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In The Dust #17: Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’

Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.

In the early 1950s, there began a revolution. It wasn’t marked with massacre or power struggle. Those outside it knew it existed, but barely, and only through stories of the Bohemian, Greenwich Village, and emerging stars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. It was a new American revolution, one in which musicians, critics, casual listeners, and even hipsters and some fashionistas began to look back in order to look forward. It was a folk revolution, and Harry Smith, then just 29 years old, was at its center.

Smith was, in many ways, a jack-of-all-trades. A filmmaker, ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, mystic and artist, he embodied 1960’s New York bohemianism. He lived with Ginsberg, rubbed elbows with Igliori and The Fugs, hung out at Hotel Chelsea, screened films at the San Francisco Museum of Art and, perhaps most importantly, amassed an astonishingly deep collection of early American 78 rpm records. Many of these records were collected to form The Smithsonian Anthology of Folk Music, a six-LP box set that stands not only as a valuable document of the development of American music, but also as one of the most influential compilations ever released.

The collection, released in 1952, is comprised of 84 sides recorded sometime during 1927-1932 (Smith notes his reasoning for this timeframe as “1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales,”) and divided into three parts, each with two records of stylistically linked material: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. Ballads collects songs that recount a particular time or event and loosely tells a historical narrative. The first LP of Social Music collects dance songs and party music, typically performed, as one can imagine, at community gatherings. The second LP features pieces centering on religion and spirituality and Songs collects those in between, detailing everyday life, relationships, activity, etc. Genres range from Cajun to country to delta blues, generally running the gamut of popular, regional American music of the time.

Smith oversaw every aspect of the box’s production. He wrote and crafted the liner notes himself, which are nearly as famous on their own, using a style of collage later adopted by post-modernist artists. Always the eccentric, Smith sometimes provided editorialized summations of songs in cryptically poetic, journalistic expressions. For “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” by Chubby Parker, a song in which a frog marries and mouse, later sampled by Mickey Avalon for his song “What Do You Say”, Smith penned the following: “Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved Mouse Frog Nuptuals [sic], Relatives Approve.” Each volume in the collection features the same cover art, a “celestial monochord”, but printed in its own unique color: green, blue and red. These, Smith asserted, were to represent the essential alchemical elements, Air, Water and Fire, and were to be in harmony with the “celestial monochord”, another alchemical reference, taken from an early treatise by the alchemist Robert Fludd. It was later replaced by a photo of a farmer in response to the politically charged atmosphere of the culture at which the collection was aimed for fear that its mystic angle might prove heavily divisive.

But the collection was anything but divisive. Its track listing reads like an all-star revue. It introduced uninitiated listeners to Blind Lemon Jefferson, The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Gus Cannon and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Dock Boggs, Sleepy John Estes and a host other artists. Its sounds graced the ears of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and all the players in the New York folk scene, even Ginsberg, fellow poets, The Grateful Dead in San Francisco, and all those with an ear to the ground. Ronk recalls, “we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” Instantly, it was heralded as a driving force behind the folk movement and all efforts of musical resurrection, inspiring Newport Folk Festival to include Mississippi John Hurt and Dock Boggs on the roster of their next festival. Overnight, forgotten stars once again ascended and were flown to New England, Europe, all over the world, anxious and engorged with folk fever.

It later seduced John Fahey, Elvis Costello and infinite others, the entrancing “talismanic aura” driving every listener under its spell to obsessive love and reverence. It is #276 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-time. Required listening for any American music lover, Smith and his Anthology are American treasures, of the past but not forgotten, to be held closely and affectionately, with curiosity and desire, and appreciated not as antiques but as indispensible, undying articles of America.

Written by Ben Brundage


In the Dust #16: Etta James, 1938-2012

All I need

Is someone like you

My dearest darling

Please, love me too

Within my heart

I pray your answer’s yes

I’ll make your life

Full of happiness

When you need me

I’ll be there by your side

Oh, I pledge my love to you

With God as our guide

Nothing, nothing, nothing in this world

Can keep us apart

My dearest darling

I offer you my heart

Whenever you need me

I’ll be there by your side

I pledge my love to you

With God as our guide

Nothing, nothing, nothing in this world

Can keep us apart

My dearest darling

I’m offering you my heart

My dearest darling

-“My Dearest Darling” – Listen

Etta James, At Last! (1961)

One week ago today, the world witnessed the death of one of the greatest singers of all-time. On Friday, January 20th, 2012, Etta James passed away. She was 73.

To many, she possessed a voice beyond compare. She was a symbol of strength, resolve and triumph over adversity. Her songs became anthems, embodied national consciousness, serenaded a President and garnered her 6 Grammy’s and countless nominations. She was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame – twice. One of the first blues singers to “cross over”, her versatility won the adoration of fans from nearly every genre, and her star remains one of the most brilliant in any blues, pop or soul constellation.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25th, 1938, in Los Angeles, California. Her mother was 14-year old Dorothy Hawkins. Her father, James speculated, was the elegant, reigning king of pool, billiard player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone.

Due to her mother’s frequent absences and erratic relations with numbers of men, James dubbed her mother “the mystery lady” and spent the majority of her time with caretakers. She took up singing at the age of five, receiving lessons from a musical director at a local church. She quickly became a popular attraction, often to her detriment. One of James’s caretakers, “Sarge”, would hold poker nights and his guests often requested that James sing for them. “Sarge”, at all hours of the night, would wake her up, drag her downstairs and, as she was a childhood bed-wetter, force her to perform, often in a soiled nightgown. This begat in James an intense, instinctual defiance that flared anytime it was demanded she sing, a reaction that, out of necessity, drove her to do things her way, and aided in summoning a vast wealth of emotion and determination totally unheard in all but a few other singers.

In 1950, after the death of her caretakers, James, 14, moved with her biological mother to San Francisco, where she began to fall deeply in love with doo wop. She formed a girl group, The Creolettes, a name inspired by their light skin. There, in many differing accounts, they met Johnny Otis, a legendary multi-instrumentalist, DJ, talent scout, producer and jack-of-all-trades who also died last week, only three days before James, at the age of 90. Otis got the girls a deal with Modern Records, changed their name to The Peaches, Etta’s from Jamesetta to “Etta James”, and set about recording their first hit. “Dance With Me, Henry,” a reworking of Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie,” co-authored by James charted at #1 on Hot Rhythm and Blues Tracks, and The Peaches were booked as the opening act on Little Richard’s upcoming nation-wide tour. But there remained stumbling blocks ahead.

During The Peaches’ tour with Little Richard, “Dance With Me, Henry,” was rerecorded by Georgia Gibbs, a pop singer, and retitled, “The Wallflower.” It went straight to #1 on the Billboard charts. James was irate. He next single for Modern Records, “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” also did very well, but only on the R&B charts, and the majority of her other singles for Modern were flops. James, fed up, yearning for stardom and confident she could get it, jumped ship at the conclusion of her contracted and signed, solo, with Chess Records. With the help of Leonard Chess, Willie Dixon and the songwriters at Chess Records, and Harvey Fuqua, fling and founder of the doo-wop kings, The Moonlighters, Etta James would record some of the most compelling, unforgettable and aurally immaculate crossover tunes in the American songbook.

Many of James’s songs are now ubiquitous, known to some as well as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, but they are nonetheless substantial pieces of an astounding career. Each speaks for itself, from the monstrously popular, “At Last”, to deeper tracks like “In My Diary”, and the author’s personal favorite, “Trust In Me”, layers of meaning issuing fruitfully from James’s effortless vocal delivery, at times wistful, ebullient and then so suddenly sullen, poignant and devastating.

Her Chess Box is required listening, as are her early recordings with The Peaches and later work like the completely gutting, perhaps semi-autobiographically inspired, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, as well as 2003’s Let’s Roll, and 2004’s Blues To The Bone, all of which won a Grammy.

In her 73 short years before succumbing to complications of Alzheimer’s and leukemia, James had cycled from doo wop to R&B to blues to pop and back again, mastering every style and interpreting standards from nearly every school with matchless grace and poise. Like Bo Diddley and the blues, she effortlessly established a lasting pathway between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, allowing for the veins of jazz and soul to grow through her and latch like ivy, constructing as she crossed, beneath a fog of undeserved ignorance and under-appreciation, a natural bridge of intertwining traditions, American earth as its base, strong, unyielding and deeply rich, much like the architect herself.

Rest in peace, Etta James. Your lonely days are over.

Written by Ben Brundage


In The Dust #15: Tommy Johnson ‘Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order: 1928-1929’

Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)

When it comes to the mythopoetic bluesman, Tommy Johnson was the archetype. A rambling, hard-drinking, hard-loving guitar picker with one of the most distinctive and celebrated voices in blues history, Johnson stands in company with Son House and Charlie Patton as one of the genre’s most important early artists, head-hunting and juke-jointing in Dockery and across the delta a full eight years before Robert Johnson ever picked on record.

He was born 1896, near the small town of Terry, Mississippi, on the George Miller plantation. Fourteen years later, Johnson’s family moved to Crystal Springs, Mississippi, where Johnson’s older brother, LeDell, began to teach him how to play guitar. Johnson was soon playing parties with his brothers, Major and LeDell, to supplement the family income, but he stayed only two years, running away at age 16 to become a professional musician. Johnson’s freewheeling, impulsive nature and, in particular, the vices it helped him acquire would come to haunt him for the rest of his life.

After leaving Crystal Springs, Johnson began his career as an itinerant musician, picking up with the likes of Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Ishman Bracey and a host of other blues legends, but never for long. Johnson only played when money was tight, or he simply felt like it, and exhibited little or no desire for self-promotion or furthering his career. He was busy. Johnson occupied the majority of his time with dogged womanizing or his favorite past-time, and what seemed like his life’s true passion, drinking. When the whiskey river ran dry, Johnson had two ways of getting his fix: he would drink denatured alcohol from a Sterno can, the type used today for heating chafing dishes, or common shoe polish. Both would be heated and strained through bread or a sock, and both would provide Johnson his necessary kick.

As Johnson was still young, his alcoholism was yet a hindrance. He was playing out and playing often, and, despite his own aversion to dogged promotion, was busy cultivating a legendary persona. He was the finest blues vocalist of his day. His voice, a trademark of his music, was remarkably nimble and could modulate from a soft whisper to a great, Patton-esque growl and upwards to a ghostly falsetto, more delicately attenuated than would seem possible when compared to any of his thunderous, preceding barks. Also like Patton, he could play the guitar between his legs, behind his head, and in a number of other crowd pleasing positions, screaming and hollering and howling without a break, throwing his axe into the air and catching it mid-number, but perhaps the most powerful aspect of Johnson’s newly cultivated public face, and certainly the most lasting, was his encounter with the devil.

You’ve heard it a thousand times. The crossroads myth. Well, it began with Johnson, and not Robert. Tommy. He told it himself many times to reinforce his abilities to new, unfamiliar audiences. Many, out of interest, picked up and began telling the story themselves. So began the myth of Johnson’s journey from Dockery to the crossroads, waiting there for the man until his arrival at Midnight, the man nimbly and quickly tuning Johnson’s guitar, rifling off a tune, passing it back to Johnson and, along with it, a comprehensive mastery of blues guitar.

After eight years of playing in and out of combos but primarily alone, honing a distinguished and awe-inspiring reputation as a Satanically-acquainted guitar picker with a library of classical blues delineations, several original compositions, and a throat that summoned at-once gravel and honey, Victor Records, later RCA Victor and then BMG, approached Johnson to make his first recordings.

He travelled to Memphis with his sometime-accompanist, Papa Charlie McCoy. There, in two sessions, he cut his first seven sides: “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, “Big Road Blues”, “Bye-Bye Blues”, “Maggie Campbell Blues”, “Canned Heat Blues”, “Lonesome Home Blues” and “Big Fat Mama Blues”.

Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, while not Johnson’s most famous song, is perhaps his most recognizable and influential, serving as a metaphor, in a sense, for Johnson’s complicated relationship with addiction.

Over an ebbing and flowing, hypnotically propulsive finger-picked progression, we hear Johnson’s otherworldly howl issue for the first time. “I asked for water,” he bawls, “then she gave me gasoline.”  His voice trembles with the vibrato of a violin playing in the upper register. It is immediately arresting, haunting and spectral. Maybe more than any other Faustian musician, there is the suggestion of devilment in Johnson’s tone. Whether it be the devilment of his demons- an addiction to alcohol -or true soulless lament it is impossible to define, but it is easy to indentify the profound level of sadness with which Johnson sings of his woman woes, her mistreatment of him, and his dependence on the availability of high-strength alcohol of any nature: “Lord, Good Lordy, Lord / Cried Lord, I wonder / Will I ever get back home?” He continues on, using the metaphor of a poor man begging to “ride the blinds” of a train car in the hopes of making it home, but the Conductor denies his request and says, “this train is none of mine”. Johnson’s woes, it seems, are his own to remedy and, thus, destined to remain dry despite his tearful, falsetto plea.

Canned Heat Blues” is arguably Johnson’s most famous. The centerpiece of Johnson’s first recording session, “Canned Heat Blues” is an upbeat, strum-heavy number ready for peaking the floor of the local juke joint. Like many a Johnson song, it details Johnson’s lament of his affinity for alcohol, particularly canned heat, and, presumably, the awful hangover one acquires after a raucous night on it. He begs for some relief, for someone to physically remove all of his pain and the substance itself, saying women don’t want a man on the heat and that, if not for it, he “never would die”, but the joy with which he sings his regrets, suggests that his wish is only half-hearted, and to dispatch of his canned heat he would very soon regret:

I woked up a-this mo’nin / With canned heat on my mind / Woke just this mo’nin’ / Canned heat was on my mind / Woke up this mo’nin / With the canned heat, Lord / On my mind

Cried, Lord / Lord, I wonder / Canned heat, Lord, killing me / Think alcorub is / Tearing apart my soul / Because brown-skin woman / Don’t do the easy roll

I woke up, a-this mo’nin’

Cryin’, canned heat ’round my bed / Run in here, somebody / Take these canned heat blues / Run here, somebody / An take these canned heat blues.

 Cryin’, mama, mama, mama / Cryin’, canned heat killin’ me / Plead to my soul, Lord / They gon’ kill me dead.

It is clear what is meant when reading about Johnson’s love for the craft of blues music when compared to his love of alcohol. They are, in many ways, intertwined, both a subject of great inspiration and dedication, both playing and feeding off each other, but one true love reigns supreme: alcohol, Johnson’s tumultuous relationship with it and his desperate need to acquire it by any means necessary.

A year and a half later, after the Victor sides began to circulate the delta, Johnson was tapped again to record, this time by Paramount Records. Through the channel of an urging Charlie Patton, drinking buddy, on-again, off-again playing partner, constant competitor and collaborative, mutually dependent imitator of Johnson’s, Paramount convinced Johnson to come to Grafton, Wisconsin, where Patton and fellow delta inner-circler, the semi-professional Son House, recently recorded, and cut sides. They would be his last.

In Grafton, Johnson recorded nine sides in total, “Button Up Shoes”, “I Want Someone To Love Me”, “I Wonder To Myself”, “Slidin’ Delta”, “Black Mare Blues”, “Morning Prayer Blues”, “Boogaloosa Woman”, “Alcohol and Jake Blues” and “Ridin’ Horse”, bringing his total oeuvre to just sixteen songs. The songs from Johnson’s Grafton sessions would not prove to be nearly as successful, nor as lasting and influential, as those from his two Memphis sessions with Victor, but they are nonetheless excellent, masterfully composed, beautifully executed and hauntingly penetrative.

In the words of Emily Dickenson, Johnson did not stop for death. Why Johnson’s recording career was cut short at just sixteen songs is a story that fits in remarkably tight with not only the lore of his personal life, but the troubles of his immortal songs as well.

The Mississippi Sheiks, a popular and extremely versatile “jug” band of the time, recorded a song known as “Stop And Listen”. The song was very successful, but a team at Victor records, where Johnson had recently recorded, believed that the Sheiks had stolen their melody for the song from Johnson’s very popular, and to this day one of his best, “Big Road Blues”. The Victor folks brought about a copyright suit, to which Johnson was party, but he was apparently so drunk that, upon signing the final settlement, a decision in his favor, he believed, not knowing exactly what the document was, that he had signed away his right to record in perpetuity. For this reason, this supremely drunken mistake, Johnson never recorded another song. He continued to play parties, juke joints, and all manner of venues until his death, during a performance at a local house party, of a heart attack in 1956. Bonnie Raitt paid for his tombstone.

His music continues to influence countless artists, from the band Canned Heat, to the equally immortal Howlin’ Wolf, a former resident of Dockery, and Otis Spann (a familiar name around In The Dust). The Coen Brothers included his purported likeness in their 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

It is hard to say what is the stronger of Johnson’s legacies, his music or his personal life. His dealings with the devil are, of course, the stuff of legend, but as is his torrid love affair with alcohol. The substance was a greater influence on Johnson’s life and music than any other. It inspired his greatest songs, kept him from a full, lush career as the iconic blues musician he was destined to be, and ultimately caused his death. He lived hard and surprisingly long, with his canned heat at his side, the life of the consummate bluesman: dark, shrouded in myth and mystery, a drunk carouser of the highest verve, a heartbreaking, soul-stirring guitar-picker whose small but significant oeuvre, and unforgettable, chilling voice, are beyond compare.

Written by Ben Brundage