'round-the-dial - The Alan Lomax Collection (part 2)
Thursday 01 July @ 11:19:11
by Tom Hallett
(We continue with the second of our two-part series on Alan Lomax's Deep River of Song collection this week, where we take a peek at Louisiana: Catch That Train And Testify!)
The Louisiana that John A. and Alan Lomax (along with Ruby Terrill Lomax, Paul Yeager, and, later, Irene Therese Whitfield) visited in the early-to-mid 1930s wasn't very different from the Louisiana of 75 or 100 years earlier, when many of the songs they'd capture on tape were first undergoing transformation from proud African traditions to Christian-and-English/French-influenced slave work songs, field shouts, religious hollers, and early blues standards-to-be.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I discovered to my consternation that the rich traditions that my father and I had documented had virtually disappeared. Most young people, caught up by T.V. and the hit parade, simply did not know anything about the black folklore that their forebears had produced ... this music is a thing of great beauty—a monument to the extraordinary creativity of the black people of North America."
SONG OF THE WEEK: “All Day Music”
The performers captured on Deep River Of Song- Louisiana: Catch That Train And Testify! (2004 Rounder Records) include several people who'd been born into slavery, and most of the rest were only a generation or so removed from the brutal cotton fields and cracker-ized Old South.
Certainly then, as it does today, the foul tinge of racism and prejudice hung heavy over the humid plantations and sweltering swamp land of the Evangeline country of Southern Louisiana. As a result, the songs included on this collection—touted as the most diverse of all the Lomax recordings currently in print—ring with an authenticity and painful historical relevance only hinted at by the city-fied blues-men of the early-to-mid ’50s. Though they'd followed a wispy trail through Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas in search of the deeper roots of the era's blues, jazz, and Negro folk music, it was to Louisiana that John and Alan returned, flush with the success of recording Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter the previous year as he served out a prison term at the infamous Angola State Pen. Ledbetter, presaging the cock-of-the-walk, guitar god ethos of the late 1960s by nearly 40 years, had cracked, "I's the king of the 12-string guitar players of the world!" The Lomaxes set out to track down the roots of Lead Belly's repertoire, and a choice batch of those findings—as well as a couple Ledbetter classics—are lovingly and surprisingly well-preserved here.
Aware that the popular Louisiana "ring shout" was a direct product of the revered West African tribal tradition, Lomax took great pains to find the most original, true-to-form American practitioners of the art, and this collection kicks off with what are the musical ancestors of today's rapturous, joyful Baptist church hootenannies. The seemingly offhanded choreography, zealous, exuberant utterances and wild rhythms inherent in the form were, in fact, carefully handed-down family and community ties to a past that was both horrific and triumphant at the same time.
Lomax described his first witnessing of the testimonials thusly: "...the song is "danced" with the whole body—with hands, feet, belly, and hips; the worship is, basically, a dancing-singing phenomenon; the dancers always move counter-clockwise around the ring; the song has the leader-chorus form, with much repetition, with a focus on rhythm rather than melody, that is, with a form that invites and ultimately enforces co-operative group activity; the song continues to be repeated sometimes more than an hour, steadily increasing in intensity and gradually accelerating, until a sort of mass hypnosis ensues."
He also noted that, "True to an age-old West African pattern, the dancers shuffled round and round single file, moving ... counter-clockwise ... clapping out the beat in complex counter-rhythms. This religious dance was universal in the days of slavery, and it was a serious part of religious observance for the Negroes. There were various strict rules. For instance, the participants were not to cross their legs as they danced; such a step would have meant that they were dancing and not "shouting." Dancing, according to their newly acquired Protestantism, was "sinful" and taboo for church members." For generations, this "clean" version of the old tradition helped to keep young, fiery members of the flock close to the church and under the watchful eyes of their elders (who were every bit as concerned with the physical safety of their offspring as that of their souls in an age when "lewd" dancing was more than enough for the neighborhood white yokels to organize a "necktie party" around a local hangin' tree), but eventually the roadhouses and gin joints of the times called to the more socially curious of the next generation, and the secular blues as we know it today began to take shape.
Some of that transition is clearly apparent on this collection, as it kicks things off with the fantastic ring shouts of Joe "Washington" Brown and several frenetic friends. "Hallelujah (Lamb On The Altar)" could've inspired Howlin' Wolf's or Captain Beefheart's frantic, gravel-throated vocal styles, while "New Calvary," with its foot-stomping ferocity and exuberant call-and-response style, embodies at least the spirit, if not the melodic complexity, of vintage American Black gospel, R&B, soul, and Hip-Hop.
"Lord, Lord Shorty" could've been a road-map for such geography-obsessed modern crooners as Lucinda Williams or Vic Chesnutt, but was certainly written along the story pattern of the infamous Stagger Lee, as it follows Shorty on his journeys through East Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and beyond. "He goin' to bring me back a Stetson," brags Washington. Then, as if he thinks we don't quite believe him, he stresses, "Shorty told me. Well, well ..." Lloyd Price, Bob Marley, and even The Beatles (with the overly corny but well-told rock fable "Rocky Racoon," and several others) would later take some songwriting cues from the style Brown showcases here—although, Marley aside, few would capture the pure religious fervor of this long-lost vocal group.
Reflecting the changing face of America, the album begins at this point to briefly veer into the realm of rockin' and rollin' train and hobo songs, with Washington contributing "Good Lord (Train Piece)," a powerful shout that's partly spiritual fury, partly straight-up work blues, and partly an outpouring of the pure-dee joy that one felt in the freedom of riding a long twin steel rail as far away from the bad old days as possible, the future be damned. And when Joe shout-raps-scats: "O my Lordy, well, well, well, I've got a rock, you've got a rock, good Lord, I looked at that rock," you'll never again wonder whether rock and roll began with Ike Turner or Big Mama Thornton. It was alive and well and breathing thick swamp air as early as at least the start of the 1930s, and probably for decades before, as this song and most of those included here are generational hand-me-downs. Sam "Old Dad" Ballard, who contributes "Catch That Train" and "Big Leg Ida" —both later to become blues standards—was among those who may have heard the songs in their earliest stages. Ballard, notes John Lomax in a spoken segment on the tape, was "... a baby during the Civil War, and that means that he is about seventy-five years old." And this was in June of 1934.
"Big Leg Ida" and the following track, "Julie Montgomery," which was performed by an unidentified male section group, both prominently featured "tamping," the practice of pounding steel implements such as shovels, hoes, hammers, or rakes against stone or metal in time with the song. These sounds represent not only the shackling of the originators of the form, but the steady "clink-clank" of tools as slaves and immigrants lived and died building America's first railway systems. "Julie Montgomery/Is the girl I love," howls the singer, "Partner, she got killed on the M and O...Oh, Willie Willie Weaver/Was a mighty hobo/Partner he got killed on the M and O ..." Undoubtedly, prison work parties of the late ’40s and the 1950s would transform this song, and others like it, into the chain gang standards of the age.
Lomax also pays close attention here to the Acadian settlers of Louisiana, those hard-scrabble French-Canadian refugees who produced offspring with the slaves and Native Americans of the territory to become an American community of their own—the Cajuns. The Cajun and Creole standards captured here range from tracks of great beauty and sadness to whiskey-soaked life celebrations, kicking off with the cheatin' heart classic "Bye Bye Bonsoir, Mes Parents," which is referred to by Lomax as a variant on the better-known "Orphan's Waltz," and which features biting Creole-style harmonica playing. These songs are the direct ancestors of, and inspirations for, such modern-day classics as Hank Williams Sr.'s popular version of "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)," The Animals' take on "House Of The Rising Sun," and The Band's gorgeous, historically accurate "Acadian Driftwood," as well as just about anybody else who lays any claim whatsoever to Dixie's rich musical heritage.
"A goodly portion of the center of the album is dedicated to the Cajun/Creole/Acadian influences on Negro and, later, rural white folk music of the area, with Cleveland Benoit, Darby Hicks, Joe Massie, Peters again (pounding the hell out of spoons), and P.J. Malveaux showcasing songs of love and longing ("La-Bas' Chez Moreau," "Je Veaux Me Marier (Chere Ami)," rejection, and genuine Zydeco, courtesy of folks like accordionist Anderson Moss and his tight version of "Allons A Lafayette" (or, "Let's Go To Lafayette)," a song which was one of the very first commercial successes in the genre.
At this point, Deep River... begins to wind down with Lead Belly's "(Goodnight) Irene," of which Alan recalls, "... he learned the refrain with a couple of verses from his uncle ..." before he was sentenced to prison for murder. Once he reached Angola, Lomax recounts, "... he took ‘Irene’ and his 12-string guitar. ‘Irene’ was his most popular song with the convicts, the guards, and the prisoners he would entertain." John and Alan both suspected the song was originally of 19th-century origin, but couldn't find definitive proof. The liner notes to this album (written and beautifully presented by John Cowley) hint that the song may have been based on an 1886 composition released by the African-American songsmith Gussie Lord Davis.
Whatever its origins, "(Goodnight) Irene" is not only the most universally recognizable track on this release, but also undeniably one of the first Negro folk songs here to cross over into universal consciousness and inevitable immortality. Huddie's heartbroken vocals and honest-blues guitar playing, however, prove it to be a far darker tale than the average American record-buyer could've guessed once it became fashionable to own and play authentic Negro recordings: "I love Irene, God knows," Ledbetter nearly sobs, "Love her 'till the sea run dry/If Irene turn her back on me/Gon' take morphine and die ..."
If the only version of the classic "The Maid Freed From The Gallows" you've heard is Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole" (which Page and Plant finally did serious justice to on their live acoustic Un-Ledded album a few years back), then you've never really heard the song. Ledbetter plays the tune as it was traditionally translated by Southern slaves and prisoners in the mid-to-late 1800s—as "...not only a folk song, but as a cante-fable, a folk drama, a dance, and a game." Lead Belly puts his own spin on the ballad, changing the order of the family members he calls to through prison bars for aid against the hangman to more closely resemble, perhaps, his own experiences. Either way, hearing a man who was certain he was headed for the scaffold any day certainly lends it an authenticity and a chilling air that later performances by black and white pop and blues singers never fully realized.
"Trench Blues," performed by John "Big Nig" Bray, of Amelia, Louisiana, is one of a few rare actual accounts of life and death in the trenches of France by Negro soldiers during World War I, and an experience Bray himself lived out firsthand. After quickly learning not to pay "Big Nig" until after he'd played for them (he had a habit of immediately purchasing as much liquor as he could carry and drinking himself into a stupor before the tape even started running), Lomax and Co. coaxed some great music as well as an informative and focused interview from their subject. "They didn't give me a gun," he told Lomax, "All the weapons I ever had was my guitar, a shovel, and a mop." The song itself, sung by "Big Nig" back home in the swamps as he led a gang of fellow singers snaking cypress out of the wetlands around Morgan City, begins with John's voyage across the sea, worrying about submarines, to the death-and-disease-riddled trenches of Mountsac, to Belgium, Berlin, and back to Paris, where, he shouts, "the women (were) hollering ‘non comprend’ as the triumphant Allied forces marched through. A fascinating first-hand history lesson, as well as a wonderful early blues cut.
Joe Harris, a singer/guitarist who was born in the late 1880s, contributes both "Baton Rouge Rag," and an interesting interview to this series. Harris, who grew up in the far South of Louisiana, spoke French Creole and co-wrote this song with "You Are My Sunshine" composer Gov. Jimmy Davis. Harris told Lomax he'd learned the tune from a trumpet player in Bunkie, Louisiana, in the early 1900s, but he performs it here banjo-style on his guitar, using his heel and toe to add rhythm.
The final two cuts on Deep River come from the inimitable Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, who also adds some interesting side-views in a rare interview with Lomax. The first of these, "Winding Boy," which he describes as, "one of my first tunes in the blues line down in New Orleans," and "sort of smutty," is a great example of early Dixie jazz, and the story behind it is equally fascinating. Morton was apparently afraid of being labeled "feminine," because in those days, "real men" didn't play keyboards, they played guitar, or harp, or washboard, or spoons, or if they couldn't play anything at all, they'd dance or sing. As a result, he says, his early efforts, this song among them, were rife with macho posturing—not that most modern listeners, numbed by a world full of macho, pseudo-metal hacks and overblown, violent, misogyny-obsessed rappers—would be able to suss that fact without Jelly's frank admission. Thankfully, Morton was soon exposed to other lifestyles, genres, and cultures, found his true inner voice, and continued on the road to becoming one of America's most beloved piano/jazz/ragtime figures.
"Tiger Rag," a tune that was originally copyrighted in 1918 by Nick LaRocca's Original Dixieland Jazz Band, has been a subject of heated critical discussion for years, especially its origin, so we won't dwell too heavily on that end of it. Instead, note how Jelly Roll describes the song as a prime example of European and African musical traditions meeting and melding: "Jazz started in New Orleans and this, er, ‘Tiger Rag’ happened to be transformed from an old quadrille that was in many different tempos ... now I'll show you how it was transformed. It happened to be transformed by your performer (himself) at this particular time. ‘Tiger Rag,’ for your approval ..."
But Lomax, who doubted that the notorious (well-deserved or not) musical braggart had actually, as he claimed, named the song after making "the sound of a tiger howling" with his elbow on the keyboards, chose this moment to interject, and it captures perfectly the insatiable curiosity of the man as well as the immense respect he held for both the music he loved and the performers he would historically edify: "Who named it ‘Tiger Rag?’” Morton, fingers poised above the keyboard, as sure of himself as ever and probably convinced in his heart of hearts that he actually had been the sole author of the tune, almost palpably grins through the mic: "I also named it," he says matter-of-factly, "—came from the way that I played it by making the ‘tiger’ on my elbow. A person said once, ‘That sounds like a tiger howling.’ So I said, fine. To myself I said, that's the name. So, I'll play it for you. Hold that tiger!"
As history has proven time and again, nobody has ever been able to hold the tiger created—or passed along—by Morton and his ilk, and this collection proves that, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Should be required reading and listening for anybody who cares a whit about the history of rock, blues, country, folk, soul, R&B, jazz, zydeco, and yes, even hip-hop and electronic music. Alan Lomax is the original professor of rock n' roll, and you won't find a better source of honest, music-lover's history anywhere else on the planet. Buy every album in the Deep River Of Song series!
That's it for me this week, folks. Tune in again for more music news, reviews, etc. Until next time—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/CDs you'd like to see reviewed in this column, or you're as disconcerted as I am to see The Eagles Greatest Hits once again hovering more like a vulture on the Hot 100 charts, send replies to: (temporary e-mail) email@example.com.