If as a child you are wrapped in a burlap sack and smoked over a fire, as Jesse Fuller is said to have been, or tied up in a little ball and kicked around the house, to cite a well-documented Puritan disciplinary technique—or only beaten regularly with a switch, or orphaned and starved, or made fun of because you’re poor and your teeth are bad and your eyes are crossed—someone who in some way has suffered like you will hear it in your voice, see it in the arcing of your fiddle bow and your 88-key grin, smell it in your love of whiskey and good times. And they will want to get to know you. They may even love you.
What would an awkward teenager with a German accent—the founder of Arhoolie Records was a refugee whose ethnic German family was expelled from rural Lower Silesia by the Potsdam Agreement and the Russian army in 1945—exiled to the Nevada desert hear in T. Texas Tyler, or Bob Wills, or Louis Armstrong? “It was something about the sound,” Chris Strachwitz recalls, “that intensity and also that human frailness.” For that sound he forsook the Four Freshmen and Doris Day for Reno’s Harlem Club and the broadcasts of Reverend Earl J. Hines and Hunter Hancock’s Harlem Matinee from KFVD in L.A. After a B.A., an army stint, and a high school teaching job, a recording of Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Hello Central” finally convinced him that capturing that “intensity and frailness” was the life cut out for him.
“Roots” music is rooted in the travails of the soul, in the redemptive acts the artist performs for us in the manufacture of a common world. As The Boston Globe‘s Elijah Wald explains in his liner notes, Strachwitz isn’t a folklorist; he doesn’t drive his performers back into the earliest parts of their repertoires, or demand they unplug their electric guitars. Like John James Audubon the naturalist, or Lucy McKim Garrison the abolitionist-song collector, to whom he is compared by Ry Cooder and Archie Green, respectively, he is more a historian of the wonderful. While most of what is on Arhoolie is “traditional,” and belongs to particular folk or working-class communities, it remains a music of quirky and powerful personalities and passionate individual expression. Wald calls it “contemporary, regional, working class, popular music.” But he is closer to the point when he calls it “outsider” music.
“It had such guts to it, such energy, such emotional outburst.” That’s why the funky El Cerrito record label that caught Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Clifton Chenier, John Jackson, Nathan Abshire, Boisec Ardoin, Canray Fontenot, Dewey Balfa, D.L. Menard, Flaco Jimenez, Michael Doucet, and most recently, Aubrey Ghent, and the other great sacred steel players, among others, in performances so fresh you’d think Strachwitz had somehow recorded them without equipment, also features an Afghani refugee and dutar player, Aziz Herawi, as well as a couple of Austrian goatherds living a mile above the treeline on the Tyrnauer Alm, singing an old Styrian folk song. These apparent “departures” in Arhoolie’s 40th Anniversary Collection, 1960-2000, “The Journey of Chris Strachwitz” make it plain that the entire body of Arhoolie blues, cajun, zydeco, and Tex-Mex is a series of departures toward “energy and emotional outburst” wherever it is to be found.
Culturally Strachwitz seems to descend from the archaic pastoralists of the Alpine meadows and forested slopes of central Europe, forsaking the fold after “the lost deer in the forest,” or “a lost sheep in this crazy world”—like lone cat Jesse Fuller, or the angry Big Joe Williams. Thoughtful and nuanced performances by unknowns such as Johnny Littlejohn or J.C. Burris at first recall, and then, creepily, replace their mentors Elmore James and Sonny Terry, while better-knowns like Lydia Mendoza sing and play so beautifully, or John Jackson with his banjo so unprepossessingly, that they burst like flowers out of their own reputations. We know that Big Mama Thornton has lungs like the hopper of a cement truck, and that she can crow like a rooster. But when have we heard the debutante in her voice? The Ella Fitzgerald?
Since 107 tracks can be wilting, go directly to disc D. The mouth of Ray Parks’s fiddle opens up, with its quivering tongue and three teeth; Rose Maddox shoulders her voice and shoots the verses of “Single Girl” like saucers right out of the sky. Preston Manuel punches out a “Jolie Blonde” audible in three dance halls, and old Octa Clark and Hector Duhon shed 50 years with a wild “Bosco Stomp” and rush off the field to make up for lost time. Katie Webster’s “I Know That’s Right” rocks like the San Andreas fault, and Beausoleil’s “Hot Chili Mama” blows the granite ledge of inhibition clean away with a series of stop-time blasts. Then, over the open ground, blowing like the Santa Ana winds, three guitars, three violins, three trumpets—a mariachi band, Los Gavilanes De Oakland. There’s enough musical energy here to power the alt-cult limbic system for a generation.
But how to harness it? This is the predicament of a CD box like the Arhoolie 40th Anniversary Collection, and also of the Smithsonian Folkways’ The Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems of the American Underground From the Pages of Broadside Magazine. Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, party members driven from their native Oklahoma to New York in 1941 and blacklisted soon after the war, labored 25 years in a run-down flat over a secondhand mimeograph machine to produce a songsheet, Broadside, where the topical tradition borne in the ’40s by their comrades Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Woody Guthrie, and the rest—the Almanac Singers—found an underground life in the decades during which a revolution, albeit not the expected one, actually occurred.
Some of those voices, Bob Dylan’s especially, excited the outrage of the most richly provisioned generation in history against the bomb, the war, the racists, the petty consumers, the greedy owners, and the big polluters. Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” can still catalyze the solution of outrage and ridicule that is the peculiar chemistry of a protest song. Less well-remembered voices, like Mark Spoelstra’s, over a plangently tolling 12-string, still summon the absurdity and horror of atomic war, as 14-year-old Janis Ian’s does the hurt of racial hypocrisy. Even the tortured Phil Ochs’s hairsplitting “Links on the Chain,” scolding the labor unions for dropping the ball on civil rights, still echoes the righteous indignation that, as Yeats wrote on Swift’s tombstone, can lacerate his heart no more.
People experience the injuries wrought upon them, and achieve their compensations in ecstasy, as individuals. Groups suffer oppression and poverty, but people bear them privately. In hearts broken by injustice, the romance of revolution burns hot and long. But a protest song is a song before it is anything else—and after the passions of the moment have faded it can succeed only as music. The Smithsonian Folkways’ The Best of Broadside, with its 89 tracks and 158-page booklet, makes for absorbing reading and inconsistent listening. It is a scrapbook for an idealism that as always on the Left found satisfaction as much from the discharge of anger as from practical application of it, and for those whose idealism remains intact it will be a place to revisit the unbroken promise that is the glamour of youth.
It is tempting to think of these CD box sets as complete works, the inventoried estates of lives completed as much as of a songsheet or a record label. All those songs we never heard or heard of, all those record albums we lingered over and didn’t buy or never came across at all, all those unsatisfied but expired hungers for being and belonging, CD treasuries offer, belatedly, to restore. But time will not be hoarded. Now that digital reproduction has opened the vaults, and the libidinal labor of the years has accumulated in quantities that defy possession in any meaningful sense, we face the question of how to process this great harvest of human souls for human use. Like recovered memories, they are as much invented as retrieved. They belong neither to past nor present but to a possible future in which they might be read again into the proceedings of a living world.