Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Louisville Jug Music

October 31, 2014




Louisville journalist and author Michael L. Jones has established himself as something of a jug music expert.  Jones wrote his most recent book, “Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to National Jubilee,” as a way to celebrate Louisville as the heart of a musical tradition that dates back to turn-of-the-century America.

I  interviewed Jones recently about the often misconstrued origins of jug music, its influence on current tunes, and how it continues to be an enduring part of Louisville’s music scene.

You mention in the book that “the main purpose of this book is to liberate jug music from misconceptions surrounding it.” What are some of those misconceptions?

In the 1920s, when the recording industry started, the record companies segregated white and black artists. Music by black artists was marketed as “race records” and music by white, rural artists was “hillbilly” music. But white, rural artists and black blues artists all drew on the same group of songs, which has come to be called the “common stock.” They are tunes likes “John Henry,” “Stagolee,” and “In the Jailhouse Now,” which was recorded by both country star Jimmie Rodgers and the Louisville Jug Band, among others. There were also more than 20 interracial recording sessions in the early days of country music, including a 1931 session between Rodgers and the Louisville Jug Band that occurred in Louisville. But when you see a discussion of jug music or country music in general, these black artists are totally ignored.

My point is the evolution of American music is not as cut and dry as people think. Much of what we think about its development is obscured by record company marketing plans. Even the Carter family had an African American collaborator.

You also say in the book that “jug music played a role in developing a lot of music people listen to today.” Do you have any examples of that correlation?

Gus Cannon had a jug tune called “Walk Right In” that was a hit in the 1960s for the Rooftop Singers. Jug music spawned a craze for skiffle music in 1950s England. The rock musicians that started out in skiffle bands include Jimmy Page, the Beatles and Van Morrison. On the American side, many of the bands popular in the folk revival of the 1960s got their start playing jug songs. John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful is currently a jug band musician, the Grateful Dead had a side group called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, and Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band was a popular 1960s act that actually recorded Louisville jug music.

How did our view of jug music become disenfranchised from the original African American influencers?

Jug music went out of vogue with the general public after the Great Depression. This also coincided with the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Basically, the jug music (and the banjo itself) was tied to Antebellum images in most people’s minds. African Americans wanted to move away from that image and that was reflected in the music they listened to. And, as I said before, the record companies were actually promoting that image of the good old days to white record buyers of country music.

During the folk revival, young white musicians could look back to an earlier America where a man had more freedom. That did not appeal to African American musicians, which is the reason that there were few African Americans involved in the scene although it was actually celebrating African American culture. Also, a lot of jug music songs were passed through the minstrel show or written during the “coon song” era, and that also did not appeal to a black audience.

Louisville, especially at the turn of the century, was home to a diverse population. How did that affect jug music?

After the Civil War there was an influx of ex-Confederates in Louisville. They brought along with them some of the Southern prejudices. Before 1900s, African Americans lived all over the city, but at the beginning of the 20th century we began to see all-black neighborhoods like West Parkland, modern Park DuValle, which was called “Little Africa.” This also impacted music.

Before the Civil War there were many interracial bands in the city. But after the war, most bands were either all white or all black. This forced professional African American musicians to form groups with African American folk musicians. It is the combination of the two that gave birth to Louisville jug music, which is different from other regional styles of jug music because of its use of jazz instrumentation. The other big jug band, the Memphis Jug Band, was more of a tradition string band because, being close to Mississippi, those musicians were greatly influenced by Delta Blues. Louisville musicians were more influenced by Dixieland Jazz because of the constant river traffic between Louisville and New Orleans. So, you see saxophones and other brass instruments along with the regular members of a string band.


Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics

October 29, 2014
Cover for Jamison: Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance. Click for larger image

Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance
by Phil Jamieson

In Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics, old-time musician and flatfoot dancer Phil Jamison journeys into the past and surveys the present to tell the story behind the square dances, step dances, reels, and other forms of dance practiced in southern Appalachia.

These distinctive folk dances, Jamison argues, are not the unaltered jigs and reels brought by early British settlers, but hybrids that developed over time by adopting and incorporating elements from other popular forms. He traces the forms from their European, African American, and Native American roots to the modern day. On the way he explores the powerful influence of black culture, showing how practices such as calling dances as well as specific kinds of steps combined with white European forms to create distinctly “American” dances.

From cakewalks to clogging, and from the Shoo-fly Swing to the Virginia Reel, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics reinterprets an essential aspect of Appalachian culture.

Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics is an outstanding book on Appalachian dance in all its wondrous variety. It is one of those benchmark books by which we will all measure how our view of a subject has changed. Phil Jamison has examined reams of evidence on dance history, both recent and distant, and the result is a fresh and in many cases astonishing new view of that history.

His focus is on the Appalachian forms of group, couple, and solo dancing, but in the process he illuminates the history of American folk dance more broadly. Too often the histories of Appalachian folk music and dance are reduced to oft-repeated truisms about what trait came from where. This book revolutionizes Appalachian dance history, beginning with a careful analysis of the ways in which Cecil Sharp’s influential ideas about Appalachian culture have proved mistaken.

Most important, Jamison analyzes not only the disparate strands but the evidence in Appalachian dance of new American cultural syntheses that incorporate creative contributions from British and European, African American, and Native American traditions. The roots may be separate strands, but the result is a grand intercultural American creative synthesis.”–Alan Jabbour, founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress

Appalachian Dance

October 25, 2014


Cover for SPALDING: Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities. Click for larger image


Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities, by Susan Eike Spalding (University of Illinois Press)

In Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities, Susan Eike Spalding brings to bear twenty-five years’ worth of rich interviews with black and white Virginians, Tennesseeans, and Kentuckians to explore the evolution and social uses of dance in each region.

Spalding analyzes how issues as disparate as industrialization around coal, plantation culture, race relations, and the 1970s folk revival influenced freestyle clogging and other dance forms like square dancing in profound ways. She reveals how African Americans and Native Americans, as well as European immigrants drawn to the timber mills and coal fields, brought movement styles that added to local dance vocabularies.

Placing each community in its sociopolitical and economic context, Spalding analyzes how the formal and stylistic nuances found in Appalachian dance reflect the beliefs, shared understandings, and experiences of the community at large, paying particular attention to both regional and racial diversity.

Woman with Guitar

October 22, 2014


Universally recognized as one of the greatest blues artists, Memphis Minnie (1897-1973) wrote and recorded hundreds of songs. Blues people as diverse as Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Big Mama Thornton, and Chuck Berry have acknowledged her as a major influence. At a time when most female vocalists sang Tin Pan Alley material, Minnie wrote her own lyrics and accompanied her singing with virtuoso guitar playing. Thanks to her merciless imagination and dark humor, her songs rank among the most vigorous and challenging popular poetry in any language.

Woman with Guitar is the first full-length study of the life and work of this extraordinary free spirit, focusing on the lively interplay between Minnie’s evolving artistry and the African American community in which she lived and worked. Drawing on folklore, psychoanalysis, critical theory, women’s studies, and surrealism, the authors’ explorations of Minnie’s songs illuminate the poetics of popular culture as well as the largely hidden history of working-class women’s self-emancipation.

This revised and expanded edition includes a wealth of new biographical material, including photographs, record contracts, sheet music, and period advertisements, which further vivify this portrait of an African-American musical legend. Complete, updated discography included.

Paul Garon is a co-founder of Living Blues magazine, and author of The Devil’s Son-in-Law and Blues and the Poetic Spirit. Beth Garon is a painter and collagist. The Garons operate a rare-book business in Chicago and have been associated with the U.S. Surrealist movement for many years.

Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

October 19, 2014


Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels, by James Revell Carr (University of Illinois Press)

Hawaiian Music in Motion explores the performance, reception, transmission, and adaptation of Hawaiian music on board ships and in the islands, revealing the ways both maritime commerce and imperial confrontation facilitated the circulation of popular music in the nineteenth century.

James Revell Carr shows how Hawaiians initially used music and dance to ease tensions with, and spread information about, potentially dangerous foreigners, and then traces the circulation of Hawaiian song and dance worldwide as Hawaiians served aboard American and European ships.

Drawing on journals and ships’ logs, Carr highlights the profound contrasts between Hawaiians’ treatment by fellow sailors who appreciated their seamanship and music, versus antagonistic American missionaries determined to keep Hawaiians on local sugar plantations, and looks at how Hawaiians achieved their own ends by capitalizing on Americans’ conflicting expectations and fraught discourse around hula and other musical practices.

He also examines American minstrelsy in Hawaii, including professional touring minstrel troupes from the mainland, amateur troupes consisting of crew members of visiting ships, and local indigenous troupes of Hawaiian minstrels. In the process he illuminates how a merging of indigenous and foreign elements became the new sound of native Hawaiian culture at the turn of the twentieth century–and made loping rhythms, falsetto yodels, and driving ukuleles indelible parts of American popular music.

Roots of the Revival

October 14, 2014



Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s,  by Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson (University of Illinois Press)

In Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson present a transatlantic history of folk’s midcentury resurgence that juxtaposes the related but distinct revivals that took place in the United States and Great Britain.

After setting the stage with the work of music collectors in the nineteenth century, the authors explore the so-called recovery of folk music practices and performers by Alan Lomax and others, including journeys to and within the British Isles that allowed artists and folk music advocates to absorb native forms and facilitate the music’s transatlantic exchange.

Cohen and Donaldson place the musical and cultural connections of the twin revivals within the decade’s social and musical milieu and grapple with the performers’ leftist political agendas and artistic challenges, including the fierce debates over “authenticity” in practice and repertoire that erupted when artists like Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio carried folk into the popular music mainstream.

From mountain ballets to skiffle, from the Weavers in Greenwich Village to Burl Ives on the BBC, Roots of the Revival offers a frank and wide-ranging consideration of a time, a movement, and a transformative period in American and British pop culture.

The Beautiful Music All Around Us (#2)

October 5, 2014

The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience by Stephen Wade (University of Illinois Press, 2012, hardback, xvii + pp.477)

CD included: 1.  Bonaparte’s Retreat – WH Stepp;  2.  Rock Island Line – Kelly Pace and group;  3.  Pullin’ the Skiff / Shortnin’ Bread – Ora Dell Graham;  4.  Sea Lion Woman – Christine and Katherine Shipp;  5.  Soldier’s Joy – Nashville Washboard Band;  6.  Another Man Done Gone – Vera Hall;  7.  Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down – Bozie Sturdivant;  8.  Coal Creek March – Pete Steele;  9.  One Morning in May – Texas Gladden;  10.  Glory in the Meetinghouse – Luther Strong;  11.  Diamond Joe – Charlie Butler;  12.  Goodbye Old Paint – Jess Morris.

reviewed by Chris Smith (

Stephen Wade’s book has its origins in the CD, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500), which I reviewed for MT in 1998.  The Beautiful Music All Around Us is now in its fourth printing, and has received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, and an ARSC Award for Excellence.  This review comes late to the party, therefore, but it considers a book that all readers of this website need to be aware of.

The Rounder CD presented 30 tracks, and knowing Stephen, I’m sure that he would have liked to have written a chapter on every one of them.  Inevitably, what we have is less than that in regard to quantity, but decidedly not short on quality.  Its twelve chapters each deal with one artist, although the total number of songs discussed, and included on the illustrative CD, is a baker’s dozen, because Ora Dell Graham gets two (and two minutes playing time.)

Each chapter discusses the song included on the CD, in terms of the particular performance, earlier and later versions, the meaning of the song for the artist and her/his community, and its after-life in folk and popular culture.  (Wade even managed to interest me in the use of Rock Island Line and Sea Lion Woman on the soundtrack of a John Travolta movie.)

There is also as much biographical information as can be gathered, ranging from very full for the likes of Jess Morris, a voluminous correspondent and self-documenter, to scarcely anything for the members of the Nashville Washboard Band or the convict Charlie Butler, whose sad-eyed prison photograph is haunting.  (‘Bad case and one of Beal Streets bad boys,’ the District Attorney wrote on his court record.)  The process of researching the singers’ lives and deaths is also described, in encounters with relatives and acquaintances that range from friendly to tense.  A conversation with a retired schoolteacher takes an unexpected turn:

As I got up to leave, she took her other hand from her pocket, drawing with it an unholstered, snub-nosed, .38 caliber revolver.  I suddenly realized that the whole time we talked, she had it pointed at me.  She revealed it now as a statement of trust.

The assiduity with which Wade has tracked down people and documentation is extraordinary; in these pages, we learn that the original version of Rock Island Line was discovered in the railroad’s booster club magazine, and find out how Isaac Shipp came to learn songs in Sierra Leone and the Belgian Congo, a puzzle which I noted in my preamble to the review of the Treasury CD.  (Wade describes Shipp, who died in 2007 at the age of 91, as ‘a truly amazing man.’) We also encounter the descendants of Bill Stepp and Pete Steele, of Texas Gladden and Luther Strong (a violent drunkard, whose children seem to have survived their upbringing remarkably well.) In the introduction, we also meet Ella Hoffpauir Boudreaux, ten years old when she sang Sept Ans Sur Mer with her sisters, and living in conditions where a fantastical song about hunger had all too realistic resonances.

These are just a few of the people who give testimony.  Throughout, Wade lets them speak in their own voices, and tell their stories in and on their own terms.  The richness of even the poorest lives (Bill Stepp’s first five years were spent in a cave) is conveyed through the informants’ own words, and in contextualisations, explanations and comments that are insightful, humane and beautifully written.


Ralph Peer

September 21, 2014



Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music (Chicago Review Press (Nov 2014)

By Barry Mazor

320 Pages, 6 x 9

Cloth, $28.95

This is the first biography of Ralph Peer, the adventurous—even revolutionary—A&R man and music publisher who saw the universal power locked in regional roots music and tapped it, changing the breadth and flavor of popular music around the world. It is the story of the life and fifty-year career, from the age of cylinder recordings to the stereo era, of the man who pioneered the recording, marketing, and publishing of blues, jazz, country, gospel, and Latin music.

The book tracks Peer’s role in such breakthrough events as the recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (the record that sparked the blues craze), the first country recording sessions with Fiddlin’ John Carson, his discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family at the famed Bristol sessions, the popularizing of Latin American music during World War II, and the postwar transformation of music on the airwaves that set the stage for the dominance of R&B, country, and rock ‘n’ roll.

But this is also the story of a man from humble midwestern beginnings who went on to build the world’s largest independent music publishing firm, fostering the global reach of music that had previously been specialized, localized, and marginalized. Ralph Peer redefined the ways promising songs and performers were identified, encouraged, and promoted, rethought how far regional music might travel, and changed our very notions of what pop music can be.

100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own

August 2, 2014






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

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

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

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

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

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




Amanda Petrusich

July 14, 2014



excerpt from interview at

Do Not Sell at Any Price looks at what makes 78 rpm collectors tick, paying special attention to the service they’ve provided by researching and reissuing wonderful music that might otherwise have stayed lost forever. Petrusich, 34, interviews veterans such as Pete Whelan and Joe Bussard (who focus on jazz and blues) as well as relative newcomers such as Ian Nagoski and Christopher King (who have much broader tastes).

When you were doing the reporting, how important was the realization that just about every collector was a white male?

Petrusich:  I went into this project thinking, “All right, here is the sort of archetype in place regarding what everybody thinks a 78 collector is.” It’s Steve Buscemi or the comic-book guy from The Simpsons. I went into the reporting thinking, well, that can’t possibly be true, and this would be great to write about, to show that lots of people like and collect 78s. But it did unfortunately turn out to be mostly true.

There’s one African-American collector, Jerron Paxton, and then there’s one female collector, Sarah Bryan, who also pops up toward the end of the book. I’m not sure Sarah self-identifies too heavily as a collector—she sort of buys what she likes, so her collection is really personal, in a lovely way.

Coming to this as a music writer, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar—it’s kind of a dude activity. It surprises me, because some of this music is so beautiful it should theoretically transcend all of that. I did have the opportunity to speak to this fantastic neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins about why this is such a male hobby. He had some interesting theories, one being that the collecting impulse is related to addiction, which also skews a little bit more male. Certain forms of OCD and autism have also been shown to trend a little more male.

How would you say your relationship with music has changed? Or has it?

I am a better listener now. Prior to writing this book, there were a lot of these records I hadn’t heard before. I think of Blind Uncle Gaspard, who was a Cajun performer who recorded a handful of sides for Vocalion in 1929. Chris King was the first person who played me a Gaspard record, and I remember feeling like I was having a stroke. I always think of that Barry Hannah line in Geronimo Rex, where he hears a piece of music and it’s so unbearably beautiful to him—like the kind of thing that makes you want to take a rifle and shoot yourself in the heart because it’s too much.

You work as a critic for long enough and you start to think, “Oh, I’ve heard everything.” You get a new record, and all the record people are all excited about it, and you put it on and you’re like that cranky old person: “Oh, it sounds like the last 50 bands that sound like the prior 50 bands.” And some of this stuff, recorded in 1929, sounded so unprecedented to me that it reawakened that excitement. “Aw, there are still records out there for me. There are still things that can really make me cry and make me feel all these things that I maybe thought I was done feeling from pop music.”

I think I have a sense of prewar recordings now. I have a pretty rich understanding of how it’s so unlikely we even have them at all. I thought I was turning into an incredibly lazy listener prior, and I really feel like that’s changed for me.

An Introduction and Guide to the Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings (#3)

July 13, 2014


 The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings by Agustin Gurza (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, paperback)


“Invisible behind this large-format (8” x 11.5”) paperback is the reason for its existence: the archive described in its (also large-format) title. Nobody else in the roots music and collector world was interested in Mexican- American and Mexican music when Chris Strachwitz started acquiring all the discs – and photographs, posters, catalogues and other ephemera – he could lay his hands on.

Buying up radio station and distributor stock, and the inventory of record labels that went out of business, was usually more productive than junking; records that survived in private hands had often been played to death. The Strachwitz Frontera Collection comprises – deep breath – 33,472 performances on 78s, some 50,000 on 45s, 4,000 LPs and 650 cassettes, and is, needless to say, by far the largest archive of this music in existence.

Thanks to grants from various foundations, and notably to a share in $500,000 from regional superstars Los Tigres del Norte, by late 2010 all the 78s and about half the 45s had been digitised, and entered into a database at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. This is accessible via <>, although for copyright reasons only the first 50 seconds of each recording is available to computers off-campus.

The book under review explores some of the possibilities for research enabled by this resource. First, though, there are chapters about Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records, and an account of how the Frontera Collection came into existence, through Chris’s encounters with the late Guillermo Hernández, a professor of literature who turned to studying border music and corridos after seeing Les Blank’s film, ‘Chulas Fronteras’, and learning of the existence of Strachwitz’s collection. Chris himself contributes a short history of the recording industry, with particular reference to Mexican music. (more…)

The Life and Times of Ray Hicks

June 27, 2014


from Daniel Allar ( and David Holt ( The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: Keeper of the Jack Tales by Lynn Salsi. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2008. $34.95.)

Lynn Salsi’s The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: The Keeper of the Jack Tales is a biography of Ray Hicks, a master storyteller from Banner Elk, North Carolina. Hicks farmed in the Appalachian Mountains his entire life, and the “Jack Tales” referred to in the title of this book were passed down through his family in that area. He had very little money his entire life, worked from sunup to sundown just to keep his family fed, and spent most of his free time telling the stories he had learned from his grandfather or playing the French harp.

Although the book is basically a rundown of some of the most important aspects and events in Hicks’s life, some reoccurring themes emerge. For example, Hicks was very proud of the fact that he stayed home, cared for his mother, and was not bound by material items. Hicks was also proud… that he was the “true” holder of the “Jack Tales,” which were stories featuring a poor character from the mountains—Jack—who behaved much the way Hicks did. In fact Hicks repeatedly claimed that he and Jack were the same person.

He and his wife, Rosa,  lived the old-time way, raising their own food, collecting and selling ginseng and herbs, cooking and heating with wood in the same house where Ray was born. “Cut your own wood and it warms you twicet.”

He was a 19th century man in a 20th century world. He knew more about the old timey ways than anyone I have ever met. Last time I saw him he was telling me how they used to put dirt in a wound or cut to heal it…but he said you can’t do that anymore…no dirt in the world is clean enough now.

He was what we call an all day talker. He would start talking the minute you got there…start right in on a story. He had the most amazing accent, kinda talked way back in his throat. He’d say, “Jack seen a man comin down out of the woods with a great big head and he was knocking big trees down and hittin big rock boulders and wasn’t even hurtin’ a hair in his own head… he said, ‘Hello there. Who are ye?’ ‘ My name is Hardy Hard Head.’ ‘Well Hardy hard Head you must be…into my ship.’ ”

By the end of the day he’d still be talking, telling you the story. You’d get up and say, “Ray, it’s gettin late, gotta go.” He’d follow you all the way up to the car standing in the road still telling the tale. You’d just have to put down the window, wave and say, “Ray, I’ll see you” and drive off with him still standing there still telling the story in the middle of the dirt road.


“In Griot Time”

June 15, 2014


edited from Roderic Knight (Ethnomusicolgy, winter 2003) and

For seven months in 1995 and 1996, guitarist Banning Eyre lived on the compound of one of Mali’s greatest and best-known guitarists, Djelimady Tounkara of Bamako, Mali.  “In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali” is a chronicle of Eyre’s apprenticeship to Tounkara.

Eyre tells of his experiences– hours at night spent playing duos with his teacher, the humdrum round of wedding gigs, the grand and tedious music spectacles staged for TV in vast football stadiums, the reddish Bamako smog, the exhilaration of playing with the famous Rail Band.  Those who have been there will say “namu” (“yes, true”) to his every sentence.

With a perceptive eye and compassionate heart he captures the interpersonal realities of trying to make a musical living in a contemporary African city. We sit in on sessions with kora player Toumani Diabate, drop in at hidden-away bars where improvisation thrives, listen as a husband-and-wife duo haggle over the logistics of their performance and the division of proceeds.

Eyre has also done his research, and frequently steps aside from the illuminating dialogues and character descriptions to discuss broader topics such as kingship, patronage, slavery, history versus oral narrative, the politics of post-colonial Mali, and the nature of Islam in African society.

In the course of the book, Eyre freely acknowledges his debt to John Miller Chernoff’s , perhaps one of the best books ever written about African music for a Western audience. The parallels between Eyre’s experiences and Chernoff’s are many. Both went to Africa—Eyre to Mali and Chernoff to Ghana—to learn to play music. Both knew that playing the music well required them to understand something about the culture and history that created the style in the first place, and both strove hard to immerse themselves as much as they could. Chernoff’s immersion was perhaps more successful: He emerged from his experience with a book that reads in parts like a Rosetta Stone to understanding Ghanian drumming in particular and African music generally. As a musician myself, I am still learning from Chernoff’s book, and it’s been ten years since I read it.

Eyre’s book, by design, doesn’t have that kind of insight. Unlike Chernoff, he doesn’t dwell on how the music is put together so much as what it was like for him to learn how to play it. While it seems clear that he played music for at least a couple hours a day, most of the book is about what happens to him when he’s not playing music—the conversations he has with people, the things he sees and does, the other musicians he hears—all written with a clear eye, an astonishing sensitivity, and a willingness to wrestle with some difficult questions about cultural frictions and the legacy of colonialism. The result, I believe, is a much more accessible book than Chernoff’s.

Where Chernoff’s book is perfect for people who already love African music—particularly other musicians who are trying to figure out how to play it—Eyre’s book is just the thing to make people who don’t know much about African music want to learn more about it. Its own effect on me has already been profound. Chernoff’s book in some ways scared me away from trying to play African music even as it made me want to all the more. But it was Eyre’s book (and Eyre himself, who I finally took a lesson from) that finally made me pick up a guitar and try to play. I know that I’ll never play like either Chernoff or Eyre—let alone the African musicians they have played with—but In Griot Time gave me the courage to play with the required humility, and evident joy.

Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana

June 12, 2014

Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings
by Joshua Clegg Caffery, foreword by Barry Jean Ancelet (Louisiana State University Press, 424 pages)


Alan Lomax’s prolific sixty-four-year career as a folklorist and musicologist began with a trip across the South and into the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country during the height of the Great Depression. In 1934, his father John, then curator of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, took an eighteen-year-old Alan and a 300-pound aluminum disk recorder into the rice fields of Jennings, along the waterways of New Iberia, and behind the gates of Angola State Penitentiary to collect vestiges of African American and Acadian musical tradition. These recordings now serve as the foundational document of indigenous Louisiana music.

Although widely recognized by scholars as a key artifact in the understanding of American vernacular music, most of the recordings by John and Alan Lomax during their expedition across the central-southern fringe of Louisiana were never transcribed or translated, much less studied in depth. This volume presents, for the first time, a comprehensive examination of the1934 corpus and unveils a multifaceted story of traditional song in one of the country’s most culturally dynamic regions.

Through his textual and comparative study of the songs contained in the Lomax collection, Joshua Clegg Caffery provides a musical history of Louisiana that extends beyond Cajun music and zydeco to the rural blues, Irish and English folk songs, play-party songs, slave spirituals, and traditional French folk songs that thrived at the time of these recordings.

Intimate in its presentation of Louisiana folklife and broad in its historical scope, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana honors the legacy of John and Alan Lomax by retrieving these musical relics from obscurity and ensuring their understanding and appreciation for generations to come.


• Complete transcriptions of the 1934 Lomax Field Recordings in southwestern Louisiana

• Side-by-side translations from French to English

• Photographs from the 1934 field trip and biographical details about the performers


June 9, 2014

World renowned Blues guitarist, vocalist, band leader and songwriter, Corey Harris,  launched his first book on Monday 12th May in London. ‘Jahtigui: The Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure’ is the only book honouring the man and his legacy, whose desert blues changed the face of Malian music and influenced musicians the world over. The life and music of the Malian music legend are examined through the eyes of those who knew him best such as his son, accomplished musician Vieux Farka Toure. Compiled from both interviews and first hand experiences with the guitar master in his desert home in Niafunke, northern Mali.

excerpt from ‘Jahtigui: The Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure':

Ali Farka Toure  bought his first guitar while in Bulgaria on April 21st, 1968. Around this time he first heard the music of Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Redding, Jimmy Smith and Albert King, in which he said he recognized so much of his own musical traditions. But the one whose music struck him as being most similar to his own was the legendary John Lee Hooker. Upon hearing this music for the first time, he was amazed and thought to himself that “this music was taken from here.”

He loved the blues, but often said that his music began long before the blues was born. Many European and American writers were eager to give all the credit to the John Lee Hooker records Ali had heard after his style and approach to music had already fully manifested. He was definitely influenced by the blues he heard on records but he was secure in his musical identity. He often recalled his surprise the first time he heard Hooker, saying, “Where did they get this culture? This is something that belongs to us!”

As for the blues, Ali said, “to me blue is just a color. My music came long before the blues was born.” When he drove across the vast desert of northern Mali in his Land Rover, Ali’s stereo blasted the music of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Bobby Blue Bland and other blues and soul artists whom he recognized as his musical kinsmen. It didn’t matter to him that much of the English that they sung in was unintelligible to him. Upon learning of the passing of John Lee Hooker in 2001, Ali extended his heartfelt condolences. He knew that they belonged to the same musical family, rooted in the civilizations of ancient Africa.
He celebrated the African root of the blues as common knowledge, though many western audiences did not see the connection so clearly. Many thought it simply impossible that such a long history lay behind the music. Implicit in this idea is that Africans came to the West with no cultural traditions. Ali knew that Black American music has deep roots extending into the ancient empires of West Africa from which Black Americans’ ancestors were torn. He spoke about it often.

Just as European and other immigrant populations in North America persevered and further developed the music of their ancestors, so was the case with Africans in the Americas. Toumani Diabate once said “You can take people…you can take off his clothes, you can take off his shoes, you can take his name and give him another name…. the only thing that you can’t ever take from him is his culture.“ Ali Farka Toure represented the missing link between African music and Black American music. To know his music is to know the source.

Dust and Grooves

June 2, 2014

images from

The Dust & Grooves Book by Eilon Paz

Eilon Paz’s 416-page coffee-table book, Dust And Grooves illuminates over 130 vinyl collectors and their collections in the most intimate of environments—their record rooms. With a foreword by the RZA, compelling photographic essays are paired with in-depth interviews to illustrate what motivates record collectors to keep digging for more records.

Readers get an up close and personal look at a variety of well-known vinyl champions as well as a glimpse into the collections of known and unknown DJs, producers, record dealers, and everyday enthusiasts. The book is divided into two main parts: the first features 250 full-page photos framed by captions and select quotes, while the second consists of 12 full-length interviews that delve deeper into collectors’ personal histories and vinyl troves.

Dust & Grooves is a photography and interview project documenting vinyl collectors in their most natural and intimate environment: the record room. It all started out several years ago as nothing more than a way for photographer Eilon Paz to make use of his idle hours. Adrift in Brooklyn after emigrating from Israel, Eilon—a record collector on the side—thought it might be fun to start taking photos of people whose record collections were both larger and weirder than his own.

Adopting this as his personal project, he began traveling the world, from Australia to Cuba and Argentina to Ghana, in pursuit of intriguing and memorable subjects. Unearthing the very soul of the vinyl community, the assembly of portraits he created quickly turned into the Dust & Grooves website.

Dust & Grooves: Tell me a particularly sad record story!
Joe Bussard: There’s one that still brings tears to my eyes. This was in the 1960s. We were driving north out of Bluefield, WV, and came to this real little town. The main street was no more than five feet wide but they had a few shops. There was an S.S. Kresge Five and Dime Store with the original sign from the 1920s so we parked the car up on the sidewalk and went in. You wouldn’t believe the mess! Broken records all over the floor. Apparently they’d pulled bunches of them off the shelves to throw away –when nobody cared about records anymore – and they dropped all types of records on the floor. I saw Robert Johnson and Carter Family records that probably had never been played cracked and scattered on the floor with people just walking all over them. But this guy at the only filling station gave me a tip. We then went into the hardware store across the street, and oh my God! This guy had all these records upstairs, dealer stock, and he’d stopped selling them during the depression and never got back into it. An entire floor of mostly unplayed 78s. Jesus, I must have gotten about 2000 really choice records from the guy. Paid him $100.

If it I hadn’t found that hardware store after the tragedy at that five and dime, I might-a gone out and committed suicide! (laughs)

Pioneers of the Blues Revival

May 16, 2014


Pioneers of the Blues Revival: Eyewitness accounts of the blues’ evolution into a global music phenomenon, by Steve Cushing (

Steve Cushing, the award-winning host of the nationally syndicated public radio staple Blues before Sunrise, has spent over thirty years observing and participating in the Chicago blues scene. In Pioneers of the Blues Revival, he interviews many of the prominent white researchers and enthusiasts whose advocacy spearheaded the blues’ crossover into the mainstream starting in the 1960s.

Opinionated and territorial, the American, British, and French interviewees provide fascinating first-hand accounts of the era and movement. Experts including Paul Oliver, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Sam Charters, Ray Flerlage, Richard K. Spottswood, and Pete Whelan chronicle in their own words their obsessive early efforts at cataloging blues recordings and retrace lifetimes spent , finding, collecting, reissuing, and producing records.

They and nearly a dozen others recount relationships with blues musicians, including the discoveries of prewar bluesmen Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White, and the reintroduction of these musicians and many others to new generations of listeners. The accounts describe fieldwork in the South, renew lively debates, and tell of rehearsals in Muddy Waters’s basement and randomly finding Lightning Hopkins’s guitar in a pawn shop. Blues scholar Barry Lee Pearson provides a critical and historical framework for the interviews in an introduction.

Hidden in the Mix, pt. 2

May 15, 2014


Excerpted from “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932” by Patrick Huber. From “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music,” edited by Diane Pecknold:


Much of the music found on the hillbilly records of the 1920s and early 1930s was the product of decades or even centuries of dynamic cultural interplay between white and black musicians, and many of the songs and tunes issued on these records were of black origin or borrowed from black tradition. Occasionally record catalogues and monthly supplements even mentioned these cross-racial borrowings.

Victor’s 1924 Olde Time Fiddlin’ Tunes brochure, for example, remarked that on its record of two “wonderful old Negro Spirituals,” former governor Alf Taylor and His Old Limber Quartet rendered the selections “exactly as they took [them] from the lips of the old Negro master of the hounds.” But the accompanying photograph of the string band made clear that these records were decidedly white interpretations of traditional black songs.

Although talking-machine companies occasionally issued African American artists’ recordings in hillbilly series, no photographs of these recording artists, to my knowledge, ever appeared in the promotional literature for these records. With few exceptions, old-time record catalogues and advertisements disseminated images of an idyllic white rural Mountain South that existed outside of modern urban America, a closely knit, socially homogeneous and harmonious world free from flappers, foreigners, and African Americans.

Talking-machine companies’ use of these “whitewashed” textual messages and pictorial images effectively concealed the interracial character of much of the music heard on prewar hillbilly records and thereby rendered practically invisible African Americans’ involvement in early commercial country music.

When U.S. talking-machine companies began to record and market blues and old-time music during the early to mid-1920s, they effectively began the process of transforming southern vernacular music, heard for decades at fiddle contests, dances, house parties, tent shows, and other social gatherings, into immensely popular commercial products. This music, the product of more than three centuries of vibrant cross-racial exchange and adaptation, was profoundly and inextricably multiracial, but talking-machine companies, in an effort to streamline their marketing efforts, separated the music of black and white southerners into special categories of “race” and “hillbilly” records.

First commercially recorded in 1920, race records encompassed blues, jazz, gospel numbers, and sermons marketed to African American consumers across the nation. Hillbilly records, first recorded in 1922 and so named in order to capture the music’s supposedly white rural southern origins, consisted chiefly of southern fiddle tunes, string-band numbers, old parlor ballads, and religious songs, and were marketed primarily to rural and small-town white consumers, particularly in the South.

But contrary to the claims of Donald Clarke and other music historians, this industry-wide practice of separating the music into two racially encoded categories had little to do with the existence of de jure racial segregation in the American South. Rather this decision was motivated primarily by practical and commercial considerations. Dividing race and hillbilly records into special series allowed talking-machine companies to target specialized markets of consumers more effectively with their advertising and marketing campaigns.

Moreover such series also made it easier for the firms’ jobbers (local or regional distributors) and retailers to select from an entire catalogue of several thousand records those releases that would most appeal to their customers. This division was, however, premised on the racialist beliefs of northern white middle-class executives who assumed, as the folklorist Bill Ivey has written, that “consumers select music based upon race” and that “musical style and race are inextricably linked.”

What began as merely marketing categories soon evolved, for all intents and purposes, into musical genres, as the sociologist William G. Roy has noted, and the generic labels of race (first applied in 1921) and hillbilly (first used in 1925) would remain the sound-recording industry’s dominant terms to describe black and white southern vernacular music until rhythm and blues and country and western replaced them shortly after the end of World War II.



Hidden in the Mix, pt. 1

May 10, 2014


Excerpted from “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932” by Patrick Huber. From Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music edited by Diane Pecknold:


Since at least the mid-1950s, scholars and discographers have been aware of a handful of prewar hillbilly recordings featuring racially integrated bands or African American artists, but these records have received surprisingly little scholarly attention, and have generally been treated either as historical anomalies or as interesting but otherwise unimportant curiosities. And much misinformation continues to circulate, even within country music books and liner notes to CD anthologies published within the past decade.

For example, in the booklet accompanying Yazoo’s seven-CD boxed set, Kentucky Mountain Music: Classic Recordings of the 1920s and 1930s (2003), the chief annotator makes the bogus claim that Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, an otherwise all-white string band featuring a black fiddler, represents “the only group to record in the 1920’s and 30’s with an interracial construct.” Elsewhere another eminent music scholar declares that this band’s April 1927 sessions rank as “the first integrated recording sessions in American music history; jazz could not claim an integrated session until 1931”; both halves of this statement are patently false.

The chief reason for these historical inaccuracies, as well as the primary obstacle impeding research in this subject, has been the lack of a comprehensive discography of prewar hillbilly records. But now, thanks chiefly to the publication of Tony Russell’s monumental Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921–1942 (2004), which was more than twenty years in the making, the fuller history of African Americans’ participation on early country music recordings can begin to be told. Russell’s reference work and its race records counterpart, Dixon, Godrich, and Rye’s Blues and Gospel Records, 1890–1943, allow scholars to compile an accurate and fairly complete discography of all of the known commercial hillbilly records on which African Americans performed before World War II.

And what this newly emerging discography reveals is that African Americans actively participated in the hillbilly recording industry almost from its very beginning. To be sure, records featuring African American artists were far from common, constituting only about 1 percent of the approximately eleven thousand hillbilly records released in the United States before 1933, but their numbers are far greater than most country music scholars and fans have generally appreciated. Between 1924 and 1932 black and white artists collaborated at twenty-two racially integrated sessions that produced sixty-nine recorded masters (see appendix A).

Additionally fourteen different African American artists or acts recorded forty-three known selections that appeared on hillbilly records during this same period (see appendix B). Altogether forty-nine African American musicians participated in the recording of at least 112 masters for the hillbilly recording industry before 1933. These recordings were released, in various series, on a total of 204 domestically issued sides, and of these sides, no fewer than 178 of them appeared on hillbilly records or on records otherwise intended for sale in the hillbilly market.

These African American records raise a number of intriguing and important questions about the prewar hillbilly recording industry that produced them. For example, how, in an age of pervasive racism and Jim Crow segregation, did so many racially integrated sessions occur? Whose idea was it to record white and black musicians together, and why? How was it that a commercial music genre, which from its earliest advertisements was so deliberately and overtly linked to whiteness, came to include more than 175 records featuring African American artists?

In promoting these records, did companies attempt to conceal the racial identity of these African American artists from the southern white consumers who supposedly constituted the chief market for hillbilly records? While it remains difficult, if not impossible to formulate definitive answers to such questions, studying these records suggests new ways of thinking about and understanding commercially recorded hillbilly music prior to 1933.



Do Not Sell at Any Price

April 9, 2014


Excerpted from Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich (Simon & Schuster, Inc.)

James McKune wasn’t the first 78 collector, but he was one of the earliest to single out rural blues records as worthy of preservation, and is arguably the field’s most archetypal figure. At the very least, he established the physical standard. He was flagpole skinny and otherwise nondescript (medium height, tapering hair), prone to wearing the same outfit nearly every day (a white shirt with rolled sleeves, black pants, white socks, black shoes).

McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. He didn’t like the notion that records could generate profit for their handlers: in the fall of 1963, in another letter to Rinard, he referenced his skepticism of a fellow collector, writing, “Somehow, I distrust him. He bought some records from the Negroes in Charleston, S.C.

He spent $19 or $20 and sold the records for more than $500.” For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture, and McKune cultivated a fantastic disdain for pop stars as well as the so-called protest singers of the era. He thought, for example, that Woody Guthrie was bullshit, although by 1950 he’d come back around on folk music as a genre, a shift he attributed to getting older. (The career of Glenn Miller, though, was a constant source of jokes.)

In January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”

“Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” is one of Charley Patton’s more staid tracks, in both rhythm and narrative. According to Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt’s King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charley Patton, “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” was “likely conceived for white presentation: it used diatonic intervals and featured the keynote as its lowest vocal tone, a technique Patton usually avoided in singing blues and gospel material.” Wardlow and Calt suspect the tune was conceived for “white square dances and sociables,” where Patton was likely accompanied by a fiddler who’d been tasked with playing lead over his strums. Lyrically, it’s a sweet imploration: don’t take me for granted, Patton warns. “Some these days, I’m going to be leaving / Some these days, I’ll be going away,” he slurs, strumming a faint, bouncing guitar line. For once, he sounds more amused than angry. You’ll see, he seems to grin. Just wait.

Charley Patton changed everything for McKune. I can run an assortment of scenarios—recounting all the fireworks-type stuff I imagine happened when he first dropped a needle to “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone”—but those particular moments of catharsis are too weird and too personal ever really to translate. What’s important is that McKune’s discovery of Patton set off an avalanche of cultural events, a revolution that’s still in progress: blues records became coveted by collectors, who then fought to preserve and disseminate them.

In the liner notes to The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, a collection of 78 rarities released by Yazoo in 2012, Richard Nevins called McKune “‘the man’ who set it all in motion, who led blues collectors away from the errors of their wayward tastes… a fantastic, brilliant young man… [his] perspectives had profound influence and resound even today.” In the same notes, Dick Spottswood—in conversation with Nevins and Whelan—spoke about how McKune raised the stakes for everyone, about how things changed: “All I’m saying is that the records themselves as collectible artifacts were not buy or die [before]. They were desirable records but they weren’t life or death. You know, the way they have since turned into.” After McKune, collectors became invested in rural blues. They sought those records with fury, the music was preserved and reissued, and the entire trajectory of popular music shifted to reflect the genre’s influence. A guy from no place, saving music from the same.

America’s Instrument

August 9, 2013
America's Instrument

America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, by Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 97 color and 156 b&w illus., notes, bibl., index


This handsome illustrated history traces the transformation of the banjo from primitive folk instrument to sophisticated musical machine and, in the process, offers a unique view of the music business in nineteenth-century America.

Philip Gura and James Bollman chart the evolution of “America’s instrument,” the five-stringed banjo, from its origins in the gourd instruments of enslaved Africans brought to the New World in the seventeenth century through its rise to the very pinnacle of American popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout, they look at how banjo craftsmen and manufacturers developed, built, and marketed their products to an American public immersed in the production and consumption of popular music.

With over 250 illustrations–including rare period photographs, minstrel broadsides, sheet music covers, and banjo tutors and tune books–America’s Instrument brings to life a fascinating aspect of American cultural history.

About the Author

Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is an old-time music enthusiast. James F. Bollman is co-owner and manager of the Music Emporium in Lexington, Massachusetts. He plays clawhammer banjo and has been collecting and researching banjos and banjo-related ephemera for more than thirty years.


America’s Instrument is a fascinating, eye-opening read. . . . That this handsome book belongs in the library of every banjo enthusiast barely needs stating, but it is also a gem for anyone interested in folk music, in American studies, and in the development of American popular culture.”
Missouri Folklore Society Journal

America’s Instrument reviews extant banjo history firmly, without antagonism. [The authors] prune from their own new research all but the banjo’s technical progress. They watch the banjo change from an African gourd with a neck attached to a twentieth-century machine-made tool able to bounce its yawp off the back of the largest halls. . . . They have written an obsessive book for banjo fanatics, rich in living banjo culture. . . . America’s Instrument lavishly details the banjo from the pegface to tailpiece hanger bolt.”
Journal of American History

American’s Instrument is now one of those ‘must have’ items for ‘banjo people.’ However, this is a very enjoyable book to look through for anyone, largely because so many incredible photos are of people, not just banjos, staring off the page at us from a century and a half ago. . . . Gura and Bollman have contributed an incredible document to the history of the banjo, and I for one deeply appreciate their effort.”
–Béla Fleck, for Mississippi Quarterly

That Half-Barbaric Twang

August 1, 2013


Cover for LINN: That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture. Click for larger image


That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture, by Karen Linn (University of Illinois)


Long a symbol of American culture, the banjo actually originated in Africa and was later adopted by European-Americans. In this book Karen Linn shows how the banjo – despite design innovations and several modernizing agendas – has failed to escape its image as a “half-barbaric” instrument symbolic of antimodernism and sentimentalism.

Caught in the morass of American racial attitudes and often used to express ambivalence toward modern industrial society, the banjo stood in opposition to the “official” values of rationalism, modernism, and belief in the beneficence of material progress. Linn uses popular literature, visual arts, advertisements, film, performance practices, instrument construction and decoration, and song lyrics to illustrate how notions about the banjo have changed.

Her text traces the instrument from its African origins through the 1980s, alternating between themes of urban modernization and rural nostalgia. She examines the banjo fad of bourgeois Northerners during the late nineteenth century, African-American banjo tradition and the commercially popular cultural image of the southern black banjo player, the banjo in ragtime and early jazz, and the white Southerner and mountaineer as banjo player.

“Well written and well researched; Linn has amassed an impressive amount of data, and she uses it effectively. . . . This is an excellent book that should be of interest to not only historians, folklorists, and musicologists but also the banjo player and the general reader.”–Charlie Seemann, Journal of Southern History

“An absolute must read for anyone interested in the banjo.”–Five Stringer

“Concise, well-supported, and provocative. . . . The clearest voice of revelation regarding American’s most misunderstood instrument.”–Bob Fulcher, Journal of Country Music

“An intriguing analysis of the role of the banjo in recent American culture and society. . . . Highly recommended.”–R. D. Cohen, Choice

“Uses everything from sentimental novels and escaped slave posters to Felix the Cat cartoons and magazine advertisements to create impressive cultural history of what the author calls the ‘idea of the banjo.’ . . . Linn’s wonderful book is scholarly without being jargoned, serious without being tedious. . . . A book for dipping into, underlining, reading aloud in snatches, and opening repeatedly.”–Rachel Rubin, Banjo Newsletter

Karen Linn is an archivist in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. She has published articles in North Carolina Folklore Journal and American Music.

Close Harmony

July 25, 2013


Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, by James R. Goff Jr. (University of North Carolina Press)

excerpt from

Early in the nation’s history, gospel music emerged as a central part of the expression of American culture. Practically speaking, it provided a foundation for other styles of music that came to enrich the life of its citizens. More important, it built a bulwark upon which a developing nation and its people could assemble a religious identity.

At least since the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Americans have been among the world’s most religious people. And even before the rural revivals of the early 1800s turned the cultural landscape of the nation into a bastion of evangelicalism, Americans were comfortable with the tenets of the Judeo-Christian heritage and understood the majority of their values within those boundaries. In that context, gospel music helped mold the culture through which the collective hopes, dreams, and beliefs of most Americans found expression.

Few books have examined the American gospel music tradition. One can search library shelves and find a significant number of works on the evolution and importance of most forms of classical and popular music. On the popular side, a number of impressive efforts have chronicled the rise of blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and country music. In recent years, a sizable number of similar works on the role of black gospel have even appeared. Yet almost ignored is the parallel treatment of the white gospel tradition.

Ironically, the area of life most divided in 1900 was religious life—segregation by custom rather than by any particular detail of a state’s Jim Crow package. In part to experience fully one of the few areas where they had total control, blacks in the decades after the Civil War flocked to churches and denominations that were operated and controlled within the black community.

A by-product was an increased separation in the performance of and preference for gospel music. The timing was pivotal, for the late decades of the nineteenth century would be the crucial decades in the development of the shape-note songbook publishing business and also in the formation of early quartet styling. Black and white singers would still listen, learn, and consciously borrow from each other, but segregation in general would mean that their audiences and the confines of their market would be separate for at least the first six decades of the twentieth century.

A Cautionary Tale

July 16, 2013

Freemuse-Mali-Bk-Cover-4-WebMusic, Culture, and Conflict in Mali,” by Andy Morgan

from and

Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali takes an in-depth look at the crisis that overtook Mali in January 2012 and lead to a ten-month occupation of the northern two-thirds of the country by armed jihadi groups, the impositon of Sharia law, and the banning of music.

The book examines the roots of those tumultuous events and their effect on the music and culture of the country. There are chapters on music under occupation in the north, the music scene in Bamako, the destruction of mausoleums in the north, the fate of Mali’s precious manuscripts, Mali’s film and theatre industries and the response to the crisis from writers, poets, journalists, intellectuals and film-makers.

Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali is by the writer and journalist Andy Morgan, who used to manage the Touareg group Tinariwen and has been working with and writing about Malian musicians for many years. He is also a reputed commentator on the music, culture and politics of Mali and the Sahara.

The inconclusive military coup of March 2012 ousted the government and left a power vacuum which Touareg rebels in the North seized upon to declare their independence from the Malian state. Al-Qaeda allies quickly capitalised on this political instability, taking control of the North and imposing a strict form of Islamic law on to the region.

These Islamist militia groups took particular objection to what they considered ‘idolatrous’ local religious practices, destroying the shrines of Timbuktu’s mosques, recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Mali’s rich musical culture was suppressed by laws which banned any form of ‘Western’ music, which in practice extended to local music, ringtones, and anything that was not chanted Qu’ranic verse.

Aunt Molly Jackson

July 14, 2013

Cover for ROMALIS: Pistol Packin' Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong

Pistol Packin’ Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong,” by Shelly Romalis (University of Illinois

from and

Meet Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960), one of American folklore’s most fascinating characters.

A coal miner’s daughter, she grew up in eastern Kentucky, married a miner, and became a midwife, labor activist, and songwriter. Fusing hard experience with rich Appalachian musical tradition, her songs became weapons of struggle.

In a life spanning eighty years, Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) assumed a variety of identities: miner’s wife, mother, widow, midwife, union organizer, political activist, and ballad singer.

Briefly popular for her role as a political symbol and folksinger in 1930s New York City, Jackson’s name has since drifted into relative obscurity. Nonetheless the Kentucky woman was once called “one of America’s best native ballad singers” by the man usually credited with that honor, Woody Guthrie.

Invited to New York to sing about the plight of the ‘Bloody Harlan’ strikers in 1931, Jackson lived in that city for much of the decade and participated in Greenwich Village’s urban folk revival in the pre-war years. She came to be perceived by intellectuals of the time as an “authentic” representative of the American folk. Her folk identity, initially recognized and co-opted by writers of the political left, was later crafted for symbolic purchase by political groups, folk collectors, and, most importantly, Jackson herself.

She was sponsored and befriended by an illustrious circle of left-wing intellectuals and musicians, including Theodore Dreiser, Alan Lomax, and Charles Seeger and his son Pete. Along with Sarah Ogan Gunning, Jim Garland (two of Aunt Molly’s half-siblings), Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other folk musicians, she served as a cultural broker, linking the rural working poor to big-city left-wing activism.

Shelly Romalis draws upon interviews and archival materials to construct this portrait of an Appalachian woman who remained radical, raucous, proud, poetic, offensive, self-involved, and in spirit the “real” pistol packin’ mama of the song.

“Mr. Coal operator call me anything you please, blue, green, or red, I aim to see to it that these Kentucky coalminers will not dig your coal while their little children are crying and dying for milk and bread.”
— Aunt Molly Jackson

Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity

July 8, 2013


from “Truth is Stranger Than Publicity,” by Alton Delmore (Country Music Foundation Press):

Alton Delmore writes about the 1930 fiddlers’ convention in Athens, AL:

“There was a big crowd there and everything was decorated and all fixed up like the president of the United States would be there. It was by far the biggest and most important contest in the entire country. People who had never been to a contest before gathered with the contestants at the Old Athens (Alabama) Agricultural School. My mother had made (guitar) cases for us out of cotton sacks we used during the picking season and we had our names on them spelled out in full. I painted them on the cases with pokeberry juice.

“You know how it feels to be a combatant in any kind of contest so we rightly felt proud of the sack cases and we were primed to go for the first in the prizes in each case. I entered the contest for the best guitarist and we also entered the contest for the best band. There were some bands there that would have given Bob Wills some strong competition if Bob had been there. We didn’t think we would win that one. By then we had ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ down pretty pat-in fact we could play it then just as good as we ever did.

“When it came our time to play we sang just as soft as we could and just as loud as we could but we put the music in there, too -and that counts as much as anything I can think of to help put an act over. You can analyze music and record hits, I mean the legitimate ones, and you will find that there is a synchronization between the voice or voices and the instrumentation.

“We got tied for the first place with three pretty girls. Nothing worse could have happened because we knew the crowd usually takes sides with the singer if it happens to be a girl and those three girls could really sing. The rules were that they were to play two songs and two for us. The girls went out first, and I could tell they had lost something of their quality on their very first song. Their second one was not any better but they still got a tremendous hand from the audience. I knew we had something to beat. Rabon did, too, but it just made us work harder. We could feel the challenge in the air.

“For our first number we used the old song ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’ It was written by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarltor It is a plaintive prison and love song combined  and when we got through singing men threw their hats into the top of the house and everybody screamed like the had really never before. We thought had it won then and we did but we still had the ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ for them and when we did it the people really went wild and we won that contest without any question or any doubt. And that started us on our way to the Grand Ole Opry and the big record companies. Incidentally, I also won the first place for guitar playing with an instrumental rendition of ‘St. Louis Blues.’ Our names came out in the paper and it was really swell. Of all the days of triumph in my life, there were none any greater than those.”

Hazel Dickens

July 3, 2013


“Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens” by Hazel Dickens and Bill C. Malone


The life story of singer and songwriter Hazel Dickens, the inspiring voice of a whole generation of women and workers

Hazel Dickens is an Appalachian singer and songwriter known for her superb musicianship, feminist country songs, union anthems, and blue-collar laments. Growing up in a West Virginia coal mining community, she drew on the mountain music and repertoire of her family and neighbors when establishing her own vibrant and powerful vocal style that is a trademark in old-time, bluegrass, and traditional country circles. Working Girl Blues presents forty original songs that Hazel Dickens wrote about coal mining, labor issues, personal relationships, and her life and family in Appalachia. Conveying sensitivity, determination, and feistiness, Dickens comments on each of her songs, explaining how she came to write them and what they meant and continue to mean to her. Bill C. Malone’s introduction traces Dickens’s life, musical career, and development as a songwriter, and the book features forty-one illustrations and a detailed discography of her commercial recordings.

Working Girl Blues succinctly yet comprehensively surveys a remarkable artistic career and the circumstances in which it has progressed from the perspectives of the artist herself and a distinguished scholar. . . This book will be an invaluable resource to anyone who wishes to understand the contexts surrounding Dickens’s achievements and the historical developments of which her life is illustrative.”–H-Southern-Music

“A fascinating portrayal of how one Appalachian native navigated the American shoals. Dickens’s voice illuminates the pristine, original, and enduring folk culture of the region and will stimulate readers to ask larger questions about American polity. Folksong buffs, sophisticated feminists, labor partisans, and American and Appalachian studies scholars will be among the enthusiasts for this phenomenal book.”–Archie Green, author of Tin Men

“As a musician, Hazel Dickens has an immediately recognizable voice that perfectly captures the grittiness of the songs she writes. The songs themselves reflect the lives and struggles of the mountain people she grew up with and have acted as a conduit through which the whole country gained a more intimate knowledge of Appalachia. In this effortless, fast-moving narrative, we hear Dickens telling–in her own voice–how she is influenced by her life and times. A thoroughly enjoyable read.”–Ellen Wright, coauthor of Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story

Bill C. Malone is a professor emeritus of history at Tulane University. He is the author of several books, including Don’t Get above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class.

Way Up North in Dixie

June 25, 2013


“Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem,” by Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks


Who really wrote the classic song “Dixie”? A white musician, or an African American family of musicians and performers?

This book traces the lives of the Snowdens, an African American family of musicians and farmers living in rural Knox County, Ohio. Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks examine the Snowdens’ musical and social exchanges with rural whites from the 1850s through the early 1920s and provide a detailed exploration of the claim that the Snowden family taught the song “Dixie” to Dan Emmett–the white musician and blackface minstrel credited with writing the song. This edition features a new introduction in which the authors discuss the public response to this controversial claim, and present new information on the Snowdens’ musical and social experiences.

“An intriguing and textured portrait of a black family in the nineteenth-century North. . . . Arguing that those who have searched for black influences on minstrelsy have exclusively and mistakenly focused on the South, the authors seek to demonstrate the closely intertwined traditions of black and white music above the Mason-Dixon line. . . . Not only has blackface minstrelsy exerted ‘a pervasive impact on American music’ . . . it has also served as both symbol and metaphoric expression of the complexities of American racial identity.”–Drew Gilpin Faust, New York Times

“A haunting and heroic story, which the Sackses tell eloquently. . . . Way Up North in Dixie is the fullest, most finely detailed account I know of the musical life of a nineteenth-century African American family anywhere in the United States.”–Ken Emerson, Nation

“The process of cultural exchange the Sackses have delineated is one of which all historians of race in America need to be aware.”–Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., American Historical Review

Howard L. Sacks is senior advisor to the president, professor of sociology, and director of the Rural Life Center at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Judith Rose Sacks is an affiliated scholar in American studies at Kenyon College.

The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History

June 19, 2013


The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History, by Joe Gioia (SUNY Press)

from and

The primary thesis of the book, sure to be controversial, is that the Blues is mostly derived from Native American roots, rather than African.

The book includes a wide range of intriguing meanderings, book-ended by the hidden background of the author’s Sicilian and Napolitano ancestors, one of whom was an early guitar maker.  Along with the history of the guitar in Europe and 19th and early 20th century America, interesting histories of Western New York State and a presidential assassination appear.  But the book’s true subject is the fugitive nature of history itself.

Gioia’s investigation stretches from the ancient world to the fateful events of the 1901 Buffalo Pan American Exposition, across Sioux Ghost Dancers and circus Indians, to the lives and works of such celebrated American musicians as Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Patton, Eddie Lang, and the Carter Family.

At the heart of the book’s portrait of wanderings and legacies is the proposition that America’s idiomatic harmonic forms—mountain music and the blues—share a single root, and that the source of the sad and lonesome sounds central to both is neither Celtic nor African, but truly indigenous—Native American. The case is presented through a wide examination of cultural histories, academic works, and government documents, as well as a close appreciation of recordings made by key rural musicians, black and white, in the 1920s and ’30s.

Joe documents in some detail the fascinating history of how through the whole southeast including Appalachia but more, from the Florida Seminoles, West to Oklahoma, and up through the Northeast and upstate New York, there was not only large-scale inter-marriage but cultural interaction, especially musical.

Many Blues idioms, vocal and musical, go back to Native Americans, including “Hey Hey”. Howling Wolf claimed his Choctaw ancestry, but Muddy Waters is also an obviously Native American name.  Joe Gioia provides plenty of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence, all that is possible after the erasures of official history, including insight into the realities of slavery.  One repellent but riveting example is how the term “Blues” derives from the toxic and nauseating indigo production.  But after fifty years of extensive searching in Africa, nobody from musicologists to Buddy Guy have found anything like Blues musical patterns in Africa.

Discussions include Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Patton, Eddie Lang, the Carter Family, Leadbelly, and many more, and Native American echoes appear in both Rock and Country music.   Fascinating and highly readable, this is an important book, revealing a major contribution of Native Americans to mainstream American culture

The Legends and the Lost

June 12, 2013


edited excerpt of review of  Tony Russell’s “Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost,” by Keith Chandler (

“Country Music Originals” takes the form of a chronologically-arranged series of brief biographies to which are attached even briefer playlists indicating where to hear tracks in the CD format by each of the chosen artists.  Practically every entry features at least one photograph of the named performer, and in addition we get the bonus of further contextual images such as 78 rpm record labels, song folio covers, advertising copy, and facsimilies of newspaper articles (regrettably at times, as that on page 127, lacking details of provenance).

Mr. Russell appends a postscript  to the biography of Ed Haley, a blind fiddler born in West Virginia in 1884 whose stylistic influence was widespread among many younger players throughout both that and adjoining states in which Haley travelled widely. He never recorded for any of the commercial companies, and his aural legacy lies in a series of home recordings (more than a hundred of which are extant) produced, it has always been assumed, simply for personal satisfaction.

Russell reveals (pages 79-80) that ‘recent research in West Virginia newspapers provides grounds for questioning’ that assumption, and offers an extract of an advertisement discovered in The Charleston Gazette of 27 September 1930 : ‘if interested, either as a seller or user, in 10-inch double-faced Phonograph Records, made by him, price 35 cents each, write Ed Haley Co., Huntington, W. Va.’  This would have involved a labour-intensive process, seated before a recording machine and playing through each selection as many times as were required to fill any outstanding orders.

Russell generally shows a nice turn of phrase which may be at odds with that demanded by strict academic publications, but which sits well in a volume that needs to exhibit the broadest possible appeal.  The instruments of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, for instance, ‘pierce the murk of surface noise like a lighthouse beam on a dark night’ (page 24); while of Hoyt Ming’s group he writes (on page 122), ‘The hour or so they spent making records in the Memphis Auditorium would buy them a time-share at Immortality Court …’

Each individual entry in the book is made up from sundry component parts.  Among these might be basic details of recording and other performance experiences, quotes from either the musicians themselves or those who knew them, partial transcriptions of a song or skit, the whole overlaid with Russell’s perceptive and insightful analysis.  One excellent example of this may be found when he discusses (on page 107) the vocal interjections to be heard on many of the items recorded by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter:

The effect of these homely devices is to relocate the mythlike narratives of half-forgotten seductions and murders in the known present: to ground them in the familiar geographical, social, and ethical landscape of ’20s Appalachia.  That this terrain was itself shifting uneasily beneath the pressures of modern life was all to the point: their tales, Grayson and Whitter might have argued, were, in their essence, for all time.

“Africa and the Blues”

June 4, 2013


Africa and the Blues, by Gerhard Kubik

A study of the geneology of blues music encompassing forty years of fieldwork done in Africa, the U.S., and elsewhere

In 1969 Gerhard Kubik chanced to encounter a Mozambican labor migrant, a miner in Transvaal, South Africa, tapping a cipendani, a mouth-resonated musical bow. A comparable instrument was seen in the hands of a white Appalachian musician who claimed it as part of his own cultural heritage. Through connections like these Kubik realized that the link between these two far-flung musicians is African-American music, the sound that became the blues.

Such discoveries reveal a narrative of music evolution for Kubik, a cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. Traveling in Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States, he spent forty years in the field gathering the material for Africa and the Blues. In this book, Kubik relentlessly traces the remote genealogies of African cultural music through eighteen African nations, especially in the Western and Central Sudanic Belt.

Included is a comprehensive map of this cradle of the blues, along with 31 photographs gathered in his fieldwork. The author also adds clear musical notations and descriptions of both African and African American traditions and practices and calls into question the many assumptions about which elements of the blues were “European” in origin and about which came from Africa. Unique to this book is Kubik’s insight into the ways present-day African musicians have adopted and enlivened the blues with their own traditions.

With scholarly care but with an ease for the general reader, Kubik proposes an entirely new theory on blue notes and their origins. Tracing what musical traits came from Africa and what mutations and mergers occurred in the Americas, he shows that the African American tradition we call the blues is truly a musical phenomenon belonging to the African cultural world.

Gerhard Kubik is a professor in the department of ethnology and African studies at the University of Mainz, Germany. Since 1983 he has been affiliated with the Center for Social Research of Malawi, Zomba. He is a permanent member of the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, London.

Country Music Humorists and Comedians

May 30, 2013

Cover for Jones: Country Music Humorists and Comedians. Click for larger image

Country Music Humorists and Comedians, by Loyal Jones (University of Illinois Press)


An exhaustive reference detailing the mirth and music of country music humorists and comedians

This volume is an encyclopedia of country music performers who have used comedy as a central component of their presentation. Loyal Jones offers a conversational and informative biographical sketch of each performer, often including a sample of the musician’s humor, a recording history, and amusing anecdotal tidbits. In an entertaining style, Jones covers performers throughout the twentieth century, from such early stars of vaudeville and radio barn dances as the Skillet Lickers and the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, to regulars on Hee Haw and the Grand Old Opry, continuing to current comedians such as the Austin Lounge Lizards, Ray Stevens, and Jeff Foxworthy.

This comprehensive, readable reference opens with a broad introductory essay on country humor, discussing such topics as stock comic figures, venues for comedic performance, and benchmark performers. Throughout the volume, Jones places each performer squarely in the context of the country music community and its performing traditions. Readers will learn a good deal about musical instruments, yodeling, life on the road, the cultural milieu of these performers, and the roots of country music humor.

“If Cratis Williams is the father of Appalachian Studies and Helen Lewis its mother, than I reckon Loyal Jones would have to be considered the midwife of it all. . . . This book reflects not only his disarming sense of humor, but also his meticulous attention to voluminous details, his considerable scholarship, and his substantial wisdom.”–Appalachian Heritage

“Southern humor, rural comedy and its practitioners are brilliantly showcased.”–The Nashville Musician

“A treasure trove of information. . . . Will make a wonderful reference book for years to come.”–Bluegrass Unlimited

“The importance of the subject emphasized by Jones is unquestionable. Humor has been an indispensable ingredient of country music entertainment and is in fact a major force in its worldwide success. This volume is insightful, informative, and entertaining.”–Bill C. Malone, author of Don’t Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class

“This stimulating book is a significant contribution to several fields. Students of country music, American history, performing arts, minstrel heritage, and the roots of comedy as it related to various subcultures of the American panorama will all want the detailed information only this author can provide. This book is one of a kind.”–Ron Thomason, founder of the bluegrass band Dry Branch Fire Squad

Loyal Jones is the author of nine books and dozens of articles on Appalachian culture, including Laughter in Appalachia: A Festival of Southern Mountain Humor. For twenty-three years he was director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College.

Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge

May 25, 2013


Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge,” by Marty McGee (McFarland)


The Central Blue Ridge, taking in the mountainous regions of northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia, is well known for its musical traditions. Long recognized as one of the richest repositories of folksong in the United States, the Central Blue Ridge has also been a prolific source of commercial recording, starting in 1923 with Henry Whitter’s “hillbilly” music and continuing into the 21st century with such chart-topping acts as James King, Ronnie Bowman and Doc Watson.

Unrivaled in tradition, unequaled in acclaim and unprecedented in influence, the Central Blue Ridge can claim to have contributed to the musical landscape of Americana as much as or more than any other region in the United States.

This reference work–part of McFarland’s continuing series of Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies–provides complete biographical and discographical information on more than 75 traditional recording (major commercial label) artists who are natives of or lived mostly in the northwestern North Carolina counties of Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Surry, Watauga and Wilkes, and the southwestern Virginia counties of Carroll and Grayson.

Primary recordings as well as appearances on anthologies are included in the discographies. A chronological overview of the music is provided in the Introduction, and the Foreword is by the celebrated musician Bobby Patterson, founder of the Mountain and Heritage record labels.

“Strings of Life”

May 20, 2013


“Strings of Life — Conversations with Old-Time Musicians from Virginia and North Carolina,” by Kevin Donleavy (Pocahontas Press)


Kevin Donleavy, graduate of University of Virginia, independent historian, musicologist, and educator has combined his talents to create a “historical-musical census-of-sorts” identifying more than 1300 banjo and fiddle players of traditional music in a span of over 250 years.

Donleavy spent seven years traveling, living, playing music and most importantly, listening to the residents of Carroll, Grayson, Patrick and Wythe counties in Virginia and Alleghany, Caswell, Forsyth, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry, and Wilkes counties in North Carolina. He has now complied a collection of oral histories not found anywhere else.

Strings of Life is well organized and Mr. Donleavy’s research is thoroughly documented complete with a annotated Discography and Bibliography, as well as three separate indexes: Persons Mentioned; Tunes; and Bands and Musical Groups. In addition, of the 1300 some musicians mentioned in this volume, Donleavy has been able to identify the burial sites of about 660 in 170 graveyards scatted throughout the 11 counties.

Some of the families documented are Hawks, Jarrell, Lowe, Martin, McKinney, Sutphin and Tate, along with many others. It would have been nice if a list of the nearly one hundred wonderful photos had been included in the table of contents, but truly, the pictures are enough. (more…)

The High and Lonesome Sound

May 17, 2013


The High and Lonesome Sound (new book by John Cohen)

  • Text by John Cohen
    with a DVD with two films about Roscoe Holcomb
    and a CD with music of Roscoe Holcomb
    Book design by Gerhard Steidl
    and Katharina Staal
  • 216 pages
  • 28 cm x 24 cm
  • Clothbound hardcover with a dustjacket
  • 158 photographs
  • ISBN: 978-3-86930-254-6

“The music of Roscoe Holcomb transcended daily life. Although it was grounded in Appalachia, in East Kentucky, in his little town of Dais, his music traveled like it was on a path towards a distant star.”   

John Cohen


from publisher

In 1959 John Cohen traveled to East Kentucky looking for what he calls “old music”. Cohen asked for names at local gas stations but soon ran out of leads, and drove off the highway onto the next dirt road. Here he stumbled across Roscoe Holcomb playing the banjo and singing on his front porch in a way says Cohen, “that made the hairs on my neck stand up on end”. And so by pure chance began the life-long friendship that is the background for The High and Lonesome Sound.

Cohen visited Holcomb frequently over the next three decades, and made many photographs, films and records of his music. In time Holcomb, a poor coal miner by trade, became a regular feature on the American concert and festival circuits. The “strange beauty and discomfort” of his music – a mixture of blues, ballads and Baptist hymns, and unique through his high strained voice – was exposed to a larger audience. Nevertheless Holcomb died alone in a nursing home in 1981.

The High and Lonesome Sound combines Cohen’s vintage photos, film and musical recordings as well as an anecdotal text into a multimedia tribute to this underappreciated legend of American music whose every performance was in Cohen’s words “not just a rendition of music, but a test of something to be overcome”.

“Minstrel of the Appalachians”

May 13, 2013

“Minstrel of the Appalachians: The Story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford,” by Loyal Jones

” It is said that Bascom Lamar Lunsford would “cross hell on a rotten rail to get a folk song”—his Southern highlands folk-song compilations now constitute one of the largest collections of its kind in the Library of Congress—but he did much more than acquire songs. He preserved and promoted the Appalachian mountain tradition for generations of people, founding in 1928 the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, an annual event that has shaped America’s festival movement. Loyal Jones pens a lively biography of a man considered to be Appalachian music royalty. He also includes a “Lunsford Sampler” of ballads, songs, hymns, tales, and anecdotes, plus a discography of his recordings.

While towns and cities were burgeoning musically, trying to promote classical and art-forms over the simple songs of their ancestors, Bascom was desperately throwing his net to catch and hold onto these old time treasures. Loyal Jones has given much insight into the life and times of this amazing man. — Jean Ritchie

This is both a biography and an examination of Lunsford’s career dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Appalachian traditional culture. Jones’s study offers a significant contribution to our ‘new’ culture in the context of folk music. Loyal is an excellent storyteller, and his genial North Carolina manner is perfectly suited to the subject—there is a real affinity between Jones’s authorial voice and Lunsford’s personality. — Ron Pen

“A Banjo Pickin’ Girl”

May 7, 2013


A BANJO PICKIN’ GIRL – The Life and Music of Ola Belle Campbell Reed by Judy Marti (Broad Valley Orchard Publications)


Those who knew Ola Belle Reed at all will appreciate this interesting book about her life and her music. Written by a devoted fan, the book is primarily a collection of 22 of Ola Belle’s own songs, plus another couple dozen old traditional numbers that she enjoyed playing.

The first 45 pages of the book describe her life, in 3 stages: her upbringing in the North Carolina mountains near the New River, the 15 years that she lived in Chester County, Pennsylvania (1934-1949), and the more than 50 years that she spent around Rising Sun, Maryland and New Oxford, Pennsylvania.

She and her brother Alex Campbell were fixtures at the New River Ranch and Sunset Park country music parks that were so popular in the 1940s and 50s. A great storyteller and a good singer, she could play the old ballads accompanying herself with banjo or guitar, and she made some excellent recordings over the years, including a couple of country flavored Bluegrass LPs for the Starday label, and later efforts for Rounder.

The latter included many of her own songs, such as I’VE ENDURED, MY EPITAPH, SPRINGTIME OF LIFE, YOU LED ME TO THE WRONG and the classic HIGH ON A MOUNTAIN. Seeing all of her songs here in words & music gets one to more fully appreciate the work that she did. This is a really nice tribute to a special woman. $ 17.50

Southern Exposure

May 3, 2013


“Southern Exposure: The Story of Southern Music in Pictures and Words,” by Richard and Bob Carlin (Billboard Books, 2000, 160 pages)

Screen shot 2013-04-15 at 3.00.39 PM

“Country Music Sources”

April 30, 2013


Country Music Sources: A Biblio-discography Of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music

Author: Guthrie T. Meade Jr., With Dick Spottswood And Douglas S. Meade
Publisher: University Of North Carolina Press

Review by Bill C. Malone (

This 927-page tome is easily the most important research aid for the study of country music undertaken in our time. Along with Tony Russell’s discographic investigation of pre-World War II country music. Country Music Sources will supply just about everything a serious student needs to begin an exploration of the music that made its way onto commercial phonograph recordings before 1942.

As the title suggests, the book attempts to document every known pre-1942 recording of American traditional country songs (religious and secular), along with the label, place, and date of recording, the songs’ composers, and sources where the songs originally appeared (songsters, folios, sheet music, and the like). Altogether, about 3400 separate songs, appearing on over 11,000 recordings, are listed.

The compilers have grouped and cross-referenced the songs in 52 categories or themes, such as “Mother And Home,” “Forsaken Love,” “Prison Songs,” “Southern Gospel,” and “Southern Breakdowns.” The reader, for example, is told that “Give My Love To Nell” (also known as “Jack And Joe”) was written by William Benson Gray in 1894, is informed of eight printed sources where the song was mentioned, and then is given a listing of nineteen recordings (beginning with Ernest Stoneman’s 1925 Okeh performance) where some version of the song can be found. (more…)

“Mountains of Music”

April 22, 2013

Mountains of Music book

“Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from Goldenseal,” edited by John Lilly


The most complete book to date on West Virginia traditional music, “Mountains of Music” is a collection of articles taken from the pages of the popular magazine over the past 25 years. Detailing the lives and experiences of 25 critical folk artists from across the state, the book takes the reader into the backwoods, up the “hollers” and into the homes of those for whom music is part of an ancient heritage-one that includes hard work, strong faith and a clear mountain identity.

Through extensive oral accounts, a generous use of photography and the keen observations of some of the most respected folklorists in the country, the book reveals not only the music, but also the personal lives, cultural imperatives and family histories of these musicians. For devotees as well as newcomers to this infectiously joyous and heartfelt music, “Mountains of Music” captures the strength of tradition and the spontaneous power of living artistry.

From heavenly harmony to devilish fiddling, West Virginia’s folk music is a treasure unique to this mountainous region. For the past 25 years, the story of West Virginia’s traditional life has been deftly told in the pages of GOLDENSEAL magazine. Now, the best of GOLDENSEAL is gathered for the first time in a richly illustrated volume, “Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from GOLDENSEAL,” now available in bookstores across the state, or direct from Goldenseal.

Artists featured in the book include champion fiddler Clark Kessinger, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, National Heritage Fellowship recipient Melvin Wine, recording stars Lynn Davis and Molly O’Day, dulcimer pioneer Russell Fluharty, internationally known entertainers the Lilly Brothers, bluesman Nat Reese, banjo woman Sylvia O’Brien and many others. Contributing writers and photographers include Carl Fleischhauer, Charles Wolfe, Ivan Tribe, Michael Keller, Gerald Milnes and Michael Kline, among others.

The Rose and the Briar

April 18, 2013


Sean Wilentz, Greil Marcus, eds. The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. viii + 406 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-05954-0.

edited from a review by Steve Waksman (Department of Music, Smith College):
The search for truth, underscored by the effort to interrogate where truth lies, drives The Rose and the Briar, the  edited collection by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus on the meaning of the American ballad. As Marcus writes in the book’s closing piece, old ballads carry “a kind of truth … that [cannot] be found anywhere else,” to which he adds, “all ballads, regardless of when they might have been made, are old”.

The strength of The Rose and the Briar lies in the fact that, for the different contributors, the truth of the ballads assumes a variety of forms. Collected in the book are the expected critical essays, but they exist alongside several works of fiction, memoir, poetry, and visual art.

Complementing the diversity of approaches in the collection is the wide range of source material covered. The Rose and the Briar puts forth a purposely broad inclusive definition of the ballad, in which the primary criterion requires that the song in question tell a story.  Several contributors dwell upon songs in which love somehow proves to be fatal.

Often it is a man who kills his female lover, but sometimes the situation is reversed (“Frankie and Albert”) and sometimes the act of murder is more allegorical than actual as in “Barbara Allen,” in which a man dies of a broken heart when his love goes unreciprocated, and then his cold-hearted lover dies of regret.

The sheer recurrence of such symbolism is treated as something of a mystery in many of the book’s essays, where the clues being sought do not concern whodunit so much as the fundamental question of why tragic love occurs with such frequency in the ballad tradition. Treating one of the murder ballads in which a woman is killed by her man, Rennie Sparks digs the deepest of the book’s authors into this mystery of culture.

However, her answer–that such songs represent the drive to extinguish the threatening power of the mythic feminine goddess–relies too strongly on ideas informed by Joseph Campbell, concerning psychological archetypes divorced from historical context.

For Dave Marsh, writing about “Barbara Allen,” the matter is more straightforward if no less mysterious, as he interprets the song to put forth a lesson about “the peril of denying the complicated mysteries that throb within our hardened hearts and the equal peril of horsing around instead of acknowledging our love for one another”. Or to put it more bluntly, love is strange and, if you are not careful, it can kill you.

St. James Infirmary

April 9, 2013


edited from

“I Went Down to St. James Infirmary,” by Robert W. Harwood (Harland Press)

Infused with humor and supported by meticulous research, this ground breaking book explores the turbulent and mysterious history of one of the most important and influential songs of the twentieth century.

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary looks at the people and the times in which “St. James Infirmary” achieved its initial popularity and explores what happens to a traditional song when it becomes a piece of merchandise.

Saturated with ego-driven angst and once considered obscene because of the song’s stark depiction of death and the portrayal of a seedy underworld inhabited by gamblers, pimps, “loose” women, and every sort of rounder, it has been adapted, rewritten, borrowed, stolen, attacked, revered, and cherished.

The song has been shrouded in mystery as well as scandal. Who is the woman stretched out on a long white table? Who is the narrator and why is he, robust and vain, more concerned about his own funeral arrangements than with hers?

And there are the questions about the song itself. Where did it come from? To what lineage does it belong? Who was Joe Primrose and how did he gain copyright to a song that had been circulating the country for decades?  Driven to solve these and other puzzles about “St. James Infirmary,” author Robert W. Harwood toiled for years researching the song, the singers, and the times before and after its stunning success as a jazz hit in 1929.

“Been Here and Gone”

April 5, 2013
“Been Here and Gone,” by Frederic Ramsey (University of Georgia Press, 1960, 177 pages):

This volume documents Frederic Ramsey Jr.’s journeys through the 1950s South, where he traveled in search of what might still remain of an original, authentic African American musical tradition.

In these photographs, songs, interviews, and narratives, Ramsey portrays farmers, railroad workers, housewives, children, church congregations, and country brass bands from Saratoga, Florida, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Ramsey’s images of a past way of life capture the deceptively poor landscapes and lives that gave birth to and sustained some of our warmest and most deeply felt music.

Ramsey: “All along the Mississippi, I bad been hearing about ‘those little old string bands, used to make pretty good music.’

Once, the string bands were quite numerous little, informal organizations, often made up of amateur musicians, who roamed the streets on holidays and at carnival time.  In some districts, they played for private parties, or got together to serenade a friend.”

Screen shot 2013-03-16 at 12.17.42 PM

78 Quarterly

March 29, 2013

These back issues of “78 Quarterly” are still being sold by 50 Miles of Elbow Room.

alt Artist:
Pete Whelan
78 Quarterly – Issue No. 3
78 Quarterly
book, 76 pages
Published in 1988 and now very scarce. Front and back covers are clean. Staples show rust that slightly stains the centermost pages. Feature articles:
“Paramount, Part 1: The Anatomy of a ‘Race’ Label” by Stephen Calt
“Trev Benwell: ‘Man and Legend’” by Russ Shor
“Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette” by Doug Seroff
“Collecting Ethnic” by Dick Spottswood
“’Big Foot’ William Harris” by Gayle Dean Wardlow
“Gennett-Champion Blues: Richmond, Indiana (1923-1934), Part 1” by Tom Tsotsi
“The Rarest 78s (A-B)”
“A White Man’s Integrity” by Stephen Calt (interview with Skip James)
alt Artist:
Pete Whelan
78 Quarterly – Issue No. 4
78 Quarterly
book, 96 pages
Highly desirable issue of 78 Quarterly that features R. Crumb’s illustration of Robert Johnson on the cover, and interview with the great music historian Frederic Ramsey, Jr., tales of Paramount Records, and more.Staples show rust that slightly stains the centermost pages.  Back covers show slight rubbing; front covers cleaner.  I’ve also got a couple copies that show a bit more wear such as staining to the outer edges of the pages that are $14.  Please specify your preference.  This is probably the last restock I’ll be able to get on this one.

Feature articles:
“Paramount, Part 2: The Anatomy of a ‘Race’ Label” by Stephen Calt
“Fred Ramsey Speaks Out!” an interview by Pete Whelan
“Robert Johnson” by Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow
“The Idioms of Robert Johnson” by Stephen Calt
“Remembering Big Joe” by Henry Renard (subtitled “The life and times of Big Joe Clauberg and his Jazz Record Center – New York’s famous [and bizarre] hangout for collectors, celebrities, musicians, alcoholics, and hobos…”)
“Paramounts in the Belfry…” by Bob Hilbert
“Gennett-Champion Blues: Richmond, Indiana (1923-1934), Part 2” by Tom Tsotsi
“The Rarest 78s (C-D)”
“Postscript to the McKune Story…” by Bernard Klatzko (more…)

“Chasing the Rising Sun”

March 19, 2013


“Chasing the Rising Sun” by Ted Anthony (Simon & Schuster)


After years of intense research which took Ted Anthony from one mountain range to another, then to New Orleans, he has determined that Lomax’s acetate disc of Georgia Turner, a 16-year old coal miner’s daughter from Middlesex, Kentucky, singing “The Rising Sun Blues,” is the first of what would be hundreds of recordings of the cautionary tale.

In his well-documented book, Anthony traces the various permutations of “House of the Rising Sun,” some of them told from a male perspective, and some like Turner’s, from a woman’s. To a core set of verses, singers and interpreters have added a variety of new words, giving rise to arguments about whether the eponymous “house” was a jail, brothel, card room, roadhouse, or workhouse.

Anthony’s journey brings him in contact with fascinating characters like Joe Bussard, a record collector from Maryland who spins his tens of thousands of 78-rpm records for anyone who cares to listen, just to share the joy, and Homer Callahan, who learned “House of the Rising Sun” during a corn shucking in North Carolina. (“They’d bury a five-gallon jug of corn whiskey in an enormous pile of corn and the first neighbor to reach the bottom got the liquor.”)

In relating the culture of people that many consider “hillbillies” or “hicks,” Anthony shows no condescension — only compassion and affection for hard-working people scratching a living out of the hill country and creating music to ease the pain of it all. His admiration for Georgia Turner, who he figures was cheated out of years of royalty payments, is evident in passages like this one, describing the Lomax recording session:

Sometimes pivot points in culture happen quickly and pass unnoticed at first. I have no reason to believe that this moment was any different. The ripples that this particular recording of this particular song would make were still in the future. It was nothing but an unknown song about a girl with a hard life behind her, sung from the heart by an unknown girl with a hard life ahead of her.

“Stagolee Shot Billy”

March 13, 2013


edited from “Stagolee Shot Billy,” by Cecil Brown (Harvard University Press):

There was indeed a real Stagolee, Lee Shelton, a thirty-one-year-old well-known figure in St. Louis’s red-light district during the 189os, a pimp who, when he shot and killed William Lyons, was the president of a “Colored Four Hundred Club,” a political and social organization.

Charles Haffer, of Coahama Counry Mississippi, recalled having first heard of a Stagolee ballad in 1895.  As a ballad, Stagolee evolved from then to the 1970s, when it was appropriated by black revolutionaries like Bobby Seale, who used it as a symbol of the enduring black male struggle against white oppression and racism. Seale not only named his son Stagolee but used the narrative toast version as a recruiting device to get young black men into the Black Panther party.

The first Stagolee ballad ever collected consisted of eight stanzas sent to John Lomax in February 191o by Miss Ella Scott Fisher of San Angelo, Texas, with the following note:

“This is all the verses I remember. The origin of this ballad, I have been told, was the shooting of Billy Lyons in a barroom on the Memphis levee by Stack Lee. The song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters, the words being composed by the singers. The characters were prominently known in Memphis, I was told, the unfortunate Stagalee belonging to the family of the owners of the Lee line of steamers, which are known on the Mississippi River from Cairo to the Gulf. I give all this to you as it was given to me.”


To listen to music, you will need the Realplayer Plugin   

Taj Mahal - Berkeley, California, (London, England), 2002, and 1988 Toast - New York, 1967 Bob Dylan - Los Angeles, 1993 Dave Van Ronk - New York City, 1966 Papa Harvey Hull and the Down Home Boys - Memphis, Tenn., 1927 Unidentified Negro convict - Arkansas, Gould, 1934 Duke Ellington - Washington DC, 1929 Stagger Lee&, Nick Cave - Melbourne, Australia, 1997 Fruit Jar Guzzlers - North Carolina, 1927 Lucious Curtis - Mississippi, Natchez, Oct. 19, 1940 Bill hunt and Frank Hutchinson - West Virginia, 1927 Ma Rainey - Georgia, 1927 Hogman Maxey - Louisiana, 1959. Angola State Penitentiary Mississippi John Hurt - Mississippi, 1927 Sidney Bechet - New Orleans, 1934 Lomax, Pianist, (700 AFC) - New Orleans, 1937 Buena Flynn, female inmate - Florida, Raiford., may, 1936 The Clash - London, England Bully of the Town, Sid Harkreader and Grady Moore - St. Louis, 1895 Albert Jackson, convict - Alabama, State Farm Prison Oct 1937 Furry Lewis - Mississippi, 1928 Lloyd Price - New Orleans, 1959 Bama, a Black convict - Parchmen Prison Farm, Mississippi, 1947

“Bully of the Town,” Sid Harkreader & Grady Moore – St. Louis, 1895
Papa Harvey Hull and the Down Home Boys – Memphis, Tenn., 1927
Fruit Jar Guzzlers – North Carolina, 1927
Ma Rainey – Georgia, 1927
Bill hunt and Frank Hutchinson – West Virginia, 1927
Mississippi John Hurt – Mississippi, 1927
Furry Lewis – Mississippi, 1928
Duke Ellington – Washington, D.C., 1929
Unidentified Negro convict – Arkansas, Gould, 1934
Sidney Bechet – New Orleans, 1934
Buena Flynn, female inmate – Florida, Raiford., may, 1936
Albert Jackson, convict – Alabama, State Farm Prison., Oct. 1937
Lomax, Pianist, (700 AFC) – New Orleans, 1937
Lucious Curtis – Mississippi, Natchez, Oct. 19, 1940
“Bama”, a Black convict – Parchman Prison Farm, Mississippi, 1947
Hogman Maxey – Louisiana, 1959. Angola State Penitentiary
Lloyd Price – New Orleans, 1959
Dave Van Ronk – New York City, 1966
Toast – New York, 1967
Bob Dylan – Los Angeles, 1993
Taj Mahal – Berkeley, California, (London, England), 2002, and 1988
“Stagger Lee”, Nick Cave – Melbourne, Australia, 1997
The Clash – London, England

The Day Is So Long and The Wages So Small

February 22, 2013


from and

The Day Is So Long and the Wages So Small by Samuel Charters (Marion Boyars Publishers)

The quest to record and preserve the last vestiges of a fast-disappearing musical culture is vividly rendered in this account of a summer on the Bahamian island of Andros. In 1958, when Charters and his future wife, Ann Danberg, then in their early 20s, made their trek to the island, Andros was a barren, swamp-ridden backwater, with fewer than a thousand inhabitants, almost all descendants of Bahamian slaves.

A budding music historian, Charters (author of “The Roots of the Blues”) had discovered a series of Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings of Andros folk songs from the late 1930s, and was so intrigued by the music–a fusion of 18th-century anthems and African polyphony–that he decided to seek out the musicians and their songs.

The Charters’ “discovery” of Joseph Spence was both fortuitous and coincidental. Sailing from settlement to settlement along the coast on small, locally made fishing sloops, they hoped to find and record traditional Bahamian music that had not been influenced by either tourism or the popular calypso music of neighboring Trinidad.

Lugging a heavy, suitcase-sized tape recorder, and traveling on the tightest of budgets, he and Danberg finally made it to the tiny settlement of Fresh Creek. On the porch of their mosquito and crab-infested house there, they recorded the guitar music of Joseph Spence and the ballads and rhyming songs of John Roberts.

“When you go out into a new part of the world with a tape recorder to look for music you always dream that someday you might find a new performer who will be so unique and so exciting that their music will have an effect on anybody who hears it. One of the few times it ever happened to me was in our first few weeks in the Fresh Creek Settlement on Andros. We went out one day about noon…. Some men were working on the foundation of a new house, and as we came close to them we could hear guitar music. It was some of the most exuberant, spontaneous, and uninhibited guitar playing we had ever heard, but all we could see was a man in a faded shirt and rumpled khaki trousers sitting on a pile of bricks. I was so sure two guitarists were playing that I went along the path to look on the other side of the wall to see where the other man was sitting. We had just met Joseph Spence.”

Still, they were assured that their project wouldn’t be complete until they had heard the voice of the legendary singer, Frederick McQueen. Charters’s final chapters document their search for the elusive musician; he concludes with a rousing outdoor performance by McQueen. The elegiac, leisurely pace of this slim memoir evokes the moods and rhythms of a long-distant island summer.

The Devil’s Box

January 30, 2013


by Kerry Blech:

Book Review: Charles WolfeThe Devil’s Box-Masters of Southern Fiddling
Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press-ISBN 0-8265-1283-6 248 pages, 18 illustrations

Here’s a fine volume that could fit most comfortably on the bookshelves of nearly everyone who reads the Old-Time Herald. The 1920s-vintage photograph of Eck Robertson on the cover might be the first clue. Then turn to the table of contents for the second clue. There one will find that this book contains chapters on some of the finest fiddlers America has seen: the aforementioned Mr. Robertson, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, Doc Roberts, Clayton McMichen, Clark Kessinger, Arthur Smith, Bob Wills, Slim Miller, Ernie Hodges, and Tommy Jackson.

There’s an opening chapter that tries to instruct us in the history of the oldest or earliest recorded fiddling styles. One chapter addresses the history of the tune “Black Mountain Rag.” Another chapter discusses the Mexican origin of the contest favorite, “Over the Waves.” There are a number of charts and tables as well interesting photographs to complete the package. Add to all of this mix Dr. Wolfe’s easy-to-read, accessible prose, and you’ve got yourself a nice table-top reference about the cream of old-time fiddling.

Charles Wolfe is one of the most tireless researchers of old-time music working today and he is quite the prolific author. The genesis of this book can be found with articles that he first published in the periodical, The Devil’s Box. In one sense, this is a collection of many of Dr. Wolfe’s articles on “commercial” old-time fiddlers that appeared in that periodical. Because some of these articles were published some time ago, Charles has updated them to include information that was not yet known at the time of first publication.

Other articles in this book appear as they originally did in the periodical. And a few others were written specifically, and only for, inclusion in this book. Note that above I have indicated “commercial” fiddlers. These essays are written about old-time fiddlers who played professionally or, at any rate, recorded commercially on 78 rpm disks. So you won’t find your Ed Haleys, or John Salyers, or Kenner Casteel Kartchners, legends all who only were recorded on home recording machines. They are for another day.

Delving into the first chapter, the one about the earliest or oldest recorded styles, we find a philosophical discussion. Are we looking for the fiddlers who were born the earliest and who recorded? Or are we looking merely for those who recorded the earliest? And what about the earliest styles, those honed during the 19th Century? Dr. Wolfe discusses all these paths of investigation. It’s pretty well accepted that Eck Robertson was the first country fiddler to record commercially, in 1922, and that Fiddlin’ John Carson followed suit in 1923. But in evaluating the older styles, or the oldest fiddler to record, one must do some additional ciphering and research.

Among the “19th-Century-Style” fiddlers discussed in this chapter are J. Dedrick Harris, Jilson Setters (whose real name was James William Day), Henry L. Bandy, John W. Daniel, Ted Markle, the mysterious Art Haines, Henry C. Gilliland (who played a couple fiddle duets with Eck), Blind Joe Mangrum, Uncle Am Stuart, Emmett Lundy, Jim Booker, the Morrison Twins, George and Andrew Carter, Ahaz A. Gray, and William B. Houchens. All are intriguing lights from the earliest days of commercial recording, so it is nice to get at least a little information on some of them.

The essay on “Black Mountain Rag” also is an interesting investigation on the oral passage of fiddle music and how technology came to influence it. I won’t go into detail, as that might spoil the mystery, but we do meet some interesting characters along the way, including Tommy Magness, Curly Fox, Leslie Keith, Charlie Stripling, and Pleaz Carroll.


Sodom Laurel Album

January 19, 2013

Cover picture

Sodom Laurel Album: Book and CD by Rob Amberg (University of North Carolina Press)

Accompanying CD featuring Dellie Norton, Cas Wallin, Berzilla Wallin, Doug Wallin, Evelyn Ramsey, Edison Ramsey & Sheila Kay Adams

by Mike Yates:

When I first visited Madison County, NC, in 1980, I tried to change some travellers cheques at a bank in the town of Marshall.  I wanted to get $200, but the bank refused, saying that they did not know me.  At this point a person who I had met briefly the previous day stepped forward and said that he would guarantee my cheque.  As we left the bank together my new-found friend stopped, shook his head, and said, “Hell, I doubt if I’ve even got $200 in my account to cover your cheque!”

That person turned out to be Rob Amberg, a photographer who had a studio in Marshall.  Later that day I spent some time with Rob and bought two of his pictures, one of Doug Wallin playing his fiddle at his home, and one of Zipo Rice, a centenarian who had sung a version of Lord Bateman to Cecil Sharp in 1916.  Rob told me that he had first encountered the Sodom Laurel singers when he had been introduced to Dellie Norton by one of her younger relatives.  Over the years Rob and Dellie developed a friendship (she got to calling him Rob Hamburger!), and they had often talked about producing a book about Dellie’s life.  Dellie died in 1993, just weeks before her 95th birthday, and it looked as though the projected book would never appear.  But, not all news is bad these days, and Rob’s wonderful book, Sodom Laurel Album, is now with us.

Most readers will know that Cecil Sharp & Maud Karpeles collected a wealth of songs in Madison County, NC, during the summer of 1916, and that Dellie Norton and her relatives and neighbours were descended from the people who had sung to Sharp.  But, following Sharp’s departure, very few ‘outsiders’ visited Sodom Laurel.  True, collectors like Alan Lomax and John Cohen paid the odd visit to collect from Dellie, her sister Berzilla, Berzilla’s son Doug Wallin, or Doug’s uncle, Cas Wallin.  But, until recently, Sodom Laurel remained almost unknown to most Americans.  And this is one reason why Rob’s book is so important, for here we have a record of a world that had all but vanished elsewhere, one told in Dellie’s own words and in Rob’s splendid photographs.  There is no sentimentality here, only truthful words and truthful images.

Rob Amberg is an extremely talented photographer and the book’s photographs are printed in a chronological sequence, one of the first shots being of Dellie’s home taken in winter.  Boy, did it bring back memories for me.  On the left was the verandah where I often sat with Dellie (the cover picture to Crazy About a Song was taken there) and every page seemed to show places that I had visited.  I especially remember Dellie telling me about one field, shown on page 12, that was the home of a number of ‘haints’, though I never did quite work out the difference between a ‘haint’ and a ‘ghost’, despite Dellie’s best efforts at explanation. (more…)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 297 other followers