One very great thing about crafting a “sonic zoo” of old-time Americana is the unpredictable ways that animal songs flit between hyper-realism, innuendo, religiosity, and symbology—so convoluted that you can’t even begin to pull the song apart. O what a tangled web we weave:
Big Sound Saturdays: The Big Heavy
Traditional non-American musics, first recorded in the early 20th century onto 78 RPM discs, were almost never recorded for the reasons we’d want them to’ve been, but I hope that doesn’t mean that we should forget them.
Without either the disposable income of long-lived, financially successful adulthood, or the manly inclination to “understand” by owning, record collecting has always felt like a far-off impossibility for me. I’m grateful to the men—and in the old-time world, they’re men almost exclusively—who perform this kind of labor, and I do think that these recordings couldn’t exist without them. Folk music archives have a fraught history, but thank goodness they have a history to begin with.
Without Deben Bhattacharya, we wouldn’t have “Mahour,” the Iranian folk song I’ve nestled between the Yogyakartan jam “Hai Clum Dong” (almost definitely sung by two very groovy kids) and Elliott Smith’s touching cover of, surprisingly, Hank Williams Jr. (aka “Bocephus,” of this and this reprehensible fame), the lilting “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down.” Without ethnomusicologist, photographer, composer, and artist Jack Body, “Hai Clum Dong” never would’ve been recorded and released. The same for “Sea Lion Woman,” the funky children’s game song performed by Katharine and Christine Shipp (19 and 20 years old, respectively) and recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939. And the same for Hocine Slaoui (“Yamouia Ghanni”), recently reissued by the ethical and aesthetically with-it Dust-to-Digital label in Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM. Even Blind Willie Johnson, who (as I’ve mentioned before is about as famous as a country bluesman can be, and Abner Jay, and Jean Ritchie, are all rooted in the legacy of archival recordings, ethnomusicological desire for American old-time and world music exotica.
My dream is for a music-sphere where we can talk about how exploitative and, often, racist, a lot of these recordings were while still locating them in their context, and understanding the impact that these recordings’ sheer existence have on today’s music. Celebrating the artist, considering the recorder. Sacasas y su Orquesta’s “Rumba Negra” is a full, dense rumba, not possible without the orientalist legacy that helped bring the performing genius Josephine Baker into the spotlight. The Dezurik Sisters, also known as the “Cackle Sisters” for their masterfully synched and disorientingly accurate chicken calls, wouldn’t be singing a song called “Birmingham Jail” if not for the history of blues music that informs the country progression and vice versa. I hope we can keep talking about this, and talking about music should always come second to listening to it. A mix, then, to start us!
In truth, I made this mix for how huge and heavy these songs are, especially next to each other. If my heart could handle listening to Tom Waits’ “Anywhere I Lay My Head” more than two or three times a year, it’d grace these ranks as well. Traditional non-American musics, first recorded in the early 20th century onto 78 RPM discs, were almost never recorded for the reasons we’d want them to’ve been, but I hope that doesn’t mean that we should forget them.