Sunday, October 11, 2020

Down the Rabbit Hole . . .

 During the summer of 2010, I wondered down a YouTube "rabbit hole" while searching for songs that I hadn't heard in a long time. I came across a video of someone playing "Baker Street" on a turntable. It looked kind of cool, so I started looking for others playing records on YouTube. It didn't take long for me to find people who were spinning old 78 rpm records. Howlin' Wolf is more suited to my taste these days than Gerry Rafferty. Finding these videos made an impact on me as I wrote about in Reason in 2013:

The man holding the Howlin' Wolf 78 is Rich Hynes, owner of the Underground Record Shop in Indianapolis. I discover that he has posted many more clips as well. Sometimes they feature artists I've enjoyed for years, such as Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash; sometimes they introduce me to great musicians I've never encountered before, such as the Alabama Jug Band and the rockabilly pioneer Lattie Moore.

Looking for and listening to old records, I soon learned about how little I knew about American music. For a long time, the Blues was my favorite genre and I had the good fortune to see performers such as Koko Taylor, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and John Lee Hooker perform live in the 1980s. My interest and knowledge of the genre went back as far as Robert Johnson, but no further. I had seen Yazoo reissues of artists like Blind Blake and Charley Patton but I figured that sort of old-timey thing wasn't for me. I eventually discovered how wrong that assessment was by listening to Barbeque Bob, Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, Lewis Black as well as Blake and Patton. 

The same is true with Country, also known as "Hillbilly" or "Old Time Singin'." I knew of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers, but not the Allen Brothers or Charlie Poole or Buddy Baker. I also learned to put less emphasis on genre—I look for music that I like, which often may be characterized as "Pop" or "Vaudeville." Occasionally "???" is good a description as any. My policy is that if a record is cheap and looks interesting, I will probably give it a home. 

When I first started looking for 78s, I skipped over Hawaiian records—and they are pretty common— until I by chance took one home and listened to it. Now, if you want to hear a 100+ year old July Paka record on YouTube, my channel is your only source. Picking up various "ethnic" records introduced new (to me) instruments—like the tambouritza (very scratchy) and reintroduced the familiar, as when I spun an old Italian record and said to myself: "It's that song from the Godfather!"

After years of record collecting, and writing on the topic, I was about to fall down yet another rabbit hole. It bothered me that I had so much interest in music, but I couldn't play any instrument more challenging than air guitar—having failed to master the other kind in my youth. The music that I like the most tends to be made with stringed instruments—guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, etc.

After giving the subject some thought, I decided to get a ukulele. They are smaller, lighter, less expensive (though one can drop a lot of money on a uke) and easier on the fingers than a guitar or banjo—both of which I was tempted to try. A ukulele, however, is not a toy and it takes practice and skill to play well. In the right hands, it can work magic. Some talented guitarists such as Del Ray and Ledward Kaapana also show their skill on the ukulele.

I've played for more than four years now, and I am competent, but not as good as I'd like. While I may never match the finger-picking skills of Kaapana, playing the uke has both increased my respect for talented musicians on all chordophones and my interest in the history of the instruments, which in the case of the ukulele—an offspring of the Portuguese machete—is fascinating

While collecting old records led me down the path to playing the ukulele, playing the uke has influenced my taste in music and caused me to seek out old records featuring the instrument. Once again, I am discovering new (to me) artists such as Hamtree Harrington. You never know where you end up when you start falling down rabbit holes.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Jelly-Roll King!

Claude McKay:

"Then Banjo keyed himself up and began playing in his own wonderful wild way.
'Old Uncle Jack, the jelly roll king,
Just got back from shaking that thing!
He can shake that thing, he can shake that thing
For he's the jelly-roll king. Oh shake that thing!'"

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Subject, Not a Citizen

Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915, and in the years after World War II, he would become an important figure in the development and growth of Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll. After performing with a succession of R&B groups, Dixon would work for Chess Records in Chicago, starting in 1951, and except for a brief period in the late 1950s, he would stay for two decades. Don Snowden, Dixon’s co author of I Am The Blues described his role there. “Dixon was a full-time employee after 1951—producing, arranging, running the studio . . . His role was so crucial that Leonard Chess would later describe him as ‘my right arm.’” His greatest impact was as a songwriter. He would pen “Hoochie Coochie Man” for Muddy Waters and “My Babe” for Little Walter. In the 1960s, his music would be recorded by The Rolling Stones (“Red Rooster”) and Led Zeppelin (“I Can’t Quit You” and others).

But before the fame and success came along, Willie Dixon was a subject of Jim Crow Mississippi. While still in his teens, Dixon was jailed in the Magnolia State for hoboing and the experience marked him. I am the Blues detailed the horrors, including his witness to a murder. “They beat this guy until blood was running out of his mouth at the cage. He died right there in his own blood and that dirt would be so hot and that dust so thick that it would burn your feet through your shoes. After they beat him, they drug him over to the side and a little breath was still life was still left in him. Where he had been bleeding out of his mouth and nose, you could see a little, bloody-colored bubble coming up from where he was breathing there. After awhile, you didn’t see them no more and they’d tell you, ‘Go bury this nigger.’”

This sort of experience was doubtless in his mind when he started receiving draft notices in 1941. Congress enacted a draft in 1940 as the country drifted towards entering World War II. Dixon decided that he would refuse to serve, and he was eventually arrested while performing in Chicago. “They came on the stage down at the Pink Poodle when the Five Breezes were playing one night, when we came back the second time. This was during the time that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and they picked me up and put me in jail. I told them I was a conscientious-objector and that I wasn’t going to fight for nobody. . . I said I wasn’t a citizen, I was a subject. I was telling them about the 14th and 15th Amendment[s].”

After nearly a year in jail, Dixon was released and declared unfit for service. His memoir lists his classification as “5-F” which probably should have been 4-F.

I don’t know how widely (if at all) this type of protest was made by other black men during World War II, but Dixon wasn’t the only person to feel the way he did. Harlem Renaissance journalist and Black No More author, George Schuyler also opposed African American participation as Oscar R. Williams wrote in George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative. “Schuyler’s reasons for opposing African American participation in World War II were primarily rooted in his firsthand experience with racism while serving in the army during World War I. ‘I saw what was done to the Negro during the last war and I heard a lot more than I saw,’ he wrote. ‘I consider the Negro’s treatment during that period unforgivable and indefensible. I foresee that his treatment during the next war will be the same.’”

Ironically, this prominent draft-resister’s widest exposure would come during the inaugural celebration George H.W. Bush, after the latter’s vapid Flag Factory/ACLU Card/Willie Horton campaign of 1988.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Records & Rarities

I have owned records for more than forty years now, though I only became a serious collector about three years ago. The longest continuing record in my collection is the LP Moonlight Feels Right by Starbuck, that I bought in 1976. I still purchase and listen to LPs but I "collect" 45 rpm records in the sense that I'm always looking for rare and unusual artists, labels and songs in that format, and I have little difficulty finding them, mostly at a trio of local records stores in Knoxville.

The embedded playlist below has videos of a few of my favorite rarities. Some of them feature recognizable songs, including one co-written by Merle Haggard and another made famous by Jim Reeves. A few of them were from labels based in East Tennessee and presumably received only a regional release.

My favorite part of sharing these records on YouTube is receiving feedback from viewers, especially those for whom the old records have sentimental value.  I have heard from the daughter of one artist and from a persistent gentleman who bugged me until I sold him a record that he hadn't seen or heard in more than forty years.

Monday, January 21, 2013


The January/February issue of The American Conservative will soon be out with my review of Manufacturing Hysteria. It is appropriate that it come out near the Martin Luther King holiday as the FBI' COINTELPRO harassment of King was one of my topics. I wrote:
The most famous target of Hoover and the FBI was Martin Luther King. The investigation of King was based the assumption that some of his associates were Communists, but the FBI’s level of attention suggests a more personal motivation. Hoover intervened to keep Marquette University from granting King an honorary degree and was especially agitated at King’s winning a Nobel Peace Prize. The bureau’s most egregious abuse of power in this case was a crude attempt to wreck King’s marriage by sending him illegally recorded tapes of his marital in"infidelities, accompanied by a crudely forged letter encouraging him to commit suicide before his “filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
Writing in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald discusses King's opposition to militarism and the Vietnam war, which should be highlighted along with his views on racism, poverty and civil rights:
King argued for the centrality of his anti-militarism advocacy most eloquently on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City - exactly one year before the day he was murdered. That extraordinary speech was devoted to answering his critics who had been complaining that his anti-war activism was distracting from his civil rights work ("Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?"). King, citing seven independent reasons, was adamant that ending US militarism and imperialism was not merely a moral imperative in its own right, but a prerequisite to achieving any meaningful reforms in American domestic life.
Here is audio of one of speeches on the war:

Saturday, November 24, 2012

800 Pound Gorilla . . .

Somehow Glenn Reynolds and Michael Barone talk about polling and the election for more than thirteen minutes and never get around to discussing Nate Silver:

Monday, September 17, 2012

More Damaging Romney Footage . . .

This won't help the Romney campaign: