Roots of Everything

Yazoo's Time Capsule Project

As you look around the average hangar, stadium, or bus terminal that calls itself a record store these days, it's easy to think that all the music ever made is currently available in the handy CD format, complete with copious notes and period photographs. And every time you walk in, a new shipment of previously unsuspected arcana has arrived. But just compare your walking into some warehouse, credit card in your paw, with the sense of physical adventure that once attended record collecting. Think of Harry Smith in the 1940s, taking buses to remote Salvation Army stores to plow through rooms full of 78s before they were melted down for the war effort. Or the people whose collections have been mined for the Yazoo compilations— which people were young, earnest white guys in crew cuts and short-sleeve button-down shirts at the time— going door to door in small Southern towns in the early '60s, importuning old folks in their nightshirts, looking for elusive sides by King Solomon Hill.

Yazoo started out about 30 years ago as a country blues reissue label, and it stood out from the common run of such labels then by having better sound and better covers, featuring well-chosen old photographs and sometimes R. Crumb drawings. Their compilations were geographical: Mississippi, Memphis, St. Louis, Georgia, Texas. The approach was scholarly, pretty much, although they eschewed the dry chronologies associated with, say, the Document label out of Austria, noted for austere covers that tend to look like patent-medicine graphics. Recently Yazoo (which was acquired by Shanachie in the late '80s; see for ordering info) has been undergoing major changes. The old geographical collections have nearly all been deleted (I didn't ask, but the fact that their sound wasn't digitized might have had something to do with it), and in their place has come a raft of big, multivolume thematic compilations, at least 13 of them in the last few years.

While the scholarly approach might have worked with '60s folkies, who cut their teeth on Child ballads, later it must have appeared to be a case of preaching to the converted. Yazoo at some point decided to appeal to contemporary relevance by issuing anthologies such as Roots of Rock, Roots of the Grateful Dead, and more recently, Roots of Rap. This latter is an honest effort, full of worthy stuff, but conceptually it comes out a bit thin. Speckled Red's "Dirty Dozen No. 2," a fast pile of rhymes that may have inspired its own microgenre (think "Roxanne, Roxanne"), can legitimately be said to sound like rap's great-grandfather. Nearly everything else on the disc, though, constitutes stretching— blues with talk parts, gospel with talk parts, hokum with talk parts, even white country brother-duets with talk parts. There's nothing wrong with this, exactly, and anyway it wouldn't fall within Yazoo's compass to issue a Roots of Rap that would include jazz toastmaster Babs Gonzales, menacing New Orleans soliloquist Bobby Marchan, and your choice of versions of "Nagasaki." ("Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccy and the women wicky-wacky-woo . . . ") But the parcel at hand, despite its wit and range, can't help but smell of castor oil.

Unknown band, circa 1890
Courtesy of Shanachie Entertainment
Unknown band, circa 1890

Around the same time Roots of Rap was released, in 1996, Yazoo also issued the magnificent three-volume Before the Blues, which pointed in quite another direction. It is not sufficiently well-known just how radical and relatively recent the blues is. It is also not generally appreciated how intertwined the black and white elements in American popular music truly are— how black are the roots of white country. Before the Blues is a remarkable approximation of what rural popular music in the South must have sounded like during the 19th century, which only seems more remarkable when you take into account that black musicians in the rural South did not begin to be recorded until around 1927. The blues as a specific, rigorous form is probably about a hundred years old, and while its impact did not eliminate every trace of its predecessors, a parallel current nevertheless chased away most fiddles and especially banjos from black music, perhaps because of their association with slavery and minstrelsy. There may not be a lot of black banjo players on these sides, but many of the guitar parts are essentially transposed clawhammer style— imagine a more metallic timbre to Luke Jordan's "Pick Poor Robin Clean," and you could be hearing the sound of 1872.

Unlike the earlier Yazoo compilations, Before the Blues is racially mixed, about 50/50, in fact. Harry Smith was the pioneer of this aspect of roots compilation, deliberately arranging his Anthology of American Folk Music to blur the lines, so that the uninitiated really couldn't tell whether Mississippi John Hurt was black or white. The principle is just as sound here, since after all the tunes themselves are of mixed parentage. It's a bit vertiginous, for example, to realize that Dick Devall's "Tom Sherman's Ballroom" represents one branch of a tree, with roots in Scotland, that forked to produce both "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary." Worth remembering, too, is the fact that white musicians continued playing songs and styles long after they'd been abandoned by black musicians pursuing innovation— to check the persistence of this phenomenon, look at ska.

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