Archive for the ‘music history’ Category

Knocking on Doors for 78s

July 30, 2014

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edited from  Gayle Dean Wardlow (in “Chasin’ that Devil Music”):

Beginning to collect records in Mississippi in 1961: After about ten houses on two streets, I spotted an old, decrepit shack with flowerpots on the porch.  I knocked and said, “Anyone home?”

An old woman, about 80, came to the door, we talked, and she went back inside while I waited anxiously on the porch.  I never asked to come into homes.  I assumed that old people felt safer if stranges stayed on the porches, especially whites.  I only entered if invited.  Sometimes people would invite me in by saying,  “You can come look at ‘em.  I can’t bend down that low to get ‘em out of the Victrola.”

The woman brought two discs out to the porch.  “I found a couple,” she said, modestly.  “They ain’t no good to me.”

I concluded that here was a new and easy way to find records.  I enjoyed that day what turned out to be beginner’s luck.  I soon learned that one could canvas all day and find nothing.

All that spring I knocked on doors, spending from one to three hours each day looking.  I refined my sales approach to these words:  “I buy old Victrola records–you know, them old blues records by Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Leroy Carr.  All them blues singers.”  I had learned that old people used the term “Victrola records,”  though sometimes they called them”Grafonola records.”  They remembered Bessie and Blind Lemon better than other artists.

I usually paid a quarter for each record–sometimes less, sometimes 50 cents.  Normally I mentioned my price range as I mad my initial inquiry.  If I saw something especially desirable, I offered a dollar to be sure to get it.  Selling records at the door to a white man must have struck some as unusual.  Occasionally they asked if i was planning to reissue them–“You gonna make them over again?”

My standard reply: “I play guitar and piano.  I want to learn these old blues myself.  It’s illegal to put them out again.”

I learned from experience that women had the records.  Men moved around more, and they did not take records when they moved.  I had the best luck with older women who had flowerpots on the porch, so I learned to look for flowerpots and taught other collectors to look for the same.  The pots indicated that someone had laved at one location for a long time.  Records were often in these homes, but they were thrown away when people moved.

I canvassed for more than ten years and occasionally into the mid-1980s.  But most of the records were gone by that time, ending up in junk stores, flea markets, or trash bins.  By the mid-1980s the few records that turned up were not worth the effort in finding them.

Down South Blues, pt. 2

July 25, 2014

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Dock Boggs Recorded Live at Appalachian State University – November 11, 1966 (from http://talk-music.proboards.com)

Dock Boggs:  It’s a pleasure for me to have the opportunity and honor of coming over to this college and get to play here. Since I’ve started playing music in the last three and a half, four years, why I’ve visited eighteen to twenty different colleges besides the festivals and [?] I went to.

I didn’t know whether I’d start playing, but I decided for old time’s sake I’d get my old banjo back. I bought it in 1928, so when I went back to get it, I’d let a fellow keep if for me that was a single man, and when I went back to get it he was a grandfather. His wife’s a teacher too. She teaches school at Hayman, Kentucky. Been teaching for the last thirty years, or longer.

We don’t, I don’t conduct my programs I put on like a lot of people do. We just mix ‘em up. Play. And my way of playing, I’ve got my own style of playing music and I have to tune sometimes, change tuning of my banjo, in order to play it in the old traditional time style.

So, this piece I’m fixing to play you is a piece I tried out on when I got my first opportunity to make phonograph records in Nineteen and Twenty-seven. In Norton, Virginia, I was working on the coal machines at [?] Virginia. I started to play this piece and they stopped me—I played about a verse of it—there’s three of them, papers on their knees, and they took down the number of the piece and they marked “good” on the end of it. I started to play “Country Blues,” and I’ll tell you, I played about a couple of lines of that and they marked “Good” on the end of that, and the next thing was a contract.

I was on my way to New York to make phonograph records in about three weeks. It surprised me because I was working in the mines. After that my wife she didn’t care too much for me making music. In order to keep her, keep the family together—I didn’t have nobody but her—I quit play music for twenty-five or twenty-six years. After I retired I said, just for sentimental reasons, I’m going back and get my old banjo. When I went back and got it, it cost me a hundred and ten dollars to have it fixed up, but it’s in good shape now and I’ve played and made several hundred dollars with it since.

And I’m going to play you “Down South Blues.”

The State of Arkansas

July 22, 2014

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from http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net:

“The State of Arkansaw”

The ballad, or narrative folksong, usually titled “The State of Arkansaw” has been a principal exhibit in Arkansas’s recurrent laments about its disreputable image. It is a clear example of the expressive culture of the late nineteenth century that depicted Arkansas pejoratively.

The story, which the ballad relates in first person, has its protagonist—known by several names, including “Sanford Barnes” and “John Johanna”—leave his home, most frequently “Buffalo town” or “Nobleville town,” to seek employment. He hears of job opportunities in Arkansas, sets out by railway, and arrives in an Arkansas community, variously identified as Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Van Buren (Crawford County), Little Rock (Pulaski County), or Hot Springs (Garland County).

There he meets a “walking skeleton” who conducts the narrator to the state’s finest hotel. One night in these accommodations convinces him to leave Arkansas immediately. His host, though, persuades him to take a job draining some land. Several weeks of hard labor in an ague-producing climate subsisting on the poorest rations (“corndodgers” and “sassafras tea”) have the narrator claiming, “I never knew what misery was till I came to Arkansas,” a refrain for several of the ballad’s stanzas. In some versions, he prefers marriage to a “squaw” in Indian Territory to life in Arkansas.

The earliest printed text of this song may be that which E. C. Perrow published in Journal of American Folklore in 1913. The earliest sound recording is probably the one by Kelly Harrell and the Virginia String Band, done in a studio in Camden, New Jersey, in 1927. One of Vance Randolph’s Ozark consultants, however, suggested that he knew the song from the 1890s.

Writing in Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Robert Morris proposed an earlier origin date, in the 1870s. Several commentators, including Library of Congress folksong researcher Alan Lomax, hypothesized that the song was of Irish-American origin. It does bear some resemblance to “The Spalpeen’s Complaint to the Cranbally Farmer,” which Patrick Weston Joyce published in 1909. Ballad scholar D. K. Wilgus reported a text of the song from Ireland and proposed that it had originated there and was imported to the United States in the late nineteenth century.

When G. Malcolm Laws created his catalogue of what he called “native American ballads,” he included “The State of Arkansaw” as the first entry in his chapter “Ballads on Various Topics.” He also contributed to some confusion about the song by titling it “The Arkansas Traveler.” Though it has been reported under that name—along with “The Arkansas Navvy,” “A Hobo in Arkansas,” and “The Arkansas Emigrant,” among others—“The State of Arkansaw” has no connection with the skit and fiddle tune to which Laws’s title usually refers. It more likely derives from the tradition of complaint songs popular in the nineteenth century, which responded to the failure of westward migration to meet media-generated expectations. “The State of Arkansaw” joins “Michigan-I-O,” “The Dreary Black Hills,” “Nebraska Land,” and “The Lane County Bachelor” in a category of “folk dystopias,” hyperbolic descriptions of frontier disappointments.

Broken warnings from beyond the grave

July 19, 2014

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edited excerpt from “Distant Music: Recorded Music, Manners, and American Identity” by Jacklyn Anne Attaway (diginole.lib.fsu.edu):

As relics of the past, older phonograph recordings demonstrate the hauntological aesthetic effect simply by being replayed and heard in the present. Because 78 RPM phonograph recordings sound old and of the past, they seem ghostly and strange.

In “The Revenant,” an essay accompanying Revenant Records release American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939), Dean Blackwood describes what an acoustic recording session was like. Blackwood says:

[...The operator of the] machine that is connected to the horn, [winds] a small handle in the machine‘s side. A platen at the base of the machine has a flat wax disc on it. The man releases a lever and the disc starts to spin. [...] When the [operator] likes way the wax disc is spinning, he lowers [the recoding apparatus] in place [...and signals the performers to begin...]. A sharp wire connected to the narrow end of the horn traces out a circular pattern in the spinning wax surface, vibrating all the while, etching a code of tiny zig-zags within each groove. The singing men can see little wax shavings falling like snow onto the floor. [...] After three minutes of singing, the [operator signals them to wrap it up...]. The singers know they have 15, 20 seconds, tops, to finish.
Acoustic recording processes involved a great deal of physicality and technological imprecision. The spinning motion of the wax disc is triggered by a cranked lever that begins too fast and is then monitored and measured by a recording technician in order to begin at the moment of the most correct speed and end when the disc begins to spin too slowly. If the disc is spinning too fast when the recording begins, the voices will sound too high-pitched and sped up. If it is spinning too slowly, the vocals will sound too deep and too slow. If one of the performers or technicians makes a mistake, the record reflects it.
Any extra noises made in the recording room are captured on the disc. While the recording device is preserving the voices and musical accompaniment, it is also preserving other sounds: the space and the air in the room, the people‘s breath, the movements of the performers and record technicians, and the sound of the technology working itself.

Accompanying the 1997 reissue of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Greil Marcus‘ essay ―The Old, Weird America, notes  that the pre-amplification singing style—articulated through the acoustic recording processes of eliminating extreme highs and lows —made singers sound like prophetic spirits, shouting broken warnings from beyond the grave.

Marcus, observing the strange sound of early recording artists, notes, ―”[...One] quality that unites the singers here is that they sound as if they‘re already dead.”

Music of Williamsburg

July 8, 2014

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by Shlomo Pestcoe, Banjo Roots Research Initiatives

Music of Williamsburg” (DVD dir. by Alan Lomax, 1960,
$19.95)
, was an educational period docufiction ‘short’ produced by Colonial Williamsburg to present, through costumed historical reenactment, the various different kinds of music and music instruments that might have been heard on a single day in 1768 in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Appropriately enough, a recreation of the early gourd banjo would appear in the film along with other early African American folk instruments – the cane fife, the  jawbone, and the ‘goombay’ drum – to provide the music for a dance gathering of the portrayed enslaved blacks.

The idea of recreating a slavery-era gourd banjo for use in Music of Williamsburg was the brainchild of trailblazing folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002). He had been brought on board to program music for the film[2] appropriate to the African Americans  of Williamsburg (mostly enslaved, though there were some free black families), who “probably constituted about one-half” of the population of Virginia’s capital during the colonial period. [3] In this capacity, Lomax would assemble “a remarkable cast of talented folk musicians representing early Southern music, including the Sea Island singers [Bessie Jones, John Davis, Henry Morrison, Alberta Ramsay, and Emma Ramsay]; Bahamian drummer Nat Rahmings, who had come up from Miami; Mississippi hill country fife player Ed Young; Virginia Tidewater jawbone player Prince Ellis; and Virginia mountain multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith.”

The talents of all of these tradition-bearers would be showcased in a major scene in the film showing the portrayed enslaved blacks coming together after dark for an informal social dance gathering, traditionally referred to in African American folklore as a ‘frolic’. As Bessie Smith Jones (1902-1984), the Sea Islanders’ lead singer, would put it in her reminiscences about growing up in rural Georgia during the early 1900s: “In those days we didn’t have parties – so-called parties – we had frolics.”

For the film’s suppositious recreation of an 18th century slave frolic, Lomax chose Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rolling Under, a song that he had uncovered in his research that he posited as being “the oldest published black dance song from Virginia.”  He taught it to the performers, who embraced and ‘folk-processed’ the song, thereby making it their own:

“The Sea Islanders sang with slavery-era accompaniment; the [cane] fife, the one-headed drum, and a replica of the four-string, fretless banjo. Hobart Smith picked the bowl-shaped ‘slave’ banjo with abandon, Ed Young blew thrilling litany phrases on his cane fife, and Nat Rahmings played a drum of a type once used in St. Simons [the second largest of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the home of the Georgia Sea Island Singers] and still played in the Bahamas. I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed music, but the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.” (more…)

“Son” Sims

July 2, 2014

 

HENRY SON SIMS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from http://www.allaboutbluesmusic.com:

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

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

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

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

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

Voyager Golden Records

July 1, 2014
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A gold-plated copper disc that contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. “ Sounds of the Earth includes 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, 90-minutes of musical selections from different cultures and eras (curated in part by folklorist Alan Lomax), and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages.

from http://blogs.loc.gov/folklife:

In 1977, as preparations were being made for the launch of the two unmanned Voyager spacecraft, Alan Lomax was contacted by Carl Sagan. Sagan had been tapped by NASA to chair a committee to gather images, sounds, and songs that would represent Earth on a set of phonographic records — to be affixed to the outside of both spacecraft along with stylii and graphic instructions on playing them — and he hoped Lomax would help make the musical selections. Alan ultimately suggested fifteen of the twenty-seven performances that were launched with the probes on what are now popularly known as the “Voyager golden records.”

Here are the selections ultimately included on the Voyager record. Items in bold signify Lomax’s selections.

  • Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
  • Java, court gamelan, “Kinds of Flowers,” recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43
  • Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08
  • Zaire, Pygmy girls’ initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56
  • Australia, Aborigine songs, “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird,” recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26
  • Mexico, “El Cascabel,” performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi Mexico. 3:14
  • “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
  • New Guinea, men’s house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20
  • Japan, shakuhachi, “Tsuru No Sugomori” (“Crane’s Nest,”) performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51
  • Bach, “Gavotte en rondeaux” from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
  • Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
  • Georgian S.S.R., chorus, “Tchakrulo,” collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18
  • Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52
  • “Melancholy Blues,” performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
  • Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30
  • Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
  • Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
  • Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
  • Bulgaria, “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin,” sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59
  • Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
  • Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, “The Fairie Round,” performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17
  • Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12
  • Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38
  • China, ch’in, “Flowing Streams,” performed by Kuan P’ing-hu. 7:37
  • India, raga, “Jaat Kahan Ho,” sung by Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar. 3:30
  • “Dark Was the Night,” written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
  • Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37

In 1990, the Voyager probes moved beyond the orbit of Pluto (then, of course, still considered a planet), and entered empty space. It will be 40,000 years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system and, as Sagan frankly stated, “the spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Friends of Old Time Music

June 26, 2014

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edited excerpt from Staging the Folk: New York City’s Friends of Old Time Music by Ray Allen:

In March 1961 the New York Times music critic Robert Shelton announced that “Five farmers from the Blue Ridge Mountains brought a ripe harvest of traditional music to the city Saturday night.”   The farmers turned out to be a group of unknown mountain musicians led by Tennessee banjoist ClarenceAshley and featuring the blind guitar virtuoso Arthel “Doc” Watson.

The concert, held at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, was sponsored by a loosely knit organization of urban folk enthusiasts with the down-home moniker the Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM), a group Shelton characterized as “a sort of Anglicized, folk-oriented Pro Music Antiqua.”

A month prior to the Ashley/Watson presentation the FOTM had staged their inaugural concert with Kentucky banjoist and songster Roscoe Holcomb, and over the next four years would sponsor performances by an array of country, blues, and spiritual singers.   FOTM artists Mother Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Almeda Riddle, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Gus Cannon, and Bessie Jones, along with the aforementioned Ashley, Watson, and Holcomb, would become heroes to  folkies who favored homegrown southern styles over the sanitized commercial folk music that had reached a national audience in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

John Cohen admitted that:

“There was a misconception about Clarence Ashley by many of us who had heard him originally on the 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music LP. Here is this man with an incredible, high, clean voice, carrying on with great naiveté the purity of this music, the Appalachian sound. And this old guy comes out on stage, snapping his suspenders—he was a Vaudeville entertainer—in that tradition. And then we found out he had done blackfaced comedy. He was a great entertainer, but we couldn’t cast him in the mold of the pure mountaineer, when the pure mountaineer wasn’t so pure.”

The Friends of Old Time Music’s attempts to present white mountain musicians in the heat of the civil rights movement to a progressive New York City audience steeped in the leftist folk song tradition of Guthrie and Seeger proved politically sticky. John Cohen recalls a group of young students hanging out at Izzy Young’s MacDougal Street Folklore Center in early June 1961 wondering out loud if the upcoming FOTM concert would showcase “those southern white guys in the white sheets.” When the March 1961 Ashley/Watson program ended with all the participants singing a powerful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Cohen observed that the secular, heavily Jewish audience was deeply moved at what some New Yorkers might have viewed as a display of redneck Bible-thumping. Later he realized:

“The act of finding linkages between people who would otherwise be opposed to one another was interesting and political. We were putting our stamp of approval on these white guys who [whose culture] until that time had been stereotyped as racists, lynchers, and all those nightmarish things about the South. We were trying to turn Ashley and Watson and the Stanleys into real people, and I thought this was a good thing—acknowledging those people and their culture was political. … We were looking for deeply human, positive connections rather than confrontations.”

“We used to have all these pretty dance tunes…”

June 11, 2014

AfricanFiddler

excerpt of interview with Elijah Wald from http://www.afropop.org:

If you interviewed anybody who was living in Mississippi in 1910 and 1920, and asked them when they first heard blues, at that time, those people, that generation, they did not talk about their parents in the fields, or their grandparents. They talked about the blues arriving on records by people like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. You talk to Son House, who taught Robert Johnson, and he says, “When I was growin’ up, wasn’t nothin’ pertainin’ to no blues.”

Blues came in from the north, on records. Now that doesn’t mean it didn’t have lots of roots in the older music. But it was a new, hot pop style. And you actually talk to older musicians down there, they talk about how blues ruined the nice old music. How “We used to have all these pretty dance tunes, and then that blues came in and wiped it all out.”

And the same guys who were working at that work song, their fathers were mostly fiddlers – if they played music – and they were playing square dances. That’s what people forget, is that the fathers of all of the black musicians we think of as the blues stars were fiddle players if they were musicians. In fact, Big Bill Broonzy himself was a fiddle player who moved up to Chicago and learned to play guitar. And they played black square dances. And we’ve just forgotten that whole tradition. But that’s as much a part of blues as the work songs, and it also is as much a part of the inheritance from Africa, where fiddles were a very common instrument.

I mean, the banjo is an African instrument! And looking at American Southern music and saying the African inheritance is the black work songs, not banjo playing, is a way of essentially rewriting history to say that all the slaves brought with them was their work songs, and not this involved, complicated instrumental tradition that we now think of as white hillbilly music, a lot of it, but they didn’t have that stuff in Ireland and England! And you know, we have to think of banjo playing as the African inheritance just as much as the work songs.

You can listen to the Mississippi Sheiks, who were the most popular band in the Mississippi Delta in the delta blues days, and they were led by a fiddle player named Lonnie Chatmon, and they did a song called “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” which was so popular that it was recorded by white hillbilly bands, by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and by Howlin’ Wolf in an electric hit, and which Robert Johnson turns into “Come On In My Kitchen,” and that’s typical fiddle music, but they also played square dances.

Then you listen to Son House, who was Robert Johnson’s teacher, and he does his version of “Walkin’ Blues,” which Robert Johnson recorded, and which a lot of people have since done. And he recorded that with himself on slide guitar, and a second guitar, a harmonica, and a guy playing mandolin, who also doubled on fiddle. That was very typical down there. American music, be it black or be it white, is absolutely affected each by the other, and country western music does not sound like Irish music, and blues does not sound like African music.

Early Mandolin

June 8, 2014

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from http://www.naxos.com and http://www.mandolinblues.com:

The large numbers of Italian immigrants in American society resulted in the widespread adoption of typical Italian instruments, above all the mandolin. The American mandolin craze began in 1880 when the Figaro Spanish Students, a group of around twenty performers from Madrid, who actually played bandurrias and chitarras, toured the United States, appearing in all the major centres from North to South, to great acclaim.

In the late 19th century Memphis, Tennessee, was the center of African-American culture and the crossroads for touring musicians. Players like Vol Stevens, Will Weldon, Eddie Dimmitt and Charlie McCoy added their string band skills to some of the bands of the day, like the Memphis Jug Band and the Mississippi Sheiks.

Most people know of the legendary Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters. But only his hard-core fans are aware that on his first recording on Stovall plantation in Mississippi, Burr Clover Blues, Waters was a member of a string band, the Son Simms Four, with Simms on fiddle and Louis Ford on mandolin.

In the surrounding countryside other musicians and bands flourished. W.Howard Armstrong and Carl Martin and their Tennessee Chocolate Drops performed for medicine shows, parties and fish fries. Yank Rachell traveled about, playing the deep blues with his guitar partner Sleepy John Estes. Young Bill Monroe played guitar with a black fiddler named Arnold Schultz. Monroe then took the fiddle music of his Uncle Penn and the blues from Schultz and blended them together on the mandolin, creating a new American genre that came to be known as bluegrass.

 

 

 

Old Dan Tucker

June 7, 2014

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from 100 Great Records Of The 1920s (http://aceterrier.com):
1843 is as good as any year for the invention of rock & roll, and better than some. That was the year that the Virginia Minstrels — Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower — gave their first performance on a stage in Brooklyn. Their instruments were the tambourine, the fiddle, the banjo, and the “bones” — three percussion instruments and the most expressive string instrument of the era, and contemporary descriptions of the physical frenzy they got into when they played their dirty-ass, low-class, irremediably vulgar, black-imitating (but filtered through a youthful, ignorant white sensibility) music sound like nothing else this side of the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols.

They sang “Old Dan Tucker” that night — Emmett claimed he wrote it, but nobody knows for sure — and they were a sensation. They were barely together for a year before falling out and each setting up their own minstrel troupes, consolidating the form that would dominate American entertainment for the next sixty years or so, but they were the first musical act to forge the link between mass popularity, socially threatening content, and an exciting new vernacular kind of music that has been the dominant ethos of American popular music ever since, from ragtime to jazz to swing to rock to hip-hop and whatever grown-up people are busy hating today.

Dave Macon was born only thirty years after the Virginia Minstrels played their last concert; he was fifty before he got into the entertainment business full-time in 1918, and was as conversant with the widespread forms and traditions of oral entertainment as a curious, sociable man who grew up in a well-liked inn and later owned a hauling business in the Appalachian heartland could be. This record, one of the first he laid down in a recording, radio, and screen career that lasted into the years when rock & roll is usually considered to have been invented, has him playing a chorus of folk song “Casey Jones” before he gets down to business on the old minstrel showcase “Old Dan Tucker.”

Listen to it carefully, and notice how naturally syncopated the tune is; the many so-called experts who say syncopation started with jazz or ragtime are talking through their unlearned asses. Then listen to how he delivers the lyric: sung-spoke, with a far greater emphasis on the rhythmic delivery of the words than on any particular melody. Folks, we’re halfway to rap and in the world of the song, Abraham Lincoln is still alive.

Uncle Dave Macon plays “Old Dan Tucker:

Rhinordine

June 6, 2014

by Jon Pankake (from notes to “Out Standing In Their Field: NLCR 1963-1973″):

Washington Square Park

May 30, 2014

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excerpt from Elijah Wald (“BEFORE THE FLOOD:
LLEWYN DAVIS, DAVE VAN RONK, AND THE VILLAGE FOLK SCENE OF 1961″):

The center of the Village scene in those days was not a nightclub or coffeehouse, but Washington Square Park, where singers and musicians gathered to jam on Sunday afternoons. Dave Van Ronk started showing up in the mid-1950s, and recalled that there would be six or seven groups playing at the same time, each with their own circle of friends and listeners.

By the arch at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, a crowd of kids who had gotten into folk music at progressive summer camps and Labor Youth League get-togethers would be singing union songs they had picked up at Pete Seeger concerts or from Sing Out! magazine. Over by the Sullivan Street side of the square the young Zionist socialists of Hashomer Hatzair would be singing “Hava Nagila” and doing Israeli folk dances. Around the fountain, a banjo virtuoso named Roger Sprung led the first wave of urban bluegrass musicians, picking high-octane hoedowns and singing in nasal harmony.

Sprung was one of the few people on that scene who had any connection with the commercial music business: he had recorded four songs in the early 1950s with a group called the Folk say Trio, whose two other members shortly renamed themselves the Tarriers and got two top ten hits, “Cindy, Oh Cindy” and “The Banana Boat Song.” A song the Tarriers recorded with Sprung, “Tom Dooley,” was copied by a younger group called the Kingston Trio and topped the pop chart in 1958.

No one on that scene remembers Roger Sprung for his near brush with the Top Forty. They remember him as an older musician who knew more than the rest of them about real Southern music, and was willing to teach anyone who cared about that style. He was in the Square every Sunday, accompanied by a fellow named Lionel Kilberg who played a home-made washtub bass, and they would have a cluster of younger players around them that over the years included pretty much all the musicians who went on to lead the urban old-time and bluegrass scenes of the 1960s. Kilberg was particularly important because he was also the person who went down to city hall each month and got the permit to play music in the Square.

Bruce Greene on Kentucky Fiddling, pt. 2

May 24, 2014

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edited from Bruce Greene (http://www.fiddle.com):

There was one man I learned a lot from out in western Kentucky, who really played more like what people think of as an eastern Kentucky style. It’s hard for me to generalize a style… Eastern Kentucky is known for having that dark, modal sounding stuff, a lot of solo playing, a lot of cross-tuning, things like that. And western Kentucky, at least when I was around there, didn’t have too much of that… It was close enough to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry and all that, I think it was influenced a lot by radio. One thing I would say is that there wasn’t the kind of isolation in western Kentucky that there was in eastern Kentucky, so I think they had more influences passing through. Whereas in eastern Kentucky, there were a lot of people that really just were there and were never really affected by much outside their own region.

When I was learning to play, when I was living around there, as a tradition, it was really on the decline. The people that got together and played really did more kind of newer music –– bluegrass, and stuff they got on the radio. There were very few people that got together and just played the old tunes. As far as a living tradition, I think it had pretty much evolved into bluegrass and more modern music. So with a lot of the fiddlers I’d get together with, they always said they hardly played at all except when I’d come around, and then we’d play the old tunes.

Kentucky’s funny, because it had an incredibly strong music tradition, and it kind of has this mystique, and yet it never really got discovered much. A lot of bluegrass and country musicians came out of Kentucky, but as far as their old traditional music, so little of it really got any attention paid to it until it was almost gone. If you compare it to places like Missouri, and Texas maybe, places where there’s a real active fiddling community, Kentucky, when I was living there –– that was mostly the ’70s –– there was nothing like that, really. There were just little isolated pockets of people that got together. There were lots of fiddlers, but they were all scattered around, and most of them wanted to play newer music. So you really had to beat the bushes to find the old people who knew the old-fashioned stuff, which was what I was after.

One thing I’ve thought a lot about, if you talk about Kentucky style, is I think, especially with eastern Kentucky, a lot of the style is not so much to do with that region as it is to do with being an older style. Recordings I’ve heard of real old fiddlers from other parts of the country seem to me very much like the eastern Kentucky style fiddlers, and that made me think that it’s more something to do with how far back in time the style goes, more than what regions they’re from.

So what you think of as a classic eastern Kentucky style, to me is just really more of an older style that was probably a lot more widespread in the old days, and it just kind of hung on in eastern Kentucky longer. People like Marcus Martin and Bill Hensley, the old fiddlers down here in North Carolina, they could just as well have been from Kentucky, the way I knew Kentucky music. Some of the Mississippi fiddlers that people listen to, it’s the same way. It’s pretty vague stuff, because we have so few examples of the older players, from back in the 1800s. There are really just isolated little examples of playing from that time. So it’s awful risky to make too many generalizations….

Hidden in the Mix, pt. 2

May 15, 2014

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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

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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.

 

 

Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom

May 5, 2014

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from http://tunearch.org:

This tune is simply labelled “Blackberry Blossom” on older recordings, but has picked up the nomen (perhaps originating with John Hartford) “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” to distinguish it from the Arthur Smith tune (a related, later tune).

Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett said he learned his version “from a blind fiddler in (Ashland,) Johnson County, (eastern) Ky., named Ed Haley” (elsewhere Burnett said he actually learned the tune from northeastern fiddler Bob Johnson, who had it from Haley {1883-1951}, who was a legendary fiddler in east Kentucky). The tune was in fact Haley’s signature tune, much associated with him, although he never commercially recorded it.

A story about the origin of the Garfield title comes from Jean Thomas’s book Ballad Makin’ in the Mountains of Kentucky, collected perhaps from several sources. It seems that a General Garfield named the tune during the Civil War after hearing a soldier playing it on the harmonica. He remarked to the musician that it was his favorite tune but said he couldn’t remember the title, whereupon he expectorated a stream of tobacco juice onto a white blackberry bush blossom; this was noticed and the tune named.

As improbable as that story sounds, the tradition of General Garfield’s liking for the tune was insisted on by Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison on his Library of Congress recording (an influential version); he says Garfield used to whistle the tune frequently and it was Morrison’s harmonica-playing father who as a boy picked it up from the General.

Betty Vornbrock and others have noted a similarity between “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” and the West Virginia tune “Yew Piney Mountain,” a variant. This version is also played by Kentucky fiddlers J.P. Fraley and and Santford Kelly, has been recorded by Owen “Snake” Chapman. Jean Thomas recorded the tune for the Library of Congress in 1930 from fiddler Ed Morrison (Boyd County, Ky.) at the American Folk Song Festival (AFS 300A).

 

from Jean Thomas:

“I’ve learned another tune!  I ketched it from General Garfield his own self.  The General whistled it a heap o’ times as he rode ahead of our troops right off yonder at the mouth of Big Sandy.  And when we camped, one night I was sent to his headquarters with a message.  It had to do with Humphrey Marshall’s Confederate forces that Garfield was aimin’ to drive out of the Sandy Valley here in Kaintuck.

Well nohow, I packed along my mouth harp and whilst I was waitin’ for orders I played a tune… I had not played the piece oncet through ’till I hear-ed behind me a heavy tread and the clickin’ of sword agin’ boot top.  I poked my harp in my pocket quick as I could and riz to my feet in salute.  For thar stood General Garfield his own self lookin’ down at me.

‘Let’s hear that tune again,’ said the General, as friendly as a private, ‘that’s my favorite tune though I can’t recall the name of it.’

With that, he let fly a stream of tobacco juice into a clump of blackberry bushes growin’ nigh the foreyard.  The amber splattered all over the snow white blossoms on the bush and from then on we called the piece Blackberry Blossom.”

 

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

April 30, 2014

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Memories of a Musical Eden (1984)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Greene on Kentucky Fiddling, pt. 1

April 24, 2014

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The Romance of the Kentucky Fiddler by Bruce Greene, 1997 (excerpt from http://www.fiddle.com):

To love Kentucky fiddling is to have a romance with the past. It is music that is intimately tied to the land and a rural way of life that has now mostly disappeared, but lives on in the colorfully named tunes and equally colorful characters who have passed them down to us. For most people in the 1990s, however, the days when rural fiddling was still passed down through the generations as a living tradition seem very remote and long ago.

The few fiddlers who survived into the late twentieth century and grew up in that tradition are looked upon with reverence, for they are survivors of a simple, unhurried world that has long ago been left behind by our fast-paced technological society, and they have left us with our only clues into the mystery of where this music came from and what shaped it into its present form. There is much to be learned from their lives, because with their presence gone from the world, old time fiddling as a traditional art has passed some invisible point of no return.

Now we can learn from recordings, books, at camps, and at festivals. We can learn to play old time, Cajun, Irish, contest style. It is still traditional music, but it is no longer rooted in traditional culture. Fiddle music will never again be learned the way the old timers learned it –– by absorbing it in the course of everyday life.

There is currently a great revival of interest in traditional Kentucky fiddling, and for good reason. Nowhere has a greater body of fine tunes, lore, and legend been retained and preserved for our inspiration. This interest was first fueled by Library of Congress recordings made in the 1930s by Alan Lomax of Luther Strong, William Stepp, and other eastern Kentucky fiddlers. Their extraordinarily skilled, archaic playing led others to speculate on the potential musical treasures in that area.

Folklorists and collectors began to comb the hills for still living fiddlers, and field recordings by D. K. Wilgus, Lynwood Montell, John Cohen, Peter Hoover, and others proved that they were still there. In the 1970s, independent collectors, led by Guthrie Meade, Bruce Greene, and John Harrod began systematically documenting the fiddle traditions of large parts of the state.

In colonial times, the Kentucky country was looked on as the remote and mysterious frontier, the Cumberland Gap as the gateway to independence and unbelievably fertile land. In literature, the legendary hunters and explorers and adventurers more often than not claimed Kentucky as their land of origin, as if that somehow gave more credibility to their larger than life achievements.

In the first part of the 1900s, when ballad collecting was in great vogue, Kentucky was looked upon in its isolation as the last stronghold of our Elizabethan forebears from the old world, and therefore the most fertile ground for finding the ancient ballads still intact. Local color stories and magazine articles depicted Kentucky in the same way –– a land where the past nostalgically lived on, unaffected by the rest of the world. Even in the 1970s, people would tell me, “Oh, yes, I’ve always heard that all the best fiddlers came out of Kentucky.” Kentucky has been pervaded by a deeply romanticized sense of reverence for the past.

Kentucky author Harriette Simpson Arnow once wrote, “My people loved the past more than their present lives, I think, but it cannot be said we lived in the past.” And nowhere is this statement more true than when applied to the Kentucky fiddler. I have had the privilege of knowing a number of fiddlers from around the state who were born before or shortly after the turn of the last century, and they surely had one foot in the past and one in the present. They remembered in great detail growing up in the days before automobiles, televisions, telephones –– electricity at all, for that matter –– yet they seemed quite at ease living in the modern world.

Still, the past was never far away. They seemed to have endless tales and reminiscences concerning the music and where it came from and who were the great players of olden times. Their reverence for the antiquity of the music and the fiddlers from past generations was always fresh in their minds. I remember many conversations about some old timer who had been dead for thirty years or more that ended with, “You remember him, don’t you?” As if I had been back there with him, or it had just happened last week.

Much of Kentucky in the 1970s and ’80s was just such a mix of the past and the present, and by that time most of the traditional music had slipped quietly into the background of people’s lives. As an Allen County fiddler, James Hood said, “A lot of them has quit. I know a lot of fiddlers I thought was better than anything you hear now. But they said that so many of ’em got to playing different kinds of music, playing different styles, that they just quit. I’ve had lots of ’em to tell me that.”

And so, many times I strayed off the main roads as I roamed the state, to stumble onto a piece of the past that should no longer be there, yet somehow was. That was how in 1991, I met the eccentric ballad singer Pleaz Mobley, who had some brief notoriety in the 1960s performing at festivals with fiddler Clester Hounchel, before disappearing into obscurity. I had assumed him dead long ago. And that was how I met fiddler Sid Hudnall, who lived with his ancient mother in an isolated farmstead, called Happy Valley because there they had escaped the curse of civilization all their lives. And that was how in 1971 I met the sister of legendary fiddler Henry Bandy. Bandy was born in 1876 and died in 1952, but she insisted that if I wanted to know so much about him, I should just go ask him in person.

There is a great deal more to traditional Kentucky fiddling than just the tunes themselves. They are romantic expressions of a world and a kind of people we will never know again. So let them tell you their stories about what it was like to know old time fiddling in a time gone by, and why the old Kentucky fiddle music was inseparable from the players’ lives and the lives of those who came before them.

 

Who Built the Ark?

April 20, 2014

Detail from: Design drawing for stained glass window with Old Testament figures: Noah, Abraham, and Moses for Old Mariners’ Church in Detroit, Michigan. Full catalog information is at the link.

Noah’s ark has inspired a virtual boatload of songs in the collections of the Library of Congress.  Since Noah is, after all, a Bible character, it’s only natural that most of the songs about him are spirituals expressing religion and morality. As an example, listen to the song “Who Built the Ark?” recorded by Alan Lomax from the Georgia singer Bessie Jones in 1962.

Find it at this link.

“Who Built the Ark?” teaches an important lesson, stressing Noah’s hard work and his steadfast obedience to God despite being considered a fool by his neighbors. It concludes with the moral:

Noah obeyed everything God said
And all his family was saved that day.

There are other lessons to be learned from the Noah story, too.  In another of Bessie Jones’s songs, “Old Ark’s A Moverin’,” life is likened to the ark, a moving ship on which our salvation depends. Walking on the ark is treacherous, and must be handled with care:

Mind, my sister, how you walk on across
Your feet may slip, and your soul get lost!

Hear it at this link.

Songs about Noah could also carry an apocalyptic message, predicting the destruction of the world by fire. On May 17, 1939, about thirteen miles outside Merryville, Louisiana, along the highway into DeRidder, John and Ruby Lomax stopped at the New Zion Baptist Church to record Deacon Sylvester Johnson and a group of singers including Rufus Spearman. One of the songs they recorded, “Home on the Rock,” ended with the lines:

God showed Noah by the rainbow sign
No more water but fire next time

Sadly, the Lomaxes ran out of disc space before this line was sung, as you can hear at this link. But they dutifully wrote out the lyrics in their fieldnotes on the trip, preserving the full song for the AFC’s archive.

It’s not the only time this couplet has been collected by the Library of Congress fieldworkers. In fact, the couplet transcends song genres: while it seems to have originated in spirituals like “Home on the Rock,” it also appears in secular songs, and even in work songs. As an example, listen to a track-lining song recorded by Herbert Halpert from railroad worker Henry Hankins in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1939.  (The song, which you can play in the player below, is numbered AFC 1939/005: AFS 02946 A1.)

The couplet “God showed Noah by the rainbow sign/ No more water but fire next time” is an interesting summary of, and commentary on, Genesis 9:9-17, in which God shows Noah the first rainbow and tells him it is the sign of a new covenant: God will never again destroy the earth by flood. In the Bible, God does not mention fire at all, which makes the song’s invocation of fire stand out, especially to alert and educated hearers. It has been seen as a reference to the Second Coming as described in the Second Epistle of Peter or in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.

More generally, though, it’s a sardonic acknowledgement that God only promised not to destroy the Earth by water, which leaves other possibilities open, and that there are still wicked people in the world to be punished “next time.” It leaves unsaid who those people might be, allowing African Americans in slavery and under Jim Crow laws to comment on the wickedness of their oppressors clandestinely, while on the surface they were just telling wholesome bible stories. Such eloquent but coded communication, transforming spirituals into hidden messages of protest, is a hallmark of African American folklore, a fact which has been recognized by black scholars for generations.

Llewyn Davis’ Repertoire

April 14, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis 3

from downhomeradioshow.com and http://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/:

Llewyn Davis’ repertoire as taken partly from the repertoire of Dave van Ronk and presented in the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is very interesting and with further examination into its sources shows in a nutshell many of the strands that came together to make the folk music world of that time and place.   “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (also known as “Been All Around This World) is a great banjo song originally field recorded by folklorists who located traditional banjo players Rufus Crisp and Justis Begley in Kentucky, and also recorded in a popular version by Kentucky banjoist Grandpa Jones.

How did it get to the Village?  Which was Dave van Ronk’s source?  I don’t know.  Rufus Crisp, a possible source for “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” was also one of our sources for the song “The Roving Gambler” which my band recorded for the film’s soundtrack album.  Crisp was one of the very first Southern traditional banjo players to inform the playing and repertoire of New York musicians through his Library of Congress field recordings and visits by Pete Seeger, Stu Jamieson and others.

Death of Queen Jane” is a medieval English ballad collected by venerated folklorist Francis James Child and published in his seminal books of balladry.  The film gives scant coverage to rural folk songs in a rural “old time” style, and no coverage to blues music that was being learned and played in the Village at that time.   Only the woman who plays autoharp and sings a Carter Family song badly gives any nod to the presence of old time music, which was being played by a number of people at the time, including the New Lost City Ramblers.

Dink’s Song was collected by the great American folklorist John Lomax from a woman named Dink along the Brazos river in Texas in 1904 and published in his 1934 book, “American Ballads and Folk Songs.”  It was first recorded as “Fare Thee Well” by Libby Holman and then most influentially by Josh White, both in the mid 40’s and perhaps with some personal direction from Alan Lomax who helped them find material.

” As Lomax recounted in the book Folk Song USA, Dink was the wife or girlfriend of a skilled equipment operator for a levee-building company in Texas, and Lomax found her “doing her man’s laundry in the shade of their tent” near the Brazos. Her song began:

If I had wings like Noah’s dove
I’d fly up the river to the man I love
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
 
I’s got a man and he’s long and tall
Moves his body like a cannonball
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

Lomax recorded “Dink’s Song” on an Edison cylinder, which he brought with him to the Library of Congress when he joined the staff in the 1930s.  According to Folk Song USA, the cylinder had been broken for a long time by the late 1940s–quite possibly before it even arrived here. Nevertheless, Lomax popularized the song by singing it himself, publishing it in books, and passing it down to his children Alan and Bess, who both became professional singers and folklorists. From the Lomaxes, the song passed to such revivalists as Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk, and became a well-known part of the folk scene of the 1950s and 60s. As a result, Dink’s lines about “Noah’s Dove” can be heard in  Inside Llewyn Davis, where they are sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.

 

 

Cowboy Songs

August 5, 2013

 

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from http://www.npr.org:

A hundred years ago, a collection of folk music forever re-tuned the American songbook. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax introduced the country to the music of the American West, and helped propel the cowboy to iconic status. But a close examination of early cowboy music reveals details about some of the very first cowboys that don’t fit the usual stereotypes.

In the 1940s, a radio show made for the Library of Congress recorded Lomax talking about his earliest memories of cowboys. The pioneer folklorist had seen firsthand the great trail drives after the Civil War.

“I couldn’t have been more than 4 years old when I first heard a cowboy yodel and sing to his cattle. I was sleeping in my father’s cabin in Texas,” Lomax said. “As the cowboys drove the cattle along, they sang, called and yodeled to them. … They made up songs about trail life.”

But just who were these cowboys that Lomax saw? Where did they come from? These questions intrigue Mike Searles, a professor of history at Augusta State University in Georgia.

“There’s a popular notion that when you’re talking about the cowboy, you’re exclusively talking about white cowboys, which of course is not true,” Searles says. “Black men were involved in being cowboys very early in the history of our country.”

No one is sure how many African-Americans worked as cowboys in the trail drives, but estimates run as high as 1 in 4. (more…)

Down-Home Fiddling

August 3, 2013

Down-Home Fiddling the Way It Really Used to Be,” by MICHAEL HOINSKI (from http://www.nytimes.com):

During the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, a distinctive form of fiddle music emerged in Texas. Known for idiosyncratic timing and phrasing, this style was commonly played with banjos or guitars on front porches or in living rooms, less for show than for social interaction. It reflected the cross-pollination in Texas after the Civil War, with touches of African-American, Appalachian, Cajun, Czech, German, Irish, Mexican, Polish and Scottish musical forms.

“And then it just evaporated,” said Howard Rains, an Austin musician and one of the few people in the state who performs this nearly extinct genre of fiddling. “It was just gone. Everything changed after the Depression.”

Mr. Rains, 43, has established himself as an authority on old Texas-style fiddling with his recently released album “The Old Texas Fiddle,” dedicated to preserving this hand-me-down music, which was rarely recorded or committed to sheet music.

Western swing and contest-style fiddling all but buried old Texas fiddle music. In the 1930s, the Texas bandleader Bob Wills took the fiddle out of its folk environs — the cotton fields near Kosse, where he grew up — and into dance halls and onto the radio. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a large band with multiple fiddles, played western swing, a mix of country and jazz that raised spirits dampened by the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Texas contest-style fiddling was undergoing an overhaul. In the late 1920s, Benny Thomasson, an acclaimed old Texas fiddler from near Gatesville, suffered a tough loss in his very first contest.

He went back to the woodshed and reworked older melodies into arrangements that required a virtuoso’s skills to play, then went on to win 15 state championships, evolving contest-style fiddling into today’s improvisational game of packing as many notes into a space as possible. Mr. Rains calls it “fiddling on steroids.”

“It’s the greatest fiddling ever known to man,” Mr. Rains said. “Or it’s this horrible aberration that’s overrun the old styles.” (more…)

True Vine Music

July 28, 2013

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edited from article about record collector Christopher King by Eddie Dean (from Oxford American #45):

Pre-war blues and country records carry the weight of centuries in their sound, and bear the traditions of countless pockets of isolated, homegrown cultures wiped out by the spread of radio and, ironically enough, records. As performers throughout the South began to emulate the quality and effect of records, they sacrificed their own idiosyncratic styles, making way for the amplified, homogenized music collector Christopher King despises, which, besides bluegrass, includes pretty much everything recorded after World War II.

King’s ideal is sometime around 1870, when his house was built, and life moved at the easy pace of a horse’s trot, and songs were still handed down. This era was the heyday of what King calls “true vine” music, made by obscure performers whose repertoire dated back before the blues to murky, racially mongrel nineteenth-century origins, when blacks and whites in the South not only shared the same grab bag of songs, but often the same local styles.

The 78s he covets capture spontaneous, raw performances, when the only prodding from record-industry engineers was a bottle of whiskey and some pocket cash: Texas songster Henry Thomas, whose music can be heard on TV commercials via Canned Heat covers; Kentucky fiddler Jilson Setters, who made records well into his seventies; the black duo Two Poor Boys, whose songbook stretched back to the Civil War.

“True vine is music that’s not shaped or molded by crass commercialism,” he says. “It’s the stuff that would have been in the American vernacular before there were phonographs or music marketeers. They didn’t have someone telling them what to do, they were playing the way they’d always played.”

McTell, Puckett, and The Unfortunate Rake

July 21, 2013

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edited from essay by Max Haymes (www.earlyblues.com):

The Unfortunate Rake is the Irish source of the Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, by Blind Willie McTell.  It crossed the Atlantic where it was ‘cleaned up’ by the cowboy fraternity and appeared as The Streets Of Laredo, while ‘respectable’ versions of St. James Hospital existed alongside it.

The first black recording of the latter title was by James ‘Iron Head’ Baker for the Library of Congress.  Together with St. James/Joe’s Infirmary and the more respectful Rake And Rambling Boy by Gid Tanner, the net result was the ‘unholy’ blues composition by Blind Willie McTell.

James ‘Iron Head’ Baker recorded his version in 1934  for the Library of Congress and was followed some two months later by another black singer, James Wadley who had his side titled St. James Infirmary, and was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia.  This was the first rural, solo example of this song by a black artist on record as far as we know.

Sometime between 1924 and 1934, a white hill-billy outfit going by the name of Gid Tannner and his Skillet Lickers recorded a song which had evolved out of The Flash Lad and The Wild and Wicked Youth, which they called Rake And Rambling Boy.  The title harking back to the beginning of this chronology, The Unfortunate Rake, would appear to have roots in the nineteenth century also, probably in the last decade.  The last verse closes with these lines:

“And on her breast he placed a dove,

To signify she died for love.”

Gid Tanner’s group were based in Atlanta amidst a strong white country music scene which rubbed shoulders with the equally strong black blues one.  Tony Russell quite rightly says that “Interaction between black and white musicians has been one of the most stimulating forces in American folk music.”, although Russell says this is not so common today because of “‘social reasons’’,… in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties they were frequent and fertile.”

Former Columbia Record A. & R.  man Frank Walker explained to Russell why this was so.  “In those days, in the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, we’ll say, you had your colored section…and you had your white, but they were right close to each other.  They might be swinging round in an arc, the colored people, being the left end of the arc and the white the right, but they would pass each other every dayAnd a little of the spiritualistic singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did, so that you got a little combination of the two things there…They (the hillbillies) adopted little things that a colored man might be playing on his guitar, but he (the colored man) heard the white fellow across the way…and he adopted a little of that.” .

Russell also notes that a black group of bluesmen sometimes known as ‘Peg Leg Howell And His Gang’ with a line-up of a fiddle and two guitars, was similar to Tanner’s group and they even sounded similar on occasion.  Further to this, Tanner’s excellent blind guitarist, Riley Puckett, declares a the beginning of his version of John Henry, which he called Darkey’s Wail, “I’m gonna play for you this time a little piece which an old southern darky I heard play, comin’ down Decatur Street the other day. ‘cause his good girl done throwed him down”.

In this cross-fertilization process, McTell could have got some inspiration for Crapshooter from Rake And Rambling Boy as he probably heard it in person as “Puckett for some years attended the State Blind School in Macon, Georgia, and while there he may have encountered the black singer Blind Willie McTell, who was a pupil from 1922 to 1925.  It may have even been McTell from whom he learned his interpretation of John Henry.”  Decatur Street, along with Auburn Avenue, as Paul Oliver says: “…were the ‘main stem’ in Atlanta’s Negro sector.”

 

Indian Nation and the Blues (pt. 2)

July 11, 2013

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edited from Joe Gioia (www.utne.com):

The question of North America’s original, or indigenous, inhabitants hardly ever comes up in popular histories of American music, the assumption being that the land inhabited by the European arrivals, and their slaves, had been mainly clear of earlier people and empty of song.

Africa and the British Isles were seen as the only possible sources of the music that evolved from that place and time. The possibility that the musical traditions of indigenous peoples might be central to American harmony has never been articulated, much less considered at length.

This is pretty remarkable, not only because so many of the musicians—black, white, and brown—had pronounced Native American roots, but by the given historical details of the settlement of the North American continent.

In 1901 the anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a pre-Columbian Indian mound in the Mississippi Delta at Coahoma, became, he said, distracted by strange music. Professor Peabody is not remembered now for any artifacts he uncovered, but for what he discovered in the air, what he called the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him.

Professor Peabody’s reactions to African-American workmen’s songs—“monotonous” and “weird,” he said—is pretty much how Europeans described American Indian music. That Peabody may have been closer to the mark when he said the music sounded Asian is, for many, counterintuitive.

Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures—Native American, African, and European—each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast American interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work. (more…)

Okeh Record’s Historic Session in Asheville

July 7, 2013

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Okeh Record’s Historic Session in Asheville, by Kent Priestly (http://nativeground.com)

The guitarist, Henry Whitter, slid his chair across the floor to bring his instrument a little closer to the recording machine’s sound-gathering horn. A harmonica dangled from his neck on a wire truss; he made a tentative puff on it and looked over to the man behind the controls.

Next to Whitter sat Kelly Harrell, a singer who’d traveled down with him from the same part of Virginia. Harrell tugged absently at his shirt collar. He cleared his throat.

“You boys ready?” the engineer asked. The men nodded. They shouldn’t have been so nervous—they’d done live recordings before, after all—but then, you never got used to it. Making things worse was the fact that the room was so damn hot. They’d been in here for just a few minutes, but already their shirts were soaked through with sweat.

And now it was time. The engineer counted to three and tilted a finger their way. On the bed of the machine before them, a wax platter began spinning. As it turned, a metal blade sliced into it and trimmed a delicate rind from its surface. Whitter led the song off, puffing the melody out on his harmonica once around before Harrell squared his body to the horn and began to sing:

I was borned about ten thousand years ago
There was nothing ever happened I don’t know
I saw Pharaoh and his daughter shooting craps for a quarter
And I heard him say, ‘Oh girl I’ve won your dough.’

The voice was an odd quantity. Phrases spilled from Harrell’s mouth in a long and lagging way. He inserted dips and swoops in his verses, beating words that didn’t have an obvious relationship with each other into something like a rhyme. It was strange voice, but it sold records.

The next morning, the Asheville Citizen had the story: “There is a lot of respiration and perspiration connected with the making of phonograph records. This was demonstrated in the recording laboratory of George Vanderbilt Hotel yesterday when the Okeh Record Company began making a series of ‘hill country records.’”

“Today, a number of singers and players from the mountain country will be tried out before the reproducing device,” the Citizen newspaper story continued. “The first test is said to be one of the severest experiences the singer or player ever has to undergo and more difficult than an appearance before a large audience.” (more…)

Indian Nation and the Blues (pt. 1)

June 27, 2013
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Bo Carter

edited from Max Haymes (http://www.earlyblues.com):

The eastern territory in Oklahoma, the ‘Indian Nation’, was admitted to the United States in 1907, along with Oklahoma Territory. But because of lack of law and order and relative freedom from white oppression, which attracted working-class blacks, Blues singers up to thirty-five years later still referred to the “Territo” or “Nation”.

Another factor which would draw working-class blacks to the Nation, was that up until the middle of the 1920’s, cotton “…ranked above wheat as Oklahoma’s cash crop. It was grown throughout the southern half of the state, but the southwest was the real cotton section.” In the autumn, during the picking season, “…the towns were filled with happy Negroes rich with picking wages.”

Blues Singer State of Origin Tribe
Champion Jack Dupree Louisiana Cherokee
Scrapper Blackwell North Carolina Cherokee
Andrew Baxter Georgia Cherokee
Jim Baxter Georgia Cherokee
Sam Chatmon Mississippi Choctaw?
Robert Wilkins Mississippi Cherokee
Lowell Fulson Oklahoma Creek
Roy Brown Louisiana Shawnee?
Charlie Patton Mississippi Chickasaw or Choctaw?
Bo Carter Mississippi Choctaw?
Poor/Big Joe Williams Mississippi Cherokee
Leadbelly Louisiana Cherokee
Louisiana Red Mississippi Cherokee/Apache
Earlene Lewis Oklahoma Cherokee

Nearly two-thirds of the singers listed (again, the list is not exhaustive), have in fact blood-ties with the once large and powerful tribe Cherokee nation. For example, it is reported of pianist Champion Jack Dupree, that “As Jack’s mother had been a full­blooded Cherokee, he was permitted to bead himself, and belong to a Cherokee gang.”

Then there is Memphis-based guitarist, Robert Wilkins, who was born in Hernando, Miss. of whom Spottswood says: “His ancestry was Negro on his father’s side, white and Cherokee Indian on his mother’s.

Cherokee ancestry is also attributed to Scrapper Blackwell, erstwhile partner of Leroy Carr, who was “…of Cherokee descent.”

Slaven reporting on the origins of Mississippi’s Big Joe Williams (who often referred to himself as “Poor Joe”) says: “He was part-Cherokee, and his father John Williams was known locally as “Red Bone”.

The famous folk and Blues singer, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) was “born on January 29, 1885 on Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, the only child of farmer Wesley and part-Cherokee Indian Sally Ledbetter.”

David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards said of Sam Chatmon:  “Sam’s grandmother ‘Creasie’ Hammond was herself ‘half-Indian and half-white,’ he reported.”  Chatmon being a guitar-picking member of the popular black string band, the Mississippi Sheiks, who recorded extensively in the early 1930’s. At least one of Sam’s brothers, Bo Carter, who left the Sheiks early on to pursue a solo career, is recollected as “A racial hybrid of Indian, white and black descent,”

For the most part, those blacks who aspired to a bourgeois, white, middle-class way of life (and its values!), were often in a parallel state to that of the red man. It is a significant and also a consistent fact that someone of mixed racial blood is identified with the “lowest” category. So part-Indian, Bo Carter, naturally sings as a full-blooded Negro, when he refers to the general situation as described above:

“Oh! the white man wears his broad-cloth,
An’ the Indian he wears jeans;

But here come the darky with his over-halls on,
Just a-scratchin’ o’er the turnip greens.”

Charles Faurot Reminisces

June 24, 2013

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from “Making Round Peak Music,” by James Randolph Ruchala:

 Charles Faurot tells of how a record collecting trip led to the first records of Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins:

 
At the 1967 Galax Fiddlers Convention, Rich Nevins and Dave Freeman, both avid collectors of 78’s, ran into Oscar Jenkins. Because Oscar’s father, Frank, was one of DaCosta Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, they asked him if Oscar thought Tommy Jarrell, also a son of one of the members of the Southern Broadcasters, might have some 78’s.

Oscar replied, “I don’t know.”

They asked him, “Do you want to take a drive over there?”

He said, “Why not.”

And off they went. Shortly after arriving at Tommy’s house, Dave and Rich asked, “Got any 78’s?”

Tommy answered, “No. Say, Oscar, got your banjo in the car?”

“Sure do.”

“Get it and we’ll play some tunes.”

…. When Rich and Dave found me back in Galax, they were raving about the live music they had just heard. In the days that followed, Rich and I spent a lot of time recording Tommy and Oscar together….
During a break in one of the early recording sessions, one of us mentioned we knew Fred Cockerham. Tommy perked up and said, “You know Fred? I grew up with him.”

We wasted no time going to Fred’s house and bringing him back to Tommy’s. When they got back together again for the first time in a number of years, it was as if they had never been apart so tight-knit was their playing.

The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History

June 19, 2013

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

from http://www.sunypress.edu and http://www.cuke.com:

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 Johnson City Sessions

June 5, 2013

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“The Johnson City Sessions: “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” (Bear Family 4 CD and booklet)

edited from http://www.johnsoncitypress.com:

In 1928, just as their fellow musicians had a year before in Bristol, men and women came in from the farms and down from the mountains to Johnson City. The lure was money, a chance at fame, or, at the very least, an opportunity to have their voices recorded on a 78 rpm record for posterity. The Johnson City sessions of 1928-29 that resulted may not have been the big bang of country music, but they were a major aftershock.

 
In 1928, Frank Walker of Columbia Records was hoping lightning would strike twice in the Tri-Cities area. The Bristol Sessions recorded by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company were tremendously successful, making stars of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

 
Walker put an ad in the Johnson City Chronicle asking “Can you sing or play Old-Time music?” “Musicians of unusual ability” were invited to “call upon Mr. Walker or Mr. Brown of the Columbia Phonograph Company at 334 East Main Street.” That address was the location of a defunct lumber company at what is now Colonial Way near WJHL.

 
“The Johnson City Sessions were better organized,” Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, said.

 

 

“There was more advertising, more scouting, more capital put into promotions up front.”
The ad ran three times in late September and early October. Olson said that more singers and musicians participated in the Johnson City Sessions than in the Bristol Sessions.

 

 
“They saw the ads and made it to the tryouts on Oct. 13, 1928, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The recording sessions were held over four days, Monday, Oct. 15 to Thursday, Oct. 18. A few of the musicians who saw the ad and heard it was happening had already recorded for Ralph Peer,” he said, “but most of those who recorded in Johnson City were not part of the Bristol Sessions.”

 
Among them were the Roane County Ramblers from the Kingston-Harriman area outside of Knoxville, who became one of the biggest bands to emerge from the Johnson City Sessions of 1928. Charlie Bowman of Gray — who recorded for Walker along with his brothers and sisters — was “a real success story,” Olson said.  While many of the musicians who recorded in Johnson City lived in East Tennessee, he pointed out, some of the musicians probably traveled from the Greensboro-Burlington area of North Carolina or from the Corbin, Ky., area. (more…)

Little Sadie

June 2, 2013
imagesby Lyle Lofgren

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 2002)

Outlaw as Folk Hero is an old theme in the Anglo-American tradition, probably dating from before the Robin Hood stories. America developed a second idea, that of Outlaw as Psychopath, a truly Bad Man. Stagolee and John Hardy come to mind, as well as Lee Brown, the narrator of today’s story.

Versions of this song were found throughout the south, particularly in Appalachia and the Ozarks. The tunes vary, but the story is remarkably stable. Lee Brown shoots his woman, runs away, is caught, tried, and gets a long sentence. He has no remorse, other than that he is jailed. One writer says this song was very popular as early as 1885, but I couldn’t find the source of that claim.

There are lots of towns in America with the names given in the song, but Thomasville and Jericho, North Carolina are only 60 miles apart, which make them prime candidates for locale. There’s no reason to believe this song is literal history, though. A cursory search shows no information on a real Lee Brown, or any evidence that the song describes an actual murder.

Clarence Ashley, from East Tennessee, recorded his version in 1928, but a later recording is on Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF40029/30, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962. Ashley tuned his banjo to gDGCD (5th to 1st), sometimes called “mountain modal” tuning. He called it “sawmill tuning,” perhaps because the unfinished sound of the resulting open-string chord sounds like a large circular saw cutting through a log.

Classical European music concentrated on major and minor scales, because they were amenable to easy harmonies when used with orchestral instruments. Other scales, generically called “modal,” which were on an equal footing with the classical scales in early music (such as Gregorian chants), survived in the remote mountains of America.

Bobby Patterson Reminisces

June 1, 2013

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In 1972, Bobby Patterson built his first recording studio, created a record label and started recording and producing albums in Galax, VA, first as Mountain Records and later as Heritage Records. He recorded Tommy Jarrell’s “June Apple” LP.  Here are some of his memories from “Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge.”

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Pete Seeger

May 21, 2013

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edited from “The Incompleat Folksinger” by Pete Seeger:

In 1935 I was sixteen years old, playing tenor banjo in the school jazz band.  A good deal of song collecting was being done under the auspices of different government agencies such as the Resettlement Administration.  Such work was called boondoggling at the time, but through the work of these agencies, the famous Library of Congress collection was first built up.

My father, Charles Seeger, as an expert in several branches of musical scholarship, was involved in these projects.  And I accompanied him on one field trip to North Carolina.  We wound down through the narrow valleys with so many turns in the road that I got seasick.

We passed wretched little cabins with half-naked children peering out the door; we passed exhibits of patchwork quilts and other handicrafts which were often were the main source of income.  I first became acquainted with a side of America that I had never known before.

At the Asheville square dance and ballad festival I fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo, rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another.  I liked the rhythms.  I like the melodies, time-tested by generations of singers.  I liked the words.

 

 

Charles Seeger

May 16, 2013

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from http://www.culturalequity.org:

Pete’s father Charles Seeger and his wife composer Ruth Crawford Seeger were both musicologists, and she wrote musical notations for many of the songs that the Lomaxes published. Charles Seeger explains how he met Alan Lomax and his father John was when he and the composer Henry Cowell were asked by MacMillan Publishers “to advise them on a manuscript that had come in from a man named Lomax….Well they came in,…John and Alan, and the manuscript was there, and Alan was just like ready to punch either Henry or me in the face. ‘These God damned expert musicians, they don’t know anything about folk music. They don’t know anything about music, anyway!’

“Well, Henry and I opened the things and said, ‘My God, these are marvelous songs.’ This was about 1933 or ’34. ‘These are perfectly marvelous songs, and the notations are terrible. There’s practically nothing there that doesn’t have mistakes, wrong clefs, wrong accidentals, and everything else.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to have these notations made over, and the book is going to be very successful.’ Well, it was American Ballads and Folk Songs, and it was published. Alan softened up a little bit towards the end, and we presently became very good friends. In fact he became a member of the family.”

Charles Seeger continued, “So when Peter became interested in playing the banjo and singing songs that were accompanied by the banjo, I sent him to study the recordings in the Library of Congress, which is about the best school that there is. In fact, it’s the only ‘school’ that I know of. You just go in there and listen to recordings and after you get sufficiently saturated with them, you know something.”

“Ragtime 2: The Country”

April 10, 2013

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from notes to “Ragtime 2: The Country” (Folkways RBF 18) by Samuel Charters:

Country ragtime in the 1920’s and 1930’s has some of the feel of an old farm house that was on the land for years, then was added-to and redone, until finally it wasn’t quite the old house any more – but it wasn’t quite a new house, either. It has some of the look of the old house and some of the look of the new house, and in some places it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

Ragtime seems to have been once a kind of style of playing that went on in the black slave cabins and the isolated country towns of the South. It had the melodic structure and the kind of harmonic patterns that characterized European dancing and march music, but it was different from it both in rhythm and scale.

Instead of the simple four beat or dotted accent of the European jigs and reels the ragtime melody was more subtly syncopated, perhaps as a reflection of some earlier time when African drums were still played surreptitiously along with the banjos and the violins.

 
The more complex, multi-layered, texture of African drumming could lead to a free-flowing sense of melody, which was more strictured in the European context. And some of the same scale patterns that characterize the blues also turn up in early ragtime – the ambiguous major-minor resolutions of James Scott’s rags, and the gapped scales in some of the strains of the early St. Louis rags.

“Lindy”  played by the Proximity String Quartet (from “Ragtime 2: The Country”):

Pre-War Revenants

March 21, 2013

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by Scott Blackwood, edited from notes to “American Primitive II: Pre-War Revenants 1897-1939.”  Many thanks to blog.dinosaurdiscs.com for making this available.

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On the Road Again

March 8, 2013

A film by Sherwin Dunner and Richard Nevins.  See J.E. Mainer and His Family Band playing “Run Mountain” at about 14:30.

from http://www.yazoorecords.com:

In 1963, a camera crew went on the road in search of traditional American music that was still as vital as it had been earlier in the century. The results of this odyssey are a fascinating slice-of-life portrait of the traditional music scene in America and the culture which sustained it. Musicians were located and filmed on their home soil – in the streets, churches, roadhouses and taverns of New Orleans, Houston, Nashville, and many other locales.

It was one of the last opportunities to document vestiges of the way of life that gave traditional music its power and immediacy. The rare eloquence of the music captured here, fueled and shaped on such turf, is forever gone from the American musical landscape today.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN opens in Texas with Mance Lipscomb singing “Goin’ Down Slow” on his front porch in Navasota, then follows piano player Buster Pickens as he leads the film crew through Houston dives and pool halls looking for other musicians. They locate Lightnin’ Hopkins in a garage partaking in a game of chance, and Hop Wilson playing bluesy steel guitar in Miss Irene’s Tavern. In Dallas-Fort Worth piano player Whistlin’ Alex Moore whistles along to a rolling boogie woogie, and B.K. Turner, who recorded in the 1930s as Black Ace, plays his signature tune on lap top National steel guitar.

In San Francisco, Lowell Fulsom, one of the foremost shapers of West Coast blues is filmed, then across the Bay King Louis H. Narcisse, the spiritual leader of the Mt. Zion faith, at his Oakland temple leads his congregation in stirring gospel rockers like “Let It Shine.” Heading east, Rev. Louis Overstreet brings the gospel to the winos, gamblers, and the down and out on the streets of Tucson, Arizona.

In the shadow of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the Blind James Campbell String Band, one of the few traditional black string bands ever filmed, plays “John Henry.” At the easternmost point of the journey, J.E. Mainer and his family band play the fiddle breakdown, “Run Mountain” in Concord, North Carolina.

Celebrated New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis is filmed at the newly opened Preservation Hall playing “Royal Garden Blues” and a plaintive version of “Burgundy Street Blues,” which is enriched by images of French Quarter street life. Piano player Sweet Emma Barrett gives a rough barrelhouse treatment to “I Ain’t Gonna give Nobody None of my Jelly Roll,” and the Eureka Brass Band plays at a funeral in the New Orleans tradition.

Early Hispanic Guitar

February 26, 2013

excerpt from David Bradford (www.19thcenturyguitar.com):

In antebellum United States, the guitar was principally a genteel instrument of the middle class. In Mexico the instrument was played by all social and economic ranks of Spanish colonists. Missionaries taught Native Americans to both play and to build the guitar. The Native American converts mastered not only Spanish music and performance practices, but also incorporated the guitar into their own style of music.

This encouraged a rich guitar folk music tradition – actually numerous regional traditions – and also the development of a diverse range of guitars and guitar-like instruments, from the small vihuela (not the six-course Renaissance vihuela, but a smaller guitar with eight strings arranged in five courses, and a rounded back), to the enormous guitarrón, to meet the needs of those folk music styles.

Spain once laid claim to much of the American South and virtually all of the American West. In Spanish California, where the land was rich and settlers quickly prospered, young people of the wealthy landowning class “seem to have a talent and taste for music,” according to one observer. “Many of the women played the guitar skillfully, and the young men the violin. In almost every family there were one or more musicians, and everywhere music was a familiar sound.”

Among the lower classes the guitar was seemingly a constant presence: “In the New Mexican village the sound the guitar is always heard, and the dance is continuous,” wrote a traveler to the Southwest. “Not alone in the evening, but at midday, beneath some shade, or in an open court-yard, the passer-by stops, dances as long as he chooses, and passes on.”

In the Southwest, itinerant professional singer/guitarists – known variously as trovadores populares, ciegos, cantadores and guitarerros – traveled from town to town. These footloose musicians typically were street performers, but also were hired to perform for dances and parties. Alan Lomax, in the 1930s, collected border ballads from a blind singer/guitarist in Brownsville, Texas named José Suarez who was a twentieth century incarnation of the type of musician who had been plying his trade for decades, if not for more than a century, in Mexican and Mexican-American communities:

“He has been blind since childhood, but is cane guides him everywhere through the city, to bars, to dances, to family parties, and everywhere his guitar and his ballads make him welcome. … He knows all the popular songs of the day, all the old border ballads, and whenever anything of excitement and import occurs, he makes a new historia for the information of his people. His songs concern the bandits of the border country, the troubles of the migratory cotton pickers, the disasters of the train wrecks, storms and wars and the pleasures of mescal.”

From Ed Haley to Benny Thomasson

January 22, 2013

forked1

from http://brandonraykirk.wordpress.com:

Charles Wolfe put Ed Haley in a “creative” class of fiddlers that included Eck Robertson, Clark Kessinger, Arthur Smith and Clayton McMichen. These fiddlers, according to Dr. Wolfe, felt that technique was just as important as repertoire – one of the trademarks of the Texas contest fiddling style so popular today.

“I like to flavor up a tune so that nobody in the world could tell what I’m playing,” Haley once told Skeets Williamson.

For creative fiddlers, writes forensic musicologist Earl Spielman in The Devil’s Box, “a fiddle tune is not just an ornamented melody; a melody is merely the raw, undeveloped, unprocessed material out of which a tune can grow and reach maturity. In Texas, instead of playing a repetition of the melody, the fiddler plays a variation of the original material. Each new variation can be radically different from the preceding one. The object of the fiddler is to avoid duplication and to be as innovative as possible within the limits of what is acceptable. As might be expected, any regular pattern of bowing is avoided. The bowing characteristic of Texas fiddling consists of fairly long bow strokes executed very smoothly with the bow rarely leaving the strings and with the number of notes played on each stroke varying from a single note to as many as seven or eight.”

Creation of the Texas contest style is accredited to Benny Thomasson, who competed with rival Major Franklin to such a fierce degree that he started improvising tunes and adding new parts onto them.

“Back when I started they had only two part tunes, and that was it,” Thomasson said in a 1982 interview. “In the older days when I began to come up I took these old tunes and began to build different sections to them. Like there would be two parts. Well, I’d add another. It would be the same part but in a different position. The old-timey fiddling that they try and hang onto nowadays, it’s all right. It’s good to listen to but we take those same tunes and just weave a web around them and make it come out real pretty.”

Many fiddle scholars agree that Benny Thomasson got his ideas about adding onto tunes from Texas fiddler, Eck Robertson. He was inspired enough by Robertson’s multi-part version of “Sally Gooden” (recorded in 1922) to say that Eck played it “better than anyone else in the world.” Haley was also proficient at adding parts; his “Forked Deer” had four parts, while his “Cacklin’ Hen” had eleven.

While there is no documented evidence that Ed Haley ever met Eck Robertson or Benny Thomasson, there is a link between Thomasson and Ed through Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim Rutland. Benny borrowed heavily from Kessinger’s Haley-like early records, particularly “Tug Boat”, which Kessinger had gotten from Haley’s “Ladies on the Steamboat”. Likewise, Georgia Slim Rutland – one of radio’s top fiddlers in the 1940s – “allegedly spent one year in Ashland listening to Ed Haley play,” according to Parkersburg Landing, and was personally acquainted with Thomasson.

Because of Haley’s connection to Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim, and their subsequent influence on Benny Thomasson, I began to formulate a theory that Haley was a “grandfather” of the Texas contest fiddling style. I must have been onto something because when I later mentioned it to J.P. Fraley, he said, “Well see, I knew Benny Thomasson and he knew about Ed Haley because I was playing at the National Folklore Festival and he wanted to know about that fella.”

Corridos

January 10, 2013

from http://www.tshaonline.org:

CORRIDOS

The corrido in its usual form is a ballad of eight-syllable, four-line stanzas sung to a simple tune in fast waltz time, now often in polka rhythm. Corridos have traditionally been men’s songs. They have been sung at home, on horseback, in town plazas by traveling troubadours, in cantinas by blind guitarreros (guitarists), on campaigns during the Mexican Revolution (1910–30), and on migrant workers’ journeys north to the fields. Now they are heard frequently on recordings and over the radio.

These ballads are generally in major keys and have tunes with a short—less than an octave—range. Américo Paredes, the preeminent scholar of the corrido of the lower Rio Grande border area, remarked: “The short range allows the corrido to be sung at the top of the singer’s voice, an essential part of the corrido style.” In Texas this singing has traditionally been accompanied by a guitar or bajo sexto, a type of twelve-string guitar popular in Texas and northern Mexico.

In its literary form the corrido seems to be a direct descendent of the romance, a Spanish ballad form that developed in the Middle Ages, became a traditional form, and was brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors. Like the romance, the corrido employs a four-line stanza form with an abcd rhyme pattern. Paredes surmised that corrido is ultimately derived from the Andalusian phrase romance corrido, which denoted a refrainless, rapidly sung romance. With the noun dropped, the participle corrido, from a verb meaning “to run,” itself became a noun.

The corrido, like the romance, relates a story or event of local or national interest—a hero’s deeds, a bandit’s exploits, a barroom shootout, or a natural disaster, for instance. It has long been observed, however, that songs with little or no narration are still called corridos if they adhere to the corrido’s usual literary and musical form.

Besides its music, versification, and subject matter, the corrido also employs certain formal ballad conventions. In La lírica narrativa de México, Vicente Mendoza gives six primary formal characteristics or conventions of the corrido. They are: (1) the initial call of the corridista, or balladeer, to the public, sometimes called the formal opening; (2) the stating of the place, time, and name of the protagonist of the ballad; (3) the arguments of the protagonist; (4) the message; (5) the farewell of the protagonist; and (6) the farewell of the corridista. These elements, however, vary in importance from region to region in Mexico and the Southwest, and it is sometimes difficult to find a ballad that employs all of them. In Texas and the border region, the formal opening of the corrido is not as vital as the balladeer’s despedida (farewell) or formal close. Often the singer will start the corrido with the action of the story to get the interest of the audience, thus skipping the introduction, but the despedida in one form or another is almost never dropped. The phrase Ya con esta me despido (“With this I take my leave”) or Vuela, vuela, palomita (“Fly, fly, little dove”) often signals the despedida on the first line of the penultimate or ultimate stanza of the song. (more…)

Santa Anna and The Yellow Rose of Texas

January 6, 2013

from http://www.tshaonline.org:

“The Yellow Rose of Texas” took on a new and entirely different meaning in 1961 when the song was first publicly linked to an anecdote about the battle of San Jacinto. This anecdote, recorded by Englishman William Bollaert during a trip to Texas (1842–44), stated that the 1836 battle was lost to the Mexicans because a mulatto girl named Emily, who belonged to Col. James Morgan, was closeted in Santa Anna’s tent at the time the battle commenced.

According to this account, Emily detained Santa Anna so long that he was unable to restore order as the Texans attacked the Mexican camp. The story would have been unknown today except that Bollaert’s papers from his Texas trip, including the anecdote buried in an unpublished essay, were acquired by the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1911.

The story was discovered from those papers and initially appeared in print as a footnote by Joe Frantz in his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Texas (1946) and subsequently in the published version of his dissertation, entitled Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation (1951). W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth Lapham Butler, in William Bollaert’s Texas (1956), transcribed Bollaert’s papers and mentioned the story again, also in a footnote.

The mulatto girl, known in this anecdote only as “Emily” who belonged to James Morgan, was referred to during the 1960s and 1970s as Emily Morgan under the belief she was Morgan’s slave, but a passport record in the Texas State Library in Austin, first associated with Emily’s story in 1976, and an employment contract found in 1991 in a private collection and held since 2004 at the University of Texas at Arlington Library Special Collections, substantiated that she was a free woman named Emily D. West. She was hired by Morgan in New York City in 1835 to work for him for one year at his place called New Washington (now Morgan’s Point). Both names are often conflated today, as evidenced by the inaptly-named Emily Morgan Hotel which opened in 1985 across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio.

In the late 1950s R. Henderson Shuffler, head of the Texas A&M office of information and publication and subsequently the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures, was bothered that this “unsung” heroine of Texas was not better-known or appreciated. Shuffler was determined to associate her with a song and initially felt that Emily should be connected with “Will You Come to the Bower?”—a bawdy tune that was played at the battle of San Jacinto.

But by July 1959 he focused his attention on “The Yellow Rose of Texas” instead. He wrote to folklore singer John A. Lomax, Jr., the oldest son of famed folklorist John A. Lomax, seeking confirmation of his latest “hunch” that this song “grew up around the stories of Emily.” Shuffler later wrote Lomax in February 1960: “if there is not, as I still suspect, a remote connection between the story of Emily and the original folk song version of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ there should be.” (more…)

Little Sandy Review

January 3, 2013

Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson launched their vernacular music journal,
The Little Sandy Review, in 1960.

by David Lightbourne (from http://newvulgate.blogspot.com):

Toward the end of 1959, from an off-campus rooming house at the University of Minnesota, in a strange little corner of Minneapolis across the Mississippi from Saint Paul called Dinkytown, came a small magazine without money or a marketing plan, ready to begin printing articulate monthly record reviews and pithy cultural commentary to a tiny readership. Initially quite inauspicious and eccentric-looking – a loving or caustic survey of current LPs from the rapidly accelerating folk, country, and blues Revivals – over the next half-decade The Little Sandy Review would gain recognition, influence, and notoriety in gross disproportion to its size – and even acquire near-scholarly authority – without ever losing its links with the main currents and common currencies of early-60s bohemia.

From the first mimeographed, pamphlet-size pulp issue in the winter of 1960, The Little Sandy Review brought its readers a new and refreshingly provincial overview of the commercial folk music establishment, a subculture of colorful and odd little record labels, mainly in the East, with inchoate and Quixotic strategies for promoting this new category of record albums – 10” and 12” 33 1/3rpm records that were just beginning to impact the 78 and 45rpm singles dominant market. Writing with one voice and co-authorship for their shared enthusiasm and mutual evaluation of the best traditional American music on vinyl over the previous five or ten years, co-editors Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson began their journey forward into the new decade shaped by the immediate past.

As the late Paul Nelson remembered in a January 2000 interview, “Jon and I had gone to see Pete Seeger at a concert in Iowa that previous summer, and we talked to him afterward and told him about our plan to start a folk music magazine, and asked him what he thought of the idea. When Seeger talked to you it was like he was looking right through you the whole time, as if addressing the masses or something. It was very disconcerting. We didn’t get an answer.” Jon Pankake, a longtime Seeger admirer, remembers the conversation slightly more charitably. As he recalls, “Pete said, ‘Hey, it’s a free country. You can print anything you want in America.’ We followed Pete’s advice.”

A tiny speck on a remote, distant, icy cusp, Pankake and Nelson, along with Tony Glover and Barry Hansen, had no idea where their modest expression would lead as they moved inexorably, rapidly, and individually from that obscure cusp to the epicenters of newly-dawning 1960s social ferment, political turmoil, radical movements, and cultural revolution. (more…)

Border Radio

December 23, 2012

Border Radio
Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters

of the American Airwaves, Revised Edition

By Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford

from http://www.tshaonline.org:

The term “border radio” refers to the American broadcasting industry that sprang up on Mexico’s northern border in the early 1930s and flourished for half a century. High-powered radio transmitters on Mexican soil, beyond the reach of U.S. regulators, blanketed North America with unique programming.

Mexico accommodated these “outlaw” media operators, some of whom had been denied broadcasting licenses in the United States, because Canada and the United States had divided the long-range radio frequencies between themselves, allotting none to Mexico. Though the “borderblaster” transmitters were always in Mexico, studios (especially in the early 1930s) were sometimes in the United States, and the stations were often identified by the American town across the border.

For instance, in his classic poem, “Clem Maverick, the Life and Death of a Country Singer,” R. G. Vliet has Clem reminisce: “We was on the radio at Del Rio.” Early on, hillbilly music proved to be one of the most effective mediums for pulling mail and moving merchandise; in turn, the border stations played a significant role in popularizing country music during the genre’s crucial growth years before and after World War II.

The stations also familiarized American listeners with Mexican and Mexican-American artists. Lydia Mendoza’s future husband first heard the “Lark of the Border” from Piedras Negras station XEPN in 1937. “The highlight of the [XER] program, for me,” recalled a South Dakota listener in 1995, “was the beautiful voice of the ‘Mexican Nightingale’ [Rosa Domínguez], especially when she would sing ‘Estrellita’—this farm boy thought that must be how the angels would sound in heaven.”

The first border station, XED, began broadcasting from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in 1930. Owned for a time by Houston theater owner and philanthropist Will Horwitz, XED hosted occasional performances by Horwitz’s friend Jimmie Rodgersqv. Horwitz, who dressed up as Santa Claus each year and distributed Christmas presents to Houston’s underprivileged children, was sent to prison by the U.S. government for broadcasting the Tamaulipas state lottery over XED.

Dr. John R. Brinkley, originator of the “goat gland transplant” as a sexual rejuvenation treatment, opened XER (later called XERA) in Villa Acuña, Coahuila, in 1931. Brinkley later bought XED, changing the name to XEAW. In 1939 he sold XEAW to Carr Collins, Dallas insurance magnate and owner of Crazy Crystals, a laxative product derived from the fabled Crazy Water in Mineral Wells. According to Collins’s son Jim, Texas governor (and later U.S. senator) W. Lee “Pappy” O’Danielqv was part-owner of the station. The Mexican government confiscated XERA in 1941 and tried to confiscate XEAW shortly thereafter, but Collins moved his equipment north of the border.   (more…)

Yellow Rose of Texas

December 20, 2012

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

 “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” one of the iconic songs of modern Texas and a popular traditional American tune, has experienced several transformations of its lyrics and periodic revivals in popularity since its appearance in the 1850s. The earliest published lyrics to surface to date are found in Christy’s Plantation Melodies. No. 2, a songbook published under the authority of Edwin P. Christy in Philadelphia in 1853. Christy was the founder of the blackface minstrel group known as the Christy’s Minstrels. Their shows were a popular form of American entertainment featuring white performers with burnt cork makeup portraying caricatures of blacks in comic acts, dances, and songs.

The plaintive courtship-themed 1853 lyrics of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” fit the minstrel genre by depicting an African-American singer, who refers to himself as a “darkey,” longing to return to “a yellow girl,” a term used to describe a mulatto, or mixed-race female born of African-American and white progenitors. The songbook does not identify the author or include a musical score to accompany the lyrics:

There’s a yellow girl in Texas
That I’m going down to see;
No other darkies know her,
No darkey, only me;
She cried so when I left her
That it like to broke my heart,
And if I only find her,
We never more will part.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour
That this darkey ever knew;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds,
And sparkle like the dew.
You may talk about your Dearest Mae,
And sing of Rosa Lee,
But the yellow Rose of Texas
Beats the belles of Tennessee.

Where the Rio Grande is flowing,
And the starry skies are bright,
Oh, she walks along the river
In the quiet summer night;
And she thinks if I remember
When we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again,
And not to leave her so.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour, &c

Oh, I’m going now to find her,
For my heart is full of woe,
And we’ll sing the songs together
That we sang so long ago.
We’ll play the banjo gaily,
And we’ll sing our sorrows o’er,
And the yellow Rose of Texas
Shall be mine forever more.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour, &c.

“Dearest Mae” and “Rosa Lee,” the only named females in the song, are the titles of two songs also appearing in Christy’s Minstrels songbooks. These songs were published earlier (1847–48) and are similar in style. Both are sung by a black man in a courtship setting with lyrics similar to those found in “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Dearest Mae, who was from “old Carolina state,” was described as follows: “Her eyes dey sparkle like de stars, Her lips are red as beet,” and “She cried when boff [both] we parted.” Rosa Lee lived in Tennessee and had “Eyes as dark as winter night, Lips as red as berry bright.”

The Christy’s Minstrels also included in their repertoire three other songs that reference attractive black women as “roses” who are associated with geographic places. These were “The Virginia Rose-Bud,” “The Rose of Alabama,” and “The Rose of Baltimore.” As such, the original lyrics of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” indicate that the song can best be understood in the context of its fictional minstrelsy genre and not for any incident authentically associated with the state of Texas.

The earliest stand-alone sheet music for “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was copyrighted in 1858 and published by the Firth, Pond & Company, a music store located at 547 Broadway in New York City. This company, owned by John Firth and William A. Pond, Jr., had published twenty-two of Christy’s songs by 1858. Mark Camann (2010) contended that Edwin Christy himself may have been involved in publishing the song sheet.

The cover of the sheet music states that the song was “composed and arranged expressly for Charles H. Brown by J.K.” Brown, who is identified on the cover as a resident of Jackson, Tennessee, appears in the 1860 U.S. census for that town as a twenty-six-year-old bookseller with a wife and two young children. No sources have surfaced to date to indicate Brown’s relationship with the composer or why the song was composed for him.

Breathed Fire Through His Nose: Roots of Bob Dylan (pt. 2)

November 29, 2012

Clarence Ashley, Jon Pankake, Tex Isley.

from “Chronicles,” by Bob Dylan:

Jon Pankake, a folk music purist enthusiast and sometime literary teacher and film wiseman, who’d been watching me for a while on the scene, made it his business to tell me that what I was doing hadn’t escaped him. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re singing nothing but Guthrie songs,” he said, jabbing his finger into my chest like he was talking to a poor fool.

Pankake was authoritative and a hard guy to get past. It was known around that Pankake had a vast collection of the real folk records and could go on and on about them. He was part of the folk police, if not the chief commissioner, wasn’t impressed with any of the new talent. To him nobody possessed any great mastery-no one could succeed in laying a hand on any of the traditional stuff with any authority. Of course he was right, but Pankake didn’t play or sing. It’s not like he put himself in any position to be judged.

“You’re trying hard, but you’ll never turn into Woody Guthrie,” Pankake says to me as if he’s looking down from some high hill, like something has violated his instincts. It was no fun being around Pankake. He made me nervous. He breathed fire through his nose. “You better think of something else. You’re doing it for nothing. Jack Elliott’s already been where you are and gone. Ever heard of him?” No, I’d never heard of Jack Elliott. When Pankake said his name, it was the first time I’d heard it. “Never heard of him, no. What does he sound like?” John said that he’d play me his records and that I was in for a surprise.

Pankake lived in an apartment above McCosh’s bookstore, a place that specialized in eclectic old books, ancient texts, philosophical political pamphlets from the 1800s on up. It was a neighborhood hangout for intellectuals and Beat types, on the main floor of an old Victorian house only a few blocks away. I went there with Pankake and saw it was true that he had all the incredible records, ones you never saw and wouldn’t know where to get. For someone who didn’t sing and play, it was amazing that he had so many.

Elliott, who’d been born ten years before me, had actually traveled with Guthrie, learned his songs and style firsthand and had mastered it completely. Pankake was right. Elliott was far beyond me.

I sheepishly left the apartment and went back out into the cold street, aimlessly walked around. I felt like I had nowhere to go, felt like one of the dead men walking through catacombs. It would be hard not to be influenced by the guy I just heard. I’d have to block it out of my mind, though, forget this thing, tell myself I hadn’t heard him and he didn’t exist. He was overseas in Europe, anyway, in a self-imposed exile. The U.S. hadn’t been ready for him. Good. I was hoping he’d stay gone, and I kept hunting for Guthrie songs.

View related post.

Hillbilly Blues Guitar

November 16, 2012

 from http://www.guitarvideos.com:

Included on this DVD are songs from Clarence Greene, known mostly as a fiddler, but an ace guitarist, Dick Justice, who in his one day in the recording studio waxed ten masterful performances, Frank Hutchison who excelled at lap slide, harmonica on a rack and conventional blues picking, Sam McGee, a banjo and guitar master who went on to star on the Grand Ole Opry, Hobart Smith, a musical powerhouse, Maybelle Carter, a rocksteady and beautifully lyrical player who may have been the most influential of the bunch and Emry Arthur, a soulful singer and player who recorded one of the earliest versions of Man Of Constant Sorrow.

excerpt from David Bradford  (www.19thcenturyguitar.com):

The guitar was largely ignored by rural white musicians until around the turn of the twentieth century. The sudden popularity of the instrument among white “hillbilly” musicians probably was due to the fact that – then as now – young whites were attuned to musical trends in the black community and eager to learn the latest black styles. The blues – which was just coming into its own as a distinctive new style – was probably the hottest, most exciting thing those white country boys had ever heard, and the guitar was a key part of that excitement.

“My daddy ran a little store, and these section hands would come over from the railroad at noon,” recalled early Grand Ole Opry guitarist Sam McGee of his childhood in Tennessee. “Well, after they finished their lunch, they would play guitars. …  That’s where I learned to love the blues tunes. Black people were about the only people that played guitar then.”

The guitar – and along with it the blues – was introduced to white Appalachia by African-American musicians, principally railroad workers, deckhands on river boats, and men coming into the mountains from other parts of the South looking for work in the mines and lumber camps in the early part of the twentieth century.

Frank Hutchinson,  (1898-1945), a white blues musician from Logan County, West Virginia, first heard a black guitarist with a railroad crew that came through the area when he was seven or eight years old. Norton, Virginia banjo-playing coal miner Moran Lee “Dock” Boggs (1898-1971), as a small boy, was fascinated with the music of a black man named “Go Lightening” who walked along railroad tracks playing his guitar. If Hutchison and Boggs’ memories are reliable, black guitarists were in Appalachia at least as early as the first decade of the twentieth century.

Plank Road Stringband

November 15, 2012

Plank Road Stringband plays “Going Down the River”:

edited from Odell McGuire (www.fieldrecorder.com):

’73 was the first summer of “The (Mongrel) Horde” as they called themselves. Musicians and their supernumeraries rented three large farm houses in various parts of the [Rockbridge] county. We traveled to festivals most every weekend and we entered three or even four bands with various personnel groupings and various names. For example, an all girl outfit, including Liz Shields and Becky Williams called themselves “The Leather Bitches.” Dave Winston and Brad Leftwich stayed in one of these houses near Fairfield until Al Tharp invited them to move into his little place on Plank Road. They did so, and the idea of a band called “Plank Road” probably dates from that time. Also, as many readers will be aware, Uncle Dave Macon once recorded a tune called “Way Down on the Old Plank Road.”

Almost from the start, they were joined by cello picker Mike Kott, who had never played with some members of the band before. Al Tharp tells that story on the back cover of the FRC Plank Road CD. I’d met Michael James the previous August at Galax. One night I crashed in a stall with Dave Winston. Early next morning I was awakened by horrible loud sounds from out-of-tune guitar and cello. My first thought was that we had died and gone to Hell and this was retribution for all those bad notes we hit on our banjers. I said as much to Dave. He said: “No! It’s only Michael James Kott.” We emerged from the stall. The guitarist was a rocker who called himself Johnny Bee. Michael James grinned and said: “I knew if we played the right tune it’d get y’ns up!” And we tuned properly up for a jam.

Plank Road quickly made a name for themselves on the road but it wasn’t til June of ’76, that they taped a cassette intended for public release. They used a very small studio at W&L University. There was no air conditioning and no windows and it was very hot and stuffy. Dave Winston engineered according to Al’s instructions. Michael James [Kott] was stripped to the skin playing his cello. The rest wore sweat drenched underwear. Some tunes were added in December in a more comfortable venue, and a few of those recorded in June were dropped. The product was released in April ’77 by Rounder. A second recording, “Plank Road 2″, same band, different tunes, was made in Doug Dorschug’s studio in August ’77 when we were all up to a Highwoods party. It was later released by Appalshop, I think. Also Plank Road , at some point during ’76-’77 played a gig in the White House.

Steve Gendron, Andy Williams, Brad Leftwich, Michael Kott, Al Tharp

Made Me Want to Gasp: Roots of Bob Dylan (pt.1)

November 11, 2012

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (guitar)

edited from “Chronicles” by Bob Dylan:

BOB DYLAN: I listened especially to The New Lost City Ramblers. I took to them immediately. Everything about them appealed to me-their style, their singing, their sound. I liked the way they looked, the way they dressed and I especially liked their name. Their songs ran the gamut in styles, everything from mountain ballads to fiddle tunes and railroad blues. All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. I’d stay with The Ramblers for days. At the time, I didn’t know that they were replicating everything they did off of old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn’t have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough.

On this particular day, we were just sitting around talking and Flo Casstner asked me if I’d ever heard of Woody Guthrie. I said sure, I’d heard him on the Stinson records with Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston. Then she asked me if I’d ever heard him all by himself on his own records. I couldn’t remember having done that. Flo said that her brother Lyn had some of his records and she’d take me over there to hear them-that Woody Guthrie was somebody that I should definitely get hip to. Something about this sounded important and I became definitely interested.

Flo told me about-a Woody Guthrie set of about twelve double sided 78 records. I put one on the turntable and when the needle dropped, I was stunned-didn’t know if I was stoned or straight. What I heard was Woody singing a whole lot of his own compositions all by himself . . . songs like “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” “Jesus Christ,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Jackhammer John,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” “This Land Is Your Land.”

All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there-mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn’t actually heard him, not in this earth shattering kind of way. I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto.

He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room. I was listening to his diction, too. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them. Not one mediocre song in the bunch. Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces. For me it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbor.

That day I listened all afternoon to Guthrie as if in a trance and I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before. A voice in my head said, “So this is the game.” I could sing all these songs, every single one of them and they were all that I wanted to sing. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.


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