Category Archives: Folk

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

The Wild Magnolias, “Handa Wanda”

I’ve been watching HBO’s Treme lately, and my favourite musical performances are definitely of “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux and his Mardi Gras Indians doing drum practices. This cut by Bo Dollis and The Wild Magnolia Tribe captures that amazing percussive exhuberance of the Indian practices in Treme, and kicks it up a notch with a rollicking piano and a funky bassline.

The Wild Magnolias, “Handa Wanda”

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Filed under Folk, Jazz, Music, New Orleans

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

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

Maria in the Shower, “Train of the Pounding Hours”/”Old Joseph Brady”

Maria in the Shower are vastly different from Titus Andronicus is many, very important ways. In fact, perhaps the only thing both bands share is the top spot on my list of favourite live bands. Both bands can electrify a stage and captivate an audience, albeit often for completely different reasons. Maria in the Shower have a theatrical stage presence that doesn’t shy away from props, costumes, over-arching narratives or contrabass acrobatics. That said, Maria in the Shower is not a band that needs to, nor does, rely on gimmickery. Attending a Maria in the Shower live show is to be taken on a wildfire tour through the American Folk songbook, beginning with jazz, browsing through folk and bluegrass, and winding up sweating through some pounding blues-rock numbers.

Maria create an excellent facsimile of all these styles, particularly pre-war jazz. For my money, however, Maria is best at crafting driving Americana epics. Maria in the Shower produce the type of music that the Decemberists would if their recent stylistic shift had settled south of the Mason-Dixon Line. That said, Maria in the Shower know a good New England sea-shanty when they get their hands on it! Nonetheless, my two favourite Maria in the Shower songs are the two that best fit the description of “driving Americana epic”: “Train of the Pounding Hours” and “Old Joseph Brady.”

“Train of the Pounding Hours” begins with the clank and clatter percussion of a hammer and chains and is best played loud. The sounds in question are reproduced faithfully at their live shows in a marathon performance by drummer Todd Biffard, by alternately striking a actual section of railroad track with a hammer and crashing a fistful of chains against the dancefloor. The simple cello riff that begins the track leads the rest of the group through a building drone as the music swaggers and sways with the chaingang percussion. The simple, repeated gospel chorus really seals the deal. When performed live, Martin Reisle, who sings lead on this track, breaks down into a shouting Evangelical rhapsody as the instruments drop out leaving the band and audience moaning in unison: “We’re bleeding, Lord. Bleeding, Lord.” It’s a very powerful thing to experience.

Maria in the Shower, “Train of the Pounding Hours” (from Come Never, 2009)

Though perhaps more subtle, Maria’s other epic is no less resonant. The song begins with a single guitar chord and Reisle’s wavering voice, before Reisle and other vocalist Jack Garton begin to trade verses, building the tension in the narrative. The band slowly joins in as the track builds to a beautiful, shuddering climax before a harmonizing, a capella dénouement.

Maria in the Shower, “Old Joseph Brady” (Live, 2010)

Their albums are available to stream or purchase, here.

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Country, Folk, Jazz, Music, Rock