2015 Under Review

dog at misissippi

Mississippi Records, Portland, August 2015.

For years I’ve taken solace in a quotation that Ned Rorem ascribed to Colette, in a postcard he wrote in 1988 to composer Daron Hagen: “No one asks you to be happy. Just get your work done.” As a recent YouTuber commented on a video on the Alan Lomax Archive’s channel, “when your sad your sad. when your happy your happy trumps your sad! [sic],” but my productivity—for better or worse and almost definitely worse—has always trumped both my happy and my sad. So here’s a recap of some of the personal high notes of the past year, if for no one else’s purposes but my own, though I’ll be glad if it suits some purpose of yours. 

I had the good fortune to release two records this year with two of my closest friends, Joan Shelley and Jim Elkington. Ambsace took Jim and me over two years to cobble together and get out, which we did through the Paradise of Bachelors label, while Joan’s Over and Even was tracked in a couple days in early January and was released by No Quarter, who’s done my two solo guitar records. You can hear music from these through the guitar music link on top of the page.

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“Dream come true” is among the pattest of the pat phrases, but it comes close to saying how I felt when our 2-CD set of Bruce Jackson’s recordings of Texas prisoner J.B. Smith, No More Good Time In the World For Mewas released by the Dust-to-Digital label in May. I’ll admit this: I stole the 1966 Takoma LP Ever Since I’ve Been A Man Full Grown from my college radio station in 1999. I just had to have it. No music, then or since, has worked on me the way J.B. Smith’s epic compositions have. It’s been a long-time dream of mine to get most if not all of Smith’s other recordings out in the world. You can read my introductory essay about Smitty, his songs, and his circumstances here.

DTD-37_600The music of prisoners—prisoners who, by no means exclusively, but certainly in no small measure were imprisoned on false pretences (the falsest of which being Jim Crow racism)—is a fraught thing to get into, and a much stranger thing for which to be nominated for a Grammy. That happened in early December, when our Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947–1959, a collaboration between the Alan Lomax Archive and Dust-to-Digital, received said nomination in the Best Historical Album category. I’m not so much of a pompous prig to deny that it’s nice to be congratulated for your work, especially when the congratulation comes, like it or not, from the most visible and established of the congratulating entities in what Jelly Roll Morton called “the field of music.” grammyBut it’s crucial, while acknowledging the gratification therein, to note that the thing being congratulated should never have existed at all. This music should never have had to have been made. That it was, however, is, sure, as Lomax said, a testament “to the love of truth and beauty that is a universal human trait,” but it was, at bottom, as Bruce Jackson later flatly put it, “a way of making it in Hell.” So the hope is that the nomination leads to a win (which it won’t, because The Basement Tapes Complete is in the same category) which then leads to an explosion of public interest in and consideration of the brutal history of the Southern penitentiary-farm system which then leads to, who can say, the end of mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses, investment in job-training and creative vocation programs in state prisons, state seizure of for-profit private pens, the instatement of some kind of reparations scheme, etc.? That’d be dreams coming true.

Joan Shelley and I did some fun traveling in the late summer and early fall. She and I played the Pickathon in Oregon (there’s a video here, where we’re joined by pals Dave Gay on bass and Nathan Bowles on drums). Had some good time there with friends old and new and the deep pleasure of playing a couple songs with Tamara from the Weather Station, who put out one of my favorite records this year and all years; also got to stand a few feet from Tinariwen’s bassist, surely the best in the world, as they played the Saturday closing set in the woods and I about burst open with joy. tinariwen
An East Coast tour commenced a few weeks later; one stop was in DC to do this Tiny Desk concert:

We had a fun half-day off sitting around our friend Mary Lattimore‘s ancestral cabin in North Asheville. I found a sleeve for my throat-singing cowboy record among the 78s of Mary’s grandparents; she kindly gave it to me.

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We ended that run with a hometown gig at the Bomhard Theater at the Kentucky Center here in Louisville. Here’s a video from that show, with our friends Will Oldham, John Pedigo, and Sean Johnson joining:

Lord Jim Elkington and I went out in October for some touring with Steve Gunn, who’s got a killer new record out in Spring ’16. It was the first time Jim and I had had the chance to play together over more than a couple consecutive nights and we had a ball honing both our guitar-playing and our stage-banter. The second might have trumped the first, if I may say. Jesse Sheppard, a solid supporter in Philly, put this clip together from a show we did at the First Unitarian Church there.

A venue in Burlington, Vermont, had asked for an advance sketch of our stage plot. Jim, being the creative one of the bunch, obliged. I thought it’d be fun to surprise him with a memento of his handiwork, which I did in the form of 50 t-shirts, salmon-colored and extremely soft. By the grace of god I just barely managed to make my money back on them. Here’s his original artwork and one of the shirts hanging with Jewel, et al., in Northampton, Mass.

We ended the trip back in Chicago on Halloween, where we played a super fun show at Constellation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in attendance. (That is not remotely a vote of confidence in or appreciation of that notably distasteful pol.) That day I’d gone to the Montrose Dog Beach on the lake, which is as good a spot as it gets and where I met a particularly cool canine crew.

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Back on earth, not long thereafter, four years of effort came to fruition with The Lomax Kentucky Recordings, an online exhibition produced in collaboration between the Lomax Archive, Berea College Special Collections and Archives, University of Kentucky Special Collections, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. It features nearly 70 hours of Eastern Kentucky folk music and lore, collected under the auspices of the Library between 1933 and 1942, material that I’ve been working for the past several years to digitally edit, speed- and pitch-correct, and catalog. It launched in October, in tandem with Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music. Plenty kinks are still in need of working out, but I hope not so many as to compromise enjoyment of the site and the many, many hours of music on it.

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Had the very real honor to participate in the Library of Congress’ Botkin Lecture series in June. My talk was, however hamfistedly (it was a compromise), called Listen to Our Story: Alan Lomax, Folk Producer/Folk Promoter.” They shot a video of it:

2015 has been the Lomax Centennial. He was born in Austin in 1915, and there were a few events throughout the year that commemorated his centenary. There could have been so much more; with a proper operating budget and some more staff, we might have launched an exhibition, or did a weekly podcast survey of his seven-decade career, or produced a 100-song compilation to be released sometime in ’15. And we almost made it! But, things being what they are—particularly with the bizarre and unkempt state of vinyl pressing—that 100-song compilation, Root Hog Or Die: 100 Years, 100 Songs—An Alan Lomax Centennial Tribute, Centennial coverwill be available instead in the first few weeks of Lomax’s 101st year. Over the course of many months I compiled the thing with the help and perspective of Anna Lomax Wood and Don Fleming at the Archive, selecting 100 songs (ssh actually 101! thus perhaps justifying the delay) from over 50 years of Lomax’s field-trips. Mississippi Records has packed them into a 6-LP box with a complete recording chronology, Lomax’s An Appeal for Cultural Equity manifesto, and an introductory essay of mine. They’re making 1000 of them, maybe 2000, so if this is of interest to you, keep eyes peeled early into 2016. Note that despite the handle shared by this site and that release, that of the latter was not my idea, although admittedly I didn’t fight it. Over 50 of the 101 songs are previously unreleased. If I had to choose my favorite, I suppose I’d choose this one. (Please disregard “unidentified woman.” Her name was Alice Gibbs, of blessed memory.)

Also tying itself in with the Lomax Centennial—and the repatriation project with the Lomax Kentucky recordings—was this year’s Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival at the Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky. I was excited to be invited to participate, which I did in one particularly memorable instance as the M.C. of a round-robin of younger Kentucky singers performing songs from the Lomax Kentucky collections (or close enough to them). Participating were Brett Ratliff, Karly Dawn Milner, Kevin Howard, Sam Gleaves, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, with whom I performed two songs from the songbook of Little Daugh Henson, late of Botto, on Billy’s Branch, in Clay County (you can find all of these in the Lomax KY site above). The more famous of these, one of the first recorded versions of “The Moonshiner”—containing a far more reasonable text than most other versions (obviously the titular moonshiner would more likely go to the grocery than to the barroom to drink with his friends)—was shot by filmmaker Tom Hansell.

Brett sang a deeply affecting setting of an Old Regular Baptist lining hymn with banjo accompaniment; Sam Gleaves led the singing of “Now Is the Cool of the Day” in honor of the recently departed Jean Ritchie; Karly Dawn performed an unaccompanied hymn as sung by the Holiness elder G.D. Vowell; and Kevin Howard, a Whitesburg native, played banjo tunes learned from the 1959 Lomax recordings of Whitesburg’s Ada Combs. It was a wonderful experience, and I recommend looking all of these folks and their music up if you are unfamiliar with them or it. (This recent profile of Sam is especially worth your time.)

I laid paws on some good records this year, including three very great (and rare) 78s. Two were known quantities to me, though I certainly never thought I’d come to possess them. The first is the only record made by the Garland brothers, Ashley and Hanford, and Charley Grinstead, alongside an uncredited woman named Flora Hutton—all of whom came from Whitley and Knox Counties, Kentucky—at the 1928 Columbia sessions in Johnson City, Tenn. It’s the only hillbilly record I know of from Kentucky that features a bowed bass, but far more remarkably: according to Tony Russell, from research published in his liner notes to Bear Family’s Johnson City Sessions box, “Ashley Garland’s daughter Ethel Slusher remembers her uncle Hanford telling her that Grinstead played both the violin, conventionally, and at the same time the bass fiddle—with his toes.”

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It was the least well-selling record from those ’28 sessions, appearing in 1931, deep into the Depression, when just 737 copies were sold. Here’s this side. The flip, “Just Beyond the River,” from a master in much better condition (presumably in Rich Nevins’ collection), is here.

In South-central Kentucky, I found a record by the peerless Mississippi group, the Carter Brothers and Son. It’s the rarest of the extremely rare Vocalions made by fiddlin’ George and Andrew and George’s guitarist son Jimmie, one of just a few known copies, and like everything else they did, just unaccountably superb. These sides were already on YouTube here and here.

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The third record was an eBay auction on which I was the only bidder and was flying blind. It’s a late entry in Okeh’s 8000 race series, and an H.C Speir joint—the talent scout who tapped Skip James, Willie Brown, Charley Patton, Geeshie Wiley, etc., to make commercial records in the ‘20s and ‘30s. This group, representing an African Methodist Episcopal school in Jackson, Mississippi (the first independently established black college in the state), that shuttered in 1965, cut only two sides for Okeh at the 1930 sessions the label held at Jackson’s St. James Hotel. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s the only extant copy. It arrived at my house just days after the act of racial terrorism that transpired at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., in June, which imbued the already staggeringly affecting performances with something indelibly sad, and sublime. Here’s the Gilead side.

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Found the wonderful photo below in an antique shop in Southwest Virginia in February. It was mounted and framed by at the Casa Santa Fatima in Sao Paolo. On the back is written “Old and New to Jim from Walt 8/’48.” Hey, happy new year.

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