The Golden Gate Quartet & Josh White
at the Library of Congress (1940)
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9114
At the time of writing, when there exist whole libraries of resources, in every possible format, covering the whole range of musical traditions, when a writer can describe the blues as 'over-researched', it's easy to forget that it's only a couple of generations since most people knew nothing very much at all about these subjects. In 1940, educated, middle-class types would turn up at a lecture/recital at the Library of Congress and sit listening attentively while they were presented with 'folk musicians' like specimens on a slide, laughing politely as lines from blues songs were quoted to them by serious-voiced lecturers. In retrospect, it sounds very starchy and formal, and - at one level - a most unattractive prospect for spending an evening. But if we have gained, relatively, in sophistication, perhaps there has been something lost in our sense of wonder - the shock of encountering something new and very special for the first time. In any case, no amount of sophistication can make up for having not lived at a time when you could have sat a few feet away from the Golden Gate Quartet performing, in their prime.
Bridge was not a label that I was familiar with before receiving this CD for review, but their website (www.BridgeRecords.com) tells me that this disc is Volume 14 in a series 'Great Performances from The Library of Congress'. My initial assumption was that the other volumes would be covering that great institution's vast archive of field recordings of traditional music, but not at all. Bridge is a classical music label, and the other volumes include a range of historic recordings recorded at the Library - for example, The Budapest String Quartet playing Rachmaninoff ; Stokowski conducting Vaughan Williams and an 81st birthday interview and concert with Aaron Copland. The volume under review here is very much an exception, the only other thing that comes close being one of the Buddy Colette Big Band in concert.
This volume is a recording, released for the first time, of a concert that was part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States, and it's in three parts, as the evening itself presumably was: Negro Spirituals; Blues and Ballads; Reels and Work Songs. As well as the songs, there's commentary by Alan Lomax (who, I assume, needs no introduction here), the black poet Sterling Brown, and Alain Locke, 'the godfather of the Harlem Renaissance' (as he is described in the booklet). The motivation for presenting folk music and musicians in this kind of setting was only incidentally about recognition for the people who made this music. In his introduction to the first part of the evening, Alain Locke says: "The spirituals are the taproot of our music... they have become nationally, as well as racially, characteristic. They also promise to be one of the profitable wellsprings of native idiom in serious American music... and properly appreciated and used, can be - should be - will be, a part of the cultural ties that bind us." Certainly, one of the assumptions of some of this generation of folk music enthusiasts was that whatever merits the music might have had in its own right, its real benefit would be in providing raw material to be crafted into 'serious' music. The Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok had expressed this succinctly only the year before, when he said: "there is no fertile soil without traditions, but traditions in themselves do not create higher forms of art."
The first part of the programme consists of the Golden Gate Quartet singing a selection of well known spirituals (Freedom, I'm So Glad, Trouble Don't Last Always, We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder, Oh Mary Don't You Weep - mostly lasting only a minute or less) as well as a couple of their own hits - Noah and Traveling Shoes. The Gates were one of the great quartets of the 1930s, with a highly successful commercial recording career behind them at this stage (and a very long, if not quite so stellar, career ahead of them). Their renditions of these songs are lovely, as ever, perfectly arranged, in beautiful harmonies. Even so, they ve certainly modified their sound for their audience. It's a bit like they re on their best behaviour - well aware that the purpose of the occasion is education, not church-wrecking. So, Traveling Shoes perhaps lacks some of the sparkle and sweat which so enhance their original Bluebird recording, but it's still a pleasure, and would surely have set a thrill running through even the most conservative of audiences.
On to part two, and it's Josh White's turn. At this point in his career, White was at something of a turning point. His days of recording blues and gospel for the Race records catalogues were well behind him, and he was just starting out on his future career as a cabaret singer. In a sense, he was the perfect choice for an occasion like this. Unlike many of the other blues singers Lomax could have lined up for this concert, his articulation was perfect - you could understand every word he sang - and while he was unmistakeably the genuine article, there was enough polish about his performances to ensure that they would have offended nobody. Here's a personal aside: it was Josh White who gave the present writer his first encounter with the blues. Working my way through the few folk records available in my local library (this would be around 1968-69), I borrowed a Josh White album - Josh White - Live! (HMV 1588), recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in London, almost a quarter of a century after the Library of Congress concert. Track 1, side 1 was a version of Betty and Dupree, which I now realise was a good opportunity to hear Josh at his best - a blues ballad originating from the same part of the country as he himself did, and that he almost certainly learnt from the oral tradition. I can still remember the thrill I felt when he launched into his guitar solo in the middle of the song, and I was off on the road to a lifetime of buying blues records. But it wasn't long before I stopped listening to Josh White - I enjoyed some of the other tracks on the album, but even at 15 years old I knew that songs like Apples, Peaches and Cherries and Scarlet Ribbons were not what I expected to hear from a blues singer. Even so, I ve always had a bit of a problem with the way in which blues writers would criticise him for his polish and smooth presentation, and for the breadth of his repertoire, while admiring the same qualities in, say, somebody like Charles Brown (who was every bit as mannered a vocalist as White, although in a different way).
More recently, my own appreciation of Josh White has been enhanced somewhat since reading Elijah Wald's outstanding biography, Josh White: Society Blues (Routledge, 2002). It's not that I've changed my mind about his music, as such, but that I've got a better understanding of what White was doing, and why. He was an intelligent, highly talented man, charismatic and professional, as well as aspirational. His career broke down barriers and blazed a trail for later successful African American entertainers, both at home and abroad. To complain that his later recordings were not as 'authentic' as his earlier ones, is quite simply to miss the point.
Here, White sings an attractive rendition of How Long, his playing still firmly in the Piedmont blues style of his native Carolinas, his vocals yet to really develop those mannerisms that characterised his work in later years. Most of the audience were almost certainly unaware that, far from being some venerable traditional song, this had been a huge popular blues hit by Leroy Carr a dozen or so years earlier - such was the segregation of record-buying at the time. This is followed by a long (over seven minutes long) lecture on the subject of the blues, by Sterling Brown. Brown's voice is somewhere between a drone and a bray, and borders on the soporific, and it says something for the novelty and revelatory nature of his subject matter (in contemporary terms, that is) that he evidently had the attention of his audience, who laugh in the right places and even applaud when he tells them that "one blues singer has even commented on the nation's capital, that Washington is a bourgeois town." It was, of course, Leadbelly - but he doesn't get the credit.
The Quartet then sing the traditional bad man ballad Po Lazarus, with White playing guitar in the background. The booklet notes say 'The Gates offer an authentic folk performance of the ballad. They are men in working in a field, sitting on a porch or riding on the back of a truck, singing according to their own delight and involvement'. No doubt that's the idea, but they are in fact men delivering a practised performance on a stage, and that is exactly what they sound like. Brown then intones an introduction to John Henry, after which Josh White's rendition of the song comes as a relief, especially his neat slide guitar playing - which would have been something many in the audience had probably never seen or heard before - although with the Gates joining in the chorus, it can't escape that sense of 'recital'.
The final aspect of the blues covered is what Sterling Brown introduces as "... the social song... the song of bitter brooding - we want to know why ... In underlying sadness, these songs are close to the blues, but they are starker - less individual cries and more social indictment... [In recent years, collectors] have brought these songs out of the dark, secret places where they were sung - not loudly, but deeply. They come from the exploited, the outcast..." Josh White then sings Silicosis Blues, a song he had recorded back in his days as a 'race' artist. Brown says it was written by White, but in fact (according to Elijah Wald) it was written by white country songwriter Bob Miller. That doesn't stop White making a decent hand of it, although he does seem to get confused with the last couple of verses. After another few words from Brown, White concludes the section with Trouble, which really was his own composition, again with some support from the Quartet.
Alan Lomax acts as narrator for the third part of the evening: 'Reels and Work Songs'. His voice is lighter and easier to listen to than Brown's, and he was perhaps more mindful of the incongruity of presenting this vital and powerful music in such an artificial context, so there isn't quite so much of a sense of an academic holding up anthropological exhibits. He interacts more with the musicians, and while it still sounds stiff and stilted to 21st century ears, the audience listen attentively, with evident delight. The Golden Gates fulfil their function well with Willie Johnson even offering a small snatch of 'juba recitation'; as the booklet notes point out, there's a clear line of descent from this kind of item to the rap that was to dominate African American music for most of the last couple of decades of the 20th century. Then, the Quartet give a little theatrical presentation of a Brer Rabbit tale, before Lomax introduces what was evidently intended as one of the highlights of the evening: "And now I want to show you a group of worksongs in their functional context, as they were actually used, and for that purpose, Willie Johnson and the Golden Gate Quartet and I have made up a little dramatisation..." What follows is an eight-minute section including narration from Lomax, lines spoken by Johnson, and songs sung by the group: Raise Up, Boys; Oh, Lula; O Boy Can't You Line Em; Tamp Em Up Solid. In retrospect, I'd have preferred if they had left the nattering out and given us longer and more substantial renditions of the songs, but it wasn't that kind of occasion. It isn't clear where the Gates knew these songs from, whether they learned them from Lomax specifically for the occasion, or whether they knew them from their own experiences, or a mixture of the two.
The programme ends with a terrific rendition of Rock My Soul. This is the Golden Gates reaching back to something approaching their best, indeed pre-war gospel quartet at its best - the five voices carrying all the melody, harmonies, bass and rhythm, swinging and syncopating with split-second timing. White is picking along quietly in the background, but he might as well not have bothered. The audience respond with enthusiasm, and you can certainly believe that there were some people there whose souls were well and truly rocked. Then there's an encore of Run Sinner Run and the evening is over.
From the entry for this occasion in Blues & Gospel Records (OUP, 1997), it would appear as if one or two songs had to be left out of this release. The entryalso tells us that extracts from commercial recordings - by Blind Willie Johnson, Pete Johnson and Bessie Smith - were played to the audience to illustrate some of the points, so there was presumably more commentary as well.
As none of it has ever been released before, it is undeniably of some historical value, and it's well presented here with a booklet containing useful notes and photographs. It has to be said, though, that musically it's rather slight. The songs - enjoyable enough as they are - add little to what we already know of these artists. There are now many better ways to learn about the music, and far better ways to enjoy the work of both the Golden Gate Quartet and Josh White. The commentary, while it must have seemed authoritative and informative at the time, seems very basic today, and in places verges on the patronising. The set pieces are quaint and stagey. More than 60 years on, it may seem rather facile to make such judgements, but my point is that at one level, its very strangeness is fascinating in itself. From where we now sit, you might even say that it's the folklorists and the intellectuals who seem the more curious anthropological specimens. If it has little to tell us about blues and gospel music, it has quite a lot to tell us about the thinking and approaches of folklore scholars and enthusiasts of the day, and about the prehistory of the folk revival - a period piece can still be a document of considerable historical interest.
Ray Templeton - 24.3.03