27 October, 2009

"Fatal Flower Garden" - Nelstone's Hawaiians

Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Two: "Fatal Flower Garden" performed by Nelstone's Hawaiians . "Vocal duet with guitars." Recorded in Atlanta on November 30, 1929. Original issue Victor V-401938.

Despite the group's name, Hubert Nelson (vocal and steel guitar) and James Touchstone (vocal and guitar) were not, in fact, Hawaiians. They were from southern Alabama. But they were country music pioneers, being among the first to use the steel guitar in a folk or country setting. They were also among the first to record the country standard "Just Because" (later to be performed by Elvis Presley during his debut recording sessions at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee). The practice of laying a guitar on one's lap and using a bar to slide up and down the strings had been in use in the Hawaiian Islands for over a century before coming to the mainland in the early 20th century, sparking a craze for Hawaiian music and encouraging the incorporation of slide and steel guitars, as well as ukuleles, into various styles of music. Certainly, country music was among the most affected genres, with lap and pedal steel guitars becoming ubiquitous by mid-century, although blues has also incorporated the slide technique.

"Fatal Flower Garden" is a variation of Child Ballad 155, "Sir Hugh, or the Jew's Daughter." A possible historical basis for the song may be found in The Annals of Waverley, dating from 1255. In this account, nine-year-old Hugh Lincoln is abducted and murdered by Jews, resulting in punitive action being taken against the Jewish community. Child dates the story back to 5th century Syria, however, and cites variations from throughout Europe (including an incident in Spain said to be the catalyst for the Spanish Inquisition). The reputation of Romani people (or Gypsies) as child abductors is at least as old as that of Jews, and the appearance of the "Gypsy lady" in the song is not surprising. The "other" has always been a convenient scapegoat, leading all the way up to the shabby treatment of Arabs and Sihks in the days following 9/11.

It rained, it poured, it rained so hard,
It rained so hard all day,
That all the boys in our school
Came out to toss and play.

They tossed their ball again so high,
Then again so low,
They tossed it into a flower garden
Where no one was allowed to go.

Up stepped this gypsy lady,
All dressed in yellow and green;
"Come in, come in, my pretty little boy,
And get your ball again,"

"I won't come in, I shan't come in,
Without my playmates all;
I'll go t'my father 'n tell him about it-
That'll cause tears to fall"

She first showed him an apple seed
Then again a gold ring;
Then she showed him a diamond,
That enticed him in.

She took him by his lily-white hand,
She led him through the hall,
She put him into an upper room,
Where no one could hear him call.

"Oh take these finger-rings off my fingers,
Smoke them with your breath;
If any of my friends should call for me,
Tell them that I'm at rest."

"Bury the Bible at my head,
The Testament at my feet;
If my dear mother should call for me,
Tell her that I'm asleep."

"Bury the Bible at my feet,
The Testament at my head;
If my dear father should call for me,
Tell him that I am dead."

In this song, we see the first example of Smith's fondness for placing songs with recurrent themes and imagery side by side. The term "lily white hand" appears (see "Henry Lee") as does the color green (the "merry green land" of "Henry Lee" and the Gypsy lady "all dressed in yellow and green"). In both "Henry Lee" and "Fatal Flower Garden," the villain is a woman who kills by stealth and deception (although the killer in "Fatal Flower Garden" lacks a motive, unlike the killer in "Henry Lee"). The trope of the dead or dying dictating their last wishes will be seen again in "The Butcher's Boy."

Note: "Fatal Flower Garden" has the distinction of being the only selection from the Anthology to also appear in Ulysses by James Joyce. The song appears in episode seventeen (often referred to as "Ithaca" by Joyce scholars) in the following passage:

Did the host encourage his guest to chant in a modulated voice a strange legend on an allied theme?
Reassuringly, their place where none could hear them talk being secluded, reassured, the decocted beverages, allowing for subsolid residual sediment of a mechanical mixture, water plus sugar plus cream plus cocoa, having been consumed.

Recite the first (major) part of this chanted legend?

Little Harry Hughes and his schoolfellows all
Went out for to play ball.
And the very first ball little Harry Hughes played
He drove it o'er the jew's garden wall.
And the very second ball little Harry Hughes played
He broke the jew's windows all.

How did the son of Rudolph receive this first part?
With unmixed feeling. Smiling, a jew, he heard with pleasure and saw the unbroken kitchen window.

Recite the second part (minor) of the legend.

Then out there came the jew's daughter
And she all dressed in green.
'Come back, come back, you pretty little boy,
And play your ball again.'

'I can't come back and I won't come back
Without my schoolfellows all,
For if my master he did hear
He'd make it a sorry ball.'

She took him by the lilywhite hand
And led him along the hall
Until she led him to a room
Where none could hear him call.

She took a penknife out of her pocket
And cut off his little head,
And now he'll play his ball no more
For he lies among the dead.

How did the father of Millicent receive this second part?
With mixed feelings. Unsmiling, he heard and saw with wonder a jew's daughter, all dressed in green.
(Joyce, Ulysses, 690-691)

Special thanks to Allen Lowe - musician and editor of the multi-disc That Devilin' Tune box sets - for pointing out that the photo I had posted of Nelstone's Hawaiians was, in fact, a photo of Darby and Tarlton, a South Carolina duo. The photo has been removed and replaced. As I have been unable to find a picture of Nelstone's Hawaiians, I have replaced it with a medieval woodcut depicting a child abducted by Death. If anyone has or knows of a photo of Nelstone's Hawaiians, please email me at alexander1228@gmail.com.

Here's a version of "Fatal Flower Garden" performed by folk musician Raymond Crooke as "Little Sir Hugh." This version is quite long and contains a good deal more detail than appears in the Nelstone's Hawaiians version. It is possible that their version was deliberately shortened to fit on one side of a ten-inch record.

Download and listen to Nelstone's Hawaiians - "Fatal Flower Garden"

25 October, 2009

"Henry Lee" - Dick Justice

Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track One: "Henry Lee" performed by Dick Justice. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Chicago on May 20, 1929. Original issue Brunswick 367.

When considering the music in the Anthology, one immediately recognizes that each selection consists of layers of meaning and narrative. Each story has a story of its own. There is, as discussed in my previous post, the story of Harry Smith, who compiled the Anthology for Moe Asch of Folkways Records. Then there are the stories of the individual singers. Finally, there are the songs themselves. In examining the this music, we will examine all of these stories in an attempt to glean meaning and it put the music in its proper context.

In his book, Invisible Republic, music critic Greil Marcus coined a term in reference to the Anthology which has been overused to the point of cliche: "The old, weird America." In my opinion, Marcus is guilty of romanticizing and exoticizing the music of the '20s and '30s, which is simply the flip-side of the condescension of the record companies which led them to label the music of poor whites as "hillbilly" and that of poor blacks as "race" music. This music may sound "old" and "weird" to ears accustomed to music recorded after the advent of magnetic tape (which put an end to the disc cutting technique of the 78 era), but it was simply the music sung by the people of the American Southeast. Isolated in the mountains of West Virginia, the Mississippi Delta, the bayous of Louisiana, the plains of Texas, or the Lost Provinces of North Carolina before the ascension of mass media, music took on the character of the people who sang it. This regionalism made performers in one part of the country distinct from their neighbors of even a few counties over. The blues singers of Memphis would not be confused with their peers in Atlanta, even if the music both were singing was recognizably "blues." And while we may mourn the passing of a lost world, we should not make the mistake of romanticizing it. The lives many of these singers lived was largely one of hard work, trouble and tragedy. This reality was reflected in the songs they chose to sing.

One more comment before we begin: All of the music presented on the Anthology was recorded by American record labels for commercial use. No field recordings were used (for some excellent examples of field recordings, see the collected works of John and Alan Lomax, Dr. Harry Oster's recordings of Robert Pete Williams, and the amazing work of Art Rosenbaum, whose two volume The Art of Field Recording is available on the Dust-to-Digital label). These records were made for the purpose of enticing poor whites and blacks to buy record players, the reasoning being that such consumers would want to hear familiar music. The music of poor white was sold as "Old Time" music (the songs themselves being old at the time they were recorded) or "Hillbilly" music. Black music was sold as "Race" music (the theory being that people would not buy music that was labeled as "Black" or "Negro"). In his notes for the set, Smith carefully recorded the original record label and matrix number for each selection, but he did not make any mention of race. It was important to Smith that black and white music be presented side by side, and even hoped to encourage confusion on the subject.

Born in Logan County, West Virginia in 1906, Richard "Dick" Justice spent most of his life working as a coal miner. He recorded ten sides for Brunswick in 1929, including this version of "Henry Lee," sometimes recorded as "Love Henry."

Francis James Child included this song as #68 (under the title of "Young Hunting") in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The song was selected by Smith to open his Anthology because it was the lowest numbered Child Ballad in the set (despite the fact that Smith didn't think it was a "good record"). Much has been made over the years of Smith's sequencing, with many observers pointing out that the songs in the set are not in any apparent order (except for Smith's tendency to juxtapose thematically related material). While this may be true in the other volumes, the "Ballads" volume is sequenced in chronological order...not in order of recording, but by the age of the song in question. "Henry Lee" dates to the Middle Ages and has its origins in the British Isles (as do all of the ballads collected by Child). It tells the story of a young man (a knight in some versions) who spurns a lady's affections and is murdered by her in revenge.

"Get down, get down, little Henry Lee, and stay all night with me.
The very best lodging I can afford will be fare better'n thee."
"I can't get down, and I won't get down, and stay all night with thee,
For the girl I have in that merry green land, I love far better'n thee."

She leaned herself against a fence, just for a kiss or two;
With a little pen-knife held in her hand, she plugged him through and through.
"Come all you ladies in the town, a secret for me keep,
With a diamond ring held on my hand I never will forsake."

"Some take him by his lily-white hand, some take him by his feet.
We'll throw him in this deep, deep well, more than one hundred feet.
Lie there, lie there, loving Henry Lee, till the flesh drops from your bones.
The girl you have in that merry green land still waits for your return."

"Fly down, fly down, you little bird, and alight on my right knee.
Your cage will be of purest gold, in deed of property."
"I can't fly down, or I won't fly down, and alight on your right knee.
A girl would murder her own true love would kill a little bird like me."

"If I had my bend and bow, my arrow and my string,
I'd pierce a dart so nigh your heart your warble would be in vain."
"If you had your bend and bow, your arrow and your string,
I'd fly away to the merry green land and tell what I have seen."

Note the striking use of color in the song (Henry Lee's "lily white hand", the "merry green land" where Henry's love resides, the cage of "purest gold"). Note also the talking bird which threatens to expose the murderess. Justice's performance of the song is detached, although there is an occasional catch in his voice. His performance on guitar is simple but effective.

Later versions have been recorded by Peggy Seeger, John Jacob Niles, Bob Dylan, and Nick Cave.

Here's a live version of Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey performing the version of "Henry Lee" they recorded for Cave's Murder Ballads LP.

Download and listen to Dick Justice - "Henry Lee"

21 October, 2009

Who We Are and Why We Are Here

"Civilized man thinks out his difficulties, at least he thinks he does. Primitive man dances out his difficulties." - R. R. Marrett

The Anthology of American Folk Music
was first published by Folkways Records in 1952. It was compiled and edited by an extraordinary individual named Harry Smith. Smith was born in 1923 and died in 1991, shortly after being awarded a special Grammy for the Anthology. Upon receiving the award, he remarked "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music."

Smith's achievements go far beyond the Anthology. He was a painter, a filmmaker, an archivist, an anthropologist, an occultist, a famous mooch, and the intimate friend of Allen Ginsberg and the Fugs. This blog is not about Harry Smith.

This blog is about the extraordinary music that Smith gathered together into what is perhaps the most significant musical release of the 20th century. Upon its release, the Anthology sparked a boom in folk music that launched the careers of such notable artists as Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, John Fahey and Eric Von Schmidt. Dave Van Ronk wrote, "We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated. They say that in the 19th-century British Parliament, when a member would begin to quote a classical author in Latin the entire House would rise in a body and finish the quote along with him. It was like that."

I first encountered the Anthology in the late '90s when I read Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, later republished as The Old, Weird America, a book on Bob Dylan and the Band's 1967 recordings collectively known as "the Basement Tapes." I picked up the book because I was a Dylan fan and I was interested in the "Basement Tapes." I knew nothing of Harry Smith or of this collection of reissued music from the '20s and '30s. When I started reading the chapter on the Anthology, I was mesmerized. Marcus made it sound incredible, which I mean in the most literal sense of the word. It did not seem credible that such an amazing and influential album could exist without my having heard of it. It also seemed unlikely that such an artifact was still in print, much less on CD. Fortunately, a friend of mine was a grad student at the Eastman School of Music and therefore had access to the Sibley Music Library. I asked if he would take me and he agreed.

When I first sat down to listen to the first disc of the Anthology, I had no idea what to expect, but I did have a list of songs Marcus had mentioned in his book that sounded interesting. The LP copies of the three Anthology sets were from a later reissue and featured a Depression Era Ben Shahn Farm Administration photograph in place of Smith's original cover art.

Nevertheless, it was with a trembling hand that I placed the stylus in the groove of the first track and began to listen. I would like to say that I was immediately transported, but that would be a lie. The truth is that it sounded like scratchy old country music to me. It wasn't until I reached Clarence Ashley's recording of "The House Carpenter" (a song I already knew from Bob Dylan's recording on the first Bootleg Series set) that I began to get it. "The House Carpenter," a Child Ballad about a ghost who spirits his unfaithful lover away to her doom, had always creeped me out in Dylan's version. Ashley's version (which leaves out the supernatural element) was even more chilling. I was hooked.

Through my friend, I borrowed the three volumes (although I didn't own a turntable at the time) and compiled a tape of highlights using my friend's stereo. Not having time to listen to the whole thing, I was largely guided my the list of songs I had gotten from Marcus's book and also by happenstance. I listened to that 90 minute tape over and over again over the course of the next several months. I shared it with everybody I knew, and I saw something amazing happen: Every time I played the tape for someone, they immediately asked for a copy. Something in this music intrigued people. They wanted to hear more.

Eventually, I learned that Smithsonian Records (which had acquired Folkways) had released a six CD box set of the Anthology. As it happened, a beloved aunt had recently passed away and had left me a small amount of money with the specific instruction that I was not to use the money for anything mundane. I was to spend it on something "fun." One of the things I bought with that money was the Anthology.

That was many years ago. I have listened to the three volumes of Smith's original set countless times, as well as the fourth volume (compiled from Smith's notes) released at the dawn of the 21st century on John Fahey's Revenant Records. I have internalized this music and carry it around with me at all times. Which brings us to this blog.

The purpose of this blog is simple: Just as I played my compilation tape for friends, I wish to share the Anthology with as many people as possible. The idea here is that I will share and review one track of all four volumes of the Anthology at a time for as long as it takes to get through the whole thing.

The music on the set was recorded between 1927 and 1934 and is therefore long out of copyright. I do not, however, wish to give the idea that I am simply giving this music away. Ultimately, it is my hope that whoever reads this blog and hears this music will go out and get themselves a copy of the Anthology. Not only did Harry Smith compile the music for the original Folkways sets, but he also wrote and laid out a booklet that accompanies the set. This is not to be missed. In addition, the Smithsonian CD reissue includes an additional book that goes in to further detail on each track and features a host of essays and reminiscences.

The blog will be updated on Sundays and Tuesdays. I look forward to this project and to sharing this wonderful music with all of you.

The "In The In Interest of Full Disclosure" Department:

The title of this blog has been borrowed from a wonderful book by Nick Toches, which may be obtained at Amazon.com and at other fine booksellers. I would like to make it plain (for legal reasons) that I am NOT Nick Toches, nor am I affiliated with him in any way, shape or form. Other than a shared interest in old music, this blog has absolutely nothing whatever to do with Mr. Toches' fine book. Toches' book is a biography (of sorts) of the blackface comedian Emmett Miller. I recommend it highly.