Monday, December 8, 2008

American Primitives

If raw, old time music is your poison of choice, look no further than the two volumes of American Primitive. Released a few years back on the late John Fahey´s quality label Revenant, these collections are every inch as essential as Harry Smith´s famed Anthology Of American Folk Music. Beautiful packaging, exemplary liner notes, and what´s more: a truckload of obscure but timeless musical treasure.

The first volume is subtitled Raw Pre-War Gospel 1926 - ´36, and features no less than 26 rare tracks by artists with one foot on earth and one in heaven. Fahey calls these songs examples of ecstatic - as opposed to contemplative - religion, before stating that ´...underneath it all I hear pan pipes tooting and a cloven hoof beating time.´ Amen to that. The double disc second volume, subtitled Pre-War Revenants 1897 - 1939, features less Jesus and more hard blues, and is possibly even better than its predecessor. An overwhelming maelstrom of music that will suck you right in.

The congregation will now rise for two tasters from Vol. 1. Hallelujah, brothers and sisters! Blind Roosevelt Graves And Brother hailed from Hattiesburg, Mississippi and recorded this gem in ´36. Dig that fluent vocal interaction between Roosevelt and his brother Aaron. And for you guitar freaks out there: you´re hearing a metal National here. My lordy!

Blind Roosevelt Graves And Brother - Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus) MP3

Not a lot is known about the good Rev. Ware, and believe me, I searched. So I guess we´ll never know if Ware was really a man of the cloth, or a blues singer performing pseudonymously to score a hit in the religious market, as happened quite often back then. The great Charley Patton recorded some sides as Elder J.J. Hadley for instance, which incidentally are present on this volume as well. Whatever the case, Ware and family sang a mean gospel.

Rev. I.B. Ware With Wife And Son - I Wouldn´t Mind Dying (But I Gotta Go By Myself) MP3

Now let´s preach the blues with a couple of amazing tracks from Vol. 2. The masterful Bo-Lita was recorded in ´27 in the windy city of Chicago. From the booklet, as I couldn´t possibly say it better myself: ´Bo-Lita. Rhymes with mean mistreater. Brown´s quivering falsetto thrills (Yay-eeeee...) tail off into the stratosphere, letting us know it´s no put-on: this brand new game will make you weep, it will make you moan.´ Bo-Lita refers to a game of chance commonly held at road shows and carnivals btw.

Kid Brown And His Blue Band - Bo-Lita MP3

The Mississippi Moaner: what a wonderful pseudonym. Whoooo! Isaiah Nettles, for that was his real name, put this to wax in Jackson, Mississippi in ´35. "Didn´t make me mad ´til you broke my diamond ring... hey mama, won´t be back no mo´..."

The Mississippi Moaner - It´s Cold In China Blues MP3

The liner notes call Geeshie Wiley, who´s present on this collection with no less than four impressive songs, ´perhaps the most tantalizing phantom of Mississippi blues´. Few details about her life and musical career are known, while her records are extremely scarce. Last Kind Words Blues (1930) is a must-hear beauty.

Geeshie Wiley - Last Kind Words Blues MP3

´Man whistles past the graveyard on his long walk home, imagines that his own heart stops and his hands get cold. But like in some Ambrose Bierce story he hears the church bells tone and the unbearable sound of nails driving home the coffin lid - his coffin lid! - and he sees two white horses poised in the line. Coffin gets lowered with golden chain. He shudders. Gets home, hugs his kids...´ I told you these liner notes were fantastic. So are the Two Poor Boys and their ´31 memento mori blues Two White Horses In A Line.

Two Poor Boys - Two White Horses In A Line MP3


boyhowdy said...

Wonderful exploration here, and some stunning song. Worth noting, though: in more modern musical usage, the term American Primitive refers to a guitar music genre "started by" John Fahey in the late 50s; among others, Gillian Welch places herself in this camp as well.

Those who hear the confluence of the two supposedly disparate forms (Fahey's primitivism was supposed to have been a call to the French Primitive painters, not to the music you post here) and feel like adding to the cultural mind a bit might consider fixing the Wikipedia entry on American Primitivism, perhaps.

Ramone666 said...

Glad you like it Boyhowdy, and thanks for the comment on the genre originated by Fahey. I had totally forgotten about that, although I´m a big fan - I´ve even got his two books. Nice irony, calling this series by the name of the genre you once started.

ib said...

Educational post this, ramone666; the only one here I'm familiar with is Geeshie Wiley - credited on the "Crumb" soundtrack as 'Geechie", the alternative spelling.

And, yeah, great liner notes.

"It's Cold in China Blues": what a great title, as is the Moaner's moniker!

. said...

If you're interested in comparing this old Americana material with some modern-age musical talent, check out Beck's version of Two White Horses in a Line, which he titles, "Farewell Ride", found on the album Guero.

I'm no expert, but my intuition tells me Beck's music, while it isn't necessarily brilliant, should be considered
as crucial to its era, as it is continually developing and adapting to popular stylistic tendencies. In short, he's an artist well aware of his predecessors and contemporaries with an intuitive style.


Ramone666 said...

Spot on Luke, Beck sure is such an artist. And as Farewell Ride is not a straight cover of Two White Horses, I´m sure he´s familiar with the original. My only problem with the guy is that I think his career post-Odelay has been rather stagnant, artistically speaking. But I haven´t written him off yet, as I can´t imagine a genuine talent like he undoubtedly is will not produce another cutting-edge album.