Marietta Simpson – Crooked Stick: Songs in a Strange Land

 

Title: Crooked Stick: Songs in a Strange Land
Artist: Marietta Simpson
Label: Art Salad Productions/Dist. CD Baby
Formats: CD, Digital
Release: February 12, 2019

 

Indiana University professors Tyron Cooper and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson have produced a fresh take on the Negro spiritual, the earliest form of Black religious music created by enslaved Black folk during the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States. Crooked Stick: Songs in a Strange, an11-track concept CD produced by Cooper, marks Simpson’s first solo project. The title “Crooked Stick” is derived from the expression to “hit a straight lick with a crooked stick,” which is the act of accomplishing a major feat using meager resources. This adage parallels the plight of African people who were, as Simpson states in her liner notes, “ripped from their native land, sold, beaten, plucked from families, and often treated worse than animals.” Despite such dire circumstances, these captives created new sacred songs, which also housed “clever strategies and hidden messages for survival… The Negro spiritual is therefore a tangible representation of what it means to ‘hit a straight lick with a crooked stick.’ That is, slaves transformed the misery of their daily plantation life (i.e. crooked stick) into something beautiful and creative that would sustain the songs and souls of Black folk for generations to come (i.e. straight lick).” Continue reading

Damien Sneed – We Shall Overcome

 

Title: We Shall Overcome
Artist: Damien Sneed
Label: LeChateau Earl
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: January 18, 2019

 

Conceived as a celebration of the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Damien Sneed’s We Shall Overcome is an album steeped in the African American experience. In honoring Dr. King, Sneed chose to follow in the footsteps of artists that “have used their platform to proclaim songs of protest and reconciliation in response to the main issues in our homes, schools, government, nation and the world abroad.” The multi-talented pianist, vocalist, composer and arranger effortlessly crosses genres, delivering a cohesive 18-track collection that pays homage to civil rights anthems, Negro spirituals, classical composers, and iconic jazz, soul, and gospel musicians. This should come as no surprise from one who has worked with artists ranging from Jessye Norman and Lawrence Brownlee to The Clark Sisters, Richard Smallwood, Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis, and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few. Continue reading

New Book – Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry

Spirituals
Title: Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry

Author: Sandra Jean Graham

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Series:  Music in American Life

Format: Book (hardcover, paperback, digital)

Release date: March 19, 2018

 

Ethnomusicologist Sandra Jean Graham, associate professor of music at Babson College, was introduced to spirituals and minstrelsy early in life, and throughout her career has published and presented extensively on the “multifaceted and extremely complex history of these genres.” Her new book, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry, is the culmination of her in-depth research and supplements previous articles and books on the topic, including Tim Brooks’ award winning Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919 (also part of the Music in American Life series).

Graham’s primary focus is on spirituals performed by jubilee troupes in post-Civil War America, “charting the spiritual’s journey from the private lives of slaves to the concert stage.” This includes the transition from folk spirituals (covered in chapter 1) to concert spirituals. Along the way, she unpacks issues of power and cultural authenticity in the white-controlled jubilee industry and within blackface minstrelsy performances, including Uncle Tom and plantation shows.

As Graham states in the conclusion (p. 263):

“To remember student jubilee singers [Fisk Jubilee Singers, etc.] at the expense of black minstrel performers and their parodies of camp meetings and spirituals, to valorize one and denigrate the other, imposes a hierarchy on the historical past that obscures the manifold contributions of black entertainers and reifies black folk culture as authentic to the black experience at the expense of fully engaging the diversity and complexity of that experience. Indeed, the very complexity that led black minstrels to engage with spirituals is at the crux of understanding the climate and conditions in which all performers of the era operated.”

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book earlier this week and have only skimmed the surface, but very much look forward to delving deeper. Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry will be crucial to anyone studying American music, especially those focused on the post-Civil War period through 1900, and of course anyone who studies African American music and history.

The freely available companion website contains links to 85 jubilee troupes with biographical information for each, lists of personnel and songs performed by selected groups, and excerpts from early recordings.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Brian McCarthy – The Better Angels of Our Nature

Better Angels
Title: The Better Angels of Our Nature

Artist: Brian McCarthy Nonet

Label: Truth Revolution Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 13, 2017

 

 

This month sees a new release from Vermont-based saxophonist, composer, and music educator Brian McCarthy that’s scheduled to drop a week before JuneteenthThe Better Angels of Our Nature features McCarthy and his nonet reimagining songs from the Civil War and composing original songs inspired by the conflict.  The project, with its title garnered from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, is both an academic and artistic endeavor. McCarthy explores music from a dark period of American history in an effort to chart new thematic and musical territory. This project was funded in part by a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and combines McCarthy’s personal interest in history with his masterful interpretation of both familiar and new music.

A project this ambitious demands an ensemble capable of sensitivity and innovation.  McCarthy, a great saxophonist and composer, is joined by pianist Justin Kauflin, tenor saxophonist Stantawn Kendrick, trombonist Cameron MacManus (three former members of trumpeter Clark Terry’s band), trumpeter Bill Mobley, bari player Andrew Gutauskas, saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith, drummer Zac Harmon, and bassist Matt Aronoff.  These masterful musicians allow the musical and historical themes implicit in these songs to unfold, their playing simultaneously beautiful and challenging.

Setting up musical and thematic tension among these Civil War-associated tunes is key to McCarthy’s approach to this material.  He directly juxtaposes the Confederate anthem “The Bonnie Blue Flag” with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” situates a bluesy attempt to reclaim “Dixie” next to a reading of the spiritual “Oh Freedom.”  Even the original compositions on this album evince a kind of tension—the multi-part title track reads as a character study of Lincoln, contrasting his roles as lawyer, President, and person.

One of the standout features of this album is that there are no standout players. This is a narrative jazz record and each note played by each musician serves McCarthy’s impressionistic reading of the Civil War by exploring its music, an approach that suggests both schism and unity (it is likely no accident, for instance, that some of the Union tunes included on this album were parodied by southerners during the war). It may be too much to try to draw contemporary comparisons to the seemingly intractable divisions in contemporary American social and political life, but McCarthy’s interpretation of seemingly arcane music allows him to deal with some conceptually significant undercurrents in American culture.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Akua Dixon – Akua’s Dance

Akua Dixon
Title: Akua’s Dance

Artist: Akua Dixon

Label: Akua’s Music

Format: MP3

Release date: February 7, 2017

 

Jazz cellist, arranger, and composer Akua Dixon’s latest project, Akua’s Dance, is an album that does an excellent job of displaying her range as a musician. Dixon has enjoyed a varied career, from playing in the Apollo Theater pit band to arranging strings for Lauryn Hill to serving as the director of new music for jazz violinist Noel Pointer’s ensemble String Reunion.  She is also well known for her collaborations with her sister, the late violinist Gayle Dixon—the two were in Quartette Indigo with fellow musicians Maxine Roach and John Blake, Jr.  As far as the musicians featured on Akua’s Dance, this project is a departure from the string quartet and other string centered ensembles that Dixon has worked with in the past.  Instead, this album features guitarists Freddie Bryant and Russell Malone, bassists Kenny Davis and Ron Lewis, and drummer Victor Lewis.

Highlights from the album include “Afrika! Afrika!” and “Orion’s Gait,” with these being the two songs where Dixon shines most brightly. She varies her technique depending on the mood she wants to evoke, going from a lilting, singing, tone in one moment to a crisp technique the next.  Also particularly impressive is Dixon’s use of range throughout the album, continually bringing the cello to new heights.  She even steps forward as a vocalist in “Throw it Away,” adding her voice to the rich ensemble.  In addition to offering her own voice as an instrument, Dixon also switches between the cello and the bass violin on this album.  The bass (or baritone) violin offers a more full bodied sound than the cello, particularly on “I Dream a Dream.”

On this album, Dixon utilizes tools and techniques from various traditions, from jazz to spirituals. As Dixon’s third solo album, it is quite the departure from her earlier work (including her 2015 self-titled release), but still shows the same dedication to the craft as a musician, composer, arranger, and all around artist.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

The McIntosh County Shouters: Spirituals & Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast

McIntosh Country Shouters
Title: The McIntosh County Shouters: Spirituals & Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast

Artist: The McIntosh County Shouters

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 20, 2017

 

This album is the second collection of The McIntosh County Shouters recorded and produced by Smithsonian Folkways. The first, The McIntosh County Shouters: Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia was released in 1983. The Shouters belong to a third generation of people freed from slavery and their featured songs on this album are performed exclusively for the traditional ring shout. In 1993, the group received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, which is considered to be the greatest honor for the traditional arts in the United States.

As part of the educational mission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, each album on the record label includes comprehensive liner notes that are ideal for further research. The liner notes on this album include photographs, detailed biographies of the artists, interviews with current members, and historical and cultural contextualization of the traditional ring shout. Bolden, aka “Briar Patch,” on the coastal mainland of Georgia is the home of The McIntosh County Shouters. The Mount Calvary Baptist Church is the spiritual space of the Gullah/Geechee people, known as “the stopping place of the shout.”

It is satisfying to hold such a project in your hands, with 17 tracks and a 40-page booklet accompanying the physical CD. Each song incorporates the essential elements of the ring shout: the rhythmic hand-clapping, a stick beating the floor, the soul-filled spirituals, and the fusion of call-and–response singing. All that is missing on this album, as described in the liner notes, is the visual element—the ability to watch the shouters shuffling in a counterclockwise circle. To amend this problem, Smithsonian Folkways created an accompanying short documentary film that shows the Shouters singing and dancing together. Brenton Jordan, the youngest Shouter today, looks forward to the future of the tradition and believes the strength of the shout community will continue to thrive.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Measha Brueggergosman – Songs of Freedom

Measha
Title: Songs of Freedom

Artist: Measha Brueggergosman

Label: Outside Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 13, 2017

 

Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman is known for the versatility of both her voice and her career. As a classically trained soprano, she performs both operatic roles as well as those of a concert artist. Her latest project, Songs of Freedom, is a collection of spirituals that corresponds with Brueggergosman’s discovery of her family’s history in Canada.  The album is much more than just a collection of spirituals, however—it is also part of a larger documentary project including a film, a 4-part TV series, mobile app and interactive website with narratives from both Brueggergosman and the owner of Chalet Studio, in which some of the spirituals were recorded. The documentary explores how she came to know these spirituals, and to learn about herself and her family history in the process.

The website for the Songs of Freedom project provides a number of complementary elements to the album. In addition to performance videos showing Brueggergosman and her collaborators, there are also essays written by Brueggergosman, the musicians with whom she worked, and scholars of African American music.  These essays help to frame the project and provide a foundation on the importance of spirituals to the black musical tradition.  Also featured on this website is a 360 degree performance video of Brueggergosman recording “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of the spirituals featured on the album. The 360 scope of the video provides an intimate portrait of how she explored these spirituals and eventually made them her own.

YouTube Preview Image

Musically, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is definitely one of the highlights of the album, along with other slow tempo spirituals such as “I Surrender All.” These two especially allow Brueggergosman’s voice time to fill in spaces, rather than to be rushed.  In this exploration of spirituals, she joins the company of other black operatic singers such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle.  Within the documentary series and the accompanying album, Measha Brueggergosman is doing important work to uncover her family’s history and also elevate the status of spirituals as repertoire.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

The Godfather of Gospel


Title: The Godfather of Gospel

Artist: Rev. Timothy Wright

Label: Malaco Music Group

Catalog No.: SCD7131

Format: CD (two disc set)

Release date: May 2009

The Godfather of Gospel is an 18-track two disc collection of songs that pays tribute to New York native Rev. Timothy Wright, whose passing on April 24, 2009 resulted from injuries sustained in a car accident which also claimed his wife and grandson.  The collection celebrates Rev. Wright’s uniqueness as a songwriter/producer/artist throughout his recording career over multiple decades, as well as his evangelical mission to spread God’s word through song.

Several tracks on this project are notable hits from the past that will have the listener remembering when the Sunday morning worship service was filled with exuberant praise initiated by Rev. Wright’s psalmody. For instance, “Trouble Don’t Last Always” is a medium tempo groove that is funky enough to lift listeners from their seats and profound enough to conjure up praise that comes from knowing that joy may not arrive when one desires it, but it is always on time. “Who’s On The Lord’s Side” is an up-tempo track incorporating a lyrical spinoff of the Biblical Old Testament scripture in Exodus where Moses challenged the Israelites who strayed into a sinful state to choose whom they will serve (Exodus 32:26). Rev. Wright adapts this historical challenge to modern times, requiring the listener to search one’s self deeply and truthfully in order to realize his/her extent of commitment to the gospel—the Lord’s side.

“We’re Going To Make It,” featuring Myrna Summers, can still be heard on Sunday mornings as churchgoers seek hope in the midst of socio-economic, political and spiritual indecisiveness that permeates contemporary society. It is a ballad that frames the affirmations of Christians within the strength and power of Jesus Christ, thus prompting them to assert, “we’re gonna make it.” Although very repetitious, “We’re Going To Make It” maintains a steady momentum via its harmonic progression, which contributed to the broadening of gospel music parameters in the 1990s, while Rev. Wright’s and Summers’ lead vocals are articulate, well placed, round, extensive in range, controlled and highly interpretive. Simply put, they provide a clinic for aspiring listeners who wish to become effective singers in the gospel genre. In addition to the harmonic pallet and lead vocals, the choir background on this track, as with all of the songs on the album, exemplifies the best of traditional gospel ensemble singing encompassing triadic harmony, blended unison lines and enormous amplitude output during climactic sections.

While disc one of this collection includes more well-known songs from Rev. Wright’s illustrious career (the songs mentioned above are all on disc one), disc two also presents timeless jewels that are note-worthy such as “Been There Done That,” “I Know A Man,” and “Certainly Lord.” If you are seeking to experience a tribute compilation that is musically sound, this CD delivers. If you would like to hear a collection that actually includes the hits of an artist, this is a must have. And finally, if you want to realize how gospel music speaks to the social and spiritual needs of people around the world, The Godfather of Gospel is a quintessential example. I give it a thumbs-up for song choices, musicianship, interpretive value and, most importantly, the gospel message.

Reviewed by Tyron Cooper

When the Church Becomes Your Party


Title: When the Church Becomes Your Party: Contemporary Gospel Music (African American Life)

Author: Deborah Smith Pollard

Publisher: Wayne State University Press

Format:  Book (240 p.)

ISBN: 0814332188

Date: 2008

If gospel means “good tidings and good news,” then gospel music should definitely engage us in spiritual celebration of the good news. Agreeing with this premise, Deborah Smith Pollard’s book on contemporary gospel music, When the Church Becomes Your Party, maintains that you should celebrate the church through the gospel music tradition as reflected in a phrase adapted from a popular secular refrain, “Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party. . .” (viii). Ethnographer Deborah Smith Pollard, also a professor of African American Studies, articulates varied dimensions of gospel music in a well-documented study using data reflecting her scholarly background and her experience as a gospel announcer for a popular Detroit radio station.

Here is an interview with “Dr. Deb” Pollard about her gospel radio show on WJLB:

]

Consistent with its celebratory theme and nature, Pollard’s book, using a lively format, details the joyous contributions of gospel music through interviews with well-known gospel artists, musicians, and preachers, most of whom have longstanding ties to the gospel music scene in Detroit. Indeed, an array of talented gospel families who hail from Detroit have helped catapult it into the national gospel music spotlight: the list includes artists such as, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and daughter Aretha; the Clark Sisters; the Winans; Rance Allen and relatives; the Hawkins family, along with individual artists like the well-known Donnie McClurkin.

Pollard helps to foster an understanding and appreciation of praise and worship music by explaining its origins and challenging the prevailing claim that it has replaced the traditional hymns and the conventional devotional services of the church. Additionally, she examines other musical traditions within gospel, particularly gospel music stage plays, underappreciated dramatic celebrations rooted in African American folk culture. Pollard brings the culture surrounding gospel music into the twenty-first century by discussing the appropriateness of dressing up or down for gospel events by considering the changing dress codes for gospel musicians, audience members at gospel concerts, and churchgoing women. More importantly, she underscores the significant, but often overlooked contributions of women gospel announcers whose work provides an inspirational and empowering spiritual outlet for their listeners. Finally, the book restores the skillful sermonic deliveries of contemporary Holy Hip Hop artists to a respectful place within an oral tradition that harkens back to African griots.

When the Church Becomes Your Party, aimed at both scholars and laypersons, helps to unlock the many layers that comprise the phenomenon of gospel music and the industry responsible for producing it.

Reviewed by Lena Ampadu, Director, African and African American Studies Program, Towson University.

Hommage


Title: Hommage

Artist: Golden Gate Quartet

Label:  Buda Musique

Catalog No.: 3017799

Date:  February 2009

There have been many compilations devoted to the Golden Gate Quartet, one of the oldest and most beloved of all the jubilee/gospel vocal quartet groups, and the latest addition is the double disc Hommage released by Buda Records. Compiled and annotated by Christian Bonneau, the accompanying booklet is illustrated with many historical photographs and contains a chronological history of the group and its members, which have changed considerably over the 60 plus years of the group’s existence.  The set seeks to pay tribute to the various “Gates,” with particular emphasis placed on live recordings made in France, the group’s official home since 1959.

Though most historical compilations are arranged chronologically, Hommage begins in 1997 following the retirement of tenor Clyde Riddick, whose tenure with the group lasted over 50 years, from 1939-1994.  The opening track is a rendition of “Soon, I Will Be Done,” recorded at the St. Sermin cathedral in Toulouse, France in 1997. Ten additional tracks from this concert are interspersed throughout the set  and feature Frank Davis (1st tenor since 1995), Charles West (2nd tenor from 1934-39), Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, and Orlandus Wilson. tenor, 1995-1999), Paul Brembly (baritone since 1971), and bass Orlandus Wilson, one of the founding members of the group who died a year after this concert.

Over the course of the set, the tracks skip around in time, interspersing the earlier a cappella material with later songs accompanied variously by piano, guitar, and rhythm combo.  The Golden Gate Quartet’s first recording, their famous rendition of “Gospel Train” with a soaring tenor over syncopated vocalized “chugging,” is included on track 10. Recorded August 4, 1937  in Charlotte, North Carolina,  “Gospel Train” features  early group members William Langford (1st tenor from 1934-39), Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, and Orlandus Wilson. Other a cappella songs by this same group include an innovative version of the jazz standard “Dipsy Doodle” (one of the few secular arrangements on the set) and “Lead Me On and On” (from Jan. 24, 1938), “Let My People Go” (a.k.a. “Go Down Moses” from 1939), “Noah” (Feb. 2, 1939), and “I’m a Pilgrim” (Oct. 6, 1939).

After Langford was replaced by Clyde Riddick in 1939 the line-up was fairly stable for the next decade, except for some substitutions during WWII.  Hits from this era, all recorded stateside, include “Didn’t It Rain” from 1941;  a jazzy version of “Shadrack” along with “Run On,” and “Hush!” from 1946; and “Amazing Grace” and “I Want Two Wings” from 1949, among other favorites.  The final New York sessions on the set feature two more secular  arrangements from 1952, “Lover Come Back To Me” and “Careless Love Blues,” featuring pianist Conrad Frederick, a well-known New York session musician who also ad libbed during the 1949 sessions.

The remaining tracks on the set were all recorded in Europe between 1955-1997 and include material less generally available in the U.S.  Locations range from recording studios in Boulogne, Berlin and Paris to live concerts at various churches in France.  Several of their traditional numbers are reinterpreted, such as “Good News” and “Jericho” which are backed by a combo, and “Deep River,” which is accompanied by an unidentified church choir. These contemporary arrangements, though all well sung, lack the spontaneity as well as the rhythmic and stylistic variety of the earlier recordings by the group.

The set concludes with a seven minute history of the quartet narrated by Orlandus Wilson and recorded at his Paris home in 1980.  Though no new information is imparted, its nice to hear the Gates story in Wilson’s own words, even though he seems to be reading from a script and the narration is punctuation by songs and applause, which is often distracting.

This recent video compilation illustrates the style of the current GGQ:

Extensive liner notes are presented in French and English, but the translation is quite stilted and would have benefited greatly from a copy editor.  Though performers, recording dates and places are all documented at the end of the booklet, it’s a bit difficult to match them to the individual tracks since the order is not chronological.  If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll probably be better off purchasing compilations of the Gates’ pre-1950 recordings.  However, if you want a broad overview of the Golden Gate Quartet’s career and enjoy contemporary renditions of the classics, this set will deliver.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Classical Music

Barbara Hendricks, Henry Purcell, Georg Friedrich Haendel: Endless Pleasure (Arte Verum, January 2008)

American soprano and humanitarian Barbara Hendricks partners with the Drottningholms Barockensemble for this recording of English Baroque songs and theatrical music by Purcell and Händel.  While the Purcell selections tend towards his songs and incidental theater music, including “Music for a While” and “From rosie bow’rs,” Hendricks does not fail to include the inevitable recit-aria combo “Ah! Belinda / When I am Laid” from Purcell’s only full opera, Dido and Aeneas. The Händel selections, by contrast, draw entirely from dramatic works such as Giulio Cesare and Semele, as well as a lengthy instrumental dance suite from his ballet Terpsichore, which showcases the conductorless Barockensemble’s lively performance.

Carl MaultsBy, Eye of the Sparrow (Albany Records, February 2008)

Composer and conductor Carl MaultsBy leads the Rejoiceensemble! and the St. Bart’s Senior Girls Choristers in this recording of two of MaultsBy’s choral works, Eye of the Sparrow and The View From the Mountain, as well as his arrangements of several traditional spirituals including “Kum Ba Ya”, “Swing Down Chariot”, and the medley “Hold On.”  Eye of the Sparrow was composed in 2005 as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., while The View From the Mountain (2007) commemorates both Dr. King and his late widow, Coretta Scott King.  MaultsBy’s classical training, combined with the gospel and spiritual traditions at the heart of these works, yields intricately crafted works that are thoroughly contemporary while acknowledging their roots in tradition.

Anthony Davis, Amistad (New World Records, October 2008)

Anthony Davis’s opera Amistad (completed, ironically, the same year as the Steven Spielberg film of the same title and subject) is now released in a full length recording, drawn from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere performances in December 1997. Though not stated in the liner notes, the length of this CD suggests that it may incorporate the significant revisions made for the work’s performance at the 2008 Spoleto Festival.  With a libretto by Thulani Davis, the opera retells the story of the 1839 slave rebellion on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, and the slaves’ subsequent arrival and struggle for freedom in America.  Anthony Davis’s music fuses Western classical avant-garde approaches with post-minimalist techniques, jazz and gospel traditions, and east Asian elements, to create a sound drawn from many cultures but representative of none.

Patmore Lewis, Rillito River Project (You-Entertainment, June 2008)

Patmore Lewis, composer and violinist with the Metropolitan Opera, spearheads this fundraiser album for the Rillito River Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to implementing the arts in raising awareness of the effects of climate change in the American Southwest (Arizona’s Rillito River now stands dry during part of the year.)  The cornerstone of the album is Lewis’s ambient composition Elemental Flow, which evokes the landscape and musical cultures of the Arizona desert through violin, drums, synthesizers, and field recordings of the desert environment.  The rest of the album features Lewis as soloist on violin sonatas by Richard Strauss and Alan Seidler, as well as Karol Szymanowski’s La Fontaine d’Arethuse.

Lecolion Washington, Legacy: Works for Bassoon by African-American Composers (Albany Records, August 2008)

This album offers an unusual collection of classical bassoon works by African American composers, collected and recorded by Lecolion Washington, professor of bassoon at University of Memphis and a member of the Memphis Woodwind Quintet.  Few of these works are well known, even among bassoonists, and represent compositional approaches of the twentieth century from composers such as Ed Bland, Adolphus Hailstork, and Ulysses Kay (nephew of jazz bandleader King Oliver) and the twenty-first century, with Gary Powell Nash and Daniel Bernard Roumain.  The three William Grant Still pieces are song transcriptions rather than original compositions for bassoon, but serve as a necessary homage to the first great African American classical composer.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

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