Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sounds Of The South : Spirituals

Vera Hall - Trouble So Hard (1959)

I've always wondered what would all these musicians from 50 years ago or more have thought if they'd knew that their recordings would still be heard in the 21st century, studied by scholars in universities in the whole world.

So imagine Vera Hall (see picture above), wife of a coal miner from Livingston, Alabama, recorded by Lomax fifty years ago, learning she sung on an international smash hit in 1999...

So here we go gain with our Sounds of the South antholgy, dedicated today to religious music, with black and white spirituals. Sadly this great box set is out of print, but wait until the next (and final) post and you might get a special bonus..

Mississippi Fred McDowell - Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning (1959)

Fred McDowell (above with his wife) is one of -if not THE- biggest discoveries of Alan Lomax. Lomax and Shirley Collins met him with his wife in the Como area, after visiting the Hemphill and Young families. They were struck by his talent, his pure Delta blues slide guitar playing. The guitar is another voice that responds to the singer, sometimes finishing verses, in the same style as Blind Willie Johnson, the Texas preacher, a way of playing that was common before the war.

Viola James and Congregation - Is There Anybody Here Who Loves My Jesus (1959)

Reverend G.I. Townsel - A Sermon Fragment (1959)

Attending mass in the ageing, Catholic churches of France is a gloomy thing most of the times. People barely sing, the hymns are boring as hell. Always makes me wish I was in a baptist church in Mississippi listening and singing with Viola James or in Alabama with Reverend G.I. Townsel. (Not that I go to church so often, now it is only for the occasional wedding or baptism, I confess). I really can't imagine any catholic priest engaging in a sermon like Rev. Townsel !!!

Alabama Sacred Harp Singers - Cavalry (1959)

Sacred harp singing is one of the most spectacular forms of hymn singing, especially in the Southern states. Still practised nowadays (see picture above), its most famous ambassadors were the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers recorded in 1942 and here in 1959. If it is much more formal and written than the black hymns and sermons we heard before, it is not less passionate and beautiful.

In the last post about Sounds of The South you heard a song by Virginia singer and fingerpicker Estil C. Ball. He was a very religious man who later recorded a lot of spirituals. So we'll quit with his rendition of "When I Get Home", with his friend. His guitar playing is typical of Piedmont, same as Doc Watson's. Something that strikes me is how much prewar religious songs were obsessed by death, seen as a relief from this world. An idea totally alien to our Western modern (and sometimes fake or exaggerated) optimism.

Estil C. Ball & Blair Reedy - When I Get Home (1959)

DOWNLOAD HERE the full Disc 3 of Sounds Of The South (92MB)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tejano roots : Lydia Mendoza

Lydia Mendoza - Mal Hombre (buy) (1934)

Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) was the first female star in tejano music, a living Mexican-American legend on both sides of the border, with a life story that reads like a novel, full of carwrecks, alcooholic fathers and husbands, and segregation. Her recording career spans 6 decades, from 1928 to 1988, but her golden days were in the thirties when she started recording solo with her 12-string guitar. She was called 'La Alondra de la Frontera' (The Meadowlark Of The Border) and 'La Cancionera de los Pobres' (The Songstress Of The Poor). Thanks to Chris Strachwitz at Arhoolie Records, her beautiful recordings are now available in CD on various compilations.

For biographical information, you can check the short AMG bio, but if you want to know more about the lady, please don't miss this awesome article on fRoots site.

Born in Houston, she had to support her family by playing music in San Antonio plazas with her sisters. Recorded in 1934 by Bluebird, her song "Mal Hombre" became an instant hit but his father, a drunkard who prefered to stay at home and spend the money his daughter had earnt, prefered to be paid cash rather than in royalties, so although her records sold, Lydia stayed poor and on the road for the major part of the 30s and 40s.
After the war, things got better for her. She recorded for companies (especially Ideal) who paid her better, got to tour extensively in the US and in Mexico (but not before the sixties)where she was welcomed by huge mobs. In the seventies and eighties, thanks to her rediscovery by Arhoolie, she continued to perform and received all due honors.

Lydia Mendoza - Adios Muchachos (Canción Tango) (buy) (193?)

According to Strachwitz, "Lydia's totally unique. She's from the early era of recording and was the first and only real star of that era. She sang all types of songs and never stopped by limiting herself to any one genre as did, say, Chelo Silva, who only sang boleros in the early '50s. But that was the happening genre by then and catered to a better class, kind of like Bessie Smith versus Billie Holiday. Conjunto accordeon music came to the fore in the early 1950s with musicians like Flaco, Santiago, Trio San Antonio, that's really after Lydia's era. Lydia has recorded with accordeons, orchestras, mariachis, every kind of Mexican music backing. That said, she never fed into the tejano orchestra sound that was to become very popular."

I love her songs from the thirties when she's alone on the 12-string, but she also recorded great sides with orchestras, especially in the fifties, with a bolero flavor that links her music to other parts of Latin America.
Generally speaking and compared to Narciso Martinez (see previous post), her music is much more Spanish and Latin then the very Central European polkas and mazurkas that were often praised in old-time conjunto: The rhythms, the song structures with verses in minor and choruses in major (something that the Beatles adopted on some songs but that was alien to American roots music) make her sound like Cuban son singers like Eliades Ochoa from Buena Vista Social Club.

You'll find her best recordings on Arhoolie compilations. In The Best of Lydia Mendoza, Pedro Almodóvar fans will notice a version of "Piensa En Mi", a song featured on the "High Heels" soundtrack.

Lydia Mendoza - Aunque Me Odies (Canción) (buy) (1954)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A to Z : Roy Acuff

Roy Acuff - Wabash Cannonball (buy)

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was a major figure in country music's coming of age. He was the one who took old time Appalachian music and made it something big, something new, adding pop elements, new instruments (like the dobro). He is less acclaimed now than Hank Williams, The Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, but in my opinion he was the first "modern" country star, paving the way for Hank and honky tonk. Unlike Jimmie or Hank Williams, he was not a rebel (he was rather conservative) and he didn't die young.
But I love his songs and his voice. What a hit maker !!!

Roy Acuff had a great role in the development of the Grand Ole Opry and in the music business when he founded in 1942 the Acuff-Rose company.

Born in Maynard, a remote Tennessee community, he was from a family of musicians. Roy remembered that his daddy used to play the fiddle in the morning. It would wake him up and he stayed in bed for a long time listening to him.
But Roy didn't plan to be a musician : he tried his luck at baseball, but due to a severe sunstroke followed by a nervous breakdown, he never could play as a professionnal.
That's when he turned to music, becoming a member of Doc hauer's big medicine show in Tennessee in 1932 where he met people like Clarence Ashley and a dobro player, Cousin Jody.

He soon started his own band with Jody, called the Crazy Tennesseans and they got their first contract with ARC and producer Art Satherley in 1936. Roy recorded an old spiritual he had re-arranged, called "Great Speckled Bird" that became a hit in the Southeast. "Wabash Cannonball" (with vocals by his harmonicist Dynamite Hatcher) followed that year, along with songs featuring Cousin Jody's dobro work, like "Steel Guitar Blues".

In 1938, the Grand Ole Opry invited Acuff to audition for the show. At first, they were a bit reluctent to have him in because they thought his music was not "traditional" enough, but the big success of "Great Speckled Bird" proved them right. Acuff's popularity helped the GOO become popular nationwide in the 1940's.

From 1940 to 1947, Acuff and his band (now renamed the Smoky Mountain Boys and featuring dobroist Pete "Brother Oswald" Kirby in place of Cousin Jody and the great harmonica player Jimmie Riddle) had a big string of hits. Their music changed too, adding elements of jazz and pop, and became a sortof all-acoustic "eastern swing", keeping but updating the old Appalachian sound in "Precious Jewel", "Fireball Mail" or the beautiful "Wreck On The Highway" (one of my favorite country songs ever).

Roy Acuff - Wreck On The Highway (buy)

In 1947 his version of "Jole Blon" a traditional cajun tune was his last national hit until 1958.
After the war, Roy Acuff refused to "electrify" his band in the honky tonk style that he had partially influenced. He toured a lot, recorded for various companies and stayed one of the major figures at the Opry. In 1962, he became the first living performer to be inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1974 he was invited by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to appear in their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and scored a last hit with Charley Louvin for a remake of "The precious Jewel" before passing away in 1992.

My sources for this post : Roy Acuff's bio on AMG and Guide de la country music et du folk by Gerard Herzhaft and Jacques Brémond, a great French country encyclopedia.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sounds Of The South (1) : country

Neil Morris & Charley Everidge - Banks of The Arkansas/Wave The Ocean (buy) (1959)

I told you in a previous post that you'd soon hear again about Sounds Of The South, a 4-CD box set of field recordings made by Alan Lomax during his journeys in 1959 with Shirley Collins. The material on this compilation already appeared on 7 lps that were published in 1960.

I've heard the first 2 cds so far, and they are a goldmine, as I expected. I'll focus on the first one today (called Sounds Of The South & Blue Ridge Mountain Music), and especially on the country tunes, that stand for 17 of the Cd's 28 tracks.

The first song (above) is a traditional medley played by two musicians from Mountain View area in Arkansas, Neil Morris & Charley Everidge. The latter is the one on the mouthbow, an instrument of possible African origin with that incredible sound (especially when it's played by White musicians)

There's another great recording of Neil Morris alone, giving his very own interpretation of the murder of Jesse James. The spoken introduction is great, the song, a little less.

Neil Morris- Jesse James (buy) (1959)

Now, an interesting version of "The Farmer's Curst Wife", a song that you can find in Harry Smith anthology as "The Old Lady And The Devil". It is hung here by Estil C. Ball (see picture above), a folk and gospel singer from Rugby, VA.
Lomax had recorded him as early as 1941. Ball was a bus driver by trade, and recorded a couple of lps for County and Rounder, often singing with his wife, mostly gospel songs, but also ballads like this one. I'll probably come back to him in a future gospel post.

Estil C. Ball – The Farmer's Curst Wife (1959)

Let's stay in the Old Dominion with a bluegrass group called The Mountain Ramblers from Galax, VA. If, like me, you've never heard of them before, please read their AMG bio.

First a "straight" electric country band, they went bluegrass and acoustic after a few shifts of musicians. The Mountain Ramblers are a cult band, which never recorded "commercialy" but had a tremendous influence through the Lomax records. Or at least that's what Eugene Chadbourne at AMG says. I suspect him of exageration, especially when he says they "are considered as important to the early beginnings of bluegrass as the first records by mandolinist Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys", but maybe I'm wrong..

The Mountain Ramblers - Big Tilda (1958)

Lomax was as enthousiastic, writing that "In my opinion they stand for a new wave of American music, far more important than the city folkniks, the Paris-oriented longhairs, the selfconscious 'cool' men and the weary technicians of Tin Pan alley. They have a new orchestral form to play with and a mature singing style, and they are enjoying themselves."

I'm not (yet ?) a specialist of bluegrass history, but I know that Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs had started to record bluegrass in the late 1940s, so more than 10 years before. But Chadbourne says that the Lomax Lp was the first bluegrass record imported in Australia, for instance.

Anyway, the Mountain ramblers didn't seem to be aware of that. According to the AMG bio, "The band was recorded in 1958 by Alan Lomax, out on one of his many music gathering and recording explorations. He was fortunately able to record tracks featuring the group with its prime lineup of players. Well, almost. Bluegrass or folk music enthusiasts would invariably nod their heads knowingly at the mention of Lomax, but to some members of this group he meant nothing and in fact, guitarist Herb Lowe said he would rather go to a dance than waste time hanging around a recording session. As a result, these recordings feature a substitute guitarist, the young Eldridge Montgomery. It was his first performance with a group of any kind, so the praise that normally is bestowed on these Mountain Ramblers tracks should be doubled to count for this obvious handicap."

The Mountain Ramblers - John Henry (1958)

Hobart Smith has already appeared here in the fife and quills post . A "sadly overlooked master of Appalachian folk music" (AMG), he was a multi-instrumentist playing banjo, guitar, piano and the fiddle, as here. I usually find solo fiddle pieces a bit boring, but this one is fantastic. You can't help stamping your feet in unison.

Hobart smith - John Brown (1958)

That's all folks for today. There are still 2 records to explore (and maybe the 13 volumes of the "Southern Journey" collection at Rounder, not to mention the rest of the Lomax collection there).

DOWNLOAD HERE the full Disc 1 of Sounds Of The South (97MB)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Italian influence on country : old-time mandolin

Doc Watson - Texas Gales / Blackberry Rag (medley) (buy)

Late 19th century saw an increasing immigration wave from Europe, especially Mediterranean countries like Greece or Italy, or Eastern and Central Europe.
Those groups had their influence on American popular music and especially in country, not so much as the Afro Americans, but undoubtdedly noticeable.
If Italian folklore is not directly perceived in country, the growing use of the mandoline, first a Napolitan instrument, is a major contribution.

According to various sources, it seems that the mandolin was first introduced in the late 19th century, thanks to "a group of touring young European musicians known as the Estudiantina Figaro, or in the United States, simply the "Spanish Students."
The success of the Figaro Spanish Students spawned several groups who imitated their musical style and colorful costumes. In many cases, the players in these new musical ensembles were Italian-born Americans who had brought mandolins from their native land." (Wikipedia)

"Luthier Orville Gibson introduced the flat-backed, scroll-bodied mandolin in 1898. When designer Lloyd Loar introduced his improvement of this design, the Gibson F-series mandolin in 1923, the model's improved tone and greater volume enhanced the mandolin's appeal, as did Bill Monroe's distinctive use of the F-5 model in the 1940s and beyond.

Earlier, blind minstrels Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac & Bob) had formed a popular duo whose songs were spread via broadcasts from WLS in Chicago and their popular records. Their singing and mandolin/guitar accompaniments inspired a host of brother-style duets in the 1930s, notably the Blue Sky Boys and the Monroe Brothers." (Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press).

Monroe Brothers - My long Journey Home (buy) (02/17/1936)

I love these Monroe brothers recordings... We will come back to them later for sure.

A funny anecdote I read in Wikipedia : "Because his older brothers Birch and Charlie had already laid claim to the fiddle and guitar, respectively, young Bill was left with the smaller and less desirable mandolin during family picking sessions. Monroe later recalled that his brothers insisted that he remove four of the eight strings from the instrument so that he would not play too loudly."

More about mandolin : Country Music Hall Of Fame instrument page
About the Monroes : a great review of their compilation "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul ?" on

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fife and drums (2) : The Young Brothers by Alan Lomax

Ed Young & Brothers - Chevrolet (buy) (1959)

I finally got the "Sounds Of The South" boxset with recordings by Alan Lomax and it's a goldmine.

The Young brothers recordings I told you about in a previous post
are in my collection now, and I have to say that I agree with the guy who wrote that it's the best f&d band Alan Lomax recorded. And they sing ! And it's way better recorded than Lomax's previous tracks from 1942.

So here is the passage refering to the Young brothers performance in Lomax's book The Land Where The Blues Began :

He always danced as he played, his feet sliding along flat to the ground to support his weaving pelvis, enticing someone in the crowd to cut it with him, turning this way and that, always with dragging feet and bent knees, and always leaning toward the earth.
His brothers Lonnie and G.D. Young played with him, Lonnie at the tail of the orchestra beating the bass drum, and G.D., a tiny sprite of a man –like a little dried-up ginger root and just as peppy- on the snare drum. Once you looked closely, you saw that the mainspring of the action was Lonnie and his bass drum. Lonnie was tall, lean as a country hound, with a flat, shiny roach of hair on top, always laughing quietly and, when his drumsticks were breaking out, always dancing. Movements flowed from Lonnie's midsection throughout his body. He played the lead in the band's polyrhythm, his padded sticks making a low, murmurous, but heated comment on the squeals of Ed Young's fife, as G.D. Young, the little brother of the bunch, riffled the snare drum. They went in for subtle stuff, quiet stuff. They capered without lifting their feet; their shoulders, belly, and buttocks separately twitched to the beat.

Ed Young & Brothers - Jim and John (buy) (1959)

The dance, as you might suppose, began at once, the Young brothers supplying the music, and as participants there were wives, flirting half-grown daughters, cousins, kids, neighbors drifting in -all experts at the Delta slow drag. The chocolate tape was sliding off the reels and across the silver recording heads, while the needles on two meters jumped to the beat in the face of the big Ampex. This was 1959 and I finally had German mikes and a Cadillac of a recorder and I was doing stereo - the first stereo field recordings made in the South. You should hear the recordings – for me, a life's dream realized.

I love Alan Lomax, especially when he gets lyrical...

As I told you, fifes and quills were progressively replaced by a more powerful, more expressive competitor : the harmonica. After recording the Young bros, Lomax went to Arkansas where he found Forrest City Joe, a bluesman who played the harp with a band in the Sonny Boy Williamson style. Check out this great solo performance :

Forrest City Joe - Levee Camp Remiscence (buy) (1959)

Then after that, Alan tried to go to the Black part of town in West Memphis to find more musicianq, but immediately got busted and thrown out of town by two threatening cops. That was Arkansas in 1959...

Anybody interested in more Sounds of the South tracks ? Please let me know. It's a hard to find record and it costs like 200 bucks on Amazon ...

You can DOWNLOAD HERE the full Disc 2 of Sounds Of The South (97MB)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A to Z : Johnny Ace

Johnny Ace - Pledging My Love (buy) (1954)

It's been six months now that I'm running River's Invitation, and this blog is now dedicated to my main project of presenting the history of roots music, especially blues, country and folk music, from the beginning to the 1980s.

In addition to this chronological pattern that may seem a little monotonous, I've decided to create some more categories, and another crazy project has come to life, as stupidly systematic as the first : an "A to Z" approach of our cherished genres (blues, country, r&b, roots reggae, roots rock).
Crazy because I have absolutely no idea if we will reach the letter Z, but who cares?

So, let's start with the letter A and this short-lived R&B crooner, Johnny Ace (1929-1954).

Born in Memphis, John Alexander Jr. took part of the bourgeoning postwar Memphis scene, playing with BB King and Bobby Bland. With B.B. gone to LA, and Bobby Bland in the army, Ace took over as a vocalist and soon changed his name to Johnny Ace and signed with Duke Records.

His first hit in 1952, "My Song", established him as a ballad crooner, and he scored 8 hits in this style in two years, becoming the firm's top seller with Big Mama Thornton.
This promising carreer was put to a sudden and dramatic stop with his death by gunshot in 1954 during a break between sets at the City Auditorium in Houston, Tx.
Here is what Mr. Wikipedia wrote about the subject :

"Big Mama Thornton's bass player Curtis Tillman witnessed the event;

“I will tell you exactly what happened! Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s o.k.! Gun’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ – sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran outta that dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed hisself!”
The widely believed Russian Roulette story was made up after his death by his management, presumably to boost record sales, and cover up his childish behavior.

Big Mama Thornton, a witness to the shooting, said in a written statement (included in the book The Late Great Johnny Ace) that Ace had been playing with the gun, but not playing Russian Roulette. According to Thornton, Ace pointed the gun at his girlfriend and another woman who were sitting nearby, but did not fire. He then pointed the gun toward himself. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head.
There have also been accusations that record company owner Don D. Robey, with whom Ace had been trying to renegotiate his contract, was responsible for his death.

Ace's funeral was on January 2, 1955, at Memphis' Clayborn Temple AME church. It was attended by an estimated 5000 people."

Whatever the cause of his death, Johnny Ace was a promising singer, and "Pledging My Love", a posthumous hit, is one of my favourite ballads from the 50's.

But Johnny could rock too, usually on the B-sides of his singles, with fast blues in the R&B tradition, like this one :

Johnny Ace - How Can You Be So Mean ? (buy) (1954)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tejano Conjunto Accordion Pionneers

Narciso Martínez - Muchachos Alegres (polka) (buy)(1946)

After Mexico's independance, Central European immigrants, and especially German farmers and brewers settled on both sides of the border. They brought with them the accordion, a recent invention in Germany. Mexican and Tejano musicians borrowed it quickly, seduced its loudness, cheap price and ability to play bass and melody. Accompanied by bajo sexto and contrabajo and later with saxophones and drums, the accordion became the leading instrument of Norteño music, in Mexico or Conjunto Tejano (Tex-Mex) across the border.

This music adapted all forms of styles and dances from central europe (polka, waltz, mazurka) and from hispanic origin (corridos, the border ballads, but also bolero, mariachi or ranchera). Tejano in 20th century became the hispanic equivalent of country music for Southern Anglos or the blues for Afro-Americans.

Bruno Villareal - Un Capricho (buy)(1935)

Bruno Villareal, a blind itinerant musician from San benito, was the first to record in 1930, and was soon followed by other pionneers like narciso martinez, the first great accordion player and the father of Tejano Conjunto.

According to Chris Strachwitz at Arhoolie Records, "Narciso Martínez made hundreds of recordings of mostly instrumental dance tunes emphasizing the melody side of the accordion and leaving the bass parts to his bajo sexto player. This established a new sound, a sound which to this day is immediately identifiable as Texas-Mexican Conjunto Music. Not only did Narciso establish the conjunto accordion sound, but he was also one of the first to accompany singers on commercial records when he became the house accordionist for the newly established Ideal label of San Benito, Texas in 1946. He played with popular singers like Carmen & Laura, or Lydia Mendoza.

Lydia Mendoza with Narciso Martínez - Si Fue por Eso (bolero) (buy)(1954)

(...)Martínez learned many tunes from German and Czech brass bands. He'd listen with a friend who had a good ear and memory. The friend would whistle the tunes to Narciso when they got home, allowing Narciso to transpose them to his accordion!"

Narciso Martínez - Patricia(mazurka) (buy)(1951)

Without Chris Strachwitz at Arhoolie Records, a great tejano lover and record collector who purchased the Ideal Company and recorded numerous tejano and norteño artists, this joyful music wouldn't be so available.

For more information, check these articles about Narciso Martínez and the roots of Tejano music written by Strachwitz.