Archive for the ‘Music Notes’ Category

Week 11 Music Notes

December 5, 2008

From the Syllabus:  Many of the Anthology artists were tracked down by folklorists and fans after the albums’ release in 1952, and enjoyed second careers often much more successful than their first. Among the most interesting of these was Dock Boggs, who was recorded and interviewed by Mike Seeger for Folkways Records beginning in 1963. In these recordings, Boggs serves as an honest and rudely eloquent spokesman for the conflicts and contradictions that inhabit so much of rural southern music. Mississippi John Hurt’s second career brought him a good deal more fame than did his first. His recordings were both commercially and artistically successful, and his personal appearances reached a wide and appreciative audience. Other rediscovered blues musicians, whose music was less accessible (and who were personally less affable than Hurt) had less success. One of these was Son House, whose adversarial relationship with the blues often marred his performances.

We begin with John Hurt, whom we’ve heard both on the Anthology (Frankie on CD 2, Spike Driver Blues on CD 6) and on our Week 8 CD (Avalon Blues). Hurt recorded Got the Blues Can’t Be Satisfied in New York on December 21, 1928. Thirty-odd years later, back in New York to record I’m Satisfied for his comeback LP Mississippi John Hurt: Today!, he doesn’t sound much different. Way back in August, I did a post that included a video of Hurt’s appearance on an episode of Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show. You might have missed it then – don’t miss it now!

Only twelve Dock Boggs sides were issued in the 1920s. Harry chose two of the best (Sugar Baby on CD 5, Country Blues on CD 6) for the Anthology. Here we have Danville Girl and Down South Blues, both recorded for Brunswick in 1927. Dock first heard Down South Blues as a classic blues, recorded by Rosa Henderson and a jazz band. Here he transforms it into something totally his own. Danville Girl is one of those songs made up of verses that might fit in almost anywhere. Dock learned this version from his brother Roscoe.

Mike Seeger found Boggs in Norton, Virginia in 1963 and began recording him for Folkways records almost immediately. He recorded this version of Sugar Baby in 1964. He learned it from his oldest brother John, who like  brothers Roscoe and Dave and sister Jane, also played banjo. Greil Marcus wrote of Boggs that he “sounded as if his bones were coming out of his skin every time he opened his mouth.” That may not be as true in 1964 as it was in 1927, but this is still powerful music. You may remember O. Death from the Coen Brothers’ film O, Brother, Where Art Thou. Ralph Stanley sang it in the movie. Dock learned it from a friend in 1930, and recorded it in 1963.

Mike Seeger and Dock Boggs became good friends during the years they knew each other, and Seeger recorded many of their conversations. These excerpts are taken from a Folkways CD (the complete transcript is on the readings page). The sections of the transcript I’ve included on the CD (in case you want to read while he talks) are: Side 1, part 3; Side 2, part 1; Side 2 part 2.b.; Side 1, part 9.

Son House recorded Dry Spell Blues and My Black Mama, Part 1 for Paramount in 1930. The dancers he played for must have appreciated his rhythmic and repetitive guitar work. House recorded three two-part blues at these sessions, indicating that he was more comfortable with the kind of long-form work that would have been played at dances and jook joints.

Son House and Dock Boggs shared a feeling that somehow their music really was part of the devil’s work. Boggs was a religious man whose wife disapproved of the banjo. Son House, as Ted Gioia writes, used the performance stage as a pulpit to rail against the blues even as he performed them. House sang John the Revelator unaccompanied, and it was perhaps the signature song of his second career.

Enjoy the music!

Week 8 Music Notes

November 6, 2008

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.