1st Quarter 1998
January 5 1998
Sam Phillips once said, "I could make a million dollars if I could find a white singer with the Negro sound and the Negro feeling." In 1954 when Elvis Presley made a demonstration recording at Phillips' Sun Records studio in Memphis, he believed he had found the person he was looking for.
This is Calendar Lore for January fifth. On this date in 1923 Sam Phillips was born in Florence, Alabama. Rasied on a farm, he became a disc jockey in Muscle Shoals while still a teenager. He worked as a radio engineer in Nashville before moving to Memphis in 1944. There he began his first recording studio, the Memphis Recording Service.
His early interest in the blues led Phillips to seek out African American singers, and in 1951 Jackie Brenston, backed by an ensemble led by Ike Turner, recorded "Rocket 88," conseidered by some to be the first rock-an-roll record at Phillips' studio. That same year Phillips founded Sun Records and enjoyed local commercial success with records by bluesmen Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and Junior Parker.
After Elvis, with whom Phillips recorded five hit singles in the mid-fifties, Sun Records shifted to the syncretic musical style known as "rockabilly." Phillips' stable of artists was a virtual who's who of rockabilly performers: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Billy Lee Riley.
Most went on to other companies and adjusted their stules toward the mainstream. But the Sun Records sound remained true to its roots in blues and rhythm n' blues until Phillips sold the company in 1969.
January 8, 1998
American folksong has often found inspiration in the great events of American history. One such event occured on this date in 1815.
This is Calendar Lore for January eighth. General Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans had no impact on the War of 1812, which had already ended when the conflict took place. But it did have considerable symbolic value. Leading a small command of amateur militiamen, sailors, and even pirates fighting from behind barricades at Chalmette Plantation downriver from the Louisiana city, Jackson was able to repel an assault by eight thousand British veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. While the invaders suffered some two thousand casualties, the Americans had only eight killed and thirteen wounded. The victory made Jackson a national hero and demonstrated to the world the spunk of American frontiersmen.
Two important pieces of folk music responded to the Battle of New Orleans. One is a fiddle tune called "The Eighth of January," one of the most widely known such numbers in the hillbilly instrumentalist's repertoire. James Morris, an Ozark songwriter using the name "Jimmy Driftwood," set words about Jackson's victory to the tune. They became a hit record as "The Battle of New Orleans" for country singer Johnny Horton in the late 1950's.
The engagement at New Orleans also produced at least one ballad which has endured in oral folk tradition for over a century and a half. In 1824 Samuel Woodworth published a poem called "The Hunters of Kentucky," which celebrated the role of mountain riflemen in Jackson's victory. The poem became a song taht was still being sun in the Tennessee mountains in the 1950's.
The second generation of bluesmen to emerge from the Mississippi Delta --those born in the 1890s when the blues was already taking shape--were the principal contributors to this music's international popularity.
This is Calendar Lore for January tenth. On this date in 1897, Sam Chatmon, a member of of this second generation , was born in Bolton, Misissippi. One of at least eleven children, Chatmon was a member of one of the earliest Delta musical ensembles to spread the blues beyond its southern, rural origins. This was the Mississippi Sheiks, which apparently organized in the late twenties. Chatmon, who played a variety of instruments--including banjo, harmonica, and mandolin, had actually begun his musical career somewhat earlier. His father Henderson Chatmon, an ex-slave, was a popular local fiddler and organized his sons into a family string band. Sam had begun his recording career with Texas Alexander in 1930, the same year that the Mississippi Sheiks made their first records.
The Sheiks continued the string band tradition that Sam Chatmon's father had initiated: the group consisted of Sam, his brother Lonnie, and Walter Vinson. They had gained a following in northern Mississippi by playing in the usual venues: jook joints, fish frys, and picnics. What distiguished them from other ensembles was both their musicianship and their repertoire. For the Sheiks played fiddle tunes that their audiences could dance to as well as the blues. They also performed material that defies easy categorization--an example being their well-known "Sitting on Top of the World." One of the most frequently recorded songs to emerge from African American folk tradition, this original composition ensured the Chatmon brothers and Vinson a place in American musical history.
January 15, 1998
John and Alan Lomax are perhaps the most important names in the collection and popularization of folksong in the United States. Their work as collectors of traditional music, their publications and recordings which offered the music to the general public, and Alan's attempts to codify the study of folksong on a worldwide basis remain important contributions to our musical heritage.
This is Calendar Lore for January fifteenth. On this date in 1915, Alan Loax was born in Austin, Texas, where his father was emmployed by the University of Texas. John Lomax had already made his mark on American folksong study by publishing "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads." in 1911--the first book-length treatment of indigenous American traditional song.
In the early thirties, the elder Lomax took his family away from their Texas roots when he became the second curator of the Archive of Folksong in the Library of Congress. Throughout the decade, he and Alan toured the South, where they recorded a vast legacy of traditional music. Meanwhile, Alan was becoming a part of the folksong popularization movement on the East coast and hobnobbed with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Huddie Ledbetter, whom the Lomaxes had discovered in a Louisiana prison.
Alan also tried his hand at anthropological synthesis with his cantometrics project, which attempted to match a society's singing style with its social structure.
Alan Lomax continues to be a force in American folksong. His book "The Land Where the Blues Began" came out only a few years ago, his PBS series "American Patchwork" offered television viewers rare glimpses of traditional singers, and Rounder Records is currently issuing a hundred-disk series of traditional music which he recorded early in his career.
January 19, 1998
The day honoring Martin Luther King, of course, recognizes the role of the Civil Rights Movement, of which he was a leader, in claiming full rights of citizenship for all Americans. One of the most effective methods used in the movement for raising conciousness and attracting sympathetic public attention was the adaptation of traditional music.
This is Calendar Lore for January nineteenth. Perhaps the most well known song from the Civil Rights Movement--perhaps its anthem--is "We Shall Overcome," whose history is representative of much American socially concious music. The song derives from a hymn written by African American composer Charles A. Tindley in 1901. "I'll Overcome Someday," based on a verse in the New Testament epistle to the Galatians, emphasizes the otherworldly goal of attaining heavenly bliss after suffering the trials of earthly life. The refrain of Tindley's was taken up by labor unions during the 1940s. African American members of the Food and Tobacco Workers Association in Charleston, South Carolina sang it on picket lines in 1946.
The song also figured in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus strike of 1955, when it served to raise morale and to represent their defiance of the unconstituional practice of segregated public transportation. The song spread throughout the Civil Rights movement thereafter, both because of its visibility in the media and through concious efforts of singers such as Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger, who taught it to groups of activists. For Martin Luther King, of course, the song's associations with its religious origins remained an important component of its message, even in secular contexts.
January 20, 1998
When John Lomax and his son Alan, folksong collectors for the Library of Congress, "discovered" Huddie Ledbetter in the Louisana State Penitentiary in Angola, they identified the person who may very well have been the most acocmplished performer of traditional music ever to have emerged into general public eye.
This is Calendar Lore for January twentieth. On this date in 1889, Ledbetter, more familiarly known as "Leadbelly," was born in Mooringsport, Louisiana. The principal reason for the hyperboles about him was his repertoire, for Leadbelly was a virtual encyclopedia of African American folksong. While growing up in northern Louisiana and east Texas, he had absorbed a variety of traditional song genres: game and play party songs, spirituals, and ballads, narrative folksongs both from his own ethnic heritage and material that had made their way into his store of songs from English and Scottish tradition. As his horizons widened, so did his repertoire.
He apparently learned to sing the blues from Blind Lemon Jefferson, maybe the first country bluesman to record commercially. Leadbelly picked up worksongs from the crews on which he served while doing time on several occasions in jails in Texas and Louisiana. And he encountered mainstream popular music from recordings that he began to hear by the mid-1920s.
When the Lomaxes secured his release from prison and took him north to work for them, Leadbelly had the opportunity to learn material from outside his own folk heritage. His involvement in the New York City coffee house scene during the thirties and forties and with organized labor exposed his folk music to audiences far beyond what he would have encountered back home in the South.
January 22, 1998
He never achieved much celebrity for his efforts but Hammie Nixon was an important pioneer in the blues, the African lyric folksong tradition that emerged in the Delta about a centery ago.
This is Calendar Lore for January twenty-second. On this date in 1908, Nixon was born in Brownsville, Tennessee. His principal intrument was the harmonica, though he also played kazoo, jug, and other homemade instruemtns that were part of the jug band sound. Though always an accompanist rather that a lead performer, Nixon nevertheless had considerable impact on the development of the blues in Memphis, then in Chicago, and then again in Memphis.
His earlieest work as a professional musician was with his freind John Estes, with whom he performed in Memphis during the late twenties. The two moved to Chicago, where they recorded together and Nixon also recorded with such figures as Son Bonds. Nixon and Estes, who sang lead and who was "rediscovered" during the blues revival of the 1960s, remained a team. Until about 1940 they were constantly on the road, touring with the likes of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and Dr. Grimm's Medicine Show. Nixon returned to his native Brownsville in the earlier forties and farmed for the next twenty years.
Though he remained in the shadows, he joined the rediscovered Sleepy John Estes in 1963, and the two remained a team until Estes' dath fourteen years later. Only then did Hammie Nixon begin to make recordings on his own. But even if that career development had not occurred, he would still be an important figure in blues history. His harmonica influenced that of fellow west Tennessean John Lee Williamson, who as the original Sonny Boy Williamson create a legacy on that instrument that has made it central ot the blues.
February 5, 1998
Through the earliest reported Jug bands were noted in Louisville, Kentucky, early in this century, the real center of activity for this lively kind of African American ensemble music was Memphis, Tennessee.
This is Calendar Lore for February fifth. On this date in 1898 Will Shade was born in Memphis. Interested in music as a child, Shade learned the basics of the blues, ragtime, hokum, and other musical styles, both new and traditional, that could be heard on Beale Street during the first quarter of this century. He began working with jug bands during the teens and formed Memphis' preeminent ensemble of this type, the Memphis Jug Band, in the following decade.
A jug band consist of a variety of instruments, both commercially and homemade. As the group's name suggests, one important component of its sound is produced by bowing across the opening of an empty whiskey jug. Changing the constriction of the lips allows the production of different pitches, but the jug functions principally as the rhythmic foundation for the group, sometimes seconded in this function by the washtub bass. Lead instruments include the guitar, banjo, harmonica, and especially the kazoo. Will Shade mastered most of these instruments and also provided vocals on many of his ensemble's recordings.
The sound of the jug band works best with bouncy, light-hearted tunes, though most groups include blues in their repertoires as well. During its heyday in the 1920s, Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band was in demand not only on Beale Street but at gatherings of the city's elite at country clubs and private parties. Other popular jug bands in Memphis included the Furry Lewis Jug Band and Cannon's Jug Stompers.
February 17, 1998
Documentary history has notoriously favored the affairs and concerns of those in power, while ignoring the disenfranchised, whether it be because of gender, social status, or ethnicity. One purpose of Black History Month, of course is to redress this situation as far as the history of African Americans is concerned.
This is Calendar Lore for February seventeenth. One important source for the slave period of African American history received particular attention during the 1930's. During that decade a number of writers contributed to the Federal Writers' Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration (or WPA), one of the New Deal agencies set up by the Roosevelt administration. One project undertaken by writers under the general direction of Benjemin Botkin was to interview ex-slave, many of whom, of course, were quite elderly since some seventy years had passed since slavery ended. The results of these interviews produced a body of material that have come to be called the WPA Slave Narratives.
Most of the interviewees had been children during slavery, but some could still vividly recall incidental details of everyday existence: housing, foodways, work schedules, and family relationships, for instance. This kind of information made it into very few contemporary written records, occasional exceptions being autobiographies by figures such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Without the WPA interviews, the slave's view of slavery would have been seriously limited.
One role of oral history, which is what Botkin's project was doing, is to provide a record of the lives of folk who might otherwise be forgotten, thus providing an important complement and supplement ot more standard historical sources.
February 18, 1998
Jazz, conventional wisdom holds, originated in New Orleans, probably from the eclectic mix of ethnic traditions that characterized musical life in the city's old quarter. Two important components of that mix came from African and French sources, both of which had been refined by experiences in the West Indies and in other parts of the United States.
this is Calendar Lore for February eighteenth. On this date, Joseph LaCroix (better known as "DeDe") Pierce was born in New Orleans. Though a generation younger than the founders of Jazz, he embodied the music's traditional roots, both African and French, throughout his performing career into the 1970's.
A self-taught trumpet player, Pierce first played professionally with Arnold DePass's Olympia Band in the mid 1920's. he later played trumpet with various New Orleans-based ensembles, including those directed by Kid Rena, chris Kelly, and Buddy Peptit. His most important role in the continuing heritage of traditional jazz in New Orleans was as lead trumpet for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, where his wife Billie played piano.
Preservation Hall, located on Saint Peter Street in the French Quarter, has provided a venue for the performance of styles of jazz which lie oat the roots of this distinctively American music. Since at least the 1960's, it has offered nightly opportunities for pioneers in New orleans jazz to perform and for audiences whose interest in jazz might lie in more cosmopolitan derivations to hear the music in its most basic styles. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has also taken the music beyond New Orleans and has performed throughout the United States and in several foreign counties.
At a time when Americans were rediscovering much of their musical past during the sixties, DeDe Pierce was a leading figure in the preservation and continuing vitality of traditional jazz.
March 02, 1998
Arthel "Doc" Watson is one of those performers of traditional music that appear rarely in a folk heritage. Like Huddie Ledbetter for African-American music, Watson has been a virtual encyclopedia of folksong, those of the southern Appalicians, and of commercial country and western music. Moreover, he is a master of several instruments, especially the guitar, and may be the finest exponent of the flat-picking approach to that instrument.
this is Calendar Lore for March second. On this date in 1923, Doc Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Handicapped by blindness from childhood, Watson was drawn to music. His first instrument was the harmonica, and he was drawn to the sound of the mountain banjo while still a child, mastering a homemade instrument made from hickory, maple, and catkin. While attending the Raleigh, North Carolina, School for the Blind, Watson added the guitar to his repertory of instruments. His performances on this instrument, renditions of tunes that only fiddlers usually play, have brought him international celebrity.
Meanwhile, Watson was acquiring an impressive repertoire of material from folk tradition. From his father, who was songleader at the Deep Gap Baptist Church, he learned folk hymnody and gospel music. From his mother, who used the songs o lull her children to sleep, he learned the ballads that had made their way from Britain to Appalachia. Watson learned dance music, especially fiddle tune, from the commercially recorded hillbilly music of the 1920's, and later recordings providing the source for his music knowledge of country and western music.
Watson began performing professionally for dances and stage show in his home region and came to national attention in 1961 when his guitar solo at an old time music concert at New York City's Town Hall stopped the show. Appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and campus coffeehouses brought Watson more attention. And recordings for folk-oriented labels such as Vanguard ensured an international audience.
March 06, 1998
The music known as "western swing" combines the string band sound of Anglo-American folk tradition with influences from the African American blues, norteno music from the Mexican border, and the big band jazz of the 1930s and 40s.
This is Calendar Lore for March sixth. ON this date in 1905, Bob Wills, one of the pioneers of western swing, was born n Turkey, Texas. Learning the fiddle from several sources, including his own family and the Black musicians whom he encountered while working in the cotton fields, Wills was perhaps the most important figure in the development of western swing. The Light Crust Doughboys, of which he was an original member, is arguably the first western swing ensemble. It was founded in the mid-thirties to promote the products of a Fort Worth, Texas, flour mill. Certainly the group which Wills established after leaving the Doughboys ahs been the most successful proponent of this music.
Despite their name, the Texas Playboys headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from which Wills and his group launched road trips which brought them into personal contact with audiences all the way to California. Successful recordings, a long running radio show, and even a few movie appearances contributed to the celebrity of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. While he played fiddle lead on many of the group's arrangements, Will's most important contribution was probably organizational. He assembled some of the most innovative musicians to emerge from commercial country music, figures such as lead singer Tommy Duncan, pianist Al Stricklin, and steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. Moreover, Wills lent an enthusiasm ot the group's performances through a stage persona that projected the feeling that no one was having a better time at a Playboys' dance or concert than he.
March 14, 1998
When Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded "Blacksnake Moan" on this date in 1927, he firmly established the folk blues as an important art form for commercial recordings. This is Calendar Lore for March fourteenth. Blues had been recorded for almost a decade when Jefferson, who had mastered his art on the streets of east Texas communities, made his first recordings. But those earlier blues had been organized versions of a folk art form that had developed in the Delta in the 1890's. Usually performed by a female singer who was accompanied by a jazz combo, the earl blues reached both black and white record buyers. but the downhome blues, which Jefferson was apparently the first singer to record, was meant exclusively for black audiences, the people who were accustomed to hearing this music not only on street corners but at juke joints on Saturday nights and at such social occasions as fish frys.
The downhome blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson and of the many performers who followed him onto records during the next decade were usually performed by males, who accompanied themselves on the guitar. Occasionally, another performer might provide second guitar or piano accompaniment. The arrangements were more straightforward, the images more earthy, and the texture rougher than the city blues of Ma Rainey and bessie Smith which had become the staple of the blues-record-buying public.
Undoubtedly the reason that male downhome blues singers were relatively late in coming onto the recording scene stems from racial and sexist fears. The suggestive lyrics that have traditionally characterized blues were viewed as acceptable when a woman sang them, but when an African American male sang about similar topics he was affirming sterotypical fears that many white people had about black male sexuality.
March 21, 1998
His most famous original song was in praise of moonshine whiskey "Mountain Dew", written in 1920. But Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who was born on this date in Mars Hill, North Carolina, in 1882, was a major figure in the perpetuation and revival of the folk music traditions of the southern Appalachians.
This is Calendar Lore for March twenty first. Lunsford learned to play the fiddle and sing as a child, but had no formal music training. However, his first job, as an itinerant fruit tree salesman through the mountain areas of Georgia, tennessee, and his native North Carolina, exposed him to a considerable sampling of the folk music of the southern uplands. with little formal education he learned the basics of folklore collecting methodology. The material he collected met the most rigorous scholarly standards of his day.
He also recorded extensively. Besides commercial records he made over three hundred recordings of folksongs, folktales, and other traditional lore for the Library of Congress Archive of Folksong.
But Lunsford should be best remembered as the revivalist of a tradition that he believed was disappearing. In 1928 he organized the Mountain dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, perhaps the first real forum for the performance of traditional music in a festival context. The event has become an annual occurrence. Lunsford organized several other folk festivals and represented the United States at the International Folk Music Festival in Venice in 1949.
Nowadays folk festivals are relatively commonplace. They provide a showcase for traditional arts, especially music, and serve as inspiration for the preservation of those arts. The influences of Bascom Lamar Lunsford continues in events throughout the United States and abroad.
March 30, 1998
When we think of "Sonny Boy Williamson" in the 1990's, most likely we man Aleck Miller, the blues harpist who was instrumental in starting the radio program King Biscuit Time, which is still being broadcast from Helena, Arkansas. But fifty years ago, the name "Sonny Boy Williamson" evoked the image of another bluesman, Chicago musician John Lee Williamson, who was born on this date in 1914 in Jackson, Tennessee.
This is Calendar Lore for March thirtieth. The biography of the "original" Sonny Boy Williamson follows a typical pattern. He learned to play the harmonica as a child, went on the road as an itinerant musician while still a teenager, fraternized with other members of the blues brotherhood (especially John Estes and Yank Rachell, and joined the general African American migration to northern cities in the early 1930s.
Williamson arrived in chicago in 1934 and became a familiar figure in the city's growing blues scene. He made his first recordings for the Bluebird label in Aurora, Illinois, in 1937 and for the next decade was a dominant presence on what were then called "race records" as well as the clubs on Chicago's south side. It was after playing a gig at the Plantation Club in 1948 that Williamson was fatally injured during a robbery attempt, at a time when he was perhaps the most important blues figure in Chicago and in those part of the South where his records were sold.
Aleck Miller had been using the "Sonny Boy Williamson" name sometimes with a Roman numeral two following it for several years when John Lee Williamson died. Undoubtedly, he was trading upon the established performer's reputation to build his own career and allying himself with the hot harmonica sound that was coming out of Chicago.