The Ozark Sheiks
May Apple Records (no number)
Run Mollie Run ; All Night Long Blues ; No Low Down Hanging Around/Bay Rum Blues ; Bow-Legged Rooster ; Possum Carvers’ Ball ; Ozark Sheiks ; Gonna Keep My Skillet Greasy ; Ole Mollie Hare ; That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away ; Over The Road I’m Bound To Go ; White Oak Tree ; Water And Seed ; Sycamore Tree ; Fallin’ Down Blues ; What’s That Tastes Like Gravy ; On The Road Again ; Shake It And Break It ; Don’t Get Trouble In Your Mind ; Skinner ; Carve That PossumNamed with irritating whimsicality, Uncle Cuckleburr’s Champion Possum Carvers (let’s do what they do, and refer henceforth to UCCPC) are Adam Posnak and Blaine Whisenhunt, young musicians (although one of them sounds about 110 when he sings, and the other merely middle-aged) who hail from Georgia and Arkansas respectively. They play various combinations of guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica and kazoo, and there’s some more biography, and an account of their approach to old-time music, at www.possumcarvers.com.
A sticker on the front of the CD case reads ‘Featuring the sound of the new weird America,’ which tips a hat to Greil Marcus’s writings about ‘the old weird America.’ (UCCPC say elsewhere ‘We’d like to make people nervous and squirmy at how real and RAW this stuff is, like stumbling on a dead animal during a nice stroll in the woods.’) As I’ve said before on this site, I don’t have much time for Marcus’s ideas, insofar as I can understand them. The people he writes about wouldn’t have regarded themselves or their music as weird, and this kind of exoticism, however dressed up, seems like a shallow approach to the music, the musicians and the social context that formed both.
UCCPC say that ‘We don’t intend nor pretend to be preservationists or historians… We want to assimilate aspects of old music to present a vital, contemporary vision.’ Fair enough, and I incline to agree that ‘Keeping the vital spark and spirit of the music alive is more important than a whole library of essays, and sheet music’; but UCCPC themselves recognise that they’re making music in a context formed to a considerable degree by the work of historians and researchers ‘The Possum Carvers dump the Harry Smith Anthology, the Lomax recordings, and anything else they can get their hands on into a blender, drink it up, spit it out, and see what the heck it sounds like.’
Still, if the intellectual basis of UCCPC’s music is flawed, there’s no denying that it’s great fun to listen to. I don’t see how they can achieve their ambition of ‘play[ing] this type of music the way it was played [their emphasis], instead of mimicking what was recorded’ without access to a time machine, and I’m willing to bet that live performances in the old days weren’t all between 2’25” and 3’52” long; but UCCPC certainly perform with fierce energy, commitment and skill. The track listing includes songs taken from records by Henry Thomas, Furry Lewis, the Memphis Jug Band and Charley Patton among black musicians, and among white musicians by Uncle Dave Macon, Earl Johnson, Clarence Ashley and probably Riley Puckett (Old Mollie Hare; there are numerous other versions, and I don’t have the CDs to hand).
The great thing about UCCPC, though, is that none of their versions attempts musical mimicry; rather, they relocate the songs within their own musical and aesthetic vision, without betraying the spirit of the originals. Time for a couple of examples of what I mean. Here’s an extract from a live performance of Carve That Possum. Anyone familiar with the Uncle Dave Macon original will recognise the tune, the exuberance and the banjo part; they’ll probably also be startled by the kazoo and the harmonica. White Oak Tree is one of four UCCPC originals; it’s a murder ballad, told from the point of view of a falsely accused man, and seems to take its inspiration - but not, n.b., its tune - from the well-known Tom Dooley.
These examples will show, I hope, how UCCPC use elements from the black, white and shared musical traditions to make their own sound. It’ll be obvious, too, that full-tilt intensity is the name of the game. One could argue that this is a distortion of the original music (far from all old time and blues performances are like that), but of course UCCPC, being ‘not preservationists’ who nevertheless ‘want to play this type of music the way it was played’, are in the happy position of having their hoecake and eating it too. That’s just me being a curmudgeon, though; all purism and qualification aside, The Ozark Sheiks is immensely enjoyable listening; as further proof, here’s its other live performance, of Charley Patton’s Shake It and Break It being old-timed into submission.
In recommending this record, though, I do want to pick one last nit. Among the famous names whose approval is quoted in the press release is David Evans, who says that ‘It reminds me of folk music before blues and old-time categories became rigidly defined.’ This is not a sentiment I would dispute; there can’t be much doubt that among the reasons blues came to be regarded as both a distinctively black music and as the norm of black secular music was that record companies concentrated on it after they discovered it would sell.
UCCPC go rather further, however, saying that they ‘present musical scenarios that almost certainly took place, but through the haphazard methods, and genuinely racist attitudes of the early recording industry, were not documented or promoted.’ Well, yes, it’s obvious from shared repertoire, stylistic overlap and the testimony of musicians that there was a great deal musical exchange between the races. There’s also occasional recorded evidence of it, like Andrew & Jim Baxter playing on the Georgia Yellowhammers’ G Rag, Joe and Jim Booker’s slightly more extensive collaboration with Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts, or Jimmie Rodgers’ (separate!) sides with Louis Armstrong, the St Louis guitarist Clifford Gibson and a Louisville jug band. However, the picture is less rosy if one knows that the Baxters travelled to the recording session with the Yellowhammers, but in a separate car. Or let’s take Bill Monroe, who played Evening Prayer Blues at the graveside when the black harmonica player DeFord Bailey was buried. On a personal and musical level, I expect Monroe liked and even respected his fellow veteran of the Grand Ole Opry; but when asked what he thought of James Rooney’s book Bossmen, which is about him and Muddy Waters, Monroe said, "You mean the one with the nigger on the cover?" (Paul Oliver told this anecdote to the South London Blues Society in the early seventies.)
What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the record industry segregated its output into ‘race’ and ‘old time’ catalogues, not because the industry was racist - although it was - but because its customers, particularly in the South, lived in a society conditioned and defined by race. The fact that black and white musicians traded songs and ideas, and sometimes performed together, cannot be used to paint a picture of a world where music overcame racism. Jimmy Davis recorded with the black blues guitarists Oscar Woods and Ed Schaffer, and he recorded blues himself, both deep and dirty; he was later elected governor of Louisiana on a firmly segregationist platform. It’s a certainty that his black associates never called him ‘Jimmy’ and that he never called them ‘Mr Woods’ or ‘Mr Schaffer’.
Like UCCPC - and, yes, in a very different and much more pernicious way - white musicians in the segregated South could have it both ways. For all the delightfulness of their music, in some ways UCCPC are doing what American television does when it makes every white hero/ine have a black best friend, every police lieutenant black, and every judge a black woman airbrushing reality. This does nobody any favours, but what the hell; the 17th Century Italian intellectuals who invented opera thought they were recreating ancient Greek music drama. That was bollocks, but after a while it resulted in Don Giovanni and Otello. The same syllogism applies to The Ozark Sheiks dubious history, but terrific music.
Chris Smith - 26.7.04
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