June 24, 2014 marks the offical release of the latest album from Smithsonian Folkways called Classic African American Songsters. It is a celebration of the vast variety of repetoire that these “songsters,” or traveling African American musicians of the early part of the 20th century, performed. Their songs were not only of the folk genre–they also covered tunes in the style of ragtime, country, Tin Pan Alley, pre-blues, blues hybrids, and old-timey stringband. They were entertainers, and played to audiences in concert halls,coffee houses, festivals, parties, medicine shows, carnivals, storefronts, Metrobuses, and even the streets in cities they lived and traveled to.
They had to be adaptable to the listeners they were playing for at any given show, and so drew from all the popular music genres of the day in order to make their livings. Well known songsters include Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, Lead Belly, Peg Leg Sam, Mississippi John Hurt, John Cephas, and Pink Anderson, all of whom are covered in this 21-track CD. It also includes a 39 page booklet covering the history of songsters in general, a short biography of each songster included in the CD, and the history of the songs covered, all of which were pulled from the archives of the Smithsonian Folklife Center.
I had the great good fortune to secure a telephone interview with Grammy Award winning producer Jeff Place, one of the producers of this album and an archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Jeff Place specifically oversees the cataloging of the Smithsonian Folklife Center’s collections and has been involved in the compilation of over fifty CDs of American music for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, including Lead Belly Sings for Children, American Favorite Ballads (Pete Seeger), and The Asch Recordings (Woody Guthrie). He was one of the producers and writers of the acclaimed 1997 edition of the Anthology of American Folk Music, The Best of Broadside, 1962-1988(2000), and the CD box set Woody at 100 (2012).
Q: Was the album’s conception the result of Barry Lee Pearson (the scholar of African American music at the University of Maryland), yourself, or you and he together?
A: Mainly Barry Lee. He and I have done 3 or 4 of these projects together and he’s always looking for these kinds of projects to do. It came up in a conversation where we were talking about songsters, and he came back around and said, ‘Why don’t we do a songsters theme?’ So he came down to the Smithsonian, and how it works is, I run the entire collection of archives at the Smithsonian, of which Folkways is 10%. People mistakenly think that it’s all a Folkways archive, which is not true. So I’m the one who knows what’s in that giant room of thousands of recordings. So with these classic recordings, we take a theme and go into this room and try to find really cool examples of what we’re after. So we looked through and were like, ‘This guy is a songster, this guy’s a songster’…We started out thinking we’d do all East Coast people but then we branched out and tried to include some people from other parts of the country. And we started looking at what we had. Here’s an old Tin Pan Alley song, here’s an old jazz standard…And then there were some that were written in the last 47 years, so every time we wanted to use one of those tracks we had to go back and get the ok from the estate to use them. Some of the songs we wanted to use did not end up on the recording because of the legalities involved with the estates. Some of the artists we used were ones we actually knew personally.
Q: Why did he (Barry Lee) want to do an album on this particular subject?
A: Over the years Barry Lee has done a lot of stuff on blues, but his main thing is, he’s the one who really came up with the term “Piedmont Blues” and that style is what he’s worked with for years, and most of the Piedmont Bluesmen are songsters. It made sense for him to explore that side of these people.
Q: I honestly had never heard the term “songster” in reference to the type of musician this album celebrates. In your own words, what is a “songster?”
A: An example is that I once went to an all-night party where Warner Williams sat and played till almost sun-up and didn’t play a single song twice. And he played everything from flamenco to rockabilly to jazz standards, blues…And what happens is, these musicians, if they really wanted to make money and get hired for parties and such, had to know the hits. That’s what the public wants to hear. So these guys would do their blues but they would also have repertoires of all the pop standards that they could play, and they probably got paid more money for playing that.
Q: So they were almost examples of modern day cover artists, knowing a lot of cover tunes and doing a wide variety of songs?
A: Yes, and playing originals, and they played before an audience where they had to know all these songs. You get them doing contests, just like folk artists now, where they get discovered—you get them throwing in all these old traditional songs along with some of the blues things they are doing. It’s just a different side to these people and a side we don’t often talk about, and an interesting part of these people’s music, and we wanted to explore that.
Q: Regarding African American secular songs, including ballads, ragtime, and blues, there was a debate over whether or not they should be classified as legitimate folk songs because they doubled as both folk and popular songs. Could you explain to me why this was an issue?
A: It depends on who is making those calls and I think it’s changing now. But in the field of folklore and folk music, for a long time there was a debate between what was viable pop music and traditional music. Traditional music was what you learned in your home, like from your grandfather, a music community somewhere, and the music was passed down by aural transmission, and there’s those who think that is legitimate; whereas there were others like John Jackson who brought home 78’s to his house, like Jimmie Rogers 78’s, and learned it at home. Doc Watson, same thing—he learned blues songs off of 78’s. And it gets naïve to think that these people are going to be shielded from the rest of the world, even back 50 years ago, and not hear all these songs. I actually worked on a record with this folk song collector from North Carolina named Bascom Lamar Lunsford who was on the Anthology of American Folk Music, and he was collecting stuff in the early part of the 20th century. And I went and looked through all these Library of Congress recordings, and found out at least half of them were Tin Pan Alley pop tunes he got from mountain people. He went over to their house to record them and the mountain people would sing him something like one of the biggest hits from 1896, and he’d say, “Oh, that’s a great old song.” And he came back thinking he’d gotten all these great old folk songs, but if you actually research them, they are all pop songs.
Q: Explain to me the paradox encased in this quote from the booklet: “He (the songster) is both a keeper of tradition, disseminating folk materials wherever he goes, and tradition’s worst enemy, contaminating local tradition with modern popular music.”
A: A man I respect totally who was my mentor at the Smithsonian, Ralph Rinzler, was of that mindset. The first time Ralph discovered Doc Watson play, he was an unknown playing at his house. Doc was playing the electric guitar, and Ralph literally ran him out of the house. He wanted nothing to do with him. But the next time he ran into him, Doc picked up a banjo and started playing traditional stuff, and then Ralph realized this guy was a monster. And that’s just how he was a part of this whole movement of people who thought this way. That’s where that quote is coming from—that kind of attitude.
Q: You are an archivist at the Smithsonian Folkways. How many years have you been there?
Q: So you’ve had a long time to acquaint yourself with the material there?
A: I was one of the people who was there when the Smithsonian Folkways started. It was Tony Seeger, who is Pete’s nephew, and I. We got the Folkways collection down from New York and I walked into a room full of boxes. And this archive has grown ever since. I listen to music in my office all day every day that I work there. Over time you learn more and more about the collection. I find these great types of music that I really get into for a bit and explore—learn about that, then move onto something else. And each one of those little excursions into the collection leads to another Folkways CD.
Q: You’ve had multiple Grammy nominations and won two Grammy awards in conjunction with the 1998 album Anthology of American Folk Music, which you produced, one category for best historical album. I know this question is a bit loaded, but do you think this latest project you’ve co-produced with Barry Lee Pearson is on that level—in other words, do you see this project, from a historical standpoint, as “Grammy-worthy?”
A: No. Single CD’s of this size are not really ever going to make the category we’re talking about here. Historical categories usually involve a large boxed set of grandeur. One CD of this sort with a little booklet, comparatively, would not stand up against something like the Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection. It’s not that it couldn’t happen. I think there was a single CD a few years ago that actually won, but that’s a real long shot.
Q: Before we go, are you, as part of Smithsonian Folkways, involved in the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in any way?
A: For most of my 27 years there I’ve been recording that event, and then the recordings go into the archives. So the single largest collection we have in the Folklife archives at the Smithsonian is the 47 years of the festival. That’s huge. But I have delegated out my role so that now I do various jobs like MC or help plan concerts. That’s kind of my role—I’m not there all the time like I used to be. Every year the festival will feature two or three themes. In 2003 the three themes were Appalachian music, which I curated, Mali, and Scotland. This year we have two, Kenya and China. We set up in the National Mall, the segment between the Capital and the Washington Monument and take over the lawn, and set up a village. About 100,000 people a day visit for a two week period. It starts in the morning around 11am and goes all day and then there are concerts in the evening.
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You can check out the Smithsonian Folkways Festival June 25-29 and July 2-6 in Downtown DC, as I will be. I also encourage you if you are ever in town to visit the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and check out the massive collection of music free to the public for study.