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.

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