Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Black ballads (1) : John Henry

Ed Cabbell - John Henry (from the Digital Library of Appalachia) (2000)

The Two Poor Boys - John Henry Blues (buy) (1931)

Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry - John Henry (buy) (1958)

Today we'll start a series of posts about Afro-American ballads, a musical form that came just before the blues. Ballads were derived from European sources (see previous posts about folk songs), but very soon in the 19th century American ballads emerged, and among them, the ballads of black folk-heroes. The songsters and itinerant musicians carried these songs all over the country, and soon they would evolve into blues, the main difference being that in the blues, singers tell their personal story.

John Henry is by far the most popular of the black ballads, and the most covered in many genres, by musicians of all origins.

First of all, if you want to know and hear more about John Henry, go to Gadaya's John Henry post on The Old and Weird America. My fellow French blogger from Britanny has made a wonderful work of picking no less than 100 versions of the song compiled in 4 different playlists that you can download. The result is amazing. You will also find useful links (including this site dedicated to JH) and a great review of the song.

For this blues oriented post, I only chose African American versions. John Henry was a steel driving man and the famous Big Bend episode told in the song, when he competed against a steam-powered drill, might have taken place in West Virginia. This Appalachian origin explains why the song was covered by countless country and bluegrass musicians.

Painting : Palmer Hayden

In the first version I posted, Ed Cabbell mentions this last fact with humor in his spoken intro, before performing the song a capella, the traditional, work-song way. One of the reasons why the song is so popular, beside the symbolism of its lyrics, was the melody, with its short phrases and pauses, that made it an ideal hammer song, as Paul Oliver states. And please click on the guy's name, you'll learn many intersting things (in short he's a scholar, activist and historian of the Afro American community in the Appalachian).

(Almost) Nothing is known about The Two Poor Boys, apart that they came from East Tennessee and recorded one session in 1931. We don't even know for sure if they were black or white, although I ( along with the majority of historians) really think they were the former, contrary to what Wikipedia says. Their version is interesting because it has a strong hillbilly heritage : the mandolin, the singing and the floatin verse "Who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet", taken from old English ballads. The two guys were probably songsters and played material of various origins. Read more about them here at American String Conspiracy, a great blog that sadly has gone dead.

The third rendition by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry is an old favorite of mine, because it was in my father's collection when I discovered blues 25 years ago. I guess this is the version I hear in my head when I think about John Henry. The duo was from the Piedmont region, just like our hero.

Mississippi John Hurt - Spike Driver Blues (buy) (1928)

Cephas & Wiggins - Nine Pound Hammer (buy) (1996)

Those are the main 2 variants of the song I also wanted to post. The first is by Mississippi John Hurt, one of the best songsters ever recorded (We will soon come back to his amazing life story). Here the melodyic line, at least in the very first verses is about the same, but the story is a bit different. It's a sort of "post-John Henry" song where the worker prefers to leave than to go on working like this, as if Henry's death had changed something. It's also a symbol of the musician and songster's life, who prefers his freedom and independance to hard labor. Leadbelly did another great version of that song with his "Take This Hammer". Note that Lead used to boast he could pick a bale of cotton a day (an impossible job for one man) in a very John Henry-like attitude.

"Nine-Pound Hammer", first published as a "negro folk-song" in the 20s became a country and bluegrass hit for the Monroe Brothers, Merle Travis or Tennessee Earnie Ford. Cephas & Wiggins, a sort of modern McGhee-Terry duet from Virginia recorded it in 1996 for their beautiful album Cool Down

And what about you ? What's your favorite version of John Henry ? Tell me, please !
Consider checking Gadaya's post on OWA before. Merci Gadaya for your help as the main source of this post.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

From Honolulu to Nashville : Hawaiian music and country

Hi, today we're going to the islands... And Btw, I'd love to read more comments from you guys. I mean you are 200 or more to come here everyday, and no one drops a line ? C'mon guys, don't be so shy, just tell me if you love the music here. Put gas in RI's engine !
I know it's not technically easy to leave comments, but maybe this will help.

Benny Nawahi - Maui No La Ka Hoi (buy) (1930)

Sol Hoopii - Hula Girl (buy) (1933)

The music played by Hawaiians in America had a tremendous influence on American popular music until World War II, and especially on country music, where steel guitars and yodels became a trademark.

Guitars were first introduced on the islands by Mexican vaqueros in the 19th century. In the years 1870-80, Hawaiian musicians invented a new way of playing guitar. By raising the nut they could play with the guitar lying flat on their lap, sliding a bottle or a piece of steel on the strings. The sounds produced matched their traditional way of singing. They played open chords and used countless different tunings.

The annexation of Hawaii in 1898 gave birth to a real passion in America. People were dreaming about these paradise islands, and the first tours by groups of musicians were hugely successful. The Bird of Paradise follies in 1904 in Broadway turned this fashion to a real craze.
Crowds were stunned by Hawaiian guitarists and singers, and their records sold by millions, making Hawaiian music a best-selling genre. Hawaiian musicians easily adapted their art to vaudeville, country, blues, and jazz.

It is mainly for them that American instrument makers from Central Europe (Dopeyra or Rickenbacher) created metallic guitars like the National or the Dobro.
The king of these guitar players was Sol Hoopii, a real genius and perhaps one of the best slide guitarists of the century. His only rival was King Benny Nawahi, who started to play on Trans-Pacific boats before settling in California.

Roy Smeck - Twelth Street Rag (buy) (1931)

Jimmie Rodgers - Everybody Does It In Hawaii (buy) (1929)

This revolutionary way of playing the guitar was soon imitated by many American musicians from the mainland, jazz men, bluesmen who sometimes, thanks to old African traditions like the diddley-bow, were already familiar with slide playing, and country guitarists.

The first blues record ever recorded by a man, "Guitar Rag", by Sylvester Weaver in 1923, was a Hawaiian-style instrumental. Leon McAuliffe, Bob Will's guitarist, did a great cover of it, "Slide guitar rag"; Cousin Jody with Roy Acuff, Jimmie Tarlton, Cliff Carlisle played or featured laptop steel guitars.

New York City multi-instrumentalist Roy Smeck (photo above) learnt steel guitar after seeing Sool Hoopii on stage, and became one of the most stunning virtuosos of the instrument, as you can hear on his version of "Twelth Steel Rag", a piece were jazz and swing meet country music.

Jimmie Rodgers, the "father" of country music, toured with a Hawaiian group of musicians in medicine shows before recording his first sides. His famous yodel is more Hawaiian than Swiss : the melodic line of his trademark yodel is the same as "Maui", (my first post). JImmie recorded two songs with Hawaiian guitarists Joe Kaipo and Charles Kama in 1929, including this "Everybody Does It In Hawaii".

Danny Stewart - Les Femmes d'Amérique (buy) (1937)

I have to thank, once again, Mr Gérard Herzhaft, French scholar and ethnomusicologist, who wrote a lot about the subject, and is the author of the great compilation Hawaiian Music : Honolulu - Hollywood - Nashville 1927-1944 (Frémeaux & Associés) featuring 4 of the 5 tracks I'm posting today.
He also wrote the liner notes (in French and English) that helped me a lot and and were my main source of information for this post. A shame that his encyclopedia of country and folk wasn't translated into English.

Last track I want to post is in French. Hawaiian music was big in my country too in the early 20th century, because of French Polynesia and the links we have with this part of the world. Les Femmes d'Amérique is a ballad originating in Tahiti (the main French Polynesian island) , here sung by Danny Stewart and played by Augie Goupil's band. Goupil was a Tahitian musician and bandleader working in Los Angeles. The chorus could be translated as :

American women are so pretty / But to have them, you've got to have dollars
While in Tahiti / You have them for nothing
Vive Tahiti / The land of love (le pays des amours)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A to Z : Derroll Adams (1925-2000)

Derroll Adams - Portland Town (live) (From the out of print Live album, 1976)

Derroll Adams - Oregon (buy) (1977)

Derroll Adams - Freight Train Blues (From the out of print Feelin' Fine album, 1972)

Derroll Adams was a very influential figure in the folk community in the sixties and seventies, but his recordings are scarce and hard to find. He's much more popular in europe than in his native country. A banjo player and singer, he led a unsteady life, marrying five times, changing jobs and homes (see his full biography). A left-wing sympathizer, he wrote anti-war songs like Portland Town, met Woody Guthrie and Rambling Jack Elliott in the fifties in California.

In 1957, he relocated to England, playing gigs and recording with Elliott in London.
Derroll stayed for good in Europe, marrying and settling in Brussels. He met Donovan in the mid-sixties in London and and became the subject of the younger singer's song, "Epistle to Derroll". He can be seen in Pennebaker's movie, Don't Look Back, introducing Dylan to Donovan.
Then his marriage broke again, and despite an album for Decca in 1967, his rebellious way of life, and serious bottle problems prevented him from pursuing a steady career.

In 1970, Derroll Adams married his fifth wife, and settled down in Antwerp, Belgium. He recorded several LPs (Check out his discography here), and gave countless gigs all over Europe until the late '80s. In 1990, folk musicians like Rambling Jack Elliott, Bert Jansch and Pentangle musicians came to Courtrai, Belgium, to celebrate Derroll's 65th birthday on stage.
In the 1990s, his health was failing and he turned to painting. He passed away in 2000 in Antwerp.

Belgian TV made what looks like a great documentary on Derroll. You can see three distinct videos on Youtube, including that one (I love what Arlo Guthries says about folk music at the end)

Did you know him ? And if you didn't, did you like what you've heard ? Please don't hesitate to give your comments, you've been quite silent, these days, but I know you come on a regular basis.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tejano Roots (3) : Don Santiago Jiménez Sr.

Don Santiago Jiménez Sr - Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio (buy) (1979)

Don Santiago Jiménez Sr - Viva Seguin (buy) (1942)

Don Santiago Jiménez Sr - Zulema (buy) (1979)

Don Santiago Jiménez Sr. is not only a great musician and Tejano conjunto pioneer, but he's the father of Flaco Jiménez, probably the biggest Tejano star, who mixed his father's style with country and jazz, and Santiago Jiménez Jr, who played in the traditional way.

Don Santiago was himself the son of an accordeonist, Patricio Jiménez, from Eagle Pass, Tx. Patricio was from this generation of Mexican musicians who borrowed polka, mazurka and waltz from the German-American musicians and mixed them with rancheras to create a wholly new sound.
Santiago made his first records in 1937, mostly polkas or waltzes, bringing innovations like the use of the small double bass called tololoche, combined with the 12-string bajo sexto. You can hear its distinctive flapping sound in each of the three tracks posted here.

For all his life, Santiago Jiménez kept to the 2-button accordion, even when the instrument became dated. The first and third track here are from a beautiful Arhoolie record he made in 1979 with his son Flaco on bajo sexto and Juan Viesca on the string bass. The first song, "Ay te dejo en San Antonio" was covered by Los Lobos in 1983.

Here's a video taken from Chulas Fronteras, a documentary on Tex-mex music shot by Les Blank in 1976. Most of the video features Flaco Jiménez and in the very end, you can see his father, playing his small accordion. Sadly the interview is cut off, but it is very interesting to hear the difference between father and son (and you get the grandson too).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

New Orleans and the birth of jazz

Original Dixieland Jass Band - Livery Stable Blues (buy) (1917)

Original Dixieland Jass Band - Dixie Jass Band One Step (buy) (1917)

Spike's Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra (Kid Ory) - Ory's Creole Trombone (buy) (1922)

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band - Just Gone Blues (buy) (1923)

At the turn of the century, a number of crucial Afro-American musical styles were born that would change forever the face of XXth century music. We've discussed in a previous post the ragtime boom, and we've heard various forms of spirituals.

Today, we will stop in the Crescent City, the place where jazz was born.
If jazz is not the main topic in this blog (which has more to do with various forms of American popular songs, especially country music and the blues), it deserves a series of posts because its links with the blues are very strong, as well as its folk roots. Jazz is absent from the purest forms of blues (i.e. "Delta" blues), but both styles took a lot from each other. Think of the first "classic " blues female singers like Bessie Simth or Ma Rainey, who were backed by jazz combos, or the big band boom of the 40's which had more of its share in the rise of rhythm and blues.

New Orleans is the "craddle of jazz", if not the only city where jazz took form.
The French catholic community were more liberal than the Puritans in the rest of the South, and during French and Spanish administration drums and percussions were allowed among slaves (cf. the Congo Square tradition).
New Orleans is a port, open to Caribbean influence (there was for instance, a significant Creole immigration wave from Haiti), and a city of pleasures and entertainment, with Storyville as the epicenter.

To learn more about the historical context, especially the French speaking Creole subculture, check out these excellent articles here at Red Hot Jazz, and here at Dixieland Jazz. To sum it up, it was the clashing of the refined and classical musical training of the Creoles with the traditions of the American Blacks, (for the majority, newly freed slaves and their descendants) that caused jazz to emerge. The Creoles brought their mastering of music and ensembles while the Afro-Americans brought improvisation, the key factor in jazz, as well as the blues, spirituals and hollers.

In NO, as in any city before the phonograph era, there were a lot of orchestras, playing on various occasions : picnics, garden parties, funerals, dance halls. Bands played everywhere, not only in Storyville. In the streets, the gardens, sometimes on top of wagons that cruised the streets, advertising a dance. They soon borrowed the military brass band instruments that were left after the Civil and Spanish American wars.
Marches, square dances, polkas blended with rags, spirituals, blues, to form a new style of music.
The classical Dixie jazz orchestra was formed then, with one or two cornets, trombone, clarinet, double bass (or tuba), 4-string banjo (or guitar) and sometimes piano (although it was absent from the first jazz orchestras).

There are sadly no recorded documents of this great turn in instrumental Black music in the first years of the century. In 1916, bandleader Freddie Keppard refused to record (by fear of being imitated) and legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden never put foot in a studio. The first recording was in february 1917 by a white orchestra, The Original Dixieland Jass Band (photo below), led by Nick La Rocca.

The spirit of jazz is present in those recordings (the fun, the polyphony, the 4/4 beat), although the band don't improvise and the rhtythm is still a bit "stiff", brass-band like.

Most historians agree that Black musicians sounded much better at that time, but it took 5 more years for them to record. The first was bandleader and trombone player Kid Ory (below with his orchestra) in Los Angeles in 1922, then King Oliver (with Louis Armstrong on second cornet) in 1923 for Gennett in Richmond, Indiana.
Both musicians had emigrated as soon as 1919, but Ory chose California for health reasons, while Oliver went to Chicago.
Those bands, especially Oliver's, have a much better sense of swing. Oliver's style is still polyphonic, without solos.

We'll come back to early jazz later, with recordings that predate 1917, and a lot of other suprises for you. Thanks for your patience (for those who've read all) and laissez les bons temps rouler !

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Blues standards (A to Z) : After Hours

Erskine Hawkins Orchestra feat. Avery Parrish - After Hours (buy) (1940)

Clifton Chenier - Blues After Hours (buy) (1969)

This instrumental blues piece was first written and arranged by Avery Parrish who played piano in Erskine Hawkins Orchestra (photo below), for Bluebird records in 1940. The slow walking bass and right hand melody are easily recognizable and deliver a perfect wee-wee hours athmosphere, with smoky bar and sleepy pianist. The horn section only comes in at the very end of the song.

It was covered by numerous blues and jazz musicians. In jazz, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Jimmy Smith or Roy Haynes tried their hands at it.
Blues musicians include other pianists like Blind John Davis, Jay McShann or Pinetop Perkins, and guitar players like Pee Wee Crayton or Roy Buchanan.
And last but not least, the Clifton Chenier version for accordion and zydeco band, from his "Sings the Blues" album released by Arhoolie in 1987 but recorded by Roy C. Ames in Houston, Texas on April 1, 1969 and first released on Prophesy and Home Cooking labels.

As for Avery Parrish, according to All About Jazz, he "left the Hawkins orchestra in 1941, moved to California, and subsequently got into a bar fight. He suffered partial paralysis and never played again, at the age of 24. He died under mysterious circumstances at 42, in 1959".

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The ragtime boom of 100 years ago

Scott Joplin - Maple Leaf Rag (buy) (pub. 1899)

According to Wikipedia, "Ragtime (alternately spelled Ragged-time) is an originally American musical genre which enjoyed its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918. It began as dance music in the red-light districts of American cities such as St. Louis and New Orleans years before being published as popular sheet music for piano. It was a modification of the march made popular by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. The ragtime composer Scott Joplin became famous through the publication in 1899 of the "Maple Leaf Rag" and a string of ragtime hits that followed, although he was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s". Please check out the article, it's really well made.

I love the sound of piano rolls and player pianos. Ragtime piano, first a written music, and especially Maple Leaf Rag, sounds better this way than when it's played live. You really get the 1900's picture I guess.

Here's a great jazz cover of this theme, by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, an excellent white band from the early twenties :

New Orleans Rhythm Kings - Maple Leaf Rag (buy) (1923)

Jelly Roll Morton - Tom Cat Blues (buy)

Cow Cow Davenport - Mama Don't Allow Easy Riders (buy)(1929)

One of the first stars in early jazz, Jelly Roll Morton (photo) wrote some rags too. The second track, by Alabama-born Cow Cow Davenport, is a good example of ragtime when played by blues-boogie pianists : musically simplified but as lively and syncopated. That was really ragtime's main appeal : mixing classical melodies with syncopated rhythms. Like jazz, like the blues. It took what was best from European and African cultures.

Another style to integrate the ragtime idiom was the beautiful Piedmont blues from the Southern Atlantic coast (from Virginia to North Florida).
Guitar players like Blind Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller or Blind Willie McTell had numerous rags in their repertoire. But the undisputed "king of ragtime guitar" was Blind Blake, one of my all-time favorite guitarists and musicians, who really made his instrument sound like a piano. We'll come back to him, but everything by Blind Blake is worth buying.

Blind Blake - Southern Rag (buy) (1926)

Learn more about ragtime :

AMG review of The Greatest Ragtime Of the Century

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Waltzes, Polkas and Yodelling : Central Europe in country

Charlie Poole - There'll Come A Time (buy) (1926)

Immigrants from Germany, from the different countries of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires (Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Russia,etc..) came in numbers to America in the 19th and early 20th century, especially to the mining states of the Appalachian mountains. Like every other group, they brought their musical traditions with them.

First, waltz -originally a German and Austrian popular dance. Waltzes were very common in the first old-time country recordings, like this Charlie Poole song above, and in Cajun recordings in Louisiana. They probably came from the big cities with different waves of European immigrants.
Check out more info on Charlie Poole here at Old Weird America.

Pee Wee King - Get Together Polka (buy) (1952)

Coming from the Czech lands, Polka, with its lively beat and 2/4 time signature (distinct from the waltz's 3/4) was one of the most infectious dances of the 19th century, spreading everywhere in Europe from France to Scandinavia and Ireland. In America, polka and made its way into country music and into Mexican-American border Tejano where accordion became the key instrument (see previous posts). Pee Wee King, born born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski, came from Polish extraction and was the son of a polka band leader. A major figure in the Grand Ole Opry, he introduced not only waltz and polka, but also modern instruments (drums, electric guitar).

Roy Rogers - Cowboy Night Herd Song (buy) (1937)

The Swiss, German and Austrian Alps were one of the main places where yodeling was born (along with some areas in Central Africa and in the Caucasus for instance). Although he was not the first one to record yodel songs (Riley Puckett did that in 1924), Jimmie Rodgers popularized yodel in such an extent that he was imitated by legions of singers, including cowboys like Roy Rogers. The origins of Jimmie Rodgers' yodelling remain uncertain. It seems this way of singing was common in vaudeville, medicine, minstrel and tent shows (both black and white) where many country and blues musicians worked. Hawaiian musicians, hugely popular in the early 20th century, had also adopted yodel.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sounds Of the South (4) : American Folk Songs For Children

Almeda Riddle - My Little Rooster (1959)

In my modest opinion, the fourth disc in the box set Sounds Of The South is musically speaking the least interesting, although it has an undeniable documentary value.
Most of the performers were already present on the previous cds, but there are newcomers like Almeda Riddle (photo above), an unacompanied folk singer from Arkansas who sings 5 old nursery rhymes in a traditional way.
Among them "My little Rooster", "Frog Went a-Courting" or "Go Tell Aunt Nancy", a song that French singer Dick Annegarn adapted in 1999.

There are also a few bluegrass songs, blues by Fred McDowell or harmonica player Forrest City Joe. But my favorite one is by Bessie Jones and was recorded in the Georgia Sea Islands.

Bessie Jones & Group - Johnny Cuckoo (1959)

You'll notice, of course, the difference in singing between both performers.

And there is one more by the wonderful Estil C. Ball, here with his wife Orna fo a delicious "Paper of Pins" that I uncluded here in a post I made for Star Maker Machine about questions and marriage.

Now, the surprise. I don't do that usually but here I'll post the whole box set, given that it is out of print.

Sorry, all I have is a file and not the physical box set, so I can't give you any photos or liner notes. You may find the covers at Amazon.

DOWNLOAD HERE the full Disc 1 of Sounds Of The South : Sounds of the South - Blue Ridge mountain Music (97MB)

HERE Sounds Of The South Disc 2 : Roots of The Blues - The Blues Roll On (97MB)

HERE Sounds Of The South Disc 3 : Negro Church Music - White Spirituals (92MB)

HERE Sounds Of The South Disc 4 : American Folk Songs For Children (92MB)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Discography : Country 1927-42 (Fremeaux & Associes)

Sam Mc Gee - Railroad Blues (buy) (1928)

My discography of roots music is expanding week by week. Recent additions include this great compilation from Frémeaux & Associés, an excellent French label devoted to traditional music and audio books. They've got a huge collection of blues, country, early jazz and world music compilations with liner notes in French and English.

This double Cd is a good introduction to prewar country music. Every subgenre is featured, from old Appalachian folk (a lot of songs in common with the Harry smith anthology) to hillbilly blues (Sam McGee, Jimmie Rodgers), old-time (Carter Family, Monroe Brothers), cowboy ballads and Western swing (Bob Wills, Milton Brown), and the first country stars (Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb).
Liner notes are by French scholar Gérard Herzhaft.

Check out here the tracklist and the AMG review.

Highlights include this immortal classic by the Carter Family

Carter Family - Wildwood Flower (buy) (1928)

Please don't hesitate to tell me which artist or album you would like to hear or you think is absent from my discography and deserves an entry. I'll be glad to post about them if I like them. Paul already suggested George Jones, an artist I'm not very familiar with. I just received a GJ compilation and I'll soon be posting about him. So I'm waiting for your suggestions.
Please note that only folk, blues and country artists in the broad sense are accepted. Prewar jazz and pre-1954 R&B are also accepted, along with Tejano, Cajun or other forms of American folk music.
I'm counting on you all !