I knew I just wasn’t firing on all cylinders—oversleeping a bit, a little groggy, a bit too hurried & distracted…. it was 18 degrees F outside—bitter, & all the glass on the car was solidly frosted. But I headed off in the gray cold morning for my round of appointments in the high country of Donnelly & McCall somewhat later than usual, “on schedule” to arrive on time, but without much time to spare.
About 12 miles down the road, as I neared the town of Council, it began to dawn on me that things just didn’t look right—everything had a fuzzy appearance; was it the gray early morning light? That didn’t make sense. I put my hand to face & discovered I’d left home without my glasses.
There was a short deliberation about how to address this situation. But I realized if I turned back, I may as well cancel my 9:00 a.m. appointment; & I was reasoned that since I’ve made this drive at least once a week since ’02, it wasn’t as if I needed to read the road signs. Still, the drive was surreal—even more surreal coming home in a snowstorm that increased in ferocity the lower I descended in elevation. By the time I came back thru Council, the flakes were about as big as they can be before turning to rain.
But I had some truly wonderful & inspiring music to listen to as I wended my fuzzy & foggy way thru the canyons—music that gave me a lot to think about in terms of how art communicates. Here are the albums:
Buell Kazee: Buell Kazee (June Appal)
1. Roll On, John
2. Jay Gould's Daughter
3. The Lady Gay
4. Steel A-Going Down
5. The Roving Cowboy
6. Banjo Medley: Blue-Eyed Gal, Rock Little Julie, What'll I Do With the Baby-O
7. Look Up, Look Down That Lonesome Road
8. Sporting Bachelors
9. The Orphan Girl
10. Black Jack Davy
11. The Blind Man
12. O, Thou in Whose Presence
13. Amazing Grace
14. Wexford Girl
15. Butcher's Boy
16. Wagoner's Lad
17. Short Life of Trouble
18. Shady Grove
19. East Virginia
20. Hook and Line
Buell Kazee is quite simply a legend of clawhammer banjo playing. On his most memorable tunes, the banjo is producing a lilting cavalcade of notes; the drive of his banjo frailing is simply remarkable. For those of you who weren’t around for the Clawhammer series here on Robert Frost’s Banjo (you can find the posts most easily here), frailing or clawhammer style of playing involves using the nail of either the index or the middle finger along with the thumb to play the banjo in a rather percussive manner; for reasons that may or may not seem obvious, it was also referred to in the Appalachians as “rapping” or “knocking” a banjo. The style is quite old, & is thought to be (like the banjo itself) African in origin; it was the style used in the old minstrel shows that spread the banjos popularity in the mid to late 19th century (there are some differences between the “minstrel stroke” & what’s known as “clawhammer” today, but these are relatively fine points for the general reader). The style is known for its propulsive energy, & was the preferred playing style for dances because of this.
Kazee had no problem generating propulsion; like so many good musicians, his playing always seems to be “pushing the envelope” of the beat, while actually remaining steadfast to the given tempo. This may seem contradictory, but it’s what gives his playing that remarkable drive.
As remarkable as Kazee’s banjo playing is, his voice is a match for his banjo. Bill Monroe talked about a “high lonesome sound” as being fundamental to old-time music—a sound that he sought to reproduce in an updated manner in his bluegrass band. Kazee has that high lonesome sound in spades—but with a soulful, haunteds quality that I don’t find in much bluegrass singing. Kazee’s voice comes from Greil Marcus’ “weird old America,” & in fact Kazee is featured on that most essential of Americana albums & the album Marcus was referring to with that term, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. There is an immediacy in Kazee’s singing & playing that’s hard to achieve. This might spring in part from the naturalness with which he sang. Kazee said, “We just sang by nature. Everybody sang & nobody thought there was anything unusual about it.” Unfortunately, that attitude about singing isn’t as prevalent as it could be here in the US (that’s actually quite an understatement). It reminds me of an African proverb that’s meant a lot to me: “If you can talk you can sing; if you can walk you can dance.” So much of singing (also true of playing an instrument) is relaxation: relaxing to allow your voice to come thru, & relaxing enough to hear your voice. Relaxation isn’t given a high cultural value amongst us; I wonder as I listen to Kazee sing & play the banjo, how much that’s responsible for the cultural myth of tone deafness—which largely is a myth & not based on any actual physical condition (except, perhaps, in a very small percentage of cases).
Son House Delta Blues & Spirituals (Capitol Blues):
1. Monologue-The B-L-U-E-S
2. Between Midnight And Day
3. I Want To Go Home On The Morning Train
4. Levee Camp Moan
5. This Little Light Of Mine
6. Monologue-Thinkin' Strong
7. Death Letter Blues
8. How To Treat A Man
9. Grinnin' In Your Face
10. John The Revelator
Although this magnificent album appears to be out-of-print, it can still be found for a reasonable price, & it’s also available on LastFm; & magnificent is just one superlative that could be used to describe Son House’s singing & playing: “mind-boggling,” “stunning,” “amazing” all come to mind. There are some musicians whose music is visceral; when the music hits you, it goes straight to the body: the gut & the heart. It come from a musician who really inhabits the music or who allows the music to inhabit him/her. In cases like this, you don’t think: “oh, what a good singer,” or “wow, he can really play guitar”; these considerations are really quite secondary, because what the singer is about is the music: in a culture that places a high value on virtuosity, this type of immediacy can get overlooked. This is substance, not style.
Recently Citizen K. posted a video of Glen David Andrews & company playing a jazz-gospel version of “I’ll Fly Away.” I’d grown so used to hearing rather mediocore versions of this tune that it no longer struck me as “musical.” When I heard the music on that video, I was floored: these musicians brought so much life & so much presence to the song: they transformed it. & tho all the musicians involved in that recording are very talented & have clearly honed their skills, that’s not what I thought about as I heard the song: my thought was how incredibly moving this is.
I have that same experience with Son House. His voice is remarkable, his slide guitar playing is powerful. But I don’t think so much about the technique. Son House doesn’t use the song as a mediating force; it’s not something to come between him & his audience, something to be used to display his chops, either vocal or on his National guitar—it’s music. In his opening monologue, House talks about the connection between blues & the heart; once he launches into the roaring opening bars of “Between Midnight And Day,” (with excellent blues harp accompaniment by Alan Wilson) you begin to experience this. David Evans, in his liner notes to this album, describes a Son House show as follows: “We hadn’t just seen Son House; we had seen The Blues.”
Delta Blues & Spirituals was recorded live, at the 100 Club in London in 1970. The energy of that show explodes off the disc. When House closes the show with "John the Revelator” (done a capella, with audience participation—including the audience clapping in perfect time on the off beats), you realize this was the kind of show that could actually transform a listener. It’s not just a passive listening experience—the music gets inside you & moves you both physically &, I’d say, spiritually.
There aren’t that many musicians—or artists of any sort—who can be so consistently present & immediate in their work. I hear jazz great Rahasaan Roland Kirk this way; I think Janis Joplin at her best was like this, especially recorded live. César Vallejo’s poetry strikes me this way, too. I’m sure I could come up with other examples, but the quality is rare.
Son House is a tough act to follow. I listened to that cd again as soon as it was over. As someone who loves the old blues, & who plays them, this is like getting a lesson from a master: not about technique, but about how the music has to connect with your heart, how you have to be in the moment to play the blues.
Living in the moment—after a hurried, distracted morning, Son House showed me the way back to this. I definitely give both these artists high recommendation; & just because I think my words can only begin to convey House’s power, I’ve added a video of Son House performing his song “Forever on My Mind.” There are some other excellent videos of Son House on YouTube; it really was hard to choose. Hope you find this great artist moving & instructive, too.