Archive for the ‘articles/profiles’ Category

Washington Phillips

December 20, 2014

Washington_Phillips

 from http://chiseler.org:

In Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, a mentally unbalanced young man  plays a recording of Washington Phillips singing an old spiritual, “I Was Born to Preach the Gospel,” for his girlfriend and tells her, “This is the voice of God.”

Even if Washington Phillips wasn’t God incarnate, he remains nearly as enigmatic. Until only a few years ago, everything that was known about Phillips could be summed up this way: between 1927 and 1929, the Texas-born Phillips recorded eighteen angelic gospel songs set to twelve-bar blues, including  “I’ve Got the Key to the Kingdom,” “Denomination Blues (Pts. 1 & 2),” and “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There.” Then he disappeared.

There have been a number of early and influential blues musicians, like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson whose recording histories  were extremely limited, but at least we knew a little something about them. Those things we didn’t know for certain, we crafted stories and legends to explain. In comparison Phillips was like a fleeting hallucination, half-remembered for a few moments before vanishing.

It was unclear when he was born or when he died. No one seemed to have the slightest idea who he was or what he did either before or after that two-year stretch in the late ‘20s. In fact the biographical liner notes accompanying a 1991 disc of Phillips recordings turn out to be about a different Washington Phillips. Everything we knew about the gospel blues singer was  in those sixteen of the eighteen spare, heartfelt, and gorgeous songs that still existed.

But the mystery didn’t even end there, as musicologists couldn’t even agree on what instrument Phillips was playing. It was a sweet, strange, ethereal sound, almost a hum, which smart joes with highly trained ears had over the years attributed to everything from a banjo played like a lap steel to the innards of a gutted piano to more obscure instruments like  a Celestaphone, two Celestaphones tuned in octaves attached side-by-side, a Phonoharp or some homemade instrument constructed from a wooden box and some strings.

Experts couldn’t even agree if Phillips was plucking something or striking something, which led the more zealous true believers to claim the music came directly from heaven itself. When the 1991 liner notes which claimed  Phillips had died of tuberculosis in an Austin sanitarium in 1939 further claimed the instrument in question was a small portable autoharp-type keyboard known as a Dolceola, well, everyone just accepted that. Over the next decade, the Dolceola, a rare and rarely-heard instrument, became an inextricable part of the meager Phillips legend.

In 2002, a journalist and musicologist named  Michael Corcoran began looking into the enigma of Washington Phillips, a man almost completely forgotten by everyone save for a handful of academics and musicians with an ear for the obscure roots of American traditional music. After a number of interviews and public records searches, he came as close to an accurate biography as we’re likely to see. Even then there isn’t much to tell.

Phillips was born in rural Texas  in 1880, though what happened over the next 47 years remains virtually  unknown. He was reportedly a deacon at assorted local Baptist and Methodist churches who (as detailed in several songs) had no patience for religious hypocrisy. He also enjoyed snuff. Although known to his family and local churchgoers for his beautiful singing, it wasn’t until he was discovered by a field recorder from Columbia Records that the idea of preserving some of his songs ever occurred to anyone, least of all Phillips himself.

He traveled to Dallas and  recorded a few 78s (including a remarkable six songs during a single 1929 recording session), then returned to his quiet farming life in  Simsboro, where he continued to sell homemade cane syrup and  sing for his neighbors and family, but never recorded another thing.  Despite claims he’d died in the madhouse in ‘39 (that was the other Washington Phillips, who was eleven years younger than the one in question), he lived until 1954, dying after he received a severe head injury falling down the stairs at the local Social Security office.

That’s all we have, save for those sixteen extant songs. But maybe those sixteen songs are all we need, maybe he’d said everything he’d needed to say and told us all we needed to know. So many of the songs, like “Train Your children” and “You Can’t stop a Tattler (Pts. 1&2)” take the form of simple poetic sermons whose gentle resolve (as it’s been termed) and accompanying celestial music are quite unlike anything else recorded at the time or since.

In the process of his research, Corcoran may have even solved the mystery of where that music comes from. A 1928 issue of a local community paper ran a photograph of Phillips in the studio. In the photo, he’s holding two fretless zithers. Although some still insist he was playing a Dolceola, there is no evidence apart from musical speculation to confirm this, Phillips himself having left no written record behind.

Of course there’s no evidence beyond that photo that he was playing a fretless zither, either. they might’ve just been sitting there in the studio at the time. As appropriate as it seems that today Phillips rests in an unmarked grave in the Cotton Gin Cemetery near Teague, TX, maybe it’s best that the source of the music he was playing remain a buried enigma as well. When you listen to the music, the honest grace of the music, it seems to me the precise identity of the instrument he was playing at the time simply doesn’t matter.

Krack and McCumber

December 18, 2014

imagesfrom http://www.nytimes.com:

The mountain-hollow art of old-time Appalachian fiddling, long withering under the pressures of youthful emigration and homogenized broadcast entertainment, is hanging on by a few well-bowed strings here in a backwoods master-apprentice program.

Toe-tapping in syncopation, his right wrist snapping off bow movements the way other lads ply a curve ball, 14-year-old Jake Krack followed his master, 78-year-old Lester McCumber, through the popping, tuneful intricacies of ”Ida Red.”

The lustrous, haunting scrape of the music drifted out toward the surrounding forest this evening, the sound wreathing the simple McCumber household as pungently as autumnal chimney smoke.

The two were jamming, by the boy’s terminology, or just fiddling, by that of his lean and craggy master. But the music — part of an ever-fading pre-Colonial Appalachian canon rarely written down and ”played by air,” as the teacher tells his pupil — was assuredly alive and well.

”Now that’s the original way of playing ‘Ida Red,’ the way the old man who lived down the road — Senate Cottrell was his name — played it,” the master instructed, suddenly looking back on his own young tutelage by a departed local legend.

In the gifted hands of Jake, the fiddling arts of Mr. McCumber — and of Mr. Cottrell, the fiddler French Carpenter and sundry masters before — now promises to outlive them all through a new generation. (more…)

Tin Pan Alley

December 17, 2014

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edited from Tin Pan Alley’s Contribution to Folk Music by Norman Cohen
(Western Folklore, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1970), pp. 9-20):
Prior to 1880 music publishers were scattered throughout the country. In the years that followed, however, Union Square in New York gained ascendancy as the locus of song publishers. The magnet which drew them there was the presence of a major entertainment center boasting music halls, theaters, dance halls, and burlesque houses.

During this decade several publishers discovered that songs could be marketed like any other commodity. This meant manufacturing them to meet prevailing taste and “plugging” them, that is, prevailing on the singers to feature them in their public performances. In the next decade theatrical activity moved further uptown and the music publishers followed it, making Twenty-eighth Street the center of the music-publishing world for a quarter-century or so. This was the street that was dubbed “Tin Pan Alley” by journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld about 1903.

Why did these songs of Tin Pan Alley make such a dent in the repertoire of the American south? Perhaps the urbanization and industrialization of rural America left many persons with a sense of longing for a lost way of life so that the sentimental ballads of mother and home found a receptive audience in the hills after they had been driven out of the towns.

However, another factor less often considered is the predominant style of TPA songs of the 1880s and 1890s. The language used was simple and effective poetry, never rising to levels of great artistry but never sinking to the convoluted awkwardness of the broadside hacks of a century earlier.

On the other hand, American popular songs of the pre-Civil War period were, as indicated earlier, often flowery and stilted, and marked the unsuccessful attempts of their creators at romantic poetry. There were numerous sentimental songs of mother and home in the 1850s and 1860s, but they tended to be more descriptive and lyrical than the narrative ballads of the later years. These antebellum songs were, in effect, not memorable, and for this reason the songs of the last decades of the century achieved a place in oral tradition that their predecessors could not attain.

Morgan Sexton

December 14, 2014

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from http://arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/morgan-sexton:

Morgan Sexton was born January 28, 1911, in Linefork, Kentucky, to Shaderick (Shade) and Harriet Cornett Sexton. As a young boy, he said, “my cousin, Press Whitaker, and me got some old lard buckets and cut the bottoms out and fixed us some banjos. They sounded awful, but we played them like they were real banjos.”

Sexton’s father was a banjo player, and he began to teach his son to play, but shortly thereafter he became ill and died, leaving his wife with seven children and no source of income. “When I was about 11 years, I quit school to go to work for my uncle gathering crops. I was 13 when I worked in a sawmill for 50 cents a day. From there, I went to work cutting railroad ties,” Sexton recalled.

Despite the long hours and hard labor, Sexton continued to play the banjo, helped along by his sister, Hettie. When he was 17, he bought his first real banjo for $10.86 from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. “I had to walk four miles to Ulvah to pick it up,” he said. “I played it all the way back home. I would try to play it every day when I got home from work.”

Sexton was 25 when he met and married his wife, Virgie Hayes. At that time, he was working “up on Bull Creek logging timber.” A year later, he started working in the coal mines. “This was long before they started to use the rockdust (powdered limestone) they use now (to keep the coal dust down).” The conditions in the mines were oppressive, and by the time Sexton retired in 1976, he had contracted silicosis, a disease of the lungs caused by coal (or quarry) dust.

Over the years, playing the banjo was a great joy for Sexton. Throughout his lifetime, he played for his family and friends, keeping active his repertoire of hundreds of traditional ballads, love songs, and dance tunes. When neighbors came to his house, he liked to entertain them with his music and stories of his childhood in Kentucky. Everyone in Sexton’s family played the banjo, including his mother, who died in 1947.

Both Sexton’s singing and instrumental styles were unaffected by contemporary influences and musical ideas. His banjo picking was a delicate and absolute individualized version of the Appalachian two-fingered style, liquid and serene, each melody using its own particular tuning in the old-fashioned way. Although Sexton usually played by himself, he was sometimes joined by his neighbor Boyd Watts, a fiddler, at schoolhouse events, at Christmas, and in end-of-the-school-year programs. At square dances, however, the banjo alone was passed from one player to the next.

During the last decade of his life, Sexton began to play and sing in public, performing at the Celebration of Traditional Music at Berea College and the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in addition to demonstrating his talents on many radio programs and at local events. He was honored at the Banjo Institute in Lebanon, Tennessee. Sexton prided himself in preserving the old-time banjo styles he learned growing up and in teaching his nephew, Lee Sexton, to carry this tradition on for future generations.

Anti-Galax

December 10, 2014

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The Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.VA,  came into its own about 17 years ago, after the longstanding old-time festival in Galax, Va. began picking on long-hairs. “There were animal stalls the hippies usually stayed in,” and when organizers razed them, she said, that sent a message. “We wanted a festival that was comfortable and welcoming. We are the anti-Galax,” said one participant.
“Old time is the counterculture version of Appalachian mountain music,” agreedJimSkelding, who served as country star Martina McBride’s fiddler for four years and now plays with several Virginia-based bluegrass bands. He doesn’t mean that as a compliment.Mr.Skelding is the mirror opposite of Mr.Stagmer: close-cropped, deeply Republican, and bored stiff by old-time music, whose practitioners may be politically progressive, he said, though “they are more conservative in their musical approach than any other musicians, playing only old period tunes where the fiddle plays very structured repetitive solos that offer no creative space to the supporting instruments.”
Mr. Skelding, who would no more join an old-time jam than the Howard Dean Fan Club, also dismissed the sartorial disposition of old timers, calling their omnipresent sandals “Jerusalem cruisers.”All of which is music to the ears of the old timers. “We’re pre-bluegrass,” boasts Mr.Stagmer, and many songs popular with jammers definitely reflect a pre-modern sensibility, including “Squirrel Heads and Gravy” and “Nail the Catfish to the Tree.”Old timers also claim the high ground in the family-friendly competition. Mr. Stagmer asserts that there is much less smoking at old-time festivals, while Ms. Gillespie says that “Galax got to the point where you couldn’t let your kids go to the Porta-potties by themselves,” citing alcohol-fueled fights as a chief concern. Other ambiance differences: no Confederate flags at Clifftop, save on the hats of a couple of trash haulers. Nor is there a noticeable police presence, while officers at Galax patrol through the night.

“Clifftop has probably the most self-policed crowd I’ve seen at a music festival,” said Mr. McClain. Indeed, Mr. Zepp left his entire banjo inventory out overnight, protected only by a thin tarp. Couldn’t someone easily drive off with all your stock? “I guess I have more faith in the human race,” he said, adding that word would get back to him if stolen instruments started popping up at jam sessions. “They are easily traced.”

No festival is without drawbacks — rain, heat, marauding insects, and even a tragic death.  “If you’ve got to go,” noted camper Joseph “Joebass” DeJarnette,  “this is a pretty good place to do it.”

OTM in Alaska

December 7, 2014
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by Peter Bowers (excerpt from “Old Time Music in Alaska: Then and Now”):
It may surprise some that Alaska has a long-lived history of fiddle music that
dates back more than one and a half centuries–almost as long as the music from
the hills of the old-time motherland in the Eastern US.
It is a vibrant musical tradition that first appeared in the sub-arctic with the early
traders, trappers, gold miners, fishermen, and missionaries, then spread to the native cultures,
saw a major resurgence in the 1970s, and thrives today in bush cabins, villages,
and towns throughout the forty-ninth state.
According to several accounts, the first fiddler on the Yukon River was a Hudson’s Bay
Company employee named Antoine Hoole, who was among a trading party who established
Fort Yukon in 1847. His French Canadian influence likely helped spread the Anglo-Celtic
music and dance tradition to the local Indians, a rich tradition that continues today as a
unique style of old-time music known as Athabascan fiddle music.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fiddle music blended with aboriginal
singing and dancing and melodic choral singing of hymns introduced by missionaries. This music
developed largely in isolation, with only occasional injections of new influences, and today is its
own unique style.
Today, Alaskans have a reputation of being among the wildest, most intense players on the
old-time scene. In many ways, it’s still the wild west: few roads, few rules, no sheriff.
Our brand of old-time and bluegrass music is different than back East because of the intensity
of the place we live.
The other part of the experience is the cabin music scene. People get “cabin fever” in the
long darkness of winter and desperately need to socialize with others at the bars or visiting
other cabins. We danced and played in small cabins. We cooked, ate, took
saunas, jumped in the snow.
The dancing and music also reflected that Alaskans are participants, not observers.
Lots of people played instruments, or danced. The music was — and still is-  crazy, raw,
intense and exciting. It is really alive.

Long Gone Sound

December 6, 2014

from http://www.oxfordamerican.org:

For County Records, Chris King has produced scads of compilations of old-time music for a whole new audience. As a restoration engineer, he makes analog-to-digital transfers of 78s that render the nearly century-old recordings accessible to modern ears. His work on Revenant’s seven-CD Charley Patton box set, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, earned him a Grammy.

“Chris has the knowledge, he has the ear, he has the equipment and the technique,” says Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat, a North Carolina–based label, who worked with King on a compilation of black fiddlers from the ’20s and ’30s. “But he’s more than a technician, he’s an aficionado, a lover of the music. It’s not just, Bring me a stack of records and I’ll transfer ’em, it’s, Let me help you find the very best copies.”

Even for a fan of the music, this is painstaking work. Many of the most prized blues and country 78s survive only in the most wretched condition, gouged as they are by the steel needles of the old Victrolas. For the Patton project, King transferred over a hundred sides, mostly Paramounts, which are notorious for their inferior pressing and beat-to-hell copies; he managed to salvage crisp, clear transfers from all but the most battered copies.

“There are spots in the groove that, for whatever reason, haven’t been tapped,” says Dean Blackwood of Revenant. “If you view it as a relief map, part of the terrain hasn’t been traveled on and Chris can get to it. He knows where to go in the groove to find music that’s still coded in there, that hasn’t been ground down to nothing.”

The entire operation, which King calls Long Gone Sound, is crammed in a tiny record room: a fancy pre-amplifier and soundboard mixer, a pair of ’50s-era tube amps on milk crates, and some high-end speakers that can rake the wattage King pushes through them. He likes to play these records loud. He has a few dozen styli that he uses to eke out some half-buried fiddle break from a worn shellac groove.

Dropping the needle on an old 78, again and again and again. He calls this meticulous process “cracking the code.” What might seem tedious is for him an intricate communion. “It’s all in the whole ritual. As naive as it sounds, when I play a 78 on my turntable, it makes me feel closer to the music than playing it on a CD. It takes a special breed—there’s only so many weird, whacked-out eccentrics who get a big kick out of that three-minute experience.”

 

 

 

Nathan Salsburg

November 27, 2014

from http://www.cooperkenward.com:

Back in 2010, a friend tipped Nathan Salsburg  off about a box of records at the dump. He hurried to the scene and rescued what turned out to be a portion of the private collection of “hoarder” Don Wahle, a Louisville-native and collector of early country records. Wahle had died and his estranged family, eager to be rid of his squalor, ordered a purge of his entire home.

Nathan, with permission from the waste removal company, organized a full sweep of Wahle’s home and recovered the remaining 78s, many of which had never been reissued, and compiled Work Hard, Pray Hard, Play Hard (Tompkins Square, 2012), an effort that would earn him a Grammy nomination and a seat at the round table of contemporary 78 record collectors.

As a 21st century archivist, he alternates working with old and new mediums, and must navigate between the romantic and pragmatic aspects of collecting. Curious how he does it, we asked him about the apparent juxtaposition between his vinyl collection and his digital collection. He explained to us that, when compared to the uniform appearance of digital track lists, vinyl has a usefulness in its physical form; the artwork, the label, the liner notes and the multitude of other visual details help one to contextualize and situate the music in its time and place. “Yet those four hard drives,” he said, pointing at the entire digitized Alan Lomax Collection, “are what pay my mortgage.”

Nathan has worn the title of curator for the Alan Lomax Archive for the last four years. It’s a position that he has worked up to after starting out as a twenty-two-year old gopher and admin assistant. “To give you a feel for the era,” he said, “my first task was writing accession numbers on DAT tapes.” Today, he oversees the digital iterations of Lomax’s vast collections and perpetuates the vision of the pioneering folklorist.

In addition to the 17,000 some audio files currently available through the online Lomax Archive (culturalequity.org), Nathan said, “We have fifty hours of ‘30s Kentucky recordings, forty hours from the 1954-55 Italian trip, fifty hours of 1937 Haitian recordings and three hundred some hours of video that are still being processed for inclusion.” The task, he explained, is to not only make this material available, but to present it in manageable formats. Just what the ideal format is for disseminating aural and visual material, however, is a global work in progress.

Kilby Snow

November 25, 2014

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excerpt from notes by Mike Seeger (“Masters of Old-time Country Autoharp”):
John Kilby Snow was born May 28, 1906, in hilly Grayson County in southwestern Virginia.
By about the age of 4 he had started playing autoharp (his first tune, like Pop Stoneman’s,
was “Molly Hare”), and at the age of 5 he beat his brother-in-law (from whom he had first
learned) in a Winston- Salem, North Carolina, contest. Although he played other instruments, the
autoharp was his first love.
For a few years in the 1920s he traveled around playing wherever he could. He told me
of spending a couple of days with the Carter Family and playing some music with them around
Bristol, Virginia, probably in the late 1920s. I’ve often wondered whether, if Kilby was sometimes
holding his instrument nearly upright (as he did for these recordings) and playing “drag notes”
back then, that possibly influenced Maybelle Carter.
About ten years later she started playing the autoharp upright rather than in her lap and sometimes even approximated the “drag-note” effect.  She held the instrument in her arms and unlike Kilby could play the instrument while standing.
Nevertheless, she certainly could have managed these innovations on her own.
Kilby worked mostly as a builder and carpenter and later for the highway department until
his retirement.
His use of drag notes certainly has been at the center of his adapting blues and modern country songs to his autoharp repertoire.  He first drew his repertoire from family and community and later from commercial recordings by early country artists such as Blind Alfred Reed and the Carter Family. In the late 1950s and 1960s he picked up songs from Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and country singers such as Carl Smith and Merle Haggard. He also composed several country-style songs of his own.
After the release of his first record, Kilby began performing at concerts, folk festivals, and in
coffeehouses, helped a good deal by the efforts of Mike and Ellen Hudak. He was great fun to
play music with, and accompaniment seemed to spur him on. I especially remember a time in the
early 1960s at Sunset Park near Oxford, Pennsylvania, where Bill Monroe was putting on a show.
Kilby played autoharp while I backed him on guitar in one of the parking meadows, and a crowd
gathered around to hear old favorites like “Budded Roses” as well as some of the more recent Bill
Monroe songs such as “Close By” or the Monroe classic, “Muleskinner Blues.” It was exciting to
feel the spark that came from his music at those times.
Later in the decade I helped him record a solo Folkways recording, and I arranged a concert tour for us on the West Coast where we recorded a few of his songs on videotape, now released commercially. Up to the late 1970s he played a
few contests and festivals, most notably the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, where he
was a regular.

The Rare-Record Business

November 18, 2014

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from http://www.nytimes.com:

The rare-record business is booming, despite the recession and the devaluation of music as a physical product. “Prices have been rising at a phenomenal rate, as people take money out of the stock market and out of different real estate investments and look for a place to put it,” said John Tefteller, a collector who makes his living dealing in rare records.

Although most collectors subspecialize by genre, whether jazz or classical or country, it’s early American rural blues — loose acoustic laments, recorded before 1935 and performed by artists who were born in or near the Mississippi Delta — that inspires the highest prices and the most fevered pursuits. “The early blues material from the ’20s and ’30s is the hottest material of all,” Mr. Tefteller said in a phone interview. He said that on average a rare jazz 78 might sell for $1,500 to $5,000, whereas sales for a comparable blues record would start at $5,000.

Blues music is in part mythological; its legend involves sweltering juke joints, homemade whiskey and Faustian bargains at rural crossroads. A furniture company in a largely white Midwestern suburb is rarely evoked in these reveries, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s Paramount Records — an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a manufacturer of wooden phonograph cabinets in Port Washington, Wis. — became an unlikely home for blues legends like Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Skip James. Paramount’s blues releases — especially its “race” records with label numbers in the 12000s and 13000s — are among the most coveted records in the world.

These particular records, he explained, are a finite commodity. “I would doubt that there are a hundred total Charley Patton records left in the world,” he said. Other artists’ discographies are even more limited: only eight copies of various 78s by Son House (who recorded eight sides, or four records, for Paramount) and 15 copies of discs by Skip James (who recorded 18 sides) appear to remain.

The stakes are high from a preservationist standpoint. If collectors weren’t tracking these records, the songs might be lost entirely, and speculation surrounding Paramount’s missing metal masters (the original transcriptions of a performance) has only amplified the significance of the remaining 78s. According to Alex van der Tuuk’s book “Paramount’s Rise and Fall” (Mainspring Press, 2003), in 1942 the bulk of the masters — by then corroded — were carted off by rail for reuse in World War II.

“The building where the metal masters had been stored didn’t have any insulation, and pigeons came into that building, and you can imagine what a bird does to a metal master,” Mr. van der Tuuk said by phone from his home in the Netherlands. Still, rumors — that they were hurled into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled former employees, or used to patch rat holes in chicken coops — persist. In 2006 the PBS program “The History Detectives” arranged for a team of divers to scour the bottom of the Milwaukee River. They came up empty-handed.

 

Jerron Paxton

November 16, 2014

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by Frank Matheis  (www.thecountryblues.com):

Meet Jerron Paxton,  a modern day songster, minstrel and bluesman.  He is truly the living embodiment of the true blues in the 21st Century, but he plays it all in the true songster tradition: ragtime, hokum, old-time, French reels, Appalachian mountain music and blues and more – and whatever he plays sounds great .

The young bard was born in 1989, but his vast talent rivals the greatest in the genre. He is the whole package. He’s witty, fast rhyming, poetic, fun, exciting, wonderfully skilled as a musician and a fine singer, he is the continuation of a proud tradition, literally and figuratively. It’s hard to tell at times when Jerron Paxton, a consummate entertainer,  is putting on an act, when he takes his act to real life and when life starts and the act ends.

He seemingly appeals to  audiences into the old-times look and sound, but it could also be, as he told the countryblues.com “I just like wearing overalls.”  The artist has even reported to be the real-life son of Robert Johnson’s cousin. At first glance he looks like he’s playing the part of a bluesman in a Hollywood movie, dressed with theatrical retro-schtick, with some type of  various hats, from Derbies to Orthodox Jewish kippa.

The tall, corpulent young man almost looks like a young Willie Dixon, and he is smart to make hay when the grass is high, marketing himself directly to the segment of the blues community with a great nostalgic hunger for authentic musicians that accurately portray the image of the romanticized 1930s rural minstrel. It could be that for now, his closest local support group is the Jalopy Theater scene in Brooklyn, where there is an active old time community. (more…)

Ralph Peer (#2)

November 13, 2014

 

 

Ralph Peer in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Peer family archives

from http://www.pbs.org:

During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

Among the artists were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded hits like “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” there. These songs launched them to stardom and their successes were only the beginning for Peer, who popularized the genres of country, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin music.

Peer had already been recording “hillbilly” songs — what is now known as country — across the Southern United States for five years before the Tennessee recordings.

A new book by music journalist Barry Mazor, “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,” follows the arc of both Peer’s life and the music industry.

His story begins in the era of the wind-up crank cylinder and ends in the age of color television. In that span of time, he navigated performance rights and recording contracts, emphasizing that songwriters and producers each received their share of the profits.

“I think Ralph Peer did more than anyone, any other one single person, to change the popular music we hear,” Mazor told Art Beat. “Yet people don’t necessarily know the name.”

But the names of artists he worked with are recognized as musical greats: Mamie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Perez Prado, Buddy Holly. The list goes on.

While Mazor was working on his previous book, “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century,” he learned about Peer’s relationship to Rodgers. Mazor was fascinated by the man who recorded and produced so much of the music he personally enjoyed listening to and writing about. (more…)

Virgil Anderson

November 3, 2014

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from http://sandrockrecordings.com:

For someone with the impossible task of selecting the average living traditional banjo player, Virgil Anderson’s nomination would be as easy as any to defend. The evidence – two LPs featuring Virgil’s music (“On the Tennessee Line,” County 777; and “Music of Tennessee,” Heritage 042) – demonstrates his superb technical ability to pick delicate melodies, chord creatively, knock out syncopated dance tunes, utilize novel effects, and freely improvise. Even into his eighties, Virgil continued to learn and create new songs and to perform with enthusiasm and unconservative abandon.

“My mother failed to dish my brains out the back door when I was born,” is his own reasoning for his uninhibited condition. Other details of Virgil’s birth in 1902 are more certain. His birthplace was Palace, Kentucky, an edge of Wayne County bordering the Cumberland River. His father floated log rafts to Nashville, split barrel staves at company tent camps, and unloaded steamboats in Russell County in the years up to Virgil’s birth:

“He was apickin’ that banjer biggest part of the time. And that black man [on the steamboat] would slp him whiskey, and just keep him about half drunk apickin’ that banjer He’d slip him different extra food, you know, cake and pie. The rest of ‘em wasn’t gettin’ it. He was the cook and he’d give him the very best, cause he’d pick that banjer.”

Virgil soon joined the music-making and dancing:

“I’d be in the bed, my mother said, until I was two or three years old aplayin’ the banjer – tunes that she could understand what I was playin’. I knowed nothin’ about it. Can’t remember nothin’ about it. It’s unbelievable. Ain’t nobody believes that, but my mother told it. Same way by dancin’. I never could hear a racket, if it was like an engine runnin’ or something another, I’d want to dance after it. That’s the reason after my great uncle Green Johnson achurnin’ with that old time churn. He was settin’ on the kitchen porch on the steps outside, setting there a churnin’. And that went so good to me, I had to get with it. I had to keep time with it. Well, he couldn’t stand it. “You stop that, Virgil!” Well, when he’d stop, I’d stop. When he’d start again, I’d hit her again. And he’d holler for my daddy. And he comes I had to “sell out, Doc!” I had to stop.

Virgil’s father soon took the family into the unsettled life of “following the public works,” moving to a different logging or stave camp every six months or so. At the age of eighteen, in a rough logging camp just north of the Tennessee state line, he had an eye-opening encounter with a prominent black Tennessee string band, the Bertram brothers.

“The first time I heard ‘em, me and my dad was going through the camp. Big, long band mill camp. And we kept walking down there and directly he said, “I believe I hear music.” Got a little piece further and they was playin’ at the bandmill, where the lumber comes down on the shoots. And such a crowd, looked like the whole company was there. We just crowded right on through ‘em, and got close to ‘em. See’d that they was colored people. Boys I’m atellin’ you they was singing. They’s getting’ that alto. Just almost make you cry. That guitar and banjer. Then they’d lay the guitar down and take the banjer and fiddle. Oh, just so handy as a goose going barefooted, you know. Well, I just tied right in with ‘em. I remember I bought an old guitar, but I didn’t know much about it. But when I see’d them agrabbin’ those chords just like that, I knowed to get with it. Just grab ‘em all at once. Naturally, it was awkward for two or three times trying it, but I see’d what had to be done. If I done it, I was gonna do it; if I didn’t I was out of it.

Virgil’s conversion was to a fuller, more sophisticated “chord music,” with a blues touch, and he was no longer satisfied with just “noting out” the simple dance tunes his father played. The blues and the Bertram’s chord music, represented by a wide variety of songs and tunes of both black and white origin, became Virgil’s love.

“It’s the drive, and the time, and the beat that they have. They don’t get too fast or too slow… They look like they’re gonna get plumb off it, but they’ll never lose their time.”

By 1931, the Depression resulted in a shutdown of the sawmill camps, so to earn money from some of his children’s winter clothing, Virgil recruited John Sharp and his brother in law Clyde Troxell to perform in the still busy coal camps as the Kentucky Wildcats. As Burnett and Rutherford were traveling the same route just ahead of them, Virgil would ballyhoo at the entrance of the schoolhouses they rented: “we’re come down here to pick up what they’re leavin’ out: it ain’t me atalking – we’ll prove it by these strings. It’s coming fresh off these strings to prove it to you, that we are pickin’ what they’re leavin’ out.”

Virgil finally settled down and took up residence in Griffin, Kentucky in 1937. The homesite’s remote location and the demands of farm life took Virgil away from the rough and tumble excitement of the public works, but he and his wife soon adjusted and raised a large family of musicians. One son, Dillard, became lead guitarist for Orangie R. Hubbard’s original Cherokees, a rockabilly group that recorded for the Lucky and King labels in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another son, Willard, continued to develop a blues guitar style, led by Virgil’s interest in the music.

(more…)

2nd South Carolina String Band

October 24, 2014

 

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edited from http://civilwarband.com:

The mission of the 2nd South Carolina String Band is to present Civil War music in as authentic a manner as possible. In their recordings the listener will hear the music of the 19th century played on 19th century period instruments in the appropriate style. This is the music as it truly sounded to the soldiers of the Civil War.

The 2nd South Carolina String Band was formed in August of 1989 by five riflemen of Co.I, 2nd SC Volunteer Infantry, a unit of Civil War reenactors that was very active during the five years of events celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Civil War – and for many years to follow. After the battles, drills and inspections, the boys who had instruments played and sang around the campfire while members of the unit would often join in and sing along. This was the beginning of the 2nd South Carolina String Band.

Without recognizing it at the time, the group, comprised of mostly amateur musicians playing banjo, fiddle, and guitar, tambourine, bones and military drum – had coalesced into a 20th century recreation of a typical American Civil War camp band. In the beginning they played mostly at night around their company camp fire as they enthusiastically began to explore and perform the music of the War Between the States. Soon they began performing for reenactment dances and concert audiences.

The songs and instrumental tunes performed by the 2nd South Carolina String Band would have been considered the “pop” music of the period beginning in the late 1820′s and running through the 1860′s and beyond. In the years following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Americans were determined to reject European classical musical forms and were searching for their own distinctly American musical “voice.”

They found it in the frontier tradition of tall-tales about larger-than-life American characters such as Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyon, Old Dan Tucker and John Henry. Composers such as Joel Sweeney, Daniel Emmett, Stephen Foster, and George Root soon arrived on the scene; men who wrote music for a living that appealed to the masses. This music was unique in that it had no classical background. Its roots were in Celtic, American and African folk melodies. Its songs were filled with the language, slang, and experiences of the common man rather than the intellectual elites and its impact on American culture echoes down to the present day.

The 2nd South Carolina String Band plays the songs and music that moved the American people of the early and mid-eighteen hundreds. They play the music that was in the hearts and minds and on the tongues of the citizen-soldiers that made up the ranks of the armies of the North and the South as they marched off to take part in the cataclysmic struggle that was to become the defining event of our nation’s history. They play it on instruments of the era and in an authentic manner and style that carries the listener back to simpler times. They play with a verve and excitement that infects even the most reserved listener with their own enjoyment and brings back to vibrant life the tumultuous energy of the American experience during the War Between the States. To experience the 2nd South Carolina String Band is, for a moment, to reach out and touch the past – “to eavesdrop on history.”

David Murray

October 12, 2014

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from http://www.popmatters.com:

Longing for the Past, The 78rpm Era in Southeast Asia, is a lavish four CD box-set covering recordings from 1905 to 1966, with an accompanying 267 page book, released on the Atlanta-based boutique label Dust-to-Digital. It won the 2014 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research, in the category Best Historical Research in Recorded Folk or World Music.

In recent years, Dust-to-Digital has created a name for itself, if not an entire niche market, with high quality box-sets that, as the website explains, “combine rare, essential recordings with historical images and descriptive texts to create high-quality, cultural artifacts.”

“Longing for the Past” editor David Murray:  I’d been listening to world music from the 78rpm era for quite awhile via CD reissues. Everything from American blues, hillbilly, and Cajun recordings to Irish, Ukrainian, Greek and more. These were mostly reissues on the Arhoolie label or the Secret Museum of Mankind series, which was just then being released. I was learning to play old banjo and fiddle music and soon got hooked on playing the Greek bouzouki in a style called Rebetika. Rebetika is famously known as the music of the Greek hashish dens, which is at least partially true.

Living in San Francisco (at that time) I began to wonder if there was a style of music associated with the city’s Chinese opium dens that had been widespread in the second half of the 1800s. Unfortunately, I could find no hint of a style of music tied to the opium dens, but in the process I heard old recordings of Chinese opera for the first time. Cantonese recordings had been made in San Francisco very early, 1898 or so. I was instantly obsessed with the sound of this music and spent the next several years amassing Chinese 78s. I followed the music of the Chinese diaspora, which led to Southeast Asia.

I hope that more collectors will focus on world music. There are enough blues collectors already! I never understood why somebody would take the time and money to build a collection of blues and hillbilly records that already exist on CD reissues and have been thoroughly researched. For me, the thrill is finding great recordings that are truly on the verge of being lost. A Burmese record from 1911? Who’s going to hold onto that? And when it’s gone it may be gone for good.

The more of these records we can salvage the better our understanding of music and our history will be. There are a few younger collectors who are interested in world music, but not many. The goal of my projects is just to get the music out there. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen after that, but I’ve done my part.

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

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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

images

 

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

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 5.42.42 PM

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

 

index

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

fig-9-the-power-of-music

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

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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.


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