Monday, April 27, 2009

North Mississippi fife and drums

Othar Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band - Granny, Will Your Dog Bite ? (buy) (1980)

In 1942, while traveling in North Mississippi, Alan Lomax discovered a community of musicians who played the most African-like (and I would add : with a little Indian influence too) music played in the USA (see my "Fifes and quills" post).
He recorded Sid Hemphill in 1942 with his band (snare drum, fiddle, guitar, quills), then in 1959 the Young brothers, the first real Mississippi fife and drums band ever recorded. Unfortunately I don't have these tracks, they are on a compilation called "Sounds of the South".

North Mississippi fife and drum bands generally feature a bass drum, a snare drum and a home made fife. They played at picnics, gatherings and celebrations. On Memorial day week end there was always a big fife and drum party just outside of Como, which underlines the military origins of this tradition. Fife and drums is a soldier's music, widespread in the British colonies and in the US Army.
Black recreational fife and drum music is very rare in the USA, but is common in the West Indies (check that Jamaician field recording released by Folkways in 1975), which were an important transit point for slaves shipped from Africa. In the USA drums were generally banned during slavery. So we can assume that this special, and very local tradition originated after the Civil War. But Mississippi fife and drum music is much more festive, as the descriptions made by Lomax in "Land Where The Blues Began" of picnics and dances suggests. There is a constant interaction between musicians and dancers, and very suggestive and sexual dance postures.

About Mississippi fife and drums, check out this great article by David Evans (1972), and watch this 10 minute-movie by Evans.

If this music may sound a little repetitive, you have to hear (and watch) it live. I saw a Brazilian batucada band in my hometown festival a few weeks ago, and this polyrythmic beat really puts you in a trance.

Napoleon Strickland - Black Water Rising (buy) (1969)

Fife and drums is a family and a community affair. Two of the most recorded performers, Othar Turner and Napoleon Strickland, said they learned how to play and make fifes from Sid Hemphill, who also taught his granddaughter, Jessie Mae, who was a great bass drum player. And Othar Turner taught his children and grandchildren.
Here are 2 videos of Sharde Thomas, Othar's granddaughter who keeps the tradition alive.
Check out this article about her.

First video with her grandfather (aged 94 at that time). You'll notice that she's learning to play in rhythm first, rather than melodically.

A few years later :

Looking for more ? Pay a visit to the folkstreams site, there are plenty of articles about fife and drum music and Othar Turner.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Old time mountain banjo

Buell Kazee - The Wagoner's Lad (buy) (1928)

When Cecil Sharp went to the Appalachian mountains in the 1910s (see previous post), the area was already changing, with the rise of the coal industry. Immigrants came in numbers to build roads and work in the mines.
Among them were Afro-americans, freed from slavery and looking for better life conditions. The meeting of these musical traditions, the Appalachian and the Afro-american gave birth to what would soon be called country music.
While the British and Celtic tradition relied on violin and singing, Black musicians added rhythm and the guitar.
Minstrel and blackface shows in the XIXth century had already brought Afro-american influences to the mountains, and spread the use of the 5-string banjo.

Whitter, Hendley & Small - Shuffle Feet Shuffle (buy)

While until 1920 the guitar was seldom seen in the mountains (it was difficult to get one), the banjo was easy to build, easy to play and widely spread.
While Afro Americans progressively turned away from the banjo because it wasn't easy to play blue notes on the instrument, white musicians in the Appalachian invented new styles, new built instruments, sometimes fretless, and new tunings. These home made styles, like the famous clawhammer (that you can hear on the Buell Kazee recording), asociated with the "classic" playing from the Northern states, were the ancestors of the bluegrass banjo as popularized by Scruggs.
Banjo players like Charlie Poole, Doc Walsh or Frank Jenkins did a lot for the evolution of old-time banjo into bluegrass. We will come back to these musicians, and I'll have to make a whole series of posts about the history of the banjo, but for the moment, let's hear a great instrumental by Frank Jenkins.

Frank Jenkins - Home Sweet Home (buy) (1927)

Thanks to Gadaya at Times Ain't Like They Used To Be, I discovered that strange and very interesting compilation called The Library Of Congress Banjo Collection. It is a collection of field recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by the Lomaxes (them again). A great document, with a raw sound, not made for commercial release but for song collection. Among a lot of old time banjo tunes, I love this one played by a Black performer from South Carolina and recorded on the plantation where he lived. This is one of the rare recordings of Afro Americans from the Appalachian playing banjo.

Belton Reese - McKenzie Case (1939)

The last track was recorded at a banjo contest in Virginia in 1941. The player, Raymond Sweeney, performs a version of "John Henry" with a 3 finger style that was evolving into the style known as Scruggs or bluegrass.

Raymond Sweeney - John Henry (1941)

If you want to hear more of this album, just go there

If you want to see a video of Buell Kazee explaining different old time banjo styles, just go there.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fifes and quills

Flutes or pipes are not very common in blues recordings, because in the 1920s they were already part of the past, and had been replaced by the harmonica. In the blues, there are of two sorts :

The quills

Everybody with an interest in music should read Land Where The Blues Began by Alan Lomax.
When Alan Lomax came first to the hill country near Senatobian, in northern Misssissippi, in 1942, he met Sid Hemphill, a multi-instrumentist, born around 1876. Hemphill showed him the quills, "a set of hollow canes of varying lengths, bound together with the tops even". They are the same instrument as the Greek or Romanian panpipes, or the Inca's rondador. The quills were of various sizes, 4-tube to 10-tube for Sid.

In my first post about Indians and the blues, I'd put a recording of Sid Hemphill playing the quills in a fashion that called back to his African and Indian roots.

"Them's the quills...that's old folks' music. Music of olden time. Back yonder almost everybody used to play on quills. Now, ain't hardly common no more."

Henry Thomas : Old Country Stomp (buy) (Chicago, june 1928)

Another great quills player was Henry Thomas, who recorded 25 sides for Columbia in 1928. Being born in the 1870s, like Sid Hemphill, he was one of the oldest blues musicians ever recorded. The song above is an old square dance tune from the 19th century.

Read more about the quills here in this great Web page by a guy named Norm Sohl.
Ed at the great blog The Blue bus made also a great post about the quills.

The fife or fice

In Land Where The Blues Began there is this great description of Napoleon Strickland making his fife :

Majesterially, he draws the red-hot poker out of the coals and, holding up a section of cane, says, " Now this is something you go fishing with, but I'm gonna fix it so it will make music." He puts the cane down on the floor and, holding it steady with his foot, burns the first finger hole into the barrel, then puts the poker into the coals again. " Now I'm gonna show you how I make it sing."
He holds the flute uo to his lips and licks the place where he will blow it. Then he burns in that hole. Next he licks his other fingers and spreads them along the barrel, locating the other finger holes in accordance with his normal way of spreading his hand along the barrel when he plays. These tuning points are marked with spit. He nicks the chosen witted points with his big clasp knife - "See, I takes my knife and I swings each one of them out."
"How far apart do you put the holes ?"
"About half an inch, I think"
Here we witness black magic. No micrometer, not even a ruler or a pattern, has controlled the tuning of his fife. The finger holes are simply set a comfortable and familiar distance apart, where his fingers naturally fall when he's playing. He carefully burns out and enlarges these holes, one after another. He delicately touches the end of the cane. "When the sound come out this end, you got it made." Napoleon opines. "Now I'm gonna burn the jintes out of the cane." So saying, he pushes the red-hot poker up the barrel of the new fife, and as he burns through each joint of the cane, delicate notes of smoke rise in the kitchen air. Withdrawing the poker, he blows the barrel of the fife clear of smoke, shavings, and cinders. He rubs the cane to cool it off. "Now," he says proudly and with his widest grin, "here's the fice, and i'll do it like this."

Of course, fife is often accompanied with drums (and I soon will post about that style).
Ed Young was another fife player that Lomax met on his hill country trips. Here is a improvised version of "Joe Turner" he recorded with white banjo player Hobart Smith.

Ed Young & Hobarth Smith : Joe Turner (buy)

(this photo and the first one were taken by Alan Lomax).

From field hollers to the blues : Texas Alexander

Leadbelly : Linin' Track

Nobody knows for sure, but it's admitted that the blues was born around the 1890s. In his interview about Africa and the blues, this is what Gerhard Kubik says :

" We don’t know exactly what kind of music was first heard which later would be called blues. But African Americans began to try their hands on the guitar—before that it had been the banjo—soon after the Civil War, at first imitating the current, 19th-century popular music. They imitated ballads and other European country folklore. That is how the three common chords got into the blues. The stage was set by African-American soldiers participating in the Civil War. There is a precious photograph of a minstrel show they staged during that period or later, with one guitar and two banjos. Then some younger, second generation African American guitarists began to introduce the tonality of field hollers and other former slave folklore into their guitar accompanied music. They were highly successful. But they had to find ways of adapting these different total harmonic systems to each other."

Work songs and field hollers, being a capella, didn't have to stick to a particular structure or harmonic system, and thus were very spontaneous forms of expressions, bearing a lot of African traits, and especially the famous blue notes that were totally alien to Western harmony.

A great exemple of this transformation is the music of Texas Alexander (1900-1954). Born in Central Texas, he had been working on various camps, building railroads, levees or roads, including forced-labor camps. He was also a solo singer, who didn't play any instrument. Unfortunately there's hardly any picture of him.

Texas Alexander : Levee Camp Moan

Texas Alexander was first recorded in 1927 with New Orleans guitar player Lonnie Johnson (see photo below), one of the finest players of the era, and one of the first blues musicians to play guitar solos.

According to Lonnie Johnson, quoted by Paul Oliver (1) “He was a very difficult singer to accompany; he was liable to jump a bar, or five bars, or anything. You just had to be a fast thinker to play for Texas Alexander. When you been out there with him you done nine days work in one! Believe me, brother, he was hard to play for. He would jump–jump keys, anything. You just have to watch him, that’s all.”

"Levee Camp Moan" is one of Alexander's masterpieces. Lonnie Johnson doesn't try to play the three common chords, but just tries to respond to Alexander's vocals. Alexander sung with a lot of different musicians after him, but Lonnie Johnson was the one who best understood his music.
This is the blues being born. Note that the lyrics are sung in the first person, which is typical of the blues. The singer tells his own story.

Here's another song in which Lonnie plays the tree common chords. It's really funny to hear how the guitar plays cat and mouse with the vocals, trying to catch them.

Texas Alexander : Sittin' On A Log

For musicians only : You'll notice notice that the third (or dominant chord, e.g. G in the key of C) is barely played. The blues has a problem with dominant chords. Mr Kubik (kneeling on the left on photo below), please, again, explain that to us :

"It seems this integration was reached by African American musicians in the late 19th century when they were trying to align the tonality of field hollers, many of which are in savanna pentatonic system, with a guitar chord progressions they had learned. It then turned out to be possible to first back a field holler melody with the tonic chord (C) on the guitar, and then switch back to the sub dominant chord (F). (...) The dominant chord had to be modified or omitted or substituted. And so we get through blues and jazz history the problem of what to do with the dominant chord. They rejected it. You can listen to bebop. All the time it's being substituted by something else. Bebop has blues tonality."

Texas Alexander was also accompanied by pianist Eddie Heywood, who was a little less at ease with Alexander's singing, but finally got away with it quite brillantly, although he plays cat and mouse with the vocal line.

Texas Alexander : Sabine River

If you want to know more about Texas Al (like how he was sentenced to prison for murdering his wife in 1940) , check out these links :

AMG biography

2 great posts by DJ and blues scholar Jeff Haris on his Big Road Blues site

Texas Troublesome Blues : The Blues of Texas Alexander part 1

Texas Troublesome Blues : The Blues of Texas Alexander part 2

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Gu-Achi Fiddlers : Black Mountain Mazurka

The Gu-Achi Fiddlers : Black Mountain Mazurka (buy) (1988)

While searching the Canyon Records site for Native music, I stumbled on a review of this record, which is a living example of the great melting-pot of American popular music. And the perfect transition post between Indian and Hispanic music, the next style I will study in my exploration of US music's origins.

The Gu-Achi fiddlers belong to the Tohono O'odham (Desert People) Nation, formerly known as the Papago. They're from the Sonora desert, in Southern Arizona. They play fiddle music, backed by bass drum, snare drum and a guitar. Their music is an amazing mix of Indian melodies, Spanish and Mexican influences (especially norteno), and they play dances from all parts of Europe : polka, mazurka, 2-step.
As the title suggests, this is old time music, precursor to a more recent style called waila or chicken scratch, with saxophone, drums and electric guitar.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Star Maker Machine (and blues from South Africa)

Just a quick one, to tell you that I'm posting now on a collective blog called Star Maker Machine (after a Joni Mitchell song).

Go see this blog, it's great : every week there's a new theme, and people have to post songs about it.
This week, the topic is "rediscovery". I'm happy to be a part of SMM because I love this blog and it'll give me the opportunity to post about every genre, now that River's has gone old-timey oriented only.

Speaking of discoveries, here is a song picked from the "Africa and the blues Cd". It comes from South Africa and it's played on the pennywhistle, a cheap flute that replaced the too expensive saxophone in the townships during the 1950s and 1960s. That style, named kwela, is the father of mbaqanga (you know, the "Graceland" style). This is a great example, along with Ali Farka Touré, of a "full circle" cultural influence, because the blues, an American form partly influenced by African music, came back to Africa after the Second World War.

Lemmy Special Mabaso - 4th Avenue Blues

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Africa and the blues (2) : face to face

Dear fellow river men and women,

I have received -and am halfway into- the book by Gerhard Kubik I told you about in a previous post. And Garaya just provided the companion disc on his blog.

That means I can post those fascinating samples given by Kubik when he did that "trait-by-trait" comparison between blues songs and field recordings he made in Central Cameroon in 1964.

Let's start with Big Joe Williams' "Stack-o Dollars", a very rough, one-chord Delta blues accompanied by a one-string fiddle. According to Kubik, an Africanist,"Delta blues has processed a stronger shot of traits from the West African savanna and sahel zone than other blues styles".

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

Now, let's hear Meigogué, a Hausa gogé (one-string fiddle) player recorded by Kubik in 1964. Gogué was a professional trader (like a lot of Hausa) and musical traveler from Cameroon.

Adamou Meigogué - Gogé song(Yoko, Cameroon, feb. 1964)

Meigogué's singing style with its melisma (singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession), alternating voice and fiddle, one-string melody and penthatonic mode is really close to the Big Joe recording. This style of music is influenced by Muslim-Arabic music, especially in the way of singing.

Another (even more) fascinating comparison can be made between :

A grinding song by a Tikar woman from Central Cameroon recorded by Kubik in 1964. Kubik said he had walked for half a day when he came to her village and heard her sing. So he gathered his equipment and recorded her at once. The song is about hard work, children supporting and the fear of death.

Tikar woman - Grinding Song(Monbra, Cameroon, feb. 1964)

... and Mississippi Matilda's "Hard Workin' Woman"

Mississippi Matilda - Hard Workin' Woman(buy)(New Orleans, 1936)

In addition to being simply amazing (and beautiful), those two examples show two distinct African styles that have influenced the blues (I'm quoting Kubik); They both come from the same area, the west central Sudanic belt, i.e. "the region from Mali across northern Ghana and Northern Nigeria into northern and central Cameroon"

(1) A strongly Arabo-Islamic song style, as found for example among the Hausa. It is characterized by melisma, wavy intonation, pitch instabilities within a pentatonic framework, and a declamatory voice production. All this behavior develops over a central reference tone, sometimes like a bourdon

(2) An ancient west central Sudanic stratum of pentatonic song composition, often associated with simple work rhythms in a regular meter, but with notable off-beat accents. This style reaches back perhaps thousands of years to the early West African sorghum agriculturalists, now scattered through the Sudanic belt in remote savanna, often mountainous areas. This style has remained unaffected by the Arabic / Islamic musical intrusion which reached West Africa along the trans-Saharian routes.

Of course, other African styles played a part (see the map on my first post), but those styles from west central Sudanic belt have a lot of common traits with the blues. They are devoid of percussion instruments, and drums were banned in most of the US plantations. they rely on string instruments, and are played by solo artists or small groups, on stringed instruments for the Arabic/muslim styles. That's probably why they survived more than the other styles in Northern America.

If you haven't, please check out the "Africa and the blues" program (interview, podcast) on the Afropop site.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Songs about old people : John Prine vs. Jacques Brel

Great discovery of the past weeks : the self-titled John Prine album from 1971, and especially the song "Hello In There". The music is awesome, the lyrics too; as I read somewhere, what kind of 26-year old wrote so well about old people ?).

John Prine - Hello In There (buy) (1971)

Wow ! That song alone (and a conversation with a friend over great polish vodkas) made me want to play music again. If I come up with something good enough, I'll post it here (own song or cover).

I realized I couldn't remember a better song about old couples. Except maybe the Jacques Brel song. But Jacques Brel's point of view is more general, the song is called "Les Vieux" ("The Old Folks"), whereas Prine puts himself in the skin of a retired man, which I think is stronger. Anyway, the Brel song is one of his masterpieces.

Jacques Brel - Les Vieux (buy) (1963)

Here's a translation I made, borrowing some lines from the English cover by one Laurika Rauch (quite forgettable I would say)

Old folks don't talk
Or only with their eyes
Even rich, they are poor
They lost their illusions
And share one heart for two

Their homes all smell of tyme, of clean, of lavender
And of old-fashioned words
May you live in the city, you all live in a small town
When you've lived much too long
And have they laughed too much, do their dry voices crack
Talking of times gone by
And have they cried too much, a tear or two
Still always seems to cloud the eye
And if they tremble a little
Is it because they're watching the same old silver clock
It tick-tocks oh so slow, it says, "Yes," it says, "No"
It says, "I'll wait for you."

The old folks dream no more
The books have gone to sleep, the piano's out of tune
The little cat is dead and no more do they sing
After Sunday's white wine
The old folks move no more, their world's become too small
Their bodies feel like lead
From the bed to the window
Then from bed to armchair
And then from bed to bed
And if they still go out, arm in arm, arm in arm
All dressed in stiff clothing
It's to follow in the sun
An older man's burial, an uglier woman's funeral
And while they mourn and cry
They'll forget for an hour the same old silver clock
It tick-tocks oh so slow, it says, "Yes," it says, "No"
It says, "I'll wait for you."

The old folks never die
They just go down to sleep and they just sleep too long
They hold each other's hand afraid to lose each other
But one will get lost anyway
And the other will remain here
The best or the worst, the gentle or the strict
It doesn't matter now, the one who's left behind
Just finds himself in hell
You'll see her sometimes, You'll see him one day
All covered up with grief
Crossing the present
Already feeling sorry of not going further
Escaping while they can
For the last precious time
The same old silver clock
It tick-tocks oh so slow, it says, "Yes," it says, "No"
It says, "I'll wait for you."
The old, old silver clock that's hanging on the wall
That waits for us

I'm sure you know a lot of other great songs about old age. Don't hesitate to mention them in the comments section. It's great to hear from you guys!

Friday, April 3, 2009

One more folk song : Barbara Allen

Surely one of the best-known of all traditional songs on both sides of the Atlantic, "Barbara Allen" was collected by Cecil Sharp on various places during his Appalachian trips (see previous post).

It is a very old song, of uncertain origin, going back to the 17th century in England and Ireland as well. See here for more details about the song.

As Mr. Wikipedia says "Most versions of "Barbara Allen" can be summarised thus: a young man is dying of unrequited love for Barbara Allen; she is called to his deathbed but all she can say is, 'Young man, I think you're dying.' When he dies, she is stricken with grief and dies soon after. Often, a briar grows from her grave and a rose from his, until they grow together."

Following a request for early and traditional version sof the song, I dug and found a few interesting ones.

In the 1950s song collectors from America went to Ireland and recorded traditional singers, in a sort of Cecil Sharp trip in reverse. Here is one of them, Sarah Makay, recorded in 1954 by Jean Ritchie.

Sarah Maken - Barbara Allen (buy) (1960)

Let's cross the ocean once again and hear a bluegrass version by The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover (banjo), recorded for Folkways in 1961.

The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover - Barbara Allen (buy) (1961)

Then, back to England, with Shirley Collins and her sister Dolly's strange and beautiful portative organ. Shirley was an important figure in British folk revival in the sixties and after.

Shirley Collins - Barbara Allen (buy) (1968)

But Barbara Allen was not only sung by folk musicians. Barbara could be pop and jazzy and swinging sometimes.

Doris Day - Barbara Allen (buy) (1941)

(quote from Wikipedia) : "Johnny Cash re-wrote lyrics to this song and performed it live at Austin City Limits in 1987. The song was re-named "The Ballad of Barbara". The main theme of the song is about divorce instead of death.".

In fact the song was first recorded in 1977 on The Last Gunfighter Ballad. I prefer the original version.

Johnny Cash - Ballad of Barbara (buy) (1977)

Unfortunately I don't have the beautiful Bob Dylan version, but here it is on the Deezer player

Découvrez Bob Dylan!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Cecil Sharp in the Appalachians

Cecil Sharp was the founding father of the English folk revival in the beginning of 20th century. When he came to America in 1915 he realized that nearly all of he English folk songs the immigrants had carried with them in America had vanished, replaced by more sophisticated and "educated" versions.
Then he heard abut the Appalachian, the geographical isolation and the strong folk song tradition of the mountaineers. Sharp made three visits to North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and collected 1700 traditional English ballads, including versions that were not being sung in England and Scotland anymore. The whole story is told in this excellent article. The collected ballads included "The House Carpenter", "Barbara Allen", "The Gypsy Laddie", or immigrant songs like "Pretty Saro" (look here for the song's origins).

Dolly Greer - Pretty Saro (buy) (From the album "Doc Watson & Family, 1963)

Dolly Greer is a distant cousin of Doc's. She sings it a cappela, in the open, the way people sang to Sharp in 1917.

Imagine a very British scholar in a 3-piece suit climbing the mountains and meeting with bewildered but cooperative families of mountainers, and you won't be far from the truth.

But when he visited the Appalachian, the place was changing, opening to the outside world. Coal mines were attracting a population of new settlers coming from different parts of the continent and from overseas. This new melting pot was about to give birth to what we now call country music.

Sharp was only interested in the survival of English ballads and didn't pay much attention to native American ballads of any origin.

There's also this controversial quote in his diary :

We tramped - mainly huphill. When we reached the cove we found it peopled by niggers... All our troubles and spent energy for nought.

In his obsession for lost British folklore, Sharp (who was not so sharp-eyed after all) totally missed what was about to happen to American folk music. Nevertheless, his story is a great document to study the origins of country music.

In September of 1916, Sharp collected 26 songs from a Mrs Bruckner in Black Mountain, NC, including "The Farmer's Curst Wife", that Bill & Belle Reed recorded under the name "Old Lady and the Devil" 12 years later. In the mean time, the guitar had begun to replace the banjo.

Bill & Belle Reed - Old Lady and the Devil (buy) (1928)

Find more versions of this song here, on my fellow French roots blogger Gadaya's wonderful site, Old Weird America, entirely devoted to the Harry Smith anthology. It's a real gold (or coal ?) mine !