Thursday, December 31, 2009

Before country, vol. 3 : 1910-1915

Harry Lauder - Roamin' in the Gloamin'(1912)

Bert Williams - Nobody (1913)

Morton Harvey - I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier (1915)

This is the third part of my explorations of pre-country music. Here is one more little compilation I've made of various songs and tunes from the first half of the 1910s. Musically speaking, ragtime is still very popular, and the arrival of Afro American syncopated music is related by Tin Pan Alley or vaudeville singers ("Alexander's Ragtime Band). The "first" blues song to be published, "Memphis Blues" by WC Handy, is from 1912 (I included Harlan & Collins' rendition). And in 1910 John Lomax published "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads", first big scholar work on Western music.

Like the two others, this selection features popular "hits", some of them sentimental ballads ("Will The Roses Bloom In Heaven ?" later recorded by the Carter Family), vaudeville and blackface numbers like "Some Of These Days" by Sophie Tucker, a Russian born entertainer that influenced the first "classic blues singers" like Mamie Smith or Ma Rainey, and of course the great Bert Williams (see picture above), maybe the best Afro American entertainer of the early 20th century, with his signature tune "Nobody" (great Johnny Cash version with Rick Rubin in 2000).

There are the usual oddities, like this beautiful Brasilian tune played by F. Van Eps on the banjo, fiddler and comedian Charles Ross Taggart and one of the most famous singers of the era, Sir Harry Lauder with the delighful "Roamin' in the gloamin'", that shows if need be, the strong musical links between Celtic and country music.

The last two songs are World War I related, especially the one by Morton Harvey, which is a good example of the debate on America's preparation and taking part in the conflict. See this short article about the songs and its context.

Here's what you get as a new year's eve present. I don't have the time to go through every song like I did last time, but don't hesitate to comment or ask details about the songs if you like.

1. Henry Burr - Old Folks At Home (1910)
2. Will Oakland - I'll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers (1911)
3. Bill Murray - Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911)
4. Arthur Clough & Brunswick Quartet - Down By The Old Mill Stream (1911)
5. Henry Burr - Will The Roses Bloom in Heaven ? (1911)
6. Sophie Tucker - Some Of These Days (1911)
7. Byron Harlan - They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dog Around (1912)
8. International Association Quartette - The Church In The Wildwood (1912)
9. Bob Roberts - Ragtime Cowboy Joe (1912)
10. Harry Lauder - Roamin' in the Gloamin' (1912)
11. Edna Brown & James F. Harrison - The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine (1913)
12. Collins & Harlan - When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam' (1913)
13. Bert Williams - Nobody (1913)
14. Charles Ross Taggart - Old Country Fiddler in New York (1914)
15. Fred Van Eps - Sans souci (Maxixe brésilienne) (1914)
16. Billy Murray & American Quartet - When You Wore A Tulip (1914)
17. Morton Harvey - In The Hills Of Old Kentucky (1915)
18. Collins & Harlan - Memphis Blues (1915)
19. Morton Harvey - I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier (1915)
20. Peerless Quartet - Is There Still Room For Me Neath The Old Apple Tree (1915)


... and enjoy the music !

Monday, December 21, 2009

Joyeux Noël

Leadbelly - On A Christmas Day (buy) (1944)

Georges Brassens - Le Père Noël et la petite fille (buy) (1960)

Have a nice Xmas dear readers !!

You'll find more great christmas music and pics at the Big rock candy mountain

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blues Standards : Ain't Nobody's Business

Bessie Smith - T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do (buy) (1923)

Jimmy Witherspoon - Ain't Nobody's Business (buy) (1947)

Here's one of these blues standards that was sung by almost everybody.

If you think it's by Eric Clapton, you're wrong (again)...

The theme of this song is universal and holds in the title : it's a song of freedom. Freedom from the universal "what will the neighbors say ?".
That's the reason why it became so popular among the public but also among the artists, whose private lives are so often threatened and scrutinized.

According to French scholar Gerard Herzhaft's Encyclopédie du blues, the song has a blackface/vaudeville origin and the first influential version was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1923, and composed by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins. It seems that a few other "classic blues" lady singers waxed it around 1922-23 (Sara Martin and Alberta Hunter).

According to the Traditional Ballad Index, this song dates back to 1911 and shouldn't be confused with another one that was recorded by African American Black entertainer Bert Williams in 1919, and which is about a preacher trying to protect his own private life. The lyrics of William's version are different, but the subject is the same.

But "Nobody's Business" was really made famous by Jimmy Witherspoon when he recorded it with Jay McShann orchestra in late 1947. The song was a #1 hit for Spoon in 1949 and became one of his signature tunes, that he recorded many times. I posted the original version (parts 1 & 2), but there's a Chess recording from 1958 that is excellent too.
Spoon's rendition became the reference for a lot of covers in the 1950s and afterwards (Billie Holiday, BB and Freddie King, Ike and Tina Turner among others).

But there's another version, more rural, less urban, that was recorded many times in the 1920's and after by both black and white artists, with a different melody.
Here are the Earl Johnson (hillbilly fiddler from Georgia)and Frank Stokes (Memphis bluesman) versions :

Earl Johnson - Ain't Nobody's Business (buy) (1927)

Frank Stokes - 'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do (buy) (1928)

This different, folky version was also sung by Mississippi John Hurt (before Stokes, in february 1928), country singer Riley Puckett (several recordings between 1935 and 1941), and by Piedmont blues singer John Jackson in 1965. Taj Mahal recorded a similar version in 1976.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Before country : 1893-1909 (2)

Dear readers,

I'm both excited and worried. Excited, because I've discovered a new field, a musical virgin land for me : pre-1920 recordings.
Worried because , as always, there is so much music and so little time. I just wanted to post a couple of songs the other week to illustrate the pre-hillbilly era, but now I'm hooked on this music and I want to go much farther.

I know this is just the beginning but as I did last time, I have posted a playlist I want to share with you (see link at the end of this post) of pre-country recordings (and more will follow), covering the same period as last time, from 1890 to 1910.

As you will hear, lots of different styles are featured there : Tin Pan Alley songs, some in the over sentimental fashion of these days, more comic tunes ore sketches from the minstrel tradition, gospel songs, banjo tunes, and some sadly famous "coon songs".

So here's the list (with my comments) :

George J. Gaskin - After The Ball (1893)
: Gaskin, an Irish tenor, was one of the most famous singers from the 1890s. This song is typical of the sentimental style : the brother/sister misunderstanding episode can be found in numerous songs like "The Tragic Romance" (Doc Watson).

Cousins & De Moss - Poor Mourner (1898) : This is one of the most ancient forms of Afro American pre-blues music I've ever heard. It's fascinating. This banjo duet plays a call and response gospel in a pure rocking style. I HAVE to get more from them (and I will).

Steve Porter - In The Baggage Coach Ahead (1899) : This is the song that Mellencamp's grandma sings on JCM's Scarecrow album from 1984. It was covered by Vernon Dalhart in 1925.

Vess L. Ossman - Whistling Rufus (1899) : Vess Ossman was a very famous banjoist who recorded a lot in the turn of the century. Here he plays an instrumental version of the famous coon song "Whistling Rufus".

Dan W. Quinn - Ain't Dat A Shame (1901) : another recording star of the era, in another coon song.
I decided to include a few of these songs, because they were very popular at the time and that most of the time the music is excellent and shows a lot of African american influences. I am conscious that the lyrics are very offensive today, and needless to say I was disgusted by their outspoken racism, but they are very representative of the era. As Patrick Featser at his wonderful site Phonozoic says, "The coon song coupled the catchiest tunes of the age with words marking a low point in crude racial stereotyping and insensitivity. This genre of popular song shaped and reinforced racist assumptions to a degree that should not be underestimated". You can find an excellent article on coon songs here at Parlor Songs.

George W. Johnson - The Laughing Song (1901)

George W. Johnson was the first Afro American artist to record. A famous whistler and singer from Virginia, he started recording in 1890. From 1890 to 1895, the total sales of his records was 25 000 to 50 000, each one recorded individually by Johnson !! (every single record was a master by then). This is a re-recording of one of his most famous songs, carrying the stereotype of the big-mouth, loud laughing "darkey". Coon songs were not sung by white men only...

Silas Leachman - Fortune Telling Man (1901) : Silas Leachman was also known as George Walker, part of the Walker and Williams duo with Bert Williams, one of the first and the most prominent acts of Black comedy.

Arthur Collins & Vess L. Ossman - All Coons Look Alike To Me (1902) /
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan - Old Black Joe (1902):
These are two of the most famous coon songs. Arthur Collins was a popular minstrel singer, who often paired with tenor Byron Harlan. The banjo accompaniment on these two songs is very interesting and probably derived from Afro American music. "All Coons Look Alike" was written bu a Black composer ! Sad...

J.W. Myers - I Stood On The Bridge At Midnight (1902) : a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Byron G. Harlan - Always In The Way (1903) /
Byron G. Harlan - When The Harvest Days Are Over (1902) : As a solo artist, Harlan specialized in sentimental ballads like "Hello Central Give Me Heaven" (see previous post) or "Harvest Days", later sung by Uncle Dave Macon

Harry Macdonough - Stay In Your Own Backyard (1904) : another typical sentimental song, often advertised as a "plaintive coon song" (sic). Although showing compassion for a little coloured boy who his rejected by his white neighbors, the title and the conclusion of the song are more than ambiguous and justify segregation in the end.

Bob Roberts & Vess L. Ossman- - The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane (1904)

Now a bluegrass standard, this song was written in 1871 for the minstrel trade. The song itself was popular, but the melody was even more widely used, finding itself adapted to a variety of other songs: "The Little Old Sod Shanty On The Claim" , "Little Red Caboose Behind The Train"; and even hymns, "The Lily Of The Valley".Fiddlin' John Carson's version of 1923 is famous for being the first commercial recording by a white rural musician.

Edison Male Quartet - When The Bees Are In The Hive (1905) : A pastoral sentimental Tin Pan Alley song later recorded by Bill Monroe.

Arthur Collins - The Preacher and the Bear (1905) :
Collins' greatest hit and signature tune, a great comic song and a convinving bear imitation.

Irving Gillette (Henry Burr) - In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1905)

Billy Murray - Parody on In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1905): Henry Burr(photo below), born in Canada, was one of the most prolific artists of the era. This song was so sentimental that Billy Murray recorded this parody.

Osman Dudley Trio - St. Louis Tickle (1906) : a ragtime piece for banjo celebrating the 1904 St Louis Exposition.

Len Spencer & Alf Holt - A Barnyard Serenade (1906) : this vaudeville comic duo performs a series of animal imitations.

Arthur Collins - Moving Day (1906) : another "coon song" that Charlie Poole would record later.

May Irwin - The Bully (1907) : May Irvin, a vaudeville Canadian actress and singer with her signature tune, the famous "Bully Of The Town" (in country, the Stankey brothers covered it). Her act around 1900 was known as "Coon Shouting" in which she performed African American influenced songs. watch out : the lyrics are particularly racist, but as they say at Parlor's song, it's important to know that such things existed. The Golden years were not good for every one....

Frederick Potter - Red Wing (1907) : Red Wing ("an Indian fable") was a popular Tin Pan Alley Song that became a very famous fiddle tune and a barn dances favorite.

Arthur Collins - All In, Down and Out (1907) : this vaudeville classic was later recorded by Uncle Dave Macon. The song title and line "If I ever get my hand on a dollar again, I'm gonna hold on to it" were used in the famous classic "Nobody Knows You When You're down and Out" (Bessie Smith)

Fisk University Jubilee Singers - Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1909) : the famous a cappella ensemble was organized in 1871 to raise funds for the African American Fisk university in Tennessee and toured all over the world. This is one of their first recordings (of course it was not the origninal line-up). Fisk Jubilee singers still perform today.

Polk Miller & The Old South Quartet - Watermelon Party (1909)
Last but not least, a pure gem. It's from 1909 and it sounds like blues, 20 years before the fist country bluesmen were recorded ! It is one of the rare recordings from the era featuring a guitar, and the playing, singing are just plain authentic. And there's more to it : Polk Miller (see photo below), a white pharmacist and musician from Virginia, performed with a quartet of African American singers : one of the earliest mixed groups ever recorded ! According to various sources, they played material going back to the days before the Civil War. Mark Twain considered Miller as "the only thing this country can furnish that is originally and utterly American". One can understand why. Document records issued more songs by them and they're on my immediate wish list !


... and enjoy the music !

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Henry Thomas, Texas songster

Henry Thomas - Bull Doze Blues (buy) (1928)

Henry Thomas - Fishin' Blues (buy) (1928)

Henry Thomas, aka "Ragtime Texas" was one of the oldest Black folk musicians to ever record. Born in Big Sandy, Tx, in 1874, he recorded in 1928-89 when he was in his fifties. The 23 songs he left us (available on the Yazoo compilation Texas Worried Blues) are a great document on the music that was there before the blues. Henry was the archetypal songster, capable of playing any kind of popular music to entertain his audience and earn his life.
If you want to know more about the man please read this excellent article in The Handbook of Texas Online.

In fact Ragtime Texas only waxed a handfull of "bona fide" blues, and the rest was of various origins : rags, reels and other country dances, vaudeville and minstrel songs, with floating verses taken from many different popular songs.
His lively guitar playing, his use of the quills (see previous post), make him a very original figure of a great influence. His music was re-discovered thanks to the Harry Smith anthology in 1952, that featured a couple of his tunes, including "Fishin' Blues". In the 60's, great old-time music lovers like Dylan ("Honey Aloow Me One More Chance"), Canned Heat ("Bull Doze Blues" becoming "Goin' Up The Country"), Grateful Dead or Taj Mahal covered his songs.

And most of all, Ragtime Texas sang about the itinerant life of the hobo-musician like nobody else, especially in the following song :

Henry Thomas - Railroadin' Some (buy) (1928)

I leave you with this beautiful tribute made by Norman Blake 70 years after Henry Thomas recorded.

Norman Blake - Ragtime Texas (buy) (1998)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Before country part 1 (1891-1909)

Edison Male Quartet - A Flower From Home Sweet Home (1907)

Edison Male Quartet - My Old Kentucky Home (1902)

Byron Harlan - Hello Central Give Me Heaven (1904)

Billy Murray - Casey Jones (1909)

It is admitted that the first documented country recording was Eck Robertson's Victor session in june 1922.

But what was there before ?

In the first years of the phonograph industry, before World War I, record companies only focused on an urban audience. They had not realized yet the importance of the rural population, at least as a specific audience.
As Bill C. Malone writes in Country Music USA (the main source for this post),
"Rustic types were staples of American entertainment, but these were usually sophisticated entertainers, such as John Denman or Cal Stewart(hear his "Uncle Josh In A Barber Shop"), who merely acted the parts of hayseed and rubes. Folk and rural songs likewise were not absent (...) but they were generally done by urbane song-and-dance men like Billy Golden (hear his "Turkey In The Straw" from 1891) or the Edison Male Quartet (see songs above)".

Out of curiosity for these unknown names, I went to and picked a couple of Edison Male Quartet tunes. These guys are really exciting to hear. Weird to hear music from cylinders more than a century old ! What I like the most is the man barking his announcements in a great sergeant-major style...

I listened to a few songs, then other ones, then others, and tried a little research on the Web. With the help of this page at, I found so many great songs that I decided to make a little compilation you can download, in addition to the tracks posted above, featuring songs I think influenced country music. I only included tracks from the turn of the century (1891-1909). Of course, there will be (at least) a volume two.

Although, like Malone says, the instrumentation and performing style have nothing to do with hillbilly music, you'll find folk or Southern ballads ("My Old Kentucky Home", a great version of "Casey Jones") and many sentimental ballads, some of which were covered by country and hillbilly singers ("Silver Threads Among the Gold", with a melody that reminds me of "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain", "Hello Central Give Me Heaven", later sung by the Carter Family), more satirical comedy sketches about hillbillies ("Arkansas Traveler"), and a lot of vaudeville and minstrel shows artists like Byron G. Harlan. There also were tons of terrible "coon songs", but i didn't include them; I didn't know they were SO popular in 1900 !!

The sentimental "pop" ballads, along with the old folk traditions, were an undeniable influence on country music too.

Here's what you'll find :

Before country vol. 1 (1891-1909)

Billy Golden - Turkey in The Straw (1891)
Cal Stewart - Uncle Josh In A Barber Shop (1896)
JJ Fisher -The Girl I Loved In Sunny Tennesse (1899)
Joseph Natus - A Bird In A Guilded Cage (1900)
Edison Male Quartet _ My Old Kentucky Home (1902)
Arthur Collins - Oh Didn't He Rambled (1902)
Richard Jose - Silver Threads Among the Gold (1904)
Byron Harlan - Hello Central Give Me Heaven (1904)
Len Spencer -Arkansaw Traveller (1904)
Haydn Quartet - My Grandfather's Clock (1905)
Edison Male Quartet - A Flower From Home Sweet Home (1907)
Ada jones & Bill Murray - Rainbow (1908)
Will Oakland - The longest Way 'Round Is the Sweetest Way Home (1909)
Bill Murray - Casey Jones (1909)
Arthur Clough - Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet (1909)


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Growling Tiger : Knockdown Calypsos

Growling Tiger - Money Is King (1979) (buy)

Growling Tiger - The Train Blow (1979) (buy)

First of all, I am deeply sorry for not posting those past weeks, I was too much busy with the Acclaimed music poll, which is now over.

Just after submitting my list of favorite albums, I found this gem, that I would heve included if I could. I knew one track already, the first one I posted, the delicious "Money Is King", on a great box set called Musica Negra In the Americas.

The album is a great surprise, even if "Money Is King" remains, IMO, the highlight of the lot. Neville Marcano, aka The Growling Tiger (1915-1993) was a calypsonian from Trinidad, an ex-boxer who became a star in the 1930s, when calypsonians started exporting their music overseas, and big names emerged like Lord Kitchener, Lord Invader or Roaring Lion (I don't know which one of Roaring Lion or Growling Tiger earnt his nickname first).

Check ou his bio here (Wikipedia) and here (

After a semi retirement, Growling Tiger was recorded by Alan Lomax in Trinidad in 1962 with an acoustic band, playing a traditional form of Calypso and even older styles. You can find these recordings on the Alan Lomax Series under the name The Growling Tiger Of Calypso.
Then 15 years later American enthousiast Steve Shapiro rediscovered a 64 year-old Tiger and recorded him again, this time with a more "modern" band featuring horns. These sessions gave birth to Knock Down Calypsos.

It is difficult to resist the Tiger's charms. His music, a sum of various influences from French, Spanish, English and African traditions, ranges from old-school minor-key calypso ("Money Is king") to derivations from more ancient styles like kalinda (a stick-fighting dance popular in Trinidad carnivals) or songs with a strong African heritage like "Youruba Shango".

A common trait in calypso, the lyrics and the singer's personality are very important. The singer must forge himself a strong identity in order to outshine the competition. Growling Tiger, with his deep barytone voice, was famous for his political and social lyrics, and never ceased to mock the rulers and the system, in pure carnaval tradition.

"Money Is King", both funny and serious, is a great example of his consciousness. The album also features bawdy songs like "The Train Blow". I couldn't understand the whole thing but it looks like the story of a romance on a passenger train. If somebody could help me with the lyrics exact meaning, that would be great (same goes for "Money is King") !

As Robert Leaver says, "A master of improvisation (extempo) and the competitive Calypsonian duel, Tiger could rhyme on diverse subjects with intelligence and wit. Rappers take heed -- Growling Tiger could school you".

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Favorite roots albums : Blind Gary Davis - Harlem Street Singer

Blind Gary Davis - Death Don't Have No Mercy (buy) (1960)

Blind Gary Davis - Lo, I Be With You Always (buy) (1960)

Sorry folks for the late post, I have few free time these days due to the Top 200 AMF album poll I'm running. This is another of my favorite albums.

This beautiful LP was part of my father's collection when I discovered it. It features a great vocalist and guitar picker in 12 gospel-blues songs as he sang them in the streets of New York City. The album was recorded in a 3 hour session on August 24, 1960.

This is pure top notch acoustic blues and one of the very first masterpieces of the folk/blues revival of the sixties.

I'll discuss the man Gary Davis later but you can check out his bio here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Favorite roots albums : Georges Brassens Edition

Georges Brassens - Le Gorille (buy) (1953)

Georges Brassens - Le Bistrot (buy) (1960)

Sorry guys i haven't got much time these days due to my work with Acclaimed Music's album poll, in which you can still take part (more details here. )

While I'm knee-deep (and soon chest-deep) into lists of favorite albums, here's an artist who will have at least 3 or 4 albums in my top 200.

Brassens is the first thing I remember, musically speaking.
My grandfather used to play these 10-inch (25 cm) LPs, I was 3 or 4 years old and soon I knew some songs by heart and sang them in my grandparents' garden.

My father played these records too, singing along. I listened to them with my sisters and grew up with this music. That's probably why I love folk music today.

And Brassens still rules : he's folky, and sometimes jazzy à la Django (most of the time just a double bass and two accoustic guitars), he's the hell of a songwriter, he's an exquisite poet (much better than Brel to me, much more literate), he's fun, go to his biography on wiki or AMG if you don't know him.

The songs ? about God (the hilarious "Le Mécréant"), death and murder ("Le gorille"), love ("Je m'suis fait tout petit", two of his very best songs), and of course, booze ("Le Bistrot", about a bartender's wife).

"Le Gorille", one of his very first songs, was banned from airplay because of its lyrics. It even caused Brassens' mother, a devout Catholic to boycott his concerts.

You'll find English subtitles in this video to learn why. Brassens is old and sick in the video so the performance is not as good as in the record.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A to Z : The Allen Brothers

The Allen Brothers - Bow Wow Blues (buy) (1927)

The Allen Brothers - Jake Walk Blues (buy) (1930)

Ever since the beginnings of the country industry, singers and musicians were fascinated by the blues. Although the most famous of them was Jimmie Rodgers and his blue yodels, others like Darbie & Tarlton, Dick Justice recorded numerous blues songs, but the Allen Brothers' music was so rooted in the blues that Columbia catalogued their recordings as "race" performances, which caused them to leave the label.

Austin and Lee Allen were from a poor family of Chatanooga sawyers, and spent a part of their youth as itinerant musicians especially on miners camps in the moutains. There they probably met a lot of other songsters, black and white, and learnt a lot from them. The songs they recorded between 1927 and 1937 were mostly personal compositions (a rare fact at that time) inspired by blues standards and jug band numbers. They often wrote about current events : "Jake Walk Blues" is a commentary on the Jamaican ginger ("jake") food-poisoning episode that made headlines that year.

Although they were good singers and valuable banjo/guitar players, Lee's kazzo playing is the duo's trademark. As Bill C Malone says , "he took this child's toy of presumed limited range and converted it to a lead instrument of exceptional flexibility. On Allen Bros recordings the kazoo is used like a trumpet; the result is a sound not unlike that heard on Charlie Poole's string band recordings, a syncopated but structured swing."

Like a lot of musicians who recorded in the twenties, their onstage repertoire was wider than just the blues.

As a bonus, here is a good example of their uptempo, swinging songs.

The Allen Brothers - Ain't That Skippin' An' Flyin' (buy) (1928)

Check out their AMG bio

Here a post on Lonesome Lefty's Scratchy Attic

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Favorite roots albums : Doc & Merle Watson : Ballads From Deep Gap

Doc & Merle Watson - My Rough and Rowdy Ways (buy) (1967)

Doc & Merle Watson - The Lawson Family Murder (buy) (1967)

I'm a list maniac. There is no cure for that. So I spend a lot of time hanging out on the Acclaimed Music forum with my list maniac (and music nerd) friends.
I'm running a poll this month called "list you 200 favorite albums of all time" (all genres) and if you're a list maniac don't hesitate and participate !

So this month I will post about my favorite roots albums and the first of all (#8 in my all-time list which contains a lot of "non-roots" material).

I doscovered this forgotten gem by chance at the library while looking for some Doc Watson stuff. To this day, no folk-country album (I'm not counting compilations) has had such an effect on me.
The 12 songs encompass some of the best styles in traditional American music : old Appalachian ballads (a great rendition of Clarence Ashley's "The Cuckoo"), hillbilly music (a cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Rough and Rowdy Ways"), bluegrass (Lester Flatt's "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms"), blues (a wonderful version of Mississippi John Hurt's "Stackolee") or murder ballads, with the "Lawson Family Murder", a terrible story sung in a gentle manner, which makes it even more stunning. The only other song on this subject that could pair it might be Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop", which tells the same story in a completely opposite manner.

And of course there is Doc and son's performance. Doc Watson is one of the best acoustic guitar players of the century, taking picking to unbelievable heights. Not only is he a technical virtuoso, but his playing is almost laid back and seems effortless. Everything is done at home, the sound is incredible, and the music is fast, fun and unpretentious.

I do hope I have convinced you to get that masterpiece. If you love the music I post here, you will love this album.

Track list :

1 Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms
2 My Rough and Rowdy Ways
3 The Wreck of the Old Number Nine
4 Gambler's Yodel
5 The Cuckoo
6 Stack-O-Lee
7 Willie Moore
8 Travelin' Man
9 The Tragic Romance
10 Texas Gales [instrumental]
11 The Lawson Family Murder
12 Alabama Bound

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tejano Roots (5) : Conjunto Bernal

Conjunto Bernal - Mi Unico Camino (buy) (1958)

Conjunto Bernal - La Novia Antonia (buy) (1958)

Led by Paulino Bernal, this conjunto started recording in the 1950s, and became the best of its generation.
It was a classic tejano group, with Paulino on lead vocals and accordion and his older brother Elias on bajo sexto and harmonizing. Like many conjuntos, they started in South Texas, playing in bars for blue-collar immigrants to support their family.

I really love their modern sound and their harmonizing is divine. And they were the first tejano band to play rock 'n' roll, as you can hear on the second track, a cover of Larry William's "Bonie Moronie".

There's a great Arhoolie compilation of them (see the image above) that you can download at e-music.

If you're interested in Tejano music, check this article from the University of Texas site.

Perfect for reading Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy.
God, that is a great series of novels, the perfect companion for the music on River's Invitation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You send, I like : KJ Walker

KJ Walker - Without You (buy) (2009)

I've started receiving albums and e-mails about new artists and it's always a pleasure. Some were off-topic, some I didn't like enough, but I took KJ Walker's Cd with me when I went to the mountains and listened to it in the car.

I really liked his brand of roots rock, with a Californian flavour, especially in Kj's mellow vocals. The songwriting is solid most of the time, reminiscent of Roy Orbison, Tom Petty , and the melodies and beats are versatile enough.

I picked "Without You" a great love song, probably because it reminds me of the later Bruce Springsteen (didn't I tell you that Bruce is my favorite singer ?)and because of its nostalgia, but there are other highlights, from the ballad "A house In My Heart" to the driving rock'n roll beat of "Thinkin Of You".

According to his bio Kevin J Walker is a veteran of the Los Angeles blues circuit who started to play in the streets of Europe. And last but not least, just like me, he was born in Paris.

Bravo KJ !

If you liked this sample, you can either :

- visit the KJ Walker Band's Myspace

- or go here if you want to buy or hear more of the album.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Arhoolie 40th Anniversary Box Set (Cd 1)

Mance Lipscomb - Charlie James (buy) (1964)

Clifton Chenier - Louisiana Blues (buy) (1965)

Just before I went on holidays, I received this wonderful box set, a best of Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label. I had burned it a few years ago but having the real thing is really something different : the liner notes are fantastic !

The man behind that label, Chris Strachwitz, is one of the most important record makers in roots music, and the equal of an Alan Lomax. Born in Germany, he arrived in the States at age 16, and like a lot of Europeans, was fond of traditional music. The box set follows his musical discoveries : first , the blues (especially from Texas, since Chris was living in San Francisco) and old-time country, then Cajun and Zydeco, Norteno, and his last love, sacred steel.

The first CD is focused on the 1960's. Chris, a school teacher then, started his label from scratch, making recording trips to meet his favorite artists : the great Sam Lighting Hopkins in the Houston ghetto, JE Mainer in the Appalachian, and one-man band Jesse Fuller in "San Francisco Bay" (his very first recording, made in 1954 at Jesse's house).

Highlights of this first cd include a lot of great bluesmen (Big Joe Williams, Lil' Son Jackson, Fred McDowell...) but I picked two artists that really owe to Mr. Strachwitz : Texas songster Mance Lipscomb and the Zydeco king Clifton Chenier.

So if you really love down home music of all kinds, don't hesitate and buy this wonderful box set. I had mine for 45 dollars and it's not much compared to its content (the music, of course, but also the liner notes). And you will support a great label !

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

100th post : A new river ?

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band & Michael Martin Murphey - Lost River (buy) (1989)


I'm back from the Briançon area in the Southern Alps where I spent 2 weeks of well-deserved vacations. The town is located at the foot of the mountains, surronded by numerous valleys. The more I come to this place, the more I find it beautiful. Me and my wife took a lot of river pictures while hiking, so this 100th post will be full of images and songs of mountain rivers.

Now september comes with a lot of new ideas. First, I guess I won't be posting as much as I did before. Maybe once a week, sometimes more, sometimes less I guess. I've got a lot of other projects, and especially to start making, recording and writing music again.

Instead of focusing on the roots of popular music as I did in the past few months, I will surf more freely between one era to another; that will mean more music from the sixties and seventies to the present, and possibly new releases if I still receive CDs, and between styles, although I will stick to the "roots" styles : country, blues, world, roots rock.

Now enough said, let's hear more river songs.

Clarence Gatemouth Brown - River's Invitation (buy) (1997)

The very first mp3 I posted here was, of course, the Percy Mayfield version of my blog's title song, but I cherish this recording by Texas guitarist Clarence Gatemouth Brown, from his great album Gatemouth Swings, that he recorded with a big band.

Cephas & Wiggins- Going To The River (buy) (1996)

In contrast with the joyful picture above (yes, that's me with my wife and son), this song, originally written by Dave Bartholomew for Fats Domino is a mournful song of love lost, where the river's invitation is nothing but death calling. I love the way Cephas and Wiggins play it, almost gently, as if to remind us that singing the blues will stop the guy from drowning, as in these beautiful words by Blind Willie McTell :

Now a white man go to the river, take him a seat and sit down
The blues overtake him, he jump overboard and drown
Yes he's weary, weary hearted and blue
And that's why we're cryin' these weary hearted blues

Now a colored man go to the river, take him a seat and sit down
He takes the blues, he come home back to town
And yet he weary, weary hearted and blue
And that's why I'm cryin' these weary hearted blues

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Summer closing

Pink Anderson - I'm Going Away Baby (buy) (1961)

This is where I will spend the next 2 weeks, in Briançon, a little town in the Southern Alps, away from computers of all kinds. Then I'll go for another week in Normandie, so I won't be back before three weeks.

See you in september with a new River's Invitation : possibly one post a week instead of 2, and more bridges to late 20th century music.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Black ballads (5) : Crimes of passion

Mississippi John Hurt - Frankie (buy) (1928)

Leadbelly -Ella Speed (buy) (1944)

Man-to-woman murder, or the opposite, is very common in the blues, and it was the subject of ballads too : the two above, but also "Delia", sung by Willie McTell and brilliantly covered by Johnny Cash in 1994. What is more appealing and thrilling than passion and murder, treason and love gone mad ?

Of course the most famous of all is "Frankie and Albert", "Frankie and Johnny" or just "Frankie" in the Mississippi John Hurt version. You will find anything you need to know about it here in this Wikipedia article, and once again, at the Old Weird America, where you can download dozens of different versions of the song by blues, hillbilly, jazz and pop artists.

"Ella Speed" is based on the story of a New Orleans mulatto prostitute (an "octoroon") who was shot by Louis "Bull" Martin, a white man of Italian origin who was in love with her. She was married and had turned him down.

In Leadbelly's rendition, Bull Martin becomes Bill Martin. You can read more about the song story here in a post about the Mance Lipscomb version recorded by Chris Strachwitz in 1960. A good transition to my next post, as you will see in a few days.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fiddle tunes (2)

Johnny Gimble

Paul Warren - Listen To The Mockingbird (buy)

Kessinger Brothers - Turkey In The Straw (buy)

Johnny Gimble - Ragtime Annie (buy)

Bonus track : Quinteto Tipico Mexicano - Sobre las olas (Over The Waves) (buy)

(My main source for this post is Bill C. Malone's Country Music, USA)

Some fiddle tunes, among the most popular, didn't come directly from the folk repertory, but were composed and sometimes sold as sheet music during the 19th century.
Some came from black-face minstrelsy, like "Old Dan Tucker", "Turkey in the Straw" ( a song dating from the 1820s and originally called "Old Zip Coon"), "Cotton Eyed Joe" or "Listen to the Mockingbird", which became a classic for fiddle virtuosos and entertainers who could imitate various species of birds with their instrument (like bluegrass musician Paul Warren in the first track).

Other tunes came from the various popular styles : "Arkansas Traveler"was composed in the 1800s; "Ragtime Annie", here played by Texas fiddler and one time -Bob Wills sideman Johnny Gimble, but also "Dill Pickle Rag" or "Chicken Reel" were adaptations of popular dances.

And there were those which came for foreign countries. As Malone says, "If the country fiddler heard a good tune, he made it his own, whether it came from his own immediate experience, was a legacy from his ancestors, or moved into his consciousness from a foreign source. "Over the Waves", which is still probably the most popular country waltz, was originally written as "Sobre las olas" by the Mexican composer Juventino Rosas."
As a Mexican music fan, I couldn't resist to add as a bonus track a Mexican version of this classic.

Another foreign tune turned into a fiddle standard is "Under The Double Eagle", originally a patriotic march by the Austrian composer Josef Wagner which became a favorite of John Philip Sousa and thus made its way into American music.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Before jazz : Marches and brass bands

US Marine Band - The Liberty Bell (1894 historic recording) (buy)

US Marine Band - The Thunderer March (1896) (buy)

US Marine Band - Maple Leaf Rag (1906) (buy)

WC Handy - Yellow Dog Blues (buy) (1922)

Marches, as played by military or civilian brass bands, were very popular in the 19th century. Marches were very influential both to ragtime (see previous post) and to New Orleans jazz.
John Philip Sousa, "the march king", composed dozens of very popular pieces that were first recorded in the 1890's by the United States Marine Band, which he conducted from 1880 to 1892.

The tracks I posted are among the oldest musical recordings in the world, so don't test your brand new stereo with them.

You'll probably recognize the first one as Monty Python's Flying Circus Theme. The second one, more syncopated, "with its lead trumpets, supportive trombones, and piccolos winging arpeggios over the top" (to quote Kevin Whitehead in this very interesting essay at emusic), sounds more pre-jazz.
The United States Band, nicknamed "the President's own", played various styles of music for the White House, and weren't indifferent to the ragtime boom of the 1890s as their recording of "Maple Leaf Rag" from 1906 attests.

W.C. Handy, the so-called "father of the blues" (more the father of blues copyright, as Whitehead says), recorded with his band between 1917 and 1923, so a few years before King Oliver and the first black jazz bands did so.
He was one of the first to commercialize blues as sheet music. Before that, there was a certain gap between musicians who could read music and those who played the blues and "made up their own tunes" (I heard a great Bunk Johnson interview about that). It is the meeting of these musicians, and especially in New Orleans where creoles and blacks interacted, that gave birth to jazz. WC Handy's band plays with the discipline of a "reading" band, without swing, but his music, in a sense, is the last exit before jazz.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A to Z : Ray Agee (1930-1990)

Ray Agee - Tin Pan Alley (buy) (Sahara, 1963)

Ray Agee - From Now On (buy) (Hi-Fi, 1958)

Ray Agee (see his All Music Guide Biography), born in Alabama, was stricken by polio at age 4. On one of the rare pictures of him I could find, he's leaning on two crutches. When his family emigrated to California, he and his brothers formed a gospel group. Then he switched to doo-wop and R&B and recorded his first 45, "Deep Troubled" for L.A label Aladdin.

I really love his 1963 cover of "Tin Pan Alley", his most acclaimed song, with a great guitar work by Johnny Heartsman. Agee was both a versatile and prolific composer. He tried doo-wop, soul, smooth Charles Brown-like West Coast blues, acoustic blues, socially conscious songs and pop-corn soul and recorded for myriads of small, local labels, never earning a nationwide fame.

Please don't forget to check out 2 posts about Agee in The MPM blog, with a 1972 song and most of all, a great radio interview of Frank Zappa, Ray Agee and Shuggie Otis from 1970 followed by an accoustic jam session with Agee singing. You'll learn that the first record Zappa ever stole was a Ray Agee 45 !

Monday, July 20, 2009

Black ballads (4) : Bad Men, from Stack'O Lee to John Hardy

Champion Jack Dupree - Stack O'Lee (buy) (1958)

The bad man is another recurrent hero of black ballads, and an object of fascination and fear (see the Railroad Bill discussion) . The bad man survived the blues era and can be found in rap and of course, reggae. Last week I saw "The Harder They Come" (with the famous and excellent soundtrack), a great "bad man" story.

The archetypal bad man is, of course, Stagger Lee (or Stack'O Lee), a St Louis (or, some say Memphis) pimp who shot Billy Lyons for a Stetson hat. A lot has been said and written about him, including a famous essay by Greil Marcus who linked him to Sly Stone.
Most scholars see a shooting in Saint Louis as the original murder that gave birth to the Stagger Lee legend.

Please check out this great post about Stack'O Lee at Gadaya's Old Weird America with the original story, many useful links and 40 versions by musicians of various genres and times.

In short, like Gadaya says, Stack is the dark side of John Henry, and his song, like the one about the steel diver, was recorded by hundreds of artists (400 according to the site). I love the Mississippi John Hurt rendition, one of the very first, but as we've already heard his John Henry, I'm posting the Champion Jack Dupree cover, one of a long line of New Orleans Stagger Lees (by Archibald, Lloyd Price, Fess Longhair, etc..).

Leadbelly - Duncan and Brady (buy) (1947)

Other bad men and murderers include Duncan, who shot sheriff Bill Brady in a barroom or a grocery store (some grocery stores sold whiskey and even other things). This song is very similar to Stagger Lee and seems to originate from St Louis too, as well as "Ella Speed" or "Frankie" of which we will talk later.
It was first recorded by hillbilly singer Wilmer Watts but the most famous version is by Leadbelly. Check out this discussion at Mudcat Cafe's forum and you'll learn a lot about the song's origins.
Let's not forget that Leadbelly himself carried the image of the bad man, sentenced 3 times for murder and assault.

Willie Walker - Dupree Blues (buy) (1930)
Frank Dupree grew up in Abbeville, South Carolina. He came on the scene in December 1921 in Atlanta, Georgia, where he had a gal Betty. In trying to appropriate a diamond for her in a jewelry store he shot a policeman down. Fleeing to Memphis and later to Chicago, where he was cornered, he killed a policeman and wounded several more. He was caught while getting his mail and sent to Atlanta for trial. He was executed for murder on September 1, 1922." (Roberts, Leonard Ward. In the Pine: Selected Kentucky Folksongs. Pikeville College Press, 1978.)
Another bad man story, where the hero kills for love (or, should we say, where the hero kills to satisfy his woman's greed) and the occasion to post a song by the great Willie Walker, a blind and forgotten musician from South Carolina (just like Dupree)who recorded 4 fantastic Piedmont blues in 1930 for Columbia with Sam Brooks, his regular accompanist.

Last but not least, John Hardy. In my earlier John Henry post, Lynchie from Aberdeen stressed the strong link between these two Johns. This is something I had never thought of, but this page confirms that for some people, J. Hardy and John Henry were one and the same. Both stories come from West Virginia.
Don't forget to check out the John Hardy post at Old Weird America, replete with information and recordings.
The historical John Hardy was probably a black coal miner who killed another worker over a crap game in West Viriginia. Before being hanged, he wrote a repentance song, which is believed to be the origin of the folk piece. Although John Hardy was black, the majority of singers who recorded the song were white, with the notable exception of Leadbelly (and more recently, Alvin Youngblood Hart). But the rendition which in my opinion towers over all the others, is by the Carter Family, with the great guitar work of Maybelle and Sara's voice.

The Carter Family - John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man (buy) (1928)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fiddle tunes (1)

on the photo : Gaither Carlton

The fiddle is the father of every American folk instrument(if human voice doesn't count). In country music it has a very symbolical, traditional role, and God knows if country is, among other things, about tradition. That's probably why the fiddle stayed in country music, while practically disappearing from blues and rock (with exceptions like Andrew Bird).

Let's read how Bill C. Malone introduces his discussion about the instrument, in his wonderful book Country Music USA. I'm halfway into the book and I feel I've found a goldmine and the Bible of country scholarship :
The instrument most favored by rural folk, and for a long time virtually the defining instrument of country music, was the fiddle. The fiddle came with the earliest colonists, was soon mastered by nearly every folk group in North America, from the French habitants of Acadia to the blacks of the South, and was then taken to the farthest reaches of the frontier."
A great exemple of fiddling in "The farthest reaches of the frontier" is my old post about the Gu-Achi Fiddlers.

The Skillet Lickers - Soldier's Joy (buy) (1929)

The fiddle was a dance instrument, as in this track by the Skillet Lickers (photo above), featuring one of the finest fiddlers of old-time country, Clayton McMichen.
Another great institution is the fiddle contest, that helped a lot of musicians earn fame. A quick Google search will show that fiddle contests are still alive and kicking today.

Bill C. Malone, in his book, makes a short classification of fiddle tunes.
Some of the oldest were of direct Celtic origin, such as "Soldier's Joy", "Old Molly Mare". According to Malone, tunes like "Flop-Eared Mule", the bluegrass classic "Fire On the Mountain" or "Leather Breeches", "although presumed to be American, drew on British airs". Here's a nice version of "Flop-Eared mule" by modern-day Alabama fiddler Jerry Rogers. If you like this, please consider buying the album.

Jerry Rogers - Flop-Eared Mule (buy) (2004)

I'd like to add this John Hartford's version of "Leather Breeches" from his classic progressive bluegrass album Aereo Plain. I took the picture of Hartford below from a post by Nelson at Star Maker Machine.

John Hartford - Leather Britches (buy) (1971)

Other fiddle tunes were American-born, with geographical references in their title, like "Cumberland Gap", "Cripple Creek", "Mississippi Sawyer". Then there were those which commented historical events : "Bonaparte's Retreat" or "8th of July" (...1815, when Andrew Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans, the subject of a famous Johnny Horton song too).

Let's hear of one the most acclaimed fiddle players of old-time country, Arthur "Fiddling" Smith, with the McGee Brothers, palying his lively rendition of "Cumberland Gap". You can find a lot form and about Arthur Smith at Jeremy's Saggy Record Cabinet.

Then, from the Doc Watson Family album, a great "Bonaparte's Retreat" with Gaither Carlton, Doc's father in law, on fiddle (he's the guy on the very first photo above).

Sam & Kirk McGee with Arthur Smith - Cumberland Gap (buy) (1957)

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton - Bonaparte's Retreat (buy) (1963)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Happy 14 juillet (French National holiday)

Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli - Echoes of France (La Marseillaise, French national anthem) (buy) (1947)

Georges Brassens - La Mauvaise Réputation (buy) (1953)

July 14 (called Bastille day in English, althoug we never call it that way) is France's national holiday.

Tonight there'll be fireworks and "bals populaires", big balls for the people, generally held on every village/town big square or at the fire station (traditionally it's the firemen who are in charge of the dances).

Tommorrow will be the day of the big military parade on the Champs Elysées.

Georges Brassens, one of our greatest folk songwriters and poets (and my favorite French singer) says, in "La Mauvaise Réputation" (Bad Reputation) that "on the 14th day of July, I stay in my cosy bed / Marching music is none of my business"...

It's a great occasion to play old French music. This version of "La Marseillaise" (our national anthem) by Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli is my favorite by far, and, since it's an instrumental, you don't hear those agressive lyrics about war and blood.

Sometimes I tell myself that I should play more French music here, even though this blog is more about my love for American music. Don't hesitate to give comments if you liked those French songs, I could give you more. Sometimes, too, I wish that American people in general were a little bit more curious about other countries'cultures...

My bonus track : Boris Vian, a great songwriter, jazz critic, trumpet player and most of all, a fantastic author of novels, plays and short stories, begins this song (whose title can be translated as "We're not here to be given hell") with a humorous account of how he went to the military parade with his wife just to be held back by the police, and the way he protested (in a very French manner). In the next stanza the same guy goes home drunk with a friend and this time it's his wife that gives him hell, and hits him so hard with the rolling-pin that he ends up in heaven with his buddy, and once again they're turned back by St Peter. To which Vian answers "If you kick out the drunk, there must'nt be a lot of people left"... So the two of them go to hell, "and downstairs it was marvellous". The morale of the story : Protesting may prove fruitful in the long run...

Boris Vian - On n'est pas là pour se faire engueuler (buy) (1956)