78 of the week: Jesse Rodgers with Kama’s Moana Hawaiians

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Two excellent sides for you by the great Jesse Rodgers (first cousin to Jimmie), from Southern Folklife Collection disc call no. 78-828. A successful musician who appeared on the “border-blaster” radio stations XERA and XERN in the late 20s and early 30s, Rodgers career took off in an unexpected direction after Jimmie’s untimely death in 1933. Always looking to repeat past successes, RCA-Bluebird picked up Jesse in hopes he would continue where Jimmie left off, even setting Jesse up to record with the great steel guitarist Charles Kama and his Moana Hawaiians who had recorded previous sides with Jimmie. These two tracks were recorded 28 Feburary 1936 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio. Kama’s guitar work is superb and his musical arrangement wonderfully compliments the tune. Listen to the solo in the second clip below and note Kama’s masterful accompaniment to Rodger’s blue yodeling. Fantastic. 

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78 rpm disc of the week: Red Kirk “The Voice of the Country”

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Great pair of pure country tearjerkers from Southern Folklife Collection 78 rpm disc call no. 78-9938. I discovered these numbers thanks to a recent request and gladly spent some time in the studio while the great Red Kirk, known as “The Voice of the Country,” and the phenomenal steel guitar of Jerry Byrd played offered the soundtrack to my morning blues. Recorded in Cincinnati with Jerry Byrd’s String Dusters–Louis Innis on rhythm, Zeke Turner on lead guitar, Red Turner on bass, and Tommy Jackson on fiddle–all great session players that also performed the Midwestern Hayride on WLW. Side two, “It’s Raining in my Heart” is even better.

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Zygote, 1970

Zygote_v1_n7_1970_Southern Folklife CollectionIt was a pleasure to dig into the Southern Folklife Collection‘s two issues of Zygote, an excellent alternative rag out of New York in the early 1970s. I also enjoyed imagining which member of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation originally collected the magazine for the periodical collection. These two issues feature some quality investigative journalism and radical political commentary mixed with record and film reviews, music features, pop-culture criticism, and a psychedelic visual style. The Southern Folklife Collection has but two issues from 1970, this one vol. 1, no. 7, from October 30, and vol. 1, no. 8 from November. If you subscribed for two years you could have picked up the latest Mother Earth LP and the soundtrack to The Strawberry Statement. Plus, Tina Turner and Wayne Cochran (scroll down to the bottom).

Right on.

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16-inch transcription disc of the week: The Prairie Ramblers

TR1180_1Another research query to share this week. I found the Standard Program Library 16-inch transcription disc pictured above, call number TR1180 from the Southern Folklife Collection Transcription Discs (#30024), while assisting a patron searching for a recording of a track called “Mussin’ Frets,” a novelty guitar instrumental by the excellent Prairie Ramblers [bio by Greensboro, NC resident Eugene Chadbourne!]. The group coalesced in the 1930s appearing on numerous radio stations before settling down at WLS in Chicago. Featuring mandolinist Charles Chick Hurt, bassist “Happy” Jack Taylor, fiddler Tex Atchison, and Floyd “Salty” Holmes, a multi-instrumentalist and master of the harmonica, the group rose to fame after partnering up with a young Patsy Montana. Comfortable jumping from old-time stringband music, to country, to western swing, they went on to appear in numerous cowboy films with Gene Autry and other singing cowboys before splitting up for good in 1947 (well after Montana left to pursue her solo career). But back to the disc, Here’s “Huckleberry Picnic” to wet your whistle.  

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TR1180_1_spinUnfortunately, we were unable to locate “Mussin’ Frets,” but fortunately we were able to digitze TR1180 to share with you fine readers and listeners. These recordings feature a Post-War incarnation of the Prairie Ramblers, aka The Westernaires at this time, after Atchison and Holmes had left the band. Rusty Gill, the vocalist on this disc, including the classic cowboy number “Ridin’ Old Paint in the Sky,” was married to Carolyn DeZurik of the remarkable DeZurik Sisters. If any of you have any information about “Mussin’ Frets,’ please do let us know. 

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All rise for the piping of the haggis: Burns Night at the SFC

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It’s Burns Day, and I hope you have been practicing your “Address tae the Haggis.” Folklorist, teacher, author, and friend of the Southern Folklife Collection, Burgin Mathews, hosts a Burns Supper that I will someday be lucky enough to attend, however this year I’ll have to offer the Immortal Memory address to myself in a quiet kitchen. Thankfully I found a wealth of supporting materials in the SFC to assist in my Burns Night activities. The LP pictured above, call no. FC18057, offers a great start with Frederick Worlock reading some of Robert Burns best, including “To a Louse (on seeing one on a lady’s bonnet at church).” Listen to the clip above.

Thanks to inspiration from the SFC’s recent Fiddle Concert and Symposium, I pulled out a record, call no. FC1508, produced by Mark Wilson that features some of his excellent recordings of Cape Breton musician Joseph CormierScottish Violin Music from Cape Breton Island, kicks off with a perfect set of reels for Burns Night, “Haggis; Glennville’s Dirk; Bird’s Nest.” Listen to “Haggis” here:

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Your guests will likely need some source material for their Burns recitations after dinner, so you may want to reference The Merry Muses of Caledoniacall no. PR4322.M42 1965, and possibly copy the glossary for those less familiar with the particulars of Scottish vocabulary.  (click images to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

Finally, no Burns Supper is complete without a rousing rendition of Robert Burns most famous and most misunderstood poems, “Auld Lang Syne.” I never imagined that I would someday offer the following advice, but take a cue from Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians and pour your heart and soul into the song (it may help if you have a cup of “uisge beatha,” aka the “water of life, aka Scotch whisky, in advance). Sing along won’t you? 

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For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

SFC Spotlight: Mother Maybelle talks autoharp at Earl Scrugg’s House in 1962

Once again a researcher pointed the way to a fascinating item in the Southern Folklife Collection. While most of our attention has been on the fiddle as of late, I happily shifted focus to the autoharp (which we recently learned is also known as the “Idiot Zither”) when I digitized a tape recorded interview of Maybelle Carter, FT11829 from the Betty Blackley Collection (#20282).  Conducted September 9 and 10, 1962 by autoharp expert A. Doyle Moore and Archie Green at the home of Earl and Louise Scruggs Madison, TN, the interview offers an in-depth history of the Carter Family’s use of the autoharp and Mother Maybelle’s performance style on the instrument. In the following three clips, she describes her first encounters with the autoharp:

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The conversation continues, reflecting on her career, and eventually to her performance style. After locating the appropriate pick and finding an instrument with the correct tuning, she demonstrates with examples played on one of the multiple autoharps apparently always on hand in Earl and Louise Scruggs’s living room at any given time.  The first two clips lead up to the third, which is a wonderfully wobbly and vibrating version of “Gathering Flowers from the Hillside.” She goes on to demonstrate many other songs on side 2 of the tape. Definitely a treat on this gloomy Thursday afternoon. 

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SFC Spotlight: Barbara Allen, the Song Without a Single Tune

A map of the recording locations in Seeger's Versions and Variations of Barbara Allen

As one of the most oft-played folk ballads in the Western tradition, the commonly titled “Barbara Allen” has spawned so many variations it’s nearly impossible to identify a primary tune. Reaching the height of its popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries in the British Isles and America, the ballad has been sung in parlors and on front porches for hundreds of years. It has branched into countless forms, known variously as “Barbary Allan,” “John Armstrong’s Last Good-night,” and “The Cruelty of Barbara Allen,” among many others (Source: Francis Child’s English and Scottish Ballads ).

Charles Seeger, the renowned American musicologist (1886 –1979), visited these parlors, collecting field recordings from all over the country on a quest to locate the definitive “Barbara Allen” tune. Drawing samplings from North Carolina to Michigan to California, he selected 30 renditions to study, 15 sung by women and 15 by men. The Southern Folklife Collection houses his compilation of the recordings on the Versions and Variants of Barbara Allen , accompanied with a detailed draft brochure.

After listening to the recordings and categorizing them according to musical mode into versions and variants, Seeger concludes that “no such entity as ‘the Barbara Allen tune’ can be set up…, however, two versions have such distinct characters.” The first version sounds completely unlike any of today’s more popular recordings of the ballad because of its archaic melody. Seeger states, “Version I in the AAFS seems to bear no relationship to conventional major or minor modality and the concept of tonality.” Here is a recording of a middle-aged man singing a variant of Version Ia “Barbara Allen”:

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In contrast, the second version sounds much more pleasing to the ear because “Version II will seem…closely related to our conventional major mode.” Here is a recording of an older woman singing Version IIa:

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The lyrics of this ballad tell the haunting story of Barbara Allen’s cold rejection of a dying man’s love, and her regrets as she hears the death bell toll. Realizing her mistake, she chooses death also and is buried next to her unrequited lover. Two examples of the opening verse of the ballad include:

Oh don’t you remember the month in May
The red buds they were swelling
Sweet William upon his dead bed a lie
For the sake of Barbry Allen
When I first came to this country
When all the flowers were a blooming
Sweet William on his death bed lay
For the love of Barbara Allen

 

While the lyrics vary from recording to recording, all versions share the same central plot. But, because the story’s spirit changes as the tune evolves, listening to the 30 variants remains captivating. The differences between minor and major modes, quick or dragging tempos, and the color of each singer’s voice uncover multiple levels and moods of Barbara Allen’s tragic story. One man sings the ballad like a cautionary tale to young lovers; another woman sings as if she were Barbara Allen herself, mourning a personal experience. In this way, Charles Seeger’s Versions and Variations of Barbara Allen celebrates how a ballad is neither singular nor static but a living history of time and place.

Tia Blake Record Release Party

Saturday, June 23 at 2PM

 All Day Records 112A E Main St, Carrboro, North Carolina  

— Come join us to celebrate the reissue of Tia Blake’s classic record Folksongs and Ballads (1971). The Tia Blake Collection is part of the Southern Folklife Collection. Transfers from the original master tapes were conducted in the SFC studios. —

In the early spring of 2011, SFC curator Steve Weiss asked me to create an inventory of a small collection he had recently accessioned. Water Music, a record label based in California, was planning a reissue of Folksongs and Ballads by Tia Blake and her Folk Group. The producer was searching for photographs and other media to include as part of the release. The box of materials included few photographs, some open reel tapes, a flier for the group’s single performance (see below), some business correspondence, a copy of her LP, released in 1971 by the tiny French label SFP (Societe Francaise de Productions Phonographiques).

After some initial research, Tia Blake remained a mystery to me. She recorded just the one album in 1970 as a teenager living in France, had one performance (above photo), and left France never to perform publicly again. Blissfully unaware the the album I held is considered a lost gem of psych folk music–a rare collaboration between a young American woman living in France and European musicians enamored with American traditional music–and highly sought after by collectors, I was struck by Tia Blake’s warm, deep and  and powerful vocals. The arrangements are sparse and very skillfully arranged, accentuating the intimate sadness of Blake’s voice. Made up entirely of traditional tunes in the public domain, the album feels familiar but the casual grace of Blake’s vocals and the acoustic accompaniment make for a remarkable and lovely listening experience.

Along with a copy of the album were two open reel tapes: one including outtakes and rehearsal demos from the initial recording session, and another with three tracks performed by Tia Blake solo and recorded at a CBC studio in Montreal in 1976.  All of these tracks are included on the CD reissue. A composition about her father (with whom she lived in the Amazon in 1975) remains one of our favorites.

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Ms. Blake became a writer and eventually settled in North Carolina. The Southern Folklife Collection is honored to be the repository for the Tia Blake Collection and very pleased to have contributed to reintroduce her music to the world. Please join us on Saturday, June 23 at All Day Records in Carrboro to celebrate the release of the album.

Two important things you should know about this event:
1. The reissue is CD-only at this time, there will be CDs for sale
2. Tia Blake will be present, but will not be performing

SFC Spotlight: Doc Watson

— Please welcome our summer student guest writer, Emma Lo. Emma will be writing about her experiences exploring the SFC this summer. Her first post remembers North Carolina’s beloved Doc Watson.  A symposium and concert celebrating Watson’s life and music will take place at the NC Museum of Art on Saturday, June 30. Details are on the NCMA website. —

Legendary guitarist Doc Watson, born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, passed away at age 89 on May 28th, 2012, in Winston-Salem, NC. Watson is often described as embodying the sound of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to his champion flatpicking guitar skills, Watson mastered the banjo, mandolin, and boasted a warm, honest voice to complement his picking. Although Doc Watson acquired fame through his performances in clubs and universities in Greenwich Village, Los Angeles, and Rhode Island, North Carolina stayed at the heart of his music. He began his musical career as a regular performer on a radio show in Lenoir, NC, playing traditional music of Appalachia, and after the loss of his son Merle in 1985, he cofounded the successful traditional arts festival, Merlefest, in Wilkesboro.

Watson’s most notable contribution to the folk guitar style was his adaptation of fiddle solos for flatpicking guitar. He was known for being a humble, introverted man who requested that the phrase “Doc Watson: Just One of the People,” be engraved beneath his likeness in sculpture in downtown Boone, N.C. Nevertheless, he brought the guitar to center stage by utilizing the guitar as a melody instrument. Watson played a unique fusion of musical styles that included a broad spectrum of Appalachian folk, old-time, bluegrass, and blues. On Merlefest’s website Watson titles this mixture “traditional plus.” According to Watson, “When Merle and I started out we called our music `traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play.”

For his first public performance, in 1941, 18-year-old Doc Watson played the song “Precious Jewel” at the Boone Fiddler’s Convention. Appalachian State’s Digital Collections contains a field recording of this performance (Watson’s bit begins at 1:36).

After a stint playing in various country bands for square dances, Watson joined a folk band headlined by Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Clint Howard, and Fred Price.

Along with the band, Watson was discovered by musician and folk music promoter Ralph Rinzler and record collector Eugene Earle.  Earle and Rinzler made the initial recordings that officially introduced Watson into the folk music industry in 1961 with the recording, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, one of many live recordings in Watson’s wonderful catalog. Another live recording from 1963 documents Watson’s first true solo concert at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village and was later released as an album titled Doc Watson at Gerde’s Folk City Live.  This CD, call no. CD-1604, is available at the Southern Folklife Collection. Listen here for a clip that captures the intimacy Doc shares with his audience as he plays “The House Carpenter,” a song he learned from his father.

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Many more recordings and photographs of Watson are housed at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection and can be located using the UNC Library online catalog.