Turn Me Loose: Outsiders of Old Time Music, edited by Frank Fairfield (Tompkins Square CD)
edited review by Mike Yates (www.mustrad.org.uk):
Subtitled “Commercial recordings of Anglo-European-American vernacular music that challenge the stereotypes”, this is a second selection of 78rpm recordings mainly from the collection of American musician Frank Fairfield, and is a really fascinating collection of little-known and seldom-heard musical gems.
Let’s begin with the opening track, a version of the well-known fiddle tune Waggoner, played by Bob Skiles Four Old Timers, a family band from Texas. The band comprises Bob Skiles on fiddle, his mother on piano, and his two sons playing banjo and … tuba. And I guess that the tuba is the reason for this tracks appearance here. Yes, it is unusual to hear a brass instrument playing in a so-called string band, but let’s not forget that there was once a tradition of German “oom-pah” bands in Texas, so perhaps the tuba is not that odd after all.
And what about that piano? The Tweedy Brother’s version of Chicken Reel is played on fiddle and piano, the latter being described in the notes as “eccentric”. Well, the pianist does get a little over-involved in the middle of the recording, but then so did many other old-time piano players, such as Al Hopkins (of The Hillbillies), Hobart Smith and Haywood Blevins. Clarice Shelor, who played the piano on her family band recordings, was perhaps more reserved, but, at the end of the day, the piano was probably more common in old-time music than we like to suppose. (more…)
excerpt from JEMF Quarterly VOL. V, PART 1, SPRING,1969, NO.13:
We all know the waltzes of art music, and many of us are familiar with the popular and folk waltzes of Germany, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Few folklorists know, however, that country dancers and musicians in our own Southern states are as fond of the waltz as they are of any of the livelier steps one usually associates with old-time fiddle music.
Few dances or old-time fiddlers’ contests pass without such favorites as “Over the Waves” and “Wednesday Night Waltz.” And yet even those few collectors who have carefully noted down the country reels and breakdowns have been content to let the waltz go with a passing mention, if indeed they mention it at all.
The typical “Wednesday Night Waltz” melody is a strain of 32 bars. Considered in the key of C, its range is from middle C up an octave and a fifth to G. Its first three bars have three long notes; the first and third are double-stops on the high C chord, and the second is usually a half-tone below or a full-tone above the other two.
These are followed by a rapid descent to the low C. At the fifth bar the melody jumps up to A, then drops stepwise to the E of the low C chord. The second 8 bars are the same except that the concluding bars form a G7 or dominant-seventh chord. The third 8 bars repeat the first 8 exactly. The final 8 can vary considerably, but nearly always end with a stepwise passage from the high E down to the high C.
Rather than going through that again, This is a recording made by the Leake County Revelers in 1926, which was in the catalog for over twenty years and is one of the all-time best-selling country records.
The usual methods of classifying folk tunes—incipits, contours, emphasized and neglected pitches, and so on—are dependent on melody alone. And when we are studying music which is purely melodic, and not traditionally performed with harmony (such as Child ballads) we should certainly stick to these methods. But in the country waltz we are dealing with an essentially harmonic form.
We see this both historically and empirically: first by the historical connection of the country waltz with the obviously harmonic waltzes of Europe, and secondly by the inevitable presence in country waltz performances of a harmonic support
(usually a guitar or banjo) behind the melodic fiddle lead.
And if we can judge by the Leake County Revelers, the harmonic method represents not only a fast way of classifying tunes, but a way that agrees (at least subconsciously) with the folk attitude toward them.
from Cyril Neville (www.purafe.com):
In the 18th and 19th century Congo Square, in New Orleans, was outside the city proper and served as a market where slaves and Indians sold and bartered goods.
It was a Native gathering place where they probably had corn festivals and harvest festivals. After the Haitian Revolution in 1804, where people with hoes and clubs threw out the French slave masters, the slaveholders in New Orleans — some of them rich escapees from Haiti — decided to appease the slaves by letting them blow off steam.
America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, by Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman
336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 97 color and 156 b&w illus., notes, bibl., index
This handsome illustrated history traces the transformation of the banjo from primitive folk instrument to sophisticated musical machine and, in the process, offers a unique view of the music business in nineteenth-century America.
Philip Gura and James Bollman chart the evolution of “America’s instrument,” the five-stringed banjo, from its origins in the gourd instruments of enslaved Africans brought to the New World in the seventeenth century through its rise to the very pinnacle of American popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout, they look at how banjo craftsmen and manufacturers developed, built, and marketed their products to an American public immersed in the production and consumption of popular music.
With over 250 illustrations–including rare period photographs, minstrel broadsides, sheet music covers, and banjo tutors and tune books–America’s Instrument brings to life a fascinating aspect of American cultural history.
Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is an old-time music enthusiast. James F. Bollman is co-owner and manager of the Music Emporium in Lexington, Massachusetts. He plays clawhammer banjo and has been collecting and researching banjos and banjo-related ephemera for more than thirty years.
“America’s Instrument is a fascinating, eye-opening read. . . . That this handsome book belongs in the library of every banjo enthusiast barely needs stating, but it is also a gem for anyone interested in folk music, in American studies, and in the development of American popular culture.”
–Missouri Folklore Society Journal
“America’s Instrument reviews extant banjo history firmly, without antagonism. [The authors] prune from their own new research all but the banjo’s technical progress. They watch the banjo change from an African gourd with a neck attached to a twentieth-century machine-made tool able to bounce its yawp off the back of the largest halls. . . . They have written an obsessive book for banjo fanatics, rich in living banjo culture. . . . America’s Instrument lavishly details the banjo from the pegface to tailpiece hanger bolt.”
–Journal of American History
“American’s Instrument is now one of those ‘must have’ items for ‘banjo people.’ However, this is a very enjoyable book to look through for anyone, largely because so many incredible photos are of people, not just banjos, staring off the page at us from a century and a half ago. . . . Gura and Bollman have contributed an incredible document to the history of the banjo, and I for one deeply appreciate their effort.”
–Béla Fleck, for Mississippi Quarterly
from “DRAGGED THROUGH THE FOREST: The Long-Gone Sound of Amédé Ardoin,” by Amanda Petrusich:
It’s possible most of Ardoin’s songs are about one person: the girl to whom he was betrothed, or about to be betrothed—the most profound romantic fascination of his young life. As far as I can tell, theirs was a shotgun-to-the-temple, unbearable, drive-it-like-it’s-stolen love, uncompromising and insane. Something went wrong. They never married.
According to “Valse Des Opelousas,” she left, crying. “Oh, tite fille, si tu m’aimerais comme t’as voulu me dire / Tu te sentirais pas déçue pour ça ils sont après te dire,” Ardoin sings after her. Oh, little girl, if you loved me as much as you said, you wouldn’t feel so disappointed by what they’re telling you.
“In my understanding of that culture, in that particular time period, because it was so intensely Catholic and superstitious, you got married, and you didn’t get a new wife or husband until the other one died,” compiler Christopher King explained. “The same stigma was attached to betrothal.” Ardoin’s romantic outlook, from then on, was grim.
Because he couldn’t have her, Ardoin sang to her, over and over again. She appears often as “Jouline,” which King suspects was a pet name, a variation of “jolie,” or “pretty young thing,” though her actual name was Maisé Broussard. I imagine her as the kind of beautiful that makes your stomach hurt: sweet-faced and long-legged and a little mischievous around the eyes, too smart for her own good.
King likes to think that Ardoin sang to her with the hope that she’d eventually hear his prayers and adjurations—that he believed he could, in effect, sing her back to his side. He was clearly ready to die trying. “Oh, tite fille, moi, j’ai dit je m’aurais jamais marié / Oh, c’est rapport de voir ça t’as fait avec moi,” he sighs at the end of “Valse Des Opelousas,” his body gutted, his voice tired. Oh, little girl, I said I would never marry. Oh, it’s because of seeing what you’ve done to me.
The story of Amédé Ardoin’s death is apocryphal, something he shares with the Delta blues singers Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Sometimes mythology supersedes fact for so long that it becomes its own kind of truth by virtue of our belief in it; or, as with Ardoin, the details vary but the arc stays the same, stays true. (more…)
edited from Ray Templeton (www.mustrad.org.uk) and http://vernacularshellac.com:
Dylan: “Maybe when I was about ten, I started playing the guitar. I found a guitar… in the house that my father bought, actually. I found something else in there, it was kind of mystical overtones. There was a great big mahogany radio, that had a 78 turntable–when you opened up the top.
And I opened it up one day and there was a record on there–country record–a song called “Drifting Too Far From The Shore.” The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else… and er, then, uh, you know, that I, I was maybe not even born to the right parents or something.”
In the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Bob Dylan talks of discovering
“… a parallel universe… with more archaic principles and values… A culture with outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths… streets and valleys, rich peaty swamps, with landowners and oilmen, Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys – an invisible world that towered overhead with walls of gleaming corridors…
Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding… (a) mythical realm… it was life magnified.”
Elsewhere, he describes putting together a repertoire of his own from the tradition (long before he had started to write songs) consisting of songs that were
“… about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children… floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers… They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn’t come gently to the shore… They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic …”
Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’:
A documentary film by Stewart Copeland (Dust-To-Digital DVD)
by Ted Olson (www.oxfordamerican.org):
The South has been a hotbed of old-time music for generations, and remains so today. On any given weekend, Southerners from seemingly every walk of life gather with fellow aficionados in settings both formal (festivals, workshops) and informal (porches, backyards, picnic areas) to play chestnuts from the old-time music repertoire (fiddle tunes, hymns, ballads, nineteenth century sentimental parlor songs, etc.). But while old-time music has been widely revived across the region, another cultural expression from the pre-modern rural South—buck dancing—is only now receiving the attention it deserves, and that is largely the result of the promotional and participatory efforts of one individual, Thomas Maupin.
Buck dancing has long been associated with old-time music, in that a dancer traditionally would tap feet and move arms in harmony with the rhythms created by musicians. Buck dancing is elusive because it is expressly individualistic, and until recently has had a difficult time competing for public attention with the showier, more programmatic or regimented dance forms that buck dancing has influenced—clogging and tap dancing—and also the recently popular, unrelated dance form imported from England by way of New England, contra dancing.
Buck dancing is not easy to categorize—it is simple, involving neither choreography nor costume, yet it is complex, with no set routines or rules. When you are buck dancing, though it is to someone else’s music, you are guided by your own sense of rhythm, in a manner encouraged in the mid-nineteenth century by Henry David Thoreau: “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”
While far from mainstream, buck dancing holds considerable appeal to limber-bodied people who are unafraid to dance alone without an established set routine. No one is more dedicated today to the tradition than Maupin. Anyone wanting to know about this talented and low-key revivalist should watch the recent short subject documentary film, Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’, which portrayed Maupin and his love for buck dancing (which he refers to as “a little ole country dance”). Over the years Maupin has been named national buck dancing champion six times, and he has won many other awards for his practice of this particular tradition (including the Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award). (more…)
A hundred years ago, a collection of folk music forever re-tuned the American songbook. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax introduced the country to the music of the American West, and helped propel the cowboy to iconic status. But a close examination of early cowboy music reveals details about some of the very first cowboys that don’t fit the usual stereotypes.
In the 1940s, a radio show made for the Library of Congress recorded Lomax talking about his earliest memories of cowboys. The pioneer folklorist had seen firsthand the great trail drives after the Civil War.
“I couldn’t have been more than 4 years old when I first heard a cowboy yodel and sing to his cattle. I was sleeping in my father’s cabin in Texas,” Lomax said. “As the cowboys drove the cattle along, they sang, called and yodeled to them. … They made up songs about trail life.”
But just who were these cowboys that Lomax saw? Where did they come from? These questions intrigue Mike Searles, a professor of history at Augusta State University in Georgia.
“There’s a popular notion that when you’re talking about the cowboy, you’re exclusively talking about white cowboys, which of course is not true,” Searles says. “Black men were involved in being cowboys very early in the history of our country.”
No one is sure how many African-Americans worked as cowboys in the trail drives, but estimates run as high as 1 in 4. (more…)
During the summer of 1935, the same year he moved his family to Washington, Charles Seeger took his son Pete to a mountain square dance and music festival in Asheville, North Carolina. This was the event begun and run for many years by the legendary Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
Here Pete, sixteen years old at the time, heard his first folk music. He says that it was love at first sight, after hearing a five-string banjo being played and listening to old ballads about lords and ladies. It’s probably safe to assume that if Seeger had not taken his young son on that fateful journey, there might have been no renewed interest in folk music.
Pete Seeger: “Bascom Lamar Lunsford. He gave me my first lesson in playing a 5 string banjo. Instead of going and just playing chords, clunk, clunk, clunk, you’d pick up on maybe the middle string and then pick up on the first string, five notes higher. And then come down with your thumb on the fifth string.
Gradually, I didn’t learn this all at once, I learned you picked one of the strings with your left hand. So now I could get four beats there. Up on the middle string, plucked the first string with your left hand – my mother says that on the violin that’s called Left Hand Pizzicato. I just call it pulling off, but you know my phrase has been picked up by the whole music world now.
Guitar pickers all around the world, it’s pulling off when you play a note with your left hand. And sometimes you can, instead of pulling off, you can hammer down on one of the strings, usually a lower string. You pick it with your right hand and then come down strongly on the fretboard with your left hand and the string is still vibrating in the new pitch. And of course, a man named Earl Scruggs invented a way to divide up 8 short notes into 3, 3 and 2, that adds up to 8.
And if you analyze it, that’s basically the rhumba rhythm.”
“Down-Home Fiddling the Way It Really Used to Be,” by MICHAEL HOINSKI (from http://www.nytimes.com):
During the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, a distinctive form of fiddle music emerged in Texas. Known for idiosyncratic timing and phrasing, this style was commonly played with banjos or guitars on front porches or in living rooms, less for show than for social interaction. It reflected the cross-pollination in Texas after the Civil War, with touches of African-American, Appalachian, Cajun, Czech, German, Irish, Mexican, Polish and Scottish musical forms.
Mr. Rains, 43, has established himself as an authority on old Texas-style fiddling with his recently released album “The Old Texas Fiddle,” dedicated to preserving this hand-me-down music, which was rarely recorded or committed to sheet music.
Western swing and contest-style fiddling all but buried old Texas fiddle music. In the 1930s, the Texas bandleader Bob Wills took the fiddle out of its folk environs — the cotton fields near Kosse, where he grew up — and into dance halls and onto the radio. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a large band with multiple fiddles, played western swing, a mix of country and jazz that raised spirits dampened by the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, Texas contest-style fiddling was undergoing an overhaul. In the late 1920s, Benny Thomasson, an acclaimed old Texas fiddler from near Gatesville, suffered a tough loss in his very first contest.
He went back to the woodshed and reworked older melodies into arrangements that required a virtuoso’s skills to play, then went on to win 15 state championships, evolving contest-style fiddling into today’s improvisational game of packing as many notes into a space as possible. Mr. Rains calls it “fiddling on steroids.”
“It’s the greatest fiddling ever known to man,” Mr. Rains said. “Or it’s this horrible aberration that’s overrun the old styles.” (more…)
Black & White Hillbilly Music – Early Harmonica Recordings from the 1920s & 1930s (Trikont CD)
This is all pure country music, before there really was such a thing. This is the folk music of England, Ireland, and Scotland wrapped up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and in the Appalachian plains, and was transformed into something so perversely American it was a freak show to the rest of the country when it finally was released on recordings.
These recordings by the Crook Brothers, DeFord Bailey (the first black instrumentalist on the Grand Old Opry stage), the Jackson County Barn Owls, the Riverside Ramblers, Karl & Harty, the Pickard Family, Dr. Humphrey Bate & the Possum Hunters, Lonnie Glosson, and others were the sounds of people telling stories to one another in the confines of their communities, playing the old songs as if they had a secret code not decipherable outside the holler.
Music was played by clans for other clans; many of them identifying their “turf” and placing the name “Ramblers” after it (there are four such acts on this disc). This is primarily string band music, unique because of the prominence of the harmonica in the ensembles themselves. Fiddle solos were replaced or at least augmented by harmonica.
As an album, it doesn’t have the power or the focus that other Trikont compilations have. It feels shoddily snapped together to meet a production deadline, with this theme as its only unifier. That said, it’s of more than casual interest because of the material, which is very fine, and most of it is so obscure that it is seldom (if ever) referenced.
Of particular note is the early swing flavor of the Nelstone’s Hawaiians, formed during the brief national craze for Hawaiian guitar music. It seems there was contact beyond the mountain ridge after all. Glosson’s “Lonnie’s Fox Chase” is part Irish reel, part blues shuffle, part stomping bluegrass thunder. Using his voice to add percussion in and out of rhythm, Glosson had a few tricks up his sleeve as a harmonica player, but he used them very effectively, bending pitches that give the appearance that he’s changing keys on the same harmonica, and then singing through the harmonica body as he blew into it, creating true microtones. This psycho track is worth the price of the entire compilation.There’s supposedly a guitar on this cut as well but you can’t hear it and it doesn’t matter.
The other solid jam is DeFord Bailey’s “John Henry.” This is a blues stomp from 1928. The polyrhythms created by Bailey’s harmonica allowed for shifts and breaks in the melody in which the body of the tune changed from a country shuffle to a steamy blues while remaining recognizably the same song. Despite its flaws, this is still a worthy collection.
That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture, by Karen Linn (University of Illinois)
Long a symbol of American culture, the banjo actually originated in Africa and was later adopted by European-Americans. In this book Karen Linn shows how the banjo – despite design innovations and several modernizing agendas – has failed to escape its image as a “half-barbaric” instrument symbolic of antimodernism and sentimentalism.
Caught in the morass of American racial attitudes and often used to express ambivalence toward modern industrial society, the banjo stood in opposition to the “official” values of rationalism, modernism, and belief in the beneficence of material progress. Linn uses popular literature, visual arts, advertisements, film, performance practices, instrument construction and decoration, and song lyrics to illustrate how notions about the banjo have changed.
Her text traces the instrument from its African origins through the 1980s, alternating between themes of urban modernization and rural nostalgia. She examines the banjo fad of bourgeois Northerners during the late nineteenth century, African-American banjo tradition and the commercially popular cultural image of the southern black banjo player, the banjo in ragtime and early jazz, and the white Southerner and mountaineer as banjo player.
“Well written and well researched; Linn has amassed an impressive amount of data, and she uses it effectively. . . . This is an excellent book that should be of interest to not only historians, folklorists, and musicologists but also the banjo player and the general reader.”–Charlie Seemann, Journal of Southern History
“An absolute must read for anyone interested in the banjo.”–Five Stringer
“Concise, well-supported, and provocative. . . . The clearest voice of revelation regarding American’s most misunderstood instrument.”–Bob Fulcher, Journal of Country Music
“An intriguing analysis of the role of the banjo in recent American culture and society. . . . Highly recommended.”–R. D. Cohen, Choice
“Uses everything from sentimental novels and escaped slave posters to Felix the Cat cartoons and magazine advertisements to create impressive cultural history of what the author calls the ‘idea of the banjo.’ . . . Linn’s wonderful book is scholarly without being jargoned, serious without being tedious. . . . A book for dipping into, underlining, reading aloud in snatches, and opening repeatedly.”–Rachel Rubin, Banjo Newsletter
Karen Linn is an archivist in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. She has published articles in North Carolina Folklore Journal and American Music.
from “Jimmie Rodgers Died for Your Sins,” by Tom Piazza, and http://www.twangnation.com:
In the last three weeks of Jimmie Rodgers’ life, he traveled by train, in the company of a private nurse, from San Antonio to Galveston, and then by boat to New York City for an epic series of recording sessions, so that his wife and daughter would have a backlog of material to help out financially after he was gone. He stayed at the Hotel Taft and took the time to look at a few songs by a couple of young songwriters, whom he received while in bed, propped up on pillows.
At the Victor recording studio on East 24th Street, a cot was set up where Rodgers could lie down and regain his strength between takes. The first day, May 17, 1933, he recorded four tracks, an amazing effort under the circumstances; they included “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now,” a composition by one of the young songwriters who visited him at his hotel.
The next day he recorded three tracks, including the beautiful “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes” and a track released as “Jimmie Rodgers’s Last Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “The Women Make a Fool Out of Me.” Rodgers skipped a day and went back in on May 20, but he was only able to record two songs before quitting.
He rested for three days. On May 24 the Victor people had set up a session with two other guitarists, and Rodgers, hanging on by a thread, recorded three songs with them. Then, solo, he recorded his last song, “Fifteen Years Ago Today,” sometimes issued as “Years Ago.”
The next day his nurse took him for a tour of Coney Island. He suffered a terrible attack of coughing and spasms and had to be brought back to the hotel, and in the deep morning hours of May 26 he died.
At the recent Mississippi Picnic at New York’s Central Park the “Singing Brakeman’s'” iconic guitar was played for the first time in 80 years to record music.
Rodger’s custom-ordered 1927 Martin 000-45, has his name in pearl inlay on the neck and “Thanks” written upside down on the back. After his death, Rodgers’ widow loaned the 000-45 to Ernest Tubb, who played it for forty years. It was later donated to the Jimmie Rodgers Museum, in Meridian, Mississippi, where it is kept in a safe behind glass.
Tribute artist Britt Gully received permission to use the guitar for recording a tribute CD and played the guitar at a Rodgers tribute at the event.
“This guitar is magical,” Gully said. “There was never a time when playing it that I did not realize what I was playing, and who played it before me.”
1. Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles, Volume One that John Hammond, who tried to recruit Johnson for his 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York before learning of Johnson’s murder, and who played two of Johnson’s 78s from the stage in his place, believed that Johnson had read Whitman. He had.
2. He based “Come on in My Kitchen” on “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
3. Traveling with Johnny Shines, Johnson passed through New York in 1937 or 1938—where he appeared in blackface as a spear-carrier in a revue at the relocated Cotton Club at Broadway and 48th Street.
4. Zora Neale Hurston saw him playing on the street in Harlem; she introduced him to Langston Hughes. The three read and sang back and forth until Hughes wrote in his journal, “We all wanted to be each other.”
5. Through Hurston, Johnson met Nancy Cunard, just then getting over her breakup with the jazz bandleader Henry Crowder. They had a brief affair. Stories that Johnson wrote “From Four Until Late” for her are considered dubious.
6. Through Cunard, Johnson met Big Bill Broonzy, and collaborated with him on “Just a Dream (On My Mind),” adding the verse about the president to Broonzy’s structure—
I dreamed I was in the White House, sittin’ in the president’s chair
I dreamed he’s shaking my hand, and he said “Bob, I’m so glad you’re here”
But that was just a dream, Lord, what a dream I had on my mind
Now, and when I woke up, baby, not a chair there could I find.
7. Broonzy would not record the song until 1939, when he changed the president’s address from “Bob” to “Bill.” Memphis Slim used to say Broonzy had arranged Johnson’s murder—or even committed it himself—in order to avoid sharing credit for what he knew would become his signature song, but no one believed him.
8. In recent years, various scholars and researchers, determined to remove the veil of mystification thrown over Johnson by the story of his supposedly selling his soul to the devil in order to gain a proficiency on the guitar that would take him beyond his fellows, have sought to restore balance to country-blues studies by both, or alternatively, denying that as a school, style, or aesthetically meaningful form there was any such thing as country blues, and denigrating Johnson’s originality, expressiveness, musical dexterity, or even the authenticity of his putative voice, with one writer arguing that Johnson’s natural voice was deep, but his producer sped up the master tapes of his recordings in order to make him sound younger and more vulnerable, thus purposefully or inadvertently adding to the myth of the doomed blues singer.
A book arguing that Johnson, like Shakespeare, was either a front (for Son House, who, the author suggests, thought he could make more money as a younger, more handsome, more plaintive-sounding version of himself), or never existed at all—the thesis being that the real Robert Johnson who made the recordings attributed to Johnson was, as some have argued about Homer, and as E.L. Doctorow essentially argues about the Rosenbergs at the end of The Book of Daniel, someone else with the same name—will be published next year by Sentinel.
9. Rumored but so-far-unfound Johnson recordings include “Country Blues” (a reworking of the Dock Boggs version), “Little Maggie,” “Adieu False Heart,” and “John Henry.”
10. Like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale listening to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as they drew up the charter for the Black Panthers, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen were listening to “Hell Hound on My Trail” when in 1941 they wrote “Blues in the Night.” “I want him on the session,” Bing Crosby, a fan of “Terraplane Blues,” said just before he recorded the song in 1942. But what he got was perfect anyway.
Ramblers, Gamblers, Vagabonds And Revelers (4CD Proper Box Set)
Retracing the musical footsteps of the archetypes of the early American society and culture reveals all the elements which cross-pollinated and fused together to make the beast that was Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s.
From the world of Old-Timey and Country come the Carolina Tar Heels, Charlie Poole, Frank Hutchison, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and many more. The Country Blues of Peg Leg Howell, Robert Lee McCoy, Muddy Waters, Blind Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell showcase some of the most important musicians of the American Folk tradition. Add to that the Jazz, Cajun, Bluegrass and a multitude of other offshoots and styles and you can listen to the creation path of the style that took over the musical world and is still reigning ’till this day.
Covering much the same time span and social demography as the Lonesome Whistle Properbox set which came out in May, and featuring some of the same performers in the mix, the themes of this equally well-informed 4-CD anthology of roots recordings from the 1920s to the 50s are self-explanatory.
Audiophiles should be warned that early recordings are crackly transfers from shellac, which is entirely appropriate. It would be alarming if they were suddenly booming out in quadraphonic sound. Together with Lonesome Whistle, it comprises an eloquent diary of southern expression of the dispossessed either prevailing over circumstance, or simply falling by the wayside.
Many of the recordings provided repertoire for 50s UK skiffle, which in turn inspired the follow-up generation of British beat groups – along with rock ‘n’ roll. Includes an informative booklet on the history of American roots music and detailed information on each of the 100 tracks.
edited from article about record collector Christopher King by Eddie Dean (from Oxford American #45):
Pre-war blues and country records carry the weight of centuries in their sound, and bear the traditions of countless pockets of isolated, homegrown cultures wiped out by the spread of radio and, ironically enough, records. As performers throughout the South began to emulate the quality and effect of records, they sacrificed their own idiosyncratic styles, making way for the amplified, homogenized music collector Christopher King despises, which, besides bluegrass, includes pretty much everything recorded after World War II.
King’s ideal is sometime around 1870, when his house was built, and life moved at the easy pace of a horse’s trot, and songs were still handed down. This era was the heyday of what King calls “true vine” music, made by obscure performers whose repertoire dated back before the blues to murky, racially mongrel nineteenth-century origins, when blacks and whites in the South not only shared the same grab bag of songs, but often the same local styles.
The 78s he covets capture spontaneous, raw performances, when the only prodding from record-industry engineers was a bottle of whiskey and some pocket cash: Texas songster Henry Thomas, whose music can be heard on TV commercials via Canned Heat covers; Kentucky fiddler Jilson Setters, who made records well into his seventies; the black duo Two Poor Boys, whose songbook stretched back to the Civil War.
“True vine is music that’s not shaped or molded by crass commercialism,” he says. “It’s the stuff that would have been in the American vernacular before there were phonographs or music marketeers. They didn’t have someone telling them what to do, they were playing the way they’d always played.”
by Dan Rosenberg, from “The Rough Guide to African Guitar Legends” (World Music Network):
It would be hard to find a musical instrument that has done more to shape the music of the planet than the guitar. The six-stringed guitar has had a profound impact on the music of six continents. While scholars have found evidence of guitar-like instruments as far back as ancient Persia, what we now know as the modern European guitar can be traced directly to Africa. It was the Moorish invasion in the eighth century that brought the guitar from Africa to Spain, which centuries later led to Flamenco and literally thousands of styles of music across the globe.
Addie Prater Graham, a singer of traditional ballads, hymns, and songs from eastern Kentucky, was born before 1900 and grew up in a family and community rich in traditional music. She learned many songs from her mother and many more from neighbors and family, including ballads which trace back to the British Isles, others composed in America, frolic songs and ditties, and religious songs in the Old Regular Baptist tradition. While the Old Baptist belief of her parents forbade the use of musical instruments, she became an accomplished singer in the complex, highly ornamented style of Kentucky’s oral tradition.
Addie married Amos Graham, a native of Wolfe County, Kentucky, and had three children. They lived in Breathitt County for many years before settling in Cynthiana, Harrison County, where she and her daughter ran a clothing store for many years. She passed away in 1977.
After a lifetime of singing only in the home, Addie performed at a number of music festivals in the 1970’s. She was recorded extensively by her grandson Rich Kirby and by folklorist Barbara (Edwards) Kunkle; they produced her LP recording Been A Long Time Traveling on Appalshop’s June Appal record label. The recording brought her music to the attention of a much wider audience; among the artists who have recorded some of her songs are Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Ginny Hawker, and John McCutcheon. Appalshop re-released her recording, with extensive additional material, in 2008.
Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, by James R. Goff Jr. (University of North Carolina Press)
excerpt from http://uncpress.unc.edu:
Early in the nation’s history, gospel music emerged as a central part of the expression of American culture. Practically speaking, it provided a foundation for other styles of music that came to enrich the life of its citizens. More important, it built a bulwark upon which a developing nation and its people could assemble a religious identity.
At least since the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Americans have been among the world’s most religious people. And even before the rural revivals of the early 1800s turned the cultural landscape of the nation into a bastion of evangelicalism, Americans were comfortable with the tenets of the Judeo-Christian heritage and understood the majority of their values within those boundaries. In that context, gospel music helped mold the culture through which the collective hopes, dreams, and beliefs of most Americans found expression.
Few books have examined the American gospel music tradition. One can search library shelves and find a significant number of works on the evolution and importance of most forms of classical and popular music. On the popular side, a number of impressive efforts have chronicled the rise of blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and country music. In recent years, a sizable number of similar works on the role of black gospel have even appeared. Yet almost ignored is the parallel treatment of the white gospel tradition.
Ironically, the area of life most divided in 1900 was religious life—segregation by custom rather than by any particular detail of a state’s Jim Crow package. In part to experience fully one of the few areas where they had total control, blacks in the decades after the Civil War flocked to churches and denominations that were operated and controlled within the black community.
A by-product was an increased separation in the performance of and preference for gospel music. The timing was pivotal, for the late decades of the nineteenth century would be the crucial decades in the development of the shape-note songbook publishing business and also in the formation of early quartet styling. Black and white singers would still listen, learn, and consciously borrow from each other, but segregation in general would mean that their audiences and the confines of their market would be separate for at least the first six decades of the twentieth century.
from Nikolai Fox:
The first run of the indie documentary “Music for the Sky” (2008, 60min, by Nikolai Fox), is officially out of print on DVD. The film is now available for purchase as a digital download on Nikolai’s website:
“Music for the Sky” is a documentary film about a community of eccentric revivalist old-time fiddlers playing southern style fiddle music while living in the mountains of Vermont and Western Massachusetts. The film revolves around the personalities of eight musicians (George Ainley, Ahmet Baycu, Jim Burns, Michael Donahue, Zac Johnson, Bob Naess Anthony Pasquarosa and John Specker) – each described in a cinematic portrait. Using a single small camera first time filmmaker Nikolai Fox captures the music and personalities of this community of musicians at various informal locations. Also featuring the music of Jon Bekoff, Paula Bradley, Dan Brown, Bill Dillof, Nikolai Fox, Greg Miller, Jon Place, Alex Scala and Rose Sinclair and Liz Toffey.
Portland, Oregon based crate diggers Mississippi Records are going on a summer tour around Europe, showcasing their own archives and screening films from the Alan Lomax archive (the Association for Cultural Equity).
The tour is headed up by Mississippi label head Eric Isaacson, who’ll be showing select footage filmed on Lomax’s travels around North America between 1978–1985, among other videos. Isaacson will be playing music too, culled from Mississippi’s library of folk, blues, spirituals and roots music, from 1890 to the present day. Footage includes RL Burnside, Jack Owens, the 1982 Holly Springs Sacred Harp Convention, a funeral parade, one string guitar playing and more. (All the Lomax videos are available online via ACE here.)
Hot Women – Women Singers from the Torrid Regions of the World: CD Compilation By R. Crumb
Hot Women is a collection of 24 tracks taken from old 78 rpm recordings. They were gathered by none other than underground cartoonist/cultural icon R. Crumb, who also annotates the liner notes with what biographical information his friends could find on the web (Crumb himself knows not how to use the internet); we’re even treated to illustrations based on whatever photographs he could find of these women.
The earliest of the songs, like “Lu Fistinu Di Palermo” (Rosina Trubia Gioiosa of Sicily), comes to us from 1927; the latest, “Ballali Madja” (Hamsa Khalafe & Ali Atia, Africa), is dated around 1950. Most tracks come to us from the ‘30s, and possess both the eerie warmth and alien disembodiment that informs such cinematic tributes to the ‘30s as Triplets of Belleville and Pennies from Heaven, only more so: more so because while some of these “torrid regions” may be familiar to us (Lousiana, Cuba), others are decidedly less so (Tunisia, Middle Congo). I never imagined that Vietnam or Burma had viable pop recording industries 70 years ago.
Tony Baldwin handled remastering duties on Hot Women, and while I have no idea what the original recordings sound like, the effect is mesmerizing. The sound is still separated from reality, yet saturated with the physical effects of its context. “El Tambor De La Alegria”, a Cuban number from 1928, arrives as in a cloud of dust from the street, as though it exploded into being without the benefit of a producer. The mesmerizing “Chant D’Invitation A La Dance”, from the Middle Congo, built entirely on voice and finger piano, seems suffused with the miasma of an unfamiliar terrain and a stubborn refusal to be “properly” colonized.
If Crumb’s notes show an admiration for these women, his illustrations and the songs themselves seem to reflect the persistence of “exotic” cultures despite the oppressive gaze of the occidental eye. If Crumb’s cartoons turn misogyny on its head by deconstructing the misogynist impulse, his sharing of this music seems to critique colonialism by spreading its accidental treasures, the voices of the oppressed turning the entertainment of their oppressors into an expression of their own tenacity. This collection is grotesque, sexy, dissonant, desperate, and comical, both of this world and defiantly outside of it. These may not be the first hot women to haunt my daydreams, but they’re among the few I’ve ever felt so desperate to share.
Ten Years of Dust-To-Digital: The Ongoing Mission of Moses Asch by Christopher Nelson
In his lifetime, Moses Asch devoted himself to documenting what he called “people’s music.” Asch churned out dozens of releases each year on his label, Folkways Records, covering marginalized sounds from every corner of the globe. The Folkways canon is impossibly deep and far-reaching, constituting one of the world’s greatest collections of recorded music; had it not been for Asch, many of these relics would never have reached a larger audience.
After Asch’s death in 1986, the Smithsonian Institute acquired Folkways Records and honored its founder’s wish to keep all 2,186 titles in circulation. While Smithsonian Folkways ensures that the artifacts Asch uncovered will be preserved for future generations, the need to document rare music persists. This is Asch’s mission: to keep documenting.
Those of us who seek pleasure in uncommon sounds, who remain curious about the ways in which the human condition aurally manifests itself, can take great comfort in knowing that for the past ten years, Atlanta, Georgia’s Dust-to-Digital Records has carried on that mission with aplomb.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Dust-to-Digital’s first official release, Goodbye, Babylon, an expertly curated collection of gospel songs, sermons, and sacred harp music from the first half of the 20th century. Dust-to-Digital founder Lance Ledbetter was inspired to make the collection while hosting a radio show at Georgia State University on Sunday mornings.
Ledbetter noticed a gap in the selection of old gospel music he was playing, and set out to fill it. With the help of his wife, April, Ledbetter spent four and a half years after graduating from college carefully researching and collecting material for what would eventually become Goodbye, Babylon. In October 2003, at the tender age of 27, Ledbetter released Goodbye, Babylon in an issue of 1,000, each set of six CDs housed in a cedar wood box and cushioned by tufts of raw cotton. It is a masterpiece, and reflects the Ledbetters’ thousands of hours of work. (more…)
edited from essay by Max Haymes (www.earlyblues.com):
The Unfortunate Rake is the Irish source of the Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, by Blind Willie McTell. It crossed the Atlantic where it was ‘cleaned up’ by the cowboy fraternity and appeared as The Streets Of Laredo, while ‘respectable’ versions of St. James Hospital existed alongside it.
The first black recording of the latter title was by James ‘Iron Head’ Baker for the Library of Congress. Together with St. James/Joe’s Infirmary and the more respectful Rake And Rambling Boy by Gid Tanner, the net result was the ‘unholy’ blues composition by Blind Willie McTell.
James ‘Iron Head’ Baker recorded his version in 1934 for the Library of Congress and was followed some two months later by another black singer, James Wadley who had his side titled St. James Infirmary, and was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia. This was the first rural, solo example of this song by a black artist on record as far as we know.
Sometime between 1924 and 1934, a white hill-billy outfit going by the name of Gid Tannner and his Skillet Lickers recorded a song which had evolved out of The Flash Lad and The Wild and Wicked Youth, which they called Rake And Rambling Boy. The title harking back to the beginning of this chronology, The Unfortunate Rake, would appear to have roots in the nineteenth century also, probably in the last decade. The last verse closes with these lines:
“And on her breast he placed a dove,
To signify she died for love.”
Gid Tanner’s group were based in Atlanta amidst a strong white country music scene which rubbed shoulders with the equally strong black blues one. Tony Russell quite rightly says that “Interaction between black and white musicians has been one of the most stimulating forces in American folk music.”, although Russell says this is not so common today because of “‘social reasons’’,… in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties they were frequent and fertile.”
Former Columbia Record A. & R. man Frank Walker explained to Russell why this was so. “In those days, in the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, we’ll say, you had your colored section…and you had your white, but they were right close to each other. They might be swinging round in an arc, the colored people, being the left end of the arc and the white the right, but they would pass each other every day. And a little of the spiritualistic singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did, so that you got a little combination of the two things there…They (the hillbillies) adopted little things that a colored man might be playing on his guitar, but he (the colored man) heard the white fellow across the way…and he adopted a little of that.” .
Russell also notes that a black group of bluesmen sometimes known as ‘Peg Leg Howell And His Gang’ with a line-up of a fiddle and two guitars, was similar to Tanner’s group and they even sounded similar on occasion. Further to this, Tanner’s excellent blind guitarist, Riley Puckett, declares a the beginning of his version of John Henry, which he called Darkey’s Wail, “I’m gonna play for you this time a little piece which an old southern darky I heard play, comin’ down Decatur Street the other day. ‘cause his good girl done throwed him down”.
In this cross-fertilization process, McTell could have got some inspiration for Crapshooter from Rake And Rambling Boy as he probably heard it in person as “Puckett for some years attended the State Blind School in Macon, Georgia, and while there he may have encountered the black singer Blind Willie McTell, who was a pupil from 1922 to 1925. It may have even been McTell from whom he learned his interpretation of John Henry.” Decatur Street, along with Auburn Avenue, as Paul Oliver says: “…were the ‘main stem’ in Atlanta’s Negro sector.”
The Floyd Radio show appears on the stage of the Floyd Country Store, a traditional and historic live music destination for locals and out-of-towners alike. The show is a brainchild of proprietors Woody and Jackie Crenshaw, who dreamed of beaming a taste of the inimitable Floyd music and culture out to the world at large. Anna and Elizabeth brought the first show to life in September 2011 to great appreciation (and laughter), and completed its nine-show season this spring, its final five shows to a sold-out crowd.
Highlights of last season include: the melodrama of Myrtle Vermillion (a small-town autoharp sensation on her first visit to the big city); the entertaining new Ballad-style GPS–one product we wish was real!–and the Poetry Olympic Games, complete with Edgar Allen Poe-Vaulting.
Musical guests last season included award winning flatpicker and guitar maker Wayne Henderson, banjo player Riley Baugus (whose credits include work on the soundtrack of Cold Mountain), West Virginia storyteller Jimmy Costa, singer Carol Elizabeth Jones, and a host of local favorites including Floyd’s own Mac & Jenny Traynham, Janet Turner, Chance McCoy (now of Old Crow Medecine Show) and Blacksburg’s Black Twig Pickers.
Next season, we look forward to the return of our favorite guests, and bringing new musicians onto the show, including legendary bluegrass singer Alice Gerrard, award-winning songwriter John Lilly, and champion fiddler Bobby Taylor.
Each show is streamed live over the internet at www.floydcountrystore.com, and is soon to be available as a podcast. We are also working to bring the show to the radio waves this fall.
Raw Fiddle (Rounder CD), edited by Richard Spottswood
This two-disc set consists of 49 reissued songs and tunes taken from old 78s and chosen by the respected ethnodiscographer Dick Spottswood. The first CD carries the relatively more familiar material, from Southern (and, more rarely, Southwestern) white and black folk musicians, the styles covering the bases: dance tunes and hoedowns, blues, comic and novelty pieces, lyric songs.
The second features less often encountered sounds, of the sort now often called — vaguely enough — “world music.” Then it was just “foreign” to English-speaking Americans of the 1920s, when the bulk of these recordings were waxed. Here that means fiddle tunes and songs from Albania, Greece, Syria, Martinique, Trinidad, Scotland, Ireland, Cajun Louisiana, French Canada, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, the Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria — and sometimes fusions, where two countries bordered one another and cultures meshed. Most are performed by immigrants to America — thus not actually “foreign” in anything but relatively recent arrival — who brought the old-country traditions, today largely vanished, with them.
Be assured, however, that everything here can be listened to with pleasure, and furthermore, you don’t have to be a violin player to appreciate it, though of course violinists will be picking up all kinds of things passing by the ears of those of us who aren’t. No matter; this is not just outstanding music, but accessible and entertaining, too. Spottswood obviously wants listeners, whoever they are and wherever they come from, to enjoy themselves. We do.
Even on the first disc he is not driving the usual warhorses, old recordings that have been revived and reissued to the point of exhaustion. Maybe half of the Southern material is known to me as a longtime listener of source recordings, and the other still sounds fresh enough not to have outworn welcomes. I can’t imagine that anyone could ever object to renewed acquaintance with, for example, the Carter Brothers & Son’s magnificently unhinged “Give the Fiddler a Dram” or the Bang Brothers’ cheerfully lascivious “When Lulu’s Gone.”
Disc two has delights flavored with surprises, with only the Cajun, Quebec and Celtic music likely not to sound — well, adjectives like “exotic” or “unusual” or “strange” only betray the listener’s ignorance and ethnocentrism. Let’s put it this way: Unless you grew up in a culture where these particular styles of fiddling and singing were a part of your life (or you happen to be an ethnomusicologist), you will be hearing something you’ve had little to no exposure to before. If you’re like me, you’ll be making a point to hear more. There are lots of good old-time reissues on the market, but none quite like this one.
AN AMERICAN REVIVALIST: Dom Flemons and the Return of the African-American String Band
edited from Geoffrey Clarfield (www.brooklynrail.org):
Dom Flemons: “So there I was, in the Phoenix folk scene, collecting old 33s of Lomax’s Irish and English ballads in the Camden Folksongs of Britain series, and also a great New World Records release called The Roots of the Blues. That’s where I first heard ‘Buttermilk’ by Bob and Miles Pratcher, which was my first black string-band song, and also the first fife and drum record I ever heard of, Ed and Lonnie Young playing ‘Jim and John.’
In 2004, I discovered that the Lomax Archive, together with Rounder Records, had started publishing CDs, including the “Deep River of Song” series. Sid Hemphill’s fife and drum and string-band music, along with the other recordings from black Appalachia, transfixed me. I was also blown away by the Black Texicans album, which features the wonderful recordings of Pete Harris playing square-dance music.
This opened my eyes to the concept of black cowboys, which I had never, ever heard about before. But this was all still on the edge of my interests until I was invited out to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. It included African-American performers, Mike Seeger, and scholars interested in black string-band music and its origins. This was the turning point for me.”
The Gathering was organized to raise awareness of black string-band music in the hopes that African-American musicians young and old could get together and form a community where everyone would know that they weren’t alone in the world. As Lomax might have put it, it was an exercise in cultural equity. (more…)
The 78 Project records musicians as they perform early American songs – exactly as they were originally recorded, instantaneously onto 78rpm lacquer discs. With one microphone, one 1930′s Presto direct-to-acetate disk recorder, and one blank 78 record, artists have a chance to make a recording anywhere they choose. It’s a haunting, magical time travel experience when we play back our freshly cut acetate – we’re hearing a sound almost a century old, but recorded only moments earlier.
Like Alan Lomax, the great field recordist and our inspiration (more about Lomax below), we’re out to discover what it means to be American today and to explore the deep historical significance of American songs – from Blues, Bluegrass, Cowboy songs and Murder Ballads to Folk, Gospel, Country and Roots.
We’ll visit modern musicians and local legends in their homes and hometown haunts, and we’ll tour the collections that hold our national musical treasures like the Alan Lomax Archives, the Library of Congress, the Southern Folklife Center, and the Smithsonian.
The 78 Project film will be filled with beautiful one-take performances and it will take you behind the scenes, deep into the surprising – and sometimes terrifying – process of recording them on vintage equipment. And speaking of vintage equipment, have you met our Presto?? Our Presto direct-to-disc machine is a genuine, wild and magical piece of 1930’s history. Many of the most iconic field recordings from the 1930’s and ‘40’s were recorded on a Presto just like ours, including recordings of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Jelly Roll Morton. It uses one microphone to provide the signal to a ruby stylus (or needle), which physically carves a groove into a blank nitrocellulose lacquer disc.
The Presto records at 78 rpm, which means we get just over 3 minutes of song per side of the record. It’s a mad dash to get the whole song onto the surface of that platter as the needle races from edge to center, throwing up a kinky, out-of-control chip in its wake!
A little goes a long way at The 78 Project. That is because we are a small, efficient, professional operation, and we conserve resources well. We are just asking for the money we need to shoot The 78 Project feature film, to cover the cost of crew, equipment, insurance and transporting the production to the planned locations. Each dollar we raise beyond our goal will contribute to post-production. It will pay for the editing, mixing and finishing of the film.
Donations can be made here.
“Music, Culture, and Conflict in Mali,” by Andy Morgan
Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali takes an in-depth look at the crisis that overtook Mali in January 2012 and lead to a ten-month occupation of the northern two-thirds of the country by armed jihadi groups, the impositon of Sharia law, and the banning of music.
The book examines the roots of those tumultuous events and their effect on the music and culture of the country. There are chapters on music under occupation in the north, the music scene in Bamako, the destruction of mausoleums in the north, the fate of Mali’s precious manuscripts, Mali’s film and theatre industries and the response to the crisis from writers, poets, journalists, intellectuals and film-makers.
Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali is by the writer and journalist Andy Morgan, who used to manage the Touareg group Tinariwen and has been working with and writing about Malian musicians for many years. He is also a reputed commentator on the music, culture and politics of Mali and the Sahara.
The inconclusive military coup of March 2012 ousted the government and left a power vacuum which Touareg rebels in the North seized upon to declare their independence from the Malian state. Al-Qaeda allies quickly capitalised on this political instability, taking control of the North and imposing a strict form of Islamic law on to the region.
These Islamist militia groups took particular objection to what they considered ‘idolatrous’ local religious practices, destroying the shrines of Timbuktu’s mosques, recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Mali’s rich musical culture was suppressed by laws which banned any form of ‘Western’ music, which in practice extended to local music, ringtones, and anything that was not chanted Qu’ranic verse.
edited from Adriana C. Rissetto (http://xroads.virginia.edu):
In Robert Johnson’s song, Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) the speaker personifies the blues as “walkin’ like a man.” Even though the blues are an intimate product of the speaker’s creativity as a musician, this line reveals that he still feels alienated from them, as if they are an external force acting on him.
Just as a disease is often perceived as something which has attacked patients’ immune systems instead of a bodily process instigated by certain conditions, so for the speaker the blues is an unsettling process which he cannot curb or control. Moreover, the disease imagery is made all the more poignant by the paradoxical synthesis of the “shakin’ chill,” referring to the dangerous immediacy of a fever, combined with the surreptitious fatality of heart disease and excruciating longevity of consumption.
The metaphor of the blues like “consumption/killing [the speaker] by degrees” is the most chilling of all the disease imagery that Robert Johnson employs in “Preaching Blues.” At first, it seems superfluous to include this image, as the shakin’ chill and heart disease create a nice binary opposition.
However, consumption differs from both of these by combining the intense pain of the shakin’ chill with the longevity of the heart disease. When one had consumption in 1930′s America, one was cognizant of a mortality slowly creeping closer with each hacking cough. Here the speaker is intensely aware of what the blues is doing to him in minute detail, and how it forces his lifestyle that ends in abrupt and brutal fatality.
The speaker acknowledges the potency of the disease imagery in the song’s last stanza, in which he states that he can “study rain/oh, oh, drive, oh, oh, drive my blues” in the same way that a scientist would scrutinize a bacteria culture in order to ascertain a cure to the disease.
Here the rain resembles a vaccination in which a small amount of the virus is introduced into the patient’s blood in order to build up an immunity; the speaker studies the rain, a symbol of depression, to build up “an immunity” to the effect of the blues on him. However, eventually he rejects this in favor of the distillery, a quick and easy pain killer which offers immediate, albeit temporary, relief.
Pistol Packin’ Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong,” by Shelly Romalis (University of Illinois
Meet Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960), one of American folklore’s most fascinating characters.
A coal miner’s daughter, she grew up in eastern Kentucky, married a miner, and became a midwife, labor activist, and songwriter. Fusing hard experience with rich Appalachian musical tradition, her songs became weapons of struggle.
In a life spanning eighty years, Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) assumed a variety of identities: miner’s wife, mother, widow, midwife, union organizer, political activist, and ballad singer.
Briefly popular for her role as a political symbol and folksinger in 1930s New York City, Jackson’s name has since drifted into relative obscurity. Nonetheless the Kentucky woman was once called “one of America’s best native ballad singers” by the man usually credited with that honor, Woody Guthrie.
Invited to New York to sing about the plight of the ‘Bloody Harlan’ strikers in 1931, Jackson lived in that city for much of the decade and participated in Greenwich Village’s urban folk revival in the pre-war years. She came to be perceived by intellectuals of the time as an “authentic” representative of the American folk. Her folk identity, initially recognized and co-opted by writers of the political left, was later crafted for symbolic purchase by political groups, folk collectors, and, most importantly, Jackson herself.
She was sponsored and befriended by an illustrious circle of left-wing intellectuals and musicians, including Theodore Dreiser, Alan Lomax, and Charles Seeger and his son Pete. Along with Sarah Ogan Gunning, Jim Garland (two of Aunt Molly’s half-siblings), Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other folk musicians, she served as a cultural broker, linking the rural working poor to big-city left-wing activism.
Shelly Romalis draws upon interviews and archival materials to construct this portrait of an Appalachian woman who remained radical, raucous, proud, poetic, offensive, self-involved, and in spirit the “real” pistol packin’ mama of the song.
“Mr. Coal operator call me anything you please, blue, green, or red, I aim to see to it that these Kentucky coalminers will not dig your coal while their little children are crying and dying for milk and bread.”
– Aunt Molly Jackson
Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook (Rounder CD)
reviewed by Gilbert Head (www.rambles.net):
It’s difficult to imagine a world without Alan Lomax. I’m not sure I’d want to try. Our friends at Rounder Records (whom some will doubtless think by now are my closet employers) have gifted us yet again with an indispensable piece of popular culture. Framed in the larger context of Rounder’s extensive Lomax catalogue, this sampler is essential for anybody who would seek to understand the evolution of popular music, both in the United States and in the wider world.
Before mentioning a few highlights and favorites, a word about the exceptional liner notes: masterful. Jeffrey Greenberg’s song notes are rich in detail and annotation, and the essay on Lomax’s role as the chronicler of modern popular music (by Gideon D’Archangelo, Anna Lomax Chairetakis and Ellen Harold) gives the listener the full context of what Lomax means to those of us who would understand how the music of yesterday has led to the music of today. Greenberg in particular will take exceptional delight in linking old prison-recorded tunes to the likes of such ’70s wunderkinder as Ram Jam. Even without the music, the notes provide an instant primer on the connectedness of the musical past to the musical present and the musical future.
The challenge in programming collections such as this is what to include and what to leave out. The smart producer recognizes that “getting it all” simply isn’t possible in the format of a single CD, and so it is with this disc. Instead, listeners are given a taste, a suggestion of possible avenues for further investigation. While any of us could have populated a disc with equally worthy cuts, this selection need apologize to no one.
The disc opens with “Joe Lee’s Rock,” a gutbucket blues piece recorded in 1959, and moves to a 1940 recording of “Do-Re-Mi” with a running commentary by Woody Guthrie. The congregation of the Independence Church in Tyro, Mississippi, next delivers solidly with the call-and-response “Jesus on the Mainline” (covered later by Ralph Stanley, Ry Cooder and others). The work of Leadbelly is introduced with a 1934 Angola Prison recording of “Midnight Special,” and Vera Ward Hall’s “Trouble So Hard” is heard in another powerful recording from 1959.
Further on down the line, we get the original recording of “Black Betty” here by James “Iron Head” Baker and other prisoners in Mississippi in 1933, later to be immortalized by the aforementioned Ram Jam. Again from 1959, Sidney Lee Carter offers “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” a tune that would be expanded to great effect in the recent film O Brother Where Art Thou. That same year of 1959 would also yield the whimsical “Join the Band,” rendered with exceptional gusto by the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The surprises continue, with an early working of “Sloop John B,” recorded by Clayton Simmons and friends in the Bahamas in 1935. As is the case for all of these tunes, Greenberg notes that later popular artists brought the work into the mainstream (in this case, by the Beach Boys, in 1966).
The wonders continue. A very rudimentary form of “If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life” appeared first as “Ugly Woman,” presented here in a 1946 recording by the Duke of Iron. It is noted that Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole” (1938) would ultimately find a wholly different audience in the 1970s when it was covered by Led Zeppelin. The work song “Rosie,” from a Mississippi Farm Penitentiary recording in 1947, documents a prime preoccupation of men behind bars, and is counterpointed strikingly with the haunting instrumental “Alborada de Vigo” (1942). The disc closes with Georgia Turner’s hard-edged 1937 version of “House of the Rising Sun” and Leadbelly’s “Irene Goodnight,” also from 1937 (later recorded as “Goodnight Irene” by damned near everybody).
All in all, this is a wonderful collection. It will lead you to music you never thought of exploring, and you may never listen to your Animals or Hendrix or Zeppelin records in precisely the same way again.
GEORGIA SEA ISLAND SINGERS (1964) Shot in 35mm film with multiple cameras on a soundstage when the Sea Island Singers were visiting Los Angeles, this program presents a small part of their repertoire of sacred music, including the songs- Moses, Yonder Comes Day, Buzzard Lope (Throw Me Anywhere Lord), Adam in the Garden (Picking up Leaves), and Down in the Mire (Bright Star Shinning in Glory).
BUCKDANCER (1965) Featuring Panaloa County fife player Ed Young with Bessie Jones. Ed Young does the Buckdance, demonstrates making a fife, and plays a tune on the fife.
PIZZA PIZZA DADDY-O (1967) looks at continuity and change in girl’s playground games at a Los Angeles school.
SAY OLD MAN CAN YOU PLAY THE FIDDLE (1970) Virtuoso fiddler Earl Collins, born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, moved to Southern California in the Depression. He plays Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle, Dry and Dusty, Sally Goodin, Bull at the Wagon, Black Mountain Rag, and Billy in the Low Ground. Additional tunes not included in the edited film are on the DVD.
These films were unique in their time and could not be made now. They developed as opportunities arose, using borrowed equipment, volunteer crews, small budgets, and a great deal of learning and experimentation in the editing room. The films concentrate on performance and by implication how the performers’ aesthetics both inform and reflect societal values. The films strive to make a pleasing and engaging record of small moments from the vastness of American expressive traditional arts; neither exhaustive nor statistically representative, but survivals of a time now past. (more…)
Our man Jackson Lynch performing Frank Jenkins’ immortal western ballad.
edited from Joe Gioia (www.utne.com):
The question of North America’s original, or indigenous, inhabitants hardly ever comes up in popular histories of American music, the assumption being that the land inhabited by the European arrivals, and their slaves, had been mainly clear of earlier people and empty of song.
Africa and the British Isles were seen as the only possible sources of the music that evolved from that place and time. The possibility that the musical traditions of indigenous peoples might be central to American harmony has never been articulated, much less considered at length.
This is pretty remarkable, not only because so many of the musicians—black, white, and brown—had pronounced Native American roots, but by the given historical details of the settlement of the North American continent.
In 1901 the anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a pre-Columbian Indian mound in the Mississippi Delta at Coahoma, became, he said, distracted by strange music. Professor Peabody is not remembered now for any artifacts he uncovered, but for what he discovered in the air, what he called the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him.
Professor Peabody’s reactions to African-American workmen’s songs—“monotonous” and “weird,” he said—is pretty much how Europeans described American Indian music. That Peabody may have been closer to the mark when he said the music sounded Asian is, for many, counterintuitive.
Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures—Native American, African, and European—each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast American interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work. (more…)
“Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts” (Tompkins Square/Pawn CD)
reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner (edited from http://pitchfork.com):
A mixtape of old tracks culled from Frank Fairfield’s personal record collection sounds like a proposition to be wary of, one that no doubt revels in the past simply because it is past. Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts spans the globe, traipsing from Scotland to Nairobi to China to the Appalachian foothills. In fact, the compilation often sounds diverse for the sake of diversity– not to show off how wide his collection is, but to demonstrate the various strains of music around the globe.
The brightest spots may be the transitions, suggesting a careful sequencing that contrasts wildly diverse musical traditions. Fairfield creates the starkest contrast by setting the two a cappella religious tunes right at the end. “Atepa Yion”, a Byzantine liturgy featuring Chanter P. Manea’s dizzyingly low bass, is measured and restrained, which makes “By the Pool of Siloam” by Chicago’s Rev. Frank Cotton sound all the more exuberant and desperate.
At only 16 tracks, Unheard doesn’t attempt to be representative of any one particular style or location, but that doesn’t prevent Fairfield from trying to sum up the world. His tendency to overreach, while incompatible with bustling modern-day venues, actually proves noble on Unheard Ofs. Even though some of these songs are nearly a century old, they still sound immediate and lively.
The best songs here suggest the musicians are barely maintaining control of the rambunctious music. “Hundred Pipers-Miss Drummond of Perth-Sleepy Maggie”, a medley by Pipe-Major Forsyth and Drums, ends right at the moment when the repeating reel becomes too fast and too intense to keep up with. The increasing tempo gives it a hypnotic, almost abstracted sound, as if the musicians are trying to break the confines of the song and break through your speaker. Similarly, a version of “La Bamba” by the once popular Veracruzian act Hermanos Huesca, nearly trips over its own feet in its excitement; that it stays upright is both a miracle and a testament to the prowess of its players.
More interesting than the music, perhaps, is its presentation. These songs are deeply embedded in the familiar hiss and crackle of aged shellac and vinyl, which occasionally overwhelms the performers but generally remains a subtle sepia tone. That pervasive collector’s static suggests that Fairfield’s true preservationist urge is not primarily toward the music, but the medium.
These old records carry the marks of their many years, which give them each a unique character. If you compiled this same tracklist with records from another collector, it would be a very different album. The songs would be the same, but the textures and grain would change subtly but significantly from one physical object to the next. That is the most intriguing aspect of Unheard Ofs: He has based this entire compilation on the wear of specific, obsolete objects, which upholds the song’s excitability while casting them as fascinatingly dusty museum pieces.
Based on the hit song by the Kingston Trio–which is featured in the film’s soundtrack–, The Legend of Tom Dooley tells the story of three renegade Confederate soldiers who, unaware that the Civil War has ended, ambush two Union soldiers and kill them.
At age 22, Michael Landon was a rapidly rising star when he was cast as Tom Dooley. He had attained teen—idol status with I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Gods Little Acre, and was about to enjoy the phenomenal success of one of television’s best—loved, longest running series ever, Bonanza.
For audiences, Tom Dooley, with its tragic tale of war’s brutal consequences and star- crossed lovers, was a new look at Landon’s growing range as an actor. As boyishly handsome as ever, Landon brings a rare depth to the role of Tom and many critics considered it his finest performance. Jo Morrow (Our Man in Havana) also stars as Tom’s young bride, and Jack Hogan and Richard Rust give fine supporting performances as Tom’s comrades-in-arms
from “Truth is Stranger Than Publicity,” by Alton Delmore (Country Music Foundation Press):
Alton Delmore writes about the 1930 fiddlers’ convention in Athens, AL:
“There was a big crowd there and everything was decorated and all fixed up like the president of the United States would be there. It was by far the biggest and most important contest in the entire country. People who had never been to a contest before gathered with the contestants at the Old Athens (Alabama) Agricultural School. My mother had made (guitar) cases for us out of cotton sacks we used during the picking season and we had our names on them spelled out in full. I painted them on the cases with pokeberry juice.
“You know how it feels to be a combatant in any kind of contest so we rightly felt proud of the sack cases and we were primed to go for the first in the prizes in each case. I entered the contest for the best guitarist and we also entered the contest for the best band. There were some bands there that would have given Bob Wills some strong competition if Bob had been there. We didn’t think we would win that one. By then we had ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ down pretty pat-in fact we could play it then just as good as we ever did.
“When it came our time to play we sang just as soft as we could and just as loud as we could but we put the music in there, too -and that counts as much as anything I can think of to help put an act over. You can analyze music and record hits, I mean the legitimate ones, and you will find that there is a synchronization between the voice or voices and the instrumentation.
“We got tied for the first place with three pretty girls. Nothing worse could have happened because we knew the crowd usually takes sides with the singer if it happens to be a girl and those three girls could really sing. The rules were that they were to play two songs and two for us. The girls went out first, and I could tell they had lost something of their quality on their very first song. Their second one was not any better but they still got a tremendous hand from the audience. I knew we had something to beat. Rabon did, too, but it just made us work harder. We could feel the challenge in the air.
“For our first number we used the old song ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’ It was written by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarltor It is a plaintive prison and love song combined and when we got through singing men threw their hats into the top of the house and everybody screamed like the had really never before. We thought had it won then and we did but we still had the ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ for them and when we did it the people really went wild and we won that contest without any question or any doubt. And that started us on our way to the Grand Ole Opry and the big record companies. Incidentally, I also won the first place for guitar playing with an instrumental rendition of ‘St. Louis Blues.’ Our names came out in the paper and it was really swell. Of all the days of triumph in my life, there were none any greater than those.”
Okeh Record’s Historic Session in Asheville, by Kent Priestly (http://nativeground.com)
The guitarist, Henry Whitter, slid his chair across the floor to bring his instrument a little closer to the recording machine’s sound-gathering horn. A harmonica dangled from his neck on a wire truss; he made a tentative puff on it and looked over to the man behind the controls.
Next to Whitter sat Kelly Harrell, a singer who’d traveled down with him from the same part of Virginia. Harrell tugged absently at his shirt collar. He cleared his throat.
“You boys ready?” the engineer asked. The men nodded. They shouldn’t have been so nervous—they’d done live recordings before, after all—but then, you never got used to it. Making things worse was the fact that the room was so damn hot. They’d been in here for just a few minutes, but already their shirts were soaked through with sweat.
And now it was time. The engineer counted to three and tilted a finger their way. On the bed of the machine before them, a wax platter began spinning. As it turned, a metal blade sliced into it and trimmed a delicate rind from its surface. Whitter led the song off, puffing the melody out on his harmonica once around before Harrell squared his body to the horn and began to sing:
I was borned about ten thousand years ago
There was nothing ever happened I don’t know
I saw Pharaoh and his daughter shooting craps for a quarter
And I heard him say, ‘Oh girl I’ve won your dough.’
The voice was an odd quantity. Phrases spilled from Harrell’s mouth in a long and lagging way. He inserted dips and swoops in his verses, beating words that didn’t have an obvious relationship with each other into something like a rhyme. It was strange voice, but it sold records.
The next morning, the Asheville Citizen had the story: “There is a lot of respiration and perspiration connected with the making of phonograph records. This was demonstrated in the recording laboratory of George Vanderbilt Hotel yesterday when the Okeh Record Company began making a series of ‘hill country records.’”
“Today, a number of singers and players from the mountain country will be tried out before the reproducing device,” the Citizen newspaper story continued. “The first test is said to be one of the severest experiences the singer or player ever has to undergo and more difficult than an appearance before a large audience.” (more…)
A Musical Journey – The Films Of Pete, Toshi & Dan Seeger
Here are some of the most unusual “home movies” you’ll ever get a chance to see. After sitting on a barn shelf for decades, a few of them are finally being offered here, including rare footage of Sonny Terry, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Steele, Jean Carignan and others, selected for this video by Stefan Grossman.
Pete Seeger remembers: “In 1955 I bought a secondhand Auricon, a 16mm camera with single system optical sound, used for making newsreels. . . . In 1963, Toshi and I took our three children out of school and travelled around the world, filming whatever good music we stumbled upon.
There was no theme or plan. Three years later, with our 21 year old son Dan, we arranged to film African-American worksongs in a Texas prison. I’m so glad some of these films will finally be seen. For 30 years they’ve sat in our barn and Toshi and I would say ‘When are we going to have time to work on them?’ — and we never had time. Along comes our friend Stefan and says, ‘Let me see.’
Sonny Terry & J.C. Burris, 1958
Crazy About You Baby
Hand JiveJean Carignan, 1957
La Grande Fleur
Big Bill Broonzy, 1957
The McPeake Family, 1964
Pete Steele, 1962
Ellis Unit, Huntsville Texas, 1964
Oklahoma Fiddle Contest, 1957
Schuyler Michaels, 1957
edited from http://mbmonday.blogspot.com:
Willie Moore is not royalty, he’s just a proper young man. He’s likely not even wealthy, in that courting a country girl living in her parents’ cottage is not something you’d expect from such a man. If he was wealthy, it’s hard to grasp why Annie’s parents would reject his perfectly respectful advances.
No, he’s a ‘king’ – a fine young man, a stand up guy who’s doing everything right. He courts properly and does right by Annie and her parents. I think that’s a key to the song, because it’s plain to see that this story isn’t really about Willie, and the moral wouldn’t work if Willie was anything but impeccable.
Annie is likewise upright. She doesn’t simply give in to Willie – he has to court her “night and day” before she agrees to marry, though she presumably found him attractive from the start. And, while the lyrics make clear that she spent a good deal of time in his arms, there is absolutely no intimation of physical impropriety.
Annie is as impeccable as Willie, and the narrative needs them to be that way. There’s no premarital intimacy, and there will certainly be no running off together. Willie doesn’t ask and Annie doesn’t suggest it. The answer they get from her parents is clear – their marriage “never can be.” Annie is who she is, a dutiful daughter; and so she does what she feels she must do in the face of what seems like the end of any chance for happiness in her life.
The last two verses of the full lyrics above tend not to appear together, though the penultimate one is more common today. Willie takes to rambling and goes far away, given what seems to be the Appalachian origin of this song, then dies of a broken heart. There can be little doubt of the expected emotional evocation. The listener is supposed to imagine Annie’s parents spending their remaining days in mourning, asking every day “Good Lord, what have we wrought?”
The earliest known instance of this song is a recording from November 3, 1927, cut in Atlanta for Columbia Records by the seminal Kentucky fiddle and banjo duo Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford. While Burnett and Rutherford’s recorded and live performances gained them genuine regional popularity before World War II, it was this particular recording’s inclusion by Harry Smith on his watershed Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 that brought the ballad to the ears of a truly widespread American audience. (more…)
Here is an extrememly generous gift to the world, from http://blog.dinosaurdiscs.com, for this 4th of July. Thank you Dinosaur Discs!
This 15 LP set is also a timeless gift of scholarship and love from legendary musicologist Dick Spottswood. Many thanks to him for his decades of contributions to the understanding and appreciation of American vernacular music.. Read more about him here and here.
This post and links are copied with permission from http://blog.dinosaurdiscs.com:
Folk Music in America
“Folk Music in America” is a series of 15 LP records published by the Library of Congress between 1976 and 1978 to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution. It was curated by librarian/collector-cum-discographer Richard K. Spottswood, and funded by a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The music, pulled primarily from the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song (now Archive of Folk Culture), spans nearly a century (1890-1976) and virtually every form that can be considered American music. This includes native American songs and instrumental music, music of immigrant cultures from all over the world, and uniquely American forms like blues, jazz and country.
Download “Folk Music in America” (1.1GB) (Individual links below)
At 15 LP records (252 songs, 12 hours), the series stretches what can be considered a single publication, but represents a somewhat comprehensive survey of American folk music of the 20th century. The booklets (included here in PDF form) transcribe lyrics, share images and tell short stories about sources and symbols helpful in understanding the material. Each disc is organized along a theme, which follow. Click the links below to download the “discs” individually, or the image above to download the whole anthology.
- Religious Music – Congregational and Ceremonial
- Songs of Love, Courtship, and Marriage
- Dance Music – Breakdowns and Waltzes
- Dance Music – Reels, Polkas, Etc.
- Dance Music – Ragtime, Jazz, Etc.
- Songs of Migration and Immigration
- Songs of Complaint and Protest
- Songs of Labor and Livelihood
- Songs of Death and Tragedy
- Songs of War and History
- Songs of Humor and Hilarity
- Songs of Local History and Events
- Songs of Childhood
- Solo and Display Music
- Religious Music – Solo and Performance
Additional info about the downloads here.
“Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens” by Hazel Dickens and Bill C. Malone
The life story of singer and songwriter Hazel Dickens, the inspiring voice of a whole generation of women and workers
Hazel Dickens is an Appalachian singer and songwriter known for her superb musicianship, feminist country songs, union anthems, and blue-collar laments. Growing up in a West Virginia coal mining community, she drew on the mountain music and repertoire of her family and neighbors when establishing her own vibrant and powerful vocal style that is a trademark in old-time, bluegrass, and traditional country circles. Working Girl Blues presents forty original songs that Hazel Dickens wrote about coal mining, labor issues, personal relationships, and her life and family in Appalachia. Conveying sensitivity, determination, and feistiness, Dickens comments on each of her songs, explaining how she came to write them and what they meant and continue to mean to her. Bill C. Malone’s introduction traces Dickens’s life, musical career, and development as a songwriter, and the book features forty-one illustrations and a detailed discography of her commercial recordings.
“Working Girl Blues succinctly yet comprehensively surveys a remarkable artistic career and the circumstances in which it has progressed from the perspectives of the artist herself and a distinguished scholar. . . This book will be an invaluable resource to anyone who wishes to understand the contexts surrounding Dickens’s achievements and the historical developments of which her life is illustrative.”–H-Southern-Music
“A fascinating portrayal of how one Appalachian native navigated the American shoals. Dickens’s voice illuminates the pristine, original, and enduring folk culture of the region and will stimulate readers to ask larger questions about American polity. Folksong buffs, sophisticated feminists, labor partisans, and American and Appalachian studies scholars will be among the enthusiasts for this phenomenal book.”–Archie Green, author of Tin Men
“As a musician, Hazel Dickens has an immediately recognizable voice that perfectly captures the grittiness of the songs she writes. The songs themselves reflect the lives and struggles of the mountain people she grew up with and have acted as a conduit through which the whole country gained a more intimate knowledge of Appalachia. In this effortless, fast-moving narrative, we hear Dickens telling–in her own voice–how she is influenced by her life and times. A thoroughly enjoyable read.”–Ellen Wright, coauthor of Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story
Bill C. Malone is a professor emeritus of history at Tulane University. He is the author of several books, including Don’t Get above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class.
Rags, Breakdowns, Stomps & Blues (Document CD)
These days the mandolin is almost exclusively identified with Bluegrass music but for decades it had maintained a regular showing in mainstream old time music, ragtime and blues (both urban and rural). This is illustrated to the dates appended to the title of this CD which refer at one end to Dallas Rag and Carbolic Rag, various display pieces, one each from the black and white traditions, and at the other Lint Head Stomp, a track often considered to be proto-Bluegrass.
The mixture is maintained throughout but is weighted in favor of black artists. Care has also been taken to present the mandolin in a supporting role or as a part of an ensemble. So, along with the finger-knotting rags, breakdowns and stomps from the like of Leecan and Cooksey, Prater and Haighs, The Dallas String Band, Mississippi Mud Steppers and Phebel Wright, you can hear the instrument working for its crust as part of a jug band, backing blues singers as Yank Rachel backs John Estes, or even keeping up with Arizona Dranes romping barrelhouse gospel piano.
The overriding principle has been excellence: excellence in selection, sound quality and presentation. The first two aspects are beyond reproach, carefully chosen track having been often lifted direct from good quality 78s and subjected to meticulous cleaning (without sacrificing any of the musical content), while the last is aided by a twelve page booklet, well illustrated in both black and white and colour, fronted by a glowing studio portrait of Charlie McCoy.
"Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass," directed by Alan Lomax (Cultural Equity, 2012)
reviewed by Michael Scott Cain (www.rambles.net):
In 1961, the Friends of Old Time Music threw a series of concerts in New York City, featuring the likes of Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashey and Doc Watson, as well as blues giants Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon. Folklorist Alan Lomax brought them all back to his Greenwich Village apartment for a party, where he directed this 35-minute documentary.
In the film, we see these established musicians perform, as well as next-generation folk artists such as Ernie Marrs, Peter LaFarge, the Greenbriar Boys, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and the New Lost City Ramblers.
As the film unfolds, we see these artists perform in an informal setting, singing for each other and the small group of attendees that included the likes of Maria Muldair. (Bob Dylan was rumored to be in attendance but in the film about the making of the film, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers and one of the founders of the Friends of Old Time Music say flatly that Dylan wasn’t there. The cinematographer George Picklow, however, says Dylan was indeed on the premises, lurking in the background, but Picklow wasn’t allowed to film him.)
Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass is both a fine movie and a very much needed piece of history. It’s the only film of Peter LaFarge, a singer who wrings all of the drama out of his song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” and it also contains a rare appearance by Roscoe Holcomb singing a couple of old Appalachian tunes, including a hard-driving bluegrass version of “Old Smoky” that makes the song we all knew as kids sound as hokey and inauthentic as we always suspected it was.
When Holcomb does “The Cuckoo” we see a very young and unknown Doc Watson accompanying him. Holcomb is a treasure, and this opportunity to see him makes this film essential.
But Holcomb isn’t the only treasure here. Ernie Marrs, a man who lived his principles by working as a migrant fruit and vegetable picker, turns “Pop Goes theWeasel” into a protest song, an attack on the nuclear age called “Pop Goes the Missile,” while Ramblin’ Jack Elliot contributes his classic versions of “Candyman” and “San Francisco Bay Blues.” He then pays tribute to Woody Guthrie before he sneaks out of the party with a beautiful young woman on his arm and a lecherous grin on his face.
If there’s a flaw to the movie it is Lomax himself. His goal here was to sell the film to British television as the pilot for a series, so he conducts little mini-interviews with the talent, asking them self-evident questions designed to make academic points. These interviews are totally unnecessary, serving only to break the natural flow of the film.
This DVD is the first release of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass in any form. You’ve got to see it.
Interested in fascinating ethnic music you will hear nowhere else? Digital downloads from Sublime Frequencies are available online here.
SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations.
SF releases sound recordings and video works from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America and is focused on an aesthetic of extra-geography and soulful experience inspired by music and culture, world travel, research, and the pioneering recording labels of the past. With an approach that sidesteps academic protocol and corporate funding, SF present their releases from an aesthetic viewpoint of promoting music, sound, and images that are rich in expressive ideas past and present from ignored areas of the world.
Sublime Frequencies is a small, independent record label completely self-financed and motivated to elevate International recognition for artists and styles of music somehow ignored by the world entertainment industry with a major focus on the popular music renaissance that began during the 1960’s and continues to this day.
The label has issued 41 titles on CD, LP, and DVD in the 4 years it has been operating. This current catalog is scheduled to grow to over 50 titles in 2008. Geographic locales which are the priority of the label’s coverage are Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Sublime Frequencies is owned and operated by Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet, however the label has many contributors including Mark Gergis, Robert Millis, Laurent Jeanneau, Tucker Martine, Richard Bishop, fm3, and Carlos Casas.
Christopher King is a re-mastering engineer, producer, and author. He specializes in pre-war rural American music (with an emphasis on Cajun) and various Eastern European, Baltic, and Mediterranean musics. He edited “Five Days Married and Other Laments” (shown below). He started Long Gone Sound Productions in 1999. He won a Grammy in 2002 and has been nominated four times since then. Check out http://longgonesound.com/current-travails/
Christopher King: As this modern age progresses, people become less and less engaged with each other, their friends, and their culture. People have become more engaged with their digital devices and social networking “tools”. They are removing themselves from passionate exchanges of ideas and becoming, frankly, banal and incurious, and bland by products of popular culture. So, most of my projects attempt to engage totally, if just fleetingly, with the listener.