This month we’re featuring Holy hip hop, also known as Christian rap or gospel rap, which blends the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop with overtly Christian lyrics. To learn more about this subgenre of hip hop, be sure to check out the post “Holy Hip Hop 101,” as well as reviews of new CDs by Holy hip hop artists Sha Baraka, FLAME, Phanatak, and shai linne. The Sound of Philadelphia is explored in reviews of two new Legacy releases: Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records, and a compilation of Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits. A big “thumbs up” is given to Palmystery, the new solo CD by bass player Victor Wooten, perhaps best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Though we gave Miles Davis’s The Complete on the Corner Sessions a brief mention in our “Best of 2007” line-up, we’re running a complete review in this issue. Also featured is The Great Debaters Soundtrack, with contributions by the Carolina Chocolate Drops; The Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 performance by Rev. Gary Davis; and John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, which sheds new light on the field recordings made by the Fisk University professor.
Label: Atlantic Records
Catalog No.: 396860
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 Continue reading
Title: Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost
Producer: Todd Kwait
Company: Ezzie Films in association with Nevessa Production
Last week I had the opportunity to preview a fabulous new documentary film, Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, which traces the African American roots of jug band music. Mark Blackwell, a member of the Lost Shoe String Band who happens to have a day job at the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana, had heard about the documentary and arranged for a special showing. Also present was Todd Kwait, the Cleveland lawyer and businessman who conceived the idea about six years ago, and went on to write, direct and produce the film. Here’s the synopsis from the official website:
“Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost is a documentary film on the history of Jug Band Music. It traces the roots of American music beginning with Gus Cannon and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, The Memphis Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers from the 1920’s, and weaves a tapestry through interviews, live performances, archival footage, and photographs showing their influence on the ever-popular folk and rock movements of the 1960s.
The movie is written and directed by independent filmmaker Todd Kwait, and includes interviews and live performances by John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Bill Keith, Maria Muldaur, and the late Fritz Richmond from the influential Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, plus many more artists who were influenced by the great jug band musicians from our past.
This movie is a historical retrospective that spans the globe and honors many great talents from yesterday and today. Filming for Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost took the crew to Japan, Sweden, and Kingston, Ontario. Closer to home, filming took place in Northern California; Woodstock, New York; Portland, Oregon; Memphis and western Tennessee; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Louisville, Kentucky; and Cleveland, Ohio.”
The opening clip on the trailer begins, appropriately enough, with a handcranked phonograph playing a 78 rpm record of “Viola Lee Blues” by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, written by band member Noah Lewis and recorded for the Victor label ca. 1929. This song actually served as the catalyst for Kwait’s journey into the history of jug band music.
Kwait was a huge fan of John Sebastian, leader of the ‘60s folk-rock band the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sebastian had actually started his career in the Even Dozen Jug Band during the peak of the folk revival scene. Those of you familiar with the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit song from 1965, “Do You Believe in Magic,” might recall this reference in the second verse: “If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose/ If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues.” Obviously old time music was Sebastian’s first love, and in the late ‘90s he formed John Sebastian and the J Band. Their 1999 album Chasin’ Gus Ghost featured an arrangement of “Viola Lee Blues,” along with several other Gus Cannon and Noah Lewis songs (and obviously inspired the title of this film).
After attending a performance of the J Band in the late ‘90s, Kwait realized that he knew next to nothing about jug band music. Further exploration revealed that the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia had performed as Mother McCree and the Uptown Jug Band Champions in 1964, which eventually morphed into the Grateful Dead. As any Deadhead is sure to know, “Viola Lee Blues” was also performed extensively by the Grateful Dead between 1966-70. Kwait began to wonder, just what is this jug band music, and where did it come from? Not finding the answers readily available, he began his six year quest.
Through the assistance of John Sebastian, Bob Weir, Charlie Musselwhite, Geoff Muldaur, historian Samuel Charters, and especially Fritz Richmond (a member of the seminal Jim Kweskin Jug Band), the history of jug band music has now been explored for the first time on film. Though much time is spent chronicling the revival of jug band music by white artists in the 1960s, as well as contemporary performances in both the U.S. and Japan (the Japanese jug bands are hysterically funny), its African American origins are certainly not overlooked.
Many believe that jug band music originated around 1900 in Louisville, Kentucky, where whisky jugs were plentiful due to the community’s long association with bourbon. One of the more famous groups was the Louisville Jug Band, led by Earl McDonald. In 1903 they performed at the Kentucky Derby, setting off a tradition that lasted into the 1940s. Soon jug bands were “serenading steamboat passengers up and down the Ohio River,” and by the 1920s “jug bands were entertaining theater and dance crowds in major cities east of the Mississippi. Check out this amazing historical footage of Whistler’s Jug Band performing in Louisville around 1930 (posted by permission of Shanachie, from the the Yazoo DVD Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be: Early Rural & Popular Music From Rare original Film Master, 1928-35).[i]
Another place where the music took hold was Memphis, Tennessee, where the jug bands were more firmly rooted in country blues and earlier African-American traditions. The two most celebrated Memphis groups were Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers and Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, but it is Cannon who was most revered by the sixties folk musicians and who receives most of the attention in the film, due to his extraordinary technique on the banjo and jug, which he fastened around his neck like a racked harmonica. Interestingly, the first half of the film features Taj Mahal as the voice of Gus Cannon (Cannon himself died in 1979 at the age of 104). According to Kwait, Taj’s narration is based on actual Cannon quotes, lending a degree of authenticity to the scenes. Also profiled is band member Noah Lewis. Reverently called “the Robert Johnson of harp players” by Bob Weir, Lewis was known for his ability to play two harmonicas at once, using both mouth and nose.
Between 1927-1930, Cannon’s Jug Stompers recorded 24 songs for Victor (several were penned by Lewis), featuring some of the best jug band music ever released. Notable tracks include “Minglewood Blues” (covered by both the Grateful Dead and Sebastian’s J Band), “Viola Lee Blues,” “Mule Get Up in the Alley,” and “Walk Right In.” The latter was a huge hit for the Rooftop Singers in 1963, which led to Cannon’s rediscovery by Sam Charters. Stax arranged a recording session for the 79-year-old Cannon in 1963 (he was living in the neighborhood at the time), and amazingly Will Shade and Milton Roby were still around to back him on jug and washboard, respectively. Only 500 copies of the LP were pressed by Stax under the title Walk Right In, but it has since been reissued by Fantasy on CD.
Towards the end of the film, after considerable focus on Sebastian and the appropriation of jug band music by white folk musicians and Japanese enthusiasts, I began to wonder if any African American groups were participating in the revival of the tradition. Kwait obviously anticipated this question, for almost immediately the focus of the film shifted to the Sankofa Strings (otherwise known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, featured in the Oct. 2006 issue of Black Grooves). Sule Greg Wilson, Sankofa’s spokeman, explained that most African American musicians consider jug band music to be too old fashioned, too pre-blues, and too connected to the days of medicine and minstrel shows. But the Sankofa Strings/Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing much to promote this distinctive African American music genre, and are seen in the film teaching school kids to play the washboard and other jug band instruments. I look forward to future CD releases by this group, and am excited that immediately following the film people were already talking about bringing the Chocolate Drops to town.
Kwait is still looking for a distributer for the film, so don’t expect a DVD release anytime soon. If you’re lucky you might be able to catch Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost at a film festival or arrange for a local screening. The official world premiere was October 13th, 2007, at the Woodstock Film Festival, though there seems to have been an August preview at the Jug Band Extravaganza in San Francisco, and a January screening is scheduled at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It’s a great documentary, all the more amazing since it represents Kwait’s first foray into film making. I encourage everyone to get the word out- let’s get this film into distribution!
Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Complete Works: 1927-1930 (Yazoo 1989)
Memphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers (JSP 2005, 4 CD box set)
Walk Right In, Gus Cannon (Stax 1963; Fantasy reissue 1999)
Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, John Sebastian And The J-Band (1999 Hollywood Records). Features Yank Rachell, one of the original jug band pioneers and master of the bluegrass mandolin, who performed frequently throughout southern Indiana prior to his death in Indianapolis in 1997.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss