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Preserving Country Blues through Education, Performance and Technology
February 16, 2012, 11:37:42 AM by lindy | Views: 16006 | Comments: 25

2012 Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival

If you look at the right side of the Weenie home page, you?ll see a box showing how many days are left until the next Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop and Festival, taking place this year from July 29 to August 5.
And if you click on the ?About Weenie? link on the left side of this page, you?ll find out that Weenie Campbell was born?fully formed and already in a late stage of life?to a group of midwives attending the 1997 workshop.

The core Weenies who created this wonderful forum spend a lot of time thinking and talking about PTABW, and in our rarely humble opinions, we think that the 2012 faculty lineup is one of the best ever.

Click here and see why. The list includes Robert Belfour and his fellow Mississippian Terry Bean, teaching Hill Country and Delta styles. And Ari Eisinger?the man for learning the music of the "four Blinds": Blake, Davis, Fuller, and Lemon Jefferson. Three great slide teachers: Steve James, Orville Johnson, and Rev. Robert Jones. Reverend Jones has a way of channeling the musicians whose songs he teaches?wait ?til you hear him sing like Son House. Then there?s our own John Miller, in demand as a teacher on two continents. Every summer he pulls a country blues obscurity or two out of his bag of tricks, which opens the door to making further discoveries on my own.

I?m completely hooked on the PTABW experience?I?ve only missed one in seventeen years. In May of 1996 I got the radical idea that I didn?t have to listen to other people make music, I could do it myself. I bought a Takamine dreadnaught, and six weeks later, armed with only three chords (but three really good ones) I asked a fellow named John Jackson, ?John, you got a minute to show me how to play ?Boat?s Up the River???

John taught me the way he knew how: play a phrase over and over and over until I got it. We spent a half-hour together, and I was sweatin? beads, thinking that this great musician must be getting tired of showing a rank newbie how to move around the fretboard. But the bigger part of the lesson was this: John never gave the impression that he was anything less but perfectly happy to be right where he was. Later that same week I heard another workshop student ask him, ?Hey John, you got a minute to show me how to play ?Boat?s Up the River??? And in that Rapahannock accent that could stretch out the word ?sure? into three syllables, he said, ?Why sure, I?d be happy to,? and he meant it.

That?s the kind of story you can tell your friends back home if you attend PTABW. Sure, you pick up a few songs, learn a new chord or two, maybe work on a second instrument. But you also get to share a bench with John Dee Holeman. You get to listen to stories about North Mississippi from Robert Belfour, or jam with Robert Lowery. You get to meet Rev. John Wilkins, the son of Robert Wilkins, or hear Erwin Helfer talk about tracking down forgotten pianists in St. Louis and New Orleans back when there were still a lot of forgotten blues musicians around to be rediscovered.

Those are examples of recent experiences I?ve had at Port Townsend. But the stories I really treasure are those I?ve collected over the years from teachers who are no longer with us. Like the time Honeyboy Edwards showed me how to shave a pair of dice, and how to cause a distraction in order to switch the loaded dice for the regular. You never know when a skill like that might come in handy.

Or the time Howard Armstrong held court in the old cafeteria, telling the story about how he charmed his way out of what could have been a bad situation for a black string band in an Italian neighborhood in Detroit in the 1930s by playing his mandolin and speaking what was good enough to pass for Italian under the circumstances.

Or the year that Othar Turner and his family performed on the big stage at McCurdy Pavilion. A lifelong farmer, he had the biggest, strongest hands I?ve ever seen. I got to chat with him for a while that Saturday morning while he stood in a parking lot in his coveralls, one hand in his pocket, the other rubbing his chin in wonder while watching someone use a piece of technology he?d never seen in his 92 years: an espresso machine.

Then there was the time Grant Dermody, Robert Lowery, and the one-armed harmonica player Neal Pattman started jamming on the porch of The Schoolhouse. They played a simple little call-and-response riff, with Neal singing couplets like ?Georgia water taste like cherry wine/Make you higher than a Georgia pine.? Ten minutes went by, Grant had to teach a class, so he hopped over the railing and made his escape. Another five minutes passed, then Robert Lowery stood, threw down his hand as if to say ?I give up,? and he left. Neal just kept playing, head tilted back, big grin on his face, blowin? and singing and blowin? with a half-dozen of us watching. Never have I seen someone as happy as Neal Pattman that day, just playing his blues in the sun, really for no one in particular but himself.

So many good memories: Precious Bryant singing ?If You Don?t Love Me, Can You Fool Me Real Good?? Larry Johnson telling the teenaged David Jacobs-Strain, ?I?m a leftover from the 60s, just like someday you?ll be a leftover from the 90s? (you may have seen that on the Weenie quote generator). Drink Small talking about his Ph.D. in Womanology. Jerry Ricks talking about all of the country blues giants he met while doing the booking for a Philadelphia coffee house in the 1960s. Alvin Youngblood Hart describing his right-hand technique in highly technical terms: ?Then you just kinda flop your hand around.?

In other words, the music is just one part of the Port Townsend experience, making friends and being part of an ongoing community is another. As this year?s lineup attests, there are many generous people and talented musicians interested in keeping this community strong.

So come to the party, y?all! Go offline for a week while you make music and new blues buddies. Spend some time jamming at Weenie Central. Eat and learn and play and dance and stay up way later than you?re used to. Then get up the next morning and do it all over again, for a full week. And when you get home, start making plans for PTABW 2013.
uncle bud
January 24, 2012, 09:02:47 AM by uncle bud
Views: 6753 | Comments: 15

Gone to the Country
The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival

I just finished reading Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers & the Folk Music Revival by Ray Allen (University of Illinois Press). A thoroughly enjoyable read that for me was a fascinating look at the Ramblers and their music from the late '50s through to the 1970s and a little beyond. Since I was not following their musical careers at the time, much of the information in the book was new to me, and the coverage of the growth of the traditional and old-time music scene covered in the book, from the early New York days to the later West Coast scene, filled in a lot of historical background that I was only vaguely aware of. Along the way the book also covers the growth of the Newport Folk Festival as well as the Friends of Old-Time Music concerts, TV shows like Rainbow Quest and Hootenanny, and the pop side of the folk revival in the music of the Kingston Trio and the like - the enemy as far as NLCR were concerned.

The book includes quite a bit of discussion not only of the history but the Ramblers' particular approach to traditional and old-time music, as well as the question of whether they should even be playing it, despite the fact that they were at the centre of rebuilding its popularity during this period. Not just a philosophical question either, for it meant they could not get certain gigs if, for instance, a festival was dependent on a certain grant promoting traditional arts, as they were considered northern city slickers, revivalists, not traditional players by birth, while at the same time they were helping to promote not just the music but many southern players outside their home territory. It's also sobering to note that despite their prominence at the time (and now looking back from 2012 when their historical significance is well established), record sales were always sluggish and limited and income from performing was generally modest to poor - despite being some of the most successful musicians playing this kind of music outside of the south, really at the forefront. 

The very deliberate eclecticism and multi-instrumentalism of NLCR is also inspiring to read about from a musician's point of view. It allowed them the freedom to approach many styles within the broad tradition of southern music and experiment within those traditions, with each member bringing their own interests and discoveries into the NCLR musical realm. They could be very broad-minded musically with this approach, while at the same time staying very grounded in the musical vocabulary of the genres they chose to play.

Sources for the book include numerous interviews with all of the Ramblers and the book integrates their individual perspectives on their approach to music, the personal tensions their music careers and careers outside music created, and the difficulties of being full-time performing musicians.

November 17, 2011, 06:41:46 PM by Slack
Views: 4224 | Comments: 4

Mama's Angel Child - The Little Brothers       
Written by Bruce Nemerov      

Mama's Angel Child - The Little Brothers
Penny Records

I've been listening, off and on, to Mama's Angel Child by the Little Brothers for two or three weeks now and each time I find something new ? something I hadn't heard before ? in the music. This is a very good thing. Depth and subtlety are qualities all too uncommon today when so many "acoustic" bands hit you over the head with wild-eyed energy but little else. I'll resist naming names, but you know who they are.

But back to Frankie and Kim Basile and the 3rd Brother, mandolinist Mike Hoffmann ? or is he the second brother, Kim being of the female persuasion? (They really need to straighten this out for the perplexed among us.) Anyway, the three have done a very difficult and pleasing thing with this CD: Using voices (Frankie and Kim) and string instruments (all three), the LBs have recorded a variety of American foundational (I hate the term "roots," don't you?) music in a surprisingly creative manner.

Let me give an example. The first track, "Loose Like That" (one of the numerous offspring of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom's single-entendre hit of a similar name) sounds here like the Skillet-Lickers-play-Dixieland. The mandolin plays the melodic cornet part while Kim's fiddle is the New Orleans clarinet. The Hokum/Jug Band style these Tampa-Georgia tunes usually get, and deserve, would usually be a ho-hum way to start a record. If you're going to include a song like this, you'd best have something fresh in the arrangement. And a good strong singer. The LBs have both.

And speaking of voices, Kim is very affecting singer. In contrast to her husband, she tends to hold back with a world-weariness reminiscent of some Mississippi women. Those falling notes at the end of the lines are subtle and captivating. Listen to her sing "New Bumblebee" blues. And again the LBs, rather than copying a classic, rearrange the tune by using a low-tuned guitar, 12 string I think, and what sounds like a cross-tuned fiddle. Memphis Minnie meets W.M. Stepp. Very effective.

I could go through the CD track-by-track with more examples of this sort of thing, but that would just spoil the discoveries you'll make on your own. Let me just say that the title song, a beautifully melodic waltz as sung by Frankie has a most interesting instrumental arrangement with the fiddle and mandolin giving the song an Eastern European village orchestra flavor; and Kim's readings of "What Fault You Find of Me" and "Wayward Girl" are sublime ? both accompanied by Frankie's sympathetic instrumental backing on old-time banjo (deep-toned with that loose-head, low-tuned sound) and guitar respectively. The musical interaction of this couple is so agreeable on the wordless refrain of this last song (as it is throughout the whole CD) that one is led to suspect they just might have a good marriage.

I haven't said much about the 3rd Brother (or is it 2nd, etc.). Mike lurks in the background a lot. Though he's not on all the tracks, when present his contribution is a subtle force of texture ? a tremolo here, a rhythmic punch there, and especially the rollicking orchestral duets with the fiddle. He does get a few solos; the one in the Roll & Tumble child "The Girl I Love Got Long Curly Hair" is particularly nice. He seems content to be the guy who quietly adds the little touches that mean so much. Except when he plays his banjo-mandolin; then he loudly adds those touches.

Though one of the Little Brothers' signatures is rearranging and recomposing traditional material ? something Mike Seeger did so very well; who can forget Mike singing Roll & Tumble and accompanying himself on fretless gourd-banjo and rack-harmonica? ? there are several direct musical tributes scattered over the CD's sixteen tracks including "Crow Jane," Bad Luck Blues" and "Mother's Prayer." The last deserves special mention since it is both a tribute and a personal artistic creation. Frankie sings and plays a solo version of A.C. and Mamie Forehand's "Mother's Prayer" that is emotionally profound. Frankie's voice is sweeter and quieter. And the accompaniment (sounds like a fingerpicked mandola to me) echoes the zither-like patent instruments of an earlier time. Washington Phillips would love this. So do I.

One final topic. This CD shows the good side of the DIY democratization of music. It sounds like real people in a real space who can really play their instruments and sing their songs. The recording quality and mix is mostly very good (I could have stood a little more of Kim's voice front-and-center on "What Fault," Frankie) and I suspect there's an overdub or two (second fiddle part now and then? banjo in the background?).

But when songs, franchise-like, can be built one note at a time, it's worth keeping in mind that these folks are for real and being real isn't always easy.

Good work Brothers.

bruce nemerov
murfreesboro, TN
May 2011


1. Loose Like That
2. New Bumble Bee
3. Crow Jane
4. Mama's Angel Child
5. What Fault You Find of Me
6. Farewell Daddy
7. Cabo Verdranos Pe?a Nove
8. Bad Luck Blues
9. The Girl I Love Got Long Curly Hair
10. Wayward Girl
11. Leake County Blues
12. Cold Penitentiary Blues
13. Viola Lee Blues
14. Grind So Fine
15. Black Mattie
16. Mother's Prayer
November 17, 2011, 06:40:52 PM by Slack
Views: 2812 | Comments: 0

Lay Down My Burden - Grant Dermody
Written by Simon Field
Lay Down My Burden - Grant Dermody

Cards on the table. This is only the second harmonica album I have ever bought. That said, calling it a Harmonica album doesn't do it justice or properly describe it. This is a country blues album, with a huge cast of fantastic musicians, in which the focal point happens to be a fine harp player and singer. There's barely a shuffle in sight, and you certainly won't find any 72 bar harp solos.

Crucially (and perhaps unusually) Grant Dermody's harp never dominates the songs here; it serves them tastefully. Perfectly even. Its all about the songs.

Back to the huge cast- the CD kicks off with Eric Bibb on guitar, delivering a subtle finger picked rendition of Gary Davis' I'll Be Alright to accompany Grant's gentle vocal and laid back harp.

Amazing Grace is a standard (and perhaps a clich?) but hits the right spot. Full of atmosphere but somehow unsentimental, the track features Orville Johnson's unique dobro sound, partnered with lap steel and held together by John Miller's acoustic guitar. The smooth beginnings grow into an unexpected crescendo and a good deal of life is breathed into what is a very familiar old hymn.

John Cephas' last recording, a rendition of Hard Time Killing Floor, sees Grant take a back seat to Cephas' vocals and guitar, but as ever the harp is perfectly measured and exactly compliments the song.

Waterbound deserves a special mention. Sparse banjo and a beautiful haunting melody, delivered by Grant with passion and intensity. I'm not familiar with the song, but its one of those tunes that sounds like I've probably known it forever, without happening to realise it.

What I quickly realised on listening to this music, is just how much I enjoy Grant's vocals. He readily switches from soft to booming, but the latter is never ill judged or overdone. The tone is pure and absolutely natural. There are no affectations here, no attempts to try to sound like an old black bluesman. Just Grant Dermody singing loud and clear, from somewhere deep down in the gut.

First Light is another early favourite for me. A Dermody original with an agreeable thumping groove (driven by acoustic bass) and infectious rhythmic mandolin from Orville Johnson.

Notable further contributors to the generous 16 tracks include Frank Fotusky, Louisiana Red, Rich Del Grosso and Del Rey, among many others.

I can do no better in summing up the essence of this CD, than to borrow Grant's quote from the sleeve:

?Eileen said to me once that our life is a poem and a prayer and a love song. Not too surprisingly, so is this recording.?

Hugely enjoyable and highly recommended.

Track Listing:

1. I'll Be Alright
2. It's My Soul   
3. Amazing Grace
4. Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
5. Rain Crow Bill
6. So Sweet   
7. Lay Down My Burden
8. Waterbound
9. Twelve Gates To The City
10. Evening Train
11. You Don't Have To Go
12. First Light
13. David's Cow   
14. Where Is My Friends   
15. Hard Times Come Again No More
16. Vajra Guru Mantra
November 17, 2011, 06:36:10 PM by Slack
Views: 2837 | Comments: 0

Shake Your Wicked Knees - Rent Parties And Good Times
Written by John Miller
Shake Your Wicked Knees - Rent Parties And Good Times, Yazoo 2035

I recently found this CD, which is sub-headed "Classic Piano Rags, Blues & Stomps 1928-43", on sale, and I'm so glad I picked it up, for it is superlatively good.  It is one of the series of CDs of Blues piano music that Yazoo has released that were produced (which in this instance, I assume, means the cuts were selected and sequenced) by the English record collector Francis Wilford-Smith.  Other CDs in this series include one devoted to Roosevelt Sykes and Lee Green (reviewed elsewhere in this section), one focusing on Charlie Spand, and two devoted to the Blues piano stylists of St. Louis in the pre-War era.  Francis Smith's knowledge of this material must be encyclopedic, for I had the feeling as I listened to the program that I was hearing the very best that the various artists had to offer.

A couple of extra-musical impressions began to develop as I listened repeatedly to this CD.  One is that in the context of a rent party, a pianist's musical skills must have been taken as a given; just as important, though, must have been the ability to entertain, to act that host, engage in banter with the guests and maintain a stream of humorous woofing going along with the music.  Not an easy job description!  A high percentage of the cuts here have either the pianists themselves or someone else acting as a host/emcee, constantly reminding the listener how much fun everyone is having.  Another realization that comes with getting to know this material is how much it anticipated a lot of African-American Pop music of the '60s and since, in its documentation of regional dance crazes (or its attempts to create them) and its being at the cutting edge of Popular slang of the day.  It is really not so far from the music and language used on these recordings to that found in present-day Hip Hop and Rap--the stylistic particulars and content may differ, but the place they occupy in the society seem very much the same.  Anyone with a special interest in these bygone dance crazes and the slang of the period would be well-advised to get ahold of this CD.

Then there is the music, and spectacular music it is.  There is a way, as a guitarist, that I would expect a greater degree of sameness in sound and treatment from a group of Blues pianists than I would from a similar group of guitarists.  I should know better.  There is a tremendous amount of variety here with regard to favored ways of grooving, use of the left hand to provide the harmonic underpinnings of the music, harmonic imagination, and so on.

The infectiousness of the time-keeping of the players here is nothing short of miraculous.  On at least five cuts, the music reaches a level of what I think of as a "die happy" groove, meaning you hear it, step outside, and maybe get hit by a bus--no regrets!  Rather than go through the entire program cut by cut, I'll mention a few highlights, players and their performances.

   *  The work of Romeo Nelson is a real eye-opener.  His playing is eccentric in the best possible way.  Neither of his two cuts, "Head Rag Hop" and "Gettin' Dirty Just Shakin' That Thing" conforms to a conventional blues structure, yet they are unmistakeably Blues.  He grooves very intensely, is clean as a whistle, and always has something in reserve.  "Gettin' Dirty", which is a sort of combination of "The Dozens" and The Duck's Yas Yas Yas" has one of the best opening verses I have heard:
   Now sister fooled brother, man, and brother, no doubt
   You're broadcastin', you're signifyin', you're breakin' her down
   Kind mama just pizened you, sick and tired, the way you do
   Sprinkle goo-goo dust around your bed, in the morning find your own self dead
   Gettin fill of just shakin' that thing
That's a mouthful!

   * Pine Top Smith was a wonderful pianist whose career was cut short by a premature death.  His "Jump Steady Blues" is played with alacrity, and he rips off considerable difficulties like rapid octave ascending tripet runs with great aplomb.  His cut, "I'm Sober Now" is one of the funniest commentaries on the life of a professional musician in a world where the customer is always right that I have ever heard.

   * The sadly under-recorded Joe Dean, is represented here by the ferociously grooving "I'm So Glad That I'm 21 Years Old Today".  This definitely hits the "die happy" standard.

   * "Pitchin' Boogie", on which pianist Will Ezell is joined by Roosevelt Graves playing slide in Spanish (pitched at Bflat), Leroy Graves playing tambourine, and a cornet player pegs the needle on the groovemeter, too.  When time is this good it is like having your spine in the proper alignment.

   * The formidable Charles Avery, on piano, is joined by Tampa Red, playing slide in Vastapol at C, as they accompany Lil Johnson on "House Rent Scuffle".  This is some of the very best playing I have ever heard from Tampa Red, and that is saying something.  He keeps up a steady string of runs, using the slide very sparingly, and is absolutely locked with Charles Avery's pulse.

   * The real star of the two cuts by the Hokum Boys & Jane Lucas is Bill Broonzy.  While Georgia Tom Dorsey and Jane Lucas (Victoria Spivey?) keep up fitfully amusing commentary on the two cuts, Broonzy is just smoking.  Both tunes, "Hip Shakin' Strut" and "Hokum Stomp", are in Eflat, and Broonzy is playing out of a C position in standard tuning, so if you want to play along, capo to the third fret, fine-tune and fasten your seat belt.  Georgia Tom clearly places more importance in his comedic role than his musical role; once the songs start he pretty much disappears, pianistically.  Jane Lucas's "ha ha ha" on "Hip shakin' Strut" could be taken as an aural definition of mirthless laughter.

   * The obscure Jim Clarke (only one title recorded) plays beautifully on "Fat Fanny Stomp", though his gleeful exhortations to "Shake your fat fanny!" begin to pall after a while.  Clarke's touch, approach to keeping time, and harmonic imagination bespeak a different background than that of most of the other players here.

   * Montana Taylor, a spectacular pianist is represented on three cuts here.  According to the CDs excellent liner notes by Bob Hall, Taylor quit the music business and moved from Chicago to Cleveland relatively soon after cutting these sides, saying "Nobody wants to hear me play.".  Ouch.

There are a host of other great performances and players here.  Truthfully, I do not know if this CD is still in the Yazoo catalog.  All the more reason to pick it up if you see it.  I found it on sale for $9.99, and it is a long time since I got such a bang for ten bucks.

PROGRAM:  1. Romeo Nelson--Head Rag Hop 2. Pine Top Smith--Pine Top's Boogie Woogie 3. Pine Top Smith--Pine Top's Blues 4. Cow Cow Davenport--Back In The Alley 5. Joe Dean--I'm So Glad I'm 21 Years Old Today 6. Will Ezell--Pitchin' Boogie 7. Meade Lux Lewis--Honky Tonk Train Blues 8. Charles Avery--Dearborn Street Breakdown 9. Jim Clarke--Fat Fanny Stomp 10. Cow Cow Davenport--Cow Cow Blues 11. Hokum Boys & Jane Lucas--Hip Shakin' Strut 12. Lil Johnson--House Rent Scuffle 13. Romeo Nelson--Gettin' Dirty Just Shakin' That Thing 14. Pine Top Smith--Jump Steady Blues 15. Montana Taylor--Detroit Rocks 16. Montana Taylor--Whoop and Holler Stomp 17. Pine Top Smith--I'm Sober Now 18. Montana Taylor--Indiana Avenue Stomp 19. Henry Brown--Stomp 'Em Down To The Bricks 20. Hokum Boys & Jane Lucas--Hokum Stomp 21. Jimmy Yancey--Jimmy's Rocks 22. Cow Cow Davenport--Mooch Piddle 23. Mozelle Anderson--Tight Whoopee
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