Category Archives: Traditional

Fishing at 3 a.m.

Henry Thomas – “Fishing Blues” (1928) from The Anthology of American Folk Music (1952)

I know that I posted this before, but last night I was awoken at 3:30 am by a neighbor blasting this song at full volume. Infuriating, but at least the guy’s got good taste. Please enjoy at any time that won’t piss your neighbors off.

More about the AAoFM

Taj Mahal performing “Fishing Blues”:

Posted by Glenn

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Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 3 of 3: Songs

Does a body good.

Does a body good.

Welcome to the third and final installment of our humble series on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. For those of you who’ve missed the previous installments, please scroll down to our two previous posts.

Volume 3 of the Anthology, Songs, features blues and non-narrative songs, many mysterious in origin. The strangest and most otherworldly tunes are found on the Songs discs. More importantly, Songs is where Harry Smith’s skill as an editor and compiler is to be admired. Essentially, Smith was putting together a mixtape. So Dock Boggs’s cackling, bitter “Sugar Baby” is followed up by Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s sweet but inexplicable “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” — one kind of world-weariness matched up against another. Elsewhere, Uncle Dave Macon’s rollicking celebration of the Coal Creek Rebellion is followed up by Mississippi John Hurt’s mellow rejection of an oppressive job which itself leads into a jug band’s version of a railroad work song. That mixtape-quality is what gives the Anthology much of its mystique.

By the way, “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” is one of the classics. Listen to it here.

Buell Kazee – “East Virginia” (1927)

Buell Kazee, a Baptist minister from Kentucky, is responsible for many of my favorites on the Anthology. This song resembles a blues and features spare banjo and high-lonesome style of singing, similar to Clarence Ashley. “East Virgina” is the second track on the first Songs disc, following up Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird.” Note how these two songs work together to call forth an image of a mysterious mountain landscape, full of “dark hollers where the sun refuse to shine.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson – “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” (1928)

Texan and sometime-professional-wrestler Blind Lemon Jefferson was a nationally popular blues artist in the 1920s and an associate of Leadbelly who froze to death on the streets of Chicago. It’s not hard to tell why Jefferson garnered popularity when he did — his introspective singing is nuanced and his guitar playing has a seductive groove. This song is reportedly the last Jefferson recorded before his early and awful death. As such, he must be mentioned along with those artists we’ve examined in previous months whose early deaths give their music a romantic and possibily morbid allure. To that end, be sure to check Jefferson’s spine-chilling bell tolls at 2:30. They toll for thee.

Henry Thomas – “Fishing Blues” (1928)

SWR spiritual advisor Jeff Wheeler’s fave, Henry Thomas, contributes the perfect closing song to the Anthology. This tune will make you smile, grab your rod-and-reel, and head to the nearest fishin’ hole. In his notes, Harry Smith claims that “references to fishing, other than as sexual symbolism, are rare in American folk music.” At any rate, “Fishing Blues” is the perfect song to open your weekend with, and the perfect song to close this series with.

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Posted by Glenn

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Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 2 of 3: Social Music

Before we get started on the second volume of the Anthology of American Folk Music, some information about the image above. When Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology was reissued in the 1960s, no doubt to capitalize on the burgeoning folk music revival, the albums were plastered this Depression-era photograph, taken by social realist artist Ben Shahn, famous for his portraits of Sacco & Vanzetti. Harry Smith was furious about the cover. His intent was to preserve lost recordings, and to compile them in such a way that highlighted their regional differences but underlined their emotive similarities, not to lend them a vague political charge that, in retrospect, seems more fashionable than political.

The third and fourth discs of the six-disc Anthology contain what Harry Smith termed Social Music — dance songs on disc 3, church and religious songs on disc 4. The dance music is fascinating, in part because most of it is so off-kilter; it’s hard to imagine people dancing to the melancholy fiddle warbles that dominate disc 3. The religious music on the fourth disc is my favorite on the Anthology — it has a spiritual authority I’ll discuss a bit later.

Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra – “Moonshiner’s Dance Part 1” (1927)

One of the few full-band tunes on the Anthology, this dance song is a crazed medley of popular and ragtime tunes, none of which I recognize, but some of the titles, apparently, are “Over the Waves,” “At the Cross,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” and “Maggie.” And can any of y’all make out the exchange at 1:19? To me it sounds like:

“What’re you gonna do with that towel, Herbert?”
“Kill somebody, Chucky!”

There’s no way that can be right.

Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – “Rocky Road” (1928)

Sacred Harp singing, or shape note singing, has been a choral style of sacred music in New England and the South since Revolutionary times, and seems to be making some inroads into the mainstream as of late. As far as I can tell, shape note singing is based on simple solfeggio scales, with individual notes notated by both shape and position on the clef, so that it is easier to sight read. The term “Sacred Harp” comes from the name of one of the prominent songbooks, The Sacred Harp, from 1844 (though many of the songs date back further). These songs, including “Rocky Road,” are characterized by four-part a capella harmony, usually quite raw, and can be sung by hundreds of people at a time. The effect is staggering. Listen for yourself, and find out more here.

Rev. Sister Mary Nelson – “Judgement” (1927)

This song exemplifies the power of the religious songs on the Social Music set. Nelson cajoles and exhorts and and warns, at one point accusing her congregation of hypocrisy, but the performance contains such pure joy that it’s kind of hard to take. Listen closely to the background singing: doesn’t it sound like a 10-year-old boy is shouting along? Not much is known of Sister Nelson, but she seems to have been born late in the 19th century and to have led a Pentecostal church in Memphis.

Stray thought (WARNING: IDLE THINKING AHEAD): It occurs to me that old-time religious music is so exciting for two reasons. First, it is dead serious. Serious about divine inspiration, about justice, about emotion, about humility, about this life and the next. The religious impulse, the will toward God, whatever you want to call it, is an unavoidable part of human experience, but is hard to capture successfully in art, and many of these old-time religious songs seem to do just that.

But secondly, maybe more importantly, old-time religious music is free of the culture-war baggage that present-day religious music hauls along. We’ve mentioned Sufjan Stevens at this blog before, one of the few musicians today tackling religious themes without lapsing into evangelicalism or fundamentalism. (In our old mate Jordy’s parlance, Sufjan “helps make Christianity hip,” a funny thought.) But he’s the exception rather than the rule. The good music I can think of that does tackle Christianity is either intellectualized to the point that it can’t convey religious ectasy (Pedro the Lion, Danielson) or is one-dimensional about the religious life (The Hold Steady — I love ’em, but sometimes doesn’t it seem like their redemption is a bit trite?). So…..I don’t know. But the religious music on the Anthology hits on at least ten different emotions that accompany religious feeling and religious life, and I wonder whether that kind of range, a propos of religion, is even possible in music these (secular) days.

Check in tomorrow for Part 3 of this series on the Anthology of American Folk Music!

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Posted by Glenn

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Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 1 of 3: Ballads

For the next three days I will be discussing the Anthology of American Folk Music, which I have recently acquired in a handsome-as-hell reissue package. These 6 CDs have been called “the holy grail of folk music,” but I prefer to think of them not as an impossible gleaming cup floating in a shaft of light in some far-flung castle, but as a chipped hand-thrown clay mug we mere mortals can drink from whenever we’d like, whether we are worthy like Parsifal or not (and we’re probably not).

Harry Smith, a beatnik and experimental filmmaker, spent years combing through commercially recorded music of the late 1920s and early 1930s to compile the Anthology. Smith wanted to put together a truly populist anthology of old-time music, which is why he used commercial recordings on gramophone disc rather than earlier wax cylinder recordings or the field recordings of Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and the like. Smith’s assumption is an interesting prospect. Folk culture by definition is both populist and extremely localized, and quality commerical recordings are able to account for both strands of folk culture: popularity and particularity. As Smith put it, these recordings, many of which sold tens of thousands of copies when first released, made available “the rhythmically and verbally specialized musics of groups living in mutual social and cultural isolation.”

The anthology is divvied up into three sets: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. Today I will focus on three of my favorites from the Ballads disc. By the way, narrowing twenty-seven ballads down to three is very, very difficult, so I have tried to include my favorites while also giving you faithful readers an accurate representation of what is included.

Clarence Ashley – “The House Carpenter” (1930)

Also known as “Tom,” Ashley was from the East Tennessee mountains, and his high lonesome voice and banjo picking sounds like the shadowed hollows and mysterious grassy balds. During the 1960s folk music revival, he began playing the college and festival circuit with the likes of Doc Watson. One of the odd pleasures of the Anthology is the goofy notes that Harry Smith wrote for each selection. For the songs on the “Ballads” discs, these notes take the form of lurid headlines: “Wife and Mother Follows Carpenter to Sea; Mourns Babe as Ship Goes Down.” It is absolutely chilling when the narrator of the song, after convincing the house carpenter’s wife to board his ship and set sail, says, casually, as she weeps for her lost child: “Well, we hadn’t been on ship but about two weeks. I’m sure that it was not three.” And, according to Wikipedia, this song is based on the Child ballad “The Daemon Lover.”

Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers – “White House Blues” (1926)

Many of the songs on the Ballads discs concern news items of previous years: boll weevils, Casey Jones, the Titantic, automated cobbling machines. There’s even a song supposedly written by Charles Giteau, James A. Garfield’s assassin. My favorite is this assassination lament sung by Charlie Poole, a hard-drinking moonshining textile worker from my area of the country, the NC Piedmont. “Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s doing his best. McKinley’s in the graveyard, taking his rest.”

Mississippi John Hurt – “Frankie” (1928)

John Hurt’s name is one of the few I recognized when I first began listening to the Anthology. It’s clear that Bob Dylan modeled some of his early singing after Hurt’s low-pitched, buzzing voice. For me, Hurt’s vocal performance embodies the weird allure of the Anthology: the promise of a palpable past, more genius songs than even the 84 included here. Plus, John Fahey said this version of “Frankie & Johnny” featured some of the best guitar-playing ever, and who am I to disagree?

Coincidentally, music blog River’s Invitation is posting folk songs this week. Do check them out. Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird” is absolutely essential.

UPDATE: Please check out The Old, Weird America for an in-depth analysis of the Harry Smith Anthology.

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Posted by Glenn

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“Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”

The Trio in their heyday. Back to front: Dave Guard, Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds

The Kingston Trio – “Sinking of the Reuben James” from Live at the Crazy Horse (1994)

I’m posting this because one of the founding members of The Kingston Trio, Nick Reynolds, has just died.  The Kingston Trio was at the forefront of the 1960’s folk music revival.  Their popularity in the late 1950’s and early 60’s (They had four top 10 albums in 1959 alone.  The Beatles are only other group to have four top ten albums in a single year) paved the way for the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, and the Beach Boys, not to mention Bob Dylan and his contemporaries.

A live recording of the Kingston Trio captures the between-song jokes and banter that their studio recordings lack.  This particular recording was made in 1992 and lacks the contributions of Dave Guard, another founding member of the Trio, who died in 1991.  But 2/3 of the original Trio, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane, are present, along with George Grove, who performed with various incarnations of the Trio for over 20 years.

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Posted by Adam

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Heave away!

The Pogues – “South Australia” bonus track from If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1987) reissue

Here’s another, non-a cappella version of the sea shanty “South Australia.”

More Pogues at SWR

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A capella battle, dark horse candidate

South Australia – Traditional

My interest in sea shanties stems from my interest in folk music. Sea shanties are work songs that were sung on sailing ships. The rhythms of the songs would help the sailors time their movements while performing tasks that required synchronous movements from multiple saliors. There are several types of sea shanties that correspond to different jobs, and “South Australia” is a capstan shanty. This song would be sung as the ship was raising its anchor.

“South Australia” has its origins on the London-Australia shipping route, and was sung as a ship was leaving London headed to Australia. Since sailors couldn’t play instruments while working, the songs had to be a capella, thus my entry into the Great So Well Remembered A Capella Battle of 2008.

The Wikipedia entry on Sea Shanties is very informative.

Indulge your inner seafarer

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