Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Evans & McClain: Music, Memory and Mystery

Joe Evans and Arthur McClain recorded 17 songs in 20 takes during 3 recording sessions between 1927 and 1931, billed as Two Poor Boys. Their complete recordings are available on THE TWO POOR BOYS on Document Records DOCD-5044 issued in 1991. According to Chris Smith's liner notes, the two hailed from Fairmont, Tennessee, in the east of the state where blacks comprised only about 8% of the populace. That is the sum of our biographical data on the two musicians; we must listen carefully for any other insights into who they were, what instruments each man played, or how they might have developed their charming and unusual sound. Smith credits their community origins for the clear "hillbilly" influence on their singing, playing and song choices; they seem to embody the 19th century "songster" or "musicianeer" approach to music, collecting material from various folk sources and traditions as well as contemporary pop and blues styles, performing them with enough authority to entertain in juke joints, square dances, picnics, vaudeville stages and medicine shows. Whether they did so is pure guesswork, but there are plenty of indicators of the duos versatility; they feature mandolins, guitars, kazoos, piano, violin and two voices adaptable to blues, hokum, Victorian parlor song, jazzy pop, fiddle tunes and banjo tunes.

We don't know who played what, but Joe Evans seems to be the lead singer on many songs. One man's voice has a higher tenor range--this may be Evans--suitable to blues in a fairly commercial style common in the late 1920s. There is none of the gruff, declamatory approach to singing in the Delta style of Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, or Son House common in the deep South. Blind Lemon Jefferson, a far more popular recording artist, is certainly an influence on their sound, and their "Two White Horses In A Line" is his "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" minus Jefferson's title verse. Arthur McClain may be the deeper voice, a relaxed baritone that is comfortable on sentimental ballads and slow blues. The two voices blend easily but never precisely--at times more polyphony than harmony, two voices wandering around the same lyric together in a style that hints at the minstrel show roots of some of the songs as well as anticipating certain r&b and rap styles.

The mandolin work is particularly delightful, regardless of whose hands were responsible. They may both have played it. The playing is swinging and fluent on the instrumental "Sourwood Mountain" which is a traditional fiddle tune they adapt to guitar and mandolin. We call this "old timey" music today, and I imagine they did as well--it sounds old, inherited, played with such clear authority that it was not released as a "race record" but as part of the Perfect record label's hillbilly catalogue. "Old Hen Cackle" is another fiddle tune adapted to mandolin and guitar. Mandolin is tuned like a violin, so the notes are relatively easy to move from one instrument to the other, but the rapid tremelo picking and quick melodic lines on the fretted mandolin are quite different from the sustain, fretless slides and bowed tremeloes available to a fiddler. One of my current challenges as a mandolin player is to become more comfortable playing fiddle tunes, and Evans and McClain's cleanly picked tunes are my personal tutorial of the moment. Mandolin is also a marvelous blues instrument--facility with the pentatonic scale and blue notes was essential to Bill Monroe's innovative mandolin work, and bluesmen Yank Rachel and Johnny Young both played mandolin, Rachel in country blues, Young in Chicago. It's interesting that The Two Poor Boys chose to adapt the fiddle tunes this way, as one of them was no slouch on fiddle which appears on numerous other songs, most prominently on "Sitting On Top Of The World."

Mandolins come from the Italian branch of the lute family, and moved from folk to classical music in the late 18th/early 19th century; Beethoven composed for mandolin and piano. Italian mandolins have a rounded back and angled top with a round sound hole and are sometimes called "'tater bugs" in this country. They gained prominence in America with the influx of Italian immigrants, and mandolin orchestras toured the country in the late 19th century. Mandolins, mandolas and mandocellos sometimes show up in ragtime orchestras alongside tenor banjos, harp guitars and violins. Italianate playing emphasizes melody with tremelo embellishments. As the instrument fell into African-American/Scots-Irish-Appalachian hands, playing styles adapted to complement the banjos and fiddles already in use, with new emphasis on American folk dance rhythms and the modal and folk harmonies of the songs played. Rolling arpeggios, straight 4/4 strums, the sharp attack of the chordal "chop" and the increasing use of the pentatonic scale all brought the voice of the mandolin forward in American music, as did the design innovations leading to the flat-backed A model (teardrop body with either a round sound hole or f-holes) and the Gibson F-model series with its distinctive curves, points and scroll (the carved curled appendage on the bass string side of the body). The instrument is portable and loud, easy to start playing--it took me about 30 minutes to learn to strum through 3 chord songs on my first mandolin, a weathered A-model from Poland I bought at a fleamarket for $30.

The Mississippi Sheiks first big hit "Sitting on Top of the World" in 1930 featured guitar and violin. Evans and McClain's version the following year is faithful to the original. The song itself is a great example of music as process as much as artifact. Walter Vinson of the Sheiks is credited with writing the lyrics, but the tune is one of those melodies whose origin can't quite be determined; Vinson's record label Okeh was sued by Victor whose artist Tommy Johnson had recorded his classic "Big Road Blues" in 1928, claiming Vinson stole Johnson's melody. The suit was settle out of court. Were I Okeh's lawyer, I would have gone to trial--the earlier song is a 12-bar blues, the latter an 8 bar blues, and the melodies are difficult to match up. I just tried singing the Sheiks lyric while listening to Johnson's recording, and it wasn't anywhere near the kind of plagiarism George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" committed against Phil Spector's "Be My Baby." Vinson's melody has a vague echo of "Banks of the Ohio" but really seems based on Leroy Carr's 1928 piano blues hit "How Long, How Long" which is also an 8 bar chord progression. Carr's label Vocalion should have been the litagator. Charlie Patton recorded "Some Summer Day" to the same melody in 1930, but Patton had been playing for almost 25 years by that time and may have been using the melody a long while. My personal favorite use of it is in Robert Johnson's mournful "Come On In My Kitchen" from 1938.

Al Jolson had a hit in 1926 with "I'm Sitting On Top of the World" which was a pop song, not a blues, and good working musicians of the era would naturally be covering popular hits, so it seems likely Vinson picked the key phrase from Jolson (just as black musicians often had borrowed from blackface minstrel songs in the 19th/early 20th centuries). Here's Vinson's lyric (which you can listen to here):


Was all the summer, and all the fall,
Just trying to find my little all-in-all
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

Was in the spring, one summer day
Just when she left me, she's gone to stay
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

An' you come here runnin', holdin' up your hand
Can't get me a woman, quick as you get a man
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

It have been days, I didn't know your name
Why should I worry and prayer in vain
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

Goin' to the station, down in the yard
Gone get me a freight train, work's done got hard
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

The lonesome days, they have gone by
Why should you beg me and say goodbye?
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

By 1935, the white hillbilly group The Shelton Brothers had recorded a version with varied lyrics and a livelier tempo more suited to dancing, including the verse about "If you don't like my peaches, stay out of my tree" which appears in a Bessie Smith blues a decade earlier as well as other blues lyrics. Bill Monroe's 1958 recording seems based on the Shelton Brothers. You can hear Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys playing their version here and check out the left-handed guitarist playing his axe upside down.

I first knew the song from Cream's final album, GOODBYE, a bone-crunching live performance that lurches along propelled by Ginger Baker's huge drum sound and Eric Clapton's electric guitar. Jack Bruce sings it well, one of his better blues performances. (A 2005 reunion performance is here.) I soon sought out Howling Wolf's late 1950s electric Chicago blues version on which Cream based theirs, and while it doesn't have the heavy rock sound Cream pioneered, it is a frighteningly intense recording (as many of Wolf's are). Wolf had a long career, learned his blues directly from Charlie Patton (and had an even rougher, deeper voice than Patton). It's fascinating to travel back in time and hear this song in its many versions--it's as if it belongs to everyone, can be sung by anyone whether a black man from the hills of Tennessee, a white Kentuckian, a black Mississippian in Chicago by way of Memphis, a classically trained Scots bassist, everyone finding some new shading of emotion in the song's triumphant fatalism. One of my poet/musician friends once remarked that the three chord blues is like America's musical DNA, endlessly recombining and mutating as songs leap from ear to ear and throat to throat. You hear enough songs and enough musicians, you learn to play, make your own mistakes, come up with your own way of delivering a lyric, and one day the divisions of time and space, of locale and "race" and genre, just melt away--you're hardly yourself anymore, just another empty vessel filled with the sound of what may be eternal grace.

It took me a long time to come to perform music, as if I had to let the desire ferment with all the music I absorbed over 40 plus years of obsessive listening. When I did form a band and start to play shows, one of my main priorities, true to my alienated surburban white boy youth in the 1960s, was to sing the blues. By the time I gave it a shot, I'd heard a lot more than the Rolling Stones and Cream and Bob Dylan and other innovators of blues-rock. I wasn't going to do the semi-minstrel vocal posturing of blues-rock's lesser exponents. I couldn't pretend I came to it naturally as a white southerner like Elvis Presley or Greg Allman, and I wasn't able to learn directly from John Lee Hooker or Fred McDowell like Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt. I wanted to honor the blues and the singers and songs I loved.

The Poor Boys Evans and McClain gave me more than one clue about an approach to this ambition of mine. The first time I heard their "Two White Horses In A Line," I knew I had to perform it somehow. It's their version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's 1928 hit "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" as I noted above, with some interesting differences. I knew the song well, initially from Bob Dylan's remarkable version on his debut album. The song is a 16-bar blues, which seems to be a slightly older blues form than the standard 12-bar progression common to most modern blues. Dylan and Jefferson both play it solo on guitar; Jefferson was the Jimi Hendrix of his day, one of the biggest names in the race records market and an innovative guitar player who would take on all comers in jams, excite audiences by playing the guitar behind his head or between his legs according to guitarist T-Bone Walker who as a boy used to lead him around Dallas streets and collect money for him as he played. In his recording, his singing is downcast as if muted by overwhelming grief at approaching death, the tempo is moderate, the guitar going from alternating bass patterns to melodic fills to "boom-chick" chording, interrupted only on the final verse where he sings, "Have you ever heard that church bell toll" and he hits an open low E string and lets it ring for a moment. His rhythm has a distinct 2/4 feel of older New Orleans blues rather than the more swinging 4/4 blues players developed as the genre matured. It was originally a B-side that earned its status at a landmark of blues singing and playing. Not the sort of tune I could imagine me playing to anyone other than my cats.

The Two Poor Boys recorded and released "Two White Horses In A Line" in 1927, a year earlier than Jefferson, and it could be that Jefferson's "There's one kind favor I ask of you" verse is his only original lyric contribution to the song. The song lyrics seem composed of those turns of phrase--floating lines as musicologists term them--common to many folk songs in various forms and genres, as if there were some verbal automatic teller and every American gets issued a card at birth so we can all withdraw whatever we need to put a song over. Their performance is in two voices in that country polyphony, guitar and mandolin at a moderate but more swinging 4/4 tempo than Jefferson's, the mandolin always playing melody, single note riffs and tremelo accents notes as the guitar defines the rhythm. The duo also hit a chiming note when that church bell tolls, but their bell tolls midway through the song. In the last verse, when they sing, "Did you ever hear that coffin sound?" whoever is playing guitar raps the body six times on quater note beats while all else pauses before the song resumes. "That means that poor boy's in the ground." I'm never quite sure if this means the coffin is being nailed shut or that poor boy may have been buried prematurely and is knocking from the inside.

Whatever the case, this is the arrangement I adapted to my band, which generally has more than one singer available. I play mandolin and sing lead, but others join in on every verse. We all hit a big G (our key for the tune) for the tolling bell on whatever instruments are on stage; we all rap on our instruments to nail the finale. It is our set opener or our encore song; my bandmates love playing it (the most important test of a song in my view), and we swing it faster and harder than the Poor Boys, not as searing as Dylan's version. Bob sounds like he's singing into the abyss of his own impending doom. Our version is more like a choir reminding the congregation of the way of all flesh and souls as they leave Sunday service for trials and temptations awaiting on Monday.

I'm tempted to describe every such delight Evans and McClain offer--the jazzy scat singing and kazoo duets, the weepy spoken monologues and sly blues double-entendres--but you'd do better to seek them out yourselves. We don't have minstrel or medicine shows any longer, and vaudeville, while in a mini-revival at least in bohemian New York, is mostly gone, so cd-reissues of scratchy old 78 rpm shellac discs (thankfully cleaned up digitally but not so clean as to sound false) of artists such as Evans and McClain are our time machine to a world almost lost and voices nearly stilled by time and changing tastes and artistic growth and evolution. Joe Evans and Arthur McClain may have been billed as The Two Poor Boys, but their music holds inexhaustible treasure for your ears and hearts.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"The song is a 16-bar blues, which seems to be a slightly older blues form than the standard 12-bar progression common to most modern blues." Some writers have liked saying that (possible-sounding speculation has routinely been accepted as fact in blues "scholarship"), but we really don't know which is older, 12-bar blues or 16-bar blues. There are only a few credible reports of blues as such before 1909, and some of those tunes were apparently 12-bar, as were e.g. "The Bully" as of about 1893 and "Rain Fall And Wet Becca Lawton" in the 1860s. We do know that 16-bar blues similar in form to William Moore's "Midnight Blues" and Lemon Jefferson's "Wartime Blues" seem to have been very popular with Southern musicians as of about 1911-1913, and that that 16-bar approach was known to musicians such as Texas Alexander, Elester Anderson, Charles Avery, Dorothy Baker, Etta Baker, Wiley Barner, Jim Baxter, Ed Bell, Tom Bell, the Birmingham Jug Band, Blind Blake, Lucille Bogan, Tom Bradford, John Bray, Bill Broonzy, Gabriel Brown, Thomas Burt, Sam Butler, Butch Cage, Bo Carter, Will Chastain, Big Boy Cleveland, Bob Coleman, Elizabeth Cotten, Wilton Crawley, Reese Crenshaw, Jesse Crump, Tom Darby, Cow Cow Davenport, Calvin Davis, Rev. Gary Davis, Robert Davis, Simmie Dooley, Lem Fowler, Blind Boy Fuller, Jesse Fuller, Bobby Grant, William Harris, Robert Hicks, Willie Hill, Lightnin' Hopkins, Peg Leg Howell, John Hurt, Bill Jackson, John Jackson, Skip James, Edna Johnson, Elizabeth Johnson, Henry "Rufe" Johnson, Little Hat Jones, Richard M. Jones, Charley Jordan, Leadbelly, Furry Lewis, Johnie Lewis, Mance Lipscomb, Alura Mack, Eddie Mapp, Willie McTell, the Memphis Jug Band, the Mississippi String Band (Johnson and Copeland), Turner Parrish, Lesley Riddle, Walter Roland, Thomas Shaw, Freeman Stowers, Sonny Terry, Elvie Thomas, Henry Thomas, Edward Thompson, Odell Thompson, Walter Vinson, Johnny Watson, Curley Weaver, Geeshie Wiley, and Robert Wilkins.