Author Archive

Scenes from a Marriage (The Peers and the Carters)

March 31, 2015


edited from Barry Mazor (“Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music”):

The act that represented the very image of rural domesticity for so many was being privately pulled apart by domestic tensions.  Sara Carter was tiring of A.P. Carter’s constant absence on song-hunting trips, and his remoteness and lack of involvement in everyday farm and family life when he did come home.

A.P.’s more fun-loving, naturally affectionate, and present cousin, Coy Bayes, had increasingly been attracting he attention, until the worried extended family forced Coy to leave the area entirely.  A despondent Sara absented herself from the farm and her children, moving in with relatives.

A.P. and Sara were now very much separated, as Peer would learn when he brought up getting music and family members together for recording in April 1933;  Sara was refusing to join in, preferring to avoid A.P. altogether.

Anita Peer [wife of Ralph Peer, who recorded the Carter Family for the Victor Talking Machine Company] wrote to Sara Carter,

“Of course it is really none of my business, but I just wondered if there was anything I could do to help things along.  I realize it would be distinctively awkward for both you and A.P. to work again, but on the other hand, the ‘Carter Family’  has become well known and there is the chance to make some more money, even in these days of depression.

I have been divorced once myself, as I think I told you, so I can sympathize with you perfectly…Even if you never live together again you could get together for professional purposes like the movie stars do.  Practically all of them are divorced, or should be…”

In 1936 Ralph Peer wrote to Sara Carter,

“What are your plans now as to A.P.?  He has written me that you are suing for divorce…He apparently wanted me to exert some pressure upon you, but I told him that this was a matter that people had to settle for themselves, and something in which I did not want to interfere…From a business standpoint, it is important that the Carter Family should not be too broken up.”



Louisiana Cajun and Creole Music: The Newport Field Recordings

March 30, 2015



Louisiana Cajun & Creole Music: The Newport Field Recordings (Rounder Records)

The Newport Folk Foundation played a pivotal role in the resurgence of Cajun-Creole music when its future looked bleak. At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, a performance by a Cajun trio that included Dewey Balfa turned out to be a turning point when an audience of 17,000 gave them a thunderous, standing ovation. Since local popular opinion had scoffed at the idea of Cajun musicians playing out-of-state beforehand, the response came as a welcome surprise.

Balfa would go on to become a cultural spokesperson, urging his fellow Cajuns to be proud of their music. Cajun-Creole bands were booked in successive years; Adam and Cyprien Landreneau in ’65, “Bois Sec” Ardoin and Canray Fontenot in ’66 and Les Frères Balfa in ’67.

Between 1964 and 1967, the Foundation’s folklorist emeritus Ralph Rinzler visited Louisiana and made these field recordings of the aforementioned plus Austin Pitre and the Evangeline Playboys, ballad singer/fiddler Edius Naquin, and a trio consisting of Isom Fontenot, Preston Manuel and Aubrey DeVille.

Now, in its third generation of reissue, both volumes of Rounder’s historical Louisiana Cajun French Music are combined into one epic, 27-track disc. Though that fact is omitted from the physical packaging, it is mentioned in the vastly expanded liner notes, an 84-page PDF document embedded in the disc. Incidentally, be prepared to spend some time digesting the document’s articles, interviews and lyric translations.

Many of the tunes heard here are sonic signatures of their respective performers, such as the Balfa Brothers’ “Parlez-nous à boire,” Canray Fontenot’s “Bonsoir, Moreau” and Austin Pitre’s “Les flames d’Enfer.” Armed with quality equipment, Rinzler certainly captured the best of his subjects. The performances are often gut- wrenchingly powerful and highly emotive, causing them to resonate within the soul some six decades later.

Hangman’s Reel

March 29, 2015

from and


The origins of the tune are somewhat obscure. It was in the repertoire of Albert Hash, a traditional fiddler of Whitetop or Rugby, Va. and identified by him as originally a British Isles tune, though stylistically that provenance is doubtful. Susan Songer and Clyde Curley (1997) report that New York fiddler Judy Hyman (of the Horseflies) believes it originally derived from the Québecois tune “Reel du Pendu” (Hanged Man’s Reel) and that it was rendered in a Southern old-time style by younger upstate New York fiddlers.

According to Hash’s nephew, Albert learned “Hangman’s Reel”  from a 1968 recording by Texas fiddler Bill Northcutt (1935-1992), still remembered as a top-notch musician. Whether the tune was a Southern traditional tune or a “revival” processing, it has since become a very popular “festival tune” among younger old-time fiddlers and frequently heard at square dances.

Wayne Erbsen relates the following:

For many years I’ve been playing a tune called “Hangman’s Reel,” which I learned from the late fiddler Albert Hash, of Whitetop, Virginia. According to this legend, a fiddler was about to be hung. While waiting for his execution he could see workers constructing the gallows outside his jailhouse cell. Just then the prisoner noticed an old fiddle hanging on the jailhouse wall. He called the jailor over and claimed to be the best fiddler in those parts.

After a heated argument, they made a wager. If the condemned man would get up on the gallows before his execution and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the best fiddler, he would be set free. Otherwise, he would get the noose. The jailer gave the prisoner the fiddle to practice on and left him alone in his cell.

Unbeknownst to the jailer, the condemned man had never even touched a fiddle in his life, but he decided this was his best chance at freedom. You can bet he practiced that night. When morning came, the prisoner was escorted to the gallows where he expertly played the tune now known as “Hangman’s Reel.” Unfortunately, history forgot to record if he was set free or instead received the “suspended sentence” he so richly deserved. Nevertheless, it makes a damn good story!


March 28, 2015


by Jonathan Ward (

The Congolese version of the cha-cha-cha was born out of the continued influence of Cuban and Caribbean music on the popular musicians of the Congo. And by the late 1950s, that influence was pervasive across Sub-Saharan Africa. The popularity of the hundreds of Congolese rumbas issued on labels like Ngoma, Opika, and Loningisa was so strong that their distribution and influence spread across to Kenya, into West Africa, and to the nightclubs of France, with much success.

The Congolese cha-cha-cha apparently began in the studios of the short-lived but influential Esengo label. In late 1956-early 1957, the Greek-owned Esengo had purloined many of the area’s most popular stars from other labels, essentially creating stellar supergroups with a stock of talent that would become the mainstays of music in the Congo for decades:

Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele, Nico Kasanda (aka “Dr Nico” or simply “Nico”), Nedule “Papa Noël” Montswet on guitar, Tino Baroza, Jean Serge Essous, and Nino Malapet on saxophones, and Moniania ma Muluma, also known as “Roitelet” on bass. This group, with additions and subtractions, in various shapes and forms, became the famous Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo, contributing to or issuing about 250 records on Esengo over approximately 4 years.

The first cha-cha-cha in Congo came quickly – “Baila” written by Essous, and the 7th release on the Esengo label – and it was a major success. The Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo eventually disbanded, and in the meantime members had siphoned themselves across the river to Brazzaville to form the Orchestre Bantou Jazz, another crack outfit continuing the trend of electrified rumbas, merengues, and cha-cha-chas.

This track, “The Moon and the Sun” (certainly it should be “y el” as opposed to “yel” on the label – but I’ve kept the original spelling), was written and performed by guitarist Papa Noël accompanied by the Bantou group sometime in the early 1960s. Nothing is quite as enjoyable as their perfectly timed, overlapping electric guitars – Papa Noël wasn’t quite as adventurous as Nico as a guitarist, but he was refined and perfectly timed. Seeing this band in its prime must have been simply incredible.

Listen: Papa Noël et l’Orchestre Bantou Jazz – La Luna Yel Sol

Acadian All Star Special

March 27, 2015


Acadian All Star Special, 3-CD boxed set (LP-size) with 80-page-hardcover Book, 78 tracks, playing time 209:50.
A roots music classic from Bear Family! The dawn of modern Cajun music! Records so rare that just a few copies exist of most of them! Very few of these recordings ever reissued on 45, LP, or CD until now! Songs include the original version of ‘Diggy Liggy Lo’ plus ‘Big Texas’…the song that Hank Williams adapted into ‘Jambalaya’.
This was a set years in the making. It took ages to figure out exactly how many classic Cajun recordings had been made by legendary record producer J.D. Miller in the 1940s and ’50s, and then it took even longer to find them and painstakingly restore the sound. Finally, Cajun music expert Lyle Ferbrache tried to track down as many of the survivors and relatives as possible for the extensive book. But it was well worth the wait! The result is a classic roots music collection done as only Bear Family can do it!
From 1946 to 1959, J.D. Miller released all forms of French language records, from the beautiful fiddle and guitar records of Oran ‘Doc’Guidry and Leroy ‘Happy Fats’ Leblanc to the raucous recordings of Robert Bertrand and the Lake Charles Playboys. Many very rare recordings are reissued here for the first time, and those include the first recordings of Jimmy Newman. Also included are such rarities as ‘War Widow Waltz’ by LauraBroussard, Terry Clement’s original version of ‘DiggyLiggy Lo’, and Papa Cairo’s ‘Big Texas’, the song that Hank Williams adapted into the one Cajun song everyone knows, ‘Jambalaya’. This is a marvelous part of American music that came close to being lost for all time!

Four generations of Tanners keep Skillet Lickers alive

March 26, 2015

John Bohn Fleet Stanley, left, plays a Drobo guitar, Larry Holcombe plays bass guitar, Phil Tanner plays guitar and Phil’s son Russ Tanner, right, plays fiddle as members of the Gwinnett County musical group, the Skillit Lickers



James Gideon Tanner — better known as Gid — was a farmer in Dacula and played the fiddle on the side.

By 1926, he and other musicians such as Clayton McMichen on fiddle and Riley Puckett on guitar, created a group called Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, recording country and bluegrass music from 1924 to 1934. The men sold millions of records for their songs, like “Down Yonder” and “Pass Around the Bottle and We’ll All Take a Drink.”

The original group members eventually dispersed while Tanner’s son Gordon took the reins with a new round of performers until he passed away in 1982.  Four generations later, thanks to the younger Tanners wanting to take over, The Skillet Lickers are still alive and well and performing on a regular basis.

“According to historians, they were one of the most famous string bands of that era,” said Phil Tanner, who is a third generation member of the group. “My dad (Gordon) continued the group on. He was 15 or 16 years old when (The Skillet Lickers) recorded their last recording session in San Antonio, Texas, and he was the lead fiddle player.”

Nowadays, Phil Tanner, his son Russ and friends Fleet Stanley, Larry Holcombe, Joel Aderhold and Brian Morgan still meet in The Chicken House — yes, that was once an actual chicken house — behind the Tanner house off of Auburn Avenue in Dacula to pick, string and sing old-time tunes from Gid Tanner’s time.  The men tune their instruments under a tin roofed porch before “jamming.” Before they had this playing space, they practiced in the house.

“I think it got so crowded in the house, (we) had to do something,” Stanley said. “They had quit laying chickens and hens, so we started playing out here. When I’d come home (from living in Washington, D.C.), this is where we’d play.”

“Ran the chickens out and put a floor in,” Phil Tanner said with a laugh.

When the shack was converted in 1955, Phil Tanner and Stanley remember two oil drums that were cut in half with smoke stacks out the roof, which kept them warm during the winter months.

“If you sat too close to the drums, you were too hot and if you sat too far away, you were too cold,” Stanley said. “You’d rather be too hot so you could feel your fingers.”

Now almost 50 years later, the guys don’t really remember how they got in the group — or when, for that matter,  Stanley and Phil Tanner knew each other from high school and had a band together. Holcombe would jam with the guys at The Chicken House for fun and never left. Russ Tanner, well, he’s just part of a family with music in his blood.

“Shoot. I guess I’ve always tagged along. I don’t know when it was an official start or not. Maybe in the ’80s,” Russ Tanner said while holding his hand-crafted fiddle. “I’ve just always been around it, so I guess I didn’t know any different.”

As times are changing, so is the music. The men believe that this old-time genre is being left behind.  “We figure when the older generation is gone, there won’t be any demand for us,” Stanley said. “People don’t know the older style guitar and music.”

But a fifth-generation Tanner has begun to take an interest in the music. Phil Tanner’s 13-year-old granddaughter plays the fiddle for different events.  “She already knows how to play ‘Down Yonder,'” Stanley said of the young musician.


Country Music in Africa

March 25, 2015


from Sam Backer’s interview with Uchenna Ikonne about the history of country music in Africa  (

Sam Backer: How popular is country music in Nigeria?

Uchenna Ikonne: Country music has been popular across Africa for a very long time. I don’t know when it became popular exactly, but I know that it’s been in circulation for at least the 1920s or 1930s, perhaps.

So, really the same time that it was coming into widespread popularity in the United States.

Exactly. So Jimmie Rodgers, for example. Jimmie Rodgers was probably the main pioneer of country music in general and he was also one of the first country music artists to find some popularity in Africa.

So his records were distributed and sold?

Not only him, but his records were quite popular. They were on 78s.

Somehow, in a lot of ways, Jimmie Rodgers makes some sense. He–I mean, he yodels! Jimmie Rodgers is kind of intense music. The thing that I find remarkable is that there’s a much smoother sound that was also very, very popular.

I would say that the style that probably achieved the most popularity and has remained popular is the Nashville sound. That is the sound that was pioneered by Chet Atkins and other Nashville musicians and producers and that was a lot smoother than the honky tonk style that had come before; it had rich background vocals and strings. I think that is the style that has endured most of all.

So when that style first came out in the ’60s, was there any particular segment of society that listened to it?

I think that everyone listened to it, because it was played on the radio and it was very appealing to the whole population.  The thing about country music though, despite the fact that its lyrical concerns were very similar to what you would find in 99 percent of Western pop music–which is basically the ups and downs of romantic relationships–people tended to ascribe a kind of spiritual quality to the music. I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

First of all, it’s probably the sound of it: country music always had very curious sounds–whether it’s the nasal vocal style or the yodeling, or whether you are talking about those very high pitched and keening instruments, like the pedal steel guitar or the string sections that came in during the Nashville period, a lot of these sounds had an otherworldly quality that I believe that African artists tended to interpret as spiritually reparative. So despite the fact that they were singing “You done left me and now I’m drinking,” people really felt that there was something about that music that was beyond sensual concerns.

A mix by Uchenna Ikonne  features Nigerian artists like musician/actress Christy Essien-Igbokwe and singer Henry Pedro playing in the folk, country, and rock genres that are typically associated with America and the U.K. Featuring tracks that recall Western classics like Simon & Garfunkel‘s “The Boxer” or Elvin Bishop‘s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” the compilation is at times melancholic, at others hopeful, but always engaging. Listen to it here.

Folk and the Roots of American Music

March 24, 2015


 Troubadours: Folk and the Roots of American Music (Bear Family, four 3-disc volumes)

Reviewed by Ed Ward (

As a longtime folkie, my curiosity was piqued by this latest collection, which covers the American folk scene from the earliest songwriters to pass themselves off as folk (or, to be fair, to be passed off that way by their record companies), through, well, through I’m not sure what. To call the overriding concept of this collection, if there is one,  “eccentric” would be an understatement. I was fairly close to the ‘60s folk scene in New York as a teenaged fan, and quite frankly I don’t recognize its picture here, which makes me wonder about the rest of the project.

The first three discs take us from pioneers like the Carter Family (who actually composed most of their own songs, sometimes to traditional tunes) and Lead Belly (whose famous “Good Night Irene” turned out to have been written by a professional songwriter in Cincinnati in the late 19th century) through the political folksong movement epitomized by Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers, who included Pete Seeger.

The story then continues through the early 1950s, the Weavers (who also included Pete Seeger), and the earliest pop-folk group, the Tarriers. The next trio surveys, on its first disc, the collegiate groups like the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and so on, and then moves on to two discs of the New York scene of the early ‘60s, via Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Tim Hardin, and others. So far, mostly so good, although I was kind of shocked that the infamous graffito on Minetta Lane (“Tim Hardin is a bad boy”) in front of which so many folkies were photographed, isn’t even alluded to.

The next three discs show the folk scare in full flower, and the early days of folk-rock. Disc 7 is devoted to three performers, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Buffy Ste-Marie. Then it’s on to a survey of Boston’s scene, and, on Disc 9, something labeled “The East Coast” that, well, starts to make less sense. The Lovin Spoonful, Tim Rose, and…Jim Croce? Melanie? (more…)

Greenwood Sidey

March 23, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 5.41.52 AM

excerpt from interview of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle by Mason Adams (

Elizabeth:  The Greenwood Sidey is in the Child Ballads collection, from the big book of versions from England and Scotland published in the 19th century. In that book, which is sort of canonical, it’s known as “The Cruel Mother.” It’s very dark, one of the darkest songs that I know.

It’s obviously one of the more difficult-to-contemplate crimes, even today. I think the refrain is really poignant and illuminating, that’s she’s all alone and lonely in this situation. You know, there’s no one else: the father of these kids is not even mentioned.

It’s really kind of spooky imagining a woman who has just given birth to two new people, but she’s still alone and is making sure she’s going to remain that way, and I think she’s really haunted by that decision. Even when she gets to talk to those people, they’re imaginary. They’re ghosts, they’re not quite there, so she’s alone throughout.
Anna: It’s a horror story, but in some ways it can feel like a very feminist story. I remember I was learning that song and then watched this movie about the Magdalene Laundries, where people who had babies out of wedlock were shunned by their families and sent to be almost captives in these nunneries.

It went on until the 70s in Ireland. It made sense to me, that there was some sort of weird strength in this cruel mother character. She would escape society because there’s so much shame on her being pregnant out of wedlock. Somehow the forces outside the forest lead her into the forest to do this awful deed.

That’s really intriguing. I don’t know if I totally agree with that reading, but it is one interpretation. Another reading is that she’s totally crazy. I’d be curious to go back in time and interview ballad singers about what they thought about the song: ‘What do you think about the woman? is she a sinful woman and this is a lesson? Do you sympathize with her or not?’

A collection of 16 traditional songs thoughtfully gathered and interpreted, Anna & Elizabeth’s new, self-titled album (via Free Dirt Records) guides listeners through the duo’s intense personal connection with each song, for a warm and intimate experience. With minimal guests and arrangements, the focus remains on the rich and subtle interplay between Anna & Elizabeth’s own harmonies and instrumentation. Fiddle and banjo lines intertwine in an age-old dance, and Elizabeth’s powerful vocals are matched by Anna’s softer timbre in their remarkably rich harmonizing.

        Devon Léger

Sam Charters: 1929-2015

March 22, 2015

edited from

Samuel Charters, whose books and field research helped detonate the blues and folk music revival of the 1960s and ’70s, died on Wednesday at his home in Arsta, Sweden. He was 85.

When Mr. Charters’s first book, “The Country Blues,” was published at the tail end of the 1950s, the rural Southern blues of the pre-World War II period was a largely ignored genre. But the book caused a sensation among college students and aspiring folk performers, like Bob Dylan, and it created a tradition of blues scholarship to which Mr. Charters would continue to contribute with books like “The Roots of the Blues” and “The Legacy of the Blues.”

Released in tandem with “The Country Blues,” which remains in print, was an album of the same name containing 14 songs, little known and almost impossible to find at the time, recorded in the 1920s and ’30s by artists like Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell and Bukka White.

Equally important, the aura of mystery Mr. Charters created around his subjects — where had they disappeared to? were they even alive? — encouraged readers to go out into the field themselves. John Fahey, Alan Wilson, Henry Vestine, Dick Waterman and other disciples tracked down vanished performers like Mr. White, Mr. Estes, Skip James and Son House, and their careers were revived. Their song catalogs were soon injected into folk and pop music.

“I always had the feeling that there were so few of us, and the work so vast,” Mr. Charters told Matthew Ismail, the author of the 2011 book “Blues Discovery.” “That’s why I wrote the books as I did, to romanticize the glamour of looking for old blues singers. I was saying: ‘Help! This job is really big, and I really need lots of help!’ I really exaggerated this, but it worked. My God, I came back from a year in Europe and I found kids doing research in the South.”

Mr. Charters had himself succumbed to the lure of field work. In 1958 he went to the Bahamas to record the guitarist Joseph Spence (who would influence the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal and others), and a year later he helped revive the career of the Texas guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins. He pursued overlooked music and artists on four continents for the next 50 years.

Mr. Charters had long been involved in the civil rights movement and left-wing causes, and the Vietnam War infuriated him. He moved to Sweden with his family in 1970 and acquired Swedish citizenship. For many years he shuttled between Arsta, a suburb of Stockholm, and Storrs, where his wife, who survives him, taught American literature at the University of Connecticut.

Mr. Charters wrote about jazz and blues until the end of his life. His book “A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora,” a series of essays on the evolution of music in places like the Caribbean, Brazil and the Georgia Sea Islands, was published in 2009.

Two other books, “Songs of Sorrow,” a biography of Lucy McKim Garrison, who in the mid-19th century compiled the first book of American slave songs, and “The Harry Bright Dances,” a novel about roots music set in Oklahoma, are scheduled for publication next month.

“For me, the writing about black music was my way of fighting racism,” Mr. Charters said in his interview with Mr. Ismail. “That’s why my work is not academic, that is why it is absolutely nothing but popularization: I wanted people to hear black music.”


March 21, 2015

Manfila “Dabadou” Kanté was the lead singer of Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, from Guinea, and appears on all of their early Syliphone recordings.  He is not the same guitarist as Kante Manfila of Les Ambassadeurs.  This video is from the early 1990s.

“Toubaka” is a  West African love song of the Malinké people, traditionally played on the kora (harp) or balafon (marimba).

Radio Africa offers a large selection of Guinean music, including many more videos of Manfila “Dabadou” Kante.

View video here.


Touba ka literally means “a man from Touba”. He is the symbol of trust and he loves to travel. Anytime he arrives in a village it is an occasion to celebrate. But the village members are also eager to know when the Touba Ka will leave so that they can give him messages to bring to family members living far away.

“Toubaka stands apart from the bulk of the jeli’s (griot’s) repertory not only because it is a love song, but also because of its extended harmonic scheme of four chords that unfold over a relatively long stretch of time. It probably originated in Upper Guinea, perhaps from Kankan, on the guitar or accordion in the 1930s if not earlier. It is a favorite of guitarists from Upper Guinea, who excel in playing it.

Some verses of “Toubaka”:

The oldest word Is undoubtedly the word “love”, Forgive me, my beloved one, If I have hurt you.

I am coming to you, my beloved one. Not in order for you to give me anything, I am coming to you, my beloved one, Simply because I love you.

And may you know, o my beloved one, That the first characteristic Of nobility Is the respect for one’s pledge.

And since people are not all alike Do not rank me, o my love, With those who deny their promises.

Tou left. Oh, the Toubaka, living in Touba, Tou left.

Tou, I pray thee, I beg you, Take my letters to my children and parent.

Do everything to see me again. Do not go without me.

St. James Sessions (#2)

March 20, 2015

st_james from

St. James Sessions is a very welcome website dedicated to the recording sessions held at Knoxville, Tennessee’s St. James Hotel in 1929 and ’30. It might seem obscure at first glance, but from this modest collection of dates came some of the greatest records of the pre-war period.

Curiously (and frustratingly), the best records to come from St. James were by artists who only made one record a piece: Alex Hood and his Railroad Boys’ “L&N Rag” and “Corbin Slide” and Hayes Shepherd’s (as the Appalachia Vagabond) “Hard for to Love” and “The Peddlar and His Wife.”

These records have more style and personality than 18/20ths of their hillbilly contemporaries. Also made here were the two sides of Howard Armstrong (Louie Bluie) and Carl and Roland Martin’s Tennessee Chocolate Drops: “Knox County Stomp” b/w “Vine Street Rag.” Carl Martin’s later records in the early ’30s don’t come close to comparing to the Drops’ tunes from St. James; Louie Bluie’s 1934 dates with Ted Bogan get closer, but we’d take these first.

See also: the four sides of the Perry County Music Makers – with Nonnie Smith Presson’s lonesome yodelling and autoharping – and the killer religious piano blues* of Leola Manning. Her “Arcade Building Moan,” about a fire which killed several children in Knoxville, was included on one of Dick Spottswood’s Folk Music In America volumes, and has long haunted us. This site gave us our first chance to hear her topical murder ballad “Satan Is Busy In Knoxville.”

See also here.

New Orleans String Bands: 1880-1949

March 19, 2015



Seva Venet, Revisiting New Orleans String Bands: 1880-1949 (Threadhead Records)

In addition to playing hundreds of gigs in his 15 years in the Crescent City, guitarist/banjoist Seva Venet has done some serious study of the early string bands of New Orleans.

Like the mandolin orchestras which used to populate the land, this is a nearly extinct genre: How often today do you hear, for instance, a quartet of mandolin, fiddle, banjo and upright bass playing ragtime and early jazz?

For this listener, the disc is most exciting when it touches on music that’s tangential to what we usually consider the prime elements that made up early jazz. These include “El Zopilote Mojado” (a Mexican Polka), which clarinetist James Evans, violinist Matt Rhody and Venet pull off with a superb brio; and the medley of “Creole Belles/Aloha Oe/My Bucket’s Got a Hole in it.”

It’s great fun to hear “Belles” played with a tango rhythm (as it undoubtedly could’ve been back in the day) and to realize that “Aloha Oe” (the “Saints” of Hawaiian music) was part of the New Orleans mix in 1884.

This disc also presents Seva’s reimagining of what a quadrille might have sounded like by an 1880s New Orleans string band—an ambitious undertaking. By taking on this project, Venet has delved into areas where not many musicologists have wandered (though at the same time he gives credit to those who’ve done important research).

Fifteen pages of notes accompany the CD, and Emilie Rhys’ beautiful translation of a photo of an old-time trio into her singular ink-drawing style is the icing on this cake.

Big Bamboo

March 18, 2015

In the Pines

March 18, 2015


excerpt from Shaleane Gee (

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me —
Tell me where did you sleep last night?

As Norm Cohen notes in Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, the most frequently found elements in “In the Pines” are a verse about a long train, and a line or two about a decapitation. Sometimes there is an accident, sometimes not. Sometimes the accident involves a train, sometimes not.

Sometimes the pines become the central image, in various versions representing solace, pain, innocence, shame, life, death, taboo sex, or pious abstinence. Sometimes a specific crime is identified and the train serves as avenging angel, swooping down to decapitate the sinner. Sometimes the interrogator shifts from first to second or third person. Almost all versions do include some sort of interrogation, and the person being interrogated is always a woman.

That the dialogue takes the form of an interrogation, and begins by assuming a lie, suggests that something sinister as well as violent has happened here. But what? The dialogue hardly explains. The overall effect is one of stumbling onto haunted ground, or a crime scene, or both. Writing in the hefty Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, Alan Palmer puts it this way:

What was the girl doing in the pines? What’s the connection between her being in the pines and the death of her husband? The listener can either safely or tentatively attribute certain states of mind to the narrator (anxiety, possessiveness) and the girl (fear) and can guess at others (guilt)…Is she shivering in the pines because of the death of her husband?

If so, what is the nature of this causation? Is there some element of guilt involved on the part of the woman? It seems unlikely that she was in any way responsible for his death from a train crash, so the most satisfying explanation is that her sense of guilt arises from her being unfaithful to her husband, presumably with the narrator, at the time of his death. In turn, his anxiety may arise from his awareness of the depth of her feelings of guilt and his concern that she may harm herself.

After all, there’s not necessarily a train crash in this song — who is to say that the woman didn’t push her husband onto the tracks? Perhaps in self defense, or just to get rid of him? Perhaps she’s on the lam, literally or metaphorically or both, hiding out in a forest as well as in a spiritual wilderness.

If she is guilty, perhaps she is remorseful, but maybe she is defiant. Perhaps her husband was the adulterer. Perhaps she is a liar, even a murderer. Perhaps the narrator is a man of the law trying to find that out, or a man of God trying to do the same. Perhaps the interrogator is her husband, back from the dead to haunt her and get his ghostly revenge.

If you are a fan of mysteries and thrillers, then you are familiar with the moment when the detectives enter the suspect’s room.  Listening to “In the Pines” is a bit like peering into that room and lifting your foot to step across the threshold. You know you’ve found what you’ve been looking for, but you also know that you haven’t yet come close to knowing just what it is.

The Mississippi

March 17, 2015

CMJN de base


THE MISSISSIPPI (2CD), Accords Croises (AC156/57)

Big Jack Johnson, Zion Harmonizers, Spider John Koerner, Leo Welch, Kermit Ruffins, L. C. Ulmer, Rebirth Brass Band, Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes, Magnolia Sisters, Little Freddie King, Como Fife And Drum Band, South Memphis String Band and more…

The Mississippi River flows from the Great Lakes region all the way to the Gulf Of Mexico and passes through a wide variety of cities, towns and rural communities, In doing so, it interacts with a whole cornucopia of people and, by extension, has influenced, and continues to influence, many musical styles and idioms.

Across this massively impressive 28 track compilation, the extent of this musical variety is given full expression. It includes representative, as well as wonderfully impressive and enjoyable, slices of many of the divergent styles that have made up American music for generations. Furthermore, the offerings are almost all of a relatively recent vintage, demonstrating that the musical traditions that evolved around the Mississippi over many years continue to be vibrant and relevant to this day. Incorporated herein are tremendous examples of delta blues, Cajun and zydeco, New Orleans jazz, gospel, folk, swamp pop and much more besides.

The set gets off to a thumping start with an electric blues number (and near-Howlin’ Wolf pastiche) about Hurricane Katrina from Big Jack Johnson And The Cornlickers. Some other corking inclusions that dedicated Red Lickers may already be familiar with are the North Mississippi gospel blues sides from both Leo Welch and Reverend John Wilkins (both courtesy of Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess albums), contemporary juke blues from Big A &  The All-Stars (from Broke & Hungry’s superb We Juke Up In Here) and the contemporary delta blues of Little Freddie King (from Messin’ Around The House on Madewright) and Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes (Broke & Hungry).

Moving beyond blues related numbers, other highlights can be found anywhere you look. Kermit Ruffins Treme Mardi Gras is an enlivening stew of New Orleans jazz, funk, rap, soul and rock and is guaranteed to get your butt rockin’, as will the Rebirth Brass Band’s more traditional, but no less lively, New Orleans street jazz on I Like It Like That. Mixing traditional folk with Cajun, Cedric Watson’s La Vieille Chanson de Mardi Gras is another up-tempo number that hits the spot every time.

On the quieter and more reflective numbers, Afrissippi’s Nduumandii/Hands Off That Girl beautifully blends Mississippi delta blues stylings with African blues patterns across six gorgeous minutes. The Jones Sisters acapella gospel  singing on Talk With Jesus and The Magnolia Sisters old-time Cajun harmonies on L’Annee de Cinquante – Sept are both subtle delights that end far too soon.

The oldest track included here, both in terms of the musical traditions and the date of recording, is the Como Fife And Drum Band’s on Punky Tony (recorded in  in 1967 and previously available on the sensational George Mitchell Collection, a 7CD set on Fat Possum). The atmosphere evoked by this spine-chilling music encourages reflections on the Mississippi’s influence on the creation and operation of the slave trade so many years ago.

And rounding off this special offering is the packaging, set within a nice hardback book format is a 28 page booklet that provides (in English and French) a short introduction to the concept of the set and short informative individual portraits of each featured artist.

Songhoy Blues

March 16, 2015



Songhoy Blues is a four-strong “desert blues” band, based in Mali. It is made up of musicians who fled northern Mali after a loose assortment of militant Islamist groups captured the territory and implemented strict sharia law – including the prohibition of secular music – in spring 2012. The musicians first met at a wedding in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, and started playing together to help recreate the rich tradition of northern Malian music for the growing population of refugees in the south.

Musicians had long been important social figures in Mali. They occupied a specific, revered cultural class, called the “griots”, and their role encompassed entertainer, reporter, historian, and political commentator. Their unique power and influence explains why the invading Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, the largest of the fundamental Islamist groups, were particularly keen to block their activities in August 2012.

The official sentence for breaching the music ban was a public whipping, although Songhoy Blues’ founding member and guitarist Garba Touré was threatened with having his hand cut off if he continued playing. Radio stations were burned down, musical instruments were smashed, and there were reports of people being beaten by the occupying militia just for having polyphonic ringtones.

The Malian military stepped in to counteract the Islamist groups’ advance in February 2013, with the help of troops from France and surrounding African countries. But emotional residue from the conflict lingers, and – despite the lifting of sharia law – many musicians continue to self-censor, fearful of the Islamist groups’ return and retribution.

Garba Touré left his hometown of Diré, upstream from Timbuktu along the river Niger, once his safety in northern Mali had become untenable. He settled in Bamako, 1000km away, alongside thousands of other refugees. Here he met two more musicians from the Songhoy tribe (a North Malian ethnic group), Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré, and local drummer Nathanael Dembélé.

As a band the foursome played rough and rowdy blues-rock anthems, the lyrics of which called for an end to the conflict. Their audiences, which packed out Bamako bars and restaurants, were a mix of refugee Songhoys and Tuaregs – long-feuding northern Malian ethnic groups united against the insurgent Islamist groups.

In September 2013, documentary filmmaker Johanna Schwartz wrote for Index on Censorship magazine on the censorship and persecution that musicians in Mali have faced since the ban on music: “There is a fear that freedoms may not be so easily restored,” wrote Schwartz. Today, although the ban has been theoretically lifted, the fear remains. “Because of the violence, it is still impossible for me to play music in my hometown,” said Touré, who is from the northern city Gao.

The band is now based in Bamako, where the members long for the weekend to perform in local bars. But as music was being driven out of the country — even those with musical ringtones on their mobile phones faced crackdowns — many musicians fled Mali. They Will Have to Kill Us First, Schwartz’s feature-length documentary, follows the story of Mali’s musical superstars as they fight for their right to sing.



Global Breakfast Radio

March 15, 2015

from and

The sun is always rising somewhere; breakfast is always just about to happen. And in the background of breakfast is radio, soundtrack to a billion bowls of cereal or congee, shakshuka or api, porridge or changua.

Global Breakfast Radio aggregates radio stations from across the world, constantly streaming
broadcasts from wherever it’s breakfast-time right now. It’s the equivalent of a plane flying west
with the sunrise, constantly tracking the chatter and music of people across the planet.
In some small way, Global Breakfast Radio hopes to be a way of traveling globally through the
medium of radio.

It’s about the leap of imagination you make when you tune into a broadcast from a station hundreds or thousands of miles away – and for a time you hum the same song as a
butcher in Memphis, a taxi driver in Jerusalem, or a lawyer in Jakarta.

“Whether or not you eat breakfast, the start of a new day embodies a certain optimism and freshness — it’s almost like a period of free time, when you’ve not quite shaken off the fug of sleep and not yet started to get bound up by the stresses of the day,” explains co-founder Daniel Jones.

“As the sun rises on the Greenwich Mean Line, you’ll hear breakfast programmes from around the UK, Iceland and West Africa; the broadcast then moves westwards, following the sunrise across the Atlantic islands, sweeping over America and then into the Pacific.”

“The effect is that of following the sunrise around the planet, but in radio form,” adds co-founder Seb Emina. “You get to explore some of the tens of thousands of stations, big and small, that are broadcasting at any given moment. I’ve always been fascinated by internet radio and the ability it gives me to listen to radio stations from places I have never visited and only have the tiniest (or no) inkling of.”

The pair has carefully curated a list of more than 250 stations from every time zone on the planet — a process that’s taken more than 12 months and involved listening to a lot of breakfast radio. “There’s something magical about eavesdropping on a local radio station from Nepal or a small town in South Carolina, something that reminds me of the early promise of the web, that it would allow us to explore in quite an unfiltered and open way,” says Emina.

The station draws from over 250 stations in more than 120 countries, broadcasting in over 50
different languages, from Letio Tongo 89.5 in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, to Pop Latino and Ranchera music program La Chimalteca 101.5FM in Chimaltenango, Guatemala, a traditional “oompah” station from Germany called “Alpenmelodie”, a kids’ broadcaster from Novosibirsk in Russian Siberia, and a Chamorro music station from a small village in Guam which has been broadcasting since 1954.

You can listen to Global Breakfast Radio at

New Orleans String Bands at the Turn of the Century

March 14, 2015

New Orleans String Band. From Left: Youman Jacob, Coochie Martin, Unidentified, Wendell McNeil. Photo from University of Connecticut.

From Left: Youman Jacob, Coochie Martin, Unidentified, Wendell McNeil. Photo courtesy of Samuel and Ann Charters Archives, University of Connecticut.

edited from  Seva Venet (

During the last two decades of the 19th Century, string bands with skilled Creole musicians were in high demand all around New Orleans. They performed at various functions, including picnics, parlor room parties and balls. Between 1884 and 1917 there were major changes in how the music was played, brought on by the changing demands of dancers and the changing attitudes in response to the implementation of the Black Codes (U.S. laws limiting civil liberties of blacks) in the late 1800s.

There were three main types of ensemble performing around New Orleans from the 1880s to 1917: brass bands (for funerals), society orchestras and string bands. Being smaller and in demand in more diverse settings, the string ensembles had more flexibility and were expected to entertain with up-to-date songs and dancing music.

In 1897, the Storyville District opened, and at Tom Anderson’s Annex on the corner of Basin Street and Canal there was a string band that played every night that, over the decades, featured musicians such as Wendell McNeil (pictured above), Bill Johnson and, probably, Lorenzo Tio, Jr. The location of this venue, at the border of the uptown and downtown areas, is highly symbolic, as pioneers of the new musical concepts arose from the cultural interaction between uptown and downtown groups.

The concept of a swinging ensemble dominated by a rhythm section of strings was picked up in the 1920s by the Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and his peers. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Western Swing bands and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass groups followed suit in string bands tinged with New Orleans jazz.

It isn’t until the late 1940s that we have recordings of a New Orleans string band, a quartet formed around 1910 and modeled after the bands the players had heard in Anderson’s Annex. This band, Edmond “Doc” Souchon’s 6 7/8 String Band, with rhythm guitar, mandolin, “Hawaiian” slide guitar and bass, may be the best surviving evidence of a string band in the style of collective improvisation on early ragtime, society, pop and novelty tunes played around the turn of the century.

Devil in the Seat

March 13, 2015


The Foghorn Stringband
Devil in the Seat

The Foghorn Stringband is the present day shining gold standard for American string band music, with eight albums, thousands of shows, over a decade of touring under their belts, and an entirely new generation of old-time musicians following their lead. Through all this, they’ve never let the music grow cold; instead they’ve been steadily proving that American roots music is a never-ending well of inspiration.

The music of The Foghorn Stringband today, as heard on their new album Devil In The Seat, revolves around four master musicians: Portland, Oregon-based Caleb Klauder (vocals, mandolin, fiddle) and Reeb Willms (vocals, guitar), and Yukon-based Nadine Landry (vocals, upright bass) and Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind (vocals, fiddle, banjo).

Each member of The Foghorn Stringband comes not only from a different part of the American roots music spectrum, but leads the pack in their field as well. Caleb Klauder’s wistful, keening vocals and rapid-fire mandolin picking are as influenced by Southern roots music as much as by his upbringing in Washington State.

Also from Washington, Reeb Willms grew up in the state’s Eastern farmlands singing hard-bitten honky-tonk with her family. Nadine Landry’s roots lie in the rural backroads of Acadian Québec, but she cut her teeth as one of the best bluegrass bassists in Western Canada. Minnesotan Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind, simply put, is one of the best old-time fiddlers of his generation and has a voice that sounds like it’s coming from an old 78.

Onstage, The Foghorn Stringband gather around one microphone, balancing their music on the fly, and playing with an intense, fiery abandon. To make their new album, Devil in the Seat, the band retreated to the island paradise of Kauai, where, surrounded by coconut palms, beachside views and margaritas, they blazed through a set of old favorites and new discoveries.

The music on Devil in the Seat reaches from roots in Appalachia, like Clyde Davenport’s fiddle tune “Lost Gal,” the old square dance song “Stillhouse,” or “Mining Camp Blues” which comes from their friend Alice Gerrard, all the way to the early neon lights of Nashville (“90 Miles an Hour” from Hank Snow). It touches on old gospel (“Longing for A Home” from The Cooke Duet), newly composed fiddle tunes (“Jailbreak”), even British folk (“What Will We Do”). Throughout, the honest intensity of the music remains the trademark of The Foghorn Stringband. They see no reason to polish this music, or to deviate from the roots which first inspired them.

To Foghorn, this music is as relevant today as it was a century ago. They see themselves not as revivalists, but as curators and ardent fans, and their music is a celebration of these roots.  From their origins in Portland Oregon’s underground roots music scene in the late 90s and early 00s, when members of today’s hot bands like The Decemberists and Blind Pilot were gathering to explore the roots of American folk music, The Foghorn Stringband have spread the old-time string band gospel all over the world.

Along the way, they’ve brought in influences and inspirations from their many travels and late-night jam sessions. Old-time square dance tunes now rub shoulders with Cajun waltzes, vintage honky-tonk songs, and pre-bluegrass picking. This is the kind of bubbling musical brew which first intoxicated the American mainstream in the days when “country music” was just being invented.

John Schwab Guitar Workshop: NYC, 3/15/15 and 3/28/15

March 12, 2015




Saturday, March 28, 1:00PM-3:00PM, Jalopy School of Music, Brooklyn, NY

John Schwab is teaching two workshops at an intermediate to advanced (not beginner!) level, with an emphasis on traditional backup styles. The first one will cover at least 4 different styles of backing up straightforward tunes in the key of G (or A). Learn approaches used by Hub Mahaffey, Luches Kessinger, Asa Martin, Ernest V. Stoneman, and others. This “G-tune toolbox” is loads of fun and really useful, too. Details about the second workshop coming soon!

John Schwab has been playing old-time backup guitar since the early 1970s. He’s played with loads of different fiddlers and banjo players, at fiddlers’ conventions and music camps, concerts and community dances, and in kitchens and living rooms.  His approach to teaching backup guitar has evolved over the years, but it’s always been rooted in his reverence for the master backup guitar players of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Here’s a review of  John Schwab’s Old-Time Backup Guitar: Learn from the Masters.  It’s a 102-page book (plus an accompanying CD with more than 120 mp3 files) teaching a traditional approach for playing backup guitar.

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Old Time Travelers on Wax Cylinders

March 11, 2015


by Joshua Pickard (

For Old Time Travelers, Chattanooga’s foremost purveyors of folk and bluegrass antiquity, the chance to bury themselves in the history of the music that has so completely captivated them was an opportunity too good to pass up.

The band (composed of Matt Downer and Clark Williams) is currently working with an engineer in Nashville to record their fourth record onto a handful of wax cylinders, which will then be digitized and pressed to CD—and subsequently released online for download. Each song would be recorded to its own wax cylinder, with the band looking to finish 10 songs in total.

To help fund this project, they’ve taken to Kickstarter and given people the opportunity to share in this unusual recording. They’ve completely funded their campaign, but there is still time to donate. On their Kickstarter page, they say they’ll use the excess funds to make more CD copies of the album.

“I think wax cylinders are just cool,” Williams said. “This was one of the earliest successful recording technologies, and [they] are interesting historically. For instance, they couldn’t be copied, so each cylinder contained a unique performance, kind of like pre-Gutenberg books.”

Downer added:

I’ve always been drawn to old recordings, the older the better. Old-time music to me is live music, a live experience. The modern recording mindset of auto-tune and “we’ll fix it in the mix” doesn’t really make sense to me and many times can make the recording process a cold, clinical experience. I hear plenty of life in the old string band recordings; some are so wild they are almost scary. For musicians and listeners, technology can sometimes kind of suck the life out of the music. When recording to wax cylinders came around, there was a great sense of mystery and wonder about the recording process. Being able to record and play back sound was like magic, and we now take it for granted. We’ve always recorded live to one microphone; it is exciting to take it even further back and record in front of a horn and watch the needle dip into the wax and cut it live as it happens—no mixing, no overdubs, you get what you’ve got.

Mali: Culture at Risk

March 10, 2015

Photo by Molly Raskin

The Northern part of Mali in West Africa has come under attack repeatedly since 2012, when al-Qaida-linked militants seized two-thirds of the country. French and Malian forces re-took the north in 2013, but the violence continues. This weekend, terrorists launched two separate attacks, killing eight people and injuring more than 20. It was the first-ever attack in Bamako, Mali’s capital, sending the city into shock.

Watch a PBS report from Bamako and Timbuktu on efforts to restore their rich culture.

Yesterday, unknown attackers fired rockets at a U.N. base in Kidal in the far north, killing at least three. And, Saturday, gunmen killed five people, including two foreigners, at a restaurant in Bamako, the country’s capital city, that’s been largely free of such attacks. An Islamist group claimed responsibility.

Chief PBS arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown is writing from Mali, where he is reporting for his series “Culture at Risk,” exploring the problems and solutions to arts and culture threatened by war, natural disasters and demographic and technological change.

BY Jeffrey Brown  February 20, 2015 (

There’s no easy way to fly to Mali from the East Coast of the United States. No non-stop flights from Washington to the land-locked, very poor West African country. The route most taken (is there such a thing?) is through Paris, but it comes with an eight-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle airport — not something I looked forward to — followed by another six-hour flight to Mali.

I was happy, then, to find an alternative, faster route: Washington to Dakar, Senegal (just seven hours to the western-most part of Africa), an hour-and-40-minute layover, an hour-and-a-half flight to Bamako, Mali. Total travel time of just around 12 hours. It only flew on certain days, though. So I adjusted my trip.All good, all fine. But we calibrate our lives so precisely these days, right? At least I seem to. That’s how the daily news is: No moments to be lost, everything based on timeliness. What’s happening right now? When do we go on the air and when do we come off?

We are a live television program; the director’s voice in my ear counts down the amount of time for an interview. If your segment comes early in the program, you can go over a bit (though that puts at risk the timing of everything to come). But not if you’re at the end of the show, then it’s “3-2-1, gotta go.”

The people we interview are asked to arrive at a given studio, at a given hour and minute, so they’re ready to go at the ‘hit’ time. We hope — pray — such things aren’t disrupted by traffic, weather, a driver getting lost. All that does happen, but not so often. Somehow, it works, most of the time.

It’s the same with travel, right? Who likes to live on planes and in airports? So we look for the best connections, the quickest trip from here to there. Most of the time it works. But then, there I was at Dulles Airport, sitting on board a South African Airways flight at the gate that was all ready to go. Except we had to wait for several passengers. I don’t mind that — I’ve been one of those passengers plenty. But the wait went on.

There was a bit of confusion about why exactly we were waiting. Then there was the snow that had started to fall and fell harder the longer we waited. When we finally did pull back from the gate we were told we had to get into line for de-icing. Good, let’s be safe. You know the rest.

We left two and a half hours late, I missed my connection in Dakar — in fact, I saw the plane I was supposed to be on taxi-ing past us in the other direction when we landed. Missed it by, oh, 10 minutes. Is that a long time?

Only then you learn that there are no other flights on to Bamako — just an hour and half away — that day. Enjoy your day in Senegal. Which I did, as much as I could, wracked with frustration. I went downtown, sat having a coke while looking out over the Atlantic Ocean back toward home, took the ferry to Goree Island, the famous slave trading site that’s now a memorial and pilgrimage trip for many people.

But the 10-minute missed connection grew into a greater disruption.

Flying the next morning, I wouldn’t make the plane we’d lined up to take us to Timbuktu. The ancient “city of gold,” the “end of the earth,” was overrun by militant groups two years ago before the French army came in and pushed them out. It’s safe to visit — we were told — but there are still no commercial flights in, so we’d arranged to fly with a UN mission plane. Now we were missing that.

Could we go the next day? Well, no. The protocol requires filling out all these forms. But we’ve done that already, right? Yes, but they must be reprocessed, which takes at least 72 hours. What? We’re not getting to Timbuktu because South Africa airlines held my plane for a few strays, if that’s what it was? Mild panic sets in.

In the meantime our very resourceful fixer (a local producer) in Mali is working every angle he can to get us to Timbuktu. And there is another flight, he learns, also overseen by the UN, but this one is for NGO aid groups. Might there be seats? Maybe, we will let you know. When? Later. And, if not? Then, not. Oh, and we might be able to get you there, but then there’s the question of finding seats on the plane the next day to get you back to Bamako.

Disaster looms for us, though we try to not to talk of it. For these trips, these stories, we calibrate the details so finely – the days away, the money spent, the interviews to be done, the shots we have to get, the places we have to get to. Take out one thing and it can all unravel.

We start our work in Bamako, wait, checking for emails or calls all day. Finally, an email: we can confirm seats on a flight tomorrow. Great! The email continues … but at that moment the phone goes dead, out of power. Wait, what else? Do we have a flight back? Will we ever get back? (There’s that transatlantic flight pending once again, of course.) We wait a few minutes for the phone to power up to learn that the return trip “looks good,” but will have to be confirmed later. Perhaps I won’t live out my days in Timbuktu after all – but I might.

I write this on a small 12-seater plane as we head to Timbuktu. “Head” that way, that is, slowly. This plane goes where it goes and where it’s needed and we go with it. We’re just lucky to be on board. First stop, an hour and 50 minutes away, we’re told, is Mopti. After that, another stop in Gao. And I just learned that that flight is another hour and 40 minutes. The distances aren’t great — the plane is slow. Then, sometime this afternoon, we’re supposed to land in Timbuktu. I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, the earth below has turned brown and parched and looks extremely dry, with very little vegetation. We’re heading north, following the Niger River, toward the Sahara.


Treasures from the Archive Roadshow

March 9, 2015
The Down Hill Strugglers are proud to be a part of the forthcoming “Treasures from the Archive Roadshow: Celebrating Alan Lomax & The Folk Music Collections at the Library of Congress” – an outreach program of theAmericanFolklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The idea is that The Down Hill Strugglers, John Cohen (of the New Lost City Ramblers), Jerron “Blindboy” Paxton, Nathan Salsburg (Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive) and others will tour festivals, performing arts centers, colleges and universities, playing live renditions of songs and styles learned directly from the collections at the Library of Congress.
The Roadshow is also accompanied where appropriate by a museum quality panel display with more information about the American Folklife Center as well as a presentation of folklore-related films from the collections there.The intention of this project is to bring the beautiful diversity of music, songs and styles, faithfully preserved in this amazing archive, out to the general public.
The Roadshow will raise awareness about the existence of the Folklife Center itself and encourage people to take advantage of this amazing resource, just as we have.  By touring and playing live for audiences the Roadshow can introduce people in a live and immediate way to some of the kinds of songs and styles laid away by folklorists and collectors in this deep repository of our grassroots indigenous American music.The “Roadshow” honors the folk music collections at the Library of Congress and particularly in 2015 the seminal work of folklorist Alan Lomax who would have been 100 years old this year, and whose unparalleled collecting work formed the basis for the American Folklife Center’s holdings.  The first exhibition and performance of the Roadshow will take place Sunday, April 19th at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, with more performances TBA over the coming months.
The American Folklife Center was created in 1976 by the U.S. Congress as the national center for folklife documentation and research, with the mandate to “preserve and present American folklife.” The American Folklife Center Archive, established in the Library of Congress Music Division in 1928 and moved to AFC in 1978, is now one of the largest archives of ethnographic materials from the United States and around the world.


Allen Bros. on JSP

March 8, 2015

By the early 1920’s, already professional musicians, they settled in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga would feature in a number of their titles to the extent they were dubbed the Chattanooga Boys.

In Chattanooga the Allen’s got on radio once or twice a week – a bonus because radio was then the most effective form of publicity. The result was lucrative bookings as far afield as Georgia. They also performed for medicine shows – the musicians gathered a receptive audience for the show owner to exploit.

The Allen’s seem to have entered the recording studio fairly seamlessly and they had decent record sales. They recorded regularly – most years twice or more. Their sales were sufficient for them to continue to record well into the 1930’s – many musicians were discarded because of the depression.

The Allen Brothers were the first of the brothers groups that cut popular Country records in the late 1920s and 30s. The were followed by other blues-based brother acts like the Callahans, Sheltons and Delmores. The Allen Brothers created a unique sound based on fast-paced, upbeat blues and ragtime influenced songs. Their bawdy, humorous good-time lyrics, mixed with up-tempo renditions and Lee Allen’s delightful kazoo leads are reminiscent of the early jug bands. They were one of the first Country groups to base their sound on the blues and ragtime styles found in African-American groups. In fact the Allens’ second recording for Columbia was mistaken for an African-American group and release on Columbia’s “race” label, used only for African-American groups!

See also here.

Repatriating Chemirocha (Jimmie Rodgers)

March 7, 2015


Many hundreds of recordings by an early generation of Kenyan musicians are currently being returned to the communities in which these songs were made in the 1950s by English ethnomusicologist, Hugh Tracey.

The repatriation of these recordings began in August, during a two-week pilot project in Kenya’s Rift Valley led by Prof Diane Thram, Director of the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in South Africa and the team from Ketebul Music, supported and funded by The Abubilla Music Foundation as part of the Singing Wells project.

In the summer of 2014, the Singing Wells Project embarked on a mission to repatriate the music of the Kipsigi People, recorded fifty years ago by Hugh Tracy. Working in association with ILAM and Ketebul Music, we uncovered the fascinating story behind the song Chemirocha.

See also here.

Dan Gellert DVD/CD

March 6, 2015


by Geff Crawford (

There’s a wonderful new CD/DVD set of Dan Gellert, old-time fiddler and banjo player, put out by the Old-Time Tiki Parlour ( based in Los Angeles. Dan’s fiddle and banjo style make him one of the premier old-time musicians around. I recommend this set at the highest level, whether you are already an old-time musician or fan, or just want to experience the music played at its best. I believe that Dan’s recordings are limited besides this one—two cassette albums, one with Brad Leftwich (“A Moment In Time”) and the other with his band Shoofly (“Forked Deer”), plus a CD of Dan called “Waitin’ On The Break Of Day”.

Just to get the details out of the way, this set is an audio CD of 19 fiddle and banjo tunes and songs, and a video DVD of Dan playing the tunes for all the world to see. The price is $25, with the usual disclaimer about my having any connection or financial benefit. Here are the tunes, half on banjo and half on fiddle, and yes, I know 19 is an odd number:

John Henry / Poor Rosy / Pretty Little Shoes / The Cuckoo / Nancy Dalton / Old Jimmy Sutton / Midnight / Fall On My Knees / Black-Eyed Suzy / Eph Got A Coon / Railroad Through The Rocky Mountains / Reuben / Shaking Down The Acorns / Cora Dye / Big Tennessee / Sail Away Ladies / The Girl I Left Behind Me / I’ll Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms / Raleigh & Spencer

One might ask why one would want a video of the same tunes that are on the audio CD. My answer is a long one. First, Dan’s style is iconic, masterful, and beautiful, and therefore possibly a mystery to anyone wanting to use it improve his/her own playing. The combination of audio and video gives a potential leg up to understanding that mystery.

Second, this is a wonderfully produced, recorded, and videoed set that has excellent audio and visual quality, greater than recordings or films of past (sometimes LONG past) players available online or elsewhere. The quote from Dan about how to play like he does is, “Listen to the same dead guys that I listened to.” That’s not always easy when old technology gets in the way—this set eliminates those problems. Third, Dan’s rhythm and bluesy style come across powerfully when you can actually watch him play and watch him love the music he’s making.

Order here.

Kenny Hall

March 5, 2015


from and

A book of tunes was published by Mel Bay in 2000, Kenny Hall’s Music Book, which featured a variety of tunes along with anecdotes from Kenny about how and where he learned the tunes, and interesting insights into the community of blind musicians where he served his apprenticeship in the 1940s.

Who is this West Coast old-time music phenomenon known as Kenny Hall? Alan Jabbour explains: “For one thing, he has a phenomenal repertoire. Hang out with him for several days, and you will discover that his memory bank of great fiddle tunes seems well nigh inexhaustible”

Born blind in 1923 in San Jose, California, Kenny Hall began playing music in the fall of 1929 at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley.  Kenny’s earliest old-time music memories are from radio shows, long before he began trying to play the music himself.

“I don’t know when I first started listening to Haywire Mac McClintock’s show on the radio, but I know I used to listen regularly by the time I was five years old.” Kenny tells about his first exposure to The Happy Hayseeds when they were guest performers on Haywire Mac’s show before they had their own radio show. In the same way he was introduced to Prairie Jane and Arkansas when they were guests on The Happy Hayseeds radio show from Stockton, California. And even though he wasn’t yet playing music, Kenny remembers many pieces from those radio shows, many from before he was old enough to go to school.

“It was about 1937 when I was first tryin’ to figure out how to play the mandolin. Since it was tuned like a fiddle I figured I should hold it that way, you know, under the chin. I was pluckin’ it with my fingernail, which of course I still use, but I was only going one way. And Mr. Sanford says, ‘No, you can’t do it that way.’ So we’d take tunes like “Apricot Stealer’s Waltz” and “Tommy Don’t Go” that I’d already learned on the fiddle, and we’d do jiggles on the notes, y’know, go back and forth instead of just pluckin’ the notes. And I started catchin’ on that I could do it that way. I started puttin’ that mandolin on my knee where it would stay put, y’know. And then I could jiggle the notes good without the mandolin wriggling.”

And then there was the stash of old 78-rpm records that had been donated to the school. Nobody but Kenny seems to have been interested. But the developing tune junkie discovered not only the music on those particular records–including Henry Ford’s Old-Time Dance Orchestra and Sir Harry Lauder–but also the bigger world of music available to him on disc.

He listened to records at his aunt and uncle’s house, at his cousin’s house, and at friends’ houses, learning the tunes he liked. And he began collecting his now famous chest-high stack of 78-rpm records, first on a small scale, ordering through the Sears and Roebuck catalog, then, when he went to work at the broom factory, buying a box- full at a time at the used record store. Here Kenny found a treasure trove of Irish tunes as well as the music of Charlie Poole, Gid Tanner, and Riley Puckett. Kenny reports that he gave the records away after he had learned everything from them, and as best we can tell every one of those tunes was carefully stored away in Kenny’s remarkable memory.

Many years of effort have culminated in the publication by Mel Bay of Kenny Hall’s Music Book, 260 pages of transcriptions of Kenny’s enchanting tunes, songs, and stories in Kenny’s own words–about everything. There are informative stories about where Kenny learned tunes, the characters from whom he learned old-time music and hung out with, and his many adventures. They also tell us a bigger story about this unique community of blind musicians, and provide for us a rare insider’s perspective on growing up and working and playing music in the blind institutional world from the late 1920s through the 1940s.


March 4, 2015

Cover of The Golden Record, currently scuttling through empty space.



In 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan was chosen by NASA to head a team to select contents of a record to be placed on the unmanned Voyager I spacecraft, which was designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn, but now, nearly 38 years later, has traveled further from Earth than any other man-made object. The idea behind the two-hour disc, to be played back at 16 2/3 RPM with a stylus and cartridge provided, was to preserve “presents from a small, distant world” to any extraterrestrials who could conceivably happen upon the spaceship. And you thought Dark Side of the Moon was trippy.

President Jimmy Carter provided an introduction to the record as, “A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” This two-hour, multimedia presentation of life on Earth was encoded onto a disc coated with copper and gold for protection, which gave it the nickname The Golden Record.

The selections from Sagan’s team were initially drawn solely from Western classical music, so Sagan enlisted the help of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who had just compiled an anthology of world music, consisting of 700 pieces that illustrated the full gamut of human musical expression. Lomax and his team of folklorists operated under the banner of “cultural equity,” the idea that music made on a Texas chain gang or a Spanish fishing village is as valid as that of the world’s great symphonies.

“Our job is to represent all the submerged cultures in the world,” Lomax told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991. “We give an avenue for those people to tell their side of the story.” Alan Lomax, inspired by his father John, spent six decades trying to restore the balance that wealth and privilege had taken away.

There was a bit of head-butting when Lomax was brought aboard and chucked DeBussy in favor of Peruvians and their panpipes and Chuck Berry playing rock n’ roll. In Murmurs of Earth, a book recounting the Voyager project, Sagan wrote that Lomax was “a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible.”

In the end, Lomax was responsible for 15 of the 27 musical recordings on Voyager 1, including Blind Willie Johnson’s moaning “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which accomplishes the rare feat of being eerie and emotional at the same time. Lomax said he included that guitar-sliding Crucifixion song as the best embodiment of loneliness. Space aliens from the future will no doubt relate better to the blind, guitar evangelist from Marlin, Texas than to Beethoven, who follows Blind Willie to close out The Golden Record.

See also here.

1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War

March 3, 2015
Anonymous 4 & Bruce Molsky
Anonymous 4 and special guest Bruce Molsky commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War with songs that were in the air in the year 1865. It includes ballads and choruses originally intended for the stage and the parlor, as well as songs and instrumental tunes from the hills and back roads of America. They portray the highly emotional, personal stories of soldiers, widows and others who lived through one of the bloodiest wars in American history.

1865 — subtitled Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War — is the third release in what’s become an Americana triptych from Anonymous 4 (less anonymously, Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek).This time around, they’re joined by an excellent old-time musician, Bruce Molsky, who sings and plays fiddle, banjo and guitar.

It’s an organic collaboration, but the combination also evokes a specific dynamic: women tending the homefront, men on the battlefield. And as in their two previous releases of American songs, American Angels and Gloryland, the singing is gorgeous, with deep, sweet feeling. By the time “Abide with Me” and “Shall We Gather at the River” roll around at the close of this album, it’s quite possible you’ll be sniffling.

One hundred and 50 years on, there are still a few songs whose tunes and ideas remain familiar, including Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” published in 1854, and Robert Lowry’s 1864 “Shall We Gather at the River?” Another, the 1861 love song “Aura Lee,” found new life in another context altogether, as the melody for one of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits, “Love Me Tender.” But some have largely receded from popular memory; if some of today’s alt-folkies are looking for “new” material, there’s plenty here.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate how important singing was during the Civil War, not just for those waiting back home but to the fighting men as well. Songwriters raced to churn out thousands of new tunes and publishers created small booklets of lyrics, called “songsters,” that soldiers and civilians could carry in their pockets. Some were abolitionist songs, some were Southern and in many, words were switched out to favor one side or the other.

But as Anonymous 4 mention in their liner notes, there are many wartime accounts of opposing soldiers, in their camps pitched across a battlefield or river from each other, trading songs back and forth in succession and even raising their voices together. In the present days of deep rifts and political enmities — hard times, to be sure — it’s good to remember what has the power to bind us together.

Antoine Moundanda

March 2, 2015


Antoine Moundanda is one of the prominent figures of African music and in particular of the Congolese scene.  Singer and composer, he plays the Likembe, or Kisansi, better  known as the Sanza (traditional instrument composed of metal slats fixed on a hollow wooden chamber). The literature about Congo music contains intriguing speculation about the influence of likembés or sanza traditions on the development of modern Congo music, especially the guitar parts.

As early as 1955 an international career opened up for Antoine Moundanda. He travelled to the four corners of the Earth, with his Sanza in his hand, now solo then with other artists. A perfectionist, resolutely modern, he has given a new dimension to this traditional instrument by taking it from 9 to 22 blades. An exceptional singer, an inspired composer, Antoine Moundanda is one of the creators of Rumba, one of the founding fathers of all modern Zairo-Congolese music.

Moundanda: “I learnt music playing the Kisani, accompanying my father in his work as a healer. As he looked after the sick I played music to keep out the bad spirits and to calm the patients. After his death I went to Brazzaville where I worked for the first time, in a Senegalese engineer’s family. At this time, under French and Belgian colonisation the industrialisation of Brazzaville and Leopoldville was in full swing.

Numerous factories were flowering on either side of the river as were nightclubs, like the “Congo Bar”, where Paul Kamba performed with his “Victoria Brazza Orchestra”. Kamba encouraged me to become professional and to create Likembé Géant at the beginning of the 50s. We recorded with this group thirty or so albums for the label Ngoma, several of which won the Osborn Prize, notably because we had introduced the likembé into modern Congolese music.

We played polka, djebola, rumba and traditional themes… resolutely inspired by our regional folklore. We had a lot of success. For example, for the opening night of a bar-restaurant in Bangui on the 31st December 1954 the audience preferred us to Kabelese’s African Jazz! We got the privilege of making people dance all evening. Quite dismayed, Kabalese and his band left before the end of the night!

But at the end of the 50s everything started to change. The public was no longer interested in us. They preferred to listen to pop music and the electric guitar: O.K. Jazz, the Bantous, Tabu Ley, things like that…. Ngoma’s studio was shut down. After that there was Independence and Papa Kourant and I found ourselves isolated. We had to go back to the jungle! Years of suffering followed up until 1967 when we got first prize at Dakar’s Festival des Arts Noirs (Festival of Black Art). After that, with a bit of good luck, we were able to work with the Congolese National Ballet and to collaborate with the Sony Labou Tansi’s Rocado Zulu theatre. Today if the general public want to re-discover their love of acoustic music, then they can count on us.”

Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes

March 1, 2015

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edited from Bob Dylan (MusiCares 2015 Person of Year speech):

Rock ‘n’ roll is a combination of blues, and it’s a strange thing made up of two parts. A lot of people don’t know this, but the blues, which is an American music, is not what you think it is. It’s a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out. But it’s true.

The other half of rock ‘n’ roll has got to be hillbilly. And that’s a derogatory term, but it ought not to be. That’s a term that includes the Delmore Bros., Stanley Bros., Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley … groups like that. Moonshiners gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock ‘n’ roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science laboratory or a studio.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”

If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.

I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”

“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” “If you’ll gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”

If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”

You’d have written them too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense.

All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.

String Band Music from the Seychelles Islands

February 28, 2015



Seychelles 1 : Dances et Romances de l’Ancienne France (Kamtole des Isles Seychelles) (Ocora 558 534).

Who could ever have expected to discover that some of the most exciting dance music ever recorded was still being played among the Creole population of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean?

To say I was gobsmacked on first hearing is the understatement of the decade.  Only subsequent research revealed that the performers were formally constituted as the Anse Boileau Kamtole Band, and were still (twenty years ago, at any rate) performing regularly in a hotel context for tourists, in tandem with a female quadrille demonstration team.

It is hardly surprising that this fact was played down in the sleevenotes to the Ocora issue, for the music is so old at its core that such a revelation would have been simply redundant.  Fiddles, guitars, banjo-mandolin and bass drum with cymbal are overlaid with the most rhythmically-inventive triangle ever, the complex playing being all the more admirable for the performer simultaneously calling the dance instructions.

The notes suggested that in the past (the featured items were made in 1977) the ‘accordeon’ (for which read ‘melodeon’), ‘which is becoming ever rarer [on the island]’, had formerly been an integral part of the music.  Recordings made slightly later, and released on Anse Boileau Kantole Band : Seychelles – Musique Traditionelle (Palm, no number) and Souvenir of Seychelles Camtole Music Introducing The Anse Boileau Camtole Band (Dasco DAS 006), restore the instrument and what a great addition it proves to be. This is essentially archaic dance music, originally performed in England and thence throughout the European continent during the eighteenth century, filtered through the vernacular tradition and transformed beyond all recognition into something truly spectacular.

Listen here.

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Music of Georgia

February 27, 2015


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Russ Tanner (fiddle) and Phil Tanner at Tanner’s Chicken Shack in Dacula, GA


Music from Georgia: World Routes, An Appalachian Road Trip, Episode 3 of 3

Musician and writer Banning Eyre heads to the American state of Georgia, gateway to the Deep South, and southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, to record some of the unique vocal music that has been preserved in the area, and meet the personalities who have kept the traditions alive.

Banning drops in to the converted chicken shack that is home to Phil Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, to hear them in their weekly session. Phil is the grandson of chicken farmer Gid Tanner who in 1924, with the original Skillet Lickers, became the first southern rural artist to record for the Columbia record label, and whose blend of music and comedy sold millions.

He meets 92 year old blind gospel legend Sister Fleeta Mitchell, who still sings and plays the piano alongside her musical companion the Revd Willie Mae Eberhardt, herself in her late 70s. Together they recall disturbing tales of life in the south, and the songs that gave people hope.

The Myers Family and Friends, a singing family of guitar playing ladies, recall the songs they sang as children for corn shuckings and bean stringings, and local artist and folk song collector Art Rosenbaum talks about the unique character of North Georgia, and picks a tune on one of his many banjos.

As well as the banjos and the ballads, Banning also attends the 141st Annual Alpharetta June Singing, and discovers that the 19th Century tradition of congregational ‘shape note’ singing still lives on in the south.

Listen here.

New Fred Cockerham CD

February 26, 2015


Price: $13.50 (excluding tax)
SKU: FC-2015-CD


Early Caribbean Dance Tunes

February 25, 2015


Mandolin Tab for Ten Early Caribbean Dance Tunes – Paseos, Meringues and more

In honor of an upcoming trip to the Spanish Virgin Island of Culebra in Puerto Rico, I’ve assembled ten Afro-Caribbean string band tunes from the recordings of the now defunct Etcetera String Band (Bonne Humeur) and Kansas City based The Rhythmia to work on while there.  Both bands have a knack for uncovering obscure tunes from Haiti, Trinidad, Louisiana, the Virgin Islands, Martinique and Venezuela.

Many of these tunes date back to the 1800’s and share similarities to common fiddle tunes and rags, while still retaining a distinctly “island” feel that helps tag them as being from the Caribbean.  Guitarist Kevin Sanders – a member of both the Etcetera String Band and The Rhythmia – helped me obtain a copy of the out of print Bonne Humeur CD last year which is definitely worth seeking out if you’re interested in this type of music.  All transcriptions posted here were done by Nick DiSebastian.  Here’s a YouTube playlist where some of these tunes can be heard.

This is a collection of dance music as played during the late 19th century and early 20th century in Louisiana, Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique and Virgin Islands. The music represents a blending of European and African music, contains elements later found in ragtime, and is essential to anyone interested in exploring the murky world of “pre-jazz” or examining the fascinating links between the musics of New Orleans and the Caribbean.

Anna and Elizabeth

February 24, 2015


ANNA ROBERTS-GEVALT and ELIZABETH LAPRELLE are based in Southwest Virginia. They met, coming at traditional Appalachian music from different directions.  Anna was in a touring old-time band.  Elizabeth was singing ballads in far-away states.

They came together  to create a different kind of show: one that used theater and stories to show people what they love about old tunes and ballads.  They also knew that keeping the music in the mountains–playing in their communities, playing for schools–was part of the job. With that, they set about making crankies, and learning stories, and trading songs and tunes.

Anna & Elizabeth honor Appalachian artistry and shed new light upon tradition. They have made their most compelling work to date in their new self-titled album on Free Dirt Records.

A collection of 16 traditional songs thoughtfully gathered and interpreted, the album guides listeners through the duo’s intense personal connection with each song, for an experience that is as warm and intimate as their one-of-a-kind live performances.

Soaring through rousing old-time dance numbers, haunting Appalachian ballads and lilting lullabies, Anna & Elizabeth showcases the incredible vocal capabilities of both LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt, and shimmers with breathtaking moments of harmony, all laid atop masterfully executed instrumentals. A record equally as invigorating as it is contemplative, Anna & Elizabeth allows for the prolific talents of these two young women to shine brighter than ever before.

Banjo Toss

February 23, 2015



The Gowanus Canal is polluted with heavy metals — but for one day only it’s going acoustic.

The fourth-ever Banjo Toss contest is capping-off this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, giving attendees of the weekend-long hootenanny of American roots music a chance to strum the rustic instrument before taking turns throwing one in the waterway.

The Banjo Toss, along with the festival, is the brainchild of musician Eli Smith, who said the idea for the competition came out of his love-hate relationship with the instrument he’s played for 15 years.

“Sometimes I just want to throw my banjo across the room,” said Smith. “And I thought, that might be a pretty fun idea for a contest.”

To avoid destroying numerous banjos, Smith decided to have contestants pitch one instrument repeatedly into a body of water.  A rope tied to the sacrificial banjo will act as a watermark to determine who throws it the farthest, as well as a life-line to draw the instrument back on to land.

Smith added that he will provide contestants with gloves to protect them from the toxins, oil, human waste, and gonorrhea floating in the Venice of Brooklyn. The winner will receive a free banjo, which they can either learn to play or — since they’ve had enough practice already — sling into the canal.

Smith said competitors are free to try any track-and-field technique they want in the banjo toss.

“It’s really freestyle,” said Smith, who personally favors a shot put approach. “If you have an idea how to throw it, go for it.”


Mick Kinney

February 22, 2015


edited from

“I feel current,” laughs multi-instrumentalist Mick Kinney as he sits on his front porch in picturesque Pine Lake, GA, not too far from the acoustic haven of Decatur. “I just feel a little—um, obscure.”

For Mick Kinney, obscurity is a way of life. “When I play, people come up and say, ‘This is so great, where did this stuff come from?’ I say, ‘Well, you should check out the source.’”

“One day when I was about ten years old, my dad comes in and says, ‘One of the guys at work didn’t want this and said we could have it.’ He comes in with this wind-up Victrola… with a chest of records under it,” he explains excitedly, showing his visitor the prized possession. “It was stocked full of everything you can imagine. I loved it instantly, and I’d play along with it on the piano.”

But Dad liked the older music on the old 78s, so they found a common ground. Their mom had played piano before she abandoned it to raise the family. The instrument, banished to the basement, fascinated the budding musicians. “I saw [pianist] Eubie Blake on the Tonight Show, during the ragtime craze of ‘The Sting’ and all that, in the early ’70s. He said he’d written ‘The Charleston Rag’ when he was, like, 16. Well, I was 16 then, so I decided right then that I could write a rag too! And so I did.”

After hiking to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail in ’76, Kinney decided to stay and become a part of the scene. But instead of finding a place in the fledgling new wave and punk clubs, he focused his attention on bluegrass and old-time fiddle music. “I’d go to the fiddle conventions way north of here and learn from the old guys,” he says. “I learned the Georgia fiddle repertoire, and it’s very different from the standard; there’s a lot of Civil War and Reconstruction tunes in there. Pretty soon, [local pioneer] Fonzie Kennemer became my mentor of sorts.”

Stints in Irish and zydeco groups followed, and during a local buzz of excitement about his unique fiddle style, he moved on again. “I don’t like to settle,” he says, strumming a vintage Kay guitar, “I like to mix it up.” Finally in 2002, a collection of his songs appeared on his debut album, the eclectic Nothing Left To Chance. “I call it my greatest hits record,” he chuckles. “I figured I’d start with that and then move on to the other kinds of music I’ve been working on.”

After a lengthy collaboration with his professional and personal partner, the effusive cabaret artist Elise Witt and their friend, the late Stranger Malone, Kinney issued Rag Nouveau earlier this year. The collection of original ragtime compositions is “still coming out,” he explains. “Some of this stuff was written in the ’80s, so when you consider the gestation period, it’s still brand new—to me anyway.”

Truly “new” releases from Kinney include the tentatively titled Secret Songbook, a collection of decidedly retro performances, eerily channeling the Great American Songbook, and multiple appearances in the documentary DVD Who’s That Stranger?, a loving tribute to Malone by Peabody-winning filmmaker George King.

Time stamps mean nothing to Kinney, and he’s instilling that ideal in his sons, ages 23 and 13. “My youngest son is into Django Rhinehart and Stephani Grapelli and even Dick Dale. He thinks ‘OK, The Who was 40 years ago, and this kinda thing may be 20 years before that.’ He looks at it like I did, as music.”

For Mick Kinney, the past is present. “I’m totally happy with representing a time and place that maybe never existed. I try to be a time machine, a way to take people away from now.”

“If you haven’t heard it, it’s new,” he smiles as he sings part of an obscure ditty from decades ago. “It’s all 20th century mood music.”

Harry Smith T-Shirt

February 21, 2015



Harry Smith/Got Folk T-Shirt

Front: photograph of painter, archivist, anthropologist, filmmaker and hermetic alchemist Harry Smith transforming milk into milk in Manhattan in 1985. Smith was the compiler and editor of Smithsonian Folkways’ influential Anthology of American Folk Music.

Back: “Music of the People, By the People, For the People.”

Printed on a Gildan Ultra 100% Cotton tee.

Georgia String Band Festival 4/24-4/25/15

February 20, 2015



Start planning for this gathering on Hallowed-Old-Time-Grounds, where Riley Puckett played on the streets, Andrew & Jim Baxter dug graves & wells during the week, then played music for hundreds of events on the weekend, for almost 50 years

This was Ground Zero for the roots of Country Music during the birth of it’s recording, and Calhoun can be easily be called cradle of these efforts, as experts have expressed.

As many as 5000 attended our Gordon County Fiddlers’ Convention, back in the 1920’s, as it was THE event of the year.

We have brought it back, in all it’s glory, and we need YOU to come help us celebrate this delightful and important heritage!

Lomax centennial box set

February 18, 2015

centennialherofrom and

Over the course of 70 years, Alan Lomax was one of America’s finest treasures as an honored music archivist who collected tens of thousands of songs from all over the globe. PledgeMusic is proud to partner with the Alan Lomax Archive for a proper celebration of Alan’s 100th birthday with a definitive Centennial box set that includes 100 songs on six LPs. We recently asked Nathan Salsburg, Curator of the Association for Cultural Equity, which Lomax founded, for further perspective on his legacy, his favorite pieces to listen to and the scope of the new box set.

Those who pre-order through PledgeMusic get behind-the-scenes access to the production of the box set.  Fans get access to rare exclusives including a 78-rpm record from Lomax’s own collection, a copy of the Grammy-winning set of Lomax’s 1938 Library of Congress recordings with Jelly Roll Morton, a series of fan-curated 7″ singles, and the opportunity to vote on which songs are included in the 7″ series, and the exclusive Alan Lomax Centennial T-shirt. For more information, head to the Alan Lomax PledgeMusic page here

Alan’s passion for music knew no bounds. Do you know if he had personal favorite artists, songs or even genres?

Lomax did have his favorites. Among singers, he was especially fond of Vera Ward Hall, a black washerwoman and nursemaid from Livingston, Alabama, and the Scots traveler balladeer Jeannie Robertson. I think it’s safe to say he found the work songs and hollers of the Southern penitentiary system — the songs he first recorded with his father in 1933, and returned to document again on three other trips over 25 years — among the most powerful (“noble” was an adjective he used) of America’s vernacular musics. But he was no purist. He later expressed much appreciation for Prince and Michael Jackson.

The scope of this project is what might be most impressive. What was the process like to distill down this collection into 100 songs?

It was no easy task. Lomax recorded over 3000 hours of music, and while one of our primary intentions is to adequately present the depth and breadth of his collections, we also want to make sure it’s fun to listen to. There are songs that have had profound cultural and musical influence and absolutely must be included in any consideration of Lomax’s legacy. At the same time, there are totally obscure performances from remote locations that are deeply and wonderfully idiosyncratic representations of the artists who sang them and the communities they sang them in. Striking that balance was both very difficult and very rewarding.

Alan earned a significant number of accolades both in his lifetime and posthumously. Do you still feel like there’s at least some aspect of his life or work that remains overlooked?

Alan’s progressivism is crucial to understanding his life’s work. His notion that preserving, promoting, and nurturing traditional and vernacular music isn’t antiquarianism but activism is one that we’d do well to remember and honor today. He once said that the felt the right of cultural equity should take its place among all the other fundamental rights of man.

Bob Walters

February 17, 2015


from and

Nebraska fiddler Bob Walters is little-known outside Missouri Valley fiddle circles, but that’s about to change with the new release of eighty of Bob’s best tunes on “Bob Walters, The Champion: Classic Missouri Valley Fiddling from Dwight Lamb’s Collection.”

Long before the days of the iPod or even the portable tape recorder, Dwight Lamb was collecting recordings from Bob Walters on wire recorders, reel-to-reels, or whatever the latest technology might be. Now we’re lucky to have his amazing collection of Bob Walters recordings cherry-picked into this giant two-CD set which demonstrates both Mr. Walters’ mastery of the instrument and his breadth of repetoire. The set includes reels, waltzes, polkas and quadrilles, and even a few more rare birds, and tunes are sourced all the way from Kentucky to Canada and beyond.

Standouts include some familiar tunes like Bill Cheatum and Dusty Miller, along with contest favorites like The Inimitable Reel and Friendship Waltz, as well as less commonly known gems like the masterful Silver Lake Quadrille and The Prodigal Son. Instrumentation includes plenty of solo fiddle and guitar/fiddle, as well as Goldie Walters’ stellar pump organ playing and a few featuring Dwight playing along on his accordion.

Walters is a seminal figure in Midwestern fiddling whose influence on the tradition was considerable during the 1940 and 50s, the heyday of agricultural broadcasting in the Central states.  Walters, a Nebraska native, performed over numerous radio stations in the region and was widely admired and imitated by such well-known performers as Cyril Stinnett, Lonnie Robertson and Dwight Lamb.

The recordings, most dating to the 1950s, are from Dwight Lamb’s personal collection.  The Walters and Lamb families were close friends when Dwight was growing up and he became Walters protege, ultimately learning much of his repertoire.  If you liked the two recordings of Dwight released by Rounder (Hell Agin the Barn Door and Joseph Won A Coated Fiddle) then this album will be of great interest.  Incidentally, Mark Wilson, who produced Dwight’s CDs and many other great recordings in the North American Traditions Series, had a hand in this work.  Included on the CD is an extensive set of notes by Mark in PDF format.

Bob Walters appeared on two cassettes issued by the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association and figured prominently on the U of MO Press two-record LP The Old Time Fiddlers Repertory.  All of these recordings are out-of-print, so this new release of Walters music is of particular importance.  It is worth noting that transcriptions of Walters’ music outnumber all others in R. P. Christeson’s two volumes of The Old Time Fiddlers Repertory.

To order write to Missouri Valley Music, 511 South Pleasant, Canton, South Dakota 57013 or send an email to  The CD set costs $20, including postage.

Awesome Tapes from Africa

February 11, 2015


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Africa remains a musical mystery for many people. Yes, the internet can in theory answer any of your questions about the hundreds of musical traditions and genres of the continent, but many of the artists who progress or add to these traditions and styles of music aren’t online. The simple fact is that that only 7% of Africa’s population is online.

To generalise, Westerners can like an artist’s Facebook page, comment on one of their videos, download a song for free from SoundCloud, and stream a whole album without breaking a sweat – this is not the case for the majority of Africa, partly because there is no artist online, at least in some followable capacity, in the first place.

The digital divide between affluent nations and Africa is an intense gap, seemingly impossible to cross or breach in any way. Musical treasures of the past and modern musical talents tend to not reach Western ears, not often anyway, and as a result pretty much all African music can be labelled as, unfairly but understandably, obscure, or treated as an exotic oddity – as if it can’t be held to exist within itself until it has been assimilated, altered and eventually accepted by the West.

That is why it would be a lot nicer if we could hear African music all the time, to dissuade its detractors and cease reductionist exoticism and usher it into the canon of the music of the world, of the internet, and even have it counted as popular music, dispelling any sense of Otherness that traditional African music makes some people feel.

The humble and formerly ubiquitous cassette tape turned 50 years old in August 2013.  Brian Shimkovitz, whose Awesome Tapes From Africa blog and record label throw open the aural windows to African music, scenes and subgenres the West would never have learned about otherwise.

“My whole mission has been to show people what African music sounds like in Africa,” says Los Angeles-based Shimkovitz, whose fascination with Africana exploded during the he spent researching the hip-hop scene in Ghana with the help of a Fulbright grant. Back then, a locally produced cassette cost a fraction of what a Europe-pressed CD went for. “Cassette technology has been conducive to the decentralization, diversification and marked expansion of recording industries,” wrote ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel in 1993, noting that Ghana then boasted more than 2,700 dubbing shops and yearly sales of some 2 million bootleg cassettes.

Home to some of the world’s most beautiful and diverse sounds, Mali’s huge capital city, Bamako, turned out to be especially fertile territory for Shimkovitz’s cassette fever. “It’s not like crate digging,” he says of his shopping expeditions, “because you’re buying the same things anyone else could find. They’re often pieces of art in their own way, but they’re not necessarily as rare as the vinyl people dig for in garages and basements. Which is part of the fun, because it’s accessible to everybody and quite cheap.” 


February 10, 2015



It’s a Wednesday evening in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Feral Matt Foster is playing an old acoustic guitar in front of a red curtain on a handmade wooden stage. The crowd in front of him sits on benches that resemble church pews. The space feels old, but it’s been operating for less than a decade. There are white-haired neighborhood folks interspersed among the mostly 20- and 30-something crowd. Halfway through the show, a basket is sent around to collect tips for the performers. Foster is hosting Roots and Ruckus night: a free, weekly folk show at the Jalopy Theater.

“Traditional folk” has roots in the recordings from the Depression Era or earlier — everything from Appalachian ballads to rough, unproduced field recordings. There is a profound, unshakable pain in that music. Though there are plenty of sorrowful songs from every era, there’s a specific rawness and deep-seated ache to traditional folk music that is largely foreign to contemporary folk and pop.

That’s largely because traditional folk music has typically grown out of rural America, and that America is shrinking. With rapid urbanization, cities have expanded and suburbs have transformed; a 2013 U.S. census reported that, from 2010-12, rural county populations declined as a whole for the first time in history.
“Though some small pockets may have access to the rich, rural roots of our past,” musician and Jalopy mainstay Eli Smith argues, “It’s not coherent or vibrant in the way that it used to be.” Farmers have been selling their land or paring down — and with it, culture is getting pared down. Traditional folk and blues often sounds like it’s from another world — let alone another time. Its reference points are becoming scarcer as rural America dwindles. For all of NYC’s history of folk music, a giant metropolitan city with no recent rural history to speak of is an odd place for a contemporary revival to take place.

A native New Yorker, Smith started out as a banjo teacher at Jalopy. In addition to being a musician, he also hosts the Down Home Radio Show and runs two folk festivals — one in Brooklyn and another in Washington Square Park. He helped launch a streaming internet radio station, Jalopy Radio, and is spearheading the relaunch of Jalopy Records — a record label that released Long Island country musician Pat Conte‘s] American Songs with Fiddle and Banjo in 2011, but went quiet shortly after.

Smith grew up yearning for a new folk movement in New York, but it wasn’t until his 20s that he began to see the outlines of a scene developing. Jalopy — and later, Brooklyn Rod & Gun — have been instrumental in its development.

The fast pace of cities and social media can become exhausting. The folk movement offers an answer to this conundrum: the way forward is to cultivate the past. As Smith explains, “We’re left with the cultural inheritance of that era which is incredible.”

Traditional folk music channels a very particular energy — its pared-down instrumentation and often gut-wrenching vocal delivery has a way of making it feel almost eerily personal. “I think [there’s a] key to humanity and psychological well-being that we’re searching for in the music,” Smith says.

Rediscovering Lomax in Evangeline Country – Box Set

February 8, 2015



It’s Valcour’s 27th release and our most massive undertaking to date: a landmark, limited edition project to celebrate our tenth year in business along with the Alan Lomax Centennial!

Producers Joel Savoy and Josh Caffery have collaborated to create Rediscovering Lomax in Evangeline Country, a one-of-a-kind collection of recordings featuring Louisiana artists performing fresh takes on a unique series of folk songs—both French and English—archived in Louisiana in the 1930s by the late Alan and John Lomax.

The collection features 24 tracks by an incredible group of artists, including Michael Doucet, Marc Broussard, Wayne Toups, Zachary Richard, Tiffany Lamson, Steve Riley, Ann Savoy, Dirk Powell, Roddie Romero, Cedric Watson, David Greely, Joel Savoy, Kelli Jones-Savoy, Wilson Savoy, Anna Laura Edmiston, Kristi Guillory, Joshua Caffery, Claire Caffery, Barry Ancelet, Carl Brazell, Megan Brown and Aurora Nealand.

While individual EPs will become available in stores each quarter, the limited edition full box set will be available exclusively on the Valcour website through the end 2015 as long as supplies last. Purchases of the box set include printed liner notes, a collector’s box for holding the CDs and liner notes and advance access to each release before retailers and radio stations. Digital liner notes will be available for free download on this page starting on March 31st.

If you order the box set, we will ship the box, liners and the first EP, Good Men, Bad Men, to you before March 31, and you will receive a new EP in the mail each quarter during 2015 until you have the full set of four discs. Subsequent EPs will include (in no particular order) Dancing and Seduction, Love and Death and Good Women, Bad Women.

Learn more about the book that inspired this project, Joshua Caffery’s Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordingshere.

Brooklyn Folk Festival, 4/17/15-4/19/15

February 4, 2015

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 CLICK HERE for tickets, or visit

April 17th-19th at our amazing new venue, St. Ann’s Church, centrally located in Brooklyn Heights!  Here’s a photo of the venue:

See below for the complete 30 band lineup! PLUS! Workshops, film screenings, and the BANJO TOSS competition!

Brought to you by Down Home Radio Show and the Jalopy Theatre…


Friday April 17th:

8:00PM Jackson Lynch – Blues guitar, old time fiddle and banjo breakdowns, songs and ballads
8:45PM Horse Eyed Men – Original folk/country outer-space music
9:30PM Michael Hurley – Legendary folk musician, needs no introduction!
10:15PM Jerron “Blindboy” Paxton - Country blues, fiddle and banjo
11:00PM Terry Waldo’s Rum House Band - Legendary early Jazz and Ragtime pianist with his band
11:45PM Feral Foster and His Band – Excellent songwriting based solidly in Blues, Folk, Gospel and Balkan music

Saturday April 18th: Afternoon Concerts

1:30PM Wyndham Baird – Folksongs, blues, and more!
2:15PM King Isto’s Tropical String Band – Hawaiian/tropical stringband music
3:00PM Ryan Spearman – Banjo and fiddle music, old and new
3:45PM Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues – Raucous jug band music! Traditional and original
4:30PM Frank Fairfield and Zac Sokolow – American stringband music from the great state of California!
5:15PM Suzy & Eric Thompson – Folk, Blues and Bluegrass music, from the great state of California!
6:00PM Tom Marion with Frank Fairfield – Italian and American string music featuring polkas, waltzes, mazurkas!
6:45PM Ozark Highballers – Amazing old time string band from the great state of Arkansas!

Evening Concerts

8pm Pat Conte – Direct from the Secret Museum
8:45PM The Cactus Blossoms – Original and Traditional country songs, sung in harmony
9:30PM TBA
10:30PM Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens
11:15PM Souren Baronian and band – Middle and Near Eastern Music

Sunday April 19th: Afternoon Concerts

2:00PM Uncle Shlomo’s Brooklyn Kids – a traditional music ensemble comprised of some of Shlomo Pestcoe’s young private music students (ages 9 – 16) and his grownup musician friends who are all highly acclaimed local performers.
2:45PM Hoodoo Honeydrippers – Country Blues duet
3:30PM Art Rosenbaum - Grammy Award winning musician and folklorist
4:15PM “Treasure from the Archive Roadshow” - Live performance of music from the collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress featuring the Down Hill Strugglers, John Cohen and Nathan Salsburg
5:00PMFamoro Dioubate – Djeli playing Mande Balafon music from Guinea
5:45PM Bruce Molsky – Old time fiddle, banjo and guitar
6:30PM Four o’clock Flowers - Blues and Folk duet

Evening Concerts

7:30PM Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen - old time string band
8:15PM Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel (of the Holy Modal Rounders)
9:00PM The (Whiskey) Spitters – Old, Blues and Jug Band Music – the Jalopy House Band!
9:45PM Litvakus – Klezmer/Jewish music of Belarus, beautiful newly researched and rediscovered music

Workshops, Dances and Film Screenings:

All workshops and film screenings are included with the price of admission..!

1:00PM Old Time Jam Session
2:30PM Songs of Freedom with Mat Callahan & Yvonne Moore – Discovering the Irish Revolutionary songs of James Connolly!
3:15PM Folk City! A presentation about the history of folk music in New York by Stephen Petrus from the Museum of the City of New York
4-5:30pm “Singing in Harmony”, Vocal Harmony Workshop with Don Friedman and Phyllis Elkind
“We’ll pick a few songs from the world of old-time, early country, bluegrass and gospel, teach the melody and harmony parts, and before you know it, you’ll be singing in two and three part harmony!  We’ll do each song as a group and then give you a chance to try it out as a duet or trio.  All levels of singers welcome!”

1:00PM Banjo Toss – The famous banjo throwing competition.  Win a free banjo!
– Assemble at 1pm in front of the venue for the parade to the banjo tossing arena!
2:30PM Selected films by Alan Lomax with introduction and commentary from Nathan Salsburg, curator of the Alan Lomax Archive
3:30PM Fiddle Workshop with Bruce Molsky
5:00PM  Old Time Banjo Workshop with Art Rosenbaum (Grammy award winning musician and folklorist)
6:30pm Square Dance!

Hawai‘i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar

February 2, 2015

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Blues prophet Robert Johnson (1911–38) and other early blues guitarists captivated listeners with a new way of playing their instrument. Sliding a steel bar or other hard object over the strings to change the guitar’s pitch, they created a sound eerily like that of a weeping or singing human voice. Later blues and rock musicians such as Muddy Waters (1915–83) and Bonnie Raitt (b. 1949) would further improvise on the sound.

Scholars have mostly agreed that the slide style was directly influenced by the “diddley bow” or “jitter-bug,” a single-stringed instrument they say was carried to America by West African slaves. The more likely story, John W. Troutman argues in Southern Cultures, is that the musical technique popularized in the Mississippi Delta came from traveling Native Hawaiian musicians. Tracing the proliferation of their playing style, writes Troutman, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and weekend steel guitarist, once again underlines just how many ethnic and racial groups have shaped southern culture.

In the 19th century, the American South was just one of a number of regions around the world experiencing an influx of newcomers. Half a world away, Honolulu harbor received a steady stream of “sailors, whalers, merchants, missionaries, entrepreneurs, and laborers from distant lands such as the United States, Portugal, Mexico, and Japan,” as well as cowboys from Latin America brought in to wrangle cattle. With all these foreigners also arrived — in the early 1800s, and likely via Mexico — the Spanish guitar, which quickly caught on as an accompaniment to the local hula song and dance.

A few decades after the first guitar appeared in the islands, Joseph Kekuku (1874–1932), a Native Hawaiian youngster, flipped his own instrument to lie flat on his lap and played it with a piece of metal he slid across the strings. Over the next seven years he honed the lap-steel style and hacked his guitar to accommodate it, raising the strings from the fretboard. “The effect, as described by all who first heard it, was transcendent,” Troutman says. It “sonically revolutionized every musical tradition it touched. … Vaulted in status from serving as a typically rhythmic, accompanying instrument to that of a much more dynamic and melodic, or lead, instrument, the guitar would never be the same.”

Kekuku taught other islanders to play as he did, and then left to perform elsewhere, touring North America and Europe for an eventual three decades. He was one of many Native Hawaiians who left their homeland after 1893 — the year U.S. Marines overthrew the government and ended Hawaiian self-rule — more than a few of them carrying guitars and igniting a steel-slide craze wherever they went. In American sales of recorded music in 1916, Hawaiian guitar tunes topped all other genres.

Oral testimony, newspaper clippings, and other evidence show that Hawaiian musicians frequented southern cities from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Memphis, to New Orleans, “working every small town, nook, and holler along the way.” They sometimes collaborated with black musicians. Walter “Fats” Pichon (1906?–67), a New Orleans jazz singer and pianist, hired Hawaiian guitarist “King” Bennie Nawahi (1899–1985) to accompany him, for instance. Louis Armstrong featured Hawaiian guitar on a 1930 track. Racial segregation in the South likely increased the islanders’ contact with black Americans, since they would have shared boarding houses and restaurants with other nonwhite traveling entertainers.

“Most of the earliest documented African-American slide guitarists, and certainly the most significant, understood their style as that of playing ‘Hawaiian guitar,’” Troutman notes, even as they perfected their own techniques. References to Hawaii showed up in song titles (“Blue Hawaii,” “Hawaiian Harmony Blues”), and some blues musicians, such as Huddie Ledbetter (1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, played Native Hawaiian ditties. Talking shop with an interviewer, Tampa Red, a popular blues guitarist of the 1920s and ’30s, recalled achieving a “Hawaiian effect” while using a bottleneck as a slide. In another interview, blues legend Eddie “Son” House (1902?–88) remembered first learning to play Hawaiian guitar, not the diddley bow — indicating that American pop culture rather than ancient African roots had the greater say in his musical development.

Jonathan Ward (#2)

January 30, 2015


78-rpm recordings from the American recording industry are becoming highly prized artifacts. The “good ones,” I mean. Rare blues, gospel and hillbilly recordings, printed on labels like Paramount, Black Patti and Gennett, have attained a mythical status and become the subjects of intense bidding wars among collectors. As you can imagine, many collectors have started to question the point of it all and wondering if there isn’t an area of 78-rpm collecting designed for the obsessive and dogmatic. Jonathan Ward’s solution to this problem has been to pursue the rich musical content found on ethnic 78s.

Apart from enjoying the music contained within the foreign disks, Ward appreciates that inflated value hasn’t rendered ethnic recordings as physical objects to be lusted over. “I’m tired of people telling me what’s good,” said Ward of the American 78-rpm recordings. “I’m waiting for the day that someone says Vernon Dalhart and Kessinger waltzes are pretty fantastic. I really am.” It’s easier to form your own opinions about music, he realized, if your discs come from a forgotten corner of the world.

Born in a diverse musical household, the Massachusetts-native developed a worldly ear at a young age. Ward recollected moments from his childhood where his mother would be playing classical piano and his father, exiled to the driveway, would be droning away on his bagpipes. “Meanwhile, I’d be sitting with headphones on listening to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery!’”

In his Echo Park apartment, Ward showed us how hearing an African one-string fiddle solo or a Mexican string band for the first time could be a lesson in empathy. He explained, “You have to be humble because these records were not made for you.” But it was hearing the strange and beautiful sounds of Madagascan music that first gave him the bug to start collecting African 78s. Ward described his collecting interests as a journey of the ears. “It has nothing to do with anyone else’s tastes. It’s really about new sounds – new to me!” he exclaimed.

In an effort to share these new sounds, Ward compiled Opika Pende: Africa at 78RPM (2013, Dust-to-Digital) to demonstrate the musical heterogeneity of the African recording industry. For this effort he received a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Historical Album.

His records are neatly organized by country and, despite their inherent antiquatedness, represent the globalizing effect of online connections and auction sites. The delicate, shellac disks are shipped halfway across the world to his Los Angeles doorstep and for all he knows, each could be one of a kind; if one breaks, there’s no telling if another may ever surface to replace it. This explained why earthquake chains anchored each of his record shelves. He showed us a record that had broken upon arrival and a mended seam that stretched across the lower half. The repairman is a well-kept secret among a select group of 78-rpm collectors.

Since 2007, Ward’s ongoing project has been the blog Excavated Shellac where he posts mp3 transfers of pieces from his collection. Scrolling down his blog, you’ll see excavated music from South America, India, Pakistan, Yemen and Scotland to name a few. A photo of the label and an informative article about the style, musician(s) and origin gives context to the recording. Written in a well-informed, dry-humored voice, Ward discusses the birth of recording industries on a global level, his commentary often focusing around small local labels and their role in preserving the idiosyncrasies of traditional performance practices before the homogenizing effects of mass communication technologies set in.

Sitting in his listening room and hearing his records was like experiencing a live version of Excavated Shellac. For each disk, he supplied answers to questions about style, date and geographical location. We were most blown away by the range in dates of 78-rpm distribution across the globe – in the States we set the bar for 78-rpm production between 1924-33, but in countries like Colombia, 78s were being produced as late as the ‘70s!

Though self-promotion is still the primary means of exposure for ethnic 78rpm collectors, archival labels like Dust-to-Digital have started giving a larger spotlight to their efforts in the form of fancy box sets with photographs and extensive liner notes. Ward’s accomplishment with his collection – to bring the corners of the world together in the form of early-recorded music – merits such fancy box sets and the resulting awards and nominations.

However, his lesser-heralded accomplishment with Excavated Shellac has been to unite information from the isolated fields of ethnomusicology, discographical history and record collector fandom into one resource (a free one I might add). Perhaps the fact that he is also a super-kind, generous and non-obsessive human being should be thrown in there as well. At any rate, we hope you enjoy the video and join us in applauding Excavated Shellac for inspiring young collectors and for suggesting that greater possibilities still exist for the collecting and enjoyment of music on the 78 medium.


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