Friday, November 26, 2010

Audio Glimpses of the Past

I spend a good bit of time in antique stores these days, searching for 78s. A couple of months ago, I visited an Atlanta antique store which had an interesting-looking box. It looked like it might have records in it, and it did - not 78s, but 40 or 50 home-recorded discs. They were 12" discs; some were marked as 33 1/3, and some were labeled with song titles or rudimentary information about the radio programs they were recorded from. I bought three of the most promising-looking of the records, took them home, and found them to be easily playable on my turntable. Moreover, they were quite well-recorded, for the most part. A couple of the sides were pretty disappointing - they proved to be nothing more than recordings of disc jockeys playing records, but several of the sides were intriguing and musically rewarding enough to get me pretty excited.

Radio was once a more interesting and creative medium than it is these days. Bands of all types commonly broadcast live from clubs and ballrooms, their sounds carried over the various radio networks to listeners across the country. These broadcasts were sometimes recorded by hobbyists with home recording equipment, which until the late 1940's meant a disc recorder of some kind. The person who recorded the stash of discs I found labeled some with his name, and even with information about the equipment he used.

Our recordist was named J.M. Keith, apparently from Atlanta, since most of the radio stations he recorded from were Atlanta stations like WSB and WAGA. On a couple of discs he engraved the make, model, and serial number of the recorders he used. The earlier records were made with a Presto Model Y, serial #4111. The Model Y paired one of Presto's cheaper recorders with an amplifier and speaker. Later, Mr. Keith upgraded to a Presto 6N, serial #1891. The 6N was a high-quality machine, used by many radio stations. And it wasn't cheap. The price for 6N was $735 in 1950; it probably wasn't much less in 1948, when Keith seemed to have acquired his.

Our friend J.M. Keith had somewhat eclectic tastes; he recorded all kinds of music. There's a really horrible "lounge" quartet from a club in New York, several disc jockey shows, and lots of recordings from the semi-classical Bell Telephone Hour. Listening to those first three discs and examining the labels and sleeves gave me some insight into Mr. Keith's labeling system, though, so I went back to the antique store and bought all of the records that I though might contain worthwhile music. I ended up with a dozen discs. They all seem to be have been recorded in 1947 or 1948. I played them all one evening, one after another, and it was like a trip back in time - like listening to a couple of hours of late-forties radio, dialing to different stations every twelve minutes or so. Most of the discs are quite well-recorded, although in a few cases, the surfaces have deteriorated a little bit. And Mr. Keith would occasionally record with the gain set too high, resulting in some distortion.

There ended up being six sides of music that were interesting enough to digitize and preserve:

Three tunes by the Ray McKinley big band from the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, August, 1947. One of these is Eddie Sauter's amazingly forward-looking "Sand Storm," which the band had recorded in the studio a year and a half earlier.

Three selections by a very different big band, that of Noro Morales. "Caramba Bebop" from this broadcast is a very hot piece of Latin jazz, with an oddly wonderful piano solo by Morales.

A broadcast by the Adrian Rollini Trio. Rollini was the first great bass saxophonist in jazz, but by 1947 he was playing vibes and doubling on chimes. These are the only hot jazz chimes solos I've ever heard.

A side split between Rollini's trio and the Mary Osborne Trio. Osborne was an excellent Charlie Christian-inspired guitarist, but she's featured mostly as a vocalist here.

Twelve or so minutes from an August, 1948 broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. This is an interesting broadcast, but I was surprised at how lame most of the music was. The other side of this disc is much better:

Part of the WSB Barn Dance program that followed the Grand Ole Opry. Barn Dance was similar to the Opry, but the music (and comedy) is more "down home."

I have uploaded selections from all of these broadcasts (except the Grand Ole Opry) here. Once on the page with the links, you can click to listen or right-click to download. I hope you enjoy these audio glimpses of the past. And thank you, J.M. Keith.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Blues Poetry II

As I was cleaning out my file cabinet a few days ago, I came upon a folder of transcriptions of blues lyrics that I did about 15 years ago. Once again, I was stuck with what beautiful poetry blues lyrics can be. Here are four of my favorites from that old stash of transcriptions, plus one more (the Percy Mayfield song) that I transcribed tonight.

Transcribing blues lyrics can be a challenge. Thick Mississippi accents, idiosyncratic pronunciation, archaic turns of phrase, poor recordings with worn surfaces - all of these conspire against an accurate hearing of the lyrics. Comparing different published transcriptions of the same song might reveal very different hearings. But I reviewed all of these tonight, and I'm satisfied with their accuracy. Being Southern helps, as does experience with listening to the blues.

And as wonderful as some of these lyrics are, they are greatly enhanced by hearing them in context, sung by these brilliant musicians. The interaction of the lyrics, the singing, and the instruments is what creates the complete picture. I've listed the original issue, place and date of recording after each song. Punctuation and line breaks are, of course, my own.

Mama, “Tain’t Long for Day
Blind Willie McTell

Wake up, mama, don’t you sleep so hard.
Wake up, mama, don’t you sleep so hard.
Boy, it’s these old blues walkin’ all over your yard.

I’ve got these blues, reason I’m not satisfied.
I’ve got these blues; I’m not satisfied.
That’s the reason why I stole away and cried.

Blues grabbed me at midnight, didn’t turn me loose ‘til day.
Blues grabbed me at midnight, didn’t turn me loose ‘til day.
I didn’t have no mama to drive these blues away.

The big star fallin’, mama, it ain’t long for day.
The big star fallin’, mama, ‘tain’t long for day.
Maybe the sunshine will drive these blues away.

(Oh, come here quick.
Come on mama,
You know I gotcha.)

Mm – mm.
Mm – mm.
Mm – mm.

Victor 21474
Atlanta, Georgia; October 18, 1927

Son House is one of my favorite bluesmen, and one who really paid attention to the quality of his lyrics. "Pony Blues" is traditionally about sexual prowess; House's version seems to be about more than that. Everyone will have his or her own interpretation, but to me, House's pony is himself - his soul.

The Pony Blues
Son House

Why don’t you catch my pony; now saddle up my black mare.
Oh, my pony; saddle up, up my black mare.
You know I’m gonna find my baby, well, in the world somewhere.

You know, he’s a travelin’ horse, and he’s too black bad.
He’s a travelin’ pony; I declare, he’s too black bad.
You know he got a gait, now, no Shetland ain’t, ain’t never had.

You know, I take him by the reins and I led him around and round.
I said I take him by the reins and I, I led him around and round.
You know, he ain’t the best in the world, but he’s the best ever been in this town.

You know, he’s a travelin’ horse and he don’t deny his name.
He’s a travelin’ pony and he don’t deny his name.
You know, the way he can travel is a lowdown, oh, dirty shame.

Why don’t you come up here, pony; now come on, please, let’s us go.
I said, come up, get up now; please, pony, now let’s us go.
Let’s we saddle on down on the Gulf of, of Mexico.

You know, the horse that I’m riding, he can foxtrot, he can lope and pace.
I said the pony I’m ridin’, he can foxtrot, he can lope and pace.
You know, a horse with that many gaits, you know, I’m bound to win that race.

Mm, he’s a travelin’ horse and he don’t deny his name.
He’s a travelin’ pony; he don’t deny his name.
You know, the way he can travel is a lowdown, oh, dirty shame.

Library of Congress 92401
Robinsonville, Mississippi; July 17, 1942

Sad Days, Lonely Nights
Junior Kimbrough

My mama told me –
I was a child.
She said, “Son,
Gonna have hard days.”

My daddy told me, too.
He said, “Son,
Gonna have sad days,
Lonely nights;

Sittin’ alone;
Head hung down,
Tears runnin’ down.”

Done got old –
Sad days,
Lonely nights
Done overtaken me.

Sometimes I sit alone;
I wonder ‘bout the things
My mama and daddy told me.

Sad days,
Lonely nights
Done overtaken me.

Fat Possum 1006
Holly Springs, Mississippi; April, 1994

Memory Pain

Percy Mayfield

Every time I see a woman, it makes me think about mine.
Every time I see a woman, it make me think of mine.
And the way she used to treat me, boys, I just can’t keep from cryin’.

I used to come home in the evenin’; that woman would be gone.
When I would come home in the evenin’, my woman would be gone.
And when I would get up in the mornin’, boys, she’d just be coming home.

I don’t see well, and I’m absent-minded,
And I hardly sleep at all.
My past has put me on a habit
Of nicotine and alcohol.
It serve me right to suffer; serve me right to be alone.
Seems I’m still livin’ with the memory of the days that’s past and gone.

Specialty 2126
Hollywood, California; April 23, 1952

This Joe Callicott song was later recorded by Ry Cooder as "France Chance." Callicott's reference to "great news" means "big news," not "good news."

Love Me Baby Blues
Joe Callicott

Drop down, baby, just like showers of rain;
Hate to hear my fair brown call my name.
Yeah, I hate to hear my fair brown call my name;
Well, she calls so loud and the poor girl calls so plain.

Walked to the station, tears runnin’ down;
I got news my baby done left town.
Yeah, I got news my baby, well, she done blowed this town.
Well, I got great news – my baby done blowed this town.

Rooster crowed in England; heard ‘im in France.
Look like the other guy won’t ‘low me no chance.
Yeah, look like the mmm…, ah, they won’t ‘low me no chance.
Ah, look like to me I can’t get a possible chance.

I knows my doggie when I hear him bark;
I know my baby if I feel her in the dark.
Yeah, I know my baby… I feel her in the….

Ah, tell me woman, how can you be so mean?
Give all of my money out on the brand new stream.
Baby, oh tell me, woman, how can you be so…?

Arhoolie 1042
Nesbit, Mississippi; August, 1967

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Chance Encounter With Ma Rainey

I'll begin this post as so many bloggers have over the years: It's been a long time since my last post. I'll try not to let that happen again. Now, on to business:

Yesterday I drove the 90 miles or so from Atlanta to Columbus, Georgia to hunt for 78s and do some geocaching. Columbus in a nice little city; the downtown area is pretty healthy, mostly due to the large number of Columbus State University students spending their money, I imagine. After looking around downtown for awhile, I drove down 5th Avenue and was surprised to see a historical marker proclaiming "Ma Rainey Home."

Ma Rainey was one of the seminal blues performers and recording artists, although "seminal" seems like an odd adjective to apply to a woman. She was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus in 1886 - earlier, notice, than either Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson. She was singing the blues on tours throughout the South by the time she was 20, and was one of the first Southern blues singers to record - although Bessie Smith beat her to the studios by ten months. Rainey recorded 111 released sides (including alternate takes); unfortunately, her entire recording career was for Paramount Records, famous for the poor quality of their recordings and pressings. But enough of her voice comes through the lousy sound to make it clear that she was the real deal - a strong, earthy singer who sounds like she grew up with the blues.

I had forgotten that this great woman was from Columbus. By the time my brain had processed what I had just seen, I had passed the house. I quickly backed up, pulled over and got out of the car. I read the marker several times, and stared at the house for awhile. It's a large house - I suspect Rainey rented out rooms - and it's painted yellow, as it apparently was when Rainey lived there between her retirement in 1935 and death in 1939. The house is now a museum, but I didn't know that - there was nothing to indicate that it was open to the public. So I just stared.

The marker indicated that Porterdale Cemetery, where Rainey is buried, was nearby. I found the cemetery about a half mile away. Three guys were digging a grave near the entrance, so I pulled over and asked where Ma Rainey's grave was, and one of them showed me. Rainey is buried between two of her Pridgett sisters; each has a concrete slab over her grave. Ma's just reads "Gertrude Rainey" and the date of her death, but she also has a nice new headstone proclaiming her status as "Mother of the Blues."

After visiting the grave, I had the urge to drive back by the house while playing some Ma Rainey music. This was all unplanned, so I didn't have any Rainey CDs with me, but I had brought Allen Lowe's idiosyncratic blues history box set Really the Blues? as road music, so I found "Don't Fish in My Sea" and cranked it up.

It was very cool to run across Rainey's house more or less by chance, and to be led to her gravesite by the plaque. I'm planning to go back before too long, actually visit the museum and take some pictures.

At the cemetery, I had a gut-wrenching moment not directly related to Ma Rainey. Porterdale Cemetery was a burying ground for the black residents of Columbus - for most of the South's history, segregation didn't end with death. Near Rainey's grave was the grave of an infant. The headstone was inscribed with the child's given name (which I don't remember), the date of her death (1858) and "Kizzie's Baby." No last names. I thought it was odd, until it hit me - Kizzie and her child didn't have last names. They were slaves. You can't live down here without frequently thinking about the terrible history of the region, but it was a powerful experience to unexpectedly come across the raw evidence of human slavery - not in a museum, not in a book, but while just wandering around.