Showing posts with label Alan Lomax. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alan Lomax. Show all posts

Friday, September 20, 2013

American roots music in Belgium: The Golden Glows

The Golden Glows (image from their website)
A few months ago I was doing some research on the song "Willie The Weeper." In my most-recent-entry-but-one you can read how "Willie The Weeper" became "Minnie The Moocher" which retained the instrumentation of "St. James Infirmary" while becoming Cab Calloway's signature song at The Cotton Club, and how parts of "Minnie The Moocher" have sometimes become embedded into renditions of "St. James Infirmary." Anyway, while doing this research I stumbled upon a contemporary version of "Willie The Weeper" on YouTube by a Belgian trio called "The Golden Glows." Consisting of two female vocalists and a male vocalist/guitarist, the Golden Glows lean heavily on vocal harmony, and this has been their mainstay through successive CD releases. They do it well. One of their members, Bram Van Moorhem, recently suggested that if I listen to their three CDs in succession, I shall be able to detect an evolution in their musicianship and sound. I did so, and discovered a second connection between The Golden Glows and "St. James Infirmary."

"Willie The Weeper" is from their first CD, titled A Songbook From The 20s. Their most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, is a tribute to the prison songs collected by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm (aka Mississippi State Penitentiary) in Sugar Land, Texas in 1947. (The Golden Glows call these Lomax collections "the holiest of holies," and their treatment is both innovative and reverent.) It was 13 years earlier that Alan and his father, John, recorded James "Iron Head" Baker singing "St. James Hospital" - a song that Alan himself recorded and, through some reasoning that I would describe as weird, declared it to be the link between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary."

In a way, that's beside the point. I can only describe The Golden Glows most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, as a remarkable accomplishment. These songs, while sparsely orchestrated, emphasize - in fine European style - the melodic underpinnings of these songs while incorporating a strong percussive drive that represents the pounding of spades and hoes on the hard ground that the prisoners had to work, without respite, day after day, year after year. While I am fond of all their re-creations I think this, A Prison Songbook, is a wonderful achievement. You can see some videos of their work by clicking here.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My interview with Rob Walker on NOnotes

Well, the NOnotes interview has now been posted - in five parts!

The first part can be found here - mostly discussing "Dyin Crapshooter's Blues"
The second part can be found here - regarding AL Lloyd, John and Alan Lomax, The Unfortunate Rake, Iron Head Baker, Leadbelly . . .
The third part can be found here - regarding how Redman brought the song to Armstrong in Chicago
The fourth part can be found here - legal issues and early recordings
The fifth part can be found here - "St. James Infirmary" goes to court

Rob is, to put it mildly, an SJI enthusiast. His questions were probing, a challenge and a delight to answer.

If you are among the few who find this sort of stuff interesting, there's more in the book!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jelly Roll Morton - The Complete Library of Congress Recordings

An incredible collection of eight CDs is available from Rounder Records: Jelly Roll Morton - The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. Even though there is nothing about "St. James Infirmary" to be found here, this collection is an important - and fascinating - look at music history. I first heard about the collection on Rob Walker's website, NOnotes. Back in 2006 Walker wrote a really interesting series of essays about this set, eight postings over a period of two months. His first one looked at Morton's comments on - a favourite topic of mine - copyright.

I bought this set last summer. Pam and I had spent some time traveling through southern Saskatchewan and Alberta with our friend James, photographing the incredible landscape of these prairie provinces. During a visit to Edmonton I saw this boxed set in the window of a second-hand record store and could not resist it. I had not long before finished reading Marybeth Hamilton's thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating book, In Search of the Blues. In one chapter Hamilton detailed the events leading up to Lomax's recording sessions with Morton, and turned it into a very interesting tale.

In 1937 Morton was living in Washington, D.C. His music was out of fashion, he'd been forgotten, and his records were no longer listened to; they were essentially worthless. Except to record collectors like Charles Edward Smith and his cronies. One of these cronies, William Russell, nursed ambitions to become a classical composer . . . until he heard his first Morton record. When teaching music composition to a high school class, Russell asked students to bring in records from home. Expecting to easily demonstrate the superiority of classical European music, he was not anticipating the music of Jelly Roll Morton. "From the first bars Russell was hooked. The sheer complexity of the music was what was most immediately striking - the dazzling, rich, polyphonic rhythms, as intricate as anything Arnold Schoenberg had devised but even more vital and free." What Russell was hearing "was so much more imaginative, so much more sophisticated, than anything he could possibly write." Russell became a record collector, hunting for Morton's recordings wherever he could find them.

Shortly after moving to Washington, D.C., Smith entered a dilapidated building on the top floor of which there "was a large, dingy room; the dank, chill air was barely affected by the coal-black iron stove. Only the bar, the jukebox and the battered piano indicated that it was a nightclub . . ." Morton was the bartender as well as the entertainment. He was ill but he could still play with fire. Smith and his friends became regulars at the club, and it was Smith who later introduced Lomax to Morton. Lomax was interested enough to book time at the Library of Congress for some recording sessions over several weeks in 1938. All Lomax had to do was ask a question and Morton, sitting at the piano, responded with a torrent of music and words that seemed inexhaustible. Tales of musicians and hucksters, stories fluid with sentiment or thick with obscenity; a glorious history told in words and music. It's as interesting listening to Morton talk as it is listening to him sing and play piano.

The content of these complete recordings was once the stuff of legend . . . until Rounder Records released this magnificently packaged set in 2006.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

St. James Infirmary on Bob Dylan's XM Theme Time Radio Hour

Back in May, 2006, Bob Dylan launched a weekly radio program on XM satellite radio. When Pam and I caught wind of the program, months before the first show aired, we bought an XM receiver. We weren't disappointed. Theme Time Radio can be something of a bonanza for aficionados of early American popular music. While the show leans towards music of the 40s and 50s, Mr. Dylan talks about and plays a considerable amount of music from earlier decades. There aren't many radio programs that can feature Jack Teagarden, Tom Waits, Charlie Poole, Percy Mayfield, Hank Snow, and ZZ Top on the same bill while maintaining a sense of continuity.

It's Dylan's talking that keeps things flowing. Good as his selections are, his patter is often the best thing about the program. He can be thoughtful, serious, self-mocking, sarcastic . . . often very funny. Always reverent. I think of Bob Dylan as one the the great exponents, and authorities, on early American popular music. So it was with some excitement that we listened as his February 20th broadcast veered into a discussion of "St. James Infirmary." The theme for this show was "Doctors" and Dylan said, "One place you’re going to find a lot of doctors is St. James Infirmary. This song’s history is convoluted and fascinating. Louis Armstrong recorded it as early as nineteen and twenty-eight, but it goes back much further. According to one study it got its start as a ballad called 'The Unfortunate Rake'..."

"According to one study," Dylan said. That was wonderful to hear, because most discussions of the song take the assumption of a direct relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake" as established fact. That one study was probably A.L Lloyds 1947 article Background to St. James Infirmary Blues. (You can read more about it by accessing this link and searching for the section titled "Tracing a Ballad," a little more than half way down the page.) Far from factual, a direct connection between the two songs is more a tenuous assumption.

A few seconds later, however, Dylan referred to a 1934 song by James "Iron Head" Baker as "the real link between the folk ballad and the pop tune, ‘The Unfortunate Rake’ and ‘St. James Infirmary.’" I suspect this reflects some sloppiness on the part of his research staff, who used Kenneth Goldstein's liner notes to a 1960 Folkways record called "The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad" - on which Alan Lomax himself sings the song, "St. James Hospital" - as their primary reference. John Lomax recorded the song (for a while the convict James "Iron Head" Baker served as John's substitute for the recently disaffected Leadbelly) and Alan touted it as a link between the two songs. Actually listening to the songs, however, does not bear this out. One gets the impression that Alan wanted to find a missing link between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Infortunate Rake, " but this is not it.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI