The 1929 Richmond Sessions
Outhouse Records 1001
Double CD, featuring: The Sparkling Four; The Bubbling Over Five; Blues Birdhead; The Golden Crown Quartet; Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra; Spangler and Pearson; Bela Lam and his Greene County Singers; Monarch Jazz/Jubilee Quartet of Norfolk; Buck Mountain Band; Otis and Tom Mote; Salem Highballers; Roanoke Jug Band; Richmond Starlight QuartetMusic doesn't exist in a vacuum. It has a context, a backstory, a hinterland. For some of us, at least, this adds a vital dimension that enhances our enjoyment far beyond the purely aural. Others, I know, reject anything outside of what they can apprehend with their ears - scorning those who spend time and energy looking into the history, the biography, the geography of the music they listen to. For such people, the most alien of these sciences is discography - seen as a refuge for the nerd and the pedant, a dusty corner of the musical world, with no relevance to musical enjoyment. The discographer is considered a sad figure, poring over lists of matrix numbers, falling out with other discographers over arcane questions of upper case and lower case, more interested in completeness than in quality. All of these things have some truth in them, of course, but while a discographical entry on a page is seen by some as nothing more than dry statistics, to others, it's part of what brings the music to life - real life. The date, the place, the names involved - it all helps to emphasise that what we hear when we put a compact disc on our player is not just a set of digital signals from the ether, but the work of people who inhabited the real world, who walked into a recording studio, sat down and tuned their instruments and played music that very often could only have been made in that time, in that place, by people like them. Without discography, a compilation like Virgina Roots would simply not be possible.
I've no doubt it's true that much of this just serves to feed our fantasies, helps us to create ideal landscapes for the music, romanticised for our own private pleasure. Philip Larkin got it quite right in his poem For Sidney Bechet when he wrote of listening to records by the great New Orleans soprano saxophonist. The sound, he wrote, '... in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes/Building for some a legendary Quarter/Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles/Everyone making love and going shares'. Of course it's falsehood. There was a lot more to life in early 20th century New Orleans than that - the poverty, the violence, the daily grind of earning a living. Quite a lot of 'the legendary Quarter' consisted of slums, in Bechet's day, even if they're all gentrified and highly desirable properties by now. Larkin has a go at discographers, too: '... scholars manques nod around unnoticed/Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids'.
I can acknowledge all this without much discomfort. If I get a kick out enjoying the music that way, it's my business. I'll always have a go a proselytising about it, though - about how you can add to the pleasure of listening to music by digging around in the background. And there always seem to be plenty of CDs around to help. The one under review here is very much a case in point, right from Gregg Kimball's foreword in the booklet, where we read: 'From October 13 through 18, 1929, musicians from across Virginia played their songs for engineers of the OKeh Record Company in Richmond. Based on interviews conducted by Kip Lornell with former WRVA employee, Bertha Hewitt, it seems likely the recording sessions were conducted at the Richmond branch of the James K Polk Furniture Co at 803-805 W Broad Street.' In just two sentences, we've got so much to go on - immediately conjured is the American South of the late 1920s: it's streets, its stores, its old radio stations, it's citizens. We can walk down Broad Street in Richmond, and call into Polk's store (there are even photos in the booklet to show us what it looked like). We can hang around in the alley down the side, watching while the OKeh recording engineers haul their equipment in the side entrance, and while the musicians troop in to make their records. The 48-page booklet also contains detailed biographies of all the artists represented, photographs of them (where they exist), reproductions of contemporary record advertising ephemera, record labels etc, and an afterword by compiler Ron T Curry on what happened to the recordings that were made at these sessions. Of 93 songs by 30 groups, only 36 songs by 13 groups were released; four of these (i.e. 2 discs) have never been found, leaving 32 tracks that are all included here, along with a bonus track, of which more later.
So, the compiler of this release evidently shares the belief that history and context can enhance our listening and understanding. But there may be another signifcant angle as well. Another short essay in the booklet, The Social Climate of Richmond, circa 1929, by Jeffrey Ruggles, focuses mainly on the social divide between black and white, concluding 'Some seventy-odd years later, we can only marvel at the confusion of the whites who thought black culture inferior, yet brought it into their lives at every turn'. I suppose 'confusion' is one word for it. It seems likely that at least part of the motivation behind making a compilation based, not on a particular style of music, but entirely on the fact that the records were made at a particular set of sessions, is to focus attention on the relationships - similarities, differences - between the musics of the two races represented. There's nothing new about looking at these relationships - Tony Russell's book Blacks, White and Blues (Studio Vista, 1970), with its accompanying LP (same title - CBS 52796) was doing it over 30 years ago. But there may be a new, contemporary imperative; a desire to help build a new South for the 21st century, on foundations constructed from the exposition of a common history.
This also occurred to me as a possible underlying agenda when reading Charles Joyner's book Shared Traditions (University of Illinois Press, 1999) which explored the complex relationship between the cultures of the separate races in the South. His very title 'Shared Traditions' and the title of his first chapter 'Southern Folk Culture: Unity in Diversity' seemed to lay out something of this intention. This seems unimpeachable, although I have to admit to some scepticism, which I can probably best express by quoting from a review I wrote (in Blues & Rhythm, No.146, January 2000) when the book first appeared: 'For all that, I do wonder if the word 'shared' is quite right. The history of the interactions of the traditions, the borrowing and the stealing (conscious and unconscious), the assimilations and the colonisations, is far more complex than many other writers - often for their own reasons - would want to admit. But to use the word 'shared' seems to me to imply co-operation, generosity and even selflessness. There is little in this book, or in any other history I've read of the American South to suggest that these qualities were very often what marked the relationship between the races and cultures that lived together down there.'
In 1920s Virginia, there was certainly intercultural exchange going on, but nobody listening to the records gathered together in Virginia Roots, with even the slightest pre-knowledge of American vernacular music, could fail to spot which were made by black artists and which by white. Otis and Tom Mote offer a version of the blues hokum standard Tight Like That. They must have got the song (directly or indirectly) from the record by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, and Otis's harmonica playing undoubtedly owes something to black styles and techniques. But it's unmistakeably an old-timey record, played by whites, not a blues record played by blacks. So also is the Buck Mountain Band's Yodeling Blues, although it derives from Hesitation Blues, written by the black composer W C Handy. In fact, this was a song much favoured on both sides of the racial divide. More interesting in some ways, is how inflections of black influence crop up, if less explicitly, in the various old timey tunes with 'Rag' or 'Blues' in the titles - like the Roanoke Jug Band's Triangle Blues and Stone Mountain Rag (even if the latter is sometimes known, intriguingly, as Forty-Eight Dogs in the Meathouse). These don't seem to derive from black sources, but their rhythmic emphases, their chord progressions and their blue notes, tell us that they could only have been created in a culture that was close to, and well aware of black music. These are very fine string band records, beautifully played, as is the same band's Johnny Lover and Homebrew Rag. The latter includes a quick snatch of dialogue (transcribed in the booklet) which adds nicely to the extra dimension. The fiddle and guitar duo Spangler and Pearson don't seem far removed from a Scottish ancestry - Patrick County Blues turns out to be blues in name only (it was a polka when Jimmy Shand played it) and their Midnight Serenade is a version of the tune known on this side of the Atlantic as My Love is but a Lassie Yet. Maybe giving their tunes names like that was the fiddle player's way of helping to make them his own, or of somehow anchoring them in the New World, or maybe it's just another an example of the confusion Jeffrey Ruggles is talking about. The Salem Highballers' two excellent offerings Snowbird on the Ashbank and Going on to Town represent what might be seen as a transitional stage - the idiom still firmly relates to the Anglo-Celtic traditions, even if these are tunes only to be found in the USA.
No old timey recording session would have been complete without some sacred music, and here it comes courtesy of Bela Lam and his Greene County Singers. Lam's name seems to suggest an old world antecedence other than an Anglo-Saxon one (Hungarian?), but there's no evidence of this in his music. Shape-note harmony singing was propagated across the South, but it was especially popular in Virginia, and Lam's group, accompanied by guitar and banjo, offer four fascinating examples of this extraordinary music, the songs mixing homespun wisdom, evangelistic fervour and sentimental stories, peppered with characteristic odd, flowery language (in which, for example, the world is 'this terrestial ball') and delivered with those irresistible wobbly harmonies. I've no doubt that specialist scholars could find many correspondences between the sacred harmony traditions of the white South and those of the black, but to my ears, these offer powerful evidence of how separate the traditions were. More of this later.
But before we run away with the impression that Virginia in the 1920s was some kind of closed and isolated world, just incestuously recycling local influence for better or worse, there's a most enjoyable corrective to be found in the Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra. Authentic Hawaiian music had enjoyed a certain amount of mass popularity in the US and beyond, in that decade, and where there's popularity, you'll also find cover versions and impersonators (and these days, of course, the remarkable phenomenon of the 'tribute band'). One of the photographs of the band included illustrates what became a fairly standard approach - the men in white shirts, cummerbunds and floral leis, the women (or 'hula girls') in 'grass' skirts, slide guitars across knees or ukeleles clutched to chests. They made three records, two in New York, and the one included here (Sweetheart of Mandalay / Whispering Hope) in Richmond, and there's no denying they make a pretty good hand of it, even if it's good fun, rather than deeply satisfying. Somehow it seems entirely appropriate that they were sponsored by the Tubize Artificial Silk Company.
The black music recorded that week in Richmond underlines the view that Virginia was never a great blues state. All the discographical evidence tells us the same story, of course, and even the efforts of folklorists reinforce it (one of the rare examples is Pete Lowry's set of 1970s field recordings of Pernell Charity, issued on Trix 3309 - it's thoroughly enjoyable, but almost entirely derivative). The Bubbling Over Five is really a jazz band, if an eccentric one, mixing harmonica, soprano sax and violin, over rhythm section of piano and banjo. Their Don't Mistreat your good Boyfriend is a straight blues, mostly instrumental, but Get Up off that Jazzophone sounds like a tune out of Tin Pan Alley. The first three instruments each takes a solo, and they're not at all bad, making this pair of records a valuable and most satisfying addition to the documentation of downhome jazz sounds. The band's harmonica player, Blues Birdhead, then got to cut a couple of sides as soloist, with the pianist accompanying. Both are blues of sorts, which he delivers with a jazzy virtuosity.
The remainder of the black music included all comes from vocal groups - the Sparkling Four, The Golden Crown Quartet, the Monarch Jazz/Jubilee Quartet of Norfolk and the Richmond Starlight Quartet. As observed above, it seems to me that the distance between these groups and the white sacred music represented by the shape-note singing of Bela Lam's group is emphasised very strongly by bringing them all together here. The Sparkling Four's Hold the Wind is an especially beautiful example of what even by the time of these recordings was an older vocal group style - slow, four-square delivery and very tight harmonies. These are trained voices, not in the classical sense, but in the sense that they would have been worked on very hard, both individually and collectively. In the following decade, the rhythmic gospel groups like the Golden Gates would take songs like the They Won't Believe in Me, syncopate the rhythms, speed up the tempo and use all the capacity of four great voices to create something new and different, but here the Sparkling Four give us it straight, and it's none the worse for it. The Golden Crown Quartet enjoyed a long career, appearing on record again in the post-war years, but the sides included here comprised their first release, and at this stage in their development, they too were singing in the older style - accomplished and highly attractive, if lacking the excitements that were to come in this idiom.
Listed on the inlay card and in the booklet as Monarch Jazz/Jubilee Quartet of Norfolk, the group's name on the labels of the records included here was simply The Monarch Jazz Quartet, and the four numbers they recorded were popular songs heavily laced with the blues. Probably the most interesting of the groups included here, they handle the songs with consummate expertise, using a whole range of vocal group devices from long harmony chords to syncopation and antiphony. The first few lines of Pleading Blues root their music deep in African American traditions, harking back to field hollering and communal work songs, and it's particularly in tracks like this that we seem to be light years - rather than just a few miles - away from Bela Lam and his Greene County Singers. It was at a subsequent session, in New York, that the group used the name Monarch Jubilee Quartet of Norfolk - the distinction wasn't a trivial one - a gospel quartet could lose a big slice of their audience overnight if they were caught performing secular material. There's a touch of the work song, too, about the single track by the Richmond Starlight Quartet, Jazz Crazy Blues. This is the 33rd track, not recorded at the Richmond session, but included here because the version the group recorded then was among the cuts that were never to be released.
If there is a disadvantage to a compilation whose tracks are put together for strictly historical reasons, rather than carefully selected for our listening pleasure, it's that it can mean the inclusion of lower quality material. This is my main complaint about the 'complete, chronological' approach of labels like Document, where fine records have been known to sit on the same disc as real stinkers. On Virginia Roots that isn't really a problem. There's no track that isn't worth listening to, most are pretty good, and a few are outstanding. You might carp that limiting the selection by the historical criteria has led to short measure, with just 16 and 17 tracks on the two discs, where many CDs come with 24 or more. But it would really be a carp - in every other respect, this is a top quality production. Sound restoration was by Airshow Mastering, who won a Grammy for their work on the Anthology of American Folk Music, so although a few tracks are pretty rough, they're probably as good as we'll ever hear them. The booklet notes have been put together with contributions from a wide range of authoritative writers, there are lyric transcriptions (including the snatches of dialogue already referred to) and it's all well illustrated and well presented. I've never been to Richmond, Virginia, and I certainly wasn't around in the 1920s, but this is the nearest thing to a time machine that will take me to that place and time, and it will keep me entertained royally while I'm there.
For further information, see the Outhouse Records website at www.outhouserecords.com, but it is also available from dealers like Roots & Rhythm and Red Lick.
Ray Templeton - 6.1.03
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