Roots of Everything


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.

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.

The other Yazoo anthologies fall into two broad categories: those determined by sound, and those by sense. Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be is a hodgepodge; its organizing principle is that it is made up of rural music. This may not differentiate it from most of the other collections here— on the other hand, so what, since it contains, e.g., Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “Sinking of the Titanic” and Uncle Dave Macon’s “Sail Away Ladies.” The gravel-voiced Brown nearly flips out of the blues category altogether; Uncle Dave is the oldest punk ever recorded. My Rough and Rowdy Ways is similar but contains exclusively songs about cutting up and getting high and fucking around. The Rose Grew Round the Briar is similar but contains exclusively love songs. Hard Times Come Again No More is similar but contains exclusively songs about poverty. All of these collections stir together blues, proto-blues, mountain ballads, breakdowns, and the odd gospel number or Tin Pan Alley stray. Their artists and songs range from the famous to the deeply obscure, and usually include at least one or two numbers that fans had heard of but could previously only find on expensive import collections.

The recent Yazoo lineup also comprises anthologies of urban and rural women’s blues (I Can’t Be Satisfied), jug bands (Ruckus Juice & Chittlins), cowboy songs (When I Was a Cowboy), country gospel (How Can I Keep From Singing), piano rags and blues (Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Round Here and Shake Your Wicked Knees), and early jazz (Jazz the World Forgot), as well as two sets of early Cajun music. All of these compilations— indeed, nearly everything on Yazoo— derive from commercial 78 rpm records made between roughly 1924 and 1936.

The label’s cohesion proceeds from the fact that this was a transitional period of gigantic importance, especially in the countryside, where recording technology had only just arrived but oral tradition had not yet been forsaken. This is just about the most fertile of conditions for mass creativity. New information, arriving from the world outside, one droplet at a time, is seized upon, enlarged, applied to what is already known, turned upside down, imaginatively interpreted, reinterpreted, misinterpreted. Right now conditions are pretty nearly the exact opposite, in the sense that information new, old, and in-between is everywhere all the time, as tangible as a wall, and maybe as inhibiting. But maybe in 75 years the products of our era will have retrospectively achieved the grandeur and poignancy of these records.