The Melting Pot
Song - Artist -
Sylvia - The Antlers -
This week I did a show on pre-1950s America. A lot of the tracks I used were from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Music. Other tracks were by artists that I deemed to be the founding fathers of definitive American genres like rock, jazz, and country. These are the "original gangsters" themselves, they were the guys that inspired Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and other more familiar household names. I didn't get to play everything I wanted to today (I opted for a one hour show because my work load this year is loco) so hopefully my blog will serve as a complimentary aside where the select few whose curiosity I managed to pique can get their fix.
Hokay, so first off I talked a little bit about piedmont blues guitar late, toward the end of the show today. Honestly, I had written off a lot of blues for the majority of my life. Popular/mainstream blues, which was all that I had exposure to at the time, always sounded like it was trying desperately hard to be heartbroken and gruffy and in doing so it betrayed itself and came off as ingenuine, like the generic grocery store knock-off of your favorite food.* Then, I started researching some of these pop blues players influences and there I found the poor, heartbroken and gruffy souls that I was looking for.
SO with that said, this video is of Mississippi John Hurt and he’s playing the Piedmont fingerstlye I mentioned earlier. Here, the thumb in the right hand plays alternating bass quarter-notes while the pointer and middle finger plays a (usually) syncopated melody on top. Check it:
This one’s pretty cool, Etta James is left handed so she’s playing the guitar upside down and now her pointer takes care of the bass while the thumb controls the melody. Still the same alternating bass against a syncopated melody though…
This is John Fahey and he was super influenced by piedmont guitarists as you can see. OOOkay okay, so he’s not a pre-1950s guitarist, but I wouldn’t have looked into much early American music if it weren’t for this guy. I tried to play him on the show earlier today but ran out of time…
Other than blues I played a couple Cajun tunes during this week’s episode. This song would get caught in my head all of the time, its called Ma Blonde Est Partieas performed by Amedee Breaux. This was Recorded on April 18, 1929 and is purported to be the earliest recording of the cajun standard "Jolie Blon" or in English, “Pretty Blonde.” I think it’s the waltz like accompaniment that really hypnotizes me, or maybe its the romance of the French language...
Here’s a translation of the lyrics…
In French:? ?Jolie blonde, regardez donc quoi t'as fait,?
Tu m'as quitte pour t'en aller,
?Pour T'en aller avec un autre, oui, que moi,?
Quel espoir et quel avenir, mais, moi, je vais avoir?? ?
Jolie blonde, tu m'as laisse, moi tout seul,?
Pour t'en aller chez ta famille.?
Si t'aurais pas ecoute tos les conseils de les autres?tu serait ici-t-avec moi aujourd 'hui? ?Jolie blonde,
tu croyais il y avait just toi,?
Il y a pas just toi dans le pays pour moi aimer.?
Je peux trouver just une autre jolie blonde,?
Bon Dieu sait, moi, j'ai un tas.?
?In English? ?
Pretty blond, look at what you've done,
?You left me to go away,?
to go away with another, yes, than me,?
What hope and what future am I going to have?? ?
Pretty blond, you've left me all alone
?To go back to your family.?
If you had not listened to all the advice of the others?
You would be here with me today.?
?Pretty blond, you thought there as just you,?
There is not just you in the land to love me.
?I can find another pretty blond,
?Good God knows, I have a lot.
This video is of Dennis McGee. He’s a lot older here but this guy is almost synonymous with early Cajun fiddleing. Gotta love the all the open strings and waltzy 3/4. He also just looks like such a cool guy, this video makes me want to relax on his porch and listen to him ramble about the old south and the way things used to be while watching the sun set behind the bayou.
And how could I write a blog on early American music without mentioning Woody Guthrie? Who could be more definitive than the guy that wrote “This Land is Your Land” and was arguably Bob Dylan’s biggest influence? Few videos survive of Guthrie but this one does a great job of summing up the world I’ve been trying to reconstruct throught this post.
These songs are like artifacts, pieces of a time that can and will never exist again, windows into a world that didn’t have computers, videogames, television, pop stars, or electronic instruments. This music was a way for people to bond dance and tell stories and I think that’s why, at least to me, they feel so genuine and honest. You can hear it in their voices, see it in their faces, they aren’t trying to recreate something else, they’re just being themselves and in being themselves they can give us a clue as to what it was like living in the vast and untamed new frontier that was early America.
*I read an essay about something like this distinction in an essay by ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, Pete Seegers father, called The Folkness of the Non-Folk and the Non-folkness of the Folk. Not all of it has to do with the point I'm trying to get across here, a lot of it focuses on how we can harness the renewed interest in folk music and create an applied area of study. BUT at the same time he manages to articulate much better than I can the mutation folk music can go through when introduced to urban culture. If you're interested, you can read it for yourself here: