Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground

About a month ago I treated myself to a new CD box set. I had heard from various sources that it was good, and when I saw it for myself in a store I decided to have a bit of an impulsive splurge. It is called American Epic, the companion music to the PBS series of the same name. At the time I had not seen the series but I quickly put that to right along with diving into the 5 disc set. Altogether the project is a true labor of love exploring the earliest days of recording various roots music from across the American diaspora in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Musically it covers a lot of ground-Delta Blues, old-time fiddle music, Cajun, Native American, jug bands, Hawaiian, Gospel and Latin. Collectively I heard songs I knew from established singers and players such as The Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Lydia Mendoza, Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers. There are also some surprises-little snippets or lyrics of songs that I have known for years, but never knew the source of. Others I knew more by name as being seminal figures but was unfamiliar with the music.

Along with those key figures, American Epic covered some unsung people across the spectrum of recorded American music such as Charley Patton, Dick Justice, Geeshie Wiley, Elder J.E. Burch,  and many more. The producers of the series utilized new restoration techniques to really bring a new dynamic to the  music recorded in some cases nearly 100 years ago. It is a staggering realization knowing that we have reached a point in history where the recorded music you hear so easily streaming on your phone or the radio had its origins in these early recordings. Without these pioneers of recording technology crossing the country bringing back these gems, popular music in America may have never gone past Tin Pan Alley and the popular tunes of the day. As the show points out, once the radio became popular and affordable, the early markets for  records were drying up. The labels took this as a chance to expand their musical offerings to wider audiences.

These past few weeks I have been listening to all of the music, mesmerized by the diversity of sounds. I have also been reading along with the book, looking at the photos and reading the lyrics and words of so many long ago and in many cases  forgotten singers and musicians. Beyond that I could hear the influence many of these unsung singers had on names much more well known. I heard the cold lonesome whippoorwill of Hank Williams in the voice of Emmett Miller. I heard the testament of every gospel singer I have ever listened to in the songs of Reverend F.W. McGee. I hear the Rolling Stones attitude in the growls of  Howlin’ Wolf.

But before I go on describing American Epic in more detail, I’m going to stop myself. The series is currently streaming on Amazon for you to watch and enjoy yourself. I’m also stopping myself because I am thinking of spending some time making it a semi-regular feature here on Soundtrack Of A Photograph. I have learned my lesson from other false starts however, so for the time being I’ll refrain from putting it as a menu option at the top of this page!

What I do want to talk about in this post is a song that quickly rose to the top for me among the 100 songs in the set-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground by Blind Willie Johnson.  He was one of the artists I knew more by name than by his music, but I am sure glad this song made its way onto the set. The title was borrowed from a hymn popular around the time Johnson recorded it.  In some ways it is impossible to describe a song like this one. It is something you just feel. If you allow it to creep inside you after the first few notes, it goes to an even deeper place. One could almost be dismissive at first-a humming ‘vocal’ and a series of runs up and down the guitar neck with the slide (for which Johnson allegedly used a penknife for) doesn’t sound so impressive on paper. But it bores down deep inside your soul however. It speaks volumes without uttering a single legible word.

I find it equally dark and mysterious. I personally think that maybe that is the reason for the title. Maybe Blind Willie Johnson’s guitar symbolizes the dark night. Maybe his vocals symbolize the cold ground. Maybe they are interchangeable. However you want to interpret it is valid. I just know that those words-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground come from a place of pain. Neither one is an ideal situation if you really think about it-

Dark was the night. Loneliness, Silence. Fear. Maybe those feelings came from his own blindness. Maybe it just came from the feeling of night down some deep, dark country lane in Texas in the 1920’s. Maybe it symbolizes death, pain or suffering.

Cold was the ground. Winter. Misery. Sadness. Poverty. Maybe those feelings came from the actual bleakness of winter. Body aching from the cold. That feeling of sorrow and quiet that pervades. Maybe it too symbolizes death-burying the body in the cold earth.

Regardless of interpretation, I find the song unforgettable. I have caught myself replaying  its haunting sound in my head several times over the past few weeks. It is one of those influential songs that has been heard in movies and documentaries alike. In 1968 Fairport Convention even put out a clear homage to Blind Willie Johnson with their song ‘The Lord Is In This Place…How Dreadful Is This Place. And musicians such as Jack White (a key contributor to American Epic) proclaimed it to be the greatest example of slide guitar ever. In 1977 the astronomer Carl Sagan selected it to be among a selection of sounds to send out in space on the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Take a few minutes now and take it in for yourself without distractions. Imagine Blind Willie Johnson sitting in a recording studio in Dallas on December 3, 1927. The recording starts…Willie’s hands clutch the guitar. He runs his ‘slide’ across the strings. He leans into the microphone and lets out this plaintive wail of pain. Unlike anything that had ever been laid down in a studio before. Epic. American Epic.

The photograph was taken last week early on a snowy morning in Central Park. Though not actually taken at night, something about the scene seemed so bleak and sad. When I was reviewing the photos I took that morning Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground appeared in my head once again and I had the idea to not only write this piece about the song, but some of the other great material from American Epic as well.  Stay tuned for more.

Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground-Written By Blind Willie Johnson

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Photograph Of Blind Willie Johnson-Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

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Flying

‘From the ashes something new grows’

By my recollection this is the third bird related post I have done up to now. I’m actually not much of a nature photographer. That requires lots of patience. Because I do a lot of landscape shots, birds inevitably work their way into my photos…whether I want them to or not. The truth is I am truly fascinated by birds of all shapes, sizes and colors but my restless nature with photography makes me avoid time setting up and waiting for the mere chance of a great photo of them. I prefer going with the flow, capturing things on the go without a lot of fuss.  But lately in an attempt to really go outside the box both in my writing and photography and trying new things, I realize that I may need to learn some of that patience. I also realized recently that something I said on social media was really true. I have been lamenting the fact that I actually haven’t written about music as much here this year. I decided to fix this in two ways.

Recently I spent an afternoon taking photos with my friend Carol in Long Island City, Queens. We went to a few spots and though I was happy with the end results, I decided that first I needed to return to small scale with my photography. Instead of the big sweeping vistas I seem to have gravitated towards recently, I want to return to something more simple and less ‘big picture’. Of course there is plenty of room for all types of photos and I find that the best photographers have a diverse portfolio, utilizing both large and small scale. But maybe a deliberate focus shift will steer me back towards finding more ideas for writing about music.

The next and probably most obvious other solution is to listen to a lot more music. To find inspiration from artists both new to the scene and new material from established ones. I used to read about music a lot. Used to listen to alternate sources of music as a way of discovering something fresh sounding. I seem to have gotten away from that in the last year or so, and as I look back on my posts during that time, they tend to be from artists I have been familiar with for some time. Combined I hope both of these things will push me into new territory to get back to doing what feels right. The reason I am writing this now is because sometimes someone suddenly and unexpectedly comes into view who you swear has been there forever and pushes you in that direction.

‘See where I am going, and I’ve seen where I have been’

A month or so someone liked a photo I put up on Instagram I hadn’t heard of before. Like most people do, I clicked on the name to see who it was. Maybe a fellow blogger or photographer, or maybe someone from my neighborhood. Instead it was someone by the name of Jackie Venson out of Austin, Texas and on seeing her account, it was obvious she was a singer and guitarist. But what kind of music was it? Off to YouTube I went. And I have to say that weeks later, I’m still digging through the huge number of clips of Jackie has recorded over the last few years. I also have to say that I have not heard a bad track yet. Not only is she a soulful singer but she is one amazing guitarist. I mean truly. There are a lot of them out there, but sometimes you come across one where the guitar seems to be naturally forged into the player’s hands, as if it was meant to be there right from the start. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Jackie Venson, and I’m telling you right now-remember this name.

As I started digging through clips getting a sense of how her music and career have evolved I was astonished to learn that she really has only been playing the guitar for just a few years now, after playing piano since childhood. Then you add in that soulful voice, the songwriting and above all, her exuberance as a performer and you have one irresistible  combination. Jackie is out there touring pretty much nonstop, and I hope to catch her soon myself. I also knew I had to buy some music of hers, and I started with an EP released earlier this year-Transcends. The first track is the catchy ‘Flying’ with a pop soul groove throughout before Jackie takes the song off into another hemisphere with that dynamic guitar. Transcendent indeed.

While watching the video for Flying  I had the not so original idea for the photography side of this post. But I’m okay with that actually. I’ve always wanted this blog to be about finding connections between photography and music. Sometimes obvious, sometimes ones that require a bit of explanation and a lot of introspection on my part. Both types are driven by the song. And as I thought about Jackie’s song I realized that in the one line quoted above she was inadvertently telling me about the past and the future of this blog, about where I want to go, and where I’ve come from with it. I can’t think of a better way of going forward than ‘flying and spreading my wings’ than with this amazing guitar slinging Texas woman. Tomorrow, next week, who knows where it will come from? But the ideas will come from being flexible, just like those magic fingers of Jackie Venson.

Jackie has a prolific presence across social media, so follow her on your platform of choice to stay up to date on her music.

Flying-Written By Jackie Venson

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Blues In The Night

 

Having just celebrated my third year of blogging I spent some time recently going back through my older posts. I wanted to see the evolution and see what I am doing right and wrong. I also evaluated the types of music I have written about since the start. Unsurprisingly there has been a lot of folk, rock, country, soul and world music, with occasional nods to jazz and classical music. I realized that other than one or two brief mentions of the blues, I have not really delved into it much. Which is a surprise, because there is nothing quite so enjoyable as some down and dirty blues music, oozing out from a well worn guitar, and a singer pouring out pain with every word.

I’m not exactly sure how or what the first blues I heard was, but I am pretty sure it came by way of guys like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page talking about their own exposure to the music.  I find the best way to find new music is to listen to what the people making music say, and what has influenced them. The answer that those four guys would have all said early in their careers was the blues. Now the blues has always had lots of different styles and types-from its roots in the Mississippi Delta, to the southeastern Piedmont style, up to the electric sounds from Chicago and beyond. What they all share is a gritty, no-holds barred attitude to subject matter. There is nothing tender or genteel in the blues. Instead it is about the pain of being wronged, the frustration of love,  feeling low and broken down with not a dime to spare or a roof over your head. It all gets laid out on the line in a blues song. Continue reading “Blues In The Night”

Photo Shuffle-The Crossroads

I pressed play on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Standing At The Crossroads By Dave Edmunds

Standing At The Crossroads

I’m trying to make an effort to get back to these shorter Photo Shuffle posts after a bit of a gap, as I mentioned in my last post. The song and artist that came up today is a great pick by my Ipod if I do say so myself! In this post from earlier this year I wrote about Nick Lowe. That included the long time musical partnership he and Dave Edmunds had in Rockpile. When I was younger I came across Dave Edmunds’ music before Nick Lowe’s, though not by much if I recall correctly. There was probably something in Edmunds love of 1950’s and early 60’s Rock & Roll that made me pay attention initially compared with Nick Lowe’s more contemporary sounds. There are many things to admire about Dave Edmunds. Musically he can do a great cover of a Chuck Berry song one moment, then put a little country twang on the next song, and then follow that with a hard edged guitar stomper.  In addition he is a great guitarist and though his standout performance will probably always be considered a rocking version of the classical piece ‘Sabre Dance’  I can make the case for many more. He is also a top notch producer. When The Stray Cats ‘Rocked This Town’, it was in large part because Dave Edmunds had produced the album. Not to mention being asked to produce albums by some of his own musical heroes like Dion, and The Everly Brothers. 

Just a short list of classic Edmunds songs includes I Hear You Knocking, Trouble Boys, Girls Talk, Crawling From The Wreckage, Queen Of Hearts (his version predated the hit by Juice Newton), The Race Is On, A1 On The Jukebox, If Sugar Was As Sweet As You, Slipping Away, and dozens more. He’s just one of those musicians that really understands that the simple approach is often the best approach. No screeching guitars or complicated rhythms. Just Rock & Roll pure and simple.

Though he has dabbled with writing songs over the years, he has been more adept at choosing good songs to interpret. Such is the case with Standing At The Crossroads, by the equally great British rocker Mickey Jupp. It is a song replete with typical blues subject matter-love gone bad- “I’m not the man she was looking for, but just the man she found,” anger, and confusion. But its the chorus that really takes it to classic blues territory-standing at the crossroads with Robert Johnson who of course famously sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the blues. At least that’s how the legend goes! Also there is Elmore James, who later revived Johnson’s own songs. Like a true rock and roller though, Dave Edmunds doesn’t sing the song as a blues, but rather as a jaunty little rock number. The photo I chose above represented the best photo I could find that I have taken of something akin to a crossroads. Should you go forward? Back? Left or Right?  Whenever I come to a rural crossroads like this, I often think not only of Robert Johnson’s ‘crossroads’, but also to one of my favorite all around musicians-Dave Edmunds. If you are unfamiliar with him, I urge you to go check his music out.

 

Standing At The Crossroads-Written By Mickey Jupp

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*Photo Shuffle is a new, very short slice of my regular blogs based on setting my Ipod on shuffle and matching up one of my photographs to whatever comes up.

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