July 19th, 2013
Full disclosure: I’m a vegetarian. However, hearing these songs makes my mouth water and my mind rove back to my childhood in the Bronx. Just a short car ride away was Smokey’s, a Harlem rib joint where the sauce was sweet, the pie was tart, and the well in the middle of the dining area provided the perfect quencher for those stringy bits of meat.
My family was not the first to revel in the charms of barbecue: according to the liner notes, the word comes from the Taíno barbacòa, a word whose meaning is illustrated in a 1564 engraving of Native Americans roasting an assortment of creatures on a log structure. Fish, snakes, lizards, and dog-like animals are held aloft as flames lick them from below.
Just as with so many forms of American music, different ethnic groups have contributed to barbecue as we know it: we have Greeks, Germans, Africans, and more to thank for the rubs, sauces, spices, and peppers that season this culinary treat, which gained instant popularity in the South. Barbecue traveled north during the Great Migration, and African Americans sold it out of their homes or on the corner, luring patrons from the more affluent parts of town. Those who could afford to open a restaurant hooked customers with the opportunity to play the jukebox as well as to dine on smoked shoulders and legs. Historian Tom Hanchett hypothesizes that barbecue in blues serves as a status symbol much as does gilded finery and top-shelf liquor in today’s rap songs. It also serves as a bottomless source of double-entendre-laden mirth.
Barbecue Any Old Time starts out with Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon’s Down at Jasper’s Bar-B-Que, which lists in salivation-inducing detail all the delicacies offered at the establishment, an actual Chicago eatery run by drummer Jasper Taylor. Not just pork, but beans, pickles, onions, sauerkraut, and pies tempt customers. Anyone whose stomach is not growling after Jaxon’s rundown will probably find it doing so after the onslaught of picnic fare references littering the remaining 23 songs, all sung by Depression-era masters such as Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and Brownie McGhee.
The album contains a few top-notch musical numbers. In Barbecue Bust, a frenetic jug band masterpiece, kazoo, guitar, piano, and tambourine parade in rollicking step, their give-and-take punctuated by scat singing and occasional knocking noises. The effervescence of this tune is matched by the big band boisterousness of Pigs’ Feet and Slaw, a tightly orchestrated number by Tiny Parham and His Musicians. Instruments such as cornet, banjo, piano, and clarinet interplay to create a brassy piece just right for dancing off a plate of food.
Oddly, the classiest song of the bunch is Ham Bone Am Sweet, a refined version of the minstrel classic Watermelon Hangin’ on That Vine (sung by the Monroe Brothers, among others). The Four Southern Singers croon to the spare instrumentation of plucked violin, washboard, and jug. The arrangement is inventive, and the percussion provides the perfect backdrop for the four-part harmonies. It’s an American original: African Americans taking up a song composed by whites poking fun of black culture and creating a sophisticated, textured tone poem. Historians and music lovers alike will appreciate this layered offering.
On the other side of imitation, Bogus Ben Covington’s I Hear the Voice of a Pork Chop parodies the old Scottish hymn I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. It begins with the singer detailing how a rooster landed him behind bars:
I ain’t had no use for a chicken
Since way back yonder last spring
For a chicken tried to peck me
‘Cause I stepped on his wing
Oh chicken caused me to go to jail
I don’t let no chicken do that
I would have stole every hen she had
But I found out they was fat
Unable to bear the meat of the fowl after this indignity, Covington (nicknamed “Bogus” because of his real-life trick of disguising as a blind man to beg for change) wanders hungrily until the voice of a pork chop assures him that he will find succor in pig meat and the like. Covington plays harmonica and banjo throughout, the plinking of the strings ringing like the keys of a pianola. The creativity of this piece, and the circus-like sounds of the instrumentation, makes one wish there were more songs in the present day as irreverent as this one. Compilations such as Barbecue Any Old Time remind us that music can be about play as much as it can be about expressing themes such as love felt or lost.
Themes of love and its variations are not exactly lacking on this CD, however. Songs such as Pepper Sauce Mama (she makes his meat red-hot), Meat Cuttin’ Blues (her butcher is so good, she doesn’t need anyone else), Who Did You Give My Barbecue To, parts 1 and 2 (he got lots of barbecue in his youth, but it’s harder now that he’s old), Pig Meat on the Line (has anyone seen her meat, because it’s gone and she wants it back), Barbecue Bess (if you try what she’s selling, you’ll be back for more), and many others paint a picture of the joys and insecurities associated with all types of carnal activities.
Barbecue isn’t just for eating and sexual innuendo, though—in Barbecue Any Old Time, it’s clear that it’s a much-needed source of recreation. In Alabama Barbecue, Tempo King and His Kings of Tempo assert that
. . . there’ll be no more (?) moaning or kicking
But there’ll be corn, cornbread, and fried chicken
But there’ll be no picking cotton
Cotton’ll be forgotten
At the Alabama barbecue
The weariness of the workday is forgotten amid the joyful clamor of the summertime gathering. It is a shame that no one sings about subjects as simple as food anymore. These songs speak to an earthier time, and they do so with a sense of whimsy lacking in today’s music. At times, one can hear the clanging of pots, pans, and silverware for percussion, making one wish that found instruments were still a part of the American music scene.
Barbecue Any Old Time will satisfy anyone hungry for forgotten American music. Instruments such as the celeste and tipple join the aforementioned kazoos, washboards, jugs, and banjos to produce shimmering and varied aural textures. The 16-page booklet of liner notes is full of photographs from days gone by, which convey as well as do the songs the flavor of this period in U.S. history. This compilation offers plenty for one to smack one’s lips over. It pleases much more than the tofu sandwich I had the misfortune to try at a trendy barbecue joint the other day. Perhaps one can’t recreate the allure of Smokey’s with anything but the real thing.
Listen to excerpts here: http://www.allmusic.com/album/barbecue-any-old-time-blues-from-the-pit-1927-1942-mw0002186803
Producer: Marshall Wyatt
Sound engineers: Christopher King and Jeff Carroll
Essay: Tom Hanchett, staff historian of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte
Song notes: Marshall Wyatt
Art direction: Marshall Wyatt and David Lynch (Lynch is also the graphic designer)
The varied, rare, and fantastic photographs and prints in the liner notes come from The North Carolina Collection (UNC at Chapel Hill), The North Carolina State Archives (Raleigh), and the archives of Old Hat Records.
July 15th, 2013
Part of the beauty of old-time music is the way in which it passes from one generation to the next, newcomers watching as fiddlers in their 80s and 90s pull the bow across the string, exposing notes that fall between the pitches or pulsing the rhythm in unexpected ways. In attempting to harness the musical wizardry of their elders, younger players stretch the tunes, alter them, build on them, and play with them, keeping their spirit alive while infusing them with energy. To listen to Rafe and Clelia Stefanini, a father-daughter team, is to see this process unfold and to share in it.
Rafe, lured from Italy to the United States by the appeal of old-time music, has joined numerous bands besides opening a violin shop in which he makes and repairs instruments. Lady on the Green is Rafe’s second CD with Clelia. Watching this duo blossom is inspiring whether you play old-time or simply enjoy it.
The most notable aspect of Rafe and Clelia’s playing is the way in which the two collaborate on the twin fiddle pieces. The first tune on the CD, Poplar Bluff, shoots into third position but never causes the ears to bleed, as one in the pair is always providing an undertow of rhythmic and harmonic support. As someone who has had the good fortune to take fiddle classes with Rafe at Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camp (full disclosure), I’ve experienced firsthand his inventive style; Rafe never stops improvising, and it’s clear that Clelia delights in this as well, as the two twine around each other, alternate between point and counterpoint, and discover new harmonies. Rafe and Clelia evoke the spirit of playfulness that should accompany learning tunes and playing them with another—the synergy that occurs when two musicians make a piece more than the sum of its parts.
In Collins Medley #1, Rafe and Clelia start out at a canter on the tune Buttermilk. There is a brief pause, and suddenly the two erupt into Oklahoma Breakdown, a twin fiddle explosion that reminds one of jets of water leaping into the air, the spray refracting light into color. Lady on the Green is another musical jewel, the weaving of harmony and rhythm evoking the patterns made by branches on a forest floor. A tune familiar to many, Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Bit Further into the Fire, has so many moving parts that it reminds one of one of those cartoon machines of dubious purpose that bounce and spring with continual motion. Although Rafe and Clelia are always on-pitch, there is never a sense that they are working to keep it clean. Their elastic bowstrokes and syncopated asides convey the impression of a sophisticated and variegated musical dialogue.
The two also satisfy in the vocal arena. In the upper register, Rafe slices through the air, producing that knife’s edge tone so gratifying to those who love mountain music. The Cowboy Trail, sung at a lower altitude, is enlivened by triplets and rills from Rafe’s banjo, which glimmer along the surface of the song like dust motes in a sunbeam. In Elkhorn Ridge, Clelia and Rafe make the air hum with fast-paced banjo and guitar, their harmonies riding the instrumental currents.
Clelia has more vocal presence on this CD than in the pair’s debut, Never Seen the Like, and takes the lead on a few songs. This is a welcome development. Clelia’s voice is unadorned yet supple, with a freshness that reminds one of newly cut grass. She has the perfect voice for old-time—tuneful without being so precise as to never spill over the lines, and confident without being emotive. Clelia wisely eschews the tendency of many female singers to create a breathy, vibrato-filled vocal line that has no place in songs about moonshine and woodchucks. Her simplicity of style is easy on the ears and serves as a counterpoint to the baroque intricacy of the fiddle tunes.
Rafe and Clelia are connoisseurs of old-time, and it shows in their selection of songs, a blend of well-known and more obscure offerings. The Round Peak area and West Virginia are not mined so much as is the Midwest. The Collins brothers from Missouri feature, as do Nebraska fiddler Bob Walters, Texas fiddler Peter Tumlinson Bell, and Missouri fiddler Casey Jones. This makes for an exciting array of tunes that may prompt those most familiar with Appalachian music to seek new ground.
In some songs on Lady on the Green, such as Blues Stay Away from Me, one wishes for more of the innovation that characterizes the fiddle tunes; however, the static quality of these pieces may refresh those who need a break in between the instrumental numbers. Also, the 2009 Never Seen the Like features a new work by Rafe; it would be wonderful to see the duo produce more original offerings. With all their versatility and talent, Rafe and Clelia are sure to write tunes worthy of transmission, contributing to the canon as well as digging up and polishing older musical gems.
Lady on the Green is rounded out by Nikki Lee on guitar, Carl Jones on mandolin, and Eric Frey on bass and vocals. It was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Joel Savoy at Studio Savoyfaire in Eunice, Louisiana.
Purchase the CD or listen to track samples here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/rafeandcleliastefanini
March 15th, 2013
I had the privilege of meeting Jack Greene a few years back on a TV show (Country’s Family Reunion) I was working on. By then, he had pretty much lost his mind to Alzheimer’s. His manager led him by the had across the set to his seat, where he sat for hours without talking. He patiently waited for half the day for his turn to sing.
Then he got up, with the help of his old duet partner Jeannie Seely and sang a classic Earnest Tubb song (of which he was a member of the Earnest’s Trubadors):
And he killed it. It reminds me that when singing and performing is in your blood, it is impossible to forget or disgard.
Another country hero is lost, but his musical legacy will be remembered. I made this tribute video, and thought I’d share it with you.