Archive for the ‘Harry Oster’ Category

Harry Oster

May 31, 2014

Harry Oster, a young English professor from LSU, was one of those people who saw past the racial and social walls separating polite society and this backwoods culture and set on a career of preserving it.

His recording in the late ’50s and early ’60s at Angola Penitentiary and his 1969 book Living Country Blues are both crucial pillars in the history of the blues. His two collections Prison Worksongs and Angola Prisoner’s Blues (Arhoolie 448 and 419, respectively) are landmark documents celebrating the human spirit triumphant in the worst of conditions.

 Much like noted musicologist Alan Lomax’s legendary prison recordings of Leadbelly in the late ’30s, Oster’s unearthing of Robert Pete Williams sent a shock through the music world. Williams, along with fellow prisoners Hogman Maxey and Guitar Welch, developed an almost stream-of-conciousness style of blues, fed from the folk melodies of the older convicts and milled though the hard life in one of the country’s more notorious prisons.
Says Oster in his liner notes for Angola Prisoners’ Blues, “If you asked Guitar, Hogman or Robert Pete the name of the song he was about to sing, he was likely to scratch his head and reply, ‘Wait till I‘ve sung it.’”

The music he captured on tape—all being continually released by San Francisco folk label Arhoolie—is hypnotic stuff. It is triumphant music that doesn’t shy away from the conditions in which it was created but rises above it. But Oster’s arena was not just within prison walls. One of his finest collections, the notoriously titled Country Negro Jam Sessions is a veritable treasure chest of intricate country blues, starting out the gate with the infectious “.44 Blues” by fiddler Butch Cage and guitarist Willie B. Thomas. Oster recorded this duo extensively in Zachary in the ’60s preserving the dying art of country string band music, which has the rootsy funk of old jug bands, the swing of Cajun fiddle music and the knuckle punch of the blues.