Archive for the ‘Vintage Music’ Category

Old Music, Modern Dilemma

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

About two weeks ago, I wrote about my Christmas present from the Texas Gal: The Harry Smith B-Sides, a collection of vintage music created by flipping over eighty-one of the eighty-four 78s that collector Harry Smith included in his ground-breaking Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952.

B Sides

According to the booklet in the B-Sides box, the idea of a Harry Smith B-sides project had been around for a while. Lance Ledbetter of Dust-To-Digital – the label that released the new box set last year – says in a piece in the booklet that he began working on the idea of collecting digital copies of all eighty-four flip sides in 2004 or so but ran into trouble finding several of the old records.

(Because Ledbetter already owned the 1997 CD edition of the original Anthology, he already owned a few of the flips, as in 1952, Smith included both the A- and B- sides of four of the 78s he used to create his collection.)

But Ledbetter shelved the project when he was unable to find all of the old records. And in 2013, Ledbetter heard from record collector John Cohen, who with his partner, Eli Smith, had gathered the Smith B-sides and were wondering if Dust-To-Digital could help with production and release. Connections ensued, and Smith assured Ledbetter and his partner and wife, April, that all eighty-four flipsides were available.

It took some time, but as 2020 dawned, the box set was almost ready to go out the door. But three of the tracks caused some concern because of their racist language and imagery: “You Shall Be Free” by Bill & Belle Reed from 1928, “I’m The Child To Fight” by Uncle Dave Macon with Sam McGee, also from 1928, and “Henhouse Blues” by the Bentley Boys from 1929, would be startling and potentially offensive in today’s culture.

Still, Cohen, Smith and the Ledbetters planned to include the three tracks in the B-Sides collection. As Lance Ledbetter told NPR’s Sam Briger in December:

[B]etween the time in 2013, when we first started talking about this, and 2015, when we finalized the liner notes, we felt that leaving the three songs with racist lyrics . . . including them on the CDs was the right decision because we were looking at it more as historical accuracy and looking at it as a sense of preservation, that this is the full version.

Cohen had died in 2019, leaving Smith and the Ledbetters to finish the project. And things changed:

And between 2015, when we made that decision, and 2020, we changed. We changed that decision. And it really came about when we started listening to the test pressings for the vinyl. And we heard the songs differently. And I remember April and I, we felt like we needed to do something to address this – these songs . . . . And we were conversing on how to deal with this in 2020.

The solution was to place a note in the box set warning that the three tracks in question contained racist and offensive content so they could be skipped if the listener so desired. But one day at an open-air market, Ledbetter says, a friend who ran the market was playing Smith’s original 1952 anthology on the market’s sound system. Lance Ledbetter told NPR’s Briger, “I looked around and just saw a diverse group of people under the tent – Black people, Hispanic people, white people, old people and young people.” And he wondered about the effect on the crowd at the market if the music had instead been the Harry Smith B-Sides and one of those three racist tracks popped up.

Ledbetter went on:

And I just thought that there was no note that you could include in a box set that would explain why they were hearing that music and those lyrics. And it was at that point that the decision was made. We need to take those tracks off because once they’re on those CDs, they’re broadcast in homes and on the radio. It’s putting music out there that, in 2020, we just didn’t feel like it needed to be in the public sphere.

So with the release date for the box set approaching, three of the four CDs were redone, removing the three offensive tracks and leaving four seconds of dead air in their places. The commentary about the three tracks remains in the booklet, so the tracks’ places in history – as three of the Smith flipsides – is still recognized.

The three tracks are not hard to find. I gathered copies from a couple of sources in minutes one day. And they are offensive. They would have been in the late 1920s for some folks, and they’d be offensive to everyone, I hope, in 2021.

So, is it historically inaccurate to offer the Dust-To-Digital box set as Harry Smith’s B-sides when three of the tracks have been purposefully removed from the set? Would it have been better to leave the offensive recordings in their places? I’ve been pondering the question since late December, and I’m don’t know if the removal of those three songs is a matter of altering history (or of “cancel culture,” as some would likely call it). My thought would have been to add a fifth CD to the box set containing those three tracks with clear warning on the CD sleeve of the offensive content. Whether that would have worked, I have no idea.

Here’s the first of the eighty-one tracks included in the box set: “One Cold December Day” by Dick Justice. Little is known about the man except that he was born Henry Franklin Justice in 1906 in Logan County, West Virginia. “One Cold December Day” is based on a traditional British ballad and was one of ten tracks Justice recorded for the Brunswick label on May 21, 1932.

Saturday Single No. 726

Saturday, February 27th, 2021

There are a very few tracks in the digital collection here that have been recorded on February 27, maybe ten. (Of the 82,000 mp3s pulled into the RealPlayer, I have that depth of information on maybe ten percent.)

And a quick look at the February 27 tracks offers one that came to me via the series called When The Sun Goes Down, a set of eleven CDs issued between 2002 and 2004 featuring vintage music from the Victor and Bluebird labels.

The Hall Brothers recorded the song “Constant Sorrow” in Charlotte, North Carolina, on this date in 1938. The song, of course, is better known these days as “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” after being featured in the 2000 movie O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, but there had been somewhere around forty versions of the song recorded and released before that. And since the movie came out, according to Second Hand Songs, at least another thirty-five versions of the song have been recorded and released.

The Hall Brothers’ version – Roy Hall took the vocal and played guitar while his brother Jay Hugh added guitar and Steve Ledford added fiddle – was among the earliest recorded. The first version, again according to Second Hand Songs, came from Emry Arthur, whose take on the song was released on the Vocalion label in May 1928. The next version listed was recorded by the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1951.

As to the Hall Brothers’ version. for whatever reason, neither the Victor nor Bluebird label released the 1938 track, leaving it dormant for sixty-six years. And since I’m dabbling in vintage music these days, the Hall Brothers’ 1938 take on “Constant Sorrow” is today’s Saturday Single.

Digging In The Long-Gone Past

Friday, February 26th, 2021

One of the things I got for Christmas from the Texas Girl in December was a newly released collection of vintage music titled The Harry Smith B-Sides. Harry Smith, as most readers likely known, was the eccentric music collector who in the early 1950s. assembled from his collection of 78s an eighty-four-track mélange of music from the 1920s and 1930s.

That collection was released in 1952  on the Folkways label as The Anthology of American Folk Music, and it became a seminal artifact in the development of the folk scene of the 1950s and early 1960s.

There was an obscure logic to the way Smith arranged the collection, grouping the eighty-four songs in three categories, but listeners and musicians, or so said news pieces I saw last autumn, have often wondered what kind of collection would one find if one listened to the flip sides of the records Smith included in his anthology.

Well, that’s exactly what the folks at the Dust to Digital label did in the collection The Harry Smith B-Sides. And that’s some of the music I’ve been absorbing over the last two months. The whole thing is made more interesting because as the release date for the collection came near, Dust to Digital’s project found itself smack in the middle of last summer’s discussions of racial and social justice.

And not to be a tease, but I’m still working out the ideas for a longer piece on the new set and the issues it touched. That should show up here next week, I hope. In the meantime, here’s one of the funnier songs – but one that’s still imbued with some violent imagery – from Smith’s original 1952 anthology.

Here’s “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” by Chubby Parker & His Old-Time Banjo, a retelling of the old tune “Froggie Went A-Courtin’.” The track was recorded in New York City on August 13, 1928, and was released on the Columbia label.

Keeping Odd & Pop Happy

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

It’s been a couple of years since we checked in with my imaginary alter egos, tuneheads Odd and Pop. I think they’re happy here in the condo. There are fewer records, of course, about 1,000 LPs instead of the 3,000 or so that were crammed into the EITW studios on the East Side, but there are more CDs and reference books these days, as the passing pandemic seasons here resulted in – as I’m certain is true elsewhere – fairly frequent online shopping sprees.

Anyway, they’re here, Odd and Pop, with their internal radios tuned to different stations.

Pop likes the familiar, the pleasant, the unchallenging. He loves records he’s heard a thousand times, and if he wants variety, he’ll gladly listen to a thousand different records he’s heard a thousand times before. He’s the reason why the digital shelves once held eighty-four different versions of “The Girl From Ipanema.” (The external hard drive crash three years ago eliminated many of them, and he’s been scheming to get them back ever since.)

Odd, however, likes different things. Very different. He’s the one whose eyes widened with joy the other day when the mail carrier dropped off, with its accompanying CD, the book Stomp and Swerve, subtitled “American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924.” He laughed loudly when he learned that the tune “The Smiler,” written by Percy Wenrich and recorded sometime around 1908 by the Zon-O-Phone Concert Band, was craftily subtitled “A Joplin Rag” not because of any connection with ragtime giant Scott Joplin but because Percy Wenrich was born in Joplin, Missouri.

And . . . well, here it is. The date of 1907 on the video may well be correct.

And, of course, Pop says it’s not fair that Odd gets a treat and he does not. So, okay, we’ll check the list of covers of “The Girl From Ipanema” at Second Hand Songs and choose something he’s not heard before. A foreign language, maybe. And that’s fine with him, as long as the melody is familiar.

And here’s Finnish singer Laila Kinnunen with “Ipaneman Tyttö,” recorded on November 10, 1964, and released later that year on the Scandia label. (Odd likes it, too.)

‘Underneath The Harlem Moon . . .’

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

I was parked at my computer, idly clicking from one track to another in iTunes, as I sometimes do, just seeing what there was among the 3,900-some tracks, when up popped one I’d not really noticed before: Rhiannon Giddens’ take on the 1930s tune “Underneath the Harlem Moon” from her 2015 EP Factory Girl.

Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs
Rhythm in their hips and in their lips and in their eyes
Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies?
Underneath the Harlem moon

We don’t pick no cotton; picking cotton is taboo
We don’t live in cabins like the old folks used to do
Our cabin is a penthouse up on St. Nicholas Avenue
Underneath that Harlem moon

We just live for dancing
We’re never blue or forlorn
Ain’t no sin to laugh and grin
That’s why we schwarzes were born

We shout, “Hallelujah!” every time we’re feeling low
And every sheik is dressed up like a Georgia gigolo
White folks call it madness but I call it hi-de-ho
Underneath that Harlem moon

Once we wore bandanas, now we wear Parisian hats
Once we were barefoot, now we’re sporting shoes and spats
Once we were Republicans but now we’re Democrats
Underneath the Harlem moon

We don’t pick no cotton; picking cotton is taboo
All we pick is numbers and that includes you white folks too
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath the Harlem moon

We just thrive on dancing
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh and grin. Ha! Let the landlord in
That’s why house rent parties were born

We also drink our gin, smoke our reefer, when we’re feeling low
Then we’re ready to step out and take charge of any so-and-so
Don’t stop for law, no traffic, when we’re raring to go
Underneath the Harlem moon
Underneath the Harlem moon

I wondered for a bit about Giddens’ purpose in recording the song, written in the 1930s by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon and first recorded in 1932 by Howard Joyner. And I’m still wondering.

The most prominent version of the song may be the truncated version Randy Newman included on his 1972 album 12 Songs. It’s been released a few other times as well – mostly in the 1930s and a couple of times in the 1980s before Giddens came along with her version, according to Second Hand Songs. Not listed there is a performance by Ethel Waters in a 1933 film titled Rufus Jones For President (starring a young Sammy Davis Jr. as the presidential candidate).

Was Giddens – who is one of my favorite musical discoveries in the years since I began blogging in 2007 – reclaiming heritage, as she is wont to do? Maybe so. It seems to me that Giddens, with her clear interest in bringing the musical past into the present – from her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops to her current solo work – is one of the few performers who could get away with performing “Under The Harlem Moon.”

Questions? Comments?

One Hundred Years Ago

Friday, October 18th, 2019

In October 1919:

President Woodrow Wilson sustained a serious stroke on October 2. He was an invalid until his death in 1924.

The Dutch airline KLM was formed. As of this year, it is the oldest airline flying under its original name.

The Cincinnati Reds won the World Series, five games to three, over the Chicago White Sox. In 1920, it was discovered – confirming long-standing rumors – that eight of the White Sox either took part in or knew of a conspiracy to throw the series. The eight were permanently banned from baseball.

Estonia adopted a radical land reform, nationalizing 97 percent of agrarian lands, most of which belonged to Baltic Germans.

Adolf Hitler gave his first speech for the German Workers’ Party.

The Coronado Vanderbilt Hotel was opened in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

An election took place in the duchy of Luxembourg; due to constitutional amendments earlier in the year, women were allowed to vote for the first time.

Over President Wilson’s veto, the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act, which set out the enforcement terms of Prohibition as called for by the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

And on October 18, in North Branch Township of Minnesota’s Isanti County, George Otto Erickson was born. He’s shown here in a 1964 picture taken at Gull Lake, near Nisswa, Minnesota.

George Erickson, Gull Lake near Nisswa, Minnesota, June 13, 1964

Here’s the record that was No. 1 on the day my dad was born: “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” by John Steel:

(Historical data from Wikipedia.)

‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More’

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Okay, follow the bouncing ball and – if you wish – sing along with this cartoon from 1949:

I recall seeing short features like this – sing-a-longs with the bouncing ball – before movies during the late 1950s and early 1960s. I’d go – maybe with Rick and Rob or maybe with my sister – to kids’ matinees at the Paramount (or the Eastman or the Hays) here in St. Cloud, and there would be two or three animated features before the main event.

And I think I saw bouncing ball sing-a-longs on TV on Saturday mornings, watching and trying to keep the volume down on the old Zenith set while my parents slept in.

Anyway, what caught my ear about this particular sing-a-long was the song itself, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More,” which I’ve heard here and there forever. But I never thought about the song’s origins until this morning. Why this morning?

Because a search through the 97,000 mp3s in the RealPlayer brought up Wendell Hall’s version of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’,” which he recorded for Victor in New York City on October 12, 1923, ninety-four years ago today. And Hall’s recording was a success: It was the No. 1 record in the U.S. in 1924, according to Josh Whitburn’s A Century of Pop Music.

The song itself, according to a brief entry at Wikipedia, had been around in various forms since some time during the 19th Century. Poet and folk musician Carl Sandburg included verses of the song in his 1927 volume American Songbook and suggested, Wikipedia says, that the song had been around since the 1870s. As with almost all folk songs, there are multiple variants, and the verses offered in the cartoon above are not all the same as those recorded by Wendell Hall in October 1923.

(I should note that the second line of the chorus also has variants. Hall sang, “How in the world can the old folks tell that it ain’t gonna rain no mo’?” The one I recall most clearly, perhaps from Boy Scout camp or Bible camp, went, “Now how in the heck can I wash my neck if it ain’t gonna rain no mo’?”)

Here are the verses as Hall recorded them:

Oh, the night was dark and dreary,
And the air was full of leaks.
Well the old man stood out in the storm,
And his shoes were full of feet.

Well the buttererfly flits on wings of gold,
The junebug wings of flame.
The bedbug has no wings at all,
But he gets there just the same.

Oh, mosquitee he fly high,
Oh, mosquitee he fly low.
If ol’ Mr. Skeeter light on me,
He ain’t a gonna fly no mo’.

Well, a bull frog sittin’ on a lily pad,
Looking up at the skies.
Oh, the lily pad broke and the frog fell in,
Got water all in his eyes.

Well, here’s a verse about a man and a trombone.
Well, the words to it are few.
He blew, he blew, he blew, he blew,
He blew, he blew, he blew.

Well, a man lay down by a sewer,
And by the sewer he died, he died.
And at the coroner’s request,
They called it sewer-cide.

A little black and white animal out in the woods.
I says, “Ain’t that little cat pretty?”
I went right over to pick it up,
But it wasn’t that kind of a kitty.

Oddly enough, Wendell Hall’s version of the song is the only one on the digital shelves here, even though a cursory search at YouTube turns up numerous versions of the song – old, modern and in between, including a take on the song by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Some of those versions may yet show up on the shelves here, but for today, we’ll content ourselves with Hall’s version, recorded ninety-four years ago today.

Saturday Single No. 543

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

Okay, so it’s going to be a beautiful day today, with the temperatures peaking somewhere above eighty degrees. And the Texas Gal wants to go out and play.

We’ll likely head north, hoping that the traffic of folks heading from the Twin Cities “to the lake” – as the Minnesota saying goes – is not too thick. Our destination? Well, we may head to the city of Brainerd, an hour away, and hit an antique shop or two as well as a discount store we’ve heard about.

We may head a little further than that and stop in the rather touristy town of Nisswa, not far at all from Gull Lake, where my dad’s boss had a summer home during the 1960s and I spent some time water skiing on occasion. In Nisswa, we’d walk the three blocks or so of (rather expensive) shops and probably have some ice cream.

And we’ll likely stop in Baxter at Morey’s Fish House for some treats.

Beyond that, we don’t know. But we do know we’re heading north in a very short time, so I’m just going to grab a June tune, one either with “June” in its title or that was recorded in June. So let’s see what the RealPlayer gives us.

Among the very few tracks that I know were recorded on June 3, we find “Southern Casey Jones,” recorded in Chicago on this date in 1936 by a performer named Jesse James. It’s one of many recordings telling the tale of the legendary (but real) railroad engineer who died when his Illinois Central freight train crashed into a stationary train near Vaughan, Mississippi, on April 30, 1900. The crash became fodder for numerous tunes in numerous versions, moving the location of the crash and revising much more, as well.

The recording came my way in the fourth volume of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the group of tracks that Smith had selected before his death in 1991. The first three volumes were released in 1952, and that fourth volume was released in 2007.

Anyway, here’s Jesse James’ version of the Casey Jones tale, “Southern Casey Jones.” It was recorded eighty-one years ago today, and it’s today’s Saturday Single:

On February 10 Long Ago

Friday, February 10th, 2017

All right, gather ’round. Here’s “Frozen Bill” by Arthur Pryor’s Band:

Not amazingly catchy, no, but then, it does come from 1909, when Arthur Pryor’s Band was big stuff. Pryor, according to Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories, was the first trombonist in John Philip Sousa’s famous band (and actually served as conductor for many of the band’s recordings). His own band, Whitburn notes, became “a major concert attraction in its own right.”

Pryor’s first listed recording in Pop Memories, which covers the years 1900 through 1940, comes from 1904, when his band’s recording of “Bedelia,” a tune from the Broadway musical The Jersey Lily, was at one time the third-most popular recording in the U.S.

(These days, we’d say it went to No. 3, and I’ll likely use that terminology in the rest of this post, but it’s worth noting that Whitburn calculated the overall popularity of records in the book by drawing from a variety of sources. Especially complicated was the task of rating records from the years 1900 to 1909: Whitburn used fourteen different sources, some modern and some historical, to determine popularity.)

And “Bedelia” was just one of twenty-six recordings by Pryor’s band that made the back-dated Top Ten. The best-performing record that Pryor and his band released was “On The Rocky Road To Dublin,” which was assessed to have made it to No. 2 in December of 1906.

What about “Frozen Bill,” which we heard at the top of the post? Well, “Frozen Bill” didn’t make the compiled charts and is not listed in Whitburn’s book. So why am I featuring it today? Well, because it was recorded on February 10, 1909, exactly 108 years ago today.

“Frozen Bill” is one of seven tracks that I have in the digital stacks tagged with today’s date. All but one of those seven come from the years before World War II, because most of the tunes for which I have session data generally come from historical compilations, and many of the compilations I have come from that era. Here are the other six that I know (or at least believe, in a couple of cases where I’ve done some digging myself) were recorded on February 10 over the years:

“Po’ Mo’ner Got A Home At Last” by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, 1910
“The Pay Off” by the California Ramblers, 1928
“Things ’Bout Comin’ My Way” by Tampa Red, 1931
“Untrue Blues” by Blind Boy Fuller, 1937
“Deep Purple” by Jimmy Dorsey (vocal by Bob Eberly), 1939
“The House Is Rockin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, 1989

Of the five records from before World War II on that brief list, only one of them is listed in Pop Memories. Dorsey’s “Deep Purple” went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts of the time. The Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, the California Ramblers and Tampa Red, though, all had other recordings that were listed in Pop Memories. Only Blind Boy Fuller was shut out.

Then, of course, there is the Stevie Ray Vaughan tune, which I found on the two-CD set The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. “The House Is Rockin’” did not chart, but the album on which it was released, In Step, went to No. 33 on the Billboard 200.

And we’ll close with my favorite selection from that brief list of February 10 recordings: Tampa Red’s take on “Things ’Bout Comin’ My Way,” recorded in Chicago eighty-six years ago today. The song was originally recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks, and at Second Hand Songs, the Sheiks’ Walter Vincent is credited as its writer. The melody is, of course, similar to “Sitting On Top Of The World,” also first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks and credited to Vinson, but I have seen a note somewhere – I cannot find it at the moment – that says that portions of the melody of “Sitting . . .” likely came from an earlier composition by Tampa Red. (And as I noted in a 2010 post, Charley Patton’s “Some Summer Day” is also similar.)

In any case, here’s “Things ’Bout Comin’ My Way,” by Tampa Red (and I’m guessing – but it’s only a guess – that the piano work comes from Georgia Tom, who became famous in gospel circles as Rev. Thomas Dorsey).

One From 12-30

Friday, December 30th, 2016

As has been our wont these past few days, we’re going to look through the digital shelves today for something that was recorded on today’s date, December 30. Long ago? In recent years? Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the tune in question was waxed, taped or digitized on the next to last day of the year.

And we come to the King Porter Orchestra and “Chitlin’ Ball” (sometimes spelled “Chittlin’ Ball”). There’s not a lot out there about the group, just four tracks listed at a YouTube topic page and a lot of playlist references, seemingly mentioning the same four tracks. And since I scavenged the track after borrowing a 1997 Capitol collection called Jumpin’ Like Mad: Cool Cats & Hip Chicks, I have no liner notes to turn to.

All I do know is that the King Porter Orchestra recorded the track in Detroit on December 30, 1947, and it was released as a 78 on Imperial 5039. And it’s a fine piece of R&B for a cold day in December.