Imagine if Iggy and the Stooges kicked off their first album with a nice, sincere version of “Get Together”—you know, “C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together . . . ” That’s what the Cofer Brothers are up to on Georgia Stringbands, Vol. 1. But before the search and destroy, a little defoliation: five bands total, all recording between 1927 and 1930 in Atlanta. Four of ’em—the Spooney Five, the Watkins Band, Theo & Gus Clark, and the Carroll County Revelers—are the kind of thing you might find on volume two of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The ancestral music of the American cracker, dance division. Fiddles and banjos, spoons, square-dance calls, like that. Ten tracks of good, honest music. But then there are the other 14. The Cofer Brothers.
Going by the picture on the cover of the CD, they weren’t much to look at—two skinny-headed peckerwoods with cheap suits and Christopher Walken hair. In 1927, Paul Cofer was a 26-year-old sheet-metal worker from Hancock County, Georgia (a patch of trees and hills a hundred miles southeast of Atlanta; 1996 population: 9,023; average income: $12,879). He played the fiddle, more or less (it didn’t help that he wrecked his arm the year before when he ran his new Ford head-on into a streetcar). Leon—known as L.J.—was a couple of years older. He was an alumnus of the Georgia Academy for the Blind, same as bluesman Blind Willie McTell, who was about his age (they didn’t share a classroom). He was a piano tuner by trade, but here he sticks to banjo and guitar.
Their first recording session betrays barely a hint of the horrors to follow. On Saturday, March 19, 1927, they cut four sides for Okeh Records, in Atlanta. The boys led off with a sentimental number all about “drifting back to childhood” and wandering “down the lane to yesterday.” No harm in that. There’s a song about the Titanic (rural America loved the thought of all those Vanderbilts splashing around in the north Atlantic) and a couple of mildly impolite hobo numbers. They sing okay and play pretty well, although they’re nothing in comparison to some of the other Atlanta bands getting recorded around then. Earl Johnson & His Dixie Entertainers, for example—with Earl making like Jimmy Page on the fiddle—would’ve ground them into library paste. So: just another hillbilly combo, not incompetent but certainly not remarkable.
Okay. On Monday, our boys went back into the studio, accompanied by one Ben Evans on guitar—a big SOB with hands like bunches of bananas—and cut another four songs. Bam! Youngbloods to Stooges. Those four songs, along with another two they got down in October, are some of the greatest rock and roll ever made (there was a final session, in ’29; eh). Two different bands. It’s not that they played much louder or faster than in the Saturday session. They just grew an attitude: offhand, casual, deadpan. Ready to fight, drink, whore, anything like that, without a second thought. Not like it was something wicked, but just part of life. When Paul sings, “I ain’t gonna kill me another man,” you don’t believe him (I think that’s the line, anyhow: Like any good punk, he spits out the words so fast you can’t catch ’em).
Mostly, they drawl out the songs in a ragged unison, over a choppy one- or two-chord drag set up by L.J.’s banjo and Evans’s guitar. Not too fast, but kinda hostile. Paul jabs the fiddle around, behind, and between the verses, usually sounding like he’s grinding out dents in a car door. Every song, they can’t help but speed up as they get into it. (That, and the mistakes that they keep making with the words, makes me suspect that the Okeh A&R guy might’ve broken out a little something before the session, a common enough practice at the time with hillbilly and race records. Made ’em sound “authentic.” They never did that with Toscanini.)
The songs themselves are straight from life’s other side—lowlife tales of drunkenness, cruelty, and repossessed furniture. In fact, for this session and the one after, the Cofers switched to calling themselves “the Georgia Crackers.” Their father was a Methodist preacher, you see (wrote hymns and all that; brought his kids up singing gospel), and there’s just no way he’d have been proud of what they were about to do. Or, Ben Evans didn’t want to be called a Cofer.
In any case, how come nobody’s ever heard of them? You’ll find the answer in the second verse of “Riley the Furniture Man”: “Riley come to my house/These were the words he said/He told that nigger driver/Take down that rosewood bed/Riley’s been here, got my furniture and gone.” That’s not a word a white man can use these days. Especially the way they throw it in there, a casual epithet. And the next song starts off, “There’s a coon from Tennessee,” while the others are full of “high brown” girls and promises to “leave all them dark-haired [wink, wink] women alone.” But this isn’t just a case of peckerwoods being peckerwoods. It’s worse; it’s professional. The Crackers practice a particular form of racism-in-rhythm that was known to the trade as the “coon song”—ragtime ditties about the life, loves, and violent disagreements of the Bad Nigger of every ofay nightmare. Blackface numbers.
But minstrelsy was a complicated institution. For one thing, “The Coon From Tennessee” turns out to be a chopped and channeled version of Shepard Edmonds’s 1901 “I’m Going to Live Anyhow, ‘Till I Die.” Shepard Edmonds was black—but the Crackers keep their version a hell of a lot more “real.” Just like black artists so often did with crappy white pop, they refined Edmonds’s Tin Pan Alley jingle into a pure blast of underworld orneriness.
These white guys weren’t just singing about coons; they were pretending to be them. If that gave their audience a way to feel superior, it gave the Cofers something more. When Paul and Leon Cofer—a semicripple and a blind man, nobodies—became the Georgia Crackers, for just a little while they could slip into the virtual skin of somebody almost unimaginably bigger and badder than they could ever be. I hear jubilation in their voices, not condescension; “Raw Power,” not “Brown Sugar.”
But there’s a bigger irony here, besides white guys wanting to be the folks their whole society was set up to keep down. One of the reasons Paul and L.J. got to record at all was that Henry Ford had started fearing for the nation’s moral fiber, what with everyone going out for that newfangled Negro jazz. So he started sponsoring good old-fashioned fiddling contests at Ford dealerships all around the country, building hillbilly music into something of a craze. He wanted the Cofer Brothers; he got the Georgia Crackers.
Georgia Stringbands, Vol. 1, is available from County Sales (www.countysales.com).