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