Reviews

Georgie Price

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CD: DANCING THE DEVIL AWAY: Hot Dance Music on Edison Diamond Discs, 1923 - 1928. 21 tracks.  Rivermont BSW-1166.  www.rivermontrecords.com

As VJM’s editor, Mark Berresford, points out in his excellent and very detailed liner notes, Thomas A Edison ruled his recording division with a rod of iron and an increasingly deaf ear (literally) to the technical advances taking place in the recording industry as the 1920s rolled by. He believed – erroneously, and his deafness cannot have helped in this respect - that his acoustic recording method perfectly reproduced the original sound and it took a good two years of lobbying by his studio personnel to persuade him, and his sons, that their rivals were beating the business daylights out of them with their electric recording process. Edison didn’t finally equip his studios with microphones until mid-1927. On the other hand, the boss was quite correct in his assertion that his vertical-cut (‘hill and dale’) recording system was superior to the lateral (needle) cut process the rest of the industry had used since 1921: it allowed a finer groove, so that a 10-inch record could provide up to five minutes’ playing time (which accounts for there only being 21 tracks on this CD!); and actual groove wear from playing the discs was reduced to a minimum. Relatively few Edison ‘Diamond Discs’ (they were played with a diamond stylus) that I have come across are ever seriously worn the way many conventional 78s are. But laterals ruled the business and even Edison’s final conversion to this system couldn’t stave off the inevitable bankruptcy that came just days before the Wall Street Crash.

 

  Another of Edison’s foibles was his insistence on personally approving all the material that was issued: he didn’t like jazz (or even what passed for jazz in the early 20s) and, after a few initial stabs at recording groups like the Louisiana Five, to compete with the success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, hot music all but vanished from the Edison catalogue until 1923. Thereafter, in spite of his personal animus and presumably bowing to changes in public taste and demand, some startlingly good bands were recorded, often under exclusive contract to the company. But there were no really big names to compete with the likes of Paul Whiteman or Ted Lewis, and although Don Voorhees, Phil Napoleon and Ernie Golden were tempted into the Edison studios (and can be heard on this CD), this did little to stem the financial losses and decline in sales that finished the company off. A lot of the jazz and hot dance output on Edison has been re-issued elsewhere, and the current compilation aims to fill in the gaps with lesser known, though by no means lesser, items.

 

  It opens with Charlie Kerr’s Orchestra. Kerr recorded a few sides for Gennett, but none of his Edisons are listed in the latest edition of Jazz Records, something that is quite inexplicable given the quality of the music on No-one Loves You Any Better Than Your M-A-Double-M-Y. Eddie Lang makes a rare appearance on banjo, driving the band along in fine style, while Leo McConville plays an excellent trumpet lead throughout. Ernest Stevens usually features in the Edison catalogue as a solo pianist or leader of a trio or quartet, but he made a few conventional-size dance band recordings, one of which was When You Walked Out Someone Else Walked Right In. The personnel on this date includes Red Nichols, Chuck Campbell on trombone and Dusty Roads (later to be a stalwart of Ted Weems’ bands) on drums. Nichols plays a good, if stylistically undistinguished solo, which is the highlight of this track. Too Tired is a tune often played hot - Jan Garber’s version for Victor is one such – and Polla’s Clover Gardens Orchestra take theirs at a similar cracking pace. There’s an interesting banjo chorus and an excellent trumpet / trombone split solo, followed by a fine ride-out with the clarinet weaving away over the ensemble. The personnel is entirely unidentified.

 

 Sam Lanin recorded for pretty well every record label in the 1920s (with the exception of Victor), and this included a few sides for Edison, most of which are quite rare, and as straight as they come. However, I Like Pie, I Like Cake is the exception to that rule, and the personnel includes Nichols and Vic d’Ippolito on cornet and trumpet, Alfie Evans on reeds and Herb Winfield, trombone, plus Tony Colucci, Joe Tarto and Vic Berton providing the rhythm. There are good solos from all three brass (with Nichols much more recognizably himself by this date, March 1925), the baritone and alto sax (probably both by Evans), trombone, banjo and piano. Mark Berresford suggests the piano may not be Bill Krenz, as listed in American Dance Bands, but perhaps Rube Bloom. I would disagree, as the left-hand does not sound to me at all like Bloom. This track is over four minutes long, and proves what good value Edison discs could be. Ernie Golden’s Hotel McAlpin Orchestra includes a solo from Red Nichols (again!), split with an unidentified baritone sax, some good banjo work and a good clarinet on Just A Little Thing Called Rhythm. Now, maybe the fact that Nichols is present on three out of these first five tracks, maybe because the Edison technicians were striving for a ‘house’ style; and maybe also because I was listening to them one after the other in a compilation, but I was struck by how very similar all these bands sound… That notwithstanding, the high quality of Edison’s acoustic system is very evident throughout these earlier tracks, but begins to decline over the next period, a fact which is remarked on in the liner notes.

 

  The two sides which follow are trumpet solos by Donald Lindley, and the recording quality here is rather indifferent. Although I have all his recordings for Edison and Columbia on my shelves, I’ve always felt that he never quite ‘hacked’ it - ‘it’ being how to play hot. The Edisons are the least jazz-oriented of the lot, partly because the drummer sounds as if he’s come straight from a rehearsal with the pit orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera! Even Arthur Schutt’s piano is curiously rigid, and Hot As A Summer’s Day is regrettably anything but. Trumpet Blues is a little better, but not much. The drummer – or even Lindley himself? – plays a Reserphone during the piano solo; it makes a curious squawking noise and was quite popular as an addition to smaller, hotter groups in the mid-20s as a novelty effect. Mark Berresford writes in the notes that he’s never seen one and wonders if anyone has a picture of one. Well, I haven’t, but I did see one in action, many years ago, in Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band, though I didn’t know at the time that’s what it was called. It has a bulb (like that on a manual blood-pressure monitor), attached to a kind of kazoo, but obviously with a less rigid diaphragm than on a standard kazoo, which makes the squawks. I imagine Harry Reser put it together in his yard shed on a wet Sunday!

 

  The technical quality, as well as the music, is thankfully rather better on the next three tracks, by the California Ramblers (here as the Golden Gate Orchestra), the music exceptionally so. Many Ramblers sides for Edison have been re-issued, but these three have, inexplicably, slipped through the net. Trumpeter Roy Johnston looses off an excellent solo on Here Comes Malinda. Bobby Davis and Abe Lincoln do likewise on alto and trombone, with a lovely bass sax interlude from Adrian Rollini; the only disappointment in this track is the turgid piano solo (by one F Fabian Storey). He is replaced on I Wonder What’s become of Joe by Jack Russin, who turns in a much better effort. This also features terrific solo work from Abe Lincoln again – showing his indebtedness to Miff Mole – and from Davis and Rollini, whose solo is quite breathtaking at the speed this number is played. When The Red, Red Robin is rarely played as hot as the Ramblers version here, with more good solos from Roy Johnston and Abe Lincoln. This tune is again taken at a very fast tempo, and it has to be said that few groups could have handled it at such a speed as well as the Ramblers.

 

  Phil Napoleon was the trumpet man on – and co-leader of – the Original Memphis Five and its assorted offshoots, but he recorded relatively little under his own name, all of which sessions bar one in 1926 - 27 were for Edison. Go, Joe, Go follows the usual tightly arranged format for this number, but Napoleon takes two good solos, with some fine violin from Harvey Hoffman. The crystal-clear Edison sound has begun to deteriorate to a much duller, boxy nasality by this time, which is a great pity as the Napoleon sides are some of the most interesting on the CD. This is especially noticeable on Tiger Rag, on which the brass bass is a mere background grunt; this track again features good solo work from Napoleon and some dexterous breaks from the trombone of Dave Harman, but is otherwise largely well executed section work. Rubber Heels and Clarinet Marmalade are both likewise played from written scores, though the former includes a cymbal solo and some fluid baritone sax, and the latter a considerable amount of driving trumpet from Napoleon, but, curiously, no significant clarinet work. Nonetheless, it pounds along in fine style. The final Napoleon track is Five Pennies and marks the first appearance of electric recording in this compilation. It’s a marked improvement on the acoustics of the last few tracks, but nothing like as good as the system already in use for more than two years by Columbia and Victor. This number is by far the best of all the Napoleon sides, with excellent solo work from the leader, Ted Raph on trombone and one of the sax players on alto.

 

  Sandwiched in between these three sessions – for the tracks on this CD are chronological – are two more dance band sides, by Don Voorhees’ Earl Carroll’s Vanities Orchestra: Muddy Water marks a return to rather better acoustic recording quality, as well as being the first track to feature a vocal, by Harold Yates.  Was this another of Edison’s dislikes – vo-do-de-o singers? Certainly, Yates would be a paradigm for that antipathy! Fortunately, Red Nichols is once again on hand to brighten up proceedings, with Dick McDonough playing some excellent guitar. The second Voorhees side is the title track of the CD: Dancing The Devil Away. The vocal this time is by a much more accomplished and rhythmic performer, Vaughn de Leath. Nichols solos straight after the vocal, as does McDonough, though, somehow, this number doesn’t swing quite as easily as Muddy Water. The leader of Al Lynn’s Music Masters was actually Al Levine, but reports at the time he signed with the Cinderella Ballroom in New York (mid-1925) suggested the management didn’t like ‘semitic names’ – rather surprising, considering that many of their clientele were Jewish! Clearly, Edison wasn’t the only man around with musical prejudices… Lynn’s recording of Symphonic Raps (electrically recorded) is by a group of unidentified musicians, well drilled and featuring a good trombone, not entirely different in style to Fred Robinson on the Carroll Dickerson recording with Louis Armstrong. Indeed this version also includes a surprisingly advanced trumpet solo, in my view the most exciting of the whole CD. One is tempted to imagine whoever it is was trying to emulate Louis – except that this recording was made three months before Armstrong’s!

 

  Another Dickerson title (though his wasn’t the only band to record it by any means) turns up next: Missouri Squabble, played by a stalwart of the Edison roster, the Duke Yellman Orchestra. The performance is strictly according to the published arrangement, but swings splendidly. Yellman’s piano solo is notable for the fact that the bass notes are particularly well recorded. It’s followed by a good trumpet solo, by an unidentified player (as are the rest of the band).

 

  The two final tracks take us back to the California Ramblers, though now billed as The McAlpineers. Rhapsody in Rhythm and Red Hot both feature much more heavily arranged section work, which leaves less room for solos. However, bass saxist Spencer Clark gets a spot, as does Pete Pumiglio on alto on the first title. This side swings nicely, but Red Hot is much more ‘spiky’ and includes a dreadful vocal from Ed Kirkeby, whose contribution to the art of singing is about as noteworthy as Donald Trump’s to Stoic philosophy. It’s saved by Pumiglio again, on alto, and Joe LaFaro on violin (who had been listening hard to Joe Venuti): both of them turn in really hot solos.

 

  The transfers on this CD are by Nick Dellow, who has done an excellent job at getting the best out of the originals. Diamond Discs are notorious, because of their ¼-inch thickness, for having bass rumble on modern playing equipment and this has been skillfully eliminated. But, of course, the other shortcomings of Edison’s recording system are largely resistant to cleaning up: the early sides, as noted, are crystal clear, but, for whatever reason, the later acoustics are much less successful, whilst the early electrics have little of the range of their better-known competitors. And, of course, they could only be played on Edison machines. Small wonder the company foundered even before the Great Depression carried off many others. Our thanks, then, to Rivermont for rescuing these rare and excellent sides from undeserved obscurity!

MAX EASTERMAN

 

BOOK: THE ORIGINAL BLUES: The Emergence of the Blues in  African American Vaudeville. By Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-4968-0511-9. 480pp, hardback, illustrated. $85.   www.upress.state.ms.us

The role of vaudeville in the genesis, development and spread of the blues has been, at best, played down by ‘folk blues’ purists or, at worst, totally disregarded. However, on the first page of the introduction these two hugely respected and erudite blues researchers and authors write:- “To assert that the blues was incubated in southern vaudeville theaters is not hyperbole.” And indeed they are right, for the freedom of a black performer to present, develop and hone material on stage to an all-black audience, free from white moral attitudes and prejudice was key to the development of this vernacular music form. True, as the authors point out, the black street singer-guitarist was a familiar figure on the streets of southern towns, but the association with begging, coupled with the fact that audiences who paid good money to be entertained in a theatre expected more than the music they could hear for free in the street, meant that the blues guitarist was virtually unheard of on the vaudeville stage.


  Those readers who are fortunate enough to already own the authors’ two previous tomes, ‘Out of Sight’ and ‘Ragged But Right’ will know of the almost manic attention to detail that they put into their work; years of combing both well-known and obscure African American newspapers, journals and magazines, slowly piecing together from these fragments a vivid picture of the incredible breadth and diversity of the world of black entertainment in the pre-1920 period. What emerges in this book is that somewhere around 1909 - but not before - the ‘blues’ as a musical form starts to enter the stage vocabulary, at least in black newspapers whilst, concurrently, the term ‘coon song’ and ‘coon shouter’ start to disappear. At the same time names start to appear in the black press that would, fourteen or fifteen years later, become synonymous with the commercialisation of the blues via records, radio and opulent  stage show appearances - Ma Rainey, Virginia Liston, Viola McCoy, Edmonia Henderson, and a bevy of Smiths - Bessie, Trixie, Clara and Laura.


  One name, however, will mean virtually nothing to present day readers but who, at the time, was the most influential populariser of the blues form and the biggest star of southern vaudeville - Butler ‘String Beans’ May. Pianist, comedian, composer and singer, String Beans, who billed himself as ‘the commander-in-chief of the real blues’, wowed southern audiences with his risque songs and ‘pianologues’ such as I’ve Got Elgin Movement In My Hips and Twenty Years Guaranteed and was a vitally important role model for a fledgling Jelly Roll Morton, who called him “the greatest comedian I ever knew.” His seemingly spontaneous act, usually with a female partner, was something completely new to northern audiences, and his first appearances in Chicago in  1911 confounded both critics and audiences alike, not least for its raw, unsophisticated humour. Unfortunately, coupled with this, he also possessed a both a volatile temper and a penchant for physically abusing both his female partners (including his wife) and other performers, which meant that his press appearances were often less than flattering. Despite an early and bizarre death, the result of injuries sustained in a lodge initiation ceremony in November 1917, his influence was longlasting - the foundation of many blues lyrics and tunes can be traced back to String Beans, including I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone, Come Out Of That Kitchen and I Loves My Man Better Than I Loves Myself, and variations of  his nickname were appropriated  by both Ethel Waters (Mama String Beans) and Joe Edwards (Butterbeans). As for the influence on Jelly Roll Morton (who tended to damn piano rivals with the faintest of praise), the authors astutely note that Jelly’s Library of Congress recordings are just one extended ‘pianologue.’

 

  Another long-forgotten but hugely influential performer was H. Franklin ‘Baby’ Seals, composer of probably the first commercially-published vocal blues song - Baby Seals Blues in 1912. An enduring song, it appears later as Sing ‘Em Blues by Charles Anderson and Mamma Doo She Blues by Ida Cox and the phrase  ‘double do love you’ which appears in his song pops up regularly in blues recordings throughout the 1920s and ‘30s and well into the 1950s.

 

  Other male blues singers such as Charles Anderson, Willie Too Sweet and Tom Young are covered, the authors noting that the preponderance of untimely deaths among male blues singers on the southern vaudeville stage meant that few of them got to record and that, if blues recording had started ten years earlier, the male-female balance of vaudeville blues recording performers would have been more even. As it was, the early years of blues recording was dominated by female singers, and many of the best-known had deep roots in southern vaudeville, so the chapter devoted to them is one of the longest and most interesting in the book. Ma Rainey, of course, dominates, tracing her career from a ‘coon shouter’ singing ragtime songs from the pens of black composers such as  Joe Jordan, Chris Smith and Shelton Brooks, as well as songs by the likes of Tin Pan Alley men Irving Berlin, Henry Lodge and George Botsford, to fully-fledged ‘Mother of the Blues’. En route we pick up the earliest reports of her protege, Bessie Smith, in 1910, her split from the Rainey’s act and subsequent teaming up with singer/dancer Wayne ‘Buzzin’ Burton (including the earliest known photo of Bessie, together with Buzzin’ Burton from 1912).


  Three other notable singers with careers reaching back to before 1911 are covered in great detail - Virginia Liston, Laura Smith and Trixie Smith. Liston’s memorable 1926 version of Titanic Blues was not something out of her latest repertoire - the authors note that she had been singing it on stage as early as May 1913! Laura and Trixie Smith are particularly interesting in that both broke a convention of the time by working in blackface - de rigueur for black male stage performers, even the great Bert Williams,  but very unusual for black females. Both singers had distinctive voices and styles that were well-recorded in the acoustic era, and a 1924 OKeh advert, reproduced in the book, still shows Laura Smith in blackface.

 

  Our perception of the formative years of southern vaudeville blues is skewed by who managed to live long enough to record; besides String Beans May and Baby Seals, one of the most feted female singers of the time, Ora Criswell, was dead by 1917, and another, Estelle Harris, never got to record; the authors speculate that she may just be ‘Sister’ Harris who recorded for Pathe in 1923, but that theory has been conclusively debunked in the latest issue of Names and Numbers magazine.

 

  The complex world of black vaudeville circuits, largely (but not exclusively) controlled by white theatre and saloon owners is also covered in great detail; from Fred Barrasso’s Tri-State Circuit in 1910, through the much-feared Charles P. Bailey and his 81 Theater in Atlanta (read Ethel Waters’ His Eye Is On the Sparrow for more on the deeply unpleasant Bailey), to the virtual ‘nationalisation’ of black vaudeville circuits into the Theater Owners Booking Association in 1921.

 

  The final chapter examines the commercialisation of the blues in the 1920s, via records, radio, stage shows and the much misunderstood phenomenon of burlesque, the earthier, racier brother of vaudeville, but home to important performers such as Gonzell White and her young pianist, William ‘Count’ Basie.

 

  This is an astonishingly well-researched and carefully-crafted book, with engaging and eloquent commentary by the authors which deciphers and builds upon the contemporary reportage. As might be expected from this publisher, production values are first class and, whilst $85 is a fair chunk of money to spend on a book, its worth as a vehicle to explain the earliest days of the blues as a performing art form can  be reckoned beyond monetary terms.

 

  A fascinating and essential read.

MARK BERRESFORD

 

BOOK: THE FROG BLUES & JAZZ ANNUAL #5: THE MUSICIANS, the Records & the Music of the 78 Era. 216 pp, softbound, illustrated,  with accompanying CD. Edited by Paul Swinton. Frog Records, Ltd. The Paddock, Waverley Avenue, Fleet, Hampshire, GU51 4NW, England. ISBN 978-0956471741. £32. www.frog-records.co.uk

The Fifth Edition of the Frog Blues & Jazz Annual is the fattest yet, or perhaps tres gras, in view of the amazing photos of New Orleans musicians tucked inside the front cover.

 

  The first photo, enlarged as a double-sized “gate fold” is of the E.R.A Band taken in early 1935 and including a who’s who of Crescent City musicians; the Morgan family, Louis Dumaine, Frankie Dusen, Louis Keppard and more than 40 others. The photo has been restored to stunning clarity. On the opposite side of this photo is the New Orleans WPA Band from 1936 which included Albert Glenny, Cie Frazier, Kid Shots Madison and the Humphrey Brothers. And all this is before we get into the issue itself.

 

  Continuing the New Orleans theme, David Butters’ article on the ill-fated cornettist Emmett Hardy is perhaps the most extensive piece ever devoted to this musician. Hardy, who died before he could get to a recording studio, is said to be an early influence on Bix Beiderbecke, traveled with shimmy queen Bee Palmer (along with Leon Roppolo) where they stopped in Davenport Iowa, then returning to New Orleans to play in Norman Brownlee’s orchestra. Brownlee encountered Fate Marable’s band at a dance on a riverboat and Hardy and Marable’s star cornettist, Louis Armstrong reportedly dueled (or not—because Louis said he didn’t remember the encounter). Legends aside, the article fills in much information on his family and offers rarely-seen photos.

 

  The same author offers a vivid and detailed portrait of another New Orleans legend who died before he could ever make records: Tony Jackson. Jackson, of course is well-known from Jelly Roll Morton’s descriptions of him on his Library of Congress recordings – the only pianist who intimidated Mr Jelly, and the fact that he had the “femininity stamp…” Beyond Morton, Jackson was best known as a songwriter, author of the now standard, Pretty Baby and Some Sweet Day, which enjoyed some popularity among jazz musicians.

 

  As with Hardy, Butters (who titled his article “He Knew a Thousand Songs”) goes deeply into his background and offers many details into Jackson’s life, his travels, playing engagements and the eleven songs that he published in his brief life.

 

  And north of New Orleans is Cajun country. For author Wade Falcon this extensive article was a pure labor of love: he is descended from Joe and Cleoma (Breaux) Falcon, who made the first Cajun recordings in 1928. Falcon documents his family history, offering personal photographs and how they got on to record. A Rayne, Louisiana jewelry store owner named George Ber accompanied Joe and Cleoma to the Columbia field unit in New Orleans and agreed to buy 500 copies of their disc if they could be permitted to record.  The author, also traces the history of their repertoire from traditional ballads and dance tunes. (He also maintains the earlycajunmusic.blogspot.com website where he discusses Cajun artists and tunes from the 78 era).  Like Hardy and Jackson, Cleoma’s life ended all too briefly in a 1940 freak accident in New York.

 

  Elsewhere, the Annual includes both parts of a two-part interview  (see final paragraph on why the two parts were published in the same issue) with blues musician Son House by historian David Evans. While the information has been summarized in articles and books since, this is the first time since 1964 the interview has been published in its entirety.

 

  The Frog producer/editor Paul Swinton gives us a long piece on the popular blues duet Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, continuing Scrapper’s story into the LP era, while researcher Bob Groom, details the history of the well-recorded blues song first known as Kokomo Blues  then recorded by Robert Johnson as Sweet Home Chicago which thrust it into the modern blues and rock world – even President Obama sang it during a 2012 White House concert.

 

  Being from Philadelphia and a friend of the late Charlie Gaines, I have to salute Richard Rains’ article on the trumpeter’s 1926 recordings. This article, with beautifully-reproduced and rarely-seen photos, is an evolution of the ‘Big Charlie Thomas’ piece that the author wrote for the Frog Blues & Jazz Annual Vol. 1 under that title. ‘Big Charlie Thomas’ was a man who may or may not have existed but John R.T. Davies used the name (based on Eva Taylor’s recollections) to ascribe to a group of mid-1920s recordings whose trumpet work has never been fully ascribed to an identifiable musician. Charlie Gaines had a number of cancelled checks and statements from Clarence Williams to prove his presence on a number of sessions in 1925-6.  Here, Rains lists a number of recordings made that year and details why he believes Gaines is present on them.

 

The Frog Blues & Jazz Annual also includes articles on McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Oscar “Buddy” Woods, Earl McDonald’s Jug Bands, Boyd Atkins, Roosevelt Sykes and hundreds of beautifully-reproduced photographs, advertisements and memorabilia from the 1920s.

 

  The editor Paul Swinton wrote at the beginning of this edition that this would be the final one (hence both parts of the Son House interview in the same issue) but he has decided to give it one more go – so we will see issue #6 next year. And that’s a great thing.

RUSS SHOR

 

BOOK: FINDING BIX - THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF A JAZZ LEGEND. By Brendan Wolfe, University Of Iowa Press, USA. 241 pp, hardback and paperback, illustrated, ISBN 978-1-60938-506-4. Available from Amazon and other retailers and bookstores. www.uipress.uiowa.edu

The ravages of alcoholism may have silenced Bix Beiderbecke in 1931, aged just 28, but ‘Bix lives’ if the T-shirts and other paraphernalia are to be believed. Certainly, Bix lives through the recordings he made during his short career, with a bell-like tone sounding beautiful notes that hold an appeal that is both visceral and cerebral. And Bix’s image in photographs stares back at us with all the youthful exuberance, hope and intensity that time would otherwise rob.

 

  Bix’s solo on the seminal 1927 OKeh recording of Singin’ The Blues is rightly regarded as the epitome of his musical accomplishments and a pivotal point in the development of the jazz solo. This and other solos by Bix transcend the ephemeral nature of their settings and elevate him above his contemporaries. But Bix’s rise to such creative heights was only as meteoric as his fall was precipitous, leaving little else but a legacy of recordings by which we now judge him. How could such beauty come from one man’s fertile imagination in so short a period of time? Such questions inevitably draw us towards Bix’s pitifully short life story.

 

 Brendan Wolfe - like Bix, a son of Davenport - set himself an unenviable task in deciphering the iconography surrounding the legend and uncovering that which has been enveloped by mythology, idolatry and enigma. With so many anecdotes about Bix distorted through elaboration and dramatization over the years, Bix’s life story is open to much interpretation, and untangling the facts from the fiction is no mean feat. In attempting to do so, the book re-examines the thoughts and conclusions of previous biographers and essayists, as well musicians who knew him and others termed “Bixophiles”. It is also partly autobiographic, with Wolfe delineating his own feelings about Bix; in fact, there is a little too much of the autobiographical for my taste. It should be noted that “Finding Bix” rarely discusses musical aspects, and Bix’s recordings are only mentioned in passing.

 

  Bix is certainly a taciturn subject, enigmatically balanced between a coy, reticent nature and the ability to express himself through music. Many of the musicians who worked with Bix had relatively little to say about him, apart from the obvious facts that he loved music and that he drank too much. Even his own piano compositions seem to reflect the sibylline side of his character, with titles such as In A Mist, Candlelights and In The Dark, while his cornet solos vacillate between hot and ‘cool’, between emotional emancipation and holding feelings in reserve.

 

  Finding clues that help explain why Bix destroyed his career and ultimately himself through alcoholism has been a frustrating and ultimately fruitless task for biographers, commentators and jazz historians. Bix’s downfall and early demise is as compelling as a Greek tragedy, and most writers have been tempted to romanticise along these lines, often depicting Bix as an artist driven to drink and an early grave through a combination of vulnerability and artistic subjugation.

 

  Though “Finding Bix” explores the myths that have been a feature of tomes and essays on Davenport’s most famous son, in doing so it often generates its own hyperbole. Wolfe himself readily admits that Bix “suited the Romantic in me” and comes closer to the truth than he probably realises when he states that Bix the icon is an “empty vessel” to which we ascribe many of our own thoughts and feelings.

 

  Wolfe admires Bix’s music but is no Bixophile, stating several years ago, when he began writing the book “Bix is not my hero, he’s my cause”. Reading “Finding Bix”, I found myself wondering if he meant “cause célèbre”, for he devotes much space to examining aspects of Bix’s life that have often been obscured by those with partisan intent, keen that their hero’s reputation is not defiled. Unburdened by the desire to expurgate, Wolfe is free to explore the validity or otherwise of each and every unmentionable, from the love that at one time dared not speak its name to an alleged abortion. Wolfe avoids hagiography at all times but neither is he a heretic, though his search for what motivated Bix to take the path he ultimately did proves to be an unproductive one. As the author himself states “The closer I got to Bix, or at least someone I thought might be Bix, the more he retreated.”

 

  One particular incident in Bix’s life that was not generally known about until relatively recently occurred in May 1921, when the 18 year-old Beiderbecke was arrested on a charge of “lewd and lascivious behaviour with a five year old child” named Sarah Ivens. The case never went to court - for good reason, in my estimation - but it has been suggested that the arrest had a profound effect on Bix’s life and may have ultimately led to his heavy drinking. Wolfe conjectures upon whether the incident provides an adequate explanation for Bix’s rapid descent into oblivion, but while it is tempting to link the incident to his alcoholism, using it to explain Bix’s downfall seems rather too simplistic and convenient to me.

 

  The author occasionally weaves together fallacious stories that cross the boundary into the conspiratorial, for example placing Bix and the Berton brothers Ralph and Gene at a drag party with Bix himself in female attire, suggesting that it is “worth emphasizing this idea of incongruity”. One might retort that it would be worthwhile emphasizing the known facts. Alas, it is becoming increasingly popular in biographies and similar works to grind an angle rather than dovetail facts.

 

  The book has a “coffee table” feel to it, in so far as its 48 “chapters” (some occupying less than half a page) can be read in isolation from one another. This pick-and-mix, dip-in-when-you-like style is no doubt popular in hipster cafés and boutiques but in my home town it is best suited to dentists’ receptions and doctors’ waiting rooms. The text itself traverses the part-biographic and part-autobiographic narrative using a wistful, evocative approach. It often reminds me of Hoagy Carmichael’s ramblings down his own “Stardust Road”. There is much use of the metaphorical, for instance “In some ways, Bix was a two-headed creature from Venus, disappearing into his music the way he did.” Well, that’s certainly news to me!


  Another reviewer noted that in some respects the book is not really about Bix, since the ideas it contains - identity, fame, originality, addiction, obsession and truth - are universal. Certainly, the book does its job in contextualising these aspects within the wider remit of how society views its fallen heroes, but its author sometimes loses sight of the fact that his book is meant to focus on “finding” Bix. In fact, Wolfe writes about the mythology surrounding Bix far more often than he demystifies it. Then again, isn’t it simply the case that legends survive for the very reason that they are cloaked in mystery? If “Bix Lives” it is because he is permanently shrouded in a mist.

NICK DELLOW

 

2 CD SET: Lightnin’ Hopkins : Four Classic Albums (Second Set): “Lightnin’ Hopkins Sings The Blues”, “Lightnin’ Hopkins”, “Blues In My Bottle”, “Walkin’ This Road By Myself”. Avid AMSC1254.  www.avidgroup.co.uk

This CD gathers together the following albums: Imperial 9186 (1962), Folkways FS 3822 (1959), Bluesville LP 1045 (1962) and  Bluesville LP 1057(1962). Well remastered by Nick Dellow and complete with the original sleeve notes, these albums highlight the moment when Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, the king of Houston’s Dowling Street, ceased to be exclusively a blues singer (and juke box star) performing for African-American audiences, and became a giant figure in the “folk-blues revival” of the 1960s, a cultural moment in which an African-American idiom became an international musical language.

 

  The Imperial LP (“Lightnin’ Hopkins Sings the Blues”) perfectly illustrates the point. It is a collection of some of Hopkins’ first sides recorded for the Aladdin label between 1946 and 1948. These were the records that made Hopkins a star in Texas and on the West Coast, and via the radio and Juke boxes, in other parts of black America. Aladdin was sold to Imperial in 1961, and they quickly repackaged these sides for a new and emerging ( and largely white) “folk-blues” audience which had become aware of Hopkins through his “rediscovery” in 1959 by Mack McCormick and Samuel Charters: an event which resulted in one of seminal albums of the blues revival - the marvellous, eponymous “Lightnin’ Hopkins” on Folkways.

 

  Vital and exciting, the Aladdin sides captured an artist at the height of his expressive powers (Hopkins was thirty-five years old when he first recorded). The emotional intensity, the subtle interplay of voice and guitar which marked slow blues like Fast Mail Rambler and its flip side Thinking and Worrying was one performance mode - then and to the end of his career. The other was his (and his bar-room patrons’) taste for vibrant dance pieces like the brilliant Sis Boogie and the mildly salacious and amusing Let Me Play With Your Poodle which  features the fine playing of his erstwhile recording partner, the pianist Wilson “Thunder“ Smith. Lightnin’s hollering vocal on, for example, Morning Blues recalls earlier Texas singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander both of whom Hopkins knew (Alexander was, apparently, his cousin). In some ways Hopkins did represent the end of a tradition as Sam Charters argued in the last chapter of his ground breaking book “The Country Blues”. By 1959, when Charters recorded him for Folkways, Hopkins had been dropped by Aladdin (and Gold Star, RPM and Herald) as down-home blues gave way to more lucrative R&B and Rock and Roll styles.

 

  The Folkways album was and remains a favourite record. Perhaps and in part, that’s due to the effect of Charters’ “romantic” account (found in the notes reprinted here) of looking for Hopkins and of the recording session that followed. The images remain vivid nearly fifty years on: Charters searching the Houston ghetto asking for Hopkins, Hopkins in a car “finding” Charters at the traffic lights; them going to the pawn shop to retrieve one of Lightnin’ s guitars (Sam Hopkins wants his electric but Sam Charters insists on the acoustic!). Then the session itself, in Hopkins’ apartment, with Charters holding the microphone, operating the tape     recorder, and asking questions that take Hopkins back, both in his spoken “Reminiscences of Blind Lemon” and in his compelling version (Penitentiary Blues) of an old Texas theme evoking the Big Brazos river bottom “in 1910/ When Bud Russell drove pretty women like he did ugly men.” It’s a great performance, as is Bad Luck and Trouble and Goin’ Back to Florida.  Some of these recordings reprise Hopkins’ earlier repertoire: he recorded Blind Lemon’s See That My Grave Is Kept Clean as One Kind Favor on RPM 359.Others, such as Fan It, is typical of the boogies Hopkins played as his patrons danced in the bars of Dowling Street.

 

  The Folkways LP opened a new chapter in Hopkins’ career. From then on, even as he still played the bars of Houston’s Third Ward, he became a star of the 1960s folk-blues revival which took him to coffee houses on the East Coast, the Newport Folk Festival and, in 1964, Europe.  It also resulted in Mack McCormick negotiating for him, in 1961, a ten-album contract with Prestige Bluesville records. To my mind, Blues in My Bottle is consistently the best of these albums. Recorded in one session, Lightnin’ covered  Sticks McGhee’s big 1949 R&B hit Wine Spodee-O Dee but adapted it to his moment, name checking both his mistress and Mack McCormick  as he sang, “Nette let’s get together, Mack, and  bring a bottle of wine“.  It was preceded by Buddy Brown Blues an intense reading of Texas Alexander’s 98 Degree Blues from 1928. Other “covers” include Catfish Blues which he seems to have adapted from Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ Stone and Blues in My Bottle which looks back to another extraordinary Texas musician, Prince Albert Hunt. 

 

  Hopkins’ ability to improvise songs and adapt material (making them local and immediate) was an important factor in his success. Thus, the autobiographical song DC-7  expresses his well-known fear of flying and  the rhymed “monologue” Beans, Beans, Beans evokes his home town Centreville and “working on the railroad.”  Happy Blues for John Glenn, one of the notable tracks on Walkin’ This Road by Myself, is a telling example of his improvisational skills: on the day of recording, he extemporised this account of the astronaut’s return to earth from a newspaper report. Very often, we hear in these improvisations (and interpretations) the interaction between tradition and individual talent as he claims as his own, Joe Pullum’s Black Gal and Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Girl. Among the interesting recordings here are those that unite Hopkins with musical friends such as Spider Kirkpatrick, his regular drummer, the harmonica player Billy Bizor, and pianist Buster Pickens who had played on Texas Alexander’s only post-war recording. Together, they summon up the bar room atmosphere of Hopkins gigs in Houston on tracks like Worried Life Blues (Big Maceo’s song) whilst others such as The Devil Jumped The Black Man reach back into African-American folk traditions and the roots of his music.

 

  Lightnin’ Hopkins was a great artist and this bargain compilation shows you why. Warmly recommended.

HENRY THOMAS

 

BOOK: Boom’s Blues: Music, Journalism And  Friendship In Wartime. By Wim Verbei  (translated by Scott Rollins). University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-4968-1002-1. 352pp, hardback, illustrated. $75.  www.upress.state.ms.us

Like Wim Verbei, I first heard of Frank Boom, the subject of this book, when in 1971 his study of the blues, entitled “Laughing to Keep from Crying”, was advertised as “forthcoming” in the Blues paperback series that Paul Oliver edited for Studio Vista.  The book never appeared. Twenty years later, it was the subject of a short article by Tony Russell in a series about unpublished and “lost” blues research (Juke Blues. No 25, Spring 1992). I never gave it another thought, but Wim Verbei did and the result is the book, in effect “two books”, under review. Published here for the first time in English is Boom’s pioneering study of the blues under its original title, “The Blues: Satirical Songs of the North American Negro”, plus Verbei’s  fascinating account of how that book came to written in the German–occupied Netherlands during World War Two.

 

  J. Frank G. Boom (1920-1953), the scion of a well-to-do Amsterdam family, was a student of art history and, after the war, a diplomat, who shared his fascination with the blues (and jazz) with a socially-varied group of other enthusiasts. The most important of these was Will Gilbert - jazz/ dance band leader, “ethnomusicologist”, music journalist and, after the German occupation of The Netherlands, official of the Department of Public and Arts (DVK). The Department’s music section, for which Gilbert worked, was responsible for licensing working musicians and enacting Nazi “cultural /racial” policies with regard to musical life in occupied Holland.

 

  In this official capacity, Will Gilbert, on the one hand, tried to protect the working rights of dance and jazz band musicians (often his former musical colleagues)  whilst at the same time, writing and defending the definitions of “entartete” (degenerate) music, especially the “Negroid and Negritic” elements in popular music, which led to jazz being outlawed. In the light of this, ironically, Gilbert was the chief mentor of Boon’s blues studies, and indeed worked with him with a view to a joint book publication.  Immediately after the war, the “contradictions” or “ambiguity” of Gilbert’s erstwhile position was central to what Verbei calls a “black and white” view of Gilbert’s “collaboration”.  “Collaboration” was an explosive term in all countries that had been occupied by the Germans and Gilbert was caught up in that aftermath and so was Frank Boom’s blues manuscript. Despite the fact that in 1947 Gilbert was officially cleared of committing “any criminal act”, Boom’s family, especially his mother, who had provided financial assistance to the often hard-up Gilbert and had also helped Jewish families (for which she was imprisoned), didn’t want him associated with her son’s book, especially after Boom’s early death in his first diplomatic posting to Jakarta in 1953.

 

  The focus of Boom’s work was the lyrics of the records he had access to.  He proposed that “blues songs are satirical by their nature and origin“ and employed a statistical method (as opposed to what he called “romantic hot air”) in analysing 346 records from his own and other people’s collections in order to demonstrate the “scientific” basis of this claim. He concluded that, formally, the vast majority of blues have an AAB rhyme pattern; that the blues emerged after the Civil War as a response to both share-cropping and greater African-American geographical and social mobility; that the blues was first performed by women, and that irony is central to its meaning. For Boom, the function of the blues was psychological – releasing tensions – and the AAB rhyme  gave formal expression to the ”recurring possibility of tension and release.” Repetition of the first line and postponement of the conclusion until the third and last line of the stanza made the a-a-b form best suited to the meditative character of the blues.”  What precisely those” tensions” are is a moot point in the book, but Boom’s powerful sense that blues was more than entertainment, that it touched upon the social and psychological substance of African-American lives was prescient.  Within his statistical and formalist analysis, he catalogued key themes such as love and sex (rather timidly!), rambling, the supernatural, death, crime and animal imagery as well as the blues “personified.”  In so doing, he prefigured Paul Oliver’s “Blues Fell This Morning” (1960) the classic exploration of the “blues as meaning.”

 

  Apart from encouragement, Will Gilbert’s contribution to Boon’s study was to provide musicological analysis, and social and ethnographic context for Boom’s transcriptions. The results were sometimes enlightening but often the ethno-anthropological assumptions (about African retentions in the blues, for example) led to fanciful interpretations of songs. Thus, in a discussion of snake imagery in the blues, there’s much speculation about possession by snake gods (as in Haiti) but little comment on the fairly obvious phallic symbolism of Victoria Spivey’s Black Snake Swing. Nonetheless, this was ground-breaking work, conducted in often testing circumstances and without access to almost the whole of recorded blues and jazz (and gospel, country and Cajun et al) history that is available to us today.

  If some of Boom’s conclusions (such as, New Orleans was the birth place of the blues, or that the early dominance of women singers on record is evidence that they first sang the blues), are not tenable, it is also clear that he applied to his limited sample of records both imaginative empathy and a probing curiosity. He speculates about “the influence of radio and phonograph records” on the blues he hears; he wonders about “regional differences” (and intriguingly refers to “Cajun blues” which he’s not heard!); he’s conscious of the role that “floating verses” play in blues tradition, and of the importance of the formulaic line – he cites and comments on no less than fifty four variants of the “Woke Up this Morning” phrase.  Tentatively, he seeks to distinguish between and explore the interplay of what he calls “Broadway” blues (i.e. the kind of popular blues compositions published as sheet music and performed on the vaudeville stage) and traditional, folk blues.  But central to his argument is the conviction that “irony and self –irony “ - “laughing to keep from crying “ – is fundamental  to the social and psychological function of the music:  “Humour is the escape valve of the oppressed, and brings relief if a person is put under pressure both from the outside and within… This liberating laughter is not incompatible with the often melancholy character of the blues since the mood of the blues is mostly sad and they can move a person just as easily to laugh or to cry.”   

 

  Boom’s text is not an always an easy read, but it is now, seventy years on, still often a stimulating one. Verbei’s carefully-researched and sympathetic account of the lives of Frank Boon and Will Gilbert is also thought-provoking.  Boon emerges as a very intelligent, high minded, rather fastidious man whose opposition to the Nazi new order in Holland is clear: both his parents were arrested at various times and finally, like his mother, he went into hiding. Gilbert is more opaque. He’s a “pragmatist”, with a wife and children, who always needed to make a living – “the struggle for life simply takes up my time”, he writes to Boom.  What Boom thought of Gilbert’s work on “degenerate” art for the DVK is unknown; it is never mentioned in their surviving correspondence. Did his preoccupation with the blues blind him to the political and social realities in occupied Holland -difficult to believe, given his mother’s activities - or was it that those “realities” were only fully grasped (and perhaps comprehended) after the war ended. In any event, I’m glad, at last, to have read Frank Boom’s book and grateful to Wim Verbei not only for recovering the lost manuscript, but also for setting it in its rather extraordinary context.  At $75 it is not cheap but, nevertheless, highly recommended!

HENRY THOMAS


  

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