Musical styles come in and out of fashion as often, if not more frequently, than clothing styles. However, unlike trends in clothing or other transitory fads, many of the musical genres which become flavours of the month had their small pool of adherents who both played it before it became popular and continue to play it long after its popularity has waned. Ironically it’s not even those who have been playing and keeping the genre alive who are usually the ones who enjoy the benefits of their style’s fifteen minutes in the spotlight, as they aren’t usually the types a record company feels comfortable with as star material.
Once the brief flurry of interest in the genre has died down most go back to being played and appreciated by those who had all along, while everybody else moves on to the next “new” discovery. Sometimes the only record to mark a genre’s passing is if a commercially viable form of the music is created which allows for the creation of a new Top 100 chart in its name. Aside from that, for most of the world it’s as if the music has ceased to exist as miraculously as it once appeared. Thankfully, that’s not usually the case; it’s just that the music is out of the public eye again, but it’s still being played and recorded if you know who to look for.
Ever since the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? was released about a decade ago there have been periodic revivals of interest in what’s called everything from roots music to Americana. Now most of the songs used in the soundtrack were familiar to people already, but what made them so fresh was they were performed in the style they would have been during the time the movie took place. Instead of the overblown production that’s been associated with country music for the last thirty or forty years, the songs were stripped down to their basics and sounded amazing. Somehow or other though, that point got lost, and it’s become harder and harder to hear the music played as it was originally.
Thankfully, for those who want to hear this music played as it should be, there remain select groups of musicians scattered around the country dedicated to keeping the legacy of this music alive. One of the finest examples of this are Eden & John’s East River String Band. Eden and John are Eden Brower (ukulele, kazoo and vocals) and John Heneghan (guitar and vocals), and on their latest disc, Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down, the band is rounded out by Robert Crumb (mandolin), Pat Conte (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar). (For those wondering, Robert Crumb is indeed the illustrator of underground comics from the 1970s. Not only does he play with the band on occasion, he has created all their album artwork).
On this disc the band has focused on traditional songs and adapted and arranged them to suit their needs. One of the first things you’ll notice when looking at the album credits is the lack of any mention as to who has written the material. These songs have obtained the status of being so ingrained into the social and artistic fabric of American culture that who wrote them no longer matters; they are a part of the country’s cultural heritage in the same way songs like “John Barley Corn” are part of the heritage of the British Isles. In fact two of the titles on the disc are most likely ones that a high percentage of Americans will hear at least once in their lives and whose names will be recognized by nearly as many: “Oh Suzanna” and “Swanee River.”
Both songs were written by the first great composer of American popular music, Stephen Foster, in 1848 and 1851, respectively. A product of their times, their original lyrics aren’t what anybody would call racially sensitive, as they were written in faux-slave dialect, and in the case of “Swanee,” have the narrator yearning for life on the plantation and, by implication, life as a slave. Both songs gained their initial popularity through being performed in “Minstral Shows,” white performers appearing in black face singing and playing Dixieland jazz style music. While this may sound offensive to us, the songs were a reflection of contemporary attitudes and in no way diminishes their quality musically.
While these two songs are well known, others of the fourteen included on the disc have a slightly more obscure provenance. Take “On The Banks Of The Kaney;” it was originally recorded in 1929 by Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band, a Choctaw Indian string band from Oklahoma. From what little I was able to find out about this group they wrote and recorded songs for Choctaw audiences and were discovered playing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi. Just as African American string or country/bluegrass type bands from back in the 1920s and 1930s have almost been forgotten, probably very few people are aware there were Native American bands as well. That alone would make contemporary recordings of this song and the others on the disc worthwhile, but these are more than just dusty pieces of history of interest only to musicologists.
For, as performed by Eden and John and friends they sound as fresh and alive as if they were written today. The combination of their enthusiasm, energy, skill and the sense that all of them are having the time of their lives playing the songs on the disc make it far more enjoyable to listen to than the majority of contemporary music. There’s something irrepressible about Eden’s vocals which makes her sound like she’s tapped into the secret of knowing how to have the best time in the world. She and the rest of the band might take their playing seriously and are as good a group of instrumentalists as you’ll find anywhere, but they don’t take themselves seriously and always remember to have fun with what they’re doing. Maybe it’s the fact that a kazoo features predominately in the mix on quite a number of tunes — I’ve always had a soft sport for a well played kazoo — but listening to this disc was the most fun I’ve had listening to music in a long while.
With all the the talk of Americana and roots music, the irony is how much of the real roots of American popular music is still being ignored today. Or even worse, far too many people forget that it was meant to be listened to and enjoyed. They forget that it was performed at county fairs under tents so people could try and forget about the troubles of the world for a little while. Sure it’s important culturally as it integrated African and European music in ways that had never happened before, but it was also the dance and good-time music of the day.
The music on Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down comes from another age — spanning the years from just before the American Civil War to just before WWII — but it can bring a smile to your face and a spring to your step far more readily than most of what passes for popular music today. In these days of war, famine, pollution and other horrors, it’s hard to remember there was a less cynical time when music could make you feel glad to alive. This album is not only a collection of timeless treasures; it’s a reminder that popular music can be fun.
Be Kind To Be A Man When He’s Down is available in both CD and 180-gram yellow vinyl. If you have a turntable, buy the LP as that way you can not only enjoy a full-sized piece of Robert Crumb’s art, but I have a feeling this is the type of music that will be best appreciated when listened to on a turntable.