Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Brief Exploration Brings, Appropriately, Echoes

Originally posted November 3, 2009:

Rob stopped by as Sunday afternoon slid toward Sunday evening; he’d been raking leaves at the house where he grew up, a house now on the market. We sipped a few beers and watched the end of the Vikings game, then retired to the study to dig lightly into the history of African American music.

At his exurban high school this semester, he’s teaching an American Literature course that includes the Mark Twain novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That’s a book that is, of course, revered by many as a legitimate candidate for the accolade of The Great American Novel and reviled by maybe just as many for its non-standard English, its Nineteenth Century stereotypes and its frequent use of a word I won’t use here. These days, we call it the N-word, and it’s one of the two most incendiary words in the English language. (You likely know the other: It starts with a “c” and in an Old English spelling, it was used by Chaucer.)

Rob thought his students might be interested in the development of African American music from the time of the story into the late Twentieth Century, so we dug around in my audio files. Among the goodies we found were a work gang chant from a Texas prison farm, probably recorded around 1939 but most likely hearkening back in origin to the late 1800s and possibly as far back as the days of slavery. We also found “Linin’ Track,” an adaptation of a railroad work call that blues musician Taj Mahal included on his album De Ole Folks At Home in 1969.

He’d listened at home to the spiritually based blues of Son House (who sang and recorded plenty of earthy music, too) and Blind Willie Johnson, and he knew that, in a general sense, Robert Johnson came next. I cued up Sippie Wallace’s “Mighty Tight Woman,” a jazz-blues piece from 1929, illustrating what many urban African-Americans were listening to at about the same time as House and the two Johnsons were performing and recording their rural blues.

That’s a vast simplification, of course, but we were talking about squeezing more than a century of musical development into a brief class hour. I pointed out that, like many things that we try to analyze, the history of African American music turns back on itself over and over again, and the twists and turns are difficult to trace. I further pointed out that I am a fan, not a historian, so he – like my readers – needed to use my ramblings as a starting point, not a finishing point.

Rob’s head was spinning as we sampled a bit of post-World War II jump blues and R&B and then some of the Chicago blues developed by Delta refugees Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and others. We talked of Ray Charles and the development of soul music. Eventually, we got from the 1950s into the 1960s, stopping off at Fats Domino and Little Richard, looking at how they influenced the musicians who came along in the 1960s, using the Beatles as one of the main examples.

And then we doubled back to Elvis Presley, recalling the (possibly apocryphal) statement ascribed to producer Sam Phillips about hitting it big if he could find a white singer who sang black. And I played Elvis’ version of “That’s All Right,” released in 1954. To our ears these days, it’s a rockabilly sound, distant from blues and from rock ’n’ roll. I cued up the original version of “That’s All Right,” recorded in 1946 by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Much different than the blues that Crudup frequently recorded, the song contains vocal inflections that Presley had to have heard, as they show up eight years later in his recording of the classic tune.

(As reader Any Major Dude pointed out in a comment at the time, and as I knew but failed to make clear, Presley was a fan of Crudup's and gave the earlier performer a great deal of credit for Presley's own performing style.)

Then, just for fun, I jumped ahead more than forty years, to a recording of “That’s All Right, Mama,” released by Paul McCartney on his 1988 album released in the Soviet Union, Снова в СССР. The echoes of Elvis and Arthur Crudup were clear. And echoes were what were listening for.

“That’s All Right” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Victor 20-2205 [1946]

“That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley, Sun 209 [1954]

“That’s All Right, Mama” by Paul McCartney from Снова в СССР [1988]

I’ve also seen the title of Crudup’s version of the song listed as “That’s All Right, Mama,” and I’ve seen the catalog number listed as RCA Victor 20-2205. My source for the title and catalog number is the notes to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup: Rock Me Mamma, the seventh volume in a thirteen-volume collection issued between 2002 and 2004 by BMG on its RCA Victor and Bluebird labels. The CD series – released under the general title When The Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock & Roll, is a treasure trove of vintage recordings that paved the way to rock ’n’ roll. I got my set one at a time four years ago and had to scramble to find a couple of them. Anyone interested in the origins of the music we listen to and love would enjoy the set.

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