Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

“If Trouble Don't Kill Me: A Family's Story of Brotherhood, War, and Bluegrass” by Ralph Berrier, Jr. (Crown)

The Hall Twins, Clayton and Saford, were never famous country musicians. Successful sidemen, yes. Regionally popular radio performers, yes. They even made a few records. But you won't find much, if any, information about the Hall brothers in standard country-music histories. But this by no means implies they did not have interesting stories to tell, stories which would no doubt have been lost to posterity had Clayton Hall's grandson, Ralph Berrier, Jr., not become a journalist in Roanoke, VA, with an interest in his state's musical heritage.

The historical role played by the Halls was by no means an insignificant one. They were present at the end of the old-time string-band tradition, they contributed to the transition period between the country music of the 1930's and that of the '40's, and they helped usher in the beginnings of bluegrass. Their greatest success came in the years immediately preceding World War II, as members of Roy Hall (no relation to the Twins) and his Blue Ridge Entertainers, the top radio and live-performance country-music ensemble in the Roanoke area, a band perhaps best remembered as an early outlet for the fiddling talents of Tommy Magness, known for his work with Bill Monroe and Reno and Smiley. But this is the middle of the story, a very important segment of the Hall Twins' story, to be sure, but not necessarily the most interesting part. But that may be because life was actually going well for the Twins, for once.

But the Halls' story is grandson Ralph's to tell. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the stories of grandfather Clayton and great uncle Saford are Berrier’s to retell. And retell them he does, superbly, with a journalist's fine eye for detail, a reporter's skill for getting to the heart of matters, and a storyteller's art for building any given section of his tale to its conclusion. This is nonfiction, but it reads as swiftly and in as engrossing a manner as a novel.

The story actually begins with a look at the Halls' grandmother and mother, two fascinating Appalachian women from an area in the Blue Ridge Mountain county of Patrick, located in Virginia, close to North Carolina, but, as Berrier points out, not especially highly regarded by either state. Their existence, as well as that of Clayton and Saford Hall and their many siblings, might best be described as “marginal”. It was a life filled with hard poverty, easy violence, illicit sex, and strong religion (in the Halls’ case, the Moravian church). The only way out was to head to the nearby city of Bassett and work long, grueling hours for little pay in a furniture factory.

But the Halls had a way out of the furniture plant - music. They learned to play every stringed instrument used in the country music of the day (Saford in particular became a much-admired fiddler), their vocal harmonies were twin-close, and their repertoire expanded beyond Appalachia to incorporate the Western songs they heard in singing-cowboy movies. Berrier chronicles their adventures, onstage and off, as local stars, making it sound like a pretty darn good life for a couple rascally 20-year-old guys coming out of a difficult childhood.

Then came World War II, and life would never be the same for either Hall twin again. Saford entered the fray first first, and was sent to fight Nazis and Fascists, in Africa and Europe. Clayton eventually wound up in the Pacific Theater, most notably the Philippines, where he fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The recounting of their varied and often harrowing experiences is the centerpiece of the book, as two country boys from The Hollow - who had gotten into their share of minor scrapes and fights, but who had rarely stooped to harsh brutality - now found themselves in a position where violence, bloodshed, turbulence, and sudden death were constant companions. While this hardly puts the Halls into unique positions during wartime, their tales of extreme duress, of common, ordinary men in uncommon, extraordinary situations, of killing and being killed, are told by their grandson with a fervor and a power missing from the dry descriptions of official military history. To be sure, there is the possibility that the Halls may have embellished their reminiscences a bit, but their tales resonate as emotionally true. Berrier has insured that his narrative is fleshed out believably by interviewing other people who were there.

After the war, the Hall Twins attempted to pick up their musical careers where they left off. But Roy Hall was dead and Tommy Magness had turned into a hopeless alcoholic. The twins went their separate ways, the qualities that had made them a special pair slipping away until they became ordinary, everyday working people. Nevertheless, in their last years, they found themselves becoming popular local entertainers again, adding a dash of color to what one might have expected to be the drab final years of two aging ex-soldiers.

Clayton and Saford Hall may never have become as famous as their talents and ambitions might have taken them, if only World War II had not intervened. Even so, they emerge as two very memorable characters. Their grandson has done them proud by telling their stories with flair, understanding, and a great deal of fine writing. What’s more, this is a book which may be profitably and enjoyably read by anyone, regardless of whether they have any interest in old-time country music or not. This is one fascinating book, and I recommend it unreservedly.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, November 18, 2010

“The Fabulous George Lewis Band: The Inside Story” by Barry Martyn with Nick Gagliano (Burgundy Street Press)

Clarinetist/bandleader George Lewis (1900-1968) has long been considered one of the great iconic figures of traditional New Orleans jazz. As such, the telling of any portion of his story by someone who knew and worked with him represents a significant contribution to the storehouse of jazz knowledge.

It helps to keep in mind that this characterization, “traditional” New Orleans jazz, has a number of levels of meaning. To many people, for example, the Dukes of Dixieland played “traditional” N.O. jazz in the 1950’s, even though they were a few generations removed from the origins of the music, and were influenced by swing and other post-N.O. developments. One might easily argue that even King Oliver in 1923 represented a stylistic modernization over the “original” New Orleans style. Truth be told, we don’t really know what the earliest New Orleans jazz styles sounded like, since no one bothered to document them while they were happening. What we can say, however, is that the music of George Lewis and his band of the 1940’s and 50’s exemplifies what we believe to be one of the oldest, most purely “authentic” early New Orleans jazz styles to be documented, despite the fact that he was most likely born after the music’s ultimate origins, and was not recorded until the 1940’s. This alone would make the George Lewis Band worthy of study.

Unfortunately, this book is not the definitive telling of George Lewis’ story, as it covers only one period of his life and, for that matter, only one portion - albeit a very crucial one - of the George Lewis Band’s existence. This is the period when Lewis - who had returned to New Orleans and what appeared to be a resumption of his long obscurity, after enjoying a brief glimpse of fame playing with trumpeter Bunk Johnson in the early/mid 1940’s - was trying to establish a new dance band in the traditional N.O. style. He had gathered together such equally unknown, yet eventually renowned musicians as Big Jim Robinson, Lawrence Marrero, Slow Drag Pavageau, among others, with hopes of finding more work as a performer at local dances and clubs. He approached a young, articulate, recent college graduate, Nick Gagliano, about helping the band find work. Gagliano did just that, sending Lewis on his way to relative stardom on the traditional jazz scene of the 1950’s. This book is as much about Gagliano and his relationship to the musicians as it is about the band itself.

There is much to chew on here. English-born drummer/bandleader/historian Barry Martyn employs an interview format to elicit thoughts from Gagliano (who is now in his 80’s) on the nature of jazz tradition, the crucial influence of New Orleans’ unusual racial atmosphere on both the musical life and everyday life of New Orleans, the role of the manager in establishing an artist’s reputation, and many other topics germane to the career of George Lewis, but also to the history of New Orleans music as a whole. Martyn asks trenchant questions, Gagliano answers them, and the results are presented unedited.

And therein lies the book’s biggest problem. The fact that the transcripts are unedited eliminate the question of whether Gagliano’s thoughts have been subjected to editorial interpretation. That’s good. But - and this is a big but - every hesitation, every partial sentence, every tangent and diversion, every bit of personal conversation that should have been kept personal, every repeated question, are all here, slowing down the narrative, making it read rather more awkwardly than it needed to. A bit of judicious editing, retaining the integrity of the interview, but rendering it more readable, would have been welcome. What’s more, there are details Gagliano simply doesn’t recall. The “I don’t knows” and “I can’t remembers” begin to pile up once he nears the part of the story where the careers of Lewis and his band are taken over by another manager. (Gagliano went back to school to get his law degree, and could no longer devote time to his musical hobby.) The overall effect is that a book with the potential to attract more widespread attention will now appeal primarily to scholars of the music and other people with a vested interest in learning more about the New Orleans scene of the pre-Civil Rights” period.

Adding interest to the book, in any event, are an interview with a white man named John Chaffe, who took banjo lessons from Lawrence Marrero, further illuminating the stultifying role of race in New Orleans in the 1950’s, and a wonderful reminiscence by musician-turned-historian Samuel Charters. The book comes packaged with a CD of previously unissued live recordings by the George Lewis Band, recorded in Ohio in 1952-53, along with taped interviews from 1953, which add considerably to the book’s significance.

The book is distributed by LSU Press, another fine example of a University Press making available a book slanted toward a specialist market that is grossly under-served by commercial publishers.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, November 07, 2010

“Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer’s First Hundred Years” by Dick Spottswood (University Press of Mississippi)

Wade Mainer was born April 21, 1907 and, at the time of this book’s publication, was still alive and occasionally active. Making music in front of an audience while over the age of 100 is rare, but not totally unheard-of. (Ukulele legend Bill Tapia comes to mind.) But Mainer’s accomplishment in outliving virtually all of his contemporaries is so unusual, it is sometimes forgotten that he was an important, influential figure in his heyday, who prefigured many of the innovations which have taken place in bluegrass and country music to the present day.

Indeed, when Wade Mainer first impacted the country-music scene in the mid-1930’s, bluegrass had yet to be invented. It was his fresh, new approach to the banjo that served as a bridge between the traditional, African-rooted clawhammer technique and the three-singer style popularized by Earl Scruggs in the mid-1940’s. This new book by veteran bluegrass historian Dick Spottswood is not so much a completely detailed biography (though it does offer quite a bit of significant biographical information), as it is a tribute, perhaps “celebration” might be a better word, of Wade Mainer’s long, if somewhat sporadic career.

Mainer was born in rural western North Carolina, in an area and an era in which it would be expected that a youngster would grow up to spend his entire life as a millworker. But Wade and his fiddle-playing brother Joseph Emmett “J. E.” Mainer chose another option, forming a string band which played on numerous radio stations throughout the area. Spottswood traces their career on radio and records, through numerous personnel shifts, and changes in leadership (J.E. had to leave his own band due to his drinking problems). The Mainers’ recordings not only became regionally popular, they attracted the attention of famed folklorist Alan Lomax, who invited them to Washington to perform “folk music” for President and Mrs. Roosevelt. In one of the most revealing segments of the book, Alan Lomax instructs Mainer as to which “authentic folk songs” he wants Wade and the band to perform, not all of which were part of the band’s recorded repertoire. It’s as if Lomax thought he knew more about what was folk music than the “folk” themselves, or at least felt the need to control their performance.

Spottswood traces Mainer’s subsequent career through its various ups and downs, a religious conversion which caused to leave music, his years as an autoworker in Michigan, his long and successful marriage to Julia Brown Mainer, who would become his duet partner in later years, and his subsequent comeback in the 1970s, when he began recording a long string of LP’s for the Old Homestead label. It’s a fascinating story of a man who really had very little concept of what an important historical figure he was, and was therefore almost entirely free of pretense.

In addition to Spottswood’s biographical essay, there is a more technical essay on Wade Mainer’s banjo style, which explains what it was that set him apart from other banjo players who preceded him. The second half of the slim, but highly informative volume is devoted largely to a collection of photographs, documents, and reminiscences by Wade and Julia, as well as a discography (with dates and personnel) of Mainer’s 78-RPM recordings of the 78 RPM and LP eras. I would, however, have preferred a more complete breakdown of song listings for the Old Homestead collections.

The book is only 134 pages long, but there’s a lot packed into these oversized pages. I would assume that the primary markets for a book such as this would be music historians, collectors, and libraries rather than casual bluegrass/oldtime-country fans. But I found Mr. Mainer’s story a fascinating one, and I’m sure casual readers would likewise find it so.

Labels: , , , , , ,