Category Archives: Field Recordings

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

Pistol George Warren, “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord”

New live video from everyone’s favourite Sudburian alt-country rockers, Pistol George Warren. I’ve posted the video because its seems that Alan Lomax is often the glue that holds this blog together, and here we have PGW performing “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” from the Alan Lomax compiled Land Where the Blues Began. You may remember that another group from Ontario, Toronto’s Bruce Peninsula, have also used tracks from Land Where the Blues Began as inspiration. (Read about it here.) Check out the live video, recorded at Bertolo’s Old Rock on January 28th, 2012, and listen to the original track from Land Where the Blues Began below.

Pistol George Warren, “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” (Live, 2012)

Congregation of the Church of God, Clarksdale, MS, “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord”

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Filed under Alt/Indie, Country, Field Recordings, Folk, Lomax, Music

Association for Cultural Equity: Lomax Archives

Prepare to have your mind blown. As I mentioned previously, The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) is in the process of digitizing Alan Lomax’s vast archives and making them available for free streaming on their website, and I must say, they are doing a fantastic job. The interface is clear and well-designed, they have a wide variety of formats (sound recordings, video recordings, photographs, lectures, etc), and there is a huge wealth of items already available. The archive bills itself primarily as a scholarly research tool, but anyone with an interest in folk music from America and around the World could spend a fascinating afternoon just digging. Perhaps my favourite feature is the “Geo Archive,” which places a pin on an embedded Google Map for each recording session that has been archived, allowing the user click on each pin and listen to the recordings from that location. Users can also browse through each media type by session, location, genre, artist and so on. I’m not even going to link to any choice cuts from the archive because it’s well worth the time spend exploring. Check it all out, here. Enjoy!

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Filed under Blues, Country, Field Recordings, Folk, Lomax, Music, Photography, Post-War Blues, World Music

Belton Sutherland, “I Have Trouble”

While skimming through the Alan Lomax Archives’ YouTube account today I came across what is, in my mind, the Holy Grail of Lomax field recordings: a never-before-seen video of Belton Sutherland. Sutherland has long been a favourite around See That My Blog is Kept Clean, and adding a third song to his very limited output is a momentus occasion. Needless to say, I am currently very excited. Excitement aside, the song itself is a departure from the previous two Sutherland recordings that have been available to the public, as Sutherland abandons the powerful droning basslines of his other works, producing otherwise excellent rendition of Muddy Waters’ “I Be’s Troubled”/”I Can’t Be Satisfied”. Sutherland’s version of the tune is slowed down with a lot more emphasis on pauses and phrasing, and while sounding somewhat untutored, Sutherland turns Waters’ trademark boastful delivery into more of a lament. This new Sutherland track is accompanied by the release of both of earlier tracks on the official Alan Lomax Archives YouTube account, including a slightly more complete recording of “Old Grey Mule” (now officially labelled “Blues #1”). Watch the video for “I Have Trouble” below, and be sure to enjoy the newly available extra 15 seconds of “Blues #1,” here, as well as the officially available “Blues #2,” here.

Belton Sutherland, “I Have Trouble” (1978)

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Field Recordings, Folk, Lomax, Music

Son House, The Real Delta Blues (1974)

Sometime in the last few months, I stumbled across Record Fiend, and was immediately impressed with the volume of rare vinyl rips they’ve made available to the public and by the excellent introductory material that accompanies each rip. Any time I find myself stuck for new music to enjoy, I spend a couple of hours digging through the archives at Record Fiend and always emerge with some great find. On my most recent exploration, I stumbled across an excellent Son House rarity, The Real Delta Blues – 14 Songs from the Man Who Taught Robert Johnson. The tracks from The Real Delta Blues were privately recorded by Nick Perls in Rochester, NY in the early 1960s, and released on Perls’ Blue Goose in 1974. The album includes several songs that don’t appear on other collections, at least under these titles, including some instrumental numbers. I was excited by the inclusion of two Charley Patton-related tunes, “Pony Blues” and “I Shall Not Be Moved,” as well as “Mississippi County Farm Blues,” patterned after this blog’s eponymous song, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” The recordings showcase House’s powerful vocals and often aggressive slide guitar work in an intimate setting from early in House’s “rediscovery” period. A vinyl rip of the album is available at Record Fiend, here.

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

Akanbi Wright and Ernest Tubb: 1941

The 2007 Savannahphone compilation Awon Ojise Olorun: Popular Music in Yorubaland 1931-1952 has been an interesting piece of musical history for me since my interest in field recordings of non-Western music piqued this summer. As the title suggests, the compilation doesn’t contain traditional songs recorded for ethnographic purposes, but rather compiles the songs that were produced for popular consumption in the Yorubaland region in the years 1931 to 1952. Yorubaland is a region comprising parts of the modern states of Nigeria, Benin and Togo which experienced a golden age from 1100 to 1700 CE, centering on the imperial city of Ife, where a famed style of naturalistic bronze and terracotta sculpture developed. In the 1700s the centre of power shifted to Oyo, and after a series of devastating civil wars, the region was colonized by the British. As such, the music drawn on for this compilation comes from the British Library.

Though the compilation initially caught my eye due to my interest in African history and music this summer, the years that the compilation covers is what has held my interest. Given my predilection for the pre-war and post-war blues and country-western music of artists ranging (temporally and stylistically) from Charley Patton to Hank Williams, this compilation provides a compelling touchstone for the musical world outside America during the same period. Perhaps one of the greatest commonalities between these two groups of musicians was the struggle to collapse traditional forms into the three-minute slices of commercially viable music necessitated by the 78 rpm record format. One need only listen to the seven-minute long opuses recorded by Son House for the Library of Congress for evidence of these difficulties.

Regardless, for your enjoyment, two slices of music both released in 1941, nearly a world apart that somehow manage to evoke themselves as spiritual cousins with their matching plucked lead guitar lines. 1941 is an important year to connect these two regions, as 1941 saw the United States enter a war that was precipitated by imperial jealousies and ambitions, an imperial legacy that made the Yorubaland recordings possible.

Akanbi Wright, “Everybody Like Saturday Night”

Ernest Tubb, “Walking the Floor Over You”

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Filed under Country, Field Recordings, Music, Pre-War Blues, World Music

Muddy Water’s Library of Congress Recordings

Muddy Waters, “Country Blues” (Library of Congress sessions, 1941)

An incredible sea-change occurs during the first of several short interviews that Alan Lomax conducts with McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, while Lomax was recording Waters for the Library of Congress. On the first performance of the recordings, historic in itself as the first time Waters’ voice and guitar were set to tape, Waters plays a basic country blues number, an original, based on Robert Young’s “Walking Blues,” titled, simply enough, “Country Blues.” The song is another entry in the long-line of blues based around the “Walking Blues” template, and Waters claims to have learned his version from Son House. This information precipitates a sparkling moment in the following interview in which Lomax, who seems not to have heard of House before, quizzes Waters on the merit of House. This moment is particularly stirring in light of the fact that Lomax recorded Son House on this same journey, perhaps spurred by Waters’ recommendation.

Muddy Waters and Alan Lomax, “Interview 1” (Library of Congress sessions, 1941)

The significant moment that I began the article talking about is impossible to pinpoint; the only hint that such a moment ever occurs is in the vast gulf that separates “Country Blues” and the second performance, “I Be’s Troubled.” Prior to the first interview, Waters comes across as a competent, but unremarkable blues musician in the pre-war, country blues vein. With the opening bars of “I Be’s Troubled” Waters emerges fully-formed as the confident, Chicago electric blues pioneer that would revolutionize the blues in the late 1940s.

Muddy Waters, “I Be’s Troubled” (Library of Congress sessions, 1941)

Anyone familiar with Waters’ work for Chess in the late ’40s and 50s, will instantly recognize “I Be’s Troubled” as the root of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and what’s most important about “I Be’s Troubled” is how incredibly close it is to “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” which was recorded six years later in December 1947 for the Chess predecessor Aristocrat Records. This similarity is indicative of how early in his career Waters had begun to form the style of playing and vocal delivery that would make him famous. That “I Can’t Be Satisfied” was one of the first four tracks recorded by Waters for Aristocrat is also telling, as it shows how close the track lay to his vision of himself as a performer, suggesting that Waters arrived in Chicago with a well-formed conception of what would become his signature sound.

Muddy Waters, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (Aristocrat, 1948)

In the interview that follows “I Be’s Troubled,” Lomax’s first few questions are an attempt to pin down the inspiration for the song, to which Waters proudly replies, “I made that up my own self.”

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Filed under Blues, Field Recordings, Lomax, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues