Category Archives: Blues

Alpoko Don, Folk Culture and the Ethics of Field Recordings

Seems a lot of old timers like to complain about the decline of the blues, especially when the blues is understood as the last bloom of a vital folk culture. Yet, as I’ve insisted before, folk culture is not dying. Like it always has, folk culture is changing and adapting to the times.

Alan Lomax provided an incredibly important contribution to musical history, driving around the countryside and recording poor, rural musicians whose voices would otherwise never have been heard. Yet the growing awareness of the economics and politics of representation often call into question the ethics of field recording. Is it exploitative for an educated, upper-middle class white man to travel to economically marginalized regions or countries and record economically and culturally marginalized performers, sometimes without payment, for the sake of furthering their academic career? Sublime Frequencies, one of the foremost contemporary field recording labels, often seems to be faced with similar charges of unethical practice.

Advances in international telecommunications technology and the expanding realm of do-it-yourself internet culture pose at least two solutions. The first, undertaken by the Bandcamp-powered record label Sahel Sounds is to use these technologies to distribute payment for field recordings in a more democratic manner. While this solves many of the economic ethics of selling field recordings, it doesn’t answer any of the representational problems. Who chooses who gets heard, and how is it presented?

Which brings me back to my original argument: folk culture is alive and thriving, and the new technologies that many decry as the end of regionalized, local folk movements are helping to keep it that way. In the series of popular videos Greenville, South Carolina rapper Alpoko Don has uploaded to YouTube, he sits on his porch, hums a melody, and taps out a beat with his hands, all the while freestyling with a unique and well-developed sense of humour and timing. When his jokes hit home, neighbours and friends laugh audibly off-screen while Alpoko shoots them a knowing look.

If all this, except for the rapping, sounds uncannily familiar, it should. Front porch, a capella performances such as this are the backbone of most American folk musics. They require no professional equipment or training, just time, talent and a desire to convey a message. Alpoko’s videos are field recordings curated and published by the artist himself. As digital technology become more and more accessible, folk culture won’t disappear, it will merely begin to assert itself and connect to other musics in more global ways.

As always, of course I have no desire to assert an oversimplified 1:1 equivalence between the blues and rap, or any variety of music. Rather I wish to demonstrate the thriving, changing face of folk culture. If the folk-blues are dead, folk-rapping isn’t.

Alpoko Don, “Sitting Sideways” (2012)

Clyde Maxwell, “Corrina” (1978)


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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Field Recordings, Folk, Hip-Hop, Lomax, Music, Post-War Blues

Kendrick Lamar and Blues Tropes


Latecomer as always, See That My Blog is Kept Clean is back on the scene, and as usual, about a year late in acknowledging some hype-garnering artist. By this point, if you’re not familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City you’re doing something wrong. While much well-deserved praise has gone out to the clever voicemails that structure the album and Lamar’s competent verses, so far no one seems to have picked up on two somewhat odd instances of blues tropes that resonate with the album. The first is the most direct. On “Backstreet Freestyle,” Lamar intones “Goddamn, I’ve got bitches: wifey, girlfriend and mistress,” oddly echoing Son House’s assertion, “I’ve only loved but four women in my life: my mother, my sister, my kid gal and my wife.” (Wherein, “kid gal” refers to a girlfriend or mistress.)

Much more interesting, because Lamar’s version greatly alters the tone and setting, is the echoed version of the blues and country platitude “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” In “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Lamar modifies this inherently rural trope to update the phrase to the postmodern landscape of contemporary Los Angeles: “I’ma show you how to turn it up a notch / First you get a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in / Pool full of liquor then you dive in it.” As the song deals more ambiguously with alcohol consumption than the blues songs that typically feature the above lyric, “Swimming Pools” contrasts this typically irreverent blues trope against a background of dark synths. Changing the setting from a river to a swimming pool alters the iconography, while maintaining the social resonance.

And yes, I understand Lamar is probably not in any way actually attempting to quote either of these blues traditions, but I do find it fascinating that these two common scenarios could be transferred across the years and styles from the blues to contemporary hip-hop. Culture is continuous, there are no hard and fast boundaries, and what’s green will grow, no matter what form it takes. I’m back.

Kendrick Lamar, “Backstreet Freestyle” (2012)

Son House, “Death Letter Blues” (1965)

Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (1950)

Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” (2012)

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Filed under Blues, Country, Hip-Hop, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues

The American Folk-Blues Festival 1962-1966, Vol. 1-3

This is a pretty exciting find: all three volumes of the American Folk-Blues Festival dvds up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure. I had always seen clips from these films floating around on YouTube, and I’ve even posted some on here before, but never have I noticed the presence of these volumes posted in their entirety, each in a single clip. Anyways, enough talk. It’s time to get down to business, and we’ve got three hours of live blues to watch.

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

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Filed under Blues, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues

Little Walter & The Jukes, “Mellow Down Easy”

I recently acquired a vinyl copy of the Willie Dixon Chess Box, with the intent of being able to scratch my 1950s Chicago Blues itch with one vinyl set, as the Dixon set includes tracks by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley, among others. My preliminary listen through has given me a new appreciation for Little Walter, who I had previously disregarded as a generic Chicago Electric Blues artist. The Willie Dixon Box includes the Walter’s excellent “Mellow Down Easy” which, with its pots and pans percussion and sparse arrangement, has the feel of an excellent backroom primitive blues stomper, with a touch of swing. Enjoy.

Little Walter & The Jukes, “Mellow Down Easy” (1954)

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Filed under Blues, Music, Post-War Blues

Tittyshakers’ Jukejoint

Tittyshakers is website dedicated to the sounds of sleaze, or more politely “lo-down and dirty rock n’ roll or equally gritty Jazz.” The website is filled with provactive period images and retro-stylings that really match the overall mood of the music they discuss. Now keep in mind, of course, that this website has no relationship to the types of music that might accompany a contemporary erotic dance, but rather to the skronking, saxophone-filled, bluesy-jazz, rock & roll tracks that might have featured in some dingy, dead-end strip club circa 1959; a genre that bears a certain relevance to Nick Waterhouse’s recently discussed aesthetic.

Of most interest on Tittyshakers is the three Jukejoint pages that each feature about an album’s worth of tracks that fit that delectable description: tittyshakers. If you’re still having trouble grasping the concept, I suggest you give a listen to The Untouchables’ sleazy classic “Crawlin’ (The Crawl)” below, which serves as the perfect archetype of the genre. While each Jukejoint presents each of the song with a description and stream, the individual tracks themselves are scattered across many sundry compilations, which poses a problem for anyone wishing to recreate these Jukejoints in their own musical library. When I first read about Tittyshakers on Aquarium Drunkard, I gathered all the tracks from the first of the three Jukejoints, Crawlin’, and put them together as a compilation, Tittyshakers Jukejoint, Vol. I. Lucky for you, I’m uploading the compilation to save the leg work for anyone who’s interested.

Give a listen to the first track, the aforementioned Untouchables number, below and grab the complete first Jukejoint here.

The Untouchables, “Crawlin’ (The Crawl)”


Filed under Blues, Jazz, Music, Post-War Blues, Rock

RIP Levon Helm (1940-2012)

Earlier this week we lost a legendary figure in the music world, the inimitable Levon Helm. Helm began his career as the drummer for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, before forming Levon and the Hawks. This group became became Bob Dylan’s backing band and collaborated with Dylan on the legendary Basement Tapes. This group, without Dylan, became known as the Band and released a string of game-changing Americana albums, most notably their self-titled 1969 album. The Band’s career concluded in 1976 with an all-star concert, The Last Waltz, that was captured by Martin Scorsese. Since then, Helm has released a string of excellent solo albums.

Levon Helm with be sorely missed, and his death is an incredible loss for the music world. Goodbye and thanks for all the music.

Levon Helm and the Midnight Ramblers, “Ophelia” (Live, February 2012)

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Filed under Blues, Country, Folk, Music, Rock

Bukka White, “Got Sick and Tired”

Sorry for the paucity of posts lately, but I’ve just relocated myself across the country to where I don’t have reliable access to the internet. I promise some quality posts will be arriving soon, but in the meantime please tide yourself over with Bukka White’s “Got Sick and Tired,” part of the same concert set from which I’ve already posted Skip James’ “Crow Jane” and Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.” (You can see them sitting in the background of the opening shot.)

Bukka White, “Got Sick and Tired” (Live, 1967)

PS The outfit (poncho, polka dots, etc) is awesome, by the way.

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Filed under Blues, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues