Monday, December 19, 2011

Track 10: Minor Drag

Posted by Benson

Minor Drag is an instrumental piece originally performed by Thomas “Fats” Waller.  Although Waller’s family was originally from Virginia, they moved to New York before Fats was born.  Fats grew up in Harlem, and later launched his career there under the tutelage of renowned Harlem pianist James P Johnson.

James P Johnson
Like Rosetta Howard, Fats grew up in a stridently evangelical household.  His early musical experience came from playing harmonium at his father’s church when he was ten years old.  Fats’s serious introduction to what his father called “music from the Devil’s workshop” was when he started practicing with Johnson.  In 1922, Johnson was asked to take over piano at a club on Fifth Avenue and 135th street called Leroy's.  Johnson couldn't do it on account of having to do a show, so he recommended Fats, which launched his career.  

Like Johnson, Fats was a pioneer of the "stride" style of jazz piano, a unique musical style that helped to transform then-popular ragtime piano into Jazz.  Stride is also significant in that it was a departure from New Orleans jazz that began to shift the staccato of New Orleans-style jazz into a more "swinging" style that grew in popularity throughout the late 1930s and 40s.

Stride piano, or Harlem Stride as it is sometimes called, is an improvisational style with a more swinging, steadier beat than ragtime.  The player’s left hand tends to move or “stride” up and down the keyboard, which is how the style got its name.  Stride itself is somewhat distinct from the Jazz piano style popularized in New Orleans at the same time by folks like Professor Long Hair and Jelly Roll Morton.  The New Orleans pianists tended to have a more rustic or “out of tune” style with a harmony layered above the melody.  Jelly Roll also preferred walking bass lines in sixth as opposed to the stride style in which the left hand bass was more often walked at an octave or tenth.

Minor Drag therefore comes out of a more East Coast than New Orleans sound.  Even so, songs like Minor Drag had a significant impact on the development of Jazz around the country.  Minor Drag first appeared with Ain’t Misbehavin, which Fats recorded for Victor Records in 1929.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Track 5: Delta Bound

Posted by Benson

Delta Bound is easily Doug's favorite track on the CD.  I absolutely love it as well.  I think the song resonates with any Louisianian, but it has a particular resonance for me because I spent all of my college years in the Midwest.

I got my undergrad at The Ohio State University, which is a capital school by the way.  The great thing about OSU is that it's in Columbus, Ohio.  The unfortunate thing about OSU is that it's in Columbus, Ohio.  Ohio is certainly an interesting state, but for a Neworleanian it is a bit cold, and bleak, and grey, and bland.  But if you have to be in Ohio, Columbus is the best place to be.  It's a big city with lots of things going on, plenty of great restaurants, and a vibrant night life.  It isn't New Orleans by any stretch of the imagination, but the transition from New Orleans to Columbus was not as jarring as I had imagined.

After I graduated from OSU, however, I went to grad school at Ball State University in the...lovely...Muncie, Indiana.  Yea, that's the city that was the test case for the Middletown Studies, "middletown" being the "classic," "average," or "typical" American city.  In other words, Muncie was small and bland enough to be the poster child for late 1920s Middle-American identity anxieties.  This is ironic because Delta Bound was being recorded by Rosetta Howard around the struggling New York Blues scene in 1937, the same year Middletown in Transition: A study in Cultural Conflicts was published.  

Delta Bound resonates with me because it reminds me of the feeling of driving home to Louisiana for the holidays.  I used to do the whole 14 hour drive in one day, leaving around 4 or 5 a.m. and getting in after dark.  Every time I'd hit the Louisiana border I'd pull over at the rest stop and bask in the sensations of being home.  I'd feel the weight of the air, run my hands through the grass, and take in the sounds of south Louisiana.  Even though I was just across the border from Mississippi, I always imagined that I could detect a difference as soon as I crossed the state line.  It was a visceral experience that had as much to do with the physical environment as it did with the culture or even with my family.  Simply being in the environment was a deeply fulfilling experience.  When my wife started making the yearly trip with me, I even used to tell her that the clouds in Louisiana were different from clouds anywhere else. 

But as fulfilling as those experiences were, they were rare and special.  Now that I'm back in Louisiana for good, I always feel a contentment with my environment.  But that feeling has become part of everyday life, and so it's hardly remarked until it's missed.  I love Delta Bound because it reminds me what it is like to be away from Louisiana.  It reminds me of the yearning that grows the longer you're away from home.  Hearing it allows me to recapture, if only for an instant, the fulfillment of running my fingers through the grass off I-59.  Although the moment is fleeting, the best part about hearing Delta Bound is that it reminds me I am already home.  

Delta Bound was recorded by Rosetta Howard in 1937-38 while she was playing with the Harlem Hamfats.  Rosetta is a bit of an enigmatic figure, because unlike many of the previous artists we've discussed, Rosetta did not enjoy wide-ranging popularity in her time.  Nevertheless, she has left her mark on the Jazz and Blues tradition, and her music has touched many souls.  

Down on the delta,
Where there is shelter
No helter skelter,
No blues around.

I’m on my way now,
Most any day now,
I’m delta bound.

When night is falling,
My heart is calling

It keeps on calling,
I’m going down.

I’m on my way now,
Most any day now,
I’m delta bound.

Every time I close my eyes,
I seem to see Louisiana.
All the folks there are singing,
In their free and easy manner.

I been a rover,
But, now that over,
Knee deep in clover,
I’ll soon be found.

I’m on my way now ,
Most any day now,
I’m delta bound.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Track 4: Rock Me

Posted by Benson

This week we're taking a look at track 4 on the CD: Rock Me by Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Erica introduces this song by explaining that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of her favorites, and it is easy to see why.  Rock Me is a spiritual song about beseeching and thanking the Lord for guiding and protecting you throughout your life.  In typical gospel fashion, it is an evangelical song expressing joy in one's faith and jovial submission to the will of God.  But what is truly interesting about Rock Me is something that may not be readily apparent to modern audiences.

Today, I think we've become well accustomed to the merging of musical traditions, and it doesn't seem strange, new, or unique to hear a devotional song accompanied by music that draws a heavy influence from Jazz and Rock traditions, as Rock Me does so well.  But back in the 1930s when Sister Rosetta Tharpe was recording Rock Me, she was a musical pioneer.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and grew up playing then traditional Gospel music.  A wunderkind by any standards, Rosetta began performing at the age of four, traveling to tent revivals around the South where she accompanied her mother, who both played and preached, on stage.  But in addition to being exposed to Gospel music at such a young age, Rosetta discovered Blues and Jazz, first in the South and later after her family moved to Chicago in the 1920s.  As you know, the Blues traveled up the Mississippi from New Orleans and gained a second wind (pun intended) in Chicago in the 20s.

Rosetta played Gospel in public, but in private she was enamored with Jazz, and she began experimenting with incorporating Blues and Jazz rhythms into her Gospel music.  Although Rosetta's mixture of Gospel music with more secular styles tended to shock churchgoers, it enjoyed an explosion of popularity among secular audiences.  Accordingly, Sister Rosetta Tharpe became the first great recording star of Gospel music, and was even known at the time as the "original soul sister."

She broke new ground with her music, and brought the light of the Gospel even in the "darkest" nightclubs and concert halls, delighting her fans and having a lasting influence on the Gospel musical style.

Rock Me

Won't you hear me singing
Hear the words that I'm saying
Wash my soul with water from on high
While the world of love is around me
Evil thoughts do bind me
But Lord, if you leave me,
I will die

You hold me in thou bosom
Till the storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of thou love
Only feed me till I want no more
Then you take me to your blessed home above

Make my journey brighter
You make my burden lighter
Help me to do good wherever I can
Oh, let thou presence thrill me
Your love is kindness to me
Then you hold me
Hold me in the hollow of thou hand

You hold me in thou bosom
Till storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of thou love
Only feed me till I want no more
Then you take me to your blessed home above