Category Archives: musics

Cajun interlude

Listening to the CDs that accompany American Epic, I was brought up short by “La Danseuse” by Delma Lachney & Blind Uncle Gaspard (1929)


I know that tune, I thought… it’s “Jeanine’s Dream” by the Holy Modal Rounders (Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber):

So of course I did a Google search, which landed me with this, from Last Forever’s 2013 album, No Place Like Home:




…and with a blog post from 2009 that I had forgotten (that link is worth clicking for the lyrics to “Jeanine’s Dream”). A bit more digging disclosed that the singer was Sonya Cohen, daughter of New Lost City Ramblers member John Cohen (and niece of Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger). Alas, Sonya died in 2015.

So round and round we go, rediscovering forgotten music and being whirled into explorations of Cajun music. Another that nailed me is Blind Uncle Gaspard’s Sur Le Borde De L’Eau, of which Amanda Petrusich says

Whatever he’s communicating, it’s extra musical. It’s something in the tone of his voice, the way that he’s plays the guitar. It’s extraordinarily sad. When I try to imagine the circumstances that would lead someone to sing this way, it’s devastating.


And here’s Feufollet’s updated version, as full of sadness as the original.

diverted

Diverted

A lot of thought and experimenting has gone into the Finding Aids project lately, and I’m discovering how easily I can be diverted from the grander overall scheme of developing orderly summaries by things encountered along the way. Every Thing that one picks up has edges that potentially link to other Things, and I’m sometimes sidetracked by shiny somethings. A few days ago I started to explore the vastnesses of my American music holdings, and so I’m wrestling with the sliding panoply of genres that belong within “Music of the Nacirema” (blues, jazz, old timey, bluegrass, folk, etc. etc.). Pretty much every item spins out into another Story, a facet (or several) of the glorious complexity of a musical landscape that spans more than a century.

The epic of Stagolee is one such: a tale of Shakespearean scope and perennial fascination, based on an incident that took place in St. Louis in 1896, centered on a shooting over a John B. Stetson hat. There are hundreds of variants since the story was first published in 1911. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians released an instrumental version in 1923, soon followed by Lovie Austin’s version with words in 1924, Ma Rainey’s (with Louis Armstrong’s cornet) in 1925, and Frank Hutchison’s in 1927. See the Wikipedia article for more detail, and enjoy the variety in these examples:

Hogman Maxey, Angola penitentiary, 1959:

Dr. John, 1972

Keb’ Mo’ from the film Honeydripper, 2008

Amy Winehouse, in Brazil 2011

Mikołaj Woubishet Wrocław, 2008

Grateful Dead, NY July 4, 1989


There are many possible readings of the story itself. See Bad-Ass Liberator, Singout!’s sanitized take, and a range of opinions via Mudcat.

Some of the quite different but similarly exemplary tunes that surfaced as I wandered in the Blues world are:

Bertha “Chippie” Hill’s “Pratt City” (Louis Armstrong, cornet) (1926):

Pratt City, is where I was born
Pratt City, is where I was born
If you get to there, you can get your water on

Get full of high‑powered liquor, it's bound to make him scream
Get full of high‑powered liquor, it's bound to make him scream
Going back to Pratt City, if it takes nice and mean

You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
Don't worry hot papa, I'm driftrack bound

There’s a 1929 version on Spotify:

Pratt City, is where I was born
Pratt City, is where I was born
If you get to there, you can get your water on

Get full of high‑powered liquor, on eighteenth street
Get full of high‑powered liquor, on eighteenth street
Going back to Pratt City, get sick nice and neat

You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
Don't worry hot papa, I'm driftrack bound

Pratt City girls should do treat you right
Pratt City girls should do treat you right
With those Birmingham girls, drink with you day and night


Hogman Maxey’s “Duckin’ and Dodgin'” (1959, recorded by Harry Oster in Angola penitentiary):

Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ “Last Kind Words” (1930):

The last kind words I heard my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say
If I die, if I die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord
If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul
I p'fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole
When you see me comin' look 'cross the rich man's field
If I don't bring you flour I'll bring you bolted meal
I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars
Cried, some train don't come, there'll be some walkin' done
My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, precious daughter, don't you be so wild
The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side
What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea

…and see The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie (John Jeremiah Sullivan)


Lonnie Johnson’s “To Do This, You Got To Know How”

(see how it’s played by Josh Baum)

Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues”

Went out last night, Had a bad big fight 
Everything seemed to go on wrong
I looked up, to my surprise
The gal I was with was gone.
Where she went, I don't know
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I'm crooked. I didn't know where she took it
I want the whole world to know.
They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me;
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
It's true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while
Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me.

Say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man
Cause they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

…and see more backstory

Skip James “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” (original 1931, this version 1967)

Hard times is here and everywhere you go
Times are harder than ever been before
You know that people, they are are driftin' from door to door
But you can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go
People, if I ever can get up off of this old hard killin' floor
Lord, I'll never get down this low no more
When you hear me singin' this old lonesome song
People, you know these hard times can last us so long
You know, you say you had money, you better be sure
Lord, these hard times gon' kill you, just drag on slow

Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” goes around the world:

overpowering

Radie Peat of the Dublin band Lankum is a powerful singer in a matchless band:


Hares on the Mountain

What Will We Do If We Have No Money

Katie Cruel

Live at WGBH: Wild Rover, Rocky Road to Dublin, Bear Creek

Hunting the Wren


from the comments of viewers:

Wrens were desperate women of Ireland who during the famine had no other way to live besides prostituting themselves to English soldiers. They lived outdoors in literal burrows roofed over with gorse. They clubbed together as a band for protection because they were treated with such derision by everyone else.

Sharp is the wind
Cold is the rain
Harsh is the livelong day
Upon the wide open plain

By Donnelly's hollow
Under sod, gorse and furze
There lies a young wren oh
By the saints she was cursed

The wren is a small bird
How pretty she sings
She bested the eagle
When she hid in its wings

With sticks and with stones
All among the small mounds
They come from all over
To hunt the wren on the wide open ground

They flock round the soldiers
In their jackets so red
For barrack room favours
Pennies and bread

The soldier is rough
In anger or fun
And he causes much bloodshed
With his big musket gun
 
They’re birds of the earth
The beasts of the field
By spite and by fury
Are people revealed

Attacked in the village
Spat on in town
They come from all over
To hunt the wren on the wide open ground

The wren is a small bird
Though blamed for much woe
Her form is derided
Wherever she goes

With cold want and whisky
She soon is run down
Her body paraded
On a staff through the town

Her head for her ceiling
The sod was her floor
She chose the cold open plain 
Cold open plan o'er
The dark workhouse door

With two broken wings
And feathers so brown
They come from all over
To hunt the wren on the wide open ground

Down Memory Lane

While quarrying boxes in the barn I ran across reminders of a delicious story from almost 43 years ago, Fall 1977, when Ron Brunton and I organized (and I use the term loosely, since neither of us had a clue what we were doing) a visit to Acadia University by Gordon Bok, a musician we both revere. We had to have a ‘sponsor’ in order to book the venue, so we created the Acadia Folklore Society on the spot and printed posters and tickets… Gordon arrived with Nick Apollonio (builder of his instruments and a marvelous musician himself) and the concert took place, but was only sparsely attended because of our incompetence as promoters. Gordon and Nick were unfazed, and performed marvelously for a crowd of maybe 50. Afterwards there was a delightful evening at Ron’s house, music played and stories told and whiskey drunk. We’ve been friends ever since.


Ah for the days of $3 concerts…

Here’s an iconic song of Gordon’s:

Impostures continued

In last night’s Convivium Wende described a meditation session which began with the injunction to seek one’s own Tradition (left undefined and general) and dwell in its Source. Wende found herself in exploration of Mystery as her own personal core [I may have overset what she described to suit my own modes of perception and thought, but I think those are the essential terms she used].

Interesting to me is the name-it-and-nail-it experience as Wende related it, in this case the consequent and consequential explication of Mystery and the Mysterious.

My own imagining and reading of a personal Source was surely most influenced by the so-recent experience of reading the introductory material to Impostures, described in yesterday’s post, and especially the discussion of maqamat as ‘art of freestyle improvisation’. The literary meaning of the term, as explored by Cooperson, partakes more of the notions of ‘assembly’ and ‘standing up’, with the sense of “a verbal performance delivered to strangers” (pg. xix), which Cooperson glosses as ‘Impostures’. The book contains Cooperson’s renderings, in various Englishes, of a set of 50 Tales of the “eloquent rogue” Abu Zayd al-Saruji, couched by al-Hariri in forms that display linguistic virtuosity in Arabic (often considered utterly untranslatable).

My take on maqamat is primarily musical, and references the term as it is used in Turkish and Arabic musics. A maqam can be thought of as beginning with a series of notes, or as a succession of intervals—a scale in the most basic form, but then further developed in practise into a feeling. The major/minor distinction in Western classical music, or the seven conventional modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) of Western theory are a much simpler and more limiting framework than the scales found in Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Indian systems, none of which are greatly concerned with writing music in notation. They are taught and learned primarily by ear, and in master/student settings, and generally performed as improvisational meditations on their basic sonic materials. In North and South Indian examples, particular ragas are associated with hours of the day and night, and even with particular states of mind.

Many musics are primarily or wholly improvisational. Here’s how Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: its nature and practice in music summarizes:

Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it. Perhaps this is inevitable, even appropriate. Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation. (pg. ix)

The parallel between al-Hariri and Robert Johnson is almost too striking: al-Hariri apparently had no skill at the highly-valued forms of extemporaneous composition that were greatly appreciated in his 12th century Basran milieu, so he went away and woodshedded and then returned with a manuscript of his 50 tales (based on al-Hamadhani’s 10th century model, who “astounded the [city of Nishapur’s] elite by defeating a local celebrity in a prose-and-poetry slam” [pg. xx]). al-Hariri’s maqamat

…enjoyed a reputation unlike anything else in literary history, so marvelous in expression, and so copious in vocabulary, as to carry all before it. The author’s choice of words, and his careful arrangement of them, are such that one might well despair of imitating him… (xxii, a biographer’s description)

And likewise with Robert Johnson, who learned from older Delta musicians like Charlie Patton and Son House and Willie Brown, all of whom played in the highly competitive arena of rural Mississippi and Arkansas jook joints. Initially Robert Johnson was pretty inept, but he left the area for a while and returned with vastly greater skills. The legend grew that he had sold his soul to the Devil to gain his newfound skills…

from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues

The fear in “Cross Road Blues” is actually a complex of fears, some rational and immediate, some more metaphysical. The most literal reading of the tune is as a description of an actual experience. Johnson finds himself alone at a county crossroads, attempting to flag a ride as the sun sets…In blues lore, the crossroads is the place where aspiring musicians strike their deal with the Devil, and Robert claimed to have struck such a deal… (pg. 126)



from Alan Greenberg’s Love In Vain: the life and legend of Robert Johnson

The camera slowly dollies down the ghostly, dirt-paved artery. Anonymous black men walk or stand stationary at points along the way.

Now the road becomes barren. At a dark crossroads we behold Robert Johnson, picking on his guitar nervously, delicately. It is out of tune. Then, footsteps, up the road.

The devilman weaves and stumbles into view. He never looks at Robert, only at his guitar. He takes it, tunes it, turns around and plays an extraordinary guitar part. He hands it back and starts to go. (pg. 49)

(later, in a jook joint)
Stunning guitar sounds cut through the night from the jook. Robert is playing “Preachin’ Blues,” astonishing all with his rhythmic and emotional intensity. (pg 55)



from Giles Oakley’s The Devil’s Music: a history of the blues

The legend of Robert Johnson has been created from the combination of the tragic brevity of his life and the overwhelmeng sense of inner torment and foreboding in his blues. He only recorded some thirty odd songs but taken together they create visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled withsecret fears and anxieties. At times he seems scarcely able to control the extremities of feeling which press in on him or the tensions and neuroses which drive, harry and confuse him… (pp. 218-219)




And, as a reward for coming this far:


see also Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Elijah Wald, 2004) and Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, 2019)

Convivial Question

What are the Questions that puzzle and inspire?

This doesn’t need an answer so much as it focuses one’s attention on what the Mind is doing, is working upon in the background of consciousness. Thus, it makes a good Question for each of us to consider and perhaps respond to in the familiar idiosyncratic and free-associative fashion. Consciousness is always busy processing sensory input, appreciating the seen and heard and felt and tasted. But what’s going on beneath? Are the three wonderments described below the SAME in some sense? Are they all entangled in the perennial Question of how complexity and dynamical systems work, perhaps? We are clearly off the fairway, into the weeds, the rough, the unknown. Where I love to be wandering, if the truth be told.

So here’s a sketch of my own current state, made up of Questions emerging from the stimuli that have drifted across the bow in the last few days. We can begin with the observation of many many thousands of tiny orange ants in the soil I’ve been sifting from the sod that was stripped from the garden space. What, we wonder, are they doing? Where do they fit in? Is there some mutualism with the co-occurring worms, and/or with unseen other somethings? How could we learn more? [partial answer: a soon-to-arrive Field Guide to the Ants of New England].

A second element is this video of “7 levels of jazz harmony”:

which may at first blush seem to have nothing to do with orange ants, but addresses elegantly and most provocatively a [very] long-running puzzlement over just what happens in jazz, and spawns various hatchings of plans to explore further.

And a third element in temporal conjunction with the two above is the just-published and just-arrived (via Kindle and Audible) Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake [who is, remarkably and synchronistically enough, the son of Rupert Sheldrake, of Morphic Resonance fame], which I started to read this morning.

Here are the passages I highlighted as I read the Introduction, to illustrate my habitual process of collecting bits of aide mémoire, breadcrumbs along the pathway:

Introduction: What Is It Like to Be a Fungus?

Page 10
…[mycelia] weave themselves through the gaps between plant cells in an intimate brocade and help to defend plants against disease .

Page 11
Mushrooms are a fungus’s way to entreat the more-than-fungal world, from wind to squirrel, to assist with the dispersal of spores, or to prevent it from interfering with this process.

Page 12
Mycelium describes the most common of fungal habits, better thought of not as a thing but as a process: an exploratory, irregular tendency.

Page 14
Unsustainable agricultural practices reduce the ability of plants to form relationships with the beneficial fungi on which they depend. The widespread use of antifungal chemicals has led to an unprecedented rise in new fungal superbugs that threaten both human and plant health. As humans disperse disease-causing fungi , we create new opportunities for their evolution.

Page 18
…many fungi can live within the roots of a single plant, and many plants can connect with a single fungal network. In this way a variety of substances , from nutrients to signaling compounds, can pass between plants via fungal connections.

Page 20
Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.

Page 23
Many scientific concepts—from time to chemical bonds to genes to species—lack stable definitions but remain helpful categories to think with.

Page 25
There was something embarrassing about admitting that the tangle of our unfounded conjectures, fantasies, and metaphors might have helped shape our research. Regardless, imagination forms part of the everyday business of inquiring.

Page 27
…wondered what it was like to be a fungus. I found myself underground, surrounded by growing tips surging across one another. Schools of globular animals grazing—plant roots and their hustle—the Wild West of the soil—all those bandits, brigands, loners, crapshooters. The soil was a horizonless external gut—digestion and salvage everywhere—flocks of bacteria surfing on waves of electrical charge—chemical weather systems—subterranean highways—slimy infective embrace—seething intimate contact on all sides.

I’ll also point to an article in this week’s New Yorker, The Secret Lives of Fungi by Hua Hsu, which references Sheldrake and also Anna Haupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which I read with great pleasure last summer.

Rabbit Hole du jour

You just never know what the day will bring, and how thing will lead to thing.

I started with a chapter from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the second part of the first one, which finds the reader in a provincial town railroad station:

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences…

Not in Kansas anymore, hein?

The word that springs to mind is “immersive” but whether anybody else has ever been so sprung upon I know not. At the end of Calvino chapter 1 I begin to read chapter 2:

You have now read about thirty pages and you’re becoming caught up in the story. At a certain point you remark: “This sentence somehow seems familiar. In fact, this whole passage reads like something I’ve read before.” Of course: there are themes that recur, the text is interwoven with these reprises, which serve to express the fluctuation of time. You are the sort of reader who is sensitive to such refinements; you are quick to catch the author’s intentions and nothing escapes you….

Hm. And so I put down Calvino and picked up where I left off yesterday in Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Calvino having been a Oulipian, this seemed perfectly sensible) and the feel of the reading seems the same, some amalgam of fictional narrative and factual discourse where it’s perhaps difficult or possibly pointless to say what is real and what imaginary…

And then a look at the RSS feed’s latest brought me this:



And I think: A new genre? Meld of sound and metacommentary, which turns out to have been “inspired” by William Eggleston, and in some sense the whole video is about William Eggleston.

You know what? Just google him now. Pause this video.

Now, I’ve never gotten William Eggleston as a photographer, and the why of that is surely worth exploring. I accept that he’s widely regarded as one of the modern masters, and I know that John Sarkowski, whom I revere, recognized him with an early solo show at MoMA in 1976 (the first of color photography): William Eggleston’s Guide is Szarkowski’s catalog for the show, and see also a pdf of Szarkowski’s Introduction. Here’s a section of the Amazon blurb for the book:

The book and show unabashedly forced the art world to deal with color photography, a medium scarcely taken seriously at the time, and with the vernacular content of a body of photographs that could have been but definitely weren’t some average American’s Instamatic pictures from the family album. These photographs heralded a new mastery of the use of color as an integral element of photographic composition.

My own photographic aesthetic is deeply dipped in the world of black-and-white photography, mostly before 1976, though I’ve taken to color myself ever since my transition to digital imaging more than 10 years ago. Eggleston’s color and composition just rub me the wrong way, and generally my reaction to his images has been “so what?”, but a couple of years ago I saw a selection at full size at Pier 24 in San Francisco, and began to realize that my judgements have been ill-placed. So I continue to try to reeducate myself away from long-running prejudices. But I’m still leery of Eggleston.

So back to the video, and its “new genre” possibilities, and how all of that might fit with Calvino and with OuPhoPo (the Workshop in Experimental Photography). The text of the video references a New York Times profile of Eggleston, in which he is revealed to be an over-the-top alcoholic.

…WE LEAVE THE OFFICES of the Eggleston Trust and go to his apartment. The first thing one sees upon entering is a bright red plastic sign with a yellow border, printed with capitalized white sans-serif text. It warns, “THE OCCUPANT OF THIS APARTMENT WAS RECENTLY HOSPITALIZED FOR COMPLICATIONS DUE TO ALCOHOL. HE IS ON A MEDICALLY PRESCRIBED DAILY PORTION OF ALCOHOL. IF YOU BRING ADDITIONAL ALCOHOL INTO THIS APARTMENT YOU ARE PLACING HIM IN MORTAL DANGER. YOUR ENTRY AND EXIT INTO THIS APARTMENT IS BEING RECORDED. WE WILL PROSECUTE SHOULD THIS NOTICE BE IGNORED. THE EGGLESTON FAMILY.” It is a devastating thing to see. Heartbreaking. I was also an alcoholic for decades, the kind who had shakes and saw spiders. I’m not even through the hallway and my mind is racing from “I want that sign” to “What kind of doctor prescribes alcohol for an alcoholic? Where was he when I was drinking?”

The text of the song in the video:

What if the thing that helps you live
Is also the thing that will get you killed
It’s the damndest thing

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Beauty Pill, but here are two more remarkable videos:


Africana Barista

and
Dog With Rabbit in Mouth Unharmed


which make me realize that I need to make more room in my musical universe.

And that was all before 10 AM.

Lexicon of Musical Invective

Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) is famous for several things, the most immediately relevant here being his Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. The Amazon blurb:

A snakeful of critical venom aimed at the composers and the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. Who wrote advanced cat music? What commonplace theme is very much like Yankee Doodle? Which composer is a scoundrel and a giftless bastard? What opera would His Satanic Majesty turn out? Whose name suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka? And finally, what third movement begins with a dog howling at midnight, then imitates the regurgitations of the less-refined or lower-middle-class type of water-closet cistern, and ends with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow? For the answers to these and other questions, readers need only consult the “Invecticon” at the back of this inspired book and then turn to the full passage, in all its vituperation.

The Invecticon lists 30+ pages of calumnies and disparagements:


and examples of Critical Response: Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse

There’s a lovely Nicolas Slonimsky Documentary- A Touch of Genius (56 min)


and an interview with Slonimsky about his friendship with Frank Zappa:


Another example of Slonimsky’s genius is his Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns, known to Jazz and Classical musicians alike.