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I sing city blues... My style of singing has nothing to do with the part of the country I come from. It comes from my soul within. The heartaches and the things that have happened to me in my life - that's what makes a good blues singer - Lonnie Johnson, from Giles Oakley's The Devil's Music, BBC

Author Topic: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...  (Read 7446 times)

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Offline iwbiek

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #45 on: April 03, 2015, 12:08:16 PM »
Well, I put my foot in my mouth with the Lomaxes.  I remember now from years ago that it was John.  My mistake.  I mean, their voices did sound identical.  Regardless, yes, I've given more than a listen to Lead Belly.  I own much of Lead Belly's catalogue: all the released LOC stuff on Rounder, two CDs of his Columbia recordings, the Folkways "Lead Belly Legacy" CDs, some of his stuff on Tradition, some stuff he did with the Golden Gate Quartet, the Last Sessions.  I like him a lot, but if I had to make a choice between his stuff and McTell's in a desert island situation, I wouldn't hesitate.

Yes, I know the record labels pushed him into stuff too, but I thought the point of the LOC was to record the artists as they were, not to worry about what would sell.  (Not that I think that was a motivation for either of the Lomaxes: I just think they had very strong opinions of what "real" American "negro" music was and weren't comfortable with having those notions challenged, even by the "negros" themselves).

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #46 on: April 03, 2015, 12:10:22 PM »
I`d also recommend reading"the life and legend of leadbelly" to get the full story of Leadbelly`s relationship with the Lomaxes.

Thanks for the recommendation.  I heard of this book years ago and forgot about it.

Offline frankie

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #47 on: April 03, 2015, 01:57:35 PM »
I just think they had very strong opinions of what "real" American "negro" music was and weren't comfortable with having those notions challenged, even by the "negros" themselves

I don't know about you, but in that interaction, I hear two guys kind of uncomfortably sparring about what each thinks the other wants to hear.  Kind of amusing, really. I mean McTell *is* kind of putting it on thick during the introduction to Amazing Grace, and sells Murderer's Home (a chorus pop-blues if there ever was one) to Lomax as "one of the real old blues." Can you really blame Lomax for trying to pierce McTell's performing demeanor? The guy is kind of hard-wired to play what people *want* to hear...  if you object to the language, that was certainly part of the time.. of course none of THAT sits well in modern ears with modern sensibilities.

Taking potshots at Lomax is kind of besides the point, and easy enough to do in a situation like this.

The fact that these recordings exists at all (and countless others - the PRISON recordings fercryinoutloud) speaks to the Lomaxes vision and genuine interest.

Offline bnemerov

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #48 on: April 03, 2015, 02:28:42 PM »
Hey frankie, how ya been?

I'm with you right up to the last sentence. I was exiled from Planet Lomax when "Lost Delta Found" was published, but Alan was not John and I have been in the uncomfortable position of defending Alan from time to time.

If one looks at all the AFS prison recordings made when John was running things (up 'til 1940 or so), note the % of recordings made by whites. One might conclude white people in prison weren't very musical at all. [There are reasons for this; though too arcane for discussion here.]

I broke this down at a meeting of black editorial writers where Robert Gordon and I were asked to speak. An op-ed writer from the Boston Globe interpreted (correctly, I think) that Lomax skewed our perception of black music toward a very specific, and non-representative, part of black culture. I don't think the Lomaxes had a "vision" as much as an "agenda."

best,
bruce

Offline dj

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #49 on: April 03, 2015, 02:54:00 PM »
Is there a good biography of John Lomax somewhere?  Or a fairly lengthy article detailing who/what he recorded and the reasons (if known) for recording what he did?  For good or ill he was tremendously influential, and I really don't know that much about him.

Offline bnemerov

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #50 on: April 03, 2015, 03:16:11 PM »
Hi dj,
Yes, " Last Cavalier"  by Nolan Porterfield (who wrote a great bio of Jimmie Rodgers as well) is necessary reading if you want to understand how our view of black musical culture has been shaped by Lomax pere et fils.

best,
bruce

Offline frankie

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #51 on: April 03, 2015, 07:35:58 PM »
An op-ed writer from the Boston Globe interpreted (correctly, I think) that Lomax skewed our perception of black music toward a very specific, and non-representative, part of black culture. I don't think the Lomaxes had a "vision" as much as an "agenda."

Hi Bruce - I'm fine and hope you're the same! Just a lay-person's perspective here on this... I confess to not having read "Lost Delta Found" (guilty as charged), but if the issue here is that the Lomaxes focused on older folk forms to the exclusion of more current styles, could it not be said that there is ample evidence of those current styles in commercial recordings? I'm clearly under-qualified and over-simplifying, but maybe you see what I'm getting at... Personally, if I were in the mind to record music, I'd probably go looking for the fragile stuff about to disappear first and worry about what my perceived agenda might be a distant, distant second.

My only point in bringing up the prison recordings is that they represent an amazing bunch of music. The music in those recordings speak (sing!) louder to me than any particular agenda.

Offline bnemerov

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #52 on: April 03, 2015, 08:04:32 PM »
I certainly don't disagree with you, frankie---and it's not so much about LDF (which only concerns one particular project A. Lomax took part in)---but rather John Lomax's methodology: recording blacks in prison because free blacks often wouldn't accommodate him. Thus he missed a lot of music blacks made for each other which I suspect was quite different from that made for a paycheck from commercial record companies or from music made by order of a warden to satisfy a white man from Washington.

And as for Alan, his peculiarities were in part set by his father's example and part in reaction against his father.
But I'm no psychologist and, as you say, this is a lay person's opinion. ....and you're right: they both recorded some wonderful music, but does it reflect an accurate image of the culture (a claim they both made many times)?

Just more s**t to think about.

best,
bruce
« Last Edit: April 03, 2015, 08:07:35 PM by bnemerov »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #53 on: April 03, 2015, 08:39:32 PM »
My understanding of the Lomax's reasoning for recording in prisons was that they felt it more likely that they would find OLDER kinds of music there. Whether or not that would have been true I don't know. As for being blamed for essentially depicting a prisoner culture as opposed to a more fleshed out representative one, I don't think they ever claimed that all Black people were in prison or that no Black Dentists ever hummed Perry Como tunes.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline oddenda

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #54 on: April 03, 2015, 10:09:45 PM »


     Alan told me that his father went to prisons down South because where else would one find a large, enclosed population in one place! Disregarding the southern social flaws, it seemed to be a brilliant decision from the results obtained. It was a pragmatic judgement, and quite productive. All of "us" have been working in the dark as outsiders to the culture(s) we examine, stumbling along blindfolded in spite of what we may think. Would you rather NOT have any of those recordings, Bruce?
 
     My understanding is that it was John Lomax who insisted on Leadbelly's wearing overalls, and not Alan. JAL also recorded McTell in Atlanta while traveling for the LofC with his (Lomax's) wife. I've always felt that if one walked up to McTell on Ponce deLeon Ave in Atlanta, gave him fifty cents and asked for "The Beer Barrel Polka", he'd probably do it... and very well!

     It's my understanding that it was Larry Cohn who was putting together a "compleat" McTell that never came to fruition. Close, but no cigar.

     Being recorded was always a total serendipitous dumb-luck crap-shoot of major proportions. ALL who recorded African American musicians at any point in time went in with an agenda, commercial or otherwise. I do not exclude myself from this. Check out the monstrous BLACK EUROPE box set from Bear Family for further proof on many levels.

     We are lucky that we did not have to live through that life.

peter b.

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #55 on: April 04, 2015, 12:03:44 AM »
My understanding is that it was John Lomax who insisted on Leadbelly's wearing overalls, and not Alan. JAL also recorded McTell in Atlanta while traveling for the LofC with his (Lomax's) wife. I've always felt that if one walked up to McTell on Ponce deLeon Ave in Atlanta, gave him fifty cents and asked for "The Beer Barrel Polka", he'd probably do it... and very well!

That may very well be true.  I went back to look at Jeff Place's liner notes to "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", Smithsonian Folkways, and it just says Lead Belly was unhappy with the way "the Lomaxes" presented him, and mentions the convict clothes.

As for "Beer Barrel Polka," I don't doubt it one bit.  After all, in the Last Session McTell does both "Salty Dog" and "Wabash Cannonball."  It wasn't just McTell, either.  Let's not forget Willie Brown quoting "T for Texas" in
"Future Blues," and it's always been my opinion that Tommy Johnson's high, wavering falsetto was more than a little influenced by Jimmie Rodgers's yodelling.  I believe the black/white music dichotomy was considerably exaggerated by both the "race record" labels and the Lomaxes (for example the fake photographs to hide artists' true races and the covering up of Louis Armstrong playing on some of Jimmie Rodgers's records).  Imo, the cultural baggage they helped create had a lot to do with the later intense opposition (in both the black and white communities) against Ray Charles's country albums and, of course, Charley Pride.

Incidentally, some of my favorite blues playing is in the home recordings of Charlie Feathers and Junior Kimbrough jamming together on Revenant's "Get With It!" release.  Charlie's driving rockabilly rhythm guitar seems to almost provide a missing element to Kimbrough's typical style.
« Last Edit: April 04, 2015, 12:07:31 AM by iwbiek »

Offline bnemerov

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #56 on: April 04, 2015, 05:55:26 AM »
Peter B,
I did not say I wouldn't rather have the recordings JAL made. I DID say that we need to be aware of what those recordings represent.

A careful reading of Nolan Porterfield's bio of JAL will give a better understanding of JAL's problems recording blacks in the "free world."
The blacks-in-prison rationale (as a source of endangered music) is a bit hard to accept when one digs into JAL's method of setting up prison sessions where the subjects had no right of refusal.

The Lomaxes did a lot of great work, but so did others---the Texas recordings made by John Henry Faulk come to mind.
Had the Lomaxes not co-opted so much of the government's resources, had others with "vision" , in addition to the Lomaxes, captured American musical life during this time, might we not have a better picture?

That's all for now.
best,
bruce

Offline RobBob

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #57 on: April 04, 2015, 08:57:49 AM »
He isn't pre-war but he is a blues artist that will tell you that they had to be ready to play anything down in Louisiana where he grew up.  Including country, rock and roll etc.  That would be Buddy Guy.  Furthermore I was on a teamster's picket line in the 70's and my partner in those days was Black and a great singer of country songs, especially Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

Offline frankie

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #58 on: April 04, 2015, 12:40:00 PM »
Had the Lomaxes not co-opted so much of the government's resources, had others with "vision" , in addition to the Lomaxes, captured American musical life during this time, might we not have a better picture?

It would probably just be a 'different' picture. Better in what way?  Would it mean that Tangle Eye, C.B., Jimmie Strothers, Joe Lee and Charlie Butler would all have gone unrecorded so that we could have a more 'academically balanced' view (so to speak) of the culture? Just on the outside chance that this may have been the unintended result - count me out.

All the best - frankie

Offline bnemerov

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Re: Trying to decide which Willie McTell CDs to buy...
« Reply #59 on: April 04, 2015, 02:10:17 PM »
Hi Frankie,
Not academically balanced at all---musically maybe. Might even be some stuff you'd like better. Or as well, at least.
If you can dig out John Henry Faulk's LoC recordings of A-A singers, or Bruce Jackson's prison recordings (on deposit @ Univ. of Texas, I believe and issued by Rounder a few decades ago), give a listen.
Stunning.
best,
bruce

 


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