One of the great things about living in the digital age is what the technology has allowed us to reclaim from our past. Specifically, I'm talking about the process of re-mastering music recorded in the earliest days of recording technology in order to preserve and enhance the sound quality. It's been because of this process that so much music that might otherwise have been lost to us has been preserved for our enjoyment and edification.
Document Records from England has been particularly successful in putting together compilations of various types of music and performers from the earliest days of the twentieth century, and in some cases even earlier. Judging by their catalogue their commitment to the music exceeds any capability of profit from it. There isn't that much interest in music from turn of the twentieth century North America.
Take for example one of their more recent releases, Whoop It Up! Volume One 1927 – 1929 by Clarence Williams Jug & Washboard Bands. How much more of a niche release can that be? The pity of it is this is wonderful music, but somehow few people seem willing to make the effort to listen to music from another era let alone buy it. They don't know what they are missing, and quite frankly aside from this review I'm not quite sure how to tell them.
Clarence Williams sounds like he was one of those originals who only come along at certain points in time in the music industry. According to his biographer, Thomas Morgan, Williams was a musician, producer, entrepreneur, performer, agent, and a little leery of the truth. He was given to make extravagant claims, business cards listing him as the inventor of Jazz, or play fast and loose with the contracts of the talent he represented. (He told Bessie Smith she was signed to Columbia Records, when it was his name on the contract and she had signed a personal services contract with him, which gave him half her earnings – Bessie and her boyfriend had that changed on a surprise visit to Clarence's office one evening)
But aside from such shenanigans, it appears to be no exaggeration to say that without him Jazz would not have developed as quickly as it did. In the 1920s when the idea of a Black businessman was still a real anomaly, Williams owned three music stores in Chicago for the sole purpose of selling the music and songs of the people playing at the time. But he sold them in 1923 to move to New York when he saw it becoming the Mecca for black people coming up from the South and where the music would really take root.
Where he most helped his fellow musicians was the five years (1923 – 1928) he spent as artist and repertoire manager of Okeh records. Through those offices he was able to get people like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and King Oliver employment and recording work on a regular basis.
But what our man Clarence did best was produce and record music. Between 1923 and 1937 he recorded nearly 300 sides under his own name with a variety of bands and labels. If, for instance he wasn't happy with the way a song came out in a morning session with one band at one label, he'd record the same song with a slightly different band, with a different name, for a different label in the afternoon. Sometimes he'd even change the name of the song, but other times he wouldn't even bother and just have it released.
The twenty-five tracks that Document Records has compiled for Whoop It Up! Volume 1 1927-1929 reflect that as there is not only duplicate songs of the same title, but songs with different titles that are the same. "Cushion Foot Stomp" appears three times on the track list for example, and each time it was recorded by a differently named version of the band. On this disc alone recordings were done under six different band names, seven if you count two versions of Clarence Williams' Washboard Five.
The music itself has to be some of the most infectious and fun stuff I've heard in long time. It sounds like a mix of the best elements of Dixieland Jazz, New Orleans Jazz, Ragtime, and Honky-Tonk music. But what really stands out on all the songs is the washboard. These days regarded in most circles as more of a novelty instrument, on these recordings the washboard is the only percussion on any of the pieces.
It interesting to note that once Clarence found himself a washboard player he could trust he stuck with him on every recording. That smiling figure to the facing right of the picture is Floyd Casey on Washboard, and he is solid as solid can be when it comes to holding the rhythm for the rest of the band.
Of course he always had the cream of the crop of players who he could take into the studio with him to help out with the recordings. For the most part Clarence handles the vocals himself and does a credible enough job, friendly and charming without being riveting. But this is washboard music not opera so it's much more than adequate in this instance.
Washboard music isn't high art, or even very refined jazz or blues, but it's a lot of fun and gives you a really good indication of how ragtime and Dixieland matured into the more sophisticated sounds we associate with swing and big band music of the thirties and forties. Clarence Williams was an important and influential man in ensuring the success of popular music in those years, and somehow he seems to have missed out on receiving the praise and recognition he is owed.
Hopefully the Document records releases of his work will go a long way in rectifying that situation.