Wednesday, March 30, 2011

“Down Home Music: A Journey Through The Heartland 1963” (Arhoolie Foundation)

Now THIS is a treat, musically and, perhaps even more so, historically.

In 1963, a German documentarian named Dietrich Wawzyn came to the US with the thought of filming “famous jazz musicians”. Fortunately for posterity, he had only a somewhat vague idea of who and what he was looking for, as well as an open mind towards the many non-jazz musical riches he did find. Thankfully, he had the good sense to acquire as “tour guide” - he also performed sound/lighting duties - Arhoolie Records boss Chris Strachwitz, a German immigrant who was already beginning to establish a reputation for documenting and disseminating on LP’s what we now often refer to as American Roots Music. Wawzyn found relatively few “famous jazz musicians”, but thanks to Strachwitz’ able guidance, he uncovered - and filmed - many regional and ethnic musical gems which might otherwise be lost to us. This documentary DVD gathers together much of the footage Wawzyn took during their trip across the Southern part of the US, from California to North Carolina. Alas, other footage has been lost through the years, but what remains is a wonderful record of a musical era now nearly gone.

The journey begins in Strachwitz’ home territory, the San Francisco Bay area, with the high-spirited one-man-band Jesse “Lone Cat Fuller”, of “San Francisco Bay Blues” renown. Though other footage of Fuller is readily available, it’s always a treat to see Fuller in action, sitting at his home-made rig consisting of 12-string guitar, harmonica, kazoo, percussion and a foot-pedal-powered string bass called a “footdella”. Most of the musicians on this disc come, like Fuller, from purely traditional backgrounds. But 1963 was, you may recall, a very good year for the so-called “folk revival”. So it’s not too surprising to see a couple performances by “contemporary” performers, though in both cases these “revival” performers were doing much older material in a style based on earlier musical approaches. Since filming took place around the time of the jug-band boomlet, we are treated to the Goodtime Washboard 3, an entertaining trio with a lineup of banjo, washboard (with accessories), and washtub bass. We also hear longtime Bay area blues singer and political activist Barbara Dane (who, at nearly 84, is one of the very few performers on this disc who is still with us.), singing “Careless Love”. Our Bay Area sojourn continues with the great urban blues singer-guitarist Lowell Fulson, performing in his natural context, an inner-city bar. We then do a 180-degree turn to the once-famous preacher King Louis Narcisse, filmed during services.

This idea of showcasing performers in their natural contexts carries throughout most of the film. Occasionally, however, footage of a performer is juxtaposed with clips of daily life in another town, giving a semblance of authenticity without being totally “staged”. I think we can forgive this indiscretion, since nothing looks so totally out-of-place that it detracts from the value of either the music or the lifestyles being depicted.

Wawzyn leaves California and heads to Arizona, where he captures the rarely heard sights and sounds of an old-fashioned Tohono O’odham Indian waila string band, from the days before the saxophone and accordion came to dominate the Northern Mexican/Texan-influenced polka music of the area. Once again. much of what Wawzyn and Strachwitz found in Arizona is religious in nature, highlighted by the near-legendary street preacher/singer/guitarist Rev. Louis Overstreet, as well as his quartet-style gospel harmonizing sons. We see both white and black Holiness preachers in action, generating the sort of rabid reaction from their listeners one would never witness in a mainstream Protestant church. These religious segments add up to a substantial percentage of the film’s 75-minute running time, yet they preserve American folkways which are rarely seen by most Americans. We as a people are culturally richer because of the availability of scenes such as this.

In New Mexico, we see the once-fabled Navajo singer Ed Lee Natay, accompanying himself with a large drum, amidst scenes of home life on the reservation. We also see Natay in his other role, as a country-music DJ. We also see Apache singer Chief White Cloud, also self-accompanied on drum. With today’s media emphasis on representing American Indian culture (if at all) by showing pow-wow drums and dancers, it’s instructive to recall the classic solo singers who seemed to dominate Native recording in the 1950’s.

On to Texas, which is where the Arhoolie story really began, when Strachwitz released his first album, by sharecropper/songster Mance Lipscomb. We see Lipscomb singing the St. Louis Jimmy Oden hit from the early 1940’s, “Going Down Slow”, on what I take to be his front porch, a reminder that not all songs recorded by traditional artists in traditional settings derive from purely traditional sources. The audio commentary track informs us that while Lipscomb is singing in Navasota, the contrasting scenes of daily life were actually filmed in Houston. In Fort Worth, we hear B. K. Turner, professionally known as Black Ace, singing his signature song while deftly manipulating his guitar slide. Hop Wilson plays electric steel guitar in a far-too-brief scene filmed in Wilson’s natural musical setting, a barroom. Pianist Whistling Alex Moore demonstrates where his nickname came from, as he plays boogie-woogie on a rundown piano. The big name in the Texas segment, though, is Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, singing one of his typically self-referential songs as well as shooting dice (HIS natural setting), plus a quick boogie-guitar instrumental.

In Louisiana, we get a sample of Cajun music (only one, but it’s better than none) from Shorty Leblanc, who briefly achieved minor celebrity status as the accordionist on Cleveland Crochet’s “Sugar Bee”. That 1961 hit had been sung by Jay Stutes, whom I believe to be the steel guitarist in this clip. In Baton Rouge, we hear Willie Thomas, whose style seems to incorporate equal parts blues and Holiness sermonizing. In New Orleans, Wawzyn hits the jackpot by locating an honest-to-goodness “famous jazz musician”, clarinetist George Lewis, heard here in a quartet derived from an early edition of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with Louis Nelson on trombone. Lewis’ pianist, “Sweet Emma” Barrett, brings down the house singing “None of My Jelly Roll”, in a style which seems to be situated on the borderline between ragtime and vaudeville-blues. We also get a glimpse at a New Orleans-style funeral, with the Eureka Brass Band playing a dirge on the way to the cemetery, changing to an uptempo romp on the way back.

We cross into Mississippi to hear the rural string-band strains of the Hodges Brothers, poor white farmers in a poverty-stricken area of Bogue Chitto. If the Hodges represent country music at its most traditional, the next three segments, recorded in Nashville, are strictly show-biz. The Lewus Family were an important bluegrass-gospel ensemble during that period. Red Sovine reproduces the recording session that spawned his hit single “Why Baby Why”. It sounds positively old-fashioned in this era of Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum, but it no doubt seemed plenty commercial in 1963, particularly in contrast to the rest of the DVD. Even more oriented toward popular entertainment is the gimmicky, yet entertaining comedy-with-music act of the Willis Brothers, whose studio-produced hits such as “Give Me 40 Acres” in no way prepare you for the cheerful tomfoolery of their live act seen here. Another, far more hidden side of Nashville is uncovered as we encounter the black string-band music of Blind James Campbell and his band of street musicians, playing fiddle, guitars, and tuba, a part of Nashville’s musical heritage rarely documented on film or recordings.

The Appalachian string-band tradition is represented by North Carolina’s J. E. Mainer and the Mountaineers, a classic 30’s band which was still actively recording in the 1960’s. It would have been appropriate for the film to have ended there - having traced significant portions of American roots music from the West Coast to the East. But as the credits roll, we get to hear a Nashville-based German-born country singer of the era named Eddie Schaible, a reminder that this film was, after all, originally shot for the German audience. Schaible is agreeable enough, but not distinctive to the point where he had any chance to crack the American country-music market. A pleasant curiosity, which would not have been missed if it had been omitted.

But that’s one of the very few false moves in an otherwise fascinating musical journey. To add to the disc’s value, there is an audio commentary track, in which Chris Strachwitz reminiscences about the making of the film - how it came about, memories of the musicians, musings over the contexts in which the music was made and documented, sprinkled with a few anecdotes.

In short, I must give this my highest recommendation to anyone who loves this music, its history, the people who performed it and, for that matter, the people who listened to and supported this music for all of its years. Virtually all of these artists are gone now, their music with them, the world in which they lived altered for all time. All we have is what was captured on sound recordings and film. And we truly do not have nearly enough film documentation. This DVD goes a long way in keeping these traditions alive for generations to come.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

“Alison Brown Quartet: Live at Blair - With Joe Craven” DVD (Compass)

Alison Brown has been at the forefront of the contemporary 5-string banjo movement for some 20+ years now, beginning with her tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station. During that time, Brown has recorded a number of CD’s, first for Vanguard, then (since 1998) her own Compass Records banner. But not only is Brown one of Compass’ brightest lights, she also runs the label with husband and bass player Garry West. Under their enlightened guidance, Compass has emerged as a major player in the worlds of contemporary acoustic music, Americana, bluegrass, and Celtic music. Fittingly enough, all those genres figure prominently into music of the Alison Brown Quartet on the “Live At Blair” DVD.

For those who may be unfamiliar with her work, Alison Brown belongs to the same general category - which has never really been given a satisfactory name, as if that matters - of contemporary acoustic instrumental music, which encompasses such diverse artists as Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, et. al. Her music incorporates elements of bluegrass, jazz, New Age, classical music, Celtic and other World Music elements, in varying amounts which keep it from being predictable or even readily classifiable. Brown’s 5-string work is rooted in the Bill Keith chromatic style, but shows familiarity with Scruggs style on occasion. The banjo is by nature a pretty staccato instrument, but her playing always seems to sound smoothly rounded and highly imaginative. The same may be said of featured guest artist Joe Craven (best known for his work with Grisman) on fiddle and mandolin and Brown’s well-polished rhythm section. When everything is going right - as it is through the great bulk of this DVD concert - Brown’s banjo sparkles, Craven’s fiddle glides, John R. Burr’s piano soars and swoops, drummer Larry Atamanuik propels, and Garry West’s bass anchors everything. They all have their own ideas, yet everyone does their part to enhance and complement what the others.

Most of the material consists of intelligently conceived original tunes, including “The Magnificent Seven”, which is neither the epic Elmer Bernstein Western movie theme turned cigarette commercial nor the Clash song. It’s refreshing to hear Brown switch to guitar (and Craven to mandolin) on “Deep Gap”, a tribute to the Godfather of this entire genre of acoustic instrumentalism, Doc Watson.

As for the non-originals,Craven (on mandolin and auxiliary percussion) gets a workout on a lesser-known Django Reinhardt piece from 1939, “Hungaria”, which also features a drum solo by Atamanuik. There is also a traditional Scottish tune or two in the lengthy, set-closing medley with the unlikely title “(I’m Naked and I’m) Goin’ To Glasgow”. Brown is the first banjoist I’ve heard who has successfully translated the triplet ornamentation of Irish tenor banjo playing to the 5-string instrument, then extends it further. The medley also includes Burr’s most intense solo of the disc, in a modern gospel-tinged jazz vein. It probably shouldn’t be expected to work in a Celtic medley, yet it does. By the time Craven brings the hour-long concert to its climax by beating on Brown’s banjo like a conga drum, as she continues to play without missing a beat, one is no longer surprised by anything one might hear from these skilled musicians.

Brown does not have the most effusive stage personality, if that sort of thing is important to you. But Craven has a devilish little grin which wins over the viewer. No matter, the appreciative audience is not necessarily there to see “a show” or to be bowled over by personalities, but to hear well-considered original music skillfully played, and that’s exactly what they get for most of the disc. The two attempts at adding humor and variety to the proceedings no doubt worked better in the auditorium than they do for repeated home viewing. Brown narrates the historical/mythological background behind her composition “The Wonderful Sea Voyage (Of Holy St. Brendan)”, while Craven (occasionally abetted by West) accompanies with vocal sound effects, shouts, and bits of choreography. I was not at all surprised to learn that Craven has a successful side career as a children’s entertainer and workshop leader. The other “interruption” (my choice of word; others may well disagree) to the concert is the performance by Brown and West’s 6-year-old daughter Hannah, singing a couple old vaudeville standards. Very cute, even delightful - once. But I for one would opt to skip to the next chapter in subsequent viewings.

Nevertheless, I think anyone with an interest in the current state of the banjo and the development of contemporary acoustic music will more than get their money’s worth here, especially at the budget-conscious list price of $11.99. (I’ve seen it advertised online for even less.) Picture and audio quality are both absolutely gorgeous. The sole bonus feature is short text bios of the musicians.

Get this one.

Monday, March 7, 2011

“Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback Of A Musical Underdog” (Tiny Goat Films)

As I was growing up in the continually expanding rock’n’roll eras of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, the ukulele had a pretty bad rap. For one thing, among rockers, the electric guitar was THE instrument of the moment, and the uke seemed hopelessly square. Second, it’s such a tiny thing and costs so little, who could take it seriously? Third, it conjured up images of slick-haired 1920’s frat boys in raccoon coats, as well as Arthur Godfrey, who may have been an entertaining t.v. host, but was no teenager’s idea of a hip musician. Then finally, along came Tiny Tim, and any residual interest in the ukulele was irrevocably destroyed. Or so it seemed at the time.

Forward to the end of the first decade of the 21st century. As I was expanding the number of areas of the globe covered in my “Musics of the World” course at SUNY Fredonia, and briefly discussing Hawaiian music in my “American Music” course as well, I noticed something unexpected. College students born around at the end of the 1980’s, primarily in the state of New York, professed to know who Bruddah Iz (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) was, though he died while they were in grade school. It was generally the case that “Over the Rainbow” was the only song they knew by him (which some students seemed to associate more with him than “The Wizard of Oz”), but they were conversant with - and had considerably high regard for - a musician who played the ukulele. Before long, Iz was joined in the next batch of students’ eyes by the great Jake Shimabukuro. Once again, they might only know one song (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), but at least they were giving serious props to a bona-fide ukulele innovator.

In other words, the ukulele is no longer in limbo. It can actually be considered a cool instrument by college students in the eastern US in the year 2011. Oh, yes, I still hear my fellow faculty members make derisive comments about the instrument - until I counter with Jake S., at which time they grudgingly nod assent. But attitudes are hard to change in academia. Perhaps they should all watch this marvelously entertaining and educational film, “Mighty Uke”, as fine a no-apologies-needed paean to a once-reviled musical instrument as you could hope to see.

You see, the Canadian filmmakers who put this 79-minute documentary together don’t simply take the ukulele seriously. Well beyond that, they love this instrument with a passion. The film is part history, part love letter, part demonstration of its capabilities, part tribute to many of the uke’s finest exponents, and part testimonial to how darn much fun it is to make music simply, easily, and without complication, using an instrument that my know-it-all Baby Boomer generation dismissed as something of a joke.

Watching this film, it is abundantly clear that during its long period in musical limbo, the ukulele underwent a tremendous expansion of stylistic possibilities and playing techniques. You may learn by strumming, you may also effectively accompany singing by strumming. But this is also an instrument that is capable of great subtlety, delicacy, creativity, and even complexity when melodic lines are skillfully plucked on it. It is worth noting that many of the players who are seen playing the instrument on-camera are likewise surprised to find how much pleasure they get playing the instrument, and how surprised a few are to discover they can actually make money doing so. Clearly this is a new Golden Era for what seems so humble an instrument, as well providing non-musicians (from schoolchildren to senior citizen groups) an outlet to begin expressing themselves in musical ways. Teachers, Recreation Directors, and Music Therapists might find many of these scenes to be quite eye-opening, and send Music Education in whole new directions. I don’t even play the uke, and have no need to proselytize for the instrument, but I find I’ve been inspired to talk about it to people in positions to expose it further.

Along the way, we see many shapes, sizes, and styles of ukulele, a much greater variety of options than the mini-guitar shape we generally think of when the instrument is mentioned. We get a compact history of Hawaiian music in general and the uke in particular, tracing its roots to the Portuguese braguinha (also the forerunner of the uke’s Brazilian cousin, the cavaquinho, which I thought might get more attention here, though it has never really gone out of fashion in samba circles), examining its early days in the Hawaiian islands, its inroads into mainland/mainstream American pop-culture during the early 20th century, and yes, the dark days of Tiny Tim. We also get to see rare ukes in the collection of the Honolulu’s famed Bishop Museum. We meet the author/compiler of a series of ukulele instruction books and songbooks.

And we get to see performances and interviews, lots of them. We see masters on various levels of accomplishment, such as the aforementioned Jake Shimabukuro, centenarian Bill Tapia (who talks about his early career; he’s been playing since 1915!!), the late John King, a fellow named Jon Braman who unexpectedly blends the ukulele with hip-hop, singer-songwriter Uni, the Boulder Acoustic Society, and Canadian groundbreaker James Hill. But we also get to see talented amateurs in large ensembles, in senior bands, a group of Israeli youth of both Jewish and Arab descent, and a high-school uke orchestra from British Columbia which tours Hawaii annually. Clearly this is an instrument which transcends musical, geographical, ethnic, political, and seemingly any other kind of barrier. But the point continues to be stressed that you don’t necessarily need to play with a high level of skill to enjoy the instrument, just a high level of enthusiasm.

In addition to the full-length film, there are no less than 10 short films with supplementary material. (Outtakes? No matter, they’re worth seeing.) We get to look at some vintage Martin ukes and learn how they were made. (Yes, that’s THE Martin Guitar company. During the depression, people couldn’t always afford a fine Martin guitar, but they were much more likely to afford a $5 uke.) We see some unusual looking ukuleles-as-art-objects, as an introduction to a Japanese artist/craftsman who fashions “ukuleles of the future”, amplified and with flashing lights. There are short profiles of a number of interesting performers playing a wide variety of musical styles. We are treated to some excellent live footage of the great uke master John King, who passed away in 2009, after carving out a unique position in the world of Hawaiian-rooted contemporary ukulele composition. And to top it all off, James Hill gives us an introductory uke lesson.

In all, this is a thoroughly delightful film, which should have great appeal well beyond the already converted uke community, and which will open the eyes of music lovers of many stripes. I seriously doubt you’ll find this at Wal-Mart, so I’d suggest you check it out at