Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley, Ethel Waters, many others — you can't tell the story of the early blues without the lesbians. And according to the music historian and gospel producer Anthony Heilbut, whose The Fan Who Knew Too Much gets into these questions, there was a place for lesbianism in the gospel world as well.

If you like music, and want to know where things came from -- read this article.

If you like research, geneology, history, on-the-ground stuff -- read this article.

If you love reading a super story, well told -- read this article.

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With the uniformity of musical taste imposed by the Internet and television, it's hard to think of a time when people made their own music. There was a time when people just didn't hear much music unless it was live. And live music was everywhere: Every grocery store had people sitting out front, singing, play guitar, honking a harmonica, thumping a tub. Most people knew how to play an instrument, of some sort, even if it was just a washboard or a three-string ukulele. Everyone sang. Because radio was in its infancy and there was no television, live music was the only way people heard music at all.

One time in America, it wasn't uncommon for people to go to church, and then sit around on the back lawn afterward eating food out of a picnic basket and hearing singers, bands, quartets, duos, and groups sing everything from pop music to folk songs to blues to gospel to instrumntals. It wasn't unusual for an impromptu party to break out in the town park on Saturday afternoon, where people would just get up and sing or perform.

Music was fertile back then. Music meant creativity. If you sang or played banjo, you heard what others were singing or playing. You knew what was popular, and what was a retread. You heard what was new, exicting, different.

There wasn't any surveys done, there weren't audience tests, there weren't econometrics or statistics or Like-O-Meters to narrow the definition of "what is good".

Back then, record companies pumped out tens of thousands of records a year. They threw it against the wall, and if it stuck -- all the better. This style of music production meant that there was every incentive for a singer, songwriter, or musician to experiment. To be different.

Back then, it was easy to make a record. You didn't need $100,000 of recording equipment, or a DVD laser fire-wire mastering machine that set you back $50,000, or a studio whose rental fee wsa $1,500 an hour. People could record in their garage, using equipment that cost, at best, $100. All you needed to make a record was the blank disks and an electric plug and glue for the labels.

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In this sizzling, bubbling, creative environment stepped two women who sang blues records that changed the face of American music.

They were "Elvie" Thomas and "Geetchie" Wiley. In March 1930, they traveled to the Paramount Records studio in the little town of Grafton, Wisconsin (a suburb of Milwaukee). Paramount started out as a furniture company. They wanted people to buy cabinets to house record players. They figured that getting people to buy more records would mean more cabinet sales. So they opened a recording studio. To get black people to buy their cabinets, they recorded "race records" -- music made by and sung by African Americans.

Elvie and Geetchie recorded four songs that day: "Last Kind Word Blues", "Skinny Leg Blues", "Motherless Child Blues", and "Over to My House". In March 1931, they returned to Grafton and recorded "Pick Poor Robin Clean" and "Eagles on a Half."

Those six blues songs are considered masterpieces of the genre. Nothing before ever sounded like it. Nothing has ever sounded like it since.

Then the two women just disappeared...

The article in the New York Times tells about how one of them was rediscovered. And how one of them might still be alive. And the reason why these two women walked away from fame and fortune...

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To me, the research described in the article is thrilling. It's like giving birth. It's like finding the Loch Ness monster, the gold at the end of the rainbow, Sasquatch, and heaven all at once. It's not research. It's digging. It's not looking things up in books to find out what is know, and submlimely recapitulating it for know-nothings. Rather, it is putting your hands in history itself -- the records, the photographic albums, the property listings, the tax ledgers.

That's the real stuff.

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