I haven’t been a huge fan of Dust To Digital’s newest series “Art of Field Recording, ” so I never got around to reviewing the first set in full, but I now have the second set and it’s a bit more interesting, though it has all the major faults if the first one. The sets are boxed in a LP sized set, that compared to Dust to Digital’s other work is both ugly and cumbersome – the cds are are in paper cases separated by cheap grey foam. it looks cheap and unprofessional - especially compared to Goodbye, Babylon or even Victrola Favorites. Both the box and disc covers are adorned with the artwork of Art Rosenbaum which I think is pretty hit and miss though having a large picture on the box art with a background of four colored boxes doesn’t do it any favors.
The box includes a large book that was written by Rosenbaum as well, giving an overview of his recording philosophy as well as a track-by-track analysis of each track in the set. His thoughts are clear and always interesting and are well worth the read. The music itself is well recorded and of very high quality, though now that I have eight discs of his recordings I they lack the personal touch of say Harry Smith or Lomax, or a distinct point of view of music itself something I think Old Hat does a great job of capturing. That last point is a bit nit-picky perhaps, but it’s something that I think Dust to Digital normally does a great job, and I was let down by both sets.
Of course the music itself regardless of how it’s package is still really amazing. This track by Jake Staggers is an intersting take on the standard Garfield, a song typically about the assination of president Garfield is turned into a Stagger Lee style murder ballad about a murder over some junk talk and cigars. Staggers is a pretty solid banjo player and it’s always great to hear banjo with blues music.
Daptone Records (home of the wonderful Sharon Jones, among others) head went down to Panola County, Mississippi to record local gospel singers – this record is a sampler of sorts – showcasing what he recorded and introducing some of the acts who will be releasing albums on their own later. The trip is documented here through a series of videos about each artist.
The quality over all is excellent – the arrangements are fresh and exciting and there is just no doubt the sheer power of these voices. These are my two favorites – Como Mamas ft. Mary Moore, a family group that sing with an urgency that’s not often heard in modern gospel music. M other favorite track is from the eldest members, husband and wife duo Brother and Sister Walker, on this disc and they only ones who were present during one of Lomax’s trips through their county, a trip that found Fred McDowell among others.
Even though I seem to be the only one obsessed with this song, I’m going to keep posting versions of Dying Crapshooter Blues until it becomes the “new” Stagolee. This version was recorded by John Lomax in 1940 on one of his trips to Atlanta. Blind Willie McTell is in fine form here – and he lays claim to writing this song, which is a dubious claim at best – however the lyrics and the story in this version differs significantly from the traditional takes on the song. McTell’s delivery on this song might be the best I’ve heard from him, which is saying a lot as I think he had the best delivery in pre-war blues.
“Lord, I’m Troubled About My Soul” is my favorite traditional gospel song, though it does not have a deep recorded tradition as many southern gospel songs. This version is by Lillie Knox who was recorded by John Lomax on one of his Library of Congress field recording trips through South Carolina. Lillie Knox has a incredible voice – and this track recorded acapella is one of the most moving recordings I’ve ever heard.
I have some great requests coming up on Friday, so be on the look out. Today we are still going through my backlog of field recordings I’ve been meaning to post for a few months now. These recordings come from a trip John and Ruby Lomax took the infamous Parchman State Prison in 1939. These recordings took place in the Sewing Room in the Woman’s area of the prison and all of the women Lomax would record show off an amazing talent pool that matches any of the female country blues artists on the Paramount or Columbia roster. My favorite out of the batch is Mattie May Thomas’ Dangerous Blues, an extremely insightful look at the duality of poverty and violence and the status of black females in the pre-war era.
Today we are featuring a couple of tracks recorded in 1936 by John Lomax at the Richmond Penitentiary. The first track is Clifton Wright who has an sweet, sweet voice and can get up and hit those high and lonesome notes with ease. I can’t help but think that he would have recorded some amazing numbers if he was able to get into a studio. Next is Joe Lee who accompanies himself with foottapping and banging on a body of guitar – he is another great talent that wasn’t able to flourish because of of his situation.
Clifton Wright – Everywhere I Look This Morning (1936) Joe Lee – Jesus Made Me Just What I Am (1936)
In 1935 Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston took a trip to Hurston’s home town of Eatonville, Florida and recorded a handful of local blues singers for the Library Of Congress. My favorite of these recordings is a wonderful number by Rochelle French on guitar and vocals singing Po’ Boy. He’s an stellar guitar player and has a really strong blues voice. Someone should have thrown him a record deal. Rochelle French – Po’ Boy, Long Ways From Home (1935)
As requested, Jack Owens was one of the last links to pre-war blues music this country had left when he passed in 1997. A bother-in-law for a time to Skip James, his music came from the same place, it was darkly meditative, though Owens wasn’t as skilled as James. This track features Bud Spires on harmonica and was recorded by Alan Lomax in the mid 60s.
Rob Hutton of Long Sought Home(which unfortunately has closed down, though he is preparing his next venture) has a great piece about Owens here.
I’ve noticed the wonderful influx of readers from metafilter and related sites today, I hope ya’ll enjoy the site – and add it to all of your favorite web 2.0 reading lists. RSS feeds are here.
Alan Lomax recorded Sampson Pittman in 1938 on one of his field recording trips to Detroit, Michigan, a trip that also produced Calvin Frazier. Pittman wasn’t from Michigan, but Arkansas which is referenced often in his songs, but also in his country and delta influenced guitar playing. Pittman’s voice in incredible, both in his power and clarity, which is a real rarity when listening to blues musicians of his age. His only recorded songs are from these Lomax recordings which were collected as “Devil Is Busy” which is far out of print now. They can found on the questionably titled ” Detroit Blues: Blues from the Motor City 1938-1954.”
I hope everyone had a good Memorial Day weekend, I did and didn’t get around to doing much more than uploading the stagolee files. I’m working on the page today, but realistically it won’t be up until Thursday.
I don’t know a lot about Mattie May Thomas, as I have a promo cutout of the album this is pull from, but she has a great voice and loads of charisma. You can hear Alan Lomax talking to her before the song, so he recorded her on one his recording trips in 1939. Mattie May Thomas – Dangerous Blues