Posts filed under 'Folk and Country'

Give Me the Banjo

Title: Give Me the Banjo

Producers:  Marc Fields (director/producer), Tony Trischka (music director/co-producer), Tim Raycroft (editor/co-producer)

Label: Docurama Films

Formats: DVD; online rental via Netflix, Youtube, Amazon, etc.

Release date: June 6, 2012


A documentary claiming to encompass the history of the banjo is setting a high standard. The banjo, called “America’s quintessential instrument” by the filmmakers, developed from African stringed instruments brought over by slaves. It became part of the full American musical vernacular by the mid-1800s. When this movie isn’t trying to make vague political statements about racial politics as related to a musical instrument, it’s relatively interesting. However, its scattered focus and meandering pace results in a mediocre and incomplete telling of what should be a fascinating tale.

For instance, we’re never told or shown exactly what the precursors to the banjo looked or sounded like, or where in Africa they originated. Also left out are any details about how the banjo spread from the slave quarters to the whole of American folk music. It would also be nice to see how a banjo is put together, and what different types are used today (apparently the producers behind The Banjo Project originally conceived of a 3-part series, which unfortunately had to be distilled into one episode).

However, all is not lost. There is a huge redeeming feature to this film—plenty of great music featuring the banjo. The story is at its best when it centers on banjo players past and present (Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, Carolina Chocolate Drops, etc.).  Since the banjo is used in almost every form of American folk music, the film can spotlight a diverse array of players and styles. The filmmakers should have let the music and musicians do all of the talking, and they would have ended up with a more direct and powerful story. Narrator Steve Martin, who’s technically adept with a banjo but a rather dull musical entertainer, gets too much screen time.

The pros and cons are aptly illustrated in the official trailer:

If you like the sound of a well-played banjo and are curious about American folk music, then this movie is worth viewing. It premiered on PBS last year, so it might air again on your local PBS station. However, given the lax focus and sluggish pacing, plus the inappropriate attempts to score political-correctness points, it’s not recommended for purchase. One caveat: the for-sale package includes an insert listing all the old and new musical sources heard in the film, and that is worth owning by a true banjo aficionado.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review December 1st, 2012

Women of the World: Imani Uzuri

Title: The Gypsy Diaries

Artist: Imani Uzuri

Label:  Her Holy Water Music

Format: MP3

Release date:  June 5, 2012



Imani Uzuri has performed with artists as varied as John Legend, Talib Kweli, Sly & Robbie, The Roots, and Bill Laswell. The North Carolina singer/songwriter has also traversed the world, soaking up melodies from Eastern Europe, Brazil, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Asia, and allowing them to coalesce with her own rural traditions.  The result of these cross-pollinations is a uniquely personal style of roots music presented on her sophomore album The Gypsy Diaries.

A significant departure from her 2008 release, Her Holy Water: A Black Girl’s Rock Opera, which as the title suggests was more rock than roots, Uzuri has hit on a winning formula with her new album―one that is sure to propel her career forward.  Based on the theme of travel, including worldwide journeys as well as internal explorations of self, Gypsy Diaries is lyrical yet moody. According to Uzuri, the songs reflect the joy of new experiences and connecting with people, but also the accompanying loneliness and angst.

An acoustically driven album, Uzuri is accompanied variously by cello, violin, sitar, guitar, flute, and a variety of percussion in a mix that is rhythmic yet fluid. Her vocal stylings range from what might be called a Middle Eastern influenced R&B on “Soul Still Sings” (a bittersweet tribute to her grandmother) to the jazzy lilt of “I Sing the Blues” to “Raga For My Lovers,” accompanied by Kaoru Watanabe on Japanese Shinobue flute.

Following is a live performance of “Beautiful,” the album’s opening track, featuring Stef Vanes on acoustic guitar (the album version features Christian Ver Halen on guitar):

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Anyone with an affinity for acoustic folk and world music is sure to enjoy The Gypsy Diaries.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss


View review August 1st, 2012

Old Times There…

Title: Old Times There . . .

Artist: South Memphis String Band

Label: Memphis International

Catalog No.: DOT 0227

Formats: CD, LP

Release Date: May 8, 2012


This is the second album from “roots collective” or “roots super-group” South Memphis String Band.  Original members Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers, Tri-State Coalition), Alvin Youngblood Hart (Muscle Theory) and Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All Stars) are joined by Justin Showah (Knockdown South, Hill Country Records).  The album mines the deep traditions of blues and “hill music,” but also proudly delves into the corny and politically-incorrect dustbins of novelty and medicine-show songs from the times before rural electrification.

Those who get offended by corn-pone and somewhat racist humor of yore, avoid this album. Those who can take it in the spirit it’s intended will enjoy the skill of the band’s playing and will probably enjoy hearing faithful reproductions, in relatively high fidelity, of tunes resurrected from obscure and scratchy old 78-rpm records.

Here’s the band covering Charley Patton’s “Some Of These Days,” one of the tracks on the album:

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Far from a serious-minded “curation” of these old songs, the South Memphis String Band’s approach is to wade in and have fun, with all seriousness focused on pitch-perfect and rock-solid playing and singing.  According to the record company’s website, “The album was recorded traditionally using four old-fashioned ribbon microphones and as quickly as possible in deference to the organic/natural approach that one observer called ‘the pure sound of fingers, strings, wood and throats.'”  That’s a fancy way of saying, these guys delivered the music together, self-balanced, and probably in complete takes. Just like in the olden days when these songs were being recorded new.


Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review August 1st, 2012

Leaving Eden

Title: Leaving Eden

Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Label: Nonesuch

Catalog No.: 529809-2

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 28, 2012


Cutting to the chase, this is an excellent album, probably the best new recording I’ve encountered so far this year.  It is fresh, original, imaginative and expertly played.  But it also harkens from a long tradition of Southern string bands, particularly the black string bands of the Carolinas and Georgia.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops are rare birds in that they can successfully take an old tradition and make it sound new, with a strong imprint of their own voices and minds.

After the Drops’ last album, Genuine Negro Jig, founding member Justin Robinson left the group and was replaced by Hubby Jenkins. Robinson was a fiddle ace and singer, Jenkins is a master of the banjo, guitar and mandolin. So the group’s sound has become less fiddle-centric (founding member Rhiannon Giddens is also masterful with the bow). This album also presents a more relaxed sound, with most vocals handled by Giddens and/or founding member Dom Flemons (he’s the dude with the suspenders and cool hats in most of the group’s videos).

Production of Leaving Eden is also more laid-back. The album was recorded at producer Buddy Miller’s Tennessee home studio, some tunes on a back porch as the sounds of a southern night roll on in the background. It’s not a low-fi production—as a matter of fact, the band’s vocals and instruments sound clearer and more natural than any previous recording—but it’s closer to what the group probably sounds like when they pick tunes for pure enjoyment in their own homes or rehearsal space.

On several tunes, Adam Matta augments the band, on beatbox and/or vocals.  Matta is also currently touring with the Drops.  Also, Flemons sings more on this album than past efforts, and that’s for the better. He has a strong and interesting voice, and his preferred songs are often from the less-remembered repertoire of times past.

Both Flemons and Giddens are students of their tradition, and have found gems in old songbooks and instrument-instruction books.  On Leaving Eden, the second track, “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” comes from a circa 1875 songbook.  And, next to last is a compilation of two ditties from Tom Briggs’ Banjo Instructor of 1855: “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig / Camptown Hornpipe.” Finally, the band borrows a vocal-harmony shout, “Read ‘Em John” from Alan Lomax’s recordings of the Georgia Sea Islands Singers.

Following is a video of “Boodle De Bum Bum” from a live performance on WYNC’s Soundcheck:

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As in the case with their cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” on the previous album, the Drops try out a tune leaning toward modern hip-hop stylings. In this case, it’s Giddens’ “Country Girl,” which is a country/hip-hop crossover. It will work on the radio, but it’s a bit out of style with the rest of the album. The sentiments expressed are nice—after traveling all over the world, there’s not better place than home —but the feel is overly commercial.

But that’s a minor quibble.  This is a great album that will likely find very frequent rotation in your music queue, long after you’ve paid the Amazon bill.


Reviewed by Tom Fine






View review May 1st, 2012

Bones for Tinder

Title: Bones for Tinder

Artist: Justin Robinson & the Mary Annettes

Label: Five Head Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 17, 2012



Good albums are easy to review. Picking out positive qualities and delving out a little praise isn’t really that difficult. But when an album is great, things get tough, and there’s something about Bones for Tinder that makes it especially challenging to review. Accredit this to what you will—the eclectic mish-mashing of genres, the group’s collective abilities—but that something is remarkable.

Here, the oft-ignored tradition of African American old-time music wanders in a new direction. Lead by Justin Robinson (formerly of the heavily praised Carolina Chocolate Drops), the Mary Annettes (comprised of North Carolina musicians Elizabeth Marshall, Kyra Moore, Sally Mullikin, and Josh Stohl) take what’s already familiar to fans of the Drops and filter it through their own tastes. For a band whose members credit Erykah Badu, Loretta Lynn, and “ossified remains of mammals” for inspiration, the process yields something we haven’t heard a whole lot of.  Bones is unabashedly rooted in traditional music, but those aforementioned influences come out loud and clear.

The album’s opening track, “Neptune,” along with the later appearing “Bright Diamonds,” “Thank You Mr. Wright” and “Nemesis or Me,” stick to the relative basics. Here, Robinson and his cohorts adopt a kind of singer-songwriter mentality, applying their old-time roots to a format that embraces atypical instrumentation and song structure, often backing Robinson’s vocals with a loosely-formed string trio, hand claps, percussive banjo and autoharp. Later, “Ships and Verses” and the haunting “Kissin’ and Cussin’” (which previously appeared on the Chocolate Drops’ Geniune Negro Jig) rely on—here comes the Erykah Badu influence—spoken word and rap traditions as much as folk and old-time. “The Phil Spectors” and “Gypsy Death and You,” tinged with subtle electric guitar and surprisingly contemporary drums, are a strong end to the album.

Following is a live performance of “Devil’s Teeth,” recorded August 2011 at the Cat’s Cradle in
Carrboro, NC:

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That’s not to say, though, that there was ever really a weak point. Where Robinson and the Mary Annettes could have gone wrong, they went very, very right. Bones for Tinder is spot-on, an inspired and well-wrought album that appeals to fans of the Chocolate Drops’ brand of old-time without being an old-time album. It’s simultaneously of the moment and incredibly traditional, not trying too hard to be on either end of the spectrum. In the easy, unforced kind of way that can only be created by someone who really knows what they’re doing, Bones for Tinder is an extremely likable album, and for that alone (whether you can put your finger on what else makes it so good or not), it deserves some praise.

Reviewed by Hannah Davis

View review February 1st, 2012

Reggae’s Gone Country

Title: Reggae’s Gone Country

Artists: Various

Formats: CD, MP3

Label: VP Records/Warner Nashville

Release date:  August 29, 2011



A joint production of reggae label VP Records and country label Warner Music Nashville, Reggae’s Gone Country is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of country music classics stripped down to their roots, infused with reggae aesthetics and instrumentation, and given to some of the Jamaican popular music industry’s hottest stars to interpret for a contemporary audience. If the idea seems a tad gimmicky, the first listen might not do much to help the situation; it can be a conceptual challenge to come to grips with the album’s outlandish combination of driving reggae drum, bass, and skank guitar rhythms overlaid with twangy country pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo ornamentations. Once the listener has acclimatized to this fascinating juxtaposition of musical elements, however, Reggae’s Gone Country is actually a wonderful album through and through, with several beautiful and innovative renditions of expected and unexpected country favorites by an all-star cast of reggae luminaries (like Beres Hammond and Freddie McGregor), current kings and queens of the Jamaican popular music industry (like Tarrus Riley and Etana), and brand-new up-and-coming stars such as 21 year-old Romain Virgo, whose collaboration with country legend Larry Gatlin on the Gatlin Brothers’ song “California” is the album’s lead single:

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To truly appreciate Reggae’s Gone Country, however, one must know the story behind it. According to the liner notes and an informative YouTube mini-documentary, VP Records vice president Cristy Barber dreamt up the concept for the album as a way of uniting her two loves (reggae and country music), and she assembled a crack team of Nashville and Kingston producers and musicians to help put the project together. But what many reggae and country fans alike may not realize is that country is, and historically has been immensely popular in Jamaica, and it actually shares much in common with reggae—both are musics of marginalized working class populations, both sing of love, criminals, and spirituality, and both relish a good story. Thus, the songs chosen for the album were not simply U.S. country favorites foisted upon a group of Jamaican reggae stars largely unacquainted with them, but rather some of the most popular and beloved country tunes in Jamaica itself.

While the album’s story might be an inspiring account of cross-cultural collaboration and mutual appreciation, however, the logistics of its production may have stifled some of its potential for true genre-bending creativity. Indeed, if the record sounds like a collection of reggae rhythm tracks recorded by session musicians in Jamaica, sent to Nashville for leads and ornamentation by American country string players, and then shipped off to the singers to add their vocal contributions, that’s largely because it is; the liner notes state this in no uncertain terms. While the quality of the musicians is extremely high—collaborators include reggae drum luminary Sly Dunbar and pedal steel legend Mike Johnson—the music itself is therefore fairly ‘safe,’ with each instrument playing a clear, compartmentalized, genre-defined role and straying little from it. There are, for example, occasional incidences of the backing musicians from one idiom toying with elements of the other (as when the lead banjo plays the trademark reggae guitar ‘skank’ pattern on L.U.S.T.’s rendition of The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers On the Wall”), but I think there was definitely fertile ground for more musical experimentation of this kind, and that a closer collaboration between the various groups of musicians themselves might have better facilitated it.

Overall, though, this is certainly an album worth checking out; there is not a song on here that I haven’t grown to love, though some certainly stand out more than others. Tarrus Riley’s version of “The Chair” by George Strait and Duane Stephenson’s interpretation of “Suspicions” by Eddie Rabbit are personal favorites, and even dancehall DJ Busy Signal’s autotuned vocals on his rendition of Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” somehow seem to work in the context of the project as a whole. In the liner notes, Cristy Barber explains that “with the music industry where it is now, we need more people at the reggae party and I am really hoping this album will give more exposure to the genre.”  I, on the other hand, am inclined to believe that it will do more to expose reggae fans to country classics than it will to inspire country aficionados to develop a taste for reggae’s contemporary trendsetters. Either way, Reggae’s Gone Country is undoubtedly a unique and thoroughly enjoyable first step in what may very well become a long series of collaborations between Nashville and Kingston, and I for one am quite interested to find out what directions these relationships may take in the future.


Reviewed by Eric Bindler

View review November 1st, 2011

Blind Boys of Alabama- Take The High Road

Title: Take the High Road

Artist: Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Saguaro Road Records

Formats: CD, Mp3

Catalog No.: 26393-D

Release Date: May 3, 2011


The Blind Boys of Alabama are a world renowned gospel quartet group that has graced churches and stages across the globe. In 2010, they were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. During the induction ceremony, they performed a number with up-and-coming country music star Jamey Johnson, which was such a success they were motivated to release an entire album of country music. The result is Take the High Road, a pleasant fusion of the BBA’s classic gospel quartet sounds with those more closely associated with country music.  Whether one is a fan of quartet, gospel, or country music, this album is sure to offer something to that will both delight and inspire.

This sacred music project draws on country music influences from several sources; through the musical content itself, the production capabilities of Jamey Johnson and also through the notable guest country artists that are featured.  The title track, “Take the High Road,” features the voices of fellow quartet The Oak Ridge Boys. This pairing occurs seamlessly as the voices of both groups create a powerful ensemble. In true tag-team fashion, members of both groups alternate leading this up-tempo piece. “Take the High Road” truly sets the tone for this album as a jubilant admonishment to keep the faith and persevere. More somber subjects are also explored, as seen in the selection “I Was Burden.” Featuring Lee Ann Womack, this piece discusses the redemptive power of a spiritual encounter stating, “I was a burden ‘til the Lord laid His hands on me.”

Following is the official music video for “Take the High Road”:

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The collection of songs covered in this album range from classic country and gospel tunes to popular hymns. One memorable selection is a song penned by popular bluesman McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters, titled “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You.” Its simplicity and straightforward message has made for easy adaptation to many church services over the years. Another notable selection is the hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” featuring Jamey Johnson. Notions of country music are immediately invoked in the introduction of the song with the inclusion of steady acoustic guitar strum. Likewise, Johnson’s mellow, soothing “drawl” provides a distinct yet pleasant contrast to BBA’s harmonization of the chorus.

Take the High Road serves as the ultimate reminder of the connectedness of musical expressions of the United States. The manner in which quartet gospel, country, and blues influences are fused throughout this album showcase not only the talents of these musicians but is also indicative of their common ancestry. I would suggest that one would be hard-pressed to strictly delineate where the “country” begins and the “gospel” ends as they share similar roots in early African American expressions. These sonic and expressive ties are highlighted and crafted throughout the album, which makes this musical collaboration a most excellent listening experience.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review August 1st, 2011

Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone

Title:   Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone

Artist:  Amédé Ardoin

Label:  Tompkins Square

Catalog No.:  TSQ 2554

Format:  2 CD set

Release date:  March 1, 2011

Tompkins Square recently launched its “Long Gone Sound” series with Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin, 1929-1934. This reissue project was obviously a labor of love for producer Christopher King, who also penned the liner notes and remastered directly from the original 78s, many from his own collection. The goal was to “represent, for the first time, every surviving recorded instance of Ardoin’s singing and playing.”

Amédé Ardoin, a rural black French-speaking Creole, became one of the most revered Cajun musicians in Louisiana. Rising to fame in the 1920s, he performed at dances and house parties for both black and white audiences throughout the bayou region and west into Texas.  His syncopated Afro-Creole accordion style and spirited vocals influenced everyone from first cousin Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin to later musicians such as Conray Fontenot and Iry LeJeune (who re-interpreted and popularized many of Ardoin’s songs in the1950s).  Ardoin frequently partnered with Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, and the pair made some of the earliest recordings of Cajun and Creole songs, ranging from one-steps, two-steps, waltzes, blues narratives, and love songs.

Though the majority of Ardoin’s output was previously released by Arhoolie on the CD I’m Never Comin’ Back (1995), the two-disc  Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone offers eight additional tracks featuring Ardoin and McGee.  These include rare recordings from their very first sessions in 1929: “Taunt Aline,”  “La Valse Ah Abe,” “Madam Atchen,” “Two Step De Mama,” “Two Step de Eunice,” and “Two Step de Prairie Solieau”—plus two tracks from their final 1934 session:  “Sunset” and “Tout Que Rest C’est Mon Linge.”

Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone is highly recommended. Anyone interested in Cajun music, the roots of Zydeco, or early fiddle and accordion styles will greatly appreciate this compilation.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review August 1st, 2011

Jook Joint Thunderclap

Title: Jook Joint Thunderclap

Artist: John-Alex Mason

Label: Naked Jaybird Music

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Catalog No.: NJBM008

Release Date: February 15, 2011

John-Alex Mason’s sixth full-length album, Jook Joint Thunderclap, branches out from his one-man band reputation. Although Mason’s signature guitar (acoustic, electric, and cigar-box) and floor drums sound comes through on several tracks, what really makes this album stand out from his previous work is the new elements brought in by Gerry Hundt’s mandolin, Fara Tolno’s djembe, Lightnin’ Malcolm’s guitar, Cedric Burnside’s drums, and most of all Cody Burnside’s rap-style vocals.  The result is a convincing and appealing fusion of a wide variety of styles that nevertheless allows Mason’s playing and singing to shine through.

“Delta Bound (Prologue)*” kicks off the album with a driving early rock ‘n’ roll feeling, cut with Gerry Hundt’s harmonica and Mason’s blues-colored singing.  The tune straddles generic boundaries with elements borrowed from multiple traditions, but clearly fits into Mason’s typical blues and rock style.  The sense of sharp juxtaposition increases in the second track, “Gone So Long.”  The track opens in a blues-rock style with electric guitar, drums, and Mason’s vocals, but abruptly changes tone as Cody Burnside’s rap-style rhymes reorient the listener’s perception of the guitar and drum parts.  The instruments take on more of a heavy acoustic funk quality under Burnside’s lyrics, even though they do not change significantly over the course of the track.

The next track, “More than Wind,” shifts gears once again, as Mason layers his slow blues delivery over the string-band sounds of fiddle (provided by Lionel Young) and mandolin.

Jook Joint Thunderclap absorbs an eclectic mix of influences from different musicians and performers.  Its juxtapositions of musical styles from track to track, as well as within each cut, might be disorienting were it not for Mason’s distinct vocal style bonding and anchoring the many voices that sound on the album.  It demonstrates both Mason’s flexibility and strong sense of personal identity as a musician, and its hybrid sound offers something for a wide variety of tastes.

*Note: Track 0, “Delta Bound (Prologue),” and track 12, “If You’ve Got a Good Friend (Epilogue),” are only included in the digital copy of the album via the Bandcamp website.

Reviewed by Paul E. Killinger

View review March 2nd, 2011

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Title: Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii

Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii

Label: Nonesuch Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog No.: 526130

Release Date: January 25, 2011

Collaboration on this album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Luminescent Orchestrii stemmed from an impromptu jam session at the Folk Alliance Festival in Memphis, TN.  The seven musicians played one of each band’s hits (“Knockin’” and “Hit ‘Em Up Style”), which later formed the core of this EP.

Luminescent Orchestrii (LO), formed in 2002, is an unlikely alliance of circus composer, old-time fiddle player, experimental theater composer, and free jazz bassist.  The New York-based band combines Romanian gypsy melodies and Appalachian folk fiddle with elements of funk, punk, and hip-hop—all the while transmitting a spirit of “traditional” music.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ (CCD) music is no less a product of hybridity.  The trio started with a pure traditionalist approach, making a weekly pilgrimage to Mebane, NC, to learn from an aged old-time fiddler.  When they struck out on their own, the “Drops” quickly gathered followers and musical influences.  The group acknowledges the historic roots of black string-band music, but the players are passionate about constant transformation and renewal of their music from other musical traditions such as Gaelic, blues, jazz, and hip-hop.

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The first track on the EP, “Short Dress Gal,” reimagines Sam Morgan’s New Orleans jazz tune from 1927.  Dom Flemon and Rhiannon Giddens’s (both of the CCD) vocal style on the choruses remains relatively faithful to Morgan’s, but the ensemble trades in the horn section of the 1920s for fiddle, electric guitar and bass, and vocal beatboxing.  On the verses, Flemons delivers in a straightforward hip-hop style.  The final bridge and chorus give a nod to the style of the Morgan original, as the band members cut loose in vocal imitations of a New Orleans-style horn section.

The LO leads the second track, “Escoutas (Diga Diga Diga).”  A fiddle intro sets a “traditional” stage in the opening bars, then the guitar and banjo transform the mood with a driving rhythm that is soon picked up by the voices.  This guitar and banjo rhythm—together with Adam Matta’s beatboxing—sustains the ensemble as the vocalists trade (Romanian?) rhythmic chanted lyrics with the fiddles who repeat and spin out their opening figure.  The track fades with Matta vocalizing a “trumpet” solo over hand claps from the band.

The third and fourth tracks recreate the performance that brought the two bands together at the Folk Alliance Festival.  “Hit ‘Em Up Style” first appeared on the CCD’s 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, and is a cover of R&B artist Blu Cantrell’s single from 2001.  “Knockin’” first appeared on LO’s 2005 album Too Hot to Sleep.  Both tracks maintain the bands’ tendencies for stylistic eclecticism with a story-telling spirit that makes their music sound age-old and fresh at the same time.

Reviewed by Paul E. Killinger

View review February 2nd, 2011

Rare Genius

Title: Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters

Artist: Ray Charles

Label: Concord

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: October 25, 2010

In honor of the 80th birthday of Ray Charles, Concord Records recently released Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters, a compilation culled from four decades worth of demos and other previously unreleased material.  Though only 40 minutes in length, the CD is loaded with treasures ranging from soul to country, pop and gospel.  And Concord didn’t skimp on the packaging either, contracting the noted soul and R&B authority Bill Dahl to pen the liner notes.

The disc opens with “Love’s Gonna Bite You Back” from March 1980, featuring what Dahl refers to as “a Charles vocal that’s a signature mixture of sandpaper grit and heavenly goodness.”  Other standout tracks include “I’m Gonna Keep on Singin'” (featuring the Raelettes), a bluesy cover of the country classic “A Little Bitty Tear,” and a jazzy arrangement of “Wheel of Fortune.”  The undisputed highlight of the album is Charles’ duet with another music legend, Johnny Cash, on Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?”—one of the biggest country/gospel crossover songs ever written. Recorded in 1981, for some unknown reason the duet was never released and was only recently discovered in the Sony vaults.

It should be noted that many of the selected tracks existed only as stripped down versions, which had to be re-engineered and overdubbed.  Concord organized a team of top-notch musicians to provide the sweetening: guitarists Keb’ Mo’ and George Doering; organist Bobby Sparks; trumpeter Gray Grant; trombonist Alan Kaplan; bassists Trey Henry and Chuck Berghofer; drummers Gregg Field and Ray Brinker; and background vocalist Eric Benet. This should not in any way be considered a remuddling of classic songs, as is so often the case with posthumous tweaking.   The musicians stayed true to the original versions, thus beathing new life into these treasures from the vault. All in all, a fitting tribute that will please both soul and country music fans.

Editor’s note:  Ray Charles’ scholars should note that the Archives of African American Music, home of Black Grooves, houses the Michael Lydon Collection, which includes all of the interviews Lydon recorded while writing Charles’ biography.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 6th, 2011

Black, White & Bluegrass

Title: Black, White & Bluegrass

Artist: Allerton & Alton

Format: CD

Label: Bear Family

Release date: November 23, 2010

The known number of African Americans playing country music prior to Charley Pride’s emergence in the mid 1960s is small. Most famous would be harpist Deford Bailey, founding member of the Grand Ole Opry, then maybe the Louis Armstrong-backed Jimmie Rodgers sessions, and there were of course several integrated string bands recording in the 1920s. But how many were vocalists? And how many were sharing a microphone while singing close harmony brother-style duets with a white man?

German reissue specialists Bear Family Records presents us with at least one: Allerton and Alton, known as the Cumberland Ridge Runners, performed in the Portland, ME area in the late 1940s and early 1950s until the Korean War called them both men into duty. Though no formal recordings were ever made for any label, several radio shows, demos, and home recordings were preserved and Bear Family has now released them to the public for the first time ever. In typical Bear Family style, the CD is nearly 80 minutes long and the booklet and liner notes are well written and lavishly illustrated. The story of how these men met, the nonchalant way in which they addressed the race issue, and how the segregated army forever changed their lives is a fascinating snapshot of mid-century American culture, the roots of bluegrass music, the devastating effects of war, and the power of music to transcend racial stereotypes and prejudices.

Consisting of three 15-minute radio programs, complete with introductions and banter between songs, the CD features the two Al’s carrying on the country music brother duet tradition (i.e. the Monroe Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, Bailes Brothers, etc.) while hamming up their put-on southern accents.  The radio announcer introduces their style of music as “hillbilly and folk music with mandolin and guitar.” Allerton himself calls their music “old-time picking and singing.” Liner notes author Hank Davis describes their style as “mountain music,” or “the roots of bluegrass.” However it is worded, the listener is treated to close harmony duet singing, blistering mandolin solos at break-neck speed, and Charlie Monroe-styled guitar runs on the acoustic guitar. Though the CD may garner much attention as the first issued recordings of country music’s first interracial duo, or even possibly as a prime example of 1940s and ‘50s hillbilly music from the Northeast, the music is flat-out entertaining for all country music fans and a special treat for anybody who enjoyed listening to the old-fashioned barn dance radio shows popular on WSM, WWVA, WLS, and the like.

Following is the promotional video:

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The liner notes benefit from extensive interviews with Al Hawkes (Allerton), who preserved the photos and recordings, as well as the family of Alton Meyers. Hawkes went on to found Event Records (recording a legacy of Northeast bluegrass, rockabilly, and country music) and has been acknowledged by several organizations as a pioneer in the bluegrass genre. This CD brings long-awaited attention to the early bluegrass contributions of Alton Meyers and adds yet another chapter to Hawkes’ legacy. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Nathan D. Gibson

View review December 1st, 2010

Feed My Soul

Title: Feed My Soul

Artist: The Holmes Brothers

Label: Alligator

Catalog No.: ALCD 4933

Format: CD

Release Date: March 2, 2010

The Holmes Brothers‘ music is hard to classify. Put this new CD into your iTunes library and it gets classified as blues.  Guitarist/vocalist Wendell Holmes says they play “American roots music” in a promotional video made by Alligator Records.  Even more than their other albums, this latest from the New York City-based band defies categorization.  There are soul tunes, blues tunes, gospel tunes and some country-western flavors; there are cover tunes and originals.  What results is a very enjoyable musical gumbo, with less edge but more soul than some of the band’s previous albums.

The Holmes Brothers―brothers Wendell and Sherman Holmes plus drummer Popsy Dixon―have been playing together since the 1970s, but didn’t make their first album (In the Spirit on Rounder) until 1989.  Since then, they’ve put out a steady stream of recordings and toured tirelessly.  All of that ground to a halt in 2008, when Wendell Holmes was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

Wendell Holmes’ successful battle with cancer is central to this album.  The time off the road led to more original tunes than any previous Holmes Brothers album.  Plus, the new songs resonate with reflections and lessons drawn from the cancer experience.  In all, Wendell Holmes wrote or co-wrote 7 of the album’s 14 tunes, and Sherman Holmes wrote two others.  The band also covers a tune by the Beatles, “I’ll Be Back.”  And they present the recording debut of “Something Is Missing” by John Ellison, who wrote the soul classic “Some Kind of Wonderful.”

The following is a behind the scenes look at the Holmes Brothers regarding the making of Feed My Soul.

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This album has a quiet intensity to it. It sounds comfortable, relaxed and natural.  Singer/songwriter Joan Osborne did a fine job producing it and singing backup on some cuts.  The recording, at Long View Farm Studios in Massachusetts, was well-done, adding to the laid-back feeling.  For example, Wendell Holmes’ guitar solos are generally panned right, not placed in your face in the center, and are somewhat back in the mix. In other words, the solos are in balance with the band and sounding like if the whole band is together in front of you, playing together.  It sounds and feels like a Holmes Brothers live performance, which is not to be missed.

The vocal harmonies are also a highlight of the album, as on all Holmes Brothers recordings.  These guys are older and maybe a little less edgy, but they still make beautiful harmonies and still have strong pipes.

The whole album flows very nicely, but there are stand-out cuts:  “Fair Weather Friend”; “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”; a cover of “Pledging My Love” by Don Robey and Ferdinand Washington; the cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back”; and the title track.  Here’s hoping the Holmes Brothers remain healthy and vital and turn out some more recordings!

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review June 1st, 2010

Genuine Negro Jig

Title: Genuine Negro Jig

Artist:  Carolina Chocolate Drops

Label: Nonesuch Records

Catalog No.: 516995-2

Format:  CD, MP3**

Release date:  February 16, 2010

The rise of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been detailed here since their quiet debut years ago (see Blackgrooves October  2006, December 2007, May 2008).  The popular press has paid a good amount of attention to their continuation of black stringband traditions, a tradition largely forgotten or ignored until recently.  The great enthusiasm for the Chocolate Drops work, be it musical, historical, or cultural is welcomed with open arms.  The energy produced by, and surrounding, this trio of young musicians indicates larger yearnings by players and enthusiasts of traditional American music; namely, that many feel uncomfortable with the racially divisive implications of genres like old-time and R&B, balladry and blues.  This enthusiasm, as well as the conflations of genres, is apparent in the early press and chart positions of the Chocolate Drops’ Nonesuch debut, Genuine Negro Jig.

This record, a remarkably diverse, accomplished, and thought provoking work, was greeted with great attention with coverage by national press, including NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Paste, Rolling Stone, and countless folk, blues, and old-time magazines and blog leading up to and following its Feb 16th release.  The record charted in the top ten on the Billboard Folk chart, and topped the Bluegrass chart.  Genuine Negro Jig is clearly popular, and also difficult to place.

This is largely due to the diversity of styles that are represented on this disc.  When the Chocolate Drops formed in 2005, brought together by the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, the bulk of their repertoire was given to them from elder North Carolina black fiddler Joe Thompson. This was the content of their debut record for Music Maker (see blackgrooves….), which surprised many listeners who didn’t know black musicians were part of this musical tradition.

Since their mentorship with Thompson, the Chocolate Drops continued to expand their repertoire to include jug band songs, ballads from the British Isles, country blues, and fresh versions of popular songs from more recent eras.  While rooted in stringband instrumentation, they pull from a while range of influences and find a way to match their talents to the song, regardless of genre, just like they say stringbands used to do in the early 20th century.

The result of these influences is the genre-busting collection found on Genuine Negro Jig.  Square dance style stringband tunes like those featured on Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind are still present here in the rousing “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind,” “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” “Cindy Gal” and “Sandy Boys.”  These are high-spirited fiddle and banjo driven songs, with the addition of instruments like the jug and bones (literally, cow bones used as a percussion instrument, which was a popular aspect of minstrel performances).  But the Chocolate Drops also bring styles inspired by early 20th century black stringbands characterized by the influence of jazz, such as the Papa Charlie Jackson tune, “You’re Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” and the blues-jazz influence is also heard on “Why Don’t You Do Right?” a song taken from the Harlem Hamfats. “Why Don’t You Do Right?” is a terrific vehicle for Rhiannon Giddings’s tremendous vocal talents.  Classically trained at Oberlin Conservatory, Giddens’s voice is extremely versatile.  She is able to adapt effortlessly from the slow blues of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” to the English ballad “Reynadine” to the soulful vocals of one of their biggest crowd pleasers, “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”

Following is a clip of the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing “Hit’ Em Up Style” at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special (courtesy of Knox News):

“Hit ‘Em Up Style,” is the most obvious point to notice the Chocolate Drops connections between repertoires, as well as displaying their ideas about traditionality.  A cover of a 2001 R&B hit for Blue Cantrell, the song is lead by Giddens singing and playing fiddle, with Flemons accompanying on tenor banjo, and Robinson providing a beat-box.  The space that connects “traditional” and “modern” is exactly the territory the Chocolate Drops occupy so well.  As explained by Giddens, the song of a women seeking revenge on her cheating man is perfectly resonant with themes of country and blues songs from generations back.  It also gets to the heart of the creativity of these three performers, who have no desire to be “preservationists,” as Robinson puts it, but to add their own creative voice to make the songs theirs.

To this end Genuine Negro Jig contains their first original song, Justin Robinson’s hauntingly beautiful “Kissin’ and Cussin’.”  While utterly original, this song not only makes fine use of the autoharp (an instrument not commonly featured outside folk and old-time music) but also borrows phrases from American songs from the 1920s in allusions to Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues.”

The last song that deserves special attention is the title track, not only because it synthesizes so many of the traditional/modern issues embodied by the Chocolate Drops, such as the creative use of foot stomps, fiddle and bones, but also because of its historical significance.  “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)” was a tune Dan Emmett learned from the Snowden family in Ohio in the late 19th century.  Emmett is commonly known as the composer of “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the South. “Snowden’s Jig” as an example of both musical and social exchanged between white and black musicians, lead historians Judith and Howard Sacks to further investigate the relationship between Emmett and the Snowdens. This ultimately lead to suggesting that the Snowden’s, rather than Emmett, were the actual composers of “Dixie.”

This hints to the fact that the Chocolate Drops represent something significant. Their success musically, and their popular reception, indicate new territory is being opened in African American music in areas that have largely become associated with white America.   Genuine Negro Jig contains new sounds brought about by musicians who seek to educate, but more importantly to create music that speaks to their experience in life, informed equally by tradition and creativity.   It is a fantastic lesson, and an endlessly enjoyable listen.

**[Note from Nonesuch]: Customers ordering Genuine Negro Jig through the Nonesuch Store receive the album both on CD and as audiophile-quality, 320 kbps MP3s. In addition, with those MP3s will be a full seven Nonesuch Store-exclusive bonus tracks, all recorded before a live audience at Santa Monica’s famed Village Recorder studio in November 2009.


Sacks, Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks. 2003. Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review March 5th, 2010

Welcome to the January 2010 Issue

This month we’re cleaning house and taking a look at some worthy albums from 2009 that we didn’t have a chance to feature in earlier issues. In addition to three full length reviews—Rev. Timothy Wright’s The Godfather of Gospel, Wu-Tang Chamber Music, and Will Downing’s Classique—we’ve picked over 40 jazz, blues, hip hop, soul, rock, funk and world music albums that we think deserve more attention. Featured artists include Ray Charles, Calvin Richardson, K’Naan, Willie Isz, Tanya Morgan, T-K.A.S.H., Mos Def, Dead Prez, Fashawn, Fela, Alex Cuba, Ricardo Lemvo, Rokia Traore, Mulatu Astatke, Jahdan Blakkamore, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Cyril Neville, Otis Taylor, Red Halloway, Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings, and more.

There are some other great albums released in late 2009 that we still hope to cover in the coming months, so stay tuned.

View review January 12th, 2010

Rock, Funk ‘n’ Soul with a little Country

Title:  Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Artist:  Ray Charles

Label:  Concord Records

Format:  CD, MP3

Catalog No.:  CRE-31337

Release date:   June 2, 2009


Drawing on his own rural roots, and the notion that good songs have nothing to do with genre limitations, Ray Charles released his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 1 and its follow-up Vol. 2 in 1962.  For this release, Concord Records has remastered both volumes and released them together on one CD, marking the first time Vol. 2 has ever been released on compact disc.  From “Bye Bye Love” to “Your Cheating Heart,” Charles and his backing band make these tunes shake and swing, croon and wail, showcasing his powerful interpretive abilities as well as his musical vitality.

The story of the landmark recording Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is featured in this edition of the podcast series, “Ray Charles, Genius,” produced by Bret Primack for Concord Records:


Title:  EarthsBlood

Artist:  God Forbid

Label:  Century Media

Format: CD, MP3

Catalog No.: 8519-2

Release date: February 24, 2009

God Forbid is a New Jersey-based bi-racial heavy metal group fronted by Byron Davis and featuring drummer Corey Pierce, well known for their ability to traverse and blend myriad subgenres and substyles within metal.  EarthsBlood comprises two discs: a new studio album, and a live recording from the Starland Ballroom in New Jersey.  The former showcases the band’s tight rhythms, varied textures, and melodic intensity, while the latter makes a good representation of their previous work and blistering live energy.

Here is the official video for “War Of Attrition” from the album Earthsblood (courtesy of Century Media Records):


Title:  Facts of Life:  The Soul of Bobby Womack

Artist:  Calvin Richardson

Label:  Shanachie Records

Format:  CD, MP3

Catalog No.:  SH 5779

Release date:   August 25, 2009

Southern soul singer Calvin Richardson has a reputation for singing like he’s from the generation of ‘70s soul, not the generation of neo-soul and urban contemporary music.  Consequently, Facts of Life, Richardson’s tribute to soul legend Bobby Womack, is a fitting application of his style and talents.  From “Across 110th St.” to “Love Has Finally Come At Last,” Richardson delivers with both sophistication and grit, doing justice to Womack’s legacy and repertoire.

Here is the official music video of Calvin Richardson covering Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Got To Have It” (Courtesy of Down Home Films):


Title:  Less than Lion

Artist:  Divisable

Label: self-released

Format:  CD, MP3

Release date:  August 2009

This Los Angeles-based band, fronted by lead singer Shola Akinshemoyin Vaughn and featuring Albert Sadia on drums, mixes alternative rock and electronica with Afro-beats in their first full-length release.  The songs on the album are said to reflect on Shola’s journey to Ghana to reconcile with her father, but don’t be fooled by the cover.  This is not world music per se, and it’s not overtly Afro-centric, but it’s a definite move in that direction from their initial EP, which was straight ahead indie rock.  Definitely a group to watch.

Here is the official music video for “Love is the Cost” from the album Less than Lion (Courtesy of Divisable):


Title:  My World

Artist:  Lee Fields & the Expressions

Label:  Truth & Soul

Format:  CD, LP, MP3

Release date:  June 2, 2009

If you like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, you might wish to check out Lee Fields & the Expressions. Fields, a funk/soul  veteran who first emerged in the 1970s, has been compared to James Brown so often that he was nicknamed “Little J.B.”   Fields is now back on the scene, riding the popularity of the “new soul revival movement” and crate digger’s affinity for hard funk.  Though most of the album is based on the old-school funk model complete with horns, strings, and vibes, there’s just enough of a hip hop edge on the production to lend a more contemporary feel.

Following is a video of Lee Fields & The Expressions performing “Love Comes And Goes” (from My World) live at Southpaw in Brooklyn on June 5th, 2009 (Courtesy of Truth & Soul Records):


Posted by Ann Shaffer and Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 12th, 2010

Take Me to the Water

Title: Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950

Format:  Book with CD

Catalog No.: DTD-13
ISBN: 978-0-9817342-1-7
Publisher: Dust-to-Digital
Release Date: May 26, 2009

Dust-to-Digital has done it again. The company that produced Goodbye Babylon, a wonderful historical CD set of early gospel recordings lovingly tucked into a wooden crate packed with genuine southern cotton, has followed up with another unique gospel offering.  Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950 is half picture book, half liner notes in the form of a hardcover book with an accompanying CD affixed inside the back cover.

The bulk of the 96-page book features beautifully reproduced sepia-toned photographs of  “immersion baptism” from the collection of Jim Linderman; that is, out-of-doors full body immersion in lakes and rivers, often en masse. Included are some extremely rare, early images of African American baptisms such as the panorama stretching across the back and front covers labeled “Black Billy Sunday, Indianapolis, Aug. 3, 1919, Baptising at Fall Creek” (one of the few images with such a complete identification).  A brief essay by Luc Sante provides the context necessary to understand the images, including a general history of baptism, an overview of the featured denominations, and a description of the settings and emotionally charged states of the participants.

Take Me to the Water from Dust-to-Digital on Vimeo.

Now, on to the music. The 25 “Songs and Sermons” on the accompanying CD are “derived from extremely rare records” from the collections of Steven Lance Ledbetter (Dust-to-Digital’s owner/producer) and legendary record collector Joe Bussard, among others, and ” have been remastered to produce the best possible sound.”  Ledbetter also wrote the accompanying liner notes, included at the end of the book. The tracks, of course, all have a baptism/water theme, including various renditions of “Wade in the Water” (a few also appeared on Goodbye Babylon). Selections range from such African American heavyweights as the Rev. J. M. Gates (his singing sermon “Baptize Me” from 1926) to lesser known artists such as Moses Mason (“Go Wash in the Beautiful Stream’) and Rev. E. D. Campbell (“Take Me to the Water”).  White southern gospel artists include the Carter Family (“On My Way to Canaan’s Land”), the Carolina Tar Heels (“I’ll Be Washed”), and Ernest Stoneman’s Dixie Mountaineers (“Down to Jordan and Be Saved”).

Together, the photographs and music make a stunning package. As Sante states in his essay, “Whether you have ever actually experienced a baptism or not, whether you are a believer or not, these pictures and the music that accompanies them transmit all the emotional information: the excitement and the serenity, the fellowship and the warmth, the wind and the water.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review August 27th, 2009

Classic Protest Songs

Title: Classic Protest Songs from Smithsonian Folkways

Artists:  Various

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog No.: SFW 40197

Release Date: 2009

War, social injustice, personal plaints, and calls for action have long fueled musical creation and performance—Liner Notes.

Folkways Records, founded by Moses Asch in 1948, emerged on the heels of the social protests of the 1930s and 1940s.  In fact, Asch created something of a haven for left-leaning musicians, both black and white, such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White, who became staples of the famous folk music label.  For this compilation, Jeff Place and Mark Gustafson (Smithsonian Folkways’ staff) selected 22 tracks from the Folkways’ vault, as well as from other labels more recently acquired by Smithsonian Folkways, including Monitor and Paragon (the latter was founded in 1970 to document the music of political movements worldwide).  An effort was made to represent a broad spectrum of the struggles for economic and social justice, from anti-war protests to civil rights anthems to songs used by union organizers and the labor movement. Place and Gustafson also sought to demonstrate that protest songs did not originate with the folk music revival, thus a number of pre-1950 tracks were included.

African American artists are well represented on this compilation.  The disc opens with the “Freedom Now Chant,” sung by participants during a Civil Rights era mass-meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and collected by noted scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon. One of the most famous African American folk singers, Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, is represented by a 1930 recording of “Bourgeois Blues,” inspired by the time (presumably one of many) that he was denied a room in a Washington, D.C. hotel.

Big Bill Broonzy, perhaps equally famous as one of the seminal pre-WWII blues artists, contributes “Black, Brown, and White,” a song so controversial in the U.S. that he ended up recording it in Europe.  For those who aren’t familiar with the song, the refrain is “If you was white, you’re alright / if you’re brown, stick around / but if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”

An even more controversial song, “Strange Fruit,” is provided by Brother John Sellers, a blues and gospel singer who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. His 1961 arrangement with flute, guitar, and drum accompaniment offers an interesting contrast to the classic Billie Holiday version, though I find that the flute distracts from the haunting lyrics.

One of the gems on the set is a previously unreleased 1946 recording by Champion Jack Dupree, “I’m Going To Write the Governor of Georgia,” referencing the racism he continued to confront upon his return to the U.S. after WWII, and implying that he was treated little better than he had been during his two years as a Japanese P.O.W.  Obviously the song made little difference, for Dupree fled to Europe in the 1950s and didn’t return until shortly before his death in the early ‘90s.

Classic Protest Songs comes with a well-illustrated, well-annotated 29 p. booklet which includes a bibliography and discography of suggested reading/listening.  If you don’t have the original Folkways/Paredon/Monitor recordings, this compilation will make a fine addition to your collection.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 9th, 2009

Ultimate Hits Collection

Title: The Ultimate Hits Collection

Artist: Charley Pride
Label: Music City Records
Catalog No.: 05297
Release date:  January 20, 2009

There is no dearth of Charley Pride collections in existence.  Thus, the questions surrounding any new collection are: what is so special about this one?  And how does it measure up to the leading standard, in this case BMG Heritage’s 2003 Anthology.

The newly released Ultimate Hits Collection, a double-disc of 32 tracks of good quality reissues, but with limited notes, provides a good retrospective of Pride’s career without any major omissions, but the problems of this collection are deeper.

Music City Records, a small label (perhaps a personal project of Pride’s, though unconfirmed) is making a concentrated effort to sustain interest in the once great country music star, and this compilation includes material from his heyday, beginning in 1966, through his latest gospel effort in 2006.  During his reign as a hit maker (mid 1960s to early 1980s), Charley Pride was the only black mainstream country music star, and it’s not insignificant that after years of such isolation he has turned to gospel music in the 21st century, where blackness is the standard.  Yet this transition remains mostly ignored in this collection, including only two tracks from recent gospel works, “Jesus, It’s Me Again,” and “Amazing Grace.”

The problem with reissuing Charley Pride is twofold– there are no new perspectives presented here, and the disc fails to cast Pride in a light that makes him seem relevant.  Charley Pride was a major force to be sure. As a member of the Grand Ole Opry with 24 #1 Country hits, back to back winner of the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year (1971-1972), and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, he doesn’t have to worry about his place in country music history.  He does, however, need to worry about his place in country music today.

Compared to other country music icons such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Loretta Lynn and Marty Stuart, Charley Pride (and this collection) have done very little to connect his pioneering work to contemporary audiences.  In an era where gospel music has become a major secular musical form, and at a time when Darius Rucker (of Hootie & the Blowfish) is providing the country charts their first black performer since Pride, the importance of examining Pride’s career would seem prime for deeper understanding. What we are given here are such platitudes as “As of 2008, Pride continues to tour regularly throughout the United States and Europe… he also enjoys playing golf, spending time with his family and working out with the Texas Rangers.”

Yet even if the packaging, liner notes, and general presentation fall short of something significant and new, a light shone on Charley Pride is always welcome.  This double-disc collection includes all the hits that made Pride a household name, and further proves that he deserved every accolade garnered in his career, reminding us of just how good he was.  The Ultimate Hits Collection reminds us of the huge appeal of hits like “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger,” “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and “I Know One.”  His powerful baritone against back-up singers, steel guitars, and string arrangements, creates a nostalgic appreciation of the trajectory of the mainstream country sound.  Though often surrounded by different country sounds, Pride is never bested by production, a claim that cannot be said of all 1970s country stars.  Pride makes the song his, whether he’s nostalgic, in love, heartbroken, or singing praise, Pride has the ability of all great country performers to make you think these songs were written on the edge of a motel room bed, or on a barroom cocktail napkin.

Pride is poised for a crossover comeback along the lines of Johnny Cash’s late American recordings with Rick Rubin, or Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White.  What would serve him best at this stage is to tap into the incredible creativity and force behind gospel music today, and highlight the long-standing connections between country music and gospel.  Yet to do this, he would first have to come in from the golf course, and really get to work.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review March 6th, 2009

R&B, Soul, Funk and Rock

Tom Morello.  The Fabled City (Red Ink, September 2008)

Morello, best known as a heavy metal guitarist and former member of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine, now has another claim to fame as the “other half-Kenyan Harvard graduate from Illinois.” His latest solo album also reflects another side, which is decidedly folksy, but with a definite political edge. Morello is no stranger to politics- his father was Kenya’s first black delegate to the United Nations and his parents met during Kenya’s struggle for independance. Here, in his alter ego as Nightwatchman, he tackles a number of issues ranging from post-Katrina New Orleans to war.  His distinctive songwriting along with his acoustic vocal-guitar arrangements have already led many to brand him as something of a modern day Dylan.

Richie Havens.  Nobody Left to Crown (Verve Forecast, March 2008)

Noted ’60s folk singer Richie Havens recently released his first studio album in four years, singing covers of Pete Townshend (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”), Peter, Paul & Mary (“The Great Mandala-The Wheel of Life”) and Jackson Browne (“Lives in the Balance”).  The majority of the album, however, features new material composed largely by Havens, including the title track which lambasts political leaders and “Fates,” his ode against capitalism.

Estelle. Shine (Atlantic, April 2008)

British R&B songstress Estelle has hit it big with her sophomore release, which has garnered significant attention including placement on many “Best of 2008” lists.  Kanye West, John Legend, and Cee-lo make guest appearances, ensuring success on this side of the pond, while Wyclef Jean and lend a hand on production. A major selling point is the album’s diversity. By incorporating elements of dance-hall, hip hop, R&B, soul and ska, every track offers up something distinctly new and fresh.

Conya Doss.  Still (Conya Doss Songs,April 2008)

Neo-soul singer/songwriter Conya Doss is a native of Cleveland who has been developing a considerable following, especially in Europe, since her debut album was released in 2002. Despite this fact, she still doesn’t have the backing of a major label and continues to self-release her projects, while earning a living as a teacher in the Cleveland public schools. Still features 14 tracks with a predominant focus on love and relationships that never become overly sentimental, and she keeps up the pace by alternating between up-tempo numbers and ballads.

Hil St. Soul.  Black Rose (Shanachie, April 2008)

Hil St. Soul is a duo featuring Zambian-born, London-raised neo-soul singer/songwriter Hilary Mwelwa and Victor Redwood Sawyerr, an instrumentalist and producer, who also shares songwriting credits. Like Doss, Hil St. Soul’s music largely appeals to the over-30 crowd and thus has been ignored by the major labels. Case in point, the song “Sweetest Days” reminisces about the time when “There was no Nintendo or computer games but a natural interaction with your friends.”  But if you fall into this demographic and enjoy original soul with a dose of jazz, R&B, funk, and hip hop, you might want to check out this album.

Raheem DeVaughn.  Love Behind the Melody (Jive, January 2008)

There are any number of young R&B singers we could have added to the list, but we have to give credit to Raheem Devaughn for keeping the soul alive, and keeping it fresh with healthy doses of hip hop. In an effort not to be constrained or classified, Devaughn claims to be a “R&B-hippie-neosoul-rock star.” His music almost achieves this level of diversity.  He frequently references classic R&B, such as when “Friday (Shut the Club Down)” playfully evolves into “My Girl,” and “Butterflies” is somewhat reminiscent of British-invasion era rock. What most impresses, besides his incredible vocal technique, is his ability to reach a wide audience without selling out.

View review January 8th, 2009

World, Folk and Reggae Music

Concha Buika.  Nina de Fuego (Wea International, August 2008)

Concha Buika is a Spanish artist of African descent. Born on the island of Majorca, her parents were refugees from Equatorial Guinea.  Though extremely popular in Spain, Buika is just beginning to garner international attention for her unique brand of flamenco fusion. Niña de Fuego, her third album, recently received a Latin Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Possessing a uniquely husky voice, Buika takes on the Spanish copla, then adds some ranchera songs along with several new songs she composed in collaboration with Javier Limón, who has produced some of flamenco’s biggest stars.

Cedric Watson.  Cedric Watson (Valcour Records, March 2008)

Watson is an accomplished fiddler from Louisianna (via Texas) who specializes in reviving old Creole fiddling styles while striving to make this music accessible to new audiences. He honed his skills while playing with Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers, Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, and most recently the Pine Leaf Boys. On his self-titled new release he offers up a number of new songs that he composed, including “Cedric Zydeco,” “TexaCreole Two-Step,” and “Zydeco du Violon,” along with his own arrangements of traditional tunes such as “La Valse de Grand Basile” and “La Vieille Chanson de Mardi Gras.” In addition to fiddle, Watson also pitches in on accordian and vocals, and is assisted by Jeffrey Broussard on electric bass, Chas Justus on electric and acoustic guitar, and Corey Ledet on scrubboard and triangle, among others.

Black Stars: Ghana’s Hiplife Generation (Out Here Records, May 2008)

This compilation documents the development of hiplife, a hybrid form of hip hop and highlife that emerged in Ghana in the 1990s.  The music draws on various international forms- including American and Jamaican hip hop, R&B, Afro-Cuban jazz, dancehall, ragga and reggae- while incorporating indiginous Ghanian languages (rapping in Twi), styles and instruments, such as the two-stringed kolgo. Featured artists include Reggie Rockstone (known as the “Godfather of Hiplife”), Tic Tac, Batman Samini (“King of African Dancehall”), King Ayisoba, and Ofori Amponsah, along with several artists representing the London diaspora.

Burning Spear.  Jah is Real (Burning Music, August 2008)

One of the biggest names in reggae roots music, Burning Spear (a.k.a. Winston Rodney) has released his most ambitious record since relocating to Queens, New York several years ago. Most notable are the contributions of Parliament Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins on bass and Bernie Worrell on keyboards, who add a heavy dose of funk to the mix. The political messages, however, are still at the forefront, especially on “One Africa” and “No Compromise.”

Seckou Keita Quintet.  Silimbo Passage (World Adventures, June 2008)

Senegalese-born Seckou Keita, also known as the “Hendrix of kora,” fronts this UK-based quintet, which also features his sister Binta Suso on vocals and his brother Surahata Susso on drums, along with Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai and Italian bassist Davide Montovani. Intent on expanding the traditional range of the kora, Keita experiments here with new tunings while also drawing upon his griot roots and incorporating a vast range of African and international influences.

View review January 8th, 2009

More Dirty Laundry

Title: More Dirty Laundry: The Soul of Black Country
Artists: Various
Label: Trikont (Germany)
Catalog No.: US-0333
Release date: 2008

More Dirty Laundry: The Soul of Black Country is the second in a pair of discs dedicated to an expansive and inclusive look at black contributions to country music, and the breadth of music that falls into the realm of County Soul is enough, I hope, to fill more compilations in the future.

The artists included on the disc are not exactly names one might consider when thinking of black country musicians. Of course, if it were limited to the standard black country artists, there would hardly be enough material for two compilations. Charlie Pride, DeFord Bailey (the Grand Old Opry’s first black star), and Ray Charles, with his genre shattering Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, are nowhere to be found on either disc. This is by design, since those artists are well documented elsewhere. Dirty Laundry (released in 2004) and its sequel, More Dirty Laundry (2008), provide “a collection of black approaches to country music” which is both a more inclusive and a more accurate representation of African American contributions. Because the institutionalization of country music essentially cut black musicians out of the picture, black artists have had to find different ways to approach the genre.

Listening to these compilations becomes a game of rethinking what country music is. Can you hear the country in Ruth Brown’s rhythm and blues version of the country standard “Tennessee Waltz”? Can you hear a Merle Haggard type twang in the voice of Stoney Edwards on “Honky Tonk Heaven”? Or conversely, can you hear the “soul,” (which is to say “blackness”) in the honky-tonk piano and pedal steel of Vicki Vann’s “You Must Think My Heart Has Swinging Doors”?

More Dirty Laundry gets to the heart of what one associates with country music. And who’s doing the associating. If country is limited to pedal steels, honky-tonk piano, and southern twang, Country Soul keeps all those elements, but also adds horns, gospel stylings, back-up singers, and soulful singing by artists like Solomon Burke and Bobby Womack that would make Hank Williams blush.

But country music isn’t just limited to the instrumentation and sonic textures, but is as much wrapped up in the history, the heartbreaks, and stories of the songs. Arthur Alexander’s “Everyday I Have To Cry,” and O.B. McClinton’s “If Loving You Is Wrong” ring the same sad tones often associated with the lily white country music from George Jones to Garth Brooks. O.C. Smith’s “The Son of Hickory Holler Tramp” is as compelling a story of country roots as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” again, with a different approach. Take a story of pride in humble Southern beginnings and a deep devotion to family, swap the twangy telecaster and banjo of Loretta Lynn’s version for Smith’s driving bass guitar and blaring horn section, and you have two musical approaches to the same material.

Both Dirty Laundry and More Dirty Laundry make fantastic listening experiences. They cull from a wide and deep tradition that has been hidden in the cracks of other genres. Many of the artists represented here are famous in their own right (Ike and Tina Turner, Solomon Burke, James Brown), just not as country music stars. Fantastic liner notes by Jonathan Fischer provide an outline of the history of black participation and influence on the trajectory of country music as well as detailing each performer’s individual connection to country music, often through writing and producing credits for white stars.

These records may not be what you expect, and because of that, they make us realize how narrow our expectations have become.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review November 7th, 2008

Up Jumped the Devil

Title: Up Jumped the Devil: American “Devil” Songs, 1920s-1950s

Artists: Various

Label: Viper (UK); Phantom Sound & Vision (US Import)

Catalog No.: CD047

Release date: June 2, 2008

Up Jumped the Devil is an interesting idea; American “Devil” Songs traces, in a loose fashion, various appearances of the devil in American music from Jelly Roll Morton ‘s “Boogaboo” in 1928 to Gene Vincent’s “Race with the Devil” in 1956. But what is most interesting and fun about the disc are the particular songs that populate the 20-track compilation. Focusing on the 1920s through the 1950s, the CD traces the movement of American music from the more distinct genres of blues, gospel, jazz, and folk to later confluences of these styles. The mixing currents are heard in the guitar of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the jazz rhythms of Washboard Sam, and the country, blues, and gospel influences of Gene Vincent’s rockabilly.

The UK has a long history of deep explorations into American music, and the Viper label does justice to that legacy with this release. Not satisfied with repackaging the most commonly heard cuts that may have referenced the devil, Up Jumped the Devil finds more obscure cuts that make the disc worth owning.

The content ranges from county blues of lesser known guitarist “Bo Carter” Chatmon (slightly more famous for performing with his brothers as the Mississippi Sheiks), to the more famous Skip James, and, of course, the most famous connection of bluesmen to the devil, Robert Johnson. Included here is Johnson’s “Me and The Devil Blues,” rather than his more commonly anthologized “Hellhound on My Trail.” Also featured are foot stomping piano and electric guitar tracks from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Otis Spann. These rhythm and blues tracks demonstrate the driving force, the wild solos, and the groove which would fuel the debates of those who both praised and derided rock ‘n’ roll in subsequent years.

The inclusion of jazz tunes (some sounding hilariously innocuous, such as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Boogaboo”) from the early part of the century also provides a broader context, illustrating how the motif of the devil played out in different genres. With the Kansas City Six, “Pagin’ the Devil” seems an obviously tongue in cheek reference to the new sounds of Charlie Christian’s electric guitar, leading the listen to believe some took the idea of the devil’s influence on music more seriously than others.

Not only is the disc a mix of genres with their attendant versions of what the devil’s influence did or did not mean, but it also culls from both black and white musical traditions. While stylistically segregated, the motif runs through both histories, which is a helpful bit of thinking since when the 1950s came along, the notions of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll blurred racial lines in music.

Up Jumped the Devil provides no clear thesis on what the devil motif means in American music. In fact, the diversity of meanings implies that a unified vision never existed. For many of the bluesmen, the devil was an explanation of their women’s wild ways, and an excuse for violence towards them, whereas with some of the jazz tunes, it could be inferred as a reckless freedom of rhythm and sound. The tracks go back and forth between musical styles and musical meanings, allowing the listening to find connections whereever they like. Similarly, the sequence of the songs is not chronological, but jumps through time and genre to provide a patchwork of Americana within this forty year span.

Comprehensive liner notes were written by Steve Hardstaff, who also did the graphic design work which is clearly influenced by R. Crumb’s illustrations of early jazz, blues, and country music.

Track listing:

  1. Gene Vincent – Race With the Devil (1956)
  2. Fats Waller – There’s Going To Be the Devil To Pay (1935)
  3. Bo Carter – Old Devil (circa 1938)
  4. Charlie Christian – Pagin’ the Devil (1939)
  5. Woodie Brothers – Chased Old Satan Through the Door (1931)
  6. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – Little Demon (1956)
  7. Byron Parker and his Mountaineers – Up Jumped the Devil (1940)
  8. Skip James – Devil Got My Women (1931)
  9. Fess Parker and his Royal Flush Orchestra – Feelin’ Devilish (1930)
  10. Bessie Smith – Blue Spirit Blues (1929)
  11. Oliver Brown – Oh You Devil You (1935)
  12. The Clovers – Devil or Angel (1955)
  13. Almanac Singers – Get Behind Me Satan (1941)
  14. Sister Rosetta Tharpe – The Devil Has Thrown Him Down (1943)
  15. Powder River Jack and Kitty Lee – Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail (circa 1930)
  16. Washboard Sam – She Belongs to the Devil (1941)
  17. Jack Teagarden – Putting Salt on the Devil’s Tail (circa 1941)
  18. Otis Spann – I’d Rather Be the Devil (1954)
  19. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers – Boogaboo (1928)
  20. Robert Johnson – Me and the Devil Blues, version 1 (1937)

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review October 10th, 2008

Great Debaters

Title: Great Debaters: Music From & Recorded for the Motion Picture

Artists: Various

Label: Atlantic Records

Catalog No.: 396860

Date: 2007

Alvin Youngblood Hart, one of the key players on Otis Taylor’s recently released CD Recapturing the Banjo (reviewed in the March issue), is also central to the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington film, The Great Debaters, which tells an untold story of Black Americans in the 1930s. The film centers around a Texas Negro College’s debating team, coached by charismatic poet and communist agitator Melvin Tolson, played by Washington, and their historic victory over Harvard University. Scott Barretta’s notes indicate that “Washington [who directed the film] was looking for authentic material – whether blues, jazz, gospel, or country – that best suited the film.”

Indeed the soundtrack does offer a variety of musical styles, leading off with the strong and stirring “My Soul Is A Witness,” a contemporary take on a “ring shout” rendered on acoustic guitar and djembe (West African drum) and cajon (Afro-Peruvian box drum). Built around the repetition of the title phrase, and given call and response antiphony by Hart and soul singer Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings fame), “My Soul Is A Witness,” comes as close as anything to recreating the musical frenzy of Austin Coleman’s original. This opening track demonstrates with passion that while the music may be informed by historic “authenticity,” it is anything but a dusty museum piece.

Throughout The Great Debaters Hart, leading on acoustic guitar and vocals, shares the spotlight with Jones as well as Memphis guitarist Teenie Hodges, The Angelic Voices of Faith gospel chorus, and North Carolina string-band revivalists The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Together they create a vibrate patchwork of music, both sacred and secular, somber and exuberant, that powers along like a freight train. “Step It Up and Go” sets the tone with a finger popping country-blues, and “It’s Tight Like That” showcases Jones’s smoky vocals on a soulful reinterpretation of a early “hokum” standard by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom (aka Thomas Dorsey). Another standout is “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,” a song made popular in the 1930s as a guitar/fiddle duo by the Mississippi Sheiks (who had a bestseller with “Sittin’ On Top of the World”). Here it is given full string band treatment by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Hart, who capture the spirit of the music without loosing the historical value and without compromising the rather arcane lyrics.

While filled with images from the film, the liner notes take the reader step-by-step through the history of each song and the basis for its inclusion in an effort to flush out the soundscape of the period. It should also be mentioned that two historical recordings are included, Marion Anderson singing Handel’s “Begrussung,” and Art Tatum’s “The Shout.” While differing musically from most of the acoustic blues, country, and jazz tunes, they are no less a part of that diverse soundscape.

It’s a shame that The Great Debaters project came together as a soundtrack that will inevitably limit its shelf life once the public has forgotten the largely forgettable film. In a just world The Great Debaters soundtrack would be experiencing the same unprecedented success as the O Brother, Where Art Thou album/phenomenon. Yet at the same time it’s heartening to see such revivalism taking place, where tradition isn’t left behind, but also isn’t doggedly adhered to by limiting the abilities and tastes of creative artists, or by assumptions regarding the limited tastes of listeners.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review May 9th, 2008

John Work III: Recording Black Culture

Title: John Work, III: Recording Black Culture

Artists: Various

Label: Spring Fed Records

Catalog No.: SFR 104

Date: 2007

In 1993 Alan Lomax published his book The Land Where the Blues Began, to great popular and critical acclaim. The book told the story of his collecting adventures in the Mississippi Delta fifty years earlier, “discovering” and recording artists such as Son House, Muddy Waters, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. In their co-edited book Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov detail the larger picture of the same collecting trips made by Lomax in the early 1940s by including the equally large contributions of Fisk University scholars (a collaboration which was almost completely obfuscated in The Land Where the Blues Began) and paying particular attention to the work of John Wesley Work, III. With the release of the CD John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, we now have the music to match the text of Lost Delta Found (through it’s not a companion piece), along with greater evidence of the variety of black musical culture in the early part of the twentieth century.

Recording Black Culture separates its14 tracks into six categories: Social Songs (fiddle and banjo tunes), The Quartets, Work Song, Congregational Singing, Blues, and Colored Sacred Harp (shape note congregational singing). On display here are both secular and sacred musics, though the liner notes indicate Work was mostly interested in secular “folk” musics. The wide range of music that is offered was almost entirely recorded before Work and his Fisk colleagues joined forces with Lomax and the Library of Congress for the trip to the delta. Work’s recordings were done in and around Nashville Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Many of the recordings have poor fidelity (even for historical recordings) and lend some insight as to why Fisk may have contacted the Library of Congress about a joint venture into the Delta: they wanted the more sophisticated equipment used by Lomax. In this regard Work was right, the tracks that surfaced later in Lomax’s collections are much higher in fidelity (e.g., The Land Where the Blues Began Rounder CD) and Work’s recordings are surely more interesting to a scholar than to most casual listeners.

Of the highest fidelity and given five tracks on the compilation are songs of The Quartets, including, with an egalitarian sprite, the Holloway High School Quartet, The Fairfield Four, The Heavenly Gate Quartet (a group of Work’s friends who sang together), and two unnamed groups. Here we have vocal harmony groups singing religious music in jubilee style with tight vocal parts and pulsating rhythms. The intimate sound of the quartets, specifically on the two tracks of the Heavenly Gate Quartet, provide great examples of vernacular presentations of popular stylings of the day, including “If I Had My Way.” Other tracks on the album, such as the congregational version of “Amazing Grace,” are harder to hear and are best left for academic scrutiny rather than pleasure listening. Many of these recordings are of particular interest because of their rarity; for example, the only known recording of blues street musician Joe Holmes singing “Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’,” as well as the ulta-rare recordings of fiddle and banjo players Ned Frazier and Frank Patterson that lead off the compilation.

The CD is packaged with comprehensive liner notes written by Bruce Nemerov and aided by archival photos of the people, places, equipment, and songbooks used during this era. Though the recording quality lacks the fidelity of other field collections of the time, and the repertoire is perhaps too wide ranging for some tastes, the packaging and release of this material (a joint effort between local, state, and federal arts agencies) offers further proof of what many musicians have known for years, that rural black music is not, and was never solely the blues.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review May 9th, 2008

Recapturing the Banjo

recapturing_banjo.jpgTitle: Recapturing the Banjo

Artist: Otis Taylor

Label: Telarc

Catalog No.: 83667

Date: 2008

Colorado isn’t the first state you probably think of as a center for the blues. Perhaps that outsider status is what allows Otis Taylor to construct his own framework of the genre. Taylor, who currently resides in Boulder, has worked out of Colorado for years. Though he took a hiatus from music making in 1977 to deal in antiques, he began playing again in 1995 and released the acclaimed album Blue-Eyed Monster in 1997. Taylor’s style has never been orthodox, nor has it adhered to a site-specific sound such as Delta blues, Memphis blues, or Chicago blues, yet he’s incorporated elements of each in the past. His latest release, Recapturing the Banjo, maps similar outsider space, although this time it’s more historical than spatial.

Recapturing the Banjo is undoubtedly Taylor’s project, but more accurately he leads a dream team of contemporary blues musicians, each with strong affiliations to traditional forms. Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’, and Don Vappie all contribute substantially through combinations of picking, singing, and songwriting. The roster of musicians and their diverse contributions render the idea of a uniform “black” way to play the banjo dead on arrival.

The banjo has an uncomfortable but nonetheless essential role in African-American music, yet undoubtedly it has become more synonymous with white vernacular forms such as old-time and bluegrass music. The prototype came from West Africa on slave ships and evolved from such instruments as the xalam and akonting, reflecting such “melting-pot” concepts in its variations. Recapturing the Banjo showcases not only those variations of instrumentation but of playing styles, from Guy Davis’ percussive, thumb-heavy clawhammer on “Little Liza Jane,” to Don Vappie’s jazzy rhythms played on the tenor banjo in “Les Ognons.”

The song writing and selection reflect a frank and concerned role of African-American experiences. While Taylor’s own writing tends towards the dark side, including songs about a Klan lynching, “shot ’em down” ballads, and white indifference to black suffering, the disc also includes up-tempo songs such as Gus Cannon’s seminal “Walk Right In” (made famous by the all white, folk-pop, sans-banjo trio The Rooftop Singers), the Creole children’s song “Les Ognons,” and the brooding affirmation of Keb’ Mo’s “The Way It Goes.”

Though there is much to learn here (the liner notes are complete with a bibliography and discography providing a more detailed history of black banjo music), the sound and feel of the music is anything but academic. Taylor refuses to substitute pedagogy for groove, and the album cranks along with a blend of old-time rollicking tunes and swampy electric guitar blues accented by the ever-present banjo. Taylor’s iconoclastic style is on full display here and it’s a shame he isn’t better known outside of blues circles, since his taste is so wide-ranging, never solidly fitting into genre categories, but always negotiating between them.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review March 7th, 2008

Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia

black_banjo_songsters_ncva.jpgTitle: Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia

Artists: Various

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog No.: 40079

Date: 1998

Editor’s note: Smithsonian Folkways has received many requests from radio stations for re-servicing Black Banjo Songsters so they can pair it up with Otis Taylor’s CD on their respective radio shows. We thought we’d do the same, just in case you missed this CD when it was originally released back in 1998.

Otis Taylor’s recent release, Recapturing the Banjo, is not only an album, but a statement of musical lineage. And if the banjo is to be “recaptured,” it must be asked who is doing the recapturing: blues players or black players? The banjo has a clear history traceable to Africa via slaves in the American South back through the Middle Passage. Long before anyone heard the lighting-fast, three-finger picking of Earl Scruggs, black musicians had already developed styles of banjo playing quite different from Scruggs speedy arpeggios. There are more recordings of these early banjo styles than most casual listeners might suspect.

One of the seminal collections is the venerable Smithsonian Folkways 1998 release Black Banjo Songsters, which collects thirty-two recordings of banjo songs from North Carolina and Virginia. Most of these songs were recorded in the 1970s or later, and mostly by musicians in the waning years of life. This led to the common conclusion that banjo music in black communities was a dying art form. Whether or not the tradition was dying is irrelevant at this point, because it’s clearly not dead. If we were to allow the commercial recording industry to proclaim what is alive and what is dead, we’d be privy only to a thin slice of the various music that continues to thrive outside the umbrella of commercial acceptance. In many ways this is the principle that has led Smithsonian Folkways to its unparalled success.

The songs on Black Banjo Songsters are anything but commercial and would most likely be of little interest to those who are unaccustomed to the rough hewn sound of field recordings, where pitch correction and over-dubbing are foreign concepts. Black Banjo Songsters is something of an educational project, shedding light on the various aspects of black banjo stylings including percussive claw hammer style as well as the two-fingers, up-picking “complementing” style. The extensive liner notes by banjo scholar Cece Conway and Scott Odell detail the specifics of these different styles.

The collection gives credibility to the diversity of approaches by black players. Just as white players such as Roscoe Holcomb, Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck found individual sounds with the instrument, familiar songs such as “Coo Coo,” “John Henry,” and “Old Corn Liquor” get individual treatment by lesser known players such as Dink Roberts, Odell Thompson, and John Snipes.

But the education aside, the music is rich and welcoming, showcasing first class talent, many of whom were never offered recording gigs because they didn’t play the one of two genres that fit neatly on “race records.” Most importantly, it reminds us of what is lost when the missing piece of the puzzle goes unnoticed for too long.

Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review March 7th, 2008

Tribute to Ella Jenkins

jenkins.jpgTitle: cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins Live!
Artists: Various
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Format: DVD
Number: SFW DV 48007
Date: 2007

“Ella Jenkins is to children’s music what Ella Fitzgerald is to jazz.”
–The Washington Post

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Ella Jenkin’s first recording with Folkways Records (Call and Response: Rhythm Group Singing, 1957), Smithsonian Folkways has released the DVD cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins Live! The footage comes from a special tribute concert held at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, where the country’s foremost children’s music performers paid their respects to the “First Lady of Children’s Music” (a CD with much of the same repertoire was released in 2004). This DVD would make a wonderful gift for the children and music educators on your holiday list.

Ella Jenkins was born in St. Louis in 1924, but has been living and performing in Chicago for most of her 80 plus years. A legendary figure in children’s music, she has received dozens of awards, including the 2004 GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award and the 1999 ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award (the first woman recipient), and has made guest appearances on many television shows, including the perennial favorites of the kindergarten set- Mr. Rogers and Barney. Over the years Jenkins has released more than 30 albums and 2 videos on the Smithsonian Folkways label, and her classic album You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song is the best-selling record in the history of Folkways.

The tribute concert features an all-star cast with appearances by Cathy Fink, Red Grammer, Riders in the Sky, Tom Chapin, John McCuthcheon, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger and Mike Stein, among others- singing covers of Jenkins’ songs as well as their own compositions. Highlights include Sweet Honey in the Rock performing Jenkins’ signature song “Miss Mary Mack” and Ella herself singing “I Know a City Called Okeeehobee,” which demonstrates the style of call and response audience participation that has captivated so many over the years. For the younger set there is an appearance by the Rockin’ Hadrosaur from Hackensack (who is much hipper than Barney!).

In addition to the live concert performance, there are several wonderful bonus features on the DVD. The brief “Slide Show” includes a chronological overview of Jenkins’ life in photos. In “Backstage Greetings” the artists offer personal congratulations to Jenkins on her 50 years in show business. But the most interesting bonus feature is “Conversations with Artists” (recorded 2/5/2006), where the performers weigh in on the many ways that Ella Jenkins has influenced them over the years. Jenkins is also given an opportunity to describe the ways she engages children in the music and her work with the Chicago Public Schools. Another highlight is a conversation with Pete Seeger, who discusses Jenkins’ history with Folkways, her skills as a songwriter, and her incorporation of world languages and cultures. While explaining her multigenerational appeal, Seeger notes: “A beautiful melody will leap language barriers, or religious barriers, or political barriers- but like all good art, even a simple children’s song can mean different things at different times- the songs bounce back new meanings as life gives you new experiences.” This is the key to Jenkins’ success, and the reason her music remains timeless.

“Put Ella Jenkins, children, and some musical instruments together and what you get is pure magic.” –Chicago Sun

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 7th, 2007

Art of Field Recording

art_of_field_recording2.jpgTitle: Art of Field Recording Volume I: Fifty Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum
Artists: Various
Label: Dust-to-Digital
Catalog No.: DTD-08

Art Rosenbaum is a painter and emeritus faculty at the University of Georgia who has dedicated the bulk of his life to collecting, documenting, recording, and preserving a vast range of American traditional music. This collection, the first of three 4-CD boxed sets to be released on co-producer Steven Lance Ledbetter’s Dust-to-Digital label, is, as Rosenbaum describes in the liner notes “only a part of the great patchwork of American folk music, to use Alan Lomax’s term – it represents where I have been, what I have heard, seen and had the opportunity and good sense to record.” Rosenbaum continues, “We call it ‘Art of Field Recording,’ not because it echoes my first name, but because it represents and presents the expressive art forms of traditional music as performed by those I have met and recorded over the years; and also because we hope our particular way of organizing, presenting, and yes, ‘packaging’ this part of America’s music will rise to the level of art, of worthy art.”

As you can probably already see, the 96-page booklet that accompanies Art of Field Recording is exceptionally detailed and thorough, and includes a Preface by Ledbetter describing the genesis of his collaboration with Rosenbaum, the story of Rosenbaum’s drive to document American traditional music, and a detailed statement about the philosophy behind the overall organization of the boxed set, the particular recordings selected for inclusion, and their relative arrangement on the disks. Much of this discussion is directed toward how Art compares with the monumental Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. Key among the differences is that the Harry Smith anthology consists entirely of reissues of commercial 78rpm records made in the early 1920s and 30s, mostly from the American South; Art, however, consists entirely of Rosenbaum’s field recordings, based heavily in the South, but also diving into the Midwest and Northeast. The result is that all the features of performance context one can hope to capture in audio are present in Rosenbaum’s compilation – the spaces where people played, the conversations surrounding the elicitation of a tune, where someone learned this or that, dishes being scraped in the diner – this is all present in rich detail, and for the better.

The 4-CD set is organized into “Survey,” “Religious,” “Blues” and “Instrumental and Dance” disks. Every tune is accompanied by detailed notes in the booklet, including who the performers are, how Rosenbaum went about finding them, and items of interest about the pieces themselves. Each of these entries is also usually accompanied by a photograph of the performers (taken by Rosenbaum’s wife Margo Newmark Rosenbaum). The entire box set – from cover, to CD jackets, to booklet – is decorated with Art Rosenbaum’s unique paintings and sketches depicting the people he spent a lifetime recording. Highlights of the collection include a driving interweaving of harmonica and voice on “Mama Whoopin’ the Blues” by Neal Patman of Winterville, Georgia [Disk 1: Survey]; Ida Craig of Winnsboro, South Carolina and her solemn version of the spiritual “Sit Down, Servant” (accompanied by the sound of her ironing) [Disk 2: Religious]; Eddie Bowles of Cedar Falls, Iowa and his elegant “Bowles’ Blues” (Note: Bowles was born in New Orleans in 1884; be sure to check out his interview in the booklet that accompanies this entry) [Disk 3: Blues]; and Dallas Henderson of Indianapolis, Indiana on solo banjo with his harmonic-laden performance of “Lost Indian” [Disk 4: Instrumental and Dance].

Every tune in Art of Field Recording is a gem, and shine all the brighter because Rosenbaum’s love of music – and the people who do it – takes the listener on a journey into out-of-the-way American places where traditions are still created, re-created, and passed on down the line. People and the contexts in which they live their lives are a central focus in this collection, and that makes it different from other traditional music compilations. This collection is a worthy companion to Harry Smith’s classic set, and judging by this first installment, the two that will soon follow (Volume II in 2008 and Volume III in 2009) will be as well.

For further information, check out the following:

The Art of Field Recording promotional video, a five minute clip featuring some of the artists on the set.

Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. Some of Rosenbaum’s massive collection of field recordings is deposited at this facility, which is the largest university-based ethnographic sound archive in the United States.

The American Folklife Center Some of Rosenbaum’s field recordings are also deposted in The American Folklife Center’s Archive of Folk Culture.

From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore (An Anthology) offers a broad introduction to a variety of African American folkloric genres (including sermons, riddles, recipes, etc. as well as song lyrics).

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review November 9th, 2007


nashville.jpgTitle: Nashville
Artist: Solomon Burke
Label: Shout! Factory
Catalogue No.: 826663
Date: 2006

Beginning his career as a preacher in the 1960s, Solomon Burke’s voice was first introduced to the airwaves as the host of a gospel radio show in Philadelphia. Burke’s career moved in the direction of secular music, however, when he signed with Atlantic Records in 1964. One of his most notable works from that era, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (1964), is unfortunately often credited to the bands that covered it (the Rolling Stones, for example). An artist versatile enough to master genres from gospel to country and rock ‘n’ roll, Burke was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With thirty-three albums in his discography, a slew of song writing credits and a recording career spanning more than five decades, Burke has certainly been one of the most prolific R&B artists.

Burke’s songs have been featured in multiple movies and television shows over the years including “Cry to Me” from Dirty Dancing (1987), and “Don’t Give up on Me,” which was featured in the hit HBO drama The Wire. Additionally, his 2005 release, Make Do With What You Got, was nominated for a Grammy. Burke’s bountiful discography, however, never gave him the crossover mainstream status received by his contemporaries like Sam Cooke. Still, Burke proclaims himself the “King of Rock ‘n Soul.”

Recorded in eight days at maverick producer Buddy Miller’s home, Nashville is classified as a country album. Any listener, however, will quickly recognize Burke’s virtuosity and versatility, as well as the relationship between the blues, gospel, and country music. What makes this a country album is the nod Burke gives to old time country, casting off the mold of today’s pop centered country music. Some may argue that the heart and soul of country music is its slower pace that connects to life in the rural south. Burke’s Nashville is no exception and would be appropriate for a solitary drive or peaceful reflection.

Nashville also features duets with some of country’s biggest female stars including Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless. Unfortunately, the duet between Dolly Parton and Burke may not be the shining star of this album since Burke’s raspy voice clashes with Parton’s lighter, more airy vocals. The most enjoyable song on the album is “Ain’t Got You,” which follows the blues tradition of boasting and is a showcase for Burke, who lists off the many things that make his life wonderful, with the exception of his beloved.

Overall an enjoyable recording, Nashville is an exceptional example of Burke’s mastery of various musical genres. It is doubtful, however, that many who don’t already enjoy his work or country music will be converted.

Posted by Brandon Houston

View review June 19th, 2007

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