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August 29, 2007

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Harold

YUVAL: "First, by 'instrumental' music I have always understood music that had no words. Lead Belly’s songs have words. When I wrote 'fiddle music' I meant what most people understand by that phrase, not a sung song accompanied by fiddles. The fact that Leadbelly played guitar made no difference to the Lomaxes as long as he was singing. If you look at the many instances of John Lomax’s praise for African American musical performance, you’ll find it almost completely confined to praise for African American singing, not instrumental capability. And he had no interest in recording purely instrumental numbers, which were very common at the time."

Yuval had previously used the word "a cappella" and maintained that the Lomaxes preferred this for reasons he insinuated were racist .

The Lomaxes did not record as much purely instrumental music as sung music because they were writing books about Folk Songs. (It is sort of primitivist to assume that vocal music represents a more 'primitive' genre, in any case). Much instrumental folk dance music does have words and is sung as well as played -- for example rock and roll, and the numerous reels and party songs that the Lomaxes documented.

As such, they did record (some) and describe (much other) black fiddle music. They only recorded some because black fiddlers hd become rare by the 1930s, since in the 1920s the fiddle was increasingly replaced by harmonica and accordion. One reason was that commercial recording companies chose to omit them.

Why did they choose to omit the fiddle? Was it because it was not a tempered instrument and the public had come to expect a tempered sound?

Did the fiddle not come across well on primitive recording equipment -- which often was speeded up? I do not know. At any rate, expert players could adapt the harmonica to play quarter tones so it all worked out.

The fiddle was considered the devil's instrument. If you read Thomas Hardy's novels he describes with regret how the string orchestra was replaced in rural 19th century British protestant churches by the organ in early Victorian times. Who knows the reason for these fashions? String music was felt to be sinful. Extrme protestants such as populated the USA, had always favored a cappella hymn singing. Initially, only biblical psalms were allowed, but in the 18th C., the permitted repertoire widened.

US slaves had at first played fife and drums. And banjo. These dropped out of use. The banjo was supplanted by guitar among blacks (but not whites so much, they also retained the fiddle -- is it "segregation" to acknowledge this?)

I find It a simplification and a distortion to say that calling spirituals "Negro Spirituals" represents ipso facto "segregation" or even partial segregation. Segregation is a loaded word with a highly negative charge.

Frankly, I do find it irksome when such linguistic looseness results in disparagement of folk music (or of Rousseau, as below).

Yuval Taylor

That seems fair to me, and I'm grateful for the response. It's one way of looking at it. Here's another way of looking at it.

By 1934, most black instrumental dance music was either jazz or some late version of ragtime. John Lomax despised jazz and considered it inauthentic; I wouldn't be surprised if he felt the same about ragtime. Now to my mind--and I'm sure to Alan Lomax's mind too--there was nothing about jazz and ragtime that made it any less "folk" than "Frankie and Albert," to which the Lomaxes devoted so much space in American Ballads and Folk Songs and Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly. "Frankie and Albert" was written in 1899, and jazz originated at about the same time. "Frankie and Albert" had been recorded about 25 times by 1932, so it was clearly as much of a "pop song" as any jazz number of the era. The question naturally arises: why did the Lomaxes, like other folk song collectors, put so much emphasis on a pop song like "Frankie and Albert" and so little on other pop songs written and performed by blacks but which fell into the "jazz" idiom--songs like "Salty Dog" or "Memphis Blues," for instance?

There are a lot of reasons, including some you elucidate in your post. For instance, "Frankie and Albert" tells a story, and folksong collectors like songs that tell stories. But I believe that one reason is that folksong collectors were looking for blacks to sing songs that they considered purely black. Jazz and ragtime were widely considered hybrid musics (John Lomax certainly considered jazz as such).

Black fiddle music had indeed become rather less common as the fiddle became supplanted by the guitar as the instrument of choice. But fiddle music was considered as hybrid (and was indeed as hybrid) as jazz. That is probably one among many reasons that John Lomax concentrated on what he saw as less hybrid musics when he first recorded black music in the early 1930s. Of course, they weren't really less hybrid; but Lomax devoted so much of his autobiography and so much of his grant application to the idea of pure Negro music that it's hard to escape the conclusion that he thought a song like "Frankie and Albert" WAS purely black.

To change the subject radically, the question that interests me more at the moment, and one you may be able to shed some light on, is whether or not minstrel music was based on slave songs and, when it became popular in the 1840s and 1850s, how deeply it penetrated into the music that black Americans performed. I haven't done a thorough study of the evidence yet, but there are certainly two completely opposing points of view here, one represented by Eileen Southern's history of black music and the songs in Solomon Northup's slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave and the other represented by the 1868 Slave Songs of the United States and by Nick Tosches's Where Dead Voices Gather (the latter two books imply that there is no connection whatsoever between the two traditions).

Harold

Yuval: "I don't get it. Why the animosity? Why the constant barrage of nitpicking over tiny differences in word meanings? I agree with much of what you've written, after all."

This reminds me of an old joke: "When I do it's love, when other people do it, it's dirty."

To say that calling a category of music "Negro Spirituals" constitutes "segregation" or "partial segregation" (??!) is irksome to me, at least. Claiming bafflement about this strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.

Yuval can dish out criticism of other people's words -- Johnny Cash, Rousseau, the Lomaxes -- especially when he supposes it might involve subtle or not so subtle stereotyping -- but can't understand it when other people object to his own loose use of language in pursuit of an agenda.

As evident from the other post on this thread, the normal reaction when people think someone is being unjustly attacked (stereotyped or smeared) is one of righteous indignation and sympathy for the victims (who cannot defend themselves). The paradox is that Yuval of all people ought to be cognizant of this.

That said, I am ready to acknowledge Yuval's real expertise in and enthusiasm for many kinds of obscure recorded music, which I am sure is worthy of being put to more constructive use and doesn't need to be aggrandized by disparaging other people's achievments.

Harold

Yuval: "I don't get it. Why the animosity? Why the constant barrage of nitpicking over tiny differences in word meanings? I agree with much of what you've written, after all."

This reminds me of an old joke: "When I do it's love, when other people do it, it's dirty."

To say that calling a category of music "Negro Spirituals" constitutes "segregation" or "partial segregation" (??!) is irksome to me, at least. Claiming bafflement about this strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.

Yuval can dish out criticism of other people's words -- Johnny Cash, Rousseau, the Lomaxes -- especially when he supposes it might involve subtle or not so subtle stereotyping -- but can't understand it when other people object to his own loose use of language in pursuit of an agenda.

As evident from the other post on this thread, the normal reaction when people think someone is being unjustly attacked (stereotyped or smeared) is one of righteous indignation and sympathy for the victims (who cannot defend themselves). The paradox is that Yuval of all people ought to be cognizant of this.

That said, I am ready to acknowledge Yuval's real expertise in and enthusiasm for many kinds of obscure recorded music, which I am sure is worthy of being put to more constructive use and doesn't need to be aggrandized by disparaging other people's achievments.

Yuval Taylor

I never criticized Johnny Cash. He was duped by Peter LaFarge. I called his album Bitter Tears a masterpiece. There was no way he could have known LaFarge was a fake Indian.

I also never said that calling a category "Negro spirituals" was "segregation." What I referred to was the Lomaxes' practice of classifying songs by race rather than by other factors. Why segregate the Negro bad men from the white desperadoes? Songs like "Frankie and Albert," "Ida Red," and "Boll Weevil" were sung by just as many whites as blacks, and "Po' Boy," which falls in the White Desperadoes camp, was commonly sung by blacks. If I remember right (I could be wrong), they didn't make the same mistake in the follow-up book, Our Singing Country.

I think you have repeatedly distorted my words to make them look more accusatory and denigrating than they were. You said I said I had called Alan Lomax a racist when I didn't, you said I claimed that the Lomaxes were ignorant of black fiddle music when I said no such thing, you said I criticized Johnny Cash when I didn't. I plead guilty to being rather horrified by many of the writings and practices of John A. Lomax, and I admit I sometimes write things I later think better of. But you make me out worse than I am.

harold

More on Lomax & black fiddle music.

John A Lomax collected "Home on the Range" from a black cook at a cowboy camp.

"Goodbye Old Paint" came from a black fiddler:

http://www.wchm-tx.org/Goodbye_Old_Paint.htm
Goodbye Old Paint came from a black fiddler:
Charley Willis would seem, on the surface of history, to be an unlikely candidate to have written an enduring cowboy classic. He was born a slave in Milam County in 1850 and learned the cowboy trade as a slave.

In 1871 he signed on with the Snyder Brothers of Georgetown to take several thousand cattle up the Chisholm Trail to Wyoming in 1871. We can assume it was a seminal event in his life. Willis returned to Davilla and went to work on E.J. Morris' ranch near Bartlett where his specialty was breaking horses.

The Morris Ranch is where he taught E.J. Morris' seven-year old son, Jesse, how to play "Goodbye Old Paint" in about 1885. Jess Morris' first fiddle lesson came from another black cowboy on the ranch, Jerry Neely, about the same time.

"Charley played a jews-harp and taught me how to play it," Morris said. "It was on this jews-harp that I learned to play 'Old' Paint' at the age of seven. In later years I learned to play 'Old Paint' on the fiddle, in my own special arrangement - tuning the fiddle accordingly."

Fiddlers recognize Morris' arrangement as sophisticated and difficult, adding credence to rumors that he studied violin in Austin and at Valparaiso, Indiana. But Jess Morris always identified himself as a cowboy fiddler.

His unique "Old Paint" arrangement caught the attention of folk music collector John Lomax, who said that Morris had "the best tune that exists to Goodbye, Old Paint" and he wanted to record it as Morris performed it. That version is included on the seminal "Cowboy Songs, Ballads and Cattle Calls From Texas" album.
...............
Western writer and singer Jim Bob Tingle believes there is enough credit to go around for "Good-bye Old Paint." He wrote, "Credit for saving the song must be given to three Texans: a black cowboy (Willis) who sang it on cattle drives, a cowboy who remembered it (Jess Morris) and a college professor (Lomax) who put it down on paper. "

Yuval Taylor

Pretty interesting stuff.

People nowadays tend to forget that if you were a traveling musician in America in the 19th century, you were more likely to play the fiddle than any other instrument. It didn't matter what race you were. This obviously carried over into the twentieth century to some degree, despite the increased availability and popularity of the guitar.

harold

I didn't realize there was a page 2 here and posted several things without knowing they were up or had received a response.

I find it interesting that the fiddle was less popular in the twentieth century, though it never fell out in hillbilly music. I wonder whether this was because it was not a tempered intrument. (Some people say they can't stand the sound of a violin, and I imagine that could be the reason. The non-tempered scale sound "shrill" to them) Or whether the recording technology of the time couldn't do it justice , or what.

In classical music the use of the vibrato on every single note (rather than just for emphasis, as previously) also coincided with the invention of audio recording.

I heard someone once explain that vibrato was a way of reconciling tempered and non-tempered instruments (like the trumpet) -- since when played with a vibrato the notes varied by exactly one half tone, bringing the strings into harmony with the brass (at least half the time).

Be that as it may, up until the 1950s people evidently expected "classical-type" fiddle sounds in "pop" music. The Weaver's hit version of Good Night Irene included a string back-up -- to the consternation of folk purists. To our ears it sounds very dated.

I myself believe that John Lomax was looking for older music when he used the word "authentic" -- not "authentically black" in an essentialist sense. Yuval believes otherwise. Also, many felt that the popular racist "coon" songs that made up so much commercial black music at the time -- did not represent the "authentic" black music that blacks played and sang for each other -- for obvious reasons.

Yuval Taylor

As a matter of fact, unlike many other folk music collectors, John Lomax was always very open to new songs--you can find some of them in almost every one of his printed song collections. For him, as for his son, folk music was very much alive, and he had little interest in treating it as a revival of an old tradition. In this sense, as in many others, he was very different from Cecil Sharp and many of the academic folklorists of the East Coast universities. Lomax was trying to record a living tradition, not only the remnants of a vanishing one. He had no tolerance for "popular" or commercial songs, but if a song fit into the folk tradition, he didn't care if it was brand new. In our book, we call into question the distinction between pop and folk, but it was a very real one for Lomax.

Harold

Well, it's true that John A. Lomax apparently didn't care for jazz or tin pan alley songs and preferred traditional material. And like many aficionados he had strongly worded opinions.

However, to describe the organization of his book as "segregated" seems to me an exaggeration.

As I see it, a segregated book would either altogether omit any black material (rather than giving it pride of place, as Lomax does) or relegate it to the second half of the book in one lump. It would not open with a mixed section (railroad songs)and then regularly alternate black and white, Southwestern Spanish and mixed sections as American Ballads does.

It is a stretch to call the terms Negro Badman ballads or Negro Spirituals "racist'ispso facto. There may have been shared or overlapping of repertoires but there were stylistic differences in the way the songs were sung and this was of legitimate interest to scholars.

And if they didn't do this in subsequent books it may not have been so much as to correct a "mistake" as because of a (welcome) change in fashion and sensibilities.

Carin Knight

Does anyone know how to contact Lucius Smith banjo player?
Please pass my phone number(s) 215-843-2320 ext 209 or 215-730-0180 Thank you kindly...

coach sale

Luckily to read your article,thank you. With very best wishes for your happiness in new day.

yuval taylor

Ill be out of the office through July 12, and may not be checking my e-mail. If in the meantime you need help with an editorial matter, please e-mail our editorial assistant Kelly Wilson at kwilson@chicagoreviewpress.com. Otherwise I will respond to your e-mail on or before July 13.

Yuval Taylor
Senior Editor
Chicago Review Press / A Cappella / Lawrence Hill Books
814 N. Franklin St.
Chicago IL 60610
312/337-0747 x220
fax 312/337-5110
ytaylor@chicagoreviewpress.com
www.chicagoreviewpress.com

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