who have been written out of the folk-song revival, and he’s been written out of the folk-song revival. But a scholar in Michigan got interested — Bruce Conforth is his name. So he wrote this book, and the guy’s life turns out to be totally mysterious — like, his dead body was never found, for example. It was very interesting.

There’s a guy named Stephen Wade who wrote a book called The Beautiful Music Around Us, where he went back and took twelve recordings made by the Library of Congress around 1935 to ’40. And he went back to where these people recorded, and he interviewed family members. He interviewed people that knew them, who were younger than they were because they’re all gone.

Some of them are people that are somewhat known in the revival — like Vera Hall was one of the people that Lomax collected, a well-known sort of gospel-tinged singer. A banjo player named Pete Steele, from Hamilton, Ohio, has always been a legend among banjo players. And then eight or nine people that even someone like me had not necessarily heard of. It’s just a very well-written, wonderful book that included a CD of these people, so that a listener who doesn’t know any of them from Adam can say, “Oh, now I know who this guy’s writing about.”

In my teens, following the advice in Pete Seeger’s banjo book, I had bought a five string banjo at a pawn shop in the skid row section of town, abandoning it when I couldn’t figure out how to tune it without breaking strings. While attending Goddard College in Vermont, I met Lil Blos, who offered to teach me how to play the banjo.  After graduating from college, Imoved to New York, and spent the next four years alternating between attending graduate school and becoming active in the folk music scene in Greenwich Village.

In the late 1940’s in New York there were very few people playing 5-string. There was Pete Seeger, of course. Joe Jaffe played on Milt Okun’s records, a very interesting banjo and guitar player. Joe Bossum was a traditional guy and there was also Woody Wachtel, and Stuart Jamieson. Stuart recorded African American banjo players for the Library of Congress when nobody seemed to know they were out there, continuing the American string band tradition. Stuart was amazing. I only got to hear him a few times, but he really blew my mind, he was a very rhythmically powerful player. He was just killer.




Swamp Opera

August 1, 2014


edited from “78 Blues,” by John Minton:

His musical success notwithstanding, Gid Tanner never gave up the homeplace, contenting himself with traveling to fiddle on the streets of Atlanta when it was too wet to plow.  Despite his best efforts, Clayton McMichen could never pursue music as is sole profession, even after decades as a major recording artist and radio star.  He ended his own days as a welder.

If the phonograph record enabled the Skillet Lickers to visit an audience beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations of southern fiddlers, the hillbilly record radically restricted that listenership.  As Mac discovered to his lasting chagrin, New York violinists waxed hot jazz for mass consumption; Georgia fiddlers canned corn for folks downhome.

At their best, Skillet Licker records precariously balanced the coarse (epitomized by Tanner) and the fine ( what Mac wanted), crafting timeless art from the common-as-dirt dilemmas of the prewar South.  The records are enduring portraits of their makers, especially of Clayton McMichen, who despite his aversion to corny fiddling, despite his affection for symphony orchestras, found himself relegated to the role of a miserable squatter, fiddling endlessly in a dismal swamp where even frogs were out of their element.

Years later, Mac dressed his feelings in that very idiom, dismissing his music as a ludicrous compromise of coarse and fine:

“I notice in my thirty-five years of show business that there’s 500 pairs of overalls sold to every one tuxedo suit.  That’s why I stick to swamp opera.”






William Faulkner meets Muddy Waters

July 31, 2014




William Faulkner meets Muddy Waters . . .
It was back in 1950, Faulkner was en route to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize when other business brought him to Chicago. A friend took him to the South Side where Waters was playing his blues. Faulkner watched him perform and then Waters was brought to the table and introductions were made.
WF: I understand you’re from Mississippi. I live in Oxford, Lafayette County.
MW: I was born down in Rolling Fork, Sharkey County, but I come up being a man near Clarksdale, Coahoma County.
WF: How long have you lived in Chicago?
MW: I come up in ’42, after the war started.
WF: Ever think of going back?
MW: Not for a minute. I got a lot of things out of Mississippi, but the bestest thing that I got out of there was me. Say, looka here, can I get you something to drink?
WF: Nothing for me. What’s that you’re drinking?
MW: Well, I like whiskey most of the year but come summer, I got to go off the hard stuff and get me something lighter.
WF: So you switch to gin?
MW: Naw, maybe just a beer. It gets so closed up hot around here in August, I got to go for a light one.
WF: Hmm, a light in August? I’ll have to give that some thought.
MW: The fellow that brought you said you getting some prize for doin’ books. Where do you do your writin’?
WF: I just go back to Rowan Oak.
MW: Back to rowin’ what? Man, that’s a hard wood. You should set yourself to rowin’ something soft, like pine. The oak will jus’ wear you down and you ain’t but a peckish lookin’ man from the start.
WF: I enjoyed your song about being a hoochie coochie man. How exactly does someone go about becoming a hoochie coochie man?
MW: Well, it’s best if you come by it in a na’chul way. Is you the seventh son of a seventh son?
WF: Uh… no.  Actually I come from a rather small family.
MW: Was you born on the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month?
WF: No, my birthday is in September.
MW: Well, it don’t matter that much anyway. Bein’ a hoochie coochie man is jus’ tellin’ people that they best not be messin’ around with you. If you go to thinkin’ that you the best book writin’ man in town, then you can go to tellin’ folks that you the hoochie coochie man at what you do.
WF: I notice that this blues music that you do is melancholy in nature, but you don’t seem to be burdened. It apparently has a cathartic effect of purging the plight of your misery.
MW: I don’t follow them words, but you right in sayin’ that singin’ the blues gets me to be feelin’ better. I put it all down in my songs. It’s a hard life and folks are always comin’ ’round and tryin’ to crush you spirit, but I don’t pay them no mind. As long as I can have some satisfaction comin’ to me, these blues will carry us on forever.
WF: In other words, you’re saying that you decline to accept the end of men.
MW: When times get hard, it’s singin’ the blues that gets you on by the worst part. But it ain’t enough to let your mind stay in one place. You got to feel that you can come up on your troubles and then move on down the road to somethin’ better.
WF: You mean that man will not merely endure, but that he will prevail.
MW: The blues come from hard times, and I sure come from a long line of that. There ain’t never going’ to be a time when blues is done. Folks always got bad times at their door and they’ll be blues singers comin’ along behind me forever.
WF: Now I understand. The blues singer is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
MW: Now you talkin’. Now you got them blues right!
WF: Has anyone got a napkin? I’ve got to write this down.

Knocking on Doors for 78s

July 30, 2014


edited from  Gayle Dean Wardlow (in “Chasin’ that Devil Music”):

Beginning to collect records in Mississippi in 1961: After about ten houses on two streets, I spotted an old, decrepit shack with flowerpots on the porch.  I knocked and said, “Anyone home?”

An old woman, about 80, came to the door, we talked, and she went back inside while I waited anxiously on the porch.  I never asked to come into homes.  I assumed that old people felt safer if stranges stayed on the porches, especially whites.  I only entered if invited.  Sometimes people would invite me in by saying,  “You can come look at ‘em.  I can’t bend down that low to get ‘em out of the Victrola.”

The woman brought two discs out to the porch.  “I found a couple,” she said, modestly.  “They ain’t no good to me.”

I concluded that here was a new and easy way to find records.  I enjoyed that day what turned out to be beginner’s luck.  I soon learned that one could canvas all day and find nothing.

All that spring I knocked on doors, spending from one to three hours each day looking.  I refined my sales approach to these words:  “I buy old Victrola records–you know, them old blues records by Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Leroy Carr.  All them blues singers.”  I had learned that old people used the term “Victrola records,”  though sometimes they called them”Grafonola records.”  They remembered Bessie and Blind Lemon better than other artists.

I usually paid a quarter for each record–sometimes less, sometimes 50 cents.  Normally I mentioned my price range as I mad my initial inquiry.  If I saw something especially desirable, I offered a dollar to be sure to get it.  Selling records at the door to a white man must have struck some as unusual.  Occasionally they asked if i was planning to reissue them–“You gonna make them over again?”

My standard reply: “I play guitar and piano.  I want to learn these old blues myself.  It’s illegal to put them out again.”

I learned from experience that women had the records.  Men moved around more, and they did not take records when they moved.  I had the best luck with older women who had flowerpots on the porch, so I learned to look for flowerpots and taught other collectors to look for the same.  The pots indicated that someone had laved at one location for a long time.  Records were often in these homes, but they were thrown away when people moved.

I canvassed for more than ten years and occasionally into the mid-1980s.  But most of the records were gone by that time, ending up in junk stores, flea markets, or trash bins.  By the mid-1980s the few records that turned up were not worth the effort in finding them.

Worried Blues

July 29, 2014

MI0002325159Worried Blues (JSP 4 CD set)

edited review by Steve Leggett (

Frank Hutchison of Logan County, West Virginia recorded the slide guitar piece “Worried Blues” for Okeh first in 1926 and again in 1927. The date and place of origin of “fretting” the strings with a hand-held metal bar or glass bottle is unclear, but this was a technique widely used by African American musicians by the early 20th century. A couple of such musicians, Bill Hunt and Henry Vaughn, were important local sources for Hutchison’s music.

This method of noting the strings with a steel bar, sometimes called ”slide guitar,” was also popular amongst late-19th- and 20th-century Hawaiian guitar players, who used it to make very different music that eventually spawned the many hillbilly and country music steel guitar styles still popular in the South.

Hutchison’s timing is representative of many West Virginia and eastern Kentucky musicians who add or subtract phrases in very individualistic ways.  Sherman Lawson, a fiddler who recorded with Hutchison in the late 1920s, remarked to me that Hutchison didn’t keep time very well. Lawson and Hutchison both had their own concept of time and phrasing, not necessarily the same.

In photographs Hutchison played what looks like a small Martin guitar on his lap. He used a thumb pick and probably one or two finger picks and most likely used a small extension nut device over the regular nut in order to raise the strings up high enough off the fingerboard to play with a metal slide.

“Worried Blues” is an intriguing four-disc set that collects the complete recorded works of  Frank Hutchison and singer Kelly Harrell, then splits the final disc between two very different mountain string bands, the Tenneva Ramblers and the Blue Ridge Highballers. All of these artists were active in the Virginia/West Virginia area in the 1920s. (more…)

Peter Francisco

July 28, 2014

edited from


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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Barnyard Serenaders play “Peter Francisco”:

John the Revelator

July 27, 2014



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

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

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

Frank and Ann Warner

July 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Down South Blues, pt. 2

July 25, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is Simple

July 24, 2014


by Bruce Molsky (from interview at

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

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

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

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

Charlie Poole’s 13 Week Bender

July 23, 2014


edited from “Linthead Stomp” by Patrick Huber:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of Arkansas

July 22, 2014



“The State of Arkansaw”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 21, 2014


by Matthew Fluharty (

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

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

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

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

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

Alone, I cannot be -

For Hosts – do visit me -

Recordless Company -

Who baffle Key -

They have no Robes, nor Names -

No Almanacs – nor Climes -

But general Homes

Like Gnomes -

Their Coming, may be known

By Couriers within -

Their going – is not -

                   For they’re never gone

The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records

July 20, 2014


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

edited from Grayson Currin (

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken warnings from beyond the grave

July 19, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-11 at 10.27.15 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackjack Grove

July 18, 2014


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

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

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

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


Songs Of The Homeland: History of Tejano Music

July 17, 2014


Nice footage of Narciso Martinez, Flaco Jiminez, etc.

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

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

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

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



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