Lead Belly and the folklorists

When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.

This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.

This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).

Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Ethnomusicology, Humor, Jazz and blues, North America

Mick Taylor and “Time waits for no one”

In a 2012 interview, Mick Taylor was asked whether there was a particular recording from his days with The Rolling Stones that he was the most proud of or felt best represents him.

“My favorite one in terms of my own guitar playing,” Taylor responded, “is Time waits for no one. I love that solo. I think it’s probably the best thing I did with the Stones. It’s not one of their hits; it was an album track. But it’s quite lyrical and it’s a bit different from a lot of other Stones songs. I’d done something that I’d never done. Because of the structure of the song, it pushed my guitar playing in a slightly different direction.”

“I kind of played in a different mode. I was playing over a Cmaj7 to an Fmaj7, which aren’t chords the Stones used that much. You know, they had their rock and roll songs and they had their ballads as well, and they were very different.”

Quoted in “Interview: Former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor discusses gear, Bluesbreakers, Iridium and the Stones” by Damian Fanelli (Guitar world 3 May 2012).

Today is Taylor’s 70th birthday! Above, around the time of the recording; below, the solo in question.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Performers, Popular music

Dave Grohl’s reticence

 

In a recent interview, Dave Grohl discussed why he didn’t push for his own songs while he was drumming for Nirvana:

“I didn’t like my voice, I didn’t think I was a songwriter, and I was in a band with one of the greatest songwriters of our generation. I didn’t really want to rock the boat.”

“That’s the famous joke: What’s the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out of the band? ‘Hey guys, I’ve got some songs I think we should play.’ So I just kind of kept it to myself.”

Following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Grohl doubled down on his original work, resulting in the Foo Fighters’ eponymous debut the following year. At the time, he says, the project didn’t even feel like a proper record. “I just wanted to get up and go out and play something, even if nobody ever heard it,” he said. “Long before then, I had been recording songs of my own, and never letting anybody hear them, because I didn’t really think they were that good.”

This according to “See Dave Grohl explain why he didn’t write or sing in Nirvana” by Zoe Camp (Revolver 9 July 2018).

Today is Grohl’s 50th birthday! Above, performing in 2018; below, the Wasting light touring set from 2011.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Popular music

Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.

Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.

We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.

Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.

In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.

This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2 [2018] pp. 175–83)

Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Animals, Antiquity, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments, Nature

The tígueras of merengue típico

 

In most genres of Caribbean music women tend to participate as dancers or vocalists, but in Dominican merengue típico they are more often instrumentalists and even bandleaders—something nearly unheard of in the macho Caribbean music scene.

In a complex nexus of class, race, and artistic tradition that unsettles the typical binary between the masculine and feminine, female musicians have developed a feminine counterpart to the classic male figure of the tíguere, a dandified but sexually aggressive and street-smart tiger: the tíguera, an assertive, sensual, and respected female figure who looks like a woman but often plays and even sings like a man. These musical figures illuminate the rich ambiguities in gender construction in the Dominican Republic and the long history of a unique form of Caribbean feminism.

This according to Tigers of a different stripe: Performing gender in Dominican music by Sydney Hutchinson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Above and below, Fefita la Grande, one of the tígueras discussed in the book.

Comments Off on The tígueras of merengue típico

Filed under Performers, Popular music, West Indies, Women's studies

Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî, Ottoman woman composer

 

Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî (generally known as Dilhayat Kalfa, d.1737) was raised in the Ottoman royal palace, as indicated by the adjectival Kalfa, which also denotes important administrative tasks. She played the tanbur, and historical sources contain information on nearly 100 of her compositions.

Her surviving works are counted among the most important examples of the technique and aesthetic of the Ottoman classical school. The flow of her makams and her prosody are exemplary. Two works in the evcârâ makam, a peşrev and a saz semaî, exhibit a very individualistic style. She was exemplary in her setting of texts, showing great care in arranging the relationship between meaning and melody.

This according to “Dilhayat Kalfa” by Meral Akkent (İstanbul Kadın Müzesi, 2012). Above, a Romantic-era depiction of the composer (no contemporaneous portrait exists); below, the saz semaî discussed in the article.

Comments Off on Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî, Ottoman woman composer

Filed under Asia, Women's studies

Iconography in early ethnomusicology

 

Visual depictions of music and music making outside of Europe can be found in abundance in 17th- and 18th- century travel accounts, missionaries’ reports, and books predicated on the idea of the universality of music.

Illustrations of non-European music from this period reflect the early stages in Europe of an ethnomusicological conception of the world, and their pictorial rhetoric often encompassed areas of study that continue to interest scholars in the 20th century. The close connection between image and concept in musicological thinking suggests that the history of the field may perhaps reach further back and may have developed more cohesively than is currently assumed.

This according to “Missionaries, magical muses, and magnificent menageries: Image and imagination in the early history of ethnomusicology” by Philip V. Bohlman (The world of music XXX/3 [1988] pp. 5–27).

Above, in his Moeurs des sauvages amériquains, comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps, Joseph-François Lafitau depicted the imaginary world of Native American myths as well as the empirical world of his observations.

Comments Off on Iconography in early ethnomusicology

Filed under Ethnomusicology, Iconography

Riffs: Experimental writing on popular music

 

Launched in 2017 at Birmingham City University, Riffs: Experimental writing on popular music offers a creative and experimental space for writing and thinking about popular music, in addition to an online forum for the publication and hosting of high caliber research in popular music studies.

The journal encourages written, audio, and visual contributions that experiment with the expected forms of academic communication. All papers are peer reviewed.

Below, Napalm Death, a group discussed in the inaugural issue.

Comments Off on Riffs: Experimental writing on popular music

Filed under New periodicals, Popular music

RILM Editor wins Outstanding Dissertation Award

Former RILM Editor Woo Shingkwan (胡成筠) has just won the International Musicological Society’s 2018 Outstanding Dissertation Award for The ceremonial music of Zhu Zaiyu.

Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611) was a mathematician, physicist, music theorist, choreographer, and composer; he is particularly remembered today for creating the theory of 12-tone equal temperament.

Congratulations to our former colleague! Above, a page from the dissertation.

Comments Off on RILM Editor wins Outstanding Dissertation Award

Filed under Asia, RILM, RILM news, Theory

Professor Longhair and New Orleans

 

Roy Byrd, known to the world as Professor Longhair, was an idiosyncratic piano genius who incorporated Caribbean rhythms into his music while singing and whistling in a cracked voice self-described as freak unique.

With his rambunctious left hand digging deep into rhumba-boogie island rhythms while his right added rolling R&B flourishes, “Fess” achieved legendary status and became the international personification of the sound and sensibility of the New Orleans music scene. While he was unlike any other musician the city produced, he was somehow representative of them all.

The swamp blues pianist Marcia Ball flatly stated “Fess is what New Orleans piano is all about. It’s not just those wonderful runs and rhythms; it’s all that life experience and personality of his that comes through so clearly. You can hear the entire city in his playing. Fess was New Orleans.” He was also a boxer, a cook, a card shark, and, ultimately, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This according to “Professor Longhair” by Michael Point (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] pp. 785–86); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Fess’s 110th birthday! Above, a 1973 photograph by Michael P. Smith; below, performing around the same time.

Wishing for more? So are we! Here’s a full live set:

Related article: Allen Toussaint’s legacy

Comments Off on Professor Longhair and New Orleans

Filed under Performers, Popular music