Week 6 Music Notes

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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.

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