Week 8 Music Notes


We’d expect changes in the social organization of the African-American community to be reflected in its music, and the blues is an example of how this happens. During slavery, most black music was made by groups: work songs and spirituals carried on the call-and-response patterns of African music in the new world. After Emancipation, and particularly after Reconstruction, when the new white masters enacted Jim Crow laws, this changed. Jobs available to black men often included a lot of moving around: they built railroads, worked mines, cut lumber, picked crops. When one job was done the next was in a different place with different people, and family life was hard to sustain. When black men (and the country blues singers were all men) sang of their own lives, what came out was the blues. The blues dealt with their problems: too much drink, not enough money and, of course, women (where either too much or not enough could cause a problem). The music on this week’s CD completely ignores (because Harry did) the urban blues, which were primarily sung by women. I’ll post one or two examples of that genre before our next meeting. On to the music.

I did my best with the sound on the Yarum Praise Songs, but yes, it’s very bad. This was recorded under less-than-optimum conditions in Northern Ghana in 1964, and I digitized it from a very scratchy record. The instruments are a gourd rattle and a two-string “fiddle,” and the singers are a chorus of Yoruba Tribesmen. This doesn’t sound like the blues, and it’s not, but it does incorporate the typical African (and African-American) device of improvised verses within a traditional (here the Praise Song) format which carried over to the blues.

Hammer, Ring tells the story of a very early construction project: the construction of Noah’s Ark. It’s sung by a crew at the Huntsville, Texas State Penitentiary and was recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax in 1934. The sparse lyrics of the Arwhoolie (cornfield holler) performed by Thomas J. Marshall carry a double meaning that gives them a resonance beyond the day’s work: “I won’t be here long/Dark gonna catch me here.” He was recorded by Herbert Halpert in Edwards, Mississippi in 1939. Edwards sits about 10 miles east of Vicksburg and Highway 61.

The prisoner chorus singing The New Buryin’ Ground would have been quite familiar with the ceremony it protrays. The leader/chorus pattern we hear in this and the other group performances on the CD show up in the solo blues as the common AAB verse pattern. The first (“A”) line sets out a topic, the second line is a repeat of the first (“A” again), and the third (“B”) is a comment on the first. Isn’t this just a beautiful song?

The Grey Goose is another of those allegorical “pick poor robin clean” songs, here humorously celebrating the resilience that’s been one of the African-American’s most essential qualities. James Baker, contrary to his claim at the end of the recording, did not compose this song!

Now we’re into the blues proper: High Water Everywhere deals with the 1927 Mississippi flood, and was recorded in 1930, and High Sheriff Blues is from Charlie Patton’s 1934 session for Vocalion Records. When Harry Smith put the Anthology together, he seems not to have realized that Mississippi Bo Weavil (26) was a Patton recording – the label attributes it to “The Masked Marvel.”

“Avalon’s my home town, always on my mind.” Folklorist Tom Hoskins used this clue to rediscover John Hurt in 1961, finding him exactly where he’d always been. Back in August, I posted a video of Hurt’s appearance on Pete Seeger’s TV show: if you didn’t see it then, see it now. Hurt recorded Avalon Blues in 1928. We met Frank Stokes on the Week 6 CD where he sang I Got Mine. Stokes worked around Memphis, and while much of his work is more rag than blues-influenced, he was, along with his partner Dan Sane, a prominent presence and in the evolving Memphis blues scene in the late 1920s.

Blind Lemon Jefferson gets three songs on the Anthology (69, 75, 76), as befits his stature as the greatest of the country bluesmen. Certainly no blues guitarist was more influential, and One Dime Blues is a big reason why. Last week we talked about why the guitar was better suited for the blues than was the banjo, and Jeffersons work is a perfect illustration of that superiority.  He uses the guitar almost as a second voice, making it do things that were simply beyond the banjo’s capabilities.

Louis Lasky and Virgil Childers recorded later (1935 and 1938, respectively) than did the Anthology artists, but their sound has little in common with the more modern Delta blues then beginning to emerge. Red River Blues is one side of the only record Lasky made under his own name; he was better known as an accompanist (for Big Bill Broonzy among others). Virgil Childers recorded only six sides, and Red River Blues is the only blues among them. He was from the Piedmont area in North Carolina.

Sam Collins grew up in McComb, Mississippi, just north of the Louisiana border. He was best known for his falsetto singing (which earned him the nickname of “Crying Sam”), but was a solid blues player as well. He recorded Lonesome Road Blues (using the nom de blues Salty Dog Sam) in 1931.

Son House is the central figure of Delta Blues. After failing in his first career as a preacher (there may have been a woman involved) he was tutored in the blues by Charlie Patton. He later returned the favor by serving as mentor first to a young Robert Johnson, and later to Muddy Waters, and as a result few bluesmen have escaped Son House’s influence, at least indirectly. House was rediscovered in the 1960s, when he rerecorded some of his early sides and performed at various folk festivals. We’ll see part of his Newport performance in December.


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