Monday, July 27, 2009

Faith, Meaning, and Evidence

It's probably a mistake to post this one. Although it's a long post, it's too short for me to fully explain what I'm trying to say. It used to be even longer, but I cut a bunch of it out. What I've left will probably offend some people or have people telling me I'm going to hell. (Like I don't already know that!) But here it is, anyway:

Every summer I take a couple of days and head east of my home in Atlanta, out Interstate 20. I stop in Columbia, South Carolina, and spend a couple of hours in Papa Jazz, one of my favorite record stores - I always find some great stuff there. From there I head 70 miles northwest to Ora, the little town where my grandfather was born. Ora is hardly a town out all; there is a church, with its old cemetery, an abandoned school, and a few houses - that's about it. Visiting Ora gives me a strange sense of belonging, even though I have never lived there. My grandparents, their parents, and their parents are buried there, and my sister and I scattered some of my mom's ashes there when she died. Visiting this homeplace where I never lived is oddly comforting.

This year I took a detour on the way to Columbia, and visited two spots which seem related to each other somehow. I drove south of Madison, Georgia and visited Rock Eagle, a large, bird-shaped rock mound built somewhere between 1000 and 3000 years ago. There is now an observation tower at the foot of the mound; as you climb, you see the eagle slowly emerge from what just looks like a pile of rocks at ground level. Since history belongs to the winners, the purpose and meaning of the monument haven't survived. But it's likely that it had some religious meaning. It's moving to see this artifact built by unknown people so long ago.

From Rock Eagle I continued south on US 441 until I reached Andalusia, the farm home of Flannery O'Connor, the brilliant Georgia writer who died of lupus in 1964. I have read O'Connor's short stories and novels since I was about 15. Her work is strange and familiar at the same time; I "recognized" many of the characters right away, but her stories are filled with violence and bizarre twists. It took me several years to realize that her work was inspired by her Catholic faith.

Visiting Andalusia was, again, very moving. Since I have read and reread all of O'Connor's fiction, the place seemed somehow familiar and brought certain scenes from her work more into focus. Andalusia was a dairy farm, and peering in the locked, disused milk processing shed, I could almost see Asbury smoking over the objections of the hired hands: "She don't 'low no smoking in here." The tenant farmers' house, which had been the original plantation house in the 19th century, was obviously the home of the Shortleys and all the other hired hands in O'Connor's stories. It was an amazing visit.

Rock Eagle and Andalusia, only about 30 miles apart, seemed connected by mankind's longing to make sense of the universe - a quest that has so often come to rest in religion. Religion has resulted in so many wonderful creations, such as the Rock Eagle mound and the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, but it seems clear to me that religion is a result of man's attempts to impose order on the universe, not any god's revelation to man.

I'm a proponent of David Hume's dictum, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." If you want me to believe that I have an eternal soul which will live forever, you'd better have some pretty strong evidence, since that's contrary to what is suggested by even a casual examination of the world. And you can tell me that God will either reward me or torture me forever after I die, but it's going to take more than the fact that you were taught that from childhood to convince me.

I don't think that it's an accident that every religion I've examined puts a lot of emphasis on faith. From what I gather, most people consider faith a good thing; I guess my attitude is not as positive - to me, a concise definition of faith is "believing in that for which there is no evidence." The problem with that is that if you choose to believe something with no evidence, you might as well believe anything. You could choose to believe that a god wants you to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor or that a god wants you to kill those who follow another religion.

So what do I believe? All the evidence seems to lead to the conclusion that we a short life on earth - and then it's over. I half-jokingly tell people that my basic philosophy comes from the prophet Louis Jordan: "Hey everybody, let's have some fun; 'cause you only live once, and when you're dead, you're done. So let the good times roll!" (Seriously, I don't live [or recommend] the kind of hedonist life that line seems to recommend if you take it at face value. Without moderation, life gets out of balance pretty quickly, and just gets even shorter. But it's a great line!)

I'm not a particularly profound thinker, but here's what I think about the meaning of life: life has no intrinsic meaning. We just are. That doesn't mean that my life or your life can't have meaning. It's just not automatically there, and it's not imposed from outside. The meaning of your life is whatever you decide it is. And for a lot of people, that's religion. And that's okay with me - just don't expect me to take your religion seriously as "truth" or as what my life should mean.

As to what my life means, well, that's where my own irrational faith comes in. I have far too much faith in the strange power of the organized vibration of air molecules. Like Charlie Parker, I'm a devout musician. Those vibrating air molecules have anchored my life for years. There are other anchors, but I won't get into that here.

Okay, that's enough of my half-baked philosophy. Back to regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Original Memphis Five

Since I've gotten back into 78s, I have "adopted" the Original Memphis Five. Trumpeter Phil Napoleon's early-1920's jazz band was not particularly original, and none of them were Southerners, but there were five of them. One out of three ain't bad.

Okay, I couldn't resist parsing their name, but I don't mean to be derogatory - I like the OM5 a lot. No, they weren't ground-breaking or original, but they were consistently good - more consistent, in my opinion, than some more talented bands of the time, like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. No, they never reached the heights of the NORK's best work, but they deserve to be remembered more than they have been.

From a 78 RPM record collector's standpoint, being an Original Memphis Five fan works out pretty well. They recorded a lot - way more the the Rhythm Kings or King Oliver's band. And their records are not in high demand by collectors, which means that I can get an excellent 78 by the OM5 for two or three bucks rather than the 50, 100, or more dollars a pristine original issue by Oliver's Creole Jazz Band or the NORK would set me back.

That wouldn't make any difference if the music wasn't worth tracking down, but the Original Memphis Five was a really good band. They started recording in 1922, a year before Oliver, and continued in more or less their original formation until 1925. Besides Napoleon, the band included Frank Signorelli on piano, drummer Jack Roth, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, and alternating trombonists Miff Mole and Charlie Panelli. The band carefully worked out their tunes and came to the studio prepared, but they swung harder than their obvious model, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and seem to have used more real improvisation than the ODJB. The OM5 concentrated on the pop tunes of the day, rather than jazz specialties, although they did record some originals. The emphasis on pop tunes was deliberate, according to Napoleon, and allowed them to reach a wide audience without sacrificing the quality of the music; they "jazzed" the pop tunes pretty hard. The Memphis Five's music was only weakened when vaudeville vocalists like Billy Jones were added to the band.

At least four members of the band were outstanding talents. Napoleon's trumpet lead was a little stiff on the 1922 recordings I've heard, but it had loosened up nicely by the middle of 1923. His first-choice trombonist, Miff Mole, was simply the first great trombone soloist of jazz. His real maturity came later in the decade, but he is excellent on the OM5 records, playing interesting, wide-ranging lines. Since he got busier and busier doing studio work as the decade wore on, he was often replaced by Panelli, who was not in the same league. Frank Signorelli's piano pretty much was the rhythm section, since most of whatever Jack Roth was doing didn't make onto the records. Signorelli's accompaniments are solid and full-sounding, and his solos are impressive. But the real surprise of the band, to me, anyway, was Jimmy Lytell. As I explored the band's work, I had the growing realization that Lytell is one of the unsung heroes of the early jazz clarinet. As early as 1922 or 1923 he had developed an original sound and style. I assume that he was somewhat influenced by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's Larry Shields, but he doesn't sound like anyone but himself. Well, he sounds a little like Larry's brother Harry Shields, who is one of my favorite New Orleans clarinetists. But the chances that Lytell was influenced by Harry Shields are pretty slim, since Harry hardly ever left New Orleans and didn't record until 1925. But sometimes, like during the 1924 "My Papa Doesn't Two Time No Time,"* Lytell starts a phrase with a hair-raising scoop up to a long high-register note in a way that Harry Shields favored. Anyway, Jimmy Lytell may not have been a near-genius clarinetist like Leon Rappolo, but he sure was good.

I've got over an hour's worth of OM5 78 RPM records on the Broadway, Banner, Pathe Actuelle, Vocalion, Perfect, Cameo, Regal, and Grey Gull labels. And luckily, they also recorded for Victor, who in my opinion, put out the best-sounding 78s. (I've got three of their Victors.) Since they tried to reach a "general" audience, as opposed to just jazz fans, some of their records are paired with more pedestrian dance bands on the flip side. (If any of you have been dying to hear "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by the Majestic Dance Orchestra, come by my house - I have it on the back of a Memphis Five record.) But they were hip enough to back up the African-American blues/vaudeville singer Lena Wilson - the label reads "Lena Wilson and Her Nubian Five"(!)

If you are intelligent and mentally stable enough not to collect 78s, there are a few CD reissues of the OM5 out there. The most readily available seem to be a collection on the Timeless label (which I haven't heard) and a set of all their Columbia recordings on Retrieval (which I have heard). There are too many vocals for comfort on the Columbia sides, but otherwise, the Retrieval CD is an excellent reissue.

These days many jazz fans are exploring the work of excellent, long-forgotten, second-tier talents of the fifties and sixties. I hope those with a taste for early jazz will similarly give an ear to the Original Memphis Five - one of those solid, professional, journeyman bands that jazz would be poorer without.

*This was recorded for the Emerson label, but also issued on a bewildering variety of labels. I have it on Grey Gull.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fifes and Drums From the Hill Country

I like all kinds of music, although anyone who has read many entries of this blog knows that I'm most partial to jazz of various stripes. But there is one family of music that has always touched me deeply in a strong, primal way. I'm talking about early black American music - music that echoes, at least to some extent, the music of nineteenth-century African-Americans. Amazingly, some of this pre-blues, pre-jazz, pre-ragtime music survived well into the twentieth century, at least in scattered corners of the South. This web of music includes field hollers, work songs, ring shouts, and banjo music. Maybe I'll write about some of these branches of the early African-American music tree later, but right now I want to talk about fifes and drums.

The Africans who were enslaved in The Land of the Free were not allowed, for the most part, to practice the musical, religious, and cultural traditions of their homelands, but they were allowed, even encouraged, to adopt the musical culture of their "owners." This they did, but with their own twists. A simple way to look at early black American music is to say that African music didn't survive in the new world, but African ways of making music did. The reluctant new Americans played music from the European-American tradition, but played it their own way.

Fife and drum bands have a history in America which predates the formation of the United States, so it's no surprise that black Americans took up this instrumentation. We can only guess what early black fife and drum bands sounded like and how the African-American fife and drum tradition developed over the years before they were first recorded. And it seems that this kind of band mostly died out sometime in the nineteenth century - but it didn't die completely.

Folklorists have pointed out that the oldest traditions survive the longest in the most isolated areas. There are a few spots in the American south that, well into the twentieth century, were populated by a fairly isolated black population. These include the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, where a rich heritage of spirituals and ring shouts survived, and the Mississippi hill country east of the Delta. The farmland in the hill country is not as rich as that of the Delta, so the white cotton planters of the Delta had no interest in snatching up the hill country land; this area was settled by small farmers, black and white. The hill country gave rise to such amazing African-American musicians as Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. And it is the last place in America where black fife and drum music survives - not as a museum piece, but as a living, breathing music.*

Music from this tradition was first recorded in 1942 by Alan Lomax, who preserved quite a few selections by the great hill country musician Sid Hemphill. Hemphill** had a fife and drum band as well as string band, and was apparently the most popular musician (with both black and white audiences) around Tate and Panola Counties. The Lomax/Hemphill recordings sound like a strange hybrid music drawn partly from a world I recognize and partly from some alien world. The two snare drums, bass drum, and cane fife play nineteenth-century folk ballads and pop songs like "Jesse James" and "The Sidewalks of New York" as well as an unearthly "Death March," which reminds us that this type of ensemble sometimes provided funeral music in the rural South. Hemphill (or his bandmate Alec Askew) was also recorded playing a haunting, very African-sounding "Emmaline, Take Your Time" on the the four-note "quills," or pan-pipe; the notes of the melody (which doesn't match up with any tempered scale) are interspersed with falsetto whoops - an apparently African musical practice which also shows up in the music of blues harpist Sonny Terry.***

Lomax returned to the hill country in 1959 and recorded more tracks by the now-elderly Hemphill, but more importantly, recorded the next generation of fife and drum music. Ed and Lonnie Young's music was harder, funkier, bluesier than Hemphill's. Several of their recordings showed up in Lomax's Sounds of the South series, issued on Atlantic. Tunes like "Jim and John," "Chevrolet," and "Oree," with the fife and drums accompanied by several local women clapping complex cross-rhythms, are extremely powerful, and still seem somewhat other-worldly, even to a Southerner like me.

The distillation and toughening up of the black fife and drum tradition continued in Mississippi through the work of Napoleon Strickland, who retired from playing in the 1980's. But the figure most associated with Mississippi fife and drum music is the legendary Othar Turner, who died in 2003 at the age of 94. Turner farmed the challenging soil of the hill country from his teenage years, and his farm was the site of many legendary fife and drum picnics. On holidays such as Independence Day and Labor Day, Turner would get up early, kill and barbecue a goat, and host an outdoor party featuring non-stop dancing to the fife and drums.

I never attended one of his picnics, but it wasn't for lack of trying. R.L. Boyce, one of the drummers in Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, gave me detailed, semi-intelligible directions to Turner's farm, and I tried to find the place one July 4th about 15 years ago, but I got hopelessly lost driving around the hill country outside of Senatobia. I did hear the Rising Star band a couple of times at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, and both times the impact of the music was strong, visceral, and almost overwhelming. After one of the performances, I bought a tape from Othar's daughter Bernice, who played drums in the band. (Strangely, Bernice died from cancer on the same day her father died; she was only 48.) I found Mr. Turner and asked him to autograph the tape, and he got a strange look on his face. But he took my pen and laboriously wrote a "T" on the card. I thanked him and hoped I had not embarrassed him.

Othar Turner was a somewhat more limited fife player than any of the others I've mentioned. He only had a handful of tunes, and about half of what he played turned into the repeated two-bar riff known as "Shimmy She Wobble." But his limitations were also his strengths; his music was like sunlight through a lens - focused onto such a small area, it emerged as a extremely powerful and haunting expression of a man and a tradition.

When Othar died, it was feared that the Mississippi fife and drum tradition would die with him - there were lots of drummers, but few fife players. But he had been teaching his granddaughter, Sharde Thomas. She was only 13 years old at the time of her grandfather's death, and has only recorded a few scattered tracks that have been issued so far. But she loves the music, and is now carrying a tradition on her back by herself. A heavy burden for someone not yet 20.****


*African-American fife and drum music could still be heard into the mid-twentieth century in western Tennessee and 90 miles southwest of my house, in the countryside outside of Columbus, Georgia. It has since died out in both places.

**Sid Hemphill's granddaughter was the She-Wolf, the great Jessie Mae Hemphill. Jessie Mae was a powerful blues and gospel musician who, luckily, was recorded quite a few times.

***These recordings can be found on Traveling Through the Jungle: Fife and Drum Band Music From the Deep South (Testament), an album which also includes recordings by Napoleon Strickland, Othar Turner, and a Georgia fife and drum band.

****Othar Turner can be heard on two CDs on the Birdman label: Everybody Hollerin' Goat and Othar Turner and Afrossippi All Stars, on which the Rising Star band collaborates with West African musicians. His music in perhaps its purest form can be heard on the Rising Star's cassette For the Times Beyond and a 7" EP on the Sugar Ditch label. Sarde Thomas's most prominent recorded appearance so far comes on two tracks of Corey Harris's truly remarkable 2003 album Mississippi to Mali. The album also contains Harris's moving dedication to Othar, "Mr. Turner."