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September 28, 2009

The Delmore Brothers - Classic Cuts Vol. 2: The Later Years 1933-1952

Here's another fine JSP box of vintage American roots music. And really, it couldn't be more different from Blind Lemon Jefferson. Where he was raw, the Delmores were polished. His records were buried under a cloud of surface noise. These are nearly immaculate. He was (or at least sounded) quite crazy and wild, while the Delmores are definitely under control - though not tame by any standards. And yet, as progenitors of American music, their worth is equal. If you listen to the Delmore Brothers and then listen to Doc Watson, you'll hear their influence clear as day. Bluegrass, too, drew heavily upon the style of the Delmore Brothers, evolving from a similar brother-duet, the Monroe Brothers. They were a pivotal transformational group, taking country music from the hills to the city, and picking up a boogie rhythm along the way. Most country, rockabilly, bluegrass, and Americana groups owe some debt to the music of the Delmore Brothers, whether they know it or not.

So they were important. But are they still? Is it worth it to listen to this kind of music, which has been supplanted by so many later developments? In the case of old-time, hillbilly music, and country blues I'd say unquestionably so. In the case of the Delmores, I'm less sure. I certainly don't relate to a lot of the lyrical content, singing about going back to Georgia or when we meet mother again in heaven above. Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that their greatest popularity was in the 40s and 50s, a time when radio was the dominant musical outlet and acts became quite polished, often resorting to lowest-common-denominator tactics to achieve radio-friendly success. But then, set against that backdrop, it becomes clear that while the Delmore's music bears some stylistic handles of that time and culture, the quality of their music stands out quite apart from the bulk of what was produced then. And though much of their music sounds similar, there is no denying the brilliance and jump of tracks like "Brown's Ferry Blues" and "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar" - both of which survived long in the repertoire of Doc Watson.

Pieces of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rogers, and Bob Wills can all be seen in this music, as well as the premonitions of what would become bluegrass flatpicking. And their singing is so tight, pure, and seamless - in a way that only brothers can be - that it set the standard for every brother act to follow: Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, younameit. Anyways, I'll leave it to you to determine if this music is still relevant in your world. If you aren't sure that you'll like this, download disc B, which has both their earlier acoustic duet sound, some tracks with a guest fiddler, and a bit of their later sound which incorporated steel guitar. Needless to say, small doses are probably best for this kind of thing...

The Delmore Brothers
Biography by Richie Unterberger

The Delmore Brothers are not nearly as well-known as such early country giants as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams. The reasons for this, upon close inspection of their work, are not readily apparent. They were one of the greatest early country harmonizers, drawing from both gospel and Appalachian folk. They were skilled songwriters, penning literally hundreds of songs, many of which have proven to be durable. Most important, they were among the few early traditional country acts to change with the times, and pioneer some of those changes. Their recordings from the latter half of the 1940s married traditional country to boogie beats and bluesy riffs. In this respect they laid a foundation for rockabilly and early rock & roll, and rate among the most important white progenitors of those forms.

The Delmores were born into poverty in Elkmont, AL, as the sons of tenant farmers. Alton (b. December 25, 1908) would write most of the duo's original material, although his younger brother Rabon (b. December 3, 1916) was also a competent writer. Performing on guitar and vocals from early ages, they were playing as a pair by the time Rabon was ten years old. In the early '30s, they were confident enough to enter professional music, auditioning for Columbia in 1931 and successfully auditioning for Nashville radio station WSM the following year.

Throughout the 1930s, the Delmore Brothers recorded often, as well as performing on several radio stations. They probably gained their most early fame, however, from their long-running stint with the Grand Ole Opry between 1932 and 1938. The music emphasized their beautiful soft harmonies, accomplished guitar picking, and strong original compositions. Unusually for that time (or any other), the Delmores would switch high and low harmony parts from song to song (or even within the same song), although Alton would usually sing lead. Whether performing their own songs, traditional ones, or gospel, they brought a strong bluesy feeling to both their music and their vocals. It's that element, perhaps, that enables the Delmores, more than many other acts of the time, to speak to listeners of subsequent generations. Not to be underestimated either are their down-to-earth lyrical concerns, which address commonplace struggles and lost love with grace and redeeming, good-natured humor, rarely resorting to cornball tears.

In 1944, the Delmores signed with King, inaugurating an era which found them delving into and innovating more modern forms of country. Although their first sides for the label stuck to a traditional mold, in 1946 they expanded from their acoustic two-piece arrangements into full-band backup, with bass, mandolin, steel guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and additional guitars. Some of those additional guitars were supplied by Merle Travis, who credited Alton Delmore as a key influence.

In retrospect, however, the most important backup musician on these sides was Wayne Raney, who played a "choke" style of harmonica that was heavily influenced by the blues. The Delmores were also leaning increasingly toward up-tempo material that reflected the upsurge in Western swing and boogie-woogie. By the end of 1947, they were also using electric guitar and drums. Raney (who also sang) in effect acted as a third member of the Delmores in the late '40s and early '50s, when they plunged full-tilt into hillbilly boogie.

These are the most widely available and, in some ways, best Delmore Brothers sides. They were also the most successful, and in the late '40s the brothers reached their commercial peak, releasing a series of hard-driving boogies with thumping backbeats and bluesy structures. Arguably they milked the cow dry, recording "Hillybilly Boogie," "Steamboat Bill Boogie," "Barnyard Boogie," "Mobile Boogie," "Freight Train Boogie," and even "Pan American Boogie."

These were usually exciting performances, though, featuring extended guitar solos that clearly looked forward to the rock era. Listen, for instance, to the lengthy guitar breaks of "Beale Street Boogies" (unreleased at the time) -- very few, if any, white or black artists were riffing so extensively in 1947. And of course "Beale Street" itself was a tribute to the most famous musical street in Memphis, the city that did so much to cross-fertilize black and white roots music into what became rock & roll.

The Delmores didn't stick entirely to boogies during the King era, also releasing some slower bluesy material. One of these, the original "Blues Stay Away From Me," became their biggest hit, and indeed the most famous Delmore Brothers song of all, often covered by subsequent country and pop artists. Interestingly, the Delmores continued to record gospel on the side, as part of the Brown's Ferry Four, a quartet which also included (at various points) Grandpa Jones, Merle Travis, and Red Foley.

As influential as the Delmores' King sides may have been on the future of American pop, the Delmores themselves would not be able to capitalize on that future. By the early '50s, their commercial success was fading. After the death of his young daughter, Alton drank heavily; worse, Rabon died of lung cancer on December 4, 1952. Alton (like longtime accompanist Wayne Raney) did record some material as a solo act, in both the gospel and rockabilly fields. Alton was way too old to begin a new career as a rockabilly singer, though, and he didn't record much for the last decade of his life. He wrote the autobiography Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity (published posthumously in 1977 by CMF) before dying on June 9, 1964. By that time the Delmore Brothers' work had already proven extremely influential, particularly on the harmonies of fellow sibling acts the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. They left behind an extraordinary lengthy and consistent body of recorded work -- virtually none of their sides are lousy, at least the ones which have been reissued. Much of the Delmores' early material, unfortunately, can be hard to locate, although many of the King sides have been reissued on CD.

more at

The Delmore Brothers
by John Lilly

"There was a big crowd there and everything was decorated and all fixed up like the president of the United States would be there. It was by far the biggest and most important contest in the entire country. People who had never been to a contest before gathered with the contestants at the Old Athens (Alabama) Agricultural School. My mother had made (guitar) cases for us out of cotton sacks we used during the picking season and we had our names on them spelled out in full. I painted them on the cases with pokeberry juice.

"You know how it feels to be a combatant in any kind of contest so we rightly felt proud of the sack cases and we were primed to go for the first in the prizes in each case. I entered the contest for the best guitarist and we also entered the contest for the best band. There were some bands there that would have given Bob Wills some strong competition if Bob had been there. We didn't think we would win that one. By then we had 'Brown's Ferry Blues' down pretty pat-in fact we could play it then just as good as we ever did.

"When it came our time to play we sang just as soft as we could and just as loud as we could but we put the music in there, too -and that counts as much as anything I can think of to help put an act over. You can analyze music and record hits, I mean the legitimate ones, and you will find that there is a synchronization between the voice or voices and the instrumentation.

"We got tied for the first place with three pretty girls. Nothing worse could have happened because we knew the crowd usually takes sides with the singer if it happens to be a girl and those three girls could really sing. The rules were that they were to play two songs and two for us. The girls went out first, and I could tell they had lost something of their quality on their very first song. Their second one was not any better but they still got a tremendous hand from the audience. I knew we had something to beat. Rabon did, too, but it just made us work harder. We could feel the challenge in the air.

"For our first number we used the old song 'Columbus Stockade Blues.' It was written by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarltor It is a plaintive prison and love song combined and when we got through singing men threw their hats into the top of the house and everybody screamed like the had really never before. We thought had it won then and we did but we still had the 'Brown's Ferry Blues' for them and when we did it the people really went wild and we won that contest without any question or any doubt. And that started us on our way to the Grand Ole Opry and the big record companies. Incidentally, I also won the first place for guitar playing with an instrumental rendition of 'St. Louis Blues.' Our names came out in the paper and it was really swell. Of all the days of triumph in my life, there were none any greater than those."

Alton Delmore, in his autobiography Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity (copyright 1977 by the Country Music Foundation Press, Nashville, TN) points to this February, 1930 triumph at a down-home fiddlers convention in northern Alabama as a great crossroads for himself and his younger brother Rabon. Competing as the Delmore Brothers, they had been bringing home the ham, horse harnesses, or whatever the prizes happened to be at local contests for three or four years by then. But their success at the big contest in Athens was encouragement enough to send them, guitars, cotton sacks, pokeberry juice, and all down the road to becoming the first professional country music duet and one of the most innovative, influential, and enduring acts in country music history.

Born the eighth and tenth children of tenant farmers, Alton on Christmas day, 1908, and Rabon on December 3, 1916, the Delmores grew up on various red dirt farms across Limestone County, Alabama, just south of the Tennessee line. Raised on hard work, hard times, and southern values, the Delmores spent what little spare time they had enjoying the wealth of string-band music and gospel singing that came with that particular territory. Many family members played musical instruments, and everybody sang. One close relative, Uncle Will, was also a hymn writer and music teacher. He taught Alton to sing and read shape notes, and inspired him to try his hand at writing songs. By the time Alton was thirteen years old, he had published his first original song, a gospel number he co-wrote with his mother entitled "Bound For the Shore." (Alton later went on to write over 1000 songs in his lifetime!)

While recuperating from a childhood illness, Alton had the chance to spend many hours listening to music on phonograph records and, like so many others, he fell under the influence of Jimmie Rodgers. Also inspired by the guitar styles of Riley Puckett, Carson Robison, Nick Lucas, and Eddie Lang, Alton taught himself to play. Incorporating the music theory he had learned from his Uncle Will, together with the already established styles of his musical heroes, Alton developed a sophisticated and unique approach to the guitar. He utilized the entire fingerboard to create adventurous chord positions, and emphasized a strong sense of drive and melody in his lead playing. He also taught himself to play banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and-inspired by a traveling vaudeville show-the tenor guitar.

Brother Rabon, eight years younger than Alton, was already learning fiddle and guitar when Alton brought home the small, strange, four-stringed instrument. Tuned like a tenor banjo, but softer and sweeter sounding, the tenor guitar proved to be a natural instrument for Rabon. Not yet ten years old, he adapted well to the size of the instrument and, with his big brother to coach him, he soon became proficient at playing both melodies and imaginative back-up chords and rhythms.

Armed with this unusual combination of 6-string and tenor guitars, and blessed with a soft and subtle vocal blend, the Delmore Brothers took it public for the first time at a rural high school fiddlers convention in 1926. Alton was 18 years old, Rabon was 10, and the competition was stiff. With no amplification the two young boys were virtually drowned out by the reveling festival-goers for the first half of their first song. But as they sang and played, a quiet came over the crowd, the way it does when someone important is speaking. By the time they had finished their second song the crowd roared its approval, they won second prize, and the Delmore Brothers act had been born.

Many high schools and fiddlers conventions followed, leading up to the big contest at Athens in 1930. Buoyed by this success and some advice and encouragement from Victor and Columbia recording artists, the Allen Brothers, Alton and Rabon arranged a November, 1931 audition in Atlanta for Columbia Records. During this visit, they met several famous artists from Columbia's roster including Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, and Fiddlin' John Carson, whose acceptance and appreciation of the Delmores' talent gave them much-needed self confidence.

As they stood in the studio to sing, they were bewildered by what Alton thought looked like a little can on the end of a pole.

Not knowing that this "little can" was a microphone, Alton and Rabon sang two original songs into it-"Alabama Lullabye" and "Got the Kansas City Blues." The whole experience seemed unreal to them at the time. Not knowing whether this was a dream or a nightmare, they were brought in to listen to the test pressing, hearing themselves recorded for the very first time. According to Alton, "We sounded. . . much better than our real selves, we thought. There was something divine in that little can, as it looked to us, that helped us immensely and changed us from two country farm boy singers to something 'uptown' and acceptable to listeners who bought records and listened to the radio programs. That was the whole secret of our good luck. Our voices took well to the microphone."

The flip side of their luck was that Columbia soon went (temporarily) out of business and the Delmore Brothers' initial release sold only 500 copies. Barely missing a beat, however, they used this recording to promote themselves, and in 1932 were invited to Nashville's WSM radio to audition for the Grand Ole Opry. Although they got off on a bad foot by arriving a day late and embarrassed themselves further by starting their audition with an unimpressive cover version of an overdone Opry song, Opry manager Harry Stone was keenly interested in their supply of original material. They were hired by the Opry in April, 1932. This combination of awkwardness and success apparent in their Opry audition foreshadowed the love/hate relationship which the Delmore Brothers and the Grand Ole Opry experienced throughout their association from 1932 through 1938.

Alton Delmore's autobiography fills in these years with colorful detail, describing their quick rise in popularity with Opry audiences and their continued butting of heads with Opry management. Meager and frustrating as it may have been, the Delmore Brothers had now achieved their goal of making a living as professional entertainers. To sustain this, they kept up a hectic pace. They played several radio shows over WSM during the week, travelled to as many road dates as possible with such people as Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, DeFord Bailey, and Roy Acuff, while always making it back to Nashville in time for the Saturday night Opry show.

Just as importantly, during these years the Delmores began recording for Victor on their Bluebird label, waxing over 80 sides and establishing themselves as the most successful recording artists on the Opry at that time. Their first session for Bluebird in 1933 included some of the duo's most enduring numbers including "Brown's Ferry Blues," "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar," "Blue Railroad Train" (their tribute to Jimmie Rodgers), and "Big River Blues." In addition to their intricate harmonies, stellar guitar work, and songwriting, Victor's A & R man, Eli Oberstein was struck by their lonesome two-part yodeling. A unique twist on Jimmie Rodgers' now-popular vocal signature, the Delmores' pliable harmonies gave the yodel a fresh twist and added another dimension to their inimitable style.

"Divinely innocent," as Alton described himself and his brother, the Delmores were a welcome addition to the Nashville musical community, but were often taken for a ride by unethical business people and occasionally fell victims to the lures and excesses of big city life. By 1938, they were ready for a change.

WPTF radio in Raleigh, North Carolina made them an offer, and together with their newly-formed string band and fast growing families, they packed their cars and headed east on route U.S. 70. The group stayed in Raleigh for a year, marking the first in a dizzying succession of radio stations and new "hometowns." Over the next dozen years, the Delmore Brothers were regular performers on at least 12 more radio stations and made personal appearances in 37 states. Ranging from Baltimore to Del Rio, Texas, they lived a nomadic lifestyle of radio shows, live programs, and long miles.

Alton's son, Lionel, born in 1940, grew up this way. From his earliest memories he was surrounded and inspired by his father's music. Earning the nickname "Tag-a-long, " Lionel was on stage singing at age four, and traveling to town after town as Alton booked and promoted show dates, leaned into microphones to sing with his brother, and wrote song after song. Since Rabon never learned to drive, Alton spent many hours behind the wheel. According to Lionel, this is where many Delmore Brothers songs were written-Alton would develop ideas while he was driving and call them out to Rabon who, after making a few adjustments, would write them down. This method of collaboration yielded many successful songs and doubtlessly helped to propel Lionel into a fruitful career as a songwriter; Lionel Delmore currently lives in Nashville and has had dozens of songs recorded, many of them by country singer, John Anderson, including the huge hit, "Swingin’."

Creatively, the Delmore Brothers seemed to thrive on the freedom of the open road. Not only did they continue to write great songs, but they developed as musicians and entertainers as well. Their show grew to include not only duet vocal numbers, but also comedy, gospel, and instrumental showpieces. Rabon became an excellent 6string jazz style guitarist and would impress audiences with his handling of pop tunes such as "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "Stormy Weather." Alton, having benefited from his earlier years with Fiddlin Arthur Smith, would play tunes like "Devil's Dream," "Fire On the Mountain," or "Hell Amongst the Yearlings" on the fiddle.

Moving to Decca Records in 1940, and then helping to found King Records in 1944, the Delmores continued to have an active and successful recording career. While on WLW radio in Cincinnati in 1945, Alton and Rabon formed a gospel quartet with talented (and soon to be famous) country musicians Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones. The quartet, called the Brown's Ferry Four, performed and recorded many of Alton's original gospel songs.

Moving to Memphis in 1947, the brothers found themselves in the middle of a history-making music scene. The birth of rock-a-billy was just over the horizon and the Delmores helped to lay the groundwork with some pioneering country-boogie recordings with harmonica player Wayne Raney, including "Freight Train Boogie." It was during this period that they wrote and recorded their most successful song and one of the first "crossover" hits in country music, "Blues, Stay Away From Me."

Despite this and other high water marks, the Delmore fortunes were notoriously inconsistent. In an excellent article by graduate student Lynn Pruett, appearing in Alabama Heritage magazine (summer 1987), she states: "On Thanksgiving Day 1951, 42year-old country singer and songwriter Alton Delmore sat down to dinner with his family in their small home in Houston, Texas. At Alton's direction, they bowed their heads and thanked the Lord for their meal of apples and mayonnaise. Two days later, seated at the same table, the Delmores played cards and listened to "The Hit Parade," the nation's top radio show. When the announcer named "Beautiful Brown Eyes" one of the hit songs of the week, Alton laid his cards on the table and wept. 'I've got the number eight song in the nation,' he said, 'and I can't feed my family a Thanksgiving dinner.'

"The popular success of 'Beautiful Brown Eyes' should have guaranteed many Thanksgiving dinners for its composer, but Alton, never an astute businessman, had lost all rights to the song. Someone else had claimed authorship, and Delmore, lacking the financial resources to fight a legal battle, settled out of court. By the time Rosemary Clooney, Jimmy Wakely, and Bing Crosby recorded the song, 'Beautiful Brown Eyes' was worth far more than the $1500 Alton had been paid.

"Although bad luck and hard times seemed to be the chorus that followed Alton and his brother Rabon throughout their joint musical career, the Delmore Brothers. . .profoundly influenced the country music of their day. The first professional country duet, they introduced the boogie beat to country music, set the standard of musicianship in the country music world, and contributed such mainstays to the country canon as 'Midnight Special,' 'Southern Moon,' 'Blues, Stay Away From Me,' 'Brown's Ferry Blues,' and 'There's a Page in the Bible.' But they never did strike it rich."

Rabon Delmore died of lung cancer one day past his thirty-sixth birthday on December 4, 1952.

Alton, shaken by this loss, the loss of his father, the death of his young daughter Susan, and his own heart attack all within a three-year period, lost his "starch," according to son, Lionel. Settling back in Huntsville, Alabama, Alton taught some guitar, did odd jobs, and devoted his creative energies to writing prose, first a series of fictional short stories, then the ambitious work of his autobiography, which is still in print and is highly recommended.

Alton died of heart failure on June 9, 1964. Since that time, much has been made of the Delmore Brothers and their accomplishments. They have been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Alabama Country Music Association Hall of Fame, and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Their songs continue to be performed and recorded by a wide array of artists ranging from Doc Watson, to Hank Williams Jr., to Mark Knopfler (of the English rock band Dire Straits), to k.d. lang (who recently recorded "Blues, Stay Away From Me" together with Kitty Wells, Brenda Lee, and Loretta Lynn).

The impact of the Delmore Brothers career is difficult to overestimate. Their smooth, intricate harmonies were strikingly different from the harder-edged mountain vocal styles which preceded them in country music, and had a profound effect on future "brother duets" such as the Blue Sky Boys, Louvin Brothers, Jim and Jesse, and the Everly Brothers. The country-boogie sound which they pioneered, its compelling rhythm and hot guitar solos, opened the door for the honky-tonk and rock-a-billy music of the 1950s which in turn charted the course of popular music for generations to come. Their legacy of over 200 major-label recordings and 1,000 original songs are still in active use today, 40 years after Alton and Rabon played their last note together. During their long and tenacious careers they taught the world of country music many things, among them; how to use vocal microphones to good advantage; how to use sophisticated and unusual chords in country songs; and how to combine the benefits of radio, recording, and live performance to create a profession in country music.

Old-time, bluegrass, folk, country, and rock-a-billy artists all owe a debt to these remarkably eclectic, broad-minded, and creative gentlemen who helped expand the definition of country music for millions of listeners.

The Delmore Brothers - Classic Cuts Vol. 2: The Later Years 1933-1952

Year: 2007
Label: JSP

Review by Mark Deming

The Delmore Brothers were one of the first great hillbilly acts, recording dozens of sides with thrilling Appalachian harmonies and subtle but impressive instrumental work that were to be a clear, crucial influence on such performers as the Stanley Brothers, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, and the Louvin Brothers (in fact, one of the Louvins' finest albums was a 1960 tribute to the Delmore Brothers). At the same time, in the later years of their career, Alton Delmore and Rabon Delmore became among the first and strongest practitioners of hillbilly boogie, making some potent up-tempo swing and country-flavored blues on their recordings for King Records in the late '40s and early '50s. Both sides of the Delmore Brothers' sound are captured on this four-disc set from the British JSP Records label, which cherry picks from two decades' worth of material but puts its strongest focus on the King Records era, which often found the brothers joined by harmonica man Wayne Raney and a variety of guest pickers (including Homer & Jethro on some 1946 sides, and Merle Travis on other sessions cut the same year). While the jump from pure country sides to blues-influenced material may have been a bit dramatic in the eyes of many listeners, Alton and Rabon's harmonies are strong and honest from the first cut to the last, and their tight guitar picking actually improved with the passage of time: "Mobile Boogie" features killer solos from both brothers along with a duet break that's mighty fine, and demonstrates that they needed no prompting from others to make with the boogie. The best moments on this set make clear that the dividing line between country music and the blues was never as wide as most folks like to believe, and whether they were dreaming of the hills or whooping it up at the roadhouse, the Delmore Brothers delivered passionate, essential music that's stood the test of time. Many of these selections were sourced from well-worn shellac discs, but the remastering makes the most of the material's fidelity, and the liner notes by Pat Harrison offer a solid biography of the duo as well as details on when and where the material was recorded, and who accompanied the Delmores. With a list price of less than thirty dollars, Delmore Brothers, Vol. 2: Later Years 1933-1952 is a fine value as well as great music.

Disc A - Chicago • New Orleans • Charlotte • Rock Hill

1. Ramblin' Minded Blues
2. I Ain't Gonna Stay Here Long
3. I'm Going Back To Alabama
4. I'm Leavin' You
5. By The Banks Of The Rio Grande
6. Don't Let Me Be In The Way
7. Hey, Hey I'm Memphis Bound
8. I Guess I've Got To Be Going
9. I Know I'll Be Happy In Heaven
10. I Believe It For My Mother Told Me So
11. Carry Me Back To Alabama
12. I Don't Know Why I Lver Her
13. Don't Forget Me Darling
14. Memories Of My Carolina Girl
15. Wonderful There
16. The Farmer's Girl
17. Look Up. Look Down That Lonesome Road
18. Ain't It Hard To Love
19. Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow
20. Brother Take Warning
21. Alcatraz Island Blues
22. There's A Lonesome Road
23. Leavin' On That Train
24. My Home's Across The Blue Ridge Mountains

Disc A

Disc B - Rock Hill • Atlanta • New York

1. I'm Alabama Bound
2. Nothing But The Blues
3. Some Of These Days You're Gonna Be Sad
4. Heart Of Sorrow
5. Quit Treatin' Me Mean
6. Just The Same Sweet Thing To Me
7. The Only Star
8. Baby You're Throwing Me Down
9. Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar No.2
10. Brown's Ferry Blues No.3
11. I Loved You Better Than You Know
12. Goin' Back To Georgia
13. Home On The River
14. Gamber's Yodel
15. The Wabash Cannonball Blues
16. That's How I Feel So Goodbye
17. The Storms Are On The Ocean
18. She Won't Be My Little Darling
19. Gathering Flowers Form The Hillside
20. Last Night I Was Your Only Darling
21. New False Hearted Girl
22. I Wonder Where My Darling Is Tonight
23. Precious Jewel
24. I'll Nver Fall In Love Again
25. I'm Leavin' You

Disc B

Disc C - Dayton • Cincinnati • Hollywood • Chicago

1. Prisoner's Farewell
2. Sweet, Sweet Thing
3. The Fast Old Shovel
4. Why Did You Leave Me Dear
5. I Found An Angel
6. Lonely Moon
7. Midnight Special
8. Be My Little Pet
9. Remember I Feel Lonesome Too
10. Fast Express
11. I'm Sorry I Caused You To Cry
12. Hillbilly Boogie
13. I'm Lonesome Without You
14. Don't Forget Me
15. She Left Me Standing On The Moutain
16. Somebody Else's Darling
17. Kentucky Mountain
18. Midnight Train
19. Goin' Back To The Blue Ridge Mountains
20. Rounder's Blues
21. The Wrath Of God
22. Calling To That Other Shore
23. Freight Train Googie
24. Shame On Me

Disc C

Disc D - Hollywood • Cincinnati

1. Harmonica Blues
2. Mississippi Shore
3. Waitin' For That Train
4. Brown's Ferry Blues
5. Mobile Boogie
6. Stop The Boogie
7. Used Car Blues
8. Barnyard Boogie
9. Fifty Miles To Travel
10. Now I'm Free
11. Lonesome Day
12. Down Home Boogie
13. Peach Tree Street Boogie
14. Blues Stay Away From Me
15. Trouble Ain't Nothin' But The Blues
16. Everybody Loves Her
17. I Let The Freight Train Carry Me One
18. Please Be My Sunshine
19. Who's Gonna Be Lonesome For Me
20. The Girl By The River
21. There's Sumpin' About Love
22. Tennessee Choo Choo
23. Good Times Saturday Night
24. The Trail Of Time

Disc D

and scans

all mp3 >224kbps vbr | ~400mb total
and made in Europe from copyright-free discs!

September 26, 2009

Blind Lemon Jefferson - Classic Sides

Time for another revenant - a standby of the Old Weird America: Blind Lemon Jefferson. The man who practically defined the sound of 'One crazy guy with a guitar, belting his lungs out and playing things that no respectable white person would want to listen to' and the industry supporting it, which led to the recording of hundreds of great bluesmen, a few of whom have been featured on this blog, and without whom America would be the poorer. Here is his life's recorded work, an incredible trove of American roots music. I hope you can listen past the mountain of surface noise and hear what generations of slack-jawed musicians, from Leadbelly to Geoff Muldaur (who in his early years hitchhiked across the south with a broom trying to get to Texas so that he could sweep off Blind Lemon's tombstone). With that, I'll turn you over to the words of others:

In 1925 Jefferson was discovered by a Paramount recording scout and taken to Chicago to make his first records either in December 1925 or January 1926. Though he was not the first country blues singer/guitarist, or the first to make commercial recordings, Jefferson was the first to attain a national audience. His extremely successful recording career continued until 1929 when he died under mysterious circumstances. He recorded 110 sides including alternate takes. Jefferson’s first session produced “I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart” b/w “All I Want Is That Pure Religion” using the name Deacon L.J. Bates. It was the second session, however, that made Jefferson a star. “Got The Blues” b/w “Long Lonesome Blues” hadn’t been on sale long in the spring of 1926 when Paramount asked him to record it again because of the huge demand for the record. This was unheard of for a male blues artist. Prior to Jefferson the blues had been recorded primarily by women backed by piano or bands. This was reflected in the ads in the Chicago Defender which featured women almost exclusively, women such as Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, Clara Smith and Bessie Smith among others. Tony Russell describes Jefferson’s impact: “Jefferson offered instead blues sung by a man playing guitar – playing it, moreover, with a busyness and variety that showed up many of those pianists and bands as turgid and ordinary. The discovery that there was an audience for Jefferson’s type of blues revolutionized the music business: within a few years female singers were out of favor and virtually all the trading in the ‘race’ market (jazz aside) was in men with guitars.”
- from

The seventh and youngest child of sharecroppers Alex and Clarisa Jefferson, Lemon was born in 1894 or 1895 where the family was farming, around Streetman, Texas. Many say that he was blind from birth, but that has not been confirmed. Not much else is known about Lemon’s early life, other than he must have been aware of players like Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas and “Texas” Alexander who were traveling and playing around East Texas at that time. Around 1904 Lemon began to perform himself. His cousin, Alec Jefferson has been quoted as saying, “They was rough. Men was hustling and selling bootleg and Lemon was singing for them all night... he’d start singing about eight and go on until four in the morning... mostly it would be just him sitting there and playing and singing all night.”

It is known that Lemon was performing in Dallas around 1912, finding employment not only as a musician, but as a professional wrestler. He was probably among the first of many street musicians who played on and inhabited the streets of Deep Ellum and Central Track areas of Dallas. They say that Lemon also traveled widely by walking the railroad tracks to secure his arrival to other urban areas. It has been reported that he played as far away as Johnson City, Tennessee. Sometime after 1920 Lemon met and married Roberta Ranson, who was ten years his senior.

Blind Lemon was discovered by Paramount Records in 1925 and was taken to Chicago where he started his extremely successful recording career. By 1929 he had recorded 110 sides, not only blues, but spirituals such as “I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart” under the name of Deacon L. J. Bates. Among his more famous tunes are “Broke and Hungry”, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”, and “Black Snake Moan”.

Legend has it that Lemon died in a snowstorm in Chicago on December 22, 1929. He was buried in Wortham Negro Cemetery in Wortham, Texas. His grave was not kept clean for many years but that has changed. The graveyard was renamed Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery in 2007, and a fund was established to honor his musical request.

Biography by Joslyn Layne

Country blues guitarist and vocalist Blind Lemon Jefferson is indisputably one of the main figures in country blues. He was of the highest in many regards, being one of the founders of Texas blues (along with Texas Alexander), one of the most influential country bluesmen of all time, one of the most popular bluesmen of the 1920s, and the first truly commercially successful male blues performer. Up until Jefferson's achievements, the only real successful blues recordings were by women performers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, who usually sang songs written by others and accompanied by a band. With Jefferson came a blues artist who was solo, self-accompanied, and performing a great deal of original material in addition to the more familiar repertoire of folk standards and shouts. These originals include his most well-known songs: "Matchbox Blues," "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," and "Black Snake Moan." In all, Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded almost 100 songs in just a few years, making his mark on not only the bluesmen of the time (including Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins) but also on music fans in the years to come. The legacy of Jefferson's unique and powerful sound did not fade with the passing decades.

Many specifics on the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson are not available, but general information on the man and his career can be traced somewhat through recordings, a few public records, and the memories of those who knew him. Although his birth has long been placed in July of 1897, research almost a century later uncovered a census record that listed his birth in September of 1893. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his birth date, a few things are certain: Jefferson was born on a farm in Couchman, TX, outside of Wortham, and, blind from the time of birth, he grew up as one of seven children. Around 1912, he began playing guitar and singing at picnics and parties in his home area. His musical influences included not only the singing of the cotton pickers and local guitar players but also the guitarists among the area's Mexican workers who often incorporated flamenco patterns in their playing. These influences eventually led to Jefferson's unique style of complex phrases and intricate, yet fast, finger work. Within a couple of years, Jefferson widened his performing radius to include Groesbeck, Buffalo, Waco, and other surrounding towns. Sometime around 1915, Jefferson also began playing in Dallas and, by 1917, was a resident of the city. He was most often found playing in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas where he eventually met another bluesman who would one day be famous, Leadbelly. Although Leadbelly was the senior bluesman of the two, it is generally recognized that Jefferson was the better guitarist. Leadbelly was so impressed with Blind Lemon Jefferson, in fact, that he would later record songs in tribute to Jefferson's ability, including the song, "Blind Lemon's Blues." The two men even played together for a short while, sometime before Leadbelly's first prison sentence.

From the late teens into the early '20s, Blind Lemon Jefferson traveled and performed his passionate brand of blues, hitting (at the very least) the Mississippi Delta and Memphis regions, although it is likely that his travels took him further. In 1922 or 1923 he married a woman named Roberta with whom he would have children, including a boy in the mid-'20s. It was in 1925 that a Texas talent scout finally made a demo recording of Jefferson and sent it to Mayo Williams at Paramount Records in Chicago. Jefferson was soon (circa 12/25 and 1/26) brought to Chicago to record for the first time. The results were two gospel songs: "I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart" and "All I Want Is That Pure Religion," both of which were released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. Two months later, Jefferson began recording blues 78s under his own name, but that initial session wasn't the last time Jefferson recorded under a pseudonym. In 1927, "He Arose From the Dead" and "Where Shall I Be?" were released under the names Deacon L.J. Bates and Elder J.C. Brown for the Paramount and Herwin labels, respectively. Jefferson recorded over 90 songs total in less than four years' time. Almost all of his recordings were for the Paramount label, with the exception of his two-day session for Okeh, which took place in Atlanta in March of 1927. This session resulted in the second version of "That Black Snake Moan," (11/26) this time entitled "Black Snake Moan," as well as the first recording of another song that became one of Jefferson's most famous originals, "Matchbox Blues," which he recorded again for Paramount just one month later. Jefferson's records did well immediately, making him one of the best-selling race recording artists of the time. This is surprising considering his decidedly noncommercial sound; his high, eerie voice (often described as having a "lonesome" sound), the desperate (and sometimes suggestive) nature of his lyrics, and his often-complex guitar work all combined into a particularly raw and hard-hitting blues.

In addition to his frequent recording sessions in Chicago throughout the late '20s, Blind Lemon Jefferson still performed in Texas and traveled around the South. He played Chicago rent parties, performed at St. Louis' Booker T. Washington Theater, and even worked some with Son House collaborator Rev. Rubin Lacy while in Mississippi. In late September of 1929, Jefferson went to Paramount's studios in Richmond, IN, for a fruitful session that included two songs -- "Bed Springs Blues" and "Yo Yo Blues" -- that were also issued on the Broadway label. Jefferson was back in Chicago in December of 1929 when, sadly, he was found dead following a particularly cold snowstorm. There are several stories regarding his death: It has been said that he got lost in the storm after leaving a friend's party at a late hour, or that he was abandoned by his chauffeur, or was killed in a car accident, while yet another version claims Jefferson had a heart attack and froze in the snow. Regardless, the influential bluesman was still in his thirties when he died, and no death certificate was issued, so the date of his passing is only known to be toward the end of December. Pianist and labelmate Will Ezell escorted Jefferson's body back to Wortham, TX, where Blind Lemon Jefferson was laid to rest, purportedly on New Year's Day, 1930. Unfortunately for the author of the pleading "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," the grave itself went unmarked. This was finally remedied in 1967 when a metal Texas Historical Marker was placed on the approximate spot. By the 1990s, however, Jefferson's grave was discovered to be in disrepair. A fundraiser was organized and, thanks to the efforts and donations of blues fans around the world, a granite headstone was finally placed upon Jefferson's grave, inscribed with his lyric, "Lord, it's one kind favor I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean." It was also discovered during the preparation of the headstone that there is no support for the date widely believed to be that of Jefferson's birth -- July 1897 (which even appeared on the original grave marker) -- while the census documents in the State Archives listed Lemon Jefferson's birth to be in September of 1893. Thus, the new date was put on the gravestone.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was to Texas blues what Charley Patton was to Mississippi blues. His performances had a direct influence upon such legendary Texas musicians as Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, and Leadbelly, while his recordings helped bring his influence to an even larger audience. In the decades since, Jefferson's songs have been covered by countless musicians including Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Jr., and Kelly Joe Phelps, to name just a few. The late '50s and early '60s brought the reissue of some of Jefferson's recordings on the Riverside and Milestone labels, sparking a renewal of widespread public interest in the bluesman. As a result, Blind Lemon Jefferson Clubs were opened in California and New York during the '60s, and the rock band Jefferson Airplane reputedly chose their name after the great bluesman. A good single album compiling selections of Jefferson's music remains the Yazoo label's appropriately titled King of the Country Blues, which was eventually remastered for CD release. For completists, the Document label has since issued his entire recorded works in a four-volume CD series. In 1980, Blind Lemon Jefferson was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.

Blind Lemon Jefferson - Classic Sides [The Complete 94 Classic Sides Remastered]

Year: 2003
Label: JSP

Review by Bruce Eder

This is an awe-inspiring four-CD set in a world that has no shortage of brilliant artists represented in their entirety. Listeners wishing to appreciate the spellbinding, primal sound of Blind Lemon Jefferson can start here, except they may never want to finish; 70-some years since his death, and nearly 80 years since his first record, Jefferson's voice and guitar effortlessly cut through the decades. Starting with his earliest sides (from December 1925 -- the same year that electrical recording debuted), "I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart" and "All I Want Is That Pure Religion," a pair of gospel songs originally credited to "Deacon L.J. Bates," the combination of the powerful, achingly expressive singing and playing makes them a dazzling listening experience -- and this isn't even the kind of music for which Jefferson was known. Even with the surface noise typical of pre-World War II 78s, the delicacy and intricacy of the playing comes through. On the next tracks, however, when he shifts gears to the blues, that's when his fingers and his voice take flight from one song to another. On "Got the Blues," "Long Lonesome Blues," "Booster Blues," "Dry Southern Blues," "Black Horse Blues," and others, he lofts himself like an eagle soaring across a landscape (and that was exactly how this came off in a recording world populated by distinctly lesser men). By the time of his fourth group of sessions, Jefferson's records had acquired all of the attributes that made him a legend; even on a track like "Old Rounders Blues," which is very nearly more surface noise than music, the sudden yet graceful trills and arpeggios in Jefferson's playing come through, and when coupled with the voice -- which is seldom muted by the surface imperfections in the sources -- the results are spellbinding; later on, he does even more with less overt virtuosity and surprises listeners even more. Toward the end of his life (in 1929), he was pioneering what could be called the Count Basie approach to virtuosity, reducing his flourishes to figures of just two or three notes. And his voice comes through well enough to make it live up to its title, even on tracks such as the first version of "That Black Snake Moan," despite some considerable surface noise in the source. Because of its inclusiveness, there's no chance that this set can match the sonic workmanship on, say, Yazoo Records' The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson, which is generally able to achieve a uniformly high standard. Still, modern remastering has allowed the producers to salvage some useful sound even on some of the roughest-condition masters, such as the 1928 vintage "'Lectric Chair Blues" from 1928, which is as much hiss and surface noise as it is music but still reveals an amazing amount of the performance. Each of the four discs covers a year's worth of recorded output in Jefferson's life, from 1925/1926 to 1929; there's no rhyme or reason to the quality of each cut, the producers limited by the condition of the few surviving 78s so that the dazzlingly clear "That Crawling Baby Blues" is followed by "Fence Breakin' Yellin' Blues," the latter filled with surface noise but easily salvaged. These are all several cuts above the quality of work Document Records released in the late '80s and early '90s, and comes at a much lower price, as well. It's not for the casual fan -- though it could be absorbed, say, 12 songs or so at a time each week (which would make this a month's listening). The annotation, such as it is -- little hard information could be found on Jefferson in the 1950s and 1960s, when people who worked with him were still in abundance to be interviewed -- is extensive.

Disc A: Chicago 1926

1. I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart
2. All I Want Is That Pure Religion
3. Got the Blues
4. Long Lonesome Blues
5. Booster Blues
6. Dry Southern Blues
7. Black Horse Blues
8. Corinna Blues
9. Got the Blues
10. Long Lonesome Blues
11. Jack O' Diamond Blues
12. Jack O' Diamond Blues
13. Chock House Blues
14. Beggin Back
15. Old Rounder's Blues
16. Stocking Feet Blues
17. That Black Snake Moan
18. Wartime Blues
19. Broke and Hungry
20. Shuckin' Sugar Blues
21. Booger Rooger Blues
22. Rabbit Foot Blues
23. Bad Luck Blues

Disc A

Disc B: Atlanta & Chicago 1927

1. Black Snake Moan
2. Match Box Blues
3. Easy Rider Blues
4. Match Box Blues
5. Match Box Blues
6. Rising Hig Water Blues
7. Weary Dogs Blues
8. Right of Way Blues
9. Teddy Bear Blues
10. Teddy Bear Blues
11. Black Snake Dream Blues
12. Hot Dogs
13. He Arose from the Dead
14. Struck Sorrow Blues
15. Rambler Blues
16. Chinch Bug Blues
17. Deceitful Brownskin Blues
18. Sunshine Special
19. Gone Dead on You Blues
20. Where Shall I Be?
21. See That Grave's Kept Clean
22. One Dime Blues
23. Lonesome House Blues

Disc B

Disc C: Chicago 1928

1. Blind Lemon's Penitentiary Blues
2. 'Lectric Chair Blues
3. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
4. Lemon's Worried Blues
5. Mean Jumper Blues
6. Balky Mule Blues
7. Change My Luck Blues
8. Prison Cell Blues
9. Lemon's Cannon Ball Moan
10. Long Lastin' Lovin'
11. Piney Wood's Money Mama
12. Low Down Mojo Blues
13. Competition Bed Blues
14. Lock Step Blues
15. Hangman's Blues
16. Sad News Blues
17. How Long How Long
18. Lock Step Blues
19. Hangman's Blues
20. Christmas Eve Blues
21. Happy New Year Blues
22. Maltese Cat Blues
23. D.B. Blues

Disc C

Disc D: Chicago & Richmond 1929

1. Eagle Eyed Mama
2. Dynamite Blues
3. Disgusted Blues
4. Competition Bed Blues
5. Sad News Blues
6. Oil Well Blues
7. Tin Cup Blues
8. Big Night Blues
9. Empty House Blues
10. Saturday Night Spender Blues
11. That Black Snake Moan, No. 2
12. Peach Orchard Mama
13. Big Night Blues
14. Bed Spring Blues
15. Yo Yo Blues
16. Mosquito Moan
17. Southern Woman Blues
18. Bakershop Blues
19. Pneumonia Blues
20. Long Distance Moan
21. That Crawlin' Baby Blues
22. Fence Breakin' Yellin' Blues
23. Cat Man Blues
24. Cheaters Spell
25. Bootin' Me 'Bout

Disc D

all mp3 192kbps | w/ covers

See that it's kept clean!

September 24, 2009

Lin Shicheng & Gao Hong - Hunting Eagles Catching Swans (Music For Chinese Pipa)

For any of you who enjoyed The Mystery Album, here's some more music you're likely to like, and which will help you figure out just what that album is, if you haven't already. It also happens to be one of the very best pipa albums on the market. Evenly split between lyrical 'literate' pieces and aggressive 'military' pieces, it never fails to evoke. Chinese classical music paints pictures and tells stories through a beguiling mixture of tone, tempo, texture, and timbre. And for anyone who thinks that dissonance is a creation of 20th-Century music, think again. Some of these pieces are 2500 years old, and incorporate some of the harshest sounds I've ever heard produced by a stringed instrument. And yet, at the same time the dissonance serves a purpose and never sounds out-of-place. So listen up, Schönberg, Webern, Berg, et. all (and contemporary noise-rockers too): dissonance can be both meaningful, evocative, and even beautiful, if it's done right. Leave it to the folk tradition. This is what I'm talking about when I've said (in a previous post) that this is the sort of music John Fahey or Robbie Basho would wet their pants over.

Don't believe me? Well, have you ever heard of Wu Man? No, not Woman, 'Wu Man'. World-famous pipa-player who's performed with the Kronos Quartet and symphony orchestras all around the world, had compositions dedicated to her by the likes of Tan Dun and Lou Harrison. Well, Lin Shicheng was her teacher, and she wasn't even his best student! (this is not to detract from her excellence. I saw her perform recently and it was astounding). Anyway, as if needed, here are some more quote-incentives for you to try this album:

"...such excellent performances...They allow us to enjoy not only the distinguished Pudong pipa style, but also the beauty of traditional Chinese music in general"
- Journal of the Association for Chinese Music Research

" of the finest pipa CDs to appear in recent years...Magnificent playing, truly radiant..."
- Journal of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research

"This splendid collection of virtuosi pipa playing is highly recommended."
- Sing Out!

“Whether you're already familiar with the Chinese pipa or are looking to discover something new, this gorgeous album, "Hunting Eagles Catching Swans," performed by the definitive master of the Pudong style, Lin Shicheng, and his best student, Gao Hong, is a perfect opportunity to soak in the beauty of this music. With extreme delicacy and agility, finesse and energy, this instrument mesmerizes and enchants. The completeness of its voice is honorably represented by these two brilliant and passionate performers. A most notable album.” - CD Baby

Lin Shicheng (林石城; 1922-2006), born in Shanghai, began learning music under his father and was taught by Shen Haochu (沈浩初; 1899–1953), a leading player in the Pudong (浦东) school style of pipa playing. He also qualified as a doctor of Chinese medicine. In 1956, after working for some years in Shanghai, Lin accepted a position at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

Gao Hong, a Chinese musical prodigy and master of the pear-shaped lute, the pipa, began her career as a professional musician at age 12. She graduated with honors from China's premier music school, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she studied with the great pipa master Lin Shicheng. In both China and the U.S. Gao has received numerous top awards and honors, including First Prize in the Hebei Professional Young Music Performers Competition and an International Art Cup in Beijing. In 2005 Gao Hong became the first traditional musician to be awarded the prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship, and in 2008 she became the only musician in any genre to win three McKnight Artist Fellowships for Performing Musicians.
official website:

Chinese music is basically pentatonic-diatonic, meaning that the basic pentatonic scale can change pitch within a diatonic context. Most of the compositions are stunning pentatonic with diatonic/ brilliant passing tones.

Lin Shicheng & Gao Hong - Hunting Eagles Catching Swans (Music For Chinese Pipa)

Pipa (Chinese lute) music in the Pudong style, famous for its wide variety of note-bending techniques and demanding score performed by the definitive master of Pudong, Lin Shicheng, and his best student, Gao Hong.

1. Three Six (San Liu)
(Pipa Duet, Gao Hong, Pipa part 1, Lin Shicheng, Pipa part 2)
*unexpedtedly, this track cuts short. cd scratch?

2.Autumn Thoughts (Qiu Si)
(Lin Shecheng solo)

3. Dragon Boat (Long Chuan)
(Gao Hong solo)

4. Chen Xingyuan Placates the Tribesmen (Chen Xingyuan He Fan)
(Gao Hong solo)

5. King Xiang Yu Takes Off His Armor (Ba Wang Xie Jia)
(Gao Hong solo)

6. Xing Jie Si He
(Pipa Duet, Lin Shicheng, Pipa part 1, Gao Hong, Pipa part 2)
* this one had a scratch on it and ends abruptly

7. The Ambush in All Directions (Shi Mian Fu)
(Lin Shicheng solo)

8. Wild Geese Alighting on the Sandy Beach (Ping Sho Luo Yan)
(Gao Hong solo)

9. Hunting Eagles Catching Swans (Hai Qing Na Tian E)
(Lin Shicheng solo)

duelling pipas.
mr | mp3 >256kbps vbr | w/ booklet scans | 94mb

and if you like this, wait'll you hear the Hugo Masters!

September 13, 2009

Pascal Diatta & Sona Mané - Simnadé + 4

For any of you looking for the African equivalent of Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family, this is it. Like Spence, Pascal Diatta has a style all his own, as inimitable as it is distinctive and fitting to the music. Sudden stops and starts, rhythms that repeat like you wouldn't expect them to, and very hand-crafted harmonies make this album a treat of raw, funky, sparse, delicious music. It is totally devoid of pretension, and totally full of musicality. The guitar playing is so full of syncopation that practically every note and strum occurs when you wouldn't expect it, and is unlike any other African guitar styles, being based neither on the patterns of kora/ngoni nor on those of the mbira thumb piano. And like the Pinders, Sona Mané's vocals come from somewhere in the same dimension as the guitar: untrained, unexpected, unassuming, and fantastic!

On the surface, this music seems very naked, rough, even 'primitive'. And there is a sort of 3rd-world happiness that pervades the tunes which have a quality of celebratory ordinariness. But behind this rough, simple exterior we find a very complex sense of rhythm weaving its way through the guitar lines and a refreshingly honest directness to the singing which conveys the wealth of human experience through the prism of joyful shouts and wails. If you're anything like me, it may take a couple of listens to really 'get' it, but once you do, you won't be able to put it down! The music is totally infectious: it gets inside your skin and makes your heart jump, but without any of the usual tactics of pop production.

Pascal Diatta & Sona Mané (Senegal)

Pascal Diatta is from the Balanta people living in the Casamance (South Senegal), close to the border with Guinée Bissau. He grew up as an orphan, and became interested in the guitar, but poverty forced him to build one himself. Over the years, he has developed a very distinct way of guitar playing, uncomparable with other West African guitarists. He sings together with his wife Sona Mané, following the same rhythm and tempo changes as Pascal's guitar. The title song of their album, Simnadé, means "listen", and I have nothing to add to that. A pity that the album, recorded in 1988, is difficult to find nowadays, and it is the only one.

Rogue Records, UK, 1989
With the music of Senegal reaching American ears by the thousands this year, the chance to hear this record was an incredible joy. Pascal Diatta is a most unusual guitar player. He plays a beaten Ovation guitar, a gift from a Western admirer, in a finger-picking style that owes more to the percussive sounds of the balafon than the melody of strings. He claims no influences, and living the simple life he does, it is almost believable that he owes this music to his soul alone. At times he sounds like a strange blend of Ry Cooder, merengue and too-fast ragtime picking. He taught his wife, Sona Mane, to sing in a style specific to the songs he writes, and the close har- mony of the voices tied tightly to the guitar lines makes for a striking and different-sounding music. I couldn't begin to recommend a particular cut on the album, but rather that you follow Pascal and Sona's advice: "Simnade-Listen!" - CF (1989)

Pascal Diatta & Sona Mané - Simnadé + 4

Year: 1989/1994
Label: Rogue Records

Acoustic guitar and voice, live from Casamance, southern Senegal.
Re-mastered for CD with 4 extra tracks, the complete 1988 recordings.

"Manes's passionate, husky voice stuns and enchants, sending shivers down the spine. But it is Diatta's amazing finger-picking stop/start guitar that really takes the breath away, providing looping and spiralling patterns over and under the swooping and soaring voices. This is utterly extraordinary music" (**** Q Magazine review of original vinyl release)

1. Mesin Sedy
2. Bougna Oudistile
3. Quinto Djiranna
4. Simnade
5. Adjilabone
6. Gniakintidje
7. Dioudiou Coumbouta
8. Bouly Diatta
9. Farancounda
10. Diasine Mandina
11. Ado Camara Ile

soul food.
mp3 >256kbps vbr | w/ full scans

*out of print (only $114 at Amazon...)

for Nauma

September 11, 2009

Jim Turner - The Well-Tempered Saw

"That's beautiful!...Have you ever heard anything like that in your life? That is wonderful." - Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show

"Turner's saw solo was brief, breathtaking, and the high point of the evening. This simple, flat piece of metal became, in Turner's hands, an instrument of sheer beauty. He plays with impeccable intonation, and his phrasing and sense of nuance are extraordinary." - Mitchell, the Denver Post

You have not heard of this album. It may as well not exist, for all you know. It is the rarest album I've ever posted on this blog (discounting the Clarence White bootleg tapes), and it's one of the most striking and unique. It was released by Owl Records, a tiny company in Boulder run by naturalist Oak Thorne (what else could he be, with that name?). Though Oak's still alive, he's not making any moves to reissue these records, so it's safe to assume that it will never be reisued, exept as a Grapevine exclusive!

About Jim Turner:

"In his many concerts, Jim Turner has been billed variously as a "musical sawyer", "saw-ist", and "psawchologist". At the time of this recording he was 31 years old, and had been performing on the musical saw since 1956. His first encounter with this little-known instrument was in a high school play in Lewistown, Montana, where he was cast as an 82-year-old man who played a musical saw. The uniqueness of the instrument suited Jim's personality, and his quick sense of humor made him a popular local performer, much sought after for all manner of occasions. He is an invenerate punster and manages, somewhat in the style of Victor Borge, to provide an evening of agonizing puns and absolutely intriguing music. His remarks about "A-sharp saw" or the instrument he uses for Handel's "Water Music", the "C saw", are invariably followed by a truly amazing musical virtuosity."
- from the back cover

What allowed Jim to be such an incredible saw player is the same as what allowed him to later take up musical wrenches, musical rocks, and eventually musical glasses: he has perfect pitch, and a seemingly-inherent musicality. I mean, how many other saw players can play with orchestras? Only about three: Natalia Paruz, David Weiss, and Jim Turner. And of the three, Jim plays with the most humor and spark. The album presented below consists of folk pieces and classical works, at least one of which was composed for Jim Turner to play. Accompaniment ranges from from full orchestra to guitar, dobro, banjo, vibraharp, drums, electric guitar, piano, musical glasses, dead aspen tree, and barking dogs.

And though nobody appreciates puns more than Jim, and he allows a good deal of humor in the performances of folk pieces, he also knows how to craft a solo (sawlo?) more haunting than anything you've ever heard. I consider his version of Summertime to be the best ever recorded, and his rendition of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise is every bit as good as Clara Rockmore's theremin rendition. Also his take on Wayfaring Stranger is timeless and his renditions of two brief Bach pieces put the old master into a new dimension. Sadly, this glorious quodrisonic vinyl had to be reduced to a mere 2 channels in this paltry digital format of ourse, so you won't be able to hear the overdubbed rounds of Frere Jacques coming from all around you. But don't fret; these singing teeth'll temper your spirit and moisten your loins.

The Saw Defined

The saw is a musical instrument. Perhaps the most ubiquitous musical instrument in the world aside from the human voice. It is more likely that a household possesses a handsaw than a piano, violin, or trumpet. Some people would have you believe that the saw is merely the tool of carpenters and woodcutters. But those ill-informed who espouse such a secondary usage should be relegated to the ranks of extremists, alarmists, and proselytes. For the saw's true beauty is not derived from its capacity to crosscut lumber or to rip through timber, but rather from its ability to cut across the boundaries and limitations of preconceptions.

Saws, like people, come in all shapes and sizes; and at least as far as saws are concerned, size does matter. The ordinary handsaw found in most hardware stores and households has a bladelength of 26 inches. Longer saws, including some specially-made "musical saws", may be 28, 30, or even 36 inches in length. The additional length tends to lower the tone of the saw, in effect creating a tenor, baritone, or bass saw, while increasing the pitch range (tessatura.) Saws shorter than 26 inches tend to have a higher pitch and a shorter pitch range.

Equally varied from saw to saw is the quality of the steel, its gauge, and temper. (It's interesting to note that the verb "temper" can also mean "to tune"; how appropriate for the saw.) The number of points per inch defines the saw's "point"; i.e., an 8-point saw has 8 points (but 7 teeth) per inch; a 10-point saw would have 10 points (but 9 teeth) per inch, etc. The French even have an edentulous version of the musical saw called la lame sonore (trans. sonorous blade), in effect a "zero-point saw." Obviously it can be used only for music since it would not be able to cut anything except soft butter.
- from the Theramin-Saw page

Musical Saw history

Though some consider the Musical Saw an American folk musical instrument believed to have gotten its start somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains in the 19th century, the origins of the musical saw are actually not confined to one country. Some sources state the saw was invented in Argentina, or Russia. Most of what we know today is about Europe, but it is believed that saws were played in all continents without the people knowing of other people doing so in other places. Carpenters and lumberjacks all over the world discovered that their tool could make sounds, thus, no country can really claim ownership over the invention of making music with a saw. Saw playing probably started at the end of the 17th century, when saws were mass produced with pliable steel blades.

The pioneers who couldn't afford bringing musical instruments with them to America brought tools for building houses, etc. Thus saw playing became popular in the USA at a time when there weren't other instruments easily available. During the 19th century (and probably before) many priests played the saw during church services. Later, the saw became a staple of Vaudeville shows.

The saw is generally played seated with the handle squeezed between the legs, and the far end held with one hand. It is generally played with the teeth facing the body. In the early 20th century the Musical Saw began to get very popular in America and Europe as well. It is also known as the Singing Saw, as it produces a very pure ethereal tone, and can sound similar to a woman's high singing voice.

The Musical Saw also sounds a bit like the Theremin. Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore said that when Leon Theremin was working on inventing the theremin, the musical saw was very popular (in Vaudeville) and that he was aiming at recreating the sound of the saw electronically.

Musical saws have been produced for over a century. In the early 1900s, there were over ten companies in the United States alone manufacturing saws. These saws ranged from the familiar steel variety to gold-plated masterpieces. However, with the start of World War II the demand for metals made the manufacture of saws too expensive and many of these companies went out of business, and only a few companies exist today.

To create a note, the player bends the blade into an S-curve. The parts of the blade which are curved are dampened from vibration, and do not sound, while at the center of the S-curve a section of the blade remains relatively flat. This is called the "sweet spot" which vibrates across the width of the blade, producing a distinct pitch. The sound is created by drawing the bow across the back edge of the saw at the sweet spot, or by striking the sweet spot with a mallet. Harmonics can be heard by playing at varying distances on either side of the sweet spot. The sawyer controls the pitch by adjusting the S-curve, making the sweet spot travel up the blade (toward a thinner width) for a higher pitch, or toward the handle for a lower pitch. Sawyers can add vibrato by shaking one of their legs, or wobbling the hand that holds the tip of the blade. When a sound is produced, it can sustain for quite a while, and can be carried through several notes of a musical phrase.

Though regular wood cutting saws were used (and some still used today), in 1919 Clarence Mussehl began perfecting the manufacture of the instrument. His innovations included using a special steel which was much more malleable and gave the plaintive tones more sustain and vibrato.

Through using thinner steel and experimenting with the width Mussehl was able to create a saw capable of producing approximately 16 to 20 notes. It was in 1921 that he began selling them commercially for the express purpose of playing music. During the peak of the Musical Saw craze, sales of the saw averaged approximately 25,000 per year.

As playing the saw requires a strong left hand, most players were men, though one well known lady saw player was actress Marlene Dietrich. She has played the saw at her performances for the soldiers during WWII, in a movie, on radio, and for friends at parties.
- from

Jim Turner - The Well-Tempered Saw

Year: circa 1971
Label: Owl Records

1. Bach: Minuet in G
2. Summertime
3. East Virginia
4. Grandfather's Clock
5. Wayfaring Stranger
6. Wildwood Sawyer
7. Frere Jacques
8. Careless Love
9. Timbermill Mountain
10. Vivaldi: Largo
11. David Burge: Serenade for Musical Saw & Orchestra
12. Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
13. Bill Perkins: Textures for Musical Saw & Percussion
14. Bach: Bourée

stranger than an ill-tempered wild wood.
vinyl | mp3 >160kbps vbr | w/ scans

if you dig this and you haven't heard Clara Rockmore, check out her album Art of the Theramin

and you'll hear a bit more saw played by filmaker Terry Zwigoff with R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders

September 10, 2009

John Fahey - 2 Albums

Past time for a guitar-soli post, and this one is from the man you all know. Or you better know him by now, if you've been reading this blog. In fact, one of the main reasons I started this blog was to somehow recreate the conditions which allowed John Fahey to craft one of the most distinctive, inventive, and mind-collapsing styles of American music of the 20th Century. So I post roots music of many varieties, experimental seeds of new and disturbing contemporary musics, and those who like Fahey have synthesized the lot into something profoundly true.

In Fahey's world, Stephen Foster plays chess with Béla Bartók while turtles and trains race to the pace of a steam-powered riverboat in which a nightmarish masquerade proceeds; Skip James is brought moaning and wailing to meet a ponderous Charles Ives, and together they are joined in the occult arts, gently pulling eyeball-sized pieces of American Vernacular Music and stitching them together under the watchful gaze of Harry Partch; Blind Willie Johnson looks down from outer space and offers only the cryptic phrase "Mnhooawh, lawwddy nhoawh," while Charley Patton and Charlie Poole join in fisticuffs, drunkenly trading over an unholy-syncopated 13-bar measure. And hopefully, in time this blog will do the same.

Since I've already written extensively about his particular brand of genius (here), I'll save the words and just present you with two rare, out-of-print masterworks from late in his carreer (but before his fumbling resurrection). I'll only mention that both albums show Fahey's continued evolution as a composer, and particularly the influence of Bola Sete, whom Fahey had recently befriended and recorded; you can hear it especially on the Washington DC album, where Fahey abandons his unfallable 2/4 beat and drifts into the subtler and scarier domains of the unconscious through his unanswereable melodic motifs.

Oh, and because it's too good to miss, here's a review of Railroad by Stewart Voegtlin:

Oh, Fahey would be pissed. He didn't particularly relish the idea of cupboard raiding and found overly passionate musical archeologists frankly embarrassing. And here we are with yet another reissue, vouchsafed upon an unwitting populace certainly no different than the indifferent masses that silently greeted him and his label’s roster back when he was lumped in with the bone-rolling, dayglo’d hippie ilk—a grave mistake for a man who’d always rather be fishing deep river holes with a buddy and a bottle of cheap whiskey.

Always the iconoclast, Fahey found nothing so much in contemporary music save for Cecil Taylor or the No-Neck Blues Band. The sentiment wasn't reserved only for others; he didn't give two shits about his back catalog and infamously derided his early and well-lauded output a few years before he went to the grave, characterizing the work as "kitsch"—a "mixture of emotions" that "contained no clear statement about anything." Apologists anxiously chalked this up to minor self-loathing: Fahey's patented resistance to lounge comfortably in his own goddamned skin. But he was jarringly forthcoming about his psyche's shortcomings.

Whether stitched meticulously into his liners, or drawn into the pictographic symbols that haunted his cover art, his psychoses scampered across the punch-drunk zeitgeist of the late '60s: reptilian, amphibian, its skin scaled and covered in carapace; amber eyes sunk in summer’s entropic rapture, turning over gold as tooth riddled beaks grinned from stained, sulfur reeked marshes. When it wasn’t the God-given horrors of gators and turtles it was the sheer steel tonnage of man-made myth destroyers: The train.

Small, squirming male minds captured by their movement—their size and shape and color. Their rattling undercarriages, their roaring flywheels and pumping pistons and sockets, the screams of their steam trumpets as they cut course across states, as they settle into stop, and as they yellow and atrophy in brittle black and white photographs. Fahey wasn't the first to find favor with trains; he wasn't the last to have some tweed-cocooned peckerwood connecting his innocent inclinations with psychoanalytic symbols drowned in sexual innuendo and import either. A freight train in a tunnel or a box turtle working its way across the yard—both brought the Big D Dread for the big man; the turtle episode coming when he was only five-years-old. “I thought it was a penis walking across the front lawn,” Fahey recalled. “It kind of upset me.”

For what it's worth, he did what the best of the rest do. He made art out of his metastasizing fixation, out of his boredom, out of cognitive liability and dispossessed relationships, a life broken down, suspended from the dust by wobbly cement blocks with no fuckin’ where to go. Little wonder he turned inward to trains.

In 1983 he recorded Railroad I for his Takoma label: a 10-song album with titles a mixture of Richard Brautigan's porch-side mysticism and folky small-talk with a grizzled convenience store clerk. Some sound like ad hoc itineraries: “Frisco Leaving Birmingham,” “Afternoon Espee through Salem.” Others are lent an ambiguous personal symbolism or naïve simile: “Summer Cat by My Door,” “Life Is Like a Mountain Railway” (“I ask you, is it?” Fahey mused in his liners). There’s the rail fan’s favorite: “Steve Talbot on the Keddie Wey,” a locomotive picker rhapsodizing the steel tracks laid along the Feather River Canyon.

There’s the conflation of the ineffable and the empirical: “Enigmas & Perplexities of the Norfolk and Western;” “Delta Dog thru the Book of Revelation.” There are meditations and ruminations, vignettes and moderate and capable extrapolations of worn and ossified themes. There are whimsical and worried tones; there are deep death tolls and ecstatic birth cries. And there is no clear statement about anything. True to his word, Railroad I is a puzzle askew—scattershot, a colorful and emotive mess, bereft of configuration and purpose.

The album’s short but admitted brilliance is embodied predominantly by three cuts: “Oneonta”—an ode to Rockwellian New York State; “Imitation Train Whistles—Po Boy,” a gothic creeper co-authored with fishing buddy Bukka White, taking flight with eerie coos and atonal couplets, and “Afternoon Espee through Salem,” which features some of Fahey’s most passionate and focused playing.

“Afternoon Espee…,” likely hewed from his Kona Hawaiian steel-string, begins cautiously, as if he’s stamping out a smoke and gathering the slide in his hand. The moment the slide slips over the strings, the piece is beatific—a paean to ragged religiosity or hot romps in a Chevy’s rusted bed. Suns rise and fall; rains come wet and warm; herons stalk river rock while osprey wheel on high. There are barns in ruin, tractors taken by the very fields they once turned up. There are summer snakes coiled and lethargic, sunning on gravel and hot, gleaming white train-track. There are steeples and gables and bodies built of worn, white board; houses of God seemingly grown from the stone gardens that run ‘round them as so many teeth rotting in an earthen jaw. “The train I ride, it don’t burn no coal; oh, it’s don’t burn no coal.”

Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied" was Fahey’s “Road to Damascus:” Johnson’s croaking, bullfrog voice and baptismal bottleneck brought him to his knees. The light he saw was a waning, pulsing Morse—an atavistic beckon harking back to times undocumented, days and months and years impossible to characterize or encapsulate. There are times when Fahey brought his Kona to his lap and rekindled the conversion, when the notes bleated and wailed, yellow light roaring through their bodies like hundreds of fireflies undulating in summer twilight, heat lightning waking in shattered white veins across the dead gray sky of the distance. “Praise God I’m Satisfied” brought the waterworks; Fahey boo-hoo’d and did it in front of a bunch of record collector buddies to boot. He said he allowed himself to like it. That at first he was swept up in a dense and clenching nausea given quick life from prejudice and fear. Despite the disgust, he had to hear it again.

Now we’ve got Johnson to thank for a wealth of Fahey material: he never borrowed from it, he only used it as a foundation, a ramp to roll his little boat into big water. He coasted through enough records; he labored honestly at others. Railroad I undoubtedly shows both approaches, but holds enough magic in its shallow well to keep those that seek a bare bones account of the man that made it mired in stubborn stories that do little to lay the self-proclaimed “primitive” bare. And Fahey wouldn’t have had it any other way.

John Fahey - Visits Washington DC

Year: 1979
Label: Takoma 7060 (Chrysalis reissue)

A unique and absorbing commentary on the social and existential history of Dasein in Washington D.C. qua metaphor for America.

Review by Richie Unterberger

John Fahey's final album of the 1970s was also his first studio album in nearly five years, his prolific pace in the first dozen years or so of his recording career slowing notably by the middle of the decade. He pretty much just picked up where he left off on Visits Washington DC, however, offering another set of acoustic guitar instrumentals with stellar picking and an eclectic range of influences. A good share of the material this time around came from other sources, as he put together a medley of Doc Watson's "Silver Bell" and Bill Monroe's "Cheyenne" for the first track; incorporated Leo Kottke's "Death by Reputation" into the second, and also covered Bola Sete's "Guitar Lamento." On his originals (and to some degree even his interpretations), echoes of Appalachian folk, bluegrass, blues, ragtime, and flotsam and jetsam of Americana (with Stephen Foster liberally quoted in Fahey's composition "The Discovery of the Sylvia Scott") blend and merge. Some of his characteristic moodiness emerges in passages from "Ann Arbor" and "Melody McBad," and Richard Ruskin, another artist on the Takoma label, adds second guitar to "Silver Bell."

1 Medley: Silver Bell/Cheyenne - Fahey, Monroe, Watson - 4:31
2 Ann Arbor/Death by Reputation - Fahey, Kottke - 8:11
3 The Discovery of the Sylvia Scott - Fahey - 7:45
4 Guitar Lamento - Sete - 5:49
5 Melody McBad - Fahey - 10:09
6 The Grand Finale - Fahey - 7:05

notes on the songs here
original liner notes here

melodies mcbetter.
mp3 160kbps | w/ cover & notes | 49mb

* out-of-print (new copies at Amazon start at $80)

John Fahey - Railroad

Year: 1983
Label: Shanachie

Mistakenly titled “Railroad I” on the cover.
JF: No, there never was a “Railroad II”. Allegiance insisted on putting “I” after “Railroad”. I couldn’t stop them even though I tried.”

This release was going to be judged the third most important Fahey recording of all time in Mojo magazine's "How To Buy John Fahey" feature, but was disqualified as it was out of print. (Honest, Kris Needs, who wrote the article, has also written the sleevenote.) Unavailable on CD since the early 90s (and never with its proper sleeve), second-hand copies go for upwards of $300 on the internet.

1. Frisco Leaving Birmingham
2. Oneonta
3. Summer Cat by My Door
4. Steve Talbot on the Keddie Wye
5. Afternoon Espee Through Salem
6. Enigmas and Perplexities of the Norfolk and Western
7. Charlie Becker's Meditation
8. Medley: Imitation Train Whistles/Po'boy
9. Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad
10. Delta Dog Through the Book of Revelation

notes on the songs here

original liner notes here

beyond the atchison, topeka, and the santa fe.
mp3 160kbps | w/notes & cover | 44mb

* out-of-print (new copies at Amazon start at $66)

oh, and if your Fahey-appetite hasn't yet been satiated, check out all the ones posted at Annähurengen.

or try searching at Captain Crawl.

and by chance I just discovered that there's a Grapevine Vintage Railroad in Texas. Now there's an engine I need to ride!