Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Me and the Georgia Potlickers: Buddies or Just Good Friends?

How little I know...

I have been guilty of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

I assumed that the rhythmic emphasis on the second and fourth beats in bluegrass and country music arose out of the similar emphasis in jazz -- boom-chucka, boom-chucka. How wrong I was...

In my research for this book I've been listening very hard to a couple of collections of very early country recordings, "The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of," a set of extremely rare 78s of blues and proto-country; and Harry Smith's magisterial "Anthology of American Folk Music," which was perhaps the most important factor in the rise of the folkie movement in the late 50s and early 60s.

These records are, needless to say, astonishingly evocative.

But the most amazing thing about them is that it becomes instantly clear that country music had that boom-chucka beat long before jazz was a factor in rural life. If I'd thought with any clarity about it, I could have come to this conclusion without immersing myself in these collections; I'm not unacquainted with these tunes.

What bluegrass did was not to appropriate a rhythm from jazz; what happened instead was it took that rural dance-beat, and sped it up and gave it that wonderful drive that makes it such a compellingly toe-tapping medium, where the banjo is free to do all that great riffing a good picker can do.

(No insignificant thing, that fifth string. I'm doing a whole chapter on it.)

So the question becomes, When did this music acquire this beat? You don't hear it in "authentic" recordings of Celtic or even any other European folk music -- not so far as I can tell, anyway. Is it African? More listening sessions in store, methinks....

Another stunning thing is how much larceny went on in the first half of the twentieth century. I'll be humming along with Dock Boggs' "Country Blues" (1927) and it will suddenly hit me: Bloody hell, that's "Darlin' Corey"! Up comes John Byrd's "Old Timbruck Blues," and it becomes eminently clear where Bill Monroe "acquired" "Molly and Tenbrooks."

This is capital fun. Why didn't I think of this unemployment dodge earlier?


HomefrontRadio said...

Great post. I've been pondering the differing function of a banjo as opposed to a guitar myself, mainly due to listening to the Great Lakes Myth Society and Timothy Monger albums I've recently purchased.

The fingerpicking style of the banjo reminds me of perpetual motion in classical music. It's about restlessness and constant movement - therefore i think it has an energy that makes people want to move as they listen, especially as the strings have a real snap to them.

To me it's pretty much the sound of constant change and industry - being especially evocative of trains and the railroad, the march of progress, a busy society moving forward, at least through the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. It was a forward-looking instrument, hopeful for the future, so it's a shame it's now considered archaic or the domain of the slow and inbred.

It makes perfect sense to use it in a song about being in motion like this one:

Great Lakes Myth Society - Across The Bridge

It's also really hard to fake the sound with a keyboard.

CrayolaThief said...

Any chance of working that toetappin' ditty "Sugar in the Gourd" by the Bald Knob Chicken Snatchers into this tome of yours? Maybe even their kneeslappin' follow-up, "Rabbit in the Pea Patch"? Betcha the old-time chicken snatching community would be mighty obliged.

gregra&gar said...

This is capital fun. Why didn't I think of this unemployment dodge earlier?
I am so glad to see another corporate reject/rejector make good doing what he does for fun. It reinforces the engineering definition of work: effort against resistance. I everyone would resist such resistance, our situation with the nature of the planet wouldn't be on the brink of catastrophe. Congratulations on the realizations.

Kevin Hayden said...

If you play Dock Boggs' "Country Blues" backwards, you can hear Dustin Pedroia's season stats, if you precede it with a post-employment fifth of Thunderbird and squint your ears some.

cleek said...

the banjo itself is African, yes?

makes sense that some the style of music played on the original instrument would get incorporated, at the same time.

Rich said...

Fascinating stuff. Regardless of which came first, I've always thought of bluegrass as country's version of jazz. More specifically, to me, bluegrass was to country what bebop was to jazz. In one medium, you've got a banjo improvising over chord changes, and in the other it's a tenor sax. At a high level, the concepts are pretty much the same.

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to your book now. :-)