Archive for October, 2008

Week 7 Music Notes

October 30, 2008

From the syllabus: In their 1947 book Folk Songs U. S. A., John A. and Alan Lomax referred to the banjo as “America’s only original folk instrument.” They were wrong. The banjo first came to the Americas with the Africans who played it. Slaves in the Americas continued to make and play banjos, and the instrument was not widely adopted by whites until popularized by minstrel players in the 1840s. After Emancipation, the banjo was virtually abandoned by black musicians, and the myth of its American origins took hold.

This week’s CD includes a wide range of performance styles. The black songsters Cecelia Conway found represent the pre-blues banjo tradition, which derived directly from slavery days. Dave Macon’s playing provides a direct link to minstrel banjo, while Charlie Poole and Mack Woolbright look ahead to bluegrass and the Scruggs style. Ossman and Van Eps were popularizers of ragtime music, and we have some real old time music, too. Let’s get started.

John Snipes and Dink Roberts are featured in Cecelia Conway’s book, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, and the selections here are taken from a CD of field recordings issued as a companion to the book. Old Rattler (Fox Chase) is another animal song (like Pick Poor Robin Clean) that might be seen as an allegory, with the hunted fox playing the robin’s part here. Dink Roberts sings and plays on Old Blue. We’ve met Old Blue before, in Jim Jackson’s version on the Anthology. We’ve talked in class about “front porch” as opposed to professional “folk” performers, and nowhere is this difference more apparent than in Roberts’s and Jackson’s performances. Jim Jackson had been a professional entertainer for years before he ever saw a recording studio; Roberts played for friends, family and local dances, and never recorded commercially.

Coal Creek March was recorded by Dock Boggs in 1963, after his rediscovery by Mike Seeger. Dock is the main subject of our week 11 reading and listening, and he does Country Blues and Sugar Baby on the Anthology.

Jeff noted last week that the banjo medley on last week’s disc had a lot in common, rhythmically at least, with early Duke Ellington. Charlie Poole’s version takes on a similar medley and points it in a different direction, toward bluegrass. Charlie learned to play on a home-made gourd banjo, starting at the age of eight. He and his band perform White House Blues on the Anthology.

The title of Otis Taylor’s CD, Recapturing the Banjo, says it all. It brings together a group of black blues musicians who have reintroduced the banjo to its black roots over the last decade or so. Deep Blue Sea is a traditional number performed here by Alvin Youngblood Hart, who names Dink Roberts as an influence on his playing. Note the recurrence here of the “silver spade…golden chain” burial motif we’ve heard in Old Blue and See That My Grave is Kept Clean (Anthology 76).

Scott Joplin advised playing ragtime slowly, but the virtuosic Vess Ossman pays him no heed on Maple Leaf Rag (the first instrumental to sell over one million copies of sheet music). Its reappearance in Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s The Sting heralded a brief ragtime revival in the 1970’s. I’m not sure why I stuck Doc Watson between Ossman and Van Eps, but there he is, playing banjo Humpbacked Mule. Doc is a national treasure. I can’t quite figure out the instrumental makeup of the Van Eps Banjo Orchestra (three banjos, piano and castanets???) but it’s a great sound: a maxixe is a tango-like dance from Brazil that enjoyed a brief North American vogue in the late 1910’s.

It’s a long way from Fred Van Eps to Joe and Odell Thompson. Old Corn Liquor is a very old dance tune. “I got drunk and lost my hat,” Odell Thompson sings. “Old corn liquor was the cause of that.” The Thompsons were recorded by Cecelia Conway in 1974. Joe Thompson, still active at 90, received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 2007 and was the direct inspiration for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, three young African-Americans determined to carry on the black string band tradition of which Joe Thompson is the last surviving example. They’re doing a European tour in November, so maybe this music is really still alive!

It’s a shame there’s no good Uncle Dave Macon video – by all accounts he was quite the showman, and that comes across even on the old 78s that are all we’ve got left. He was a pretty good banjo picker, too. Uncle Dave’s Beloved Solo was recorded in September of 1926.

Earl Scruggs, bluegrass banjo’s greatest innovator, was greatly influenced by Mack Woolbright’s playing, and especially by hearing him play on The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home. “The G7 chord he played in this number was one of the most thrilling sounds I had ever heard,” Scruggs later wrote. Like Joe Thompson, Dink Roberts and John Snipes, Scruggs and Woolbright are from the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

We close with The Blood-Stained Banders, played and sung by Jimmie Strothers, who, when John Lomax and Harold Spivacke recorded him in 1936, was a resident at State Farm, Virginia. Strothers plays a four-string banjo.

The picture is Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson.


Stagger Lee and the Invisible Man

October 29, 2008

Stagger Lee and Ellison’s Invisible Man

Thoughts prompted by two readings: Robert Kinerk

In Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man the central character tries to come to grips with his identity as a black American. His journey to that understanding takes him through different faiths. One is the faith that he’ll be treated with dignity if he simply plays by the rules in the segregated south. That faith is shattered in the book’s first brutal chapter. Then he places his faith in the black intellectual community and believes if he achieves status there he’ll win the dignity he seeks. That faith is shattered by the hypocrisy and duplicity of the intellectual leader he admires most. Finally he put his faith in the universal brotherhood the Communist Party promises. The party’s cynicism shatters that faith.

He loses the illusion of faith entirely when he encounters a type of black hero he’s ignored before – the alluded-to but never seen Rinehart, who can be a pimp, a numbers runner, a gangster, a lover, or a preacher, and who is all those things to different people. Rinehart represents the fecundity and diversity of Negro life that the white world can never pigeonhole or categorize, the vitality that overflows definition. It’s the outlaw life of juke joints and gin parlors and the numbers game and gambling and prostitution, but it is also the life of black religion and the piety that goes along with that. How wild that life can be is demonstrated when the Harlem ghetto where the narrator lives erupts in mindless riots.

Significantly, the nameless narrator of Invisible Man is mistaken for the legendary Rinehart after he puts on a broad-brimmed hipster hat – a hat probably much like the Stetson that precipitated the tragedy in Stagger Lee.

Week 7 Open Thread

October 28, 2008

No topic is off-topic in an open thread, so say what you will.

For those who asked about the availability of Deep Blues, the film we’ll be watching over the next couple of weeks, Amazon has it in stock, so I assume it’s reasonably available. Robert Mugge, the director of Deep Blues, has made many films about American roots music in the course of a long and distinguished career. Find out more about him and his films here.

Mugge did a series of thirteen one-minute films on the blues for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. They’re all beautifully done, and all available for free download on Mugge’s website (link just above). Here’s one on “Blues Graves.” You’ll notice that Junior Kimbrough’s grave is featured – we’ll hear him perform next week in the next installment of Deep Blues. See you then.

Before They Close the Minstrel Show

October 28, 2008

Before they Close the Minstrel Show

By Bob Coltman

Poster’s peeling underneath, last summer’s morning glory vine,

An old white hat and a stump of cigar and an empty bottle of wine


Lay me down, Carolina, lay me down,

Don’t want to wake up in the morning no more

Sing me one slow, sad song for this one last old time,

Before they close the minstrel show.

Banjo’s got a broken string, don’t ‘spect I’ll get to fix it now

Won’t be no more chance to sing, I’m rusty anyhow


The money and the crowd run out, before we left the last town

This old show done play its run, and rung the curtain down


Daddy Bones is dead I guess, you probably don’t know or care

And Frank and Arch has gone away, somewhere I don’t know where


Don’t know where I’ll go from here, come to that I guess I just don’t care

Maybe I’ll go to a better place and the minstrel show’ll be there


Odds and Ends

October 26, 2008

Jeff Schiffman sent a link to this Boston Globe article about the Passim Center’s New England Folk Archive project. If anyone’s got the archives, it’s the Passim Center.

After our class this coming Tuesday, the HILR Playreaders will devote at least some of their considerable talents to reading a play by Bob Kinerk. It’s in our classroom and gets underway at 3:10 PM.

I’m also adding a few links to our growing list: Phonozoic is “a website dedicated to the history of the phonograph and other early sound media.” My favorite page is full of links to online recordings, including the first sounds ever recorded, back in 1857 (no, it wasn’t Edison or Bell. Yazoo Records has been reissuing recordings of American Rural music for quite a while, and they do a wonderful job. At Besmark you can listen to recordings made directly from a 1918 hand-cranked Victrola. Archeophone Records did a companion CD for Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924, the book from wich part of this week’s reading was taken. They’ve done the complete recordings of the great Bert Williams, and their latest release is Debate ’08, a reissue of cylinder recordings made by Bryan and Taft as part of the 1908 presidential campaign. They’ve also got a page of free downloads!

Below you’ll see the cover of a songbook (published in Boston!) celebrating the music of the pioneering Virginia Minstrels. What a time it was…..

Awake Our Souls!

October 25, 2008

Great news! Judy Uhl’s husband David has most graciously agreed to lead our session on shape note singing. We’ll start the class with a short film, and then David will take over. The hope is that we’ll take a crack at singing before we leave and to that end I’ll distribute a couple of songs of David’s choice on our weekly CD and give you a copy of the printed music for those songs from the Sacred Harp Songbook at the end of the prior week’s class.

To make this work, I’ve switched the week 10 Carter Family session to week 9 (November 25) and our shape note session will take place on December 2 as week 10. I’ve rearranged the readings and syllabus pages on the blog to reflect the session-shuffling.

The video we’ll see in class is an embryonic version of the excellent 2007 film on Sacred Harp singing, Awake My Soul. The film began as a student project by Erica Hinton, and later turned into a feature-length documentary that was shown on many PBS stations last year. We’ll see the 10-minute student film. At the bottom of the post you can see the film’s trailer, and its official website is a great resource for Sacred Harp history and information – make sure to visit the info/links page.

Week 6 Music Notes

October 22, 2008

From our syllabus: From 1840 until the latter part of the 19th century, minstrel shows were America’s most popular form of entertainment, and while these performances (despite their billing) did not represent authentic slave music, they were close enough for most northern audiences, and influenced generations of performers, both white and black. Medicine shows featured both black and white musicians and toured even more widely than did the minstrels, making them extremely important in spreading repertoire and performance styles to rural amateur and professional musicians. The songsters were individual musicians who played wherever the tips were, from town squares to lumber camps to rural dances, reaching places where even the medicine shows didn’t go. As a result, despite relative isolation, the rural southerner was exposed to a wide variety of live music performance. Many of the Anthology artists performed in one or more of these venues.

The CD opens with Moore & Freed’s Dixie Medley. This was recorded in 1926, but every American since the 1860’s would have been familiar with the songs it combined. We’ll hear Charlie Poole’s take on this medley when we do banjo in Week 7.

The Columbia Minstrels weren’t a real minstrel troupe, only a group of Columbia recording artists who performed this and similar skits on record. Minstrel, from 1913, is a kind of minstrel show in miniature, with bad jokes by Tambo and Bones, a pompous interlocutor, and a couple of songs. As with most post-Civil War minstrel performance, any resemblance to genuine black music or humor is purely coincidental. Emmett Miller is harder to dismiss. He was a minstrel performer with some of the last touring shows in the 1920’s, and his influence on country music (directly to Hank Williams and Bob Wills and through them to almost everyone else) has been immense. Nick Tosches’s biography of Miller, Where Dead Voices Gather, is a fascinating survey of the twisted wreckage minstrel had become by the ’20s, and how a great performer like Miller happened to end up there. I Ain’t Got Nobody was recorded in 1928.

We close the minstrel portion of our show with Arthur Collins and Vess Ossman’s rendition of All Coons Look Alike to Me (written by Ernest Hogan, an African-American songwriter). Get past the lyrics (it was originally All Pimps Look Alike to Me, if that helps) and this is a great record – we’ll hear more of Ossman when banjo week arrives, but he doesn’t get any better than this.

The rest of the CD presents songs taken from the medicine show and songster tradition. As befits their function (at some point, listeners were asked to reach into their pockets for hard cash), the songs are generally up-tempo, amusing, entertaining. We last heard Frank Hutchison singing Stagolee. His musical career included blackface performance, and he once recorded with Emmett Miller. Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers recorded It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More in 1929. Their guitarist, Riley Puckett, was perhaps the most influential of the string band guitarists – his solo tells you why. Like most of the songs on this CD, It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More was a pop/Tin Pan Alley hit – the best-selling song of 1923. Folk music this is not.

Luke Jordan settled in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1916 and stayed close to home thereafter, which may account for his relative (and certainly undeserved) obscurity. He recorded Pick Poor Robin Clean in 1927. Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson (we know Jackson from the Anthology’s Old Blue) were neighbors in Northern Mississippi, just south of Memphis, Tennessee. I Got Mine is a turn of the century “coon song” whose lyrics Stokes has uncooned. Stokes worked as a buck dancer, blackface comedian (he was black), and musician for medicine shows, minstrel companies, and touring circuses. Jim Jackson’s work is rooted in the songster and “jump-up song” tradition that helped give birth to the blues. A jump-up song is one in which the performer sang whatever (hopefully relevant) verse jumped up into his head, and Jackson was a master of the genre.

Chris Bouchillon probably originated the talking blues, later perfected by Woody Guthrie. Legend has it that he turned to talking because no one could stand hearing him sing. Judge for yourself. Hannah was a Tin Pan Alley hit of 1904, composed by Harry Van Tilzer, better known for She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage – that’s versatility! Walter Smith’s most famous recording is The Cat’s Got the Measles and the Dog’s Got the Whooping Cough (later covered by the New Lost City Ramblers), but  I kind of like Bald-Headed End of a Broom, so here you have it. Smith toured into the 1950’s with his wife and their dog, better known as “Tom Dooley, the Yodeling Dog.” You can’t make stuff like this up.

We close with the immortal (I don’t think I’m kidding) C-H-I-C-K-E-N Spells Chicken. Chickens were a popular coon song subject: they roosted in trees, swam in gravy, were eaten, stolen, and, in the present case, spelled. Kirk McGee and his cousin Blythe Poteet do the honors here.

The video is a little movie about Gus Cannon, who appears on the Anthology twice, on Minglewood Blues and Feather Bed. Gus recalls his medicine show days, sings and plays a little banjo. He’s lost a step or two, but it’s not bad for a man of 100. See you Tuesday.

Week 5 Open Thread

October 21, 2008

Thanks for the constructive suggestions (and the kind words!) on the evaluation forms. We’ll talk about the suggestions next week in class, but I want to lay them out here so that we can think of ways to implement them ASAP. The first suggestion: a request for some in-class singing. This I’m working on, and I think we’ll get two singing sessions in before we’re done. What do people want to sing?

Next, a suggestion that we look more closely at the economic, social, and cultural settings of the songs. This is an excellent idea, but I’m not prepared enough in those areas to do any kind of heavy lifting. We’re going to look at some of the cultural issues next week when we talk about minstrels, but much of the rest we’ll deal with only in passing, unless some of you step up and do reports on the issues that interest you. I am happy to help out with topic selection and research.

Finally, a suggestion that we integrate the website and classtime more effectively. This is a tremendous idea, and I’m trying to come up with some creative ideas. I hope all of you will do the same.

Note that I’ve added a link to No Depression, a “magazine” devoted to American roots music. They recently stopped publishing a print edition and have instead greatly expanded their website. I’m not sure whether the music they cover qualifies as “folk,” but it does qualify as good music. We’ll hear a couple of the artists they’ve written about in Week 10 as part of our Carter Family survey. The magazine is even named after a Carter Family song, which is all the excuse I need to tack a video of it on to the end of this post. Caution advised: the video has some heartrending Great Depression images.

This is an open thread, so comments on any topic are welcome.

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October 18, 2008

Some Thoughts About Ballads

October 18, 2008

Friends, I can’t seem to help myself. I’ve been mulling over some of the reasons that the old ballads are so meaningful for me and I just had to write some personal reflections. (I don’t know why some of the song lines appeared in boldface after I posted this here.)

Thinking about the ballads we listened to last week, I’ve been thinking about some of the characteristics of ballads that make them so exciting to me. I realized that what I love about ballads are the narrative strategies; the ballad clichés: ways that certain structures, phrases and lines are found in many different ballads; the poignancy (or is it the pathos) of the stories; and the beauty of the poetic expression.

Narrative strategies:

  1. The use of repetition. Certain phrases are be repeated sometimes over and over, sometimes just once or twice in a ballad. In Lord Randall (and some of the other older ballads the ones with low “child ballad” listings), the story is carried by repeating the same lines over and over, with slight changes to build suspense and carry the story. In other ballads like The House Carpenter or Matty Groves, repetition is used only in a couple of places.
  2. this is usually combined with the use of dialog to tell the story. The ballad does not say who is speaking, and we have to infer it from the context.

Examples: Lord Randall:

Where have you been Lord Randall my son?

Where have you been my bonnie young man?

I’ve been hunting mother, I’ve been hunting mother.

Mother make my bed soon, for I’m sick at the heart

And fain would I lie down.

And so it goes … the questions and answers repeat, the conversation becomes sadder and sadder and more and more revealing as we go on.

Example: The “three questions” is a common structure used in many ballads. In House Carpenter:

Are you weeping for your silver and your gold?

Are you weeping for your store?

Or are you weeping for your house carpenter,

Whose face you’ll never see any more?

No I’m not weeping for my silver and my gold

And I’m not weeping for my store.

But I am weeping for my darling little babe,

Whose face I’ll never see any more.

The exact same structure appears twice in Matty Groves:

Lord Daniel arrives at the bed:

How well do you like my pillow, sir?

How well do you like my sheets?

How well do you like my gay lady

Who lies in your arms asleep?

Very well do I like your pillow, he answered

Much better do I like your sheets,

Much better do I like your gay lady

Who lies in my arms asleep.

The “three questions” structure reappears a few verses later after Lord Daniel has killed Matty Groves. Except in most versions the questions are missing—just the lady’s answer is given.

He took his lady by her lily white hand

And he sat her upon his knee,

Tell me which one do you love best,

Little Matty Groves or me?

Very well do I like your rosy cheeks,

Much better do I like your chin,

Much better do I like little Matty Groves

Than you and all your kin.

The ballad clichés; words and phrases that recur from ballad to ballad

Lily white hand, rosy cheeks, milk white steed (or bonny bonny black), wee pen knife, etc. etc.

In House Carpenter we have these phrases that occur in many different ballads:

They had not been sailing but about two weeks,

I’m sure it was not three …

and later,

They had not been sailing but about three weeks,

I’m sure it was not four …

For some reason, these clichés are not boring to me. Rather, I find them charming and when I hear a ballad, I listen for them, waiting to see where they will appear.

The poignancy or pathos:

Somehow these situations that are so pathetically dire and so melodramatic are very meaningful to me. Maybe its because my life is so humdrum by comparison, maybe its for the same reasons we go to the movies.

The poetic expression:

Simple, but to me elegant and incomparable. Literary poets or song writers cannot match it. In my humble opinion.

Some of my favorite lines are in Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender:

Oh Father, oh Father come riddle to me,

Come riddle it all as one

And tell me whether to marry fair Ellen

Or bring the Brown Girl home

The Brown Girl she has house and land,

Fair Ellender, she has none

So here I charge you with the blessing

Go bring the Brown Girl home

Later, against her mother’s advice, Fair Ellender decides to go to Lord Thomas’ wedding. Here’s how she gets there:

She turned around all dressed in white,

Her sisters dressed in green

And every town that they rode through,

They took her to be some Queen.

She rode and she rode til she come to the hall,

She pulled at the bell and it rang

And no one so ready as Lord Thomas himself,

To rise and bid her in.

And taking her by her lily white hand,

And leading her through the hall.

Saying, Fifty gay ladies are here today,

But this is the flower of all.


Is this your bride Lord Thomas, she cried

She looks so wonderful brown

You could have had as fair a lady

As ever the sun shone on.

Soon, after the Brown Girl in a fit of jealousy, stabs Fair Ellender with her wee pen knife, Lord Thomas notices something amiss.

Oh what is the matter, Fair Ellen? he says,

You look so pale and wan.

You used to have as fine a color

As ever the Sun shone on.

Oh are you blind Lord Thomas? she cried

Or is it you cannot see?

Can’t you see my own heart’s blood

Come a-trickling down by my knee.