Georgia: I'm Gonna Make You Happy
I do not know what Hoagy Carmichael’s reaction was when that master songsmith learned that Tampa Red had reworked his most famous salute to the State of Georgia. Gut feeling tells me, however, that the idea of sharing composer credits with an obscure songwriter, on a depression era budget record label, would not have made him the least bit happy. Whatever about that, as far as the present disc is concerned, obscurity and inappropriate accreditation seem to be par for the course.
First of all, remembering that The Alan Lomax Collection was created to showcase the man’s career, much of this sub-series displays him in remarkably low profile. In the current instance, he is identified as the main collector on just two tracks, and as assistant to his father, John Lomax, on a third. The bulk of the material in fact is drawn from the work of John and Ruby Lomax, Lewis Jones, Willis James and John Work. Secondly, the programme appears to concentrate solely on the black traditions of Georgia. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but a note of explanation would have kept everyone happy. Thirdly - and this problem is by no means confined to the present release - collectors of that era did not ask enough questions to satisfy the modern enquirer. Finally, despite being featured in five of the booklet’s eight photographs, including the cover, Blind Willie McTell appears in a profile which is almost as low as that of Alan Lomax. He occupies just four of the CD’s twenty two tracks, and for once I do not feel that is any bad thing.
No - ole rockin’ chair ain’t got me, and I have not suddenly revised my estimate of McTell as one of the true geniuses of musical black America. It’s just that I find two problems with these selections. Firstly, they come from a session which was conducted by John and Ruby Lomax in November 1940; the entire song output of which has long been easily available.2 To hear that output in total, rather than as the disjointed sampling we get here, is to gain some small appreciation of Blind Willie McTell, as one of the last great Southern songsters. Secondly, and those remarks notwithstanding, I do not consider that the session overall showed the man at anything like his best. For that, you have to go back to his prolific and distinguished recording career of the late twenties through to the mid thirties. Compared with those days, what he does here comes across as uninterested and dull. Only on fleeting occasion does Mr McTell ignite the sort of spark which made his earlier work so wonderful.
I’m not sure why that should have been. Perhaps it reflects the fleeting nature of the recording session. Perhaps it was because Blind Willie was still shook up from a car accident, the night before. For that matter, he may have been thinking about the single dollar plus his taxi fare, which was all the Library of Congress could afford to pay him, and comparing that with the big money he used to earn during his recording days. Whatever the reason, buy the entire Library of Congress session for its historical value, or buy it to complete your Blind Willie McTell collection. Buy this disc for the other artists. They are rare and shadowy and lamentably under-documented, but that does not stifle their ability to captivate the listener.
With so little performer information to impart, the best way I can proceed is by working through the collectors. We have started with the elder Lomax. Let us continue. Apart from the McTell tracks, there are six recordings which feature JL as the main collector. In several cases he is assisted by his wife, Ruby, and there is that one instance where Alan acted as amanuensis. The booklet text also tells us that Leadbelly was present for at least one of these recordings. He was there as a paid assistant, but receives no mention in the credits. Despite the famous (and Jim Crow) newsreel portrayal of the circumstances of Leadbelly’s hiring, I have no reason to perceive that as anything other than a cataloguing error. Nevertheless, it is one which Rounder should have corrected.3
In any event, these tracks are fairly typical of the kind of stuff one thinks of in conjunction with the Lomaxes and their Library of Congress work. That is to say, the performers are all black convicts, and their material has its fair share of work song motifs. One or two of them appear to have functioned as work songs, but there are others which seem fashioned for after hours entertainment. The booklet’s writer, David Evans, makes a game attempt to fathom out which are which and aural evidence suggests that he got it just about right. Nevertheless, it would have helped if Lomax had clarified the point on the day. Among those which seem designed for entertainment, there is a Po’ Laz’us, which for once doesn’t focus on the bad-man of that name, and there is a Longest Train I ever Saw, which turns out to be part of that huge family of songs commonly identified as In The Pines. There is also a Captain Haney Blues, which emerges as a fairly conventional example of the blues genre, with a mixture of floating verses plus comments about the group’s work Captain. What makes this piece so interesting is that it is sung by a fairly stylish vocal group, and accompanied by the guitar of the oddly named Camp Morris. I confess that I know little of the history of black vocal groups, even though they represent an important chapter in the annals of black American music. However, it seems to me that prison camps, with their long hours of forced intimacy and lack of alternative entertainment, would have been a natural breeding ground for this type of unit.4
I was also taken by Reese Crenshaw’s John Henry, the recording of which seems to start after the song has commenced. It is clear that Mr Crenshaw was a remarkable guitarist, and that puzzles me. This and the Camp Morris track are not the first examples of accompanied singing I’ve heard from within prison camp walls. Previously I’ve assumed that collectors must have been in the habit of taking instruments into the pen with them. However, Reese Crenshaw’s facility on the instrument is such that I am inclined to start asking questions. Was he, like Leadbelly, regarded as the camp musician? If so, could have been a basis for allowing him to keep a guitar in prison? I don’t know, because again Lomax does not seem to have clarified the point. If that was not the case, one can only wonder how long it might have been since Crenshaw had previously touched a guitar? One also wonders what he would have sounded like in top form?5 (sound clip - Reese Crenshaw - John Henry)
The Alan Lomax recordings turn up slightly less familiar ground, at least for a pre-war Library of Congress unit. They are from the Georgia Sea Islands, which Lomax visited with Zora Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in 1935. Given the rarity value of much of the sea island material, I’d have thought one of these tracks an unlikely choice. It is a blues instrumental played on the guitar, by Robert Davis, and it had been learned by him while working on the mainland. The blues did not flourish on the sea islands precisely because the socio/cultural conditions, which gave rise to the idiom, did not prevail there. However, this item is a useful reminder that the relationship between music and the rest of social culture is by no means as monolithic as Alan Lomax seemed to think. Had he paused to consider the implication of pieces like this, he might well have avoided the cultural determinism which marred the Cantometrics experiment.6
The other recording is closer to the indigenous sea island tradition; although the usual local trademarks, such as handclapping, body percussion and overlapping vocals are not much in evidence. Could the absence of these hallmarks also be a sign of interaction with the mainland? The thought crosses my mind because the piece, which Sophie Wing calls All Night Long, is related to a spiritual which Josh White used to call Paul and Silas Bound in Jail.7 Whatever; it makes a joyful noise, and the notes mention the possibility that it may have been used as a Christmas or Easter hymn. Again, though, the matter must remain in the realms of speculation, for nobody thought to ask. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering why so many collectors spent so much trouble gathering so much wonderful material, without asking a few basic questions about performance context, or about the performers. (sound clip - Sophie Wing and Chorus - All Night Long)
Having just referred to the booklet notes, this is an opportune time to mention that they are well up to the standard we have come to expect of this excellent series. That means they are scholarly, informative and accurate; and I wish I could say that about every so called work of erudition which has dropped through my letter box in the past twelve months or so. As already mentioned, they are the work of David Evans, who is known to the scholastic world as a professional folklorist. Academic constraints notwithstanding, his pen portrait of the history of Georgia is a most capable piece of work. Once again, Professor Evans demonstrates that the disciplines of history and ethnology are close enough to be encompassed by anyone with a reasonably active intelligence. What’s more, the song notes are replete with useful information. As I usually do, I played the record through for the first time, before reading the booklet. Time and again, I made a note of something I felt would need mentioning to the folks at Musical Traditions. Time and again I found that David Evans had beaten me to it. Wouldn’t life be simple if all editors did that.
We come to the third set of collectors, and performers, and what I regard as the kernel of this disc. Before further discussion, I need to explain that my view of early American folk festivals has been coloured by David Whisnant’s excellent account of them in his book, All that is Native and Fine.8 Referring principally to the famous White Top festival, Whisnant tells us that such events were typically mounted by middle class interest groups external to the tradition; that their efforts represented a distortion and mediation of tradition; that such distortion was carried out as a form of social control; and that such social control included a large dab of white racist supremacism. I cannot easily access the book and I cannot remember if he mentions the Fort Worth Valley State College Festival, which took place between 1940 and 1955. Whether or no, the third set of performers were all recorded at this event, and it would be unwise of me to judge the event on the aural evidence here. I can only comment that the sounds which come out of the speakers are not what I would have expected from Whisnant’s model. First of all, and this is where the notes should have elucidated the point, the performers appear to be all black. The text does contain some suggestion that we are dealing with a celebration of black American culture, and the names of the organisers support that supposition. Nevertheless, I am left with a slight question mark hanging over the ethnicity of the Smith Band and the group led by James Sneed. Aural evidence, though, leaves me in no doubt which side of the racial divide Buster Brown, John Lee Thomas, and the inelegantly named Sidney Stripling come from. There is no doubt also that they are well worth an earful.
The first of these three gentlemen was a harmonica playing blues vocalist, very much in the style of Sonny Terry, except that his Sonny Terry type whoop is the most hair-raising I have ever heard! The CD subtitle, I’m Gonna Make You Happy, is one of his, by the way and the notes claim it as an early version of the Little Walter hit, My Babe. That is correct, but am I overdoing things if I also see it as a long lost cousin of Paper of Pins, which Lonnie Young transmogrified into a fife and drum piece, under the title, Chevrolet?9 Whether or no, as a subtitle for this CD, I’m Gonna Make You Happy belies the cover illustration. The song is nothing to do with Blind Willie McTell. All the same, if Buster Brown made me happy, John Lee Thomas, left me positively delirious. Fast Train is a rocking, percussive, hard pounding train imitation of the sort which every rural harmonica player seemed able to rustle up. Seldom, though, have I encountered one handled as ably as this. Incidentally, the sound quality of these festival tracks is generally clearer than the recordings made by the Library of Congress staff collectors, and on the whole there is less surface hiss. Did Fort Worth Valley State College have a better recording machine than the ones which the L of C were using?
Sidney Stripling turns out to be the most enigmatic of all the performers on this record. His one recording session seems to have taken place at the 1941 festival, where he was a competition entrant. That occasion endowed the world with ten recordings. Four are included here, and there is surely a strong case for releasing the others as soon as possible. Evans retails the few facts that are known about the man. They are that he came from Kathleen, Georgia; that the 1941 festival may have been the only one he attended; and that he was dead by 1945. He also draws attention to Stripling’s banjo style which, he tells us, was a formative influence on early jazz players. Couple that information with the repertoire and the way he sings. One is left with an eerie feeling that this might be the closest we will ever come to experiencing the musical institutions of plantation slavery. Whether that feeling can be justified, there is no doubting that he was a very fine performer, with a splendid gift of melody, and a remarkable sense of refinement. As evidence, compare his delicate handling of Sally Walker, with the relentless onslaught of a Leadbelly performance of the same piece. (sound clip - Sidney Stripling - Sally Walker)
The programme closes with a pair of rags, from the two groups whose ethnicity I’m not absolutely sure of. Neither piece is brilliantly played, but both are of considerable interest. Southern Rag, was performed by a trio which consisted of washboard and vocal from James Sneed, with JF; Duffey and Alvin Sanders on guitars. Despite Sneed’s billing as the group leader, the real interest for me lay with the accompaniment. Listening to the licks from the two guitarists, I was reminded of a few other players of that instrument from roughly that neck of the woods. I could hear shades of Etta Baker, and Elizabeth Cotton and Leslie Riddles and even John Jackson. After all these years of avoiding generalisations, dare I hypothesise the existence of a black Appalachian guitar style? Perhaps not, but it makes delightful listening. The other closing track, Smithy Rag, is performed by a troupe called the Smith Band. None of the players are identified except for the leader, Clifford Smith, and again it’s nothing fantastic. It offers a frustrating historical link though, for the chief competition judge was none other than WC Handy. As every jazz and blues fan knows, Handy’s bandleading career was a mega-milestone in the development of American music. He made a few records, it’s true, but his career faded too early to achieve significant representation on disc. Thus, the fact that the great man started up a jam session, once the competition was over, is no small entry in the annals of what might have been. Sad to relate, this old sweet song just wafted on the breeze as intangible as stardust. Great jumping Jehosaphat! The things that break out after you’ve stashed the recording tackle away!
Fred McCormick - 1.7.01
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