I'm going to do something I've only done a couple times before, combine the review of two discs into one piece. I've done it in the past when I've had multiple discs by the same band to review at once or there have been sufficient similarities to make two reviews redundant, as is the case with the two releases — A Living Past and Experessin' The Blues — under review here. They are so interconnected it makes more sense to review them as a unit.
Both discs are among the first compilation albums released by the wonderful organization The Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non government charitable group offering financial assistance to the generation of musicians who have been forgotten by the winds of time and through the capriciousness of fate have fallen through the cracks.
Well into their eighties, a lot of the artists aren't looking for handouts but just a chance to keep making the music they love and the ability to earn their own keep. But some times in order to do that they need assistance; whether it's to keep the car on the road, buy a lightweight amp they can carry to gigs, or to have enough of their own CDs to sell at a concert.
From the inspired genius and obsession of Tim and Denise Duffy to not let the music of that generation die unnoticed was born a collection of initial field recordings. Like a latter day song-catcher, Tim traveled the length and breadth of the Carolinas. Instead of wax cylinders and a notation book he carried with him his guitar, two microphones, and a DAT recorder in the hopes of at least preserving these songs before the musicians passed away.
But fate wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily, and in the shape of Mark Levinson, founder of Cello Music and Film services, sent him not only the means to turn his rough field recordings into high quality songs, but his first fund raiser. Mark took it upon himself to circulate the tapes among the audio equipment maker and designer community to raise the seed money necessary to establish the Foundation.
If there was one musician among the many Tim worked with that had the biggest influence on him it was the late Guitar Gabriel. Gabriel shows up on both these discs and he's the heart and soul beating and pulsing throughout both recordings. It was through Gabriel that Tim was introduced to the majority of the players and was able to record them in the early days of the Foundation's work back in the late eighties and early nineties.
You'll meet people like the late Preston Fulp, whose falsetto renditions of old traditional country blues songs eerily presages any number of male singers who work the upper registers, but Roy Orbison in particular. The only difference being that Preston's voice has a heartfelt quality that none save Roy, of our recent crop could achieve in their wildest dreams. With the death of Orbison, I'd say there was no one left who could have matched Preston Fulp for integrity and honesty of tone. He contributes "Careless Love" to both CDs and on A Living Past he adds "Farther Along"
One of the mainstays for the Music Maker foundation, especially since the passing of Gabriel, has been Capt. Luke. Born Luther Mayer, he's been living and entertaining folk in the Carolina's since 1940. He sings in the most awesome baritone voice you've ever heard and nearly stops your heart the first time you hear it on record. I've never heard a voice that could be said to ring like a bell before, and now I know what it means.
But the Capt. is not just a singer; he's an entertainer, which means he does just about anything to amuse the people that have come see him. He plays a mean jaw harp and tells the funniest stories you've ever heard. It's not so much the stories are all that funny, but his characterization is right out of vaudeville and can have you in tears or worse if you're aren't careful.
On Expressin' you only hear the beauty, but on A Living Past you can hear him in full storytelling mode with "The Kingfisher Story" and "Dog and Cat Fight". If any of you have read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, I'm sure you'll see the resemblance to the storytelling in God from Africa. It sure seems the old Spider is alive and well in the form of Captain Luke.
Now I'm not going to be able to go through each and every artist on these discs, heck I couldn't do that if I were only reviewing one of them, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention two more names: Richard "Big Boy" Henry and Willa Mae Buckner, a.k.a. "The World's Only Black Gypsy", "The Princess of Ejo", "The Wild Enchantress", "Snake Lady", or even "Billie Raye Buckner". For entirely different reasons they both made a lasting impression on me.
The word irrepressible must have been invented with Willa Mae in mind, if there isn't a picture of her next to it in the dictionary there should be. Just judging by the variety of her stage names should be enough for you to go by, but if that isn't enough for you her two tracks on A Living Past, especially the traditional "Peter Rumpkin" which is repeated on Expressin' should tell the whole story.
You can hear the wink in her eye and smirk on her face as she sings these songs. You've got to remember she's singing them into a microphone probably sitting in her living room or kitchen not on stage, but it still sounds for all the world like she's playing the room for all her might.
There aren't too many people who can get away with singing this type of bawdy song and not sound embarrassing, (think of Chuck Berry's "My Ding–a–Ling" without wincing) but she can. She doesn't even sound like a cute old lady being dirty with a coy hand over her mouth. She still sounds like she's living up to the titles of her past; you can definitely see why she would have been called "The Wild Enchantress"
Richard "Big Boy" Henry is almost as far from Willa's world of Burlesque as you can get without being in a church. He does the old Hollar type of Blues, which were based on the call and response shout songs the field hands would sing in the fields to each other. You forget that the Carolina's are on the coast occasionally, but Richard was born in Beaufort a fishing village on the North Carolina Coast.
He typifies so many of the performers that Tim Duffy unearthed at this time in that he's worked tirelessly alongside his musicianship to get by in the day to day world. So many of these men and women have made some of the most beautiful music of the last century, creating the foundations for any of the popular styles you might listen to today on your iPods or whatever, but have gone completely unrecognized. There is an air of authenticity and honesty to Richard's performances that no amount of electronics or publicity can manufacture.
Both discs fittingly take their names from Guitar Gabriel. "Expressin' The Blues" is the title given to a track featuring Gabriel trying to define what exactly the Blues are and when they happen. What makes it so darn important to be "Expressin' The Blues" in other words.
One of the things he does say that's so special about what he does, what compelled him until almost his death bed to keep singing and playing, was that singing the songs he did made him feel like he was part of "A Living Past". When he says that you realize why these records can't and shouldn't be looked upon as just mementoes of another time, because the past is living everyday in the music played everywhere.
If you deny the past, you deny part of yourself and a part of your heritage. These people and their music no more belong in a museum than anything you hear on the radio today, (although it does deserve to be remembered far more then 90% of what is played). Most of the performers aren't content just to be singing the songs they used to sing, and are continually writing new material to perform.
A Living Past and Expressin' The Blues are simply reminders this music is worth listening to, no matter when it was written. If no one else is willing to play it, well there are over three hundred musicians now being supported by the Music Makers Relief Foundation and any one of them will be more then happy to sing you one of their songs or tell you one of their stories.
The world is little bit brighter place for it.