Posts Tagged ‘folk music’
August 10, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The “unlove and unfreedom” in Johnnie B. Smith’s work songs.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature.
During the thirteen years he spent jailed for murder on a Texas prison farm, Johnnie B. Smith sang work songs. In 1964, the ethnomusicologist Bruce Jackson met Smith during a trip through the state prison system to document the dwindling number of older, black prisoners who still knew the sorts of songs Smith led. He taped Smith’s renditions of a handful of standards: “Drop ’Em Down Together,” “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad,” “Poor Boy.” But Smith, Jackson soon learned, also sang songs of his own writing, stranger and more private than the ones he’d heard passed down.
These songs share a structure and melody, but they allow for a nearly limitless range of embellishments and improvisations. Their stanzas, for the most part, have four lines each—a single couplet sung in two variations. Their melody, which Smith adjusts verse by verse and song by song, is more difficult to describe. Its tempo accelerates and slows downs unexpectedly; its volume swells and falls; it changes gears rattlingly; it’s marked by disquieting pockets of silence. The shortest of these songs is over six minutes long; the longest, more than twenty-three.
At the time Jackson conducted his fieldwork, Ramsey—where Smith was held—was one of fourteen prisons in the Texas Correctional System. It comprised a sprawling farm property produced by combining five former plantations. Inmates felled trees, picked cotton, and worked the fields; the resulting products were either used within the prison or sold to cover the cost of housing the prisoners themselves. (As late as the early 1960s, the work teams were entirely segregated.) Ramsey’s inmates were, in effect, funding their own imprisonment, and for many decades black prisoners did so under conditions not much different from those of chattel slavery. The “riders” and “captains” Smith addresses across his songs were horse-mounted bosses whose brutality toward the work crews was widely known and feared. Read More »
April 29, 2016 | by Robert Cohen
Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me turns fifty.
I am gazing, as I write, at a black-and-white photograph of Richard Fariña with his wife, Mimi (née Baez) Fariña, taken backstage at the Newport Folk Festival nine months before his death—fifty years ago this week—at the age of twenty-nine. To call the photo romantic would be an understatement. Mimi, her face a dark flower offered to an invisible sun, appears to be literally bursting out of her flip-flops as she executes some twirling, Isadora Duncan-y ballet step; while Richard, swarthy and black-haired, his eyes fondly delta’d (the Ray-Bans in his hand having apparently proven useless against all this brightness), looks like he can’t quite believe his luck, to have aligned his future with this lovely, exuberant sprite, a princess in folk’s royal family. He’s having a pretty good run of it for a guy who plays the dulcimer. And technically he doesn’t even play it that well. Read More »
April 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Skip Spence’s “music from the other side.”
Skip Spence is known for his work in Moby Grape, a seminal psych-rock outfit, and for his only solo album, Oar (1969), which has one of the most gloriously unhinged creation myths in the history of popular music.
In ’68, Spence—who would be, coincidentally, sixty-eight today—was cutting a new Moby Grape record in New York. The city was not bringing out the best in him. One night, as his bandmate Peter Lewis tells it, Spence “took off with some black witch” who “fed him full of acid”: not your garden-variety LSD, mind you, but a powerful variant that supposedly induced a three-day fantasia of hallucinations and cognitive haymaking. The result? “He thought he was the Antichrist.”
Spence strolled over to the Albert Hotel, at Eleventh and University, where he held a fire ax to the doorman’s head; from there, he negotiated his way to a bandmate’s room and took his ax to the door. The place was empty. So he hailed a cab—you know, with an ax—and zipped uptown to the CBS Building, where, on the fifty-second floor, he was at last wrestled to the ground and arrested. He did a six-month stint in Bellevue, where he was deemed schizophrenic. “They shot him full of Thorazine for six months,” Lewis said. “They just take you out of the game.”
But Spence wasn’t out of the game. The same day they released him from Bellevue, he bought a motorcycle, a fucking Harley, and cruised straight on to Nashville, where he planned to record a series of new songs he’d written in the hospital. He was clad, legend maintains, only in pajamas. Read More »
January 31, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
When we graduated sixth grade, in the skirts and ties we had laboriously sewn—mine was apple-green gingham—with the corsages and boutonnieres our teachers had made to match, I was the first to receive my diploma. This was not a particular distinction; it was just because I was the shortest person in the entire grade. And at the end of the ceremony, we sang “The Garden Song,” aka “Inch by Inch, Row by Row,” and I remember being very conscious that this was the last time we would ever sing it, and that now everything would be different. And not just because we were moving to the Upper School Campus a few hundred yards away. Because we would not be allowed to be kids in the same way ever again. I remember blinking back tears.
All week, I have wanted to write about Pete Seeger, but every time I sit down to do so I have been overcome with emotion and affection for my progressive elementary school with its earnest devotion to the tenets of secular humanism and folk music, and have wanted to write hundreds of pages. I want to write about City and Country and the Weed Wallow and the holiday assembly and the apple assembly. And Mary and Sally and Joyce and Colleen and and Mrs. English and Betty (teachers) and Mr. Schwartz (the principal) and Mr. Ellis (the custodian).
In fifth grade, in June, we donned costumes and did sword dances and played recorders and invited our parents to the medieval feast. At the third grade cookout we wore the Native American garb we had sewn and beaded and dyed with onionskins and cooked fish and oysters in a fire behind the upper-school library. Then, there was the endless work on those skirts. I also know that none of this would mean anything to anyone who didn’t attend my school, and that we all have our own early memories, tender as a bruise, and that unless one is Proust, it really doesn’t much matter. Read More »