Monday, May 19, 2008

American Folk Amalgam: Darby and Tarlton

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, or at least a cd. I recently bought Darby and Tarlton's ON THE BANKS OF A LONELY RIVER (County Records CD-3503) based on the sepia photo on the front of two dapper gents with guitars, one seated playing Hawaiian style, and a back cover with 17 song titles, four of which had the word "lonesome" or "lonely" but none of which I recognized, although "New Birmingham Jail" and "After The Sinking Of The Titanic" had a familiar ring. Also promising were "Down In Florida On A Hog" and "Captain Won't You Let Me Go Home." I plunked down my $8.99 plus tax for a used copy. It's the best folk music I've heard in quite some time, and the duo seem to embody something critical in understanding the folk process of American music.

Musicologists have long noted the blending of African and European traditions in American music. This blending extends to speech itself; some 18th Century white Southerners wrote of their alarm at their children were picking up vernacular speech from slave children, and what we think of as the "Southern accent" in American speech inevitably contains the influence of African-American speakers whether slave or free. The blues influence on Bill Monroe and Hank Williams is profound, as both men absorbed early lessons from black musicians and recordings. The black influence on rock and roll is by now a commonplace observation, but the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s was just a continuation of this long twining of strands in the complex tapestry of American music. It's sometimes assumed this influence runs in one direction only, but African-American traditions are after all deeply American, and in music the use and adaptation of European instruments, song forms, the English language itself, and European harmony all lend African-American music its distinct identity--it is not merely an offshoot of African music, but a compelling and original synthesis that plays an essential role in American identity and culture.

In the music of Darby and Tarlton, this synthesis of cultural riches is abundantly evident. There are other groups I've heard with a similar sonic character, most often the so-called "black hillbilly" groups such as Evans and McLain who didn't restrict their recorded music to 12-bar blues but played folk songs from the Southern and Appalachian traditions, often with banjo, fiddle and mandolin as well as guitar. Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarlton, recording in the late 1920s and early 1930s, played back to back with Evans and McLain or Leadbelly or Blind Blake or Rabbit Brown, would not stand out as the white men on the set list. This isn't because they sing in blackface or strain to sound "bluesy." They sound utterly original, with distinctive singing, evocative guitar playing, and a masterful approach to folk material.

Tom Darby was born around 1884 near Columbus, Georgia in a family from the mountains to the north. Jimmy Tarlton was born in a log cabin in 1892 in South Carolina. Both men grew up farming; Tarlton's father was a sharecropper who migrated to whatever plantation had work, season by season. Both men took up music early as part of their family traditions. Darby wrote what would later be their first hit, "Columbus Stockade Blues," before World War I, and he cultivated a personal guitar style of fingerpicking in open tunings with a prominent thumb rhythm closer to the Delta blues players and Georgia Piedmont bluesmen than say the Carter style in which the thumb plays melodic patterns. Tarlton learned music at home, accompanying his mother's ballad singing (which she learned from her mother and grandmother) on guitar, getting tips from a banjo-playing uncle and his father Joel Tarlton who played fretless banjo (the sort invented by slaves in the 18th century) at local dances. Jimmy himself started on a banjo he made, but moved to guitar, first in regular tuning but soon in open tunings which were more useful for bottleneck or slide guitar. This style had two simultaneous sources, Hawaii and the proto-blues players of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Hawaiian guitar had its own "craze" just as blues did as recorded music became available and affordable. Hawaii had become a US territory, and the exotic sound of this guitar style quickly found an audience in the US--the first electric guitars in the early 1930s were designed for Hawaiian style playing but quickly found their way into country and jazz bands. For the blues players, the slide style allowed them to play the blue notes, the flatted thirds and sevenths and those "in-between" tones common to West African and African-American musics, giving their guitar playing a vocal nuance to become a second voice to the singer. Thus, a solo performer could employ a "call and response" approach to song that is deeply African, though it most often had been used in Africa and America as a purely vocal technique between solo voice and chorus voices in hymns, work songs, laments and eventually white and black minstrelsy.

Tarlton must have heard both sorts of slide guitar music; he played the guitar on his lap, in the Hawaiian pose (learned from a star of the style, Frank Ferara, during a stint working as a laborer in California) but he'd heard black musicians playing bottleneck blues since his family's early years as migrant laborers. His playing is applied to music common to black and white musicians of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Darby and Tarlton met in the late 20s, and by 1927 they were recording together. Tarlton is credited as pioneering the use of slide guitar in white country music. They recorded 60 songs between 1927 and 1930, including several hits that have become standards of country music. There's a sample of the supple slide guitar work and extraordinary singing here complete with some yodeling.

But this duo isn't merely for guitar fans. Tom Darby's singing is strong, sure and plaintive, a rich tenor with an easy drawl more akin to Leadbelly than Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff. Tarlton adds a second voice on some songs, and their harmonies have more in common with black Georgia duos like Pink Anderson and Simmie Dooley or Macon Ed and Tampa Joe than the Monroe Brothers or Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. Like many early 20th Century musicians, Darby and Tarlton offer a hint of what music must have been like in the late 19th century before the advent of recording, and its commercial divisions between "race" music and "hillbilly" music. Their material is also fascinating for the individual stamp they put on each song. Many songs share melodies and lyric lines with well-known public domain folk songs. "Lonesome Railroad" from 1928 follows the melody of "In the Pines" and uses some of the phrases but follows its own lyric path:

Look up, look down that railroad line, and bow your head and cry.
The longest train I ever saw was eighty coaches long.
The engine past at eight o'clock and the cab passed by at nine.
Look up, look down that railroad line, hang down your head and cry.
Hmmmm, Hmmmm (humming the melodic line).

Little girl, little girl, don't you tell me no lies, tell me where did you stay last night?
I stayed in jail ninety nine days with my face turned to the wall.
Hmmmm, Hmmm

Little girl little girl, what have I done, you to turn your back on me?
Take all my clothes, throw them all outdoors, farewell you love, I'm gone.

Here's a bit of Leadbelly's use of this material on his "Black Gal (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?) recorded in 1944:

My girl, my girl don't you lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines, and you shiver the whole night through.

Darby also has a tendency to hold notes on key vowel sounds not unlike Leadbelly and other blues singers, and he sings the word girl as "guul" that sounds a bit like Mississippi Fred McDowell (who was in fact from Tennessee).

Darby and Tarlton's 1930 "Frankie Dean" is a recasting of the song "Frankie and Albert" or "Frankie and Johnny" which Mississippi John Hurt recorded in 1928 as simply "Frankie." The song has an interesting and somewhat tangled history. It first appears as "He Done Me Wrong" published and copyrighted in 1903 by Hughie Cannon, composer of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey." Many folklorists claim the song dates to at least 1830, with scant evidence for their claims. Whatever the case, copyright did not halt the folk process, and the song was adapted, rewritten, re-copyrighted even as quickly as 1908. The names of the ill-fated lovers changes version to version (Bill Bailey himself was the victim in the 1903 original), but the story of a woman named Frankie killing her man is more or less the same in most versions. The two guitars of Darby and Tarlton take a slower, jauntier pace than Hurt's solo version, but Darby on rhythm and Tarlton on slide approximate Hurt's fluid fingerpicking with his alternating bass lines and treble melody figures. Frankie's rival is "Alice" in both songs.

The aforementioned "Down in Florida on a Hog" is an original lyric to the melody of "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" and its related folk songs. It's taken at a lively tempo with great slides up the bass strings during the vocal and what sounds like simultaneous solos by both guitarists on the break. The lyric was apparently inspired by Darby's time in Florida from 1920-24 during the land boom there, one of the few times he ventured out of Georgia. "Roy Dixon" is a jailhouse lament to the tune of "Great Speckled Bird" and "I'm Dreaming Tonight of My Blue Eyes" and numerous other American classics.

"Lowe Bonnie" is one of the most affecting vocal performances, Darby using a falsetto leap on the final line with complete ease. The song is in 3/4 time and was one of the songs Tarlton's mother learned from her grandmother, so it would date to at least the early ante-bellum period. It's a variant of "Love Henry" in melody and certain lyric turns of phrase, a song recorded by Bob Dylan on his 1993 WORLD GONE WRONG album, and by Dick Justice in the 1930s as "Henry Lee" (also in 3/4 time) which appeared on the Anthology of American Folk Music. The song has many variants in Scottish and even Scandavian folk traditions predating its American iterations. In most versions, a man is killed by his jealous lover, and a bird witnesses the act and either refuses to aid the dying man or refuses to come near the murderous mistress for "a girl who would murder her own true love/would kill a little bird like me." It's a cold-hearted story in every version I've heard. This "Lowe Bonnie" tells a slightly different tale, one a bit tough to decipher due to Darby's thick drawl (again similar to Fred McDowell). Bonnie is still the man who has two loves, a new one he prefers, an old one who stabs him with a pen knife in a jealous fit when he rejects her entreaty to sit with her a while. The girl immediately regrets her action and appeals for a doctor to heal her lover's wounds. Their version is filled with poignant regret, ending with a delicate slide guitar solo following the falsetto leap.

Hearing this album is like finding a lost branch of your family--everyone kind of looks like all your known siblings, cousins and children, but they have their own way of talking, their own version of your family history. You hear tunes like "Red River Valley" and "Aloha Hui" but you get "The Rainbow Division" and "Little Ola" (their most overtly Hawaiian-influenced number). There are Victorian pieties about letters from "dear old mother" and criminal confessions on the order of "On Monday I was arrested, on Tuesday I was tried, on Wednesday I made a guilty confess' and I hung my little head and cried." Each song seems inextricably linked to folk song tradition but the sound is all Darby and Tarlton. Robert Nobley's liner notes are most helpful (I certainly leaned on them for this little essay, as well as drawing on some information from Barry McCloud's DEFINITIVE COUNTRY: The Ultimate Encylcopedia of Country Music and its Performers). Some day I'll figure out which of these songs I love best and try to play them with my own band. Right now I'm just marvelling at these two men and their music.

And, yes, it is plenty lonesome as those song titles imply, not the "high lonesome" sound of bluegrass--that was a decade in the future--but more the feeling of men who see the world itself as a lonesome expanse offering little comfort except in song, a world of modest means and perpetual labor and struggle and inevitable loss, but men capable of delight, empathy, and fond nostalgia for home however mean it may have been. I'm not a nostalgic person with regard to my own experiences, but I'm happy to enjoy the nostalgic reveries of Darby and Tarlton. This is one of the primary purposes of folk music--to break our isolation and let us know our feelings, while personal, are also common, and that our tragedies and trials, while intense, have been known by others and will be known again. That's worth singing about, to whatever tune is available.

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