My somewhat cranky appearance on Radio 4’s “A Good Read” is available now in BBC iPlayer: (The article I mention about the great Lesley Blanch can be read here.)
Despite the scowls directed towards anyone who asks when my book on ‘world music’ will be finished, some evidence is emerging of what I’ve been up to. My Pushkin House talk on April 8 at 7pm – Vladimir Putin’s Rite of Spring: music and nationalism – will be reprised at the ‘other’ Hay festival – How The Light Gets In – on Thursday, May 28 at 3pm.
The festival will also include a performance of “Chinese White Bicycles: Live and Direct from 1967 with Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock” on Friday, May 29 at 430pm. It will be great to be back on stage with Robyn; – we haven’t done this for almost two years! See a clip here. And in the intervening period, of course, we went into the studio together and brought forth the bouncing baby cd and lp known as “The Man Upstairs” (No click-tracks were abused in the making of this album…)
I was in the studio again the past weekend, this time simply as friend and observer. My boyhood pal Geoff Muldaur was continuing his fascinating process of composing and recording an album of “blue chamber music” (my description, not his), which follows the path laid down 10 years ago by “Private Astronomy”, his tribute to Bix Beiderbecke for Deutsche Grammophon. In that album, Geoff realized Beiderbecke’s dream of setting his solo piano pieces for chamber orchestra. DGG loved the demo Geoff and New York producer Dick Connette had recorded and gave me (as exec producer) $100,000 to complete the project. (Those were the days! Back in the mists of time….) Dick and Geoff assembled some of New York’s greatest jazz and classical musicians and added vocals by Martha and Loudon Wainwright (as well as Geoff himself) on songs famous for their Beiderbecke trumpet solos; the (DGG parent company) Universal Music A&R people were ecstatic about the results.
Having worked in the ‘indie’ sector for so long, I had a rude awakening bumping up against the ways of major labels. When I started talking about marketing budgets, international touring and release schedules, the A&R man said “Marketing? Oh, that’s down the hall in another office…”. That department’s reaction – expressed far more politely but nonetheless clearly – was “what the fuck did you make this record for? We’re way too busy cranking up the Jamie Cullum numbers to waste time on this shit!” When I enquired why they had spent $100K if they had no intention of selling the record, the marketing man explained that it wasn’t his $100K; that was the A&R department’s problem and he had to spend his budget more prudently than they obviously had.
The album barely ‘escaped’ in the US and Germany and was never released anywhere else. (It has now ‘escaped’ from Universal and is available from amazon and at Geoff’s gigs.) During the exciting few days when we thought there might be a European tour, I introduced Geoff to the remarkable Gert-Jan Blom, leader of Dutch ensembles such as Boulevard of Broken Dreams, The Beau Hunks and The Metropole Orchestra. He, I knew, would be the man to find Bix-and-Geoff-friendly Dutch musicians. They instantly became friends and Geoff now visits Amsterdam regularly to ‘woodshed’ his new work and is starting – with Gert-Jan as producer (and backed by Geoff’s old friend and patron Roger Kasle) – to record an album of his own compositions and settings of poems and songs from the 1920s and ‘30s.
I realize it is impossible to be objective about the music of a childhood friend with whom I have worked off and on over so many years (Pottery Pie with Geoff and Maria Muldaur in 1969, and Geoff’s Having a Wonderful Time in 1976, both for Warner Brothers, then I Ain’t Drunk in 1981 for Hannibal and Private Astronomy in 2005). But I can’t resist stating that I find what Geoff is up to very exciting.
Back in the ‘20s, there were strong musical currents back and forth across the Atlantic, with Debussy, Ravel and ‘Les Six’ eagerly soaking up jazz influences and Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and, later, Charlie Parker avidly studying the works of European composers while Gershwin and Grofé broke new ground by lowering the barriers between classical, jazz and popular music. (When Parker spotted Igor Stravinsky in his audience, he quoted the opening bars of Rite of Spring to the composer’s delight.) Thanks in part to the unrelenting hostility of German critics like Theodor Adorno, ‘serious’ music turned away from all that and drove over the 12-tone Viennese cliff. After the war, the CIA-financed Darmstadt festival became a feeding frenzy of minimalism, helping the likes of Varese, Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez to dominate the post-war musical world; there was no place for the kind of harmonic and rhythmic adventures that had made the 1920s so full of exciting possibilities.
Geoff is picking up the threads dropped when Bix drank himself to death in 1931 and Schoenberg’s pal Adorno stormed out of a New York jazz club cursing the ‘animal’ sounds to which he had been persuaded to listen. Geoff is self-taught, having spent the last 25 years immersed – between gigs – in Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Frankie Trumbauer and Jelly Roll Morton. But don’t let that put you off, this is proper music! What I heard on Sunday involved a classically-trained Afro-American vocalist, a string quartet and three woodwinds. I’ll let you know when this album (which is taking almost as long to complete as my book) is released. In the meantime, Geoff’s solo voice and guitar are paying a rare visit to the UK at the end of April. He will appear at Sam Lee’s Magpie’s Nest club on April 29 in London, as well as other dates in Newcastle, Saltair, Wigan, Whitstable and Brighton (details here).
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Geoff, my brother Warwick and I used to spend entire teenage weekends listening to jazz and blues, mostly on European reissue LPs (America wasn’t much interested in its own musical roots in the late 1950s…). In 1959, we stumbled on an astounding compilation called “The Country Blues”. It included tracks by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Lonnie Johnson, Sleepy John Estes and Skip James and it completely blew our minds. (We had not yet learned to say that, but would in a few years…). Then we discovered there was a book of the same name, written by the mysterious figure who compiled the LP – Sam Charters.
Sam Charters died just over a week ago. I never got to know him as well as I did John Hopkins, whose recent death I have written about so extensively. But Charters had as much – if not more – influence on my life as Hoppy.
It was in that marvellous book that I discovered what ‘record producer’ meant. Travelling around the south, renting hotel rooms, auditioning local singers and taking wax discs back north to be pressed and sold (largely by mail-order) back to the southern communities from which those singers had sprung – now that was a romantic career plan! Too bad I’d been born forty years late. When I realized that music was still out there to be discovered and that producing records would be my life, it was, remarkably, that same Sam Charters who gave me the tip that opened the door to my professional career.
In the winter of 1965, the night before leaving for Chicago (on business for my then-employer George Wein, producer of the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals), I found myself sharing a table at the Kettle of Fish bar with Sam. We and the other Greenwich Village blues hounds had gathered to hear the first New York performance of the just re-discovered Son House. When in Chicago, Sam urged me not to confine myself to South Side bars in my quest for great blues, but to head to the North Side and check out a mixed-race band under the leadership of Paul Butterfield. I mentioned the tip to my friend Paul Rothchild, newly appointed head of A&R at Elektra Records. He joined me in Chicago, signed Butterfield, added (at my suggestion) Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar. Six months later I had my reward: a job opening Elektra’s London office – on my way at last!
Over the course of the Sixties, I crossed paths with Sam on a few occasions, but never got to know him well. I loved the “skating-rink” sound on his production of the first Country Joe and the Fish lp; the credits told me it was recorded at Vanguard Studios just next door to New York’s Chelsea Hotel. Engineer John Wood and I started booking time there for recording and mixing; John jury-rigged the huge studio and its cement basement as an echo chamber and we got some great sounds. Again, thanks to Sam Charters.
I heard that he had moved to Stockholm with his wife Ann, author of definitive books on Kerouac and the Beat Generation. For the Swedish Sonet label, Sam produced a series of great records of Cajun and Zydeco music as well as finding the legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes playing in a Stockholm hotel bar. Sam launched a comeback that culminated in a Grammy award, a reunion with Valdes’ long-estranged pianist son Chucho and the great semi-biographical animated feature Chico Y Rita.
A few years ago, I met a Swede who gave me Sam’s phone number. He was pleased to hear from me, thanked me for the appreciative name-checks in White Bicycles, and we chatted for an hour, batting record production anecdotes and compliments back and forth across the wires.
Shortly thereafter, I was perusing the Music section in a San Francisco bookshop (not the famous City Lights, which is wonderful, but the also excellent Green Apple) when I noticed a collection of Sam’s writings titled A Language of Song. The chapters cover a range of his interests, from New Orleans jazz to calypso, gospel, Cajun and Cuban. One caught my eye and had me instantly gripped – a piece about his and Ann’s 1958 sojourn on a remote coast of Andros Island in the Bahamas.
I know my readers constitute an elite group of music aficionados. Many of you will, therefore, have heard of the great Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, mentor and inspiration to Ry Cooder, but you may not be aware that he was discovered on that seminal Bahamian visit by Sam Charters. For me, Warwick and Geoff, when we dropped the needle in 1960 on “Music of the Bahamas” – an lp bought largely because of the awe in which we, by that time, held the name “Sam Charters” – Spence was just one part of the mosaic of strange and wonderful sounds that unfolded before our astounded ears. Hymns and spirituals, sea chanties and ballads, performed by a group of singers including Frederick McQueen and John Roberts, names that became as revered to us as Skip James or Sidney Bechet. We never knew how Sam came to be in the fishing village of Fresh Creek to make those great recordings, we just accepted them as part of the cornucopia of heart-stopping music we pulled, one after the other, from dust covers and lp jackets during those life-shaping years of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. (Spotify, I was glad to discover, can reveal many of these great tracks if you Search for “Frederick McQueen”, “John Roberts” or “Joseph Spence”.)
Over the years, I return again and again to those recordings and others made in later years by subsequent visitors to Andros. In 1976, the Kate and Anna McGarrigle lp I produced ended with their version of Roberts’ “Dig My Grave”, with the soaring voice of their old friend and harmonizer Chaim Tannenbaum taking the lead. Chaim reprised this classic when we paid tribute to Kate in London, New York and Toronto in 2010, 11 and 12.
As a memorial to Sam Charters, I’d like to finish off this (very long, I realize) Newsletter with some edited passages from his account of that 1958 visit:
“One of the sounds we could hear was the ocean. It drove in a monotonous thudding against the headlands a few hundred feet beyond us in the darkness. We could hear dogs barking – every house had a scarred, wary dog chained in the yard outside the door as an alarm and as protection against the other dogs in the settlement. There was the occasional scrabbling of goats as they stirred uneasily in the tangled brush that hemmed in the house yards. From one or two of the houses we could hear battery-operated radios. The voice on the one station that reached the island was methodically reading the expected times of the next day’s high and low tides in every harbour of the Bahamas. In the night air around us was a hum of night insects and low piping exclamations of birds darting in athletic sweeps after the insects. But mingling with all of the sounds was something else that was drawing us through the dry brush that lined the paths we couldn’t see well enough to follow. There was singing, somewhere in the shadows beyond us…….
…… Through the open door we could see the faces of women in wrinkled cotton skirts and faded blouses slumped on wooden chairs in the center of the room. They were singing in an emotional, ragged chorus, some of them crying as they stared down at the uneven boards of the floor. The dark skin of their faces shone in the gleam of the lanterns. Some were gray-haired, their hair braided and pushed under their stained straw hats. Their tired faces were lined, and their bodies filled out their loose clothes with the shapelessness that comes with the years. One was holding a pipe, but she had let it go out. All of them had handkerchiefs balled in their hands, and they twisted them between their fingers, wringing them convulsively, then using them to wipe the tears from their eyes, as though the moisture were a kind of solace….
……”What is the singing for?”
There was a sucking sound as he drank from the bottle, then he shrugged and began to cry openly. “The woman in the house, she sick. She goin’ die soon.”
The voices inside the house went on with the ragged hymn as voices broke in with emotional interjections. “Hear me Lord!” almost a shout. “I’m praying to you, Oh Lord” “Oh Lord Jesus, I come to you.” A voice broke. “I’m thinking of you Lord Jesus.”
The man’s grief-stricken face turned toward us again. “We’re havin’ a wake for her.” ………
Some days later….
……. As we were walking along one of the crushed shell paths we heard music from a building site ahead of us. Three or four men were working on the walls of a small house, but it was almost midday and they were working lethargically in the heat. A few feet from them a man with a guitar was sitting on a wall of loose bricks in the shade of a palm tree. There was so much music that I was certain there must be another guitarist on the other side of the wall, and I walked a few steps and leaned over to look. There was no other guitarist. There was only the man sitting on the bricks with a large acoustic guitar that he was playing with strong, agile fingers. We had just met Joseph Spence….
…..His improvisations often pleased him as much as they did his listeners, and he would laugh noisily when he had managed a particularly difficult bass run or a complicated rhythmic shift. As I wrote later that day:
‘He conceived each new chorus as a challenge, and at his most fluid and inventive moments his improvisations developed into a series of variations…..He was so skilled that he could set a rhythm in triple meter – 3/ 4 or 6/8 – against the basic duple meter – 4/4 – of the piece; but Spence was the only one I ever heard who could play 4/4 in the lower strings and 3/ 4 in the upper strings at the same time. With all his inventiveness he also had an irresistible sense of Caribbean rhythm to everything he played.’
At the first recording session:
…..The men’s voices were hoarse from the intensity of their singing, and their shirts clung to their chests. I was conscious that the singers had drawn us back with them into a moment of their lives on Andros that had almost been forgotten and we each understood that in a few years it might not be possible to experience a moment like it again…
From “A Language of Song” / Sam Charters / Duke University Press.