It is only music that matters. But to talk of music is risky, and entails responsibility. Therefore some find it preferable to seize on side issues. It is easy, and enables you to pass as a deep thinker. (Igor Stravinsky)
I rolled and I tumbled Cried the whole night long Woke up this morning I didn’t know right from wrong
The earliest recorded version of these lyrics are from Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Roll and Tumble Blues,” on a 1929 Okeh Records 78.
Alan Lomax recorded Delta blueswoman Rosa Lee Hill singing a country blues version in 1959, but her musical style suggests a time decades earlier.
Muddy Waters, the Father of the Chicago Blues, recorded the song for Chess Records in 1950.
Waters later rewrote the song as “Louisiana Blues.”
In 1966, the British rock band Cream, with a young Eric Clapton on guitar, recorded the song as “Rollin’ and Tumblin.'”
The 1960s rock band Canned Heat performed it at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It’s worth noting that the band’s name comes from the Prohibition-era practice among the poor of straining Sterno, a fuel used in chafing dishes, through a sock, and drinking it to get drunk. The resulting drink was not only addictive but also toxic.
A 1915 ad for Sterno.
This deadly addiction was the subject of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song “Canned Heat Blues,” which Seth plays for Leonie on page 86-87 of White Tears.
Bob Dylan recorded a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” in 2006.
Jeff Beck and Imogen Heap recorded a live version in 2007.
Why did Hari Kunzru use these lyrics as an epigraph to introduce his novel?
What are the implications for the individual bluesman and for society of “not knowing right from wrong”?
[Leadbelly’s] uncle Bob Ledbetter had a wife named Silvy. In the middle of the morning, when Uncle Bob was plowing down at the lower end of the filed and the sun was hot, he would holler at Sylvy to bring him some water. After so long a time this holler developed into a little song that he would sing to his mules, when he thought about Silvy down the hill running to him with the water-bucket in her hand.
How does Harry Belafonte change the song?
The Weavers, Pete Seeger’s group, in a cocktail-ish arrangement from the 1950s:
Lonnie Donegan, a Scottish skiffle singer (skiffle was a pop form influenced by blues and other forms of African-American folk music, which was popular in the UK in the 1950s. Is this blackvoice?
The version I grew up with:
This arrangement is reminiscent of patting juba. Do you think it works?
In their 1936 book Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly, “King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World,” Long-Time Convict in the Penitentiaries of Texas and Louisiana, John Lomax and his son Alan published their transcriptions of many of the songs Leadbelly played. Of the song “Green Corn,” the Lomaxes have this to say:
Lead Belly always sings this old-fashioned air tenderly and joyfully, as if softly and pleasantly drunk on green-corn whiskey just off the mash. A feeling of spring runs through the song, the sound of sappy fodder rustling in a June wind; and each repetition of “green corn” is like a young corn sprout pushing up through the brown earth. . . “Green Corn” is an old song for square dancing and one of the first pieces that Lead Belly learned to play on the guitar — an air that probably came down to him from his slave ancestors. It is common among white fiddlers in the South.
Black writer and filmmaker Gordon Parks made a biopic film in 1976 about Leadbelly’s life and times, and included a performance of “Green Corn,” in which Leadbelly tries to outplay his romantic rival:
Here it is as a white fiddle tune:
As a banjo solo:
Here it is sung by British-born folksinger Richard Dyer-Bennett on a children’s album from the 1950s:
Pop singer Terry Dene, a sort of cut-rate English Elvis, sings it:
The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed the famous bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?
Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:
“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:
While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with a trio of musicians who
struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.
Some of the songs that influenced Handy:
Alan Lomax wrote in 1948:
Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged mister-singers — why they sang.
Why did they sing?
In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, describe the blues as a folk genre
sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.
The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music.” Steven Garabedian concludes that:
They were opposed politically, but they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.
The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Leadbelly on their first trip in 1933, and, in 1941, first recorded Muddy Waters, who was working as a tractor driver in Mississippi.
In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:
During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This was the poem for today (first published in 1909) by Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:
’Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
With all good things but dying.”
The world’s ago, and we’re agog
To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
However slight the winning.
What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric
Can match one of potatoes.
Ye orators of point and pith,
Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
Ere it is forced to feed you.
A little gold won’t mar our grace,
A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place
When money clinks its story.
In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.
In his memoirs, John Lomax described collecting “Dink’s Song” in Texas in 1904, at a work-camp for skilled black builders from Mississippi who were constructing a levee on the Brazos River. Dink was one of a group of women imported from Memphis by the camp overseers to keep the workers happy and discourage them from drinking and fighting on Saturday nights. As Lomax writes in his 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs:
It was not long before every man had a woman in his tent to wash his clothes, cook, draw water, cut firewood, and warm his bed. Dink was one of these women.
In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax fleshes out his narrative:
Lomax published the music and lyrics of “Dink’s Song” in American Ballads and Folk Songs. He suggested that the song was an African-American variant of the white Tennessee mountain ballad “Careless Love,” whose lyrics are almost identical (the lyrics about wearing one’s apron low, and then high, refer to out-of-wedlock pregnancy).
The repetition of the statement “fare thee well” can be found in many English ballads, going back at least to the eighteenth century.
The phrase “Fare you well” is also reminiscent of certain spirituals — like this one, recorded in 1937:
The earliest-known recording of “Dink’s Song” is sung by the white actress Libby Holman, with the accompaniment of the black guitarist Josh White:
During the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, “Dink’s Song” became a staple of the repertoires of (primarily white) folksingers, who mined the past for the authenticity they found in old ballads.
“Dink’s Song” was also featured in the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, with actor Oscar Isaac doing his own singing and guitar playing:
“Careless Love” sung by Tennessee folksinger Jean Ritchie:
Sung by Leadbelly:
Sung by Indian musician Arko Mukhaerjee and his band, Fiddler’s Green:
The blues singer and guitarist Gene Campbell — another “blues ghost,” about whom nothing is known except his surviving 78s — referred to the levee-camp practice of women setting up their own tents to wash the men’s clothes and sell sex in “Levee Camp Man Blues” (1930):
Men on the levee hollerin’, “Whoa” and “Gee”/And the women on the levee camp, hollerin’, “Who wants me?”
The article quoted above suggests that the project is good for musicians, as it “gives [them] the chance to record using 1930s technology.”
And the project’s directors assert:
What we have found is that the film, music and feelings that result defy space and time, [creating] living music inspired by ghosts.
What do you think they mean by “living music”?
Do you think that singing into an old mic in a sub-optimal recording space, with the result a single acetate 78 record, is an endeavor that would be positive for an artist?
How do you think working on either side of the mic in this project would affect you as a musician? As a sound engineer?
The project directors see themselves as the heirs of John Lomax and his son Alan, who drove through the United States beginning in the 1920s, recording the music of rural people on farms, in churches, work camps, and prisons. The Lomaxes’ aim was to preserve the songs in a rapidly-industrializing and -urbanizing nation, to store them up for future generations and prevent their irrevocable loss.
This is not the 78 Project’s aim; that ship sailed long ago. Most of the “old songs” have been recorded, transcribed, and catalogued at the Library of Congress. I see The 78 Project as an effort motivated by the present era’s anxiety over the loss of culture and memory. We have already mostly lost the notion of music as a tangible thing, preserved on a heavy shellac record that you can hold in your hand, for which you had to dig actual paper money or coins out of your pocket and hand to someone in order to purchase. This music had to be played on a Victrola big enough to double as a piece of furniture, and as such required dedicated, concentrated listening. You will recall that, in White Tears, the 78 records themselves take on almost talismanic properties, and the collectors gather in Chester Bly’s apartment to listen to them as if at a religious ritual.
The anxiety that I believe underlies the 78 Project is the result of having nothing substantial to hold onto. Music streamed, music in the cloud, has no touchable, physical, graspable form; you can’t hold it or possess it the way earlier generations could a 78, an LP, or a CD. It has been cleaned up, stripped down, sterilized, digitized, worked on, messed with, dirtied up, sampled, chopped and screwed, augmented. It is no longer performed by living musicians from a certain place at a certain time. It may not even be performed at all, but rather created by producers out of the bits and pieces of performed music from the past.
It would be hard to argue that the musicians recorded by the Lomaxes long ago would not have preferred today’s technology over what they had to work with. The Lomaxes sought to preserve the old music in its purest possible form before it disappeared for good. But what makes music “pure”? Is it accurate recording technology? Is it a pristine soundproof studio? Or is it the atmospheric presence of crickets chirping in the background, screen doors swinging, and the incidental voices of children as the musician plays on his or her front porch? Can the music be separated from its origins, from its place, and still retain its meaning?
So, while The 78 Project bills itself as a “documentary and recording journey inspired by Alan Lomax and his quest to capture music where it lived throughout the early 20th century,” it seems to me that they’re coming at it backwards. Rather than going to the mountains, hollers, farms, and prisons to record the music in its “home places,” the project directors engage emerging and already-established artists to sing the “old songs” in a spot of their choosing, into a single direct-to-acetate recorder. This is a project of imitation, not one of authenticity.
The conditions of the Lomax recordings can’t be duplicated, because the old songs no longer live in their home places. The music of the mountains, farms, and prisons today is mass-produced, commercial, homogeneous, globally distributed, and essentially the same everywhere. The Lomaxes got there right on time. Their moment has passed, and no amount of Roseanne Cash singing a Tennessee ballad in her Upper West Side apartment can bring it back.
I understand the nostalgia for the past. In a certain sense, all recording is a project of nostalgia. The word “record” comes from the Latin recordare, which means “to remember.”
When you listen to an old record, there can be no illusion that you are present at a performance. You are listening through a gray drizzle of static, a sound like rain. You can never forget how far away you are. You always hear it, the sound of distance in time. But what is the connection between the listener and the musician? Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead? And which is which?
It may be that the attempt to dirty up a sound recording in these days of digital perfection is not only the quest for lost authenticity, but also a way to listen to ghosts. As Brian Seibert suggested in his review of White Tears, “A drowned or buried voice can sound more compelling [than a live, present one].”
The protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears, a young white recording engineer named Seth, describes days spent listening to music with his college friend, Carter Wallace:
We worshipped music like [Lee “Scratch”] Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge: who played congas on the B-side, the precise definition of collie. . . . The actual black kids at our school, of whom there were very few, seemed to us unsatisfactorily preppy or Christian or were basketball jocks doing business degrees . . . It seemed unfair. We were the ones who wanted to be at a soundclash in Kingston. We knew what John Coltrane was searching for when he overflew his tenor in the middle section of A Love Supreme. . . .We really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness.
(Lee Perry’s legendary Kingston studio, Black Ark.)
Carter, a white trust-fund baby, has schooled Seth in black music:
He began with Jamaican dub. From there, he introduced ska and soca, soul and RnB, seventies Afrobeat and eighties electro. He spun early hip hop and Free Jazz and countless regional flavors of Bass and Juke music. Chicago, London, Lagos, Miami. I had not known there was such music . . . He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.
What do you think Seth and Carter mean by authentic?
(John Lomax recording Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in the early 1930s.)
In the early 1900s, the pioneering musicologist John Lomax began collecting old American songs and ballads. To “collect,” in this context, means to go “into the field” to transcribe or record people singing and playing traditional music. The “subjects” who performed in these circumstances were usually not professional musicians, but rather ordinary people in rural America who had learned the music from their parents and grandparents. Lomax and his son, Alan, had a special interest in preserving the legacy of African-American music born of slavery. In the face of rapid industrialization and urbanization during the Great Migration, as people moved en masse from the country to the cities, old customs, traditions, and music were inevitably being lost (in addition to collecting songs, John Lomax directed the U.S. government’s Depression-era project to interview and transcribe the narratives of former slaves, many of whom were still alive). Among the Lomaxes’ most important work were their recordings of the music of the black inmates of Southern prisons, which they believed, due to their isolation, helped incubate an environment that allowed the prisoners to retain the old songs in their purest possible forms, without any corrupting influences from the world outside.
This makes the philosophy of preservation, as you will see as you continue to read White Tears, an especially fraught notion.
The Lomaxes’ recordings fueled a new interest in traditional American music, especially among politically-progressive educated whites. In the 1940s and 1950s, listeners who were tired of the commercial values of the burgeoning music industry began turning to the Anthology of American Folk Music, a set of multiple LPs of the blues, gospel, and folk songs the Lomaxes had recorded. The Anthology was so influential that it “became something like the Bible of the folk revival . . . Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been possible without it.” As Louis Proyect notes, in his first year of college in 1961,
Leadbelly was “discovered” by the Lomaxes when they recorded singers at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in 1933 (see image above). John Lomax petitioned the governor of Louisiana to have him released early, and took him on tour around the U.S. In 1937, Life magazine published an article about him entitled: “Lead Belly: Bad N*gger Makes Good Minstrel.”