Llewyn Davis, Inside Out



I just read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a memoir of the Greenwich Village folk scene of 50 years ago, written by the late Dave Van Ronk with engineering by Elijah Wald.

I bought my copy when it was published in 2005, and began the long process of moving it from one stack of books symbolizing my various intellectual ambitions to another. Now that a Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, has been loosely inspired by it, the book moved to the stack symbolizing "read the book already, Einstein."

To my surprise, I laughed my ass off reading Mayor — my wife was happy I finally read something funny. I want to repeat certain of its stories the rest of my life, but several are chapter-length psychodramas that start funny, and build and build with running gags and all the trimmings.

A story about absinthe smugglers is one of those stories that's almost too good to be told, never mind whether it's true. A chapter about Van Ronk's cross-country trip to California certainly seems smarter and funnier than anything in On the Road … maybe it's me.

And then there's that brief anecdote about a Greenwich Village rat.  Similar stories helped end my fantasies of having been there for the Golden Age. (I can't remember how I know a story about Mike Seeger scrawling "roaches roaches roaches" on the wall in John Cohen's apartment.) But Van Ronk's vermin story is the best yet, maybe owing to his matter-of-fact delivery.

In essence, Mayor is an oral history of the mid-century Folk Revival.

The book shows just how good oral histories can be as literature, and how important they are to reviving the past as lived reality. Robert Shelton's role in booking acts at Gerde's Folk City, and John Mitchell dodging bullets from all directions … those stories reorganized my understanding of that time and place, and they could only have come to me through oral history.

And Van Ronk's memories constitute arguments about the past that some readers will find challenging.

At some point over the past 20 years, I realized that there wasn't one Folk Revival, but instead an ongoing, rolling revival impulse running through American culture, changing shape and location and agenda. New revivalists keep being born, always with fantastic notions in their heads about the past:

They all seemed to go to Music and Art High School, and their parents all seemed to be dentists. I remember once coming across a covey of them sitting cross-legged around a bespectacled banjoist who struck a dramatic chord and earnestly explained "This is a song the workers sing when they're oppressed."

Van Ronk's street-level memories, refined over some very eventful decades, would make a great education on what it was really like, what people were really thinking about, and which romantic ideas you should abandon and which you should hold on to.

Not that Van Ronk couldn't be full of it, or that Elijah Wald's handiwork doesn't occasionally shine through. But the quality is such that these function as layers of complexity a wise reader will appreciate.

Here Van Ronk is the stereotypical New Yorker feeling superior to fly-over country, but there he's marveling at the depth of talent flowing into the Village from Hibbing and Detroit.

Here he insists that song lyrics need to make literal sense on the page ("along" a watchtower?), but there he praises Francois Villon specifically for using slang that no longer means anything.

Here he rolls his eyes at the insipid tourists who associated Greenwich Village with the horror genre (both were weird, he guessed), but there he argues that science fiction was a perfectly natural association (both are weird, I guess).

I know from Lewis Erenberg that theme restaurants like the spooky Cafe Bizarre had been features of Greenwich Village at least as early as 1915. It raises the question of just how important selling "a version of Greenwich Village that never existed" has always been to the existance of Greenwich Village. Much of it was created by landfilling with garbage in the 1700s — its very ground was established by Clydes.

Rigorous peer-review might have cleared and screwed all of this up completely. Visions like Van Ronk's — both observation and misperception — were driving forces behind the Greenwich Village Folk Revival and, for that matter, all historical events, past, present, and future. The fog of war *is* the real war, not a veil that obscures it.  

As for my own fog, Dave Van Ronk had been one of those people I'd had a recurring appointment with, and I never managed to keep it. I knew his face, his voice, and his rap sheet, but he always was mostly the guy Dylan stole the "House of the Rising Sun" arrangement from.  

Indeed, because I knew he was a key figure in a key time-and-place (maybe the in the), it meant there was no hurry. His story and music would always be around when I was finally ready for them. That attitude is one reason I'm not good at collecting oral histories.

Now, after Mayor, I have what feels like a relationship with the guy, and I get why people's feelings about him are often profound in a full sense of the term.  

His music seems urgent to me now, and I see the mark of his music and mind on a lot of people who understood him long ago. For example, his friend Dakota Dave Hull is a friend of mine, and I've always nodded sagely when he talks Van Ronk, which is often. Probably, I'll do less nodding and closer listening in the future, when I get the chance.


North Country Blues

A mural in the library of Bob Dylan's high school depicts Hibbing's multi-ethnic iron miners. What did their music sound like?

Around 1965, Bob Dylan turned his back on folk music, confirming the break by "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival. 

At once fact and fiction, the story has emerged as one of the more familiar parables from the 20th century.

But lately, I've been thinking about an earlier moment of decision when Dylan walked away from another set of folk music traditions — those of the Upper Midwest.  Today, that decision seems more consequential in the long run, all the more so the longer it goes unrecognized.

When Dylan walked away from Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range and the rest of the Upper Midwest, he left behind what was then a dying economy, as portrayed in his song "North Country Blues".  It was a dyin' town, it was a dyin' town, he chants in the album's liner notes. 

But Dylan was also walking away from dying forms of music as varied and complex as any in the world, including those of the American South.

At the time, old musical ways of life were changing just as fast in the South, of course, but important elements of the Folk Revival were bent on preserving Southern traditional music — and Dylan was about to help out.  

Suddenly, the critical difference between the traditional music of the North and the South hasn't turned out to be a matter of quality or inherent interest.  

Instead, it's that the music of the South — against all odds, and to our inexpressible benefit — was resuscitated when it needed it most.  Up North, in Zimmerman country, a comparable revival just never arrived.

I've been working on a study of the only recording on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music clearly representing northern music — "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Minnesota in 1927.  It has never been studied before.  

Early in my project, I knew I would eventually have to know — and I mean have to, and I mean know — the musical environment in the Upper Midwest before World War Two.

Consider the 1913 mural in the library of Hibbing High School depicting iron miners at work.  Each of its 16 human figures represents another ethnic group that mined the Mesabi Iron Range — a deep diversity of cultures that, presumably, intermingled to create distinctive new American sounds.  

Those miners were silent as they watched the young Robert Zimmerman browse the library books — but they must've danced to something sometime.

During the early phases of my research into "Moonshiner's Dance," I often thought about them, knowing I would need to hear their music in my head, loud and clear. 

Unfortunately, when I finally turned my attention to the problem, I saw there was going be trouble. 

I had first committed myself to traditional music 14 years prior, when there were already mountains of products on the market vying to help me navigate pre-War Southern blues and country.  But now, up North, even in 2008, I was pretty much on my own.

There is no such thing as, say, The Anthology of Northern American Folk Music (edited by Harry Smithovich).  There's no O Brother Where Art Ya Once?  There was no "Song to Otto Rindlisbacher" on Bob Dylan's first album.

Alan Lomax made a thousand recordings during fieldwork in the Upper Midwest in 1938, declaring it possibly "the most interesting country I have ever traveled in" with "enough material in the region for years of work".  But unlike every other region where Lomax conducted fieldwork, no release in any format has ever been devoted to his Northern journey.  The website of Lomax's foundation, its name apparently a bit of self-deprecating humor, makes no mention of it.

There is an amazing record store here in Minneapolis that sells only 78 rpm records, and it has hundreds of pre-War old-time ethnic recordings — cheap, in great condition, with unpronounceable titles.  But what do I buy?  And what sense do I make of it?

There's simply no ... there's no ...

There's no Northern canon.  Or worse, and more exactly, the canon of "American roots music" has bypassed my part of the country entirely. There are no names from the Upper Midwest like Dock Boggs, or The Carter Family, or Robert Johnson — names of musicians whose work everybody knows is great, even if they haven't actually bothered listening to it. 

How do you connect the dots when you have no dots to begin with? 

I spent much of 2008 trying to crack the case.

I've camped out in university and historical society libraries, scouring the footnotes of academic journal articles.  I've literally spent hours clutching photocopies of typewritten discographies while crawling on the floor in used vinyl stores — including one where the owner chain-smokes behind the register.  I've found music that's never been issued, is out of print, is on formats I can't play, lacks any intelligible context.

So far, there appear to be no easy solutions.  But I have found a few extremely valuable maps of this occult terrain — so valuable, in fact, that I hate to bury reviews of them this deep in an already too-long blog post.  

If I could press only three things into your hands today, they would be: (1) a brilliant box set, Down Home Dairyland, containing 40 episodes of a radio show about the traditional music of the Upper Midwest, and (2 and 3) a pair of absolutely essential books with unfortunate titles, Victor Greene's A Passion for Polka and James P. Leary's Polkabilly.  

They're hardly the only materials available, but taken together (including their footnotes, discographies, etc.) they allow an incipient canon to emerge — a list of things you probably should recognize if you want to be taken seriously on the subject.  They also provide — most pointedly in the first and last chapters of Leary's Polkabilly — clues to explaining why these musicians and their work aren't more widely seen as part of the canon of American roots music.

Following various threads into and out of such material, I sometimes return to the mural in the library of Hibbing High School.  

Like the rest of present-day Hibbing, the mural was once moved to its current location from the ghost town of North Hibbing, "where even the markin stones were dead, an there was no sound except for the wind blowin thru the high grass," as Dylan described it. 

Slowly, as I've started to hear a few strains of music coming from those miners in that mural, what's begun to strike me most about the thing is how deadly silent it first seemed to me, and how silent it must have seemed to Dylan, there in that hushed library.  

Why wasn't there a revival of Northern folk music for Dylan to join?  And what would one have sounded like?  Until 2008, I would have faintly assumed the answer to the first question was the answer to the second.  The music down South was just better or more plentiful.

And maybe it was, I haven't quite decided.  But the reasons for the historical neglect of the Upper Midwest turn out to be far more complex than that — so much so they deserve their own research institute ... or at least their own blog post.  I do know it certainly wasn't just about the music.

If we want to keep thinking that Southern music is better, that's ok with me.  But shouldn't we be able to say, confidently and in specific detail, "Better than WHAT?







Three Vignettes on Music and Geography


John Cohen signs his book of Dylan photos, Young Bob
Minneapolis, April 15, 2007


I heard John Cohen tell a story.  It was at a private party, so I'm not certain it's appropriate to write about here. But ... but ... it was such a GOOD story.

As I remember it, at least, he was teaching or lecturing a couple years back at a college in North Carolina.  There, he discussed his work in the late 1950s, finding old people in the hills of Madison County, North Carolina, who still sang very old ballads without instrumental accompaniment.  They just opened their mouths and sang 500-year-old songs, all alone.  It had a spooky, lonesome, ancient-sounding effect.  

And in those 1950's, that style seemed to be dying right before Cohen's eyes as the old folks themselves died and their grandchildren were passionately seized by jukebox rock 'n roll.  Cohen, he felt sure, was capturing this music's death mask at the instant of its extinction.

After the lecture, a young woman in the class came up and told Cohen that her family was from rural North Carolina and was still singing these old ballads in this same way.  The tradition had, in fact, survived and was thriving, having been passed down to her through many generations of her family.  She even sang a little for Cohen to show him what she meant.

Cohen was puzzled, knowing that he and people who took an interest in this work had scoured every inch of those hills, looking under every rock in all of Appalachia trying to find the last remnants of this folk tradition.  Those hills had been picked absolutely clean decades ago.

On a wild hunch, Cohen asked her if anybody in her family had ever gone to the University of California at Berkeley, where Cohen's work on these ballads became very popular.  Oh sure, she said.  Everybody in her family went to Berkeley — her dad, all her aunts and uncles, her grandparents, her family pets, and so on and so forth, etc.  I seem to remember she was about to go there herself.

This young woman and her family were indeed from North Carolina, and this style of singing was indeed a folk tradition from their part of the country.  And it was indeed being passed down to her via her family, one generation to the next.  Being young, and perhaps not a history major, she neither knew nor much cared that the singing style had gone into exile in Berkeley for a little while before coming back home to the North Carolina hills.  

And she was not wrong.  The authentic bearers of real folk traditions — if you wanna talk that way — almost never know exactly how the music comes down to them.  In her case, this folk music is thriving in her family as a folk tradition, just as sure as it ever did in anybody else's family.  She had plenty reason to be proud.  She was not wrong.  She was right.


In the 1950's and 1960's, Barry Ancelet grew up in Louisiana speaking Cajun French.  He studied the French language in Louisiana high schools and colleges, where teachers always insisted that Cajun French wasn't French at all — that it literally had nothing to do with the French language.  Ancelet accepted this without too much worry.  

And he never paid much attention to Cajun music, even though (or because) it was always around.  In many similar stories I've heard, the protagonists often think of the traditional music they grew up with as low — a weakness of ignorant country trash.  In his article in the great collection Sounds of the South (which is where I get this information), Ancelet isn't explicit about his own early attitudes toward the music.

In any case, in the early 1970's he spent an academic year in France, where he felt homesick and isolated.  One momentous night in Paris, at a concert of Cajun music, he underwent a shattering conversion experience.  He realized that he'd been systematically trained to be ignorant of himself and his own surroundings.  Everything he thought he knew about his own language and his own culture turned out to be crazy.

He immediately sensed what he should do with the rest of his life — he went back to Louisiana and ultimately became one of the founders of the academic study of Cajun and Acadian culture.  Tonight, I see that Wikipedia tells us he's from Louisiana and what he does now, but doesn't mention any conversion experience — least of all in France.


In the past several months of my research into the Moonshiners Dance, the trail has finally led me to the mostly unknown, yet much-maligned traditional music of my various homelands.

In the past few weeks, for example, I've been listening with mounting enthusiasm to Down Home Dairyland.  Originally a radio show, I know it as 40 episodes released on CD, with an accompanying listener's guide. 
The hosts are Jim Leary and Rick March — the Gilbert and Gubar of polka music — two folklorists who've been exploring the traditional and ethnic music of the Upper Midwest since the late 1970s. 

Their work, and that of other musicians and scholars in their field, is rapidly being hauled aboard here at the Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues. 

For now, I draw your attention to program #21 of Down Home Dairyland, which deals with the ethnic music of Stevens Point, Wisconsin.   Apparently, if you walked into a hall in Stevens Point today, you'd have a good chance of hearing polka that's audibly and vividly Polish, feeling a little like the crooked-metered concertina recordings made by Polish immigrants in the 1920's. 

And why not?  The area was heavily settled by Poles in the mid-1800's and again in the early 1900's.  Wouldn't the ethnic music of Stevens Point sound pretty damned Polish?

Not necessarily, it turns out.  In the mid-20th century, the sound that dominated among Stevens Point polka bands was the German-sounding oompah style popularized by Minnesota bandleaders Whoopee John Wilfahrt and Harold Loeffelmacher.  Their styles influenced bands far and wide as Whoopee John, especially, became a kind of regional hero like Charlie Poole did in the southeast.

By the late 1950's, though, some younger Stevens Pointers grew weary of the "arranged and mannered" German sound and the sedentary stage presence of the bands.  The more authentically European Polish styles they found among bandleaders from Chicago and Milwaukee were aggressive, improvised, visceral — they felt more like rock 'n roll, and more authentic at the same time.  

So, there was a Revival — Leary and March call it a "resurgence" and a "revitalization" — of explicitly Polish music among Polish bands around Stevens Point.  I imagine that, today, those mid-century revialists are easily old enough to have great grandchildren who might know only that their family came from Poland in the 1850's, and that they're learning to play Polish styles from great grandpa. 

I won't try to squeeze my own sudden attentiveness to the ethnic-American styles of the Upper Midwest into a little vignette.  Maybe that's for you to do.  But I've been brought back north precisely because I wanted to contribute to the understanding of Harry Smith's influential collection of southern music
I've seen that pattern over and over again in other people, and one of the things that surprises me most is my own surprise that it's happening to me.  


As Real As It Gets

The book reviews in next Sunday's New York Times (March 4) will include a review of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor. The reviewer, Ben Yagoda, is disappointed in the book's prose — his own latest book is When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It — but he likes the book's ideas tolerably well. Certainly, the review is worth reading.

The book is about the ways American musicians have tried to convey their authenticity, often pushing back against powerful cultural currents challenging them on the point.

Especially interesting is Yagoda's discussion of the book's chapter on Mississippi John Hurt. His music was not black enough for Okeh's race records in 1928, even if his skin was too dark for their hillbilly line. Ironically, he was rediscovered in 1963 by white record collectors and introduced to contemporary audiences as a blues revivalist, although he didn't play blues. Or anyway, this is how I read Yagoda's reading of Barker and Taylor's reading of history.

As often as I wish I'd been there for that 1960's Revival of myth and legend, I'm just as often reminded that today's revivalism has great advantages over that gone paradise. I get the impression folk and blues people used to harbor fierce, malignant, withering resentments about the tuning of hammer dulcimers, whether you may use a plastic thumb pick, and whatnot.  They sometimes positively hated each other over such things. Or anyway, if so, it's pretty much a thing of the past.

A profile of Spider John Koerner makes it sound as if Koerner was hounded into giving up music and leaving the country because he wasn't deemed authentic enough (I think my reading of the article is a bit overly dramatic, actually). If this is at all close to correct, he really DID teach Bob Dylan a lot — as we all know, in July of 1965, Bob Dylan disappointed folk music purists by "going electric" at their annual gathering in ... somewhere. Can't remember.

But it seems everybody went through their own version of it — if Barker and Taylor are to be believed, even John Hurt got pushed out of, and stuffed into, various authentic closets. I know a guy who bought his first New Lost City Ramblers album in the mid-sixties, and he felt he had to hide it on the subway ride home — the Ramblers, apparently, weren't considered authentic enough in his neighborhood.

Back in 2004, between banjo seminars, I saw the subject of authenticity brought up in Mike Seeger's presence. He said various sensible things about it, including something like "You always have to wonder, an authentic WHAT? " I don't remember what he said exactly ... maybe it was "Everybody's an authentic SOMETHING."

My understanding is that the Carter Family, between around WWII and the mid 1960's, were considered by many folk music enthusiasts to be grossly inauthentic pop country recording stars — sort of the mid-century equivalent of ... well, I don't know who ... Faith Hill?

In any case, people like Ed Kahn and Mike Seeger (not to mention Harry Smith) helped articulate a "reading" of the Carters that brought them to their current reputation as more real than reality itself. Mike Seeger, and especially Ralph Rinzler, did the same thing for Bill Monroe. Of course, Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe may have helped out a bit too.

The more I see and read, the less I worry about authenticity. There was never a time in some real down-home past when it was anything other than a pain in the ass. Elijah Wald's Escaping The Delta and and Benjamin Filene's Romancing The Folk are better educations in the matter than you'll receive here at The Celestial Monochord.

But you know ... we have it good, we who became interested in this music at the turn of this century, around the time of the complete Robert Johnson and the Harry Smith Anthology in CD box sets, of O Brother Where Art Thou, of The Old Crow Medicine Show, and so on. It literally took decades of fighting and arguing, going hungry and losing friends, writing and researching — not to mention playing and hearing and collecting a lot of great music — to bring me this long perspective I now (believe myself to) enjoy. In 1960, a lot of people would have sacrificed anything to read Wald, Filene, Cantwell, Marcus, Charters, and ... well, I don't know, maybe Barker and Taylor.


Editor's Note: Hey! Here I am! This is entry number 26 — count 'em, twenty six — in my 28-part mission to post something every day this month to The Celestial Monochord. And I mean, something Monochordum Mundi, not just any old thing. I mean, not my laundry list or something. Whatever a laundry list is ...




Back in March, a magazine called Exclaim! (which I take to be sort of a Canadian Mojo) published an article about the rising popularity among young folks of collecting 78 rpm records.

It was written by Jason Schneider, who seems to be a little like me — a turn-of-the-century convert to early 20th Century blues and country. Schneider's article is well worth the read, so I forwarded it to a Monochord reader who's a very experienced 78 collector.

He and I enjoyed picking at the article, finding various things to admire and attack in it. In particular, my correspondent would like to urgently warn new 78 collectors NOT to play their records on old "gramophones." You can, and should, buy a modern record player with a 78 rpm setting, instead of ruining your 78's with 100-year-old technology. These are not floppy disks — you don't need an out-dated playback device for this out-dated medium.

Another interesting passage in Schneider's article is this:

Robert Crumb especially has had a profound influence since the acclaimed 1994 documentary about his life fully illuminated his obsession with 78 collecting and old time music’s ongoing hold on his psyche. In fact, the best introduction to the music is still Crumb’s series of blues and country “trading cards” that provide bios of his favourite artists. [link added]
I wouldn't know where to start in confirming whether or not Crumb really has had any such profound influence ... and I wonder whether Schneider can confirm it, and how. The main difficulty of Schneider's article is his "authoritative" point of view. Instead of staying close to his experience, he wants to use an omniscient voice — and ironically, this can actually strip your writing of its most useful information.

So let me do what Schneider should have done, possibly, and ponder Terry Zwigoff's Crumb — which I saw early in my interest in the old music — as I, personally, actually experienced it.

A girlfriend suggested I see Crumb because R. Crumb and his family were so much like me and mine. Someone else suggested this was a stupid and cruel thing to say. So, I saw Crumb in a questioning frame of mind — How is this like looking into a mirror? Does it represent me? Misrepresent me? What here should I embrace? But, to an extent, maybe that's how we always go to the movies.

Over the previous year or two, I had bought a lot of CD reissues of old blues, but R. Crumb was the first 78 record collector I ever "met." There isn't much music heard in the film, the main exception being a moment with R. Crumb sitting on the floor listening to an old Geechie Wiley 78. But for me, that scene is the film's most persistent memory. When I think of Crumb, that's what I see.

Much more important, though, were his drawings of street lamps. At some point, R. Crumb says he and a photographer friend drove around taking photos of ordinary lamp posts and other municipal and commercial fixtures and structures — the only way he could later manage to draw them into his cartoons. We live in a civilization so soulless and ugly and forgettable that we can't even remember what it looks like.

And that was like looking into a mirror, so much so that I could almost feel my mind reorganizing itself to accommodate the experience of having these private thoughts so vividly projected onto the big screen. My previous experience with the old music had carried some of that sense — of these old musicians being forgotten by an ugly culture, of all the real greatness in the world collecting dust somewhere, of the lives of people like Harry Smith and the Crumb family being examples of what happens to the best minds of my generation and yours.

So it would be false, outright, to say Crumb introduced me to the old music. You might possibly say that the film made it "cool" to be into the music. It would be best to say that the film was one of several things that modeled for me a possible relationship with the music, a way of fitting the music into a worldview that mattered, a way the music could be employed in the job of making sense of things.

To make the strongest possible claim for it, maybe Crumb was the last straw — it aided and abetted, giving me permission to just go ahead and finally become that dusty old crank obsessed with old music who I'd begun to glimpse in the mirror.  


Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of my attempt to post something every damned day for a whole month ... it is not a coincidence that I chose the shortest month of the year. But is it short enough to preserve my sanity? Stay tuned!

Also, anybody know where the photo from this post is from?


Dixieland Jazz at Dupont Circle

Editor's Note (August 30, 2006): A lot of light has since been shed on the Dupont Circle musicians by readers submitting comments on this entry. I have now closed the comments seciton for this entry, but I invite you to write me at celestialmonochord@gmail.com. I will be posting a "New Updated Revised Edition" of this entry in the coming months.


I saw a Dixieland jazz band busking on the street in Washington, DC this early June. It was made up of about ten African American kids — all boys between 13 and 17 years, my friend thought. They played a kind of Dixieland I'd never heard before. It was apparently a sound all their own.

I wish I'd had a recorder, since all I can do now is describe the sound. In the center — physically and musically — there were a couple of drummers with a bass drum and snare, I think. They were beating out fairly complex polyrhythms, usually with a core tempo of a fast walk.

Next to the drummers was a tuba and a ... euphonium, maybe ... providing a pulsing bass foundation. Around them crowded about six trombone players. No sax, no clarinet, no trumpet or cornet, and certainly no banjo.

The trombones generally played slides and very short runs, often repeating brief phrases, intertwining with each other in keys and with a spirit that made the music Dixieland, without any doubt. But mostly, the trombones too were their own rhythm section. They pretty much stuck within the beat, and syncopated a lot more than they swung. It was Dixieland rendered from the perspective of James Brown.

The effect was sort of a long, uniform, jam-band stream of music. Often a given trombonist would stop, walk around a little, wipe the sweat off his face, and then raise his trombone again for a couple well-placed squawks — and then repeat the procedure. The music was built so that you could freely drop in and out without interrupting the flow.

So the music was "scalable" — that is, it could be played by a smaller or larger band without much harm to the overall feel. In that sense, they had rediscovered a trick at the core of the "Old Time" stringband sound usually heard today at Old Time jams.

In the late 1960's around Chapel Hill, Alan Jabbour and his Hollow Rock String Band had every instrument play in unison (except the guitar), so they could add a second or third banjo or a fifth fiddle — and the main effect was that the jam just got louder. In this way, you could have a single jam that was large enough for a whole "scene" or community to participate, something not possible with other stringband styles. This Dupont Circle jazz was a little like that — scalable, participatory, community-building, revivalist, and new.

But of course they weren't playing in unison — each was improvising. They were playing jazz. Around the 1950's, many amateur white Dixieland enthusiasts memorized the parts in old jazz recordings so they could reproduce them in their own band, sort of as a classical orchestra does. I don't know if they didn't understand, or if they just ignored, that the original recordings had been improvised. But what these white bands played wasn't jazz — it was an impersonation of jazz.

Improvisation, of course, is key. In several of the earliest articles written about bluegrass, the writers tried to explain the music in terms of Dixieland. Both forms involve an ensemble collectively, spontaneously composing a unique performance that "fills up" each measure with polyphony. Bluegrass, they said, is like Dixieland played on southern stringband instruments.

It was clear to me that the kids in Dupont Circle had been listening to Dixieland recordings and had vividly understood — and had been deeply impressed with — their essence, which is collective simultaneous improvisation.

Traditionalists who fixate on certain narrow views of authenticity would probably be disappointed in the music — particularly in the brief and simple lines they used and the featureless "architecture" of the numbers those lines added up to.

I was not disappointed. I was so happy and amazed that I couldn't believe my ears and eyes. First, these were children, damned near — born in the early 1990's around the time "Friends" debuted on TV — and they were intensely and joyously REVIVALIST in their approach. It was hardly something I anticipated seeing that night, coming from people so young of any race, any class, or any gender. Certainly, I'd seen little in Minneapolis to quite prepare me for it.

Lately, I've been studying the lives of several brass dance-band musicians of the 1920's. Most were World War One veterans, and found discipline and musical experience in the US military. Of course, these Dupont Circle kids haven't played for their countrymen during a World War (at least not yet). Nor can I imagine they were raised in a community that strongly and consistently nurtures the development of obsolete tromboning — I know I wasn't.

But they understood Dixieland jazz well enough to try it out and fashion from the results of their experiment a new thing, suited to their skills, their aesthetics, and their time and place. I walked away without really understanding who I'd seen — I still don't quite get who they were or how they got there. But they were clear proof that we are still deeply in the midst of a full-on, all-out Revival.


Look Away From The Cross

Sara Carter
Sara Carter (photo by David Gahr, from Dunson and Raim)


In early March 2004, I first heard the original Carter Family's 1940 and 1941 recording sessions — their final sessions together as a trio. By coincidence, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" happened to be Number One at the box office that week. So, the Carter Family's "Look Away From The Cross" sounded to me like a sharp crack of thunder.

I can always count on the original Carter Family to send my mind reeling. They always seem to dissipate some thick fog of nonsense the world has become so accustomed to that we've forgotten it even existed. They seem to get directly into the core of something, though I'm never able to predict just what that something's going to be.

Of course, whether they're "really" getting to the heart of something is separate question, but regardless, their music powerfully projects that effect. No wonder the folk revival of the 1950's and 1960's — always seeking antidotes to American Cold War culture — so lovingly embraced the original Carter Family.

Anyway, I won't rehash the media noise generated by "The Passion of the Christ." I'll only mention that the Gospels themselves spill very little ink on the suffering of Jesus — they even emphasize that he suffered less that most people executed by crucifixion. What really interests the Gospels is the resurrection. As I understand it, the fetish for fluids, whips, and naked men is primarily Medieval.

I guess "Look Away From The Cross" is probably a Negro spiritual of the Holiness Church variety — it ain't German Catholic, I can tell you that from personal experience. Below, I've repeatedly written out the chorus instead of just writing "Chorus" in order to give you a feel for how insistently Sara Carter cries out "look away." In customary Carter Family fashion, Sara sings lead and plays autoharp, Maybelle plays guitar and "seconds" the lyrics with rejoinders (shown in parentheses), and A.P. Carter just kinda sings when he's good and ready. The overall effect is as bright and catchy as any advertising jingle.


Look away from the cross to that glittering crown
From your cares, weary ones, look away
There's a home for the soul where no sorrows can come
And where pleasure will never decay

(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Though the burdens of life may be heavy to bear
And your crosses and trials severe
There's a beautiful hand that is beckoning "Come"
And no heartache and sighings are there

(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Mid the conflicts of battles, of struggles and strife
Bravely onward your journey pursue
Look away from the cross to that glittering crown
That's a waiting in heaven for you

(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Recorded October 4, 1941, New York City



Don't Plug In — Bluegrass and the Folk Revival

Gibson ETB150 Banjo  Electric Banjo
(Gibson ETB-150 Model Electric Tenor Banjo, 1940)


Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970's and 80's, I knew some lovers and practitioners of bluegrass music. They all loved rock n' roll too, and seemed a lot more worried about electricity running microwave ovens than musical instruments. I remember laughter at the thought that folkies had turned on Bob Dylan for "going electric."

Still, I also remember sharing with bluegrassers a special affection, even reverence, for the acoustic quality of bluegrass instruments. I'm reminded of John Hartford's drawn-out, playfully grandiose introduction to his tongue-twister "Tater Tate and Allen Mundy":

Bluegrass music a-playin' in the park
Bluegrass music picking way past dark
Bluegrass music, it don't butt in
Don't need an amp and don't plug in
I thought of all this last night while reading the introduction to Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History." In a section entitled "Bluegrass — What Is It?", Rosenberg insists on a paradox. Bluegrass has always been a commercial and professional form designed for radio and records, and its sound was shaped by a 20th-century electric invention: the microphone. Nevertheless, the non-electric stringed instruments of bluegrass are usually the first thing mentioned by its followers when trying to describe the genre:
... [as] can be seen from a joke told by Ricky Skaggs ... "How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a light bulb? One, and three to complain because it's electric!" [taken from Rosenberg's book]
I've finally begun reading Rosenberg's history of bluegrass because, over the past year or so, I've become aware of a lot of such paradoxes and surprises. That's what good histories are always for — "the past" always turns out to be nothing like the way our presumptions lead us to believe.

For example, I've recently realized how important the Folk Revival of the 1950's and 60's was to the survival of bluegrass. The first-ever bluegrass LP was released in 1957 by Folkways Records. It was recorded and compiled by Folk Revival future-heavyweight Mike Seeger, and its liner notes mark the first use in print of the word "bluegrass" to refer to a genre of music.

The author of these liner notes, Ralph Rinzler, would eventually found the Smithsonian's annual Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C. — but first, he helped revive Bill Monroe's stalled career by becoming his manager. Some of Monroe's new band members were soon to be Northern "citybillies" who first encountered bluegrass in Greenwich Village coffee shops or at folk music concerts on college campuses.

This surprises me, both comin' and goin'. On the one hand, today's officianados of "Old Time" music think of Mike Seeger and his New Lost City Ramblers as champions of authentic folk alternatives to post-WWII commercial inventions like rock n' roll and bluegrass. It is definitely not widely known in the Old Time community that Seeger, Rinzler, and Alan Lomax helped rescue bluegrass from obscurity (if not oblivion) by forcefully asserting its legitimacy as an authentic American folk genre.

On the other hand, it's surprising coming from the other direction, too. An acquaintance from West Virginia once expressed suspicion about the fact that I, a Chicago native, have an intense interest in "her" music. From what I gathered, she might have been surprised to learn that Monroe's invention only dates from the mid-1940's, and that its commercial prospects nearly died a decade after they were born. Not only the finances, but the very values and identity of bluegrass were shaped by us Northern revivalists. Rosenberg writes:

Until the mid-fifties the acoustic aspect of bluegrass was not unique within country music, and in that sense the use of acoustic instruments in bluegrass is a historical accident. But because it was performed on such instruments, particularly the antique five-string banjo, it was virtually the only form of contemporary country music acceptable to the folk boom of the late fifties and early sixties, where electric instruments were considered inauthentic and symbols of the alienation of mass culture. Through the folk boom bluegrass gained new audiences and recognition as a distinct musical form [that is, became thought of as "bluegrass"]. Today the insistence upon acoustic instruments has become a philosophical position.
By the way; thinking about bluegrass and the folk revival, it's interesting that other branches of country music in the post-War years dealt directly with social problems facing southern expatriate "urban hillbillies," such as adultery, divorce, depression, and alcoholism. But bluegrass chose to deal with these same pressures by evoking feelings of an alternative — and idealized — place and time. Rosenberg:
Because the content of the bluegrass repertoire is so often clearly symbolic (rather than directly oriented toward current concerns), it is more accessible to people from very different cultural milieux who relate to the music as an art form, enjoying it as many enjoy opera sung in languages they do not comprehend.
I may report more about these and other matters as I get further into "Bluegrass: A History".

Those U.S. State Department Blues

I just read an essay by Paul Oliver, one of the best-known historians of the blues, about why it is that much of the best and earliest work on the blues had long been done by Europeans.

Swedes, Belgians, Germans, French, Englishmen and others wrote exhaustive studies of the meanings of blues songs, compiled 2000-page catalogs of blues 78s, founded some of the first magazines anywhere devoted to blues — all of this long before America had a "blues revival."

Charles Delaunay had to write "Hot Discography" secretly, on onion skin, because he was in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France. When Paul Oliver (a Brit) wrote "The Blues Fell This Morning," Martin Luther King wrote the introduction.

In 1960 — the year "The Blues Fell This Morning" was published — Paul Oliver finally scraped up enough money to actually visit the United States, the birthplaces of the blues he loved so much. He traveled to Washington, New York, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, Shreveport, Dallas and various parts of Mississippi and Arkansas. He stayed with Muddy Waters in Chicago and traveled with Chris Strachwitz, who founded Arhoolie records using some of the recordings they made. The impact of the trip on Oliver's life and scholarship was incalculable.

The trip was made possible by a very small grant from the U.S. Department of State — a grant "for leaders and specialists."

I don't know whether such grants still come out of the State Department or from anywhere else in the U.S. government anymore. I do hear frequent stories of scholars having to give presentations to conferences in the U.S. via telephone or satellite hook-up due to difficulties getting temporary visas to travel here — and I mean British astronomers and Swedish music historians and the like. I often read about such incidents in left-wing rags like ... Sky and Telescope, for example. Bad times, bad times.


Editor's Note:  Paul Oliver's essay is in "Sounds of the South," a collection of papers from a conference celebrating the 1989 opening of the Southern Folklife Collection at Chapel Hill. It was edited by Daniel W. Patterson ... and I'm finding it really interesing. Also, thanks to reader Bill B. for, among other things, correcting my spelling of Chris Strachwitz's name.

Math and Memory in New Lost City

Paley Cohen Seeger New Lost City Rambler

I finally bought The New Lost City Rambler's compilation of their later stuff, 1963-1973, which is titled "Out Standing in their Field." The cover art has a photo of them, you know ... out ... standing ... in their field. This is a very old joke, which is never funny — except in the case of the New Lost City Ramblers, where it really is funny.

One of the members of the band, John Cohen, tells another story that also isn't funny, but because it's the New Lost City Ramblers, it's really hilarious:

A few years ago at a literary gathering in New York City, I was introduced to a music publisher. He remembered the New Lost City Ramblers, he said, and then asked, "What was the band's big hit?"

When you read about the New Lost City Ramblers, you're told over and over that their influence has outdistanced their sales. But over the last half-dozen years or so, I've come to realize, with deepening amazement, just how true this is. It should always be written with exclamation points.

The band formed in 1958. By 1962, they had already broken up largely due to the fact that there was no money it. With three guys in the band (one of whom had a family to support), the math just didn't add up. They reconfigured, replacing one member, and proceeded to limp along, although for the vast majority of the last 43 years, they've been able to make more money individually being remembered as members of the NLCR than they could together performing as members of the NLCR. Of something like 30 original albums, I count about 5 that are in print as CD's.

The irony is this:

The Ramblers' influence on generations of young musicians who have followed in their footsteps is incalculable: it's difficult to imagine a revival of old-time music of any consequence without them. (MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide)

Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, and David Grisman learned to play from their albums. Bob Dylan's recent autobiography includes a thirteen-page ode dedicated to dramatizing the enormous impact that Rambler Mike Seeger had on the young Dylan:

Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it ... But then something immediate happens and you're in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it — you're set free ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door — something jerks it open and you're shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it. Mike Seeger had that affect on me.

There's little danger of over-stating the Rambler's influence — at least until somebody finally gets around to just stating it. Philip Gura, in a hair-raising essay in the journal Southern Culture, is one of the few who've tried. The essay leaves you with the impression that he may be over-stating the case. But is he? It's worth looking into the New Lost City Ramblers and giving it some thought. You may as well — they're out standing in their field.

On Not Going To Camp

I never went to camp — that is, until my wife sent me to Banjo Camp for my 40th birthday present. My mental images of summer camp come from Alan Sherman's "Camp Granada" (hello mudduh, hello faddah), from the movies (comedies and horror flicks, mostly), and from the stories friends have told me (typically about their earliest sexual awakenings).

Today, I mostly hear about camp from my wife. Routinely, I turn to her to announce that I've made some fantastically paradigm-smashing ethnomusicological discovery — an obscure song long-forgotten in this age of mechanical reproduction, the tune and lyrics of which finally unlock some nagging mystery of the American imagination.

"Oh, sure," she says, "we sang that at camp!" At this point, she shout-sings all of the lyrics to my new discovery, complete with elaborate hand choreography, animal sounds, rhythmic clapping, etc. A field recording of Maybelle and Sara Carter's rendition of the "The Ship That Never Returned" was such a discovery.  The song turned out to have been reworked by the Kingston Trio as "M.T.A.", and was a favorite of the counselors at some Bible camp or other in Minnesota, where my wife heard it a couple decades before I did.

This experience is always a little deflating, needless to say. I begin to wonder what I could possibly have to contribute if all my greatest discoveries turn out to be well-known to every Brownie in the country. But I appreciate being reminded that these old folksongs are still alive, both in my wife's memory and in my curiosity.

Sometimes I think I really missed something by not having gone to camp. More often, I suspect that, had I learned more of these old songs back then, I would not have the fanatical zeal for them that I do today. And I enjoy my fanatical zeal ...

The Meaning of the John Henry Story

Steel Driving Kitten
my kitten Henry (is not a steel-drivin' man)

I first heard the John Henry story from the public schools, I guess, or maybe from my family, some of whom were involved in the Scouts. And I'd gotten a very specific impression of what the story meant.

But once I grew up and started listening to the music of the 1920's, I found very little support there for the interpretation I'd grown up with. I had always thought it was a story of Man against Machine, where human virtues like bravery, nobility, vulnerability, and the work ethic did battle against technology and heartless Progress.

But that's not quite what I hear on the old records. Take the version Mississippi John Hurt recorded on December 28, 1928, on that same Christmas trip to New York when he recorded "Avalon Blues." It's called "Spike Driver Blues":
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I'm gone
Just tell him I'm gone
"I'm sure he's gone"

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me
But it won't kill me
Ain't gunna kill me

John Henry was a steal driving boy
But he went down
But he went down
That's why I'm gone
Hurt's delivery isn't comic, it seems to me, but sweet, sincere, and thoughtful. There's no mention of any steam drill at all, just a killer hammer which the singer renounces.

J. E. Mainer and his Mountaineers did a version on June 15, 1936 in which the young John Henry issues a prophesy:
John Henry was a little boy
Lord, he sat on his pappa's knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Said this hammer'll be the death of me
This hammer be the death of me
This version does mention the contest with the steam drill, but as always, it's the hammer that's the cause of John Henry's death.

When I first started listening to the old recordings, the biggest surprise about the message of John Henry was that there didn't seem to be much of a message at all — folk music, it turned out, isn't nearly as preachy as Folk Music. Stranger still was that insofar as there was a message, it seemed to be that hard manual labor just plain sucks and should be avoided.

The story of John Henry seems to have taken hold around, maybe, 1910 or so, and everybody seems to agree that Henry was a black man. So originally the story was, partly, a complaint against working conditions for African Americans during Reconstruction.

But when I encountered it in the post-WWII suburbs, the story was being made to reflect the conflicts and concerns of that time and place. It seemed to assure us of the dignity of hard work. At the same time, it seemed to reflect our middle-class anxieties over the idea of technology rendering our jobs obsolete. Maybe today John Henry would be in a steel-driving race with 30 tech workers from Bangladesh.

There's a lot of good information on the John Henry story. Check out Norm Cohen's Long Steel Rail for more on John Henry (I keep intending to do so myself). I recently discovered Brett Williams' interesting John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography at a used bookstore. And Harry Smith's anthologies of folk music (the original Volumes 1 though 3 from Folkways and now Volume 4 from Revenant) are crammed to the gills with songs about hammers.

Pop, Skip, Hiss and Forget the Lyrics

I've been wondering (here and there) why the records of the 1920's have been returned to generation after generation, seeming to never quit revolutionizing the way their listeners see (and hear) the world. I may never fully figure it out, but a few of the reasons are surprisingly simple.

My favorite of the old recordings might still be Charlie Poole's "White House Blues." Its effect on me is always overwhelming, but uncanny, mysterious. Let's just say it's a stunning record.

More strange still is that Charlie Poole screws up the lyrics on a dozen occasions in the short span of the record's 3 minutes. I'm even not sure what a lot of the lyrics are, they're such a mess. But this is the cut that I'd pick as The Best Song Ever.

There's a live recording of the New Lost City Ramblers from 1978, I guess, where Tracy Schwarz introduces the next song saying,

Here's a song that Henry Whitter and G. B. Grayson gave to the world, like delivering a million, million, million dollars worth of GOLD all on one side of a 78 rpm record. "I've Always Been a Rambler." As far as I'm concerned, that's about the best song they ever put out. When I first heard that, I think I'd of DIED if I couldn't have gotten at it. And here it is, "I've Always Been a Rambler."

And with that, they strike up their obsessively precise imitation of the cut on the 78. What's most surprising is that Schwarz intentionally slurs the lyrics, making them hard to understand — sometimes I wonder if even he knows what the lyrics are supposed to be. Mind you, this is the song Schwarz feels is the greatest artifact in the history of mankind.

It's clear to me that those gaps are a big part of why Schwarz and I listen to these old scratched records, which were almost always cut in one single take and then released "warts and all." Maybelle Carter used to insist on doing multiple takes until she got it perfect, and then was usually frustrated to find that record executive Ralph Peer had chosen one of the takes with a mistake on it. Peer felt that mistakes caused the listeners to lean in closer and concentrate on the record. He was right.

The effort invested by the listener counts for something toward the listener's enjoyment, and the "gaps" in the records are spaces through which the listener's imagination can insinuate itself into the aesthetic experience. In this sense, the old records act the way modern poetry, painting, dance, and other arts do — they seek to force collaboration between artist and audience by leaving open evocative gaps in their meaning. A lot of people these days think that Bob Dylan figured out a way to turn pop music into modern art after spending years straining to understand the old 78 rpm records from the 1920's.

Why the 1920's?

Wreck of the Old 97
from "Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol," UNC-Chapel Hill

I'm always writing here about records from the 1920's — so much so, that it might sound like I have "a thing" for them, that I'm just obsessed with that decade for peculiar personal reasons. Maybe. But the main reason the 1920's records keep appearing at The Celestial Monochord is that they are really and objectively special. Something happened in the 1920's that had never happened before, can never happen again, and changed forever a lot more than just music in America.

— — —

The commercial record business started just before 1890 with wax cylinders, and evolved from there. The customers were well-off white city folk — the sort of people who could afford the high-tech gizmo that sound recording was then. For the next 30+ years, this audience bought (and was sold) the sort of music it liked — opera singers, European classical, military bands, Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, etc. Mostly, the recordings only supplemented sheet music, which had long been the primary way people bought music for the home.

Then came the 1920's. Better recording and player technology had been developed and was now inexpensive, making records appealing to a wider audience. Perhaps more important, the record companies were nervous about radio. They imagined their traditional white, well-off customers investing in this new-fangled technology, and then just enjoying its limitless, streaming, high-fidelity music — for free. Why ever buy another record? (Record companies are fretting over the same question today.)

The record industry realized that a vast market was untapped — new immigrants, poor urban and rural whites, and urban and rural blacks. Essentially, anyone who couldn't yet affort a radio.

So, early in the decade, the industry started seeking out musicians who could play what these audiences liked. Such musicians had never been recorded before in human history and their music had been badly under-represented in sheet music. Companies like Vocalion, Paramount, Okeh, and Columbia took mobile recording units into cities throughout the South, or brought the musicians to New York and Chicago.

Today, what we think of today as the earliest days of jazz, the blues, country, folk, bluegrass, and gospel can be vividly heard in the recordings of the 1920's: Dixieland, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Charlie Patton, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley, the Skillet Lickers, Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. J. M. Gates, the Sacred Harp. What came before is generally known only in the most shadowy terms.

The economic bubble of the 1920's burst dramatically with the onset of the Depression. Many record companies went out of business, and the rest slashed their recording schedules. The next time the record business picked up, the U.S. had experienced not only the vastly disruptive Great Depression but the even more vastly disruptive Second World War as well. By then, everything had changed.

In decade after decade since the 1920's, virtually everyone who has mattered to most American music listeners has made these recordings the cornerstone of their work — from Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin to Elvis Presely, from Earl Scruggs to Jimi Hendrix, from Miles Davis and Charlie Parker to Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch ... Perhaps mysteriously, these records have remained an inexhaustibly generous wellspring of inspiration.

Perhaps mysteriously. For me, trying to explain just why this is true — why these records are inexhaustible wellsprings of inspiration — has seemed like the intellectual and spiritual adventure of a lifetime. Why the 1920's? At least a few answers are already clear and are surprisingly concrete. I'll try to mention some in the coming days.

Blind Willie Johnson: Revival

Blind Willie Johnson
The first musician of the 1920's I ever took an interest in was Blind Willie Johnson, and my interest grew directly from my interest in astronomy.

When I had just turned 16, PBS first aired Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series. Music was central to the show's mission, so I bought its soundtrack album and listened to it constantly. It included an excerpt of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (On Which Our Lord Was Laid)." Sagan had earlier edited an LP that was bolted to the side of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. The LP was a kind of timecapsule, designed to introduce the species that built the spacecraft to any civilization that might find it millions of years from now. It was Earth's greatest hits, and it included the full version of Johnson's "Dark Was the Night."

When I went off to college, I visited the University music library and listened to The Complete Blind Willie Johnson closely and repeatedly, and I was very moved by it. Johnson's voice was shreaded and harsh, sort of like Tom Waits or Louis Armstrong, but was capable of a huge range of tone and emotion. His guitar-playing — typically slide guitar — was extraordinarily expressive and could act as a rhythm section at the same time it played melody.

I read then, in college, that Willie Johnson was blind because his stepmother (his mother had died when he was very young) blinded him with a pan of lye. She did it to punish Willie's father for having beaten her, which he did after finding her in bed with another man. Like many blind black men then, Willie learned to play guitar on streetcorners to sustain himself. His father had always wanted his son to be a preacher, and Willie played religious songs exclusively. He was not a bluesman, but a gospel guitarist and singer — indeed, he's often thought of as the greatest ever recorded. Probably his best-known song is "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time."

For reasons I don't understand, this was the last collection of 78's I would hear for another 12 years. When I finally started buying such CD's in early 1996, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson was the first one I got.

The liner notes to that collection are written by the well-known jazz and blues historian Samuel Charters, who had owned a copy of "Dark Was the Night" as a teenager in the late 1940's. They are a riveting read:

For anyone who has grown up after the '60s, already knowing about singers like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt ... Memphis Minnie, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, there's no way to understand what so much of the American musical heritage meant to us when it was almost completely a mystery. The few records we knew about, the handful of names that we knew, were like a faint, distant light through a mist, and we had no idea what the light meant.

In 1953, Charters set off for Texas to try and find out about Blind Willie Johnson (this was very early in the history of such expeditions). When he finally found Johnson's home, Charters was informed that he had died only a few years before. Charters writes, "If I had known the way to the run-down house in Beaumont when I first heard Dark Was the Night, I could have asked him to play it for me."

I usually think of Willie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt at the same time, precisely because their biographies are so profoundly different from one another — especially the end of their biographies. For Johnson, there was no Folk Revival. Its absence in Willie's life vividly shows us what the Folk Revival really accomplished when it rediscovered 1920's musicians like Dock Boggs and John Hurt. Willie Johnson's widow Angeline describes the death of her husband in Beaumont, TX so soon before the young Samuel Charters knocked on her door, looking for his hero:

He died from pneumonia ... We burnt out there in the north end, 1440 Forrest, and when we burnt out we didn't know many people, and so I just, you know, drug him back in there and we laid on them wet bed clothes with a lot of newspaper. It didn't bother me, but it bothered him. See, he'd turn over and I'd just lay up on the paper, and I thought if you put a lot of paper on, you know, it would keep us from getting sick. We didn't get wet, but just the dampness, you know and then he's singing and his veins open and everything, and it just made him sick. [The hospital] wouldn't accept him. He'd have been living today if they'd accepted him. 'Cause he's blind. Blind folks has a hard time.

See also:
Dock Boggs: Revival
Mississippi John Hurt: Revival

Mississippi John Hurt: Revival

Robert Cantwell
drawing of Mississippi John Hurt by Robert Crumb

In the mid-1960's, Dock Boggs told Mike Seeger that if he had his life to do over again, he'd learn to play guitar like Mississippi John Hurt. Around the same time, Dave Prine's little brother asked him for guitar lessons, so he gave John Prine a Carter Family record (so he'd know what good songwriting was), and a John Hurt album (so he'd know what good guitar playing sounded like). A college student at the time reports that he'd go to John Hurt concerts because all the best looking girls flocked to them, but he soon found that their eyes and attentions were focused exclusively on this 71 year old black man.

It's hard to grasp how profoundly unlikely all of this would have been only a few years before. John Hurt was a tenant farmer in Mississippi and considered himself an amateur musician. He'd recorded just 13 songs in 1928 and they didn't sell particularly well. The record industry shrank as the Depression set in and Hurt continued farming, apparently thinking little of his brief recording gig.

After WWII, the old records cut by southern musicians in the 1920's were not commercially available. They made the rounds mostly as bootleg tapes among a tiny subculture of obsessive, cranky collectors and a few college kids who took an interest in very obscure music. Hurt's records were particularly rare, since few had been manufactured in the first place. But Harry Smith put two John Hurt cuts on his influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, causing some of these hobbyists to go looking for him. They always failed.

Then in 1963, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, two young white folkies, got a tape of Hurt's Avalon Blues through their informal network of tape traders. Hurt had recorded Avalon Blues at the end of a week-long stay in New York that spanned Christmas 1928. Homesick in the big city, Hurt slipped in a line about his home in Avalon being always on his mind.

Hoskins and Stewart figured Mississippi John Hurt might have meant an Avalon, Mississippi. So, they grabbed a current atlas and studied the state. There was no Avalon on the map. So they found an 1878 atlas and there, between Greenwood and Grenada, was Avalon. They packed some clothes, guitars, and a tape recorder and drove south to look for Hurt, though they figured he was probably dead.

When they arrived in Avalon, they found it was basically just a tiny general store. They approached the men sitting on its porch and asked if anyone knew a guitarist named John Hurt. One man lifted an arm, pointed a finger, and said, "Down that road, third mailbox up the hill." Hoskins and Stewart drove, and found a little black man around 70 years old driving a tractor, looking startled by the sudden appearence of two white men who looked like they meant business. When they insisted he follow them back to Washington DC, Hurt decided he'd better go "voluntarily," suspecting they were the "police or the FBI or something like that."

Folk festival gigs back east were easily arranged for Hurt, and he was an enormous hit. Hurt played in a technically dazzling but graceful and gentle ragtime style, his thumb playing bass lines to take the place of a piano player's left hand, and two fingers picking out melodies like a pianist's right hand. Hurt's voice and demeanor were witty and heartbreakingly sweet. The crowds literally lurched forward to be close to him. When Hurt played the Johnny Carson show, he had never owned a television himself.

He died in his sleep at home in Mississippi, only three years after being rediscovered.

"The Folk Revival" of the 1950's and 1960's was a revival of interest in certain songs or styles, but it was also a revival of many talented artist's lives — or at any rate, of their music careers. Nobody is more closely associated with that aspect of the Revival than John Hurt. When I hear his recordings and wonder at the all-consuming benevolence of their sound, the generosity of Hurt's presence, and his virtuoso guitar picking, I'm swept up in gratitude for the Folk Revival. It went out and found John Hurt, made him one of the most deeply (if not widely) loved Americans of his day, and was able to tell him so in the last months of his life.

See also:
Dock Boggs: Revival
Blind Willie Johnson: Revival

Dock Boggs: Revival

Dock Boggs
Dock Boggs, age 9

Ever since banjoist Dock Boggs made his first recordings, people's interest in him has often taken on a rare intensity, part revelation, part morbid compulsion.

In 2005, Rennie Sparks described his 1927 recording of Pretty Polly as "compassionless, cold as a cockroach." Greil Marcus devoted a whole chapter to Boggs in his book about Bob Dylan's Basesment Tapes — Boggs, he wrote, sang Oh Death with "the words jerking in his throat like a marionette." The night in 1932 that Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger first heard Boggs' recording of Pretty Polly, they realized that an American folk music was still alive and they dedicated the rest of their lives to it.

In 1963, Mike Seeger, Charles and Ruth's son, sought out the long-lost Boggs while traveling with his wife and three pre-school children in a Studebaker Lark station wagon. When they finally realized they were really getting close to finding Boggs, it was getting dark and they needed to find lodging. Mike's wife finally suggested they look in a phone book under "Boggs." Seeger was amazed — "Look in the phone book for Dock Boggs?" Boggs was listed, they called, and Dock was in.

In the last eight years of Boggs' life, Seeger became Boggs' recordist, booking agent, best friend, confessor, and maybe in a certain unforeseeable way, demon. Seeger writes: "I've often wondered if his second — his 1960's — music career was good for him."

In 1910, Boggs had gone to work under the surface of the Earth, in the coal mines, at the age of 12. He spent 44 years digging coal in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia. In his youth, he supplemented a coal miner's starvation wages the same way many others did — bootlegging whiskey. It was a violent existence, reflecting a disregard for people's lives shared by the coal companies that dominated the region's economy. Boggs was often arrested, carried a gun and used it, beat a brother-in-law almost to death, and at one point plotted in detail the murder of his wife's entire family. "I'm talking about being set on it. I was set on it," he told Mike Seeger's tape recorder.

During the boom of the late 1920's, Boggs made several recordings and vividly glimpsed a chance to escape the mines through music. But the boom soon busted, and Boggs missed a last recording session because he was unable to scrape up any cash for a train ticket. He continued to play his banjo for a few years, but eventually had to pawn it during a run on the banks. Decades later, he would talk to Mike Seeger about these losses with acute pain.

When Mike and his family showed up in their station wagon, Boggs had just retrieved his pawned banjo no more than six months before. Members of his wife's holiness church considered the playing of music to be a sin, and to both Dock and his wife Sara, the instrument was an ominous reminder of their darker days.

He travelled and recorded extensively with Seeger. Boggs deeply enjoyed his second music career, there's no question about it. There's also no question that it was emotionally challenging for him as well. He started to drink heavily, at least occasionally. On one such occasion, with Mike Seeger's tape recorder rolling, Boggs threatened to buy a .38 Special and murder someone over legal issues regarding a cesspool, as well as the entire staff of an insurance office. One night, during a concert tour, Seeger and Boggs shared a sleeping room and at one point, Seeger awoke to find that Boggs had had a "rough wakening." Dock said he'd dreamt of "burning hell."

Boggs was a complex, intelligent, and sensitive person, so we'll never fully understand the conflicts that troubled him in those final years. Surely, his 44 years in the mines had a lot to do with it. Boggs was a staunch advocate of the United Mine Workers union, and understood the brutality of an extractive economy. Boggs' father had started life with 350 acres of land, but sold one farm after another to the coal companies until, "When he died, he never owned enough land to bury him on." The chance to make money and fans through music must've produced regrets over the time Boggs had lost, as well as something like survivor's guilt.

My copy of the double CD of Boggs' music from the 1960's is one of my most cherished possessions. Certainly, it's one chapter in the life of Mike Seeger, which has taken on mythic proportions for me and, I've noticed, a lot of other fans of oldtime music. But the facts of what Boggs' music meant to Boggs himself — how it framed, troubled, and gave meaning to his life — make his 1960's work some of the deepest art I've ever known. In the end, what really make these recordings so valuable is something I've barely mentioned here — Boggs' startling, touching voice and his exquisitely original and skillful banjo playing.

See also:
Mississippi John Hurt: Revival
Blind Willie Johnson: Revival

1969 and the Moon Landing
Part 2: Alice's Restaurant

Alice's Restaurant is a long, rambling, very funny song about a lot of things — particularly the absurd way that its author, Arlo Guthrie, got out of the draft.

A film version of the song was rushed to the theaters soon after the song became a hit. In Arlo Guthrie's fascinating audio commentary for the "special features" of the film's DVD, Arlo describes the writing of the song, and then its first public performance:

I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, and they said, "Oh, Arlo Guthrie, you know, aren't you Woody's kid?" And they put me out in this field — you know, I was just 18 or 19 years old, I was a real young guy — and I remember playing Alice's Restaurant standing on a box in a field with about 300 people.
They got such a response that they put me on some other program later on that afternoon with, you know, about a thousand people and that got such a respsonse that they put me on at the very end of the festival, and that evening there were probably about twenty, thirty thousand people in the audience.
They were afraid to put an unknown person like me at the end of a big festival. It'd be really chancy, I mean, what if I was terrible? What if it was horrible? ...

And so Judy Collins came out, Joan Baez came out and then other people came out, and Pete Seeger came out. And by the end of the evening, all the performers were onstage singing Alice's Restaurant.
And that was the day that Man first walked on the Moon. I remember being onstage and telling everybody, you know, "There's people walking around up there." And looking at the moon. And it was a big day. Big day for me, big day for everybody. The next day, I started getting the phone calls from all the record companies and the execs and stuff.

It's true that the song made its public premier at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1967. But "Man first walked on the Moon" two years later, in July 1969. There were no astronauts in space during the 1967 festival.

Part of what fascinates me about the film, and Arlo's commentary, is that they are both constantly haunted by endless coincidences, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and mysteries — some of which Arlo points out, and some of which he seems to miss. The moon landing the night of his great triumph at Newport, for example, happened only in Arlo's memory.

The timing of the song and the film interests me. Hollywood in the mid-60s was in pretty bad shape and the studios were desperate to get people into theaters. Bonnie and Clyde (produced by 28-year-old Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn) was a surprise success and helped encourage bolder movies by sometimes by younger artists, oriented toward younger audiences.

Alice's Restaurant was Arthur Penn's next directing job after Bonnie and Clyde, and has a disorienting strangeness that seems to come from being a weird hybrid of countercultural documentary and studio pandering. So, Alice's Restaurant feels like it catches Hollywood in mid-morph, trying to figure out how to do a new thing. The movie is one key to understanding Hollywood at that moment.

But I want to understand the year 1969 and how the The Moon Landing fit into it. One lesson of Arlo's mistaken timeline is that the recollections of the major players — whether astronauts or folksingers — are 36 year old, and are bound to be cloudy.

Certainly, any drugs used at the time are unlikely to help, but they're not the only thing that can make things "run together" — young people in 1969 had a lot on their minds, what with a draft, a war, assassinations, Nixon, and such. I often remind myself that between 1965 and 1970, there were ... well, just five years.

But the main lesson of Arlo's mistake is that it wasn't some other mistake — it was about the Moon Landing. It is testimony to the importance of the landing not just as a technological feat, but as a reflection and contributor to the headiness of the times.

The 1967 Newport Folk Festival was certainly one of the most important events in Arlo Guthrie's life. It changed everything for him, and it was inextricably wrapped up in momentous national events (just listen to the song). It really was a big day for everybody — every day seemed to be. 

So, it makes sense that memories would get pegged to Apollo 11 as a way of expressing their own intensity and, especially, to express the way those memories were shaped by various dramatic displays of American power.

Part 1


The Crush Collision Trio

Crush Collision Trio

Recently, the Mullet River Boys, a trio of oldtime vaudevillean minstrels, saved what was, for me, an otherwise iffy show, The Ukulele Gala. I was surprised to find that they're a local group I'd never heard of. In terms of the kind of music I love, I'm more familiar with Memphis 80 years ago than with my own town today. I need to do something about that.

I first realized this a few years ago when I stumbled across another Twin Cities group, The Crush Collision Trio fronted by Lonesome Dan Kase. Lonesome Dan (LORD, what makes that Dan so LONESOME?) is an oldstyle accoustic bluesman — I mean an even older style than you're probably picturing.

The usual image people have of the accoustic "country" blues tends to come, I think, from people like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and Skip James as an old man. But when these guys learned to play the blues, they were kids in at least the late 1920's or later, and they were playing what was, at the time, a new approach. It was slower, sadder, with sometimes irregular rhythms not meant for dancing. Their lyrics were often pretty grim.

But among the first round of solo bluesmen recorded in the 20's were older men who played an older style that grew up in house parties, dance joints, and medicine shows. Their rhythms were more often steady and lively, their lyrics were geared toward crowds of mixed gender, age, and race, and they tended to play in a range of different styles, including religious tunes. I'm thinking of Charlie Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Henry Thomas, and Jim Jackson. Many of their songs, verses, subjects and styles were shared by older white songsters recorded at the same time, such as Uncle Dave Macon. A few of these older black songsters were recorded playing banjos.

This is the terrain that Dan Kase has claimed for himself. His band includes a mandolin (by Matt Yetter) and a washboard (Mikkel Beckman), and when I corner these guys in bars, they each seem to confirm my admittedly shaky grasp of this storyline. (Still, I can't speak for them, of course.) A high-ranking, unnamed source assures me that if I like the Crush Collision Trio, I'd love a guy who lives in Duluth named Charlie Parr. We'll see — Dan's music, with or without his Trio, always makes me feel pretty damned right with the world.

All these Minnesotans seem to be in their twenties or thirties. Clearly, this evidence from Minnesota — together with more familiar national acts like the Old Crow Medicine Show, Jolie Holland, Gillian Welch (etc., etc., etc.) — suggests that the "Folk Revival" that started in the 1990's is bearing fruit. Suddenly, there's a reason to see live music.

As an aside, The Crush Collision Trio named themselves after a publicity stunt. In 1896, William George Crush staged a head-on collision of two locomotives on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas train line ("The Katy"). Forty-thousand spectators watched the smash-up somewhere between Waco and Hillsboro, Texas. Unexpectedly, both trains' boilers exploded shortly after impact, killing two spectators and mutilating several others. (Crush Collision Trio shows tend to work out a little better.)

Orphan Songs, Part 7
We Are The Folk

The New Lost City Ramblers: Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger, John Cohen
The New Lost City Ramblers: Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger, John Cohen

The most electrifying book I've read about folk music is certainly "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival." Sadly, I can't bring myself to shove the book into the hands of anyone I know. It's dense enough academic criticism that I don't know who'd find it a "good read" without having studied the humanities recently. But I also don't personally know any academics who like folk music enough to care. So, I have to enjoy it privately, like some kind of dirty book.

But it was Cantwell's book that first made me think very seriously about Orphan Songs. So, I'll try to gently summarize one short passage from the book, hoping to convey a little of why that might be ...
Who are these "Folk" who make all this music, anyway? Louis Armstrong said, "All music is folk music — I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."

Well, you have to consider the idea of "The Folk." It derives and survives from feudalism, and so from before what we know as trade, the town, science, money, mechanization, and mass production. The idea of the folk can't make sense without that other feudal principle, Nobility. The two ideas are inseparable, since the folk is what humanity looks like viewed from above — from the position of nobility gazing down upon its dependents.

This may sound disparaging, as if folk music is just an illusion in the minds of bigots. But remember that when feudalism gave way to more modern economic and cultural institutions, its principle of nobility was adopted with great romance by the new mercantile middle class — that is, by MY class — as an ideal to be aspired to. Ever since, the nobility ethic has shown itself in middle-class culture, philosophy, politics, spirituality, in our sense of Self.

What does this have to do with Orphan Songs? As long as there are folk to compare ourselves to, our nobility must be seen as an accident of birth. The things nobility implies — independence, gentility, fairness, being worthy of the folk's dependence and so also of your obligations — none can be claimed or understood without knowing, experiencing, confronting, or perhaps even becoming the folk. (This chapter in Cantwell's book is called "We Are The Folk.")

Here, astonishingly, Cantwell considers the career and, I have to say, identity of folk revivalist Mike Seeger. Seeger is a complex character with a career running now more than 50 years. I can't do Seeger justice here, so I'll only say that Cantwell's description is vividly, stunningly recognizable to me. He presents Seeger as a kind of self-orphaned nobleman whose nobility runs in the blood so that, as a foundling among the folk, he must discover his nobility.

I'll end with excerpts directly from Cantwell:

Seeger is, through that music, in lifelong revolt against his class — and hence permanently exiled to that strange zone where the very phenomenon of social differentiation seems to have exhausted itself.

Like the returned Ulysses or the exiled Edgar in Lear, like the blackface minstrel, Mike Seeger can come most fully into possession of himself only in disguise. This is the classic Byronic gesture, that of the nobleman recovering through a reckless and brilliant condescension, choosing virtue over power, the essence of his nobility. To have it and to repudiate it, and thus to have it back again in its authentic form: of all the tales that nobles tell about themselves, this essentially allegorical and religious story has been, from Luke and John to the Wife of Bath, John Milton, C. S. Lewis, and Hermann Hesse, the one most loved by the people of the town.

This kind of analysis in "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival" has pretty fully reworked how I think about not only the Folk Revival, but most musicians I love (see the anecdote about Dylan at the end of Part 3), plus the Beats and the so-called 60's counterculture, among other post-World War II cultural movements. Looking for Orphan Songs? You won't have to look far.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

See also The New Lost Times