Lester McCumbers was more than West Virginia’s last old world, old time fiddler. A man no doubt born into the remoteness of mountains and music and soaked it up in a regional style that over decades stood as a highly cherished remainder of an archaic sound that has recently caught the modern ear.
The New York Times did a wise man and the student piece about Lester McCumbers back in the late 1990s. http://nyti.ms/1CmUBWF. And he continued to graciously host visitors from photographers to musicians committed to the old time sound and wanted to experience the exchange in person rather from a recording. Soon visitors no doubt realized there was more to Lester than the music or maybe there was more to the music.
Lester embodies the power of music, how music can more than compensate the lack of material things, how music infuses a kind of civility that draws people. It…
Smithsonian Folkways producer and archivist Jeff Place holds one of the original glass studio recordings he would have listened to in the making of his recent project Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Over the past three decades, Jeff Place has been the central figure researching, organizing and ultimately releasing the recordings represented in one of the world’s most important collections of 20th- century music: The Rinzler archives includes the 12 record labels now collectively known as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
On a recent weekday, Place stood in the Rinzler vault — a windowless room stacked with recordings from 19th-century wax cylinders to 8-tracks. He carefully slid a glass disc out of a paper sleeve and held it up to show the black film — the area where sound had been recorded — peeling like a bad sunburn. This Lead Belly radio recording, dating to the 1940s, could no longer be played. But there was good news. Place had copied and digitized it years ago.
“You sneeze, and they break,” he says. “The whole idea is you want to take these in and get them out to the public. We don’t want to hoard these things. We want to get this stuff out of this room.”
In 1987, the Smithsonian made a deal to buy Folkways after the death of the label’s founder, Moses Asch. Place scored an interview and got the archivist job.
“Folkways was huge,” recalls Tony Seeger, Pete’s nephew and an ethnomusicologist who worked as curator alongside Place until 2000. “Moses Asch had all this artwork very carefully stored and 2,168 LPs. For each of those there was a file. We knew we couldn’t do it in a day, but Jeff’s a fairly unstoppable person. He also brought a pretty good knowledge of American folk music. He knew what it meant when he found something special.”
Place never met Asch, who died in 1986, but he does share part of his philosophy. Asch, he learned, wasn’t desperate for hit records. In fact, a hit would disrupt the Folkways formula by putting undue pressure on the label to press and distribute albums. Asch simply wanted to record as much good music as he could and reach those who were passionate about it.
Walking through the Smithsonian offices, Place points out the activity. One person is converting fast-dissolving master recordings; another is scanning slides from a music festival into the computer system.
There’s a room where anyone can make an appointment and come in and listen to records. There’s also a disc-burning machine — “the robot,” Place calls it — through which visitors can order discs long out of print that have been digitized, such as the aforementioned “Sounds of Medicine,” a 1955 album featuring “stethoscope sounds” from a variety of ailing patients, as well as the 1982 release “Cable Car Soundscapes.”
Last fall, Place stepped down as full-time archivist to become the Rinzler curator, which is really what he has been doing the past few years. He likes to work out of his house in Mayo, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay, which he shares with his wife, Barrie, and his collection of about 20,000 records.
Still, Place remains the ultimate authority on Folkways and doesn’t sound ready to retire. A Pete Seeger box and book — the third in a trilogy that began with Guthrie in 2012 and Lead Belly this year — should be out in 2016. There’s also work to be done on the music of the banjo-playing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
“This is the stuff,” Place says, still wide-eyed as he stands in front of rows of Lead Belly, Guthrie and Seeger masters. “You look in this room. All these tapes, these records. Every one of them has a story. Every time you take one out and copy it, you’re in for it.”
Jonathan Bekoff died at home in the night between June 14-15, 2015, after a three-year illness and the culmination of a lifelong spiritual journey. He loved this blog and asked one of his music students to help maintain the site after he died. An excerpt of this will appear in the Summer issue of Oldtime Herald.
Jon was born May 8, 1959 in Staten Island, NY. Raised in Montreal, Canada, he also lived in Ohio, Edmonton, Virginia, Oregon, and Vermont before settling in Greenfield, MA in 1996. He attended the University of Oregon, and was a gifted middle school math teacher for 27 years, mostly in Guilford and Brattleboro, VT. As his former principal at Brattleboro recalled, “Jon was a gentle soul and loved to connect with people, especially with the kids. He came into himself in the classroom; he explained things so clearly. His students loved him. Everyone loved him.”
Jon had strong passions for studying, collecting, playing, mentoring, and sharing roots music of the world, particularly American Old-time and music of Africa (e.g. Malian, Congolese, Shona) and the African diaspora (e.g. Mento, Haitian, Cumbia.) The diverse content of this blog is testimony to his manifold tastes – although all his tastes share one thing in common, i.e., rhythm and groove. To listen to the African music alone in Jon’s iTunes library would take an entire month of continual playing. Jon had a scholarly interest in the people who documented and field recorded roots music. For example, he regarded Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and Moses Asch as the “holy triumvirate” of Old-time music; having “huge, incalculable long-term cultural influence.”
Jon was a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar (excelling at several American and African styles), mandolin, banjo, kora, balafon, etc., but fiddle was his forte. Jon started fiddling in 1978, and quickly mastered several regional styles, though he seemed to prefer the excitement and danceability of early Georgia stringbands and favored the “great southern waltzes” of the 1920s and 1930s. Jon developed a unique style of “complementary” fiddling, drawing from the Cajun tradition, but with his own characteristic counter-melodies, harmonies, and syncopated double stops. Jon disliked being the only fiddler in a jam, and said after one masters a tune inside and out, it more fun to complement the melody of another player. This approach he developed is probably one of Jon’s most important contributions to old-time music. This clip of Jon and his protege, Nate Paine, playing Coleman’s March (recorded August 2015) is a good example of how Jon started a tune with the melody lead, then shifted into accompanist fiddling:
Although he once played electric bass in a Zydeco band, and later fiddle in a Cajun band (the high point of his musical “career”), Jon shunned performance opportunities and large festivals in favor of creating music with small groups of friends (friends who considered him as their mentor). Despite his uncanny abilities on the fiddle, Jon was not elitist and regularly played with less skillful players of all ages. He was committed to sharing the love of music. He encouraged those who were drawn to his style to instead learn from source recordings. This self-effacing approach to music was sometimes frustrating, because regardless of the genre, Jon’s version of tunes sounded better, even more authentic, than the original recordings. One might attribute this phenomenon to his ability to intensively and actively listen to a recording, and to reproduce the music as it originally was played, embellished by his understanding of the genre from which the source recording emerged. Anyone who came in contact with him came away with their curiosity awakened and courage bolstered. As a gifted accompanist and a natural teacher, Jon had a curious ability to assess the strengths of his playing partners; his sensitivity and giving nature drew the best out of players, while gently buoying their weaknesses.
Regardless of the genre, in a good jam, Jon liked to play a single tune for no less than ten minutes and often up to 30-60 minutes, depending on the endurance of his musical partners. This reflected his need to exhaustively explore a tune’s harmonic and rhythmic dimensions. While faithful to a tune’s originally composed character, Jon experimented in a way that adds diversity and richness to an otherwise simple folk tune. After 10-15 minutes of playing a tune, one could start to hear delightful syncopated rhythms, evoking an ethnic feel from somewhere in the Caribbean or West Africa. This “complementary” fiddle ability of Jon had the effect of making anyone sound better than they could ever sound alone, and explains Jon’s popularity amongst his musical friends. For most musicians, playing music in a jam with Jon bordered on an ecstatic experience. For Jon, jamming seemed to be when communed best with others, and when he felt most at ease, “delighting in relaxed unity with the constant flow.”
According to his friend Meghan, Jon used to sing long, complex ballads in his younger days. Here’s Jon at age 24 singing Paddy’s Lamentation
One of Jon’s unique contributions to Old-time fiddling was his ability to “resurrect” archaic ballads which he converted into fiddle tunes, e.g. Watchman Ring the Bell:
or twin fiddle “compositions” with his musical partner, Nate Paine: e.g. Charlie Poole’s “Once Loved a Sailor,” which can be seen/heard here amongst >5 hours of footage of Jon with Nate, or with other players (>100 posts by MoonshineV):
This blog Oldtime Party, was Jon’s passion from about 2011-2015, as the 3rd (and most active) blog administrator. His original goal was to create an online community of like-minded music lovers, but the blog morphed into what he described as his repository of “cool stuff” that he discovered posted elsewhere or was submitted by subscribers. Basically, Jon wanted to make it easy for others to find “cool stuff” all in one place. He once said he would have expected that Old-time musicians to find interest in the content regarding Caribbean, African, Cajun and other genres he re-posted here, in addition to the exhaustive collection of Old-time articles, music history, CD/LP reviews, book reviews, links to other archives, and classic recordings. He was our acoustic curator and lined up posts for this blog until his last 2 weeks of life (as evidenced by the posts that continue to emerge under his handle, oldtimeparty, through mid July). Anyone who wants to submit something they think Jon would like to have had posted, or who has recordings of him, contact the blog at oldtimepartyblog (at) gmail.
Jon’s last words were laid out in a letter to family and friends, in which he informed us that his last year of life was his “most peaceful, clarifying, and meaningful.” [http://www.jonbekoff.net/index.php/2015/06/16/new-post/ ] In addition to communing with others through music, Jon adored spending his last few years alone, exploring alternative healing, spirituality, reading, listening to audiobooks, podcasts and his expansive world music collection, and hunting material for his blog. Jon left this world without fear and with profound gratitude for his 56 wonderful years; he wished us to cultivate affection for all beings. Let us honor him by taking a moment to browse through the blog’s archives. Jon never made commercial recordings, but several hours of his unique fiddle style can be experienced at MoonshineV Old-time Field Recordings YT Channel
One of Jon’s fiddle students in his final year posted a highly personalized tribute movie for Jon. All the audio was fiddled by Jon or came from his personal audio collection. Audio borrows heavily from the Harry Smith Anthology and visuals borrow from Harry Smith’s 1950s stop-motion film “Heaven and Earth Magic,” as well as from photos/vdo contributed by Jon’s old-time musician friends. Astute blog followers will also note many world music images from posts of this very blog. Jon viewed this 22-minute tribute twice in April and said he liked it.
Remembrances can be posted here (but cannot be edited immediately after posting, so check your wording first.)
More recordings will be added below or in an upcoming OTP Blog Page devoted to Jon’s music. What follows are muses on Jon’s music, which we will flesh out over time:
Nate and I believe that Jon learned all the great tunes in old-time in the 1980s and 90s, and by the 2000s had taken the best ones and developed his own twist to them. By example, we present his early and versions of the same tunes:
Here is Jon playing straight Peter Francisco, 1985:
And here is a recording of Jon and Nate playing a modalized Peter Francisco in 2014, when Jon applies his “complementary” fiddle style:
Here’s is Jon fiddling Old Jake Gilly in 1985
And here’s is Jon fiddling Jake Gilly in 2014, with Nate, when Jon applies his “complementary” fiddle style:
Jon fiddling at Galax mid 1980s
Here’s Jon fiddling Bibb County Hoedown in 1985, recorded in Port Townsend, obtained by Nate’s dad, Don.
Below’s Jon and Jim fiddling Bibb County in 2006 at Harry Smith Frolic (Jon once said Jim Burns bows breakdowns exactly like him – Georgia style):
Here’s Jon fiddling Bibb County in 2014, with Nate (flatfooting by Moonshine); Jon applies a light version of his “complementary” fiddle style after a few rounds through on the melody line:
NB: Jon said the most interesting site along his drive through S Georgia to Atlanta in January 2015 was passing the sign “Welcome to Bibb County!”
Jon said he leaned Cajun fidding from recordings, but he attributed his application of Cajun styling in the Old-time context to Vermont fiddler Bob Naess (here they’re playing “Eunice Two Step”, then the beautiful “Aimer et Perdre” Champlain Festival 2009, recorded by Mara):
Found this recording of Brandan Taaffle with Jon playing african style guitar on Brandon’s website: Go to sleep, weary Hobo:
This is Jon 1985, playing Dance Terpsichore, recorded in Port Townsend, obtained by Nate’s dad, Don.
It is remarkable how well Jon played music throughout his last year of life. Below Jon and Nate playing Omie Wise in March 2015:
Here is a beautiful rendition of Kitty Waltz with Jon and Nate in March 2015 (Carter Family version) Music starts after a 35 seconds: This is a great example of Jon’s complementary fiddling for a waltz. He starts to really cool things after minute 6, note how he pulses variations of the 3/4 rhythm! This is an example of inserting other African rhythms into old-time while always respecting the original spirit of the American folk tune.
This is the last tune Jon played, and recorded, June 14, 2015, an adaptation of a Congolese tune called Kuyina, with Jon playing lead in a guitar duet with Eddie. He died later that night. Note his little laugh at the end of playing! Music brought Jon great happiness his entire life. Original below.
Choctaw County fiddler Hoyt Ming (1902-1985) led the lively string band recorded as “Floyd Ming & His Pep Steppers” at a Memphis Victor session in 1928. His “Indian War Whoop,” with its fiddling “holler,” became an old-time country music standby. Potato farmer Hoyt, with his wife Rozelle on guitar and brother Troy on mandolin, regularly played at fairs, fiddling contests, and rallies before World War II. Rediscovered in 1973, Hoyt and Rozelle Ming returned to recording and live appearances.
Born in Choctaw County on October 6, 1902, into a musical farming family of German-American extraction, Hoyt began teaching himself to play fiddle at fifteen, after admiring a string band that played for his father Clough at the Mings’ house. At least three of Hoyt’s seven brothers and one sister learned to play string instruments at about the same time; his brother Troy took up the mandolin and joined him in forming a family band that played for local dances and parties.
By 1928 Hoyt had married guitarist Rozelle Young; they relocated to rural Lee County and appeared as a trio, with Rozelle’s sister on mandolin. Hoyt heard that Victor Talking Machine record producer and scout Ralph Peer, who was already overseeing Jimmie Rodgers’ rise to stardom, was about to hold auditions in nearby Tupelo. Hoyt, Rozelle, Troy, and square dance caller A. D. Coggin auditioned as a quartet, and became one of the first acts from this area to get the go-ahead to record.
Their February 13, 1928, recording session at an auditorium in Memphis produced four instrumental recordings, typical of Mississippi string band music of the time in repeating musical phrases and showing subtle blues influences—but with particularly driving rhythms and Hoyt’s specialty “war whoop” fiddle inflection on the most celebrated record.
Rozelle Ming tended to stomp her foot on the beats. Atypically, Ralph Peer not only chose to leave that sound in, but named the band the “Pep Steppers” after it. The record label proceeded to transcribe Hoyt’s name as “Floyd Ming,” leading to inevitable confusion later.
The brief initial recording experience led to Pep Stepper appearances at fairs, political rallies and fiddler’s contests through the 1930s, but with their focus on raising a family, Hoyt and Rozelle kept music a sideline, and Hoyt tended to his main occupation, potato farming. Infrequent gigs made it hard to keep a band together, and by the 1950s, they’d essentially given up playing for audiences.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, Harry Smith included “Indian War Whoop” in Folkways Records 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, and the tune became a favorite in the 1950s-’60s folk revival. In 1973, David Freeman of the “old time” music label Country Records approached Hoyt about appearing again, having tracked down the mysterious “Floyd” Ming by searching around the Tupelo area one Victor record had pointed to.
By that summer, Hoyt, Rozelle and new young accompanists began playing at large-scale folk festivals and recorded a full album, “New Hot Tunes!” for Freeman’s Homestead imprint. “Monkey in the Dogcart” became a frequently played instrumental from that album. In 1975 they contributed to the soundtrack of the motion picture “Ode to Billy Joe,” based on Bobbie Gentry’s song. Hoyt Ming passed on in 1985, two years after his wife.
EVERY morning Jim Linderman gets up in his home in the small lakeside city of Grand Haven, Mich., grabs a cup of coffee and sits down at his computer to blog. Mr. Linderman, a librarian and archivist by profession, collects, researches and writes about the marginal, the forgotten and the not quite seemly in American folk art and popular culture.
Mr. Linderman has churned out 14 books on related topics in the last three years. The best known, “Take Me to the Water,” matches antique photographs of river baptisms with a CD of old gospel songs and sermons. Published by Dust-to-Digital in Atlanta, a record label that specializes in repackaging vintage music, and with an essay by Luc Sante, it was nominated for a Grammy in 2009.
“We lost to Little Walter,” Mr. Linderman said, referring to “The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967),” a compilation of that blues harmonica player’s recordings. “Can I complain? I got to go to the show in L.A.”
He flew to Atlanta to meet Steven Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, after seeing that label’s handsome CD box set “Goodbye, Babylon,” a compilation of old gospel recordings. Mr. Ledbetter selected 24 vintage recordings of sermons and songs to go with the baptism photos, like the Empire Jubilee Quartet singing “Wade in de Water.”
As he was preparing to leave New York, Mr. Linderman donated the baptism photos to the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, which mounted an exhibition of them last year. He has also donated a collection of Victorian sideshow photos, which the center plans to exhibit. “He’s doing something that nobody else is for visual culture,” said Brian Wallis, chief curator at the center. “He’s mining the margins of what would disparagingly be called low culture but might also be called popular culture. To focus on it you have to get the stuff together, and he’s one of the world’s greatest pickers. He’s on the lookout for these oddball things. He just keeps coming up with these ideas that are so interesting.”
And he still gets up every morning to feed his blogs, which are approaching two million page hits, a far larger audience, he said, than he could have hoped to reach in the predigital age.
He also collected dozens of diddley bows, the one-stringed instrument of West African origin heard in old Southern blues recordings, handmade slingshots and toy plows, antique kimonos and Plains Indian rawhide pouches called parfleches.
“I’ll find a subject and immerse myself in it completely,” he said. “That will be all I live and breathe until I think I’ve exhausted it. Then I’ll sell it, trade it, donate it and move on to the next binge.”
I rediscovered Parkersburg Landing (Ed Haley’s Rounder LP) filed away on one of the crowded shelves in my office. I put it on the record player and as soon as the title track started, I thought, “Uh oh. This is pretty good.”
I turned up the volume knob and slumped down in my chair. I sat there stunned for the next twenty or so minutes listening to Haley plow through tunes with names like “Humphrey’s Jig,” “Cherokee Polka” and “Cherry River Rag.” By the time I reached out to flip the album to Side 2, my fingers were trembling and I was almost breathless.
I tried to focus on every nuance as Haley played “Flower of the Morning,” “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Dunbar.” Then, when he took off on “Forked Deer,” I almost fell out of my chair. It was a profound experience…the kind that pulls you away from everything you’ve done up to that moment and sends you off into another direction. I don’t even remember listening to the rest of the album, although I’m sure I did.
Where did these recordings come from?
“The present recordings were made by Ralph Haley, who also plays guitar on several selections,” I read in the album liner notes. “Ralph had served in the Signal Corps during the war and used a home disc-cutting machine of the Wilcox-Gay type. After Ralph’s death in the late forties, the collection of discs were evenly divided among the five remaining children. It is estimated that the 106 sides presently accounted for represent approximately one third of the original total. Most of these records were preserved by Lawrence Haley of Ashland, who kindly gave us permission to issue them here. The discs were transferred at the Library of Congress under the supervision of Larry Haley and Alan Jabbour and were remastered at Intermedia Studios in Boston.”
I spent the next several years glued to Parkersburg Landing. I talked about Haley constantly. Every now and then I would call up friends and play some of the album, saying, “Now, that’s how it’s supposed to go.” No one had a clue who Ed Haley was; most seemed unimpressed. But to me, the scratchy recordings were like old faded photographs and I was so excited by what I heard that the imperfections in recording technique quickly disappeared to my ear.
It was only natural that I would want to know more about this man who had such a strong grip on me. I first turned to a brief biography written on the Parkersburg Landing album cover. Right away, his life interested me almost as much as did his music.
“James Edward Haley was born in 1883 on Hart’s Creek in Logan County, WV. When he was quite young, his mother was killed in an altercation with the Hatfield and McCoy feud. He was subsequently raised by his Aunt Liza. An attack of the measles when he was three left him completely blind. He received no formal schooling [and] on occasion food was so scarce that his dinner would consist of nothing but a bunch of wild onions washed in a nearby stream.”
Bill Ferris is a 73-year-old UNC professor who has spent six decades becoming Southern culture’s chief documentarian. Last year 9,000-plus students from 128 countries spent six weeks enrolled in what UNC-Chapel Hill calls a MOOC, or a Massive Open Online Course. The program explored oral histories and folk traditions, Southern writers and musicians, with sounds as regional and rich as fife-and-drum bands, work chants and the Delta blues. Almost every interview, photograph, recording and film clip—and there were a lot—came from Ferris.
Equally at home on Mississippi state work farms or in college lecture halls, Ferris has broken some of America’s biggest racial divides to collect tales of a sometimes-hidden history.
In the ’60s, for instance, a white farmer introduced him to a black musician employed on his land. Other white men, all armed, surrounded the meeting.
The musician refused to come out, so the farmer threw rocks at his roof until he obeyed. After a brief porch performance, the musician stopped, complaining of a finger cramp. Ferris arranged to meet him again at another black musician’s house. There, he played for hours, drinking whiskey and cursing his white boss. “Any time you want to come down here,” the man told Ferris, “you drive to my damn house. Ain’t a damn soul gonner f*** with you, white or black.”
From then on, and often at the risk of arrest, Ferris would enter a black community without the permission of local whites. He would buy groceries for his hosts, spend Saturday nights at juke joints, and attend church services on Sundays, all the time recording and taking pictures. He’d send his new friends prints of the photographs, along with a careful note of thanks. He knew what to do, even though he wasn’t sure why he did it.
“Like a lot of what I’ve done in my life,” Ferris says, “there was probably a point I realized these things are significant and should be in an archive. Before that, I just felt they were important in a deeper way. It’s part of what I was put on earth to do—to see that these voices are not lost.”
Ferris filled the trunk of his Chevy Nova with gear—a 35mm camera that his brother, Grey, taught him how to use, a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder, 200-watt light bulbs, a Super 8 movie camera scored at a discount by a cousin in the military.He used it all to capture black Mississippi musicians and the sounds they made.
“Nothing changes,” Ferris says. “It’s the old matters of the heart. I find myself falling back on those voices and the people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way: the famous and not-so-famous, the B.B. Kings, the Eudora Weltys, prison inmates, mule traders, auctioneers, quilt makers. They’re all a part of a common picture.”
The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, (from left) Mel Lyman, Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur, Kweskin, and Bill Keith, at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
By James Reed (www.bostonglobe.com):
For a group as colorful and influential as it was, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band had a rather dubious start.
Maynard Solomon, cofounder of Vanguard Records, had seen Kweskin perform at Club 47 in Cambridge with a ragtag group of musicians. Afterward Solomon asked Kweskin if he’d like to make a record with that band, to which Kweskin replied, “Well, that’s not a band, but I’d love to make a record.”
That was in 1963, at the height of the folk revival that found its mecca in Harvard Square’s Club 47, now known as Club Passim. Kweskin was one of the scene’s kingpins, helping to making jug band music, a hybrid of old-time jazz, blues, and folk, hip again. He, and later his bandmates, perfectly epitomized the genre’s blend of zany humor and serious musical chops. With their odd array of instruments and free-spirited appearance, they cut a kooky presence before disbanding in 1968.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Kweskin has reunited the Jug Band’s surviving members — which also include Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, and Bill Keith — for a short run of tour dates, including two nights at Club Passim on Aug. 29-30. Perhaps no one is more surprised about the gigs than the man whose band bears his name.
“I was asked to reunite the Jug Band maybe 15 years ago, and I wasn’t into it at all. I don’t know what came over me. . . . I felt like the Jug Band was my past, and I didn’t want to go back to my past,” Kweskin says from his home in Los Angeles. “But then I thought, Fritz [Richmond] is gone, Mel [Lyman] is gone. There’s only a few of us left, and it’s very unlikely we’ll do this again.” (more…)
“I kind of hate the word traditional,” Eli Smith says. “But I like down home music.” Indeed, he named his sporadic podcast (a “hardcore, unreconstructed, paleo-acoustic folk music program”) the Down Home Radio Show. “That’s a term that really has been used by country people and rural working class people to describe their own music. Like, down home, that’s back where I come from.”
Smith is putting together a traveling roadshow for the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress. On top of that, he’s working on his first book, The Oral History of Folk Music in New York City, 1935-1975, recording a new Down Hill Strugglers album, and producing two new CD collections.
One is a compilation of field recordings made by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax commemorating Lomax’s 100th birthday; the other is an “inverted” version of the famous Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith in 1952, containing all the B-sides of the 78s that Smith used for his anthology.
Smith’s band, the Down Hill Strugglers, insist on giving the music a raw, unpolished quality, the way it might have sounded drifting through some Appalachian hollow or the back room of a trading post. The effect is truly uncanny, in the sense that the music is strange but strangely familiar, as if it were bubbling up from the deeper recesses of American culture.
Even among folk music enthusiasts, The Down Hill Strugglers’ anachronistic approach is not always welcome. “Our booking agent was recently told by the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival upstate that they have a policy of not booking old-time music,” Eli tells me. “I mean, what? You’re a folk festival and… that’s insane!”
“I’m a revolutionary socialist anarchist,” he tells me. “I would probably be characterized as an extremist.” His parents are longtime radicals and former members of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group. When Eli was six, they brought him to a Pete Seeger concert. “I remember Pete actually chopped wood on stage, which I was impressed by,” Eli remembers.
“He, like, brought his own log and sang a work song and chopped wood. That was cool.” Eventually, Eli embraced an approach not unlike Seeger’s, one that married enthusiasm for folk music with radical politics. While he learned banjo and dug old 78s out of crates, he also read Marx and Trotsky and hung around with activist groups.
“By promoting and perpetuating the music of America’s rural working class, black and white, you bring honor to them, to the memory of all the people who actually built the country,” he says.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
Excerpt from Christopher King (www.oxfordamerican.org):
“Prince” Albert Hunt, born Archibald Hunt, was delivered unto the world on December 20, 1896, in Terrell, Texas, the youngest of four children. His mother was a full-blooded Cherokee from Alabama, his father a full-blooded Irishman, and the fiddle music their son played was an amalgamation of the lilting bow figures of the Celts and the untamed war whoops of the Indians.
The raspy forcefulness of Hunt’s violin tone reflected the coarse huskiness of his singing, making it easy to imagine his music as the soundtrack to barroom knifings and shoot-’em-ups in dance halls throughout the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas.
The drunken swagger of his voice seems to infect the rhythm in his 1928 and 1929 recordings for OKeh records in San Antonio and Dallas. On “Blues in a Bottle,” the guitar accompaniment stalls, elongates the beat, and then spreads the measure so Hunt can drawl out the verse, in effect both capturing and modifying, or marring, time.
Hunt learned to fiddle by stealing his father’s violin and sneaking away to play in graveyards late at night, cousins and bottles of whiskey in tow. His recorded music is perfectly consistent with this autodidactic approach: teach oneself while drunk in the cemetery such that one must be wasted and wading in death in order to play. One could scarcely anticipate something bad resulting from this methodology.
Prince Albert recorded only nine sides (one remains unissued and is presumably lost), about a decade after he was discharged from serving in the Army during the Great War. Most are vexingly rare—I only have one: “Wake Up Jacob,” with the flip side being “Waltz of Roses,” in “E” condition—and they are fiercely sought after due to their forceful, bluesy nature.
Though his recorded repertoire contained the usual suspects—the medicine show tune “Traveling Man,” a Jimmie Rodgers–influenced “Waltz of Roses,” the breakdowns “Wake Up Jacob”and “Houston Slide,” and the show stopper “Blues in a Bottle”—none of his performances were slavishly imitated by others.
Even so, Harry Smith thought enough of Hunt to include “Wake Up Jacob” in his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music (Social Music, Dances No. 1, Band 30). Rich Nevins issued “Blues in a Bottle” in his masterful series Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be, Volume 1, and Marshall Wyatt included “Traveling Man”in his Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937.
Hunt’s best pieces, in their best sound, are anthologized in Texas Fiddle Music, Vol. 1, on County Records. Although Hunt didn’t alter the course of vernacular folk music, and his influence on Western swing is minimal, he did leave a testament etched in the shellac grooves of his few recordings to an idiosyncratic sound that reflected the mongrel eccentricities of his time and place. Hunt played exactly what the people of Deep Ellum wanted: uninhibited fiddle dance pieces and an occasional waltz.
Square dancing made its return to the Pendleton County Fair in Circleville,West Virginia, this year after a two-year absence as part of the Mountain Dance Trail.
The return of the Pendleton County dance was spurred by the Augusta Heritage Center, a resource for folk life studies out of Davis & Elkins College, about an hour away. The center’s Mountain Dance Trail project has helped organize dances across the state, cultivating tradition county by county. With a nod to the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky and the Crooked Road music trail in Virginia, it is a homegrown effort to revive and brand a West Virginia legacy.
Circleville is an unincorporated area with fewer than 350 households about three and a half hours from Washington. “The nice thing about a county like this,” Mr. Nelson said, talking about dancing but not only that, is that “if you screw up, they’ll straighten you right out.”
The Mountain Dance Trail began this year as an oral history project. Through the AmeriCorps program, Mr. Milnes hired Becky Hill, 23, an alumna of Davis & Elkins, and with money from a Kickstarter fund and some small state grants, the two traveled along Route 33, which runs east to west across the state, interviewing the oldest square dance callers they could find, documenting their dance styles and histories.
“The reason we did interviews was to capture these stories, about the boozing and the drinking and the fighting,” Ms. Hill said. “What makes this dance so important is not just a dance move, but everything that’s around that, that makes it alive.”
“It’s like regional identity for a lot of the folks around here,” she added. “They grow up with the fiddle music and the banjo music, and dancing in their homes. It’s part of who they are.”
People like to crow about how analog records sound more “organic” than digital formats, but in the case of the 78, most of them are literally organic in origin. The traditional 78 manufacturing process relies on shellac, a resin secreted by the lac, a scaly insect from South Asia, loosely related to cicadas.
The Lac bug is a very small red parasitic bug that attaches itself to a small variety of trees. The insect feeds on the sap of the tree and secretes the lac as a protective shell in which the female lay their eggs.
Once the lac is removed from the branches, it is crushed and washed with water to remove a once valuable red or bright orange dyestuff from it. It is then heated and forced through a sieve to extract the filtered resin. It is now gathered and rolled while it is still soft and pliable and stretched into long, thin sheets.
The stretched-out sheets are allowed to cool and are broken into flakes. This flake form allows fresh quality shellac to be prepared and avoid waste. The flakes are mixed with denatured alcohol to produce a liquid solution that can be applied with a paintbrush.
The earliest disc records were made of various materials including hard rubber. Around 1895, a shellac-based compound was introduced and became standard, typically composed of about one-third shellac and about two-thirds mineral filler, which meant finely pulverized rock, an admixture of cotton fibers to add tensile strength, carbon black for color, and a very small amount of a lubricant to facilitate mold release during manufacture. The production of shellac records continued until the end of the 78 rpm format, although other materials were used, including vinyl.
Tom Mylet: After the release of County Records’ 1965 LP “Clawhammer Banjo,” I was among the musicians who sought out Kyle to learn his style. We’d sit on Kyle’s back porch and I’d record these sessions, using Kyle’s recording machine, which would later [in 2009] become the CD, “Banjo Lessons on Kyle’s Back Porch.”
I heard that Kyle thought I was “polite, and kept good time,” and that he might call me. I started playing banjo with Kyle and the Camp Creek Boys in 1976. I played off and on with Kyle from 1976 to 1982.
Soon, my wife and I became great friends with Kyle and his wife, Percy. They referred to us as “their kids.” Marianne and I didn’t have a TV and we’d go over once a week or so and watch “The Dating Game” with them. We’d all make comments about the contestants.
Sometimes Kyle would say, “Percy, do you have any of that cake you made?” Along with it she served pre-sweetened iced tea. Kyle would add one teaspoon of sugar after another to his—it seems like maybe ten teaspoons! Once we were done, he would get this burst of energy and say, “Let’s go out to the shop and work on a banjo.” His shop was maybe 6 by 10 feet and he put a plywood top over his table saw for his main workspace.
He taught me lots of other things. What little of plumbing I know I got from fixing frozen pipes under my house with Kyle’s help. Or he’d say, “Let’s get together and cut some wood.” So he came over, to my surprise, with a horse. When you’re cutting timber on a hill, I’d learn, there are places you can’t get to in a pickup truck. But you could drag the logs down with a horse, keeping them on long reins.
And he knew at least as much about horses as he did banjos—about buying horses and “breaking” them while he taught them to drag wood.
He was a good timber cruiser—someone who can walk the woods and assign value to the timber. And he owned his own sawmill; he would buy timbered land and clear it to sell lumber, then sell the cleared land. And he’d sell horses to farmers to make gardens. He had it going from every direction!
The thing I liked about Kyle and his playing was the thing I liked about everything he did: an incredibly elegant sense of simplicity. It wasn’t that I learned to play like him so much as to think like him, to find simple ways to accomplish what I want to play.
I heard about Charlie Faurot [of Old Blue Records] 40 years ago. I was trying to find authentic American music. And of course that led me to the “Clawhammer Banjo” compilation recordings that he and David Freeman released for County Records. That was classic stuff. Charlie was important to a lot of guys like me.
Back then there wasn’t an Old-Time Herald or BNL. Bluegrass Unlimited was a mimeographed sheet. Anything Charlie did was interesting to me. Of course his recordings of Wade Ward, Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham, and George Stoneman led to the first record devoted to clawhammer banjo. I learned about the Camp Creek Boys through his recording of them. Not only did he point a lot of us in the right direction, he also validated the music of some of the older guys whom locals might have been tempted to see as old-fashioned eccentrics.
Charlie and I were wandering around the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention early one evening. He said, “I’m going to retire in a couple of years. Would you like to take over Old Blue Records?” I said, “Wow.” And I thought, “This is a big responsibility.” Of course I said yes. We said we’d stay in touch over the next couple of years, and the next thing you know, Charlie was diagnosed with cancer. Things started happening faster than we expected. The idea was that I would take it over around now, or this coming fall.
There is a ton of recorded old material, like six or seven good cuts that didn’t end up on the original Camp Creek Boys album. All the players on the second and third “Clawhammer Banjo” volumes had selected only one or two cuts per person. But there’s lots more they recorded that has yet to be released.
In Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, a mentally unbalanced young man plays a recording of Washington Phillips singing an old spiritual, “I Was Born to Preach the Gospel,” for his girlfriend and tells her, “This is the voice of God.”
Even if Washington Phillips wasn’t God incarnate, he remains nearly as enigmatic. Until only a few years ago, everything that was known about Phillips could be summed up this way: between 1927 and 1929, the Texas-born Phillips recorded eighteen angelic gospel songs set to twelve-bar blues, including “I’ve Got the Key to the Kingdom,” “Denomination Blues (Pts. 1 & 2),” and “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There.” Then he disappeared.
There have been a number of early and influential blues musicians, like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson whose recording histories were extremely limited, but at least we knew a little something about them. Those things we didn’t know for certain, we crafted stories and legends to explain. In comparison Phillips was like a fleeting hallucination, half-remembered for a few moments before vanishing.
It was unclear when he was born or when he died. No one seemed to have the slightest idea who he was or what he did either before or after that two-year stretch in the late ‘20s. In fact the biographical liner notes accompanying a 1991 disc of Phillips recordings turn out to be about a different Washington Phillips. Everything we knew about the gospel blues singer was in those sixteen of the eighteen spare, heartfelt, and gorgeous songs that still existed.
But the mystery didn’t even end there, as musicologists couldn’t even agree on what instrument Phillips was playing. It was a sweet, strange, ethereal sound, almost a hum, which smart joes with highly trained ears had over the years attributed to everything from a banjo played like a lap steel to the innards of a gutted piano to more obscure instruments like a Celestaphone, two Celestaphones tuned in octaves attached side-by-side, a Phonoharp or some homemade instrument constructed from a wooden box and some strings.
Experts couldn’t even agree if Phillips was plucking something or striking something, which led the more zealous true believers to claim the music came directly from heaven itself. When the 1991 liner notes which claimed Phillips had died of tuberculosis in an Austin sanitarium in 1939 further claimed the instrument in question was a small portable autoharp-type keyboard known as a Dolceola, well, everyone just accepted that. Over the next decade, the Dolceola, a rare and rarely-heard instrument, became an inextricable part of the meager Phillips legend.
In 2002, a journalist and musicologist named Michael Corcoran began looking into the enigma of Washington Phillips, a man almost completely forgotten by everyone save for a handful of academics and musicians with an ear for the obscure roots of American traditional music. After a number of interviews and public records searches, he came as close to an accurate biography as we’re likely to see. Even then there isn’t much to tell.
Phillips was born in rural Texas in 1880, though what happened over the next 47 years remains virtually unknown. He was reportedly a deacon at assorted local Baptist and Methodist churches who (as detailed in several songs) had no patience for religious hypocrisy. He also enjoyed snuff. Although known to his family and local churchgoers for his beautiful singing, it wasn’t until he was discovered by a field recorder from Columbia Records that the idea of preserving some of his songs ever occurred to anyone, least of all Phillips himself.
He traveled to Dallas and recorded a few 78s (including a remarkable six songs during a single 1929 recording session), then returned to his quiet farming life in Simsboro, where he continued to sell homemade cane syrup and sing for his neighbors and family, but never recorded another thing. Despite claims he’d died in the madhouse in ‘39 (that was the other Washington Phillips, who was eleven years younger than the one in question), he lived until 1954, dying after he received a severe head injury falling down the stairs at the local Social Security office.
That’s all we have, save for those sixteen extant songs. But maybe those sixteen songs are all we need, maybe he’d said everything he’d needed to say and told us all we needed to know. So many of the songs, like “Train Your children” and “You Can’t stop a Tattler (Pts. 1&2)” take the form of simple poetic sermons whose gentle resolve (as it’s been termed) and accompanying celestial music are quite unlike anything else recorded at the time or since.
In the process of his research, Corcoran may have even solved the mystery of where that music comes from. A 1928 issue of a local community paper ran a photograph of Phillips in the studio. In the photo, he’s holding two fretless zithers. Although some still insist he was playing a Dolceola, there is no evidence apart from musical speculation to confirm this, Phillips himself having left no written record behind.
Of course there’s no evidence beyond that photo that he was playing a fretless zither, either. they might’ve just been sitting there in the studio at the time. As appropriate as it seems that today Phillips rests in an unmarked grave in the Cotton Gin Cemetery near Teague, TX, maybe it’s best that the source of the music he was playing remain a buried enigma as well. When you listen to the music, the honest grace of the music, it seems to me the precise identity of the instrument he was playing at the time simply doesn’t matter.
The mountain-hollow art of old-time Appalachian fiddling, long withering under the pressures of youthful emigration and homogenized broadcast entertainment, is hanging on by a few well-bowed strings here in a backwoods master-apprentice program.
Toe-tapping in syncopation, his right wrist snapping off bow movements the way other lads ply a curve ball, 14-year-old Jake Krack followed his master, 78-year-old Lester McCumber, through the popping, tuneful intricacies of ”Ida Red.”
The lustrous, haunting scrape of the music drifted out toward the surrounding forest this evening, the sound wreathing the simple McCumber household as pungently as autumnal chimney smoke.
The two were jamming, by the boy’s terminology, or just fiddling, by that of his lean and craggy master. But the music — part of an ever-fading pre-Colonial Appalachian canon rarely written down and ”played by air,” as the teacher tells his pupil — was assuredly alive and well.
”Now that’s the original way of playing ‘Ida Red,’ the way the old man who lived down the road — Senate Cottrell was his name — played it,” the master instructed, suddenly looking back on his own young tutelage by a departed local legend.
In the gifted hands of Jake, the fiddling arts of Mr. McCumber — and of Mr. Cottrell, the fiddler French Carpenter and sundry masters before — now promises to outlive them all through a new generation. (more…)
edited from Tin Pan Alley’s Contribution to Folk Music by Norman Cohen (Western Folklore, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1970), pp. 9-20):
Prior to 1880 music publishers were scattered throughout the country. In the years that followed, however, Union Square in New York gained ascendancy as the locus of song publishers. The magnet which drew them there was the presence of a major entertainment center boasting music halls, theaters, dance halls, and burlesque houses.
During this decade several publishers discovered that songs could be marketed like any other commodity. This meant manufacturing them to meet prevailing taste and “plugging” them, that is, prevailing on the singers to feature them in their public performances. In the next decade theatrical activity moved further uptown and the music publishers followed it, making Twenty-eighth Street the center of the music-publishing world for a quarter-century or so. This was the street that was dubbed “Tin Pan Alley” by journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld about 1903.
Why did these songs of Tin Pan Alley make such a dent in the repertoire of the American south? Perhaps the urbanization and industrialization of rural America left many persons with a sense of longing for a lost way of life so that the sentimental ballads of mother and home found a receptive audience in the hills after they had been driven out of the towns.
However, another factor less often considered is the predominant style of TPA songs of the 1880s and 1890s. The language used was simple and effective poetry, never rising to levels of great artistry but never sinking to the convoluted awkwardness of the broadside hacks of a century earlier.
On the other hand, American popular songs of the pre-Civil War period were, as indicated earlier, often flowery and stilted, and marked the unsuccessful attempts of their creators at romantic poetry. There were numerous sentimental songs of mother and home in the 1850s and 1860s, but they tended to be more descriptive and lyrical than the narrative ballads of the later years. These antebellum songs were, in effect, not memorable, and for this reason the songs of the last decades of the century achieved a place in oral tradition that their predecessors could not attain.
Morgan Sexton was born January 28, 1911, in Linefork, Kentucky, to Shaderick (Shade) and Harriet Cornett Sexton. As a young boy, he said, “my cousin, Press Whitaker, and me got some old lard buckets and cut the bottoms out and fixed us some banjos. They sounded awful, but we played them like they were real banjos.”
Sexton’s father was a banjo player, and he began to teach his son to play, but shortly thereafter he became ill and died, leaving his wife with seven children and no source of income. “When I was about 11 years, I quit school to go to work for my uncle gathering crops. I was 13 when I worked in a sawmill for 50 cents a day. From there, I went to work cutting railroad ties,” Sexton recalled.
Despite the long hours and hard labor, Sexton continued to play the banjo, helped along by his sister, Hettie. When he was 17, he bought his first real banjo for $10.86 from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. “I had to walk four miles to Ulvah to pick it up,” he said. “I played it all the way back home. I would try to play it every day when I got home from work.”
Sexton was 25 when he met and married his wife, Virgie Hayes. At that time, he was working “up on Bull Creek logging timber.” A year later, he started working in the coal mines. “This was long before they started to use the rockdust (powdered limestone) they use now (to keep the coal dust down).” The conditions in the mines were oppressive, and by the time Sexton retired in 1976, he had contracted silicosis, a disease of the lungs caused by coal (or quarry) dust.
Over the years, playing the banjo was a great joy for Sexton. Throughout his lifetime, he played for his family and friends, keeping active his repertoire of hundreds of traditional ballads, love songs, and dance tunes. When neighbors came to his house, he liked to entertain them with his music and stories of his childhood in Kentucky. Everyone in Sexton’s family played the banjo, including his mother, who died in 1947.
Both Sexton’s singing and instrumental styles were unaffected by contemporary influences and musical ideas. His banjo picking was a delicate and absolute individualized version of the Appalachian two-fingered style, liquid and serene, each melody using its own particular tuning in the old-fashioned way. Although Sexton usually played by himself, he was sometimes joined by his neighbor Boyd Watts, a fiddler, at schoolhouse events, at Christmas, and in end-of-the-school-year programs. At square dances, however, the banjo alone was passed from one player to the next.
During the last decade of his life, Sexton began to play and sing in public, performing at the Celebration of Traditional Music at Berea College and the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in addition to demonstrating his talents on many radio programs and at local events. He was honored at the Banjo Institute in Lebanon, Tennessee. Sexton prided himself in preserving the old-time banjo styles he learned growing up and in teaching his nephew, Lee Sexton, to carry this tradition on for future generations.
The Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.VA, came into its own about 17 years ago, after the longstanding old-time festival in Galax, Va. began picking on long-hairs. “There were animal stalls the hippies usually stayed in,” and when organizers razed them, she said, that sent a message. “We wanted a festival that was comfortable and welcoming. We are the anti-Galax,” said one participant.“Old time is the counterculture version of Appalachian mountain music,” agreedJimSkelding, who served as country star Martina McBride’s fiddler for four years and now plays with several Virginia-based bluegrass bands. He doesn’t mean that as a compliment.Mr.Skelding is the mirror opposite of Mr.Stagmer: close-cropped, deeply Republican, and bored stiff by old-time music, whose practitioners may be politically progressive, he said, though “they are more conservative in their musical approach than any other musicians, playing only old period tunes where the fiddle plays very structured repetitive solos that offer no creative space to the supporting instruments.”Mr. Skelding, who would no more join an old-time jam than the Howard Dean Fan Club, also dismissed the sartorial disposition of old timers, calling their omnipresent sandals “Jerusalem cruisers.”All of which is music to the ears of the old timers. “We’re pre-bluegrass,” boasts Mr.Stagmer, and many songs popular with jammers definitely reflect a pre-modern sensibility, including “Squirrel Heads and Gravy” and “Nail the Catfish to the Tree.”Old timers also claim the high ground in the family-friendly competition. Mr. Stagmer asserts that there is much less smoking at old-time festivals, while Ms. Gillespie says that “Galax got to the point where you couldn’t let your kids go to the Porta-potties by themselves,” citing alcohol-fueled fights as a chief concern. Other ambiance differences: no Confederate flags at Clifftop, save on the hats of a couple of trash haulers. Nor is there a noticeable police presence, while officers at Galax patrol through the night.
“Clifftop has probably the most self-policed crowd I’ve seen at a music festival,” said Mr. McClain. Indeed, Mr. Zepp left his entire banjo inventory out overnight, protected only by a thin tarp. Couldn’t someone easily drive off with all your stock? “I guess I have more faith in the human race,” he said, adding that word would get back to him if stolen instruments started popping up at jam sessions. “They are easily traced.”
No festival is without drawbacks — rain, heat, marauding insects, and even a tragic death. “If you’ve got to go,” noted camper Joseph “Joebass” DeJarnette, “this is a pretty good place to do it.”
For County Records, Chris King has produced scads of compilations of old-time music for a whole new audience. As a restoration engineer, he makes analog-to-digital transfers of 78s that render the nearly century-old recordings accessible to modern ears. His work on Revenant’s seven-CD Charley Patton box set, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, earned him a Grammy.
“Chris has the knowledge, he has the ear, he has the equipment and the technique,” says Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat, a North Carolina–based label, who worked with King on a compilation of black fiddlers from the ’20s and ’30s. “But he’s more than a technician, he’s an aficionado, a lover of the music. It’s not just, Bring me a stack of records and I’ll transfer ’em, it’s, Let me help you find the very best copies.”
Even for a fan of the music, this is painstaking work. Many of the most prized blues and country 78s survive only in the most wretched condition, gouged as they are by the steel needles of the old Victrolas. For the Patton project, King transferred over a hundred sides, mostly Paramounts, which are notorious for their inferior pressing and beat-to-hell copies; he managed to salvage crisp, clear transfers from all but the most battered copies.
“There are spots in the groove that, for whatever reason, haven’t been tapped,” says Dean Blackwood of Revenant. “If you view it as a relief map, part of the terrain hasn’t been traveled on and Chris can get to it. He knows where to go in the groove to find music that’s still coded in there, that hasn’t been ground down to nothing.”
The entire operation, which King calls Long Gone Sound, is crammed in a tiny record room: a fancy pre-amplifier and soundboard mixer, a pair of ’50s-era tube amps on milk crates, and some high-end speakers that can rake the wattage King pushes through them. He likes to play these records loud. He has a few dozen styli that he uses to eke out some half-buried fiddle break from a worn shellac groove.
Dropping the needle on an old 78, again and again and again. He calls this meticulous process “cracking the code.” What might seem tedious is for him an intricate communion. “It’s all in the whole ritual. As naive as it sounds, when I play a 78 on my turntable, it makes me feel closer to the music than playing it on a CD. It takes a special breed—there’s only so many weird, whacked-out eccentrics who get a big kick out of that three-minute experience.”
Back in 2010, a friend tipped Nathan Salsburg off about a box of records at the dump. He hurried to the scene and rescued what turned out to be a portion of the private collection of “hoarder” Don Wahle, a Louisville-native and collector of early country records. Wahle had died and his estranged family, eager to be rid of his squalor, ordered a purge of his entire home.
Nathan, with permission from the waste removal company, organized a full sweep of Wahle’s home and recovered the remaining 78s, many of which had never been reissued, and compiled Work Hard, Pray Hard, Play Hard (Tompkins Square, 2012), an effort that would earn him a Grammy nomination and a seat at the round table of contemporary 78 record collectors.
As a 21st century archivist, he alternates working with old and new mediums, and must navigate between the romantic and pragmatic aspects of collecting. Curious how he does it, we asked him about the apparent juxtaposition between his vinyl collection and his digital collection. He explained to us that, when compared to the uniform appearance of digital track lists, vinyl has a usefulness in its physical form; the artwork, the label, the liner notes and the multitude of other visual details help one to contextualize and situate the music in its time and place. “Yet those four hard drives,” he said, pointing at the entire digitized Alan Lomax Collection, “are what pay my mortgage.”
Nathan has worn the title of curator for the Alan Lomax Archive for the last four years. It’s a position that he has worked up to after starting out as a twenty-two-year old gopher and admin assistant. “To give you a feel for the era,” he said, “my first task was writing accession numbers on DAT tapes.” Today, he oversees the digital iterations of Lomax’s vast collections and perpetuates the vision of the pioneering folklorist.
In addition to the 17,000 some audio files currently available through the online Lomax Archive (culturalequity.org), Nathan said, “We have fifty hours of ‘30s Kentucky recordings, forty hours from the 1954-55 Italian trip, fifty hours of 1937 Haitian recordings and three hundred some hours of video that are still being processed for inclusion.” The task, he explained, is to not only make this material available, but to present it in manageable formats. Just what the ideal format is for disseminating aural and visual material, however, is a global work in progress.
excerpt from notes by Mike Seeger (“Masters of Old-time Country Autoharp”):
John Kilby Snow was born May 28, 1906, in hilly Grayson County in southwestern Virginia.
By about the age of 4 he had started playing autoharp (his first tune, like Pop Stoneman’s,
was “Molly Hare”), and at the age of 5 he beat his brother-in-law (from whom he had first
learned) in a Winston- Salem, North Carolina, contest. Although he played other instruments, the
autoharp was his first love.
For a few years in the 1920s he traveled around playing wherever he could. He told me
of spending a couple of days with the Carter Family and playing some music with them around
Bristol, Virginia, probably in the late 1920s. I’ve often wondered whether, if Kilby was sometimes
holding his instrument nearly upright (as he did for these recordings) and playing “drag notes”
back then, that possibly influenced Maybelle Carter.
About ten years later she started playing the autoharp upright rather than in her lap and sometimes even approximated the “drag-note” effect. She held the instrument in her arms and unlike Kilby could play the instrument while standing.
Nevertheless, she certainly could have managed these innovations on her own.
Kilby worked mostly as a builder and carpenter and later for the highway department until
His use of drag notes certainly has been at the center of his adapting blues and modern country songs to his autoharp repertoire. He first drew his repertoire from family and community and later from commercial recordings by early country artists such as Blind Alfred Reed and the Carter Family. In the late 1950s and 1960s he picked up songs from Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and country singers such as Carl Smith and Merle Haggard. He also composed several country-style songs of his own.
After the release of his first record, Kilby began performing at concerts, folk festivals, and in
coffeehouses, helped a good deal by the efforts of Mike and Ellen Hudak. He was great fun to
play music with, and accompaniment seemed to spur him on. I especially remember a time in the
early 1960s at Sunset Park near Oxford, Pennsylvania, where Bill Monroe was putting on a show.
Kilby played autoharp while I backed him on guitar in one of the parking meadows, and a crowd
gathered around to hear old favorites like “Budded Roses” as well as some of the more recent Bill
Monroe songs such as “Close By” or the Monroe classic, “Muleskinner Blues.” It was exciting to
feel the spark that came from his music at those times.
Later in the decade I helped him record a solo Folkways recording, and I arranged a concert tour for us on the West Coast where we recorded a few of his songs on videotape, now released commercially. Up to the late 1970s he played a
few contests and festivals, most notably the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, where he
The rare-record business is booming, despite the recession and the devaluation of music as a physical product. “Prices have been rising at a phenomenal rate, as people take money out of the stock market and out of different real estate investments and look for a place to put it,” said John Tefteller, a collector who makes his living dealing in rare records.
Although most collectors subspecialize by genre, whether jazz or classical or country, it’s early American rural blues — loose acoustic laments, recorded before 1935 and performed by artists who were born in or near the Mississippi Delta — that inspires the highest prices and the most fevered pursuits. “The early blues material from the ’20s and ’30s is the hottest material of all,” Mr. Tefteller said in a phone interview. He said that on average a rare jazz 78 might sell for $1,500 to $5,000, whereas sales for a comparable blues record would start at $5,000.
Blues music is in part mythological; its legend involves sweltering juke joints, homemade whiskey and Faustian bargains at rural crossroads. A furniture company in a largely white Midwestern suburb is rarely evoked in these reveries, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s Paramount Records — an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a manufacturer of wooden phonograph cabinets in Port Washington, Wis. — became an unlikely home for blues legends like Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Skip James. Paramount’s blues releases — especially its “race” records with label numbers in the 12000s and 13000s — are among the most coveted records in the world.
These particular records, he explained, are a finite commodity. “I would doubt that there are a hundred total Charley Patton records left in the world,” he said. Other artists’ discographies are even more limited: only eight copies of various 78s by Son House (who recorded eight sides, or four records, for Paramount) and 15 copies of discs by Skip James (who recorded 18 sides) appear to remain.
The stakes are high from a preservationist standpoint. If collectors weren’t tracking these records, the songs might be lost entirely, and speculation surrounding Paramount’s missing metal masters (the original transcriptions of a performance) has only amplified the significance of the remaining 78s. According to Alex van der Tuuk’s book “Paramount’s Rise and Fall” (Mainspring Press, 2003), in 1942 the bulk of the masters — by then corroded — were carted off by rail for reuse in World War II.
“The building where the metal masters had been stored didn’t have any insulation, and pigeons came into that building, and you can imagine what a bird does to a metal master,” Mr. van der Tuuk said by phone from his home in the Netherlands. Still, rumors — that they were hurled into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled former employees, or used to patch rat holes in chicken coops — persist. In 2006 the PBS program “The History Detectives” arranged for a team of divers to scour the bottom of the Milwaukee River. They came up empty-handed.
Meet Jerron Paxton, a modern day songster, minstrel and bluesman. He is truly the living embodiment of the true blues in the 21st Century, but he plays it all in the true songster tradition: ragtime, hokum, old-time, French reels, Appalachian mountain music and blues and more – and whatever he plays sounds great .
The young bard was born in 1989, but his vast talent rivals the greatest in the genre. He is the whole package. He’s witty, fast rhyming, poetic, fun, exciting, wonderfully skilled as a musician and a fine singer, he is the continuation of a proud tradition, literally and figuratively. It’s hard to tell at times when Jerron Paxton, a consummate entertainer, is putting on an act, when he takes his act to real life and when life starts and the act ends.
He seemingly appeals to audiences into the old-times look and sound, but it could also be, as he told the countryblues.com “I just like wearing overalls.” The artist has even reported to be the real-life son of Robert Johnson’s cousin. At first glance he looks like he’s playing the part of a bluesman in a Hollywood movie, dressed with theatrical retro-schtick, with some type of various hats, from Derbies to Orthodox Jewish kippa.
The tall, corpulent young man almost looks like a young Willie Dixon, and he is smart to make hay when the grass is high, marketing himself directly to the segment of the blues community with a great nostalgic hunger for authentic musicians that accurately portray the image of the romanticized 1930s rural minstrel. It could be that for now, his closest local support group is the Jalopy Theater scene in Brooklyn, where there is an active old time community. (more…)
During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
Among the artists were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded hits like “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” there. These songs launched them to stardom and their successes were only the beginning for Peer, who popularized the genres of country, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin music.
Peer had already been recording “hillbilly” songs — what is now known as country — across the Southern United States for five years before the Tennessee recordings.
A new book by music journalist Barry Mazor, “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,” follows the arc of both Peer’s life and the music industry.
His story begins in the era of the wind-up crank cylinder and ends in the age of color television. In that span of time, he navigated performance rights and recording contracts, emphasizing that songwriters and producers each received their share of the profits.
“I think Ralph Peer did more than anyone, any other one single person, to change the popular music we hear,” Mazor told Art Beat. “Yet people don’t necessarily know the name.”
But the names of artists he worked with are recognized as musical greats: Mamie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Perez Prado, Buddy Holly. The list goes on.
While Mazor was working on his previous book, “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century,” he learned about Peer’s relationship to Rodgers. Mazor was fascinated by the man who recorded and produced so much of the music he personally enjoyed listening to and writing about. (more…)
For someone with the impossible task of selecting the average living traditional banjo player, Virgil Anderson’s nomination would be as easy as any to defend. The evidence – two LPs featuring Virgil’s music (“On the Tennessee Line,” County 777; and “Music of Tennessee,” Heritage 042) – demonstrates his superb technical ability to pick delicate melodies, chord creatively, knock out syncopated dance tunes, utilize novel effects, and freely improvise. Even into his eighties, Virgil continued to learn and create new songs and to perform with enthusiasm and unconservative abandon.
“My mother failed to dish my brains out the back door when I was born,” is his own reasoning for his uninhibited condition. Other details of Virgil’s birth in 1902 are more certain. His birthplace was Palace, Kentucky, an edge of Wayne County bordering the Cumberland River. His father floated log rafts to Nashville, split barrel staves at company tent camps, and unloaded steamboats in Russell County in the years up to Virgil’s birth:
“He was apickin’ that banjer biggest part of the time. And that black man [on the steamboat] would slp him whiskey, and just keep him about half drunk apickin’ that banjer He’d slip him different extra food, you know, cake and pie. The rest of ‘em wasn’t gettin’ it. He was the cook and he’d give him the very best, cause he’d pick that banjer.”
Virgil soon joined the music-making and dancing:
“I’d be in the bed, my mother said, until I was two or three years old aplayin’ the banjer – tunes that she could understand what I was playin’. I knowed nothin’ about it. Can’t remember nothin’ about it. It’s unbelievable. Ain’t nobody believes that, but my mother told it. Same way by dancin’. I never could hear a racket, if it was like an engine runnin’ or something another, I’d want to dance after it. That’s the reason after my great uncle Green Johnson achurnin’ with that old time churn. He was settin’ on the kitchen porch on the steps outside, setting there a churnin’. And that went so good to me, I had to get with it. I had to keep time with it. Well, he couldn’t stand it. “You stop that, Virgil!” Well, when he’d stop, I’d stop. When he’d start again, I’d hit her again. And he’d holler for my daddy. And he comes I had to “sell out, Doc!” I had to stop.
Virgil’s father soon took the family into the unsettled life of “following the public works,” moving to a different logging or stave camp every six months or so. At the age of eighteen, in a rough logging camp just north of the Tennessee state line, he had an eye-opening encounter with a prominent black Tennessee string band, the Bertram brothers.
“The first time I heard ‘em, me and my dad was going through the camp. Big, long band mill camp. And we kept walking down there and directly he said, “I believe I hear music.” Got a little piece further and they was playin’ at the bandmill, where the lumber comes down on the shoots. And such a crowd, looked like the whole company was there. We just crowded right on through ‘em, and got close to ‘em. See’d that they was colored people. Boys I’m atellin’ you they was singing. They’s getting’ that alto. Just almost make you cry. That guitar and banjer. Then they’d lay the guitar down and take the banjer and fiddle. Oh, just so handy as a goose going barefooted, you know. Well, I just tied right in with ‘em. I remember I bought an old guitar, but I didn’t know much about it. But when I see’d them agrabbin’ those chords just like that, I knowed to get with it. Just grab ‘em all at once. Naturally, it was awkward for two or three times trying it, but I see’d what had to be done. If I done it, I was gonna do it; if I didn’t I was out of it.
Virgil’s conversion was to a fuller, more sophisticated “chord music,” with a blues touch, and he was no longer satisfied with just “noting out” the simple dance tunes his father played. The blues and the Bertram’s chord music, represented by a wide variety of songs and tunes of both black and white origin, became Virgil’s love.
“It’s the drive, and the time, and the beat that they have. They don’t get too fast or too slow… They look like they’re gonna get plumb off it, but they’ll never lose their time.”
By 1931, the Depression resulted in a shutdown of the sawmill camps, so to earn money from some of his children’s winter clothing, Virgil recruited John Sharp and his brother in law Clyde Troxell to perform in the still busy coal camps as the Kentucky Wildcats. As Burnett and Rutherford were traveling the same route just ahead of them, Virgil would ballyhoo at the entrance of the schoolhouses they rented: “we’re come down here to pick up what they’re leavin’ out: it ain’t me atalking – we’ll prove it by these strings. It’s coming fresh off these strings to prove it to you, that we are pickin’ what they’re leavin’ out.”
Virgil finally settled down and took up residence in Griffin, Kentucky in 1937. The homesite’s remote location and the demands of farm life took Virgil away from the rough and tumble excitement of the public works, but he and his wife soon adjusted and raised a large family of musicians. One son, Dillard, became lead guitarist for Orangie R. Hubbard’s original Cherokees, a rockabilly group that recorded for the Lucky and King labels in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another son, Willard, continued to develop a blues guitar style, led by Virgil’s interest in the music.
The mission of the 2nd South Carolina String Band is to present Civil War music in as authentic a manner as possible. In their recordings the listener will hear the music of the 19th century played on 19th century period instruments in the appropriate style. This is the music as it truly sounded to the soldiers of the Civil War.
The 2nd South Carolina String Band was formed in August of 1989 by five riflemen of Co.I, 2nd SC Volunteer Infantry, a unit of Civil War reenactors that was very active during the five years of events celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Civil War – and for many years to follow. After the battles, drills and inspections, the boys who had instruments played and sang around the campfire while members of the unit would often join in and sing along. This was the beginning of the 2nd South Carolina String Band.
Without recognizing it at the time, the group, comprised of mostly amateur musicians playing banjo, fiddle, and guitar, tambourine, bones and military drum – had coalesced into a 20th century recreation of a typical American Civil War camp band. In the beginning they played mostly at night around their company camp fire as they enthusiastically began to explore and perform the music of the War Between the States. Soon they began performing for reenactment dances and concert audiences.
The songs and instrumental tunes performed by the 2nd South Carolina String Band would have been considered the “pop” music of the period beginning in the late 1820′s and running through the 1860′s and beyond. In the years following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Americans were determined to reject European classical musical forms and were searching for their own distinctly American musical “voice.”
They found it in the frontier tradition of tall-tales about larger-than-life American characters such as Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyon, Old Dan Tucker and John Henry. Composers such as Joel Sweeney, Daniel Emmett, Stephen Foster, and George Root soon arrived on the scene; men who wrote music for a living that appealed to the masses. This music was unique in that it had no classical background. Its roots were in Celtic, American and African folk melodies. Its songs were filled with the language, slang, and experiences of the common man rather than the intellectual elites and its impact on American culture echoes down to the present day.
The 2nd South Carolina String Band plays the songs and music that moved the American people of the early and mid-eighteen hundreds. They play the music that was in the hearts and minds and on the tongues of the citizen-soldiers that made up the ranks of the armies of the North and the South as they marched off to take part in the cataclysmic struggle that was to become the defining event of our nation’s history. They play it on instruments of the era and in an authentic manner and style that carries the listener back to simpler times. They play with a verve and excitement that infects even the most reserved listener with their own enjoyment and brings back to vibrant life the tumultuous energy of the American experience during the War Between the States. To experience the 2nd South Carolina String Band is, for a moment, to reach out and touch the past – “to eavesdrop on history.”
Longing for the Past, The 78rpm Era in Southeast Asia, is a lavish four CD box-set covering recordings from 1905 to 1966, with an accompanying 267 page book, released on the Atlanta-based boutique label Dust-to-Digital. It won the 2014 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research, in the category Best Historical Research in Recorded Folk or World Music.
In recent years, Dust-to-Digital has created a name for itself, if not an entire niche market, with high quality box-sets that, as the website explains, “combine rare, essential recordings with historical images and descriptive texts to create high-quality, cultural artifacts.”
“Longing for the Past” editor David Murray: I’d been listening to world music from the 78rpm era for quite awhile via CD reissues. Everything from American blues, hillbilly, and Cajun recordings to Irish, Ukrainian, Greek and more. These were mostly reissues on the Arhoolie label or the Secret Museum of Mankind series, which was just then being released. I was learning to play old banjo and fiddle music and soon got hooked on playing the Greek bouzouki in a style called Rebetika. Rebetika is famously known as the music of the Greek hashish dens, which is at least partially true.
Living in San Francisco (at that time) I began to wonder if there was a style of music associated with the city’s Chinese opium dens that had been widespread in the second half of the 1800s. Unfortunately, I could find no hint of a style of music tied to the opium dens, but in the process I heard old recordings of Chinese opera for the first time. Cantonese recordings had been made in San Francisco very early, 1898 or so. I was instantly obsessed with the sound of this music and spent the next several years amassing Chinese 78s. I followed the music of the Chinese diaspora, which led to Southeast Asia.
I hope that more collectors will focus on world music. There are enough blues collectors already! I never understood why somebody would take the time and money to build a collection of blues and hillbilly records that already exist on CD reissues and have been thoroughly researched. For me, the thrill is finding great recordings that are truly on the verge of being lost. A Burmese record from 1911? Who’s going to hold onto that? And when it’s gone it may be gone for good.
The more of these records we can salvage the better our understanding of music and our history will be. There are a few younger collectors who are interested in world music, but not many. The goal of my projects is just to get the music out there. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen after that, but I’ve done my part.
Two years ago, the book “Lost Delta Found” criticized the American folklorist Alan Lomax for giving short shrift to the work of three black researchers with whom he made some of his landmark field recordings in the 1940s. Maybe more important, the book argued that our appreciation of the black roots music of the era would have been greatly enriched had the writings of the researchers reached a wider audience. With the release of “Recording Black Culture,” an album consisting largely of newly unearthed acetates made by one of the collectors, John Work III, we now have the music itself to buttress this claim.
Work, the most eminent of the black folklorists, was not merely an acolyte of Lomax but clearly had ideas of his own. Where Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, Work sought to document it as it was unfolding. Thus on “Recording Black Culture,” instead of spirituals harking back to the 19th century, we hear febrile gospel shouting set to the cadences of what soon would become rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
As the story goes, the folklorist Alan Lomax was traveling around Mississippi with his recording equipment in the summer of 1941 when he came upon the house of a blues singer named McKinley Morganfield. Lomax recorded a few tracks for the Library of Congress and moved on, later mailing Morganfield a check for $20 and two copies of the record. What Lomax couldn’t have known at the time was that Morganfield, better known today as Muddy Waters, was to become one of the most famous blues singers of all time—the undisputed king of the electric Chicago sound.
Morganfield, along with Son House, went on to be known as one of Lomax’s greatest discoveries. And while it may be true that without Lomax, we might never have heard of these artists, it’s worth remembering that—despite what his own memoirs suggest—Lomax didn’t actually discover either of them. That credit falls to a little-known black folklorist named John Work III, who died 44 years ago this month.
The long history of famous men is haunted by forgotten heroes. There are those like Alfred Russel Wallace, the biologist who proposed the theory of evolution before Darwin did. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is not so much as the man who first conceived of evolution by natural selection, but as the man whom history forgot to credit—a historical nuance not fit for high school biology texts. In Wallace’s case, Darwin attempted to give him credit, but history was intent on forgetting him. Work’s absence from the historical record is more suspect: Lomax devoted only one sentence to him in his own writings.
John Work III, born in 1901 in Tullahoma Tennessee, was a folklorist at Fisk University for almost 40 years. He attended Julliard and held music degrees from Yale and Columbia. According to music writer Dave Marsh, Work was Lomax’s partner and guide in the early 1940s. He led Lomax first to Son House and later to Muddy Waters, where Lomax recorded part of what would later be released as Down on Stovall’s Plantation. “Lomax never credited Work, but recent research has established him as at least Lomax’s equal in the study,” Marsh writes.
My main inspiration was the music on the records themselves, and sitting and listening to records at fellow collectors’ homes. But, compilations definitely inspired me, and they’re all pretty well known: The Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo, the Times Ain’t What They Used to Be series also on Yazoo, Music of the World’s Peoples on Folkways, anything compiled by Richard Spottswood or Bruce Bastin, just to name a few. Equally as influential to me were articles and books on early non-Western recordings and the music industry by Paul Vernon, Rodney Gallop, Pekka Gronow, and Michael Kinnear.
Hearing Malagasy 78s for the first time in the 1990s made me utterly flabbergasted at their beauty and, I soon found out, their scarcity. At the same time I was also amazed at how little I knew about both that music and the record industry, and it opened my eyes to the sheer volume of material that was produced and released all over the world on the 78 format, as well as how little access I had to it. These were commercial recordings, not ethnographic recordings. I wanted to hear more, so I began to collect, read, learn, and most importantly, talk to other collector friends and musicians who knew a lot more than I and who were willing to share—they have always been one of the most significant influences for me..
I sometimes wonder if people have this idea that 78 collectors are white-robed saviors, scouring the earth in Land Rovers like post-colonial Indiana Joneses, pilfering 78s from the hands of starving people of color in order to haughtily bequeath them to their audience, treating them like starving children. Maybe the (entirely true) stories of blues collectors knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods in the American south has helped to prop up this myth. But Pat Conte, the curator of the Secret Museum CD series and owner of the one of the most unparalleled collections of historic global music on the planet, admitted in print that he’d never ventured outside the United States.
Although it’s true that some collectors, especially 45 collectors, extensively travel, even they, too, have ‘finders’. I think all of this unfortunately props up the myth of the record collector as some kind of modern day sage, which I don’t espouse, and takes us all away from the real focus, which is the music. Beyond developing a core body of arcane knowledge, I’m not sure if it takes any talent whatsoever to be a record collector—just a bank account, patience, and some competitive edge. It should just be fun.
John Sharp often woke up his family before daylight with a cheerful imitation of the cardinal’s song, a fiddle tune named “Redbird.” Their bedtime would just as likely be preceded by fiddle music, or put off for hours if music-loving friends or relatives stopped to visit. Fiddlin’ John Sharp loved music with emotional intensity.
A daughter recalls watching with the other children through a little ‘cubby hole’ window in the loft of their house for their father’s return one miserable, sleeting winter night in 1937. When their father, a stocky, tough man, came into sight, he was crying. Crippled since boyhood by a leg injury, he had fallen and cracked the record, “Carroll County Blues,” that he had just walked five miles to buy at a Stearns Company Store. Placing it on the Victrola, he found the record would play and, overjoyed, stayed up past midnight to learn the tune.
Sharp always began a fiddle tune with the fiddle under his chin, standing or sitting straight. When the music started, his body began twisting, bending, and crouching, his eyes shut tight, his mouth worked along with the tune, and his arms swung the fiddle about, playing around his feet or above his head. Sometimes he would wind up on his knees, playing and whooping, or shaking the fiddle to make the rattlesnake rattles inside the instrument sound out.
John Sharp was born September 2, 1894 in the ‘Washington Young Place,’ a log house just on the Kentucky side of the state line, now said to be the dwelling with the longest continual occupation in the state of Kentucky (since 1792). John’s mother found him at age 6 hiding behind a door playing “Rye Straw.” His father, a fine fiddler, taught him tunes like “Wild Goose Squall,” and “Fourteen Wildcat Scalps,” even humming one the day he died for John to learn. John joined a small exodus to the farmland of Iowa in 1916, with his new bride Bonnie. He stayed long enough to learn a few Midwestern tunes, but was back in Kentucky via Oklahoma by 1919.
The next year he moved to Tennessee to work on the Slick Ford – Stockton pole road, a railroad-like system of tracks made with small poles for mule teams pulling carts loaded with logs. Except for a few years back on the Washington Young Place, he spent the rest of his life in Tennessee near Sharp Place, working in the log woods, farming, and playing music. He was a neighbor for a while to his second cousin Will Phipps, whose large repertoire of unusual solo fiddle tunes was much admired. Bonnie Sharp remembers Burnett and Rutherford riding up on two fine looking mares in July 1929 to spend a week-long visit with John, a new acquaintance they had made at the courthouse gatherings in Monticello.
In 1931, John was approached by Virgil Anderson – who had once been a close neighbor- to form the Kentucky Wildcats string band. Later, eight of his children took up instruments, and each one at some point traveled with him to play for Democratic political rallies, dedication ceremonies, family reunions, and weekly dances at Pickett State Park.
In 1949, Sgt. Alvin York invited Sharp down for an evening to try out a new record cutting machine. York recorded about 20 sides for his lifelong fiddling friend, who sent most of them away as presents. These disks, with John Sharp Jr. and Clyde Evans accompanying on rhythm guitars, are the best existing examples of Sharp’s abilities. Just a year before he died, in 1964, he recorded several more tunes for his family on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
As I prepared for a memorial concert after Doc Watson’s passing last year, I thought about what I could offer the discussion about Doc and his life. I paged through my biography of Doc, dog-earing various pages and passages, but I felt uncomfortable sharing anecdotes from the book, because they had little to do with my personal feelings about this great man. Instead, I decided to note a few things I had learned from Doc besides simply his music.
I came up with the following five Doc Watson Principles — things that, as I researched and wrote a book about him over six years of my life — Doc Watson taught me about my own life.
Doc Watson Principle #1: Honoring Tradition
Doc respected and honored his parents, his culture, his religion, and the people around him, both in Deep Gap — his home of 89 years — and around the country, where he played music on both little and big stages. He honored his fans by always coming out after shows, signing hats, shirts, records and CDs for anyone willing to wait in line to shake the aging bard’s hand. But most importantly to me, he honored his traditions.
As a Swedish-American, I grew up eating Swedish cookies at the holidays, and hearing my grandmother sing Tryggarye Kan Ingen Vara (Children of the Heavenly Father) in dulcet tones when she would visit. I will pass those traditions along to my children someday. But the audience for those traditions is only a few people; my work every day has less to do with my heritage than it does with my interests. But Doc was different; he brought the heart of his Appalachian family to the world in his seven decades on stage.
A great illustration of this is the great story Doc always told about his granny’s old cat. Doc told the story so many times in his countless interviews through the years that he often forgot a detail here or there, and other times would add a precious snippet I hadn’t heard before. I did my best to compile the entire story into one cogent narrative in my book. The following is my feeble attempt to create a cliff notes version of that narrative.
Doc’s grandmother had an old, ailing cat, and she wanted the Watson boys to put it out of its misery. She gave them a coin for their effort, and they humanely killed the animal, then — following the careful instructions of General Watson (Doc’s father’s given name, not a rank), they skinned the cat. General worked on the tough hide, and tanned it until it was paper thin. Doc had a banjo at the time that his father had made for him, but its drum was covered by a groundhog hide, and it didn’t make much sound — the skin was too tough. General took the tanned catskin and pulled it taut over the banjo head and secured it in place. Doc swore his entire life that this little catskin banjo was the best sounding banjo in the world.
That catskin banjo infused Doc’s playing as a boy with the blood of the land, the ancient stringiness of the hills, and the sound of the mountains. He never could shake that sound, whether in his hip, rocking electric guitar in the 1950’s (listen to the new Milestones compilation from Nancy Watson, Doc’s daughter), or in his incredible, blistering steel-string guitar solos in the 1960s and beyond. Doc always honored the sound of that humble catskin banjo, whether on stage in front of presidents or during living room jam sessions with famous pickers who would stop by his home.
That should inspire us to look back at our roots, talk with the old-timers in our own lives, bring out dusty old volumes and take another look. I need to do a better job of honoring my true self and my traditions. (more…)
Roger Sprung: My brother used to go down to Washington Square to sing folk songs every Sunday. For years he wanted me to go down and I always said no. Well, I went down one time; I was seventeen and I saw all these people playing music, and it was nice; there were guitars, banjos, some fiddles, not too many basses—this was in 1947. I heard people like Tom Paley, Billy Faier and Pete Seeger, who didn’t come to the Park often. And I have to give credit to George Margolin for starting that whole Washington Square scene.
I liked the music I’d heard at the Park a lot. I stopped playing the piano and took up the guitar. My grandfather owned a pawn shop and he got me a guitar. And then I heard people like Tom Paley, who used to be in the New Lost City Ramblers, and John Cohen, and other people, and I said, I want to play the banjo. So, I started ‘Pete Seeger picking’ a little, and just learned the banjo. Pete really was a big first influence.
Billy Faier [an early, highly innovative eclectic 5-string player] had a house rent-party where there was picking, and you pay a little money to help him pay the rent. I played there and he told me about Earl Scruggs. I went to Rosalie Allen’s record shop and bought Earl’s records, which started me on bluegrass. The record that I really tore apart to learn to play was My Little Georgia Rose, with a very nice solo by Earl. When I had that 78 record you could see the grooves where I kept repeating the banjo solo. I liked that song; it was clean and crystal; it wasn’t fast, so I tried to get the fingering.
To me there are four styles—there’s more, but there’s bluegrass, which is a roll, then there’s clawhammer or frailing, then there’s classical, or ‘classic’ on the nylon, and there’s Seeger style, which is half up and half down finger picking. Bascom Lamar had a style of his own, and Will Keys who used to go to Galax, had a style of his own—two-finger. There’s all kind of styles, and all kind of tunings too.
In 1950 I started heading south. Harry West and Jeannie West played at the Asheville Folk Festival that was headed by Bascom Lamar Lundsford, ‘The Minstrel of the Appalachians.’ He sang songs that I liked, because it was all mountain music and I liked mountain music. In the old days these mountain bands did not clawhammer, except for maybe one or two bands; most of it was finger-picking. Charlie Poole, you know, two fingered.
I combined them. I’d go to all the mountain festivals and pick and I haven’t had any complaints yet… I went to the Asheville Festival for about 25 years straight. I learned a lot, and met a lot of big people: Samantha Bumgarner, Bill Mecklreath, Obray Ramsay… Byard Ray, who taught me The Wild Goose Chase, which is my theme song. George Pegram, who played banjo, and Red Parham, who played harmonica.
They didn’t think much right away, but word got around; they labeled me ‘the big Jew from New York’—but without malice; just the novelty of it. Bascom said some nice things to me; he had private parties at his house. I recorded Dry Bones, one of his numbers that he taught me.
My first group was the Folksay Trio, around 1954; we were Erik Darling, Bob Carey [later of the Tarriers], who I met playing down in Washington Square, and I. Our first recording was on Stinson, and that’s where we did Tom Dooley. I was told that the Kingston Trio grabbed that one, and Bay of Mexico, for their own album five years later.
Playing in various places I had a chance to meet a lot of people, old timers:Buell Kazee and Dave Appalon, and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner, and many more; it was fun. And thank goodness they all liked my playing. I teach, buy and sell, and perform… I teach in Manhattan as well as Connecticut and I have a way that if you have patience and you practice a little, you’ll play. It’s methodical. People say, ‘I can’t make my fingers go that fast’—well, I have ways that they will; it’s human nature to go faster once you know something well. And, playing the banjo is a love of my life.
The St. James sessions of 1929-30 are a rare window onto a fertile time and place in the history of American popular music. The 1920s saw the dawn of music on the radio, and improvements to recording technology that saw the introduction of mass-market recordings of popular music. And the Roaring ‘20s was accompanied by a surprisingly worldly stew of folk music, blues, show tunes, jazz, Hawaiian, and vaudeville novelties that all played a part in the evolution of what we now know as popular music.
Knoxville, Tennessee, was in the thick of it. In the 1920s and early ’30s, it was a city of more than 100,000 blacks and whites. It was a teeming, dirty, lively, arrogant, complicated place with two railroad stations, two daily newspapers, three radio stations, a dozen movie theaters, a comprehensive electric streetcar system, and a small airport. Knoxville was one of the industrial centers of the South, a national center for textiles, marble, furniture, and railroad equipment. Prohibition was still in effect, and Knoxville was a national black-market distribution center for moonshine, with connections to organized crime in Chicago and elsewhere.
But the city was also on the very fringe of the country, surrounded by some of the most remote hollers in America, where folk, blues, and country music were evolving Galapagos-like, in eccentric patterns. The Tennessee River flowed free and damless through Knoxville, and flooded every spring.
Knoxville’s interest in music was already deep. Before the Civil War, Knoxville had been a center for the otherworldly style of singing known as Sacred Harp. After the war, it was home to one of the South’s first orchestral groups, and by the early 1870s, the city had a European-style “Opera House.” In the 1880s and ’90s, Knoxville hosted major classical-music and opera festivals that drew some of the great talents from New York and Boston. But Knoxville was still in the middle of the South, where most new American forms of music were in various stages of gestation: blues, ragtime, jazz, hillbilly, bluegrass. By the turn of the century, young men playing new styles of guitar or fiddle, were making a living in the streets.
Many of those early musicians were blind. Musicians were mostly people who couldn’t do anything else for a living, because music wasn’t much of a living. Before the 1920s, which saw both the dawn of radio and the beginning of record companies’ interest in recording popular and folks music, the best a folk or country musician could hope for was a Mercury dime in a tin cup.
There were no real recording studios in Tennessee at the time—in the 1920s, Nashville had no reputation as a recording center, and most country-music recordings were still made in New York. So when one of the nation’s most famous record companies, the Brunswick/Vocalion label set up a temporary studio in the St. James Hotel in downtown Knoxville, hundreds of musicians came, from miles around, to take a turn behind the microphone. (more…)
Discovered by a ballad collector in the 1950s, Almeda James Riddle of Greers Ferry (Cleburne County) became a prominent figure in America’s folk music revival. Her memory of ballads, hymns, and children’s songs was one of the largest single repertories documented by folksong scholars. After two decades of concerts and recordings, she received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for her contributions to the preservation of Ozark folksong traditions.
Almeda James was born on November 21, 1898, in the community of West Pangburn (Cleburne County).
Riddle was a widow caring for her mother and living near her grown children in Greers Ferry when John Quincy Wolf, the first “ballad hunter” in the area, found her in 1952. Wolf, a Batesville (Independence County) native teaching English at what is now Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, realized that many of Riddle’s songs dated back to seventeenth-century Scotland, England, and Ireland. In his chance meeting with Riddle, Wolf had found a prolific tradition bearer. Thirty years later, the National Endowment for the Arts would pay tribute to Riddle as “the great lady of Ozark balladry,” noting that “she once listed a hundred songs she could call to mind right then, and later added she could name another hundred if she had the time.”
Recordings in 1959 by another folklorist, Alan Lomax, brought Riddle the first of many invitations to sing on college campuses around the country. At the age of sixty-two, after her mother’s death, Almeda found herself starting on her new career “of getting out the old songs,” as she put it, in person, in print, and on tape.
By the early 1960s, America’s folk music revival was picking up momentum. Riddle and other traditional singers and musicians were appearing at festivals literally coast to coast. She traveled by bus to Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, and the Newport Jazz and Folk Festival, on to Yale University and Harvard University, to Montreal and Quebec in Canada, to Chicago and Minneapolis, and to the West Coast at UCLA and Berkeley. She frequently shared the stage with Doc Watson and Pete and Mike Seeger, as well as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and other dynamic new performers.
Young audiences heralded both the traditional songs and plain singing style of Riddle, an authentic contrast to formula lyrics, packaged sounds, and exaggerated performances from the contemporary music industry and entertainers. Asked when she herself first noticed the sea change in American music since her childhood, Riddle pointed to the popularity—and popularizing—of Elvis Presley. “Elvis was a good boy, and I liked him alright,” she admitted, “but he and others got to performing. They got out in front of the music. And performance took over music.”
With the help of folklore scholar Roger Abrahams, Riddle recorded more than 200 of her childhood favorites, fifty of which were transcribed in the book A Singer and Her Songs: Almeda Riddle’s Book of Ballads. Abraham’s book challenged the stereotype of traditional singers as uneducated hill people. To the contrary, their “high, lonesome” style was learned, and many could read music. Riddle’s own father taught at singing schools held in summers between planting and harvest. “He made us learn the round note, but the shape notes are quicker read,” Riddle said of her father. “We learned both the four and the eight note system. And anything I know the tune to,” she told Abrahams matter-of-factly, “I can put the notes to.” (more…)
For three decades, the German labels Bear Family Records and Trikont have rescued classic American music from obscurity. From hillbilly to deep-fried Southern funk, anything goes — as long as it’s got soul. Munich’s Trikont label is, by any standards, one of the world’s most eclectic. Recent releases span everything from US immigrant folk songs, Mexican boleros and 1970s punk to Depression-era yodellers and Cajun swamp music. Trikont’s compilation CDs are put together by experts and collectors, but as label founder Achim Bergmann said, they’re aimed at a general contemporary audience.
“We want to put things in a new light and show people where rock and popular music came from,” Bergmann said. “We want listeners to see themselves as part of a tradition.”
Trikont’s program is unusual but accessible. The label evolved in 1971 out of the radical left-wing book publisher of the same name. German Volksmusik had been discredited by its association with the Third Reich, and the label’s search for the authentic sounds of everyday working people led it to what cultural critic Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America” — the land of cowboys, hillbillies, bootleggers, drifters, sharecroppers and others who made music beyond the confines of commerce.
Ironically, the left-wingers at Trikont were introduced to much of the music they came to cherish by the Armed Forces Network, the radio station that serviced American soldiers in post-war Germany and continues to broadcast to US troops around the world.
“It was like a second liberation,” Bergmann said. “The music they played had changed a whole century. It had an existential side that German music lacked. Also, the idea of quality and mass culture was unknown in Germany.”
Meanwhile, Trikont publishes material that’s largely unknown in the US itself. “When we go to music trade fairs, Americans are sometimes surprised,” said Bergmann. “They come up and say, ‘What is this? This is something we don’t have.'”
“It’s like a kind of cultural anarchy with a critical eye toward capitalism,” said Detlef Diederichsen, a record critic and the musical director of Berlin’s House of World Cultures concert hall. “They’re raiding the archives of big companies who can’t deal with their own back catalogues.”
If Trikont is about breadth, Bear Family Records, located in a small village near the northern German city of Bremen, is about depth. Since 1975, the label has specialized in exhaustively researched, painstakingly produced compilations of mostly country and rockabilly artists. Label founder Richard Weize said he spends weeks at a time in America, investigating archives, searching through recording-studio vaults, negotiating contracts for rights and trying to locate collectors.
“Without collectors, I’d be dead and buried,” Weize said. “And luck also plays a role. You do your research, contact people, but in the end it’s often accident.”
Trikont’s Bergmann said the reason German labels have played such a large role in cultivating older American music was that, as foreigners, they had a keener eye for hidden gems. Weize, on the other hand, thinks the reasons are economic.
“You have to be crazy to do this,” Weize said. “All our editions sell in the long term. But you can’t be primarily profit-oriented.”
Does the rise of MP3s and downloaded music present a threat to labels like Trikont and Bear Family? Are they afraid their small market of passionate collectors and people who want to discover the uncanny sounds of yesteryear will dry up?
“I’m not afraid,” said Weize. “The CD is dying, as are many of its customers. You can be sad about that, but it’s a fact. So there’s no reason to fear anything.”
Bergmann added that a change in format could have less of an impact on focused labels.
“Major label music today is mostly about selling ring tones,” Bergmann said. “But passion and respect for real music will remain, and there’ll be a mix of CDs and other formats.”
The secret to these two independent labels’ survival may be that they target a selective audience of music fanatics — and those who want to be like them.
“When people have everything at the disposal of their computer, they need experts,” Diederichsen said. “They need to be guided by someone with a personal taste who explains and comments on the music.”
And guiding listeners on sonic expeditions through the old, weird America is something both Bear Family and Trikont have been doing for 30 years.
When a young Englishman arrived in what was then Rhodesia in 1921 to run a tobacco farm, his workers expected him to be just like the other colonial overlords they’d known. He would be their master; they would be his servants. They would obey his every command, and they would speak to him only when he spoke to them.
After all, he was white and they were black. They were dependent on him for their daily bread. Rhodesia was ruled by the British, and the country’s black people had no rights whatsoever.
But, from their first interaction with him, Hugh Tracey’s laborers saw that he was different. Besides immediately learning the Karanga dialect of their Shona language and sweating with them at work in the fields, the farmer constantly asked them about their culture…and especially their music. Tracey learned Shona folksongs and sang along with his workers as they toiled together among the tobacco crops.
Hugh Tracey went on to become the most important field recorder of African music in history.
Three big trucks – packed with metal lathes, reel-to-reel recorders, heaps of pancake-shaped tapes, hundreds of yards of electric cables and assorted microphones, military tents, tarpaulins and tinned food, a half-ton diesel generator, hundreds of gallons of fuel and five people.
Those were just some of Hugh Tracey’s requirements when he undertook what modern day musicologists consider to be one of the greatest musical journeys ever.
“My father started recording in the late 1920s and 1930s using a lathe on acetate discs in the field, but most of his recordings were done in the 1940s on a quarter-inch, open reel tape. The machines in those days, until the 1960s, used to need (a power supply of) 220 volts, hence the need for that massive generator,” Andrew Tracey explained.
From the 1920s until his death in 1977, Hugh Tracey, an Englishman based in South Africa, lugged his equipment throughout sub-Saharan Africa with one mission – to record as much of the indigenous African music he loved as possible
“He had a vision,” said Andrew Tracey. “And that was to preserve this music for future generations.”
Today, a single person with a palm-sized, battery-driven digital machine with a built-in high quality microphone is able to make broadcast-quality music recordings. In Hugh Tracey’s time, it was very different. “His recording technique was to hold a microphone in one hand, and a stopwatch in the other, to time recordings. The microphone was on a short boom, and he’d move around following the sounds of the musicians,” said Andrew. “It was a physically taxing effort.”
Hugh Tracey’s microphone was linked with a long cable to a large lathe, and later to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, operated by an engineer who would control the sound levels and ensure that the tape ran smoothly.
“Recording had to happen as far away as possible from the noise made by the generator, so my father needed really long cables,” said Andrew.
After his field trips, Hugh Tracey made meticulous notes about each piece of music he’d recorded – on the people making the music, the instruments they used, the recording venue and so on.
He stored his notes and masses of tapes at the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in South Africa, which he established in 1954. Library staff recently digitized Hugh Tracey’s recordings, using the latest technology to improve the original sound as much as possible, and stored it on computer.
by Eric Davidson and Jane Rigg (from notes to “Uncle Wade” FA 2380):
In 1956 and 1957, Wade Ward was visited by Michael Seeger and myself and this began a phase of widening contacts and ever-increasing fame which lasted until his death. In contrast to the old days of the pre-war Lomax visits, electricity was now available in the mountains, and it was now possible to make a thorough study of the whole of Wade’s repertoire.
Comparison with the earlier recordings shows that at this time he had lost none of his famous precision and speed. Later this was no longer routinely true, though on occasion, particularly in the excitement of playing with others, he could still summon his old brilliance.
In 1962, Wade was featured on two records assembled by the writer and others: Traditional Music of Grayson and Carroll Counties”, FS 3811 (Folkways, 1962), and “The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward”, FA 2363 (1962). Half of the latter album was devoted exclusively to his music. In 1963-66 we made an attempt, in which Wade enthusiastically cooperated, Wade together with Glen Smith, a very excellent old time fiddler from Hillsville, Virginia. For some of these sessions Fields Ward, who happened to be in his home country at the time, was also present. “Band Music of Grayson and Carrol Counties, Va.” (1967) includes some of the pieces then recorded. Wade exulted in the pleasure of playing the old time banjo-fiddle music, and his performances were often as good as in the best of his younger days, though he was already well over 70.
Wade’s years with Mollie, a sweet and generous woman, were happy ones, and he was devastated by her death from cancer on August 4, 1961. While Mollie was alive, and for several years thereafter, her mother, Granny Porter, then in her 80’s, also lived in the Peachbottom Creek house. Granny was as pithy, sharp and humorous as Uncle Wade, and together they made a memorable pair. Once a banjo picker herself, Granny Porter too had deep roots in old time music, having come of the family of a legendary old time fiddler, Van Sage. Occasionally Granny and Wade made music together. Wade accompanies Granny on a striking rendition of “Barbr’y Allen” in “Songs and Ballads of the Blue Ridge Mountains”, (AH 3831, 1968) Asch Records (Folkways).
As the 1960’s wore on Wade was invited to visit the great urban centers of the Northeast to perform there. This he was reluctant to do, finally being persuaded to come to the Smithsonian Festival at Washington in 1967. On the way he stopped in Richmond and performed for the governor, Mills Goodwin. He was 75, and it was virtually the first time Wade had taken his music out of his native hill country.
Thereafter he made several other trips to Washington and on one trip in 1969 performed with Fields in Maryland. Recognition was his finally, and as a recent article by John Cohen put it, “the trip to Wade’s house was part of the homage to old time music that one paid.” But it was very late in his life. By now Wade had outlived not only his two wives and all his brothers, and the two generations of old time musicians he had played with during his long career, but also the isolated mountain culture from which he and his music grew. He died on a chilly, late May day, a day on which he had done just what he always did, picked the banjo at the land sale, stopped in to see Katy Hill, and gone home to sit on his porch and look out over Peachbottom Creek
The pioneering anthologies of traditional Caribbean and African music produced by John Storm Roberts for his Original Music record label provide a wonderful portal to worlds of music which bear a very close relationship to our own.
After a teenage fascination with calypso and flamenco and learning several languages at Oxford, John Storm Roberts reviewed local records for a newspaper in Nairobi, and then returned to England to produce programs on African music for the BBC before coming to America in 1970 to work at another African newspaper.
In 1982, Roberts and his wife, Anne Needham, created Original Music, a company devoted to disseminating African and Caribbean music, and issued a number of LP compilations drawn from commercial singles or their own field recordings. Original Music was a mail-order company distributing world music books and records to non-city dwelling Americans, who, in a pre-internet age, had found them almost as hard to come by as the young Roberts had in postwar Britain.
Long before the term was bandied about, Roberts was listening to, seeking out and reporting on what is now called world music. He wrote several seminal books on the subject for a general readership, most notably “Black Music of Two Worlds” (Praeger, 1972) and “The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States” (Oxford University, 1979).
By placing value on music that had been relegated to the fringes, seen as having marginal academic worth or as music only worth dancing to, he opened new vistas of appreciation.
John Storm Roberts:“There’s a royal road to bankruptcy, which is to put out and make available a really terrific range of genuine music. I don’t care how esoteric it is, but it’s got to be terrific.”
Look here for a complete discography of Roberts’ Original Music label.
The following John Storm Roberts recordings might be of most interest to readers of Old Time Party. Though mostly out-of-print, they can frequently be found in library collections.
Street Music of Panama (Original Music LP)
Under the Coconut Tree: Music From Grand Cayman & Tortola (Original Music LP)
Mento/Merengue/Meringue: Country Dance Music from Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic (Original Music LP)
Caribbean Island Music: Songs and Dances of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica (Nonesuch CD)
African Elegant:The Kru-Krio Calypso Connection (Original Music LP)
Before Benga, Volume 1: Kenya Dry [Acoustic Guitar] (Original Music LP)
In the 1960’s Charles Faurot moved to New York. “I was married, working for a major bank in Manhattan, living in Brooklyn. I was buying tapes of 78s from Dave Freeman (of County Recordings) but hadn’t met him. One nice Sunday morning I’m going for a walk, out to get the paper. As I’m walking by a rowhouse, the apartment on the first floor had its window open and I could hear someone playing the dobro. So I stopped and…I couldn’t reach the window but said; Hey in there, I hear you playing the dobro. I like that kind of music. Can we get together? And the guy comes to the window and says: We just got out of bed. Why don’t you come back in a couple of hours? So I did and that guy was Bill Vernon.” (Bill had a well known bluegrass radio show in NYC and later Roanoke, VA.)
Bill and Mary T. Vernon lived in this nice little apartment. Because he collected 78s there were all these shelves taking up most of the space. Bill, of course, knew Dave Freeman. Bill introduced us and Dave took me to concerts at Loy Beaver’s. Loy would put on bluegrass bands that were passing through. All the money went to the bands. Besides collecting 78s, Loy was also a mortician and embalmed Franklin Roosevelt.”
In November of 1964 Charlie recorded Wade Ward. The following summer, during the Galax Fiddler’s Convention he recorded Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham and George Stoneman. Charlie was taken with how differently they all played and asked Dave Freeman who was also at the convention if he would want to issue the recordings. According to Charlie, the original record jacket “was like a Folkways…heavy cover with the notes on the inside. We had Peter Bartok do the mastering. He had done the New Lost City Ramblers album and happened to be Bela Bartok’s grandson.” A classical composer, Bela Bartok based some of his music on the folk music of his native Transylvania.
The summer of 1967 found Charlie and fellow old time enthusiast Richard Nevins renting a house in Galax, VA to use as their base to record. A veritable who’s who of old time banjo recorded for Charlie and Rich: Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Oscar Jenkins, Kyle Creed, Esker Hutchins, Matokie Slaughter, Dan Tate, Oscar Wright, Willard Watson, Gaither Carlton, Sidna Meyers. A similar number of bluegrass and old-time bands were also recorded. These recordings became the cornerstone of the old time music revival.
After almost fifty years playing and recording banjo and other old time music Charlie sees a lot he likes and some things he’s not so fond of. “I think these organized jams, with three or four fiddles and banjos playing exactly the same are taking the music in the wrong direction.” In light of the fact that Charlie’s idea when he and County put out “Clawhammer Volume 1” was to show how differently the styles of the four banjo players were, it’s hard to disagree.
Lawrence Gellert (1898-1979) was born in New York City to Hungarian immigrants. When he was in his early 20s, he moved to Tryon, North Carolina for health reasons. He edited a newspaper there and began making friendships among the African Americans who lived in the area. Motivated by leftist political ideologies and inspired by the music-making of his neighbors, he began making recordings to pre-grooved zinc discs on a device of his own construction. The recordings he made were dangerous–both to himself and those who performed for him.
In the deeply segregated south, making any kind of recordings among African Americans created risks for everyone involved and these recordings went beyond the kinds of songs that whites would have been aware of. Gellert was able to record songs that were more explicit in their complaint against the conditions of segregation than any other scholar before the 1960s. For this reason, in the 20 years he made these recordings he was careful not to document who made the recordings. The result was a body of songs so unprecedented that when Gellert published Negro Songs of Protest in 1936, some accused him of making up this collection of song texts himself.
At a time when segregation was embedded in the law and the culture and prevailing notions saw African Americans as satisfied with these conditions, Gellert documented hundreds of songs that countered those ideas. The songs he recorded demonstrated that rather than accepting their condition passively, African Americans chafed against the way they were treated. Gellert worked outside of academic circles and even outside of the folksong movement, antagonizing several key figures such as John Lomax and Josh White.
His work and the songs he documented did not receive the attention they deserved at the time and it wasn’t until after his death that more of the recordings were commercially released. The performers on these recordings come primarily from North and South Carolina, but Gellert also made recordings in Georgia and Mississippi. His collection contains more than 600 songs and half of them can be called songs of protest.