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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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

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

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Two Rivers

This is a story of two rivers. One of my existence and my own history. One in my dreams. One preserved as a photograph in my own archives. One as a place I dream of seeing someday. One with a story I can  tell with my photos and words.  One with a story that comes out of songs and music from a far off land.

This is a story of two instruments. One popular and played throughout the world by millions on a diverse range of styles. One tied to a cultural and historical heritage of a small group of nations in West Africa and played by a much smaller number of people.

This is a story of two men. One older and seasoned player forging his own deep rooted sound out of six strings. One much younger player coaxing intricate patterns from an ancient 21 string instrument.

This is a story of two directions-north and south. Two places within the boundaries of the same nation with dramatically different languages, culture, traditions and music.

This is the story of In The Heart Of The Moon, a groundbreaking album released in 2005 by the late Ali Farka Toure on guitar, and Toumani Diabate on the kora.

For some reason or another, I have been thinking about rivers a lot recently. About everything they represent-movement, calm, strength, division. Actually this isn’t the first time I have had these thoughts. In an earlier post I wrote about how Jimmy Cliff’s classic song Many Rivers To Cross seemed apt for this time of year as people go through lists of resolutions and aspirations. One river at a time we try to cross over only to be confronted by another obstacle on the other side.

But I was also thinking about rivers in an even more personal context over this past weekend while listening to In The Heart Of The Moon. Rarely a month goes by without me playing it at least once. It was recorded in a portable studio alongside the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, Mali. Astonishingly it was recorded unrehearsed by the two men who come from vastly different musical and cultural differences within the country of Mali.

Ali Farka Toure, came from the northern part of Mali and ethnically was Songhai. Ali’s bluesy guitar style won him many fans in the West. It was not a stretch to  recognize his guitar playing as being the origins of the earliest Delta blues recordings made in the U.S. So much so that over the years you will see his name on blues compilations right next to guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. His songs and guitar go deep to the soul. It isn’t flashy playing like so many rock guitarists but comes from the soul itself.

Toumani Diabate on the other hand comes from the southern part of Mali and by heritage is a griot-renowned story tellers and preservers of tradition. Toumani’s own line of griots goes back over 70 generations and the kora, a harp instrument the typical (though not exclusive) accompaniment. Despite his traditional background Toumani was well versed in American rock and soul at the same time he was developing his skills on the kora. He has showcased this on a range of projects both contemporary and traditional, all the while putting the kora in the forefront with his astounding skills.

What is astonishing about In The Heart Of The Moon is that it has the movement of a river itself throughout the entire album with the gorgeous interplay between the kora and the guitar. You feel the movement and stillness of the river. You feel the gentle cooling breeze and the stifling heat. You hear the gentle sound of water crashing against rocks or the squawking of birds. You sense the calming rays of sunrise and sunset, you feel the movement of people and boats on the water. You feel life.

As the years have gone by since first hearing the album I have tried to transport myself along with the music to the banks of the Niger, imagining that same sort of ebb and flow. The beauty of music, much like the beauty of photography is that it can transport you anywhere you want. It invokes emotion, memories from the past or even dreams. In The Heart Of The Moon may have been recorded along the Niger River but the music is of any river where you have ever experienced this type of feeling. I think about the distance rivers go from the mountains to the sea. The people along the way. The fish and birds that run its course. Times when the river floods and causes devastation and times when a moment in time can be frozen perfectly in its beauty, be it a photograph, a painting, or even a song.

I spent time the past few days really thinking about ‘my’ river-the mighty Hudson River here in New York. From its humble origins up north, winding its way down the beautiful Hudson Valley past towns and cities all the way to the mouth of the ocean in New York Harbor it has its stories, and I have my stories that go along with it. I have seen it up close by boat. I have hiked alongside it. I have kicked back with a glass of wine alongside its banks basking in the sunlight.  I have witnessed sunrise and sunset, ice and snow. It is never too far away from both  my mind or geographically. When I listen to In The Heart Of The Moon I am reminded how lucky I am to have this sort of inspiration in my life. Especially for my art of photography.

The photo I used in that earlier post about Jimmy Cliff was taken alongside the Hudson several years ago on a rainy, foggy June day. This photo comes from that same day. The album cover for In The Heart Of The Moon has a faded image of an old sailboat on the Niger. I did not take this photo as an homage to that album cover. It was merely something I thought looked interesting at the time. As I have been thinking these thoughts about rivers the last few days, I thought this photo  seemed a perfect match to present this music. A way of expressing the river of my story, and the river of this music. A river that flows from far away bearing beautiful music to the world.  A river where my photos can drift and be seen in the same way. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate’s river of music. My river of photography. What more do we need?

Below is a short promo film about the making of In The Heart Of The Moon as well as my own favorite song on the album. I urge you to listen to them both and feel the river drifting towards you as well.

Kadi Kadi-Music By Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate

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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

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50 Things@50-#5

#5-Learn a whole song on the guitar

One of the things I really wanted to do with this list was to try new things and have new experiences. But I also wanted to challenge myself to complete some long overdue goals. This is one that was 10 years in the making but I’m excited to cross it off the list and share it with all of you.

10 years ago I got an acoustic guitar for my 40th birthday. I’m ashamed to admit that being such a music lover that I don’t play any instruments. I figured I would try my hand at guitar finally. When I started off I was excited, but I realized that either I was not putting the effort and practice in…or that it just wasn’t coming natural to me. Honestly it was both.

Sure, I learned some notes, some chord changes and snippets of songs and all of that but that was not the hard part. It was seamlessly shifting between chords where I felt my short stubby fingers were always fumbling. And that frustrated me and led me to letting the guitar sit there for weeks at a time.

But I wanted to give it one more serious try when I put the list together. A few weeks ago I thought wait….a Christmas song might be just the thing. So I went through some of the well known songs trying to pick one before settling on Silent Night. At first I was fumbling with the changes, but I watched some tutorials and practiced every day for a bit. I worked on a strumming pattern that made sense for me. I think I channeled some of John Fahey’s wonderful solo Guitar Christmas albums and added a few subtle touches of my own. I was learning a song!

So here it is…a little rough perhaps, and I was a little freaked out by filming myself but here for you all is me playing Silent Night.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

Silent Night-Written By Franz Gruber & Joseph Mohr

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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