Vintage Fiddle Music 1927 - 1935: Blues, Jazz, Stomps, Shuffles and Rags
Old Hat CD-1003
|The old folks started it. The young folks got it.
|And everybody’s crazy ‘bout the darktown strut
|The Memphis Jug Band
The ageing skinhead was giving it out galore, when I walked into the gents at Helsby ex-Serviceman’s Club. “The trouble with these kids nowadays,” he snorted to his Neanderthal companion, “they smoke a bit of pot or sniff a bit of crack and they think they’ve had a good night out.”
I did not stop to ask this urbane hedonite what he does for a good night out in Helsby. Nor did I solicit his opinion of this music. I would guess though that anyone who stomps around in Doc Marten boots and combat fatigues may find it a shade sophisticated. Ordinarily, that would not be material; except that the youthful objects of his bile might also dismiss it as, well, old hat. That only leaves me and thee, and if your record collection is anything like mine, most of this set will be familiar already. Moreover, if your prejudices replicate mine, you will have a well attested aversion towards unnecessary duplications.
Having got that off my chest, if any music on earth is guaranteed to stone me out of my tiny mind, it is The Mississippi Sheiks or The Memphis Jug Band or The Dixieland Jug Blowers. This is not so much blues as music to blow your blues away. It is a good time, let your hair down, stomp it into the small hours rave, from the days when folks knew how to enjoy a good night out.
Therefore, I do not intend to be kept awake nights, worrying about who the disc is aimed at. You have looked this web page up. You are in the market. Your wallet is already creaking open. What words of mine could possibly hasten your visit to the record shop? Well, the disc is most attractively packaged and weighs in at just over seventy four minutes. The purchaser is richer to the tune of twenty four tracks, only one of which I would willingly swap for something else, and all of which have been excellently remastered. The booklet contains a substantial essay by the disc’s editor, Marshall Wyatt; and there are numerous photographs, disc labels and assorted record company ephemera. Discographical data is included and is replete with personnel, recording dates, locations and matrix numbers.
Excellent. Although neither the notes nor the title spell it out, this is a survey or a sampler - I’m not sure which term is the more apt - of black American pre-war fiddle music on commercial record. I suspect, although I haven’t yet seen a copy, that the present release is a follow up to Old Hat’s Violin Sing The Blues For Me; OHCD 1002. Whether or no, the programme spreads a far wider net than anything else I can ever recall. There is nothing from the Negro inhabitants of Louisiana Cajun country; there is one track from a fiddler of indeterminate ethnicity; and there is a geographical oddball - a recording of some Cape Verde musicians domiciled in New England. Otherwise, all the performers are stylistically from below the Mason Dixon Line, and they describe a musical territory where jazz, blues, jug bands and country music intersect. Moreover, if the music confirms a loose affiliation of styles, the recordings demonstrate loose affiliations of musicians. The combos were often floating pick-up groups, and their recordings displayed an eclectic mix of personnel.
Before diving in at the deep end, I’d better point out that the MJB track on this disc does not include the above headline quote. That comes from The Old Folks Started It, which featured the marvellous vocalist, Minnie Wallace - surely one of the most neglected singing talents of the whole epoch. In this case we get Rukus Juice and Chittlin’ and the near wordless scat singing of Will Shade. Fair enough, because we’re talking black fiddle styles, not black vocalists and the editor seems to prefer Charlie Pierce to Milton Robie. What’s more, Pierce turns out to be an extremely lively fiddler; his punchy, energetic style weaving in and out of the rest of the band like the weft in a piece of fabric. Indeed, the way he dances around Jab Jones’ jug, puts me in mind of a skilful boxer dancing round a less nimble footed opponent - jabs and all.
The booklet article encompasses all the fiddlers on this disc, together with a great deal of supporting data. All has been skilfully woven into a seamless narrative, with many perspicacious comments. The narrative does not follow the track sequencing, which makes it awkward when looking for information on individual performers. However, I shall not be moaning too loudly. Purchasers of Topic TSCD 518D will find that a similar technique has been used to discuss the artistic career of Joe Heaney, and it bears my monicker. It is unfortunate, though, that in such a well thought out article, a couple of editorial quirks have crept in. For instance, I was surprised to find Wyatt’s essay opening with a thumbnail sketch of W C Handy. Considering how well known Handy’s story is, and that he has comparatively little to do with the material here, purchasers may cast a scant eye over that one.
In fact, Mr Wyatt’s reasons for including Handy turn out to be substantive and two fold. First of all, it gives him an opportunity to mention the slave pre-history of this music. Secondly, it is a lead into a discourse on Memphis musicians in general, and the said Charlie Pierce in particular. That’s him in the cover photograph. Pierce was an exemplar of the kind of musical journeyman we are dealing with. His career embraced most of the fashions on this disc, and it stretched back far enough for him to have been a member of Handy’s band. Indeed, he is probably referred to in that famous Handy number, Memphis Blues. The line, ‘Folks he sure do pull some bow’, is from Memphis Blues. Strange that such a paradigm of professional adaptability seems to have enjoyed just one recording date; and that as sideman in a Memphis Jug Band comeback session.
Despite my earlier reservations, the disc pulls off quite a few surprises, and you might think I’m about to shove our friends from Cape Verde at the top of the list. You’d be wrong. In such a varied programme, with so many catchy dance tunes, their unstressed, easy mode of delivery makes them sound not one jot out of place. In fact, in terms of causing the listener to sit bolt upright, I’d give pride of place to a pair of primitive, down-home scorchers from Joe Williams’ Washboard Blues Singers. Don’t be fooled by the lack of a prefix. We are of course talking Big Joe Williams, not the bluesy vocalist of the same name, who used to sing with Count Basie. The tracks are not hard to come by, and most Big Joe fans will have them already. But even in this lively company, their wild freneticism makes them stand out like a rat in a piece of cheese. For that matter, these tracks were cut in 1935 for Bluebird, and they stick out against the rest of that label’s output like the self same rat. If, like me, you find the Bluebird house style somewhat lacking in fibre, this is just the stuff to get a bit of roughage into your diet. (Sound Clip - Wild Cow Blues, Big Joe Williams.)
However, it was in discussing Williams that one of those editorial quirks appears. Apropos of I know not what, Wyatt brings up Robert Johnson’s recorded versions of these two tracks. Fair enough, except that he discusses the younger singer in tones which I regard as unfavourable and unnecessary. He says, “Those who lavish such praise on Johnson for his musical prowess would do well to examine these earlier Bluebird recordings by Big Joe Williams”. It happens that I have been a fan and collector of Big Joe for nearly four decades and regard him as a great and highly individual talent. Even so, for this reviewer, there were facets of Johnson’s artistry which Williams could not hope to emulate. But why start the argument in the first place?
I was much taken by another hard driving number; Knox County Stomp from the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. Who? Well, three decades and a bit after they cut this track, they resurfaced with a slight change of personnel as Martin, Bogan and Armstrong; Carl, Ted and Howard. In this rejuvenated state, they presented an infectious mix of blues and old time pop standards at college campuses and folk festivals, and they cut a well remembered LP for Rounder. Knox County Stomp is on that LP and I always found it a pretty lively piece. Listening to their earlier rendering, I’m glad I’ve got the roof well nailed on! Who, though, dreamt up such a racially demeaning band name? No-one could mistake this for a white performance. Nevertheless, the group functioned as an entertainment unit for white folks, and Wyatt tells us that this record featured in both the race and country catalogues. Could the present appellation have been invented by some insensitive A&R man, with an eye on the white market? (1) (Sound Clip - Knox County Stomp, The Tennessee Chocolate Drops.)
Just on that score, it would have been nice if the booklet had delved more deeply into the interracial character of this music. True, most of it was made for the race catalogues, but Knox County Stomp was not the only recording here to crossover into the country market. Indeed, two of the tracks are just natural old time country. Both raise their quota of question marks and both demonstrate how difficult it is to draw lines around this stuff.
First of all, there is that fiddler of indeterminate ethnic status, whom I referred to earlier. His name is James Cole, and the track here was cut with an assembly of unidentified musicians, for Vocalion in Indianapolis in 1928. Wyatt is of the opinion that he is not the same James Cole, who made several sessions with Tommie Bradley, for Gennett in Richmond, Indiana, between 1930 and 1932. (2) Aural indications suggest that Wyatt is right, and that the earlier James Cole was a white country fiddler, where the later one was a Negro player who drew heavily on blues jazz, pop, vaudeville and hokum. For me, the recordings from the later Cole are highly agreeable and very much in keeping with the spirit of this CD. Which leaves me wondering why none were included. (3)
The other curiosity is a track from The Georgia Yellow Hammers; a white band from Gordon County, North Georgia. What are they doing here? Well, it seems they were friendly with a black fiddler called Andrew Baxter, and he sat in with the group for this track. G Rag is an excellent example of early country music. Indeed, bits of it remind me of the bluegrass classic, Footprints in the Snow. Moreover, Baxter acquits himself in grand style. His music fits the rest of the band like a hand inside a glove, although I can’t imagine that he played with them on a regular basis. White and black traditions, however much they interacted musically, remained formally segregated, and this recording is an all too rare example of interracial co-operation. Even so, I’m puzzled as to why Bud Landress, their usual fiddler, didn’t join in. He was certainly present, and can be heard making a mock radio announcement at the start, plus various interjections throughout. (Sound Clip - G Rag, The Georgia Yellow Hammers.)
Back with the race issues - well almost. There are four tracks, one from Lonnie Johnson and three from Big Bill Broonzy, where the guitar maestros lay their regular instruments aside for the fiddle. In Johnson’s case, his slick, jazzy style pushes out in front of a decidedly plonky pair of rhythmists. This track was another of those country catalogue crossovers, although I’d have thought it unlikely fare for a white audience. The three Broonzy tracks are a somewhat different crate of fish. Two of them are mainstream thirties blues, recorded under the name of The State Street Boys. Here, Broonzy’s raucous down-home fiddle is somewhat at odds with the more sophisticated sounds of Black Bob’s piano. The third track is a real rough house. It features an up-tempo jazzy combination of trombone, cornet and clarinet, with Big Bill battling it out on the fiddle, while banjo and washboard thrash away like there’s no tomorrow. The name of the band, on this occasion at any rate, was The Alabama Rascals; the track title being Rukus Juice Shuffle. (Sound Clip)
That’s roughly where we came in, for rukus juice features in the title of the Memphis Jug Band’s contribution. In case you’ve led a sheltered life, I’d better explain that rukus was a form of illicit liquor. I am reliably notified that the word stems from insurrection and is cognate with ruckus, as in cause a rumpus, or have yourself a good night out (4). These guys certainly created a ruckus in the studio, although they seem to have paid the price. The following day they were back as Big Bill And His Jug Busters, with the main man singing a hungover blues about the sorrows of being hooked on rukus juice!!! Broonzy did not play fiddle on that one, perhaps he was too head busted, so it does not qualify for inclusion here. However, anyone feeling suitably contrite can find the hair of the dog on Document DOCD-5051.
Mr. Wyatt’s essay draws on several quotes, without saying where they are from. That can play havoc with anyone trying to check some of the things he says. For instance, his discourse on Broonzy’s fiddle playing includes a longish extract from an article by Paul Oliver, with no mention of title or source. In fact, the piece was originally published in the Music Mirror Vol 4, No 4, May 1957. However, anyone who doesn’t want to go back through their old copies can find it reprinted in Oliver’s Blues Off The Record (5)
This is an opportune moment to pick up on Wyatt’s observations concerning the status and demise of the fiddle as a blues instrument. He reaches no positive conclusions, beyond saying that the capacity to parallel the human voice is a crucial trait of blues playing. Well, if vocal mimicry were the only qualifying factor, there would be an awful lot of blues pianists walking the streets. There has to be a better answer, although not being a guitarist or a fiddler, I doubt that I am best placed to provide it. If pushed though, I would probably say the following.
As far as black music is concerned, the fiddle had passed its zenith even as the era of recorded blues got under way. As a hangover from the plantation era, and from the songster era, it is great for making happy music on; the sort which white folks wanted to hear, and dance to. Indeed, even where the blues functioned as a dance music for black people, the fiddle had its place. However, it is not very good for grinding out expressions of human degradation; and one effect of the recording industry was to exemplify the blues as listening music, rather than dance music. That in turn concentrated attention on the blues as expression of social alienation. Therefore, the fiddle may mimic the human voice as far as good time singing is concerned. Mimicking the tortured, anguished tones of Son House or Robert Johnson or Big Joe Williams is a different kettle of fish. That is possibly why House and Williams made such limited use of the instrument and why Johnson, that most tortured of blues singers, seems not to have used it at all.
That all but terminates the exegesis; except that I feel obliged to mention the one track I would have swapped for something else. It is Get Up Off That Jazzophone by The Bubbling Over Five. Despite its not grabbing me, the casual and variegated line-up epitomises the whole era; to say nothing of the problems which confront the historian of this music. Three of the five have bubbled over into anonymity. They include a soprano saxophonist; a banjo player, whose survival chances in a half way decent banjo contest I would not rate very highly; and a croony violinist, who extracts some sorrowful sounds from his instrument. (6) They are joined by an obscure but identifiable harmonica player who went under the name of Blues Birdhead. For most of the track they knit together fairly well, if one discounts some of the banjo licks, and they demonstrate that at least three of the five understand the art of swing. Unfortunately, the concordance is ruined by a dance band singer called Bob Brown, whose exaggerated enunciation reminds me somewhat of Vernon Dalhart. The story of how this motley congress came to record seems lost to history. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were just a scratch group, who decided to try their luck, on hearing that the Okeh field unit was in town. (7)
Thankfully, most recording groups had more to offer than the Bubbling Over Five, as this record testifies. One can only say more power to Mr Wyatt’s elbow. This is a marvellous blow-out for the uninitiated, but I feel I have yet to convince the case hardened collector. Allow me therefore to pull a couple more reasons out of the hat. The first is the excellent remastering. I’ve been listening a lot lately to John R T Davies’s superlative re-creations of the Memphis Jug Band sides, and cannot pretend that the stuff here is in the same league. (8) Nor should I expect it to be, for Davies’s work seems to have been a labour of massive patience, where Old Hat had a budget to meet. Nevertheless, if all reissue companies saw to it that their merchandise was audible, the world would be a much better place.
The other thing in this disc’s favour is the programming. The issuing of an artist’s entire output in chronological order is a worthy intent, but it can make for some very boring listening. This disc is listenable and it is fun. The programming conveys, far more than any sequential release ever could, what the stuff was all about. This music has languished in sad obscurity for far too long. There ought to be a massive revival, and I would be delighted if this record kicked it off. I’ll even offer a generic title. Nowhere in the booklet did I see the term skiffle used, yet that is exactly what it is.
Which brings me back to the problem of our doped up degenerate youth, and what on earth we’re going to do with them. Is it possible, by some slim chance, that this music could set them back on roads of reform and reconciliation? I do not wish to raise your hopes too highly. It’s just that, being honest Americans, these musicians couldn’t have possibly been imbibing noxious narcotics, now could they? Cannabis? Cocaine? Reefers? Hashish? Give me Big Bill and a bottle of rukus any day.
Fred McCormick - 29.4.01
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