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Featuring 17 fiddle and banjo tunes.
Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels, by James Revell Carr (University of Illinois Press)
Hawaiian Music in Motion explores the performance, reception, transmission, and adaptation of Hawaiian music on board ships and in the islands, revealing the ways both maritime commerce and imperial confrontation facilitated the circulation of popular music in the nineteenth century.
James Revell Carr shows how Hawaiians initially used music and dance to ease tensions with, and spread information about, potentially dangerous foreigners, and then traces the circulation of Hawaiian song and dance worldwide as Hawaiians served aboard American and European ships.
Drawing on journals and ships’ logs, Carr highlights the profound contrasts between Hawaiians’ treatment by fellow sailors who appreciated their seamanship and music, versus antagonistic American missionaries determined to keep Hawaiians on local sugar plantations, and looks at how Hawaiians achieved their own ends by capitalizing on Americans’ conflicting expectations and fraught discourse around hula and other musical practices.
He also examines American minstrelsy in Hawaii, including professional touring minstrel troupes from the mainland, amateur troupes consisting of crew members of visiting ships, and local indigenous troupes of Hawaiian minstrels. In the process he illuminates how a merging of indigenous and foreign elements became the new sound of native Hawaiian culture at the turn of the twentieth century–and made loping rhythms, falsetto yodels, and driving ukuleles indelible parts of American popular music.
AFRICAN ROOTS REVIVAL (Rough Guide RGNet1269)
The roots music showcased here is not traditional folk-in-aspic but rather a vibrant movement that is ever-evolving, with instruments often born out of necessity. Large plastic jugs can be used over and over for carrying or storing liquids, they can also be beaten to make a satisfying thud.
Africans have long made thumb-pianos from wood and nails, and more recently flattened tin cans and other recycled metals, which can also be fashioned into guitars, with bicycle wire strings. I was keen to check this out because, apart from Staff Benda Bilili, Konono Numero Un, Kasai All Stars, Seprewa Kasa and a few other familiar names there were some unknown to me.
So I am thrilled to discover the Bedouin Jerry Can Band, whose music still sounds traditional, even when played on scrap ammo boxes backing their flute and five-stringed lyre. Then there are the bands that use more convention instruments such as mbira or ngoni.
Two East African mbira groups are represented: Hukwe Zawose’s offspring, known as the Zawose Family from Tanzania, and Zimbabwean Mbira Dzenharira who play lovely meditative cyclical music on their massed thumb pianos. Other thumb pianists are Konono, Kasai All Stars and, new to me, Papa Kourand, who all hail from Congo.
Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba have become quite well known in the West with their bluesy Malian music featuring the (also pentatonic) ngoni. Before we get lost in the mellowness of it all, the abrasive electric likembes of Konono No 1 jar us awake, from their Live at Couleur Café album.
I predict Jagwa Music will emerge to become more widely recognised, like Staff Benda or Konono. Then we get three lesser-known but accomplished acts, two of them from worldmusicnet’s own Riverboat series: Zulu musician Shiyani Ngcobo and Mamane Barka, a harp player from Niger. This is portable, intimate music and the disc represents a good cross-section of current artists renewing their own musical traditions.
Surrounded by old photos of his “Malian Elvis” days, 60-year-old musician Boubacar Traoré rests his head on his guitar and unfurls a precise pop-folk lament, his fingers moving in blues formations, his lithe voice coiling in a hypnotic muezzin drone. “Kar Kar” never addresses director Jacques Sarasin’s camera, instead blessing his own biography with mournful, journeyman performances.
Friends recount the revolutionary non-griot’s 1960s radio wake-up calls heralding a free Mali. They tell of his departure from music to raise a family, the subsequent loss of his wife, and his life as an immigrant in France. As the stories unfold, lingering shots of everyday life amid the craggy Dogon hills and the bustle of waterway commerce recall the observant modes of Abderrahmane Sissako or Abbas Kiarostami.
The resurrected relic plays his trusty Takamine in unlikely public spaces, duetting at points with kora player Ballake Sissoko and Ali Farka Touré. The reverent pacing lags a bit, but the film’s meditation on the struggle to find spirituality that reconciles Islam with tribal belief systems is powerful in its understatement, and its wordless observation of France’s Malian community quietly evidences daily cultural preservation amid the hard labor.
Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, by Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson (University of Illinois Press)
In Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson present a transatlantic history of folk’s midcentury resurgence that juxtaposes the related but distinct revivals that took place in the United States and Great Britain.
After setting the stage with the work of music collectors in the nineteenth century, the authors explore the so-called recovery of folk music practices and performers by Alan Lomax and others, including journeys to and within the British Isles that allowed artists and folk music advocates to absorb native forms and facilitate the music’s transatlantic exchange.
Cohen and Donaldson place the musical and cultural connections of the twin revivals within the decade’s social and musical milieu and grapple with the performers’ leftist political agendas and artistic challenges, including the fierce debates over “authenticity” in practice and repertoire that erupted when artists like Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio carried folk into the popular music mainstream.
From mountain ballets to skiffle, from the Weavers in Greenwich Village to Burl Ives on the BBC, Roots of the Revival offers a frank and wide-ranging consideration of a time, a movement, and a transformative period in American and British pop culture.
reviewed by Justin Brooks (www.popmatters.com):
Absolutely none of these cuts should be familiar to the average person. All apologies to my distant relatives The Carter Family, but “Denomination Blues, Part 1” by Washington Phillips is the only track on this compilation that I’d ever actually heard before. A good deal of the artists were familiar to me by way of my immersion (sorry, couldn’t help myself) in Dust-to-Digital’s staggering Goodbye, Babylon box. Evoking that former release, the compilers make no effort to segregate the music in any way: string bands and hillbilly hollers jostle grittier blues and folk numbers for breathing room.
Unlike Babylon though, the sermons included here are interspersed throughout, making for a slightly more diverse listening experience. While we are on the subject, this reviewer sees Take Me to the Water as-among other thing-a beautifully packaged addendum to the already splendid Goodbye, Babylon.
There are 25 tracks on the disc that accompanies this set and quite frankly, most of them are jewels. As with any compilation or proper album, a certain song may strike you just the right way on a particular day, so with material of this quality, the best cuts ultimately depend on the listener.
Washington Phillips, a ‘jack-leg preacher’ of the first degree, is represented here with “Denomination Blues Part 1”, in which his delicate vocal is accompanied by a strange zither-esque “novelty instrument.” This cut may be the catchiest pre-war gospel/blues since Skip James’ “Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader.” Now that may mean a little or a lot, depending on how far down the rabbit-hole of this kind of music you want to go.
By far the most popular artist represented here is The Carter Family, whose “On My Way to Canaan’s Land” may just be an artistic representation of Mother Maybelle’s actual baptism. Classic call and response of the hillbilly variety is accounted for too with the Carolina Tar Heels’ “I’ll Be Washed”. The intermingling of the sermon fragments—which often break out in song—with the tunes is a sly move on the part of the compilers, as the preachers’ intonations always take on a rhythmic quality and the fiery intensity helps move these pieces, and the set itself, forward.
Longing for the Past, The 78rpm Era in Southeast Asia, is a lavish four CD box-set covering recordings from 1905 to 1966, with an accompanying 267 page book, released on the Atlanta-based boutique label Dust-to-Digital. It won the 2014 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research, in the category Best Historical Research in Recorded Folk or World Music.
In recent years, Dust-to-Digital has created a name for itself, if not an entire niche market, with high quality box-sets that, as the website explains, “combine rare, essential recordings with historical images and descriptive texts to create high-quality, cultural artifacts.”
“Longing for the Past” editor David Murray: I’d been listening to world music from the 78rpm era for quite awhile via CD reissues. Everything from American blues, hillbilly, and Cajun recordings to Irish, Ukrainian, Greek and more. These were mostly reissues on the Arhoolie label or the Secret Museum of Mankind series, which was just then being released. I was learning to play old banjo and fiddle music and soon got hooked on playing the Greek bouzouki in a style called Rebetika. Rebetika is famously known as the music of the Greek hashish dens, which is at least partially true.
Living in San Francisco (at that time) I began to wonder if there was a style of music associated with the city’s Chinese opium dens that had been widespread in the second half of the 1800s. Unfortunately, I could find no hint of a style of music tied to the opium dens, but in the process I heard old recordings of Chinese opera for the first time. Cantonese recordings had been made in San Francisco very early, 1898 or so. I was instantly obsessed with the sound of this music and spent the next several years amassing Chinese 78s. I followed the music of the Chinese diaspora, which led to Southeast Asia.
I hope that more collectors will focus on world music. There are enough blues collectors already! I never understood why somebody would take the time and money to build a collection of blues and hillbilly records that already exist on CD reissues and have been thoroughly researched. For me, the thrill is finding great recordings that are truly on the verge of being lost. A Burmese record from 1911? Who’s going to hold onto that? And when it’s gone it may be gone for good.
The more of these records we can salvage the better our understanding of music and our history will be. There are a few younger collectors who are interested in world music, but not many. The goal of my projects is just to get the music out there. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen after that, but I’ve done my part.
Many thanks to Susie James for these photos. Read her article on Narmour and Smith here.
The unveiling of the Narmour and Smith marker was done by Chip Narmour and sister Laura N. Oakes, both children of Willie’s son, the late Coleman Narmour, who shared his dad’s story of how “Carroll County Blues” came into being.
Hands carefully removed Willie Narmour’s fragile old fiddle with its hand-whittled turning peg out of its carrying case to show the public on Narmour & Smith’s big day in their county seat of Carrollton, Mississippi.
Narmour and his partner, Shellie Walton Smith, were “Narmour & Smith,” who in 1929 recorded a rousing tune they had created, “Carroll County Blues.” The duo made other recordings as well, but the Depression stunted the growth of the recording industry for years. Like John Hurt, Narmour and Smith were poor farmers — though talented musicians.
John Hurt was first recorded in the late 1920s after a neighbor, fiddler Willie Thomas Narmour, recommended him to a traveling record producer. Had it not been for these early recordings, which were found and enjoyed by some men from the Northeast during the folk music revival of the 1960s, it’s unlikely Hurt would have been “rediscovered.”
As people from that era often observed: Nobody had any money back then. Hurt would at times “spell” other musicians, including Narmour & Smith, at house parties, which comprised much of the entertainments throughout the countryside.
As it was, the late Tom Hoskins had, through listening to a number of “78s,” learned of several early talents from Carroll County around Avalon. Hoskins determined to see if some were still kicking. He came through the area in early 1963 trying to find one of them in particular: John Hurt, whose output had included “Avalon Blues.”
A soft-spoken farm worker who at the time lived in the same shotgun cabin that in July 2002 was dedicated (in a different location than from when the Hurts lived in it up on the Perkins place a bit east of the Valley Store) as the Hurt Museum, John Hurt had kept busy during the intervening years playing guitar and singing mostly for neighborhood events.
Local heroes Anthony Pasquarosa, Zac Johnson, and Ian Logan recorded under the moniker Heaven And Earth Magic a tape for High Ledges Tapes. The name is borrowed from a really weird one hour long stop motion experimental film from the late fifties, by Harry Smith (see above).
There was one track that grabbed my attention and when I looked closer, it wasn’t even their own song. They recorded a version of Uncle Dave Macon “Oh lovin’ babe“. I heard about Macon, a key figure of early country music, with a huge output, but I’ve never heard this particular song.
So the surprise, how the original banjo driven song translates into the band’s psych rock sound was quiet huge and I wanted to find out more.
Regarding the lyrics: It looks like Uncle Dave Macon wasn’t able to keep it in his pants when he was traveling and so he got kissed by a pretty, strange woman, because men cannot help themselves in those cases. When his wife wants to leave him, he tries to make her guilty with the old story about the garden of eden and Eve and the apple she gave to Adam. I might be wrong with my interpretation, please correct me. Macon also was more an entertainer than a preacher so he’s probably not that serious about the bible and stuff.
Another interesting bit:
Charles Wolfe noted: ‘Oh Lovin’ Babe is another song never before issued (Rounder issue 1979) and nowhere else recorded by Macon. The unusual melody for the song seems to have been adapted from the verse of ‘Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose’, an old coon song written in the ragtime era by one B. Harney. Macon had recorded ‘Mister Johnson’ with Sid Harkreader in 1929 with the melody (but not the words) to the verse identical to what is heard here … The juxtaposing of the sacred (verse) with the profane (chorus), common enough in Macon’s music overall, was seldom illustrated so dramatically in a single song’. (source)
On the Rumba River (FIRST RUN FEATURES dvd):
Available on Netflix.
You’ve never heard of him, but Antoine Kolosoy, a/k/a Wendo, a/k/a Papa Wendo, is perhaps the most beloved musician that the Democratic Republic of Congo (a/k/a Zaire, a/k/a Belgian Congo) has ever known. The peripatetic Wendo got his start as a teenager, traveling up and down the Congo River as a mechanic, boxer, and part-time musician.
He ascended to the ranks of the mono-named in 1948, when his first album became a massive hit and established him as the father of a new genre: Congolese Rumba. After 12 years of megastardom, though, the rise of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the ’60s reduced Wendo to homelessness—until he was rediscovered in the ’90s.
With On the Rumba River, yachtsman-cum- documentarian Jacques Sarasin has compiled a meditative ramble through the highlights of Wendo’s career, told entirely through song and interviews with Wendo’s musician-colleagues. As a filmmaker, Sarasin has an extraordinarily light touch—a good thing for those who want to sit back and enjoy the music (the toe-tappingly spirited rendition of Wendo’s biggest hit, “Marie-Louise,” is a highlight), a bad thing for viewers unfamiliar with Congolese history and in need of a little context with their rumba.
Wendo Kolosoy was a former boxer and ship’s mechanic from the Congo who in 1948 recorded a song called “Marie Louise” as Papa Wendo. Wendo’s music, an infectious blend of Latin and African rhythms, took the nation by storm and he became an overnight star among the Congolese. However, while the sound Wendo created proved to have a lasting influence in the Congo, his own fame waned, and as he slipped into obscurity, he watched the sad history of his nation unfold, as the end of colonialism led to wave after wave of bloody violence. Wendo’s music, however, has been discovered by a new generation of music fans, and the aging musician continues to perform as often as he can.
This alternately poignant and playful documentary views his achievements from a context of political oppression and economic deprivation. Now 83, Mr. Kolosoy is seen enjoying a reunion with former band mates while dodging his wife’s pleas to get a job.
“We got our independence, but all we do is kill each other,” he tells us while the camera tracks through the misery of the Kinshasa slums, their squalor a shocking counterpoint to the effervescence of the music. Whether proclaiming the indifference of politicians or the thrill of infatuation, the songs — heavily influenced by the music of Cuban seamen in the 1940s — offer a welcome distraction from poverty and civil war.
Filming in late 2004, the director uses his eyes but not his voice, allowing his subjects to guide the story. In the background, the vast expanse of the Congo River flows with a neglected beauty; the country may be falling into ruin, but the songs remain the same.
edited from http://www.collectorsweekly.com:
Amanda Petrusich: I think a lot of collectors end up turning to 78 rpm records because they feel alienated by modern culture or not satisfied by it in some ways. Your collection becomes a way of insulating yourself from the facets of modernity that you find distasteful, unsustainable, or not nourishing. A lot of these guys had no interest in modern or contemporary music at all.
For them, it ended with World War II, or with Hank Williams. Everything that came after that, they don’t even want to know about it because they think it’s garbage. It’s frustrating for me as music fan and critic, because I’ll be like, “Wait, there are all these amazing people making amazing records,” and they have no interest in them.
Most collectors are white men who started collecting in the second half of the 20th century and have enough money to travel and buy records. They’re coming from a place of extraordinary privilege for sure. It’s these privileged white people collecting this music from disenfranchised African Americans. There is something uncomfortable, I think, for a lot of people, myself included, about that exchange.
I always get nervous talking about this because these are such big generalities. But socioculturally speaking, just in my experience, I think women are more comfortable listening to music and having an emotional reaction to it. We have the vocabulary for that. We’re socialized that it’s okay for us to do that.
With men, it’s a little more complicated. For a man to hear a song and be moved to tears by it, I think it can be a frightening experience or maybe an experience he has not been socialized to find acceptable. So collecting and organizing is a way of trying to de-fang those intense emotions and also figure them out through meticulous research, learning as much as they can about the record, owning the record. There are all these different ways you can mediate a very emotional experience to make it more concrete, more digestible, or less scary.
A Visit To Ali Farka Touré (Kultur Video DVD)
(AVAILABLE FROM NETFLIX)
Kultur Video pays homage to the legendary, late Grammy Award winning world musician, Ali Farka Touré, with the release of the DVD documentary A Visit To Ali Farka Touré. The African singer and guitarist was known throughout the world for his innovative music and his deep commitment to improving conditions in his homeland. His death caused worldwide lament, and this documentary gives his fans an exclusive glimpse into his life, his music and his community.
Filmmaker Marc Huraux takes viewers to Ali’s homeland in Mali, Africa. Marc provides an unprecedented look at the world music legend as the two converse, and discuss Ali’s personal memories – from his early childhood up through recent events. An illuminating documentary about a man who gave up touring and recording sessions at the end of his career to preserve his link between his music and its source in deep Mali, A Visit To Ali Farka Touré, provides an intimate look at a remarkable man devoting much of his time, energy and resources toward improving conditions in his homeland.
The documentary features live performances from Mali Dje, Gomni, Chanson sur Niafunke, Keito and Tulumba. Conversations with Samba Toure, Afel Bocoum, Oumar Diallo Barou, Oumar Toure, Djeneba Doukoure, Hamma Sankare, Concano Yatara, Souleyman Kane and Yoro Cisse provide a compelling look at the man and his music.
Ali Farka Touré is recognized as one of the pioneers of “Mali Blues” – a mixture of contemporary African music and blues. His music quickly spread throughout West Africa and gained a successful career as he toured widely in Africa, Europe and the U.S. Toure was honored with his first Grammy Award for Talking Timbuktu and then a second Grammy for his album in collaboration with another famous Malian musician, Toumani Diabate, In the Heart of the Moon.
After a long battle with cancer, the musician passed away on March 7, 2006, but he will forever remain a legend through the power of his music and his influence in society.
We have been working with Tony Russell, Harry Bolick and others to expand the series and we are delighted to present the first two volumes in a series of four of The Georgia Yellowhammers: Bill Chitwood and Bud Landress, with their friends Phil Reeve, Ernest Moody and Clyde Evans, and associates such as Andrew and Jim Baxter, the Harper brothers, Gus Boaz, Lawrence Neal and others, would represent and promote the musical culture of their region for most of a decade. Thanks to them, Gordon County, Georgia, has come to be held in high regard by lovers of old-time Southern music.
Today we can see it as a prism, its facets reflecting the different forms of Southern music: old-time fiddling, quartet singing, stringband ensembles, rustic comedy, yodelling, blues.”
Aided by this collection (and the music of the Baxters, available elsewhere on Document), we can hold a magnifying glass over a map of Gordon County, so that towns and communities leap into large-print life.
We see the streets of Calhoun and Resaca and Sugar Valley, hear the rattle of wagon wheels and the distant whistle of the railroad train, the massed voices from the singing convention in Calhoun’s City Auditorium, the strains of contesting fiddlers at the Courthouse, of the Baxters playing for picnickers at Dew’s Pond, and of Bill and Bud and their cronies serenading the townsfolk in Gentlemen’s Park.
CD included: 1. Bonaparte’s Retreat – WH Stepp; 2. Rock Island Line – Kelly Pace and group; 3. Pullin’ the Skiff / Shortnin’ Bread – Ora Dell Graham; 4. Sea Lion Woman – Christine and Katherine Shipp; 5. Soldier’s Joy – Nashville Washboard Band; 6. Another Man Done Gone – Vera Hall; 7. Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down – Bozie Sturdivant; 8. Coal Creek March – Pete Steele; 9. One Morning in May – Texas Gladden; 10. Glory in the Meetinghouse – Luther Strong; 11. Diamond Joe – Charlie Butler; 12. Goodbye Old Paint – Jess Morris.
reviewed by Chris Smith (www.mustrad.org.uk):
Stephen Wade’s book has its origins in the CD, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500), which I reviewed for MT in 1998. The Beautiful Music All Around Us is now in its fourth printing, and has received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, and an ARSC Award for Excellence. This review comes late to the party, therefore, but it considers a book that all readers of this website need to be aware of.
The Rounder CD presented 30 tracks, and knowing Stephen, I’m sure that he would have liked to have written a chapter on every one of them. Inevitably, what we have is less than that in regard to quantity, but decidedly not short on quality. Its twelve chapters each deal with one artist, although the total number of songs discussed, and included on the illustrative CD, is a baker’s dozen, because Ora Dell Graham gets two (and two minutes playing time.)
Each chapter discusses the song included on the CD, in terms of the particular performance, earlier and later versions, the meaning of the song for the artist and her/his community, and its after-life in folk and popular culture. (Wade even managed to interest me in the use of Rock Island Line and Sea Lion Woman on the soundtrack of a John Travolta movie.)
There is also as much biographical information as can be gathered, ranging from very full for the likes of Jess Morris, a voluminous correspondent and self-documenter, to scarcely anything for the members of the Nashville Washboard Band or the convict Charlie Butler, whose sad-eyed prison photograph is haunting. (‘Bad case and one of Beal Streets bad boys,’ the District Attorney wrote on his court record.) The process of researching the singers’ lives and deaths is also described, in encounters with relatives and acquaintances that range from friendly to tense. A conversation with a retired schoolteacher takes an unexpected turn:
As I got up to leave, she took her other hand from her pocket, drawing with it an unholstered, snub-nosed, .38 caliber revolver. I suddenly realized that the whole time we talked, she had it pointed at me. She revealed it now as a statement of trust.
The assiduity with which Wade has tracked down people and documentation is extraordinary; in these pages, we learn that the original version of Rock Island Line was discovered in the railroad’s booster club magazine, and find out how Isaac Shipp came to learn songs in Sierra Leone and the Belgian Congo, a puzzle which I noted in my preamble to the review of the Treasury CD. (Wade describes Shipp, who died in 2007 at the age of 91, as ‘a truly amazing man.’) We also encounter the descendants of Bill Stepp and Pete Steele, of Texas Gladden and Luther Strong (a violent drunkard, whose children seem to have survived their upbringing remarkably well.) In the introduction, we also meet Ella Hoffpauir Boudreaux, ten years old when she sang Sept Ans Sur Mer with her sisters, and living in conditions where a fantastical song about hunger had all too realistic resonances.
These are just a few of the people who give testimony. Throughout, Wade lets them speak in their own voices, and tell their stories in and on their own terms. The richness of even the poorest lives (Bill Stepp’s first five years were spent in a cave) is conveyed through the informants’ own words, and in contextualisations, explanations and comments that are insightful, humane and beautifully written.
One story claims that a “pig’s foot” is a tool used by a blacksmith (or alternatively, at a foundry) to hold a bit of pig iron (“pig” iron…how convenient) in a fire. While this explanation is nearly entirely wrong, there may be a grain of truth in it, as we will shortly see.
The fact is that this tune, like many, has seen its title change slightly over time.
This song derives from an old slave folktale which later became a chant and finally a tune. The story goes like this. A slave had just stolen from his master’s larder a shoat (in other variants just its haunch) and had hidden the meat beneath his bed sheets (again in other variants it was hidden under the bed itself).
The slave was in his cabin telling his wife of his prize when the master, along with a friend, appeared in the door of the slave’s cabin, requesting that the slave demonstrate his fine skill on the fiddle. Aware that the pig’s foot was exposed and its discovery, which appeared imminent, would cost him a whipping or worse, the slave quickly took down his fiddle and began to play and sing:
Shove that pig’s foot further in the bed
Further in the bed
Further in the bed
Shove that pig’s foot further in the bed
Katie, Katie, Katie, can’t you hear me now
The master and his friend watched the performance with glee while his wife Katie heard the message (hidden in plain sight) and covertly slid the pig’s leg beneath the bedsheets. At the end of the song the master exclaimed, “well, there’s a song I’ve never heard before!” and he and his friend gave the fiddler a short round of applause before making their exit.
In other variants, the slave’s wife’s name is Ginny, but the story is the same. The tale was a favorite among the miserable slaves who could always benefit from a laugh, especially from a yarn involving a slave pulling such a trick — two tricks really — on his loathsome master.
In time it became a field holler and later a fiddle tune. When Marcus Martin’s father learned it from white loggers working along the railroad lines in Western North Carolina, the title had apparently changed. Perhaps they were ignorant of the story and didn’t see why a pig’s foot would be in a bed, so they changed the word to fire. Perhaps they thought “bed” referred to a bed of coals and made, what they thought to be a reference to barbecue, more explicit.
Or perhaps these railroad men were familiar with the tool known as a “pig’s foot” — a short crowbar with a cloven end — and took delight in the idea of the double-entendre permitted by such an image. Because of course, “poking the fire” was a well-known euphemism for the act of sex. Recall the famous story in which James Monroe expressed to Thomas Jefferson his surprise that James Madison was able to engage in carnal acts with a wife as homely as Dolley Madison. Jefferson replied with a broad grin, “My dear young man, I am quite certain that the President does not find the need to admire the mantel whilst he is poking the fire!”
edited from afropop.org:
50 Years of Nonesuch: Three Essential Albums
Description: CD Digipak with 32 page booklet featuring liner notes by Tony Russell and photographs from the collection of Maxine Payne
Images & Recordings from Rural Arkansas: Recently discovered photographs inspire two new publications.
In the 1930s, the Massengill family of rural Arkansas built three portable photography studios on old truck frames, attached each to the back of any car that would run, and started a mobile photo booth business that would last for a decade. Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, featuring Massengill family prints and photo albums collected by artist Maxine Payne, illuminates a sliver of the Depression-era South previously unseen by the public.
Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers & Hoss Hair Pullers serves as the soundtrack to Making Pictures and allows us to hear how the voices of that time and region sounded, by carrying the listener from the hillbilly music craze of the 1920s to the song-based country music of the late ’30s.
Produced by April and Lance Ledbetter utilizing transfers from the Music Memory archive, “Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers” features original recordings made between 1928-1937. The CD and the 32-page booklet serve as a companion album to the newly-released photograph book, “Making Pictures: Three for a Dime” by Maxine Payne. All of the photos in this package are from the same cache of photographs taken by the Massengil family in their mobile photo-booth trailer throughout rural Arkansas in the 1930s-1940s.
“For the traveling recording men of the late 1920s, Arkansas offered enticing pickings. The region was thronged with vigorous, idiosyncratic stringbands. This album carries the listener from the hillbilly music craze of the ’20s to the song-based country music of the late ’30s. Scarcely more than a decade, but a period, in music as in all American life, of galvanic change.” – Tony Russell, from the liner notes
excerpt from Greil Marcus (www.space-age-bachelor.com):
It has proven very difficult for me to access Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. There’s such distance between us and this music that any suspension of disbelief is fragile. Once submitted to, the Anthology proves to be spellbinding.
To know that some of these songs were recorded in New York in the time of Tin Pan Alley is a fact irreconcilable with what you hear. Even if the second track by Nelstone’s Hawaiians reminds me of Bing Crosby, this music is a long way from the slick Tin Pan Alley schmaltz that today fills the airwaves of chain bookstores and coffee shops to inspire purchases, by appealing to nostalgia. Our favorite moments of popular music come when the mask cracks.
In the Anthology, all pretenses are absent, and all guards down, or so you’re led to believe — cause really anyone who knows how to guard themself will know also how to give the impression of being unguarded. All I know is that no one sings in these strange voices any more. Like “Le Vieux Soulard et Sa Femme,” which sounds like the sloppy, hilarious way you sing, when you think that no one is listening. And then there’s Didier Hebert’s “I Woke Up One Morning In May,” which might be sung in French, but for all I know could be sung in tongues.
There’s such a spirit of anything goes to these songs, always teetering from one brink from another, from overflowing joy to callousness. The opening notes of Ramblin’ Thomas’ “Poor Boy Blues” are such a mix of menace and woe. And then there’s lyrics like the one in “James Alley Blues,” which goes,
“You’re my daily thought and my nightly dream,
Sometimes I think you’re too sweet to die,
And another time, I think you ought to be buried alive.”
This is music made by people with nowhere to go, but to the grave, whether dead or not.
Kneelin’ Down Inside the Gate: The Great Rhyming Singers of the Bahamas (Rounder CD)
from rounder.com and liner notes by Jody Stecher:
When these recording were made in 1965 in Nassau, the Bahamas, these singers — including Joseph Spence, the Pinder Family and Frederick McQueen — were at the height of their powers. Coming from Nassau and the Andros, Abaco and Mores Islands, most of these singers were already over sixty years old when they recorded the lovely spirituals, anthems, rhyming songs and ballads heard here.
Today, this powerful and complex music has virtually disappeared, making the release of these recordings all the more invaluable and historically important. Kneelin’ Down Inside the Gate was recorded by Peter K. Siegel and Jody Stecher, the team responsible for the Elektra/Nonesuch label’s two volume series titled The Real Bahamas.
The first volume, issued in 1966, is a beloved and influential album, cherished and absorbed by countless musicians — such as Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal — and was the source for the Incredible String Band’s “I Bid You Goodnight,” a song that was the heartbreaking, joyous finale of live shows throughout their career. Except for three tracks recorded in 1965, the tracks recorded here come from the same legendary field trip that produced The Real Bahamas, and have never been issued before.
Rhyming is a uniquely Bahamian way of developing a song. A singer intones verses, “rhymes,” over a repeating time cycle created by the words, rhythms, and harmonies of bass and treble support singers.
Joseph Spence’s “What a Beautiful Home” was recorded in Peter Siegel’s home in NYC a month before we journeyed to the Bahamas. It captures Spence in a tender and reflective mood. For me, it recalls his personal sweetness and the first words he spoke to me: “You like banana?”
The original Hollow Rock String Band–Tommy Thompson on five-string banjo, Bobbie Thompson on guitar, Bertram Levy on mandolin and Alan Jabbour on fiddle–grew out of mid-’60s jam sessions that took place at the Hollow Rock Grocery on Erwin Road at New Hope Creek, just outside of Durham. As the surrounding circle of friends and players grew larger than the store could handle–sometimes up to 150 people–the sessions moved to the Thompsons’ house down the road.
The music they played grew out of Duke grad student Jabbour’s mid-’60s excursions through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to record instrumental folk music, folksong and folklore. Though he’d been a classical violinist from the age of 7, he began a new kind of apprenticeship with old-time fiddlers he met along the way, like Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Va. It was around the old-time fiddle tunes from Reed and others that the Hollow Rock String Band oriented itself. But because they were largely solo numbers, the group had to invent band settings for them.
“I can remember sitting together, and all of us sort of puzzling out what chords we would play,” Jabbour says. “Imagining how it might sound was part of the excitement of this enterprise: To us, it really was kind of an adventure into this unknown artistic world.” But that adventure was not only about music, it was about a way of life.
“Only later did we puzzle about it, and wonder what it was that lit us up,” Jabbour says. “It was beautiful to us; there was something magical about the music itself, artistically. But also, we were drawn–how shall I say–to certain social and cultural values that the music seemed to stand for. And we were proud to re-assert that, to sort of throw it into the face of the world.”
For Jim Watson, who played guitar and was learning mandolin, the Hollow Rock jam sessions were a musical turning point. “I had started going to fiddlers’ conventions in the summer of 1965 and learning a little bit about it,” he remembers, “but not until I got in the midst of this music scene at Tommy and Bobby’s did I really start learning how to play it.” Watson and musician friend Bill DeTurk became regular visitors to the Thompsons’ jam sessions.
“It’s really hard to overstate the effect that those parties had on me, and a lot of people, back then,” Watson says. “A lot of us were learning music, and learning it in a group situation–and in a party situation, too, where you would just go and play hard and have a good time, rather than sitting in your living room with one or two other people. You had to play hard to be heard–to hear yourself, even–in some of those settings.”
In 1969, Jabbour was appointed head of the Archive of Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress, where he exerted a tremendous influence on scholarly and popular understandings of American vernacular music. Meanwhile, as the ’60s became the ’70s, Watson and Tommy Thompson played as a duo, and as a trio with “Fiddlin’ Al” McCanless. Bobbie went on to join the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, comprised of other jam regulars. She died in a car accident in 1972, before seeing the release of the group’s first album, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band.
When Rounder Records asked Jabbour to record a new album of fiddle tunes in the early ’70s, he asked Tommy Thompson to join him, and Thompson invited Watson along to play guitar. With Levy’s blessing (he didn’t participate in the session), they dubbed the recording The Hollow Rock String Band.
“It was exciting to make that record, as an effort to recapture the Hollow Rock energy,” Jabbour says. “But that energy was spreading in other ways beyond us. The truth is, you want to keep making music yourself, but it has its impact, and it goes on beyond you. Others continue, and they continue it in their own way.” (more…)
Though it is not a term commonly heard today, a century and a half ago, if you had asked a sheep farmer in the areas of Southern West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky what the best sheep dog was, he would have told you without hesitation, “well that’s a Stump-Tailed Dolly!”
This dog, described as having long tangled hair and a docked tail, is believed to have originated from the Briard breed, and was introduced to the region by Johann Dahle, a Hessian mercenary who served with the British against the colonists in the Revolutionary War. After the war’s end he fled to the Western slopes of North Fork Mountain in a rural area of Virginia (now West Virginia) where he raised sheep and other livestock. Legend has it that his prize sheepdog, Melisande, was actually stolen from General Lafayette himself.
Melisande was pregnant with a litter at the time of her “liberation” and from that litter descended a line of sheepdogs that came to be known as “Stump-Tailed Dollies” from their cropped tails and the Anglicized pronunciation of Johann Dahle’s surname. (Some of his descendants in the area go by Dahle, many more changed the spelling to Dolly generations ago.)
The tune’s authorship is unknown but it was widely played among the fiddlers of this area (many of whom were Scots-Irish sheep herders) beginning as early as 1830. Variant titles include “Stumptail Dolly,” “Stumptail Dog,” “Stumptown Dolly,” or just “Dolly.”
The dog breed itself seems to have largely vanished from the area along with the sheep farming it supported, though some believe that the infamous “Logan County Devil Dogs” were descended a prize English Mastiff that escaped from the “Indian Water Medicine Show” near Madison in 1868 and bred with a Stump-Tailed Dolly living in that region.
Title: John Work, III: Recording Black Culture
Label: Spring Fed Records (SFR 104)
In 1993 Alan Lomax published his book The Land Where the Blues Began, to great popular and critical acclaim. The book told the story of his collecting adventures in the Mississippi Delta fifty years earlier, “discovering” and recording artists such as Son House, Muddy Waters, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards.
In their co-edited book Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov detail the larger picture of the same collecting trips made by Lomax in the early 1940s by including the equally large contributions of Fisk University scholars (a collaboration which was almost completely obfuscated in The Land Where the Blues Began) and paying particular attention to the work of John Wesley Work, III. With the release of the CD John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, we now have the music to match the text of Lost Delta Found (through it’s not a companion piece), along with greater evidence of the variety of black musical culture in the early part of the twentieth century.
Recording Black Culture separates its14 tracks into six categories: Social Songs (fiddle and banjo tunes), The Quartets, Work Song, Congregational Singing, Blues, and Colored Sacred Harp (shape note congregational singing). On display here are both secular and sacred musics, though the liner notes indicate Work was mostly interested in secular “folk” musics. The wide range of music that is offered was almost entirely recorded before Work and his Fisk colleagues joined forces with Lomax and the Library of Congress for the trip to the delta.
Work’s recordings were done in and around Nashville Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Many of the recordings have poor fidelity (even for historical recordings) and lend some insight as to why Fisk may have contacted the Library of Congress about a joint venture into the Delta: they wanted the more sophisticated equipment used by Lomax. In this regard Work was right, the tracks that surfaced later in Lomax’s collections are much higher in fidelity (e.g., The Land Where the Blues Began Rounder CD) and Work’s recordings are surely more interesting to a scholar than to most casual listeners.
Of the highest fidelity and given five tracks on the compilation are songs of The Quartets, including, with an egalitarian sprite, the Holloway High School Quartet, The Fairfield Four, The Heavenly Gate Quartet (a group of Work’s friends who sang together), and two unnamed groups. Here we have vocal harmony groups singing religious music in jubilee style with tight vocal parts and pulsating rhythms.
The intimate sound of the quartets, specifically on the two tracks of the Heavenly Gate Quartet, provide great examples of vernacular presentations of popular stylings of the day, including “If I Had My Way.” Other tracks on the album, such as the congregational version of “Amazing Grace,” are harder to hear and are best left for academic scrutiny rather than pleasure listening. Many of these recordings are of particular interest because of their rarity; for example, the only known recording of blues street musician Joe Holmes singing “Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’,” as well as the ulta-rare recordings of fiddle and banjo players Ned Frazier and Frank Patterson that lead off the compilation.
The CD is packaged with comprehensive liner notes written by Bruce Nemerov and aided by archival photos of the people, places, equipment, and songbooks used during this era. Though the recording quality lacks the fidelity of other field collections of the time, and the repertoire is perhaps too wide ranging for some tastes, the packaging and release of this material (a joint effort between local, state, and federal arts agencies) offers further proof of what many musicians have known for years, that rural black music is not, and was never solely the blues.
Two years ago, the book “Lost Delta Found” criticized the American folklorist Alan Lomax for giving short shrift to the work of three black researchers with whom he made some of his landmark field recordings in the 1940s. Maybe more important, the book argued that our appreciation of the black roots music of the era would have been greatly enriched had the writings of the researchers reached a wider audience. With the release of “Recording Black Culture,” an album consisting largely of newly unearthed acetates made by one of the collectors, John Work III, we now have the music itself to buttress this claim.
Work, the most eminent of the black folklorists, was not merely an acolyte of Lomax but clearly had ideas of his own. Where Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, Work sought to document it as it was unfolding. Thus on “Recording Black Culture,” instead of spirituals harking back to the 19th century, we hear febrile gospel shouting set to the cadences of what soon would become rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
As the story goes, the folklorist Alan Lomax was traveling around Mississippi with his recording equipment in the summer of 1941 when he came upon the house of a blues singer named McKinley Morganfield. Lomax recorded a few tracks for the Library of Congress and moved on, later mailing Morganfield a check for $20 and two copies of the record. What Lomax couldn’t have known at the time was that Morganfield, better known today as Muddy Waters, was to become one of the most famous blues singers of all time—the undisputed king of the electric Chicago sound.
Morganfield, along with Son House, went on to be known as one of Lomax’s greatest discoveries. And while it may be true that without Lomax, we might never have heard of these artists, it’s worth remembering that—despite what his own memoirs suggest—Lomax didn’t actually discover either of them. That credit falls to a little-known black folklorist named John Work III, who died 44 years ago this month.
The long history of famous men is haunted by forgotten heroes. There are those like Alfred Russel Wallace, the biologist who proposed the theory of evolution before Darwin did. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is not so much as the man who first conceived of evolution by natural selection, but as the man whom history forgot to credit—a historical nuance not fit for high school biology texts. In Wallace’s case, Darwin attempted to give him credit, but history was intent on forgetting him. Work’s absence from the historical record is more suspect: Lomax devoted only one sentence to him in his own writings.
John Work III, born in 1901 in Tullahoma Tennessee, was a folklorist at Fisk University for almost 40 years. He attended Julliard and held music degrees from Yale and Columbia. According to music writer Dave Marsh, Work was Lomax’s partner and guide in the early 1940s. He led Lomax first to Son House and later to Muddy Waters, where Lomax recorded part of what would later be released as Down on Stovall’s Plantation. “Lomax never credited Work, but recent research has established him as at least Lomax’s equal in the study,” Marsh writes.
Roll ONE of a four-roll interview session with KIRK McGEE (b. David Kirkland McGee, November 4, 1899, d. October 24, 1983) interviewed by folklorist CHARLES K. WOLE (Aug. 14, 1943 — Feb.9, 2006) shot by Sol Korine and Blaine Dunlap for the for the documentary “The Uncle Dave Macon Program,” (1979) by Wolfe and Korine-Dunlap.
This and other analog video recordings by Blaine Dunlap and Sol Korine are archived at the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, Mufreesboro, TN, popmusic.mtsu.edu/)
In February, 2012, the family of the late Dr. Charles K. Wolfe (1943-2006) signed a deed-of-gift donating Dr. Wolfe’s collection of sound recordings to the Center for Popular Music (CPM). This was a major bequest, for not only was Dr. Wolfe a prodigiously productive scholar, he was also an obsessive collector of the nation’s popular and vernacular music.
The Charles K. Wolfe Audio Collection contains in total 2,601 cassette recordings, 719 open-reel recordings, and an uncounted number of commercial tape releases. Among these are: interviews and field recordings made by Dr. Wolfe and other scholars; small label/vanity pressings of music; field recordings and transcriptions that are commercially available or that can be found in other institutional collections; dubs of rare recordings; and more.
The Charles K. Wolfe Audio Collection consists mainly of audio tapes relating to the vernacular musical styles of the American south from ca. 1929 to 2006. Styles represented in the collection include: country/old time/string band music, fiddling, blues, classic jazz, folk ballad, blues, western swing, Hawaiian, folk song, shape note singing, the singing school tradition, gospel quartet singing, and rockabilly.
The Wolfe Audio Collection contain oral histories and interviews with many pioneering country and gospel musicians, singers, songwriters, producers, and publishers. Among them are: Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Sam and Kirk McGee, Dick Rutherford, Sid Harkreader, Alison Krauss, Art Galbraith, Clyde Davenport, Frank Walker, Ernest Stoneman, Kitty Wells, Maybelle Carter, James D. Walbert, Benny Williams, Louise Woods-Woodward, Clarence Myer, Poplin-Woods Tennessee String Band, Hack’s String Band, Skillet Lickers, Georgia Yellowhammers, Doc Roberts, Dykes Magic City Trio, Perry County Music Makers, Jess Young, Smith’s Sacred Singers, Vaughan Quartet, Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, Uncle Dave Macon, Burnett & Rutherford, Byrd Moore, the Tweedy Brothers, Red Fox Chasers, Stamps Quartet, James D. Vaughan, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell and more.
The interviews tend to focus regionally on Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee, North Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Western North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. Wolfe’s interviews include information on musician’s impressions of other musicians, details of recording sessions, individual performance styles and techniques, influences, memories of other musicians, travelling, songwriting, business aspects, gospel publishing, discographical information, autobiographical and genealogical information, and first-person information on the early histories of the Grand Old Opry, the National Barn Dance, and Renfro Valley Barn Dance.
The Wolfe Audio Collection also features many field recordings, historic radio transcriptions, dubs (and originals) of small label/vanity label recordings and demo tapes as well as copies of similar recordings made by fellow scholars, musicians, and folklorists.
Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music (Chicago Review Press (Nov 2014)
By Barry Mazor
320 Pages, 6 x 9
This is the first biography of Ralph Peer, the adventurous—even revolutionary—A&R man and music publisher who saw the universal power locked in regional roots music and tapped it, changing the breadth and flavor of popular music around the world. It is the story of the life and fifty-year career, from the age of cylinder recordings to the stereo era, of the man who pioneered the recording, marketing, and publishing of blues, jazz, country, gospel, and Latin music.
The book tracks Peer’s role in such breakthrough events as the recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (the record that sparked the blues craze), the first country recording sessions with Fiddlin’ John Carson, his discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family at the famed Bristol sessions, the popularizing of Latin American music during World War II, and the postwar transformation of music on the airwaves that set the stage for the dominance of R&B, country, and rock ‘n’ roll.
But this is also the story of a man from humble midwestern beginnings who went on to build the world’s largest independent music publishing firm, fostering the global reach of music that had previously been specialized, localized, and marginalized. Ralph Peer redefined the ways promising songs and performers were identified, encouraged, and promoted, rethought how far regional music might travel, and changed our very notions of what pop music can be.
Calypso Craze (6-CD / 1-DVD boxed set (LP-size) with 176-page hardcover book, 173 tracks. Total playing time approx. 484 mns. – DVD: 14 chapters, c. 86 minutes)
From late 1956 through mid-1957, calypso was everywhere: not just on the Hit Parade, but on the dance floor and the TV, in movie theaters and magazines, in college student unions and high school glee clubs. There were calypso card games, clothing lines, and children’s toys. Calypso was the stuff of commercials and comedy routines, news reports and detective novels.
Nightclubs across the country hastily tacked up fishnets and palm fronds and remade themselves as calypso rooms. Singers donned straw hats and tattered trousers and affected mock-West Indian ‘ahk-cents.’ And it was Harry Belafonte – not Elvis Presley – who with his 1956 album ‘Calypso’ had the first million-selling LP in the history of the record industry. No wonder reporters and marketers joined the trade journals and fanzines in declaring a ‘Calypso Craze.’ In fact, by the time ‘Variety’ announced “Hot Trend: Trinidado Tunes” (on the cover of its December 26, 1956 issue), the Craze was already well underway.
How calypso came from Trinidad to America and found such celebrity, vying seriously (if only fleetingly) with rock ‘n’ roll for the affections of the nation’s youth, is one of the stranger tales of modern popular music. This collection offers an overview of calypso’s slow rise, heady prominence, and precipitous fall in America and beyond in the period surrounding the Calypso Craze of 1956-57.
• Trinidadian calypsonians Lion, Atilla, Radio, and Caresser; Beginner, Invader, and Kitchener; Terror, Cristo and Panther
• Trinidadian expatriates Wilmoth Houdini, Duke of Iron, Sir Lancelot, and MacBeth the Great
• Other West Indians (and Bermudians) such as Lloyd Thomas, Lord Flea, Lord Foodoos, Mighty Zebra, The Talbot Brothers, Sidney Bean, Hubert Smith, Blind Blake, Enid Mosier, The Eloise Trio, Edric Connor, George Browne, and Frank Holder
• Folksingers The Tarriers, Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders, Stan Wilson, and The Kingston Trio
• Unseen in over 55 years – a ‘Calypso Craze’ feature-length film never before issued on video or broadcast on television: ‘Calypso Joe’ (Allied Artists, 1957), starring Herb Jeffries and Angie Dickinson, and featuring Duke of Iron and The Easy Riders
• Four short ‘soundies’ from the 1940s and 50s, with Sam Manning and ‘Belle Rosette’ (Beryl McBurnie), Broadway and big-band singer Gracie Barrie covering Stone Cold Dead In The Market, and Lord Cristo and the March Of Dimes Quartet
excerpt of interview with 78 RPM collector Jonathan Ward (of excavatedshellac.com), from http://contrappassomag.wordpress.com:
My main inspiration was the music on the records themselves, and sitting and listening to records at fellow collectors’ homes. But, compilations definitely inspired me, and they’re all pretty well known: The Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo, the Times Ain’t What They Used to Be series also on Yazoo, Music of the World’s Peoples on Folkways, anything compiled by Richard Spottswood or Bruce Bastin, just to name a few. Equally as influential to me were articles and books on early non-Western recordings and the music industry by Paul Vernon, Rodney Gallop, Pekka Gronow, and Michael Kinnear.
Hearing Malagasy 78s for the first time in the 1990s made me utterly flabbergasted at their beauty and, I soon found out, their scarcity. At the same time I was also amazed at how little I knew about both that music and the record industry, and it opened my eyes to the sheer volume of material that was produced and released all over the world on the 78 format, as well as how little access I had to it. These were commercial recordings, not ethnographic recordings. I wanted to hear more, so I began to collect, read, learn, and most importantly, talk to other collector friends and musicians who knew a lot more than I and who were willing to share—they have always been one of the most significant influences for me..
I sometimes wonder if people have this idea that 78 collectors are white-robed saviors, scouring the earth in Land Rovers like post-colonial Indiana Joneses, pilfering 78s from the hands of starving people of color in order to haughtily bequeath them to their audience, treating them like starving children. Maybe the (entirely true) stories of blues collectors knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods in the American south has helped to prop up this myth. But Pat Conte, the curator of the Secret Museum CD series and owner of the one of the most unparalleled collections of historic global music on the planet, admitted in print that he’d never ventured outside the United States.
Although it’s true that some collectors, especially 45 collectors, extensively travel, even they, too, have ‘finders’. I think all of this unfortunately props up the myth of the record collector as some kind of modern day sage, which I don’t espouse, and takes us all away from the real focus, which is the music. Beyond developing a core body of arcane knowledge, I’m not sure if it takes any talent whatsoever to be a record collector—just a bank account, patience, and some competitive edge. It should just be fun.
In Peter Guralnick’s interview with Howlin’ Wolf in “Feel Like Going Home,” the blues colossus claims that the yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers was the source of his hair-raising wail.
Wolf surely heard the Singing Brakeman during the late ’20s when, as a teenager, he lived and worked on the Dockery plantation in northwestern Mississippi. Yet Wolf’s trademark howl also owes a debt to Tommy Johnson, a tremendously influential, if today relatively unsung, blues singer whose lilting 1928 recording of “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” provided the blueprint for Wolf’s 1956 Chess single, “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”, right down to its lupine moan. Play Johnson’s blues alongside Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” (a.k.a. “T For Texas”), and the similarities between the two records, released just months apart, render arguments about Wolf’s “real” source so much academic hairsplitting.
Their shared twelve-bar, AAB format (swap out lines from one record and see if they don’t fit perfectly into the other) is obvious enough. So is the way the two Mississippians draw on the same storehouse of verses and lyric fragments that virtually all of their blues and songster contemporaries did.
Not only that, but in something of a reversal of roles, “Blue Yodel” finds Rodgers playing an outlaw akin to Stackalee, an anti-hero more popular with black than white audiences, while in “Cool Drink”, Johnson adopts the persona of a freight-hopping rounder much like the one who frequents many of Rodgers’ train songs. What’s truly uncanny, though, is the resemblance between Johnson’s crying, field holler-inspired falsetto and Rodgers’ blue yodel, singular devices that each man tacked onto the end of vocal lines to heighten their emotional impact.
Of course Rodgers’ more measured diction, something of a cross between the parlor singing of Vernon Dalhart and the blackface minstrelsy of Emmett Miller, evinces fewer of the hallmarks of African-derived singing — the coarse, dirty timbres, say — employed by Johnson. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” also sounds jauntier than the blues man’s heavier, more percussive “Cool Drink”, although Johnson’s music is quite lyrical, even country-sounding, compared to the brooding, declamatory style of his Delta counterparts.
Indeed, as accompanied by Ishman Bracey and Charlie McCoy on mandolin and guitar, Johnson’s music fairly resembles that of black string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, who not only played hillbilly material at white dances, but recorded tunes based on those of the Singing Brakeman and other country and pop acts as well. In other words, despite their differences, “Blue Yodel” and “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” display an undeniable affinity, most notably between Rodgers’ and Johnson’s vocal contortions and melodicism — their manifest theatricality, too.
None of which should be surprising, given that Rodgers and Johnson grew up a few miles from one another in Central Mississippi, and were born just a year apart. Each almost certainly would have heard the other’s records, even if establishing direct influence at this point is impossible.
What we do know for sure is that, after 1928, the two singers’ careers diverged sharply. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” sold more than a million copies, making him a celebrity and affording him the chance to leave behind a sizable body of work before his death from tuberculosis in 1934. Johnson, by contrast, worked just one more session, even though he was a star of the magnitude of his running buddies and fellow Delta heavy hitters Charley Patton and Son House. He continued to perform publicly for nearly three decades, until he died of complications related to chronic alcoholism in 1956.
Today, the legacies of Rodgers and Johnson are more discreet than ever, but oh for the chance to have tagged along with either of them, if only to learn what, if anything, they heard and stole from each other.
Ballads and Songs of Tradition
Since he first met the Beech Mountain, North Carolina-native Frank Proffitt at the 1961 Chicago Folk Festival, Sandy Paton, his wife Caroline, and Lee Baker Haggerty have sought out traditional singers to record their songs and ballads. Paton, Paton, and Haggerty have spent the better part of a lifetime scraping and scrimping to fund the next trip to the Appalachians, Ozarks, or upper New York state, making time to edit the tapes, writing and printing the unusually thoughtful notes that marked their records and tapes, and selling the successive releases that made Folk-Legacy a recorded resource of Anglo-American traditional songs and singers second to none.
In all of the releases, there have been some choice recoveries of the muckle ballads thought long-since dead: Sandy Paton lists among them Sara Cleveland’s Queen Jane, a version of The King’s Daughter Lady Jean (Child 52) never previously recorded in the United States; Frank Proffitt’s Bonny James Campbell (Child 210); Jeannie Robertson’s superb Twa Brothers (Child 49); and Joe Estey’s Hind Horn (Child 17), of which there have been but seven other versions reported in the New World.
If nothing else, the Patons and Haggerty have proven these great song-stories are not dead at all—an oral tradition survives. In fact, Sandy Paton notes, the songs of the parents are preserved by the singing of the children. Frank Proffitt, Jr., sings his father’s repertoire; Colleen Cleveland sings her grandmother’s. As it was, so it is; time without end.
Which brings us to Ballads and Songs of Tradition, the first of a planned series of anthologies of traditional songs and ballads Folk-Legacy is to release. Here are 21 ballads by 13 singers recorded in North Carolina living rooms and Scots croft kitchens. They have been culled from the Paton archives. Many of them are previously unreleased—all of them are choice.
The Patons being comparative folklorists at heart cannot resist a touch of gentle scholarship in their choices. They provide contrasting versions of three ballads: Gypsy Davy (Child 200), The House Carpenter (Child 243), and a British 19th-Century broadside (?), which IS new to me, The Old Arm Chair. Of the 21 tracks, it is difficult to select favorites, but Scots housewife Lizzie Higgins’ My Bonnie Boy is a marvel of delicately ornamented phrases. (Ms. Higgins comes by it naturally; she is the daughter of Jeannie Robertson and Donald Higgins, a master of the Highland pipes.) Her mother’s Twa Brothers (Child 49) is truly gripping: six and one-half minutes of blood-drenched drama. Similarly, Marie Hare of Strathadam, New Brunswick, retells the grim fate of Lost Jimmie Whalen (Laws B 1); her sheer artistry compels attention, no matter how familiar or inevitable the story.
All of which, I think, is the point of this anthology. Paton, Paton and Haggerty are intent on demonstrating that folk singers do possess an aesthetic sense. It is surely different from that of the classically trained or popular singer, but nonetheless it is real — and underappreciated. Voice, instrument, even self are subordinated to the words, to the narrative. That is the anything but simple artistry of the 13 traditional singers presented in this excellent first collection of a promised series of anthologies drawn from the Folk-Legacy archives.
by Jeff Todd Titon:
It was in the 1990s when I visited the Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky that I encountered people who spoke explicitly of sound transforming and sacralizing space, whether singing in the coal mine or the sound of the singing coming down from the mountains or echoing outside the churches on a Sunday morning, heard by the children playing up and down the creek beds.
Their words about sound may be heard on the first of the two CDs that Smithsonian Folkways released from my field tape recordings: Songs of the Old Regular Baptists. To close out the CD we chose to present excerpts from some of their statements about the singing, and many mentioned the sound and its “drawing power.”
Elwood Cornett, the moderator (head) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, said: “When I came into this life there was that sound. I hope that when I leave here, that I leave the same sound that I found when I came here.” The Old Regular Baptists weren’t thinking about their music as music; they were talking about the power of its sound to open a communication channel in the co-presence of the divine.
Secular sounds sacralize place, memorialize people. The names of fiddle tunes–“The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” (memorializing the last battle in Pike Co., Kentucky, during the Civil War); “Bill Brown” (memorializing a peddler who was murdered); “They Swung John Brown from a Sour Apple Tree”–these are among tunes I play, and they invoke co-presence. Often an old-time string band fiddler will say the name of the person from whom he or she learned the tune, just before or after playing it, invoking the co-presence of the source musician.
excerpt from Burkhard Bilger (www.newyorker.com):
“Wanna see something that’ll knock your eyes out?” Joe Bussard told me when I visited. He plucked a tobacco-colored sleeve from the wall and spindled its shiny shellac on the turntable. Bussard’s collection was unmarked and unalphabetized—the better to thwart potential thieves—but he knew the location and exact condition of every record. This one was a mint copy of “Revenue Man Blues,” by Charley Patton, one of perhaps three or four in the world.
“Try and get that on eBay!” Bussard said. His gray eyes were bulging beneath bushy white brows, his gaunt features twisted into a happy leer. “Haw! Haw!” Then the music came on and he was quiet.
Patton may be the greatest bluesman ever recorded and one of the hardest to listen to. The few records he made were pressed out of too soft shellac and worn down by constant playing. (Victrola needles were made of steel, easily dulled, and designed to be discarded after a single use, though they rarely were.) Not this one.
Bussard had found it in a drugstore in Georgia, in the early sixties, in a stack of 78s that had lain untouched for thirty years. There was no crackle, hardly any hiss. You could hear the hoarseness in Patton’s voice—the growling authority of it—and the stutter and snap of the strings. You could hear the hollow thump of his palm against the guitar and the sharp intake of his breath. Bussard shook his head: “This is as close as you’ll ever get to him, kid.”
When Bussard started collecting, such finds weren’t uncommon. The music he liked was out of fashion, its format obsolete. (“Do not throw away your old gramophone records,” one magazine article urged in the thirties. “Instead, turn them into decorative wall vases, bulb bowls or miniature garden containers.”) “I guarantee you, eighty per cent of these records would have been destroyed if I hadn’t got them,” he said.
“I went into Richmond when they had them big riots. Went into the black section and hunted house to house and alley to alley. I’d beat the backwoods. Look for houses without much paint on ’em—lace curtains, old rusted coffee can on the front porch. In Virginia in the sixties, the houses looked terrible, but inside they were like mansions. I could just smell the records.”
Smithsonian Folkways (SFWCD40211)
Pink Anderson, Bill Williams, Little Brother Montgomery, Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, Warner Williams, Peg Leg Sam, Snooks Eaglin, Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly and more…
Another dip into the deep well of their extensive archives, this time the good folk at Smithsonian Folkways have taken on the compilation of 21 songs from ‘songsters’, the meaning of which has long eluded me. Thankfully, it does not seem that it is just me being a little dense, as respected music scholar Barry Lee Pearson acknowledges the problems of such a definition in his introductory essay to the impressive 40 page booklet that accompanies this CD.
Having spent much of his essay exploring and explaining these difficulties, he identifies the working premise that the label adopted when selecting titles for inclusion here – ‘a non-blues compilation encompassing songs that preceded blues, hybrids of blues and other song forms, and a variety of genres including old-timey string band standards, ragtime, country and Tin Pan Alley pop.’
Clear now? Me neither. Fortunately, it matters not a jot as the music on offer is exemplary throughout, featuring big-names a-plenty plus a few who may be new to most.
Proceedings get off to an excellent start with a lightweight but enjoyable live version of the traditional Bring It On Down To My House by Warner Williams With Jay Summerour, artists new to me who also contribute a lovely version of Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose. Another unfamiliar name whose performance here shines out is Marvin Foddrell, a singer and guitarist from Virginia whose version of Reno Factory is both quietly haunting and delightful. As is the closing track from Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Howard Armstrong, a ragged live take from 1986 of They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree.
More familiar names usually associated with the songster tag include Mississippi John Hurt, with a 1964 version of Monday Morning Blues featuring his reliably charming vocals and intricate finger-picked guitar, and John Jackson, who contributes an authoritative version of Nobody’s Business If I Do and masterful reading of Charlie Poole’s Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.
Despite long being a personal favourite of mine, I wouldn’t normally associate Little Brother Montgomery with being a songster but his Alabama Bound is present and very correct, full of his sumptuous piano rolls and warm, expressive vocals.
Another winner therefore in a popular series of themed compilations from an extensive archive, beautifully balancing big names and performances with plenty of rare and little known material.
from notes to “Hillbilly Wobble” by Mick Kinney:
The term cracker has been around for centuries in reference to jovial storytelling or witty banter. Shakespeare used it in that context, similar to the more modern wise cracker. The resurrected Gaelic spelling craic meaning “fun times” is now common in hip Irish circles.
As far back as colonial times in America, cracker became a stereotype for rural white southerners. In addition to the word’s Anglo origins, another one suggested is “So poor they had to crack their own corn,” that is, not able to afford the price of milling.
Although regarded nowadays as somewhat of a derogatory slur, Georgia was widely known, until fairly recently, as “The Cracker State.” In a most ironic twist, before racial integration the capital city’s Negro League team was called The Atlanta Black Crackers, a spinoff of their Southern League counterpart.
During the early 20th century, quite a few musical acts went by some variant of “Georgia Crackers.” Okeh records actually had two on their label: the Cofer Brothers, Paul and Leon, took the name for some of their cuts while Macon jazz singer, Emmett Miller, used it for his stellar studio side musicians.
Others in the hillbilly catagory include the Canova family band, “Three Georgia Crackers,” in 20’s Columbia catalogue.
Though often erroneously regarded as simply a variation of Calypso, Jamaican Mento is a distinct musical style that developed independently from its similarly styled Trinidadian cousin. The genre remained Jamaica’s most popular form of indigenous music from the post war years up until the development of Shuffle Blues and its immediate successor, Ska, in the early sixties.
The distinctive sound produced by early exponents of the style was a result of the combination of vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar, hand percussion and a rumba box, all frequently enhanced by homemade saxophone, clarinet or bamboo flute.
Mento, Not Calypso! features some of the earliest recordings in the genre, dubbed directly from the original Jamaican 78s, with many featuring on CD for the first time. Compiled by Mento aficionado, Mike Murphy, the 2CD set is unquestionably the most definitive collection of the style yet to see issue and as such will appeal to those seeking to discover the origins of modern Jamaican music as well as the less discerning buyer simply wishing to enhance their summer barbecue!
John Sharp often woke up his family before daylight with a cheerful imitation of the cardinal’s song, a fiddle tune named “Redbird.” Their bedtime would just as likely be preceded by fiddle music, or put off for hours if music-loving friends or relatives stopped to visit. Fiddlin’ John Sharp loved music with emotional intensity.
A daughter recalls watching with the other children through a little ‘cubby hole’ window in the loft of their house for their father’s return one miserable, sleeting winter night in 1937. When their father, a stocky, tough man, came into sight, he was crying. Crippled since boyhood by a leg injury, he had fallen and cracked the record, “Carroll County Blues,” that he had just walked five miles to buy at a Stearns Company Store. Placing it on the Victrola, he found the record would play and, overjoyed, stayed up past midnight to learn the tune.
Sharp always began a fiddle tune with the fiddle under his chin, standing or sitting straight. When the music started, his body began twisting, bending, and crouching, his eyes shut tight, his mouth worked along with the tune, and his arms swung the fiddle about, playing around his feet or above his head. Sometimes he would wind up on his knees, playing and whooping, or shaking the fiddle to make the rattlesnake rattles inside the instrument sound out.
John Sharp was born September 2, 1894 in the ‘Washington Young Place,’ a log house just on the Kentucky side of the state line, now said to be the dwelling with the longest continual occupation in the state of Kentucky (since 1792). John’s mother found him at age 6 hiding behind a door playing “Rye Straw.” His father, a fine fiddler, taught him tunes like “Wild Goose Squall,” and “Fourteen Wildcat Scalps,” even humming one the day he died for John to learn. John joined a small exodus to the farmland of Iowa in 1916, with his new bride Bonnie. He stayed long enough to learn a few Midwestern tunes, but was back in Kentucky via Oklahoma by 1919.
The next year he moved to Tennessee to work on the Slick Ford – Stockton pole road, a railroad-like system of tracks made with small poles for mule teams pulling carts loaded with logs. Except for a few years back on the Washington Young Place, he spent the rest of his life in Tennessee near Sharp Place, working in the log woods, farming, and playing music. He was a neighbor for a while to his second cousin Will Phipps, whose large repertoire of unusual solo fiddle tunes was much admired. Bonnie Sharp remembers Burnett and Rutherford riding up on two fine looking mares in July 1929 to spend a week-long visit with John, a new acquaintance they had made at the courthouse gatherings in Monticello.
In 1931, John was approached by Virgil Anderson – who had once been a close neighbor- to form the Kentucky Wildcats string band. Later, eight of his children took up instruments, and each one at some point traveled with him to play for Democratic political rallies, dedication ceremonies, family reunions, and weekly dances at Pickett State Park.
In 1949, Sgt. Alvin York invited Sharp down for an evening to try out a new record cutting machine. York recorded about 20 sides for his lifelong fiddling friend, who sent most of them away as presents. These disks, with John Sharp Jr. and Clyde Evans accompanying on rhythm guitars, are the best existing examples of Sharp’s abilities. Just a year before he died, in 1964, he recorded several more tunes for his family on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
The Guitar Stylings of Joseph Spence (DVD)
To order online, go to the Guitar Workshop site.
For related music, check out my Bahamian Blind Blake page.
I saw Joseph Spence only once, when I was 12 years old, in a concert at
Harvard University with the Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb. I can’t say I
remember very much about that particular concert, but I have been listening
to his music as long as I can remember, and he has always been one of my
I worked out one of his arrangements for the first time in the late 1970s,
among the first pieces I ever tried to learn note for note off a recording.
I can’t say I got very close to his fingering, but I came pretty close to the
rhythm, and that was what first fascinated me about his playing. I was
used to the straightforward rhythms of ragtime-blues, and Spence opened
up new possibilities that would eventually lead me to the Congo and lessons
from players like Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo.
Over the next thirty years I learned about a dozen of his pieces, but it was
only after Ernie Hawkins put me in touch with Stefan Grossman and Stefan
agreed to do this video that I really buckled down and tried to get the pieces
right. The last three years have involved months of intensive woodshedding,
as well as many long conversations with Guy Droussart. (more…)