Archive for the ‘music history’ Category

THE QUEST OF THE LONESOME TUNES

November 20, 2014

images

from “THE QUEST OF THE LONESOME TUNES” by HOWARD BROCKWAY; June 1917:

We stepped out of New York into the life of the frontier settler of Daniel Boone’s time! Here are people who know naught of the advance which has been made in the world outside of their mountains. It surpasses belief. Many of them neither read nor write, and their knowledge is summed up in the facts of their daily life. In woodlore they shine, in planting and cultivating their corn, raising “razor back” hogs, carding, spinning, weaving and the distilling of their white ”moonshine.”

The next day a young matron, perhaps some twenty-five years old, sang for me the beautiful old ballad of “Sweet William and Lady Margery” the while she unconcernedly suckled a tiny babe. Here again both tune and intonation were perfect and the text but slightly altered. It is intensely interesting to hear these people sing of things which lie entirely out of their ken.

Had they the power of reading, one could not wonder at anything, but to hear these mountain folk born into the frontier life of the eighteenth century and spending their days amongst these isolated hills, sing of “ivory combs,” of lords and ladies, of castles and moats, of steeds and knights, is an astonishing matter.

It brings home to one the whole process of transmission, stretching back through the generations into the period when such things were of the Present. One old man had sung a ballad which contained the word “steed.” He was asked what the word meant. He scratched his head for a moment and slowly replied, “Wall, I reckon hit is some sort o’ hoss animile.” The context had assured him of that!  We were told in answer to a similar query as  to a certain word: “Shucks! Hit jus’ comes that way.” These people are the real simon-pure Americans!

Revival Revival

November 15, 2014
Nick-Perls-Dick-Waterman-Son-House-Phil-Spiro

Son House’s wife snapped this photo of Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, Son House, and Phil Spiro.

Department of Redundancy: the books mentioned below have previously been featured on oldtimeparty, but this essay is too good to pass up.

by Barry Mazor (www.newrepublic.com):

In mid-April, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story that might have been taken as a sign of a leap in interest in pre-World War II acoustic blues. It concerned the utterly obscure Depression-era singers Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. In fact, while John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” presented sensational aspects of the two women’s stories (a murder; closeted lesbian lives on the run), it had, at its heart, something else entirely.

The unpublished information about the duo was tracked down in the early 1960s by the fabled, troubled blues researcher and record collector Mack McCormick and then clandestinely poached from his files by a research assistant. Constructed to maximize suspense, that storyand the peculiarities of white, educated blues obsessiveswas the element that justified the article’s prominence in a publication not otherwise known for introducing forgotten music by minor artists of earlier eras.

The magazine’s editors are not alone. In the weeks since then,  new books have been published that take up related themes: stories of middlemen blues researchers and record collectors, often, of guys who’ve been both. What’s going on here?

Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, Elion Paz’s lavish new volume of photographs depicts obsessive record collectors and their shelves upon shelves of immensely prized possessions. The book offers colorful photos of fanatic young collectorsstanding in front of LPs with covers of certain colors, of all the David Bowie recordings, of private pressings with covers that are pure kitsch. And yet, articles about the book at Slate and Esquire have focused on the only pre-war singles collector in the 416-page volume, the jocular but cranky blues, early jazz and hillbilly specialist, Joe Bussard, age 76, possessor and caretaker of one of the largest private collections of 78 rpm records in those fields.

What drives collectors of old 78s like Joe to organize so much of their lives around relentless searching for and organizing of coveted rarities? Those questions are central in the latest book by journalist Amanda Petrusich, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, which looks in on the obsessive collector subculture, and blues 78 collectors in particular. To see what manic searching for rare records feels like, Petrusich goes hunting with the Grammy-winning engineer Chris King and brings us along. While more interested in the music than in collecting, King shows her where unaccounted-for blues sides might still be lurking. (Inside old Victrola cabinets for sale in the South, is one place.)

Like many of the hardcore blues collectorsand collectors of anythingPetrusich has idiosyncratic opinions and strong responses to the music on those venerable, scratchy original 78s. She’s graphic when she describes her own intense, agitated physical reactions: “I felt like every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bubbling up into my esophagus … I wanted to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it,” she says of hearing an original pressing of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues” for the first time. She also describes her strong predilection for blues records that are unremittingly bleak. That’s not an unusual preference for a member of a generation raised on the notion that caressing the texture of devastation and disconnection in art is profound, for whom lighter blues is unthinkably upbeat.

In the most colorful adventure in Do Not Sell, Petrusich dons a wet suit and searches for the legendary master recordings from Paramount that were, according to some accounts, thrown into the nearby Milwaukee River when the manufacturer went out of business. She doesn’t find any. The George Plimpton-style role-taking, intended to demonstrate how strong an obsession finding a rare record can be, perhaps better illustrates the lengths a writer might go to enliven a chapter.

She also reiterates the story of the “Blues Mafia,” the tight gang of white blues collectors of the 1950s and ’60s, some of whom turned into impresarios, some into recluses, who played such an influential role in changing the idea of which blues mattered. The specialists who coveted rarely heard records came to elevate rarely heard performers. If today people so often take Mississippi delta blues (Skip James, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charley Patton) for heart of the form, it’s in no small measure because the collector-researchers of the ’50s and ’60s, and the blues rockers who followed their lead, taught us to think that way. In fact, those edgy, relatively marginalized, rural guitar players had, for the most part, been little-known artists with limited sales among the black Southern audience, which generally saw blues as dance music. But they presented challenging sounds and images irresistible to the white collector specialists.

Blues radio veteran Steve Cushing’s new 355-page anthology, Pioneers of the Blues Revival, gathers together detailed interviews with 17 of the key collector-researchers, particularly those who became constructive blues activists (Sam Charters, Paul Oliver, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Dick Spottswood, David Evans). These collectors founded reissue and new issue labels, created detailed discographies and blues histories, and most productively, enabled late-in-life coda careers for performers they “rediscovered,” including Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Skip James. Cushing’s detailed discussions with significant blues revival researchers tell crisscrossing artist- and record-rediscovery stories, portraying a close-knit scene with its own rituals, famous incidents, lost heroes, and well-recalled ne’er-do-well connivers. One of the classic blues revival stories is the tale (recalled by multiple researchers) of how a number of leading lights of the Blues Mafiaincluding eventual guitar hero and label executive John Faheyraced to be the ones to locate Skip James in Mississippi.

Crucially, all the interviewees in Cushing’s book could still meet and talk with the blues originators directly. Fifty years after 1964, we’re a lot further away from the height of the mid-century blues revival than the revival was from the era of acoustic recorded blues. This points to one reason we’re hearing a lot about the blues collector revivalists now: The gents who had direct contact with the music-makers are themselves aging and dwindling in number.

 The aging of the blues collecting generation does not in itself fully explain recent fascination with that scene and its constituents. That this is an era in which music readily changes hands with no physical traces may be more to the point. It is hard to imagine future generations fetishizing hard-drive MP3 collections. Is there, perhaps, nostalgia or even envy at work here for fanatics who could actually collect, and possess their prizes in tangible physical form?

Nothing has yet made the middlemen more vital or interesting than the music they organized around and collected, howeverand nothing could. Attempts to find fresh stories may keep moving us, layer by layer, further away from the music itselfone more Russian stacking doll away from the music at the center.

 

 

 

 

Ralph Peer (#2)

November 13, 2014

 

 

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

from http://www.pbs.org:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goodbye, boys, we’re gone”

November 11, 2014

images

edited excerpt from “The Southern Textile Song Tradition Reconsidered,”
by Doug DeNatale and Glenn Hinson
Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 28, No. 2/3

The conditions of cotton mill life had a dramatic impact on the shape and social context of Southern music in general. Mill musicians themselves perceived music more often as a means for self-advancement than as a vehicle for mass protest. The development of the fiddlers’ convention as a paying contest and the increased popularity of small travelling shows first suggested the possibility of an alternative source of cash to mill musicians.

It is no coincidence that Henry Whitter and Fiddlin’ John Carson, the very first Southeastern musicians to make commercial recordings, were textile workers. Other mill workers such as G. B. Grayson, Ernest Stoneman, Kelly Harrell, Charlie Poole, J. E. and Wade Mainer, and many others soon followed their example. The number of mill workers who became significant recording artists in the 1920s and 1930s is impressive, and indicates the extent to which mill workers attempted to cash in on their musical abilities. The story told of Charlie Poole’s departure from the Spray mill captures the sense of optimism many must have felt:

They came early in the morning, before the looms started, to draw their last paychecks. Bringing their instruments into the mill with them, they sat down at the end of one of the rows of looms. As their fellow mill workers gathered around, they played Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. When they finished, Poole spoke up and said, ‘Goodbye, boys, we’re gone.’”

Louisville Jug Music

October 31, 2014

(

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hee Haw

October 23, 2014

index

excerpt from Ted Olson (http://encyclopediaofappalachia.com):

Due to its broad scope of influence both within and outside the region, Appalachian music has been a powerful perpetrator of regional stereotypes. Although originating outside Appalachia, nineteenth-century minstrel show performances featuring white musicians derisively exaggerating black culture adversely affected the social standing of African Americans in the region after emancipation.

In the twentieth century, the barn dance—which achieved national popularity via radio and which sustained that popularity into the 1990s through such television programs as Hee Haw—provided steady work and significant exposure for many Appalachian musicians. But in order to represent rural culture, which held novelty appeal for main- stream audiences, producers directed Appalachian musicians to project a hillbilly identity.

The stereotype inevitably left far-flung audiences with negative and inaccurate impressions of Appalachian people. These barn dances particularly misrepresented two aspects of the region’s culture: Appalachian speech and Appalachian clothes. Musicians were encouraged to exaggerate their regional speech and to wear standardized hillbilly dress, including bib overalls and straw hats.

Likewise distorting general understanding of Appalachian regional culture during the twentieth century were attitudes toward Appalachian people of some of the musicians associated with the century’s several folk revivals, whose representations of Appalachian culture, whether earnest or intentionally exploitive, were rendered un- trustworthy by both positive and negative stereotyping.

Positive stereotypes included the revivalists’ romanticized portrayals of Appalachian musicians as mountain sages or noble savages; negative stereotyping involved the unfavorable characterization of Appalachian people as “rubes,” “hicks,” or “degenerates.”

Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

October 19, 2014

9780252080197from http://www.press.uillinois.edu/:

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

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

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

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

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

78 RPM Record Collectors

October 8, 2014
78_collector_richardnevins_heneghan21

Richard Nevins, who runs the 78 reissue label Yazoo Records, sits in his personal record room.

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

Amanda Petrusich: I think a lot of collectors end up turning to 78 rpm records because they feel alienated by modern culture or not satisfied by it in some ways. Your collection becomes a way of insulating yourself from the facets of modernity that you find distasteful, unsustainable, or not nourishing. A lot of these guys had no interest in modern or contemporary music at all.

For them, it ended with World War II, or with Hank Williams. Everything that came after that, they don’t even want to know about it because they think it’s garbage. It’s frustrating for me as music fan and critic, because I’ll be like, “Wait, there are all these amazing people making amazing records,” and they have no interest in them.

Most collectors are white men who started collecting in the second half of the 20th century and have enough money to travel and buy records. They’re coming from a place of extraordinary privilege for sure. It’s these privileged white people collecting this music from disenfranchised African Americans. There is something uncomfortable, I think, for a lot of people, myself included, about that exchange.

I always get nervous talking about this because these are such big generalities. But socioculturally speaking, just in my experience, I think women are more comfortable listening to music and having an emotional reaction to it. We have the vocabulary for that. We’re socialized that it’s okay for us to do that.

With men, it’s a little more complicated. For a man to hear a song and be moved to tears by it, I think it can be a frightening experience or maybe an experience he has not been socialized to find acceptable. So collecting and organizing is a way of trying to de-fang those intense emotions and also figure them out through meticulous research, learning as much as they can about the record, owning the record. There are all these different ways you can mediate a very emotional experience to make it more concrete, more digestible, or less scary.

 

Wax cylinder recording session

October 2, 2014

homesm

 from http://memory.loc.gov and http://www.nps.gov:

Wax cylinder recording session, Thursday, October 30 at 7:00 pm
WEST ORANGE, NJ –On October 30, visitors to Thomas Edison National Historical Park will have the opportunity to watch and listen as the Demolition String Duo makes recording history. Elena Skye and Boo Reiners are the featured artists at a wax cylinder phonograph recording session taking place on Thursday evening.
Elena Skye and Boo Reiners lead New York City’s “Demolition String Band”. They are currently celebrating the release of their recording of the Woody Guthrie song “Go Coney Island, Roll on the Sand” on the audio book “My Name is New York, Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town”. This new audio book is a collection of Guthrie’s New York City-inspired stories and music, produced and narrated by daughter Nora Guthrie.
The Demolition String Duo will record onto wax cylinders in the same way it was done in Edison’s time over a century ago. The method of capturing sound is non-electric. Like the artists who recorded for Edison during the 1890s, the Demolition String Duo will play in front of a large horn that will serve as their microphone. The duo hopes to release the recordings they make at the Edison Laboratory on a future album.

(more…)

Hollow Rock String Band

September 28, 2014

indexby (www.indyweek.com):

The original Hollow Rock String Band–Tommy Thompson on five-string banjo, Bobbie Thompson on guitar, Bertram Levy on mandolin and Alan Jabbour on fiddle–grew out of mid-’60s jam sessions that took place at the Hollow Rock Grocery on Erwin Road at New Hope Creek, just outside of Durham. As the surrounding circle of friends and players grew larger than the store could handle–sometimes up to 150 people–the sessions moved to the Thompsons’ house down the road.

The music they played grew out of Duke grad student Jabbour’s mid-’60s excursions through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to record instrumental folk music, folksong and folklore. Though he’d been a classical violinist from the age of 7, he began a new kind of apprenticeship with old-time fiddlers he met along the way, like Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Va. It was around the old-time fiddle tunes from Reed and others that the Hollow Rock String Band oriented itself. But because they were largely solo numbers, the group had to invent band settings for them.

“I can remember sitting together, and all of us sort of puzzling out what chords we would play,” Jabbour says. “Imagining how it might sound was part of the excitement of this enterprise: To us, it really was kind of an adventure into this unknown artistic world.” But that adventure was not only about music, it was about a way of life.

“Only later did we puzzle about it, and wonder what it was that lit us up,” Jabbour says. “It was beautiful to us; there was something magical about the music itself, artistically. But also, we were drawn–how shall I say–to certain social and cultural values that the music seemed to stand for. And we were proud to re-assert that, to sort of throw it into the face of the world.”

For Jim Watson, who played guitar and was learning mandolin, the Hollow Rock jam sessions were a musical turning point. “I had started going to fiddlers’ conventions in the summer of 1965 and learning a little bit about it,” he remembers, “but not until I got in the midst of this music scene at Tommy and Bobby’s did I really start learning how to play it.” Watson and musician friend Bill DeTurk became regular visitors to the Thompsons’ jam sessions.

“It’s really hard to overstate the effect that those parties had on me, and a lot of people, back then,” Watson says. “A lot of us were learning music, and learning it in a group situation–and in a party situation, too, where you would just go and play hard and have a good time, rather than sitting in your living room with one or two other people. You had to play hard to be heard–to hear yourself, even–in some of those settings.”

In 1969, Jabbour was appointed head of the Archive of Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress, where he exerted a tremendous influence on scholarly and popular understandings of American vernacular music. Meanwhile, as the ’60s became the ’70s, Watson and Tommy Thompson played as a duo, and as a trio with “Fiddlin’ Al” McCanless. Bobbie went on to join the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, comprised of other jam regulars. She died in a car accident in 1972, before seeing the release of the group’s first album, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band.

When Rounder Records asked Jabbour to record a new album of fiddle tunes in the early ’70s, he asked Tommy Thompson to join him, and Thompson invited Watson along to play guitar. With Levy’s blessing (he didn’t participate in the session), they dubbed the recording The Hollow Rock String Band.

“It was exciting to make that record, as an effort to recapture the Hollow Rock energy,” Jabbour says. “But that energy was spreading in other ways beyond us. The truth is, you want to keep making music yourself, but it has its impact, and it goes on beyond you. Others continue, and they continue it in their own way.” (more…)

John Work

September 24, 2014

index

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

Two years ago, the book “Lost Delta Found” criticized the American folklorist Alan Lomax for giving short shrift to the work of three black researchers with whom he made some of his landmark field recordings in the 1940s. Maybe more important, the book argued that our appreciation of the black roots music of the era would have been greatly enriched had the writings of the researchers reached a wider audience. With the release of “Recording Black Culture,” an album consisting largely of newly unearthed acetates made by one of the collectors, John Work III, we now have the music itself to buttress this claim.

Work, the most eminent of the black folklorists, was not merely an acolyte of Lomax but clearly had ideas of his own. Where Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, Work sought to document it as it was unfolding. Thus on “Recording Black Culture,” instead of spirituals harking back to the 19th century, we hear febrile gospel shouting set to the cadences of what soon would become rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

As the story goes, the folklorist Alan Lomax was traveling around Mississippi with his recording equipment in the summer of 1941 when he came upon the house of a blues singer named McKinley Morganfield. Lomax recorded a few tracks for the Library of Congress and moved on, later mailing Morganfield a check for $20 and two copies of the record. What Lomax couldn’t have known at the time was that Morganfield, better known today as Muddy Waters, was to become one of the most famous blues singers of all time—the undisputed king of the electric Chicago sound.

Morganfield, along with Son House, went on to be known as one of Lomax’s greatest discoveries. And while it may be true that without Lomax, we might never have heard of these artists, it’s worth remembering that—despite what his own memoirs suggest—Lomax didn’t actually discover either of them. That credit falls to a little-known black folklorist named John Work III, who died 44 years ago this month.

The long history of famous men is haunted by forgotten heroes. There are those like Alfred Russel Wallace, the biologist who proposed the theory of evolution before Darwin did. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is not so much as the man who first conceived of evolution by natural selection, but as the man whom history forgot to credit—a historical nuance not fit for high school biology texts. In Wallace’s case, Darwin attempted to give him credit, but history was intent on forgetting him. Work’s absence from the historical record is more suspect: Lomax devoted only one sentence to him in his own writings.

John Work III, born in 1901 in Tullahoma Tennessee, was a folklorist at Fisk University for almost 40 years. He attended Julliard and held music degrees from Yale and Columbia. According to music writer Dave Marsh, Work was Lomax’s partner and guide in the early 1940s. He led Lomax first to Son House and later to Muddy Waters, where Lomax recorded part of what would later be released as Down on Stovall’s Plantation. “Lomax never credited Work, but recent research has established him as at least Lomax’s equal in the study,” Marsh writes.

Sacralizing Space

September 16, 2014

index

by Jeff Todd Titon:

It was in the 1990s when I visited the Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky that I encountered people who spoke explicitly of sound transforming and sacralizing space, whether singing in the coal mine or the sound of the singing coming down from the mountains or echoing outside the churches on a Sunday morning, heard by the children playing up and down the creek beds.

Their words about sound may be heard on the first of the two CDs that Smithsonian Folkways released from my field tape recordings: Songs of the Old Regular Baptists. To close out the CD we chose to present excerpts from some of their statements about the singing, and many mentioned the sound and its “drawing power.”

Elwood Cornett, the moderator (head) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, said: “When I came into this life there was that sound. I hope that when I leave here, that I leave the same sound that I found when I came here.” The Old Regular Baptists weren’t thinking about their music as music; they were talking about the power of its sound to open a communication channel in the co-presence of the divine.

Secular sounds sacralize place, memorialize people. The names of fiddle tunes–”The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” (memorializing the last battle in Pike Co., Kentucky, during the Civil War); “Bill Brown” (memorializing a peddler who was murdered); “They Swung John Brown from a Sour Apple Tree”–these are among tunes I play, and they invoke co-presence. Often an old-time string band fiddler will say the name of the person from whom he or she learned the tune, just before or after playing it, invoking the co-presence of the source musician.

Cracker

September 10, 2014

 

index

from notes to “Hillbilly Wobble” by  Mick Kinney:

The term cracker has been around for centuries in reference to jovial storytelling or witty banter.  Shakespeare used it in that context, similar to the more modern wise cracker.  The resurrected Gaelic spelling craic meaning “fun times” is now common in hip Irish circles.

As far back as colonial times in America, cracker became a stereotype for rural white southerners.  In addition to the word’s Anglo origins, another one suggested is “So poor they had to crack their own corn,” that is, not able to afford the price of milling.

Although regarded nowadays as somewhat of a derogatory slur, Georgia was widely known, until fairly recently, as “The Cracker State.”  In a most ironic twist, before racial integration the capital city’s Negro League team was called The Atlanta Black Crackers, a spinoff of their Southern League counterpart.

During the early 20th century, quite a few musical acts went by some variant of “Georgia Crackers.”  Okeh records actually had two on their label: the Cofer Brothers, Paul and Leon, took the name for some of their cuts while Macon jazz singer, Emmett Miller, used it for his stellar studio side musicians.

Others in the hillbilly catagory include the Canova family band, “Three Georgia Crackers,” in 20′s Columbia catalogue.

Do the Modal

September 6, 2014

index

from Ken Perlman (https://banjonews.com):

In the early 20th century an English collector of traditional songs and dances named Cecil Sharp published a book called “The English Folk Song: Some Conclusions.” Sharp, who about a decade later would also become the first serious collector of Appalachian music, made an impassioned plea in this book aimed at those who sought to perform the tunes he had collected.

He pointed out that quite a number of these tunes were not connected with the major and minor scales that had dominated both European classical and popular music for the previous few centuries. Instead these tunes followed older musical scales, or modes, and that consequently they were governed by different rules of tune organization and harmony.

Sharp then identified the scales he felt were actually in use among the folk tunes he collected, namely a set of diatonic scales often referred to as the “Church Modes” (you get a diatonic scale by starting on any white key of the piano and going up the white keys in sequence for a distance of one octave). These Church Modes have since become household names among folk-music aficionados: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Sharp argued persuasively that new performers of collected tunes should not change the melodies to conform to rules that apply to major and minor scales, and that they should also avoid applying to those tunes conventional harmony progressions from the major and minor world. All these were excellent points, and added considerably to the ability of later generations to understand and appreciate what British, Irish, and North American traditional music was all about.

The problem was that Sharp’s argument didn’t go far enough, and he in fact substituted a new set of unrealistic constructs for the old one. Although the Dorian and Mixolydian scales, for example, described the melodies of some folk tunes far better than had the labels “major” or “minor,” this still only represented part of the story.

Many folk tunes, for example, are made up of pentatonic or fundamentally pentatonic scales (you get a pentatonic, or 5-note scale by starting on any black key of the piano and going up the black keys in sequence till you reach the same note an octave up). Given that pentatonic scales have only five tones, they cannot be definitively assigned to any one Church mode. For example, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian modes in G is whether the seventh tone of the scale is F# or F-natural. Where then do you put a pentatonic tune in G that has no F in it of any kind?

Alternatively, there are many, many folk tunes that feature multiple “inflections” for a given pitch. For example, there are tunes in G that feature both F#’s and F-naturals at the seventh tone of the scale, and tunes in A that have both C#’s and C-naturals at the third tone. Again, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian G-modes is whether the seventh tone is F# or F-natural. In that case, where do you put a tune in G that has both these pitches? In the key of A, the difference between the Dorian and Mixolydian modes is whether the third tone of the scale is C-natural or C#. Where then do you put a tune in A in which both tones are present?

Further complication is presented by tunes which contain still more pitch inflections, namely those pesky pitches that fall between conventional scale notes. I’m talking, for example, about a pitch that is between C-natural and C#, or between Bb and B-natural. Sometimes I’ve heard such pitches referred to as “C-neutral” or “B-neutral,” but my favorite nickname for them comes from my fiddling friend Iain Fraser of Jedburgh, Scotland, who uses the term “C-supernatural.”

Roger Sprung

August 29, 2014

 

RS_Early001_500

edited from banjonews.com:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.rogersprung.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. James Sessions

August 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walter Vinson on Smelling Mules

August 13, 2014

978-0-8223-4700-2_pr

from “Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow,” by Karl Hagstrom Miller:

Many working-class musicians, far from seeing their music as an extension of their labor, described their music as an alternative to it.

“I always felt I could beat plowin’ mules, choppin’ cotton, and drawin’ water,” the black artist Muddy Waters recalled.  “I did all that, and I never did like none of it.  Sometimes they’d want us to work Saturday, but they’d look for me, and I’d be gone, playin’ in some little town or some juke joint.”

Other musicians told similar stories.  The African-American musician Sam Chatmon explained why his brother Lonnie Johnson played music.  “All of ‘em farming but one,” he stated.  “Lonnie didn’t like to work.  He always stayed on the road somewhere, him and Walter Johnson.  That’s the reason Walter was playing with us ’cause he didn’t want to work and Lonnie didn’t want to work and they’d stay gone, playing music.”

Bill Broonzy noted that when white listeners discovered his musical skill. “We would be playing and sitting under screen porches while the other Negroes had to work in the hot sun.”

The African-American youngster Deford Bailey was a domestic worker until his wealthy white boss learned that he could play parlor songs on his harmonica.  “From then on, she had me stand in the corner of the room and play my harp for her company,’ he recalled.  “Before she found out I could play, I had to work like the rest of thehelp.  From then on, I just fooled around…I never did no more good work.  My work was playing the harp.”

The black singer and guitarist Walter Vinson [of the Mississippi Sheiks] simply stated that he played music because he “got tired of smellin’ mule farts.”

 

 

Palm Wine Guitar

August 12, 2014
https://vimeo.com/57265611
The History of the Palmwine Guitar by Ed Keazor (edited):

The Palmwine Guitar sound is a distinctive Folk sound, which originated in West Africa at the turn of the 20th century. As the story goes, the style emanated from Sierra Leone, where the Portuguese and Spanish sailors whose ships berthed on Merchant ships on the West African Coastal ports of Freetown (Sierra Leone) , Lagos (Nigeria), Monrovia (Liberia) and Accra/Tema (Ghana) lent their Guitars and style to their African shipmates who formulated a unique style fusing native rhythms with the Latin style bequeathed by their Latin benefactors and resulting in an expressive twangy, melodious Guitar sound.

The early African Guitar pioneers, primarily played on the ships in their spare time to entertain themselves, often raw and rudimentary, a revolution was nonetheless taking place. The Guitars were often played to accompany Native vocal renditions, varied in their content but often centred around themes of Love and peace , Native wisdom, satire and often times personal angst and social commentary.

As time went on the Guitar moved away from the exclusive preserve of the African sailors to the general populace and the local musicians adopted the Guitar, Violin, Mandolin, Banjo (and rather annoyingly that dreadful Instrument- The Kazoo) as elitist forms of expression. A word of note, West African musicians in general played in the Traditional form (using Traditional instruments) at Funerals, Weddings, Religious Feasts and Festivals and to entertain Royalty in Court and not much else- these were the elite.

At the lower end of the rung were the Bards and Minstrels, who would go round houses and local bars in the evening (when self respecting people had come back from work) and get a few cowries or pennies for their troubles, often walking several miles on this beat, kind of like Mobile buskers (this practice continues till today). Their Guitar heroics being accompaniment to tales of joy and pain and mostly praise singing of their often inebriated and mostly ego-possessed clients, they would often move around solo or accompanied by Native drummers or Thumb Pianists (Agidigbo in Nigeria) and a variety of other Native Instruments.

The Palmwine Guitar style evolved over the years and fused with various forms, became most popularly known as Highlife, being a fusion of Big Band Native rhythms and indeed the Palmwine Guitar style. one of the biggest superstars of this fusion was the Ghanaian Tenor Saxman- E.T.Mensah and his Tempos Band formed in the 30′s, whose popularity stretched far beyond Ghana.

However the purists have refused to be swayed and the old boys and young hawks have stayed faithful to the Sailors and Minstrels of yore.

“A cracked violin, a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol”

August 7, 2014

index

 

by Mike Seeger (excerpt from liner notes to “Early Southern Guitar Styles”):

 

The turmoil following the Civil War was transforming Southern life.

Industrialization was beginning, leading to urbanization and giving

former rural dwellers money in their pockets.

 

For those who remained on the farm, cash crops established their part

of the dollar economy.  Traveling salesmen and general stores were

becoming active in small towns. Towards the end of the century, railroads

and a postal system made possible mail order of almost anything,

including guitars.

 

Emancipation gave African Americans some measure of freedom of

movement and livelihood for the first time. It freed black musical creativity.

General consciousness of black music and singing could be less subject to

white interpretation than in the heyday of the minstrel shows…

 

Community-made music continued to be popular in rural areas, especially

throughout the South.  Musical tastes were evolving. Factory production

made possible the very inexpensive guitars that were offered by mail-order

houses and furniture or music stores from about 1890 onward.

 

The advent of the three-dollar guitar put the instrument into the hands of a player

for the equivalent of three or four days’ wages rather than the month’s required for

a Martin or Haynes. These instruments…could compete and mix with a banjo

or fiddle.

 

Evidence of working-class playing of these guitars is sparse during this

period.  I came across one intriguing, reliable report by writer Lafcadio Hearn

describing an African American string band consisting of “a cracked violin,

a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol” at a lively 1875 waterfront square

dance in Cincinnati.  I think it’s significant that this combination of

instruments appeared at an African American dance only a decade after

emancipation.

Knocking on Doors for 78s

July 30, 2014

PekarCrumb-300x266

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

images

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

index

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

Screen shot 2014-05-11 at 10.27.15 PM

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

301246_lm0509_hs

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
sounds-of-earth

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

index

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

images

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

index

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

images

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

468450

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

images

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

btb-hiddeninmix-cvr-200

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

index

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.”

 

index

 

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

April 30, 2014

Screen shot 2014-04-28 at 12.43.18 PM

Memories of a Musical Eden (1984)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Greene on Kentucky Fiddling, pt. 1

April 24, 2014

images

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

 

merkeson_wide-6f5f066e0dcd6c22b70c523e9a86a70e905ac734-s40

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

index

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

images

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

comanche

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

040208henrywhitter

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
bo_carter

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

Screen shot 2013-06-13 at 12.10.40 AM

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

62556_cov

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


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 311 other followers