Archive for the ‘articles/profiles’ Category

John Work

September 24, 2014

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from http://www.motherjones.com and http://www.nytimes.com:

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.

Jonathan Ward

September 19, 2014

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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.

Olive Dame Campbell

September 11, 2014

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John Sharp

September 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Doc Watson Principles

August 30, 2014

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by Kent Gustavson (from http://www.kentgustavson.com):

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

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

Doc Watson Principle #1: Honoring Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Sprung

August 29, 2014

 

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edited from banjonews.com:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.rogersprung.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. James Sessions

August 28, 2014

edited from Jack Neely (http://www.lynnpoint.com/st_james/history.htm):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almeda Riddle

August 27, 2014

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from http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net:

Almeda James Riddle (1898–1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German Labels Search for the Real Sound of America

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

edited from www.dw.de:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Tracey

August 17, 2014

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edited from www.voanews.com:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check here for CDs of Tracey’s collection.

Uncle Wade: the last 15 years

August 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Storm Roberts

August 15, 2014
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John Storm Roberts

edited from http://www.guardian.co.uk, http://www.independent.co.uk, http://www.telegraph.co.uk, http://www.nytimes.com, http://www.furious.com:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street Music of Panama (Original Music LP)

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Faurot

August 5, 2014
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Charles Faurot

edited excerpt from Tom Mylet (banjonews.com):

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

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

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

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

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

See also here and here.

Lawrence Gellert

August 3, 2014

lawrence_gellert_600

from http://www.indiana.edu:

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

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

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

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

Peter Francisco

July 28, 2014

edited from http://www.ibiblio.org:

PETER FRANCISCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Barnyard Serenaders play “Peter Francisco”:

Charlie Poole’s 13 Week Bender

July 23, 2014

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edited from “Linthead Stomp” by Patrick Huber:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fate Norris (#2)

July 12, 2014

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Click here for PDF.

Elizabeth LaPrelle

July 9, 2014

 

edited from  Beth Macy (http://gardenandgun.com):

The Voice hits you first. You’re sitting on your folding chair at the Floyd Country Store, atop a hand-sewn cushion, and you’re content because you’ve just slurped down some rib-sticking Brunswick stew.

As The Floyd Radio Show begins, you think you’re in for a treat—A Prairie Home Companion meets Grand Ole Opry, only situated in the funky, single-stoplight town of Floyd, Virginia, where hippie yurt dwellers bump elbows with fourth-generation farmers and flatfooters. And you’re right.

Except there is no planning for the Voice—and no accounting for it, either. It comes from a pale wisp of a thing who’s twenty-five years old and maybe a hundred pounds. She’s wearing a dark shapeless dress, something your grandma might have worn to a funeral, say, in 1962.

She closes her eyes as she sings. At first you think Elizabeth LaPrelle is shy, but later you figure it out: She’s having a private moment, in front of a hundred-plus people, while she belts out an ancient ballad, resurrecting the same high, lonesome sound that crossed the Atlantic more than a century ago and once echoed across ridgetops in these southwest Virginia hills.

LaPrelle’s shimmering resonance has been compared to that of Emmylou Harris, her ornamental trill to the church-influenced work of Ralph Stanley and Iris DeMent. “Soul,” says Joe Wilson, a Virginia-based folklorist and Library of Congress Living Legend. “Those notes go back to the beginning, to the place where, as Bill Monroe once put it, ‘the ancient tones reside.’ LaPrelle’s voice could keep a muskmelon in the air at a hundred yards.”

But The Floyd Radio Show counts on more than just the Voice to sustain it. There’s the Fiddle, too: Anna Roberts-Gevalt, LaPrelle’s twenty-six-year-old cohost and an acclaimed musician in her own right (she sings as well and also plays the banjo and guitar). Where the Voice is small and still, the Fiddle is energetic and rangy, all elbows and legs. 

Looking back on their chance meeting in 2010, at a house concert in Blacksburg, their musical partnership was practically fated. A native of Rural Retreat, Virginia, LaPrelle developed an affinity for traditional music at the folk festivals and fiddlers’ conventions her mother, the singer Sandy LaPrelle, took her to as a child. While her friends listened to Britney Spears and Maroon 5, LaPrelle found herself deep in the archives of old-time ballad singers. 

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” she says of the first time she heard North Carolina novelist and balladeer Sheila Kay Adams. “There was something very magnetic about hearing just that one voice, seeing the potential it has to focus attention like a laser beam.” At the College of William and Mary, she majored in a self-designed program of traditional Appalachian performance. She studied mid-twentieth-century singers like Texas Gladden (who grew up not far from the LaPrelles’ Smyth County farm) and learned to recite the provenance of fifteenth-century ballads from the British Isles. 

Up in her native Vermont, Roberts-Gevalt followed a similar path. Her final college project had her traipsing across eastern Kentucky, fiddle in tow, interviewing traditional musicians and listening to them play. She’s since spent time all over Appalachia, especially in Virginia’s New River Valley, where she met a bassist named Joseph “Joebass” Dejarnette who was putting together a CD called The New Young Fogies, a collection of songs by budding old-time musicians. The Fiddle had heard about the Voice and sent her an e-mail, asking her to sing on the CD.

After the house concert where the two met, the ignition of LaPrelle’s rusty Chevy Cor-sica refused to turn. For the next twenty-four hours, the newest of the young fogies were stranded together, and the music never stopped. They sang. They played. Then Roberts-Gevalt showed LaPrelle a creation she’d made in college, called a crankie, inspired by a project of the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater. When set to music, the handmade storytelling scroll unlocked “a new possibility for what a song could be,” LaPrelle says. Both knew the words to an obscure folk ballad in which a Scottish wife follows her man to a colonial war in India, dressed as a man—only to have him die, after a battle, in her arms. That their voices complemented each other was almost beside the point.

Nine months later, they performed one of their first public crankies at the Floyd Country Store. As the Fiddle cranked the hand-sewn panels inside a homemade wooden box, pictures appeared. At the same time, the Voice sang the haunting ancient Scottish ballad, her lyrics lining up perfectly with the passing images. The venue’s owner, Woody Crenshaw, was so blown away that he asked the duo to put on a live monthly variety show. The ancient songs would not only stream live from the Floyd Country Store via the non-ancient Internet, they would also be available on iTunes.

 

Joe Bussard

July 5, 2014

images

excerpt from article by Burkhard Bilgerhttp://www.newyorker.com):

Joe Bussard lived in a plain brick ranch house on the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland. Its rooms were mostly shuttered and dusty with disuse, the yard overgrown. To find him, Ledbetter had to go underground, to a special listening room in the basement where Bussard spent most of his waking hours. It was a long, low-ceilinged space with pine panelling and bright banks of fluorescent lights—part bunker and part shrine. A mahogany Victrola stood on one side, an Edison cylinder player on another, a modern turntable across from it. The rest of the wall space was given over to records: some twenty-five thousand rare 78s and wax cylinders, stacked in wooden cases six rows high.

Bussard was born in 1936 and wished that he’d been born half a century earlier. His was the collector’s mind-set taken to an extreme. He had never lived outside of Frederick, apart from a stint in the National Guard, and hadn’t had a full-time job since sacking groceries in high school. He lived off a small inheritance, occasional radio work, and shrewd buying and selling. “Collecting, to Joe, is like a predator-prey relationship,” Ledbetter told me. “And if you’re a fellow-predator the claws can come out.”

Bussard bought no folk or jazz recorded after 1933—“The Depression killed everything”—no country made after 1953, when Hank Williams died. Popular music had been homogenized by mass media, he said, coarsened by drums and drugs, made meretricious by multi-tracking and other studio gimmicks. (On Duke Ellington’s big-band period: “Dullsville. Like watchin’ paint dry.” On Johnny Cash: “You mean Johnny Crack?” On the Beatles: “Oh, geez, please. Yuck.”) The records in his basement, he once said, were the “sound of American music before the modern world fucked it up.”

“Wanna see something that’ll knock your eyes out?” he 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. (more…)

Vinyl Archaelogy

July 4, 2014
Frank Gossner in gas mask

 The archaeologist of African vinyl

It was in the US 10 years ago that Frank Gossner got hooked on African vinyl. He was rifling through a stack of 200 or 300 records from the Nigerian Tabansi record label in Philadelphia, when he came across “a crazy really psychedelic Afrobeat” disc by Ghanaian musician Pax Nicholas.

“I really got into that record,” he says. He tried searching for more like it, but it wasn’t easy. The internet proved to be no help. “In a few months, I decided to pack up and leave and move to West Africa,” he says.

Gossner started out in Conakry, the capital of Guinea in 2005, only to discover, fairly quickly, that vinyl was ancient history there.

“It actually pretty much happened overnight in Africa that LPs got replaced by music cassettes,” he says. “Within only a short amount of time basically there was no more market interest.” A single 20-foot container in Conakry was the only official vinyl store he found in West Africa.

But after a while, he began to locate hoards of vinyl records that had been thrown into storage and forgotten – in back rooms, “half-bombed government buildings” and abandoned warehouses.

One find in Nigeria was sensational. It was in the basement of a building owned by a hotelier who had run a record label and a chain of record shops. When LPs became obsolete he had shovelled his stock into the huge space. Records and debris filled the 10ft-high room to a depth of 6ft. Gossner and his friends waded through them, trying not damage any that were salvageable.

“The windows, most of them were broken so you had insects coming in and nesting within those records. It was just like a tsunami of vinyl that flooded the entire space, there was no rhyme or reason, no kind of sorting and no way to get around.

“It was so hot in there too. During the rainy season it gets so humid and so wet that you have mould growth. And then it gets dry again, and then the mould eats away at the paper and the cardboard. This process happens year after year after year – mould, wet and then everything gets dry again, brittle and it starts falling to dust.

“So after two or three decades, you’re fanning all the dust and most dangerously the mould spores into your face and inhaling them and that can seriously make you ill, that’s why I was running around with a dust mask.”

One way Gossner located records was by making posters with the brightly coloured covers of the albums he was looking for – plus large “WANTED!” signs and his contact information.

“The thought of a European going into Africa and buying what they see as very limited and locally valued resources – for a lot of people this might seem exploitative,” he says. “If you don’t really know anything about the topic then you might even agree on it.”

He says he is just trying to save the music.

Wanted posters

 

“Son” Sims

July 2, 2014

 

HENRY SON SIMS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from http://www.allaboutbluesmusic.com:

Some Bluesmen acquire legendary status without appearing in front of an audience of more than a couple of hundred, never making a broadcast or selling any records at all. One of these is Henry ‘Son’ Sims, a fiddle-playing plantation worker who made some seminal recordings with founding fathers of the Blues; who made a telling contribution to their careers with his distinctive instrument; but who remains a footnote in the story of the Origins of the Blues.

Henry ‘Son’ Sims was born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, just off Highway 61 south of Clarksdale, in 1890. He was taught to play the fiddle by his grandfather, an emancipated slave, and he counted Charley Patton among his childhood friends. When Henry returned from Army service in WWI, he began playing with a local string band, The Corn Shuckers, at local dances, fish-fries and parties, where he would have met up with Charley and other men who lived at Dockery Plantation from time to time, like Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson.

When Charley was invited to record for Paramount Records in 1929, Henry and Son House went along with him to Grafton WS. Henry played fiddle on 13 of Charley’s songs and recorded four of his own compositions, which were later issued on compilation records. Henry’s eloquent fiddle playing made him a popular addition to any string band, and he continued to play the juke-joints with Charley until the wild man of early Blues passed away in 1934.

by Gayle Dean Wardlow (from 78 Quarterly vol. 9):

1234Henry Sims plays “Farrell Blues”: http://www.juneberry78s.com/sounds/mo14031t14.mp3

“My hair stood up on end”

June 29, 2014

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. “In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.1 “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.'”2

John Cohen map, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Two girls, KY, 1959
Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.
John Cohen, Two girls walking, Vicco, KY, 1959.

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”

“Over there in that house,” they replied.

Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.

“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.

“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.

Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.” “My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?'”4

- See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. “In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.1 “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.'”2

John Cohen map, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Two girls, KY, 1959
Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.
John Cohen, Two girls walking, Vicco, KY, 1959.

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”

“Over there in that house,” they replied.

Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.

“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.

“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.

Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.” “My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?'”4

- See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf

Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.

Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.

excerpt from “John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Holcomb During the Folk Revival,” by Scott L. Matthews:

Scott L. Matthews,
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers.

“In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.  “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.'”

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”
“Over there in that house,” they replied.
Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.
“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.
“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.
Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.”

“My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?'”

Allan Block (#2)

June 28, 2014

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Final Notes, Allan Block by Sarah Jane Nelson, with Jeff Todd Titon (from http://www.oldtimeherald.org):

Although fiddler Allan Block faded from view during the last decade of his life due to a lengthy illness, news of his death this past fall traveled quickly, and people shared stories and recollections (often humorous) of how Allan touched their lives both as an individual and as a mentor. One week after his passing I found myself at Fiddle Hell down in Concord, Massachusetts. During an afternoon jam session headed by Boston fiddler Alan Kaufman, longtime dance musicians such as George Fowler and Art Bryan volleyed “Allan tunes” amongst themselves—“Big Sciota,” “Georgia Railroad,” “Ebeneezer,” “Rochester Schottische,” and many more. I could think of no better tribute to his life and influence.
Allan started life as a classical violinist back in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. His great-uncle Nathan, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, was a violinist himself, and often came to the house and played music with Allan’s father, a pianist. Allan became a fairly accomplished violinist—he proudly recalled tackling the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor at age 11 or 12, and being one of the first youngsters to play live over the radio in Madison. In fact, the radio was a major factor in the development of Allan’s musical tastes: he loved hearing “Music Americana,” as he called it. He fondly recalled radio music hours on Saturdays and Sundays that were filled with the American pop music of the 1920s, by Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby, or the lively concoction of music, story, and wit from performers like Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny.

As has been well documented elsewhere in recent months, Allan’s life as a fiddler really began in New York City. The first job he got after World War II was working for $38 a week at People’s Artists, an organization that brought folk artists to New York from all over the country. They also published the magazine People’s Songs, which was a precursor to the modern-day Sing Out. Allan did clerical work in the office while being exposed to the music of Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Doc Watson, Clarence Ashley, and Dock Boggs, among many others. He felt a particular kinship with Ashley: “Whenever I open my mouth to sing, I am a partial replica of Clarence Ashley…with his wonderful high tenor voice in the early days.”

In 1950, when Allan was starting a family and needed some steady income, he opened the Allan Block Sandal Shop on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. The shop’s success grew out of a magical alchemy of Allan the leather craftsman and Allan the musician. This integration of work and art was a theme throughout Allan’s life. When professor emeritus and musician friend Jeff Titon remarked on this in their 1989 interview at Brown University, Allan replied, “My life is all of a piece…I don’t even think about it very much. But people look at me and say, ‘you’ve got it made.’” (more…)

Edden Hammons

June 22, 2014

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excerpt from “Edden Hammons – Portrait of a West Virginia Fiddler”:

Of all Edden Hammon’s musical acquaintances the Hammonses speak most vividly of the notable Randolph Countian Wren McGee, who died in the 1930s. The undisputed champion of his region, McGee reportedly held the Elkins championship for many years running before relinquishing the crown to his nephew and understudy, Gus McGee. Smith remembers several visits to the McGee home on Riffles Creek about 1915 or so and states that his father learned ‘Birdie’ among other tunes from the elder fiddler. Currence Hammons, Edden’s musical sidekick during his stay in Randolph County, corroborates Smith’s belief in telling his eyewitness version of the first meeting between the two champions.

Here come Edden, a-carrying his fiddle in a flour poke – oh be one of those twenty-five pound flour pokes, you know, and the bow would stick up about that high out of the top of the poke … He come there, ‘Come in,’ it was a-sprinkling rain and Wren was a-setting there playing the fiddle, you know. Oh, Wren was a good fiddler, there’s no question to it, but he’s a tall slim feller. I’ll bet you his fingers, was way oh, my Lord, not much longer than mine. Just little old peaked things.

Well, he was a-playing, Edden came in. Well, when Edden come in, Wren kinda quit playing a-standing there. Edden said ‘Now don’t quit playing, I want to hear that music.’ And Wren, he got in to play one, and finally they said to Wren, said, ‘Ah, Mr. McGee, play that ‘Birdie.’ ‘

Edden said, ‘ ‘Birdie’? ‘Pon my honour I never heard that.’ And now I never’d hear’d it. I never did hear till I hear’d Wren play it. And I was sitting there by him and I said, ‘No, I never hear’d it.’ ‘ ‘Pon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘Play it, I want to hear that.’ Well Wren, he played ‘Birdie’, Edden said to him, he said, ‘Play ‘Be All Smiles Tonight’ ‘ and Edden could play that. He played that, he played it.

And now he said, ‘Mr Hammons, I’ve heard a lot of talk about you. I want to hear you play one.’ ”Pon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘I can’t play. But,’ he said, ‘I’ll try.’ He went to get his fiddle, you know, and Wren said, ‘Here, play on mine.’ Edden looked over, ‘Oh no, on my honour, I’ll get mine.’ He just went over and pulled her out of the flour sack. And the flour sack was wet, you know. It’d rained on it, it was really sprinkling rain when he’d come in.

Pulled her out and tucked the fiddle and knocked the old flour out of it and blowed it off. Wren just stood and looked at him. Now, he never took his eyes off him. Indeed that fiddle was white of flour all over it. Took an old handkerchief out of his pocket and knocked it off of the strings and swept it off. Well, he played, ‘Be All Smiles Tonight’, the first one Edden played. Wren stood and listened at him. Wren never said a word.

But Edden, Edden said to him, he said, ‘Mr. McGee I want to hear you play that ‘Birdie’ again.’ He said, ‘I never heard that piece and my honour that’s a good one.’ Well Wren got his fiddle. He went to playing it, you know. Edden a-standing there and listened at him. After he played it, Edden said ‘On my honour, I wonder if I can start it?’ He went to fooling over the fiddle, trying to get the notes to ‘Birdie’, and he found them.
I’m a son-of-a-gun if he didn’t show Wren McGee how to play ‘Birdie’. Wren just stood and listened at him and when he got done playing it, Wren took his fiddle and put it in the case and shut it up. He would not get his fiddle out of the case anymore that night. He said, ‘He’s got me beat,’ he said, ‘I don’t know how to play the fiddle.’

Currence notes that his Uncle Edden routinely toted his instrument around in a flour sack, much to the amusement of those around him.

“The violin had a weasel head on it, you know, at the end of the neck over here where the keys was – a weasel head and ah, had its tongue a-sticking out … that’s the one he carried in the flour poke. That’s the one that me and him played down here at Elkins for the first prize we won first prize with. I never hear’d such hollering and laughing as people [did] in my life. Edden, oh they had them nice one hundred dollar fiddles and them they said was cheap, and they said, well, it come Edden’s turn he just walked over to the corner and picked up the flour poke and they all got to looking to what he was getting. He pulled that old fiddle out and flour was all over it. He dusted it off, blowed it off, you know. Some of them went to laughing and hollering about that flour.

‘Upon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘that’s just as good as the best cases made,’ he said, ‘that flour makes her play good.’ I never will forget that.”

“The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

June 20, 2014

JIMMIE RODGERS: “The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

excerpt from Imogen Smith (http://chiseler.org):

American popular culture has had few better days than July 16, 1930, when Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, went to the Victor Studio in Hollywood and recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner),” backed by none other than Louis Armstrong. Actually, “backed” is the wrong word; the recording is a duet, and you can hear Armstrong respond with delight to Rodgers’s vocals, and Rodgers drink up the fire of Armstrong’s trumpet. Satchmo went uncredited on the record, however, and his presence was only suspected until Nolan Porterfield finally tracked down hard evidence while researching his 2007 biography of Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers fully deserves his title as the “father of country music,” but it fails to capture his real nature as a one-man melting pot for country, blues, jazz and pop. His music was both urban and rural, blissfully indifferent to categories imposed later. He was accompanied at different times by fiddles and banjos, growling clarinets, jug bands, tubas, blues pickers, Hawaiian steel guitars and ukuleles, as well as his own rudimentary but effective guitar riffs. On “Blue Yodel No. 9,” his twanging, clarion voice—sharp and resonant as a locomotive’s bell—weaves dazzlingly with Armstrong’s bright, hard, leaping trumpet.

Racially integrated recordings were not uncommon at the time, though black and white musicians couldn’t perform together publicly, and when the great guitarist Eddie Lang (an Italian-American, born Salvatore Massaro) recorded with black artists like Lonnie Johnson for the Okeh label (producer of “race records”), he was credited as “Blind Willie Dunn.” Fortunately, microphones were blind. Piedmont bluesman John Jackson recounted how he cried all night when he learned that Jimmie Rodgers was dead, and was shocked the next morning when he saw the obituary and realized his idol was white. Rodgers himself defined country music as “the white man’s blues.”

Some time in the late 1940’s, the Kipsigis tribe of Kenya first heard recorded music courtesy of a windup gramophone. They were particularly taken with the performer they called “Chemirocha,” and wrote their own songs in tribute, inviting him to come and dance with them. Such a recording can be heard online; it sounds too good to be true, but all evidence points to it being legit. Alas, Rodgers could not accept the invitation, since he had died of tuberculosis in 1933, aged 35, in the Taft Hotel in Manhattan. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 1924, and he told us exactly how it felt in his macabre, angry lament, “T.B. Blues”:

When it rained down sorrow, it rained all over me,

                        ‘Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.

According to the veddy British announcer who introduces the ethnographic recording, the Kipsigis women insisted that Chemirocha was “no ordinary creature” but in fact a faun, half-man, half-antelope. It’s a fitting image, somehow. Bob Dylan, who produced a tribute album, called Rodgers “the voice in the wilderness of your head.” He seems a kind of American Pan, a deathless goat-hoofed spirit of cultural fertility, a ghost capering across the fields of American music.

See also here, here, and here.

 

Ian Nagoski

June 19, 2014

 

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excerpt of interview with 78 RPM collector Ian Nagoski (of Canary Records), from http://contrappassomag.wordpress.com:

In my mid-teens, shortly after buying Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America book, I heard the ‘Social Music’ volume of Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology (still my favorite volume) and began to take his premise of listening for the Big Picture (the “voice of God”?) seriously. From my late teens through my twenties, I studied the first generation of collector/anthologists of Americana (Pete Whelan’s Origin Jazz Library, Nick Perls’ Yazoo, Chris Strachwitz’s Folklyric and Arhoolie, Don Kent’s Herwin, etc, etc) and came to think of them as artists as much as the performers that they were presenting, as sculptors, bricoleurs, and composers in the same sense as Joseph Cornell, Bruce Connor, Pierre Schaeffer, etc. I was at university and having a very difficult time finding my way when Pat Conte’s Secret Museum series was released and I felt that he had more to say about the truth of music than anyone in a hundred mile radius of the town where I lived.

When I was thirty my daughter was born, so I gave up my music because it was too time-consuming and only lost me money. But I’d been into 78s for about ten years at that point, and a buddy of mine suggested that I make a CD collection for his label. So that became Black Mirror on the Dust-to-Digital label. Then that lead to a relationship with Mississippi Records and got me interested in doing more research and writing about old music. I saw that there were some great stories not being told and saw a way to deal with some of the same concerns regarding memory and musical meaning that I’d had as a composer in a relatable form, so I started doing that.

I’m driven by a desire to respect the work of the people who made this beautiful music—to say simply and clearly that their lives mattered. I feel connected to them when I hear them play, and I want to know them and share the quality and meaning of their lives to the extent that I can know it. Secondarily, I want to shake people up a little, Americans in particular, and remind them (us) that we haven’t been told the whole story, that we don’t know enough about who we are, that the world is a big place full of beauty and wonder, and that simply agreeing on a few icons and symbols and songs is not good enough. It leads to amnesia and complacency and ultimately reinforces the devaluing of human life and creativity.

(The ‘secret history’ and, especially, ‘old, weird America’ tropes mean nothing to me. There’s nothing particularly ‘secret’ or ‘weird’ about any of it. It’s all perfectly normal, and the answers could be available if the questions were asked to the right people…)

Beaters, Phrasers, and Noters

June 17, 2014

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excerpt from “Music, Mediation, Sustainability: A Case Study on the Banjo” by Jeff Todd Titon:

The old-time melody usually comes to the player’s consciousness initially in one of three ways: beats, phrases, or notes. This is true for fiddlers as well as for banjo players learning a tune while it is being played. Based on my conversations with players, and also on my own experience, I divide musicians into “beaters,” “phrasers”, and “noters.”

To the beater, the tune presents itself to consciousness as a formal structure, at first in large chunks rather than differentiated into phrases and notes. The beater tries to resolve this undifferentiated structure by dividing it into its largest sections or parts–usually two, but sometimes three and occasionally four; and then how long each part is; and then whether the tune’s structure is regular or “crooked” (that is, irregular). Regularity means that the melody is played over a standard number of beats, usually sixteen, before either repeating or moving on to the next section. To figure this out, the “beater” begins to count the beats as they go by, often using the fingers to count instead of playing; and then with this framework in mind, proceeds to try to grasp the melody itself in the hands and fingers as it proceeds, either as a phraser or as a noter. A “beater” feels more comfortable with a regular tune than with a crooked one, and learns it more quickly.

A “phraser” does not count beats. Instead, the tune reveals itself to consciousness one melodic phrase (a phrase generally runs through one or two beats) at a time, as the musician compares these phrases to others he or she may have heard before and stored somewhere in a phrase-memory (both pitch and rhythm) that is both in the brain and, seemingly, in the hands and fingers. The rhythmic figures are fewer in number and often predominate. Tentatively at first, the phraser will bring out these remembered melodic phrases or something like them on the banjo, and then proceed to test them against the phrases that are heard as the melody goes by. Gradually the phrases combine and come more and more to resemble the fiddler’s melody, but they retain the character of a banjo realization. At some point the phraser also becomes a noter and adjusts a note here and there to get a more satisfying rendition. Usually the phraser is barely aware of whether the tune is regular or crooked; it is in the mind primarily as a sequence of phrases.

A “noter” does not count beats and does not hear the melody in phrases at first. What presents itself to the noter’s consciousness is an unphrased skeletal outline of the melody, consisting chiefly of stressed notes that come at particular points in tune–the downbeat notes, and not all of these, either. The player finds these on the banjo, and often plays them in bumm-diddy style, the bumm bringing out the stressed note on the downbeat. Sometimes the noter also encases these in chordal or part-chordal formations with the right hand, to fill out the sound. Gradually, the noter finds more of the melodic core and rhythmic figures, some on weak beats and some on offbeats. Certain tones and tone combinations turn out to be easy to play, others more difficult, and a few impossible–these latter are left alone. Licks emerge from the noter’s fingers through a kind of rhythmic hand-and-finger memory that sets the melody in a banjo-like way. The noter tends to accentuate the downbeat melody notes that coincide with the fiddler’s melody.

The Grand Old Virginia Repertory

June 13, 2014

edited from  Alan Jabbour (http://www.fiddle.com):

My wife and I were on a car trip in West Virginia, visiting Oscar Wright and his son Eugene Wright. They were wonderful musicians. Oscar played fiddle and banjo and sang with a high tenor voice. He played old time tunes—in fact, he was playing a lot of tunes I’d never heard before. I asked him where he got these unusual tunes, and he said, “Oh these tunes come from ‘old man Henry Reed’.” Well, I imagined he was talking about someone long since passed away, and I said something to that effect. And he said, “Oh, no! Last I heard, he was still around. He’s ten or fifteen years older than me, but he’s still playing the fiddle, as far as I know.”

So, he gave us directions to Glen Lyn, Virginia, which is right across the border from Princeton, West Virginia, and Karen and I drove there and met Henry Reed. We had a great session. I recorded about forty tunes that evening, and at least half of them were tunes I’d never heard before. Not because he made them up, but because he’d preserved this great old Virginia repertory that virtually everyone else had forgotten. He had it all, he played all those tunes, actually hundreds of them. It was an amazing experience!

He must have been about eighty-one. He was born in 1884 and died in 1968. That meant that he learned his repertory from long before radio and records. In fact, he had already learned a lot of music by the turn of the century. He was also one of those musicians who acquired tunes wherever he went. He would play any tune that he liked, and so he added new tunes and didn’t forget the old tunes. He had a magnificent repertory. I recorded six or seven sessions with him, and at the last one, he had twenty more new tunes. We weren’t anywhere near the bottom of his repertory.

 

A lot of the tunes he played were included in a collection called Virginia Reels, published by a Virginia music master in 1839. This is one of our only windows into what fiddlers were actually playing in early 19th-century America. And Henry Reed was playing about half the tunes in that collection; this was the grand old Virginia repertory, going back to the late 18th and early 19th century.

It was brought into the Appalachians by Virginia settlers who moved there in the 1840s. His own mentor, Quince Dillion, was born in 1826 and moved up with his family from the Danville, Virginia, area, up into the mountains in the 1840s. That gives you a sense of how deep that tradition is. Quince Dillion played fiddle, but he also played fife before and during the Civil War. This man was born in the Jacksonian era, and died in 1903, but before he died, he taught a lot of music to Henry Reed. I like to see myself at the end of a long time-line, from today, 2012, going back to 1826; and right there in the middle is this man Henry Reed.

Harry Oster

May 31, 2014
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Harry Oster, a young English professor from LSU, was one of those people who saw past the racial and social walls separating polite society and this backwoods culture and set on a career of preserving it.

His recording in the late ’50s and early ’60s at Angola Penitentiary and his 1969 book Living Country Blues are both crucial pillars in the history of the blues. His two collections Prison Worksongs and Angola Prisoner’s Blues (Arhoolie 448 and 419, respectively) are landmark documents celebrating the human spirit triumphant in the worst of conditions.

 Much like noted musicologist Alan Lomax’s legendary prison recordings of Leadbelly in the late ’30s, Oster’s unearthing of Robert Pete Williams sent a shock through the music world. Williams, along with fellow prisoners Hogman Maxey and Guitar Welch, developed an almost stream-of-conciousness style of blues, fed from the folk melodies of the older convicts and milled though the hard life in one of the country’s more notorious prisons.
Says Oster in his liner notes for Angola Prisoners’ Blues, “If you asked Guitar, Hogman or Robert Pete the name of the song he was about to sing, he was likely to scratch his head and reply, ‘Wait till I‘ve sung it.’”

The music he captured on tape—all being continually released by San Francisco folk label Arhoolie—is hypnotic stuff. It is triumphant music that doesn’t shy away from the conditions in which it was created but rises above it. But Oster’s arena was not just within prison walls. One of his finest collections, the notoriously titled Country Negro Jam Sessions is a veritable treasure chest of intricate country blues, starting out the gate with the infectious “.44 Blues” by fiddler Butch Cage and guitarist Willie B. Thomas. Oster recorded this duo extensively in Zachary in the ’60s preserving the dying art of country string band music, which has the rootsy funk of old jug bands, the swing of Cajun fiddle music and the knuckle punch of the blues.

(more…)

Benton Flippen

May 27, 2014

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edited from Paul Brown (http://www.fiddle.com):

James Benton Flippen was born in 1920 into a large farming family in Surry County, North Carolina. He was the seventh of eight siblings. He couldn’t see very well. As he tells it, his parents didn’t believe in glasses, and they kept him home from school.  He farmed. He did chores that could be accomplished without detail vision. He listened to the radio and heard the fiddling hero of his generation, Arthur Smith, on WSM out of Nashville. 

There was lots of music in Benton’s family. Father Sam, brothers and sisters sang and played banjo, mandolin, and guitar. Benton says his uncle John Flippen was a good fiddler who would visit occasionally from Thomasville, North Carolina, about sixty miles to the south. And anywhere there was a social gathering nearby, there was bound to be music for a child to hear.

Surry County is, after all, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It includes Round Peak Mountain, home to one of the most intense fiddle-and-banjo traditions in the South. The Round Peak community produced renowned fiddlers Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and Earnest East, plus many others. Surry County borders southwest Virginia, where in Grayson, Carroll, and Patrick counties, the traditions of fiddle music, string bands, singing, and dancing run famously deep.

Benton says he took up the banjo when he was thirteen. He still has his first and only banjo, a resonator Kalamazoo model. He says he had a hard time with the traditional down-stroke clawhammer banjo style of the region, so he came up with his own thumb-and-forefinger picking style. He suited himself. That was a predictor of what he’d do on the fiddle when he started playing it at around age eighteen.

By his early adulthood, Benton was already a full-time apparel factory worker. He had acquired eyeglasses. He played his banjo in his off hours at fiddlers’ conventions, dances, and parties with the fiddler Esker Hutchins of Dobson, North Carolina. When radio station WPAQ went on the air in 1948, it opened up a new performance channel for Benton, Hutchins, and hundreds of other area musicians, professional and amateur.

But Hutchins’ three-person band, including guitarist Leake Caudill, was among the best ensembles that WPAQ had to offer. Surviving disc recordings show the group’s music was driving, syncopated, tight, and a little hard-edged. It definitely got people’s attention, and the Hutchins band was a favorite of WPAQ listeners. 

Benton practiced his fiddle, with Hutchins as his mentor. “I got my bow lick from him,” Benton says of Hutchins. “Couldn’t help but learn it, standing next to him all those years.” Hutchins’ fiddling was marked by strong syncopations leading into measures and phrases, a clear, bright sound, the occasional double stop, and slightly longer bow strokes than some of the area’s other fiddlers such as Tommy Jarrell, Ben Jarrell, and Fred Cockerham.

It was not bluegrass, but Hutchins was definitely moving in some new directions, with a strong sense of chord structure, frequent slides, and a fair amount of variation and improvisation. Benton says Hutchins “had music all through him. He was a dancer, too, best flatfoot dancer I ever saw. He used to dance in the contests at the fiddlers’ conventions, and like as not win.”

By the mid-1950s, Benton had started to appear more and more in public with his fiddle. He joined another group playing on WPAQ, Glen McPeak and the Green Valley Boys. Surviving discs from their radio shows reveal Benton’s fiddling definitely contained elements of Hutchins’ style. First, there’s the syncopation. Second, the long, smooth bow stroke. Third, the clear, strong tone. And fourth, the slides.

But even in these early recordings, Benton’s fiddling takes off from there –– takes off as in a spaceship. It is even more syncopated than Hutchins’. It has less of the comfortable, in-the-pocket feel of the old traditional fiddlers, Hutchins included. The tone is even more clear, sometimes bordering on shrill. The music is swoopy, bluesy, and it sometimes appears to contain chords and intonation not found in nature. In the succeeding years, Benton steadily built on this beginning.

Benton says when he started fiddling, he couldn’t get the little finger on his left hand to go where he wanted it to. Because of that, he says, he came up with his own fingering. He simply did what came naturally to him, and no one told him not to. He found he was able to get to most of the notes he needed with the index finger of his left hand, using the middle and ring fingers much less frequently. “I get more notes with this first finger than with the other two put together,” he says with a faint laugh and smile. He kept working on the left pinky, and now uses it occasionally for high notes on tunes such as “Cotton Eyed Joe.”

Benton’s hands are unusually large, and it seems that made it easier for him to innovate in his fingering than it might be for another player. His D chord provides a good example. The conventional way to make a D chord on the two high strings in first position is with the index and ring finger. Benton forms it with the index and middle finger. He forms other chords in his own way as well. To move up and down the scale, Benton often as not simply slides a finger up and down the fingerboard in steps, stopping at just the place needed for that next note. It is, quite simply, an amazing thing to watch.

John Cohen pt. 3

May 22, 2014

cohen 3

from https://banjonews.com:

OTW: Before the New Lost City Ramblers era, had you done field recording?

JC: At that same summer camp, the cooking staff were all from South Carolina, except for one guy who was from Queens. They would sit around and sing at night, when the campers weren’t around. I would hear songs that intrigued me, and amazed me. In 1949, my brother and I each bought a wire recorder. (And somewhere I have a recording of a guy named Ike Davis singing Gonna Move to Kansas City. I would love to hear that again!) But here was an example of my reaching outside my immediate culture of going to record stores, by instead actually going to people.

In the early 1950’s, I was at another Catskills camp called Camp Woodland. It was the first place I knew of that took city kids out to meet all the local farmers and hear music from them. The camp put on a festival once a year of all the local people singing. There’s a rich, rich tradition of music in the Catskills. They had a square dance every week with local people who played fiddles and accordions. For the two years I was there, that was a big eye and mind opener. One of my campers there was Richard Bauman, who eventually became the head of the American Folklore Society. He introduced me once as the first person to show him how to play an E chord. The first time I heard Earl Scruggs-style was at the end of that camp, played by Roger Sprung, who was in 1949 just beginning to play it. And then I started really listening to the records.

So by 1951, say, I was conscious of the idea that there was a living music out there. I was also listening to radio station WWVA, which you could get late at night and hear this interesting country music.

OTW: Had you traveled in Appalachia or the South much by then?

JC: In 1952, I hitched South on my romantic notion of that being a way to get to the music. I remember the second night at a gas station in Virginia, midnight. Blaring all over the countryside via radio was Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I had arrived.

I was desiring then all that I didn’t know how to do. I stopped off in Washington at the Library of Congress, the folklore division, and said: “I’m heading towards Asheville [NC]. Who should I see there?” They told me to see Virgil Sturgill and Bascom Lunsford. I knew a couple of records by Lunsford, so I thought that would be good.

It didn’t work. Lunsford didn’t want to see me. I called him, and he said, “Where you from?” I said, “New York.” “Who do you know there?” Well, I wondered who I had ever heard of that he’d heard of: “Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger.” “I’m busy,” he said, “What’s your name?” “John Cohen.” “No. I’m busy.”

OTW: I read somewhere that Lunsford disliked Seeger’s liberal views and that he was phobic about northerners—especially New Yorkers.

JC: It was as though I had pushed all the wrong buttons. I knew that my desire to get to hear the music in its context rather than just off the records was important nonetheless.

OTW: You’d been playing banjo by then?

JC: Yes. The first 5-string I bought was at Williams College, around 1949. I was able to buy a banjo in North Adams for nine dollars—but I didn’t know how to play it. One time in the snow, I’m walking across campus with it, no case or anything. Some workman said, “Oh, you got a five string there, huh?” And they picked it up and played something, and I had never heard anything like it. It was neither frailing not Pete Seeger style. I think it was minstrel style, or something.

I had the banjo, but I couldn’t play it. I could only remember what I’d seen of Woody Wachtel’s playing. I had heard Pete Seeger but I didn’t know how he played. And so I started working out frailing. In 1950, in the fall, I hitched up to Putney School in Vermont. Some guy asked me to visit. Peggy Seeger was a student there. We started talking and that’s when I first got my copy of Pete’s mimeographed book.

Lowe Stokes’ “Up Jumped the Rabbit”

May 21, 2014

from http://www.isleofwrite.com:

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John Cohen pt. 2

May 17, 2014

cohen 2

from https://banjonews.com:

John Cohen:  The real event was in 1948. I worked at a summer camp, where I had in various years been a camper, a waiter, and then a junior counselor. By some wonderful twist of fate, the old couple who did the interviewing for the camp took out an ad in the “New York Times”: “Wanted: Counselors for progressive camp.” Now, their thinking was progressive education, but for a lot of people, that meant the Progressive Party (1948 was the year of the Progressive Party, the third party, with Henry Wallace running against Truman).

So you had people from Margot Mayo’s square dance group, five or six counselors all who were into Progressive Party thinking, and Irwin Silber, who later [in the early 1950’s] helped Moe Asch turn “People’s Songs” into “Sing Out!,” and Irwin’s sister, a very radical Communist, was there because they all had responded to that ad. They were very interesting people.

But the guy who meant the world to me was Woody Wachtel. He had been to Kentucky, and he came to the interviews for the camp and says, “Yeah, I can show them how to make a banjo. Just take a stick, and you make like a little cigar box, take some cat hide and tack it on….”

Under his instruction, I made a 5-string banjo before I even learned how to play it. Woody did the straight old drop-thumb fretless banjo style with so much drive. That and the folk and square dancing from all those other folks—it was a very big moment. It actually merged traditional music and politics for me.

Another thing that happened there was, Irwin Silber’s sister Helene brought up some albums, one of which was called “Mountain Frolic.” This was a re-issue of early hillbilly records by the Lomaxes, John and Alan, in 1947 or 48. And she also had Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads.”

OTW: Had they played them at that New York radio station?

JC: Yeah, WNYC. When I heard Cluck Old Hen done by Al Hopkins and the Bucklebusters, that was the first time string band really hit me. It was such a rich sound, and it awakened all that earlier stuff. It came at you from every side: dancing, and rhythm, and you could hear all the instruments, guitar, fiddle lead, a banjo break, a ukulele part. It appealed to me and it definitely appealed to all those who could hear its richness. Eventually that became the mission of the New Lost City Ramblers—to get more people to listen to it.

Woody also showed me, later on, how to play Shady Grove, and he tuned the banjo like Rufus Crisp did, with the bass string up to F. The tuning was gFGCD. I was so intrigued with that modal sound which I never had identified as such. Then I got a banjo, and I could do that.

Shortly after that, around 1950, Pete Seeger’s first edition of “How to Play the Five String Banjo” manual came out. He noted that “Woody Wachtel reports there are 15 or 16 ways to tune the banjo.” That intrigued me, and I then spent years and years trying to find out all I could about banjo tunings. Just the quest for tunings became an important element in all the field recordings I’ve done—because it turned out to be something I could talk about to country people.

Later I started a fairly intensive project of trying to catalogue all the tunings I could. I’d get people like Stu Jamieson and Ethel Raim, who would give me lists of 60 or 70 tunings, and they’d mention a song you never heard of and an artist you never heard of. But there were no recordings to go with those, and I would say, “I’m not going to use that. I want to hear what it sounds like. I want it to be verified.” I never finished that project because the list got very, very long.

“Uncle Dave Macon: Agent of Satan?”

May 14, 2014

images

edited excerpt from “Uncle Dave Macon: Agent of Satan?” (in Harry Smith: the Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, ed. Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010):

How do you explain what it’s about-not only to someone who’s never heard Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, never heard of it, but to yourself, especially if you’ve been listening to Smith’s book of spells for years or decades? An answer came right out of the air: ‘Dead presidents,’ I’d say. ‘Dead dogs, dead children, dead lovers, dead murderers, dead heroes, and how good it is to be alive.’

That sounded right the first time it ran through my head; it sounded ridiculously slick after that. I realized I had no idea what Harry Smith’s collection was about. When, in the fall of 2000, I taught a faculty seminar on the Anthology, including what for decades had seemed the apocryphal Volume 4, Smith’s assemblage of mostly Depression-era records, finally released in 2000 on the late John Fahey’s Revenant label, I realized I had no idea what it was.’

An English professor confessed she really couldn’t stand the ‘flatness of the voices’-she meant the Appalachian voices, Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, the Carter Family, G. B. Grayson, Charlie Poole, Lunsford. ‘What’s that about?’ she said. ‘What’s it for?’ ‘Maybe it’s a kind of disinterest,’ a young Musicology professor said. ‘Everybody knows these songs, they’ve heard them all their lives. So they’re bored with them.’ ‘It’s like they don’t care if anyone’s listening or not,’ said the first professor. ‘Maybe that’s what I don’t like. As if we’re not needed.’

‘I don’t think that’s it,’ said a German professor, who, it turned out, had grown up in the Kentucky mountains. ‘It’s fatalism. It’s powerlessness. It’s the belief that nothing you can do will ever change anything, including singing a song. So you’re right, in a way-it doesn’t matter if you’re listening or not. The world won’t be different when the song is over no matter how the song is sung, or how many people hear it.’

‘Uncle Dave Macon isn’t like that,’ someone said of the Grand Ole Opry’s favourite uncle. ‘No, he’s satanic.’

I realized I was completely out of my depth-or that Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music had opened up into a country altogether different from any I’d ever found in it. ‘It’s that “Kill yourself!”’, another person said, picking up on the notion, and quickly it seemed as if everyone in the room saw horns coming out of the head of the kindly old banjo player, saw his buck-dancer’s clogs replaced by cloven hoofs. They were talking about his 1926 ‘Way Down the Old Plank Road’, one of the most celebratory, ecstatic, unburdened shouts America has ever thrown up. Where’s the devil?

‘Kill yourself!’ Uncle Dave Macon yells in the middle of the song, after a verse, taken from ‘The Coo Coo’, about building a scaffold on a mountain just to see the girls pass by, after a commonplace verse about how his wife died on Friday and he got married again on Monday. ‘Kill yourself!’ He meant, it had always seemed obvious to me-well, actually, it was never obvious. He meant when life is this good it can’t get any better so you might as well-kill yourself? Does that follow? Maybe he’s saying nothing more than ‘Scream and shout, knock yourself out,’ ‘Shake it don’t break it,’ or, for that matter, ‘Love conquers all.’

That’s not how he sounds, though. He sounds huge, like some pagan god rising over whatever scene he’s describing, not master of the revels but a judge. ‘Uncle Dave seems much too satisfied about the prospect of apocalypse,’ the agent-of-satan advocate said. Everyone was nodding, and for a moment I heard it too: Uncle Dave Macon wants you dead. I heard what was really satanic about the moment: when Macon says ‘Kill yourself!’ it sounds like a good idea-really fun.

And you can hear the same thing in ‘The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train’, which Harry Smith slotted into Volume 4 of his Anthology. It was 1930, and Macon compressed as much journalistic information as there is in Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ into just over a third of the time, dancing through the financial ruins of his state-the phony bond issue, the collapsed banks, the stolen funds-while crying ‘Follow me, good people, we’re bound for the Promised Land’ over and over. ‘Kill yourself!’-this is what the devil would sound like singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil': correct.

John Cohen pt.1

May 12, 2014

cohen 1

from https://banjonews.com:

John Cohen: My parents had been doing folk dancing even before I was born, back in the 1920’s, so, they listened to folk dance records. They’d had square dancing in the city, in Sunnyside, Queens. So that sound, that feeling of warmth and being part of a down-to-earth thing, contrasted with the pop culture then. But the music was always there, even before I was born. My parents sometimes had Margot Mayo come to the folk dancing events, and she taught longways and square dances.

OTW: Margot Mayo?

JC: Margot was from Texas, but she came from Kentucky before that. Her uncle was Rufus Crisp, the old banjo player. She made recordings of Crisp for the Library of Congress. And she knew people like Stu Jamieson, who did wonderful things with the banjo. He and Woody Wachtel were her prime students. In New York City she was Arlo Guthrie’s teacher when he was a kid. She brought people together—Woody Guthrie, Josh White, whoever she could find—and put on concerts with them there.

OTW: Some authors look askance at your being a city fellow learning and playing Appalachian music. Would you want to examine that?

JC: [Pause.] There was a book about folklore, about folklorists and how they all got started. [“Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined,” edited by Neil Rosenberg] A woman named Ellen Steckert wrote that it was absurd “to see John Cohen from East Egg, Long Island, learning old-time.” It hurt to see that in print. She stated that several times—and then Neil Rosenberg, who wrote the introduction to the book, he mentions it again. It got me wondering, not so much about the “absurdity” of learning old-time music in the suburbs, but why she was using me as a whipping boy for what we all did, when she had been there with me at the time.

What really troubled me was that I didn’t learn old-time out in the suburbs. My parents were disposed toward traditional music. I wasn’t born into the Seeger family or in the mountains of Kentucky, yet that music is a very important part of who I am. When I heard Bob Atcher sing Barbara Allen, it really spoke to me. Not through my parents—the song was speaking right to me, something wonderful and strange as a story like that.

 

 

 

Natchee the Indian and Clayton McMichen

May 11, 2014
Cowboy Copas Natchee the Indian

Cowboy Copas, Natchee the Indian, and an unidentified bassist

from richardmattesonsblog.blogspot.com:

Natchee the Indian was born Lester Vernon Storer around 1913 in Peebles, Ohio. He was an old-time musician whose tricks included loosening the bowstrings and playing with the bow on back side of the fiddle and the strings against the fiddle strings. The trick fiddler was popular in West Virginia and southern Ohio in the early 1930s before being hired by Sunbrock to play against the top fiddlers including McMichen, Curly Fox and Clark Kessinger.

In the mid-1930’s Natchee and guitarist Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas traveled with promoter Larry Sunbrock, whose staged fiddle contests were fixed (most of the fiddlers were paid a flat fee by Sunbrock regardless whether they won or lost. Curly Fox was paid a fee of $250). There is some doubt that Natchee, who dressed as an indian, was even an Indian; he was rumored to be either Italian or Greek.

To add to the confusion, he worked on radio with “Indian Bill and Little Montana” (Bill and Evalina Stallard). He also worked around Dayton and Cincinnati with Emory Martin and with Jimmie Skinner. Aside from all rumors, people who saw Natchee remembered him for his showmanship. By the 1950s was found living in Chicago.

Juanita McMichen Lynch, Clayton’s daughter knew him. When I asked her about Natchee she handed me a photo of him (see last blog) and related how Natchee turned up broke and dirty at Bert Layne’s door. Dooley (Bert’s wife, who was her mother’s sister) let him in- he hadn’t eaten or bathed in days. After he showered and ate they turned him loose, never to see or hear from him again.

Times were hard in the 1930s. Sometimes performers had to play anywhere just to survive. Maybe we should just let Merle Travis tell the story of McMichen and Natchee, after all he was there in 1937, playing with the Georgia Wildcats.

According to Travis in his The Clayton McMichen Story 1982: “We played lots and lots of major theaters, the biggest halls in many towns. A man named Larry Sunbrock was doing the bookings. They called them “Fiddlin’ Contests” but they were nothing more than today’s country Music Spectaculars.

They had worlds of people who were famous on the radio. Records didn’t mean alot they couldn’t be played on the radio. Records were something you did now and then. We would go to one big city, say Cleveland- Larry Sunbrock would buy an hour each day on two different radio stations.

One hour was taken by Clayton McMichen and his Georgia Wildcats. The other was taken by Natchee The Indian and his band which was fronted by a young feller who called himself Cowboy Copas.

“We were all friends but you’d never know it by listening to our radio programs. We’d play our show and all week this is the way things would go. McMichen would say in his nasal Georgian accent: Howdy, howdy howdy. I hear there’s an Indian in town playing on another station that thinks he can beat me fiddlin’. If that indian Natchee beats me Sunday, I’ll eat my fiddle on the stage.”

“On the other show Cowboy Copas, doing the talking for Natchee the Indian (Natchee never talked on the radio) would say: I’m just a country boy from Oklahoma. This Indian Natchee is my friend. There’s a man named Clayton Mcmichen that says he can beat my Indian friend fiddlin’ but come down Sunday afternoon and we’ll send this braggin’ Georgian back down south were he belongs.”

“This was the way Larry Sunbrock wanted things to go. There’d be arguments, fist fights and hair pullin’ to show faith in their favorite fiddler. Pepole would line up for blocks, they wanted to get in and root for their fiddler to win. The way of judging was to hold a hand over each fiddler’s head and judge from the applause. McMichen got a nice response but when the hand went over Natchee the Indian they almost tore the house down- Natchee was the winner.

Clayton McMichen went to the microphone and delivered this classic speech: Ladies and gentlemen, all of you who applauded for me, much obliged.. and the rest of you can just go to hell.”

Pat Conte, pt. 5

May 8, 2014

 

Pat Conte

Pat Conte

from http://yourfleshmag.com:

Pat Conte makes his home on Long Island, where his basement headquarters, the real Secret Museum, if you will, houses over 50,000 rare 78s. He also plays guitar in the old-timey Otis Brothers (CDs available online from Elderly Instruments) and contributes to other historical reissues, such as those by klezmer king Henry Kandel, string-band legends Gid Tanner and his Skillet-Lickers, and Yazoo’s recent overview of gospel blues great Washington Phillips.

The requirements, other than origin and era, for a record to be included on one of the Secret Museum discs? “Well, it doesn’t have to be folk music, per se. Some of the songs on the CDs are closer to being hybrid styles than purely traditional folk music,” Conte clarifies, bringing to mind tracks like one by a hillbilly-influenced African fiddle/guitar duo. “More than anything else, it has to be something that’s moving. That’s really what it’s about.”

“There’s a tune on Volume 1 from Sardinia by a guy playing the Sardinian version of a pan flute (“Fiorassio” by launnedas soloist Effisio Melis). It sounds a lot like a bagpipe, actually,” he says. “But the emotion, the power, that that guy plays with. It just goes right through you. I love country blues, too, but the deep feeling that that guy has—wow. That’s what I want people to hear.”

What’s also vital to understanding the importance of the material featured on the Secret Museum discs is that these tracks were made during what has since become known as the golden age of the phonograph. The technology of the New World had met the antiquated traditions of the old, and the ancient art and customs of these remote cultures had not yet been altered by exposure to radio or other outside influences. Artists had, literally, only their next-door neighbors to copy. They played the songs they had learned from their great-grandfathers. The rare cuts on these magic discs are the final frozen fragments of a world long since gone. And they still sound like they came from the future. Perhaps they did.

After more than 100 years of its existence we take it for granted, but the invention of the phonograph is really something else. The raw sound of a man blowing poetically through a handmade tube, leaving the earnest imprint of his breath for us to find a century later, can still be powerfully moving long after every physical thing involved in the making of these recordings—instruments, recording equipment, the bones and bodies of those who played on them and engineered them, and before long the discs themselves—has literally turned to dust. But, thanks to a few bold explorers like Conte and the folks at Yazoo/Shanachie, these mysterious, irreplaceable tones are yet with us, reverberating down through the ages. For that, we should be eternally thankful.

 

Eck Robertson Interview

May 7, 2014

index

from JEMF Quarterly Vol. 8, Part 4 Winter 1972 No. 28:

Interview of Eck Robertson by Earl V. Spielman

S: How old were you when you first started playing the fiddle? 

E: I've played ever since I was five 
years old. 

S: Did you learn at home? Did your dad play? 

E: I learned at home, mostly; I started with it. I'm 
just a natural born fiddler, I reckon. 

S: Where was that? Where was your home? 

E: My father was a real fiddler, and my uncles were real 
fiddlers, two or three of them, and my brothers. 

S: Was that in Texas at the time? 

E: In different states, some of them in Texas, mostly in Texas. 

S: Were you living in Texas at the time? 

E: I've been in Texas a long time, in and out. Of course, 
not in there all the time. In Oklahoma quite a bit. 

S: Were you born in Texas? 

E: No. I was born in Arkansas. 

S: Do you remember how old you were when you first moved to Texas? 

E: It's hard for me to remember that now. I don't know whether I could 
look it up. I can't remember everything that I know, and I 
don't try to keep up with it. A fellow will just forget things in spite 
of the world. 

S: Did you have any brothers and sisters that played the violin? 

E: Yes, I've got brothers and sisters living. Two brothers, two sisters. 

S: Did all your brothers play fiddle, too or were you the only one? 

E: One of them never did play to speak of. In a way he was a musician all 
right, but he never did follow it. He never did try to 
play it. He could have been a good fiddler as far as that goes. Some of 
them played different instruments, too. 

S: Guitar and banjo? 

E: Yeah, he played different instruments. I played nearly any of them myself. 
I had one brother died when he was thirty-six years old. He was one of the 
best fiddlers ever picked up a fiddle, nearly. My father was a good fiddler, 
but he was also a preacher. He was well-known everywhere, but he didn't 
believe in music in the church. 

So he restricted his playing, then. He's what they call a "Camelite" preacher. 
Church of Christ preacher. 

S: So how did it come that you started to play fiddle at the age of five? I 
inherited it some way or another. I just naturally wanted to play. 

E: Did your father show you how to hold it? He learned me a lot, of course. 
My brother, the one that died when he was thirty-six years old, I patterned 
after him a lot. I was more interested than they ever were. 

S: Did you get most of the early tunes you played from your father and from 
your brother? 

E: Oh yeah. I got lots of them from them and some of the older fiddlers in the world. 
I used to know every one of them, nearly. 

S: Do you remember any of the people? 

E: I've even contacted lots of violinists. I've had violinists tell me flat out in 
words I was the best fiddler ever to pick up a fiddle on that kind of music, 
hoedown music. 

S: Do you remember any of them? 

E: I played lots of it, but a fellow will just get out of practice, now, 
if he don't keep it up. 

S: Do you remember any names of the people other than your father who influenced you,
 who you heard play when you were a little kid? 

E: Yeah. Lots of times when people come to my mind that I've known for years and years, 
and they're fiddlers and musicians. Same way about violinists. I know men like 
Fritz Kreisler. 

S: Did you know Jimmy Thompson? 

E: Yeah. 1 think I did. 

S: He was one of the early fiddlers on the "Grand Ole Opry." 

E: Yeah, I remember him. He was already an old man by the I920's. 
I've had all kinds of musicians visit with me, come hunt me up, every 
kind you can imagine. Some of the violinists even hunted me up. I can't 
think of their names, some of them, though I know them well. 

S: How did you go about learning fiddle tunes and breakdowns? 

E: It was just natural with me to play them, I didn't have to learn them. 
I already knew them. I mean a tune like Sally Goodin.

S: Say, that was a tune that you first recorded. Do you like Sally Goodin? 

E: That's one of the first tunes I recorded for the Victor People. 
They sold millions of them. 

S: Did anybody show you how to play that, or did you work that out by yourself? 

E: I worked that out by myself. I mostly improved every old hoedown tune that 
ever was put out. I generally played better than anybody else, a better arrangement 
of tunes. I didn't skip nothing. I didn't leave out no part of the tune. 
I didn't put parts in there that didn't belong in there, things like that. 
I stuck with the tunes more than any fiddler. Had people compliment me a lot, 
people who knew how the 
tune was really supposed to go. 

S: Where did a tune like Sally Goodin come from? Do you know? 

E: I don't know just exactly who first arranged it. I don't remember about that. 
I done more arranging on it, I guess, than any other fiddler that could be thought of. 

S: Was it originally written to be played on the fiddle? 

E: Most old tunes had been in music. Somebody had written them and put them 
in music, but not very few of them have done that. Once in a while I'd run 
into a few that claimed he put out such and such a tune that was old, and I knew he 
didn't know what he was talking about. Somebody else put it out way before he did. 
He learned it from somebody he thought put it out. Lots of times fiddlers claim 
they composed a tune that's been out for years. Lots of times I've had old-time 
tunes, they'd think they'd composed them, but they didn't. 

S: Have you ever composed any tunes? 

E: Yeah. I've composed a few tunes, different kinds of tunes, different kinds of music. 
Amarillo Waltz is one of my tunes. I composed it. It went over big. It was a very fine waltz. 

S: Any breakdowns or reels? 

E: It's in the order of hoedown music, in a way. It's not old-timey music. 
It's more popular music in a way, the class of tune it is, and so on. I've had lots of 
compliments on it. I've dcme some work through a brother of mine. I put out some 
of his music. And he composed. He used to be quite a composer in the way of tunes, 
and I'd revise them for him. I've done things for him I wouldn't have done for nobody 
but him. Sometimes I put out some of his tunes that I wouldn't have done for nobody 
but him, nobody else. 

S: How old were you when you first played in a group, or professionally for money? 

E: I don't know. I guess around seven years old. I used to play at quite a lot 
of contests when I was just a little kid. 

S: Did they have a lot of contests? 

E: Oh yeah. They used to have lots of contests. 

S: Was there prize money? 

E: Some of the best money they ever put out was way back yonder. They used 
to put out good money on them contests. 

S: Did your grandfather play fiddle, too? 

E: Yeah. He was a great fiddler. 

S: They had contests then, too? 

E: Yeah. They had contests once in a while. 

S: What kind of instruments would back you up when you played at those 
early contests? 

E: Fiddle was the main thing I played. 

S: Did anybody play guitar behind you? 

E: They'd play with me. Lots of times I'd get somebody to play guitar with me, 
but sometimes I'd play by myself. Just alone with nothing else. Just alone, 
didn't even have an accompanist. 

S: That's the way you recorded Sally Goodin? 

E: Where they allowed an accompanist, I generally selected one myself that 
could play with me. Maybe if I contacted somebody I knew could play good, 
I'd try them out before I played in the contest. Mainly guitar, though. 
I paid them to play for me. I'd pay them so much to play for me, maybe 
it'd be in a contest where they'd win a prize. 

S: I was going to ask you about your recording of Sally Goodin '. 
You're alone on that. Nobody else is backing you up. Was that your idea, or 
was that their idea? 

E: When I first played it, I played it just by the request, really, that 
they wanted me to play it, and I played it alone. 

S: How was it that you were in New York then? 

E: I forget now. I was a young fellow then. I went to Newport, Rhode Island, 
played for a big occasion there, went over big. 

S: When was that? 

E: That's the same time I went to New York, but I can't remember now what 
year it was. I can't think of it. I've got it wrote down, of course. 
I've got letters and papers of all kinds, newspapers, stories about me.
 I've had more write-ups than any man that ever pulled a fiddle 
bow, and I bet I can show it in black and white. 

S: I mean how was it that you were in New York in 1922 when you made that recording? 

E: I went there on purpose. I went there to make some records. 

S: You went up there all on your own? Nobody asked you? 

E: Oh yeah. I voluntarily went on my own. I went to Newport, Rhode Island. 
I went from there over to New York. Well, I went to New York and 
then to Rhode Island, really. 

S: Did you get to meet somebody who was in the recording business? 

E: I met lots of musicians and lots of fiddlers and lots of lady musicians 
then, even. They all taken a liking to me like a hungry boy 
eating plums. Damn, I was the most popular dang fiddler ever was on 
the road. I could book any damn town I come to, didn't make any difference 
where it was. 1 could book a theater or anything 1 want- ed to. 
Every damn place I ever went, I could just book any of them. There were lots of places where 
they turned musicians down, but 1 come right along and booked them. 

S: When you booked a place like that, did they sell tickets, or did they 
just have people come in? 

E: They'd sell tickets. That was the main thing. I'd place a ticket amount, 
what they were supposed to get for my playing. 

S: Did you ever travel with a group? 

E: A few times I have, several people. I had a family of 
musicians once. Went on the road and take them with me, four of us. 

S: And you all played something? 

E: They was all musicians and all good singers. 

S: You were singing, too? 

E: I used to sing, made out as popular as the devil on singing, even. 
I used to sing songs for people that they'd even refuse to take them on 
records that somebody else would sing. I'd come along and book them. 
I done that lots of times. I don't know if I sound funny, but I should 
have been a millionaire instead of a pauper. I got beat out of everything 
I made, every- thing I was entitled to, really. 'Cause people 'd take advantage 
of me every dadgum time that I trust anybody. I got to where I just couldn't 
trust nobody. Every time I'd trust them, they'd beat me out of everything they could. 

S: How would you talk about the kind of fiddling that you play? 

E: It's different from a lot of other fiddling. It's not so different. 
It's just the execution I put out and the tunes I play. They don't 
ever play the tune. There's not one fiddler in a dozen that plays the 
tune like it ought to be played. You know the kind of fiddling, for example, 
that Bartow Riley plays. My uncle and grandfather and all my brothers, 
nearly every one of my kinfolk was all fine fiddlers. Every one of them. There 
wasn't just one now and then. Every dadgum one of them had a reputation 
that wouldn't quit. And there's people hunted me up that I never heard of before. 
They'd hear me play and contact me to make a record, or something. 

S: You know the kind of fiddling that Benny Thomasson and Bartow Riley play, don't you? 

E: Yeah, I remember. I've got Benny's picture here. 

S: Is that the kind of fiddling you'd call your own, too? 

E: It's the same kind of fiddling. 

S: Would you call your style Texas fiddling? 

E: I'd call it more that than anything else. I played more in Texas and done 
more business in Texas than any other state, I guess. I was under contract 
with the Victor people, the first man to ever record for them. I was under 
contract a number of years. And they got to where they cut me out of everything 
they could. I couldn't depend on them. In fact, I sold out to them, quit recording 
for them. I just had to do it. It got to where they'd beat me out of every damn thing. 
Every time I'd put out a record, they'd beat me out of hundreds of 
dollars on it. 

S: When you recorded for them, did you have the choice of the tunes you were 
going to play, or did they tell you what to play? 

E: No, they didn't tell me. I'd choose what I wanted to play. Of course, 
they'd pick out certain tunes. They'd ask me to play over a bunch of tunes, 
and they'd see where they'd like some certain tunes better than they did others, 
that-a-way, but it didn't make much difference what I played, they'd accept it. 

S: A lot of the tunes you play acre a lot faster than the way other people play them. 

E: It's different in a way. I've just a little bit better way of playing than the 
average fiddler has. That's one thing about it. 

S: How did you get to do that? 

E: I learned to play under some mighty good fiddlers, I mean patterned after a lot 
of good fiddlers. 

S: Who were some of those people? 

E: Pat Hooker was a good fiddler, one fiddler I patterned after when 1 was a 
little kid. I used to play after him a lot. Then came big programs and contests and 
places that-a-way. I got where I was so famous to where every dadgum fiddler come 
along got to where they'd show me in places, taking up with me. 
They'd keep on playing with me if they could. 

S: Were there any people other than Pat Hooker that you modeled yourself after? 

E: Yeah. There's other fiddlers. I can't think of every one of them. 

S: Where did Pat Hooker play, usually? Where did you meet him? 

E: He played everywhere around, different places, but he never was as popular a 
fiddler as I was. 

S: How much older than you was he? 

E: He was older than I am. He was grown young man at that time, and 
I was just a kid the first time I played with him. We was in contests together, 
and I beat him in 
contests, won over him at different times. 

S: Did he ever record for anybody? 

E: I think he had done some recording, but I don't remember now. 
It's been so long back. I don't remember. 

S: Did he aatually show you tunes and how to play them, or did you pick 
that up on your own? 

E: They all sold my records, every dadgum fiddler that come along. They'd 
buy my records and learn to play my tunes after me. Lots of them done that. 

S: For example, who showed you how to hold the bow or how to hold the fiddle? 

E: Oh, I don't know. I just naturally did that more than anything else, 
of course my father and my uncle. 

S: When you hold the bow, did you hold your thumb underneath the frog or inside it? '

E: Underneath the frog. 

S: All the way underneath? 

E: Caught it right cross the bottom with my thumb and with the finger on top. 

S: And you had all four fingers on top? 

E: Sometimes I might hold it a little above the frog. I just gripped the body 
of the bow. Sometimes I'd use it that way. There's something funny about my play- 
ing. I've attracted more attention than anybody everywhere 1 ever played, and 
I don't know why. I just couldn't figure it out myself. I have so many different 
people contact me in so many different towns and places. I used to travel and play 
the regular whole U. S., nearly. I played in every state in the Union, nearly, 
and I've gotten letters. I bet you I've gotten in my life five thousand 
letters, maybe. 

S: Did you save any of them? 

E:  Oh, I keep most of them. I've got stacks of them here. There are all kinds of letters. 

S: It would be fascinating to take a look at them. 

E: Oh, it'd take too much trouble to look them up. I've got them stacked around 
in different boxes in different places. In fact, I've got letters I 
don't even remember. 

S: What about your left hand? Did you hold the fiddle with the heel of your hand 
holding the body? 

E: Usually I hold it two or three different ways, lots of times. I hold it like 
a violinist does some- times when I'm playing. It depends on my hands and the 
condition they're in, and my fingers, what the tune I'm playing is. Lots of 
times it has a lot to do with that part of it. 

S: Did you learn one way, and then somebody told you another way is a better way? 

E: I naturally learned different ways to hold my fiddle. I had to, different tunes, 
different times I've played, I can't hold my fiddle now. This hand here, it doesn't 
hurt me like this one does. This one's out of fix, too. That finger wants to crook 
in under the other one. When I note my finger, I can't spread 
it out any. I cut a gash there between my two fingers one time, half an inch 
down that two fingers in two seconds. 

S: You did that by accident? 

E: Yeah, I fell. 

S: You cut the webbing between your tittle finger and your ring finger. 

E: I had a ring on that finger, and I fell sprawling on the sidewalk during 
a snow, ice-frozen street. 

S:How long ago did that happen? 

E: Oh, it's been a long time back. It cut a gash between them two fingers 
there and never did get well. I still have a funny feeling in there. This finger here's 
stiff, and that damn joint there, I can't never bring it down or to bring my 
hand that-a-way to note the fiddle like I used to. I don't have the strength 
there to pull it down any further than that. I can't get it down there. 
It wants to lean over against that one. I don't know why in the dickens 
I ever had the bad luck I have. I can't figure it out. It looked like 
it wasn't intended for me to make a fortune out of my playing. I had people 
to beat me out of profit on records and things like 
that. 

S: As far as your fiddling, you'd hold it and you'd play it differently 
depending upon the tune. 

E: Well, naturally I would play different to what I have played than I do now. 
I can't hold it just 
exactly like I used to. 

S: I mean when you used to play. 

E: When I used to play, before I was crippled up any about my playing, 
I could hold my hands correctly. 

S: Now I was wondering whether anybody came up to you and said, 
"No, you 're holding the fiddle wrong. You should be holding it another way," 

E: Yeah, I've had them tell me that, but it wasn't 
because I didn't know how to hold it. 

S: So that didn't influence you? 

E: I held it according to the way I had to. That's all there was to 
that. I couldn't play, maybe, like a violinist did. 

S:  Did you ever aross-tune the fiddle? 

E: Yeah, I played lots of tunes cross-tuned. 

S: But you didn't aross-tune it to play Sally Goodin ', did you? 

E: No, not Sally Goodin ' . 

S: What were some of the tunes you aross-tuned the fiddle for? 

E: Oh, I don't remember them all. It's been so long since I tried to keep up 
with it. I used to play lots of tunes in the cross-keys I call it.  

S: Did you feel when you played tunes that there was a aorrect time to play 
them, that if you played them any other way, it's too slow or too fast? 

E: Well, I just had a certain way to play them. It was just different to 
the average fiddler. Some way or other, they didn't seem to have the art 
about them I had. I've taught lots of fiddlers how to play a fiddle, 
lots of boys and young fellows, especially. Some old ones. 

S: How did you teach them to use the bow right? 

E: Well, you show them. I'd have them sit down in front of me, look at me, 
and tell them how to place their fingers and the bowing, how to use it, and 
different things that way. It takes a lot of time and trouble to show--about 
playing a fiddle. 

If they learn it, it sticks with them. I wouldn't fool with it no more, though. 
It makes me too nervous. It'll ruin your nerves. I couldn't hold up at it at all. 
My nerves were just ruined. I can't play any more like I used to. I can play when 
I'm not nervous pretty good, but in just a little while, I get nervous again. 
I can't keep it up at all. I haven't tried to play a tune on the fiddle in several days now.
 I haven't tried to show anybody how to play. I've been in bed two-thirds 
of my time lately. I just can't stay out of the bed very long at a time. 
I can't rest at all. I can't sleep at night or nothing. I'm wide awake all the time. 

S:  Did you ever have a favorite fiddle? 

E: Oh yeah. I've got a fiddle ever since my brother died, his fiddle, 
one of the best fiddles I ever pulled a bow on. 

S: Is it an American instrument? 

E: Steiner. 

S: A Steiner? 

E: A Jacob Steiner violin. 

S: A wonderful instrument. Do you still have that instrument? 

E:  Yeah. I made the top on it. I got the top ruined. Another fiddler, 
a damn fool, got it mixed up with some other guy's fiddle in his 
shop. I left it in there, and damn it if he didn't take the top off 
of it and ruin it. He didn't think he'd be working on somebody else's 
fiddle in place of mine. Whether he done it on purpose or 
not I don't know. I never could find out. I had to make a top for it, 
and got it busted up after that. I still repaired it and made it as good 
as it ever was in tone, ever. 

S: What kind of strings did you use on that? 

E: Well, I used to use a certain kind of steel strings. I used gut strings mostly 
for a long time, and I got on them steel strings. Got a special wire on 
them and so on. 

S: Do you remember the strings you used to have on the instruments you used 
to play when you re- 
corded? 

E: I can't think of them now. 

S: Did you prefer gut to steel? 

E: Yeah, I had the wrapped guts, D and A and G, and steel E, of course. 
But I just can't remember like 1 used to. My mind gets off to a certain extent. 

S: What about the bridge on it? Was it a flat bridge? 

E: That was just like any other. Take any new bridge and redress it. 
I had to refit it to the top accordingly. 

Shave the legs dawn. Sometimes it'd be too thick or too thin, I'd put a 
thicker one on or something. You've got to be a judge of anything like that 
to get the tone, hunt the tone. You've got to hunt it out. 

S: Did you work with the soundpost, too? 

E: Oh yeah. That's the main thing, knowing how to set a soundpost. Search it out. 
You got to search it out. You can't just set them up. 

S: So you searched it out on your own. 

E: Oh, I set it different places, hunting for the tone. That's 
the way I do it. Yeah. You've got to hunt for it. You've got to find it. 

S: What about bows? Did you re-hair your awn bows? 

E: Oh yeah. I re-haired bows. 

S: Did you like a heavy baw? 

E:  1 didn't like a too heavy one. but I liked a pretty heavy bow, 
one that's got enough strength in it not to bend too limber or nothing like that. 
It's got to have strength enough in it to tighten the hair reasonably tight. 

It's a pretty tight bow, then. I don't make it too tight. 1 don't let it be too loose. 

S: Did you use a lot of rosin? 

E:  Yeah. I always keep them rosined good. 

S: Did you put it on quite a bit at one time, or did you keep putting a little bit on? 

E: Oh, yes, 
rosin it every little bit. I'd keep putting it on. 

S:  What would happen if the rosin got on the strings or on top of the fiddle? 
Did that make any difference?

E: Oh, sometimes you get too much rosin on your strings, and it covers them. 

S: Are you careful to keep them clean, or did you let it collect? 

E: Kept them clean. 1 cleaned them off quite a bit. Every once in a while you have 
to clean them off, you use lots of rosin. Ain't best to let it get too much on top 
of the violin, collect too thick.  

S: When you pulled the bow across the strings did you keep the hair flat, 
or did you turn the hair away from you or toward you? 

E: I generally keep it pretty well straight up and down. I hold it level, 
don't let it lean over too much. 

S: Were you careful where on the string you drew the bow, and how close to the 
bridge or how close to the fingerboard? 

E: You've got to find out where to put your bow on the fiddle so you can get the 
correct tone. It ain't best to have it too close to the bridge, or it ain't best 
to have it too far away. Find the best tone by searching it out. 

S: What's the most important part of fiddling? Is it the bowing, or is it the fingering? 

E: It's important you you know how to do both of them, more than anything else. 
You've got to know both ways, how to note your fiddle and how to pull your bow. 

S:  Is one easier than the other? 

E: Either one's natural with you when you get it figured out. If you keep it up, 
you'll have more advantage. 

S: From your experience with teaching kids and other people, what did they learn more easily?

E: I don't exactly know how to explain the things you ask me--to give you 
the correct answers to it. If I was in shape, I could play the fiddle for 
you and show you better. It'd be a lot better for you. 

There's lots of boys that never do get it. In their heads they're wrong about 
their playing. Lots of times they don't even know how to play a fiddle, 
how to stroke the strings with the bow, or how to note the fiddle correctly, 
or anything of the kind. 1 used to do trick fiddling to beat the dick- 
ens. Yeah, I used to do that a lot. 

S: What kinds of things did you do? 

E: Throwing the fiddle in the air and all around me. I'd throw the sun-of-a-gun 
over and over, turn it over two or three times and never miss a note. 

S: And bow it while it's being thrown? 

E: Hell yeah, throwed it in the air, even. Done damn different things to it. 
Turned the bow over while in the air even. Done damn different things like 
that there and never missed a note. 

S: Did you ever do somersaults? 

E:Yeah, and I'd make it talk even, make the damn fiddle speak a word just 
as plain as you can. 

S: That's wonderful. 

E: It's wonderful.' There ain't no question of that.' I'm the only man that 
ever done that, that I heard of. I've heard people tell of a fellow trying to do it, 
but he never did do it as plain as I did by any means. I made it talk plain enough, 
you'd understand the word it was 
saying even. 

S: What were some of the words you'd get it to talk? 

E: I can't remember now everything I made it say. I'd just figure out some talk I'd make, 
and then I'd imitate it with the fiddle bow and the fiddle. 

S: What's happened to trick- fiddling today? 

E: There's not many people that does it. There's a few that's good at it and 
some that ain't. 

S: Did you learn trick- fiddling from your father? 

E: Oh, I learned it from them experts, not from any particular one. 
I learned from different ones, for that matter. They didn't many of them have 
me bested first time I ever tried it. 

S: Who was one of the guys you learned it from? 

E: I don't remember. I used to know every one of them. Now I can't remember 
their names anymore. I had to be with different fiddlers different 
times at different places in different towns to ever remember who they 
were and what they could do and everything and like that. It takes a long time 
to remember everything that way. 

S: What about your experience in playing with twin fiddles — two fiddles, double fiddles? Where 
did you learn that from? When did that practice start? 

E: I don't know what you mean. 

S:  Two fiddles playing at the same time, one playing tenor above the melody. 

E: That's not hard to do if you've got two fiddlers playing. 

It's a little different, though, because you've got two fiddlers playing who've 
got to plan exactly what they're going to do. You've got to play different methods 
of that. It isn't like playing the same tune together. That's more hard to do than 
it is to play tenor, really. I used to play tenor fiddle quite a bit with some 
other musicians. They'd play in nearly any key they wanted to 
play, and I'd follow them. I've had them some that could play with me that way, too. 

S: Was there a trick to learning haw to play tenor? 

E: Nothing especially tricky about it. You had to have an art. That's all there is to it. 
You've got to have something about you that's different than the average fiddler does.
Do everything there is in music. And show yourself up as being an expert. I've had 
people gather around me in crowds, where there'd be fifty people in one damn bunch 
in little towns I'd be in. I'd be playing the fiddle sitting out on the sidewalk, 
and god damn, they'd just keep gathering and gathering together till there'd by maybe a 
hundred there. Quit their damn business, lots of them did, just to come and stick 
around me while I was playing, watching and listening to me play. Making records 
of my playing, some of them would. Things like that. But 1 let them. I've had all 
kinds of experiences. And just on account of pleasing so many different kinds of people, 
I've done the wrong thing about it. I just shouldn't have done it. I gave myself away, 
in other words, and didn't get nothing out of it like I should have got. 

S: What's your real name? 

E: My real name is Alexander Campbell Robertson. 

S: Alexander Campbell?

E: A.C. 

S: Right, And how did you get the nickname "Eck"? 

E: Well, my father and mother, I guess, gave it to me, more than anybody else. 
I was named after a man by that name. Alexander Campbell was a noted preacher 
and a noted speaker, and I guess he was of the same denomination, belief, and so on. 
And he named every child he had after some prominent person. My oldest brother was 
named Joseph Larimore, but he's been dead for a number of years. 

S: What was his name? 

E:  Joe. They called him Joe Robertson all the time. Quince Robertson next to 
him in age. Dead, too. Quince was a great fiddler. Joe never did play the fiddle. 
He was kind of an artist in a way. Different maneuvers, but there was something 
about every one of us kids that was different than the average person. Every damn 
one of us, even my sisters, were great people. 

S: What year were you born, Eck? 

E:  '87, the twentieth of November in '87. 

S: So you must remember quite a few of the early contests. 

E: Way back yonder, I remember things that happened, some I haven't yet forgotten. 

S: Do you remember the name "Fiddling" John Carson? 

E:  Oh yeah, I remember him. I played with him. 

S:  Did you ever play in a contest with him? 

E: Yeah, I played against him in contests. 

S:  Where were some of these contests where you played with him? 

E: I never did play very many times against him, that I know of, but I played 
against him several times. Beat him in contests. 

S; What about Clayton MoMiahen. Do you know him? 

E:  Yeah, I know him too. I know them all. I know every damn fiddler ever
 pulled a fiddle bow nearly. Contacted me when they heard of me. I 
hadn't even heard of them at the time, some of them. 

S: These fiddlers played in a really different style from your style. 

E: Yeah, some of them were. 

S: Even though they played the same tunes, how would you describe the difference? 

E:They could play Sally Goodin ' or Done Gone. They just didn't play it like it 
ought to have been played. My people that played it played it more correct than 
anybody, and I even improved it myself. 

S: Do you remember any unusual experiences that you've had with your fiddle? 

E: I've had all kinds of experiences, but I can't remember any certain, unusual 
experiences right now. My mind is bad now. 

At times I can get to thinking, and things will pop into my mind that I hadn't 
thought of in years. And I don't know why in the dickens every time that I forget, 
but sometimes I forget things that I would have liked to have kept remembering. 
I can't keep it on my mind. I've had lots of friendships with fiddlers that I've 
plumb forgotten. Can't even think of their name anymore. Used to buy every 
man's record that was put out. Remembered a lot of different names of fiddlers and 
tunes that they played. They learned tunes that I didn't even know, some of them, 
and I got to where I could beat them playing the same tune. I had that experience a lot of times. 

S: I guess a good deal of your fiddling was aimed at playing in contests. Did you ever play for 
dances? 

E: Yeah, mostly square dances. 

S: Could you call at the same time? 

E: I have done it. I used to call quite a bit. 

S: When you're calling a square dance and fiddling at the same time, it's kind of 
difficult, isn't it? Or do you have to drop the fiddle down or hold it differently? 

E: No, not necessarily. I'd play the fiddle for a dance and done the call at the same time. 
I have done that, yeah. That's been back years ago. I haven't done that lately at all. 
I used to charm everybody I played around. Not only just outside people, but musicians 
that thought they could play a fiddle. They didn't feel like they could strike a tune 
around me. Some of them would even express themselves that way. They'd 
make out like they thought they was the best fiddler they ever heard. Then when 
they heard me, they seen they wasn't. That's the way they talked to me about it. 

S:  Well, Eck, thank you very, very much for letting me talk to you about your experiences.

E: Well, you're welcome--anything I can help you on by talking to you.

(more…)

Pat Conte, pt. 4

May 6, 2014

 

Pat Conte

Pat Conte

from http://yourfleshmag.com:

“Of course I had the Anthology. The Secret Museum was definitely influenced by it. I guess my CDs must be the ‘Old, Weird World,’” Conte muses. “It’s funny, I was a big fan of The Fugs (Smith produced the irreverent folk/proto-punk act’s first album), but I didn’t make the connection at the time. I just assumed that Harry Smith was this crazy genius artist/filmmaker guy who was part of that whole scene. I didn’t realize he was the same Harry Smith who put together the Anthology,” he says, validating the whole “great-minds-think-alike” theorem.

“But I did want to make the ethnic equivalent of the Anthology, which, it turns out, (avant-garde composer) Henry Cowell had already sort of done, with his Music of the World series for Folkways. But it took me years to find those records. And by then I already had the concept in mind,” Conte says, adding that some of his copies of the now out-of-print Folkways LPs appear to have belonged to Cowell himself.

“I tend to think of the first five (regular) volumes as the ‘lobby’ of the Museum,” says Conte. “From there, listeners can go off into the regional discs, like the ones for East Africa or Central Asia, with a little bit of bearing as to how it all ties together.”

The unofficial first volume of The Secret Museum series is Music of Madagascar, a set of 1930s recordings from the island nation that came out in 1992. Originally planned as one of the series’ later regional installments, Shanachie chose to release it earlier to coincide with the buzz generated by World Out of Time, David Lindley’s and Henry Kaiser’s award-winning, three-volume collaboration with Malagasy musicians.” Shanachie’s Nevins felt it would give fans of the Lindley and Kaiser CDs more of a context of where that music came from,” explains Conte. “He (Nevins) really does care more about music than sales. But it did seem like it might help sales, too.” Though Music of Madagascar does not carry the SMM banner, it’s right at home with the discs that do.

 

Pat Conte, pt. 3

May 4, 2014

 

Pat Conte

Pat Conte

from http://yourfleshmag.com:

Conte’s first exposure to ethnic music came, appropriately, from his grandmother’s collection of Italian folk and opera records, which he initially wrote off as “goofy.” But then, as he got deeper into American traditional music, something clicked. “It hit me: ‘Hold on, that’s not goofy, not at all.’ I suddenly realized that other parts of the world had musical traditions just as deep or even more deeply rooted than ours.”

So began the fervent, 10-year harvest of ethnic discs, leading first to a radio show (now defunct) co-hosted and engineered by fellow pundit Citizen Kafka, the CD series itself, and even a spot on TV’s “CBS Sunday Morning.” Inside the booklet of each Secret Museum disc (the concept’s name comes from a popular 1920s ethnographic book) are superb historical photographs that blend perfectly with Conte’s evocative, poetic notes to create a thrilling mood of enlightenment.

To many of us, the old music of America is odd enough. The rural blues and country artists we know from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music seem to have literally grown from out of the soil they tilled, to actually be made of the dust on the now-vanished roads they sing about. And the urban jazz and dance bands of the 1920s and early ’30s evoke an explosion of wild, syncopated abandon, defiant experimentation, and dreamlike parties thrown by stylish outlaws.

The music on those records, ancient and exotic as it is to us now, still contains at least a glimmer of something we sort of understand. Something that conforms to the rules built upon all that has come since, something we vaguely recognize as our own. Simply put, it’s strange because it’s old but it’s not that strange because we know what came next.

But besides being made by people who sing in entirely different tongues, the foreign counterparts to what we call “old-time” music feature instrumentation and systems of composition, notation, and rhythm entirely removed from what we are generally accustomed to. So they’re not just “old-time” strange, they’re otherworldly strange.

Like the voicemail of alien visitors or the broadcasts of some highly evolved future society—despite the fact that they represent styles and traditions dating from much earlier than anything produced in the New World. If the stuff on the Anthology is, as Greil Marcus calls it, the Old, Weird America, then the music of The Secret Museum of Mankind series is its much older—and far weirder—grandparents.

 

Pat Conte, pt. 2

May 2, 2014

 

Pat Conte

Pat Conte

from http://yourfleshmag.com:

Queens, New York, 1970. In a junk-piled antique store, Pat Conte, a record collector and esoterica fanatic, is getting his hands dirty. As part of his never-ending quest for hopelessly scarce, pre-war blues and country discs, he’s flipping through a big, dusty box of old 78s. The label on one of the records catches his eye and he plucks the item out. Marveling at its unusually ornate design and odd-looking Arabic text, he notices one line, in English, at the bottom: “Recorded in Morocco.” Intrigued, he purchases it, along with a few other finds, and heads home.

After gingerly removing nearly 50 years of dirt, he lays the enigmatic prize on the phonograph and lowers the needle. The spinning platter hums, a crackling warmth rises from the speakers. And then, from across half a century, the stark, distant sound of a group of young men playing very old music begins to fill the air. The villagers have returned.

“I started collecting records in the early ’60s, looking for jazz stuff,” says Conte, curator and compiler of The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics, 1925-1948, the extraordinary nine-volume series of vintage world music on the Yazoo label (distributed by Shanachie). “I remember flipping through and pushing aside tons of ethnic records, digging for ’40s jazz. It was just the junk that was in the way. Then I got into country and blues, around the time of the folk revival.”

At one time, New York was an affordable shopping Mecca for record collectors. Spots like Asch/Disc Records founder Mo Asch’s shop, James McKune’s tiny store, and Jake Schneider’s converted uptown hotel housed a seemingly bottomless mine of treasures, the disparate, cast-off culture of the parents and grandparents of baby-boomers whose families had flocked to the city in search of a new life. Schneider’s became the meeting place for a new generation of collector-musicologists like Max Vreede and Gene Earle and ethnic discographer Dick Spottswood, not to mention future label entrepreneurs like Yazoo founder Nick Perls, Origin Jazz Library’s Pete Whelan and Bernard Klatzko, County’s David Freeman, and Shanachie chief Richard Nevins. These pioneering archeologists were Conte’s elders in the field, cultural student-teachers who were among the first to realize the importance of forgotten artists like Charley Patton and Charlie Poole and reissue their work.

“Schneider’s thing was that he ‘collected collections,’ he bought people out,” Conte says. “His place and McKune’s were really the best places to look for stuff, especially pre-war country blues. But that was before my time. Though I did find a Bukka White record in a thrift store once. That was something—I took the rest of the afternoon off from work that day,” he beams.

 

Memoirs of a Musical Eden: Lonnie Austin, Lewis McDaniel, and Norman Woodlief

April 30, 2014

Screen shot 2014-04-28 at 12.43.18 PM

Memories of a Musical Eden (1984)

 

By Arthur Menius (from The Spectator Magazine of the Triad – April 5- April 11, 1984):

Outside the auditorium of Morehead High School in Eden, the night air chills. Inside, the mostly middle –aged audience is warm and friendly. They have gathered to share their rich heritage of old-time music, one that has survived in the Eden area for almost a century.

The current embodiment of that sound provides back-porch music. The Rockingham County Sheriff executes a clog dance while the band plays rhythmically along. One of the three fiddles usually takes the lead; the banjo, guitars, mandolin, and piano surge forward in unison. No jazzy bluegrass solos, no smooth Nashville pop, no honky-tonk songs about cheating husbands.

`This is the sound of country music’s earliest commercial period, the 1920’s and 1930’s. Then it was called hillbilly music, and it was made by rural Southerners for rural Southerners. Piedmont North Carolina, especially the mill towns of Leaksville, Spray and Draper – now called Eden 1 – formed a hotbed for such entertainers.

Although the Sweet Sunny South is made up mainly of second- and third-generation musicians 2, tonight two old-timers, Lonnie Austin and Lewis McDaniel, join them. Austin, mainly a fiddler, 3 traveled and recorded with Charlie Poole, Piedmont North Carolina’s most successful hillbilly musician. In 1930 and 1931 McDaniel cut records for three major manufacturers of hillbilly waxings, Columbia, RCA Victor and the American Recording Company, and he had several regional hits.4. A singer, guitarist and songwriter, McDaniel often worked with Walter “Kid” Smith. Also from the area, whose success and popularity was exceeded only by that of Poole.

McDaniel and Austin provide a living link to the early days of commercial country music. So do Tyler Meeks and Norman Woodlief, two more old-time musicians from the Eden area.

Only Woodlief, now eighty-two, has been forced by bad health to quit playing music. Austin, now seventy-eight, mostly plays the organ with the musicians who gather regularly at his home, and Meeks, ninety, still plays a mean blues guitar to accompany the songs the learned seventy years ago. Ruddy-faced McDaniel, seventy-six, now lives outside Ridgeway, VA, where he has formed an otherwise all-female string band.

Although the men live very much in the present, they reminisced about the heyday of hillbilly music. (more…)

Marshall Wyatt

April 25, 2014
mw-frank-blevins-1996

Fiddler Frank Blevins with Marshall Wyatt, Greeneville, Tennessee, 1996. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

excerpt of interview with Marshall Wyatt (of Old Hat Records) from http://contrappassomag.wordpress.com:

I once spent a week house-sitting for a collector friend who had a fabulous collection of 78s, all thoughtfully and laboriously put together over many years. It was intense, with no dross or filler. There was lots of great and rare string band music, white and black, obscure early jazz, guitar blues, jug bands, ethnic material. And he said, ‘Feel free to listen to records while I’m gone, and if you want to tape any of it, go right ahead.’ So I did. At the end of a week, I took away two cassette tapes filled with tracks that I’d selected from his record shelf. ‘Texas and Pacific Blues’ by Frenchy’s String Band, ‘That’s It’ by Walter Jacobs and the Carter Brothers, ‘When The Moon Drips Away Into Blood’ by Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers, and on and on.

For me, without question, the greatest reissue project of the LP era, the one that would influence me more than any other, was Paul Oliver’s anthology on the Matchbox label, Songsters and Saints. It was subtitled ‘Vocal Traditions On Race Records,’ and it came in two volumes, each volume containing two LPs in a gatefold sleeve. One sleeve was pale blue, the other mustard yellow, each with the same vintage photograph of two black musicians.

Even now, I pull these records from the shelf with a sense of awe. It’s a brilliant, thoughtful survey of prewar race music informed by ground-breaking scholarship, and it revealed a much wider spectrum of music than blues alone. Oliver’s book of the same title was published simultaneously. The book and the LPs together opened up genres that had never been subjected to serious study—the worlds of sanctified preachers, gospel evangelists, black string bands, pre-blues balladeers, minstrelsy and medicine shows. This project still serves as a roadmap for ongoing research, and it seems as fresh as the day I first heard it.

No single volume can capture the entire scope of the music, but a good one to start with is Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather. On the surface this book is a biography of Emmett Miller, but it goes far beyond the music of just one man. Tosches grapples with the root and the essence of American popular music like no other writer, and his quest to understand Emmett Miller leads deep into the rabbit hole. I would recommend any non-fiction by Nick Tosches, and his books about music in particular. Once again, I’ll mention Paul Oliver’s ground-breaking Songsters And Saints.

Then there’s Robert Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown, which is filled with astonishing insights and metaphors. Just read the chapter about Bill Monroe and Dolly Parton! Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff have put out two remarkable compendiums called Out Of Sight and Ragged But Right. These books trace the early history of African-American show business through a detailed examination of newspaper accounts and periodicals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Reading biographies of individual musicians can also be very instructive, like Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers, or Holly George-Warren’s Public Cowboy No. 1, about Gene Autry.

Elijah Wald’s Escaping The Delta is a myth-busting study of Delta blues, and Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp proves the vital role of Southern mill culture to the creation of country music. And let’s not forget the discographies—these are some of the greatest history books that we have: Tony Russell’s Country Music Records 1921-1942, Godrich, Dixon & Rye’s Blues And Gospel Records, 1890-1943, and Brian Rust’s Jazz Records 1897-1942. There are many others, but those are the great triumvirate, the ones that really get dog-eared.

Eli Smith

April 22, 2014
The Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen at the Brooklyn Folk Festival (Down Home Radio)

The Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen at the Brooklyn Folk Festival (Down Home Radio)

from brooklynbased.com:

It seems like 31-year-old banjo player Eli Smith was destined to play old-time folk music. He grew up in Greenwich Village–the epicenter of the 1960s folk revival boom. His parents–who are left-wing political activists–exposed him to the folk sounds of giants like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But it wasn’t until he listened to music by the likes of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt and The New Lost City Ramblers, an old-time string band,  as a teenager that he started to seek the sources behind that old-time roots sound.

“It was the first music that really spoke to me,” he says. “I never heard any folk music on the radio and never saw it on TV. But when I started to finally find it for myself and hear the authentic sound of the vanished rural American music, that was the sound that really spoke to me, the feeling that I was looking for. That was the music that I loved.”

Smith is one of the members of the Brooklyn old-time string group, the Down Hill Strugglers, along with fellow multi-instrumentalists Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch. Formerly known as the Dust Busters, the Down Hill Strugglers perform traditional authentic roots music. Their latest album, Show Me the Way To Go Home, was released in October; and their performance of the traditional folk tune, “The Roving Gambler,” appears on the soundtrack of the new Joel and Ethan Coen film, Inside Llewyn Davis.“I’m personally hoping to reform the notion of folk music,” says Smith. “I think it’s become very corrupt where people think folk music is just singer-songwriters or somebody idly strumming on a guitar. So what I want to bring people [is] some culture that really has deep roots and is very rich and diverse.”

If the music on Show Me the Way to Go Home sounds authentically rustic as if it was coming from a 78 RPM record, it was intended that way. The album was produced in a field recording style at Red Hook’s Jalopy Theater. “We’re big fans of field recordings,” says Smith. “It’s what folklorists do when they go out into the country and locate musicians in their homes or wherever they may be and just record them there. That’s the sound we were going for. I think we got some really good old-time music there.”

Smith and Shepard met each other through Peter Stampfel, a member of the 1960s New York City folk group the Holy Modal Rounders; it was also through Stampfel that they met John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers. “He’s somebody that I had admired since I was in high school,” Smith says of Cohen, “so it was amazing finally to get to meet him and really learn from him in a personal way. I’d never thought that would happen and it’s been a real honor.”

The Down Hill Strugglers considered their bid to appear on the soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that was inspired by the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene to be a long shot. Both the band and Cohen collaborated on “The Roving Gambler,” a song the Strugglers first recorded on their previous album as the Dust Busters.

“We sent in a demo and didn’t expect anything to come of it,” recalls Smith. “But then we got a call from [producer] T Bone Burnett’s office telling us to come to this recording studio. We recorded songs for possible inclusion on the soundtrack. We did the session and didn’t hear anything for quite a while. We figured, ‘Well, that was fun but nothing’s gonna happen.’ But then we got a phone call saying that in fact one of our songs was going to be used on the soundtrack. We were very pleased about that.”

In addition to playing with band, Smith is the host of the Down Home Radio Show and a banjo instructor at the Jalopy Theater. He is also founder of the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival and the Washington Square Festival. Through his band and his projects, Smith seems like he’s on a mission to bring back this old-time music for this generation and beyond.

“We’re trying to find our own voice within the realm of the old rural America,” he says, “which is a society that is pretty much vanished now but left this great legacy of sound and this great aesthetic that was created by rural working-class Americans over hundreds of years. We don’t want to see that sound go away. The music has a lot of meaning…the lyrics have a lot of history and they’re really laden with meaning. To us it’s very powerful music.”

Ali Farka Toure (#2)

April 21, 2014

edited from Banning Eyre (www.afropop.org) and Ali Farka Toure (notes to “Radio Mali”)

Ali Farka Toure, of Niafunke, Mali,  set aside his family’s noble heritage to take on the lower-status work of a musician, not to pursue rock ‘n’ roll dreams or transcend wretchedness, but because he wanted to educate people about the rich but neglected cultures of the Malian north, the Sonrai, Songoy, Peul, and Tuareg peoples.

In one hauntingly melodious song from his CD Savane, “Machengoidi,” Toure asks, “What is your contribution to the development of society?” and then answers, “I am a teacher.”

Ali Farka Toure: The spirit who gave me the gift, I knew him very well.  And I remember that night in Niafunke.  A night I’ll never forget.  I was about thirteen years old.  I’d been chatting with some friends. I had the monochord  [single string guitar] in my hand.

I was walking and I was playing just ordinary songs, just like that.  It was about 2 a.m. I got to a place where I saw three little girls like steps of stairs, one higher than the other.  I lifted my right foot.  The left one wouldn’t move.  I stood like that until 4 a.m.

Next day I walked to the edge of the fields.  I didn’t have my instrument with me.  I saw a snake which had a strange mark on its head.  One snake.  I knew the color right away.  Black and white.  Not yellow, not another color, black and white.  And it wrapped itself around my head.  I brushed it off, it fell and went into a hole.  I fled.  It was then that I started having attacks.

I entered a new world.  It’s different than when you’re in a normal state; you’re not the person you know anymore.  Whether it’s fire, water, whether they beat you, you won’t feel a thing.

I was sent to the village of HomborI to be cured and I stayed there for a year and when I was well again I returned home to my family.  There I began playing again and I was very well received by the spirits.

Pat Conte, pt. 1

April 19, 2014

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from http://www.thecountryblues.com:

The venerated Long Island country blues & roots musician Pat Conte is a New York cultural institution, a virtual powerhouse of the oldtime American string music. Every city in America has or used to have someone like him, the obsessive 78 rpm record collector, the passionate preservationist or the record-store musicologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Whatever his day job, he (it was almost always guys) lived and breathed obscure trivia, seemingly knowing every detail about every musician’s life and times. These are the folks who can tell you exactly who played on each record and will argue with fellow musicologists for hours over just about any topic they can find to debate about. That’s the fun of it. It’s not just music, it’s a way of life.

Pat Conte, folklorist, promoter of traditional music and muscianer, may not be well known outside of the local sphere, but in New York he is the most important blues musicologist. There are not many folks left like Pat Conte. Larger than life. Passionate, almost manic about their music. These folks were the teachers who made it their mission to turn as many people on to the oldtime music as they could. You used to find folks like Conte in record stores, the great “record store musicologists” who seemingly had an infinite knowledge base, the people of whom you could ask anything and they would know…

Today, sadly, there are fewer and fewer dwelling places for these great minds. You can find Pat Conte playing regionally around New York, most likely in the Jalopy Theater.

Pat Conte collects records, with a vast library of 78s. He performs it and acts as a self-appointed preservationists of old time blues and roots music. These are the folks who truly celebrate the legacy of the golden era of the blues, the great country blues artists of the 1920s and Depression era music of the ‘30s. Pat Conte and the other devotees have made it their single-handed mission to preserve, promote and play this music.

Together with his former musical partner, the late, great Bob Guida, he was part of the amazing duo “The Otis Brothers” a blues & roots duo who specialized in truehearted preservation and performance of obscure and esoteric country blues, which they performed so close to the original 78 rpm recordings that if you listened with your eyes closed you would think you just time traveled back a half a Century or more. They were immortalized by fellow collector and musical preservationist Robert Crumb in his famed record cover collection.

Conte has produced “The Secret Museum of Mankind” series for Yazoo Records and released five wonderfully eclectic compilations. He is active in Brooklyn’s famed Jalopy Theater, a venue and music school that features the commercially unappealing, obscure roots music that we all love.

In addition to being a walking cultural treasure as historian and musicologist, Pat Conte is a superb musician with a vast repertoire of roots & blues. He plays and sings it in the authentic fashion, tightly close to the original and always focused on keeping songs alive that may otherwise be lost in the annals of folk music, never to be played again.

Changing Lives with Recorded Sound

April 17, 2014

index

excerpt from Anthony Seeger (http://symposium.music.org):

For 12 years I was director of Smithsonian Folkways recordings at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Folkways Records was an independent record company founded in New York City by Moses Asch in 1948. When it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 it had a catalogue of 2,168 titles in print, including the music of many genres, many countries, and particular strength in “unpopular” recordings—recordings issued for reasons other than sales alone.

The Folkways recordings had been published as long as forty years previously, and were all carefully kept in print during that time. This gave them a long time to influence people—in fact to influence generations of listeners.I discovered the existence of a whole genre of stories that might be called “My Influential Folkways Record.” People would tell me about a certain Folkways recording they could remember and how important it was to them. They would usually describe how they happened to acquire it.

They often would say, “I never imagined such a thing existed.” Then they would go on to tell me more about the music or sound. Often their descriptions included the phrase “and it changed my life.” Some of these stories came from well-known musicians—Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Mickey Hart all remember such recordings. Most of the stories came from people I had never heard of, but whose lives had been equally affected.

Some people wrote about their experiences. From the author Jon Pankake: “In the case of my own questing youth, my discovery of the Anthology [of American Folk Music] at the age of twenty-one quite literally changed the course of my life”

My e-mail files at the Smithsonian were erased in a change of platform, but one of my assistants filed some of the query letters we received. Here are a few:

From Denver, Colorado: “I would like your assistance in locating and purchasing an old LP record. Mormon Pioneers is the title.… I know it existed because I had a copy, probably about 30 years old.”

From Garland, Texas: “I have been searching for years for a particular recording of American Revolution era songs….. Song titles I recall are: To Anacreon in Heaven, The Women All Tell Me….”

These stories of an important recording in the person’s life sometimes passed directly into another genre of recorded sound story that I also found to be extremely widespread. This is the genre of “How I Lost My Folkways Recording.” People would tell me that they lost their treasured recordings to fire, or divorce, or in a flood, or a sudden move. Here is an example:

From St. Louis, Missouri: “Some time ago a number of my records were stolen from my car. I have been able to track down copies of some of them, but two of my most cherished records, both Folkways, have proven impossible to find…. I would give anything to have them back in their original format again….I realize this may sound a bit unusual to you, but I am really quite serious about it; those records were incredibly special to me. The two in question are: The Music of New Orleans: Music of the Dance Halls; and The Music of New Orleans volume 5: New Orleans Jazz—the Flowering.”

These stories of loss were often followed by my revelation that every single Folkways recording ever released was still in print and available directly from the Smithsonian so they could retrieve their past, replace their lost recording, and do so assured that artists would receive royalties and my staff would get paid. But before I got to that point in the conversation, the vivid impact that these recordings had on people was always forcefully brought home to me.

Another important group of stories recounted that hearing the recording “made me want to play the music.” This is one of the most significant groups to me, because that is precisely what we as music educators hope people want to do—becoming self-motivated scholars and learning to play the music are two things some listeners resolved to do after hearing recordings. Some of the recordings influenced scholars: Marina Roseman, who has published books and recordings of the Temiar of Malaysia, became interested in the Temiar through an old Folkways recording of their music (Roseman, personal communication).

Peter Stampfel (a member of the Fugs and many other groups) wrote of the Anthology of American Folk Music: “Hearing all these people for the very first time, it was as if a veil was lifted…. ‘That’s what I was born to do,’ I thought. ‘Play and sing like those guys.'”

Not all of the people who talked to me spoke only about the sounds of Folkways. A recording is more than sounds—it has a look, cover art, and liner notes. They often spoke about the look and feel of the package, which in the era of LP records was made of heavy black cardboard with simple two-color slicks glued to them and a heavy piece of cardboard inside separating the long play records from the liner notes—often a thick pamphlet of them.

The Folkways look and the extensiveness of the enclosed notes were mentioned over and over again by people who recalled them, and also by the founder of Folkways, Moses Asch. He said he developed that heavy look because he wanted to show people that this was music to be taken seriously. It was important music. There was the look and feel of Folkways records that in itself had an impact on people. Sometimes, however, it was just the cover image that was remembered as in this letter:

From Middlesex, England: “I am looking for a Fred Gerlach recording. All I can remember is that on the record cover it portraited the strings of the guitar, and I believe the color was orange. So could you possibly let me know if it is still available?”

Crate-Diggers

April 15, 2014

images

by Matthew Asprey (http://contrappassomag.wordpress.com):

THE DIGITAL AGE has coincided with the widespread excavation of stunning sounds from the past. Just check out the compilations released by such labels as Tompkins Square, Dust-to-Digital, Old Hat Records, Soundways, Now-Again, Mississippi, Sublime Frequencies, Arhoolie, and the Numero Group. The cavalcade indicates the staggering diversity of cultural expression in the twentieth century.

The best of these archival compilations do more than simply make great music available again. Radio presenter (and sometime protest singer) Bob Dylan said of Marshall Wyatt’s Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937:

“I got nothing against downloads and MP3s, but getting this CD with all the pictures and liner notes, well, it’s not as good as having it on the big 12” record, but at least there’s a booklet there, and believe it or not, folks, you can even read it in a power failure—as long as it’s daytime.”

The art of the music anthologist involves the sequencing of tracks, extensive annotations, the inclusion of archival photographs and historical documentation. The final package can be myth-shattering. The most ambitious compilations upset the complacency that creeps into our historicisation of the musical and social past, our desire to lock in definitions and musical genealogies.

Some provide an urgent counter-history by alerting us to an obscured genre or style or school of musicians; they can sometimes sketch in the till-now missing explanation for what came later. Others avoid definitive statements altogether, reminding us that the practice of music is too messy to be reduced to a dominant historical narrative, that music-making has always been a promiscuous activity, the fruit of numerous encounters and migrations, and as the decades pass it becomes more and more difficult to assess its true origins and connections.

The survival of music is largely a matter of chance. Of course only a small fraction of the music of the past hundred years was actually recorded; an even smaller fraction has survived to the present; even smaller still is the fraction that makes the leap to a digital format and an audience. We should be thankful for the reappearance of these beautiful ghostly sounds.

Music collectors are often called ‘crate-diggers’, which evokes a romantic image of dusty-thumbed record hunters in stifling basements and filthy flea markets and swap-meets, obsessed characters seeking the eureka moment when the impossible nugget is unearthed—even if these days the most valuable records are often found on eBay. Collector-anthologists are fascinating figures on the fringes of the contemporary music industry.

The American Country Waltz

August 11, 2013

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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.

 


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