Wednesday, May 24, 2017

American Epic, part 2: “Blood and Soil” (Lo-Max Films/PBS, 2015-2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the show I was really looking forward to last night: the second of three episodes of American Epic, the mini-series about the classic “roots” records made by Black and white artists (and, in the third show, people of other ethnicities as well) in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, when the recording industry, decimated first by radio and then by the Depression, lost much of its market for mainstream white pop music and in order to stay in business had to look for new markets in rural areas. Some of the places they sold phonographs and records to in those days were so far off the grid — literally — they didn’t even have electricity, which meant no radio (though some of the “roots” acts record companies signed, notably the Carter Family, eventually became radio stars as well as rural electrification and the licensing of new stations expanded radio to reach these previously unserved communities). The Los Angeles Times published a couple of articles about this series by Robert Lloyd, in one of which he quotes producer T Bone Burnett (he spells the name with no hyphen between “T” and “Bone,”  unlike the blues great Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, who did use the hyphen) as saying record sales dropped 80 percent from 1925 to 1926 because of the competition from radio — I’d earlier known there was a decline but I hadn’t realized it was that severe, and in 1929 the Victor record company, on the principle of if you can’t beat ’em join ’em, merged with the Radio Corporation of America. (In 1934, with the economy in enough of a recovery that people started having disposable income again, RCA Victor helped save its record business by marketing the Duo Junior, a turntable that could be plugged into a radio set — the forerunner of the stereo components market that reached its apex in the 1970’s.) 

The second episode was called “Blood and Soil” and focused on three groups of artists. The first focus was on Black gospel singers in general (the show opened with an incredible clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in full cry belting out “Up Above My Head” — it was late enough in her career her hair was white by then, but she was still in great form, playing that huge electric guitar of hers and showing, as do just about all the films of her, that rock ’n’ roll has its roots in Black gospel music in general and artists like Tharpe in particular) and one obscure one in particular, Elder John E. Burch. Never heard of him? I hadn’t either, though he recorded 10 titles for Victor in 1929 that were in that odd sub-genre that attempted to reproduce an entire Black church service, or as much of it as could be fit on one side of a three-minute 20-second 78 rpm record, in which the star of the record was a minister who alternated between straightforward preaching, preaching to musical and rhythmic cadences (essentially rapping) and full-out singing. Burch was pastor of the Triumph Church in Cheraw, South Carolina, a town I’d heard of otherwise only as the birthplace of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie (he lived there from his birth in 1917 until 1935, when his family joined the great northern exodus and moved to Philadelphia). One of the people interviewed for this show was Dizzy’s cousin Ernest Gillespie, who read a passage from Dizzy’s autobiography To Be or Not to Bop in which he recalled listening to the services at Elder Burch’s home-built church and getting his first feel for music there. 

Burch was a quite remarkable man who managed to build a restaurant, a boarding house and other businesses in a time and place where most African-Americans were mired in poorly paid farm work. The extant photo of him shows a tall, striking man who, except for the shape of his nose, didn’t look particularly Black (the picture was in color but it’s not clear whether it was photographed that way or, in line with a common practice of the time, it was a black-and-white photo hand-painted with watercolors to create a color effect), and from that and his electrifying records (he was one of those Black singers who had such an effective falsetto it wouldn’t be clear just from listening to them whether the singer was a man or a woman) one can get an impression of what a service in the Triumph Church might have been like. (The filmmakers had the cooperation of the current pastor of the Triumph Church in Cheraw — which is still housed in Elder Burch’s old building — who let them film a sequence showing a modern-day service there, complete with a gospel choir singing in the old tradition, starting out with a slow hymn and then speeding the tempo up until it sounds like rock ’n’ roll.) The commentators argued that Aretha Franklin and James Brown were the stylistic heirs of Elder Burch, and backed that up with a film clip of Brown performing “Please, Please, Please” and looking like a Black minister of a Pentecostal church getting “into the spirit” from the pulpit. (Aretha was literally the heir of a Black church tradition; her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, was pastor of the largest African-American church in Detroit and the best-selling artist on Chess Records even though he neither sang nor played an instrument — his albums were simply recordings of his sermons.) 

The second segment of the show dealt with some obscure white folk artists from the West Virginia coal fields — Ernest Williamson, Dick Justice, Frank Hutchison — who would probably be totally forgotten today if their handful of late-1920’s recordings for Okeh and Brunswick hadn’t been discovered in the early 1950’s by Harry Smith, who included them in the six-LP boxed set Anthology of American Folk Music released in 1952 by Folkways Records. Smith’s set was ground-breaking; a lot of the musicians from the “folk revival” of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s covered the songs on Smith’s set and were led by it to uncover other songs from the same traditions. Smith’s criteria for inclusion were that the records all had to be commercial products rather than Lomax-style “field recordings” — he wanted music that had been sufficiently popular that someone had thought they could make money selling records of it, whether they actually had or not — and he also chose exclusively recordings made between 1927, two years after the introduction of electrical recording (a dramatic improvement in the quality of recorded sound and one for which, ironically, the record industry adopted the technology of radio, including microphones and electronic amplification, to try to beat back radio’s commercial challenge to their business model), and 1932, when the Depression was at its worst and commercial recording in the U.S. virtually ceased to exist. (About the only people still making records were mega-stars like Bing Crosby, whose supercharged popularity on radio meant there was still a market for his records even though almost nothing else was selling.) 

One of the ironies from this segment was that it was the white West Virginia musicians who first recorded the songs “John Henry” and “Staggerlee” — songs I’d always assumed were Black in origin — and another was that once they’d had their brief brush with recorded immortality, the musicians who made them went back to the West Virginia coal country. The filmmakers interviewed Dick Justice’s son Ernest, who told them that his dad never mentioned to him that he’d made records as a folksinger and he was totally ignorant of his dad’s records until he discovered them somewhere else. (He didn’t say where, but it was probably from a previous interviewer seeking him out for info about his father.) The third, last and longest segment was about a musician considerably better known than the ones in the other two, pioneering Mississippi Delta bluesman Charley Patton. (There’s some confusion about the spelling of his first name: it’s “Charley” on the labels of his original records for Paramount but some of Paramount’s ads for them listed him as the more familiar “Charlie.”) Just about all the other pioneers of Delta blues, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, either studied with Patton or at least saw him live, and according to one elder the filmmakers talked to it was Patton who first did all the sorts of trick playing — picking the guitar with his teeth, playing with it behind  his back and miming having sex with it — later adopted by T-Bone Walker and still later by Jimi Hendrix (who’d learned them from watching Walker while on chit’lin’ circuit tours with bands that were opening for him). By coincidence I didn’t have to go online for Patton’s music the way I’d had to for the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band after watching episode one: I have a three-CD compilation on the Catfish Records label called The Definitive Charley Patton. It’s not as “definitive” as the label indicates — there are competing “complete” editions of the Patton legacy that stretch out to four or up to seven CD’s (the seven-CD version added covers of Patton’s songs by artists he influenced) — and it contains only one “take” of each song. 

Patton made most of his records between 1927 and 1933 for the cheap Paramount label — which had nothing to do with the Paramount movie studio but was an enterprise of the Wisconsin Chair Company. They got into the record business in a weird way: in 1919 the Thomas A. Edison company ordered a large quantity of phonograph cabinets from Wisconsin Chair, then — after the cabinets had already been made — reneged on the deal and refused to pay for them. Fine, said the people running Wisconsin Chair: we’ll just make our own phonographs and put them in the cabinets. One problem was that the standard recording technology, involving a flat disc with a lateral-cut groove (the groove moved the stylus sideways to play the record), was under patents co-owned by Victor and Columbia, so other record players could only play so-called “hill-and-dale” discs (the stylus moved up and down), so Wisconsin Chair had to make their own hill-and-dale records so buyers of their hill-and-dale phonographs would have something to play on them. In 1921 the Gennett company successfully sued Victor and Columbia and broke their patent monopoly on lateral-cut records, and with far more lateral than hill-and-dale phonographs in existence (though some third-party vendors sold adapters you could put at the end of your tone arm and thereby play either sort of disc on the same equipment), Paramount, like Brunswick, Gennett, Sonora and the other independents, shifted to the standard lateral-cut format. Wisconsin Chair originally aimed their records exclusively at the urban white middle class, but they also agreed to press records for the Black Swan label, a Black-owned indie founded in 1920 by W. C. Handy and his business partner, Harry Pace, whose leading artist was Ethel Waters. In 1925 Black Swan went bankrupt after Waters left for Columbia, and since they owed Wisconsin Chair a lot of money for pressing their records, Wisconsin Chair took over Black Swan’s catalog and their contracts with their remaining Black artists, and all of a sudden they were in the “race” records business. They had one of the top blues singers of the decade, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and they also pioneered the recording of country blues (male singers backed solely by their own acoustic and slide guitars) by signing Patton and Texas blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Jefferson was actually a bigger star at the time than Patton — so much so that when he died young Paramount not only issued every remaining master by him but even hired other singers to impersonate him on records and passed the records off as “new” Blind Lemon Jefferson sides — but Patton was big enough Paramount advertised him heavily and used quite a lot of gimmicks to sell his releases, including putting out some as “The Masked Marvel” (illustrated with a drawing of Patton wearing a Lone Ranger-style domino mask) and running a contest to see if people could guess the singer’s identity. The main problem with Paramount records is their sound quality is uniformly poor, muffled and lacking the “air” one hears on the major labels of the time (Victor, Columbia, Brunswick and Okeh); when the rest of the industry switched to electrical recording in the late 1920’s Paramount advertised their records as “Electrically Recorded” but they still sounded so bad one joke in the industry went that all Paramount was doing to make their records “electrical” was turning on a lightbulb in the studio. Charley Patton was discovered in 1926 by a talent scout named H. C. Speir, the first person in the Deep South who set up a recording studio where aspiring record artists could make demonstration records (“demos”) so they could offer them to record companies and get signed professionally. Patton made a demo in Speir’s studio and attracted the attention of the talent scouts for Paramount, where he made a wide variety of songs including gospel and preaching records as well as blues. 

He played slide guitar on most of his recordings, and interestingly the complete Patton compilation is quite a bit more listenable than a lot of single-artist blues albums from the time because though he played almost everything in the medium-slow “walking” tempo that was standard for country blues, he wrote a wide variety of songs. The great trap in assembling a blues album of 1920’s and 1930’s records by one artist is monotony — since the records were issued two songs at a time as 78 rpm singles, the original buyers generally didn’t listen to more than two songs in a row by the same artist and thereby didn’t notice if their songs sounded pretty much the same. (Even the complete Bessie Smith collection suffers from this: records that would sound powerful heard one or two at a time become monotonous when you hear them over the length of an LP side or a CD and notice she’s singing basically similar songs in similar tempi with similar accompaniments. For me Bessie Smith was at her best when she sang songs that weren’t blues but she sang them with blues feeling and “bent” the notes of a standard pop song in blues style.) The show focuses on Patton as a sort of ur-blues artist that shaped the standard blues styles that followed after World War II — the so-called “Chicago blues” that was basically the Mississippi Delta style (and created largely by people from the Delta like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf), but played on electric guitars and with full-band backing (harmonica, piano, bass, drums and often saxophone). The show features archival interviews with Howlin’ Wolf (true name: Chester Alan Arthur Burnett) in which he acknowledges Patton’s influence on his music — he followed Patton around his home at Dockery’s Plantation (which still exists) when Patton came to play there and learned all Patton’s special chords — though Wolf was an incredibly creative musician on his own and transformed Patton’s material so extensively the songs qualified as “original.” (Compare Charley Patton’s “Spoonful Blues” to Wolf’s “Spoonful” and the songs are almost totally different even though Wolf’s has its roots in Patton’s.) 

Like most of the Delta blues artists, Patton wrote topical songs about issues like the boll weevil (which decimated the South’s cotton crops and ruined the already precarious existence of many Southern tenant farmers) and the Mississippi River floods of 1926 — though the commentators on this show don’t mention that one reason there are so many blues songs about the Mississippi River floods was the Melrose Brothers music-publishing company actually ran a contest for the best one. (The contest was won, as she deserved, by Bessie Smith for her masterpiece, “Backwater Blues.”) Like other Paramount artists, Patton frequently recorded the same songs more than once, the executives at Wisconsin Chair having calculated that once their stampers (the negative molds from which records were pressed) wore out, it would be cheaper just to call the artist back to re-record the song rather than preserve the master to make new stampers. That’s one reason why some “complete” Charley Patton collections are longer than others: some compilers just tried to pick out the best version extant (musically or technically) of each song, while others have tried to trace and include all the extant “takes” of each song. Despite the technical limitations of Paramount’s recording (one feels with Patton as compared to Robert Johnson the same frustration one feels with Ma Rainey as compared to Bessie Smith: why, why, why couldn’t Patton have recorded for a major label with state-of-the-art equipment for the time so we could really hear him?), Patton’s power and drive come through strongly. On his religious songs he sounds uncannily like Blind Willie Johnson (who did record for a major, Columbia), particularly in the “vocal” sounds he gets from the slide guitar that second his actual voice, and on his secular blues he not only sounds like the model for virtually all blues that came after him, he comes up with lines of lyric that have been recycled for plenty of blues song since (though some of these traditional lyrics may predate Patton and their origins may be lost in the mists of time of people who didn’t get to record).