Big Sound Saturdays: Old-Time Psychedelia

I imagine that everyone woke up like I did, sucking down your own personal version of a growler full of iced coffee (Spring & All, right?) and donning at least one item of mourning purple, asking the music gods What It All Means. So RIP Prince, the greatest!, holding hands with Hag and Lemmy and Bowie in 2016 heaven—this mix isn’t about any of you, but I place it at your feet!

Old-Time Psychedelia is actually a mix I’ve been sitting on for the past couple of weeks, because it’s so hard to untangle the wound-up-web of early 20th century weirdo Americana into ten little bites. It all started with Willie “Red” Newman’s 1936 rendering of the classic “St. Louis Blues,” a W.C. Handy tune on acid that was a $15 gift from the record den of niche-infamous Joe Bussard’s unbelievable collection of 78s. When I played the hopped-up proto-version of “St. James Infirmary” on WTJU’s “Walkin’ Blues” a few weeks back, I got so many text messages that I had to turn my phone off. It’s hard to believe that there’s a person behind those lopeing, driving harmonica notes.

I promise you, intrepid Saturday listener, the whole mix is like this! Check “The Cowboy’s Dizzy Sweetheart” (by Goebble Reeves, “The Texas Drifter”) —a yodeler whose chicken sounds rival those of the DeZurik (or, colloquially, the “Cackle”) sisters—for more truly disorienting feats in sounds-coming-from-human-mouths, or Tommy Settlers with his “Blues moaner,” a kazoo that he makes do wild, nasty things in “Big Bed Bug (Bed bug Blues).” Or listen (god DAMN it!) when Bessie Smith tells both you and her Shakespearian chorus of hot jazz accompanists to “hear me talkin’ to ya” in what I think is one of her most un-genre’d and disorienting songs, “Moan, You Moaners” (or “Moan Mourners,” depending on what 78 you’re looking at).

I set Blind Blake’s beautiful, tinkly “Guitar Chimes” as inauguration into Sidna Meyers’ banjo dream “Twin Sisters,” into prewar Hawaiian steel trendsetters Kalama’s Quartet’s “Sassy,” an up-tempo romp through the history of vaudeville and medicine show crossings between Hawaiian and popular black, white, and Cajun entertainers’ touring circuits, rounded off by two gospels and a mourning song. Elder Curry’s “Memphis Flu”—a vibrant sonic celebration of life, death, and God in the face of the flu epidemic of 1918—was made as popular as it has been in its 1952 reissue in Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” and again in the three disc opus “People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938” in 2007. And “Cuba 401” is the numbered shape note sheet music used by the oft-anthologized Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, singing a non-denominational and participatory refiguring of the solfege note progression into a gospel song.

Listen til the finish for the wonder that is the Segura Brothers’ “Bury Me In A Corner Of The Yard.” A medly of accordion and what sounds like a triangle or a cowbell with deriving, soaring lyrics sung in Cajun creole, it hollers over into a song that I’m saving for a different version of this mix, Blind Mamie Forehand’s “Honey In The Rock,” a blues sotto voce with guitar and some kind of bell, and back, deep, into the heart of popular, rural Americana. The perfect mo(u)rning song for a sunny Saturday in April.

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