Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fear Itself - Fear Itself (Dot, 1969)

With my twin passions for blues and 1960s psych, one might think that I would also have a special place in my heart for a hybrid that combines the two genres. In general, this is not the case. While there are some prominent exceptions - the Insect Trust, Canned Heat, the Butterfield Blues Band, and the Blues Project come to mind - most countercultural bands during the dawning of the Age of Aquarius simply could not grasp the more subtle characteristics of this uniquely African-American style of artistic expression. Part of the problem lie with the indirect sources that influenced many well-meaning melanin-impoverished interpreters. Although British bands like the Rolling Stones should still be commended for turning on countless Caucasian American teenagers to a style of indigenous music to which they had remained underexposed due to cultural norms of the day, many of the musicians that such groups inspired possessed insufficient curiosity to seek out blues in its original form. This trickling-down has often resulted in a widespread misunderstanding of what constitutes authenticity in the genre, with endless guitar soloing a la Blueshammer being the most egregious example. Consequently, the white musicians who have most successfully adapted blues for their own uses are not the ones who merely imitate the originators or earlier interpreters but rather those who incorporate it into a larger body of musical influences and create a new synthesis in the process.

Although the four bands mentioned above exemplify some of the more prolific outfits obviously influenced by original blues recordings, the decade in which they existed also produced a few one-shots who seem to have been similarly moved by going directly to the source in lieu of exposure through British exponents of the style. Referring to singer-guitarist Ellen McIlwaine (b. 1945) in such a manner is not really accurate because of the number of albums she has released since going solo, but the lone eponymous LP by her 1960s band, Fear Itself, qualifies as one of the most interesting blues-inspired records of the period. Although American by birth, she spent her formative years growing up in Japan with her adoptive missionary parents, an experience that undoubtedly provided her with a unique worldview. McIlwaine returned to the United States in mid 1960s and first settled in Atlanta, where she attended art school and began her career as a professional musician. 1966 found her performing regularly in the clubs of New York City's Greenwich Village, appearing as the opening act for rediscovered bluesmen and occasionally sharing the stage with a young Jimi Hendrix. Inspired by the burgeoning psychedelic rock movement sweeping the country, she recruited lead guitarist Chris Zaloom, bassist Steve Cook, and drummer Bill McCord as the supporting musicians for Fear Itself during her return to Atlanta. In 1968, the quartet relocated to Woodstock, New York and started working on their album under the supervision of noted producer Tom Wilson. According to one source, Cook quit after the recording sessions and was replaced by Paul Album (who is erroneously[?] credited as the bass player in the inner gatefold), and it was this version of the band that apparently played at Woodstock (the festival) in 1969. Fear Itself's new new bassist was killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver not long afterward, a tragic event that ultimately contributed to the group's dissolution. Since that time, McIlwaine has continued playing and recording on her own terms while keeping her repertory fresh through the assimilation of world music elements into her unique performing style. She is rightly recognized for her outstanding talents as both a vocalist and guitarist (with an emphasis on slide). Zaloom has earned a reputation for being a musician's musician and continues to reside in Woodstock at last report.


Fear Itself
was the best rock album ever released on the usually lame Dot label and arguably one of the finest from any record company to combine blues and psychedelic rock as major ingredients. The comparisons of Ellen McIlwaine to Big Brother & the Holding Company-era Janis Joplin are, of course, inevitable as are the approaches of the supporting musicians. While both bands were undeniably heavy and quintessential products of the 1960s, their singers serve as a study in contrasts. While Joplin frequently comes off as abrasively screechy and undisciplined, McIlwaine's husky vocals sound pleasantly earthy but never out of control. Moreover, the latter possesses far greater skill as an instrumentalist as demonstrated by her impressive contributions on rhythm guitar, harmonica, and organ throughout the proceedings. "Crawling Kingsnake" and "Born Under a Bad Sign," blues standards that bookend the LP, rank among the better white interpretations of these songs that you're likely to hear, although they also might suffer a bit from overfamiliarity. "Underground River" is a superbly unique McIlwaine original featuring excellent guitar interplay between her and Saloom in addition to lyrics that are evidently about Jimi Hendrix. "Bow'd Up" sounds like a tongue-in-cheek ditty that is antithetical to the strong personality that I imagine the singer to be. "For Suki" contains more impressive fretwork that finely complements McIlwaine's powerful vocals. Judging by its title, I'm guessing that it must have been dedicated to someone she knew in Japan. As was the custom of the day, labels often gave bands an opportunity to stretch out and "do their own thing" on one album track. In this case, that particular piece is a rendition of the old gospel tune "In My Time of Dying" (recorded in the 1920s by Blind Willie Johnson as "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" and Charlie Patton as "Jesus Is a Dying-Bed Maker") that clocks in at eight-and-a-half minutes and blows Led Zeppelin's better-known version clear out of the water. Although the cover of the Box Tops' "The Letter" is merely competent, the following cut, "Lazarus," qualifies as Fear Itself's masterpiece. Once again, a vintage spiritual serves as source material, but the psychedelic haze that envelops it transforms the piece into an exercise in first-rate mind expansion. I can't say enough good things about this track. "Mossy Dream" comes out of nowhere featuring Procol Harum-like arrangements, with McIlwaine's stately organ playing to the fore. "Billy Gene" is another song that could have only come from her fertile imagination, and as such, defies easy categorization. At one point in the performance it sounds like McIlwaine goes into her singular take on scat singing (including Japanese syllables, no less). It must have been a favorite of hers because it reappeared with a slightly different title ("Jimmy Jean") on her We the People LP from 1973.

1. Crawling Kingsnake
2. Underground River
3. Bow'd Up
4. For Suki
5. In My Time of Dying
6. The Letter
7. Lazarus
8. Mossy Dream
9. Billy Gene
10. Born Under a Bad Sign

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Wicker Man - The Original Soundtrack Album (Silva Screen Records, 2002)

The only thing better than a five-star movie is a five-star movie with a five-star soundtrack, the latter of which I believe perfectly describes The Wicker Man. No, I'm not talking about that abominable remake with non-talent Nicholas Cage that came out a few years ago. I'm referring to the original 1973 British Lion version with Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee that continues to provoke strong reactions to this very day.


As a cult film, it equally attracts both fanatics (myself included) and detractors. In my experience, those who have expressed a dislike for The Wicker Man tend to be people who wanted to see a horror film with a lot of blood and gore, and instead got something quite different than what they had anticipated. This is a much deeper, multi-layered motion picture than that, although it would not be improper to acknowledge that there is a strong element of terror that significantly factors into the plot. Consequently, one can still use the word "horror" for descriptive purposes, but with the understanding that such a term more accurately applies to the general feel of dread and foreboding that is present throughout the feature. Viewers expecting graphic violence, monsters, and supernatural occurrences will only be disappointed. One reviewer stated that The Wicker Man is more of a mystery movie than anything else, and I would have to agree more than disagree with that assessment. While the plot does unfold in an investigative fashion, it is the other aspects of this difficult-to-classify flick that make it one of my all-time favorites. Indeed, The Wicker Man can also be appreciated as a thriller, a religious work, and even a musical.


Its musical-like characteristics, of course, are a big part of the reason why the soundtrack is so successful. The songs are not merely background noise; they are an essential part of the movie itself. Quite simply, the British Isles folk music-derived performances possess the same disarmingly creepy vibe that makes The Wicker Man so appealing to its fans. Not only will the tracks on this CD evoke particularly memorable scenes in the minds of those already familiar with the film, listening to such material on its own will also help the initiated realize how integral this soundtrack is to making these scenes so unforgettable in the first place. It is hard to imagine Sergeant Howie's arrival on Summerisle without the footage being accompanied by the pastoral "Corn Rigs" and his first night at the inn without the musicians in the barroom playing the bawdy "Landlord's Daughter" or the hypnotic acid folk of "Gently Johnny." "Willow's Song" comes off as seductive as the erotic scene for which it was composed, while "Maypole" and "Fire Leap" sound wonderfully pagan to my ears. "The Tinker of Rye" gives the listener an opportunity to enjoy the surprisingly capable vocal duet of Christopher Lee and Diane Cilento, with the instrumentals "The Procession" and "Chop Chop" serving as examples of atmospheric soundtrack music at its finest. The ethereal "Lullaby" and the "
Festival/Mirie It Is/Sumer Is a-Cumen In" medley arguably exemplify that aforementioned creepy vibe better than anything else on this disc. The incidental music that concludes this recording is the icing on the cake, even if these tracks are not as fully realized as the preceding material. Having had a bootleg version of this soundtrack without these titles for a number of years before this official version was released, I found them to be a minor revelation, especially "Opening Music," which sounds like an old Scottish folk song with enchanting Northumbrian smallpipes accompaniment.


And the musicians responsible for this one-of-a-kind soundtrack? Collectively, they were an ad hoc group called Magnet, which was headed by American songwriter Paul Giovanni and assisted by British folk rock musicians Gary Carpenter (recorder, lyre), Andrew Tompkins (guitar), Ian Cutler (violin), Peter Brewis (recorder, Jew's harp, harmonica, bass guitar, etc.), Michael Cole (concertina, harmonica, bassoon), and Bernard Murray (percussion). This CD's extremely informative notes provide fascinating details on the making of the movie and the recording sessions for the soundtrack. Most importantly - at least from a musicological perspective - Carpenter's section of the booklet mentions many of the traditional songs on which several of these tracks are based.


Songs from Summerisle - Ballads of Seduction, Fertility, and Ritual Slaughter
1. Corn Rigs
2. The Landlord's Daughter
3. Gently Johnny
4. Maypole
5. Fire Leap
6. The Tinker of Rye
7. Willow's Song
8. Procession
9. Chop Chop
10. Lullaby
11. Festival/Mirie It Is/Sumer Is a-Cumen In

Incidental Music from The Wicker Man
12. Opening Music/Loving Couples/The Ruined Church
13. The Masks/The Hobby Horse
14. Searching for Rowan
15. Appointment with the Wicker Man
16. Sunset

Friday, June 17, 2011

78 Quarterly Volume 1 - No. 6 (1991)

I recently learned that my all-time favorite magazine, 78 Quarterly, has officially run its course and is no longer in circulation. At the ripe old age of 80, editor-publisher Pete Whelan apparently just doesn't have it in him to keep it going. Considering what a great resource his periodical is to fans of vintage American music - blues especially - and how much time and attention he obviously put into each issue, his retirement from this labor of love is well-deserved. There is so much fascinating information collectively contained in the pages of its dozen installments that it would take a lifetime for someone to absorb all of the specifics contained therein. With today's post being an overview of Volume One, No. 6, that means we're halfway finished with making all 12 issues available in PDF format for research purposes.


As usual, things get started with the best "Letters to the Editor" section ever to be featured in a magazine. That is, if you're obsessively into prewar blues and related styles. Then there is an auction list with a list of 78s that I can only dream about. Following that, the real writing begins...


Several of the articles are continuations of multi-part series that began in previous issues. Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow's fourth chapter in their gripping history of Paramount Records covers the time during which Arthur Laibly was sales manager and recording director for the label, an era when it "became a dumping-ground for uncommercial 'race' talent." Additionally, their piece presents some fascinating details on Mayo Williams's departure from the company and the important role that Birmingham talent scout Harry Charles played in recording prewar blues artists from Alabama such as Bo Weavil Jackson, Ed Bell, Buddy Boy Hawkins, Cow Cow Davenport, and many others. The second part of William Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong's autobiography as told to Terry Zwigoff is a must-read for anyone who found the first part in No. 5 as absorbing as I did.


Going back to records that are strictly the stuff of fantasy, "78 Presents the Rarest 78s" provides a roll call for super-rare shellac by artists with names beginning with the letters H, I, and Ja. An interesting exercise would be to determine the total monetary value of all the discs included in the list. The subtitle of the second appearance of "100 Years from Today," which for the next few issues would be a regularly-featured section in the magazine, pretty much tells you everything that you need to know: "A Survey of Afro-American Music in 1890 as Recorded in the Black Community Press." Reading these contemporary accounts is kind of like being an archaeologist stumbling upon historical documents from a lost civilization. Part four of Tom Tsotsi's history of Gennett Records perfectly complements its aforementioned counterpart in the Paramount series as it discusses the company's relationship with Mayo Williams and his celebrated but short-lived Black Patti label among other things.

Of course, the excellent roots music journalism that defines 78 also manifests itself with a couple of stand-alone articles. "The Myth of Rock and Roll" by Stephen Calt is one of the most thought-provoking things ever written about a genre that resists being easily defined to this very day. Read this extremely persuasive and impeccably-researched piece, and you will understand why. Cal Stephens supplies a transcription of Booker "Bukka" White's recollections of Alabamian harmonica player George "Bullet" Williams, which is about the only biographical information that we have on this elusive harp blower. And finally, for good measure, this issue includes a couple of hilarious cartoons (well, at least I think they are) by Tony Mostrom and a handful of book reviews.

Mandatory summer reading for the Yazoo-Document-Mamlish-Origin Jazz Library-Old Hat Records, etc., etc. crowd.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Richard A. Hagopian & Buddy Sarkissian - Kef Time (Traditional Crossroads, 1968; 1994)

Although the majority of musicians of Armenian descent in the United States who established themselves during the 1960s hailed from cities along the Atlantic seaboard such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, a considerable number of their counterparts on the West Coast also made significant contributions to the emerging and uniquely American version of Middle Eastern music. Today, Los Angeles is known for its large Armenian community, but it is the city of Fresno, located in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley region, that has traditionally been the epicenter of activity for members of this particular ethnic group in California. Initially attracted by a climate and topography similar to that of their homeland, it was inevitable that these immigrants who numbered in the thousands would bring their folkways with them. Since, in many cases, they came from different villages than their brethren who had settled back east, their repertories sometimes consisted of different material, which ultimately contributed to the development of a performing style that is particular to Armenian-Americans on the West Coast.


In addition to John Bilezikjian, Richard A. Hagopian ranks among the top oudists to have emerged from the Armenian community in California, although his musical expertise extends to several other instruments as well. His credentials have been considerably enhanced through lessons with legendary figures including Udi Hrant Kenkulian and Kanuni Garbis Bakirgian. Hagopian's instrumental talents had been apparent since an early age, but his career really took off in the mid 1960s when he was recruited by dumbeg player Buddy Sarkissian (a native of Lawrence, Massachusetts and younger brother of percussionist Mike Sarkissian) to join his group of musicians in Las Vegas. This unit, the Kef Time Band, performed as part of a show called the Cleopatra Revue that was staged at the famous Flamingo Hotel from 1963 until 1968 and doubtlessly exposed many Americans to the sounds of the Middle East for the first time. Nonosh, an authority on such music and a frequent commenter on this blog, has explained to me that the term "kef" is an Armenian loanword derived from the Arabic "kief," meaning "pleasure" or "well-being." Potheads, of course, will recognize the latter as the word for the powdery THC crystals that coat marijuana buds. With that in mind, I'll go with Nonosh's definition - "natural high" - as my favorite, though collectively "kef time" might be best translated into English as "party time." That's not to suggest that this is "stoner music" by any stretch of the imagination, but it often does possess a euphoric quality that should provide aficionados of Middle Eastern music with a really nice buzz.


Kef Time compiles the group's Kef Time Las Vegas and Kef Time Fresno LPs (plus one bonus track) from 1968 onto one CD. There is not a dull moment to be found on any of these 17 performances, which consist of Armenian and Turkish standards as well as new interpretations of traditional material that reflect the immigrant experience in America. Recorded at the end of their tenure with the Cleopatra Revue, Hagopian and Sarkissian - along with Hachig Kazarian on clarinet, Manny Petro on guitar, Jack Chalikian on kanun, and Russell Jajour on tambourine and zils - are in top form as a result of five years of non-stop playing for the hordes of Las Vegas tourists. It is tempting to focus exclusively on the headliners' magnificent oud and dumbeg playing, but that would be doing a tremendous disservice to the other extremely talented musicians who take part in these proceedings, especially the redoubtable Kazarian and Chalikian. And that doesn't even take into consideration that Hagopian also possesses an engaging, robust singing voice as heard on "
Soode Soode," "Elimon Ektim Tasa," "Telegrafin Telleri," "Konyali," "Tin Tin," "Huseynigin Sazera," "Adalar," "Sulukule," "Kale Kale," "Cile Bulbul Cile," and "Koprumun Alti Diken/Yar Saclarin." (If you don't understand Armenian or Turkish, the booklet notes provide translations of the lyrics.) Regarding the instrumentals, "Dersim Medley," "Halay," "Sepastia Bar," "Karslama," "Siro Yerk," and "Laz Bar" are as conducive to achieving "kef" as you might imagine.


1. Soode Soode
2. Dersim Medley
3. Elimon Ektim Tasa
4. Telegrafin Telleri
5. Halay
6. Konyali
7. Sepastia Bar
8. Tin Tin
9. Karslama
10. Huseynigin Sazera
11. Adalar
12. Sulukule
13. Kale Kale
14. Siro Yerk
15. Cile Bulbul Cile
16. Koprumun Alti Diken/Yar Saclarin
17. Laz Bar*

*previously unreleased

Monday, June 13, 2011

Field Recordings Volume 1: Virginia 1936-1941 Booklet Notes

Like the title line sez...

This is a follow-up to the previous post in which I had inquired if anyone out there had the booklet notes for Field Recordings Volume 1: Virginia 1936-1941. It took only one day for "Fat Belly Jones" to respond and supply me with the requested material. You are a true gentleman, sir, and I greatly appreciate your generosity.

Now that I have access to the information presented in these notes, I see that I had made a few mistakes in my original post on this CD. While I acknowledged the vocal presence of Joe Lee on "Do, Lord, Remember Me," which he performs with Jimmie Strothers, Tony Russell writes that the former also used a wire to beat the neck of the latter's guitar to provide rhythmic accompaniment. Lee apparently does the same thing on "Poontang Little, Poontang Small."

As it turns out, the Emmons Baptist Church group recordings are from 1936 and not 1941 as I had suspected.

Please see the comments for more information.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Field Recordings Volume 1: Virginia 1936-1941 (Document, 1997)

Have any of you ever wondered what the deal is with those albums for sale on Amazon that are described in the following manner: "CD-R Note: This product is manufactured on demand when ordered from" Well, wonder no more since the subject of this review is one of those albums. According to Amazon,
CD-Rs and DVD-Rs (the "R" stands for "recordable") look like the discs you're used to and offer the same audio and image quality. The recordable media is used to manufacture titles on demand, as fully authorized by the content provider.

Through manufacturing on demand, CreateSpace, part of the group of companies, enables to offer music and video content that might not otherwise be available. Each disc comes fully packaged, with artwork, in a standard jewel case for audio and an Amaray case for video, although for reissued products the artwork may differ from the original.

CreateSpace works with many of the leading music labels, television networks, film studios, and other distributors to make these titles available to customers. All products are manufactured from original source materials (e.g., for audio products, uncompressed CD-quality audio).
I'm not going to complain too much about this particular item since I knew about the medium on which it was recorded prior to ordering the product. However, the biggest disappointment is the fact that the booklet notes were not reproduced in this facsimile of the genuine article. For anyone who is as obsessed as I am with prewar blues and its various roots and branches, you know how important such information is and what a good job the Yazoo and Document labels usually do in presenting it. To further complicate matters, the track listing includes the titles of the songs but not the names of the musicians. Seriously, Amazon, if you're going to sell these CDRs for the same price as new CDs, you really need to include such minutiae in order to justify how much they cost. Such shortcomings don't make my job as a reviewer any easier, either, since I often rely on such information as research material for my write-ups. So, caveat emptor to those thinking about purchasing these CreateSpace CDRs. Does anybody out there have the original CD version of this album? If so, would you be willing to scan the complete booklet notes and e-mail them to me?


Document's superb Field Recordings series gets off to a great start with this excellent collection of material collected in Virginia shortly before the United States' entry into World War II. Most, if not all, of these tracks were recorded by Harold Spivacke, who was head of the Library of Congress's Music Division from 1937 until 1972, and the better-known John Lomax, whose efforts for the Archive of American Folk Song should be familiar to the majority of Record Fiend readers. In a fashion consistent with the latter's frequently utilized modus operandi, the bulk of these sessions took place in correctional institutions - in this particular case, the State Penitentiary in Richmond and the Virginia State Farm in Lynn.


In many respects, Field Recordings Volume 1: Virginia 1936-1941 can be appreciated as a companion piece to Red River Blues 1934-1943 since four of the featured musicians appear on both discs. Steve Leggett's writings that are posted throughout the Internet have helped provide me with what little information is available about this CD and the music that it contains. My educated guess is that the first 13 tracks - consisting of spirituals, songster material, and track-lining songs - were recorded at the State Penitentiary in Richmond in 1936. John Williams's "'Twas on a Monday," Willie Williams's "(The) New Burying Ground," and "Bitin' Spider" (a variant of "Take This Hammer"), and J. (James) Wilson's "Can't You Line 'Em" and "Laying Rail (1 & 2)" are the type of spellbinding a cappella group performances that sadly seemed to be collected only when blacks were incarcerated in the hellhole prisons of the South. Simply put, the unaccompanied solo pieces - Willie Williams's "Oh Lawd, Don't 'Low Me to Beat 'Em," Wilson's "Have Children of My Own," "Po' Boy," and "Frankie and Johnny," and Lemuel Jones's "Po' Farmer (Poor Farmers)" and "Shake It, Mama" - are no less affecting. Jimmie Owens supplies some excellent slide guitar work on his interpretation of "John Henry," while the six-string instrumental accompaniment on "Freight Train Blues" by James Henry Diggs (who might or might not be backed by another musician) suffers in comparison solely because it seems to have been improperly recorded. Tracks 14 through 31 almost definitely come from Lomax and Spivacke's visit to the
Virginia State Farm in Lynn in 1936, which resulted in a discovery who arguably ranks behind only Lead Belly in terms of significance for incarcerated performers documented by the Library of Congress. According to Leggett, Jimmie Strothers worked the medicine show circuit before doing a stint as a miner. An underground explosion left him blind and necessitated a return to playing music (as a street singer) in a professional capacity. Strothers found himself at the State Farm after being tried and convicted for murdering his wife with a hatchet. His criminality aside, he was a proto-bluesman with a repertory that does much to give us an idea of what kind of material was commonly performed by musicians of his ilk. His booming stentorian voice and rudimentary yet forceful approach on banjo and guitar indicate that he was a songster of the highest caliber. One can only wonder if Strothers could have been successful as a commercial recording artist had he not run afoul of the law. His proficiency with a variety of material is nothing short of astonishing, whether its gospel ("Keep Away from the Bloodstained Banners," "Run Down, Eli," "We Are Almost Down to the Shore"), minstrel-medicine show tunes ("Tennessee Dog," "Jaybird," "Daddy, Where You Been So Long?," "Though I Heard My Banjo Say") work songs ("Corn-Shucking Time," "I Used to Work on the Tractor," "Dis Ol' Hammer"), or a bawdy ditty ("Poontang Little, Poontang Small"). (As a side note, Leggett incorrectly identifies these tracks as being Strothers' complete recorded works since he does not take into account the blues masterpiece "Goin' to Richmond" included on the aforementioned Red River Blues.) On another religious number, "Do, Lord, Remember Me," the blind songster is joined by Joe Lee, who are both pictured (from left to right) on the CD booklet's cover at the top of this post. The latter's solo a cappella versions of the spirituals "House Done Built Without Hands," "Shines Like a Star in the Morning," "Oh the Lamb of God Done Sanctified Me," "I'll Go On," and "Rise, Run Along, Mourner" are impressive on their own merits. I'm going to bet that the last three tracks were recorded after 1936 with the strong possibility that all of them date from 1941. Exactly where the sessions took place is another matter. The Emmons Baptist Church group offers more sanctified pleasures on "Oh Jesus, Let Me Ride" and "I'm Strivin'," which are marred somewhat by lousy sound quality. In spite of its nondescript title, "Blues" is a fascinating patchwork of different songs ("Nearer My God to Thee," "Alabama Bound," "Trouble, I've It All My Days," "Matchbox Blues," among others) strung together in stream-of-consciousness fashion by the mysterious slide guitar-playing "Big Boy." To my ears, it sounds like the Virginia equivalent to Tom Bradford's "Going North" featured on Alabama: Black Secular & Religious Music 1927-1934.


1. 'Twas on a Monday - John Williams
2. Oh Lawd, Don't 'Low Me to Beat 'Em - Willie Williams
3. (The) New Buryin' Ground - Willie Williams
4. Bitin' Spider - Willie Williams
5. Can't You Line 'Em - J. Wilson
6. Laying Rail Chant (1 & 2) - J. Wilson
7. Have Children of My Own - J. Wilson
8. Po' Boy - J. Wilson
9. Frankie and Johnny - J. Wilson
10. Po' Farmer (Po' Farmers) - Lemuel Jones
11. Shake It, Mama - Lemuel Jones
12. John Henry - Jimmie Owens
13. Freight Train Blues - James Henry Diggs
14. Keep Away from the Bloodstained Banners - Jimmie Strothers
15. Tennessee Dog - Jimmie Strothers
16. Run Down, Eli - Jimmie Strothers
17. We Are Almost Down to the Shore - Jimmie Strothers
18. Jaybird (take 1) - Jimmie Strothers
19. Jaybird (take 2) - Jimmie Strothers
20. Corn-Shucking Time - Jimmie Strothers
21. Daddy, Where You Been So Long? - Jimmie Strothers
22. I Used to Work on the Tractor - Jimmie Strothers
Though I Heard My Banjo Say - Jimmie Strothers
24. House Done Built Without Hands - Joe Lee
25. Dis Ol' Hammer - Jimmie Strothers
26. Shines Like a Star in the Morning - Joe Lee
27. Do, Lord, Remember Me - Jimmie Strothers & Joe Lee
28. Poontang Little, Poontang Small - Jimmie Strothers
29. Oh the Lamb of God Done Sanctified Me - Joe Lee
30. I'll Go On - Joe Lee
31. Rise, Run Along, Mourner - Joe Lee
32. Oh Jesus, Let Me Ride - Group (Emmons Baptist Church)
33. I'm Strivin'
- Group (Emmons Baptist Church)
34. Blues - "Big Boy"

Monday, June 6, 2011

Cow Cow Davenport - The Accompanist (1924-1929) (Document, 1993)

By request.

The life of Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport (1894-1955) is the stuff of legend. Born in Anniston, Alabama to a preacher father and an organ-playing mother (named Queen Victoria Jacobs, no less), he went against his parents' wishes and devoted himself to playing the "sinful" music heard in barrelhouses, bordellos, tent shows, and vaudeville theaters and became one of the most important and influential prewar blues pianists in the process. His signature "Cow Cow Blues" and the equally compelling "State Street Jive" are rightly recognized as boogie woogie classics, although an inspection of Davenport's complete discography reveals that he was a multifaceted artist capable of playing a wide range of styles and with an equally diverse number of performers. As you can probably surmise by its title, Cow Cow Davenport - The Accompanist (1924-1929) primarily focuses on sides where he performed as a backing musician to an assortment of blues vocalists. While the featured singers are of varying quality, Davenport's expert ivory-ticking skills manage to keep things interesting throughout this particular CD.

The first six titles rank among Cow Cow's earliest recordings and find him sharing vocal duties with Dora Carr in similar fashion to the duets of Coot Grant and Kid Wilson or Butterbeans and Susie, as Mike Rowe astutely points out in the booklet notes. If you like those kind of humorous battle-of-the-sexes blues, then these half-dozen tunes will be right up your alley. Interestingly enough, Davenport does not function as an instrumentalist on any of them, with the piano probably being played instead by Clarence Williams. And for those wondering, the "pizen" in the title of the first track is defined by Stephen Calt in Barrelhouse Words as "a 19th-century variant of poison that survives in Southern dialect. According to one lexicographer, pizen is 'a pronunciation that the South's early aristocrats borrowed from upper-class English speech.'" I think that it's sometimes possible to tell when a blues musician is going to be lame based upon his or her nickname, so adjust your expectations accordingly in regard to Hound Head Henry. Believe it or not, his inclusion on this disc was what prompted me to purchase it some 15 years ago, even in spite of his somewhat ridiculous sobriquet. Charlie Patton fanatic that I am, I just had to hear "Cryin' Blues," which had apparently been the inspiration for the Founder of the Delta Blues' "Poor Me," waxed during his final recording session in 1934. I like Patton's interpretation a lot better than the original, that's for sure. Most of the titles of Henry's eight sides make reference to his ability to imitate animals or machines. While his impressions are admittedly uncanny, they are also excessive for the most part and leave such performances sounding like little more than novelty songs at best. Not surprisingly, Henry's most straightforward performance, "My Silver Dollar Mama," also comes off as his finest. The obscure Jim Towel chips in with "I've Been Hoodooed" and "Buckwheat Cakes," which may not appeal to those with a preference for lowdown blues, but will certainly be appreciated by vintage music fans interested in vaudeville minstrel songs. Memphis Joe's "Plenty Gals Blues" (a variation on the "Gang of Brown Skin Women" idiom) is cut from a similar cloth. Despite Rowe's less-than-enthusiastic commentary in the aforementioned booklet notes, the vocal harmonizing of the Southern Blues Singers adds vitality to the familiar themes expressed in "Lighthouse Blues," "Runnin' Wild," and "It's Tight Like That" - or at least it does in my opinion. "The Lover and the Beggar" and a rendition of "You Rascal You" by Lovin' Sam Theard compare favorably with Jim Towel's and Memphis Joe's previously-discussed vaudevillian material.

1. You Might Pizen Me - Dora Carr
2. Good Woman's Blues
- Dora Carr
3. He Don't Mean Me No Harm
- Dora Carr
4. Black Girl Gets There Just the Same
- Dora Carr
5. Fifth Street Blues
- Dora Carr
6. (If You Think You're Gonna Get What I Got) You Got Another Thought Coming to You
- Dora Carr
7. Hound Head Blues - Hound Head Henry
8. Freight Train Blues
- Hound Head Henry
9. Steamboat Blues
- Hound Head Henry
10. Cryin' Blues
- Hound Head Henry
11. Laughin' Blues
- Hound Head Henry
12. Low Down Hound Blues
- Hound Head Henry
13. My Silver Dollar Mama
- Hound Head Henry
14. Rooster Crowin' Blues
- Hound Head Henry
15. I've Been Hoodooed - Jim Towel
16. Buckwheat Cakes - Jim Towel
17. Plenty Gals Blues - Memphis Joe
18. Lighthouse Blues - Southern Blues Singers
19. Runnin' Wild
- Southern Blues Singers
20. It's Tight Like That
- Southern Blues Singers
21. The Lover and the Beggar - Lovin' Sam Theard
22. You Rascal You - Lovin' Sam Theard


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Barefoot Jerry - Barefoot Jerry's Grocery (Monument, 1976)

Ask people to name their favorite Southern Rock group from the 1970s, and you might get get answers like the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or maybe even Black Oak Arkansas. Inquire as to whether they are familiar with Barefoot Jerry, and you're likely to get a response such as "Who?" As with other bands that have utilized a personal name for their collective identity, the uninitiated sometimes think Barefoot Jerry is an actual person. Such a misperception shouldn't necessarily be held against them since the lack of any hit singles rendered this aggregation fairly obscure in spite of their relatively prolific recorded output.


Barefoot Jerry emerged from the ashes of Area Code 615, a supergroup of sorts that was comprised of veteran Nashville studio musicians including Wayne Moss and Mac Gayden (multi-instrumentalists who were primarily guitarists) as well as drummer Kenny Buttrey among many others. In addition to providing instrumental support for established country artists at recording sessions throughout the 1960s, various members of the aforementioned triumvirate expanded their horizons by working with performers who operated outside of the Music City system, most notably Bob Dylan and Mike Nesmith. Area Code 615 was an ahead-of-its time country rock group that lasted only long enough to make two LPs. Barefoot Jerry came into existence when Moss, Gayden, and Buttrey parted ways with other members of that first outfit and recruited keyboardist John Harris to complete the lineup for their new project, which began to take shape while they woodshedded in a remote area of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. As legend has it, they named themselves after the owner of their rented cabin, the fiddle-playing proprietor of a nearby general store. The band proceeded to record six albums between 1971 and 1978 with varying lineups, although Moss was the one constant. He remains very musically active in Nashville to this day and has essentially adopted the name of Barefoot Jerry as his performing alter ego. Barefoot Jerry's Grocery, a two-fer set released by Monument in 1976, repackages their first two and best records, Southern Delight (originally issued by Capitol in 1971) and their eponymous second album (originally issued by Warner Brothers in 1972).


Southern Delight
is an absolute tour de force and remains the finest thing that the group ever did. Displaying an astonishing blend of influences - country (duh), rock, psych, progressive, gospel, and soul to name just a few - the material on Barefoot Jerry's debut merges Southern sensibilities with countercultural philosophies, convincingly demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the lyrics of many of the songs focus on tearing down the region's negative stereotypes or touting the positive effects of mind-altering drugs - and sometimes both (e.g. "Proud to be a redneck from the sticks. We don't have to be so doggone mean. Just grow a batch of Tennessee green, then we'll be just good ole country hicks."). Moss often assumes bass-playing duties on their initial effort, making Gayden's breathtaking fretwork the instrumental center attraction, especially when he's utilizing his signature slide wah-wah technique. Buttrey's drumming is about as rock-solid as you can get, while Harris's keyboard work provides nicely complementary background textures. "Hospitality Song" (featuring memorable lines such as "Light up the pipe, pass it around. Take off your boots, we're just a-pickin' around. We don't care what state you come from, we don't care what state your mind is in.") sets the tone for this extraordinary LP and covers an amazing amount of musical territory in just under five minutes. "I'm Proud to Be a Redneck" and "Smokies" serve as eloquent statements of regional pride, with the ingeniously-titled "Quit While You're a Head" providing listeners with a warning about the dangers of taking too much LSD ("The fields are full of vegetables who took their trippin' just a bit too far."). "Blood Is Not the Answer" and the mostly-instrumental "That's OK, He'll Be Your Brother Someday" express themes of peace and human fellowship that are the very antithesis of the Ku Klux Klan mentality that too many people associate with all Southern white people. "Haunting," "ethereal," "epic," and "spiritual" are the best words I can come up with to describe respectively "Come to Me Tonight," "Finishing Touches," "The Minstrel Is Free at Last," and the brief interpretation of the gospel standard "Nobody Knows." To reiterate, Southern Delight is an absolutely incredible listening experience and an artistic statement that was never again to be repeated.

Gayden and Buttrey left the band before the recording sessions for the followup and were replaced with guitarist Russ Hicks and drummer Kenny Malone. While good in its own right, Barefoot Jerry still comes off as decidedly inferior compared to its predecessor. Gayden is especially conspicuous by his absence, and the listener quickly realizes how integral his contributions were to the unparalleled sound captured on Southern Delight. While his departure allows Moss a greater opportunity to highlight his own considerable guitar chops, it also means that Harris's dated-sounding synths are brought too much to the fore on awkwardly proggish tracks like "Castle Rock" and "Ebenezer." "One Woman," an ode to the ideal Southern female, thankfully returns the band to a more organic, country-derived sound. The lyrics of the musically similar "In God We Trust" take the white settlers-conquerors of North America and their hypocritical brand of Christianity to task for their religious rationalizations that served to justify their treatment of the continent's natives and the overexploitation of its natural resources. The message in the clever "Message" is that the song contains no message at all: "And it ain't for your mind that we are playing. It's just music for the body and the soul." On the atmospheric "Friends" and the traditional "Little Maggie," Barefoot Jerry manages to strike a perfect balance in the utilization of Harris's electronic keyboards, which nicely enhance the performances instead of overwhelming them. The Hank Garland-like "Snuff Queen" and the twangy "Fish 'N Tits" are brief instrumentals that respectively allow Hicks and Moss to indulge in a bit of guitar flash, while the mellow "Warm" and the soothing "Ain't It Nice in Here" feature surprisingly effective acoustic-guitar-and-synthesizer arrangements and are about as good as progressive country rock gets.

Southern Delight (1971)
1. Hospitality Song
2. I'm Proud to Be a Redneck
3. Smokies
4. Quit While You're a Head
5. Blood Is Not the Answer
6. Come to Me Tonight
7. Finishing Touches
8. The Minstrel Is Free at Last
9. Nobody Knows
10. That's OK, He'll Be Your Brother Someday

Barefoot Jerry (1972)
11. Castle Rock
12. One Woman
13. In God We Trust
14. Message
15. Friends
16. Snuff Queen
17. Little Maggie
18. Warm
19. Fish 'N Tits
20. Ain't It Nice in Here
21. Ebenezer