It’s the first of July 1929, and at Brunswick Records’ studio in Chicago a recording supervisor invites a banjo-pickin’, tabacker-chawin’, moonshine-swiggin’ hillbilly to sit in front of a microphone (“Mike who?” the yokel asks) and make a record. The hillbilly delivers some canned vernacular (“Well dog my cats!”; “Well that’ll make a black snake spit in a bulldog’s eye!”), threatens the engineer, and gets learnt what a cuspidor is. After the supervisor coaxes a few verses and “some of that old-fashioned banjo picking” out of his guest, who has meanwhile gotten himself drunk, both sides of the record are finished, to be released later that year in the Brunswick/Supertone catalog as “A Mountain Boy Makes His First Record.”
That mountain boy was a 28-year-old from Magoffin County, Kentucky, named Buell Kazee, and this recorded skit was of his own devising: two sides of 58 that he made for the Brunswick label between 1927 and 1929, the heyday of the “hillbilly” recording era. Those sides, however, are among the least representative of the mountain boy’s considerable musical abilities (and did not in fact constitute his first record). And, as Loyal Jones, retired director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College, writes in his notes to the June Appal label’s recently released CD of Kazee’s later recordings, “Buell did not look on them as major accomplishments.”
They are also a completely misleading portrait of the man himself (not that many fell for it; the record hardly sold and has never been reissued), as the June Appal album, Buell Kazee, released in June, makes clear. Kazee was well-educated, deeply religious (he heard the call to preach at 17), and without a doubt one of the most remarkable talents in American folk music. His extensive repertoire of ballads, lyric songs, and occupational pieces reflected an upbringing in a mountain community steeped in the “old songs” and entertained by square dances and bean stringings, where he picked up the banjo at the age of five and where his love of music was nurtured by his parents, both of whom were talented singers.
Kazee’s vocal delivery, however, belied the influence of a sophisticated musical education, and, while for some listeners it placed him in an uncertain territory between authenticity and affectation, it was wholly his own. He had studied voice — in high school; at Georgetown College, where he majored in English, Greek, and Latin; and after graduation in Ashland, Kentucky, with a visiting tenor from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York — and he brought to his material a vocal sensitivity seldom heard applied to old-time music. For many, his “good voice,” as he called it, was at best an occasional distraction and at worst a liability. A Brunswick engineer remarked of it, “That’s fine, but it won’t ring on the cash register.” One of America’s foremost scholars of country music, the late Charles K. Wolfe, wrote in 2003 that “fortunately, only a few of [Kazee’s] recorded selections were seriously marred by his inclination to employ artistic vocal technique.” Indeed, most of Kazee’s recorded output is marked by a subtle synthesis of that technique with the “light throat” he explained was characteristic of mountain singing, and though it might not have been the most “authentic” article, it marked Kazee as an artist of depth, grace, and individuality.
Authentic or not, Buell Kazee’s career as a professional musician came to end in 1929, despite offers of tour support for county fairs across the country and membership in the radio cast of WLS’s National Barn Dance in Chicago. His priorities were spiritual, not musical. As he is quoted in the June Appal CD: “I couldn’t go that way. My life was cast in a different direction and there wasn’t any reason to consider it…. I was going to preach all my life.”
He got out just in time. The stock market crash of 1929 sent the Brunswick label into bankruptcy, and by 1933 countless banjo pickers, blues singers, jug bands, and old-time combos would be driven back into obscurity by the Depression. Considering the grandiose and metaphor-prone enthusiams of many fans of this era of American music, one might forgive its end being likened to the natural calamity that finished off the dinosaurs. The outcome of the labels’ collapse was that many performers with gigantic repertoires and talents disappeared back into the folds of the fields, hollers, bottomlands, and assorted Southern locales from whence they came and where they returned to jobs more typical of those environments. Many old-time players like Clarence Ashley and Dock Boggs went into the mines. Bluesman Mississippi John Hurt farmed as a sharecropper. Others, such as Son House and Blind Willie McTell, like Buell Kazee, entered the ministry (with varying degress of success, professional or spiritual). Still others moved north seeking work, which some found, in industry. Many vanished without a trace.
Over the next forty years, Kazee led congregations in Morehead and Lexington, wrote two books on Christian theology, and taught at Lexington Baptist Bible College. Despite a struggle with depression and an agonizing period of uncertainty about his faith after his wife left him in 1940, he surely would have been content with his religious vocation and to keep any singing of the “old songs” a purely private affair.
But in 1952 the Folkways record company released Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-LP set reissuing old-time, blues, gospel, and Cajun music from the pre-Depression 78 era. Up to this point most urban listeners had gotten their folk songs secondhand, from songbooks, summer camps, and spit-shined renditions perfomed by the tuxedoed likes of the Weavers. The Anthology was remarkable because it transmitted American folk material democratically, from primary (if commercial) sources, without mediation. It also helped precipitate the period now known as the Folk Revival.
Smith — eccentric, occultist, avant-garde filmmaker, collector of Ukranian Easter eggs, Seminole quilts, and 78 rpm records — compiled his Anthology as a glorification of the “exotic” in American music: an exploration of the metaphysical space writer Greil Marcus termed “The Old Weird America,” an era not even 30 years gone but separated from the early 1950s by a massive gulf of political, cultural, and technological developments. Smith saw the album as a catalyst for social change that, according to Marcus, was to “distinguish those who responded from those who didn’t.” You either got it or you didn’t, and a handful of dissatisfied young people coming of age in Eisenhower’s America really got it. They responded to Smith’s mytho-anthology by identifying with the gamblers, hobos, and murderers inhabiting the songs therein; recreating those songs to the best of their urban teenage abilities; and fantasizing about the vague deities who howled, moaned, and keened them out.
One of those keening voices was Buell Kazee’s. Harry Smith had included three of his sides — “The Butcher Boy,” “East Virginia,” and “The Wagoner’s Lad — and soon Revival performers like the New Lost City Ramblers were trying their hands at them in Washington Square Park, admirably approximating Kazee’s banjo frailings and tunings. But as the Anthology offered only aural hints as to such specifics of the original performances – Smith was more inclined to elevate them to the realm of musical mysticism (the set’s cover bears the hand of God tuning a monochord) — it occurred to some of the young revivalists that perhaps the best way to learn the Anthology’s songs was to seek out their original singers and players and study at the source; some might still be alive!
Thus, in 1957, Gene Bluestein, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, tracked Kazee down in Lexington and recorded a session that Folkways soon released on LP as Buell Kazee Sings and Plays. It was a process that would be repeated many times over the next decade: young folk music enthusiasts “rediscovering” pre-war recording artists — elderly musicians with predominantly rural backgrounds and perspectives – making albums of them, and introducing them to predominantly young, urban, and middle-class audiences at innumerable folk festivals. While those artists were pleased by the interest their music engendered, and often enjoyed the notoriety they received, such arrangements were not always happy ones.
Buell Kazee, for example, was disappointed with his Folkways album, feeling it had been recorded in too-casual circumstances and did not offer an adequate portrait of his abilities and repertoire. Later, in the Vietnam years, when Kazee shared festival stages with the likes of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, his conservative sensibility was scandalized by the radical social notions that were the calling-cards of the Folk Revival. After all, however much the revivalists honored the Rediscovered as elder statesmen, the latter had reëmerged into the cultural universe of the former, who called the tunes and determined (however inadvertently) how their “contemporary ancestors,” saved from obscurity, were presented.
Buell Kazee died in 1976 and Buell Kazee, conceived as a memorial album for the man, was released on LP that year by June Appal, the imprint of the Appalshop media center in Whitesburg, Kentucky. It was the first attempt — and a successful one, both in its release and now in its reissue — to showcase the broad and nuanced context of Kazee’s music and biography, drawing on recordings made in the 1960s by ex-New Lost City Rambler John Cohen, folk documentarian Mark Wilson (responsible for many other fine recordings of old-time musicians), Kentucky Educational Television, and Buell himself. Here are Child ballads; songs of teamsters and a railroad track-lining gang (the latter composed by Kazee); popular country tunes; a blues interpretation; and two very beautiful hymns, sung accompanied. There are no hillbilly skits included.
That this subtle vindication of Buell Kazee should be provided by Appalshop is fitting, though to be fair, he is not in desperate need of it. The power and beauty of his 1920s recordings are not remotely in dispute. But a legacy of Harry Smith’s “exotic” Anthology, for all its inclusive brilliance, is a fetish of pre-war folk musicians as foggy denizens of a mystical, bestial, primitive place, their ballads and banjo tunes emanating from the crackly surface of an old 78 like some kind of speech-in-tongues or tribal utterance. Appalachia, of course, is used to this sort of exoticism, from (but certainly not beginning with) D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film “The Mountaineer’s Honor,” through “The Beverly Hillbillies,” to the current voyeuristic fascination exerted upon it by the likes of New York City’s Vice magazine.
Appalshop, however, has been working hard in the face of this trend. The media cooperative, founded in 1969, assists Appalachian filmmakers in the telling of their own stories and those of their region, and it has become one of the most visible and highly regarded advocates of rural issues, be they cultural, political, environmental, or aesthetic. Through its films, theater productions, radio broadcasts, and symposiums, Appalshop has proven that the reality of life in Appalachia resists pat generalizations and has gone far in asserting the complexities of the experiences, perspectives, and personalities of Appalachians.
For Buell Kazee was nothing if not complex. Despite the fervor of his calling, nearly his entire life was marked by the struggle to reconcile his love and talent for music with his faith and devotion to his ministry. He disagreed with the assertion that the old mountain ballads should be exempt from sophisticated musical interpretation, as he considered them among the world’s great poetry. And though, as Loyal Jones remarks, rediscovery “was not a totally happy experience for Buell,” it gave him the opportunity to “tell the story of his music, to create a spell,” and to enjoy the ovations of audiences edified and entertained by his performances. These complexities, illustrative of a thoughtful and sensitive man, helped to make Buell Kazee the profound musician he was. Appalshop deserves thanks for giving us the chance to consider him anew.
Buell Kazee, the CD reissue on June Appal, is now available from, among other outlets, http://www.appalshop.org/store/.