photography • field recordings • world music • subconscious
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Alan Lomax — Ethnomusicologist and Photojournalist

Alan Lomax, wandering somewhere in Arkansas. This photograph of Alan conjures up the audio vision I have of the legend. October, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins

Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.

This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.

The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.

Alan Lomax dreamed of being able to give back to those he recorded. With the advent of technology, today the Association for Cultural Equity — the institution he started — is reaching out to living family members, finding ways to generate royalties to the late artists and their families. Here Alan is having Raphael Hurtault listen to playback of his recordings in La Plaine, Dominica. Ironically, I was in La Plaine for a National Geographic story last year. Have a feeling little had changed since the 1960's. June 25, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Antoinette Marchand.

Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!

Even the film and photographic archive is accessible for searching and viewing, for free.

Clearly Alan Lomax is passionate, utterly oblivious that his fly is open and probably sweating like a pig in the summer heat on the island of Mallorca yet still the gentlemen donning a tie while testing microphone at the Palma Festival, Palma, Mallorca, Spain June 23, 1952 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Jeannette Bell

For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~

Wade Ward, old-time music banjo player and fiddler from Virginia, clearly enjoying the playback Alan Lomax had just made. Take a look at the size of this Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder kit…and we complain that a Fostex or a Sound Devices is big! Galax, Virginia. August 31, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins.

I love this period-based photograph. Why? Look around the room and tell me what you see; Alan Lomax traveled/worked no different than we do today...living hotel to hotel in hot, tropical climates. Instead of a MacBook Pro, he used a portable typewriter. Jeez, remember TWA? Alan Lomax reading notes in Radix Village, Trinidad. May 20, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Antoinette Marchand

Seems Alan Lomax also used a Canon camera, seen here at the Delta Blues Festival, Greenville, Mississippi. September 8, 1979 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Bill Ferris.

When you go to the Cultural Equity website and stream Alan Lomax's recordings, you'll be amazed by how much sound he picked up with these truly tinny microphones. In this photograph, Alan is using a Midgetape which weighed 3 pounds. I bet Alan would be blown away by how compact audio recording kits are these days. Here Alan is recording the Pratcher brothers — Miles on guitar, Bob on fiddle — in Como, Mississippi. September 21, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins

Alan Lomax inspecting film in Albarracín, Aragón, Spain. 400,000 feet of film and 3,000 videotapes make up the moving film archive of the Alan Lomax collection, which is now completely available online. October 15, 1952 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Jeannette Bell.

When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.

During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.

This is huge on many levels.

Why?

Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.

Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~

Some lovely portraits seen on this rare contact sheet during his years when he traveled with his father, John Lomax, while working for the Library of Congress. Contact. He seemed to already have a keen eye for composition at the age of around 19 when these photographs were taken. The musicians are portraits of Stavin' Chain and Wayne Perry performing in Lafayette, LA, June 1935 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photographs by Alan Lomax

More insight into how Alan Lomax worked behind the camera when not making audio recordings. This contact sheet shows portraits of of musicians Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring — Frederica, Georgia, June 1935 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photographs by Alan Lomax

His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.

Alan clearly understood magazine gutters yet was not a magazine photographer, placing the bamboo support smack in the middle with all sorts of lovely moments happening on the right and left. The white hands on the rear wall and the silhouette of the veiled women tops this image for me which was taken during a Hindu wedding ceremony in Charlo Village, Trinidad. May 12, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.

When Alan Lomax was 17, he began traveling with his father, pioneering folklorist and author John Lomax, taking photographs and helping is dad with his audio recordings. Some of his early work with his father was at prison camps. Here is a photograph of a prisoner inside the camp hospital taken when Lomax was around 19 year-old — Darrington State Farm, Texas, April 1934 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Full frame — cropping in camera — clearly was how Alan Lomax saw the world. Unfortunately the cover image of the recordings, Prison Songs (next image) ended up being cropped. Tragic the art team removed the ax in the upper right of this photograph of prisoners chopping wood in order to make it a square album/CD format. Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary), Parchman, Mississippi. September 16, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Final photograph by Alan Lomax as it appeared on the Prison Songs recordings. Seems the design team had a significant hand in making this work as a square, even go as far as using Photoshop to remove all background detail and getting a bit overly creative by adding clouds in the top right.

Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.

This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:

“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972

I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.

My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.

Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.

Alan Lomax could see, working the entire frame of the images in this scene while recording workers clearing land in The Valley, North Side, Anguilla. July 4, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Portrait of two women seated in front of their home, singing and shaking rattles during a visit to Andros Island in the Bahamas. This was taken when Alan was 20 in 1935 when he traveled to the Bahamas with anthropologist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Young boy, crying — Unknown Location, between 1933 and 1935 ~ Image courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Beautifully composed baptism near Mineola, Texas. Alan would have been only around 19 or 20 years-old when this photograph was taken in the summer of 1935 ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Once again Alan Lomax finds his composition, using the entire frame, pushing the camera button right when a young newspaper boy appears in the frame, whistling. Festa brass band in Cinquefrondi, Calabria, Italy. August 1, 1954 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax clearly knew what he wanted to see in his photographs, here keeping in the row of elegantly hanging hats in the frame while the Rev. I.D. Back sings during recordings with the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church congregation, Blackey, Kentucky. September 5, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Simple yet poetic portrait of Harry Cox with unidentified woman and child at his home in Norfolk, East Anglia, England. Cox was a farmworker and one of the most important singers of traditional English music of the twentieth century. October 9, 1953 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.

These days we tend to call it multimedia.

Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.

Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.

 

 

 

NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.

April 9, 2012   2 Comments

The Soundtrack of Assignments

Musicians and photographers are a strange yet similar lot.

Passing the time on the bow a small boat crossing the Malacca Straits while working on the National Geographic story, Malacca Pirates. Knew this assignment would involve loads of boat travel, making the wooden friend an excellent companion. Photograph Courtesy of Yudhistira Dharama (aka, JP)

 

Instruments

Balafon, cello, guitar, marimba, sitar, trumpet, voice…

DSLR, Holga, iPhone, pinhole camera, rangefinder, 6×6, view camera…

 

Genres

Chant, classical, folk, jazz, punk, rock, ska…

Advertising, architecture, art, fashion, paparazzi, photojournalism, sports…

 

Evolution

After years of jamming in shit-hole bars, playing bland Bar Mitzvah’s or waiting tables, sometimes a musician gets a break, records a few meaningful albums then hits the road, sharing their music and message, performing night after night at their apex because people have paid good money to hear what touches their soul.

After toiling as an intern, self-funding projects by nearly living off of food stamps or working a few dull part-time jobs just to make ends meet, sometimes the photographer gets a break, does a number of short but meaningful assignments, then hits the road on longer projects, performing at their apex day after day because you’ve been hired to deliver nothing less.

The two professions are linked inextricably by the act of performing. Not as a rockstar — that only feeds an ego — but for the art and purpose of communication.

 

Activism

Photojournalist share another common thread with musicians, that of activism, helping bit by bit to turn the wheel of change.

We preform the roll of observer for others who cannot witness the event themselves. Images are the link which helps bind us collectively — a starving person in one part of the world is no different then a hungry neighbor up the road, yet if either plight is not witnessed, who would know to help? If no one documented the atrocities of war, how could those who perpetrate war crimes ever truly be held accountable? Were it not for those who often turn down more lucrative forms of photography, would important in-depth reportage on issues from the Congo or the foreclosure disaster in the United States ever become ink on paper or pixels on an iPad?

Having no witness begets the evils and weaknesses of humanity.

Had Paul Simon not produce the album, Graceland, how many more in our general population (especially outside of the continent) would have not known the oppression in South Africa, or would Stephen Biko have become a near globally recognized name for the enormous sacrifice he made where it not for Peter Gabriel’s 1980′s song, Biko, and his unflinching commitment to help end apartheid? Would the environmental movement not be were it is today without folk singer Pete Seeger? Would the plight for those in need in Bangladesh during the early 70′s not been raised to it’s global awareness without the efforts of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, or would the world have banded together magically on it’s own had Bob Geldof not ran himself ragged to pull off Live Aid in the 1985?

Both the musician and photographer exert passionately for hours on end. It is not work. It’s an obsession. A purpose. The notion of calling it work is as absurd as saying breathing or urinating is laborious.

 

History

Photographs and music have another definitive connection; They are benchmarks of time and history. When viewing the shocking Kent State massacre photograph, I become enraged, hearing songs such as Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Birds. Images from the Vietnam War, Joan Baez’s album Where Are you Now, My Son fills the head and Edwin Starr screams his anti-war anthem, WAR.

After years of being on the road, a pattern began to form — just as the music which played on the radio when I was a teenager become that years soundtrack of summer, the music heard while on the road forever becomes the soundtrack of that assignment. An audible link. A metaphor. A reference to time. Suddenly an album or song takes on new meaning, sometimes comical, other times weighted.

China

For instance…traveling in 1999 to the brothel-ridden southern border town of Ruili, China, for a Time Magazine story on border towns, translator and friend, Casper (yes, she choose her English name after the Friendly Ghost), commandeered the China Southern Airlines music player, tricking the stewardess that the cassette she had in hand was music everyone onboard would love. We jammed at 35,000 feet listening to the Doors blasting through the isle. Jim Morrison also accompanied us throughout the long car drives to the Burma border in Yunnan Province. Every time I think of Ruili or see the following photograph, I hear The Doors.

The last remaining traditional masseuse in the town of Ruili, China. Learned on this story never say you'll never revisit a place, returning a total of three times to this depressing town located along the Burma border. Young girls from throughout China and Burma are trafficked to this small village which, at least between 1999 and 2003, was basically one massive brothel. Oh, that last masseuse...he was gone a year after taking this photograph in 1999, replaced by another karaoke bar.

Vast amounts of heroin moves across the Burma/China border in Ruili, making it one of the most drug saturated cities in China. It's also the route of the B strain of HIV which then migrates north via truck drivers.

 

Indonesia

Driving through Central Java with my dearest of friends, Heri Yanto (Heri tragically passed away last year), we stumbled upon a cassette sold at a small warong (shop), that became our soundtrack to the National Geographic story, Volcano Gods. Since ancient Javanese spirituality and Ponorogan culture have connectable roots to Mount Merapi, it seemed mystically fitting that Music from Ponorogo would forever be heard every time I gander a photograph from that story, with it’s hypnotic suling (Javanese flute) and trance-like percussion.

Gunung (Mount) Merapi, erupting on May 15, 2006, in Central Java. Merapi is consider among Javanese spiritualist to be mystical and sacred. And thank you, Ed Wray, for letting me use your 300mm lens for this photograph. 50mm is normally the longest lens I tot around and Ed, one of the kindest photographers I know — and an extremely talented photographer — was generous to lend me his lens for a few frame, one of which became the cover image for this story. On a side note, being so engrossed with the various layers of spirituality while working on Volcano Gods, my wife and I named our daughter, Francesca Merapi Stanmeyer.

Reok Ponorogo culture has been around for centuries. Here a member of the group, donning elaborate makeup and a fake beard, waits to perform in the Jatilan, a sacred dance held in May 2006 in hopes to calm the restless ogre believed to reside in Mount Merapi.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offer was to try was to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offering were intended to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

My dear friend, Heri Yanto, during our three-day visit to Mount Bromo in East Java. Heri and I worked together throughout Indonesia and parts of Malaysia for over 10 year. He passed away last year from diabetes, an illness he never told me had.

 

Pakistan

And for some odd reason while covering the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, James Taylor’s album, October Road, became the soundtrack while moving through some of the most precarious roads ever traveled with my friend Raza Khan (Raza also tragically passed away a few years back). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the most amazing qawali singer ever, shared speaker time, however somehow October Road united with the harsh yet staggering landscape. Think it had to do with witnessing so much loss and suffering, finding hope and love in the track, September Grass.

Evening prayers amidst the ruined mosque in Balakot, Pakistan, after an major earthquake hit Kashmir on October 8, 2005. The entire region was leveled. Truly depressing what happens when the earth shakes.

With the bridge over the Pattika River hanging only by a few remaining cables, it didn't stop the needs of the people who survived the earthquake.

Praying over freshly made graves in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, one day after a massive earthquake rocked the Kashmiri region.

Raza Khan waiting for me to get a hair cut amongst the destroyed remains of a barber shop in Balakot, Pakistan. Raza and I worked together for nearly 10 years. In hostel regions such as along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, he swore to protect me, no matter what, often saying emphatically "I will die for you, Brother John!" Raza didn't have to die for me. He tragically died in a auto accident while driving my colleagues Lynsey Addario and Teru Kuwayama back to Islamabad from an assignment they were working on in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Fortunately Lynsey and Teru survived. I miss Brother Raza dearly.

 

Choices

While packing just over two weeks ago — at the very last minute, of course — for an assignment in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the need for choosing the right soundtrack was paramount…it would require driving throughout much of Washington State, the Oregon coast and possibly Northern California.

In many ways, the decision was more weighted then the gear that still needed packing: underwater camera housing, special tripod clamps, oddball cables, gaffers tape, camping gear, mozzie net, etc.

In fact organizing the camera bits are simple.

It’s the choice of music which often takes the weight of thought and time.

Music — and far more kit then normally is brought on an assignment — selected for last weeks National Geographic assignment in the Pacific Northwest.

Rummaging through the music library, slowly and methodically, the audio narrative took shape. Here is what Part I of the assignments musical accompaniment sounded like:

 

Peter Gabriel – US

Neil Young – Harvest

Tchaikovsky – Symphony #6

Pigmy Chants of Central Africa – Hunting, Love and Mockery Songs

Musicians of the Nile – Luxor to Isna

Taking Heads – Stop Making Sense

Japanese Shakuhachi – Japanese flute music

Sundanese – Batawi

Frank Sinatra – Greatest Hits

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Górecki – Miserere

Sundanese – Classical Music

Dave Matthews Band – Live in Central Park

 

The CD player of the Chevy Traverse become the epicenter of musical timekeeping, naturally heralding, in it’s own time, an album that would become the soundtrack for part one of this latest National Geographic story.

Jabbering incessantly on geology, devising our own audible manual to assemble rather complex foldable Folbot kayaks and the recounting of past peculiar events, forester Dave and I were only able to enjoy around 70 percent of the audio enlightenment; Japanese Shakuhachi, U2, Sundanese, Talking Heads, Pigmy Chants of Central Africa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon, each selected by Dave and played in that order over long drives through some rather stunning Pacific Northwestern landscape. A week ago we were still on the road at 1:30 am with the only place open for dinner being a 7-11 for hot dogs and chips — U2 and a cup of weak joe kept me awake for another hour, barely. Damn, sure live high on the hog while on NG assignments, don’t we.

Dave Yamaguchi enjoying dinner consisting of water, a hot dog and chips, at the pumps of a 7-11 somewhere on the outskirts of Olympia, Washington.

 

Ritual

Allowing the music to decide what will forever be indelibly referenced as the soundtrack to the 1,400+ miles of driving, a near regular ritual begins, preformed after every story, arising most specifically while flying home, this time lost in clouds hovering over the Cascade Mountains — reflecting on what has been photographed and what lies ahead.

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains on Southwest flight #210 from Seattle to Chicago.

The most invocation-filled moments — along with non-photography bits, like this blog entering completion — tends to happen on planes. Though the carbon footprint is obscene (sadly, it’s impractical to walk from the farm in New England westward to Seattle, Washington…Louis and Clark took over a year back in 1804-05 just from Ohio to Oregon), there’s a certain sense of peace found in planes.

Sick, right.

Maybe it’s because there’s nowhere to go. Maybe it’s the hum of the engines playing on the consciousness with its monotoned drone. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions. Really haven’t a clue. But I’m truly balanced and at peace while being in the belly of a bird…and giddy as a school boy in lederhosens during each take off and landing with the bizarre notion of being encased in what basically is a 10-story building, turned on its side, with two flat sticks on either side.

Oh yeah, and it flies.

 

Epilogue

One thing is for certain…I don’t sense this story — which had significant hurdles to overcome during the last two weeks — will change the world. Unfortunately it’s not going to end hunger nor put a halt to wars. However the purpose of this story, like so many others we all do, is to help us think. Think about our future related to events which can happen to many of us, in turn hopefully saving lives.

A bit of a tall order indeed. One at the very least should be tried, helping, if possible, to turn the cog just ever so slightly further, awaiting the next hand to turn the wheel of change.

 

 

 

PS: Least I forget; Thank you, Kōhachiro Miyata, for fusing your fluid style of shakuhachi with the State of Washington while driving at dusk along Route 8 towards the coast. And to Frank, The Chairman of the Board, dripping your velvet voice while driving under moonlight along the Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 101) in Oregon, embossing soundtracks to the White Horse along the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

July 21, 2011   2 Comments

Overcast Skies, Rock n’ Roll & The Blues Brothers

Overcast days = Music

More specifically — Rock n’ Roll.

Reason for starting this blog was to share passions on photography, world music, field recordings and whatnot…hopefully more whatnot then say photography, which is already covered so well by a slew of talented purveyors of bloggerdome — check out Life.com 2011 Photo Blog Awards. With such brilliance, what more could I bring to this already mighty fine table of photographic illumination?!

This week it seemed appropriate then to include some American rock n’ roll.

And if you live in Argentina or Zambia, music from the United States is indeed world music.

When in northern Mississippi two weeks ago there was some downtime before photographing at a local high school. Being in the heart of Delta Blues country one couldn’t help but stumble into the aptly name Blues Town Music store located in the old downtown district of Clarksdale. The welcoming facade with guitars hanging on the outer wall clearly magnetizing the fingerpicker in me to wander in. Sure to it’s name, it was indeed a haven for all things blues.

Ronnie Drew, owner of the Blues Town Music Store in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Ronnie Drew, sporting an amazing ultra-white head of hair, offered an immediate warm greeting in a classic Mississippi drawl that’s audibly synonymous in this part of the United States. Had known about southern warmth from books and films, and by golly it’s completely true. Kindness abounding everywhere, from everyone.

Ronnie’s also the type who let’s you play whatever guitars you fancy and did he have some beauties. Two metal body slide guitars, both made in nearby Memphis, gave off the vibe, “PLAY ME”. Can’t say I know how to play slide all that well but fingering and moving a glass slider along its neck helped strike up a conversation about music from this part of the country with the man in stunning white coif.

Mississippi is indeed all about The Blues, but the surround area, according to Ronnie, is also known for playing a roll in a specific origin of rock n’ roll.

When asking whether he had any CD’s from this region, Mr. Drew immediately steered me towards two CD’s on the disheveled counter next to the cash registered. There, resting amongst various guitar picks, tuning harps and other musical bric a brac were two CD’s titled A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975, Volume 1 and 2.

With Memphis being but an hours drive away, it made sense that Clarksdale and Elvis might have a Kevin Bacon-esque degree of separation.

Order A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 Vol II, from Amazon.com

According to the liner notes:

“The Success of Sun, Stax and Hi Ricords, case a huge shadow over Memphis from the 50′s through the 70′s, influencing every musician who had any inspiration for a song or for ‘making it’ in any way. Stardom could happen — it had happened before…Elvis just walked into the door at 706 Union, but Sam Phillips was there, already recording blues, rock, symphonies and whatever hit his earhole right. The framework was here because the MUSIC was here. But by the mid-60′s, even the kings of the scene felt the heat from oversees. The British Invasion hit and the soul stars saw that these moptop ruffians were driving the kids insane playing American soul and blues music in a new, rougher form. The Animals, the Rolling Stones and early Beatles turned American kids onto music that was all around them but maybe head to hear or to get…Brits like Gerry and the Pacemakers were making it, and killer Memphis acts were ignored”.

What spawned from this British Invasion were a whole slew of musicians who dove into their garages and jammed. Few if any made it out of their parents carports or beyond gigs at frat parties. Nor would their band names ever become part of rock n’ roll lexicon — The Yo-Yo’s, The Jades or Lawson & Four More. But what did come out was a collection of rare recordings found likely only on this unique small label out of Memphis called Shangri-La Projects.

These CD’s were sealed in plastic, making a purchase of such collective music a leap of faith — unlike books, with world music it’s possible to literally know a label (Smithsonian Folkways, World Music Library, Elektra Nonsuch, etc) and buy anything from their collection, knowing they only produce the music of amazing musicians. But Ronnie was so convincing this was a great music set, I bought Volume I then bid ado to the man with awesome blanco tresses.

While heading to photograph at the nearby high school, I ripped off the cellophane, popped the disc into the rental cars CD slot and was utterly blown away, immediately realizing I’d made the mistake repeated on numerous occasions — buying only one disc of a multi-disc set.

The Le Sabres style of guitar, sax, bass and piano — well mixed above the scratches of old vinyl —  rocked on their instrumental track, Rising Mercury Twist. The raw sound quality with great horns by Shadden and the King Leers’ in their song, All I Want Is You, placed me smack in the Memphis garage where this song was likely recorded back in 1967.

This CD is a mix of psychedelic rock and moody rock-blues generally associated to the Memphis sounds of this time.

Photographing at the school went well, however, I couldn’t wait to finish and rush back to Blues Town Music to get the companion CD before Ronnie shut the doors — if I hadn’t, he’d not be open when leaving Clarksdale at 6am the next day for the long drive south to the airport in Jackson.

Order A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 Vol II, from Amazon.com

Even though my heart is far more connected to global music than say Western rock n’ roll, these two CD’s are now a prized part of the Vintage Collection on the CD shelf. If you’re wanting to experience what is truly some of the most raw versions of American rock and roll trippy garage band funk, these two CD’s (and a compendium book — chockablock full of brilliant historical detail) are not to be missed.

Order the book, A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 from Amazon.com

Order the book, A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 from Amazon.com

Couldn’t find these CD’s on iTunes but they are available through Amazon by clicking on the album or book covers above.

These discs, containing an excellent selection of early North American rock n’ roll, performed by (quoting the liner notes) “The deserving ones left behind”, are worth their weight in history.

And if ever you end up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, (population 21,000), it’s here you’ll find one of the few remaining Bluesmobile‘s driven by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the movie, The Blues Brothers. It’s located at the equally funky blues bar cum bed and breakfast called, Hopson Plantation

The drivers side door of the Bluesmobile at Hopson Plantations.

Wacky how this car ever made it from Chicago, Ill, to Clarksdale, MS.

Can't remember any longer how often I've watched The Blues Brothers. Damn good movie.

By the way, here’s an interesting story on how allegedly Dan Aykroyd drove this car to Clarksdale.

Never heard nor been to Clarksdale until this National Geographic assignment took me there. After this visit — along with some insanely tasty southern cuisine from The Dutch Oven and some staggeringly delicious ribs at Abe’s Barbecue (opened in 1924), I think it might be worth a revisit…especially for the annual Sunflower River Blues Festival, which takes place between August 12-14, 2011.

Enjoy,

 

 

 

 

June 7, 2011   5 Comments

Organizing Music Like Film

World music collection, one of a few things actually organized in this life.

Some elements in life are in states of disarray.

In the closet, shirts at times are hung between pants. Kitchen spice rack seems to keep most flavor makers tidy, however the cinnamon tends to goes astray. So does the thyme and bottle of Maggi. Tool room is a navigational hazzard. Don’t even ask about the sock drawer. When misplacing reading glasses (which happens all too often), they inevitably are tilted up upon the head.

What has been put under a decent state of organizational control is both the photography and audio archives.

Without these two vital factors in life proper organized, I’d be a mess.

A few years ago I took on the wrestling task of organizing the music CD collection, a vast majority being world music. Having begun collecting in a fevered state around 20 years ago, this section of the library is rather significant.

It became apparent early on that the music needed to be cataloged, no differently then photographic slides and negatives.

First thing required, a place to keep them so none could be damaged. While living in Indonesia, a fantastic carpenter created two wooden cases with glass doors made from old recycled teak wood, each to hold more CD’s then one could ever try carrying.

Next came the decision on how to organize the music.

Artist name?

With my name retention about as water tight as pasta strainer, I had to come up with a better solution.

Both my analogue film and digital archives are organized by country. Seemed to make sense for a continuum, organizing on the shelves first by region of the world, then by country. If there was a large collection by one artist — there are 40-50 CD’s just of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (I’m nutty for Nusrat), 10 or so of the amazing tabla player, Zakir Hussain, etc — they would receive a specific section within their country region, e.g., Pakistan for Nusrat, India for Zakir and so on.

Heavy stock paper with labels, a simple but effective way to catalogue music.

Then the plan hit a snag; Where do early and mid century recordings of traditional music go?

In the last seven or eight years I’ve become mesmerize by the origins of music. Vintage recordings of a culture, tribe, area, country, in an attempt to understand what they sounded like (musically) before being effected by the importation of foreign musical styles and instruments.

What does the original music of the Yi people in Yunnan sound like?

How much of Balinese gamelan has been altered (if at all) by pop music?

Not only are we loosing last speakers of language at an alarming rate (a language is lost ever two weeks), what musical traditions have we also lost but are able to be heard on period recordings?

When the arrival of tape recorder happened around 130 years ago, it was far too large to tote about as we do with digital recorders, like the Roland which fits in my shirt pocket.

By the 20′s and 30′s, recorders, just like computers, began to shrink — from chest of drawer sized units, down to scale which could at least fit comfortably on a table.

There were a number of pioneers in the ethnomusicology world who immediately realized the importance of recording traditional music, both for sharing to others but also as a means to document what was already traditional culture under stress due to colonialism, development and the growing ease of travel. By the 20′s and 30′s, musical influences would soon forever be alter from what took generations of natural and creative evolution, often in a somewhat isolated state due to geography.

Hugh Tracey was one of these ethnomusicologist.

Hugh and his wife, Ursula Campbell Tracey, moved from England to Rhodesia (now, Zimbabwe) in the 1920′s. Immediately he was enthralled by traditional African music. Hugh converted a truck into a mobile recording studio and headed across the central and southern part of the continent between the 1920′s until the 1970′s (his most prolific recording period was in the 1950′s), creating what is considered the most important collection of traditional African music ever recorded.

Hugh Tracey and his mobile recording caravan.

To learn more about the importance of Dr. Hugh Tracey’s audio legacy, you can click on the image above or here for more details.

In the CD library in the studio — having finally deciding a few years ago to have all recordings created before the 1970′s organized in their own sub-sections within each relevant country — there rests one of my favorite Tracey recordings.

The CD, At the Court of the Mwami, Rwanda, is an excellent example of the importance of such early recordings. Like vanishing languages, we’re also loosing certain forms of traditional music.

Why?

Unlike Mozart or Bach — whose musical compositions were often transposed to paper — most traditional music from around the world is oral, memorized to perfection and pass down from generation to generation. If there’s no one willing to learn the specific musical style or knows how to sing the words, the music, like a language, will vanish.

In 1962, the Republic of Rwanda was established and five centuries of rule by the Tutsi Banyiginya dynasty came to an end. King Mwami fled the country and the symbol of power, the royal drums, vanished. According to Hugh’s notes, this music, exclusive to this court, was never heard again other then in “a diluted form”. In 1952. Hugh Tracey was given permission to make what is truly some amazing recordings. They are still available through his International Library of African Music label as well as in the iTunes store. This album is a hardcore series of recordings. Not necessarily candlelight dinner music. A journey in time to a musical tradition which is no longer with us.

While writing I listened once more to this entire album. Whoooow. All tracks are excellent however the four Twa Women songs are stunning, and vocal style of track 15, Rukanga Rwamajana by singer Ntamakiriro, is over the top.

Every album in Tracey’s historic collection is brilliant — just buy any one or all. You won’t be disappointed.

By the way, not ever field recording Tracey made is available through iTunes. You can see most of Dr. Hugh Tracey’s complete archive through the International Library of African Music label which is affiliated with Rhodes University in South Africa.

Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

May 11, 2011   11 Comments