Gordon Campbell on “the old weird” music of America, with a playlist

2c23834a4f902db58b06Here’s some weird old music for the weird realities of lockdown. Like other key phases in popular music – jazz, country, rock’n’roll, punk, hip hop – the period between 1927 and 1932 marked a revolutionary leap forward. The writer Greil Marcus used the term “the old weird America”” to describe this era, a time before music became fully commodified and shorn of its regional variations. Those regional peculiarities had evolved in the hills and the hollers, and they came from a more spacious time in America’s cultural history when music making – sacred and secular – hinted at a world that was vast and mysterious. By contrast, musical styles now travel at warp speed around the globe, pounding regional variations into a relatively homogeneous soup in the process.

While Marcus was right to underline how this era’s music did incorporate styles and sensibilities with roots in the 19th century (and even earlier) this music isn’t simply – or mainly- a museum of tradition, trapped in vinyl. It was also very fluid, and vastly influential on what came afterwards. Crucially, the years 1927-1932 saw a mass market emerge for music originating from places well beyond the reach of the Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. Suddenly, the music industry realised that poor whites and blacks would buy and listen to the sacred and secular music that came from their own communities. For a brief period, it became financially viable to send talent scouts into Appalachia and through the South and out as far as Texas, to find these homespun musicians and record them. Once the music had been set down in the mandatory three minute recordings that the technology demanded, these then became the templates for what the music should sound like, even while they spread a wealth of musical styles beyond the old regional borders.

By 1932, the crushing poverty of the Great Depression had pretty much killed this original market for “race” records, and for “hillbilly” music. Regardless, these are the earliest accessible ancestors to much of what we now think of as popular music. This Werewolf playlist linked at the foot of this column doesn’t claim to be in any way exhaustive.

Info on the Artists

Elder J. E. Burch and his Congregation : “How Can I Keep From Singing” Elder J. E. Burch of the Triumph Church was an influential preacher from South Carolina and this track was recorded by RCA Victor talent scout Ralph Peer in 1927. At the beginning and end of this brief video clip ( taken from the music documentary series American Epic) you can see Burch’s congregation performing one of his other well-known (at that time) tracks called“ Love is My Wonderful Song.”

Blind Willie Johnson: “You’re Going To Need Somebody On Your Bond,” “Dark Was The Night” Frank B. Walker and Ralph Peer were the most important of the era’s roaming talent scouts. (Earlier, Walker had discovered the great jazz vocalist Bessie Smith.) Commonly, talent scouts would give out handbills to announce that they’d be auditioning the artists and recording them in their hotel rooms at the given time. One weekend in the Deep Ellum neighbourhood of Dallas in 1927, Walker must have thought all of his Christmasses had come at once. The guitar evangelist Blind Willie Johnson walked in on the Saturday, and the very next day, so did Washington Phillips. Johnson is one of the towering figures of 20th century American music, and Phillips (see below) is one of the most idiosyncratic.

Johnson’s wordless moan “ Dark Was The Night” (Cold Was The Ground)” is a masterpiece unlike anything else. It was included in the music placed on the Voyager space craft (along with Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”) to represent human culture to any aliens who happen to come across it.

Frank Stokes: “You Shall” The Memphis blues musician Frank Stokes had one of the best (and most modern-sounding) voices of the era. There’s an accessible, earthy confidence to tracks by Stokes like “Take Me Back” and “ How Long”… On “ You Shall” Stokes has some useful advice about how to handle any cheating, two-timing men of God who happen to darken your doorway.

McGhee and Cogar: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. If you know this hymn at all it is probably from how the evil preacher played by Robert Mitchum weaponised it in the film Night of the Hunter. (The Coen brothers also included the song in their revisionist Western, True Grit.) A few years ago – and with helpful input from the Athens, Georgia musician Jim White – I devoted an entire column (called “When Good Hymns Are Sung by Bad People”) to its origins, including a hunch as to where Mitchum may have first come across it.

Virginia Dandies: “God’s Getting Worried”. Walter “Kid” Smith and the Virginia Dandies also used to record as the Carolina Buddies. Kid Smith recorded this track in February. 1931 with Odell Smith on fiddle, and harmony vocals by the guitarist, Norman Woodlieff.

Richard “Rabbit” Brown: “James Alley Blues”. Brown was a New Orleans street musician whose reported repertoire – typical for the street artists of the time –ranged from blues to popular musical hall numbers to minstrel songs. He also performed a smattering of his own original compositions about topical events like say, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Brown is said to have died in 1937, but he’s known more by reputation and by the accounts of others than by any firm traces of his existence.

Talking of topical songs about events in 1912…Brown did also write and record a song about the disappearance that year of the Dunbar child, from a family picnic. This mysterious scandal got cleared up only several decades later in a brilliant episode (called “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar”) of the This American Life podcast. “James Alley Blues” is a different kettle of fish entirely. The song is spookily intense, all the way through to its chillingly hostile final line.

NuGrape Twins: “I Got Your Ice Cold NuGrape.” Product placement was part of the picture, even then. This is a song of praise for the fine NuGrape beverage, first marketed in 1921.It was immortalised in this song as an elixir sure to win the hearts of the ladies, and as a general pick-me-up tonic :

When you feeling kind of blue
An’do not know what ailin’ you
Get a Nugrape from the store
Then you’ll have the blues no more

Like the NuGrape cordial itself, the NuGrape Twins (born as Mark and Matthew Little) came from Georgia. Reportedly, they died in the 1960s, but the NuGrape drink still lives on today reportedly, in choice outlets around Atlanta.

Frank Hutchison: “Worried Blues” and “The Chevrolet Six” Hutchison (1987-1945) was a coal miner ( and later a postmaster and owner of a general store) in rural West Virginia. He was the first recorded exponent of Piedmont style white country blues. Even before Jimmie Rodgers came on the scene, Hutchison was releasing records on Okeh, the famous black music label. He was a fine slide guitarist and a soulful singer. On other tracks like “ The Train That Carried The Girl From Town” Hutchison’s country music influences were a lot more to the fore.

Henry Thomas: “Old Country Stomp” Born way back in 1874, Thomas made distinctive use of the quills, a 19th century cane reed set of pipes similar to those used by slaves, and by the indigenous folk musicians of Peru and Bolivia. In the 1970s, Canned Heat used the quills effect on their hit revival of Barbecue Bob Hicks’s song “ Going Up The Country” and the Lovin’ Spoonful also recorded Thomas’’ Fishing Blues.” Bob Dylan recorded a version of yet another Thomas track, “ Honey, Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance..” Thomas is believed to have died in 1930.

Mike Hanapi, with Kalama’s Quartet: “Hilo Hula” Mike Hanapi ( 1898-1958) was a saxophonist, steel guitarist and vocalist from Honolulu. His falsetto voice was usually set against a velvety bed of harmony vocals, ukuleles and lap steel guitars – and while the contrast did at times resemble the yodelling of country music, the overall effect of Hanapi’s music was soothing, not lonesome.

Bentley Boys : “Down on Penny’s Farm” This was an early protest song about the exploitation of farm labour. The track comes from the second session (i.e. in 1929)held in Johnson City, Tennessee by the ubiquitous talent scout Frank Walker, newly promoted by that time to being the head of Columbia’s “hillbilly records” division. It is hard times in the country, down on Penny’s farm. The song rails against the extortion of farm labour by land owner George Penny, and also against the merchants who ring the cops and put debtors on the chain gang, if they can’t pay their bills

Now you move out on Penny’s farm,
Plant a little crop of ‘bacco and a little crop of corn,
He’ll come around to plan and plot,
Till he gets himself a mortgage
On everything you got.

Washington Phillips : “Take Your Burden” andDenomination Blues” The son of freed slaves, Phillips recorded fewer than 20 tracks in his lifetime, but they’re unique in their benevolent mood, sincere delivery and very odd instrumentation. (Phillips backed himself on a home-made instrument – somewhat like an autoharp in a box – that he called a Manzarene.) As Werewolf mentioned several years ago, many misconceptions about Phillips’ life and death were cleared up only fairly recently, in a great piece of investigative reporting by the Texas journalist Michael Corcoran. In 2017, Corcoran was interviewed about his research into Phillips’ life and works by RNZ’s national treasure, Trevor Reekie.

Rev Edward Clayborn : “Death is Only a Dream” “ God’s Riding Through This Land”. If Blind Willie Johnson was unmatched in the fierceness of his singing and the brilliance of his slide guitar playing, Rev Edward Clayborn’s guitar evangelism took a different, more mesmerising approach. The chugging mid-tempo guitar lines are almost identical in all of his music, but each one is subtly different. Heard one after the other, they’re almost trance-inducing. BTW, when Clayborn makes a mention in the “God’s Riding” track of Pittsburgh in 1927, he’s talking about the fatal explosion of the city’s gigantic gas cylinder – which was the biggest in the world at the time – after a team of contractors unwisely tried to repair it with acetylene torches.

Dillard Chandler: “I Wish My Baby Was Born” This track is a ring -in, but for a reason. Dillard Chandler (1907-1992) was an illiterate ballad singer who grew up in Sodom, North Carolina, in the same mountain region where Cecil Sharp collected most of the“ Child Ballads” that demonstrated the lingering influence of British musical traditions on American folk song. Chandler was a walking jukebox of hundreds of Appalachian ballads and while this track was recorded outside the chosen 1927-1932 timeframe, his music – recorded by folklorist John Cohen in a memorable album called Dark Holler – is a fascinating compendium of the region’s old European influences, and of its unique vocal phrasings.

J.P. Nestor: “Train on The Island” John Preston Nester recorded only four tracks for RCA Victor talent scout Ralph Peer as “J.P. Nestor” at the same session in Bristol, Tennessee in August 1927 where the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers also made their debuts. Neste/Nestor and his fiddle player were offered paid transport to New York City to record more tracks, but he refused to leave his home in the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia and never recorded again. “Train On the Island” equates the “squeal” of the locomotive with the singer’s anguished feeling that he, sick and weak, can’t be of any practical use to his beloved.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford: “Lost John Dean” Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a hugely influential performer and collector of Appalachian folk music and of the old mountain styles of dance as well. He can be glimpsed in this excerpt from a great David Hoffman film shot in the mid 1960s of Appalachian music and dance.

“Lost John Dean” happens to be a prime example of the tangled lineages that Greil Marcus was talking about, in reference to some of this music. Lost John Dean /John Green was an escaped slave – or a convict on the run – and a trickster hero. He can be traced back to Br’er Rabbit and beyond to the African tales of Anansi the Spider, and also to Creek Indian rabbit trickster stories. (That rascally trickster Bugs Bunny probably figures somewhere on the branches of this family tree.) As the tale of a successful slave escaper it is hardly surprising that “Lost John Dean “was popular among black audiences during the last decades of the 19th century and subsequently. Lunsford recorded this version in 1928.

Taylor’s Kentucky Boys: “Soldiers Joy” This group of shifting hillbilly musician – some white, some black- was actually named after its manager, Dennis W. Taylor. “Forked Deer” by the same ensemble is also worth checking out.

Mississippi Sheiks: “Blood In My Eyes for You.” Bob Dylan fans will know that the Minnesota Maestro recorded his own version of this song, which was recorded by the Sheiks in 1931.This popular group was largely comprised of members of the Chatmon family from Bolton, Mississippi. Their father was Henderson Chatmon who, during slavery times, had been known to be a “musicianer” – a term for slaves able to play well, and to sight read music.

Buell Kazee: “The Wagoner’s Lad” This pretty ballad is a forcefully told tale of seduction and betrayal, yet it is as elegantly and mournfully expressed as a Victorian morality tale. “Oh, hard is the fortune of all womankind/she’s always controlled/she’s always confined/controlled by her parents until she’s a wife/then a slave to her husband the rest of her life..” A prolific recording artist in the 1920s and 1930s, Kazee retired from the music business to devote himself to the ministry, but he made a successful comeback during the folk music boom of the early 1960s.

Sacred Harp Singers, Alabama Sacred Harp Singers : “I’m Going Home” “Windham”. Finally… When most of us think of gospel music, it tends to be of black gospel music and its contributions ( Aretha etc) to soul, hip hop and popular music in general. Yet white gospel also has its own incredibly rich traditions – including those to do with “shape note” aka “sacred harp” music.

Sacred harp is an a capella form of choral music, and it can sound like the strangest and wildest music on the planet. The term “sacred harp” comes from a very popular 1844 hymn book of the same name, which contained a simplified (“shaped note”)form of musical notation. Commonly, the choir (or group) gets divided into four parts – treble, alto, tenor, and bass – spaced around a hollow square in the centre. Each song begins with a “do re mi” type intro to get everyone in sync, before launching into the actual lyrics of the hymn itself. I’ve included one uptempo recording called “I’m Going Home” and also one perennial taken from the 1844 hymn book, called “Windham.” For some years now, sacred harp choral singing has been experiencing a revival – including here in Wellington – and some of the impetus came from the inclusion of sacred harp music in the film Cold Mountain.

Here’s the playlist