Jon Bekoff, Curator of Oldtimeparty Blog, RIP

June 19, 2015 by

jon_waterBlogger Jonathan Bekoff died at home in the night between June 14-15, 2015, after a 3-year illness. He loved this blog and asked some friends to help maintain the site after he died.

Jon was born May 8, 1959 in Staten Island, NY. Raised in Montreal, Canada, he also lived in Ohio, Virginia, Oregon, and Vermont before settling in Greenfield, MA in 1996. He attended the University of Oregon, and was a gifted middle school math teacher for 27 years, mostly in Guilford and Brattleboro, VT. As his former principal at Brattleboro recalled, “Jon was a gentle soul and loved to connect with people, especially with the kids. He came into himself in the classroom; he explained things so clearly. His students loved him. Everyone loved him.”

Jon had strong passions for studying, collecting, playing, mentoring, and sharing roots music of the world, particularly American Old-time and music of Africa (e.g. Malian, Congolese, Shona) and the African diaspora (e.g. Mento, Haitian.) The diverse content of this blog is testimony to his manifold tastes – although all his tastes share one thing in common, i.e., rhythm and groove. To listen to the African music alone in Jon’s iTunes library would take an entire month of continual playing. Jon had a scholarly interest in the people who documented and field recorded roots music. For example, he regarded Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and Moses Asch as the “holy triumvirate” of Old-time music; having “huge, incalculable long-term cultural influence.”

Jon was a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar (excelling at several American and African styles), mandolin, banjo, kora, balafon, etc., but fiddle was his forte. Although he once played electric bass in a Zydeco band, and later fiddle in a Cajun band, Jon shunned performance opportunities and large festivals in favor of creating music with small groups of friends (friends who considered him as their mentor). Despite his uncanny abilities on the fiddle, Jon was not elitist and regularly played with less skillful players of all ages. He was committed to sharing the love of music. He encouraged those who were drawn to his style to instead learn from source recordings. This self-effacing approach to music was sometimes frustrating, because regardless of the genre, Jon’s version of tunes sounded better, even more authentic, than the original recordings. One might attribute this phenomenon to his ability to intensively and actively listen to a recording, and to reproduce the music as it originally was played, embellished by his understanding of the genre from which the source recording emerged. Precious few recordings exist of Jon’s playing- especially of his Caribbean and African music. (Anyone with any Bekoff recordings or other remembrances are strongly encouraged to share them via Stuart via his tribute site )

Jon started fiddling in about 1980. Recordings from mid-late 80s reveal a powerful but smooth bowing style; however, by the late 90s or so, Jon had developed a distinct Georgia-fiddler, staccato style. Jon also developed an affinity for “second” fiddling, whereby he would support and elevate the sound of the melody lead. Regardless of the genre, in a good jam, Jon liked to play a single tune for no less than ten minutes and often up to 30-60 minutes, depending on the endurance of his musical partners. This reflected his need to exhaustively explore a tune’s harmonic and rhythmic dimensions. While faithful to a tune’s originally composed character, Jon experimented in a way that adds diversity and richness to an otherwise simple folk tune. After 10-15 minutes of playing a tune, one could start to hear delightful syncopated rhythms, evoking an ethnic feel from somewhere in the Caribbean or West Africa. This “second” fiddle ability of Jon had the effect of making anyone sound better than they could ever sound alone, and explains Jon’s popularity amongst his musical friends. For most musicians, playing music in a jam with Jon bordered on an ecstatic experience. For Jon, jamming seemed to be when communed best with others, and when he felt most at ease, “delighting in relaxed unity with the constant flow.”

One of Jon’s unique contributions to Old-time fiddling was his ability to “resurrect” forgotten songs which he converted into beautiful twin fiddle “compositions” with his favorite musical partner, Nate Paine: e.g. Charlie Poole’s “Once Loved a Sailor,” Carter Family’s “Kitty Waltz,” etc. some of which can be heard here amongst >5 hours of footage of Jon with Nate, or with other players: Jon Bekoff playlist

This blog Oldtime Party, was Jon’s passion from about 2010-2015, as the 3rd blog administrator. His original goal was to create an online community of like-minded music lovers, but the blog morphed into what he described as his repository of “cool stuff” that he discovered posted elsewhere or was submitted by subscribers. Basically, Jon wanted to make it easy for others to find “cool stuff.” He once said he would have expected that Old-time musicians to find interest in the content regarding Caribbean, African, Cajun and other genres he re-posted here, in addition to the exhaustive collection of Old-time articles, music history, CD/LP reviews, book reviews, links to other archives, and classic recordings. He was an acoustic curator and lined up posts for this blog until his last 2 weeks of life (as evidenced by the posts that continue to emerge under his handle, oldtimeparty, through mid July). Anyone who wants to help maintain the site, or submit something they think Jon would like to have had posted, contact the blog at oldtimepartyblog (at) gmail.

One of Jon’s fiddle students in his final year posted a highly personalized tribute movie for Jon. All the audio was fiddled by Jon or came from his personal audio collection. Audio borrows heavily from the Harry Smith Anthology and visuals borrow from Harry Smith’s 1950s stop-motion film “Heaven and Earth Magic,” as well as from photo contributed by Jon’s old-time musician friends. Astute blog followers will also note many world music images from posts of this very WordPress blog.  Jon viewed this 22-minute tribute twice in April and liked it.

Jon’s last words were laid out in a letter to family and friends, in which he informed us that despite his illness, his last year of life was his “most peaceful, clarifying, and meaningful of my entire life.” In addition to connecting to others through music, Jon adored spending time these past few years alone, listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks, reading or hunting material for this blog. Let us honor his life and most meaningful years by taking a moment now and then to browse through this blog’s pages. Remembrances can be posted at

Help Wanted: Weems String Band

June 30, 2015 by


from an exchange on
Granddaughter of Dick Weems: My great grandfather is Dick Weems (Dickson Augustus Weems) was his full name and he was part of the Weems String Band.  My grandfather is his youngest Son.  My uncle still has Dicks original fiddle, I don’t know that my Aunt owns all the musical rights to their music and I am sure that if a CD is being put together she would know something about it.  If I can send you any of that information please feel free to send me an email at…

Respondent:  You are descended from royalty.

Their recorded songs are, at least to many of us in this subculture, among
the most astounding and great bits of music ever.  They had a
hard-to-describe sound that’s not quite like much of the mainstream of
old-time recordings of that era — there’s something a little more scary and
less cute about their sound than many of their recording contemporaries,
probably due in substantial part to the cello.

There’s only one problem that I’m aware of: one of their two recorded songs
(Davy) requires you (at least if you hang out with the sort of folks I hang
out with) to give a short mini-dissertation about history, and how the use
of what we now call “the N word,” and the indulging of a certain racial
stereotype regarding dancing prowess, didn’t really necessarily mean, at the
time they were recording, that the user was a bad person.

At the risk of being accused as being one of those Soviet-era photo-retouchers who
airbrushed Kremlin figures out of old photos when they fell into disfavor,
maybe somebody with good digital editing technology could remix a version of
Davy with those vocals taken out???

Mexican Song

June 29, 2015 by


The corrido is a type of socially relevant narrative ballad that served in Mexico as the main informational and educational outlet.

Rancheras, literally “music of the ranches,” are traditional songs usually accompanied by guitar and/or horns.

The merging of European and indigenous Mexican musical traditions has long been a hallmark of Mexican American music beyond the church. Corridos gave rise to other forms of music such as Tejano (literally “Texas music”). Tejano music, the name given to several different forms of folk music developed by the Mexican American community in Texas, combines the waltz and polka stylings brought to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century by northern European immigrants with Spanish-language songs that originated south of the border and were passed down through generations of Mexicans.

Habanera music is also found among Mexican Americans. It has a meter influenced by the music of North Africa and is found throughout the Spanish speaking world today.

Conjunto music is one of the dominant dance music forms of Mexican Americans today. Related to Tejano music, its roots lie in South Texas at the end of the nineteenth Century, following the introduction of the button accordion into Mexican working-class communities along the Texas-Mexican border by Northern European immigrants. The accordion-based musical form was used to accompany celebrations of all kinds. Thanks to a strong recording history from the 1920s onwards, conjunto grew to become the most powerful musical symbol of Mexican American working-class culture.

Mariachi music is perhaps the most well-known Mexican American folk music form, having gained wide popularity throughout the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century mostly through its promotion in school bands and at mariachi festivals.

Mariachi originated in rural Mexico in the nineteenth century and, like Tejano, was eventually influenced by the polka and waltz. The typical mariachi ensemble consists of violins, accordions, trumpets and guitars. Mexican folk harps are also sometimes employed. There is generally no lead singer. All players sing choruses and take turns singing the lead. Mariachi vocalization, which emphasizes an operative quality, encompasses a romantic “bolero” sound, falsetto singing, and a more aggressive style known as son jaliscense.

Son Jarocho is another well-known Mexican music style that has gained popularity in the United States. Fusing Spanish and African elements, much of it is syncopated, combines instrumental music with improvised and fixed oral poetry along romantic or bawdy themes, and is sung in a call-and-response format. The instrumentation usually includes a large diatonic harp (arpa), a small, eight-stringed guitar (jarana) and a four-stringed guitar (requinto).

Akonting Story

June 28, 2015 by

by Chuck Levy (from

In 2006, the Center for Arts in Healthcare and Education at the University of Florida began to work with a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya to form a collaborative exchange. As part of this, hospital leaders from Kenya came to visit in Gainesville, and while they were here they visited when I played for patients.

It happened to be a good day, when children responded by smiling and dancing, and adults let down their burdens for a moment. Although I was never sure if it was my musicianship or simply the fact that I was a doctor playing for patients, my new African friends were very enthusiastic about my performance, and invited me to come to Nairobi.

I was also able get approval to use my grant to visit to The Gambia under the tutelage of Daniel Jatta, who introduced me to Ekona Diatta and Remi Diatta, master Jola akonting players. I only speak English. Neither Remi nor Ekona speak English. Yet both were patient and able teachers. It helped that while akonting technique turns out not to be identical to clawhammer, it is mighty similar. By the end of my visit I could play a few tunes.

However, when I returned home to the U.S., and tried to present what I learned, I was unsatisfied. With some reflection, it became obvious that I had not paid enough attention to the singing, which is so integral to Jola music. Therefore I returned to Gambia in 2008 for a second round of instruction, to learn to sing the Jola akonting songs. I met Greg C. Adams there, and together we traveled with our hosts to their home village, Mlonp along the southern shore of the Cassamance River.


A Language of Song

June 27, 2015 by


A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora, b (Duke University Press):

In A Language of Song, Samuel Charters—one of the pioneering collectors of African American music—writes of a trip to West Africa where he found “a gathering of cultures and a continuing history that lay behind the flood of musical expression [he] encountered everywhere . . . from Brazil to Cuba, to Trinidad, to New Orleans, to the Bahamas, to dance halls of west Louisiana and the great churches of Harlem.”

In this book, Charters takes readers along to those and other places, including Jamaica and the Georgia Sea Islands, as he recounts experiences from a half-century spent following, documenting, recording, and writing about the Africa-influenced music of the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean.

Each of the book’s fourteen chapters is a vivid rendering of a particular location that Charters visited. While music is always his focus, the book is filled with details about individuals, history, landscape, and culture. In first-person narratives, Charters relates voyages including a trip to the St. Louis home of the legendary ragtime composer Scott Joplin and the journey to West Africa, where he met a man who performed an hours-long song about the Europeans’ first colonial conquests in Gambia.

Throughout the book, Charters traces the persistence of African musical culture despite slavery, as well as the influence of slaves’ songs on subsequent musical forms. In evocative prose, he relates a lifetime of travel and research, listening to brass bands in New Orleans; investigating the emergence of reggae, ska, and rock-steady music in Jamaica’s dancehalls; and exploring the history of Afro-Cuban music through the life of the jazz musician Bebo Valdés. A Language of Song is a unique expedition led by one of music’s most observant and well-traveled explorers.


June 26, 2015 by


from  Kirstin Fawcett (
It’s the early 20th century, and an African-American musician is standing on a street corner, his nimble fingers coaxing melodies out of a fiddle, guitar or banjo. His surroundings could be any town, village or city—he’s visited everywhere from Baltimore to Baton Rouge. He’s carried each region’s soundscape with him like a souvenir.

Out of his mouth streams a polyglot of melody. Vaudeville tunes. Radio hits. Country. He can sing the blues, but he’s not necessarily a bluesman; he can switch from ragtime to a reel without missing a beat. He’s an itinerant performer with the versatility of a jukebox, a man who’s played for so many different audiences that he can now confidently play for all of them. He is a songster.

According to Barry Lee Pearson, a scholar of African-American music at the University of Maryland, songsters were active beginning in the 1870s, when newly-freed slaves were able to travel and play music for a living. Their sound, he says, preceded blues music and laid the foundation for the genre’s rise in popularity. spoke with Pearson about the songster’s history and his contribution to American music.

Where did the term “songster” come from, and why is it used to describe a traveling musician?

The songster’s kind of an artificial creation. It’s a term that’s been in use for thousands of years, meaning a person who sings. Generally, it’s attributed to the work of [anthropologist] Howard Otum, who was doing field work in Mississippi in the early 1900s. In 1911, he published a couple of major articles in the Journal of American Folklore, and he included in one of those a breakdown of different individuals [who sang secular songs]. One of them, which stuck around in both academic and popular usage, was the songster.

The term referred to . . . itinerant musicians, or street corner musicians who played a variety of tunes in order to make a little money from passersby. But these guys couldn’t stick to one place too long. Some journeyed as hobos with guitars. They traveled through the mountains and hit the coal or railroad camps to try to pick up a few bucks. Others traveled in a single city—one block, one day; next day, another neighborhood.

What kind of music did the songster perform?

The songster had a repertoire that may have included blues songs, but also contained the spectrum of songs African Americans would’ve been singing at the time. [They performed] anything from reels to breakdowns—songs associated with square dance tradition—to vaudeville hits from around the turn of the century.

A lot of “songsters” featured on Classic African American Songsters are also famous blues musicians. Is there a distinction between the two?

In the late 1950s a new term was introduced—“the blues man.” A new focus turned towards blues as the primary form of African-American expression. The songster began to lose out as kind of either an ancestor figure or maybe even sort of like a musical bookmark—before there was the blues man, there was the songster.

One could say the songster’s always been the songster, and for some reason people started focusing more so on their blues repertoire. For example, Robert Johnson, for most of his musical career, sang blues. But when he was out performing, he sang everything. John Jackson is another example; he sang blues, and was discovered when people were looking for blues musicians. They were really glad to find him, and then people found out that he knew all these other songs. The same thing happened with Lead Belly.

So it became more of a tendency for music fans—record collectors in particular—to invent this new character, the bluesman, who sings all blues songs. This also coincided with the recording industry having a preference for blues musicians. This was because when you went to record someone, you could not claim copyright for it if they had a song that somebody had previously written. But blues musicians tended to have their own materials, whether it was their own version of the blues song or something that they’d actually written. They could claim it as a new song and avoid any copyright problems. It doesn’t mean, however, that people stopped singing these others songs. It just meant that blues became the new most popular form of secular party/dance music within the black community.

The term “songster” seems to have fallen out of use in today’s modern music climate. Do you see it making a comeback?

It’s strange. It never died out completely; it was also used for a while to describe older banjo players, particularly black banjo players, because they also had this mixed repertoire of songs that weren’t blues, but came right before blues. It stayed in that community’s parlance.

The term songster is coming back in the hands of younger black musicians, who are consciously [embracing] this broad repertoire of songs that they created and performed—the pre-blues materials we were mentioning earlier. You have groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops out there; you might have people that are doing songs from the turn of the century, and you have people re-learning the banjo and the fiddle. It’s a revival of sorts. They are performing this part of their cultural heritage, which for many years seems to have been overlooked by younger musicians. It’s part of a broader historical reclamation process.

Juju and Pedal Steel

June 25, 2015 by



Pedal steel is one of the world’s most unique instruments. To play one, you need to use both pedals and knee levers, all while plucking the strings and sliding a metal bar called the steel. It’s most well known for its role in country music, but the history of the instrument actually dates back to Hawaii, where the pedal-less lap steel was developed back in the late 19th century.

And while Nashville is still considered the center of the pedal steel community, in late ‘70s Nigeria, the pedal steel sound became a signature component of the juju genre. As part of our new “Accounting for Taste” program, we look at the instrument’s rise to prominence in Lagos. Here, we trace in more detail the strange path of the pedal steel and its surprising ties to Africa.

Joseph Kekuku is widely (though not conclusively) considered the inventor of the Hawaiian steel guitar. According to a 1933 article by steel player Ken Kapua (from Lorene Ruymar’s The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians), when Kekuku was 11 years old in 1885, he picked up a bolt while walking along a railroad and slid it on the strings of his guitar, producing a rough version of what would become the lap steel sound.

In 1904, Kekuku left Hawaii for the mainland US and eventually Europe, where his “Birds of Paradise” tour was a major success and led to two Hollywood films. His success, along with that of traveling Hawaiian tent shows, helped introduce non-Hawaiians to the steel guitar sound. Few, if any, recordings of Kekuku survive today, but you can hear his influence on other early Hawaiian steel performers, like Sol Ho’op’i.

It would come as a shock for many steel players in the ’70s to hear the instrument played by a man who had invented his own unique technique in a style miles away from Dolly Parton records. In 1977, pedal steel appeared for the first time on a juju record: King Sunny Ade and His African Beats’ Syncro Chapter One. Demola Adepoju was credited with playing the “Hawaiian guitar” on the album. According to Perlowin,

“Demola’s first exposure was to the non-pedal steel. He was in Lagos where he lived. And somehow he heard a record of Hawaiian music, which uses the non-pedal steel and he thought, ‘I want to learn to play that instrument.’ What he told me is he scoured the docks, because Lagos is a seaport town and he asked sailors if any of them had a Hawaiian guitar–very specifically Hawaiian. And eventually somebody did and he bought it.

He taught himself a few licks in secret and he was playing in some amateur band and they were doing some battle of the band and they were not doing particularly well, so he ran home, grabbed his lap steel and started playing his Hawaiian steel, not pedal, on a few licks. And nobody had ever heard that sound before. So they consequently won the Battle of the Bands. Now, the way I understand it, somebody brought him to the attention–not first of King Sunny Ade, but Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade’s competitor, and he said no. And then they brought him to King Sunny Ade and Sunny Ade said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

At the time, Obey and King Sunny Ade were the two most popular juju leaders in Nigeria and were fiercely competitive with one another. Both Obey and Ade experimented with adding new instruments to distinguish their sounds–Fender Rhodes and synths, among others. Ade took a chance on Demola, and he bought two pedal steels in England, which he brought back to Nigeria for Demola to play. Ade also wanted to emulate the slide sound of the traditional Nigerian violin or goje, which he felt was missing from juju. So pedal steel was, in a sense, a natural fit for juju, while it also added a new, almost otherworldly sound to the music.

In 1982, many Westerners first heard juju, when Island Records released King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music. After the death of Bob Marley the previous year, Island was looking for another international superstar. While Ade would not ultimately match Marley’s success, Juju Music did introduce many to popular music from Africa for the very first time. Featured prominently on the album was Demola’s heavenly pedal steel. It was a style completely his own. Demola taught himself his own technique, so it sounded nothing like American country pedal.

W.K. McNeil

June 24, 2015 by


from and

William Kinneth (W. K.) McNeil was a prominent folklorist and historian of Arkansas and Ozark regional folk traditions, especially their folk music and songs, speech, tales, and legends. He published books and articles in both popular and scholarly outlets and produced widely disseminated recordings.

McNeil was also active in producing recordings and writing liner notes. He received acclaim for his box sets such as The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers (1993) for the Smithsonian Institution and Somewhere in Arkansas: Early Country Music: Recordings from Arkansas, 1928–1932.

Here is an edited excerpt of McNeil’s review of one of the greatest old time LPs.

Back Home in the Blue Ridge: Fred Cockerham, Tommy Jarrell & Oscar Jenkins. Recorded by Charles Faurot & Richard Nevins. Produced by Richard Nevins. (County 723)

Back Home in the Blue Ridge consists of four instrumentals and eight vocal numbers. Most of the tunes presented here are often recorded traditional numbers. There are, however, a few rarely recorded pieces, like the Primitive Baptist hymn “When Sorrow’s Encompass Me Round” which, to me, is the high point of the album.

The main emphasis of Back Home in- the Blue Ridge, however, is on the contrast between the more rhythmic, and probably older, style of fiddling represented by Tommy Jarrell and the mellower, less rhythmic playing of Oscar Jenkins. If’ it can be assumed that the selections on this album are representative of the traditional material found in the sections of northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia where Jarrell, Cockerham and Jenkins live then then folk music repertoire there is composed almost entirely of post-1860 items.

It would, however, be incorrect to assume that such numbers have been in local tradition for the past one-hundred and thirteen years. For example, “Cumberland Gap”  was not known in the region until about 1915 and “Bile ‘Em Cabbage Down” did not “come around” until about 1925. A number of other old songs and fiddle tunes were first introduced to this section during the decade after 1915. Their arrival then was perhaps facilitated by improved roads and transportation.

While one can hear the interplay between Fred Cockerham’s clawhammer banjo and Tommy Jarrell’s fiddle on “Sally Ann” his appreciation would undoubtedly be heightened if he could also see the musicians in action. And we can listen and enjoy the skillful usage of double stops and open string harmonies used by Tommy Jarrell on “old Joe Clark” and “Breaking Up Christmas ” and yet never fully comprehend Jarrell’s technical brilliance or ever achieve the excitement of seeing these feats accomplished. But, given the limitations of a record, this is an outstanding sampling of traditional music and unquestionably one of the best albums of its type on the market today-.



Islam and The Levee Camp Holler

June 23, 2015 by


edited from Jonathan Curiel (

“Levee Camp Holler” is no ordinary song. It’s the product of ex-slaves who worked moving earth all day in post-Civil War America. The version that Diouf uses in presentations has lyrics that, like the call to prayer, speak about a glorious God. (“Well, Lord, I woke up this mornin’, man, I feelin’ bad . . . Well, I was thinkin’ ’bout the good times, Lord, I once have had.”)

But it’s the song’s melody and note changes that closely parallel one of Islam’s best-known refrains. As in the call to prayer, “Levee Camp Holler” emphasizes words that seem to quiver and shake in the reciter’s vocal chords. Dramatic changes in musical scales punctuate both “Levee Camp Holler” and the call to prayer. A nasal intonation is evident in both.

 “I did a talk a few years ago at Harvard where I played those two things, and the room absolutely exploded in clapping, because (the connection) was obvious,” says Diouf, an author and scholar who is also a researcher at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “People were saying, ‘Wow. That’s really audible. It’s really there.’ “

Read the rest of this entry »

Classic American Ballads

June 22, 2015 by


Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways (CD SFW4021)


The set debuts with the venerable “Banks of the Ohio,” exemplifying the curious truth that in ballads the vilest acts are usually set to lovely waltz melodies. The performers are two giants of American folk, guitar master Doc Watson and bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, and no more need be said, except that as often as I’ve heard this ballad (possibly first on an early Joan Baez record with the Greenbriar Boys) I never tire of it.

In my mind — don’t ask me why — the psychopath-killer’s day job is as a small-town bookkeeper. The final cut is a splendid unaccompanied reading (by Doc Watson’s mother Annie) of another well-known ballad, “The F.F.V.” (aka “Engine 143″ and “Wreck of the C&O”) dating to a fatal accident in Virginia in 1890.

The artists are in part revivalists (e.g., Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger), in part source singers (Pink Anderson, Buck Ramsey), and in another part figures with allegiances in both camps (Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie). Seeger is used to particularly strong effect; his readings of “Blue Mountain Lake” and “Young Charlotte” make clear just how good he could be in the service of purely traditional songs.

On the other hand, Rolf Kahn & Eric Von Schmidt’s “Frankie & Johnny,” in my judgment the least successful track, is overcooked and overlong (6:39). Oddly, the title notwithstanding, this is “Frankie & Albert,” the St. Louis folk ballad on which the 1904 Tin Pan Alley song, which I’ve disliked since I was a kid, was loosely based. The version you want to hear is Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie,” which you can find on Volume 1 of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and elsewhere.

Most everything, though, is a delight. Not least is Doug Wallin’s riveting “Naomi Wise,” carried by his voice alone. Bascom Lamar Lunsford weighs in with a welcome, if suitably ominous, reading of “Springfield Mountain,” among the first ballads created on American soil, well known in the latter 18th and 19th centuries but nearly forgotten now. Let it be a warning to all, namely us herpetophobes who shake at the sight even of harmless snakes.

Hermes Nye warms my heart with “Sam Bass,” which has always ranked high on my list of favorite American folk songs. Bruce Buckley delivers a suitably lugubrious “Pearl Bryan,” about a shockingly cruel, much-publicized-at-the-time murder in 1896 Cincinnati. Among the missing is Cisco Houston’s good-humored rendering of “Zebra Dun,” which is done instead by the late Joan O’Bryant, so we’ll have to settle for his way with “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail,” written in 1917 by cowboy versifier Gail Gardner to relate a drunken scrap with Ol’ Scratch in the mountains outside Prescott, Arizona.

The liner booklet provides a rich source of often obscure information about songs, composers and performers. A typo, though, accomplishes some gender switching when we learn that “Cowboy’s Lament/Streets of Laredo” (sung in fine fashion by another, more recent cowpuncher poet, the late Buck Ramsey) was the creation (in 1876) of “cowboy poet Frances [sic] Henry Maynard.” The correct spelling, of course, is Francis, and he preferred to be known as Frank.

Like many vernacular writers, Maynard composed on the template of a pre-existing text, which commenced its career in the 18th-century British Isles as “The Unfortunate Rake” (whose title character is dying not of a gunshot, as the later cowboy, but of venereal disease) before evolving into “Tom Sherman’s Barroom,” “St. James Hospital” and more.

John Ciardi, Alan Lomax, Ga. Sea Island Singers

June 21, 2015 by

Singing starts at 2:17.

A segment on the Georgia Sea Island Singers shot at St. Simons Island – featuring Bessie Jones, John Davis, Peter Davis, Willis Proctor, Mable Hillery, Emma Lee Ramsey, Joe Dixon, Joe Armstrong, and others unidentified, and guest host Alan Lomax – from the short-lived CBS educational program “Accent,” hosted by poet John Ciardi, 1962.

George Mukabi

June 20, 2015 by




George Mukabi was probably the finest Kenyan fingerstyle player of the 1950s. His playing is somewhat similar to that of the Congolese greats, but with a distinct local flavor.

According to John Low’s”History of Kenyan Guitar Music: 1945-1980″ (African Music, 1982, 6(2), 17-36), Mukabi was of the Kissa people, and apparently created what became the popular “sukuti” of “Kakamega” guitar style in the early 1950s.

He had heard records of the “Nyasa” Malawian bands and set out to play similar music in a fingerpicking style. His playing was massively popular and influential, affecting urban players like John Mwale (several of whose recordings fill out this CD).

These recordings are from cassettes that were still available in Nairobi in 1990, essentially as “golden oldies” packages. The recording quality is generally quite good, and the music is superb. It is bizarre that none of Mukabi’s material has been released outside Kenya, as he is one of the greatest of the African acoustic players.

No one who loves intricate fingerpicking should be unaware of his work. There is a swing and humor to his singing, and an inventiveness to his accompaniments that makes him well worth an entire album.

To buy this CD, go here.


Rattlesnake Rattles Inside Fiddles

June 19, 2015 by


rattlesnake rattles

edited from Hilda Downer ( and

The postmaster handed over the small package saying he was sorry it was empty. Indeed, the box felt weightless and upon being shaken, its sound was inaudible like that of the first few flurries of a mountain winter. Because I knew what was inside, I opened the taped end gingerly, but with a quick tug to dislodge the flap – the stubby finger of a rattle flexed outward through the resulting side opening.

It swayed from side to side and lifted its “head” like a big fat bug in rigor mortis. My hand recoiled from the rattle’s touch. Between layers of cotton, six rattles filed away like expensive silverware, a strange gift from a friend in Oregon for me to distribute among my son’s  band.

My son knew fiddlers often inserted a rattle in the f-hole for good luck. Could there be some logical rationale behind this superstition? Because rattlesnakes are only indigenous to the Western hemisphere, the root of magical or practical use of the rattle would trace back to Native Americans.

Opposed to the African reverence of the snake as an object of worship, the European Christian association of the serpent with Satan led to a “reversed bad luck” akin to current motorcycle gang and military jewelry depicting a rattlesnake coiled around a skull or dagger.

The famous Revolutionary War flag portraying the rattlesnake and slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me” represented the shared bravery of soldiers and a snake that warns its victims before striking.

The act of keeping a rattle in a musical instrument as an amulet to ward off evil spirits, especially for people steeped in superstition before their arrival to this country, could easily have derived from their own volition.

However, the use of rattles for warding off pests must precede the Revolutionary War, learned from Native Americans as early settlers adopted other natural remedies. The particular practice had to begin prior to the 1900s when the fiddle was considered to be the Devil’s instrument. Therefore, the fiddle was not allowed indoors, but was hung in the barn or on the porch as a compromise for what was useful to get the work done at corn shuckings and the like.

These open spaces had spiders, mud daubers, and mice seeking refuge in a new home. The smell of the rattle sent a strong message to such vermin to stay away. Certainly, from their first encounters with the Eastern Diamondback rattlers from the coastal area to the timber rattlers in the Appalachian Mountains as they migrated westward, settlers felt a need to be in harmony with a world wilder and stranger than fiction.

To keep a part of something on them that belonged, the rattle of a snake with its own music, just might help them become more a part of the new world they had to either adapt to or not survive at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Calypso Roots

June 18, 2015 by

E.T. Mensah

June 17, 2015 by


from and

E.T. Mensah & the Tempos: King of Highlife Anthology (RetroAfric 4 CD set, 64 page booklet)

E.T. Mensah ‘The King of Highlife’ is a true legend of African musicthe founding father of that most popular style of dance music, which spread like a bushfire across the African continent and beyond during the 1950s and 60s.
Highlife was the first Pan-African pop music and still survives as the basis for contemporary genres like Afrobeat, afropop, hiplife and is an essential ingredient of earlier forms including Congo rumba, soukous, mbalax and the original Afrobeat.
Emmanuel Tetteh Mensah was a multi-instrumentalist and band leader whose dance band Highlife re-Africanised American swing music, blending it with Caribbean melodies, Latin rhythms and indigenous elements from the musically rich culture of Ghana (then known as The Gold Coast).
Although he had started out on a musical career in the 1930s, E.T. recorded his first 78rpm discs in 1952 and as he later claimed: “When my records came out in 1952 they vibrated into the ears of the listening public in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. It was from this period on that music fans throughout West Africa began to acclaim me as the King of Highlife.” That reputation carried right across the continent, being enjoyed by, and influencing, musicians as far apart as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegambia, Congo and Kenya.

Throughout the 69 songs on the the four CDs of E.T. Mensah & the Tempos: King of Highlife Anthology (RetroAfric), we hear highlife’s appropriation of palm wine guitar lyricism, the clave beat and many arranging ideas from Afro-Latin music, swing jazz, elements of calypso (including a Latin-esque cover of “Sloop John B”), along with hints of rock ‘n’ roll and the new music emerging from the Congo at the time.

We learn in the John Collins’ precise and deeply informed booklet (60 pages long, and fascinating from top to bottom) that E.T.’s band was a constant work in progress. All the dynamics of struggle are there—mass departures, rebellions over pay, scurrying to find new players in time for a crucial gig. Musicians enjoyed a low status in Ghana, especially in the days before its independence, and this bandleader’s ability to keep the gigs and recordings flowing at this quality level, amid so much turnover, testifies to his greatness as much as any musical ability.

There are wonderful stories behind some of the songs—playing “All For You” with Louis Armstrong in 1956; and earning a scold from Kwameh Nkrumah when the celebratory 1957 song “Ghana Freedom Highlife” also praised rivals of the independence movement. (The band had to re-record the song, minus the offending lyrics.)

But mostly what endures here is the music: Its innocence, playfulness and gentle humor remain seductive all these years later. In part, that’s because this music captured so many cultural elements surrounding one of the most exciting moments in African history, when the first African nation earned its independence. As so often in the African story, dramatic history yields powerful and enduring music. Kudos to the folks at RetroAfric for once again documenting a crucial chapter in African music history with definitive thoroughness and style.

Pre-Rococo Texas Fiddle

June 16, 2015 by

P.T. Bell


from and
In studying these older Texas styles, I have noticed some stylistic similarities. As one would expect, there are elements of longbow playing in many of the old fiddlers, there are also a lot of “hollerin’ tunes” that have a vocal shout in them like “Lost Indian”, there are also regional influences like Mexican, German, Czech, Cajun, Appalachian, Scottish, Irish, and blues.

The old fiddlers seemed to have very idiosyncratic styles that show elements of many of these influences while still sounding very old, some quite archaic. A great many of these old tunes were crooked. In the commercial recordings from Texas of the 1920s and ’30s, you can really hear the early signs of where Texas fiddling was going to go with contest and swing styles, but the Library of Congress recordings preserve a lot of music that would soon be lost.

As contest fiddling and more commercial sounds became more prevalent, many of the old timers I speak with now say that the fellows who were the old timers in their day just stopped playing, because they knew people had no interest in what they did. People wanted to hear the most eloquently rococo rendition of Sally Gooden performed in the modern contest style, not some scratchy, out of tune, old version of some utterly bizarre piece that perhaps only one fellow in Falfurrias, Texas played on his back porch. I guess I have always gravitated towards the weird stuff.

The recordings  of Peter Tumlison Bell (available from Field Recorders’ Collective, FRC410) are a window into pre-rococo Texas fiddling . The distinctly Scottish affectations of bowing and phrasing can be heard in his version of the tune “Ladies Fancy,” played with the G-string tuned down to E. Similarly, the presence of distinctly hard bowed triplets in the tune “Morg Williams Cotillion” and the languid left-hand rolls in an unnamed march learned from his father “during the War” set his recordings apart from any other.

Along with distinct but obviously related tunes found in the Eastern mountains like “Sugar in My Coffee,” are others perhaps older which somehow survived through many generations of the Bell family. The tune “Killie Ma Crankey” appears to be related to the Scottish tune “Braes of Killiekranke” commemorating the battle of Killiekrankie which took place on July 27, 1689. Remarkably, such playing with its distinctive and recognizably Celtic styling survived over many generations and thousands of miles.

Only a Miner

June 15, 2015 by


Only A Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Song.
By Archie Green.
University of Illinois Press.

edited from David E. Whisnant (

Books frequently deliver less than their titles promise. Archie Green’s delivers much more. Two decades ago–when he himself was a skilled worker on the San Francisco waterfront–Green began to compile a discography of coal-mining songs, which even then he recognized as a rich and evocative record of the consciousness and lore of American workingmen.

The limited discographical project eventually matured into Only a Miner, which examines more than a century of the complex interaction between coal mining and the dynamics of American culture, and comments on the nature and socio-political implications of work itself, as well as on our habitual attitudes toward inherently dangerous work.

Only a Miner demonstrates that the culture of coal miners is vital, rich and sophisticated. The first known recorded coal-mining song was preserved on an Edison cylinder in, 1908. The first to emerge as a popular hit was The Dream of the Miner’s Child, recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1925, shortly after he was transformed from a light opera tenor into, a guitar-playing “citybilly” by a record company that was sensitive to the possibilities of a new market.

From among the hundreds of coal-mining songs eventually distributed by commercial recording companies, Green chooses about a dozen for special attention. Some are almost universally known: Sixteen Tons, which Merle Travis wrote and recorded in 1946, reached millions of listeners through Tennessee Ernie Ford’s records and television show in the mid-1950s.

Chapters which at one level are case studies of single songs persistently spill over their announced boundaries. The chapter on the title song, Only a Miner — found among miners from the Kentucky coal country to the Colorado silver region — explores the capacity of occupational lore to move across political and geographical boundaries.

The chapter on race and hillbilly records is also about the effect of the recording industry upon the social status and self-image of the folk performer. The chapter on Coal Creek Troubles, probably the finest in the book, explores the ramifications not only of the iniquitous convict lease system in the South, but also the apparently unalterable exploitative relationship between the energy-rich Appalachian resource colony and profligate use of energy in the rest of the nation.

Green brings to his subject not only the skills of a trained academician but also a sense–literally worked into his mind and body –of the lives of working people, and therefore a profound respect for both miners and their rich lore.

Le Grand Kallé

June 14, 2015 by



Le Grand Kallé
His Life, His Music: Joseph Kabasele and the Creation of Modern Congolese Music (2 CD set,

It may be difficult for a contemporary westerner approaching mid-20th century Congolese rumba for the first time to have any real understanding of how this music sent rhythmic shock waves up and down the African continent in the 1950s and 60s. It might take a few spins to recognize that the grooves held so firmly in check under what seem like such polite, non-threatening vocal harmonies are no less radical for their rigidity.

And of course electric guitar bands such as Kabasele’s, as well as OK Jazz, African Fiesta and others ran elegant, fluid, shimmering circles around anyone in American pop music of the same era. Perhaps frustratingly, this music is one of the few things taken from the Congo that hasn’t led to environmental and social catastrophe, civil war or megalomaniacal dictatorships.

Somehow, in the years leading up to the country’s 1960 independence, and the absolute failure of that moment, this sensual, harmonious, dance band music managed to contain all the hopes that nothing else this resource-rich hunk of Central Africa seemed able to hold onto. It was also a product of a burgeoning pre-independence Congolese middle class, and at the music’s forefront was vocalist/bandleader/songwriter Joseph Kabasele, aka Le Grand Kallé.

Kabasele’s obsession with musical forms outside his Catholic household led him, as a teenager in the 1940s, to studios in what was then (before the ouster of the Belgians and a name change to Kinshasa) Leopoldville. Thanks to that city’s reasonably close proximity to the Atlantic, imported records, especially those made by Afro-Cuban sextets, complete with African-derived clave rhythms, filled Kabasele’s ears.

And it was this influence that went on to permeate so much of Congolese pop music, and much of Africa, for decades to come. Kabasele’s voice, as well as his skill for penning songs, earned him his own name and photo on 78s released in the early 1950s; so it was only a matter of time before he attracted musicians whose names still loom large in African pop music history.

Tabu Rey Rochereau, Manu Dibango, and guitar maestro Nicolas Kasanda (Nico) were all members of Kabasele’s African Jazz Orchestre at one time or another. And for the better part of two decades, they cranked out hundreds of sides, traveled the world, and spread rhumba around Africa in much the same way Elvis Presley infected mid-fifties working class North American teenagers with the itch to jack a seemingly speed-induced R&B frenzy into what had been known as hillbilly music.

This collection splits the recordings into those Kabasele made pre-independence with the always evolving version of his original band between 1951 and ’62, while disc two houses cuts done with a completely made-over version of the band (it seems Kabasele was not known for paying band members) between 1964 and 1970. And it is undeniably the first disc, featuring tunes showing the style in its infancy and rawness, which is closer to essential.

Of course, “Independence Cha Cha” is included here, rush-cut when the early hope of Patrice Lumumba, a friend and fan of Kabasele, was still in the air. There is also the 5-minute single version of “African Jazz Mokili Mobimbo,” the band’s spirited announcement that the entire world wants to hear the music of Africa. But elsewhere, we hear the first doses of Nico, and with it, the beginnings of Congolese electric guitar, a style still unmatched in its equal measure of subtlety and body-moving intensity.

While complications brought on from hypertension ultimately took him out at age 52, his band is still arguably the most influential to ever appear on the continent. It, more than independence or forced modernization, truly helped to steer Africa in a different direction.


Confederates In Brazil

June 12, 2015 by


edited from  Ron Harris (, and

UP TO 20,000 CONFEDERATES fled a crumbling South, taking slaves, cotton and watermelon seeds to new colonies in Brazil. Today, Brazilian descendants there don Civil War attire and sing old American songs to honor their family histories.

AMERICANA, Brazil – There’s not much left now to tell their story, save a small museum and scores of weather-beaten tombstones in a shaded cemetery far from the American towns and cities they once called home.

Historians say theirs was the only political exodus of American citizens in the history of the United States, though it is rarely mentioned in history books. In the latter half of the 1800s, thousands of Americans from all over the South left their homes and families in search of new lives in Mexico, Cuba and Brazil.

Many returned disillusioned soon afterward; others were wiped out or run off by locals. But in Brazil they carved out a foothold, and many prospered.

Each year, a dwindling handful of their descendants gather at a special memorial ground surrounded by seemingly endless sugar-cane fields in this city of 150,000, to pay homage to the men and women, most buried nearby, who came as pioneers.

An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Confederates emigrated from the United States during the years right after the Civil War. The number would have been much larger, historians say, had not the still-revered Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee publicly urged Southerners to stay in the United States.

Still, the fever to leave spread, and thousands shipped out of emigration stations set up in Galveston, Texas, New Orleans, Baltimore, New York City, Mobile, Ala., and Newport News, Va.

Many chose Brazil, where the government promised cheap land in the hope that the Americans’ farming techniques would establish the country as a leader in a worldwide cotton market depleted by the Civil War.

Brazil was also attractive to many Southerners because it still practiced slavery – until the country abolished it in 1888. Many hoped to start a plantation system based on a life they had cherished in the South.

They established several colonies, one in northern Brazil 500 miles from the mouth of the Amazon River, which became the city of Santarem, another in Rio Doce near the coast, three more – Juguia, New Texas and Xiririca – in southern Brazil, and another just outside a town called Santa Barbara, 80 miles northwest of Sao Paulo.

One community, which bordered Santa Barbara, was dubbed Villa Americana by native Brazilians and officially became Americana some years later. In the interim, the Confederates introduced to Brazil baseball, peaches, pecans, various strains of rice, cotton and even a rose.

There were fortunes made in cotton and watermelon with seeds brought from Georgia. They also brought with them their rebel spirit. When a brief Brazilian civil war erupted in 1932 as the state of Sao Paulo tried to secede, many of the Confederate descendants, such as Roberto Steagall, fought on the side of the secessionists.

Today Americana is a city of 120,000 people. The ties to the old South live on. Fiesta Confederada is a celebration that takes place in the cemetery where the old Confederates are buried. The food served includes southern fried chicken, vinegar pie, chess pie, and biscuits. Banjos are played and Confederate songs are sung. The men wear Confederate uniforms, and the women dress in pink and blue and wear matching ribbons in their hair. The festival often looks like scenes from “Gone With the Wind.”



“Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides”

June 11, 2015 by


from,,, and



Whoa. When I first put on this track, I have to say I was plenty revved up at the prospect of a track with Lead Belly singing duet with Bessie Smith. I mean, can you imagine…? What we get instead is Lead Belly singing along with a recording off a 78. We hear him listening to a record the same way we would: singing along with a legend. He is silent, reverent, and touchingly sweet. You can hear the deep respect he holds for Bessie in every breath and it’s amazing.


One of the best parts of the collections are the liner notes. Glossy booklets written by scholars who also like to nerd out. The book has two of such essays. One by Robert Santelli, the Executive Director of the Grammy Museum, and another by Grammy-winning Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place. The Place essay is very in-depth and compelling and well worth multiple readings. Especially enlightening is the piece “Why He Sang Certain Songs” by his niece Tiny Robinson.


Lead Belly sits in on two radio shows featuring his music. Lead Belly spent his later years in New York City in the nascent stages of the folk scene. He enjoyed a fine bit of notoriety and appeared on a couple radio programs. These sets on WNYC run six and seven songs, and the second one features the Oleander Quartet.


Not only are you getting five CDs with 108 tracks, but each of those tracks are given due diligence in the back half of the book. As you may know, you can buy 20 different Lead Belly albums and get 22 different recordings of “Goodnight Irene” or “Midnight Special.” The liner notes tell you precisely what is unique about the recordings included in the box set, or offer interesting anecdotes of each one. It’s an in-depth, immersive experience.


The fifth CD of this set features selections from what are now considered Lead Belly’s “Final Sessions,” which were all recorded in the home of Frederic Ramsey around 1948. These showcase a level of intimacy that is not captured in his Library of Congress and radio sessions, as he performs while talking, laughing, and singing with those in the room.
It’s fitting that the final track on The Smithsonian Folkways Collection isn’t a song, but a brief monologue called “In the World”, based on a half-remembered conversation from long ago. It makes for a fitting epilogue to this monumental box set, primarily because it reveals Lead Belly’s role as an archivist of American music, passing tunes and ideas along from one person to the next, from one generation to the next. “We all gotta get peace together because we’re in the world together,” he muses. “I never heard nothing like it. Now you got it now.”


Gourd Banjo Making Workshop: NYC, 7/26-8/1/15

June 10, 2015 by


From Jamaica to Brooklyn: Gourd Banjo Making Workshop
Brooklyn Lutherie
The Old American Can Factory
232 3rd Street suite #E003,
Brooklyn, NY,

Gourd Banjo Making Workshop offered by Jeff Menzies July 26-August 1st. Jeff Menzies is a professor of sculpture at the Edna Manley College of Visual Arts and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica. Instrument making has become an extension of his sculptural practice. Jeff is offering a weeklong intensive gourd banjo making workshop walking students through the Art of making a gourd instrument where students will explore form and function.

An emphasis on the history of the banjo will be analyzed throughout the course. Students are welcome to create a gourd instrument of their own design with the technical support of Jeff Menzies. No experience in wood working or music is required. Tuition is $650. $150 deposit is required to secure your enrollment.

All materials are supplied with the tuition fee. There is a limited enrollment of 12 students so don’t wait to long to register. Registration closes on June 26th. Please feel free to email Jeff Menzies directly with questions.

Craig Johnson

June 10, 2015 by


by Pat Conte (from

2009 was a year that shook the earth for me; unfathomable losses of my mentors, collaborators, peers, and luminaries that I met and admired, and some I wished to have met. Most shared that denominator that they left this world better than it was before them.

Those of you who did not meet Craig, who was among those lost in 2009, have been cheated; those that knew him have been robbed. They knew his arresting magnetism, his sensitivity, his humor offsetting his broad wisdom, and depth that stretched out like expanding galaxies. And there was so much more to come from Craig. As for the facets of just his musical life, this CD comprises only a few drops from the clear, cool, rolling river that sometimes side-branched off into deep woods and hollows, and that always refreshed those that met him.

If you are encountering Craig’s music here for the first time, prepare to be enriched, to reflect, to laugh and to sob, and to dance. As for the rest of you—rejoice in all of that as well, and in his music, here again—and remember.

Cajuns in China

June 9, 2015 by


from (issue #2) and

In April 2014, public radio program American Routes along with the U.S. State Department, the National Endowment for the Arts and lots more folks sponsored the first-ever tour of traditional Louisiana Cajun artists to China.

Joel Savoy, Jesse Lege & Cajun Country Revival (Nadine Landry & Sammy Lind of Foghorn Stringband) bundled up along with Nick Spitzer of American Routes and Cajun filmmaker Connie Castille to tour China and to showcase American Cajun culture to Chinese audiences. The group toured through Beijing, Guangzhou, Harbin, Shanghai and Nanjing.

“I searched everywhere,” Spitzer said. “The Pine Leaf Boys have played in Hong Kong, but as far as we can tell, no Cajuns have toured the mainland.”

Spitzer, professor of American studies and anthropology at Tulane University (where Routes is produced), conducted oral-history workshops and lecture on French Louisiana cultures during the trip as well.

The performance tours are “Part of a larger package that’s focusing on American community-based culture and creativity,” Spitzer said. “We’re going to China and showing them we’re not all Hollywood (film clips) and Broadway (recordings), and we’re not all common-denominator Clear Channel rock ‘n’ roll.

“We have all these community-based traditional arts that play into culture preservation, tourism, pluralism, diversity, democracy without a big ideological (statement). We’re not flying a flag in front of it. We’re just saying, ‘These are the people.’

“It has immense effect … because China has historically been focused on, ‘Who are the peasants? Who are the average citizens? What about the farmer?’ So we’re bringing them that. ‘What about the Cajun farmer? What about the truck driver?’ I find it very exciting.”

“I guess it’s sort of a new version of cowboy diplomacy,” Spitzer said. “It’s not George Bush-style shoot-’em-up. It’s real cowboys, real Cajuns, real gospel music, real jazz.

“I think it’s what we’ve got to offer the world, and it’s what the world wants from us. And I think it can help us recover some of it here at a time when the whole country seems so divided and alienated. I feel like sometimes we have to almost go abroad to remind ourselves of who we are in the world.”



Fifty Essential CDs of Appalachian Music

June 8, 2015 by

index by Mike Yates (

Fifty Essential CDs of Appalachian Music (see also here)

A. Solo/single group performers.

1.  Jean Ritchie, Ballads from her Appalachian Family Tradition.  Smithsonian-Folkways SFW CD 40145. 
Sixteen Child ballads sung by one of the greatest Appalachian singers.  Cecil Sharp would have loved this!
2.  Frank Proffitt of Reese, NC, Folk-Legacy CD-1. 
A wonderful performer who had a large repertoire of rare and unusual songs and ballads.
3.  The Watson Family, Smithsonian-Folkways CD SF40012. 
First recordings of Doc Watson and his family. 
4 – 5.  Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley.  The Original Folkways Recordings, 1960 – 1962.  CD SF40029/30.
Lovely collection of songs and instrumentals.
6.  Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina.  Smithsonian-Folkways SF CD 40082. 
Lunsford was an important collector/singer who preserved many songs and ballads which would otherwise have disappeared. 
7.  Texas Gladden, Ballad Legacy, Rounder CD 1800. 
Another splendid ballad singer.
8 – 9.  Hobart Smith, Blue Ridge Legacy, Rounder CD 1799 & In Sacred Trust.  The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes.  Smithsonian-Folkways SFW C 40141. 
Brother of Texas Gladden, this multi-instrumentalist and singer just about sums up all that is good in Appalachian music.
10 – 11.  Roscoe Holcomb.  The High Lonesome Sound, Smithsonian-Folkways SF CD 40104 & An Untamed Sense of Control, Smithsonian-Folkways SFW CD 40144. 
Banjo-player and singer, Roscoe Holcomb first appeared on the double CD set Mountain Music of Kentucky, compiled and annotated by John Cohen (#’s 43 – 44 below).  These two solo albums confirm his status as one of the most outstanding Appalachian performers ever recorded.
12 – 13.  The Hammons Family.  The Traditions of a West Virginia Family and their Friends.  Rounder 1504/05.
A successful attempt by Carl Fleischhauer and Alan Jabbour of the Library of Congress to present a fuller, more rounded, picture of the musical culture of one Appalachian family.
14 – 16.  Dock Boggs.  Country Blues, Complete Early Recordings (1927 – 29), Revenant 205.  Dock Boggs, his Folkways Years, Smithsonian-Folkways SF 40108. 
Three CDs worth of material from the legendary banjo-player/singer who cut twelve sides in 1927 – 29 before vanishing into obscurity.  He was rediscovered some thirty years later, when he was recorded extensively.
17 – 18.  Ernest V Stoneman, The Unsung Father of Country Music, 1925 – 1934.  5- String Productions 5SPH 001. 
Stoneman, along with his family and friends from the area around Galax, VA, recorded dozens of songs and tunes.  This 2 CD selection contains some of the best.
19.  I’m Going Down to North Carolina.  The Complete Recordings of the Red Fox Chasers, 1928 – 31.Tompkins Square TSQ 2219. 
Excellent collection of songs and string band music from one specific region of north- west North Carolina.
20.  Da Costa Waltz’s Southern Broadcasters & Frank Jenkins’ Pilot Mountaineers, Document DOCD-8023. 
Early string bands from the area around Galax, NC.  (See also # 29 below).
21 – 24.  Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers and the Highlanders, JSP 4 CD box set, JSP7734. 
Poole’s music ranged from ancient ballads to more modern pieces, and showed how the music was rapidly changing.
25 – 28.  The Carter Family, 1927 – 1934. JSP 4 CD box set, JSPCD7001.
From the hills of Virginia.  No matter what they played, they were always rooted in their native soil.  One of the most influential groups ever to be recorded.  Their 1935 – 1941 recordings are also available on another 4 CD box set, JSP7708.
29.  Old Time Mountain Music, with Oscar Jenkins, Fred Cockerham & Tommy Jarrell, County CD 2735. 
Three friends who kept their regional music alive.  Jarrell was the son of fiddler Ben Jarrell, who recorded with Da Costa Waltz’s Southern Broadcasters in 1927.  (See # 20 above).

B. Anthologies:

30.  Dark Holler.  Old Love Songs and Ballads Smithsonian-Folkways SFW CD 40159.
Field recordings of singers who learnt their songs from people who sang to Cecil Sharp in 1916.  Also come with a DVD, The End of An Old Song, John Cohen’s portrait of Appalachian singer Dillard Chandler.
31.  High Atmosphere.  Ballads and banjo tunes from Virginia & North Carolina.  Rounder CD 0028. 
Excellent set of field recordings made by John Cohen in 1965.
32 – 38.  Kentucky Mountain Music.  Classic Recordings of the 1920s & 1930s. 
Rare and essential commercial recordings of Kentucky mountain music, together with Alan Lomax’s 1937 Kentucky Library of Congress recordings.
39.  Southern Journey.  Volume 2.  Ballads and Breakdowns, Songs from the Southern Mountains.  Rounder CD 1702.
Good selection of songs, ballads and instrumental tunes.  Other recordings by some of these artists can be found scattered throughout the other 12 CDs in this series.
40.  Music from the Lost Provinces.  Old-Time stringbands from Ashe County, North Carolina and Vicinity.  1927 – 1931.  Old Hat CD-1001. 
Important early recordings by such people as Grayson & Whitter, Frank Blevins, Jack Reedy and The Hill Billies.
41 – 42.  Mountain Music of Kentucky, compiled and annotated by John Cohen.  Smithsonian-Folkways SF CD 40077. 
Great selection of recordings made in 1959.
43 – 44.  The Traditional Music of Beech Mountain.  Volume 1, The Older ballads and Gospel Songs, Folk-Legacy CD-22.  The Traditional Music of Beech Mountain.  Volume 2, The Later Songs and Hymns, Folk-Legacy CD-23. 
Two of the best albums ever made of traditional Appalachian singers and their ballads and songs.
45 – 48.  Meeting’s a Pleasure.  Folk-Songs from the Upper South, Volumes 1 & 2, and Volumes 3 & 4.  Two double CDs.  Musical Traditions MTCD505-6 & MTCD507-8.
Over 130 tracks of material collected in Kentucky & West Virginia, showing a very strong tradition.
49 – 50.  The North Carolina Banjo Collection, Rounder CD 0439/40. 
The banjo entered the Appalachians via Afro/American slaves.  These two CDs show just how much one instrument could influence the various directions that traditional music could take.

Birchfield and Hausenfluck

June 7, 2015 by

Jean Ritchie

June 7, 2015 by







We’re very sad to pass on the news of the death of Jean Ritchie on Monday, June 1. She was 92 years old. No one was more important to the survival, appreciation, and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than this ballad singer, songwriter, folksong collector, Fulbright scholar, and champion of the Appalachian dulcimer. The producers of a recent tribute CD to Jean write:

“We are so sad to have to share the news that our beloved Jean passed away on Monday evening. She was surrounded by members of her family, who sang at her bedside in the last hours. Her family asks that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be sent to Appalachian Voices. [ ]”

Ritchie was recorded many times for the AFC archive–our first recordings of her go back to 1946. In 2009, she and her late husband, the photographer and filmmaker George Pickow, arranged for their extensive archive of audio and video recordings, film, photographs, and manuscripts—the results of their seven decades of involvement in traditional performances and folklife documentation—to be preserved in the AFC archive. To read more about Ritchie, Pickow, and their remarkable collection, please download the issue of Folklife Center News at the link below.…

Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country

June 6, 2015 by


During the last few decades of the twentieth century,
it became fashionable in some circles to belittle the
work of Alan and John Lomax. As is often the fate of
intellectuals who reach beyond academia to a broader
public, they were considered somehow suspect, and
their work came to be misunderstood, neglected, and
often ignored by many scholars who would otherwise
be interested in traditional music.
Often, the two very different people—and very different thinkers—
were combined into one conglomerate Lomax, a sort of
golem that came to symbolize old-fashioned approaches
to folk music.
To the detriment of the study of American vernacular music,
however, misgivings about the Lomaxes and their missions
bled over into and contributed to a monumental failure to address the bulk
of their extensive collections. And while many famous
performers whose legacies were intertwined with the
Lomaxes became icons of American roots music (Lead
belly, for instance, or Muddy Waters), the broad scope of
even their earliest field collections largely overwhelmed
the assembled academic and archival apparatuses of the
twentieth century.
In this century, however, things have changed with
respect to such collections and to the role of early field
collections in general. The gears of the old machine
have been oiled up, so to speak, and things seem to be
getting rolling again. There are a number of reasons
for this: first, technology increasingly provides more
efficient access to the media they collected.

Hoyt Ming (#2)

June 5, 2015 by



Choctaw County fiddler Hoyt Ming (1902-1985) led the lively string band recorded as “Floyd Ming & His Pep Steppers” at a Memphis Victor session in 1928. His “Indian War Whoop,” with its fiddling “holler,” became an old-time country music standby. Potato farmer Hoyt, with his wife Rozelle on guitar and brother Troy on mandolin, regularly played at fairs, fiddling contests, and rallies before World War II. Rediscovered in 1973, Hoyt and Rozelle Ming returned to recording and live appearances.

Born in Choctaw County on October 6, 1902, into a musical farming family of German-American extraction, Hoyt began teaching himself to play fiddle at fifteen, after admiring a string band that played for his father Clough at the Mings’ house. At least three of Hoyt’s seven brothers and one sister learned to play string instruments at about the same time; his brother Troy took up the mandolin and joined him in forming a family band that played for local dances and parties.

By 1928 Hoyt had married guitarist Rozelle Young; they relocated to rural Lee County and appeared as a trio, with Rozelle’s sister on mandolin. Hoyt heard that Victor Talking Machine record producer and scout Ralph Peer, who was already overseeing Jimmie Rodgers’ rise to stardom, was about to hold auditions in nearby Tupelo. Hoyt, Rozelle, Troy, and square dance caller A. D. Coggin auditioned as a quartet, and became one of the first acts from this area to get the go-ahead to record.

Their February 13, 1928, recording session at an auditorium in Memphis produced four instrumental recordings, typical of Mississippi string band music of the time in repeating musical phrases and showing subtle blues influences—but with particularly driving rhythms and Hoyt’s specialty “war whoop” fiddle inflection on the most celebrated record.

Rozelle Ming tended to stomp her foot on the beats. Atypically, Ralph Peer not only chose to leave that sound in, but named the band the “Pep Steppers” after it. The record label proceeded to transcribe Hoyt’s name as “Floyd Ming,” leading to inevitable confusion later.

The brief initial recording experience led to Pep Stepper appearances at fairs, political rallies and fiddler’s contests through the 1930s, but with their focus on raising a family, Hoyt and Rozelle kept music a sideline, and Hoyt tended to his main occupation, potato farming. Infrequent gigs made it hard to keep a band together, and by the 1950s, they’d essentially given up playing for audiences.

Unbeknownst to them at the time, Harry Smith included “Indian War Whoop” in Folkways Records 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, and the tune became a favorite in the 1950s-’60s folk revival. In 1973, David Freeman of the “old time” music label Country Records approached Hoyt about appearing again, having tracked down the mysterious “Floyd” Ming by searching around the Tupelo area one Victor record had pointed to.

By that summer, Hoyt, Rozelle and new young accompanists began playing at large-scale folk festivals and recorded a full album, “New Hot Tunes!” for Freeman’s Homestead imprint. “Monkey in the Dogcart” became a frequently played instrumental from that album. In 1975 they contributed to the soundtrack of the motion picture “Ode to Billy Joe,” based on Bobbie Gentry’s song. Hoyt Ming passed on in 1985, two years after his wife.

See also here.

Naomi Wise

June 4, 2015 by


from notes to “Classic American Ballads,” by Jeff Place, Katie Ortiz, and Max Smith (SFW4021):

The ballad “Omie Wise” dates back to the 19th century. It was first published in 1874 in conjunction
with a story written by Braxton Craven, president of North Carolina’s Trinity College, about
the 1808 murder by Jonathan Lewis of his pregnant lover Naomi Wise in Randolph County, North
Carolina .
The real Naomi was born in 1789 and (most likely because she was an orphan) worked for a
family, the Adams family, in Randolph County. Jonathan Lewis worked as a clerk in a store owned
by Benjamin Elliot in Asheboro, North Carolina, and every weekend he would ride his horse past
the Adams farm on his way to visit his family.
The story goes that Naomi and John fell in love when he stopped one day to ask her for a drink of
water, then helped her carry her bucket back to the house.
From there, the variations in the story take all sorts of twists and turns. Some say the two shared
a genuine love until Lewis’ mother urged him to marry a wealthier woman; most claim that Naomi
was murdered to cover up a pregnancy out of wedlock; all tell of the pure and beautiful woman who
so naively placed her trust in a malicious man’s love.
The only contemporary account available of Naomi Wise comes from a handwritten poem entitled
“A true account of Nayomy Wise” by Mary Woods. According to Woods’ poem, and backed by
the records for “bastardy bonds” in the Randolph County Papers (located in the North Carolina
State Archives), Naomi Wise had borne two children out of wedlock by the time she met Lewis:
Nancy and Henry Wise, born in 1799 and 1804 respectively.
In Woods’ version of the tale, Naomi became pregnant by Lewis and demanded that he marry her
rather than post a bastardy bond.  Naomi is still the victim of murder, but she is not the innocent and
virginal character in the ballads.
Whatever the circumstances of Naomi Wise’s situation, her story ended when she was drowned
in the Deep River in 1808 by Jonathan Lewis, who was arrested and held in the Randolph County
jail. He managed to escape—it is worth noting that his employer (and brother of the woman he
planned to marry instead of Naomi) was in charge of guarding his cell.
Many years later, Lewis was recaptured and brought to trial, but he was acquitted for lack of
sufficient evidence. It is said that he confessed to the murder of Naomi Wise on his deathbed in 1820.
Today Randolph County still has several landmarks dedicated to its most famous murder. The
Naomi Wise Spring and Naomi Falls are both located in the Deep River, where her body was found
and her gravestone lies.

Country Brass Bands

June 3, 2015 by

from Ry Cooder interview with Jas Obrecht:

Ry: In the South Carolina area they also had country bands, those jump bands playing on broken Confederate horns they found in the field, playing hymns and things. That’s a whole other bag. Do you know “The Music from the South” series that Frederick Ramsey put together on Folkways? One of the volumes was called Country Brass Bands. He went down there and he recorded two country brass bands, which were kind of loose organizations of guys who knew each other and would play on the weekends or for dances.

Apparently, this started after the Civil War. The Confederate armies all had brass bands and marching bands as part of the morale building. And when they lost, these guys just laid their instruments down in the field and left them. Then after the war goes by and the black people return to the field or their homes, and they actually found these horns in the dirt or left in sheds or I don’t where.

In time, they became handed down in families, broken, full of holes, tied together with tape. And they didn’t learn to play like the guys in New Orleans, with proper fingering. They knew only the bugle mouth and a little fingering, all wrong, but they liked these things and so they started playing in bands.

You gotta get that record. He found two of these bands – there are about ten guys in each group, and they play some kind of hymns that they know in this style, on broken instruments. They have no chops, they’ve got no mouth embouchure at all. But they play this so it’s strictly from the guts. It’s the life vibration that they live in, a pure expression through a horn rather than, say, a guitar.

Also, in those days when Ramsey was doing this work, in the ’50s, he did an early news magazine show on CBS called Omnibus. You must see this – it’s strictly important. Ramsey did one called something like, “They Took a Blue Note.” It was an hour show of jazz. They came to Ramsey, being the expert at the time, and he put it together for them.

It shows him going down into Alabama. You see a little of New Orleans – that’s a really nice funeral there. Then you’re out there and there’s Horace Sprott, who was one of his discoveries, playing the harmonica and plowing the field – that’s kind of stagey and dumb. But all of a sudden, around the corner come five guys behind a barn, and they have these beat-up horns. They stand up and play this stuff, and you just fall on your knees.

I’m telling you, you will have a transcendent experience, because it’s right in front of your face. It’s a thing that you can barely believe, but it’s one of the great documents of pure soul. These guys are field hands in the 1950s, they’re all middle-aged men, hard-working guys, and they play these horns in some crazy way. The sound that comes out is utterly mind-boggling. It’s just too good.

The Ragtime Skedaddlers

June 2, 2015 by

from and

The Latest Popular Mandolin and Guitar Music, by The Ragtime Skedaddlers (

A hundred years ago, ragtime was America’s original popular music, a blend of African-American folk roots with marches and old-world dances. While usually played today as a solo piano music, in their time rags, cakewalks, and marches were often played by string bands consisting of mandolins, banjos, and guitars. Using arrangements published during the ragtime era, the Ragtime Skedaddlers continue the tradition of ragtime string bands.

Unlike other “traditional” groups who take their inspiration from various notions of New Orleans jazz or Chicago jazz, the Skedaddlers go back to a time when string ragtime, light-hearted yet propulsive, was America’s true popular music.  This trio doesn’t speed up or approach the music with either clownish levity or undue scholarly seriousness.

Rather, they are old-fashioned melodists, creating sweet lines that arch and tumble over one another in mid-air. It is as if Dvorak had been transplanted to a Southern or Middle Western backyard picnic or country dance in 1895 and had immersed himself in sweet harmonies and dance-like motions. The Skedaddlers are entrancing on their own, and a delightful change from the often heavy ensembles so prevalent in occasions of this sort.

This CD has a lot going for it. The musicians are talented and well rehearsed. The playlist has a theme (arrangements for mandolin and guitar taken from early publications) and the recorded sound is very good. The liner notes are filled with interesting historical data and minutiae about the composers, the arrangers and the early publications themselves. Quality artwork is featured, including many old photographs. And to top it off, the music is lively and likeable.

The Ragtime Skedaddlers are mandolinists Dennis Pash and Nick Robinson and guitarist Dave Krinkel. With this disc and their previous release (Mandophone CD0901), they have produced perhaps the only high fidelity recordings devoted almost exclusively to these early arrangements of rags and cakewalks for mandolins and guitar.

We are treated to perennial favorites (Peacherine Rag, Eli Green’s Cake Walk, Apple Jack, Chicken Chowder), rare discoveries (A Florida Cracker, Mississippi Bubble, Shiftless Johnson) and other enjoyable selections. To break up the cakewalk theme and add a bit of variety, the Skedaddlers have also included a Brazilian choro (Dengozo), an Indian intermezzo (Silver Heels) and an habañera (Cuban Belles).

R. Crumb T-shirts

June 1, 2015 by

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 7.46.14 PM

Purchase shirts here:

The Wreck of the Old 97

May 31, 2015 by

images from and

Folklorist Norm Cohen has astutely observed that “folklore thrives where danger threatens” (The Long Steel Rail, p. 169). The annals of commercially recorded traditional and popular song provide abundant support for this conclusion. In fact, by the early twentieth century — especially the decades of the teens and twenties — nearly every imaginable disaster or mishap was memorialized in song.
Natural disasters are represented by songs like “The Cyclone of Ryecove,” “The Oakville Twister,” “Joe Hoover’s Mississippi Flood Song,” and  “The Santa Barbara Earthquake.” Man-made disasters are remembered in  “The Explosion at Eccles, West Virginia,”  “The Ohio Prison Fire,” and “The Stone Mountain Tank Explosion.” Murder, robbery, swindling and other bad behavior figure prominently in such songs as “Billy the Kid,” “The Outlaw John Dillinger,” “Otto Wood the Bandit,” and “Ponzi the Swindler.”
Other songs have addressed anxieties about new-fangled flying contraptions. For instance a horrible  dirigible crash inspired at least 12 recorded versions of “The Wreck of the Shenandoah.” But wrecks of trains, not zeppelins, spawned by far the greatest number of songs. Of these, “The Wreck of the Old 97,” which referenced the 1903 train wreck near Danville, Virginia, was one of the most recorded songs.
In the 1920s and 1930s it was as popular as “Casey Jones,” a song that is probably more familiar to listeners today. Unlike many versions of “Casey Jones” and other popular songs like “The Wreck of Number Nine,” “The Wreck of the Old 97″ presented the details of the crash relatively accurately.  The engineer did crash while trying to make up time on a dangerous, descending curve. His terrible death is also accurately described.
At the University of Virginia, Larry Aaron found the papers of David George from Gretna, who claimed to have written the original ballad. Aaron came to believe that it was really written by Fred Lewey, originally from Rockingham County, who may have been working in Danville at the time of the wreck. Lewey and Charles Noell are usually given joint credit.

“Lawrence (McFall) made me aware of a 400-page transcript of a trial in 1905 in Danville between the estate of Steve Broady and Southern Railway. Very few people know about this trial,” Aaron said. “The transcript disproves a lot of things formerly believed about the story.”

Traditionally and in the ballad, Broady is blamed for the wreck since the train started out an hour behind schedule and, as the song goes, he swore “to put her in Spencer (N.C.) on time” or “put her in Hell.”

The transcript plus a file Aaron found while digging through the Danville Courthouse provided new information about Broady and the train journey from Monroe and destined for Spencer.

“For instance, I found a memo from Southern Railroad that showed Broady had run the same route more than 25 times. This is important because it has been thought that Broady didn’t know the track,” he said. “He knew the road, but he didn’t know the train because he usually ran freight trains.”

Through a twist in fate, Broady replaced the engineer who usually ran the Old 97, the fastest train of Southern Railroad.

In the file, Aaron also found a map made in 1905 that showed where the train jumped the tracks and where it landed, which proved important.

“I wondered all along how fast the train was going when it jumped the trestle, so I sent the information about the incline and curvature on the track to two engineers at Virginia Tech. They used particle dynamics and figured the best guess to be he was going 75 miles an hour,” Aaron explained.

Aaron also found out Broady hadn’t been ordered to get to Spencer on time, even though he started out an hour behind, and that he wasn’t the wild-eyed engineer legend has claimed. Aaron admits that Broady was going too fast, though, for whatever reason. That truth probably died with the people who died in the wreck.

Chanteys and Anthems

May 30, 2015 by


by Nathan Luna (

Bahamas 1935 – Chanteys and Anthems from Andros and Cat Island (Rounder 1822)

The sweetness of a voice rings out over a deep bass and extraneous fuzz in Round the Bay of Mexico, one of the more charming chanteys heard on Bahamas 1935.  The song is led by Henry Lundy, and bassed by David “Pappie” Pryor.  This song and most of the music found on this CD are products of the sponging days in the Bahamas when sponging crews would spend weeks at a time on the water in small sailboats.  It is primarily group vocal music and contains echoes of many other African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocal group forms, including spirituals, quartet singing, and work songs.

The characteristic style of singing found on most of the songs is known as rhyming.  A lead singer, or rhymer, usually begins the song by establishing the melody.  This melody is then taken up by a group of singers, or sometimes a single bass singer, which utilize multiple tempos, tonal levels, and rhythmic patterns to create a complex song structure over which the lead singer or rhymer can continue to improvise new lyrics or rhymes.

The effect is not far from quartet singing, though the multiple rhythms and tempos make for a generally more complex song style.  Apparently this complex style of singing found its heyday in the early 1900’s when spongers were plentiful and sharply declined with the failure of the sponge industry in the late 1930s.

Lomax, who recorded in 1935, appears to have arrived just before this decline and fortuitously so, in my opinion, for one thing that impressed me about these early recordings was the breadth of rhyming that could be heard when compared to later recordings of Bahamian rhyming, those found on the Rounder release ‘Kneelin Down Inside the Gate’, for instance.

Lomax, in an essay included in the booklet notes, proposes that the particular style of singing employed in Bahamian rhyming music stems from the Bahamian sponger’s connection to the sea.  He writes: “The distinctive effect of multiple tempos [found in the music] …  flows …  from the marriage of Bahamians to the sea and small sailboats.

A sailboat moving through the sea before a good wind moves in several tempos: the lift, plunge and roll of the vessel through the water, and the forward motion of the boat itself, which increases imperceptibly and with an effect of mounting thrill as sails are trimmed and as the breeze picks up.  Other rhythms can be heard in the rapid slatting of ropes against the sail, the slow creaking of the mast and the blocks, and the slide of water along the side and perhaps against the deck.” Read the rest of this entry »

Lion Songs

May 29, 2015 by


from,, and

 Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe, by Banning Eyre (Duke University Press):

Lion Songs, by Banning Eyre, is an authoritative biography of Thomas Mapfumo that narrates the life and career of this creative, complex, and iconic figure.  Eyre ties the arc of Mapfumo’s career to the history of Zimbabwe. The genre Mapfumo created in the 1970s called chimurenga, or “struggle” music, challenged the Rhodesian government—which banned his music and jailed him—and became important to Zimbabwe achieving independence in 1980.

“People, there is corruption” he sang in the 2000 hit “Disaster.” “People, there is corruption here.” Unsurprisingly, police raided kiosks in the markets of Harare and destroyed Mapfumo’s albums, and Central Intelligence Organization agents threatened to beat Mapfumo if he played protest songs in concert. His family—Thomas and his wife, Verna, son and daughter Tai and Chiedza (then teenagers), and daughter Mati (then a toddler)—no longer felt safe.

In 2000, the family boarded a plane out of Zimbabwe, to settle in Eugene, Oregon.

The author asserts from the outset that “in the end, there is no way to understand Thomas Mapfumo without understanding Zimbabwe, and no better way to know Zimbabwe than through an examination of the life and work of Thomas Mapfumo.”

Yet both the complex, contradictory artist and his country, the former Rhodesia, defy easy understanding.  Many of those closest to Thomas and his story are left with the nagging sense that he could have, should have, counted more.” Eyre is plainly one of them, and this biography is the result, though it gives ample space to those questioning Mapfumo’s originality, politics, business dealings, and decision to leave Zimbabwe for Oregon almost two decades ago, with even the author acknowledging, “Thomas’s career was certainly compromised, if not ruined, by his move to America.”

The transition to life in Eugene wasn’t easy. A late-night stranger wandered into their first home. Feeling unsafe, they moved into another house, where mold left their drummer laid up sick for months. Mapfumo’s wife traded her lucrative old job as a real estate agent in Harare for caregiver in a retirement home. And Mapfumo’s musical output slowed from roughly one new album release per year to just two in six years, the result of contract problems, lengthy recording sessions brought on by his own perfectionist streak, and difficulty finding and keeping savvy handlers.

But still, Mapfumo says, the decision to go into exile was a good one, and Eyre agrees, with a caveat. “I think that as a person, he did a very honorable thing—he put his family first—and he has nothing left to prove as a musician,” he says. “But he’s been away long enough now that the culture back home is starting to move on.”

A labor of love, Lion Songs is the product of a twenty-five year friendship and professional relationship between Eyre and Mapfumo that demonstrates Mapfumo’s musical and political importance to his nation, its freedom struggle, and its culture.

The Dead March

May 28, 2015 by

Arkansas at 78 RPM

May 28, 2015 by


Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers (Dust-to-Digital DTD-36)

excerpt of review by Mile Yates (

For the traveling recording men of the late 1920s, Arkansas offered enticing pickings.  The region was thronged with vigorous, idiosyncratic stringbands.  This album carries the listener from the hillbilly music craze of the ’20s to the song-based country music of the late ’30s.  Scarcely more than a decade, but a period, in music as in all American life, of galvanic change – Tony Russell

 Actually, unlike the Appalachians and Georgia, Arkansas was, perhaps, just a tad too far away from New York and the other northern cities where the 1920s’ record companies were based.  And so recordings of Arkansas musicians from this period were never too plentiful, which is a pity, because judging by these few examples we can only suggest that, musically speaking, this was indeed a region which carried a rich musical heritage.

During the period 1928 – 30 the musicians had to travel out of the State to make recordings in such cities as Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago or New York, for the Okeh, Vocalion and Victor record companies.

Later, in 1931 – 32, Columbia Records also recorded a handful of Arkansas groups; but it was not until 1937 that the Brunswick – ARC record company sent a recording team to Hot Springs.  By then, of course, the music had begun to change and this fine CD covers both the early string band music that was captured in the late ’20s and early ’30s, together with a few later pieces.

I suppose that as there were so few recordings made of early Arkansas string band music we must expect some overlap with previously issued CDs and, sadly, this is the case here.  In 1995 County Records issued a 2 CD set – Echoes of the Ozarks CD-3506 & CD-3507) – which together contain forty-one cuts, and twelve of these tracks can be found on the Dust-To-Digital set.

But, that does leave us with fourteen tracks which are new to me, all of which, in one way or another, are of great interest.  Actually, it is not surprising to find duplication here, because many of the duplicated tracks are among the best old-timey recording ever made.  I am certain that tracks such as the Morrison Twin Brothers String Band’s Dry and Dusty, Pope’s Arkansas Mountaineers’ Jaw Bone, Luke Highnight & His Ozark Strutters’ Fort Smith Breakdown or the Arkansas Barefoot Boys’ Eighth of January can stand alongside any recordings made during the late 1920s/early 1930s.

Fiddling Bob Larkan’s McLeod’s Reel (also known as Hop High Ladies in the States) is reminiscent of some of the recordings that were made by the Maine fiddler Mellie Dunham and I was not surprised to learn that Bob Larkan was originally from New York.  According to Tony Russell, the high strain of Silver Nail, recorded by Bob Larkan, is related to Scott Skinner’s tune Arthur Seat (or should that be Arthur’s Seat?).

Bob Larkan’s set Paddy, Won’t You Drink Some Good Old Cider, an extremely well-played tune, is also interesting for being the first recording to be made of the piece.  The Georgia musicians Clayton McMichen and Riley Puckett later made a better-known recording.

Robinson County, played here by the little known L O Birkhead & R M Lane (although we are told that Lane may not actually be the second fiddler on this track!).  The tune was also recorded by Ted Sharp, Hinman & Sharp, (available on County CD-3506) and these are the only two known early recording; so was it originally a local tune, even though there is no Robinson County in Arkansas?  Drunkard’s Hecups (sic), from the Reaves White County Ramblers, is also of interest in that it is one of only a handful or early recordings where we can hear the fiddle strings being beaten by a pair of straws.

Lonnie Glosson (1908 – 2001) was a competent musician who can be heard on two tracks.  Lonnie’s Fox Chase highlights his ability on the mouthorgan, while Arkansas Hard Luck Blues, a talking-blues, shows that he was also an accomplished guitarist.  Glosson was one of those musicians who continued recording long after the 78’s had become obsolete and he cut several LPs in later life.  Other tracks also show how things were beginning to change.

Dr Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers, led by a country doctor called Henry Harlin Smith, recording a number of sentimental songs and are especially remembered for pieces such as Picture on the Wall and Save My Mother’s Picture from the Sale, but here they can be heard singing a ‘coon’ song Just Give Me the Leavings, which was written by two Afro-Americans, James Weldon Johnson and Bob Cole, in 1904.  Many old-timey bands from this period broke up because there was too little interest in their music.

The Hoss Hair Pullers, on the other hand, became so successful that they were unable to keep up with demand for their public engagements, and so they folded.  Johnson and Cole also composed the song My Castle on the Nile, which was recorded by an obscure group of musicians known as the Wonder State Harmonists.  The Harmonists also recorded a version of another ‘coon’ song, Turnip Greens, which blues singer Bo Carter had previously recorded as Good Old Turnip Greens in 1928.

The group’s leader may have been one William Walden Shepherd (1890 -1979) a banjo-playing member of the Arkansas Bar Association, who practiced in the town of Little Rock.  The group also recorded an up-beat instrumental, Petit Jean Gallop, apparently named after Petit Jean Mountain which can be found in Arkansas’s Conway County.  One other group, George Edgin’s Corn Dodgers with Earl Wright & Brown Rich, give us another song, The Arkansas Hotel, a song recorded variously as All Go Hungry Hash House or Second-Class Hotel by other singers and musicians.

If, like me, you love old-timey music then you will have to get a copy of this album.  The music is superb and Tony Russell’s notes, aided at times by the fieldwork of the late W K McNeil, are both fascinating and faultless.

“The myth that bluegrass is the lineal descendent of oldtime music, comments of Allen Feldman”

May 27, 2015 by


edited from Allen Feldman (from three email posts to Banjo-L ):

I, for one, do not accept the myth that bluegrass is the lineal descendent of oldtime music. Rather, bluegrass is a modern very urbanized genre, connected to the 1930s-50s industrialization of rural Southerners, that drew on a diversity of musical genres that were available through radio and phonograph such as oldtime, western swing, gospel, big band jazz, blues, parlor songs, Hawaiian music, etc in order to create something new that expressed the experience of mountain folk in urban exile.

Ralph Stanley describes the bluegrass sensibility exactly in those very terms. It’s the music of folk who were losing their traditions and past and used this form to hold on to and recapture their memory of a pre-industrial lifestyle.

In oldtime music the tradition has not been lost, it may be resisting change but it has not been displaced, it is not a modern music. I for one celebrate the fact that oldtime music is not bluegrass or dawg music or new grass or even claw grass (which sounds like an agricultural disease or killer weed). Oldtime works from different tonal centers, it uses open tunings and harmonic resonant overtones and incidentals, it mixes non-tempered scales with harmonization or it’s completely modal.

Compared to bluegrass or country western its largely dance centered and not song centered, many of its songs are verses to dance tunes, and most of its songs were meant for solo and unaccompanied performance in their oldest form. It is often not strictly symmetrical in its rhythms; a-rhythmic fiddle and banjo tunes are common particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky. Drones, bowed or fifth stringed, are central and not incidental to the music

It is true that oldtime was crudely adapted to the proscenium stage and to mass media very late in its 250 year history, 1920-40, but only for a rather short period of 20 odd years less than 1/10th of its history. The commercial success of oldtime music of the 78 records was short lived, it presented 200-year-old sounds and modified these somewhat for mass media markets. But this commercialization was not the final evolutionary moment of oldtime music, nor was it a summing up, many more traditions and styles did not get recorded than did.

And the commercial string band ensemble sound was not pervasive everywhere only in certain locales. In Kentucky, West Virginia, Round Peak other ensemble and performance formats endured and were not displaced by commercial sounds. For instance Wade Ward two finger picked up the neck when he recorded with the Bogtrotters, considering it a more appropriate modern style of banjo picking, and we only have recordings of him playing the archaic 200-year-old clawhammer style because of field collectors.

What was commercially recorded of oldtime music in the 1920s was highly selective and some of this selective material contributed to the development of bluegrass. Like a runoff into a large rising river but a lot stayed in isolate puddles with their own separate currents resisting homogenization and standardization.
Allen Feldman has been playing oldtime and Irish music on clawhammer banjo and cittern since the 1960s. He is the author of the Northern Fiddler: Music and Musicians of Donegal and Tyrone, Blackstaff Press, 1980.

Benno Häupl

May 26, 2015 by

11140400_10203249361589836_6986421805659974339_n from “Come hear those autochthonous French and Creole fiddlers…”


Benno Häupl, the dean among the collectors of (early) ethnomusicological sound documents and photographical images, has passed away in Riga, Latvia. The widow wishes that the collection should be left intact and will consider serious offers from institutions that can guarantee a permanent home. There is no detailed inventory.

Parts of the collection of possible interest to readers of oldtimeparty include: The Cajun Music Collection 1925-2012 (from the first 78 to the last vinyl), a unique, 50 years lifetime collection, by far the largest of its kind (400 78s, 1,400 45s, 750 LPs). It comprises more than 99% of all discs ever published of the music of the autochthonous French and Creole speaking settlers in Louisiana, including many “only known copies”, since there was often a total of only 100 copies pressed. This is the only part of the Häupl Collection that includes both shellac and vinyl records.

The Häupl Collection encompasses ethnic, traditional and regional music on commercial 78 rpm discs ranging from early Berliners topost-WW2 regional labels “from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe”, and more study material. It includes, mainly:- 25 Edison cylinders 1892-1902 in original boxes- 9,000 gramophone records (78rpm) from 1898 to 1970, many in their original company sleeves – 2,100 photos 1860-1960 of traditional musicians worldwide, with their instruments – 130 record catalogs, 1910-1960, of 78rpm ethnic series by commercial record companies worldwide –

Read the rest of this entry »

Shortenin’ Bread

May 25, 2015 by

Tractor Beam

May 25, 2015 by


Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton. Tractor Beam.
2013. self-released.

I’ve been waiting for this one for a little bit now and it doesn’t disappoint. Rosie Newtown is a truly monster old-time fiddler, and seems to be at the center of a real scene in Ithaca, New York. I first heard her fiddling as part of the New Young Fogies Appalachian compilation album. Not only is she a marvelously dextrous fiddler, pulling a huge variety of syncopated rhythms out of old-time bowing, but she’s also a ferocious fiddler, tearing into a fiddle tune like a lioness tearing into a gazelle.

On Tractor Beam, she’s playing as a duo with songwriter/clawhammer banjo master Richie Stearns. Stearns is justifiably well known for his work with The Horse Flies, an alternative band with strong folk ties that was huge in the 90s. He’s also toured extensively with Natalie MacMaster and Bela Fleck, scored an album for Pete Seeger, and worked with folks as diverse as David Byrne, Tuvan throat singers, and Old Crow Medicine Show.

Tractor Beam is a blend of original and traditional, from a fiddle tune Rosie wrote (“Take It or Leave It”) to three new songs from Stearns (“Ribbons & Bows”, “I Am With You Always”, “Tractor Beam”), even a Townes Van Zandt cover, which Newton sings in her pure ballad style. Her voice is high and soft, and crackles with the fragility of an ice sheet. It’s beautiful singing! Stearns brings an element of worldliness to the music on this album, with a voice tinged by long experience, and a kind of weariness to his singing that draws in the listener.

The traditional material here is rendered impeccably, from the straight-ahead versions of “Say Darling Say” and “Willow Garden” (oh and listen to their harmonies on those songs…..), to the wonderful Clyde Davenport tune “Lost Goose” and the always classic “Trouble in Mind.” Stand-out track “Shirt Tail Boogie” features the lost art of clawhammer fiddling (inspired by the great Fred Cockerham), and it’s great to hear Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson ripping it up on the last two songs, Ruben’s Train and Hangman’s Reel.

All told, Tractor Beam brings a lot of lift and life to the old traditions.

Festival Sur le Niger 2015

May 24, 2015 by
L'Ensemble Instrumental du Mali

L’Ensemble Instrumental du Mali


In early 2012 an alliance of Tuareg separatists and jihadists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb occupied the north of Mali and imposed sharia law. Jihadists smashed guitars, burned studios and threatened to kill musicians. Half a million people, including many performers, fled to the south of Mali or to refugee camps in neighboring countries.

With the Festival in the Desert out of commission, the Festival on the Niger in Ségou — a southern city never occupied by the jihadists — has become the best place in the world to hear live Malian music. The desert’s loss has been the river’s gain.

Banks of the River: Field Report from Festival Sur le Niger 2015

edited from Tom Pryor (

I traded New York’s deep freeze for a chance to see some of Mali’s brightest stars—including Amadou and Mariam, Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangaré—perform live on the balmy banks of the Niger River.

The occasion was Mali’s Festival Sur le Niger, an annual, five-day celebration of music and culture that transforms the dusty, laid-back river town of Ségou into a buzzing regional arts hub. Now in its 11th year, the festival has grown into one of the largest live music events in West Africa, attracting an estimated audience of over 35,000 people, as well as some of the biggest names in Malian music today.

The superb 20+ piece traditional L’Ensemble Instrumental du Mali brought the full weight and majesty of the Malian classical repertoire to bear. Founded in 1961, just a year after Mali’s independence, the ensemble only tours outside of Mali occasionally, so seeing these masters of the kora, balafon, ngoni, percussion, kamel ngoni and other traditional instruments performing live in their own country was worth the price of admission alone.

By Saturday, the festival was pulling out the big guns: a triple attack of Bassekou Kouyaté, Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangaré, supported by hot new acts and old festival favorites.

Fatoumata Diawara’s set was a bit of a nail-biter, her first solo appearance in Mali. She’s based in Europe and better-known there than at home. But her wassoulou-inflected style and commanding stage presence were solid enough to win over the crowd. N’goni master Bassekou Kouyaté followed with a gorgeous set of traditional sounds that had the audience on their feet the whole time. And when Diawara returned to the stage to join Kouyaté for encores, she cemented her position as a memorable festival favorite.

Khaira Arby, a half-Tuareg, half-Arab diva known as “the Nightingale of the North,” had fled when the jihadists took over Timbuktu in April 2012. Al Qaeda militants trashed her guitars and recording studio and threatened to cut out her tongue if they captured her. At this year’s festival, in a sequin-studded green gown and a tiara of gold coins, rows of silver bracelets jangling on her arms, she swept back and forth across the stage, gesticulating grandly, her voice booming as she sang in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language.

By the time headliner Oumou Sangaré finally took the stage to close out the festival, it was nearly 2:30 am, and the crowd was clearly the worse for wear. But Sangaré is a force to be reckoned with, and she would not be denied. The veteran wassoulou singer brought things back to life with the sheer power of her voice and a truncated, but powerful set of favorites old and new. Again the crowd sang along with every syllable.

It was one of those magical moments that can only happen on a singer’s home turf. Never mind that she was visiting from Bamako—this audience belonged to her. And it reminded every tired festival-goer why it’s always worth the trouble to see African artists under African skies.


Peter Was a Fisherman

May 23, 2015 by



Peter was a Fisherman (Rounder CD 1114)

Melville and Frances Herskovits recorded the selections included on Peter was a Fisherman, in 1939 in a village in Trinidad.  The 34 tracks on the CD include a number of song styles ranging from primarily African songs sung in Yoruba to Creole/European quadrille and reel songs.  The range of songs recorded helped Herskovits to theorize a spectrum of African influence in American music, from music with high African content (usually religious music) to music with only trace African content (usually European forms with some African rhythmic sensibilities).

Listening to this collection of songs, I got the feeling that Herskovits was more interested in how the elements of the music fit into his ideas of African retention in the New World than in the experience of the music itself.  While a number of the songs are pleasing to listen to and most are fascinating examples of early Trinidadian musical traditions, I found the songs lacked the energy, the vibrancy, of those found on the Lomax CDs.

This may in part be due to the poor nature of the recording equipment Herskovits used, but I wonder if there isn’t some other explanation for the monotonous and sparse sound of much of the CD.  Perhaps the musicians felt uncomfortable performing for this foreign couple, or in front of a microphone?  Perhaps Herskovits hoped to isolate certain themes in the music and therefore insisted on a simple presentation?  Who can say?

Five of the more historically important songs on the CD are sung in Yoruba by Margaret Buckley, a 70 year old woman who was the daughter of Yoruba speaking parents.  While these songs are undoubtedly interesting, particularly to linguists, the use of Buckley’s son as a single backup drummer results in the loss of much of the rhythmic complexity that might otherwise have been present if the normal three drum orchestra found in most Yoruba music had been used.

Some life can be heard in the sankeys of the Spiritual Baptists, or Shouters, who are the resident Black Protestants of Trinidad.  Sankeys begin as European style hymns and then transition to an African-American musical style know as ‘trumping’, which is a series of rhythmic groans and shouts – hence the name ‘Shouters’ – that can lead to spirit possession.

The Creole/European music forms, which include a number of reels, quadrilles, and carnival songs, seem to survive the poor technical quality of the recordings a bit better than the forms with greater African content, perhaps because they depended less on drums or large groups of voices, which tended to distort the sound.  Ine Ine Katuke, sung in the untranslatable ‘Wild Indian’ tongue, and When Me Baby Born, O are both nice examples of these Creole forms.

History of Congolese Music

May 22, 2015 by

Jim Linderman

May 21, 2015 by



EVERY morning Jim Linderman gets up in his home in the small lakeside city of Grand Haven, Mich., grabs a cup of coffee and sits down at his computer to blog.  Mr. Linderman, a librarian and archivist by profession, collects, researches and writes about the marginal, the forgotten and the not quite seemly in American folk art and popular culture.

Mr. Linderman has churned out 14 books on related topics in the last three years. The best known, “Take Me to the Water,” matches antique photographs of river baptisms with a CD of old gospel songs and sermons. Published by Dust-to-Digital in Atlanta, a record label that specializes in repackaging vintage music, and with an essay by Luc Sante, it was nominated for a Grammy in 2009.

“We lost to Little Walter,” Mr. Linderman said, referring to “The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967),” a compilation of that blues harmonica player’s recordings. “Can I complain? I got to go to the show in L.A.”

He flew to Atlanta to meet Steven Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, after seeing that label’s handsome CD box set “Goodbye, Babylon,” a compilation of old gospel recordings. Mr. Ledbetter selected 24 vintage recordings of sermons and songs to go with the baptism photos, like the Empire Jubilee Quartet singing “Wade in de Water.”

As he was preparing to leave New York, Mr. Linderman donated the baptism photos to the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, which mounted an exhibition of them last year. He has also donated a collection of Victorian sideshow photos, which the center plans to exhibit. “He’s doing something that nobody else is for visual culture,” said Brian Wallis, chief curator at the center. “He’s mining the margins of what would disparagingly be called low culture but might also be called popular culture. To focus on it you have to get the stuff together, and he’s one of the world’s greatest pickers. He’s on the lookout for these oddball things. He just keeps coming up with these ideas that are so interesting.”

And he still gets up every morning to feed his blogs, which are approaching two million page hits, a far larger audience, he said, than he could have hoped to reach in the predigital age.

He also collected dozens of diddley bows, the one-stringed instrument of West African origin heard in old Southern blues recordings, handmade slingshots and toy plows, antique kimonos and Plains Indian rawhide pouches called parfleches.

“I’ll find a subject and immerse myself in it completely,” he said. “That will be all I live and breathe until I think I’ve exhausted it. Then I’ll sell it, trade it, donate it and move on to the next binge.”

You Can’t Beat the Classics

May 20, 2015 by

Sit in on just about any old-time music session in the Triangle, and sooner or later someone may ask for “Kitchen Girl,” “Over the Waterfall” or another tune handed down from the 1960s by the Hollow Rock String Band.

Based in the Hollow Rock community of Durham, the band recorded two albums that predated and set the stage for the Red Clay Ramblers, founded in 1972. Folklorist and fiddler Alan Jabbour was the source of much Hollow Rock repertoire, which he had learned and recorded in the Virginia home of octogenarian fiddler, Henry Reed.

“You Can’t Beat the Classics” is a 19-track CD featuring a dozen Henry Reed tunes, plus selections from Burl Hammons, Snake Chapman and others. They’re performed by Jabbour, retired director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, master banjoist Ken Perlman and former Red Clay Rambler and Hollow Rock guitarist Jim Watson.

The “classics” here refer to standard old-time gems, such as “Old Joe Clark,” “Hell Among the Yearlings” and “Turkey in the Straw.” With two exceptions, all selections, recorded in Chapel Hill’s Rubber Room studio, are instrumentals. The songs – “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” and “Casey Jones” – are sung by Watson in his distinctively ethereal tenor.

Familiar tunes are given new voicings, while others recorded for the first time may provide fresh repertoire for old-time enthusiasts. Together, they offer harmonious continuity from past to present for all who delight in the old-time way. Jabbour’s informative booklet provides discussions for each tune, along with tunings for banjo and/or fiddle.

To order, send $17.50 to Jim Watson, 132 Justice St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

Joe Wilson

May 19, 2015 by
 The American Folklife Center is very sad to pass on news of the death of Joe Wilson, Library of Congress Living Legend, NEA National Heritage Fellow, and longtime director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA).  Here is an article written about his work co-founding The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, and excerpts from Wilson’s book about it.
By April Wright (
“Europeans, Tidewater African-Americans and Anglo-Americans met in the Blue Ridge and became more comfortable with each other…,” said Joe Wilson in his book, “A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Trail.”

“All brought music with them. Violins were expensive and rare, but all these people were singers. The travelers from Ulster had ballads and ditties galore, and the Germans had a rich tradition of religious singing. Musical concepts from many places met, and new blends emerged.”

Virginians of all classes danced to fiddle and banjo for the first two centuries on these shores, he said.
Hillbilly music started from contributions made by people right here in the Twin Counties [Grayson and Carroll], Wilson believes.

Wilson gives the example of Al Hopkins, a musician from Gap Creek, who with his brothers organized a vocal quartet with string instruments. In 1924, Al was in Galax assisting his brother Jacob, a physician, with office work.  Al, Jacob and banjoist-fiddler John Rector met in a barbershop — located next to where Barr’s Fiddle Shop is located today — where the babershop’s proprietor and fiddler Tony Alderman, held jam sessions.

Earlier that year, Rector traveled to New York with Fries mill worker Henry Whitter to record. Whitter had become the first musician from the region to record when he traveled to New York.
Rector thought that his barbershop band could do better, so the band, the Hill Billies, made a trip to New York to record.

So, the first band to be a major commercial success in what was to become country music was organized in a Galax barbershop, and “hillbilly” music was named for it.  The band performed at the White House for President Calvin Coolidge and became a household name from touring and performances on the radio in New York and Washington, D.C.

Hill Billies leader Al Hopkins began broadcasting in 1922 when radio signals reached all over the nation.
The famous Victor recording sessions were held in Bristol. Among those recorded there for the first time were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, founding icons of country music.  But those sessions also recorded an array of other musicians from the Blue Ridge area.

No one knows how many musicians this area has produced, Wilson said, but the small community of Coal Creek, which is only 12 miles in length, has led to noteworthy recordings from 31 bands.  People in Southwest Virginia, Wilson said in his book, still prefer homemade music to the mass-marketed music.  The Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, he noted, draws as many as 50,000 people without hiring a single star and with little advertising.

Mountain music is now “best kept by people who play at the fiddlers’ convention,” Wilson told the crowd. “This area has more musicians per acre than any other place.”

Wilson, a founding member of the Crooked Road — Virginia’s heritage music trail — said the organization started with just nine counties and is now up to 19 in Southwest Virginia, including Grayson, Carroll and the City of Galax.
Musicians in this area “keep the spirit and values of a place better than its historians,” Wilson said in his book. “They are participants in a musical community, not spectators, and music is a part of their lives, not an industry controlled from some distant place. Most of these artists make no speeches, but they are the keepers of the true vine.”

The music that was developed by poor immigrants, slaves and indentured servants, Wilson said, has survived the movements of time and has resisted becoming an international fad.

“Now, nearly 400 years old, it is still influencing America and is in a state of vigorous health,” he said. “In seeking to explain the popular culture of this nation and how it came to dwarf European popular art, the deepest musical roots are found in fiddle and banjo music.  Old Europe and Old Africa are combined in it. It may be the constant combining and recombining of black and white culture in American musical arts that keeps them so vigorous and vital.”

Music of Chiapas

May 18, 2015 by


from and

Modern Mayan: The Indian Music of Chiapas, Mexico (Mississippi LP)

When the dense fog of the Aquarian days of self-discovery lifted, many travelers found themselves in faraway places, perhaps with an unopened yurt kit, much more kelp than needed, or nursing a yearlong ayahuasca hangover. Richard Alderson found himself in Chiapas, Mexico, newly emigrated, with a pair of Electro-Voice mics and an incredible knack for finding amazing indigenous music in the highlands.

Alderson, an engineer for ESP-Disk, was behind the boards for many of the label’s finest sessions. Here we find a newly released version of his virtually unheard Folkways release, Modern Mayan: The Indian Music of Chiapas, Mexico, originally issued in the mid’ 70s.

There’s a gripping lyrical quality to this music that’s incessantly mystifying. Guitar and harp strokes entwine with primitive violin sawing creating this fierce emotional tug. When the locals are in the full band fiesta set-up, lazy trombones sag with wasted horn bleats, all sounding very out and very wonderful. This is absolutely devastating stuff, where occasionally homemade rockets are audible passing from left to right channels, all just part of the festivities.

Listening to modern Mayan music poses several problems.  This music grew out of 16th century European foundations on one hand, and on the other it is unlike any other music anywhere.  The European influence has been working continuously in indigenous life and consciousness, from conquest times up to the present, yet there is a strong presence of the ancient Mayan spirit surfacing in the style and rhythms of this music today.
Thus the tonal modulations in this music are simple and repetitive, and the harmonies are rudimentary.  The
rhythms, however, are complex and unrelated to European models or greatly transformed from them.
The intonation, while based on the diatonic scale and peculiarly close to fixed western pitches, is subtley different
from what any western musician would play.
Finally, the context of this music is completely different from the world as we know it,  necessitating the opening of our ears to another place and time.  However, the rewards are great when the borders are crossed musically into this
land of original American art.
See and listen also here.

Folk City

May 17, 2015 by



Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival, by Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen (Oxford University Press)

From Washington Square Park and the Gaslight Café to WNYC Radio and Folkways Records, New York City’s cultural, artistic, and commercial assets helped to shape a distinctively urban breeding ground for the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s.

Folk City explores New York’s central role in fueling the nationwide craze for folk music in postwar America. It involves the efforts of record company producers and executives, club owners, concert promoters, festival organizers, musicologists, agents and managers, editors and writers – and, of course, musicians and audiences.

In Folk City, authors Stephen Petrus and Ron Cohen capture the exuberance of the times and introduce readers to a host of characters who brought a new style to the biggest audience in the history of popular music. Among the savvy New York entrepreneurs committed to promoting folk music were Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, Mike Porco of Gerde’s Folk City, and John Hammond of Columbia Records.

While these and other businessmen developed commercial networks for musicians, the performance venues provided the artists space to test their mettle. The authors portray Village coffee houses not simply as lively venues but as incubators of a burgeoning counterculture, where artists from diverse backgrounds honed their performance techniques and challenged social conventions.

Accessible and engaging, fresh and provocative, rich in anecdotes and primary sources, Folk City is lavishly illustrated with images collected for the accompanying major exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 2015.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 352 other followers