Saturday, March 28, 2009

I need your help

You must have realized that this blog has gone 100 % "roots" music now. If you look at older posts there used to be some rock here, even new stuff, but I realized that a lot of people were coming (and staying) when I posted about older styles like blues, country, folk or roots reggae or rhythm & blues.

Well I'm still a big rock fan (at the moment, I'm listening to David Bowie) but I LOVE old time country and blues. There are hundreds of blogs about "modern" genres, and I guess my knowledge of traditional music would be more useful for the music blog community.

So I'm building a sort of discography for this site, a list of important and favorite "roots" records, albums or compilations, from 1920 to 2009. Check it out by clicking on the link above.

My Favorite roots records

The list is in progress, so there are omissions. But YOU can help.
Tell me what are your favorite roots albums, e.g. anything blues, gospel, folk, country, old r&b, old reggae, even world music. Tell me what records you would include in that list, let us build it together.

I'll listen to them if I can (and if I don't already know them) and (probably) include them in the list and make posts, etc...

I'm waiting for your comments. Before going back to historical posts, let's hear something (relatively) recent : the great come-back album of Chicago guitar player Jody Williams.

Jody Williams - She Found a Fool and Bumped his Head (buy) (2002)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mardi gras Indians

During the past weeks it was carnival time everywhere in the world, and even here in France where we have great "carnavals", especially in the north (with giants).

So, with a little delay, my last ( I promise) post about bluesy Indians will be for Mardi gras Indians. They've always been a object of fascination for me, and even more so now that I've read about their history here or here.

The Wild Tchoupitoulas - Hey Hey (Indians Coming) (buy) (1976)

Laissez les bons temps rouler !!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When Indians play the blues

Pura Fé (photo), a great singer, songwriter and guitar player, is a descendant of Tuscarora nation by her mother. I discovered her music through Music Maker Relief Foundation's first compilation, The Last and Lost Blues Survivors (which seems to be available in France but not in the US now). Her albums are worth checking out, she looks like a nice woman (and I've got the same guitar as her ).

Pura Fé - Rise Up Tuscarora Nation (buy) (2004)

Coincidentally, French label Dixiefrog just issued a 3 CD compilation called Indian Rezervation : Blues and more. This box set, assembled by ... Pura Fé, features contemporary Indian musicians.

Ricky Gonzales, French blogger and radio DJ podcasted 2 of his shows about Indians and the blues (coincidence !!)on his blog Surfinbird, featuring songs from the box set and by other famous Native American songwriters. Comments and announcements are in French but the music is awesome ! You HAVE to check them out :

Surfinbird # 88 : Indian Rezervation Blues & More

Surfinbird # 92 : Indian Rezervation Blues & More 2

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Indians in the blues

There are few blues songs that refer to Native Americans. I found some on the Saga Jazz compilation Cherokee Boogie : Indians and the Blues. Check out the title track by sax player and band leader Bullmoose Jackson :

Bullmoose Jackson - Cherokee Boogie (buy) (1951)

In prewar blues, Indians are often referred in verses about "Going To The Nation" and marrying an Indian squaw. "The Nation" or "the territo's" are Oklahoma, a state where the five "civilized tribes" (Cherokee, Cree, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole) were deported in the 19th century. I found an interesting article by Chris Smith in the Cambridge Journals on the subject. The Indian nations are seen as a refuge from hard life and segregation.
Take this Bo Carter song from 1931

Bo Carter - So Long, Baby, So Long (buy) (1931)

But the irony of it all was that this optimistic dream was a mirage : Oklahoma, once a place where former slaves gained civil and property rights, had passed Jim Crow laws since 1903. Jesse James, in " Lonesome Day Blues", has realized that the Nation "is no heaven on earth" :

Jesse James - Lonesome Day blues (buy) (1936)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Blues has Indian blood

When asked about the origins of the blues, everybody says "Africa" and maybe "Europe", but what about the first settlers on the American continent, the Amerindians ?

I really think they had their part. In the South, there has always been ties between Indians and Afro-Americans. Check out this wikipedia article on Black Indians for more info. And Indian music, especially from the Southeastern tribes, bears resemblance to the blues in its hypnotic rhythm and pentatonic scales.

A good example can be found in the Hemphill family in North Misssissippi. Sid Hemphill, a multi-instrumentalist musician who was discovered by Alan Lomax in 1942, was the son of a Choctaw Indian. When he played the quill, the heritage was more than apparent.

Sid Hemphill - The Devil's Dream (buy) (1942)

His granddaughter Jessie Mae, who passed away in 1993, recorded a few albums in the '80s. She played her own hypnotic brand of blues, typical of the hills country, on the electric guitar, with a tambourine attached to her foot, or leg bells, in the Choctaw manner.

Jessie Mae Hemphill - My Daddy's Blues (buy) (1987)

First time I heard about a possible Indian influence on the blues was from French blues and country scholar Gerard Herzhaft, in his book Americana : Histoire des musiques de l'Amérique du Nord (I guess you don't need a translation), and then at a conference about the blues he gave once. For him, Indian influence shouldn't be underrated for two reasons :

- The ties between Amerindians and Afro-Americans, especially in the Mississippi valley. In some places Indians and Africans were enslaved together, in other places Indian tribes absorbed fugitive slaves (or enslaved them, but with much better life conditions). That led to cultural exchanges and intermarriage. Again, check out this wikipedia article on Black Indians for more info.
- Musical styles from Southeastern tribes, like the Cherokee, have common traits with the blues : pentatonic scale, call and response structure, hypnotic beats, and the use of "floating verses".

I find this idea kinda appealing, but I have difficulties to go further and find more "scientific " documentation about it. I don't know American Indian music very well, and all I found was numerous recordings from Southwestern Indians (Navajo, Hopi, Apache) or Great Plains tribes. No Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw traditional music. A lot of New Age stuff with synthetisers. But I did find something extremely exciting that I saved for a further post...

The Hemphill Family

I was looking for songs that reflected Indian music influence on the blues, and I thought of the Hill country style of North Mississippi. Maybe fife and drum ? And then yesterday, in my shower (that's where most of my ideas come to me, contrary to my President who gets his ideas while shaving... Sometimes I wish he could grow a beard) I thought about the Hemphill family as described in the Alan Lomax book Land Where the Blues Began. I went to my record collection and that was a hit.

Every folk and blues lover should read that Lomax book, and especially the chapter when Lomax meets Sid Hemphill in 1942. Hemphill was born in 1876, which makes him one of the oldest blues musicians ever recorded. His father was a Choctaw Indian. On one of the field recordings Lomax made with Hemphill, there is one instrumental played on a ten-note quill that is really fascinating.

Everyone (including Lomax and Scorsese in his documentary) was very quick to point out African influences when hearing fife and drum music, but the hypnotic beat and the muffled shouts sound very Indian to my hears.

In this part of Mississippi music is a family affair. There is this moment in the Lomax book when, during the second meeting between Alan and a very old Hemphill in 1959, a young girl steps out of the house playing a big drum. She's Jessie Mae, Sid's granddaughter and she recorded in the '80s a few singles and a couple of albums.

Jessie Mae plays electric guitar, bass and snare drums, and on several songs a tambourine attached to her foot, or leg bells obtained from Choctaw Indians to emphasize this part of her heritage. She electrified her ancestors' music but still plays these hypnotic beats that characterize the regional style of the Hill country (Tate and Panola counties).

Now what do you think of this ? Are there links between Indian music and the blues (or any form of popular music ) in your opinion ?

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Drinking Song

Paul at Setting The Woods On Fire is posting a great series about drinking songs, and the guys at the great collective blog Star Maker Machine have followed.

So today I'll add my modest contribution to this great project by posting a song about alcohol that moves me. It's by New Orleans piano player Little Brother Montgomery and was recorded in 1966 in... East Berlin during the American Folk Blues Festival. I love this song and its old-fashioned vocal style and piano playing.

Little Brother Montgomery - I Keep On Drinking (buy) (1966)

Among other booze songs that I enjoy, I have to mention "Gambling Barroom Blues" by Jimmie Rodgers, that I posted last week. Check it out here.

And last but not least "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" that you can hear here.

Feel free to tell me (or Paul on his site) about your favorite drinking songs.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A week of folksongs (6) : I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground

What a strange and beautiful song ! Recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who was himself a folklorist and minstrel (and a lawyer by trade) from North Carolina. According to Harry Smith, Lunsford wrote that this song is "typical of the Pigeon River Valley".

The following is a quote from a short Wikipedia article about the song :

As stated in his own words within his recordings, Mr. Lunsford considered
himself an archivist and never took credit for this song or any songs he
recorded. He traveled the western mountains of North Carolina and learned this
song from the "locals" as it was his goal and passion to archive songs that he
heard growing up for historical reference.

Novelist and critic Robert Cantwell says: "Listen to 'I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground' again and again, learn to play the banjo and sing it yourself over and over, study every printed version, squander your time in the bargain, and you still won't fathom it." He's right.
(Retrieved from the folktunes site)

Bascom Lamar Lunsford - I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground (buy) (1928)

Swedish folksinger Kristian Matsson aka The Tallest Man On Earth, mentions Lunsford as one of his main influences. In his song "I Won't Be Found", the opener of his great self titled debut album that came out last year, he even quotes Lunsford's verses about the mole in the ground and the lizard in the spring.
Check this song on his myspace page .

So that was the last post for this week of folk songs. I'm taking the kids to the country this week end and I'll be back next week.
See you !

A week of folk songs (5) : In The Pines / Black Girl


I first planned to post about "Frankie and Johnny", but Glenn at the musical blog So Well Remembered made an excellent post about the Harry Smith anthology including a review of Mississippi John Hurt's "Frankie". You have to check it out !

According to a good Wikipedia article, "In The Pines" dates back from at least the 1870s and may be of Southern Appalachian origin.

It was first published by Cecil Sharp, founding father of the folklore revival in England. His story is very interesting and this man had a crucial role, even though it is an indirect one, in the emergence of country music. I will come back to his story in a future post.
Sharp collected the following lines :

Black girl, black girl, don't lie to meWhere did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines
And shivered when the cold wind blows

The wikipedia article gives a big list of people who performed that song, including the Monroe Brothers, great Georgia bluesman Peg Leg Howell, and Louisiana Cajun accordion player Nathan Abshire who recorded a French version (I really should hear that one).

But the version I want to play you is not part of the list. It's by Darby and Tarlton and it's from 1927, so it's probably one of the earliest versions of the song. Darby and Tarlton, a hillbilly duo featuring Hawaiian-style guitar, played in such a bluesy manner that people often mistook them for Afro-American performers.

Darby & Tarlton – Lonesome In The Pines (buy) (apr. 1927)

And then, of course, the Leadbelly version, "Black Girl", made famous by Nirvana's cover. Leadbelly was from West Louisiana / East Texas, home of the piney woods, and I've always found his version menacing and mysterious. But I'm a Leadbelly fanatic…
It seems that Leadbelly took from Darby & Tarlton, because he also recorded a song called "On A Monday", that may originate from D & T's biggest hit, the great "Birmingham Jail".

Leadbelly – Black Gal (Where Did You Stay Last Night ?) (1944) (buy) (NYC, feb.1944)

Links and sources :

Wikipedia article about "In The Pines"

On Darby & Tarlton, see this intersting post on American String Conspiracy

On Leadbelly, see AMG bio

On Harry Smith's anthology, see this great blog dedicated to the Anthology

And Glenn's posts on So Well Remebered

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A week of folk songs (4) : Careless Love

This one's a traditional tune, whose origin is not very clear. Is it from Britain, Ireland, or is it an American creation ? Nobody knows for sure.
It was first published by WC Handy as "Loveless Love", and it is more common in blues and jazz than in country music.

My favourite version is by New Orleans guitar player Lonnie Johnson. I love his almost introspective singing.

Lonnie Johnson – Careless Love (buy) (New York, nov 1928)

There's also a great country version by The Delmore Brothers, one of the greatest harmonizing duets. Sort of musical grandfathers to Gary Louris & Mark Olson (fathers being the Everly Bros, of course).

Delmore Brothers – Careless Love (buy) (Chicago, jan 1938)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Week of folk songs (3) : Gambling Barroom Blues (St James Infirmary)

"Saint James Infirmary" is an American folk song with English origins. In Britain it was called "The Unfortunate Rake" and it was about a sailor who dies after spending his money on prostitutes. In America it became a more drinking or gambling-related song.

The most famous and influential version was Louis Armstrong Dixieland jazz rendition in 1928, but I really love what Jimmie Rodgers did with that song, keeping the melody and the setting but telling a slightly different story. His "Gambling Barroom blues" is the first country version of SJI.

For more details, check out the Wikipedia article, it's fine.

And go to the excellent blog Honey Where You Been So Long to see a list of St James Infirmary versions.

Jimmie Rodgers - Gambling Barroom Blues (St James Infirmary) (buy) (1932)

Please feel free to mention your favorite versions in the comments section

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Week Of Folksongs (2) : Fatal Flower Garden

The second song in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music didn't draw my attention when I first heard it. The sound quality was rather bad, I was in the subway, and I didn't notice the lyrics. Then when reading the liner notes I realized what it was all about and came back to it, and now it's one of my favorite songs from the anthology.

Favorite ? Well, I don't know in fact... Certainly most striking though, as it is about the murder of a child. Now that I have kids, I've grown very sensitive about that subject. Searching for documentation about the song history, I learnt that it goes back to the Middle Ages, and that it was originally an (very sadly) popular anti-semitic story, the murderer being "the Jew's daughter".
For more details, see here.

Well at least in that version from Alabama, the anti-Semitsm is absent : the woman is a "gypsy" which is the symbol of the fearsome stranger, the unknown, the otherness of evil.
The song has a mysterious, almost gothic athmosphere, emphasizing contrasts (the flower garden/the hideous murder), and is a mini horror movie in itself. And the melody and the singing are rather sweet and lovely, with those smooth Hawaiian guitars… Creepy !
A sort of moral story : don't talk to strangers !!! Well, a really ambiguous song, but very interesting anyway.

Nelstone's Hawaiians - Fatal Flower Garden (buy) (1930)

PS (2) : Still haunted by that story, I've dug and found two interesting links, one including the original lyrics and some fine comments, and the other (on Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan's site) about the real facts that might have inspired the song in 1255. A quote from the first one :

"Charges of ritual murder was common against Jews. They were first levelled in 12th-century England, and occurred throughout Europe as late as the 1880s. Jews were said to kill Christian children, often before Easter, for ritual purposes. These fabrications, known as the Blood Libel, made a cult of the supposed victims and was an excuse for persecution which took a toll of thousands of Jewish lives over many centuries."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A week of folksongs (1) : The Coo-Coo Bird

You can't talk about the origins of pop music, of country music, of the blues, without mentioning folk songs from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I owe them (at least) a week.

So I'll try to post folk songs this week (starting from today), hopefully everyday, with a few historical comments.

Most of these songs come from the great compilation Folksongs : Old Time Country Music 1926-1944 from the French label Frémeaux et Associés, and of course from The Anthology Of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith.

First song is "The Coo-coo Bird", first recorded by old time banjo player Clarence Ashley in 1929. The song comes from England or Ireland (no one really knows). Ashley sings it his own way, making it sound very Appalachian with his unique 5-string banjo tuning.

You can read about the story of that song on Ashley's website. I forst intended to post the original version, but that one, with Doc Watson on the guitar, recorded in 1961, is indeed way better.

Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley - The Coo-Coo Bird (buy) (1961)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lists : Great Black Music

I love lists. I make a lot of lists with my friends at, a site who compiles every "best-of " list ever published by critics in books, sites or newspapers.
Recently I found at the library a French book called Great Black Music : un parcours en 110 albums essentiels. (Great Black Music : A Journey in 110 essential albums) by Philippe Robert, a French critic and writer working for various great magazines (Les Inrockuptibles, Vibrations, Jazz Magazine).

This list is interesting but the title can be misleading : it is not an anthology of Afro American music in general, but of “conscious” black music.
That explains the omissions : very few blues. The blues wasn’t a protest music, at least in a direct way, the singers being to afraid of retaliation.

Everything that is suspected of being too “whitey-oriented” is left aside. So no black rockers from the ‘50s (Chuck, Fats et al), few Motown artists from the ‘60s.
No more than one album per artist, which broadens the range but also means hard choices (like Stevie W).
These considerations aside, it is an interesting list, quite personal, not caring much about objectivity, and strongly relying on ‘70s soul and jazz. Very few rap, or old-school and avant garde stuff. For the soul and jazz lover, it is a gold mine.
Here are 2 links to the list :

Great Black music : 110 essential albums (Microsoft Word document)

Great Black music : 110 essential albums (InTernet link to Acclaimed Music's Forum Page)

My best discovery so far in that list is the excellent British group Demon Fuzz with their 1970 album Afreaka!

Demon Fuzz - Disillusioned (buy) (1970)

Now, like in every list, there are things we would have loved to find but that have been omitted.
The author himself acknowledges that, as he added an appendix with even more albums than in the original list !!

The next song is from the first artist/album in my top 200 that Robert failed to include in his list (but I think it's in the appendix).

Professor Longhair - Tipitina (buy) (1974)

If you love New Orleans music, you should hear this album if you haven't already.

AND YOU ? What are your favorite Great Black Music albums ? What omissions make you jump and shout ? I'd love to hear from you cause you've been a bit silent these days..

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Blues saga (4) : Africa and the blues

If you're a regular, you probably know I'm both fond of blues and Africa.

But I've always felt a little uneasy about conecting them, especially after seeing Feels Like Going Home, the Martin Scorsese documentary that links the blues to West African contemporary musicians like Ali Farka Touré. I found it really oversimplifying.
So I was really happy to find this wonderful interview of Gerhard Kubik on Afropop Worldwide.

You have to listen to the audio interview as well (that was a pleasure to me, because the interviewer is French and the interwiewed Austrian, so I could understand their accents very easily !!) because you can hear the music.

Pr. Kubik, a music ethnologist from the University of Vienna wrote a book on the subject, which is one of the only scientific studies about African influences on American music.

First thing in this interview, he rejects the concept of "roots" :

As a scientific term, “roots” was tenuous. It is a concept not best suited for historically oriented studies. In African and African-American history as elsewhere in the world we have to operate from sources: written sources, oral sources, recorded sources, if possible, archaeological sources. Where there are no sources, there can be no safe conclusions. “Roots” is too vague to be used beyond casual statements that such and such tradition is based on something, somewhere. For example all the talk about roots of the blues in Mali is just enough to satisfy the public’s need for wild imagination. But we want to know which traditions, by whom in Mali or elsewhere, and in which time period—late 18th century?—were relevant as a background for the rise of blues in the US a century later. Popular formulations such as “From Mali to Mississippi” are anathema to historical studies.
The roots concept also has an ideological undertone. It implies that you can study at one culture without the light of history, while the other cultures is just “roots” to the former, a repository of stagnant, centuries old tradition. The concept insinuates that one continent is a provider of musical raw material to be processed somewhere else. Now to us in Africa, this is not acceptable. We are not roots to anyone.

You'll notice that he spent so much time in the field in Africa that he refers to the continent as "us".

Summing the whole interview is impossible (the audio file lasts one hour), but here are a few decisive points that I picked :

Using a "trait by trait" comparison between various forms of blues and field recordings he made in every part of Africa, Kubik eventually drew a map of blues sources in Africa. The darkest zone is the "core area for the provenance of the rural blues" and covers the best part of the Savanah belt (first legend) : Southeastern Mali, Burkina Faso, Northern Nigeria and Cameroon. Some musical styles there were influenced by Islamic and Mediterranean culture.

Then you have areas showing more blues traits (second legend, in grey), and areas where asymetric timeline patterns are prominent (Guinea Coast and Central Africa), a trait absent from the blues, but present in Brazil for instance (third legend, in light grey). The two remaining legends demarcate areas where specific instruments (slider techniques and mouth harps) are used.

On the other hand, "Delta blues has processed a stronger shot of traits from the West African savanna and sahel zone than other blues styles".

What are those traits ? Declamatory singing, wavy, ornemental intonation and pentatonic tonal systems (e. g., the famous "blue notes" that were absent from European traditions).

In the audio interview, Kubik plays successively a song by Big Joe Williams and a recording of a single-stringed fiddle player in northern Cameroon, and the result is quite amazing.
I don't own the latter (go hear the audio interview for that), but just check the Big Joe Williams tune : it really sounds African.

Big Joe Williams - Stack'o Dollars (buy) (Chicago, 31 oct 1935)

Well, what's the reason for that overlap ? Let me quote Gerhard Kubik :

One explanation would be that African Americans in the Mississippi Delta experienced greater social isolation and deprivation (than in other Americans areas). Segregation was more rigorous than elsewhere. In such a situation, people anywhere in the world tend to create and establish an alternative culture, as different as possible from that of their oppressors. The memory of Islamic values attached to an Arabic Islamized savanna style cluster, probably transmitted within just a few families, would have been eligible to fulfill such a function, and it took over in at least one genre, blues singing and blues guitar.

So, to come back to the Ali Farka Touré subject, the expression "from Mississippi to Mali" is not so wrong, but it is a 2-way link. Let us not forget that at the beginning of his career in France he became a John Lee Hooker fan and then integrated elements of American blues in his own style. All across Africa, in the late 20th century, young musicians took from American and European music : in Congo, from Cuban son and rumba; in West Africa, some singers were influenced by French chanson, in Nigeria and Ghana High Life took from Calypso, etc… So all that marketing thing about Farka Touré being the source, the roots, is nonsense. Of course there were connections between his original culture, his individual style and the blues. That's why his music is so beautiful

Ali Farka Touré – Sidi Gouro (buy) (1988)

Here's another bluesman who sounds very African : Louisiana ex-convict Robert Pete Williams.

Nest post in blues saga will be about another underrated influence of the blues : Native Americans

Sources for this post : thanks to Afropop Worldwide. The map was taken from Kubik's book Africa And The Blues, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.