Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Volume Four: This Land Is Your Land – Folk Singers, Country Singers, Gospel, and Blues

67. Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land
(Woody Guthrie) 1944

68. Big Bill Broonzy: Baby, Please Don’t Go
(Big Joe Williams) 1952

69. Cisco Houston: Dark as a Dungeon
(Merle Travis) 1959

70. Josh White: Good Morning Blues
(Traditional, Arr. Josh White) 1956

71. Roy Acuff: Great Speckled Bird
(Guy Smith) 1936

72. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: San Antonio Rose
(Bob Wills) 1940

73. Al Dexter and his Troopers: Pistol Packin’ Mama
(Al Dexter) 1943

74. The Weavers and Gordon Jenkins: Goodnight Irene
(Traditional-Huddie Ledbetter-John A. Lomax) 1950

75. Mahalia Jackson: Move On Up a Little Higher
(W. Herbert Brewster-Arr. Mahalia Jackson) 1954

76. The Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke: Jesus Gave Me Water
(Lucie E. Campbell) 1951

77. Al Hibbler: Danny Boy
(Frederick Edward Weatherly) 1950

78. Charles Brown: Merry Christmas, Baby
(Lou Baxter-Johnny Moore) 1956

79. Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
(Denver Darling-Vaughan Horton-Milt Gabler) 1946

80. Stick McGhee: Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
(Sticks McGhee-J. Mayo Williams) 1949

81. Professor Longhair and his New Orleans Boys: Mardi Gras in New Orleans
(Roy Byrd) 1949

82. T-Bone Walker: Shufflin' the Blues
(T Bone Walker) 1956

83. Muddy Waters: Rollin’ Stone
(McKinley Morganfield) 1950

84. Howlin' Wolf: Sittin’ on Top of the World
(Chester Burnett) 1957

85. Little Walter: Juke
(Walter Jacobs) 1952

86. Elmore James: Dust My Broom
(Elmore James) 1951

87. Jimmy Reed: I Ain’t Got You
(Clarence Carter) 1960

88. LaVern Baker: Soul on Fire
(LaVern Baker-Ahmet Ertegun-Jerry Wexler) 1953

89. The Clovers: One Mint Julep
(Rudy Toombs) 1951

90. Big Joe Turner: Shake, Rattle and Roll
(Charles E. Calhoun) 1954

91. Big Mama Thornton: Hound Dog
(Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller) 1953


"For me, jazz, R&B, jump swing, Chicago blues, country blues, early hillbilly music, and honky tonk all stem from the same source."

- Duke Robillard

Every ten to fifteen years in the rock era, there is a heavily-promoted and marketed “folk revival” and a new crop of acoustic-guitar wielding confessional or topical songwriters seems to magically appear as a reaction to “commercial” pop music. Similar, although less heavily-promoted, revivals of “old school” rhythm and blues or hip hop or of pre-free jazz or of “classic” country music appear and inevitably prompt the question, “What is being ‘revived’?” and, more importantly, “Why is [insert “authentic” genre] in need of reviving?”

Some answers to these questions lie in the marketing and packaging of the non-swing / non-bop music of the forties and early fifties. As pop records began to, for the first time since the Depression, be a truly big business in the post-war environment that saw the introduction of the long-playing 33 1/3 album and the 45 rpm single, magnetic tape recording, and overdubbing, the recording industry began to change the way it labeled, promoted, and charted “non-pop” records. From this point onward, genre classification, always a point of contention for listeners (cf. the dispute over calling jazz of the teens and twenties “Dixieland” or “Traditional Jazz”), becomes much more difficult as generic lines are crossed and pop records freely mix old and new, black and white influences.

In 1948, Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues to describe what had previously been marketed and charted as race records. The term “Race records”, which sounds as if it had been imposed by racist record marketers had actually been applied within the black community of the twenties when the term “the race” was used in the black press to suggest and instill black pride. Rhythm and blues replaced the limiting name with a descriptive one, in much the same way that several years earlier, country and western replaced hillbilly as the preferred generic term for rural white music.

While thousands of artists released r&b, blues, gospel, country and western, and folk records, the real money and the real sense of having arrived lay then, as now, with success on the Billboard pop charts, the stepping stone to success in films (and, later, on television), successful gigs at places like Carnegie Hall and the Copacabana, essentially, to success with affluent white audiences. Out of this model came twin notions, on their face opposed in their aims. One was the idea of ‘crossing over’ – moving from rural venues, the Chitlin Circuit, country dances to those larger, whiter concert halls and supper clubs – from the r&b or c&w charts to the pop charts, while the other was the notion of ‘maintaining authenticity’ – playing to smaller, more devoted, more knowledgeable audiences in order to maintain artistic integrity while forsaking big money and fame. This split was readily apparent in the constructed identity of bop musicians, whose music frequently was off-putting to casual listeners, but the oppositional identities constructed by the perception of popular success as either “crossing over” or “selling out” continues to lie at the heart of our perceptions of popular music, and to this notion of revivals and authenticity.

Adding to the constructed notion that pop success is the opposite of “the authentic”, was the availability of archival recordings. Due to the technological innovations of the lp record and of magnetic tape recording (which meant easy duplication and re-release, at low cost, of earlier records), there were, for the first time, available on record “historic” performances. We take for granted the availability, in the digital age, of the entire canon of popular music: Louis Armstrong and Bukka White and Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby are just a click away, but popular music was, before the introduction of the lp, a largely disposable art form. The biggest hits and the best reviewed classical performances would be kept in–print or reissued, but most early jazz, blues, and country records were, by the late forties, rare or impossible to find. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released on lp in 1952, contained selections dubbed from Smith’s personal collection of folk, blues, gospel, and country 78s originally issued between 1927 and 1932, and set the standard both for archival reissue of non-classical music and for this idea of an authenticity that has somehow been ‘lost’ and thus can be ‘revived’. The Anthology would become necessary listening for musicians in the folk, blues, and country revivals throughout the rock era, and the idea that it reflected a purer, more real, more authentic vision of America than that found in commercially successful records continues to survive.

Harry Smith’s anthologizing can be seen as an outgrowth of the populist, leftist folk-music of the thirties and forties. With a melody based on the Carter Family’s “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine” and lyrics written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” became the folk music anthem and exemplifies his status as “the father of us all” for countless American folk revivals. Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Cisco Houston, and the Weavers were all part of the circle of musicians with whom Guthrie associated. Socially-conscious and politically-oriented, they advanced the notion of folk (and blues) as “true” representations of American identity. Broonzy, who began recording in the twenties and performed at the legendary Spirituals to Swing Concert in 1939 (in the late Robert Johnson’s stead) was perhaps the first blues performer to be “rediscovered” by white urban artists. The Weavers were certainly the first folkies to crossover to huge popular success, with their cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”. Omitting some of the more inflammatory lyrics (the line about morphine is gone) and softened by the strings and chorus of sometime-Sinatra-arranger Gordon Jenkins, “Goodnight Irene” became a #1 pop hit in 1950, billed initially to “Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra with the Weavers” – surely a testament to the wary relationship between the pop record business and the Greenwich Village lefty folk scene.

While folk music was being ever-so-carefully packaged, country music was undergoing its own reinvention. Roy Acuff’s 1935 recording of the country gospel song “The Great Speckled Bird” could easily be labeled “folk” or “gospel”, but it was marketed as “hillbilly”. What became known in the mid-forties as “country and western”, was already a blurring of several genres as Al Dexter and Bob Wills injected swing elements (particulary horns) into bluegrass-derived chord progressions. An even more startling reinvention, though, was happening in the gospel genre (itself largely, then and now, a separate world from popular musics). Sam Cooke, as lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, and Mahalia Jackson, who would be signed to the industry giant Columbia Records in 1954, were producing rhythm and blues records in all but name: soulful singing over insistent blues-derived beats. Cooke would crossover singing pop songs; Jackson selling gospel records to non-gospel listeners, together paving the way for Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and generations of gospel singers to make the transition to secular audiences.

This intensely transitional period also saw the perfecting of several other styles that strongly influenced what would become known as rock and roll. The fathers of Electric or Chicago blues, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf – remain pervasive influences in blues-based rock (and the hard rock that grew out of it). By fusing loud electric guitar riffs, amplified harmonica, and a rhythm section of drums and elecric bass, with or without piano, they effectively invented the classic rock line-up. Elmore James and T-Bone Walker (as well as B.B. King and Buddy Guy) perfected the blues guitar-hero model, and the independent label Atlantic Records helped to foster a union of Louis Jordan-inspired jump blues (itself a fusion of blues and swing, heavily influenced by Cab Calloway), Chicago-styled blues, and gospel into a pop-directed r&b of the sort performed by LaVern Baker, Stick McGhee, and the Clovers. The desire to cross over to pop success and ready availability of countless pop, jazz, folk, r&b, c&w, and gospel records leads to a level of cross-pollination of styles unknown to American popular music thus far. And, of course, this leads to the birth of rock and roll.



Christopher said...

Well, I was going to write this after the first post, but held off 'cause I thought for sure the oversight would be rectified in a post like this one. But unless I've again overlooked something, you don't have any "John Henry" or "Stagger Lee." Those mythic folk personalities and their tales need to be showing up. Really!

Two other points. I'd have included Lunsford's monumental and totally eerie "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" somewhere somehow, and I'm wondering when old Hank Williams will show.

Those quibbles aside, this is the set I'm most satisfied with thus far--I just wonder if it didn't deserve two separate posts to accomodate some other important figures.

HenryFlowr said...

There's some "Stagger Lee" coming up, as is old Hank. And the next two volumes fill in some gaps in r&b and country . . .