Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The Legends and the Lost

June 12, 2013


edited excerpt of review of  Tony Russell’s “Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost,” by Keith Chandler (

“Country Music Originals” takes the form of a chronologically-arranged series of brief biographies to which are attached even briefer playlists indicating where to hear tracks in the CD format by each of the chosen artists.  Practically every entry features at least one photograph of the named performer, and in addition we get the bonus of further contextual images such as 78 rpm record labels, song folio covers, advertising copy, and facsimilies of newspaper articles (regrettably at times, as that on page 127, lacking details of provenance).

Mr. Russell appends a postscript  to the biography of Ed Haley, a blind fiddler born in West Virginia in 1884 whose stylistic influence was widespread among many younger players throughout both that and adjoining states in which Haley travelled widely. He never recorded for any of the commercial companies, and his aural legacy lies in a series of home recordings (more than a hundred of which are extant) produced, it has always been assumed, simply for personal satisfaction.

Russell reveals (pages 79-80) that ‘recent research in West Virginia newspapers provides grounds for questioning’ that assumption, and offers an extract of an advertisement discovered in The Charleston Gazette of 27 September 1930 : ‘if interested, either as a seller or user, in 10-inch double-faced Phonograph Records, made by him, price 35 cents each, write Ed Haley Co., Huntington, W. Va.’  This would have involved a labour-intensive process, seated before a recording machine and playing through each selection as many times as were required to fill any outstanding orders.

Russell generally shows a nice turn of phrase which may be at odds with that demanded by strict academic publications, but which sits well in a volume that needs to exhibit the broadest possible appeal.  The instruments of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, for instance, ‘pierce the murk of surface noise like a lighthouse beam on a dark night’ (page 24); while of Hoyt Ming’s group he writes (on page 122), ‘The hour or so they spent making records in the Memphis Auditorium would buy them a time-share at Immortality Court …’

Each individual entry in the book is made up from sundry component parts.  Among these might be basic details of recording and other performance experiences, quotes from either the musicians themselves or those who knew them, partial transcriptions of a song or skit, the whole overlaid with Russell’s perceptive and insightful analysis.  One excellent example of this may be found when he discusses (on page 107) the vocal interjections to be heard on many of the items recorded by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter:

The effect of these homely devices is to relocate the mythlike narratives of half-forgotten seductions and murders in the known present: to ground them in the familiar geographical, social, and ethical landscape of ’20s Appalachia.  That this terrain was itself shifting uneasily beneath the pressures of modern life was all to the point: their tales, Grayson and Whitter might have argued, were, in their essence, for all time.


“Africa and the Blues”

June 4, 2013


Africa and the Blues, by Gerhard Kubik

A study of the geneology of blues music encompassing forty years of fieldwork done in Africa, the U.S., and elsewhere

In 1969 Gerhard Kubik chanced to encounter a Mozambican labor migrant, a miner in Transvaal, South Africa, tapping a cipendani, a mouth-resonated musical bow. A comparable instrument was seen in the hands of a white Appalachian musician who claimed it as part of his own cultural heritage. Through connections like these Kubik realized that the link between these two far-flung musicians is African-American music, the sound that became the blues.

Such discoveries reveal a narrative of music evolution for Kubik, a cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. Traveling in Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States, he spent forty years in the field gathering the material for Africa and the Blues. In this book, Kubik relentlessly traces the remote genealogies of African cultural music through eighteen African nations, especially in the Western and Central Sudanic Belt.

Included is a comprehensive map of this cradle of the blues, along with 31 photographs gathered in his fieldwork. The author also adds clear musical notations and descriptions of both African and African American traditions and practices and calls into question the many assumptions about which elements of the blues were “European” in origin and about which came from Africa. Unique to this book is Kubik’s insight into the ways present-day African musicians have adopted and enlivened the blues with their own traditions.

With scholarly care but with an ease for the general reader, Kubik proposes an entirely new theory on blue notes and their origins. Tracing what musical traits came from Africa and what mutations and mergers occurred in the Americas, he shows that the African American tradition we call the blues is truly a musical phenomenon belonging to the African cultural world.

Gerhard Kubik is a professor in the department of ethnology and African studies at the University of Mainz, Germany. Since 1983 he has been affiliated with the Center for Social Research of Malawi, Zomba. He is a permanent member of the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, London.

Country Music Humorists and Comedians

May 30, 2013

Cover for Jones: Country Music Humorists and Comedians. Click for larger image

Country Music Humorists and Comedians, by Loyal Jones (University of Illinois Press)


An exhaustive reference detailing the mirth and music of country music humorists and comedians

This volume is an encyclopedia of country music performers who have used comedy as a central component of their presentation. Loyal Jones offers a conversational and informative biographical sketch of each performer, often including a sample of the musician’s humor, a recording history, and amusing anecdotal tidbits. In an entertaining style, Jones covers performers throughout the twentieth century, from such early stars of vaudeville and radio barn dances as the Skillet Lickers and the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, to regulars on Hee Haw and the Grand Old Opry, continuing to current comedians such as the Austin Lounge Lizards, Ray Stevens, and Jeff Foxworthy.

This comprehensive, readable reference opens with a broad introductory essay on country humor, discussing such topics as stock comic figures, venues for comedic performance, and benchmark performers. Throughout the volume, Jones places each performer squarely in the context of the country music community and its performing traditions. Readers will learn a good deal about musical instruments, yodeling, life on the road, the cultural milieu of these performers, and the roots of country music humor.

“If Cratis Williams is the father of Appalachian Studies and Helen Lewis its mother, than I reckon Loyal Jones would have to be considered the midwife of it all. . . . This book reflects not only his disarming sense of humor, but also his meticulous attention to voluminous details, his considerable scholarship, and his substantial wisdom.”–Appalachian Heritage

“Southern humor, rural comedy and its practitioners are brilliantly showcased.”–The Nashville Musician

“A treasure trove of information. . . . Will make a wonderful reference book for years to come.”–Bluegrass Unlimited

“The importance of the subject emphasized by Jones is unquestionable. Humor has been an indispensable ingredient of country music entertainment and is in fact a major force in its worldwide success. This volume is insightful, informative, and entertaining.”–Bill C. Malone, author of Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class

“This stimulating book is a significant contribution to several fields. Students of country music, American history, performing arts, minstrel heritage, and the roots of comedy as it related to various subcultures of the American panorama will all want the detailed information only this author can provide. This book is one of a kind.”–Ron Thomason, founder of the bluegrass band Dry Branch Fire Squad

Loyal Jones is the author of nine books and dozens of articles on Appalachian culture, including Laughter in Appalachia: A Festival of Southern Mountain Humor. For twenty-three years he was director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College.

Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge

May 25, 2013


Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge,” by Marty McGee (McFarland)


The Central Blue Ridge, taking in the mountainous regions of northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia, is well known for its musical traditions. Long recognized as one of the richest repositories of folksong in the United States, the Central Blue Ridge has also been a prolific source of commercial recording, starting in 1923 with Henry Whitter’s “hillbilly” music and continuing into the 21st century with such chart-topping acts as James King, Ronnie Bowman and Doc Watson.

Unrivaled in tradition, unequaled in acclaim and unprecedented in influence, the Central Blue Ridge can claim to have contributed to the musical landscape of Americana as much as or more than any other region in the United States.

This reference work–part of McFarland’s continuing series of Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies–provides complete biographical and discographical information on more than 75 traditional recording (major commercial label) artists who are natives of or lived mostly in the northwestern North Carolina counties of Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Surry, Watauga and Wilkes, and the southwestern Virginia counties of Carroll and Grayson.

Primary recordings as well as appearances on anthologies are included in the discographies. A chronological overview of the music is provided in the Introduction, and the Foreword is by the celebrated musician Bobby Patterson, founder of the Mountain and Heritage record labels.

“Strings of Life”

May 20, 2013


“Strings of Life — Conversations with Old-Time Musicians from Virginia and North Carolina,” by Kevin Donleavy (Pocahontas Press)


Kevin Donleavy, graduate of University of Virginia, independent historian, musicologist, and educator has combined his talents to create a “historical-musical census-of-sorts” identifying more than 1300 banjo and fiddle players of traditional music in a span of over 250 years.

Donleavy spent seven years traveling, living, playing music and most importantly, listening to the residents of Carroll, Grayson, Patrick and Wythe counties in Virginia and Alleghany, Caswell, Forsyth, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry, and Wilkes counties in North Carolina. He has now complied a collection of oral histories not found anywhere else.

Strings of Life is well organized and Mr. Donleavy’s research is thoroughly documented complete with a annotated Discography and Bibliography, as well as three separate indexes: Persons Mentioned; Tunes; and Bands and Musical Groups. In addition, of the 1300 some musicians mentioned in this volume, Donleavy has been able to identify the burial sites of about 660 in 170 graveyards scatted throughout the 11 counties.

Some of the families documented are Hawks, Jarrell, Lowe, Martin, McKinney, Sutphin and Tate, along with many others. It would have been nice if a list of the nearly one hundred wonderful photos had been included in the table of contents, but truly, the pictures are enough. (more…)

The High and Lonesome Sound

May 17, 2013


The High and Lonesome Sound (new book by John Cohen)

  • Text by John Cohen
    with a DVD with two films about Roscoe Holcomb
    and a CD with music of Roscoe Holcomb
    Book design by Gerhard Steidl
    and Katharina Staal
  • 216 pages
  • 28 cm x 24 cm
  • Clothbound hardcover with a dustjacket
  • 158 photographs
  • ISBN: 978-3-86930-254-6

“The music of Roscoe Holcomb transcended daily life. Although it was grounded in Appalachia, in East Kentucky, in his little town of Dais, his music traveled like it was on a path towards a distant star.”   

John Cohen


from publisher

In 1959 John Cohen traveled to East Kentucky looking for what he calls “old music”. Cohen asked for names at local gas stations but soon ran out of leads, and drove off the highway onto the next dirt road. Here he stumbled across Roscoe Holcomb playing the banjo and singing on his front porch in a way says Cohen, “that made the hairs on my neck stand up on end”. And so by pure chance began the life-long friendship that is the background for The High and Lonesome Sound.

Cohen visited Holcomb frequently over the next three decades, and made many photographs, films and records of his music. In time Holcomb, a poor coal miner by trade, became a regular feature on the American concert and festival circuits. The “strange beauty and discomfort” of his music – a mixture of blues, ballads and Baptist hymns, and unique through his high strained voice – was exposed to a larger audience. Nevertheless Holcomb died alone in a nursing home in 1981.

The High and Lonesome Sound combines Cohen’s vintage photos, film and musical recordings as well as an anecdotal text into a multimedia tribute to this underappreciated legend of American music whose every performance was in Cohen’s words “not just a rendition of music, but a test of something to be overcome”.

“Minstrel of the Appalachians”

May 13, 2013

“Minstrel of the Appalachians: The Story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford,” by Loyal Jones

” It is said that Bascom Lamar Lunsford would “cross hell on a rotten rail to get a folk song”—his Southern highlands folk-song compilations now constitute one of the largest collections of its kind in the Library of Congress—but he did much more than acquire songs. He preserved and promoted the Appalachian mountain tradition for generations of people, founding in 1928 the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, an annual event that has shaped America’s festival movement. Loyal Jones pens a lively biography of a man considered to be Appalachian music royalty. He also includes a “Lunsford Sampler” of ballads, songs, hymns, tales, and anecdotes, plus a discography of his recordings.

While towns and cities were burgeoning musically, trying to promote classical and art-forms over the simple songs of their ancestors, Bascom was desperately throwing his net to catch and hold onto these old time treasures. Loyal Jones has given much insight into the life and times of this amazing man. — Jean Ritchie

This is both a biography and an examination of Lunsford’s career dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Appalachian traditional culture. Jones’s study offers a significant contribution to our ‘new’ culture in the context of folk music. Loyal is an excellent storyteller, and his genial North Carolina manner is perfectly suited to the subject—there is a real affinity between Jones’s authorial voice and Lunsford’s personality. — Ron Pen

“A Banjo Pickin’ Girl”

May 7, 2013


A BANJO PICKIN’ GIRL – The Life and Music of Ola Belle Campbell Reed by Judy Marti (Broad Valley Orchard Publications)


Those who knew Ola Belle Reed at all will appreciate this interesting book about her life and her music. Written by a devoted fan, the book is primarily a collection of 22 of Ola Belle’s own songs, plus another couple dozen old traditional numbers that she enjoyed playing.

The first 45 pages of the book describe her life, in 3 stages: her upbringing in the North Carolina mountains near the New River, the 15 years that she lived in Chester County, Pennsylvania (1934-1949), and the more than 50 years that she spent around Rising Sun, Maryland and New Oxford, Pennsylvania.

She and her brother Alex Campbell were fixtures at the New River Ranch and Sunset Park country music parks that were so popular in the 1940s and 50s. A great storyteller and a good singer, she could play the old ballads accompanying herself with banjo or guitar, and she made some excellent recordings over the years, including a couple of country flavored Bluegrass LPs for the Starday label, and later efforts for Rounder.

The latter included many of her own songs, such as I’VE ENDURED, MY EPITAPH, SPRINGTIME OF LIFE, YOU LED ME TO THE WRONG and the classic HIGH ON A MOUNTAIN. Seeing all of her songs here in words & music gets one to more fully appreciate the work that she did. This is a really nice tribute to a special woman. $ 17.50

Southern Exposure

May 3, 2013


“Southern Exposure: The Story of Southern Music in Pictures and Words,” by Richard and Bob Carlin (Billboard Books, 2000, 160 pages)

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“Country Music Sources”

April 30, 2013


Country Music Sources: A Biblio-discography Of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music

Author: Guthrie T. Meade Jr., With Dick Spottswood And Douglas S. Meade
Publisher: University Of North Carolina Press

Review by Bill C. Malone (

This 927-page tome is easily the most important research aid for the study of country music undertaken in our time. Along with Tony Russell’s discographic investigation of pre-World War II country music. Country Music Sources will supply just about everything a serious student needs to begin an exploration of the music that made its way onto commercial phonograph recordings before 1942.

As the title suggests, the book attempts to document every known pre-1942 recording of American traditional country songs (religious and secular), along with the label, place, and date of recording, the songs’ composers, and sources where the songs originally appeared (songsters, folios, sheet music, and the like). Altogether, about 3400 separate songs, appearing on over 11,000 recordings, are listed.

The compilers have grouped and cross-referenced the songs in 52 categories or themes, such as “Mother And Home,” “Forsaken Love,” “Prison Songs,” “Southern Gospel,” and “Southern Breakdowns.” The reader, for example, is told that “Give My Love To Nell” (also known as “Jack And Joe”) was written by William Benson Gray in 1894, is informed of eight printed sources where the song was mentioned, and then is given a listing of nineteen recordings (beginning with Ernest Stoneman’s 1925 Okeh performance) where some version of the song can be found. (more…)

“Mountains of Music”

April 22, 2013

Mountains of Music book

“Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from Goldenseal,” edited by John Lilly


The most complete book to date on West Virginia traditional music, “Mountains of Music” is a collection of articles taken from the pages of the popular magazine over the past 25 years. Detailing the lives and experiences of 25 critical folk artists from across the state, the book takes the reader into the backwoods, up the “hollers” and into the homes of those for whom music is part of an ancient heritage-one that includes hard work, strong faith and a clear mountain identity.

Through extensive oral accounts, a generous use of photography and the keen observations of some of the most respected folklorists in the country, the book reveals not only the music, but also the personal lives, cultural imperatives and family histories of these musicians. For devotees as well as newcomers to this infectiously joyous and heartfelt music, “Mountains of Music” captures the strength of tradition and the spontaneous power of living artistry.

From heavenly harmony to devilish fiddling, West Virginia’s folk music is a treasure unique to this mountainous region. For the past 25 years, the story of West Virginia’s traditional life has been deftly told in the pages of GOLDENSEAL magazine. Now, the best of GOLDENSEAL is gathered for the first time in a richly illustrated volume, “Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from GOLDENSEAL,” now available in bookstores across the state, or direct from Goldenseal.

Artists featured in the book include champion fiddler Clark Kessinger, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, National Heritage Fellowship recipient Melvin Wine, recording stars Lynn Davis and Molly O’Day, dulcimer pioneer Russell Fluharty, internationally known entertainers the Lilly Brothers, bluesman Nat Reese, banjo woman Sylvia O’Brien and many others. Contributing writers and photographers include Carl Fleischhauer, Charles Wolfe, Ivan Tribe, Michael Keller, Gerald Milnes and Michael Kline, among others.

The Rose and the Briar

April 18, 2013


Sean Wilentz, Greil Marcus, eds. The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. viii + 406 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-05954-0.

edited from a review by Steve Waksman (Department of Music, Smith College):
The search for truth, underscored by the effort to interrogate where truth lies, drives The Rose and the Briar, the  edited collection by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus on the meaning of the American ballad. As Marcus writes in the book’s closing piece, old ballads carry “a kind of truth … that [cannot] be found anywhere else,” to which he adds, “all ballads, regardless of when they might have been made, are old”.

The strength of The Rose and the Briar lies in the fact that, for the different contributors, the truth of the ballads assumes a variety of forms. Collected in the book are the expected critical essays, but they exist alongside several works of fiction, memoir, poetry, and visual art.

Complementing the diversity of approaches in the collection is the wide range of source material covered. The Rose and the Briar puts forth a purposely broad inclusive definition of the ballad, in which the primary criterion requires that the song in question tell a story.  Several contributors dwell upon songs in which love somehow proves to be fatal.

Often it is a man who kills his female lover, but sometimes the situation is reversed (“Frankie and Albert”) and sometimes the act of murder is more allegorical than actual as in “Barbara Allen,” in which a man dies of a broken heart when his love goes unreciprocated, and then his cold-hearted lover dies of regret.

The sheer recurrence of such symbolism is treated as something of a mystery in many of the book’s essays, where the clues being sought do not concern whodunit so much as the fundamental question of why tragic love occurs with such frequency in the ballad tradition. Treating one of the murder ballads in which a woman is killed by her man, Rennie Sparks digs the deepest of the book’s authors into this mystery of culture.

However, her answer–that such songs represent the drive to extinguish the threatening power of the mythic feminine goddess–relies too strongly on ideas informed by Joseph Campbell, concerning psychological archetypes divorced from historical context.

For Dave Marsh, writing about “Barbara Allen,” the matter is more straightforward if no less mysterious, as he interprets the song to put forth a lesson about “the peril of denying the complicated mysteries that throb within our hardened hearts and the equal peril of horsing around instead of acknowledging our love for one another”. Or to put it more bluntly, love is strange and, if you are not careful, it can kill you.

St. James Infirmary

April 9, 2013


edited from

“I Went Down to St. James Infirmary,” by Robert W. Harwood (Harland Press)

Infused with humor and supported by meticulous research, this ground breaking book explores the turbulent and mysterious history of one of the most important and influential songs of the twentieth century.

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary looks at the people and the times in which “St. James Infirmary” achieved its initial popularity and explores what happens to a traditional song when it becomes a piece of merchandise.

Saturated with ego-driven angst and once considered obscene because of the song’s stark depiction of death and the portrayal of a seedy underworld inhabited by gamblers, pimps, “loose” women, and every sort of rounder, it has been adapted, rewritten, borrowed, stolen, attacked, revered, and cherished.

The song has been shrouded in mystery as well as scandal. Who is the woman stretched out on a long white table? Who is the narrator and why is he, robust and vain, more concerned about his own funeral arrangements than with hers?

And there are the questions about the song itself. Where did it come from? To what lineage does it belong? Who was Joe Primrose and how did he gain copyright to a song that had been circulating the country for decades?  Driven to solve these and other puzzles about “St. James Infirmary,” author Robert W. Harwood toiled for years researching the song, the singers, and the times before and after its stunning success as a jazz hit in 1929.

“Been Here and Gone”

April 5, 2013
“Been Here and Gone,” by Frederic Ramsey (University of Georgia Press, 1960, 177 pages):

This volume documents Frederic Ramsey Jr.’s journeys through the 1950s South, where he traveled in search of what might still remain of an original, authentic African American musical tradition.

In these photographs, songs, interviews, and narratives, Ramsey portrays farmers, railroad workers, housewives, children, church congregations, and country brass bands from Saratoga, Florida, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Ramsey’s images of a past way of life capture the deceptively poor landscapes and lives that gave birth to and sustained some of our warmest and most deeply felt music.

Ramsey: “All along the Mississippi, I bad been hearing about ‘those little old string bands, used to make pretty good music.’

Once, the string bands were quite numerous little, informal organizations, often made up of amateur musicians, who roamed the streets on holidays and at carnival time.  In some districts, they played for private parties, or got together to serenade a friend.”

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78 Quarterly

March 29, 2013

These back issues of “78 Quarterly” are still being sold by 50 Miles of Elbow Room.

alt Artist:
Pete Whelan
78 Quarterly – Issue No. 3
78 Quarterly
book, 76 pages
Published in 1988 and now very scarce. Front and back covers are clean. Staples show rust that slightly stains the centermost pages. Feature articles:
“Paramount, Part 1: The Anatomy of a ‘Race’ Label” by Stephen Calt
“Trev Benwell: ‘Man and Legend’” by Russ Shor
“Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette” by Doug Seroff
“Collecting Ethnic” by Dick Spottswood
“’Big Foot’ William Harris” by Gayle Dean Wardlow
“Gennett-Champion Blues: Richmond, Indiana (1923-1934), Part 1” by Tom Tsotsi
“The Rarest 78s (A-B)”
“A White Man’s Integrity” by Stephen Calt (interview with Skip James)
alt Artist:
Pete Whelan
78 Quarterly – Issue No. 4
78 Quarterly
book, 96 pages
Highly desirable issue of 78 Quarterly that features R. Crumb’s illustration of Robert Johnson on the cover, and interview with the great music historian Frederic Ramsey, Jr., tales of Paramount Records, and more.Staples show rust that slightly stains the centermost pages.  Back covers show slight rubbing; front covers cleaner.  I’ve also got a couple copies that show a bit more wear such as staining to the outer edges of the pages that are $14.  Please specify your preference.  This is probably the last restock I’ll be able to get on this one.

Feature articles:
“Paramount, Part 2: The Anatomy of a ‘Race’ Label” by Stephen Calt
“Fred Ramsey Speaks Out!” an interview by Pete Whelan
“Robert Johnson” by Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow
“The Idioms of Robert Johnson” by Stephen Calt
“Remembering Big Joe” by Henry Renard (subtitled “The life and times of Big Joe Clauberg and his Jazz Record Center – New York’s famous [and bizarre] hangout for collectors, celebrities, musicians, alcoholics, and hobos…”)
“Paramounts in the Belfry…” by Bob Hilbert
“Gennett-Champion Blues: Richmond, Indiana (1923-1934), Part 2” by Tom Tsotsi
“The Rarest 78s (C-D)”
“Postscript to the McKune Story…” by Bernard Klatzko (more…)

“Chasing the Rising Sun”

March 19, 2013


“Chasing the Rising Sun” by Ted Anthony (Simon & Schuster)


After years of intense research which took Ted Anthony from one mountain range to another, then to New Orleans, he has determined that Lomax’s acetate disc of Georgia Turner, a 16-year old coal miner’s daughter from Middlesex, Kentucky, singing “The Rising Sun Blues,” is the first of what would be hundreds of recordings of the cautionary tale.

In his well-documented book, Anthony traces the various permutations of “House of the Rising Sun,” some of them told from a male perspective, and some like Turner’s, from a woman’s. To a core set of verses, singers and interpreters have added a variety of new words, giving rise to arguments about whether the eponymous “house” was a jail, brothel, card room, roadhouse, or workhouse.

Anthony’s journey brings him in contact with fascinating characters like Joe Bussard, a record collector from Maryland who spins his tens of thousands of 78-rpm records for anyone who cares to listen, just to share the joy, and Homer Callahan, who learned “House of the Rising Sun” during a corn shucking in North Carolina. (“They’d bury a five-gallon jug of corn whiskey in an enormous pile of corn and the first neighbor to reach the bottom got the liquor.”)

In relating the culture of people that many consider “hillbillies” or “hicks,” Anthony shows no condescension — only compassion and affection for hard-working people scratching a living out of the hill country and creating music to ease the pain of it all. His admiration for Georgia Turner, who he figures was cheated out of years of royalty payments, is evident in passages like this one, describing the Lomax recording session:

Sometimes pivot points in culture happen quickly and pass unnoticed at first. I have no reason to believe that this moment was any different. The ripples that this particular recording of this particular song would make were still in the future. It was nothing but an unknown song about a girl with a hard life behind her, sung from the heart by an unknown girl with a hard life ahead of her.

“Stagolee Shot Billy”

March 13, 2013


edited from “Stagolee Shot Billy,” by Cecil Brown (Harvard University Press):

There was indeed a real Stagolee, Lee Shelton, a thirty-one-year-old well-known figure in St. Louis’s red-light district during the 189os, a pimp who, when he shot and killed William Lyons, was the president of a “Colored Four Hundred Club,” a political and social organization.

Charles Haffer, of Coahama Counry Mississippi, recalled having first heard of a Stagolee ballad in 1895.  As a ballad, Stagolee evolved from then to the 1970s, when it was appropriated by black revolutionaries like Bobby Seale, who used it as a symbol of the enduring black male struggle against white oppression and racism. Seale not only named his son Stagolee but used the narrative toast version as a recruiting device to get young black men into the Black Panther party.

The first Stagolee ballad ever collected consisted of eight stanzas sent to John Lomax in February 191o by Miss Ella Scott Fisher of San Angelo, Texas, with the following note:

“This is all the verses I remember. The origin of this ballad, I have been told, was the shooting of Billy Lyons in a barroom on the Memphis levee by Stack Lee. The song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters, the words being composed by the singers. The characters were prominently known in Memphis, I was told, the unfortunate Stagalee belonging to the family of the owners of the Lee line of steamers, which are known on the Mississippi River from Cairo to the Gulf. I give all this to you as it was given to me.”


To listen to music, you will need the Realplayer Plugin   

Taj Mahal - Berkeley, California, (London, England), 2002, and 1988 Toast - New York, 1967 Bob Dylan - Los Angeles, 1993 Dave Van Ronk - New York City, 1966 Papa Harvey Hull and the Down Home Boys - Memphis, Tenn., 1927 Unidentified Negro convict - Arkansas, Gould, 1934 Duke Ellington - Washington DC, 1929 Stagger Lee&, Nick Cave - Melbourne, Australia, 1997 Fruit Jar Guzzlers - North Carolina, 1927 Lucious Curtis - Mississippi, Natchez, Oct. 19, 1940 Bill hunt and Frank Hutchinson - West Virginia, 1927 Ma Rainey - Georgia, 1927 Hogman Maxey - Louisiana, 1959. Angola State Penitentiary Mississippi John Hurt - Mississippi, 1927 Sidney Bechet - New Orleans, 1934 Lomax, Pianist, (700 AFC) - New Orleans, 1937 Buena Flynn, female inmate - Florida, Raiford., may, 1936 The Clash - London, England Bully of the Town, Sid Harkreader and Grady Moore - St. Louis, 1895 Albert Jackson, convict - Alabama, State Farm Prison Oct 1937 Furry Lewis - Mississippi, 1928 Lloyd Price - New Orleans, 1959 Bama, a Black convict - Parchmen Prison Farm, Mississippi, 1947

“Bully of the Town,” Sid Harkreader & Grady Moore – St. Louis, 1895
Papa Harvey Hull and the Down Home Boys – Memphis, Tenn., 1927
Fruit Jar Guzzlers – North Carolina, 1927
Ma Rainey – Georgia, 1927
Bill hunt and Frank Hutchinson – West Virginia, 1927
Mississippi John Hurt – Mississippi, 1927
Furry Lewis – Mississippi, 1928
Duke Ellington – Washington, D.C., 1929
Unidentified Negro convict – Arkansas, Gould, 1934
Sidney Bechet – New Orleans, 1934
Buena Flynn, female inmate – Florida, Raiford., may, 1936
Albert Jackson, convict – Alabama, State Farm Prison., Oct. 1937
Lomax, Pianist, (700 AFC) – New Orleans, 1937
Lucious Curtis – Mississippi, Natchez, Oct. 19, 1940
“Bama”, a Black convict – Parchman Prison Farm, Mississippi, 1947
Hogman Maxey – Louisiana, 1959. Angola State Penitentiary
Lloyd Price – New Orleans, 1959
Dave Van Ronk – New York City, 1966
Toast – New York, 1967
Bob Dylan – Los Angeles, 1993
Taj Mahal – Berkeley, California, (London, England), 2002, and 1988
“Stagger Lee”, Nick Cave – Melbourne, Australia, 1997
The Clash – London, England

The Day Is So Long and The Wages So Small

February 22, 2013


from and

The Day Is So Long and the Wages So Small by Samuel Charters (Marion Boyars Publishers)

The quest to record and preserve the last vestiges of a fast-disappearing musical culture is vividly rendered in this account of a summer on the Bahamian island of Andros. In 1958, when Charters and his future wife, Ann Danberg, then in their early 20s, made their trek to the island, Andros was a barren, swamp-ridden backwater, with fewer than a thousand inhabitants, almost all descendants of Bahamian slaves.

A budding music historian, Charters (author of “The Roots of the Blues”) had discovered a series of Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings of Andros folk songs from the late 1930s, and was so intrigued by the music–a fusion of 18th-century anthems and African polyphony–that he decided to seek out the musicians and their songs.

The Charters’ “discovery” of Joseph Spence was both fortuitous and coincidental. Sailing from settlement to settlement along the coast on small, locally made fishing sloops, they hoped to find and record traditional Bahamian music that had not been influenced by either tourism or the popular calypso music of neighboring Trinidad.

Lugging a heavy, suitcase-sized tape recorder, and traveling on the tightest of budgets, he and Danberg finally made it to the tiny settlement of Fresh Creek. On the porch of their mosquito and crab-infested house there, they recorded the guitar music of Joseph Spence and the ballads and rhyming songs of John Roberts.

“When you go out into a new part of the world with a tape recorder to look for music you always dream that someday you might find a new performer who will be so unique and so exciting that their music will have an effect on anybody who hears it. One of the few times it ever happened to me was in our first few weeks in the Fresh Creek Settlement on Andros. We went out one day about noon…. Some men were working on the foundation of a new house, and as we came close to them we could hear guitar music. It was some of the most exuberant, spontaneous, and uninhibited guitar playing we had ever heard, but all we could see was a man in a faded shirt and rumpled khaki trousers sitting on a pile of bricks. I was so sure two guitarists were playing that I went along the path to look on the other side of the wall to see where the other man was sitting. We had just met Joseph Spence.”

Still, they were assured that their project wouldn’t be complete until they had heard the voice of the legendary singer, Frederick McQueen. Charters’s final chapters document their search for the elusive musician; he concludes with a rousing outdoor performance by McQueen. The elegiac, leisurely pace of this slim memoir evokes the moods and rhythms of a long-distant island summer.

The Devil’s Box

January 30, 2013


by Kerry Blech:

Book Review: Charles WolfeThe Devil’s Box-Masters of Southern Fiddling
Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press-ISBN 0-8265-1283-6 248 pages, 18 illustrations

Here’s a fine volume that could fit most comfortably on the bookshelves of nearly everyone who reads the Old-Time Herald. The 1920s-vintage photograph of Eck Robertson on the cover might be the first clue. Then turn to the table of contents for the second clue. There one will find that this book contains chapters on some of the finest fiddlers America has seen: the aforementioned Mr. Robertson, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, Doc Roberts, Clayton McMichen, Clark Kessinger, Arthur Smith, Bob Wills, Slim Miller, Ernie Hodges, and Tommy Jackson.

There’s an opening chapter that tries to instruct us in the history of the oldest or earliest recorded fiddling styles. One chapter addresses the history of the tune “Black Mountain Rag.” Another chapter discusses the Mexican origin of the contest favorite, “Over the Waves.” There are a number of charts and tables as well interesting photographs to complete the package. Add to all of this mix Dr. Wolfe’s easy-to-read, accessible prose, and you’ve got yourself a nice table-top reference about the cream of old-time fiddling.

Charles Wolfe is one of the most tireless researchers of old-time music working today and he is quite the prolific author. The genesis of this book can be found with articles that he first published in the periodical, The Devil’s Box. In one sense, this is a collection of many of Dr. Wolfe’s articles on “commercial” old-time fiddlers that appeared in that periodical. Because some of these articles were published some time ago, Charles has updated them to include information that was not yet known at the time of first publication.

Other articles in this book appear as they originally did in the periodical. And a few others were written specifically, and only for, inclusion in this book. Note that above I have indicated “commercial” fiddlers. These essays are written about old-time fiddlers who played professionally or, at any rate, recorded commercially on 78 rpm disks. So you won’t find your Ed Haleys, or John Salyers, or Kenner Casteel Kartchners, legends all who only were recorded on home recording machines. They are for another day.

Delving into the first chapter, the one about the earliest or oldest recorded styles, we find a philosophical discussion. Are we looking for the fiddlers who were born the earliest and who recorded? Or are we looking merely for those who recorded the earliest? And what about the earliest styles, those honed during the 19th Century? Dr. Wolfe discusses all these paths of investigation. It’s pretty well accepted that Eck Robertson was the first country fiddler to record commercially, in 1922, and that Fiddlin’ John Carson followed suit in 1923. But in evaluating the older styles, or the oldest fiddler to record, one must do some additional ciphering and research.

Among the “19th-Century-Style” fiddlers discussed in this chapter are J. Dedrick Harris, Jilson Setters (whose real name was James William Day), Henry L. Bandy, John W. Daniel, Ted Markle, the mysterious Art Haines, Henry C. Gilliland (who played a couple fiddle duets with Eck), Blind Joe Mangrum, Uncle Am Stuart, Emmett Lundy, Jim Booker, the Morrison Twins, George and Andrew Carter, Ahaz A. Gray, and William B. Houchens. All are intriguing lights from the earliest days of commercial recording, so it is nice to get at least a little information on some of them.

The essay on “Black Mountain Rag” also is an interesting investigation on the oral passage of fiddle music and how technology came to influence it. I won’t go into detail, as that might spoil the mystery, but we do meet some interesting characters along the way, including Tommy Magness, Curly Fox, Leslie Keith, Charlie Stripling, and Pleaz Carroll.


Sodom Laurel Album

January 19, 2013

Cover picture

Sodom Laurel Album: Book and CD by Rob Amberg (University of North Carolina Press)

Accompanying CD featuring Dellie Norton, Cas Wallin, Berzilla Wallin, Doug Wallin, Evelyn Ramsey, Edison Ramsey & Sheila Kay Adams

by Mike Yates:

When I first visited Madison County, NC, in 1980, I tried to change some travellers cheques at a bank in the town of Marshall.  I wanted to get $200, but the bank refused, saying that they did not know me.  At this point a person who I had met briefly the previous day stepped forward and said that he would guarantee my cheque.  As we left the bank together my new-found friend stopped, shook his head, and said, “Hell, I doubt if I’ve even got $200 in my account to cover your cheque!”

That person turned out to be Rob Amberg, a photographer who had a studio in Marshall.  Later that day I spent some time with Rob and bought two of his pictures, one of Doug Wallin playing his fiddle at his home, and one of Zipo Rice, a centenarian who had sung a version of Lord Bateman to Cecil Sharp in 1916.  Rob told me that he had first encountered the Sodom Laurel singers when he had been introduced to Dellie Norton by one of her younger relatives.  Over the years Rob and Dellie developed a friendship (she got to calling him Rob Hamburger!), and they had often talked about producing a book about Dellie’s life.  Dellie died in 1993, just weeks before her 95th birthday, and it looked as though the projected book would never appear.  But, not all news is bad these days, and Rob’s wonderful book, Sodom Laurel Album, is now with us.

Most readers will know that Cecil Sharp & Maud Karpeles collected a wealth of songs in Madison County, NC, during the summer of 1916, and that Dellie Norton and her relatives and neighbours were descended from the people who had sung to Sharp.  But, following Sharp’s departure, very few ‘outsiders’ visited Sodom Laurel.  True, collectors like Alan Lomax and John Cohen paid the odd visit to collect from Dellie, her sister Berzilla, Berzilla’s son Doug Wallin, or Doug’s uncle, Cas Wallin.  But, until recently, Sodom Laurel remained almost unknown to most Americans.  And this is one reason why Rob’s book is so important, for here we have a record of a world that had all but vanished elsewhere, one told in Dellie’s own words and in Rob’s splendid photographs.  There is no sentimentality here, only truthful words and truthful images.

Rob Amberg is an extremely talented photographer and the book’s photographs are printed in a chronological sequence, one of the first shots being of Dellie’s home taken in winter.  Boy, did it bring back memories for me.  On the left was the verandah where I often sat with Dellie (the cover picture to Crazy About a Song was taken there) and every page seemed to show places that I had visited.  I especially remember Dellie telling me about one field, shown on page 12, that was the home of a number of ‘haints’, though I never did quite work out the difference between a ‘haint’ and a ‘ghost’, despite Dellie’s best efforts at explanation. (more…)

Southern Journey: the Book

December 28, 2012

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs, and Music

Alan Lomax (Author), Tom Piazza (Essay Author),  introduction by William Ferris (W.W. Norton & Co)


“A new look at the legendary folklorist and his work.”

More than fifty years ago, on a trip dubbed “the Southern Journey,” Alan Lomax visited Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee, uncovering the little-known southern backcountry and blues music that we now consider uniquely American. Lomax’s camera was a constant companion, and his images of both legendary and anonymous folk musicians complement his famous field recordings.

These photographs—largely unpublished—show musicians making music with family and friends at home, with fellow worshippers at church, and alongside workers and prisoners in the fields. Discussions of Lomax’s life and career by his disciple and lauded folklorist William Ferris, and a lyrical look at Lomax’s photographs by novelist and Grammy Award-winning music writer Tom Piazza, enrich this valuable collection.

Border Radio

December 23, 2012

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

of the American Airwaves, Revised Edition

By Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ragtime for Fiddle and Mandolin

December 19, 2012

The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings (#2)

December 16, 2012


The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings contains over 140,000 individual recordings on 78, 45, LP and cassette, over 2,000 photographs, posters, catalogs and other images, and a database of record company histories, musicians’ biographies and much more. It is without contest the largest collection of its kind on the planet.

Enter Agustin Gurza, the first writer to take a shot at wrestling this monster to the ground. His introduction and guide to the Frontera Collection (pictured above), recently published by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, offers a manageable look at a seemingly endless resource. His approach is to explore the Frontera Collection from different viewpoints, discussing genre, theme, and some of the thousands of composers and performers whose work is contained in the archive. Throughout, he examines the cultural significance of the recordings and relates the stories of those who have had a vital role in their production and preservation.

An essay by Chris Strachwitz traces the history of commercial recordings of Mexican music, and another by historian and mariachero Jonathan Clark tells the story of mariachi from its earliest days to the present. Also included are playlists of favorites chosen by Strachwitz and by the man who has personally digitized over 70,000 of these recordings, musician and Arhoolie Foundation Head Digitizing Technician Antonio Cuellar.
This fantastic book can be found at The Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito, CA.   8 1/2 x 11″, Paperback, 226 pages

Ragged But Right

December 11, 2012

Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff


The commercial explosion of ragtime in the early twentieth century created previously unimagined opportunities for black performers. However, every prospect was mitigated by systemic racism. The biggest hits of the ragtime era weren’t Scott Joplin’s stately piano rags. “Coon songs,” with their ugly name, defined ragtime for the masses. Though the name itself is offensive to modern ears, it is impossible to investigate black popular entertainment of the ragtime era without directly confronting the “coon songs” which cleared the way for the “original blues.”

In Ragged but Right Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff investigate musical comedy productions, sideshow bands, and itinerant tented minstrel shows. Ragtime history is crowned by the “big shows,” the stunning musical comedy successes of blackface performers Williams and Walker, Bob Cole, and Ernest Hogan. Under the big tent of Tolliver’s Smart Set, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, and others were converted from “coon shouters” to “blues singers.” Throughout the ragtime era, circuses and Wild West shows exploited the popular demand for black musicians and performers yet segregated and subordinated them to the sideshow tent. Minstrel shows have long been marginalized in discussions of the history of blues and jazz. Yet this overlooked black entertainment industry helped to move blues and jazz into the mainstream.

Drawing from careful reading of the Indianapolis Freeman, Chicago Defender, and other black newspapers and mainstream entertainment trade papers, the authors reveal a torrent of creativity that swept thousands of black writers, performers, musicians, and entrepreneurs into the professional ranks despite the overt racism of the times.

Lynn Abbott works for the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. Doug Seroff is an independent scholar living in Greenbrier, Tennessee.

Music in the Air Somewhere

December 3, 2012

from “Music in the Air Somewhere,” by Erynn Marshall:

Due to Melvin [Wine’s] growing spiritual beliefs, and his unhappiness over the amount of drinking and fighting that took place at square dances, he stopped playing fiddle for more than twenty years.

“Things I once done I didn’t want to do no more…I did not want to get back into square dances and I just quit. I thought I’d seen people killed there, I’d seen people just fall off their feet dead at the square dances and things like that..”

In the late 1950s, Melvin began playing music again.  This change in attitude came about when he and Etta found themselves having to look after their ten-day-old granddaughter…The baby started to cry and he couldn’t get her to stop.  Eventually, he pulled out his fiddle and started to play for her.  Kelly stopped crying at the sound of the music, and Melvin decided that playing the fiddle must be a gift rather than a sin and resumed playing it.

Melvin Wine (1909-2003) remains one of the most recorded, documented, and respected fiddler in West Virginia.  [He] was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts Foundation.

He made three solo recordings: Cold Frosty Morning, Hannah at the Springhouse, and Vintage Wine.

I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces

December 1, 2012

Description: 184 page hardback book with 2 CDs, 150 sepia photographs reproduced in full-color, the CDs feature 51 vintage recordings from 1925-1955.


Compiled by Steve Roden, … i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces brings together a collection of early photographs related to music, a group of 78rpm recordings, and short excerpts from various literary sources that are contemporary with the sound and images. It is a somewhat intuitive gathering, culled from artist Steve Roden’s collection of thousands of vernacular photographs related to music, sound, and listening.

The subjects range from the PT Barnum-esque Professor McRea – “Ontario’s Musical Wonder” (pictured with his complex sculptural one man band contraption) – to anonymous African-American guitar players and images of early phonographs. The images range from professional portraits to ethereal, accidental, double exposures – and include a range of photographic print processes, such as tintypes, ambrotypes, cdvs, cabinet cards, real photo postcards, albumen prints, and turn-of-the-century snapshots.

The two CDs display a variety of recordings, including one-off amateur recordings, regular commercial releases, and early sound effects records. there is no narrative structure to the book, but the collision of literary quotes (Hamsun, Lagarkvist, Wordsworth, Nabokov, etc.). Recordings and images conspire towards a consistent mood that is anchored by the book’s title, which binds such disparate things as an early recording of an American cowboy ballad, a poem by a Swedish Nobel laureate, a recording of crickets created artificially, and an image of an itinerant anonymous woman sitting in a field, playing a guitar. The book also contains an essay by Roden.


One or two tracks from the accompanying CDs have been reissued several times over the years, Kelly Harrell’s Rovin’ Gambler, Sam Jones’s Cripple Creek and Sourwood Mountain or Sylvester Weaver’s Damfino Stomp, for example.  But many tracks appear here for the first time.  Marc Williams’s version of the old Anglo-American ballad William and Mary is new to me, although it could be based on the earlier commercial recording that Sam McGee made of the song and which is available on a Document reissue (DOCD-8036).

It is also good to hear Alf Taylor’s quartet working their way through Brother Noah Built an Ark.  Maybe their version is not as strong as the one recorded a few years later by A A Gray & Seven Foot Dilly (reissued on Document DOCD-8002 as The Old Ark’s A’Moving, but it is good to hear anything that Taylor, a fiddle-player and one-time Governor of Tennessee, made.

Surprisingly, to me at any rate, is the fact that I am quite taken by the raw vitality and sincerity of gospel singer such as the Reverend Edward Clayborn, whose Then We’ll Need that True Religion seems to owe a debt to the work of Blind Willie McTell, and The Reverend Calbert and Sister Billie Holstein, a little-known couple who apparently did most of their preaching and singing on street corners.  Then there is Xango, an arrangement of an African chant made by the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, and sung by the black classical singer Roland Hayes.

Roots Music Photographs from the Great Depression

November 27, 2012

Hard Luck Blues: Roots Music Photographs from the Great Depression, by Rich Remsberg (University of Illinois Press)


“Poignant images of music making during the Depression, captured with precision and purpose”

Showcasing American music and music making during the Great Depression, Hard Luck Blues presents more than two hundred photographs created by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration photography program. With an appreciation for the amateur and the local, FSA photographers depicted a range of musicians sharing the regular music of everyday life, from informal songs in migrant work camps, farmers’ homes, barn dances, and on street corners to organized performances at church revivals, dance halls, and community festivals.

Captured across the nation from the northeast to the southwest, the images document the last generation of musicians who learned to play without the influence of recorded sound, as well as some of the pioneers of Chicago’s R & B scene and the first years of amplified instruments. The best visual representation of American roots music performance during the Depression era, Hard Luck Blues features photographs by Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, and others.

Photographer and image researcher Rich Remsberg breathes life into the images by providing contextual details about the persons and events captured, in some cases drawing on interviews with the photographers’ subjects. Also included are a foreword by author Nicholas Dawidoff and an afterword by music historian Henry Sapoznik.

Published in association with the Library of Congress.

Rich Remsberg is an Emmy Award-winning image researcher and a documentary photographer. His credits include Woody Guthrie: Ain’t Got No Home and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, as well as other PBS programs and independent films. He lives in North Adams, Massachusetts.

A Doris Ullman photo from “Hard Luck Papa”

Crooked Stovepipe

November 23, 2012


The Crooked Stovepipe is an enjoyable book concerned with music and dance forms developed by Upriver Gwich’in-speaking Athapaskan Indians after contact with Europeans. Contact was mainly with Orcadian employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the mid-nineteenth century, but significant contact also took place during the 1896-97 gold rush. The book is partly derived from Craig Mishler’s doctoral thesis (“Gwich’in Athapaskan Music and Dance: An Ethnography and Ethnohistory” [University of Texas at Austin, 1981]), but also includes material based on more recent research. Musical transcriptions by Pamela Swing are included in an appendix.

Crooked Stovepipe refers both to a fiddle tune and, metaphorically, to what Mishler calls “the culture that looks like nineteenth-century frontier America cocked at a bit of an angle” (p. 6). The author’s hypothesis is that Gwich’in fiddlers’ performance practice results from a syncretic relationship between “aboriginal-style singing and fiddling” (p. 147). The book provides the social and historical study necessary for analysis of these “crooked” versions of European-based fiddle tunes; the musical analysis necessary to support the idea of a syncretic musical style is not attempted. However, readers can refer to a recording of Gwich’in fiddlers produced by Mishler (“Music of the Alaskan Kutchin Indians” [Folkways Records, 1974; FE 4070] distributed by the Smithsonian).

Mishler begins, in chapter 1, with a discussion of the musical contact that took place during the heyday of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Using Company archives and secondary sources, Mishler identifies important musician-employees and describes dance-events held between 1848 and 1920. Chapter 2 contains biographical sketches of twentieth-century North Athapaskan fiddlers, based on secondary sources and field work.

These chapters lead us to the heart of the book, which examines the fiddlers’ repertory and the repertory of dances associated with this fiddle music. In chapter 3 Mishler examines Gwich’in fiddle tunes according to the categories developed by George Casey and others in “Repertoire Categorization and Performer-Audience Relationships: Some Newfoundland Examples” (Ethnomusicology 16 [1972]: 397-403). (more…)

Hillbilly Blues Guitar

November 16, 2012


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

excerpt from David Bradford  (

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

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

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

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

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers

November 3, 2012


MEETING JIMMIE RODGERS by Barry Mazor, (Oxford Univ. Press), 376 pp, softbound.

Here’s a great book that we somehow missed when it originally came out in hard cover in 2009. It’s rather distressing that a book of this qual- ity did not come to our attention earlier, and that tells us it’s likely that a lot of others with an interest in early country music and/or this great artist may have missed this as well. Make no mistake, though we may take him for granted now, Rodgers was a giant in American music—pop as well as country (the book has a long but accurate sub-title: “How America’s original roots music hero changed the pop sounds of a century”.

Nolan Porterfield years ago wrote what has been the best biography to date on Rodgers, but Barry Mazor has added much de- tail to the life, musical career and influence of “the Singing Brake- man” or “America’s Blue Yo- deler” (take your choice). This book is loaded with all sorts of interesting facts and knowledge- able commentary, with the 15 chapters giving extensive coverage of Rodgers’ huge influence as well as his early years and things that influenced him. Mazor discusses Rodgers’ con- temporaries like the Carter Family, Gene Autry and Jimmie Davis, then country stars of the 1940s and 50s like Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard.

He shows the effect that Rodgers had on Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan among many others, and even comments on the Blue Yodeler’s unlikely influence on woman singers (Rose Maddox, Dolly Parton and then Rhonda Vincent all tackled “MULESKINNER BLUES!”). A couple of the many interesting highlights are references to Jimmie’s popularity in foreign countries (his 78s came out ex- tensively in Australia and Great Britain, and even in Japan, India and Africa), and the interesting account of how a devoted early Rodgers collector (Jim Evans) started a fan club which led eventually to Rodgers’ songs being re-released starting in the 1950s, after a dry spell of some 20 years of unavail- ability. At the end of each chapter there are listings of pertinent books and music to check out. This is a superb study of a great artist, packed with all sorts of detail—HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!. $ 18.00

Carter Family Graphic Novel

October 23, 2012


The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Songis a rich and compelling original graphic novel that tells the story of the Carter Family — the first superstar group of country music—who made hundreds of recordings and sold millions of records. Many of their hit songs, such as “Wildwood Flower” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” have influenced countless musicians and remain timeless country standards.

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song is not only a unique illustrated biography, but a moving account that reveals the family’s rise to success, their struggles along the way, and their impact on contemporary music. Illustrated with exacting detail and written in the Southern dialect of the time, its dynamic narrative is pure Americana. It is also a story of success and failure, of poverty and wealth, of racism and tolerance, of creativity and business, and of the power of music and love.

Includes bonus CD with original Carter Family music


Lasky’s visuals are flat, solid, simply yet elegantly composed, and deceptively static considering the amount of emotional information and actual velocity they convey. (At two points in the book the pair move the story forward with palette-cleansing segments in the style of contemporary comic strips.) The Carters seemed to be constantly in motion, whether walking miles down Virginia country roads to visit family (Lasky’s autumnal colors may be the finest in all comicdom); taking a horse and carriage to Bristol, Tennessee, for A.P. and Sara’s seminal recording session; hitting the road in a broken-down car as a constantly exhausted traveling act; driving to New Jersey for yet more recording sessions; or commuting to southern Texas for months-long stints as regulars on powerful Mexican radio station XERA.

The cause of A.P. and Sara’s eventual divorce is the hapless bandleader’s devotion to “song catching,” i.e., combing the country, often accompanied by his African-American sidekick Lesley Riddle, in search of material: the old and nearly forgotten folk songs he transcribed, rearranged, recorded, and sometimes rewrote in order to reclaim them as his own. What more elegant songwriting credit has anyone taken than the verse A.P. added to the song whose title serves as this book’s subtitle: “But now I’m upon my scaffold / My time’s not very long / You may forget the singer / But don’t forget this song.” The Carters’ saga is also the story of evolving recording and playback technology, and Lasky lovingly depicts cars, instruments, microphones, disks, Victor Talking Machines, and the always-impressive Orthophonic Credenza record player – the latter a gift from the trio’s somewhat larcenous mentor-manager.

The Carter’s story takes a melancholic twist when Sara falls in love with another man. And its most poignant panel may well be Lasky’s translation of Life photographer Eric Schaal’s iconic image of the extended Carter clan in 1942, with A.P. standing slightly apart from brother Eck and the rest. As often as Lasky’s art inevitably reminds one of R. Crumb light, he conveys a sadness and delicacy of mood the master might envy.

Fiddling in West Africa

October 21, 2012

edited from  Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje at and

Scholars have often seen the fiddle as something imposed upon blacks in 18th-century America by slave owners who wanted to enjoy European-style entertainment. What routinely gets left out of the story is that Africa had its own fiddling tradition every bit as old and rich as Europe’s, dating from roughly the 12th century in Senegal. It moved eastward across the continent with Fulbe migrants.

Africans were the people who played the violin here in North America. Whites didn’t always play the violin, because they saw it as work, and it was the Africans who did the work while the whites were there for the entertainment. Some Europeans taught their slaves violin, and Africans performed at settings or balls for them. So the violin was probably the most dominant instrument in African-American culture, up until the early 20th century. During slavery, it was more popular than the banjo.

When I studied the violin in Africa, I discovered they began learning the instrument in a way that’s very informal. In the part of Africa where I did my research, there were families of musicians, and therefore, you’re born into this family. You’re expected to learn this instrument. When the child is born, they may even hear the playing of the instrument at their naming ceremony, and when they’re introduced to the community.

From when they’re about two or three years old, they’re given an instrument – even though they’re not playing it, they’re supposed to go through the motions. Eventually, they’re supposed to learn the repertoire, learn the language – this is required. So very early in their lives, this becomes something they’re supposed to do, like eating and drinking – which is different from what we do here. We separate the two. We get up and we eat and drink and do this, and then we do our instrument, either for work or pleasure. In that particular part of the world, it’s a part of who you are as a person within that community.

In early 2000  I interviewed one of the Dagbamba fiddlers I had researched, and he told me that he had started an archive. I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yes. All of these Europeans and people coming from the United States asking for this music – it must be important, so perhaps I need to be able to save it.”

And I said, “How are you archiving it?” And for them, it’s the text, the song text that is important. Because the song text actually dates back to the 1700s, when Dagbon was just coming into existence as a political state, when the fiddlers had just entered their culture. And it was the song text for them that was very important – they thought it was easy to learn how to play the instrument. But once the texts were lost, and the people who performed them were gone, there was no way to recover it.

So what he’d begun to do is interview some of the senior people in his community, the elders within the family, and he’d begun to ask them to sing songs that they don’t normally perform, and wrote them down. He was Western-educated himself. He said, “The young people may not be interested now, but at some point in time, they will be interested, and I’ll have the material for them.”

Fiddling Way Out Yonder

October 14, 2012


From a small mountain town in West Virginia, elder fiddler Melvin Wine has inspired musicians and music enthusiasts far beyond his homeplace.

Music, community, and tradition influence all aspects of life in this rural region. Fiddling Way Out Yonder: The Life and Music of Melvin Wine shows how in Wine’s playing and teaching all three have created a vital and enduring legacy.

Wine has been honored nationally for his musical skills and his leadership role in an American musical tradition. A farmer, a coal miner, a father of ten children, and a deeply religious man, he has played music from the hard lessons of his own experience and shaped a musical tradition even while passing it to others.

Fiddling Way Out Yonder examines the fiddler, his music, and its context from a variety of perspectives. Many rousing fiddlers came from isolated mountain regions like Melvin’s home stomp. The book makes a point to address the broad historical issues related both to North American fiddling and to Wine’s personal history.

Wine has spent almost all of his ninety-two years in rural Braxton County, an area where the fiddle and dance traditions that were strong during his childhood and early adult life continue to be active today. Utilizing models from folklore studies and ethnomusicology, Fiddling Way Out Yonder discusses how community life and educational environment have affected Melvin’s music and his approaches to performance.

Such a unique fiddler deserves close stylistic scrutiny. The book reveals Wine’s particular tunings, his ways of holding the instrument, his licks, his bowing techniques and patterns, his tune categories, and his favorite keys. The book includes transcriptions and analyses of ten of Melvin’s tunes, some of which are linked to minstrelsy, ballad singing traditions, and gospel music. Narratives discuss the background of each tune and how it has fit into Melvin’s life.

While his music is tied to community and family traditions, Melvin is a unique and complex person. This biography heralds a musician who wants both to communicate the spirit of his mountains and to sway an audience into having an old-fashioned good time.

Drew Beisswenger is a music librarian at Southwest Missouri State University. His work has been published in Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, the EMIE Bulletin, Mid-American Folklore, and the Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies.

248 pp.

Books About Harry Smith

October 6, 2012

These books are available from The Harry Smith Archives.


Think of the Self Speaking: Selected Interviews

Here you’ll find the flavor and texture of Harry Smith’s conversation, his rambling, obscure, luminous, cantankerous genius. These interviews cover a quarter century and touch on the full range of Smith’s activity as groundbreaking experimental filmmaker, obsessive collector, folk music anthologist, visionary painter, student of Native American lore, anthropologist, cosmographer, alchemist, hermetic scholar, occultist, autodidact, and homegrown classic American eccentric.

Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, edited by Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh

Filmmaker, musicologist, painter, ethnographer, graphic designer, mystic, and collector of string figures and other patterns, Harry Smith (1923–1991) was among the most original creative forces in postwar American art and culture, yet his life and work remain poorly understood. Today he is remembered primarily for his Anthology of American Folk Music (1952)—an idiosyncratic collection of early recordings that educated and inspired a generation of musicians and roots music fans—and for a body of innovative abstract and non-narrative films. Constituting a first attempt to locate Smith and his diverse endeavors within the history of avant-garde art production in twentieth-century America, the essays in this volume reach across Smith’s artistic oeuvre.

In addition to contributions by Paul Arthur, Robert Cantwell, Thomas Crow, Stephen Fredman, Stephen Hinton, Greil Marcus, Annette Michelson, William Moritz, and P. Adams Sitney, the volume contains numerous illustrations of Smith’s works and a selection of his letters and other primary sources.

Andrew Perchuk is deputy director of the Getty Research Institute. Rani Singh is senior research associate in the Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art at the Getty Research Institute as well as director of the Harry Smith Archives.

The Virginia Minstrels

September 25, 2012

In “Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924,” David  Wondrich discusses The Virginia Minstrels, “the first truly American band,” (formed in 1843):

“The Beautiful Music All Around Us”

September 15, 2012

edited from “In the Footsteps of Alan Lomax: The Artists Behind the Music” by TERRY TEACHOUT (Wall Street Journal):
Stephen Wade, a musician and folklorist who has long been fascinated by the Library of Congress field recordings.  went back into the field to track down the descendants of 12 of the near-forgotten musicians who recorded for the Library of Congress between 1934 and 1942. He has turned his findings into an extraordinary book called “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience” that was published earlier this month by the University of Illinois Press. It’s a masterpiece of humane scholarship—but one that reads like a detective story. Working against the fast-ticking clock of mortality, Mr. Wade succeeded in documenting the lives and work of a dozen folk artists whose stories came perilously close to vanishing down the memory hole.

Mr. Wade’s subjects came from all walks of life. Some were housewives; others, prisoners. One was a coal miner, another a 12-year-old schoolgirl. Jess Morris of Dalhart, Texas, who recorded “Goodbye, Old Paint” for the Library of Congress, was a classical violinist turned cowboy-fiddler. As for Mr. William Stepp, who was born in a Kentucky cave in 1875, he was the son of a prostitute who spent his youth as a logger, then became an itinerant fiddler who rode on horseback to the rural dances at which he played. In the words of one man who heard Mr. Stepp at an Election Day schoolhouse dance: “When he’d draw on a bow, you couldn’t just stand and listen. When he started playing, people drove like a bee to honey. Nobody held him a light in his playing.”

“The Beautiful Music All Around Us” never stoops to the jargon-laden hair-splitting that too often passes for academic scholarship. Instead of reshuffling somebody else’s footnotes, Mr. Wade had a simple yet profoundly original idea, then brought it to fruition with a combination of hard work and good luck. He played a hunch—and it paid off. But why should we now care about the obscure folk whose lives he chronicles, interesting though they may have been? The most important reason can be heard on the compact disc that accompanies Mr. Wade’s book: They were great musicians whose stories deserve to be told for that reason alone. It’s impossible to listen to Vera Hall’s gently melancholy singing of “Another Man Done Gone” or Pete Steele’s limpid, fast-flowing banjo playing in “Coal Creek March” without wanting to know more about them, and Mr. Wade delivers the goods.

In addition, though, these men and women were also exemplary figures to whose cultural significance Mr. Wade pays impassioned tribute in his introduction. “Their stories are metaphors for how this country has lived,” he writes. “One by one they show us what a single person can do in a democracy.”

As I read those words, I couldn’t help but think of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” the poem in which Thomas Gray memorialized the “mute inglorious Miltons” of the English countryside whose gifts were known only to their neighbors. “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air,” he wrote. Were it not for Messrs. Lomax and Wade, most of the artists whose stories are told in “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” might just as easily have been born to sing unheard. Instead their voices live on, never to be forgotten. They, too, sing America.

“Where Dead Voices Gather”

August 17, 2012

“Where Dead Voices Gather,” by Nick Tosches (Little, Brown and Company, 2001)

Tosches writes about the Cofer Brothers (The Georgia Crackers), who recorded in the 1920’s:

In its own rough-hewn way, this hillbilly string band, from predominantly black Hancock County in central Georgia, echoes the same sources that informed their more sophisticated contemporary Jimmie Rodgers and his black counterparts: the motes of vaudeville, minstrelsy, and the black songster tradition aswirl in the effulgence of that beautiful thievery that in the hands of one became the blues, in the hands of another country music.

It was the nineteenth-century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, through which the mongrel motes swirled. It was the symbiosis and synergy and estuary of those nineteenth-century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, that brought forth, simultaneously, before the ascendancy of the guitar, what came to be called the blues and country music.  It was the music of those nineteenth-century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, that was the true indigenous and autochthonous sound of the nineteenth century South, mother and wild bride and fickle daughter, enticer and enticed of all that swirled, of that eventual bastard song, neither black nor white, both black and white, of the midnight bottomlands crossroads and the great lighted dazzling of Broadway alike.

The Cofer Bros.

Dorsey Dixon and John Edwards

August 5, 2012

Edited excerpt from “Linthead Stomp: the Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South,” by Patrick Huber (University of North Carolina Press, 2008):

[Dorsey Dixon, of the legendary Dixon Brothers, was inspired at an extremely low point in his life by a correspondence with Australian record collector John Edwards in 1960.]

Secret Museum of Mankind: the Book

July 31, 2012

edited from

“The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics 1925-1948” (CD series edited by Pat Conte) takes its title from the book shown above.  Published in 1935, the Secret Museum is a mystery book. It has no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, no index. Published by “Manhattan House” and sold by “Metro Publications”, both of New York, its “Five Volumes in One” was pure hype: it had never been released in any other form.

The assumption is that this was a get-rich-quick scheme: copy “1,000” (actually 994) photos and captions verbatim from various sources with no credit, print them badly on cheap paper, sell thousands of copies for $1.98, make a bundle, then take the money and run. Yet, it was still for sale in 1942, seven years after first being released. Why wasn’t it shut down by the parties who were infringed? Were they involved? It’s a mystery.

View entire book here.

Listen to The Secret Museum of the Air radio show, with Citizen Kafka and Pat Conte, here.

Frank Wilson

July 21, 2012

Excerpt below from “String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont,” by Bob Carlin (McFarland & Company, 2004)

Frank Wilson can be heard here.

Frank Wilson

Old-Time Backup Guitar: Learn from the Masters

June 27, 2012

“Old-Time Backup Guitar: Learn from the Masters,” by John Schwab

102-Page book and CD with >120 mp3 files, ready for iTunes! Music and tab for 28 classic old-time tunes from 78 rpm records! $24.99 plus shipping. Write to <>,    

Old-time fiddlers and banjo players seem to get lots of the glory, but good, solid backup guitars are always in demand! Veteran backup guitar player John Schwab has developed a straightforward way to help folks to learn the same way that he did: by studying the master musicians of the 78 rpm era: the 1920s and ’30s.

• Luches Kessinger (Kessinger Brothers)
• Asa Martin & Edgar Boaz (Doc Roberts)
• Roy Harvey (Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers)
• Hub Mahaffey (Dykes’ Magic City Trio) …and more!

• Guitar tab for 28 classic tunes, transcribed from 78 rpm records!

• Selections provided as mp3 files, ready for iTunes or digital player
• Play along with original performances from 78 rpm records!
• Four versions per tune, from very slow to full speed
• All recordings adjusted to concert pitch
• Samples from leading contemporary backup guitar players

• What is old-time music, and how does the guitar fit in?
• “The Elements of Style” in old-time backup guitar:
• Keeping time
• Attack and dynamics
• Guitars and picks: getting “that” tone
• Chord selection:
• The chords that the masters used
• The chords that the masters didn’t use
• Choosing chords for modal tunes
• Finding the “right” chords
• Playing with other musicians
• Advice & insight from leading contemporary backup guitarists
• Resources for learning: recordings, books, websites, etc.

Blacks, Whites, and Blues

June 3, 2012


“Blacks, Whites, and Blues,” by Tony Russell (Stein and Day, 1970)

The man whose efforts crystallized the blue yodel, and the white blues form, and ensured its future in country music was Jimmie Rodgers.  Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1897, the son of an M&O gang foreman.  Rodgers’ musical environment has often been described; how he fetched water for the black gandy dancers in the Meridian yards; how he heard their songs and slang, and was taught the banjo by them.  Rodgers’ career on the tracks was curtailed by tuberculosis in 1925, and he took up, full time, the musical life which he had for some years enjoyed as an amateur.

The blue yodels were a foundation upon which countless white country singers built.  David Evans has suggested, very reasonably, that the blue yodel synthesized Swiss (yodelling) and African (falsetto) traditions; the falsetto “leap” was established among blacks since the days of the field holler — consider Vera Hall’s “Wild Ox Moan” — and (Jimmy) Rodgers, hearing it, thought it analogous to the yodel and inserted both into his blues.

“The identifying characteristics of the ‘blue yodel,'” John Greenway has written,” are (1) the slight situational pattern, that of a ’rounder’ boasting of his prowess as a lover, but ever in fear of the ‘creeper,’ evidence of whose presence he reacts to either with threats against the sinning parties or with the declaration that he can get another woman easily enough; and (2) the prosodic pattern, the articulation of Negro maverick stanzas dealing with violence and promiscuity, often with double meaning, and followed by a yodel refrain.”

Jimmy Rodgers sings “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel,” recorded May 18, 1933, NYC:

Jimmie Rodgers

Gone to the Country

May 26, 2012

“Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival” by Ray Allen (University of Illinois Press, 2010)

[After the publication of The Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith donated his collection of 78 rpm records to the New York City Public Library.  Here is part of the story of how the New Lost City Ramblers heard all those records.]

Adventures of a Ballad Hunter

May 20, 2012

“Adventures of a Ballad Hunter,” by John Lomax (Macmillan, 1947)

August 22, 1933

At last over in Kentucky we found him — the blind bard, with a good voice, for whom we had been looking since we left Texas. Near Harlan, Kentucky, where feuds are still active, he lived in a rocky gorge in a typical mountain home, and there he sang for us until our records were filled.  Alan put the microphone and the singer out under a shade tree in the yard where he sat leaning forward in a rocking chair, playing softly on his fiddle as he sang ballads  — blood-stirring ballads of love and life in the mountains.

His name was James Howard.  He was kindly, keenly intelligent, without formal education.  His handsome face would light with pleasure as Alan played back for him the recorded songs, executed almost as perfectly as if sung in a soundproof room under ideal conditions.  Lying around in the grass, as attentive and shy and observant as little animals, were a lot of mountain children, while the smiling wife peered from the doorway.  The experience was unforgettable.

The day before as we recorded in precisely the same way before another cabin, Alan whispered to me. “Look at that beauty in the door.”  There she was — starry blue eyes, very fair, with wavy hair,neatly dressed, seventeen, a mountain rose just emerging from the bud.  It was all over for Alan!  That afternoon he disappeared and again that night.

Blind James Howard plays ” The Little Carpenter”:

Songsters and Saints

May 16, 2012

“Songsters and Saints,” by Paul Oliver (Cambridge University Press, 1984)

Peg Leg Howell (and others) play “Chittlin’ Supper” (1926):


May 2, 2012

“MUSIC MAKERS OF THE BLUE RIDGE PLATEAU” (Arcadia Publishing, 2008) 128 pp. softbound, $20


Those of us who have searched high and low for photos of old-time musicians to add interest to various recording projects and books know how difficult and time consuming a task that can be. So this collection of almost 250 mostly older photos of Blue Ridge music makers is rather amazing and certainly a most welcome publication for anyone who loves old time music.

The book—with two photos on each page —features pickers from just the city of Galax and the following four southwestern Virginia counties: Floyd, Grayson, Carroll and Patrick. A lot of great music came out of this area, and this book in- cludes not only the legend- ary fiddlers and banjo pick- ers like Fred Cockerham, Uncle Charlie Higgins, Taylor & Stella Kimble and Kyle Creed, but also the great Bluegrass bands like the Foothill Boys, the Mountain Ramblers, the Blue Ridge Buddies and a young Ted Lundy.

And even third generation artists like Sammy Shelor, Kenny Smith and Randall Hylton are present as well. Considering the various sources of the pic- tures, the quality of the reproduction is pretty good— certainly good enough to enjoy. There is almost no text, but the photo captions are well done and pro- vide a good amount of information. Apart from a few studio shots of the Hill Billies, Ernest Stoneman, etc, most of these photos have not been published before: the collective work confirms what a huge amount of talent there was in this relatively small area. The book will also bring back a lot of memories for fans who trekked to the annual Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax in the 1950s and 1960s! If names like Emmett Lundy, Wade Ward, Green Leonard, Babe Spangler and Kilby Snow mean anything to you, this fascinating book is a must.

Invisible Republic

April 25, 2012

“Invisible Republic,” by Greil Marcus (Holt, 1998)


edited excerpt from Greil Marcus’ commentary on Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird”:


“Oh, the coo coo, she’s a pretty bird, she wobbles as she flies,

She never hollers cuckoo, ’til the fourth day of July.”

“We Americans are all cuckoos,”  Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1872.  “We make our homes in the nests of other birds.”  The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.  Depositing its orphans, leaving its progeny to be raised by others, to grow up as imposters in another’s house, as America filled itself up with slaves, indentured servants, convicts, hustlers, adventurers, the ambitious and the greedy, the fleeing and the hated, who took or were given new, imposters’ names.

If this is the theme of the song, what is present in Clarence Ashley’s performance — the axis on which Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music seems to turn, or maybe the proud anthem of Smithville, sung every night at sundown — is a master narrative of American willfullness and fatedness, a narrative implied but altogether missing, replaced instead buy hints and gestures, code words and winks, a whole music of secret handshakes.

What is Smithville? It is a small town whose citizens are not recognizable by race.  There are no masters and no slaves. The prison population is large, and most are part of it at one time or another. Here, both murders and suicide are rituals, acts instantly transformed into legend. The town is simultaneously a seamless web of connections and an anarchy of separations:  who would ever shake hands with Dock Boggs, who sounds as if his bones are coming through his skin every time he opens his mouth?  And yet who can turn away from the dissatisfaction in his voice, the refusal ever to be satisfied with the things of this world or the promises of the next?

This is Smithville.  It’s limbo, but it’s not bad; on the fourth day of July you get to holler.

Clarence Ashley

“Ain’t Men Sharp?”

April 23, 2012

Wade Ward and Alan Lomax


from “Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997,” edited by Ronald Cohen (Routledge, 2003):

Our dusty car and our recording equipment have seen strange places in our travels.  We have recorded songs in lumber camps, in the huts of share croppers, on ships smelling of tar and brine, among workers in cotton fields, and in automobile factories in crowded cities.  Often in prisons, we cut our records in the hospital because it is quiet there.  And once I even remember being solemnly ushered into the execution chamber, because it was the only sound-proofed room in the prison.  The only chair in the room — and somehow we all avoided it– was the execution chair.  That setting didn’t seem to bring out the best in a song.

It is always a dramatic moment for anyone when his own voice comes back to him undistorted from the black mouth of a loud-speaker.  Our old hard-bitten Mexican vaquero in the mesquite country of southwest Texas, when the song was played to him unexpectedly, said with soft amazement, “Madre de Dios!” then after a time, “Muy Hombre!”

A mountaineer, when asked if he would like to hear his record played back, said: “I reckon so.  Anything I’ll do oncet, I’ll do hit twicet.”

“Ain’t men sharp?” he added, when the record was finished.