Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fiddle tunes (2)

Johnny Gimble

Paul Warren - Listen To The Mockingbird (buy)

Kessinger Brothers - Turkey In The Straw (buy)

Johnny Gimble - Ragtime Annie (buy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 27, 2009

Before jazz : Marches and brass bands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A to Z : Ray Agee (1930-1990)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadbelly - Duncan and Brady (buy) (1947)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fiddle tunes (1)

on the photo : Gaither Carlton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Hartford - Leather Britches (buy) (1971)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 13, 2009

Happy 14 juillet (French National holiday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Black ballads (3) : Railroad Bill and Kassie Jones, Heroes of the railway

Will Bennett - Railroad Bill (buy) (1929)

Furry Lewis - Kassie Jones (two parts) (buy) (1928)

On March 7, 1896, a man was shot at Tidmore and Ward’s general store in Atmore, Alabama (see photo above), and fell dead with 15 bullets in his body. The authorities and newspapers identified him as Railroad Bill, the famous outlaw who had been robbing trains in the Louisville to Nashville (L&N) railroad line and around, and murdered (at least) a lawman and 2 sheriffs that ware sent after him. You can find his whole story here at the Encyclopedia of Alabama, and an account of his death here at Lady Muleskinner Press.

Railroad Bill soon became a hero, especially to African Americans, who saw him as a symbol of rebellion against white power in these hard times of increasing segregation. He was said to be a sort of Robin Hood, selling stolen goods to the poor at a cheap price, and as a trickster and even a shapeshifter, able to turn into a dog or a fox when he was hunted. As Paul Oliver writes in his book Songsters and Saints :

Railroad Bill was the bad man/hero who was admired and feared by the black community; the outlaw on whom could be projected the challenge to the dominant whites, which, in a troubled time, they were too afraid to make themselves.
Ballads about Railroad Bill started circulating around 1900, and in 1929 Will Bennett, an unknown songster, recorded the most famous afro-american version in Tennessee. He puts himself in the place of the outlaw with a long description of his weapons, exactly like a gangsta rapper of the 1980's...

Kassie Jones (or Casey Jones, see photo above) was another great hero of the railway and subject of numerous ballads. He was the opposite of Railroad Bill : a white ingeneer who died in 1900 at the controls of his machine in a collision with another train while speeding to make up for lost time.

As he did for "John Henry" and the ballads on the Harry Smith anthology, Gadaya at The Old Weird America made a great post about Kassie Jones, including Lewis'bio, the whole story of the events depicted in the song and the history of the Casey Jones ballad. You can also find 50 different versions of the song !

Go to the Kassie Jones post on Old Weird America and find 40 different versions

While white singers emphasized the heroic behavior of the engineer and made him a symbol of self-sacrifice (he stayed at the control trying to stop his train and asked his fireman to jump to safety), the Furry Lewis version, which is the first recorded by an Afro-American, is quite different. Furry Lewis was an ex-hobo who had lost the use of a leg while trying to get on board of a train in his youth.

If you look at Furry Lewis' version (see here the lyrics of the traditional "white" ballad and the Furry Lewis version) it is not a chronological account of the facts but a sort of "stream of consciousness", jumping from the story to the narrator's point of view and to verses that seem to have no relation to Casey Jones and are borrowed from other ballads. The emphasis is not only on Kassie (who becomes almost a secondary character) but also on the figure of the "easeman" or "eastman", the narrator. Here's the final stanza :
I left Memphis to spread the news
Memphis women don't wear no shoes
Had it written in the back of my shirt
Natural born Eastmen don't have to work
Don't have to work
I'm a natural born Eastman, don't have to work

which makes Paul Oliver write :

The Eastman, or easeman, was a hustler, who lived by his wits, and, most often, as a pimp. Perhaps because the principal figure was white, perhaps because he died at the throttle straining to make up time, Casey Jones seems not to have been an enduring hero-figure in black ballads compared with the popularity of the engineer in white songs. If the moral of the story to some white singers was a reckless attention to duty, Furry Lewis's insouciant final stanza makes it clear where he stood.

In fact, just like Will Bennett's "Railroad Bill", it is very typical of what Paul Oliver calls the "blues ballad". The words are improvised, only the general structure is pre-established, with stanzas and, in the case of "Railroad Bill", a one-line refrain. In every recording Furry Lewis did of "Kassie Jones", the words were different : some new stanzas appeared and some others were put in a different place. These traits are found in the blues too.

Will Bennett ends his "Railroad Bill" with stanzas about his alcoholism, which have nothing to do with the Railroad BIll story. It is, in a sense, very symbolical of how the blues was born. Songsters, in addition to playing the old ballads, started to sing about their personal experience. The blues is very often sung in the first person.

I guess I've told you enough for today...

PS : Let me add, as a bonus track for those who'll have read the whole text, a great cover of Kassie Jones by Rory Block, 70 years after !

Rory Block - Kassie Jones (buy) (1998)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tejano Roots (4) : Valerio Longoria

Valerio Longoria - El Canoero (buy) (1989)

Lisandro Meza - Cumbia Pa'Oriente (buy)

Valerio Longoria - Pasa Tiempo (buy)(1963)

Valerio Longoria & Freddy Fender - Escarcha (buy)(1963)

Valerio Longoria (1924-2000, see his bio here) was an innovator in many many ways for Tejano conjunto. He was one of the first to sing while playing, and to do so while standing up on stage. He added new instruments to the traditional ensemble like a set of drums or the saxophone and bass guitar; he could repair his instrument and manipulate new sounds (by adding an extra row of buttons, by altering reeds and bass stops), an ability that made him, as AMG says "a Les Paul of the accordion".

He also added a lot of new genres to his repertoire, and especially "tropical" music styles like cuban bolero and cumbia from Colombia. The first song posted here, "El Canoero", recorded with his sons on bass and saxophone, is a typical cumbia, a genre originating in Columbia, as you can hear in the next track, "Cumbia Pa'Oriente" (by Colombian singer Lizandro Meza).

The next 2 songs are Cuban boleros, the first tropical genre to be recorded by traditional musicians both sides of the Mexican-American border (see my post about Lydia Mendoza). The second one is sung by hispanic country star Freddy Fender.
The appropriation of these styles brought a more sophisticated tone to Tejano music.

PS : For those who speak Spanish, two great articles about Mexican cumbia here (from a lecture by Mexican scholar José Juan Olvera) and here (a Wikipedia article about Mexican cumbia)

And you know what ? It definitely makes me want to get deeper into Latin music, so I'll post again about it, maybe going South from Texas to Mexico, and then South again.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Black balllads (2) : Jack Johnson and the Titanic : when the blues brought the news

Leadbelly - the Titanic (buy) (1948)

First I'd like to wish all my American readers a happy 4th of July. Please check out Darius'blog, Oliver di Place, for great Independance Day posts here.

Let's go on with our exploration of Afro American balladry. Yesterday I found this great Leadbelly song in a French compilation called Black Heroes : From Stagger Lee to Joe louis.
Another subject of ballads was the news, the real events (and not only legends). The sinking of the Titanic gave birth to hundreds of songs. As always, Gadaya made a great job of compiling the best Titanic songs in his blog.

When that great ship went down : the Titanic variations at Old Weird America

But what's also interesting in Leadbelly's song is the mention of Jack Johnson, not the singer, but the boxer, a true Afro American hero. He became heavyweight world champion in 1908 after defeating Canadian Tommy Burns who until then had refused to fight a black man. The legend has it that he wanted to board the Titanic but was turned back because, as Lead sings, the captain "didn't haul no coal".
Apart from that song, Jack Johnson is absent from folk songs, but Miles Davis dedicated an album to him in 1970.

Musically, the Leadbelly song is very close to this one by Johnnie Head, who only recorded 2 sides in 1928. With his kazoo and tenor voice, he must have come from a vaudeville/medicine show or even jazz background.

Johnnie Head - Fare thee Well (buy) (1928)

Other athletes (like boxer Joe Louis or baseball players Jackie Robinson or Larry Doby) were the heroes of folk songs, but there's a song I really like, that I also discovered in the Black Heroes compilation. I guess it's the perfect post for a 4th of July. It tells the story of how a poor Mississippi farmer called the White House in 1934 to save his mortgaged farm. Pdt Roosevelt himself picked up the phone and helped him.
The news went nation-wide and Memphis Minnie made a song out of it the following year.
Find more here about the story.

Memphis Minnie - Sylvester and his Mule Blues (buy) (1935)