2 January 2012

The Oxford American: Thirteenth Annual Southern Music Issue (2011)

Although now published in Conway, Arkansas, The Oxford American takes its name from its original place of publication: Oxford, Mississippi. This quarter is the magazine's thirteenth annual Southern music issue, which this year includes a CD compilation of music from Mississippi.

A few of the tracks are by well-known musicians such as Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley, but most of them are less famous.

Jimmy Donley (1929–63) from Jonestown near Gulfport sings 'Radio, Jukebox, and T.V.', and Ben Ehrenreich's article on Donley begins with the sentence 'Take a tour of loneliness.', which is as much an introduction to Donley's life than the song itself. Donley was married several times in his short – often poverty-burdened, often drink-sodden – 33 years. He had psychiatric problems, was violent, and was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. Collectively, the mere titles many of his songs appear to scream his despair: 'I'm Alone', 'You're Why I'm So Lonely', 'I Really Got the Blues', 'Oh How It Hurts', and the very telling 'Born to Be a Loser' – which became the title of a 1992 biography by Johnnie Allan and Bernice Larson Webb – seems to sum up his sorry life. But it would be difficult to find a more appropriate title than 'Stop the Clock': Donley succeeded in asphyxiating himself to death with the exhaust fumes of his car.

Megan Mayhew Bergman gives a fascinating account of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Originally called The Swinging Rays of Rhythm, the Sweethearts came out of Dr Laurence C. Jones's (African American) Piney Woods School a little more than twenty miles south of Jackson. In fact, the girls escaped from it: initially serving as fund raisers for the school, they decided to go their own way and earn more money. Recruiting more musicians of different races, they became the first racially integrated all-girl band, and in a time of war when their male big band counterparts were being called up, they very adequately filled the gap. With difficulty they lasted until 1949, through the boys' return, the intolerance of Jim Crow, internal difficulties, and changing musical fashions.

Words certainly can be off-putting, as Nikil Saval noted on first hearing of Milton Babbitt because automatically the surname triggered off associations with the eponymous central character of Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt. He thought of 'American philistinism' in relation to the novel, although I think 'American conformity' is more apt. No matter, as neither expression can be applied to Milton Babbitt's music. Quite the reverse, and Babbitt's experimental 'Post Partitions' is an amazing piano composition. Babbitt wrote a thesis on Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone system (or twelve-tone composition), but it was not published until many years later in 1992, when he was also awarded a PhD for it by Princeton University.

As usual, though, I'm drawn as if by magnetic force to the obscurities here:

––– Mattie Delaney, the blues singer who appears to have only ever recorded two tracks, in 1930, at the famous Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and who has been covered by Rory Block and Lucinda Williams.

––– John Stirratt is well known as Wilco's bassist, but his early days in Oxford, MS with The Hilltops are far less so. I must listen to more on Oxford American's website as 'Sidewalk' is wondrous stuff.

––– And I must also take up OA's offer in the magazine to 'experience more Henry Green' by checking out that website some more. 'Storm thru Mississippi', inspired by the 1936 tornados, is scary, wrathful, Old Testament preaching. Nicholas Rombes's article doesn't seem to give any indication who the man was, although his very common name is a big setback to finding out.

––– The Riviaires were two kids smitten by The Beatles' music in their early teens, and Ralph 'Wattsy' Watts's very youthful voice emphasizes the fact. Wattsy and the drummer Bill Latham released this themselves (with a brief instrumental on the B-side), and their parents footed the bill. But there were no more records from The Rivieres, as they were just having fun.

––– Finally, from Jackson come The Germans, a punk band with lead vocalist Carla Wescott making wonderful noises, ditto the startling guitar playing of Sherry Cothren.

This is the list of the tracks on the CD:

1. Harold Dorman: 'Uncle Jonah’s Place' (1961)

2. Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: 'What Can You Bring Me' (1971)

3. Ernie Chaffin: 'I'm Lonesome' (1957)

4. Bo Diddley: 'Heart-O-Matic Love' (1955)

5. Mattie Delaney: 'Tallahatchie River Blues' (1930)

6. Fern Kinney: 'I'm Ready for Your Love' (1982)

7. Leon Bass & the Keystones: 'Love-A-Rama' (c. 1956)

8. Joe Henderson: 'Snap Your Fingers' (1962)

9. Hayden Thompson: 'Blues, Blues, Blues' (1956)

10. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm: 'Jump Children' (1946)

11. Howlin' Wolf: 'Howlin' for My Darling' (1959)

12. Dusty Brooks: '(My Baby Loves) Chili Dogs' (1951)

13. Ruby Andrews: 'Tit for Tat' (1969)

14. The Hilltops: 'Sidewalk' (1991)

15. Carter Brothers & Son: 'Old Joe Bone' (1928)

16. Syl Johnson: 'I've Got the Real Thing' (1968)

17. Guitar Slim: 'Guitar Slim' (195418. Jimmy Donley: 'Radio, Jukebox, and T.V.' (1958)

19. The Golden Nugget: 'Gospel Train' (1973)

20. Travis Wammack: 'Rock & Roll Blues' (1958)

21. Henry Green: 'Storm Thru Mississippi' (1951)

22. Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell: 'Uprising'' (1986)

23. Jim Jackson: 'Old Dog Blue' (1928)

24. The Riviaires: 'Bad Girl' (c. 1965)

25. The Germans: 'Love Sick' (1981)

26. Milton Babbitt' (played by Robert Miller): 'Post-Partitions' (1977)

27. Ted Hawkins: 'Biloxi' (1994)

It's just occurred to me: I suppose Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode to Billie Joe' was too obvious to include? Pity, though, as it's one of my all-time favorites. I note it's contributor Yusef Komunyakaa's favorite Mississippi song. Good man.

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