Monday, April 25, 2011

Rory Block – Shake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell

Shake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell
Stony Plain

Rory Block has been one of the finest revivalists of traditional, acoustic-based blues for decades now – both on stage and in a now-formidable body of recorded work. Whether in interpreting the songs and stylings of earlier generations of blues masters, or in adding to the tradition with her well-crafted original material, almost everything she’s done over the years (save perhaps a brief foray into pop music in the mid-‘70s) has been first-rate.

I had the pleasure of producing her first Montreal concerts at the Golem in the 1980s and visiting with her on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show when she returned to the city to perform at the jazz festival in 2000.

In recent years, Rory has been turning her attention to a series of compelling tribute albums honouring some of the earlier blues masters whose music and/or personalities have inspired her.

The first in the series, The Lady and Mr. Johnson, released in 2006, cemented her reputation as perhaps the foremost contemporary interpreter of the songs of Robert Johnson, the most influential of the Delta blues masters of the 1930s.

The second, Blues Walkin’ Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House, released in 2008, paid tribute to Son House, a Delta blues artist who had influenced Johnson and who, unlike Johnson, survived into old age, allowing for his rediscovery in the 1960s folk and blues revival, and allowing for young aficionados like Rory to meet and learn directly from him

She’s now released the third in the series, Shake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell, which also pays tribute to a blues elder that she had the opportunity to meet and learn directly from in the 1960s.

Mississippi Fred McDowell was an interesting blues elder in the 1960s in that he never recorded in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s like so many of his contemporaries. Despite decades of music making in Tennessee and Mississippi, he was first discovered and recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. Those 1959 tracks are available as The First Recordings on Rounder as part of its Alan Lomax Collection.

But, as an active recording and performing artist throughout the 1960s (he died in 1971), McDowell was an important and influential presence in the folk and blues scene.

To my mind, Shake ‘Em On Down is the most personal of Rory’s tribute albums to date in that she includes four of her own songs alongside eight written by, or from the repertoire of, Mississippi Fred McDowell.

She opens the album with two of her original pieces. She wrote and sings the first, “Steady Freddy,” in McDowell’s style and from his (imagined) perspective recounting essential details from the history of his life in music leading up to his discovery by Lomax and his first forays into touring beyond his home region. Rory uses her poetic-blues license to take McDowell’s famous statement, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll,” and turn it into long-standing advice from his mother who tells him, “Don’t ‘cha play no rock ‘n’ roll.”

In the second song, “Mississippi Man,” Rory recounts her own first encounter, at age 15, with McDowell.

The other two original pieces, later on the CD, include “Ancestral Home,” which combines musical influences from McDowell’s guitar playing and African music, to imagine McDowell singing about his ancestors stolen from Africa by slave traders, and “The Breadline,” a song based on McDowell guitar riffs and lyrically inspired by both the Great Depression that McDowell lived through and the contemporary hard times of the past several years.

Among the highlights of Rory’s interpretations of McDowell’s material are great versions of the infectious “Kokomo Blues,” the title track, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” a role-reversal version of “The Girl That I’m Lovin’” that she sings as “The Man That I’m Lovin’” and an inspired take on the gospel song, “Woke Up This Morning.”

The only thing that I would question is the inclusion of “Good Morning Little School Girl,” which she sings as “school boy.” I’ve got a lot of versions of the song in my library – by such blues elders as McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters, and by other revivalists including Taj Mahal, Jim Kweskin and Johnny Winter – and as much as I respect all of those artists, and many others who have done versions over the years, the song has creeped me out for decades. Essentially, it is a pedophile’s come-on to an innocent kid.

To be fair, Rory addresses the issue in her liner notes saying “the song is a prime example of a message we would object to in today’s world due to heightened sensitivity regarding child predation.” She goes on to make the point that we shouldn’t apply today’s standards to people who lived in earlier times under different standards of morality.

I agree with Rory when it comes to appreciating artists and their recordings from earlier eras. But, I’d just as soon wish that my own contemporaries – like Rory – and younger artists not revive such songs. About 60 years ago, Louis Jordan, one of my favourite artists of that period, recorded a song called “Gal, You Need a Whippin’,” and while the contemporary morality of 1949 or ’50 may have allowed him to express such sentiments – tongue-in-cheek or not – then, I don’t want to hear anyone sing that song today. I would say the same about “Good Morning Little School Girl.”

That quibble aside, Shake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell, is a great album.

--Mike Regenstreif

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hazel Dickens 1935-2011

Like virtually all in the folk music world, I was deeply saddened to learn that Hazel Dickens, the great Appalachian singer and songwriter, and pioneering woman of bluegrass, had passed away early today in a Washington, D.C. hospital where she was being treated for pneumonia.

Hazel’s importance cannot be underestimated. At a time when most of the artists coming into the folk music world were revivalists, she was a tradition-bearer, born and raised in “the green rolling hills of West Virginia,” who brought generations of authenticity to the songs she sang, and the songs she wrote, and the music she played.

In the mid-1960s, Hazel formed a duo with Alice Gerrard that fronted bluegrass bands as bandleaders and lead singers – which was very rare for the day. They recorded two LPs of bluegrass for Folkways in the ‘60s that were among the first bluegrass albums to feature women as leaders. When Smithsonian Folkways reissued the LPs on a single CD, they rightfully named it Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.

I first encountered Hazel and Alice in the early- or mid-‘70s at a folk festival – I think it was Mariposa – around the time that Rounder put out their masterpiece album, Hazel and Alice. That album of traditional and neo-traditional old-time Appalachian music, is one of the most important and influential folk music recordings of the past half-century.

Hazel went on to record another fine album with Alice, several solo albums, and several collaborations with other artists all of which I played enthusiastically over the years on the radio show.

I didn’t know Hazel very well, but enjoyed hearing her perform and chatting with her when our paths crossed at folk festivals over the years.

Art Menius, who knew Hazel much better than I did, said this in an e-mail this afternoon:

“The greatest takeaway for me with Hazel is her courage on all matters except flying and revealing her age. The courage to leave home in the hills for the industrial harshness of Baltimore a half century ago. The courage to play bass in the hostile male world of bluegrass. The courage to partner with Alice Gerrard and record bluegrass albums with male sidemen. The courage to write bluegrass songs that raised issues a lot of people would rather not discuss. The courage to be honest and confrontational. The courage to speak truth to power in her art and to keep alive the tradition of hillbilly radical singers like Sarah Ogun Gunning and Aunt Molly Jackson while working in a genre that had little model or precedent for that save for odds and ends like Vern & Ray's ‘To Hell With the People, To Hell With the Land.’ Hazel combined two of my passions -- hillbilly music and political art.”

“Well I paid the price for the leavin'
And this life I have is not one I thought I'd find.
Just let me live, love, let my cry, but when I go just let me die
Among the friends who'll remember when I'm gone.”

-Hazel Dickens, “West Virginia, My Home”

--Mike Regenstreif

BTW, the line in quotation marks, “the green rolling hills of West Virginia,” is the title of, and a lyric from, a song written by Bruce (Utah) Phillips. Some of what's in that song accurately parallels Hazel's real life. The song's definitive version, with an added final verse, was on the Hazel and Alice album. --MR

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Laws – Try Love

Try Love
JML Music

I first encountered John and Michele Law – or The Laws as they later became known – back in 2000 when they sent me a copy of their first album, Estimated Time of Arrival. I enjoyed the CD, heard a lot of promise in them and their songs, and played it quite a bit on the radio show. Then, on May 31, 2001, they zipped into Montreal and we had a nice visit on the radio that included some fine live performances.

They’ve now released Try Love, their sixth album, a CD that goes a long way toward fulfilling the promise that I heard a decade ago. Their songwriting is strong (all but one of the songs is credited as co-written by John and Michele), their harmonies are exquisite, and their arrangements, which draw on folk, country and bluegrass influences, and are built on John’s guitar and Michele’s bass, are very tasteful. The only sideman is producer J.P. Cormier who variously adds keyboards, percussion, guitar, banjo and mandolin.

The album opens with the sweet duet, “I Believe in You.” With its references to love at first sight, music and the road, I would guess the song is a tribute to the Laws’ relationship and to the travelling musicians’ life they lead.

Among my other favourite tracks are “Rebel Cowboy Dream,” which Michele sings from the perspective of woman left behind by a man who left to pursue an impossible dream and now lives hand-to-mouth “picking up gigs a s a rodeo clown” and maybe spending the night with “what’s left when last call comes around,” and “Who’s Keeping Score,” a western swing tune that could almost be a response from the guy with the rebel cowboy dream.

Another favourite is their version of the Gordon Lightfoot classic “Wherefore and Why” that has Michele singing lead on top of straight-ahead bluegrass arrangement featuring some excellent banjo and mandolin playing by J.P. (One of J.P. Cormier’s best albums, by the way, is The Long River, his tribute album to Gordon Lightfoot.) The trio – John, Michele and J.P. – are back in full bluegrass mode on “Beer Mountain Rag,” the album’s lone instrumental.

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Diana Jones – High Atmosphere

High Atmosphere
Proper American

High Atmosphere is the third in a series of superb albums that Diana Jones has released since 2006 in which she creates seemingly simple and plainspoken (plain sung, really) songs which draw on the traditions of southern folk music. While the songs and performances may be seemingly simple, they are, in fact, skilfully drawn pieces that weave together timeless melodies with lyrics that are poetic and oblique on some songs and which tell stories and present fully fleshed out characters on others.

The albums open with the title track, a lonely, moody piece in the style of an Appalachian folksong that would seem to be about finding refuge above the fray. Apparently, the song was inspired by some devastating flooding near Diana’s home in Tennessee that she was spared from because her home was up on a hill.

I particularly like Diana’s character- and story-based songs. In “Sister,” her narrator is the sibling of a woman caught up in a relationship with a man she views with well-deserved suspicion. She sings “I Told the Man,” as the wife of a coal miner unsure, as always, whether he’ll come up out of the mine alive at the end of his shift. In “My Love is Gone,” she mourns the departure, or perhaps the death, of a lover, with quiet desperation. In “Don’t Forget Me,” she sings as man who’s trying hard but still can’t quite measure up. 

These songs, and the rest, represent some of today's finest songwriting. Diana Jones is one of the most essential folk-rooted songwriters of the past decade.

--Mike Regenstreif

Allan Fraser and Brian Blain to play the Yellow Door

Allan Fraser
I got an e-mail recently from Allan Fraser mentioning that he and Brian Blain would be doing a double bill together at the Yellow Door in Montreal on Saturday, April 16.

That note from Allan brought back a memory from some time in the early-1970s when I was running the Yellow Door for the night – as I occasionally did back then – when Chuck Baker was away. There was a problem and the performer who was supposed to play that night wasn’t able to so I had to find someone to take the stage. Through the back alley behind the Yellow Door was a little coach house that was occupied in those days by some folkies and there’d usually be someone or other there with a guitar. I dashed over, found Allan Fraser and Brian Blain, and had them on stage at the Yellow Door a few minutes later.

Brian Blain
Allan, of course, was the Fraser of Fraser & DeBolt, a popular duo on the Canadian folk scene back then. Brian was the producer of the second Fraser & DeBolt LP.

Allan – whose song, “Dance Hall Girls” is one of the great classics of the Montreal folk scene – has continued to write songs over the nearly four decades since then but doesn’t come out to play them very often.

Brian, a fine singer-songwriter who lives at the corner of Blues Street and Folk Avenue, is an accomplished performer who’s been based in Toronto for many years now. He was my guest on the radio show back in 2005.

The Yellow Door, all these years later, is still at 3625 Aylmer Street in the McGill Ghetto.

--Mike Regenstreif