BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 04 MAR 01
Featured in
Issue 57

Folking Hell!

The Sounds of Sin

BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 04 MAR 01

Having been in the firing line of many an old age pensioner berating me for being young and therefore somehow morally bankrupt, I recognise every generation thinks it has a duty to extol the virtues of its own heyday over that of its descendants. Whether you yearn for the camaraderie of the Blitz or the polyester of the 1970s (now superseded by the 1980s as the bad taste decade), nostalgia's golden balm continues to fuel the timeless game of epochal rivalry.

Drug abuse and promiscuity have long provided ammunition for the moral majority, but their fun-loving twins, the ageing baby boomers, are just as bad: 'if you remember the 1960s', so the smug saying goes, 'then you weren't there'. Yet the German record label Trikont has recently released a series of compilations that remind us morals have always been loose, and that when the 1920s roared, they roared loud. One look at the titles says it all: High and Low: Drug Songs 1917-1944; Hot and Sexy: Copulation Blues 1926-1940; Crazy and Obscure: Novelty Songs 1914-1946.

The gems in High and Low range from Blues to early Jazz. Here you can find Ella Fitzgerald singing the praises of 'Wacky Dust' in 1938, Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson's 'Dope Head Blues' from 1927, and Harry 'The Hipster' Gibson asking in 1944 'Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs Murphy's Ovaltine?' Hot and Sexy: Copulation Blues 1926-1940 is principally a Carry On-style exercise in smutty double-entendres - Lil Johnson and Black Bob's 'Press My Button, Ring My Bell' (1936) or Alberta Waters' 'You Can't Tell the Difference after Dark' (1935). In 'My Handy Man' (1928) Ethel Waters sings of the range of odd jobs her man can turn his hand to: 'he shakes my ashes/strokes my fiddle/threads my needle' before boasting 'sometimes he's up long before dawn/trimming the rough edges off my lawn'. There also exists, however, a far more sexually explicit body of recordings. Usually sung in private, in army barracks or brothels, a number of these songs were recorded between the wars. Never released, only a few test pressings survive. Lucille Bogan, the first female Blues singer to record outside New York or Chicago cut 'Shave 'em Dry' in 1935, an uproarious number with lyrics that would make even the most die-hard sybarite blush.

Such popular songs occupy a space somewhere between Folk and later Pop music. Although recorded and marketed like popular music, many of the songs were new arrangements or lyrical subversions of simple, traditional pieces of Folk and Blues. Archive recordings, such as those released by Trikont, and the ethnomusicographic tradition of song collecting have always been as subject to reinterpretation as any piece of socially historical evidence, both as revisionist's malleable stooge and reformer's rallying cry. Folk, the old-time music of heartbreak and murder, has long suffered an image problem, largely as a result of the zealotry of its fans. Britain tends to breed bearded cider drinkers, clad in chunky sweaters, singing about the blacksmith's daughter running away with the local laird. With plangent modal melodies as painful as their self-righteous protection of traditional music, one suspects they'd run a mile if a blacksmith's daughter so much as looked their way. Stateside, the image is far closer to Folk's dark heart - banjo-wielding Appalachian inbreds, for whom fancy key changes ain't

Last year saw the landmark release of the 'lost' fourth volume of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Released by the Folkways label in 1952, the Anthology brought the strong aural folk tradition of the Southern states to the attention of the American public. Throughout the 1940s, when warehouses had to be cleared out for the war effort, Smith amassed a vast collection of Folk records made in the 1920s and 1930s, of which a small selection surfaced in the Anthology. Artists such as the Memphis Jug Band, The Carter Family, Blind Alfred Reed and the Heavenly Gospel Singers sang of this 'Mean Old World', wondered 'How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live' and hoped there'd be 'No Depression in Heaven'. These were scratchy old recordings with raw and guttural voices that symbolized a different America, one far from the prosperous 1950s' conservatism at the time of the Anthology's release. Smith carefully arranged the running order according to his own mystic process: his liner notes referenced Elizabethan alchemist Robert Fludd and Aleister Crowley, and were illustrated with cosmological diagrams and symbols. Cryptic synopses, twistedly sober in tone, heightened the intrigue: 'Zoological Miscegeny Achieved in Mouse-Frog Nuptials, Relatives Approve' ran the note for 'Froggy Went A-Courtin'.

Smith's collections swiftly became the cult sound-track for the burgeoning Folk revival: an alternative point of contact with a young country's past. For its mainly urban fans Folk was symbolic of a time when the disenfranchised had a means of expression that couldn't be co-opted by an establishment: liquid songs that changed subtly from state to state, generation to generation. Words and musical phrases, often British or Scottish in origin, seemed so ingrained within the culture as to be almost automatic, 'a musicological version of the instinctive act.' 1 Young people turned on to the recordings set about learning the songs and incorporating them into their own repertoires. Jerry Garcia apparently played the records over and over at 16 rpm to learn the solos. Yet some holier-than-thou revivalists guarded folk's ramshackle gates with fanatical devotion. The stories of scorn surrounding Bob Dylan when he went electric, for instance, are legion. There's a photograph, taken at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, of a graffiti-ed sports advertisement. 'Bob Dylan Doesn't Know His Ethnic Musicology!' read the slogan. 'That's The Point!' retorted the rather more enlightened scrawl below. At the same festival two years later, while Dylan rocked through 'Maggie's Farm', Pete Seeger and the famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax attempted to chop through the band's power cable with an axe. Ironically, maintaining the perceived vision of the 'simple life' that Folk music symbolized meant recourse to violence and bitterness, the very subject matter of most of the songs. Mawkish nostalgists projected onto the Anthology's musicians a misty-eyed age of innocence when sincerity was all: 'the old free America', as poet Kenneth Rexroth put it. 2 Rather than acknowledging the dark subject matter of most of the songs - love, retribution, suicide and penury - poverty was co-opted as an artistic statement: - Depression-era chic for college kids.

The Trikont compilations will never wield the influence of Smith's archival releases, but these dusted-down musical curios nevertheless establish something of a sense of continuity. Manna for historical relativists, these strange albums are based on a curious premise. Like the name of the cult London shop Granny Takes A Trip, it's one that erroneously assumes most people believe pre-war generations never got laid or out of their gourds. There was fun before the Beatles, and here's the proof. Just remember - don't accept Ovaltine from strange old ladies - you never know what might be in it.

1. Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997, p. 114.
2. Ibid., p. 89.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).