It’s part two of our “Chicago Breakdown” series. In Part I, we explored the early days that promised what was to come but in Part II, we feel the warm wind of change from the south that would meet with the cold winds off of the Great Lakes. It created a vortex where jazz and barrelhouse would reign.
The urban cauldron in this city of big shoulders would fill with a sound that had its roots in the Mississippi Delta , from the cotton plantations and delta heat, and the juke joints that could be found down the side roads off of Highway 61. The Great Migration also provided those who relocated and found work with disposable income allowing them to establish a new life in a big city after the Great Depression and, most certainly, after the war. The resulting energy was inescapable in the clubs and barrooms throughout Chicago.
Langston Hughes is a favorite writer of mine, right along Lincoln Steffens, Peter Guralnick, Mark Twain, Bill Bryson…but I digress.
In 1942, the Chicago Defender published a review of a Memphis Minnie performance written by Hughes. It’s made its way around the horn many times and is, in my mind, priceless as it gives us the opportunity to witness a performance by Memphis Minnie without every seeing one. It’s a perfectly viable alternative to a YouTube video.
Memphis Minnie sits on top of the icebox at the 230 Club in Chicago and beats out blues on an electric guitar. A little dung-colored drummer who chews gum in tempo accompanies her, as the year’s end — 1942 — flickers to nothing, and goes out like a melted candle.
Midnight. The electric guitar is very loud, science having magnified all its softness away. Memphis Minnie sings through a microphone and her voice — hard and strong anyhow for a little woman’s — is made harder and stronger by scientific sound. The singing, the electric guitar, and the drums are so hard and so loud, amplified as they are by General Electric on top of the icebox, that sometimes the voice, the words, and melody get lost under sheer noise, leaving only the rhythm to come through clear. The rhythm fills the 230 Club with a deep and dusky heartbeat that overides all modern amplification. The rhythm is as old as Minnie’s most remote ancestor.
Memphis Minnie’s feet in her high-heeled shoes keep time to the music of her electric guitar. Her thin legs move like musical pistons. She is a slender, light-brown woman who looks like an old-maid school teacher, with a sly sense of humor. She wears glasses that fail to hide her bright bird-like eyes. She dresses neatly and sits straight in her chair perched on top of the refrigerator where the beer is kept. Before she plays she cocks her head on one side like a bird, glances from her place on the box to the crowded bar below, frowns quizzically, and looks more than ever like a colored lady teacher in a neat Southern school about to say, “Children, the lesson is on page 14 today, paragraph 2.” ….
But Memphis Minnie says nothing of the sort. Instead she grabs the microphone and yells, “Hey, now!” Then she hits a few deep chords at random, leans forward ever so slightly over her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out a good old steady down-home rhythm on the strings — a rhythm so contagious that often it, makes the crowd holler out loud.
Then Minnie smiles. Her gold teeth flash for a split second. Her ear-rings tremble. Her left hand with dark red nails moves up and down the strings of the guitar’s neck. Her right hand with the dice ring on it picks out the tune, throbs out the rhythm, beats out the blues.
Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.
Big rough old Delta Cities float in the smoke, too. Also border cities, Northern cities, Relief, W.P.A., Muscle Shoals, the jooks, “Has Anybody Seen My Pigmeat On The Line,” “See-See Rider,” St. Louis, Antoine Street, Willow Run, folks on the move who leave and don’t care. The hand with the dice-ring picks out music like this. Music with so much in it folks remember that sometimes it makes them holler out loud….
It was last year, 1941, that the war broke out, wasn’t it? Before that there wasn’t no defense work much. And the President hadn’t told the factory bosses that they had to hire colored. Before that it was W.P.A. and the Relief. It was 1939 and 1935 and 1932 and 1928 and the years that you don’t remember when your clothes got shabby and the insurance relapsed. Now, it’s 1942 — and different. Folks have jobs. Money’s circulating again. Relatives are in the Army with big insurances if they die.
Memphis Minnie, at year’s end, picks up those nuances and tunes them into the strings of her guitar, weaves them into runs and trills and deep steady chords that come through the amplifiers like the Negro heartbeats mixed with iron and steel. The way Memphis Minnie swings it sometimes makes folks snap their fingers, women get up and move their bodies, men holler, “Yes!” When they do, Minnie smiles.
But the men who run the place — they are not Negroes — never smile. They never snap their fingers, clap their hands, or move in time to the music. They just stand at the licker counter and ring up sales on the cash register. At this year’s end the sales are better than they used to be. But Memphis Minnie’s music is harder than the coins that roll across the counter. Does that mean that she understands? Or is it just science that makes the guitar strings so hard and so loud?
— “Music at Year’s End”
From The Chicago Defender
January 9, 1943
“Oxford American Magazine”
Here’s your morning coffee and tea! Join Dave Stroud for a helping of ukulele, blues, gospel, and outlaw meta-modern country sounds. If you haven’t had a chance to find us on a West County Saturday morning, your chance is every second and fourth Saturday morning at 9 PST on TuneIn radio http://tunein.com/radio/KOWS-LP-1073-…. This eclectic blend of music from the past century is also played out on Sundays at 10 PM This week’s show will feature a Langston Hughes reading, some Maria Muldaur, some early century pop from The Boswell Sisters, some cold hard country facts from Sturgill Simpson and Porter Wagoner, and blues from Dave Alvin and Big Bill Broonzy.
It’s the first of a two part series here on Deeper Roots, exploring the history of Chicago Blues, beginning with its jazz influences. The city of Chicago played a major role in the evolution of jazz as an American musical art form. And there are many reasons for it. Its locale, its ‘big shoulders’ of industry that attracted young workers from throughout the nation in the first half of the century, and its atmosphere of clubs and cabarets that stimulated the market for accomplished entertainment.
Our first episode covers the early jazz of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Johnny Dodds but also covers the blues of Memphis Minnie, Peetie Wheatstraw, Big Maceo, and Tampa Red…classic Chicago sounds of performers who ‘built the city’ as one that invite post-War inheritors of the Great Migration.
We open our Deeper Roots show with some gospel from George and Tammy, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Frank Jenkins and then move onto some R&B, bluegrass and country. The first hour celebrates the sound of roots music from the West Sonoma County studio of KOWS, 107.3 FM while in the second hour, we talk to Josh Windmiller of the North Bay Hootenanny about a show coming up this Sunday at Petaluma’s Mystic Theater featuring David Luning, The Sam Chase, and John Craigie. Josh performs and provides some back stories to the upcoming show.
I love that term. There are so many connotations that come to mind for me. Of course, it perfectly describes the ethereal cloud of sound that comes from many years of wear (and poorly honed steel needles) that spun themselves to powder on one or more Victrolas before being captured by a collector or curator who had the sense to make sure it was preserved through either analog or digital means. It also describes what one might imagine an ancestral glue to be that binds the music passed from one generation to the next.
What it also describes is what I heard as a pre-teen in the sixties as I turned the small, serrated thumb-dial atop my transistor radio to one of the tiny ticks between the station numbers. Behind its aluminum or plastic faceplate was a speaker not much larger than a silver dollar. The sound it produced might have been paper thin, but the music and voices came to me as if they were in the next room. It was, after all, more often than not what was known as ‘border radio’, XRB blasting their way from south of the border and into my earpiece in the middle of the night in the Valley of the Moon. Wolfman Jack or some other mysterioso. And it all came through a gauze of static.
That is why I enjoy what I do around the curation of the music that I know and love. It is because of that common, milky bond of gauze they share. I did, at one time, try to avoid listening to the hiss and crackle of a poorly preserved recording, choosing to find a remake or remastered substitute. But not so anymore. That sound has taken on a personality of its own, a kind of texture that brushes against the performance, validating the certainty of time. When I hear the voice of Blind Willie Johnson, the steel guitar work of Sol Hoopii, or the ghostly voices of the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, I’m comforted in the knowledge that they were recording on (usually) the best technology of the day. I feel somewhat blessed that I’m able to hear them this very moment through that gauze of time either on MP3, vinyl, radio, or tape, feeling blessed myself with the technologies of the current day.
Frank Zappa once said that “Without music to decorate it, time is just (you fill in the blanks here)”. What is it you remember about the first time you heard a song? Was it where you were, or maybe who you were with? Maybe it was about where you were going or even how you got there. If you’re like me, it is likely that it struck you like a drop of condensation from on high, fluttering down from some compartment of sound and emotion, cheating time by way of the radio airwaves or the streaming ether.
Whether you’re a fan of world, classical, eastern, or modern Americana music, it is no doubt that your mood might sometimes dictate a shift outside your comfort zone to find a break from the repetition. Sometimes our moods demand that we listen to music in a free form manner, allowing us to revel in the many contrasting sounds that may push our boundaries of musical discretion. It’s good to stretch a bit, don’t you think?
When I find myself stretching, I get curious. I might want to know more about the lineage of a given piece, its fundamentals, its story, its performer and so I find myself following a thread. Rarely is it a story that starts with a beginning and concludes with “The End”. More often than not, it involves finding something new in the middle. Once I’ve found some common pattern that connects one musical piece to another, I often discover something that leads me to a current release. There are also those pieces that can be become something to sit and revel with like a passage in a book that you might return to someday for solace. Simple nostalgia sometimes drives the curiosity, but not always.
When assembling playlists for a Deeper Roots’ show, I’m always struck by how a 1932 Lonnie Johnson can be so easily bookended by pieces from a different time, say from The Band or even The Staple Singers. These threads of sound, these flotsam and jetsam on the waters of time, are often easily woven together even though the stories they tell may be so different. They are declared linear only by the blinking of the cursor, the hands of the clock, and the rotation of the Earth.
Some time ago, I was reading a couple of album reviews on Amazon. The first, by Buddy Miller was titled “Universal United House of Prayer” and is a musical exploration of gospel roots. The review, by a listener from Alabama, consisted of three sentences, the last two summed things up with “The first song on the CD is good and not gospel. The rest of the CD is gospel which I dont(sic) enjoy “. The other review took on Jorma Kaukonen’s “Stars In My Crown” and its reviewer hailed from somewhere out in the Alaskan wilderness. The album is also a study of early century gospel roots music. The reviewer titles his missive “If You’re Not a Christian, It’s Not For You” and sums up his feelings thusly: “it was disheartening to hear messages of exclusion and righteousness–great gospel music brings all people in as it embraces the human condition and our yearning to become better people. In this CD unfortunately one must believe that Jesus is the only way to have a spiritual life.” Well, I’m no Christian, but that album’s a fine piece of work. I guess when it comes to religious discussions around the dinner table, even if that table is set on the internet, it still draws passion.
My show, Deeper Roots, occasionally digs into gospel music not because of its ‘message’ but because its litany of Christian sanctification goes back to an almost prehistoric time where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the only ‘folk’ music that was allowed was that of the church. Rhythm, righteousness, and holiness created a pattern and ways to extol Christian virtue because it gave folks structure in their lives. No more. No less. Contemporary music that interprets this music often does so as a means of reverence for its contributions as I’m sure Messrs. Miller and Kaukonen would agree with.
The show explores the works of numerous artists who come from the Deep South and were exposed to the sacred sounds of the Baptist and Pentacostal churches; in fact, much of the blues and country artists that broke through in the 20th century owe a great debt to the music they either performed in church or learned in church. Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Thomas (Georgia Tom) Dorsey, Nappy Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke…well, you get the idea.
Paramount Records was born in 1917 and in the mere fifteen years of their existence they would introduce some of the greatest names in the blues. Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Skip James, and Papa Charlie Jackson are but a few. In 2013, Jack White’s Third Man Records teamed up with Revenant Records to release the first of what would become one of the most ambitious attempts at documenting the story of a record company born from a furniture company that was driven to create product for the record cabinets they sold. Based on the book “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records”, part two of the omnibus will be released later this year (or in early 2015).
This week on Deeper Roots, we share some of the story…and a lot of the music which was not necessarily limited to the blues but also some incredible gospel, mountain, and jazz recordings. When listening through what Dean Blackwell of Revenant Records calls the “gauze of static”, you’ll hear the music of the last century come alive. Tune in Friday night at 9 o’clock for a rare listen.
Some time ago, Deeper Roots explored the female blues pioneers of the early century in a show called “Black Pearls”. In this week’s episode, we’re going to move forward in time a bit, into the mid-century to explore the ‘inheritors’, those women who were influenced by the blues stylings of Sara Miles, Sippie Wallace, and Victoria Spivey. Performers this week will include Julia Lee, Lil Armstrong, Nellie Lutcher, and many others in an episode titled “Blues Divas”. Post-Depression and Post-War jazz, R&B, and blues sounds from some of the influential female artists who, in step with their early century counterparts, would go on to provide a foundation for the many who would follow. Be sure to tune in.