September 1999 By Nat Hentoff
The Rainbow of American Music
In Shared Traditions/Southern History and Folk Culture (University of Illinois Press), Charles Joyner tells of the first widely popular star of country music, Jimmie Rodgers (“the singing brakeman”). This white Mississippian grew up absorbing black blues and gospel music, and they are deeply intertwined with his white heritage in his recordings.
Bob Wills, who created “Western Swing,” was born and reared in Texas where he worked alongside blacks in his father’s cotton fields. The blues entered into him and stayed, and when he was a teenager, Wills rode nearly fifty miles on horseback to see “the Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, in person. Coming the other way was Bobby Hebb, a black singer and songwriter who listened to the Grand Ole Opry when he was a kid and wound up a sideman for five years in the band of Roy Acuff, a patriarch of white country music. Hebb was befriended by Hank Williams, Sr. who, as an influence, is to country music as Charlie Parker is to jazz. Williams told him one night: “Son, when you write a song, write it as if you were writin’ a letter. Just tell the truth, just like it is. If it hurts you, just tell how it hurts.”
Bessie Smith could have told Bobby Hebb the same thing. To many jazz musicians and listeners, however, white country music is dismissed as rather primitive musically and pretty much sounding all alike. An exception was Charlie Parker. He used to hang out at Charlie’s Tavern, a musician’s bar in midtown New York. There was a jukebox with jazz recordings and somehow, a number of country music sides. Bird would often play the country records to the astonishment and dismay of his fellow jazz players. Finally, one of them gathered the courage to say, “Bird, how can you listen to that music?"
Solemnly, Bird turned to the questioner and said, “Listen! Listen to the stories!”
The stories came out of real life, as do the stories jazzmen tell on their instruments. “If you don’t live it,” Bird said, “it won’t come out of your horn." A record company that encompasses the whole rainbow of storytelling in music is Shanachie Records. Its CDs and videos ought to be in every school library in the land because all youngsters are culturally impoverished when it comes to knowing the depth and breadth of American music. Part of my education was one night when Merle Haggard embarrassed me when he mentioned a couple of vintage New Orleans jazzmen he much admired. I had never heard of them and had to look them up. That was the night I heard a deeply swinging set of straight-ahead improvised jazz on country songs. It was by Merle Haggard and the Strangers.
Among the videos on Shanachie’s Yazoo label is the series Masters of the Country Blues, from Son House to Lightnin’ Hopkins to Mississippi Fred McDowell. Another Yazoo set reminded me of a cultural shock I experienced years ago long before I knew how inextricably interrelated our strands of music are. Listening to a pop disc jockey on the radio, I suddenly heard a penetratingly compelling black Mississippi blues singer, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. But it wasn’t Crudup. It was somebody I hadn't heard of before. His name was Elvis Presley. Later I found out that among Presley’s key influences were black blues bards, headed by Big Boy Crudup.
To go down to the bedrock of the legacy of white country music, try That High Lonesome Sound: Films of American Rural Life and Music by John Cohen featuring among others, the Duke Ellington of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, who swings exuberantly and tells many resounding stories. Big Boy Crudup shows up in another Yazoo video, Mean Old World Born in the Blues, along with Pearly Brown, a bottleneck guitarist and gospel singer.
Shanachie also has a number of distinctive jazz videos. The most remarkable is Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, previously unreleased performances, interviews, and radio broadcasts. This is the protean, continually self-surprising Mingus. If you've heard about rent parties where Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington served their apprenticeships there is Yazoo’s Shake Your Wicked Knees/Rent Parties and Good Times with Pine Top Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey, and other legends reborn here.
To call for a catalog or to order, the phone number for Shanachie is: 1-800-497-1043. Or online, it's www.shanachie.com. The address is 13 Laight Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10013.
As Louis Armstrong once said, “All music is folk music, because we’re all folk.”
Originally published in September 1999