Wednesday, May 31, 2017

American Epic, part 3: “Out of the Many, One” (PBS/Lo-Max Films, 2017)

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

At 9 p.m. I watched the third episode of the remarkable PBS series American Epic, detailing the discovery and rediscovery of American folk artists who — at least according to the legend this show’s creator, Bernard MacMahon, largely subscribed to — were virtually unknown to the conventional music market until the late 1920’s, when record companies, armed with the newly invented electrical recording equipment, fanned out across the South and places like Appalachia looking for new markets for their products that hadn’t been reached by radio. This meant having to find artists who could record the kinds of music that were already popular in those areas, and MacMahon makes probably more of a to-do than is merited factually that the music scene in those areas consisted exclusively of amateurs who played only for themselves and their friends, or in casual dances organized in their home villages. Actually a number of the musicians recorded in the late 1920’s, like blues singer Blind Willie McTell and the country-folk-blues-pop artist Jimmie Rodgers (who was literally, in Duke Ellington’s phrase, “beyond category” — it was Rodgers who introduced the throat yodel into country music and also brought in the steel guitar, because he’d recorded with Hawai’ian bands and loved their music), had had careers as professional entertainers well before they recorded — though even during Rodgers’ lifetime (he made his first record in 1927 at age 30 and died of tuberculosis six years later) he was hyped as a railroad brakeman who had turned to music only when his disease made it impossible for him to continue such a strenuous occupation. The first two shows in the American Epic series had focused mostly on country and blues artists, notably the Carter Family, the Memphis Jug Band and Charley Patton, but the third one — which ran an hour and a half, compared to the one-hour time slots of the first two — promised to introduce us to other cultures whose music was also recorded for the first time in the late 1920’s. 

The opening segment covered the Hopi Indians in New Mexico and the recording of two of their traditional songs, “Chant of the Eagle Dance” and “Chant of the Snake Dance,” in 1926 for Victor, a session set up by Mike Billingsley, who as a child had been fascinated by tales of the Hopi and as soon as he was old enough literally ran away from home to join the tribe. At the time the Hopi were being threatened with prosecution for performing their old religious rituals, despite that pesky little part of the U.S. Constitution called the First Amendment and its guarantee of the “free exercise” of one’s religion. The “Christian” moralists of the time thought the Hopi snake dance was a pagan or Satanic ritual, and — much to the discontent of some members of the tribe, who thought that if anyone outside the tribe got to see or hear the snake ritual it would lose its efficacy in providing the desert tribe the few inches of rain it needed each year to grow their staple food, corn — Billingsley organized a public relations tour for the Hopi elders, who not only recorded their chants but went to Washington, D.C. and were filmed doing the snake dance for government officials, who duly pronounced it moral and passed an act of Congress telling local authorities to let the Hopi practice their religion. 

Then they did a segment on Hawai’ian music in general and Joseph Kekuku, the inventor of the steel guitar, in particular, which was an interesting inclusion because Hawai’ian music was not only recorded well before America’s other ethnic musics (as early as 1903!), there was even such a fad for it that in the ’teens about 25 percent of all the records sold in the U.S. were of Hawai’ian music. The steel guitar comes with its own legend: it seems Kekuku was walking down a railroad track carrying his guitar when he saw a leftover bolt on the track. He picked it up and it accidentally brushed across his guitar, creating what’s become the familiar glissando of the slide used to fret guitar strings. There’s a quite remarkable scene in which the descendants of Joseph Kekuku hear him clearly for the first time: prior to the making of this film he was only known to have made a few cylinders in the early 20th century in which he’s virtually inaudible, but the filmmakers discovered a 1925 Columbia electrical in which he plays the pop song “I’ll See You in My Dreams” on steel guitar backed by a loud and rather obnoxious banjo — but Kekuku’s own playing is quiet and lyrical and does full justice to the song. (A lot of Hawai’ian bands remodeled the pop songs of the period to fit their style; one of the other records played in this segment was a Hawai’ian cover of George Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good.”) There’s also a fascinating montage showing how extensively the slide or steel guitar has been used in other sorts of music, including blues (Son House), country (Hank Williams), Afro-pop (King Sunny Adé) and progressive rock (Pink Floyd). 

Then the show took a brief detour to the Texas-Mexico border for the remarkable career of Lydia (sometimes spelled “Lidya”) Mendoza, who recorded for Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary in 1928 and had a star-making hit with a glum song called “Mal Hombre” (rivaling “House of the Rising Sun” and Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” as a song about a woman bitterly lamenting her ruination at the hands of a no-good man — the title literally means “bad man” but the show’s subtitles render it as “cruel-hearted man”), and she performed literally for decades, though she took a time-out from her career in the early 1940’s to get married and raise her kids. Luckily her later performances were extensively videotaped by her family — and she was as intense in the 1980’s as she was in the 1920’s; based on the evidence here, if there was a Mexican Edith Piaf, she was it. Then the show cuts to Louisiana for the first recordings of Cajun music — a New Orleans businessman ordered 500 copies of the first Cajun hit, Joseph Falcon’s “Allons en Lafayette,” at a time when record companies didn’t expect to sell that many copies of anything. The show featured interviews with the Breaux family — Falcon’s wife and co-performer Cheruil was a Breaux, and she also performed with three Breaux brothers, one of whom wrote what’s probably the most famous Cajun song ever written, “Jolie Blonde” (a surprisingly infectious melody given that the lyrics are a tale of woe because the singer’s pretty blonde girlfriend has left him), though Harry Choates’ later cover is the one from which most subsequent artists learned the song — including, of all people, Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings. Jennings was a D.J. on country station KLLL in Holly’s home town, Lubbock, Texas, and Holly wanted to break him as an artist — and for their first record they cut a cover of “Jolie Blonde,” garbling the title as “Jole Blon” and adding R&B saxophonist King Curtis (and more recently Bruce Springsteen has covered the Holly-Jennings version — he’s shown here doing it in a clip from one of his concert videos). 

But the most extensively featured artist on this program — he takes up almost half its total running time — is the blues musician Mississippi John Hurt. He was born in 1892 or 1893 (white Southern authorities weren’t always that meticulous about documenting the births of African-American babies — Louis Armstrong always celebrated his birthday as July 4, 1900 and it was only after his death that a birth certificate came to light establishing the actual date as August 4, 1901) and lived virtually all his life in the tiny town of Avalon, Mississippi. He was scouted in 1928 by Tommy Rockwell and Bob Stephens of Okeh Records (who had produced the classic Bix Beiderbecke-Frank Trumbauer records for the label; later Stephens went to work for Decca and made Count Basie’s records for them from 1937 to 1939; John Hammond was furious that Decca “poached” Basie’s contract from him but paid tribute to Stephens for getting such a good sound on Basie’s records despite Decca’s substandard equipment) and recorded twice, in 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee as part of an Okeh field trip, and in 1929 in New York City. On the latter trip he got so homesick that he wrote and recorded a song called “Avalon Blues.” Then he went back home and for the next three decades made his living as a sharecropper and a cow-sitter for local white landowners, one of whom was a woman Hurt went to because Okeh had sent him a sample copy of one of his records but he had nothing to play it on. So he went to her and asked her to play the record for him — only she wouldn’t let him in her house. Instead she let him stand on her front porch as she aimed the horn of her phonograph through the screen door, and when she played the record she was astonished and exclaimed, “That’s you on that record!” (The story was told by the woman’s daughter.) 

Then in the early 1960’s a blues researcher named Dick Spottswood heard “Avalon Blues,” which even then was one of Hurt’s more obscure records (he recorded 20 sides for Okeh but only the 13 originally released are known to exist — there’s a sad little segment with Sony Music archivist Michael Brooks on how many of the metal parts from which records are made were melted down during the Depression and again during World War II in scrap-metal drives — and two of Hurt’s sides were on Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music from 1952 but “Avalon Blues” remained unknown even to a lot of dedicated blues collectors). While other people who’d heard the record thought it related to the mythical kingdom of Arthurian legend, or was something Hurt had made up, Spottswood wondered that maybe there was a real Avalon, Mississippi and John Hurt actually lived there. There was, and he did, and like a number of other old blues musicians Hurt was rediscovered in the early 1960’s and had a second career on the folk-music circuit. Son House and Skip James were likewise rediscovered in the early 1960’s after having made a few records in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s and then disappeared from the music scene. (The fabulous and still underrated Robert Wilkins had quit blues voluntarily in 1936, after a riot broke out at a juke joint where he was performing and he decided his music had had an evil influence and had caused the fight; he became a born-again Christian, worked as a minister and faith healer, and when he returned to music in the 1960’s it was as a gospel singer.) What was remarkable about Hurt’s second career was that he’d survived the years in good health, and though he hadn’t played in years his guitar chops were as good as ever — unlike Skip James, who already had terminal cancer when he was rediscovered and could afford medical care only because Cream covered one of his songs, “I’m So Glad,” and the royalties paid for his medical bills. What’s also remarkable about Hurt is how little he sounds like the Delta guys — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, et al. — who’ve set the template for what we expect “Mississippi blues” to sound like. Hurt didn’t use the slide guitar, his voice was soft and lyrical, and he was an excellent picker; indeed, if he hadn’t proclaimed his origins by billing his native state on his records as part of his name, collectors would probably have guessed he was from Virginia, because he comes a lot closer to the softer, subtler, more lyrical Piedmont blues style than the rougher, more openly emotional Delta blues. Like Robert Wilkins, Hurt was able to describe rough-and-tumble scenes in a matter-of-fact style that in some ways holds up better than the more blatant, searing emotionalism of Robert Johnson and company — among his Okeh records (and a song he remade in his second career) is a version of “Stagolee” that comes a lot closer to white singer Frank Hutchison’s version (also for Okeh) from 1926, two years before Hurt’s record debut, than most of the Black records of it. 

The odd coincidence that both Black and white artists recorded versions of “John Henry” and “Stagolee” certainly muddies the waters in terms of trying to figure out who influenced whom: the reverse-racist consensus that dominates jazz historiography today essentially asserts that all jazz is a Black invention and white jazz musicians only stole from their racial betters (and frequently made more money because of the racism inherent in the music business, as in the rest of American life, through most of the 20th century) becomes even harder to support when a show like this documents that even songs considered so quintessentially “Black” as “John Henry” and “Stagolee” may have originated in white, not Black, folk traditions. Overall, American Epic is an excellent presentation of the subject, hampered a bit by the limitations of length (each episode could have been two hours long without feeling stretched) and what film footage has survived (fortunately John Hurt was filmed extensively in the 1960’s and the show includes two clips of him at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. a 1965 British TV show and an amateur audio-visual record that’s the only footage of him in color). Occasionally the show just sounded silly — as when, at the end of episode two, Robert Junior Lockwood (Robert Johnson’s nephew and one of the few musicians who actually can be believed when he claims to have played with Johnson) said that all blues had to be in medium-walking tempo because that was the speed at which a sharecropper walked behind the mule that was pulling the plow in the cotton fields (and it got even sillier when he said the early blues singers learned to sing loud from having to call out instructions to the mules in voices loud enough to get these famously recalcitrant animals’ attention) — but for the most part it was a worthy effort to pay tribute to the great traditions of American grass-roots music.