Culturedarm’s Songs of the Month (July 2015)

Tink 2

These few days, taken upon the passage of one month into the next, really serve to consolidate and enhance Culturedarm’s Songs of the Month. What I listened to and thought about most musically in July incorporates the Georgia Sea Island Singers, MC Brinquedo, Tink, Future, Dolly Parton, Jackie Wilson, Aristophanes, Robyn, Dr. Dre, Schubert, and Fritz Wunderlich.

* * *

Bessie Jones & The Georgia Sea Island Singers – ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’

Tying in nicely too with my recent piece on Nina Simone, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, and the genesis of the opera Porgy and Bess, in the act of preparing for my interview with Jolie Holland I came across a 2011 piece in the creative arts journal Verity LA. In a discussion with Alec Patric, on the subject of her ‘feeling for music and poetry’, Jolie offers:

‘Poetry, in oral culture, has always been on the tongue, and spoken from pulpits. I always remember how one especially ignorant (white) critic of Zora Neale Hurston’s complained that a sermon she’d written into one of her books was too fanciful to have come out of the mouth of an ‘uneducated’ black preacher. But our Zora, a pioneer anthropologist, had recorded and quoted that sermon verbatim. Let us not forget she was present and influential at many of the great recording sessions Lomax conducted. The Lomax recordings of the Georgia Sea Island Singers contain some of the most important American poetry to me.

Alan Lomax first heard the music of the Georgia Sea Island Singers when, accompanied by Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, he visited St. Simons in 1935. Again travelling the American South after ten years recording abroad, between 1959 and 1961 he returned to the Sea Islands, and taped songs led by Willis Proctor, Joe Armstrong, John Davis, and Bessie Jones. In the liner notes to a 1977 New World Records collection, bringing together some of these spiritual and secular recordings, Lomax provided a history of the Sea Islanders:

‘Along the east coast of the United States from Maryland to Florida is a chain of low, often wooded and fertile islands separated from the mainland by marshes and bays and reachable only by boats that thread through shallows. On these islands, remnants of past ways of life have lingered on into the present. Old English dialects and ballads survive in Maryland and North Carolina, and the blacks of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia remember the speech, the tales, and the music that their ancestors developed on their encounter with Europeans. Through the Sea Island lore runs the positive, life-giving current of black style, for in these communities the African cultural heritage was least changed.

The islands near Charleston, Savannah, and Brunswick (off which St. Simons lies) were the site of large, rich plantations, in which slavery reached its peak of productivity. The warm and humid marshland, which produced bumper crops of rice, was far more unhealthy for British settlers than for their black slaves, who were accustomed to the tropics and relatively immune to its diseases. Moreover, the blacks, with their African experience as riverine fishermen, rice growers, and tropical gardeners, were prepared for life in the Sea Islands, while the white colonists were not. Even in the days of slavery the white population was sparse in the area; it was not uncommon for a plantation with six or seven hundred slaves to have no more than one or two whites living on it.

In spite of the efforts of reformers and critics, plantation owners were afraid to allow their slaves to receive education or religious instruction. Left to themselves, the blacks reconstituted their African culture. speaking Creole English, whose style, syntax, and vocabulary show marked ties to Africa, and continuing a strongly African nonverbal culture in music, dance, and interaction pattern. Since people from various tribes were mixed on the plantations, these nonverbal traditions cannot be attributed to any single tribe or area. They are, rather, pan-African or pan-West Central African, since these were the zones the slaves were taken from. Melville Herskovits in his book The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) has shown how much of the total shape of African culture survived in the New World.

This pan-African southern-black folklore, the product of the black collective, arose in the squalor and isolation of the slave barracks and work gangs. Yet, although the slaves lived under degrading conditions, they were neither demoralized nor degraded. Both their reminiscences and their lore show them to have been a healthy and positive people in spite of slavery. The reasons, I believe, are that they shared a rewarding African cultural heritage, that they faced a common oppressor, and that as creative human beings they were constantly inventing and remaking a new lifestyle out of their experience in this new environment and in contact with a number of European, African, and Caribbean cultures.

Open to naval attack, the Sea Islands were occupied by Union troops early in the Civil War. Black regiments were formed, and many island blacks had the opportunity to fight for their own freedom. One of their officers, Bostonian Colonel Higginbotham, heard his black recruits sing the hitherto unknown spirituals. Through his published account of these songs, the North became aware of the profound creativity of the people for whose liberation they were sacrificing treasure and life. In the published and arranged spirituals the world could perceive the African soul at work, transmuting the values of the Christian tradition into a fresh and touching lyricism. What the printed page could not convey was the truly African pattern that shaped the performances of the spirituals, a style characterized by constant overlapping, part crossing, and polyrhythms between leader and chorus by clapped accompanimeut, by improvisation, syncopation, and shifting vocal qualities, and yet by marvelous concert.

This style continued to thrive in a remarkably pure form on the Sea Islands because, after the Civil War, much of the land was turned over to the ex-slaves. They fished and gathered oysters and shrimp in the bayous; they gardened and farmed. Sometimes they went to the mainland to work as stevedores, but they preferred to remain in their own comminities, where folk custom adjudicated by their own leaders could settle most disputes and where they could develop their own way of life. As a consequence, customs tales, and music of the islands represeut black American folklore in its pristine state. (The lore closely resembles that of the Bahama Islands. During the American Revolution many Royalist planters from the Sea Islands fled with their slaves to the Bahamas. Bahamian folk music is in a very real sense the foster child of the Sea Islands.)

Lydia (Mrs. Maxfield) Parrish, wife of the painter, had much to do with the authenticity of the songs in this collection. After she settled on St. Simons Island she spent many years collecting the native songs and working for their preservation. She sponsored the formation of a society of the best singers and dancers, the Spiritual Singers of Georgia, whose members each received a button distinguishing him or her as a “Star Chorister” and signified that he or she was a folk singer and dancer in the old tradition. The regular meetings and performances of this group afforded an opportunity for the best singers on the island to continue their art and to keep alive a remarkable body of songs and an even more remarkable musical style, very African in character.’

I have been listening frequently over the last month to the songs of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Here’s Bessie Jones leading ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’, recorded by Lomax on St. Simons on 5 May 1960:

* * *

MC Brinquedo – ‘Roça Roça (Semana Maluca)’

A couple of months ago, Björk’s hour-long Tri Angle Records birthday DJ set incorporated a track by MC Brinquedo, the fourteen-year-old musician from Sao Paulo whose name translates to ‘Toy’. Then in the middle of June MC Brinquedo came up again, in a Q&A session which Björk conducted on Facebook via Dazed. I’ve been seeking out a few of his songs recently; the best known – with more than eleven million views on YouTube – is ‘Roça Roça (Semana Maluca)’, lots of fun with Brinquedo chanting over muted horns and watery percussion.

* * *

Tink – ‘Million’

Tink is set to release her debut album, Think Tink – due out on Mosley Music Group, the Epic Records imprint run by Timbaland – sometime later this year. ‘Million’, the second song to be released from the album following ‘Ratchet Commandments’, received its video on 1 July. Meanwhile Tink has still found the time to put out the third mixtape in the wonderful Winter’s Diary series. With a focus on R&B, the ten-track Winter’s Diary 3 was released free to download last week. Winter’s Diary 2: Forever Yours was one of my albums of 2014, and this keeps the remarkably high standard: alternately caustic and casual, sultry and sharp, nobody pushes and compels a song quite like Tink.

* * *

Future – ‘Real Sisters’

Future has been on an unparalleled tear since the release of Honest last year: three exceptional mixtapes in Monster, with Metro Boomin and DJ Esco, Beast Mode, with Zaytoven, and 56 Nights, with DJ Esco and 808 Mafia, culminating in the arrival, on 17 July, of his third studio album Dirty Sprite 2. The new album’s second single, ‘Bring a Bag’, was released on 10 July. But at least as good, with a hypnotic synth loop and Future’s lively flow, is the bonus track ‘Real Sisters’.

* * *

Dolly Parton – ‘I Really Got the Feeling’

‘I Really Got the Feeling’ appeared along with ‘Baby I’m Burning’, as part of a double A-side released by Dolly Parton in November 1978. Both songs are on Dolly’s album Heartbreaker, which had emerged in July, with ‘I Really Got the Feeling’ opening the work, and ‘Baby I’m Burning’ serving as its disco-infused centrepiece.

Throughout the late 1970s, Dolly released several double A-sided singles, where one side focused on the pop charts, with the other hoping to appeal to country radio. ‘Baby I’m Burning’ peaked at number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1979, also reaching as high as number 15 on the disco chart. But ‘I Really Got the Feeling’ proved more successful still, becoming Dolly’s tenth number 1 Billboard Hot Country Singles hit, and enduring as one of her most popular songs. Her unfolding voice on the opening line, ‘I really got the feeling that I’ll love you for a long, long time’, sounds especially beautiful and tender.

* * *

Jackie Wilson – ‘Lonely Teardrops’

After leaving The Dominoes, Jackie Wilson had already released a string of singles to some success across the previous year and a bit; but it was ‘Lonely Teardrops’, which arrived in November 1958, that really established him as a star. Written by Berry Gordy Jr., Gwen Gordy, and Roquel ‘Billy’ Davis, Wilson’s record reached number 7 on the Hot 100 and number 1 on the R&B chart. Within a few months, Anna and Gwen Gordy and Davis had founded Anna Records; with Berry following suit and establishing Tamla Records, which quickly became Motown. In the 1960s Davis would go on to head the A&R department at Chess.

The success of ‘Lonely Teardrops’ gave Wilson access to television: in the video below he performs his hit on American Bandstand, showing the world that beyond his pristine voice and effortless four-octave vocal range, he was equally an entertainer of the highest calibre. He and Elvis Presley would reciprocate on-stage mannerisms and fond affections throughout their too-short lives.

 * * *

Aristophanes – ‘End Of This World’ and ‘Left and Right’

In a cover feature with The FADER published last week, Grimes made mention of Aristophanes, described in the piece as ‘a Taiwan-based female MC whose music involves rapping slinkily in Mandarin over seasick, glitchy beats’. This is a depiction which encapsulates differently ‘End Of This World’, replete with its heady sighing; and ‘Left And Right’, which emerges breathlessly from its jazz-lounge opening, and was put out on Aristophanes’ SoundCloud in the middle of the month.

* * *

An exciting day awaits on Friday, with the release of new records by Robyn, in the form of La Bagatelle Magique’s mini-album Love is Free; and Dr. Dre, who just last weekend confirmed Compton: A Soundtrack, which he has described as his ‘grand finale’. So to warm us up, Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique; and one of my favourite pieces from Dre’s last album, 2001:

Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique – ‘Set Me Free’

Dr. Dre – ‘The Watcher’ (feat. Eminem and Knoc-turn’al)

* * *

Franz Schubert – ‘Ungeduld’ (Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Hubert Giesen, piano)

Finally, this breathtaking version of Schubert’s ‘Ungeduld’, from his song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, was linked this month on Twitter by Van Dyke Parks, who wrote, ‘This confession of impatience in love made a big dent on me, well before my voice changed’. The tenor is Fritz Wunderlich, with Hubert Giesen on piano. And below find Wunderlich’s last recital before his untimely death aged just thirty-five: given in Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 4 September 1966, featuring songs by Schubert and Schumann’s Dichterliebe.