there is no eye: music for photographs

Various performers

Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40091

Thank You, Lord : Gospel Church, Harlem.  If I Had My Way : Reverend Gary Davis. Have You Ever Been Mistreated? : Yvonne Hunter.  I Can’t Be Satisfied : Muddy Waters. Roll On John : Bob Dylan.  Man of Constant Sorrow : Roscoe Holcomb.  Hick’s Farewell : Doc Watson & Gaither Carlton.  Come All You Tenderhearted : Carter Stanley.  Young But Growing : Mary Townsley.  TB Blues : Alice Gerard and Hazel Dickens.  John Henry : Bill Monroe.  Sally Goodin : Eck Robertson.  Twin Sisters : Sidna Myers.  Sally Johnson : Wade Ward and Charley Higgins.  Pull My Daisy : David Amran Quartet.  So Long: Go : Rufus Cohen and Wade Patterson.  Who’ll Water My Flowers? : Last Forever.  Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie : Elizabeth Cotton.  Ramblin’ Round : Woody Guthrie.  Love My Darling : Alan Lomax.  Buck Creek Girls : New Lost City Ramblers.  Paloma Blanca : Huayno Stringband, Sacsamarca, Peru.  Kitchen Girl : Sweet Mills Band.

‘there is no eye: music for photographs’ is a companion CD to John Cohen’s recent book of photographs of musicians There Is No Eye (Powerhouse, 2001).  Cohen, a polymath film-maker, photographer, artist, lecturer and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, has been documenting traditional musicians for the last 50 years, Cover pictureboth on film and on disc, and many - though not all - of the tracks on this CD are taken from his own recordings.  Ten of the twenty-three tracks appear here for the first time, the remaining tracks having previously been issued on various record albums over the years.

According to John, the title comes from something once said by Bob Dylan, ‘there is no eye, there is only a series of mouths, long live the mouths’.  When I first heard mention of this CD I assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that John had taken the title from a section of the Buddhist Heart Sutra, which says, ‘In emptiness...there is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind’ which, to my way of thinking, far better describes the often complex relationships between John Cohen’s photographs and recordings, than does the Bob Dylan quotation.  ‘Can you see music or hear photographs?’ asks John Cohen in the booklet notes.  And I, for one, have to answer that in emptiness there is no problem with this proposition.  (O.K. so this might sound a trifle presumptuous to those unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy.  If you want to take me up on this, email me via Musical Traditions!).

I think that I ought, at this point, to state an interest.  In the early 1980s John Cohen and his family spent a year’s sabbatical in London, where I got to know them quite well, and I have long admired John’s work.  I helped him make a short film about the Norfolk singer Walter Pardon and I think that his album High Atmosphere (Rounder 0028) is one of the best Appalachian albums ever to appear.  It is thanks to John that we have outstanding albums of singers such as Roscoe Holcomb and Dillard Chandler and it was from John’s recording that I first heard the music of the Peruvian mountains.  (Try Mountain Music of Peru on Smithsonian Folkways 40020 for a start, if you want to hear some of this wonderful music).  And I suspect that I have approached there is no eye knowing the high standard that John sets himself.  I am glad to say that I have not been disappointed.  This is a really first rate album which contains many musical gems and works well on a number of levels.

It comes as something of a surprise to realise that John recorded the first two tracks almost fifty years ago (in 1953 and ‘54), the sound quality being so good.  Gary Davis was recorded before he became a favourite of the Greenwich Village coffee-house folk scene of the ‘60’s.  His If I Had My Way is a tour de force performance, voice and guitar weaving in and out of all sorts of interrelated shapes and tones.  Gary Davis was originally from the piedmont area of North Carolina, as was Elizabeth Cotten whose Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie contrasts sharply Gary Davis’s vocal gruffness.  Here was a singer - famous, of course, for her song Freight Train - whose delicate finger picking and calm voice are miles away, musically speaking, from the music of the Reverend Davis.

Yvonne Hunter, who was from John’s Island off the coast of South Carolina, gives us a powerful version of Eddy Boyd’s Five Long Years (here titled Have You Ever Been Mistreated) which is similar to Eddy’s 1952 J.O.B. recording (J.O.B. 1007).  I Can’t Be Satisfied has long been a Muddy Waters standard.  First recorded in the summer of 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress as I Be’s Troubled, I Can’t Be Satisfied is Muddy’s 1948 electric remake (Aristocrat 1305/Chess 1514), made shortly after he arrived in Chicago from Mississippi.  The harshly-lit booklet photographs show a suited Muddy rehearsing with Issac Washington in an eery-looking New York room.  Taken in 1959, the three photographs disturb me every time I look at them, and I don’t know why this should be.  Some photographs are timeless, hard to date.  But these portraits seem to freeze Muddy in a very specific period of music-making history.

Bob Dylan’s Roll On John is taken from a 1962 radio broadcast.  Officially issued here for the first time, it has, in fact, appeared on a number of underground tapes.  On first hearing I was quite surprised how well Dylan sang the song.  Subsequent hearings, however, show a shallowness when compared with the source recording of Kentucky singer Rufus Crisp (Folkways 2342).  John Cohen has spent some considerable time documenting the music of eastern Kentucky.  Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian Folkways 40077) first introduced us to the singing of Roscoe Holcomb, among others.  When Roscoe’s solo album High Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian Folkways 40104) was reissued on CD I was disappointed that his haunting Man of Constant Sorrow had been omitted.  Now we know why.  It’s here!  Thank God!  Hallelujah!  John prints a number of comments about Roscoe Holcomb’s singing from other writers.  I especially like this one: ‘A voice that bypasses the head and shoots straight for the soul’.  I have to say that it came as something of a shock to learn that Roscoe had originally learnt the song from a recording by Ralph Stanley, his delivery sounding as though he had been born with the song already implanted in his mind.

One of John Cohen’s films is of Kentucky musicians.  Also titled The High Lonesome Sound, it focuses primarily on Roscoe Holcomb, although Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys are also seen performing their version of John Henry, which is likewise included here.  It’s a high-powered performance, one which contrasts sharply with the almost sedate performance of the Baptist song Come All You Tender Hearted sung superbly by Carter Stanley.  Other mountain - Appalachian, of course - recordings include Doc Watson and his father-in-law Gaither Carlton singing and playing Hick’s Farewell, Sidna Myers playing the exquisite clawhammer tune Twin Sisters and Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard performing a tight bluegrass version of TB Blues.

Galax musicians Charlie Higgins, Wade Ward and Dale Poe were recorded in 1961, a couple of years after Alan Lomax recorded them for his Southern Journey project.  (I’m assuming that the guitarist credited as Dave Poe in the booklet notes to the CD Ballads and Breakdowns (Rounder 1702) is, in fact, Dale Poe).  The Lomax recordings preserve the so-called ‘Galax sound’, whereas the single track heard here, Sally Johnson, sounds more like a remake of some of the Georgia stringbands of the 1920s and ‘30s, such as Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, and it may well be that Uncle Charlie and Wade Ward originally picked the piece up from one of the Skillet Lickers’ 78s.  Dale Poe’s guitar sounds remarkably like Riley Puckett at times.

Eck Robertson’s solo Texas fiddle track, Sally Gooden, on the other hand, is almost identical - note for note - with the version that he recorded as long ago as 1922 and which can be heard on County CD 3315.  John had travelled from New York to Texas to record Eck.  Other far-flung recordings heard here include tracks from Scotland and Peru.  In 1981 John recorded and filmed a number of Scottish travellers, including Mary Townsley and Jean MacFee (presumably this should be MacPhee).  Mary and Jean sings a good, if fairly standard, version of the song Young But Growing.  To my ears she does sound rather Irish - but then so did Cathie Stewart at times - and the Townsley’s are well-known travellers around Dundee and Perth.  The 1964 recording of Paloma Blanco, performed by a Peruvian stringband, is exquisite.  It is preceded by the New Lost City Ramblers (John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz) playing a version of Buck Creek Girls that John had previously collected from Kentucky banjo player Bill Cornett.  What strikes me is how similar the New Lost City Ramblers sound to their Peruvian musical cousins.  The tunes are, of course, dissimilar, but, the manner of playing - the philosophy behind the playing - is clearly related.

I don’t know if John Cohen ever recorded Woody Guthrie.  He certainly photographed him and the diminutive portrait of Guthrie overshadowed by two dark suited guitarists is moving in its simplicity; the terribly ill Guthrie appearing both oblivious to his surroundings and, at the same time, seeming to be deeply, yet peacefully, aware of his condition.  Ramblin’ Around shows Woody Guthrie at his best.

When I first listened to this CD I was interrupted by a telephone call.  At the end of the call I returned to the CD and was surprised to hear what sounded like the old fake John Jacob Niles.  I listened again, and decided that it was not Niles, but Bert Lloyd instead.  Looking at the CD notes I then realised that it was a recording of Alan Lomax singing one of the songs that he had recorded in the 1930s from the black singer James ‘Ironhead’ Baker.  Love My Darling-O is a version of the British song The Wily Old Carle.  John notes that it is sung to the tune Which Side Are You On? but fails to mention that this latter song was set to the Anglo-American song tune Jackie Frasier.  (As a slight aside, the Almanac Singers’ version of Which Side Are You On? has recently been reissued on the cut-price Naxos CD Talking Union - The Almanac Singers vol.1 - Naxos 8.120567).  For some reason I have never really warmed to Lomax’s voice and Love My Darling-O sadly does little to improve the situation.

Most of the CDs remaining tracks are of contemporary performers.  Sweet Mill’s Band from California play a good stringband version of the old Henry Reed fiddle tune Kitchen Girl.  David Amran, as representative of John Cohen’s one time involvement with the beat poets, plays piano and sings Pull My Daisy, a song which fades into insignificance on repeated hearings; and John’s children Rufus and Sonya show that there is still a lot of good music to be heard from the Cohen household.

As I said before, I really like this CD.  Perhaps I would have changed one or two tracks, but then I’m not John Cohen.  According to the notes, when he heard of the proposed CD, Tony Seeger, then director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, told John Cohen, ‘Go ahead.  You put music together in unusual ways’.  Unusual or not, this is a fascinating compilation, and one that deserves to be heard widely.

Mike Yates - 10.1.02

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