Big Burritos


Until it was reissued by the Smithsonian last year, I had never heard Harry Smith’s 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, though I had heard a great deal about its influence on a generation. Smith’s exemplary selection and sequencing of unremembered recordings from the ’20s and ’30s spearheaded the revival in pre-electric blues and pre-Nashville country. He refused to classify music by race, preferring to focus on the provenance and diversity of the songs. And if he neglected to pay permissions, his collection compensated tenfold as its progeny began seeking out the very musicians he had rescued from obscurity–in effect, continuing his work, expanding his anthology.

My life was partly shaped by another Folkways collection, Frederic Ramsey Jr.’s 1958 11-volume Jazz, especially volumes two (“The Blues”) and four (“Jazz Singers”), which demonstrated surprisingly modern diversity. Like Smith, Ramsey avoided racial thinking, instead focusing on the rural origins of urban music. His idea of controversy is “Any examination of jazz is sure to reveal the enormous debt owed to the Afro-American tradition of song.” He, too, was a canny sequencer, and as he, too, wasn’t paying permissions, he indulged occasionally in tape splicing. One indelible track begins with Louis Armstrong’s “All of Me” and segues into Baby Cox, George Thomas, Jelly Roll Morton (Ramsey splices on the rock and rollish WAAAAHH of “Doctor Jazz”), Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, and Ivie Anderson. If you’re scratching your head over Thomas, then you must search out the McKinney’s Cotton Pickers’ 1930 “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?” There’s nothing like it–though a later saxophonist doubling as vocalist, Joe Thomas (no relation), comes close on Jimmie Lunceford’s version of the same tune.

The eccentricity of including the Thomas excerpt makes the whole track reverberate. One key reason Martin Williams’s epochal 1973 Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz had the impact it did (and went double platinum, not bad for mail order) is that he trusted his own eccentricity, though he would have used a, ahem, different term, like maybe critical judgment. Two remarkable new anthologies are in the grand tradition of Smith, Ramsey, and Williams, and ought to have a flowering impact on impressionable and not so impressionable listeners, because they are undeniably eccentric. I suspect Robert O’Mealley, who edited The Jazz Singers (Smithsonian Collection), won’t object to the word–he knows the mischief he’s creating when he embraces Moms Mabley and Marvin Gaye. I dunno about Allen Lowe, who edited the unprecedentedly ambitious nine-CD American Pop: An Audio History From Minstrel to Mojo on Record, 1893?1946 (West Hill Audio Archives). He seems to think he’s invented the wheel.

To be sure, it’s a big wheel, with shiny hubcaps that reflect more territory than anyone has tried to cram into a single box–jazz, blues, country, pop, cowboy, march, ragtime, vaudeville, gospel, and more. Lowe’s audio history is something of a successor to Smith’s. His central aim is to show how the obscure 78s that constitute our vernacular tradition must, at this distant remove, include lavish urban and commercial music along with its rudest rural counterparts. Ramsey does as much in Jazz, but Lowe avoids the implication that high-flown jazz emanates from lowborn blues. For him, they are all wrapped in the same burrito, and if you want to know what that tastes like, play any disc. The juxtapositions (Bert Williams to Billy Murray, Freddie Keppard to Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe to Joe Turner, Frank Sinatra to Arthur Crudup) are not only enlightening but strangely soothing.

Lowe’s exposition is much enhanced by the fact that all 216 performances are about three minutes (something bugs you, it’ll pass before you can get a beer) and, notwithstanding the split between acoustic and electric recording, share the same low-fi–albeit digitally enhanced. There is great joy here of a kind you won’t find elsewhere–a year-by-year kaleidoscope of accents and attitudes, illuminating how the sampled genres survived, and what was sacrificed (coon songs) and retained (blues). But don’t take it quite as seriously as Lowe does. As a history lesson, American Pop is at best skewed. Lowe hasn’t sequenced the music to show how it evolved–for just one example, Louis Armstrong isn’t introduced as a singer until 1931, by which time half the singers in the country were imitating him.

Lowe also omits an enormous range of relevant music: you’d never know from the coverage of 1926 through 1936 that Broadway was in flower or that movie musicals existed, let alone shaped the evolution of pop; there are no Irish tenors (John McCormack was a huge influence on pop singers), comedy records (“Cohen on the Telephone” sold phonographs the way Uncle Miltie sold TVs), Latin bands, or, incredibly, dance bands–not Art Hickman, who codified big band instrumentation, or even Paul Whiteman, who is represented only by a jazz recording. In other words, the selections are determined by ’90s criteria: did they influence rock, do they have a racial component, are they sorta cool. Inexcusably, Lowe also neglects to include a discography. He notes that the CDs are a companion to his book of the same name (except that it continues through 1956), published by Cadence, but the book doesn’t have a discography either, and is so cranky and paranoid you may want to handle it with tongs.

Lowe has a problem with just about everyone who has written about American music without securing his permission; he attacks received wisdom, then restates it as his own thought. Guilty of just about every offense he finds in others, he can be amazingly wrongheaded. “Who thinks of Al Jolson as Jewish?” he argues. Anyone who ever saw The Jazz Singer or The Jolson Story, or heard his Asa Yoelson alter ego radio routines or his Jewish records: Jolson was famous for being Jewish. He grieves over the neglect of the much celebrated James Reese Europe (failing to note the 1994 biography by Reid Badger), but is capable of saluting “a good songwriter’s craft” without naming the songwriter (Jimmy Monaco, no less). Anyone who can write that Frank Trumbauer “is perhaps best known for being cited by Lester Young as an influence” needs to get out more, and when he says that Young’s “claim” has been “belittled by revisionist and racially motivated historians,” he is hunting an unidentified chimera. Similarly, what he considers “the (White liberal) party line on African-American pianist Fats Waller” was out of date 30 years ago. Lowe is obsessed with race–of course he capitalizes white and black as though they were nationalities. He has his insights and can turn a phrase (“Carmichael’s talent was for shaping jazz phrases into pop melodies, while Armstrong excelled at shaping pop melodies into jazz phrases”), but the relentless brimstone wears you down.

O’Meally, on the other hand, eloquently expresses his affection for the music, and his scholarship is sound and discerning. He has organized his five discs by category (blues, church, songbook, novelties), but this is more a survey than a history–“Heebie Jeebies” isn’t here, for example–and though it includes plenty of classics, the real enchantment stems from the surprises. It astutely includes Don Redman, Wynonie Harris, Aretha Franklin, and others who are usually omitted from such collections, and gives more attention to Armstrong than anyone would have done as recently as 15 years ago. But O’Meally is most impressive when he excerpts the 1962 Ben Webster talking-and-cursing session; a Jelly Roll jape from the Library of Congress (he also includes “Doctor Jazz”); and perfect performances that no one else would have thought to single out, like Mildred Bailey’s “Lover, Come Back to Me,” Jimmy Rushing’s “Some of These Days,” Betty Carter’s “Frenesi,” and more.

I don’t think he makes a very convincing argument for Marvin Gaye or Al Green–I like them on their own turf, but they disrupt the discs–and I’m nonplussed by a Little Jimmy Scott cut that is painfully out of tune. Most of his selections, however, are canny and complementary. Sequencing is an issue–I can’t listen to volume four without a remote, while volume one is a blues revelation and the scat- and novelty-filled volume five is (excepting George Benson) bliss. Omissions? Not many. Lee Wiley should be here (Lowe includes her masterpiece, “Sugar”) and so should the Boswell Sisters. Jack Teagarden should be in the blues section. Many jazz-influenced singers who came up during the band era are absent–Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Herb Jeffries, Rosemary Clooney, and Tony Bennett, among them. And lest anyone detect a subtext here, he is more than generous to white singers–he just likes the wrong ones. But a good anthology has no end–it creates in the listener the desire and ability to formulate one’s own.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 9, 1998

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