Monday, January 31, 2011

The Broadside Ballad by Leslie Shepard



The following quote comes from page 105 of The Broadside Ballad by Leslie Shepard, a book we sold today. He is referring to the descent of a ballad from its "noble" beginnings to the custody of hoarders and collectors. I found words which ring true to the task we have appointed ourselves at moneyblows books and music

“This, then, is the last descent of balladry. An ancient and noble inspiration flowered with the seasons in the countryside, passed to beggar, rogue and mountebank, was sold for pennies in the streets, finally stolen and hoarded as dry leaves in the libraries of fanatical collectors. Yet it is the same impulse that runs through the whole of our great ballad story. The range of human emotions is the same, whether a man writes a song or a thesis. One man earns an honest living, another cheats for pennies; one dies for a song, another sings for his supper. Life is a gigantic affair of many intricate and contradictory aspects, and if our elemental origins seem more heroic than the everyday passions and topics of civilization, they are none the less only part of the same picture.
The secret of the Universe may not be bought for a penny, but it is on these sheets and in the commerce that goes with them. The profound and the trivial in human affairs have always coexisted, and the real meaning of life lies in the truth that transcends both. All our affairs, large or small, are swept away in the great tide of history, and the passing pageant of life itself is as insubstantial as a dream. Everything that belongs to the everyday world of the senses is a moment only in our human consciousness, essentially ephemeral—like old scraps of paper or the words of a ballad half remembered.
There are as many ballads as pebbles on a beach, and they are of all sorts and shapes. Just as we collect new experiences and compare them with old ones, so we collect old and new songs to learn a little more about life. And collect we must, before these fragments pass away.
In 1892, The Rev. S. Baring-Gould, a great collector of folk songs and broadside ballads, wrote:
‘It is but a matter of a few years and the broadside will be as extinct as the Mammoth and the Dodo, only to be found in the libraries of collectors. Already sheets that fetched a ha’penny thirty years ago are cut down the middle, and each half fetches a shilling. The garlands are worth more than their weight in gold. Let him that is wise collect whilst he may.’”

Here's one of the ballads illustrated in Shepard's book. It adds a new range of meaning to a familiar song such as Lefty Frizzell's If you've got the money honey, I've got the time. This ballad is from the 18th century:




One morning of late, as I walk’d in great state
I heard a maiden making sad moan
I ask’d her the matter, she said, sir, I won’t flatter
I am weary of tumbling alone

O that is pity, that a maiden so pretty
And the young men so idle are grown
But a curse light upon it, and worse may come on it
If I leave you a tumbling alone

O then, says the sailor, can you fancy me
I have got gold, and got silver in store
I have brought from the sea, such a fine remedy
That will ease you of tumbling alone

Oh then, says the fair maid, if you can fancy me,
I have got plenty of money in store,
No more cross the main, to fight France nor Spain,
Nor go where the cannons loud roar

O then, says the sailor, I can fancy you,
As long as your money doth last,
She grows thick in the waist, and thin in the face,
But the sailor he steers off at last

As down in the garden there grows a red rose,
I’ll pluck it, and call it my own,
In an hour it will fade, and so will a maid,
That’s weary of tumbling alone

Friday, January 28, 2011

Frankie McWhorter: Cowboy Fiddler in Bob Wills' Band

This excellent narrative, as told to John R. Erickson and published in 1997, offers some great commentary on Bob Wills' playing out of meter.
To quote from p. 34: "one time the band was recording a song and one of the musicians quit playing. Bob asked him what was wrong. 'Bob, you're playing that song out of meter.' Bob asked him what he meant by that. 'Well, you're holding that note thirteen beats and you ought to be holding it just four.' And he played it and showed Bob what he meant.
"Bob said, 'That's the way I feel it. That's the way I do it, whether it's right or wrong, and that's the way we're going to do it. If the Lord had written the first music, I wouldn't question you at all, but a man wrote the first music and for all you know, I may be smarter than he was. If you don't want to play it like this, put your fiddle up and be gone.' And the old boy left.
From page 38:
"A lot of those tunes were out of meter. When he found a note he liked, he'd hang on to it."
From page 61:
"He'd play out of tune on occasion and he'd break meter quite often. The people who were studied and professional knew that they were right and he was wrong. But what they didn't take into consideration was that he was Bob Wills, and he was signing the checks."
Frankie McWhorter was a Texas Playboy in the 1950s and 60s. Regarding his "out of tune" comment, he refers elsewhere in the book to twin-fiddling with Bob, where he played the same notes out of tune each time, because he liked it that way,and Frankie had to learn those notes and positions, as well as emulate Bob Wills' long bow technique.
I enjoyed so many of these details in the book, as they help articulate Bob Wills' blues and jazz interests, which stood him apart from all other fiddlers, and in his fame, stood him apart from all other country bands. The term "western swing," which to some seems archaic and descriptive of a certain pragmatic approach to dance music, seems to me more than ever a term of high esteem and honor, standing on its own and not just a hybrid of other things.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Woody Guthrie, Big Bend, and making it all up


Woody Guthrie's Seeds of Man was inspired by a 1931 trip the author remembered.... or mis-remembered... in 1947-8. The novel wasn't published until 1976.
By evidence of this rambling tome, Woody Guthrie wrote more about his 1931 trip to Big Bend, than about any other single topic. Although, that may be unfairly comparing songs to prose.
A visitor to the mysterious border wilderness known as Big Bend, where Seeds of Man is set, will not quickly grasp how formative was Guthrie's own visit. He was an impressionable young man in 1931 whose travels thus far had been limited to Oklahoma and Texas. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie took his family gift of music and optimism farther than any Guthrie had before. It some ways, it could be said this magical trip started it all.
In 1941 he was part of the propaganda effort for the Coulee and Bonneville dams on the Columbia River. 26 ballads in 30 days, he had so much creativity coming out of him. His autobiographical novel Bound for Glory came in 1943. As he began to feel the curse of Huntington's Disease in the late 1940's, he typed like a madman on a novel he originally titled Study Butte,calling it "An Experience Lived and Dreamed," the chronicle of a search to look for his family's lost silver claim in the Christmas Mountains.
According to family legend, Guthrie patriarch Jeremiah Pearsall Guthrie, "Jerry P.," had a brother Gid who owned much of what became the Sam Nail ranch. The remains of Sam Nail's ranch buildings, including a still-pumping water well which feeds a desert oasis, were at my last visit (20+ years ago),located a mere five minute walk from Ross Maxwell Drive in the park, clearly marked for tourists.
Jerry P. helped out intermittently on Gid's ranch, chasing cows and guarding his property against Mexican raids. On one of these forays, he discovered ore while stopping to take a drink from a mineral spring. It was assayed as $100 of silver per ton, $10 of gold, plus copper, zinc, mercury and other minerals. Jerry P. left his name on a piece of paper wired to a pile of flat rocks to mark his claim.
Instead of returning to work the claim, he was distracted by news of free Oklahoma land being given to native Americans whose names appeared on tribal rolls. Jerry P.'s second wife had been one eighth Creek, so he figured he had a shot. He moved back to Oklahoma, didn't get the land, and died before he could return to Big Bend.
When I talked with Guthrie biographer Joe Klein about this story, he said, "the idea that Jerry P. Guthrie had discovered a rich vein of silver in the mountains near Uncle Gid's ranch was one of the least likely and most persistent of family legends."
So persistent in fact, that Woody, his father Charley, brother Roy, and uncle Jeff Davis Guthrie, went on a "strange, joyous, memorable debacle" in search of the wealth.
As Seeds of Man describes, they drove from Pampa, Texas to the desert in 2 days in a broken down old Model T. As they drove into Terlingua they saw the mansion of the owner of the quicksilver mine, on the right up on a hill, where it stood when last seen. At my decades-ago visit, the building was occupied by Pam Weir, proprietor of the Desert Deli & Diner in the Terlingua ghost town.
Down below, he saw the adobe shacks of the mine workers, an image that would stick with Woody Guthrie.
Over to the east from Terlingua were the Chisos Mountains, which he would describe from memory 16 years later in his 842-page manuscript.
As the story goes, they came into Terlingua, wended their way to Study Butte, and found their way to Sam Nail's ranch. The tattered maps treasured in the Guthrie family outlined the location of the mine from Nail Ranch. Sam and his brother had found a small pocket of native quicksilver while walking to Alpine through the Christmas Mountains. Although the Nail entourage had been unable to locate the quicksilver pocket on their return trip, word of their discovery eventually led to the Wright mine and

the development of the Terlingua mining district, which extended 16 miles from Study Butte west to Lajitas, and was 5 miles north to south. When the Guthries met up with Sam Nail, they agreed to share the wealth.
Even though traces of cinnabar, or quicksilver ore, had been reported early as 1889, large scale production began around 1903 with founding of the Chisos Mining Company, and was a linchpin of the local economy until 1946 (and then again for a short time in the 1960s).
Of the novel, Joe Klein told me, "he made it all up.... it was maybe that one trip when he was really close to his dad and his uncle, and it was the kind of thing that was mostly bereft in his childhood."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Michael Feinstein's American Songbook DVD set




This Three-Park Series on PBS is subtitled "Cultural History, Intimate Biography, and a front-row seat at great live performances." It is all that and more. The cultural history revolves around how the "American Songbook" was once focused on movies and plays, how it became a propaganda arm of the Allies in WWII, and how things changed after that war.

The intimate biography is of Michael Feinstein, not that intimate perhaps, but focusing on his acquisition of artifacts from the 20th century American Songbook, in order to keep the 21st century from forgetting them. This is the part that engaged me the most. Feinstein knocks on doors of collections both grandly indexed and-- just as likely-- sadly dilapidated. He zeroes right in on items of merit, if you believe the DVD, but editing must have helped. Though his scouting is far more glamorous than my own similar journeys, the end result is, for old musical memorabilia, the same. A temporary reprieve from the landfill.

People just don't have time to see what's on those old tape reels, acetates, records. Confronted with hundreds of pieces of historic sheet music from a relative, the inheritor is often overwhelmed. But I'm not. Michael Feinstein is most certainly not. We wade through these things because "lost" and "lost but not forgotten" are basically the same, in our narrow view. As Nicholson Baker has written, preservation of originals is something to be done for its own sake, even after all the proper digitizing has been duly accomplished.

Disk Two has two hours of archival clips showing some of the wartime uses of music for propaganda, such as Army sing-a-long films (long before Mitch Miller). The care taken in song delivery and offering the singer as a surrogate for the girl back home is striking. It is easy to imagine Frank Capra directing these. Other gorgeous live clips include Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s (Feinstein has a show called The Sinatra Project), and examples from Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Rosemary Clooney, Alice Faye and many more.

The clips of Michael Feinstein's show are also very good, showing a performer in complete command of his material. Interestingly, his approach to romance, though fully drawn, lacks a female counterpart. He is only shown singing either alone or with other guys. I miss the guy-girl thing from network television in the 1950s and 60s. Those made-for-TV duos were strange bedfellows often as not, but the song seemed more "acted" sometimes.

Not much of a quibble for 5 hours of viewing, which I found myself watching with a permanent smile. It was sent along via a dear friend and patron of our store, who ordered me a copy of this great program directly from the producer, shopPBS.org. I have a link above if you want to buy it from amazon. Stash it with your other great 21st century collections of 20th century standards-- by Sting, Rod Stewart, Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli-- and everyone else in the gang that sang Heart of My Heart.