Friday, 16 September 2016

Number 4
October 1962
Otis Redding records "These Arms of Mine"

Johnny Jenkins was a sparsely recorded blues musician who played left handed and was said to be an early influence on Jimi Hendrix. Jenkins had a group called the Pinetoppers, which sometime included the extraordinary Wayne Cochran playing bass guitar. 
 
Wayne Cochran, yesterday.
Coming out of Macon, Georgia, the Pinetoppers had a moderate hit with an instrumental called "Love Twist" and had acquired a new manager, Phil Walden, who suggested that the group record a follow up at the Stax studios in Memphis accompanied by the session musicians that comprised Booker T and the MGs. As Jenkins could not drive, he used a chauffeur to drive him to the session.

Steve Cropper, the guitarist with the MGs, later recalled how he noticed the big guy who was driving Jenkins, get out from behind the wheel and go to the back of the truck and start unloading equipment. The Pinetoppers' session proceded in an unremarkable fashion and finished some forty minutes early. At this point, the big guy driving the truck asked if he could sing a song. The keyboard player for the MGs had already left the session, so Cropper sat down at the piano, which he normally only played for purposes of composition. He asked what should he play and the truck driver said "Just those church things". Cropper then established that he meant triplets. "What key?" said Cropper. "It don't matter" came the response. The truck driver then took a breath, opened his mouth and began.

According to Cropper "man, my hair stood on end. Jim [Stewart, co-owner of Stax] came running out and said, 'That's it! That's it! Where is everybody? We gotta get this on tape!' So I grabbed all the musicians who hadn't left already for their night gigs, and we recorded it right there. When you hear something that's better than anything you ever heard, you know it, and it was unanimous. We almost wore out the tape playing it afterwards."

The truck driver was Otis Ray Redding and those first few notes sung unaccompanied are the birth of modern soul music. The sound of the Georgia pines let loose and untrammelled. Years later, in the duet "Tramp", Carla Thomas would tell Redding that "you straight from the Georgia woods", to which he would answer "that's good". Although Ray Charles and Solomon Burke had a strong early influence on singing that was affected and emotional, that made use of call and response, repetition and exultations to generate an impact, Redding's singing here was a new style of intimacy, of fragility that teetered on the brink of emotional instability, that could shatter into a breakdown, yet was also controlled. Far from the "sock it to me" shouter he later became, Redding's style here is nearer to the close-miked intimacy of Bing Crosby. However, Redding was not a smooth technician in the style of Sam Cooke. The feeling is conveyed almost entirely through the sound of the vocal rather than the meaning of the words.

The image of the burly truck driver stepping forward to deliver a seminal recording finds its modern counterpart in the You Got Talent showcase of a shambolic looking imbecile delivering a blistering vocal performance while Simon Cowell stares open mouthed. With accompanying You Tube video strapline of the "They thought he was an idiot but you will not believe it when he starts to sing" variety. These modern myrmidons of mellifuousness are sometimes desribed as giving a soulful performance but their belting over-vocalisations lack the balance, subtlety and control of Redding's performance.

Typically, of course, the story of Redding's recording here is only partially true. Redding had already made records in the belting Little Richard style such as "Shout Bamalama" and was, in fact, the featured vocalist with the Pinetoppers. although they were primarily an instrumental group. He had won talent contests (another parallel with the world of You Got Talent) and even replaced Little Richard for a period when that latter singer got one of his periodic doses of religion.
 
Jenkins, Redding and the Pinetoppers
 
"These Arms of Mine" was not even the first song recorded at that session. They had already recorded "Hey Hey Baby", a more typical Little Richard impersonation with Redding stretching a rasping vocal to emulate that earlier stylist. Nevertheless, it is impressive that Redding was able to transition into the more sympatico style of the ballad. In fact, his exertions on the previous song add to the slightly breathless, almost rubbing quality of his vocal sound.

Further, "These Arms of Mine", has an arrangement, albeit simple in structure. They cannot have launched straight into the song. Probably, Redding ran through the song and a head arrangement was sketched out before they began recording. Additionally, although Cropper claims he played piano other accounts state that Jenkins played piano. After the first verse, a guitar appears that sounds very much like Cropper's style of playing. It is possible he overdubbed this, of course, but why bother if Jenkins could play piano.

The song itself is a near perfect example of a soul ballad in that it is built around those classic soul elements of tension and release. The acapella intro walks the notes from fifth to first typical of country music songs (as exemplified by Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line") only slowing it way down to make the listener wait for that resolution which one knows is coming in the commencement of the instruments at the word "mine". After this rising melody, Redding makes the melody descend on the word "yearning" before it rises again. Yearning is the key theme of the song and the musical structure reflects this. The way Redding lets the note fall away at the end of words, his choice of phrasing is impeccable and unique in how he selects which words to emphasise and which to elongate. It is both natural and highly contrived - the model of the soul style. The introduction of the staccato guitar lines emphasise the tension as does the frequent repetition of key phrases and words, chiefly the title of the song. Tension and release, rise and fall, these would become the very building blocks of the soul ballad.

Phil Walden ditched the Pinetoppers and took over managing Redding who would record many other classic ballads, accompanied by Booker T and the MGs. Some 18 months after recording "These Arms of Mine", he recorded "Come to Me" during which he sings the phrase "Days are getting so lonely, nights are getting so blue" and he elongates the second "so" to make the greatest rising note in the history of sound. Seriously. Now that's soul.

Hear Otis yearning here.

video
 

Wednesday, 24 August 2016


Number 3
30 December 1938
Pete Johnson and Joe Turner record "Roll 'em Pete"

Boogie Woogie

From North East to West Texas, from lumber and turpentine camps to train yards, the sound of boogie woogie was a long time in gestation with a brief flowering of popularity. Mimicking the movement and the revolution of the trains that took the music north across America, reaching Chicago and then New York. Adopted then abandoned by urban sophisticates in favour of more sophisticated (read, more tamed) piano styles. At its zenith, in the playing of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, it was fast, rhythmic, propulsive, almost manic in its intensity but allowing for significant variation in both left and right hand patterns. Even more than its ragtime predecessor (which seems to share some characteristics with European piano music of the likes of Debussy and Satie), boogie woogie was a uniquely American, uniquely black form. 

Now seen more as a style or technique than a genuine form of piano music, no-one, to my mind, has carried it further than the three great stylists of the thirties and forties. Possibly only Jerry Lee Lewis perpetuated the form, albeit by combining it with western swing and hillbilly boogie piano styles of the likes of Moon Mullican. Boogie woogie fell victim to its perception as a novelty music, with technicians using it to demonstrate prowess rather than invention, and with an increasing reliance on formula and automation. It came to smell too much of working men and roughhouse Saturday nights for the highball nightclub crowd.

From Spirituals to Swing

For a while, though, boogie woogie possessed all the shock of the new as it tore out of Texas on the rails heading north. In 1938, John Hammond asked the pianist Pete Johnson and vocalist Joe Turner to perform at Hammond's seminal From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall alongside Lux Lewis and Ammons as well as Count Basie, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and others. The idea was to showcase black American musical forms going from choral spirituals through to big swing bands. Because it featured black performers appearing before a non-segregated audience, finance was difficult to access until the American Communist Party stepped in. Their appearance at this concert earned Johnson and Turner a recording session for the Vocalion record company in New York in December 1938.

Johnson and Turner

Pete Johnson and Joe Turner were from Kansas City and began appearing together in the 1920s. It is easy to imagine their raucous style being developed to make sure they could be heard in the less than sedate clubs of the time. Turner worked as a barman and chucker-outer and would occasionally vocalise to Johnson's accompaniment. The other masters of boogie woogie tended to work more as soloists than Johnson.

Success for Johnson only lasted until the end of the 1940s when boogie woogie fell out of fashion. Turner was to have more success, going on to record a hit version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954.

Roll 'em Pete

The recording of "Roll 'em Pete" (note: there is no comma after 'em, rendering the title grammatically incorrect, and it is described as a fast blues on the record label - it was not described as boogie woogie until its later reissue on Columbia) is an engine designed to generate and to communicate excitement. It is its raison d'etre. Johnson sets off at a furious pace which he maintains for the 2 minutes plus duration. Witnesses recall Johnson and Turner performing this song for up to half an hour at a time but this could be an exaggerated memory. Certainly the piece does lend itself to improvisation for as long as the performers' imagination and endurance last. The recorded version truncates any extended improvisation and condenses the piece so that it is over before one has a chance to work out properly what is going on.

It is an instrumental with vocal accompaniment rather the other way round. As its title indicates, the point of the song is to demonstrate Johnson's speed, power and dexterity of both performance and imagination. He produces a succession of accompanying phrases that vary with each verse before unleashing a solo of demented perspicacity. The repetition and the variation within repetition are sublime. Johnson, and Lux Lewis and Ammons, had achieved peak boogie. The only way to go beyond their playing was, as Conlon Nancarrow found out, to have a machine do it (a player piano in Nancarrow's case).

Turner meanwhile performs his supporting role well. The lyrics are effectively meaningless being a succession of blues phrases from other songs, chosen for their rhythmic cadence and their fit for Turner's staccato delivery. The standardness of their form means that they do not detract from the purpose of the piece: the focus on Johnson. Lots of people like to imbue art with meaning, especially painting and music. In order to enjoy and appreciate a work of art fully it is felt necessary to understand the work's meaning. "Roll 'em Pete" is a work without meaning. It defies meaning. It is the thing itself and has no meaning beyond this. It has no repercussions once it finishes playing and seeks neither to elevate not improve. By the end, Turner has given up on words and has resorted to syllables and parts of words, which he could just as effectively have done from the start. The Italian futurists from the early 1910s praised the modern age with its rapid forms of transport. Marinetti's free-word poetry sought to liberate words from the constraints of typography and syntax. Just like Big Joe Turner does here. Russolo used acoustic noise generators to control dynamics and pitch of sound. Twenty years later, Johnson and Turner give us the real art of noise.

Hear the art of noise here.

video

Tuesday, 5 July 2016


Number 2 
20 June 1937
Robert Johnson records "Hellhound on my Trail"
 
The Myth

No one knows where Robert Johnson came from. There is no record of his birth and early life. When he was 18 years old he wanted to be a musician. Other musicians laughed at his primitive, rudimentary ability on the guitar. One night, Johnson went to the crossroads outside of town and waited for the Devil. When the Devil appeared, Johnson sold his soul and the Devil tuned Johnson's guitar. Johnson was now a master musician, able to play any tune on a first hearing. Those other musicians were astounded by his abilities. Johnson was a star and a great hit with women who could not resist him. Johnson was immensely shy. Too nervous to play in front of other musicians, he faced the wall when making his recordings rather than be watched. He made a number of recordings which were very popular across the Southern states. Johnson was a wealthy man, travelling between gigs in a Hudson Terraplane automobile. One year to the day after his trip to the crossroads, the Devil came to take his due. Johnson died crawling on the floor howling like a dog, his stomach wracked in agony. No one knows what happened to his body. There are no photographs of Johnson.


The Man

Robert Johnson was a real person, who lived and breathed in the Southern states of America from about 1910 to 1938. He made 29 recordings in two sessions, one in 1936 and his last in 1937. Twenty-four of his recordings were issued at the time across twelve 78rpm discs. His records sold few copies and he was not particularly popular as a recording artist, although he was sufficiently well known for John Hammond from New York to try and locate Johnson for Hammond's Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 only to find that Johnson was dead.

A Hudson Terraplane, yesterday
Robert Johnson did not sell his soul to the Devil. He got to be a phenomenal guitar player and performer the old fashioned way - practice. He was 27 or 28 when he made his recordings. There is a fair bit of knowledge about his life including where he was born and where he lived and died. He earned his living travelling around the South (not in a Terraplane) playing for drinks, food and accommodation at roadside shacks. He was an entertainer and certainly not shy.

Johnson was murdered, possibly by a jealous husband after Johnson had been coming on to his wife, possibly by poisoning. Johnson's body was buried quickly to cover up his murder.
Robert Johnson enjoying a cigarette

There are at least two photographs of Robert Johnson.
 







The King of the Delta Blues Singers








Johnson's recordings first achieved a degree of recognition in 1961 when Colombia issued an lp collecting several of them. With a self-actualising title of King of the Delta Blues Singers, the lp sought to place Johnson as the greatest of the primitive (meaning untutored, rather than un-complicated) blues performers. This lp had great appeal for young white aficionados looking for someone expressing existential angst rather than dealing purely in the realities and specifics of life in the Mississippi delta in the 1920s and 30s. They identified with and related to Johnson's expression of joy, lust, desire, fear and dread which did not have to be siphoned out from some of the more confusing affectations of other performers such as Charley Patton or Skip James.

More specifically, the recordings of many blues artists showcased their performances as entertainers. They made records with a view to achieving and sustaining popularity and were not afraid to write and sing about contemporary, local events and to shriek and howl and emphasise their exaggerated mannerisms. Many of their records are pure entertainments with no search for a deeper meaning. Johnson's music was intense, offering no concession to entertainment. Some would record more thoughtful material but the King of the Delta Blues Singers presented Johnson's recordings as a uniform body of work with consistent themes recurring between songs. It seemed as if Johnson had consciously planned only to record his most intellectual material. Rather than a random collection of songs recorded at different times and in different places and addressing different subjects, Johnson's lp presented homogeneity of time, place and action combined with a thematic unity.

A later volume of King of the Delta Blues Singers repeated this effect with more songs
expressing some core thoughts about life, love and death. Johnson is now regarded as the apotheosis of the existential rural blues performers, the John Clare of the Mississippi Delta.

Johnson comes at the end of the train of rural blues performers in its classic form of a singer accompanying himself on a guitar and performing semi-improvised songs more often than not expressing an existential state. Performances become refined over time and recording techniques improve. Johnson learned from performers such as Son House and brought his own innovations to their style. His recordings possess a degree of self-possession and clarity absent from many earlier performers, helping to make him more palatable to modern ears.
 
A hellhound, yesterday
The Hellhound

"Hellhound on my Trail" has a striking title. The image of the hellhound was not unheard of in blues songs, though rarely does it take centre stage. In fact, Johnson's song is actually about restlessness. The singer cannot relax even if today was Christmas Eve and tomorrow Christmas Day. He has a rambling mind every old place he goes ("rambling mind" in the sense of having a desire to move on rather than a mind that cannot fix on any topic, though that image too is pleasing and relevant). His woman has sprinkled hot foot powder all around his door - he cannot enter into his own house. He has hot feet and must wander. The concoction also acts as a hex to ward off the singer but perhaps also to ward off something more sinister.

The song, and the performance, is permeated with foreboding, with a dreadful anticipation that something wicked this way comes. The leaves are trembling on the tree, the wind is rising and the blues are falling down like hail. These images may be taken as metaphorical rather than meteorological. As a consequence of the metaphysical storm that is brewing, the singer has to keep moving. The days keep worrying him. All he needs is some female companionship "to pass the time away".

Is the hellhound real or is it a metaphor? And if the latter, then for what? Interaction with evil is a feature of Johnson's songs. In "Me and the Devil Blues", Satan knocks upon Johnson's door and tells him its time to go. He and the Devil are walking side by side. In "Steady Rollin' Man" he is howling down on his bended knees. He has a "Kind Hearted Woman" but she studies evil all the time. The otherwise benign "Malted Milk Blues" contains the couplet:

            "My doorknob keeps on turning, it must be spooks around my bed.
            I have a warm old feeling and the hair rising on my head."

Strange occurrences abound. The cow's milk turns blue and the blues are seen abroad walking upright like a man. There is frequently violence both inflicted on Johnson and by him. He is going to beat his woman until he is satisfied, then he is going to shoot her with his 32-20 (a type of cartridge originally used for shooting game). 
Types of cartridge including 32-20
In "Phonograph Blues" Johnson asks "What evil have I done?". Retribution is coming. Johnson finally finds himself at the mythical crossroads. Unable to flag a ride as everybody passes him by, the sun begins to go down and he fears being stranded in the dark with what the dark might bring. Sinking to his knees, he cries out to the Lord above "Have mercy, save poor Bob". The hellhound has come to claim his own.

Of course, it's a metaphor. The singer is dissatisfied, restless. He has to keep moving or he prefers it that way and claims there is no alternative. As an itinerant musician, Johnson had no choice but to keep moving to the next engagement. As a working musician, failure to do so would mean an evil fate. Not crime and prison but something far worse - work. There is a recent essay on the internet claiming that fear of lynching may be an inspiration for the song's metaphorical movement. It is an interesting essay but I do not agree with it's premise, that Johnson's song is rooted in a specific incident. Johnson's songs avoid specific incidents or commentary on current affairs, unlike many of his contemporaries. I think that Johnson is aiming for the universal truth of human experience and relating that to his audience. If he wanted to present truth in the form of a lynching ballad he is enough of an artist to present us with clues. I detect none in "Hellhound on my Trail".

Life in pre-WWII Mississippi for poor black people was, I assume, tough. Physical labour would be available for the men combined with low wages, segregation, zero public standing and zero respect. Black men would be expected to tote that barge and lift that bale, to be respectful and, preferably, invisible. Any black man with a bit of spirit would have to either suppress it or find some other outlet - either entertainment or crime. Similarly, any black man who did not fancy a life of back breaking work had better find some alternative source of income. Johnson the entertainer has to keep on moving because he is pursued by the hellhound that is digging a ditch for the rest of his life.


The recording

"Hellhound on my Trail" was recorded by the American Record Company in Dallas. Although Johnson recorded two versions of most of his songs at his recording sessions (common practice in order to have a safety copy should anything happen to the master), he only recorded one version of "Hellhound on my Trail" (or at least only one that has been found).

Johnson may have preferred singing facing a wall. He was being recorded in a big empty room. His recordings have an intimacy and intensity to them and Johnson, familiar with the recordings of other bluesmen, may have wanted to avoid having to project outwards into empty space, having to over-emote to get his song across.

Guitar-wise, this song is a good example of how Johnson combined playing lead parts with accompaniment parts, i.e. playing lead parts underneath his vocalising rather than singing and playing separately. This can lead to slight dissonance in his playing owing to him making mistakes. But this is more than compensated for by the drama of the delivery and the performance. There is a high-pitched, keening edge to Johnson's voice and this is matched by his playing solo lead lines with his slide high up the neck.

This music is tense, nervous. Chords are intermittent and only the one pattern repeats. Each pass is played differently and sometimes the bass and the lead strings sound out together. This could be one of the performances that Keith Richards was thinking of when he said that he could hear two guitar players on Johnson's records.

This is not Johnson's best song or performance. I think the extraordinary "Stones in my Passway" is a better song and the stunning "Crossroads Blues" a better performance. But "Hellhound on my Trail" stands out for its succinct stating of some of Johnson's key themes, for its compelling title and for its almost suffocating air of sadness. And it is this air of sadness that led me to choose it for this list. In the second verse the singer offers the thought that if today were Christmas Eve and tomorrow were Christmas day "oh, wouldn't we have a time, baby". If good times were in the offing, then the singer and his "little sweet woman" would make the very most of it. Even to the extent of the singer no longer needing his bit on the side to pass the time with. The singer's life is so empty that he has casual, meaningless encounters with other women purely to pass the time while waiting for the void to engulf him.


Robert Johnson
 (note ghostly image
over his left shoulder)
I keep coming back to the if it were Christmas image. The singer is not just promising a wild Saturday night but the best night of the year and what a time they would have. Note Johnson's use of the conditional - he does not say when it is Christmas we will have a great time but that we would have a great time if it were Christmas. The implication of this choice is that it will not be Christmas and no great time will be had. And it is Johnson's wistful, gentle delivery of the, possibly improvised, "oh, wouldn't we have a time, baby" line that undermines the expected blues boast of a hot time in the old town tonight. This is the great recorded moment, the creator speaking to his audience and declaring that there will be no good times because they are not living that sort of life, the sound of an artist signalling his outsiderhood from the world and the creative milieu he has just become king of.
 
Celebrate Christmas with Robert here:
 
video
 

Sunday, 26 June 2016


Great Recordings

Intro

The earliest reproducible recorded sound was made in 1860. 18 fucking 60! Lincoln was elected US President and the Pony Express made its first run. Garibaldi sailed for Sicily. The Second Opium War ended. Anton Chekhov, J.M. Barrie, Gustav Mahler and William Kellogg were all born. The serialisation of "Great Expectations" began and George Eliot published "The Mill on the Floss". Meanwhile, in a French living-room (or le salon), some bloke (actually a man called Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville) basically used soot to transcribe onto paper the passage of sound waves through the air. Computers can now translate these transcriptions into playbackable sound, meaning that we can listen to a recording of "Au Clair de la Lune" made on 9 April 1860 (which was an Easter Monday). 
 
In terms of modern day art forms, sound recording comes after the novel (1719) and photography (1826) but before cinema (1888) and Angry Birds (fuck knows). As much as I love recorded music, I am not certain that it has reached the artistic heights of its sister art forms even taking account of the collected works of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Doubtless someone has written a book on the key recordings, those that represent some new innovation or technology or the first recordings of seminal performers such as Caruso, Jolson, Crosby, Callas, Sinatra or Elvis. Aside from these Western cultural icons, probably some musicologist has written about the important recordings of musics from outside the Western tradition.

I wanted to think about recordings that were significant not just because of any wider societal or artistic repercussions but were interesting chiefly on account of the sound they make. It's a group of recordings that reflect my own favouritism and knowledge, rather than an exhaustive survey. I know little about classical music or non-Western musics - though Honest Jon's are my current favourites and I have enjoyed these three...
 
 

 
 
 
So here are half-a-dozen or so recordings that I find gripping, exciting and endlessly listenable. They all have some mystery about them too and a bit of back story, natch.

 
Number 1 

2 August 1927

The Shelor Family record "Big Bend Gal"

Between 25 July and 5 August 1927, a man called Ralph Peer held a series of recording sessions on the third floor of a building owned by a company that made hats and gloves in Bristol, Tennessee. Peer was working for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later to become RCA Victor) and was on a tour throughout the Southern States of America looking to make recordings that the company could sell to a newly discovered audience. This new audience had opened up due to the popularity of wind-up gramophones that offered reproduced sound for consumption in the sorts of shacks that may not have had access to electricity or running water. And that offered better quality sound reproduction (i.e. you could actually hear what was going on) than the radio, especially in out of the way places like the Appalachian Mountains. It was found that this audience yearned not for the sophisticated, cosmopolitan vocal stylings of Enrico Caruso or Dame Nellie Melba. Nor did it care for King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band or Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or Seven. What this audience wanted was Vernon Dalhart singing "Wreck of the Old 97", A.C. (Eck) Robertson singing "Sallie Gooden" and Uncle Dave Macon singing anything. They also wanted to hear music that reflected what are now outdated and unacceptable social attitudes, and this will be relevant to the later discussion of "Big Bend Gal" (there is an excellent webpage on popular recordings between 1900 and 1919 at http://aceterrier.com/?page_id=1502).
 
What they really wanted was to hear themselves or people like themselves. To experience the songs they knew using technology that enabled them to hear those songs over and over, whenever they wanted and as often as they liked. To see themselves reflected by the technology, to declare that they existed and had importance and to have that recognised by a commercial organisation. Greil Marcus pointed this out for me. It is the same impetus that led record companies to travel far afield in the early twentieth century to make commercial recordings in India, Persia, Afghanistan, Bali etc. Because people were keen to experience what they were familiar with reflected back at them.
 
In 1924, Peer had made a poor quality recording of Fiddlin' John Carson playing "Cluck Old Hen" and managed to sell all the records he produced of this recording in a short period of time. Peer was motivated by commerce, not art. He was no John Lomax. But this was already music that was out of date and its original title of Old Timey music reflects this. In many ways, the world described in this music was already gone and what was being marketed was nostalgia. But it was a nostalgia for a world that most people did not even know existed. So Peer felt he could steal a march by seeking out unknown surviving practitioners of this already archaic music and sell it to people who did not yet know that they had a nostalgia for this gone world (whether that nostalgia was real or imagined was not to matter).  
 
The Bristol Sessions
 
Adverts were placed in newspapers encouraging performers to attend the recording sessions in Bristol. But the response was disappointing until a newspaper article about a recording made by Ernest Stoneman of "Skip To Ma Lou, My Darling" stressed the $3,600 in royalties that Stoneman had received in 1926 and the $100 a day he was receiving for recording in Bristol, generated much more interest.
 
Dozens of performers travelled to Bristol, many for the first time in their lives. A man called Jimmie Rodgers was in town with a group of itinerant musicians when they heard about the recording sessions from a band member's mother.  Rodgers then quarrelled with the other musicians which led to him recording some songs solo. Having caught the recording bug, Rodgers later travelled to New York to make some further recordings which were immediately very popular. Although he had only a short time to live, Rodgers became the first country superstar, appearing in a short film and taking up the role as spiritual forebear to Hank Williams. At the time of his death, Rodgers' records accounted for 10% of all sales by RCA Victor.
 
On 31 July 1927, a man called Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter persuaded his wife, Sara, and his brother's wife, Maybelle, to travel to Bristol to see if they could make some money by making records. On 1 August they walked into the hat and shoe company building looking like hillbillies in their dusty overalls and smocks. Happily, Sara Carter had a distinctive voice and Maybelle was a musical genius, inventing a new way to use the guitar to accompany singers. A.P. meanwhile set about collecting every song he could from all around the Appalachians. By 1930, the Carter Family had sold 300,000 records and went on to establish the core of country standards as well as a dynasty stretching into the present day.

The street musician Blind Alfred Reed was invited by Peer to record in Bristol, travelling from Virginia. An angry but compassionate moralist and social commentator, Reed made only a small number of high quality recordings speaking up for the common man ("There'll Be No Distinction There") and offering plentiful advice to women ("Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls").  After recording "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" in 1929 Reed stopped recording and lived out the rest of his life in extreme poverty before starving to death.
 
These three examples are sufficient to make the Bristol Sessions one of the most significant dates in popular music recording history given the numbers of artists who have subsequently recorded versions of songs by these three. However, the Bristol Sessions do not represent the best recordings made by these. Instead, I want to focus on one recording made by a group at what was to be their one and only recording session.
 
Dangerous Art
 
The Shelor Family comprised Jesse Shelor and his brother (Pyrhus) together with Jesse's father-in-law (Joe Blackard) and Jesse's wife (Clarice). They all came from musical backgrounds and played music together in the home. It was suggested that they travel to the Bristol recording sessions, 125 miles away. Together with Jesse and Clarice's seven year old son (Joseph), they arrived in Bristol on 2 August 1927.
 
The group had rehearsed some material that they assumed would be popular but perhaps Peer had heard enough versions of "Cluck Old Hen" and "Wreck of the Old 97". In any event, he asked if they could perform some more unusual songs. They had not practised any but were keen to oblige. Probably they had some sort of run through before recording but they were not overly familiar with the material. 
 


Jesse and Pyrhus play fiddles, Joe is on banjo and Clarice on piano. Jesse and Clarice sing and Joe had to write out the words for Clarice and place them on top of the piano. They had to put a pillow under Pyrhus' foot as he was tapping it too loudly on the floor. Little Joseph was playing on the floor and rolling around. Some accounts say that Jesse plays rhythm on the low piano keys and Clarice the high parts but I can hear two fiddles as well as a banjo in the recording so unless Jesse had three hands, this is unlikely. 

Jesse and Clarice Shelor

 
Recording finished, the family returned home never to record again.

The Sound

One microphone, one group, one sound. Like Gary U.S. Bonds recording "Quarter to Three" at Frank Guida's non-studio. Although you can distinguish the different instruments, they double up on each other's parts making it difficult to pick each instrument out. Their timing is impressive if they were less familiar with this song but is perhaps a result of them being familiar with each others' playing.

A sawing, wheezing, gasping tone punctuated by stabbing thumps on the piano and the banjo like a river runs through it. They attack the tune with confidence and verve; it's not tentative but confident like they are entertaining themselves in their own front room. The fiddles make a slide into each part of the song before the swirls take over. The music it reminds me of is "The Black Angel's Death Song" by the Velvet Underground.
 
The Velvet Underground
1927

The combination of two fiddles, piano and banjo can be presumed to make a fair old racket but clever microphone placement means that the vocals are to the front and are tonally clear. Unfortunately, owing to the singers' accents, diction and delivery the words are incoherent. Happily, many years later Clarice was persuaded to write the words down so we do have some idea what they are singing and I will discuss this in the next section. The vocals do not follow each other either rhythmically or harmonically and this is probably a consequence of the group being unfamiliar with the material. It's also compounded by the song having too many words in each line for the singers to sing. Given that the Shelor Family were only aiming at connecting with people in their own walk of life, this may be one of the last occasions when recorded performers present themselves unedited and uncensored to the listener. The Shelors were not trying to curry favour with cocktail sipping Cole Porter fans in New York, nor down-to-earth mid-western farmers. Their constituency was anyone living within a 100 miles or so of them. People who would instantly recognise the form and the message of the song, not to mention understanding what was being sung.
 
The Song  

This song contains both a mystery and a dark horror. The mystery comes right at the start of the song. The song is a paean of praise, listing the qualities of a young woman and why men like her. Presumably, it's the titular heroine of whom they sing, the Big Bend gal. But the first line of the song is "There's no use talking 'bout the Big Bend gal that live on the county line". So, if there's no use in talking about the Big Bend gal, then who is the song about.  

 The next line of the song tells us that "Betsy Jane from a prairie plain just leaves them way behind". So is the song not then about Betsy Jane? This can get confusing:

             "Now then, if there's no use talking about her, could it be that the song is not about the Big Bend gal at all? Some folks believe that the Big Bend gal and Betsy are one and the same. But if you examine the lyrics here, they could live in different places, depending on where the county line is. Which leads us to: Is the prairie plain at the county line?  If not, then Betsy is not the Big Bend gal. Also, since the song opens with "there's no use talkin' ‘bout" her, then why is there an entire song to follow if it's not about her?" (http://www.mombu.com/music/t-big-bend-gal-a-new-controversy-1608990.html)

I think this is resolvable by considering closely the actual lyrics as they are sung. It is not grammatically correct to say that a girl singular "live" on the county line. The correct way to phrase this would be to say that she "lives" on the county line. Similarly, Betsy Jane should leave "her" behind rather than the "them" as sung in the recording. It could be that this is simply the result of uneducated, or primitively educated singers getting their tenses mixed up. But this feels somewhat patronizing and there is no indication that the Shelors were uneducated. The only way in which the wording works is if the Big Bend gal is plural rather than singular, in other words if the song is comparing Betsy Jane with all gals from Big Bend. In the recording, it is not clear that the singers use the plural form of gal but the sibilant "s" on the end of the word could be lost in the non-hi-fi recording or missed in the speed with which the song is delivered. This, then, makes sense as Betsy Jane leaves the Big Bend gals far behind.

But why then is the song not called Betsy Jane from the prairie plain if that is what it is about? And why are people from the Appalachians singing about the prairie plain? Big Bend National Park is in Texas and there are a couple of Big Bends in Wisconsin. In the song, the Big Bend gal also "beats all the gals from the Flat Creek Bottom". The Internet tells me that Big Bend and Flat Creek Bottom relate to somewhere in southern Missouri. The gal in question is also "Queen of the whole plantation" and it becomes apparent from the rest of the song that it is set on a plantation. There were plantations in Missouri so this remains a possibility.
 
The rhythm of the song is uptempo and jaunty and may have its origins in minstrel shows - kind of the US equivalent to UK music hall only transitory and with a pronounced racial bent, as we shall see. Having been asked to produce unusual material, the Shelors may have called upon this song rather than something more homespun and specific to their own background.
 
I do not know who wrote the song but it is clearly composed rather than built up from existing elements as with a lot of traditional material. There is poetry in the verses and description of the gal and life on the plantation:
 
            "The calf comes a-loping and the old cow calls,
            And the possum dog comes to the horn;
            And the grape vine climbs up the tall oak tree,
            And the morning glory wrap around the corn."

The gal "totes herself like a flying squirrel". The gal carries herself like a special animal, one that is a cut above others. This is a great image without, I think, much in the way of precedent. Woody Guthrie's "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" talks about a Ford taking off like a flying squirrel but this may refer to the Flying Squirrel motorcycle, although this was manufactured in Yorkshire - would Americans ride British bikes between the wars? I have no idea.
 
A Flying Squirrel, yesterday.
"Lord, how the dewdrops get off the grass when she puts her flat feet upon the ground". She's like a fairy queen with the power to influence nature. "Her mouth's just as sweet as a corncob stopper that come out of a molasses jug". Not only is this line very difficult to sing, it is very difficult to say.
 
"Her eyes give light like a foxfire chunk". According to Wikipedia, foxfire is the bioluminescence created by some species of fungi present in decaying wood. So, her eyes glow like a natural phenomena. The gal is delicate, "she hangs on his arm like a bird on a tree", but also vigorous, "she skippers up the furrow in a cloud of dust as she busts them clods with a hoe". It's is no wonder that she attracts the attention of the men on the plantation.
 
The Danger

Assuming that the song does have its origins in minstrel shows, then it bears relation to other contemporary songs that portray life on plantations as a bucolic idyll and ignore the grim reality of slavery. There is a deeper horror within the song in its frequent use of racial epithets. The men on the plantation are not called men and the "N" word is used three times in the song. The Big Bend gal is herself described as "yellow" meaning light or fair-skinned as in the song "Yellow Gal" by Leadbelly.
 
Are the Shelors being racist in their use of this language? They would think not, I suggest. I imagine they would see the song as describing the realities of life in those times (I imagine the song either comes from or describes life in the mid-19th century) - Mark Twain does as much. Possibly they used these terms themselves, possibly they did not. They show neither emphasis nor disapproval in their delivery and the racist terms slip by unnoticed in the blur and slur of the other words and their phrasing. The song does not otherwise describe its participants in a derogatory or dismissive way but, of course, it does not need to. The mere useage of these terms is sufficient to establish these peoples' place in the order of things.
 
How does it sound to modern ears? Herein lies the danger. Is it possible to enjoy this performance? Is it possible to actively enjoy (rather than just understand or appreciate) art which may have deplorable origins? Can we enjoy Gary Glitter records (not a problem for me as I did not like him then and don't now)?
 
We are used to rappers using the "N" word but this is a reclaiming of its previous racist useage. We do not expect white artists to use it similarly. The victim trying to assume power by seizing the language of the persecutor is a legitimate tactic, although not everyone agrees on this point. It is one thing for Bobby Thompson to make jokes about poverty in North East England, another for Jimmy Carr to do the same.
 
There are contemporary performances of "Big Bend Gal" on You Tube that substitute for the racial epithets. Is this honest and true to the origins of the song? If we must sing about plantation life, should we gloss over its reality? Is this denial a worse thing than using racial language? It is not a song that I would care to sing in public but what if a black artist were to do so? Does that make it alright?
 
I do not know the answers to these questions. I know that I do enjoy "Big Bend Gal" while recognising that it could be taken as a sign of legitimising something abhorrent. This is how art can be dangerous. In enjoying this song, am I equating with the sort of people that collect paintings by Hitler? Or works by Eric Gill? Are there degrees of questionability associated with this? Gill is a better artist than Hitler and "Big Bend Gal" is better than Gary Glitter. Does that make it alright?
 
Art need not be comfortable and it can be upsetting. Some people might view "Big Bend Gal" as material that should be left in the antebellum days along with blackface and lynching. I thought long and hard about my response to this song. I do think it wonderful and enjoyable and poetic and exuberant. And yet, look what it is about and the language used. Perhaps there are other things that I enjoy that cause offence, "Belsen was a Gas" by the Sex Pistols, for instance. Perhaps much of what we enjoy can have hidden horrors for some.
 
Ultimately, I think we need temper our response according to all the variables. How good is the art that is created? Does it generate an intelligent or unintelligent response? Does it provoke a critique or an acceptance? Eric Gill yes, Jimmy Carr no. I can live without the "N" word in "The Sun has got his hat on" but cannot listen to versions of "Big Bend Gal" without the "proper" lyrics. It describes a world that is gone and I listen to it as such. The danger lies in whether this gives succour to those who would seek to revive those attitudes in the world we live in now.
 
Decide for yourself by listening here:
 
video