Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939)
Revenant No.214 (2 CDs)
In the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Bob Dylan has some interesting things to say regarding what had captivated him about folk music, as a young man. He talks of discovering ‘… a parallel universe… with more archaic principles and values… A culture with outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths… streets and valleys, rich peaty swamps, with landowners and oilmen, Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys - an invisible world that towered overhead with walls of gleaming corridors… Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding… (a) mythical realm… it was life magnified.’ Elsewhere, he describes putting together a repertoire of his own from the tradition (long before he had started to write songs) consisting of songs that were ‘… about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children… floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers… They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn’t come gently to the shore… They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic …’
Dylan is writing here about a time more than 40 years ago, but there is something in the tone of his descriptions that reflects a very contemporary perspective on traditional music and musicians (trust Bob to be ahead of the game). In that last phrase ‘some different republic’, he is echoing (as he freely acknowledges) the work of the writer Greil Marcus, whose extraordinary book Invisible Republic (Picador, 1997) explored the connections, both in spirit and materially, between songs and music from the American tradition and Dylan’s Basement Tapes songs, with particular reference to the Folkways reissue series Anthology Of American Folk Music, assembled in the early 1950s by Harry Smith. The Anthology (three volumes of two-LPs each) had drawn on commercially issued recordings from the 1920s and 1930s and it was re-released on CD at about the same time as Marcus’s book appeared (Smithsonian Folkways 40090). Partly because of the Invisible Republic connection, and partly because the reissue included a new set of essays (including one by Marcus and one by the late guitarist John Fahey) giving different perspectives on the selection, reviewers (many of whom had evidently never heard of it before) started to describe the Anthology in ways that it had never really been seen in the past, hailing it in the most hyperbolic terms. Suddenly, a set of records that had been around for years, a familiar sight on the shelves of discerning music fans everywhere, was being hailed as monumental and even prophetic.1
Harry Smith was a highly individual character - an artist in diverse media and a pioneer record collector, rather than a folklorist - and the original visual presentation (using odd collage effects) and commentary (especially his highly truncated song summaries) in the Anthology had been decidedly eccentric. Personally, I had always seen this as being a bit of fun, but now reviewers seemed determined to invest it with all sorts of significance, no doubt influenced by the tone of Marcus’s commentary. For some of us who had known and loved the Anthology, and similar music beyond its covers, what seemed interesting about all this was that whereas folk music had, in the past - especially in the USA - been packaged as a healthy alternative to the decadences of popular consumer culture (an opposition similar to that between wholefood and junkfood), now it was being given a quite different slant - as being something that reached deep back into a mystic and unfamiliar past. In this interpretation, traditional music’s original exponents, far from being the upright rural bearers of a noble tradition they had once beeen assumed to be, were, in fact, enigmatic and even sightly threatening guardians of an arcane and obscure art, as if the music’s natural context was closer to occult ritual than hootenanny.
Harry Smith had apparently prepared a fourth volume of his Anthology, never released by Folkways, but Revenant issued it on CD about 5 years ago (Revenant No.211), again packing it with additional commentaries - fascinating stuff, although just possibly losing sight of the fact that Smith, who had been dead for about a decade by this time, seems to have been more inclined to let the music speak for itself. A year or two earlier, the same company had issued the first volume of American Primitive (Revenant No.206, a splendid selection of early recordings of sacred songs). Its notes were distinctly on the esoteric side, and its packaging used a range of peculiar graphics, including a woodcut of the god Pan, and the familiar photograph of Charley Patton, altered to resemble a Halloween mask. You could read too much into it, but it seems unlikely that the pagan slant in all this was just an accident. Reviewing that disc elsewhere, I suggested that one way of looking at this was simply as the latest in a long line of marketing efforts. Whereas at various times in the past, audiences could be attracted to the blues by having it sold as ‘the origins of jazz’, then ‘the real folk blues’, then ‘the genesis of rock’n’roll’, now the post-punk, post X-files generation could only be persuaded to take an interest if they could be convinced that it was mysterious, distinctly edgy and maybe even a little bit dangerous.2
One final introductory point: it’s worth reflecting on the fact that when Smith originally put his Anthology together, the records that he included were little more than a couple of decades old, and the rights to many of them were owned by major media corporations, such as CBS (who owned Columbia, Vocalion etc) and RCA (Victor, Bluebird etc). So far as I’m aware, these giants never noticed, and if they had, it is unlikely that they would have bothered very much - in the 1950s they would doubtless have considered most of the records to be entirely without value (by the time the CD version appeared, the corporate view had changed to some extent, but the recordings were no longer protected by copyright). This sense of the material being considered essentially worthless in establishment circles echoes what a reviewer in the Independent recently said about the music on this disc when he likened it to ‘outsider art’. Of course, in the 21st century, ‘outsider art’ is newly trendy, championed by hip young artists who would kill for a fraction of the spontaneity and richness that some ‘outsider artists’ seem to be able to achieve naturally, and even pop stars (Jarvis Cocker made a TV series about it a couple of years ago).
This rather long and rambling introduction is intended to press home the point that we seem to have reached a stage in the presentation of traditional music in which the construction of a distinctive and very particular kind of context is increasingly important. It seems to be necessary to try to place it in some kind of ‘usable past’ suited to 21st century values3, and to use any means at the producers’ disposal to try to achieve this: careful selection, certainly, but also extravagant commentary and increasingly clever packaging. While you could look at American Primitive Volume II as being just another compilation of quirky old records - few, if any, of which have not been reissued before, and most of which are already available on Document CDs - the producers’ intentions are clearly not anything like as mundane. For a start, it comes very classily packaged, in quality blue card with silver embossing and a beautiful woodcut-style design which seems to depict a woman in a sari playing a lyre, against a background of mountains and stars - a far cry from the uniform monochrome of so many CD reissues (I’m trying to ignore the fact that the geometric bordering looks like a chain of swastikas). Much is made of the fact that this was the last compilation ‘curated’ by John Fahey before he died. I have a great deal of respect for Fahey’s own music, and for the work he did in researching and ‘rediscovering’ blues singers in the early 1960s. So a compilation of vintage blues, gospel and early country recordings, put together from within his extensive knowledge and his very distinctive sensibility, is always going to be worth investigating. Unfortunately, Fahey died before he could write the notes, so the rationale for the compilation and the reasons for the individual selections is largely lost. Such an introduction would certainly have been interesting, as Fahey sometimes had a tendency to describe his encounters with traditional music in terms as rich in sensation as anybody.4
Here, instead, we have two short essays by Scott Blackwood, and notes on each of the tracks by Blackwood and Edward Komara. The first essay describes an encounter with John Fahey in the 1990s, then wanders off into a description of hearing one of the tracks on this compilation, ‘I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape’ by the Nugrape Twins, playing over the speakers in a bar near some Mayan ruins in Mexico. This is engagingly written, even if you can’t help getting the uneasy feeling that you’re somehow expected to feel some of that Mayan mysticism rubbing off onto the music. The Twins’ record is a bit of an oddity, all right, two-part harmony with piano accompaniment being an unusual arrangement in the race record catalogues of the day, but it seems likely to have been originally conceived as a promotional vehicle for a soft drink, possibly even a radio advertisement - hardly an esoteric context. The second essay consists of a series of little sketches, which appear to be designed to evoke responses that will somehow enhance the music contained on the discs. It is commentary such as the following, presumably, that put the Independent reviewer in mind of ‘outsider art’: ‘Some of these phantoms left behind music of such an otherworldly character that it genuinely retains the power to shock, confound, inspire and sustain today … each a possessor of both a very real generative power and the power to animate our ongoing dialogue about what it is in some art that lasts and transcends… In an age of complete media saturation … there is something wonderfully compelling about art that must stand compltely on its own, sans biographical context… The recordings are simply there: like computer models of the double helix strands of DNA, twisting disembodied before us, discrete, immaculate. Recognizable as human stuff, sure; yet utterly alien.’
There is plenty more where that came from, and it continues into the commentaries on the individual tracks, although fortunately there is also quite a lot of more sober, informative material given here as well - biographical context where it is available, seasoned with informed speculation or appreciative interjections (Homer Quincy Smith’s record is described as ‘The awe-ful, anguished sound of a man alone with his God’, for example). The question is, then, whether the music that is included on these two discs lives up to the gushing, the overstatement, the determination to construct a mystical, outsider aesthetic in which to present it. Personally, I believe this music could live up to anything, and if it needs this kind of marketing - verging on the meretricious as it may be - to draw some new listeners to it, I ought not to complain. But some of it seems not at all otherworldly to me, and in many cases that is the basis of its appeal. For example, I see no reason why Frisco Blues by Bayless Rose should not be appreciated on the most basic terms as being an expertly played and beautiful-sounding guitar instrumental; sure, it’s evocative of its time and its place, and certainly it has the capacity to conjure up the rhythms of a train rolling along the tracks, but there seems nothing alien about any of that; if anything it’s conveying some of the very essential qualities of being human and being alive. The mandolin skills on display on the Two Poor Boys’ Old Hen Cackle, or the harmonica playing of Alfred Lewis - in which his instrument seems almost to have been transplanted into his head - are astonishingly well-developed, but when we describe such skills as being ‘superhuman’, surely we’re appreciating the outstanding abilities of a man, not suggesting that he has acquired them by some ‘alien’ means. The use of that word seems to me to say much more about the contemporary listener than about the artists themselves, who were doing what came naturally to them as human beings.
Having said all that, I am very conscious that I could go too far with this kind of debunking. For one thing, I do find the performances of great artists such as these can certainly tap into some aspect of me that appreciates both the transcendent and the ethereal. Also, as I’ve written in Musical Traditions before, one of the great appeals of listening to older recordings is their capacity to transport you through time and space, in a sense that appears to me to be experientially quite real (and if that’s not mystical, I don’t know what is). I can almost feel myself standing alongside Elizabeth Johnson in that studio in New York in 1928 as she sings the extraordinary Be My Kid Blues. On the other hand, some artists seem to be speaking to us from some quite unreachable place. I would count among these John Hammond, an almost entirely obscure traditional singer and banjo player who recorded a handful of exceptionally beautiful sides in 1927 or Moses Mason, who rails about the Mississippi floods of the same year.
Furthermore, I’m only too well aware of the need to find alternative ways to talk about, and encourage people to listen to, music that is now a long, long way removed from contemporary experience. At a time when so much music criticism finds it difficult to get beyond dull, outworn words like ‘brilliant’ or ‘superb’, and when so much research into musical traditions has been essentially biographical, it is hardly surprising that new and different approaches should start to seem more appealing. Nor can I deny that I can get as much of a kick as anybody out of trumpeting my favourite records in terms that no doubt seem to others intemperate and hyperbolic. I could wax quite over-the-top, for example, about some of the tracks included on these discs - like Henry Spaulding’s Cairo Blues, whose string-snapping guitar accompaniment and sudden falsetto vocals have enthralled me for many years, or William Harris’s Bullfrog Blues, with its bizarre lyrics: ‘Have you ever woke up with bullfrogs on your mind?’. This track, in fact puts me in mind of a previous attempt to extend the range of blues writing - Paul Garon’s remarkable book Blues and the Poetic Spirit (Eddison Bluesbooks, 1975), which used the language of surrealism to analyse blues lyrics.
It would be impossible to deny the sheer weirdness of tracks like Homer Quincy Smith’s Paramount pairing from 1929 - a wild, solo voice against a wheezing organ accompaniment. Likewise, Cousins and DeMoss’s Poor Mourner, at 106 years old the grand-daddy of all the tracks here, sounds pretty nutty to modern ears (even the note-writers abandon their customary over-awed tones to describe the banjo accompaniment as ‘a wonderfully undifferentiated mass of plonking’), but we can probably assume that these tracks didn’t sound so outlandish when they were new. I reckon Tommy Settlers’ Shaking Weed Blues, though, would have sounded utterly bonkers at any time in history, but surely whoever thought that this was a saleable proposition, even in 1930, was crazier still. Mattie May Thomas offers what must be some of the most striking lyrics here, especially on Workhouse Blues where she sings, unaccompanied, of wrestling with lions, and how leaping spiders have been biting her heart. These Library of Congress recordings, from Parchman Prison in 1939, are the only non-commercial ones included (in the sense of not having been recorded by a commercial company).
Other tracks simply seem to me to be outstanding examples of what they are - great blues, jazz or country records, their creators crystallising something a little bit special and different onto 3 minutes-worth of shellac, that we are fortunate to have had preserved for us (and, as an aside, fortunate to have presented in such outstanding sound quality - some records here sound much better than I have ever heard them before). Geeshie Wiley’s Eagles On A Half and Pigmeat Terry’s Black Sheep Blues, for example, are hugely satisfying blues records, delivered with utter conviction and consummate ability. Kid Brown’s Bo-Lita is remarkable for Ernest Michall’s inspired and entirely apposite interjections on clarinet and alto sax, as well as Brown’s high-pitched, expressive vocals. I’ve always liked Otto Virgial, although with his rough, flailing guitar style, I’ve tended to think of him almost as a standard journeyman country bluesman of the 1930s - certainly nothing very alien or otherworldly there. And there is much manic instrumental virtuosity on tracks like Blues Birdhead’s Mean Low Blues and the Bubbling Over Five’s Don’t Mistreat Your Good Boy.
In short, there is not a bad track on these two discs, and anyone interested in exploring some of the less familiar corners of the recorded indigenous music of the pre-WW2 era in the US can feel confident that everything included is either of the highest musical quality or (in a few cases) delivers satisfaction on some other level, usually by means of its sheer oddity. If your approach to this kind of music reflects that of the compilers, you will take the notes at face value and revel in them; if you find that kind of effusion bothersome, you could simply ignore them and enjoy the music, or if you don’t insist on taking them too seriously, you could treat them as a bit of fun. If this kind of release manages to win over a few new converts to the fact that an anthology of virtual unknowns - there are no Charley Pattons or Leroy Carrs or Robert Johnsons here - can still be a thrilling listening experience, there could be no complaints. For those of us with a more long-term interest, it will be fascinating to watch out for the directions that the packaging and marketing of traditional music will take next.
Ray Templeton - 24.12.05