Saturday, May 23, 2009

Art In Spite of Itself

"Morning Dove Blues" by Sippie Wallace is a perfect work of art. Every detail is just right, and each works to heighten the emotional affect of the song: Wallace's strong voice, with its pleasing Texas accent, the rich piano accompaniment by her nephew, Hersal Thomas, and the simple, well-chosen fills provided by King Oliver on cornet. It's all just perfect.

And the amazing thing is that nobody involved, from the musicians to the Okeh record company officials who set up the date in 1925, had any thoughts of creating a work of art. Yes, they wanted to make a quality product, but product it was - designed to fill the demand for "race" records. It took record companies until 1920 to realize that African-Americans would buy records, wanted to buy records, if the recording industry would give them something they liked. For the next nine years, until the depression all but wiped out the record business, the companies threw an astonishing variety of black music into the marketplace, with no idea what would sell. Much forgettable music resulted, but they also recorded, almost in spite of themselves, some masterpieces like this one.

Some of Sippie's records sold pretty well, but "Morning Dove Blues" apparently didn't - not many copies have survived, and all the LP and CD issues I've heard have lots of surface noise competing with the music. For those with ears to hear, though, it doesn't matter. 84 years after this performance was recorded, I'm able to hear Sippie sing "Early in the morning, I rise like a mourning dove...." King Oliver answers her with his muted cornet, and my heart constricts. Art in spite of itself.

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