Traveling Down South (And Back in Time)
April 09, 2012
This is a republication of a previous blog post. This post was chosen as a winner of our first internal blog contest.
I’m probably what most people would consider a music geek. I have over 109 gigabytes (somewhere around 19,000+ songs) in my iTunes library, ranging from high-quality recordings of classical piano music to heavy, fast, grungy punk records of varying obscurity. But if I had to choose my most prized mp3s in my digital treasure chest, it would be the volumes of old blues recordings.
Many of these recordings are from the 1920s -1940s and have been digitized by private collectors and the Library of Congress. Many are available on CD, and you can probably find some at MCPL. You can travel back in time thanks to the American Song database, where you can listen to and discover a number of old and new blues (and non-blues) musicians free of charge.
Most of the recordings are made from old 78 phonographic records that collectors salvaged from trash bins and secondhand stores during the late 60s and 70s; some of them are more recent recordings done by folklorists during the same time period. For many of the musicians featured on these records, very little is known about their lives outside of the recordings. Nonetheless, they made a huge impact on music history influencing what later became Rock n Roll.
Thanks to later bluesmen who made big names, like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, some of the greats have gotten their due. The legendary guitarist and singer Robert Johnson’s collected recordings started coming out on big record labels in the 1960s. Johnson said that he sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play guitar, and based on his 6-string abilities, no one doubted his Faustian bargain. Though Johnson died at the young age of 27, 52 years later he won a posthumous Grammy award for Best Historical Album. Later, in 2007, he won a Grammy lifetime achievement award.
While Johnson gets a lot of attention from most blues fans, my absolute favorite song from this era, “Last Kind Word Blues” was recorded by two women--Geechie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Only two 78s of the recording are known to exist, and maybe 5 songs by these two women have been unearthed. As with many of their peers, little is known apart from what we can glean from the physical records.
Like several records from the late 1920s and early 1930s, their songs were recorded far from the South; “Last Kind Words Blues” was recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin. Scholars say that early blues singers would record up north, and their records were used as product demos for phonographs, which were sold at furniture stores up north.
Though there are now many recordings available from this era thanks to collectors and archives, quite a few records were thrown out in the trash, destroyed by disasters and time, or tossed in fires. Those that have been saved are incredible portraits of history and an important record for the southern black community during the Jim Crow era when a community of marginalized people found a voice through music. More southern music, from eras past, continues to be digitized, including a new collection of field recordings by folklorist Alan Lomax. It’s a wonderful glimpse into a much different time and place when recording wasn’t simply opening up a computer program and clicking a mouse a few times.
Blue Ridge Branch