From Archives to Honky Tonks

Mahalia with Duke Ellington

Mahalia Jackson with Duke Ellington at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1970. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, photo by Michael P. Smith.

New Releases Showcase Diverse Sources of Louisiana Music

by Ben Sandmel

Writers and researchers who work in traditional music usually deal with a finite number of recorded sources. On rare occasions, however, hitherto unknown recordings turn up unexpectedly. Considerable excitement then ensues, because such newly found aural documents can significantly expand the body of knowledge about the musician at hand, illuminating the broader contexts of their life, times, and genre. A case in point is the great New Orleans–born gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.The convergent discovery of unissued Jackson recordings is inspiring rapture in gospel music circles of late, especially because these rare finds have actuated the completion of a long-envisioned anthology entitled Moving On Up A Little Higher (Shanachie Records). Jackson (1911–1972) is revered as one of the most popular and influential singers in African-American gospel and a pioneer in bringing such music to mainstream American audiences. She did so despite maintaining a folk-rooted Southern sound that recalled the vocal approach—although not the worldly lyrics—of the powerful blues singer Bessie Smith.

In her autobiography Movin’ On Up, Jackson recalled taking a voice lesson from “a great Negro tenor . . . [who] was very proud of his career as a concert and operatic singer” and who told Jackson “you’ve got to learn to stop hollering . . . The way you sing is not a credit to the Negro race. You’ve got to learn to sing songs so that white people can understand them.” Jackson did not heed this assimilationist advice, but her unreconstructed style crossed racial lines nonetheless, profoundly affecting generations of gospel and secular singers alike—including some performers, such as Aretha Franklin, who work in both fields. Today, more than a half-century after Jackson’s death, her profound influence remains undiminished.

Mahalia Jackson CD cover-1

Moving On Up A Little Higher, Mahalia Jackson, Shanachie Records.

Jackson’s singing is consistently passionate and dynamic throughout Moving On Up A Little Higher. Familiarity with gospel music or Jackson’s work in particular is not necessary to enjoy this album’s wonderful spirit. Half of its twenty-two songs were found by a jazz enthusiast named Glen Smith while perusing the vast trove of papers and recordings in the  William Russell Jazz Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection. (While William Russell was a renowned jazz researcher and collector, his eclectic interests also encompassed gospel.) The remaining material was culled from such diverse repositories as the Library of Congress by the album’s producer, the noted gospel expert Anthony Heilbut, who unabashedly includes himself among the ranks of “Mahalia scholars and obsessives.” Heilbut’s search for Jackson recordings was long and arduous, and some that he located were, sadly, too damaged to play. But those found in the Russell collection gave him, at long last, enough material to compile this project.

As Heilbut joyfully states in his liner notes, the album “reveals [Jackson’s] voice in its full glory, capturing tones huge and small, stadium-filling and pianissimo . . . There are also moments of rhythmic freedom and play that will be revelations to even her closest-listening fans.” Heilbut additionally praises Jackson’s “magical melisma,” referring to the practice of stretching one-syllable words into ornate, multisyllabic improvisations.

Jackson’s singing is consistently passionat and dynamic throughout Moving On Up A Little Higher.

Prominent in gospel music, melisma is also used in many other genres. Another master of this effect was the late country singer George Jones. The iconic power of Jones’ legacy is obvious, albeit in different senses, on two strong new albums by young artists: Beaux Atkins’ Shout Hallelujah (www.beauxatkins.com) and Courtney Granger’s Beneath Still Waters (Valcour). In the case of the Shreveport-based Atkins, Jones’ influence is more implied than stated, as one of many components in a cohesive personal style. Atkins’ soulful vocals and original songs explore the classic continuum of country, blues, R&B, rockabilly, and Southern rock à la Lynyrd Skynyrd and J. J. Cale.The veteran Ruston-based producer Monty Russell blends these diverse elements of Atkins’ music with seamless finesse, as he has done with other young artists from north Louisiana.

But Jones’ impact is quite boldly stated by Courtney Granger, in compelling and unselfconsciously retro fashion. Co-produced by Granger and the estimable Dirk Powell, Beneath Still Waters employs a stark, uncluttered sound to evoke abject honky-tonk heartbreak. It is no small achievement to reprise—and fully plumb the depths—of a George Jones classic such as “Mr. Fool.”But Granger inhabits this song in fully convincing and stylistically faithful fashion, melisma and all.  At the same time, Granger’s take on Jones is interpretative rather than rote. Granger’s other memorable renditions here include the title track,“Lovin’ On Backstreets,” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” Throughout the album Granger’s fiddling likewise evokes the essence of the ‘50s and ‘60s honky-tonk idiom. (Best known in the world of Cajun music, Granger currently plays fiddle with the popular Lafayette-based Cajun band, The Pine Leaf Boys.) Momentarily tu­­­rning away from secular music, Granger also includes an exquisitely understated, poignant rendition of a popular hymn from the early twentieth century entitled “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?”Another inspiring version of this song was recorded circa 1928 by an east Texas preacher named Washington Phillips, as discussed in this column in the Winter 2005 issue. Phillips’ and Granger’s are both quite moving, yet reflect startlingly different approaches.

For a bit of cultural perspective, one style that’s conspicuously absent on both Atkins’ and Granger’s albums is the hugely popular and lucrative “bro country,” the dominant force on contemporary country radio. This sound is typified by artists such as Luke Bryan who primarily play stadium concerts including Louisiana’s annual Bayou Country Superfest. The term “bro country” emerged in 2013 to describe lyrically lightweight material that does not reflect the hard-earned life lessons and wisdom embodied by country music’s blue-collar archetypes. “Bro country” is therefore considered to lack the experiential credibility of such icons as George Jones, Hank Williams, and Loretta Lynn. Among Louisiana’s country traditionalists, these days, “bro country” is a term of derision, despite its vast commercial success. Given the ephemeral nature of musical terminology, it may be forgotten in just a few short years.

Courtney Granger CD cover
Beneath Still Waters
Courtney Granger
Valcour Records

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Piano in the Vaults, Vol. 1
Davell Crawford
Basin Street Records

In 2013, the ever-eclectic Davell Crawford released the elaborately produced My Gift To You. The album quite effectively featured songs with complex, multi-layered accompaniment and lush orchestration, as well as cover versions of mainstream pop hits by James Taylor and Billy Joel. Such material may have puzzled or upset those observers who perceive Crawford through a narrow lens as a standard bearer of the New Orleans R&B piano tradition. That legacy, itself a broad-based hybrid, is only part of Crawford’s wide-ranging oeuvre, and he does indeed represent it valiantly—as the grandson of James “Sugar Boy” Crawford of  “Jock-A-Mo” fame, as a disciple of James Booker and Allen Toussaint, and as a major talent in his own right talent. In marked contrast to My Gift To You, Crawford’s latest album Piano In The Vaults, Vol. 1 (Basin Street Records), lies more within the loose confines of the New Orleans R&B tradition. It’s a consistently charming, informal and personable set of solo piano and vocal performances, recorded between 1998 and 2013, but just released last year. There is a timeless quality to Crawford’s performances of such century-plus songs as “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.” The same applies to the ribald and risqué “Fine Crown Frame,” where Crawford trades vocal verses and saucy quips with his godmother, Carol Fran, the acclaimed blues, jazz, and swamp-pop singer from Lafayette. Other songs are more specific to a particular place and style, such as “Walking By Myself,” first recorded in 1956 by the Chicago blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers. In the Chicago blues genre, where many songs are random assemblages of endlessly recycled verses, “Walking By Myself” stands out for its original lyrics, distinct arrangement, and fine harmonica playing by Big Walter Horton. It’s a testament to Crawford’s musical discernment that he recorded this rather obscure regional gem from far afield. Crawford pays tribute to James Booker on two songs, reprises his grandfather’s “Morning Star” as an instrumental, and breathes fresh passion into the familiar standard, “Please Send Me Someone To Love.” If there is more such fine music in Crawford’s vaults, as this album’s title seems to imply, it will hopefully appear soon.

In closing, three out of the five Grammy-nominated albums in the Best Regional Roots Music category were recorded by musicians based in and around Lafayette: Broken Promised Land, by Barry Jean Ancelet and Sam Broussard (Swallow); Gulfstream, by Roddie Romero and the Hub-City All-Stars (Octavia); and I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country (Valcour) by a wealth of artists, produced by Joel Savoy and Joshua Caffery. All three, which were all reviewed in this column, deserve to win; by the time this column appears, that winner will be known. Whatever the outcome, this preponderance of local contenders in a national competition underscores, yet again, the high level of creativity and expertise that continues to surge in southwest Louisiana.

 

Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist, and producer and is the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. He is a frequent contributor to Louisiana Cultural Vistas and KnowLouisiana.org. Sandmel is also the author of Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, www.erniekdoebook.com.

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