Georgia on their minds

Deep River of Song revives local music of the '30s and '40s

"I know no one can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell."?
?-- Bob Dylan, "Blind Willie McTell"

It was a cool October night in 1940 when folklorist John A. Lomax, on an assignment for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., drove his open touring car through a thick, fragrant cloud of hickory smoke billowing around an Atlanta barbecue joint called the Little Pig. Suddenly, Lomax felt a jab in his side. His wife, seated beside him, was pointing at a lone figure perched on the curbside. "There is a Negro man with a guitar," she said excitedly.

Always seeking new songs to expand his archives, Lomax immediately wheeled into the rib shack's parking lot. He hopped out and, in what had by now become a familiar ritual to his wife Ruby and son Alan, approached the solitary guitarist to ask about recording the man's songs. It was a fortuitous meeting, because the musician whom Mrs. Lomax had spotted by the roadside was a future legend of the blues, Blind Willie McTell.

"Business isn't good," observed the humble guitarist, who agreed to give up busking on the chilly street corner that night and travel to Lomax's hotel for an impromptu recording session. But there was a problem: Lomax was lost in the sprawling, unfamiliar city.

"I'll show you," announced McTell, climbing into the car.

To the folklorist's astonishment, the blind musician gave him perfect directions. "Between us and the hotel," Lomax later recalled, "there were six or eight right-angled turns and two places where five or six streets crossed. Chatting all the while with me, Blind Willie called every turn, even mentioning the location of the stoplights. He even gave the names of buildings as we passed them. Stored in his mind was an accurate, detailed photograph of Atlanta."

The details of this incident — and four of the remarkable recordings McTell made during his visit to Lomax's hotel — are highlights of Deep River of Song: Georgia, a new CD released by Rounder Records as part of the Alan Lomax Collection, an ongoing series of field recordings from America, the Caribbean and Europe. The 22 tracks on Georgia originally were captured for the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Song during extensive field trips by the Lomax family, although significant contributions also were recorded by others, notably Professor John W. Work of Fisk University.

The Georgia project began in December 1934, when Work and Lomax set out with an extremely knowledgeable guide, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as the folk-blues singer Leadbelly. Together, they drove across the state, stopping at music halls, tent meetings, prisons and work camps, recording anything interesting they discovered. On a subsequent solo trip in 1935, Lomax captured the only known recordings of the secular instrumental music native to Georgia's Sea Islands; and in 1941 and 1943, he arranged to record at a large African-American music festival at Fort Valley State College, near Macon.

Lomax originally released portions of this musical bounty on 12 LPs, but Rounder's ongoing CD reissues greatly expand this, adding copious bonus tracks and liner notes. The Georgia disc includes nearly a dozen previously unreleased songs, complete with the hiss and crackle of the original metal and acetate discs cut on the portable machinery of the time. The CD also includes a new 34-page booklet of liner notes, in which Tennessee professor David Evans makes a compelling case for the value of Georgia's African-American blues/gospel tradition, a heritage often unfairly eclipsed by indigenous music from Tennessee and Mississippi.

The recordings, however, truly speak for themselves. If the senior Lomax was impressed with McTell's vision-impaired automotive navigation, one can only imagine how he felt when the native Georgia bluesman began thumb-picking a 12-string guitar and crying out the lyrics of "Dying Crapshooter's Blues." Filled with vivid imagery, the song tells the tale of a crooked gambler named Jesse: "One foot up, a toenail draggin'/Throw my buddy Jesse in the hoodoo wagon/Come here, mama, with that can o' booze/He got the dyin' crapshooter's blues!"

The performance is impressive for its deceptively simple guitar accompaniment and complex vocal rhythms. "It's in three different marches of tunes," says McTell during his spoken introduction, a modest admission that he borrowed elements of earlier compositions — from "Streets of Laredo" to "St. James Infirmary" — while composing it.

An even more profound expression of the blues is heard in the many Georgia tracks recorded by prisoners. Ranking among the finest is "Longest Train I Ever Saw," with its distinct hiccup-like injections of "Uh-huh!" at the end of each line. This remarkable performance was delivered in late 1934 by a quartet of convicts at Atlanta's Bellwood Prison Camp. Like many of the other prison tracks, the recording includes a spoken coda by Lomax, politely acknowledging the cooperation of the musicians' guard.

While debriefing the singers of the stirring gospel chant "Judgment" at the Cherokee Work Camp near Canton, Lomax asks their leader where he learned the song. "I learned it," the man answers hesitantly, "uh, radio." With palpable heartbreak in his voice, Lomax quickly dismisses the tune as "not a Georgia song." However, as Evans' astute liner notes indicate, his disappointment was misplaced. In fact, "Judgment" — one of the CD's previously unreleased gems — holds great value as a surviving sample of the black spirituals performed live for Southern radio during the late '30s and early '40s, broadcasts which now are largely lost to history.

Among the other remarkable un-issued material are several performances by Sidney Stripling, who played four-string banjo in a nearly forgotten style popular around the end of the 19th century. Stripling's contributions include "Coonjine," an 1898 dance tune once considered scandalous. Even more important is "Sebastopol," his 1941 duet with guitarist Gus Gibson, who tuned his instrument in an unusual "Spanish" style that ultimately acquired the name "the Sebastopol tuning."

For their rawness and anthemic spirit, the contributions of McTell, Stripling and the various convict groups represented are a tough act to follow, so Lomax chose to end the disc with an upbeat novelty number. Titled "Smithy Rag," it's a silly instrumental performed at breakneck speed by a group known as the Smith Band, using a kazoo as their improbable lead instrument. During their 1941 performance at the Fort Valley Folk Festival — which Georgia proudly documents — one of the event's judges was W.C. Handy, the Tennessee trumpeter credited with writing the first published blues. According to local legend, Handy was so enraptured by the Smith Band's set that he grabbed his own instrument and joined in, taking over the lead.

There could be no finer tribute to the spirit of Georgia's forgotten bluesmen than such an eager nod from the Father of the Blues himself, and no better way to conclude Georgia's fascinating tour through the state's musical heritage.??