Reports From the Turntable
Vols. 1-4, Oct. 17, 1997
I've spent the last few weeks with the first four volumes of the Southern Journey series, a planned 13-CD series of Alan Lomax's field recordings in the southern U.S. in 1959 and 1960. They are a small part of the Alan Lomax Collection, a series of 100+ discs covering his recordings all around the world (literally). Some other parts of the Collection would be of interest to blues fans, including some of the Portraits series, the prison songs discs, Deep River of Song, from his 1930s and 1940s recordings of African American music, and of course his African recordings.
First of all, blues fans perhaps tend to think of Lomax only in terms of his blues discoveries (at least I do) -- Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell, etc. But he did extensive work in Ireland and England, in Spain and Italy, and in many other countries. It's truly an immeasurable contribution to what we know about music -- this guy was doing 'world music' before Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno or David Byrne were born.
I cannot recommend the Southern Journey reissues highly enough, at least not unless the first four CDs are much better than the remainder. (The first eight have been released, and five more will come out over the next year. Let me mention here that Rounder came up with an innovative deal that I hope they do more of: they offered a "subscription" deal where if you paid $10/disc up front, they send them all to you as they are released, with no shipping charges. If you can afford the $130 bite it's a great way to do it.)
The first four discs, in order, are:
Vol. 1: Voices From the American South
This disc is a bit all-over-the-place -- it tries to cover all the ground the series will cover, almost like an overture. Annoyingly, some tracks are duplicated on other volumes in the series.
It starts off with a breathtaking excerpt of a Georgia Sea Island shout called "O Day," sung at the end of an all-night church service (the full version is available "on a volume later in this series," grr) and then moves immediately to a fiddle breakdown.
The disc introduces some of the musicians you'll meet frequently as you listen to the series -- you'll get to know them almost like characters in a novel, and that's one of Lomax's gifts -- to allow you to get to share some of the love he felt for the people.
There's Hobart Smith, a white Virginia musician who played just about anything with strings, and who you'll hear doing fiddle music, singing blues, and playing banjo tunes on the piano. There's Wade Ward, a banjo player from a musical family; on the cover of Vol. 1 is a photo of him, wearing headphones, listening to a playback, completely delighted hearing himself playing. And there's Lucius Smith and Sid Hemphill and their families and friends, familiar from The Land Where the Blues Began, playing music that so clearly shows how African music became blues. Texas Gladden and her lullabies and unaccompanied ballads, Uncle Charlie Higgins, Bessie Jones -- you'll get to know these people.
Vol 2: Ballads and Breakdowns
This focuses on Blue Ridge Mountain music -- Irish, English and Scottish ballads and dance music as transformed in America. At the moment, I have it on a tape with Brendan Power's New Irish Harmonica, because they remind me of each other. The Celtic feel of this disc is completely unmistakeable, and if you want to start looking at the Celtic influences on blues (Ocky, are you listening?) then start here. While the music on this disc is all rural white music, it is a very short leap from "Uncle Charlie's Breakdown" to the reels of Fred McDowell -- remember what he says on I Do Not Play No Rock & Roll: "What we call the blues now, at that time you know what they call them? A reel."
This disc has white musicians doing African banjo pieces, and African-Americans singing ballads collected by Francis Child in the 19th century, and concludes with Wade Ward doing "Cluck Old Hen" on the banjo -- a tune familiar to Taj Mahal fans, since he does it on his wonderful De Ole Folks At Home album from the early 70s -- another attempt to show how country and blues music are intertwined.
Vol 3: 61 Highway Mississippi
The personality dominating this disc is Fred McDowell. He performs four of the songs himself, plus one more with some other area musicians, which is nice, because you get more of a sense of him as a member of a community -- the context out of which his music came.
This disc focuses on some of the oldest (and most African) traditions in blues -- fife and drum bands (featuring the legendary Sid Hemphill, of course, along with Lucius Smith and others of that circle) and guitar/fiddle bands which sound an awful lot like string bands in old-time country.
Yesterday I posted a note about Othar Turner implying that he was from the Delta, and Ray Mikell pointed out that he's not from the Delta, but from the hills north fo there, which have been settled for much longer and have an older tradition, which I would have probably known if I'd read the booklet to this disc more closely! Othar's not on this collection but Hemphill and Ed Young, etc, are, and they're from the same area (Como, Miss., hope I got that right this time).
It opens with a powerful acapella prison song recorded at Parchman Farm. No surprise that a lot of the music in this series, both black and white, is sung alone with no accompaniment. This disc and the preceding one both end with women, alone, singing beautiful lullabies.
Vol. 4: Brethren, We Meet Again
This disc is all white Protestant church music, including spectacular examples of shape note singing and lining hymns. For me, who doesn't know much about this stuff at all, the disc and the booklet were quite an education. Lomax makes a forceful case that a huge portion of our musical heritage is religious -- and if you think about the number of blues musicians who were also religious musicians, and how blues was in some ways defined as an antithesis of sacred music -- that certainly applies to blues.
Many of these songs are old European hymns, some of them hundreds of years old, but you can hear the way they've changed.
Again, the cross-fertilization of black and white culture shows up -- many of these recordings sound a bit like black gospel music, and you can certainly hear the commonalities -- the complex vocal arrangements, etc. Most of all you can hear the power of this music.
Hobart Smith and his family show up again singing "When The Stars Begin To Fall," a black hymn; on another track he does a version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." His guitar on the former is reminiscient of players like John Hurt and Gary Davis, the same strong thumb rhythms with very pretty melodic fills on the higher strings, answering the vocals.
Notes on Vols. 1-4
This is simply one of the best rereleases I've ever seen, and its producers and researchers should win a ton of awards for it. The sound quality is top-notch and there's so much love and care put into the whole project, starting of course with Lomax's work, that it just shines through. The liner notes are wonderful (although they do tend, especially on Vol. II, to drift into Yazoo-like showoff musical theorivia such as "The harmonic language of this tune is simple yet intriguing. It is essentially set in a hexatonic mixolidyan mode on A but we encounter a cadential figure ...").
This series is a lot of work, in some senses. I mean, you can put it on and listen to it in the background, but it's much more enjoyable, at least for me, to sit and listen to it, and focus on the music, and read about it at the same time. I'm going to reread Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began soon -- if you've read it in the past, you can hear many of the recordings and people he talked about in this series. (And if you haven't read it, do so!).
I've been going slowly through the series (I have the first eight but have only listened to four so far), so I'll probably post more about the future volumes.
Note that this is only a small part of the entire rerelease program Rounder is working on of Lomax's work, which totals over 100 CDs. Some other discs may be of interest to blues fans, particularly the two discs of prison recordings and two of the discs in the Portraits series (focusing on Fred McDowell and Son House).
Vols. 5-6, Jan. 2, 1998
I'm still working my way through the Southern Journey series, and this post will cover volumes 5 and 6, as well as the first disc in the Portraits series, which focuses on Fred McDowell.
From conversations and emails about this series, I'm seeing that there's a misconception among people who haven't heard any of the music. These are not scratchy field recordings like the stuff Lomax and his father recorded in the thirties. While they're not exactly CD-quality, they sound great. Most of them are in stereo, the dynamic range is relatively wide, and there's next to no extraneous noise. I listen to a lot of this stuff on headphones and on a walkman, which you can't really do with the older recordings.
Vols. 5 and 6 are solid additions to the series, and continue building the listener's relationship with the continuing characters of the series: Bessie Jones, the Georgia Sea Island singer, Hobart Smith, Fred McDowell, and so on.
Vol. 5: Bad Man Ballads
This disc of murder ballads and tales of antiheroes from Jesse James to Po Lazarus explores the ambivalence towards the outlaw: songs portraying outlaws as heroes, songs portraying innocents being saved from the gallows. I hear the roots of a lot of popular blues and country songs on this disc, unsurprisingly.
The opening song, "Jesse James," is sung unaccompanied by Almeda Riddle, one of the key personalities of the series. It's gentler and prettier than many of her performances, and bears a considerable resemblance to Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ."
Three versions of the "Po' Lazarus" ballad, a story of a black man hunted down and killed by the police (has anyone done an updated version of this about New York City yet?) are included on the disc. The first, by the Bright Light Quartet, is a polished vocal-harmony version with serious gospel roots, faster than their version on volume 1, and with an accompanying guitar. The second is a solo vocal performance by Henry Morrison, a Georgia Sea Island singer. The third version, the last song on the disc, is a prison work song version recorded at a Mississippi state prison.
Hobart Smith, another of the central characters in the Southern Journey, is a one-man demonstration of the relationship between blues and country music. His "Railroad Bill" is intensely reminiscient, in both melody and picking patterns, in its melody and picking patterns of John Hurt's "Louis Collins." Smith, a white Virginia musician fluent on just about every stringed instrument, shows up again later on with "Claude Allen," another ballad with a gently rocking rhythm picked on the guitar, and then again with a fleet-fingered banjo lament, "Hawkins County Jail": "All my friends standing 'round/And no one to go my bail."
It seems a bit of a stretch to call John Henry a "bad man," but his tale shows up here in a worksong version led by Ed Lewis, recorded at Parchman. Perhaps the most commercial song on the disc is a gorgeous version of "Columbus Stockade," by the J.E. Mainer band, with a plaintive two-part country harmony in fifths.
Vol. 6: Sheep, Sheep, Don'tcha Know the road
This is one of my favorite discs in the series so far. It explores "the boundaries of 'sacred' and 'sinful' musical expression." Some of it is deeply affecting, and some extremely funny.
It starts off on the former note, with Bessie Jones leading the title song, asking "Don'tcha know the road by the playing of the song / Don'tcha know the road by the prayin' of the prayers"? Jones is from the Georgia Sea Islands, and every example of her work so far in this series, from the first song on the first disc, is stop-you-in-your-tracks music. There's a two-CD reissue of Lomax's Georgia Sea Island discs coming up in the reissue program that I'm very much looking forward to.
Anyway, this disc jumps right away to a sly commentary on alcohol, "The Juice of the Forbidden Fruit," and then to a fiddle workout, "Devil's Dream," by the ubiquitous Hobart Smith.
The Bright Light Quartet returns with "Straighten 'Em" and "The Prayer Wheel," the latter with an almost doo-wop vocal bass line. Fred McDowell, who certainly moved easily between the sacred and the profane, appears several times on the disc, mostly backing up other musicians. McDowell's guitar virtually holds a continuing dialog with James Shorty on "My Mother Died and Left Me," a slow and beautiful song. But then, with Denise and Mattie Gardner on "I Wish I Was In Heaven," with the sound of crickets in the background, his guitar provides a jumping and mostly strummed rhythm, with occasional longer slide notes answering the vocals.
One song stands out from the rest, not only as an amazing performance but also as not especially fitting into the theme or the running order. But Willie Jones and Forrest City Joe Pugh do a driving perofmrance of "You Got Dimples in Your Jaws" that sounds for all the world like John Lee Williamson and Big Joe Turner. It's much more urban, and bluesier, than almost anything else on the disc.
Almost every song on this disc is superb, perhaps with the exception of Almeda Riddle's "The House Carpenter." Riddle's unaccompanied singing graces nearly every disc in the collection so far, but her voice and phrasing take some getting used to. This seven-minute-plus minor key plaint is a bit much to take.
Portraits: Fred McDowell, the First Recordings
While this disc focuses on Fred McDowell, one of the best things about it is hearing him playing with and behind other musicians from the area, including Sidney Carter, Rose Hemphill, James Shorty, and McDowell's wife, Annie Mae.
The disc kicks off with "I'm Going Down the River," where McDowell's vocal is answered by a wailing, crying sound -- Fanny Davis playing an amazingly expressive comb wrapped in tissue paper. The second track, "61 Highway," is closer to McDowell's classic recordings, a solo blues that is disappointingly a duplicate of the version on Southern Journey Vol. 3. It's not the only duplicate on the disc, either: "You Done Tol' Everybody" also appears in the same version on Vol. 6.
"Wished I Was In Heaven Sitting Down" appears here in a solo version, slower and more mournful than the Sheep, Sheep version. He plays nearly half the lyrics on guitar rather than singing them.
Other songs on the disc range from versions of well-known blues ("Worried Mind," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl") to songs he rarely recorded afterwards ("Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Jesus").
It's a bit shorter than other discs in the series (a hair over fifty minutes), and despite the duplicates, it's by no means a complete compilation of his recordings for Lomax -- most discs in the Southern Journey series so far include at least one song not on this disc. Overall, this is probably valuable more for big fans of McDowell's than for the more casual listener.