In the last decade the music industry has gradually discovered the music of American
Indians. As a result, at least a small portion of the music buying public has started to
hear sounds that have nothing to do with the Hollywood western soundtracks that have
defined “Indian Music” as methodical drum beats, shaking rattles, monotone
chanting, and crazed war whoops. In the music of Native American musicians such as Sharon
Burch, R. Carlos Nakai, John Trudell, Bill Miller, Robert Mirabal, Ulali, Burning Sky,
Jerry Alfred & The Medicine Beat, Douglas Spotted Eagle, Robbie Bee and Boyz From The
Rez, and Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, one can hear a rich variety of traditional
indigenous music, as well as contemporary sounds blending assorted Indian roots
expressions with rock, reggae, blues, hip-hop, country, jazz, and folk.
Robbie Robertson’s Contact
Coming out as a half-Mohawk in 1994, Robbie Robertson had this wide spectrum of Native
American music in mind when he produced the soundtrack for the television series “The
Native Americans.” With a broad array of Indian performers, the former leader of The
Band, created a seamless fusion of traditional, modern, and “earth” sounds
evoking the culture, history, and spirituality of Native Peoples. On his recently released
album, Contact From The Underworld Of Red Boy (Capitol), he continues to defy
stereotypes of Indian music by mixing Howie B and Maurice de Vries’s avant electronic
effects with explosive doses of electric guitar, trancy Indian chants, and haunting
While Contact may be taken as another attempt to rediscover his Native heritage,
the seemingly fragmented perspective of the album’s 11 tunes eventually yields a
hard-edged social critique and an inspiring manifesto of resistance. On
“Sacrifice,” Contact’s pivotal track, American Indian activist
Leonard Peltier, through a taped phone conversation, lays out his version of the 1975
confrontation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that left two FBI agents and
one Indian dead. In prison for over 21 years for the murders of the agents, Peltier
maintains his innocence and defiance against a dark atmosphere of languid beats and
ghostly background vocals: “I’ve gone too far now to start backing down. I
don’t give up. Not until my people are free will I give up.”
Robertson also shares lead spoken and sung vocals with Leah Hicks-Manning (on “The
Sound Is Fading”), Verdell Primeaux (on “Peyote Healing”), Chief Jake
Thomas (on “The Code Of Handsome Lake”), and The Six Nations Women Singers (on
“Stomp Dance,” Unity). And, as on music for “The Native Americans,”
writing, instrumental, and vocal backing feature some of today’s most formidable
Native American talent. Which means, although Robertson’s singing, lyrics, and guitar
work clearly stamp a personal imprint on the project, Contact From The Underworld Of
Red Boy is a communal statement of struggle and triumph. And one of the most powerful
releases of the year.
Portions of the profits from this recording are going to the Leonard Peltier Defense
Fund and The Jake Thomas Learning Center.
The Ignored Legacy of Black Country & Western
Although the “whiteness” of country music is taken for granted, the tradition
has considerable roots in African American music. Despite the political, social, and
economic barriers separating white and black Americans in the South, working class
musicians of both groups freely borrowed musical ideas without regard for skin color. Thus
the country song, in its song structure, instrumental techniques, and lyric traditions,
reveals heavy influences of blues and black gospel styles. Although non-white country
performers are still rare in the country field, African American musicians have, at
various times, won wide acceptance with country audiences.
Thanks to the Country Music Foundation’s recently released three volume
compilation, From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music (Warner
Bros.), this underappreciated vein of country music is getting some light play. Listeners
who have some familiarity with the Grand Tradition will not be surprised by tracks by
Deford Bailey, the Grand Ole Opry’s first black star or the many selections from the
Hank Williams-influenced Charley Pride, by far the most popular black country singer of
all time. But to hear the black rockabilly of Al Downing, the Memphis Sheiks’ raucous
version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now,” the varied
“soul-country” crossovers by Ray Charles, Joe Tex, and Solomon Burke, the New
Orleans stylings of Professor Longhair, Aaron Neville, and Fats Domino and the
gospel-tinged twist of “Release Me” by Esther Phillips, brings revelations of
the deep musical and emotional kinship between black and white music in the South.
The full story of this give and take is, of course, distorted by racism. But those
willing to give a listen to From Where I Stand will be steered toward a more
complicated and less one dimensional view of the country tradition. (For more on the
subject see my “Wild And Blue: The Politics of Country,” Z September,
Revisiting Maya Angelou
Though these days Maya Angelou is regarded as one of the country’s most
distinguished writers and a woman with a gracious and genteel sensibility, there was a
time in the early 1970s when her words blazed with savage honesty and bitter discontent.
In the era of Black Power, her work, along with that of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri
Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, the Last Poets, and so many others in the Black
Arts movement, detonated the lies and and sins of White America, while igniting a new
sense of pride and dignity in Black America.
On the just reissued Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou (Rhino), you can
hear the brave, unsparing, and beautiful voice of Angelou reading 33 poems displaying her
remarkable power. Originally recorded in 1969 and joined with five jazz interludes
composed by Ed Bland, Black Pearls includes mostly material that would later be
published as Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water ‘Fore I Diiie (Random House,
1971). Like her celebrated prose autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
(Random House, 1970), the poems collected for Black Pearls describe experiences
growing up in the South. Harrowing, tough, and inspiring.
Other works by Maya Angelou: The Complete Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House,
1994); Gather Together In My Name (1974), Singin’ And Swingin’ And
Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart Of A Woman (1981), and All
God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1984), all Random House.
Life in Ani Difranco’s Little Plastic Castle
Two years ago when I interviewed Ani Difranco for Z, she was beginning to catch
the eye of the mass media, but still remained a mostly word-of-mouth phenomenon. Since
then, she’s made the cover of nearly every music publication, landed appearances on
national television, stacked up endless glowing reviews for her albums and concerts, sold
out venues with up to 6,000 seats, garnered a Grammy nomination, and toured with Bob
Dylan. Righteous Babe Records, her own self-started indie label, has now sold over a
million copies of her nine previous albums.
While this level of success is welcome, and surely modest compared to the standards of
major label blockbusters, for an artist whose music and politics are explicitly
anti-corporate, it certainly elevates the level of public scrutiny and responsibility.
Accordingly, Difranco’s newest album, Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe
Records), raises questions about how to hold on to humanity and identity in the face of
the inexorable music biz star making machinery.
On the title track, the feminist/lefty/bisexual punk folksinger contends with her
People talk about my image Like I come in two dimensions Like lipstick is a sign of my
declining mind Like what I happen to be wearing The day that someone takes a
picture Is my new statement for all womankind.
Other songs on the album don’t address the issue as straightforwardly, but here
and there Difranco alludes to stresses and ambivalence that come with high-profile music
Ultimately, however, Difranco’s musical vision seems pretty much unfazed by her
changing status. Her subject matter remains most focused on what she calls her
“ongoing, unromantic relationship with romantic love.” As always her stories are
intimate, harsh, and tender portrayals of relationships she’s lived; with wounds,
telling details, and frank sexuality pouring forth through elastically phrased, sharp eyed
urban poetry. And still defining herself as a folksinger, Difranco keeps her sound
centered around her voice and guitar. Some of the albums strongest tracks are driven by
her trademark percussive fury on acoustic guitar and her familiar melodious and volcanic
Little Plastic Castle does break some new ground. The title track explodes with a
bouncy, ska-flavored horn section, “Deep Dish” floats in a quirky lounge
ambiance, and the stunning 14-minute finale, “Pulse,” offers bittersweet spoken
verse against hypnotic bass and guitar figures, and wistful trumpet lines by Jon Hassell.
Fresh ideas for sure, but no major revision of her essential folk-punk aesthetic.
For those concerned with the watering down of ideology, check out the anti-capitalist
diatribe on “Fuel” and rest assured Difranco hasn’t made peace with The
Man. Quite the contrary. Each level of her success offers more proof that musicians and
audiences can find each other without drinking from the polluted corporate well.
The Afro-Latin Beat
With the Ry Cooder-convened Buena Vista Social Club grabbing a Grammy at this
year’s music awards, Afro-Cuban music is sure to take another big jump in sales and
visibility in the U.S. Which is great because the fusion of African and Cuban musical
forms has produced a vast body of vital, innovative sounds that have not been given their
One of many overlooked gems from the past year is Ritmo Y Candela II: African
Crossroads (Round World). This follow-up to the 1996 release Ritmo Y Candela:
Rhythm At The Crossroads (Round World) delves into the African side of the Afro-Cuban
blend as it joins players from the first Candela—Patato (congas), Joe Santiago
(bass), Orestes Vilato (timbales), and Enrique Fernandez (sax)—with exciting Cuban
players such as Walfredo de los Reyes, Sr. (drums), Ivan “Melon” Gonzalez
(piano), and Omar Sosa (piano), as well as veteran African artists such as soukous singer
Samba Mapangala and Senegalese kora player Abdou M’ boup. A sizzling stew of
Afro-Cuban traditions merged with fluid strains of modern jazz. While listening take
special note of the performance of the young jazz pianist Ivan “Melon” Gonzalez.
His very distinctive sense of time and harmony marks him as one of the bright new voices
of Latin jazz.
In response to my review of Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete
Seeger (Appleseed Recordings), I’ve received several inquiries from readers
interested in learning more about the lives of various movers and shakers of the left folk
tradition. For biographies of the big three—Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and
Leadbelly—I’d recommend David Dunaway’s How Can I Keep From Singing:
Pete Seeger (Da Capo), Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life (Alfred A.
Knopf), and Charles Wolf and Kip Lornell’s The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly
Although not a folksinger, actor, singer, activist Paul Robeson had such an enormous
impact on left art, anyone interested in folk music politics should examine his legacy.
The Spring 1998 issue of Sing Out: The Folk Magazine provides a nice introduction
to the life of Paul Robeson with Irwin Silber’s article “Paul Robeson: A 20th
Century Joshua.” For a thorough biography of Robeson see Martin Baumi Duberman’s
Paul Robeson (New Press).
For a deep immersion in the many strains of music that make up the folk tradition,
there’s no better place to start than Harry Smith’s six-CD compilation, Anthology
Of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways) and folk musicologist Alan Lomax’s
six Southern Journey CDs (Rounder) and single disc The Alan Lomax Collection
Sampler (Rounder). Those on a tight budget should begin with the Lomax Sampler,
which whets the appetite with deep rooted music from the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, The
British Isles, Italy, Spain, Africa, Japan, and Bali.
For a taste of the 1960s folk revival check out Rhino’s three-volume compilation, Troubadours
Of The Folk Era and/or the four-CD set, The Prestige/Folklore Years
Dirty Blues And Sublime Gospel
It’s always a jolt to discover something new and soulful amid the glut of
overproduced, by-the-numbers records now flooding the blues market. One of my strongest
recent charges came when I put on the debut CD of guitarist/singer/writer Susan Tedeschi.
On Just Won’t Burn (Tone-Cool), Tedeschi rattles the walls with a powerhouse
wail that crosses Bonnie Raitt with Janis Joplin while smoking her guitar with fretwork
steeped in the lessons of Otis Rush, “Guitar” Watson, and Ronnie Earl. Also
surprising in a player so young, some of her strongest material is self-written. At times
her influences show a little too much, but she is a bona fide blues artist on the rise.
Another rough, tough barnburner is Alligator’s Hound Dog Taylor: A Tribute.
Taylor, who died of cancer in 1975, worked around Chicago for 35 years before finally
gaining a wider audience in the wake of the blues explosion of the 1960s and 1970s.
Playing a nasty, searing slide and howling in raw, gravelly voice, Taylor stuck to a
program of loud, intense shuffles, boogies, and tortured slow blues diced with
“wrong” notes and primal out-of-tune bashing. To pay homage to his wild legacy,
bottleneck masters such as Sonny Landreth, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Luther Allison, Son
Seals, Elvin Bishop, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, and others cover Taylor numbers in an
appropriate hard, high-spirited fashion. Hound Dog would be proud.
Coming from the other end of the African American music spectrum is a three volume
series of gospel releases honoring the genre’s “golden age” from 1947 to
1964. Compiled and produced by Lee Hildebrand and Opal Nations from the vaults of Art
Rupe’s Specialty Records, Golden Age Gospel Quartets (in two CDS) and Golden
Age Gospel Choirs (one disc) present consistently rousing performances from famous and
lesser known groups breaking up musical conventions during the early civil rights era.
Included in the quartet sets are the legendary Soul Stirrers (featuring Sam Cooke), the
Swan Silvertones (featuring Claude Jeter), the Five Blind Boys of Alabama (featuring
Clarence Fountain), and the Pilgrim Travelers alongside the under recognized Southern
Harmonizers, the Paramount Singers, the Chosen Gospel Singers, and West Coast Jubilees.
Selections on each volume of Golden Age Gospel Quartets are arranged chronologically and
give an overview of changing quartet styles as groups evolved from a cappella
singing to vocal performances backed by full rhythm sections that became popular by the
The Choirs package concentrates on four pioneering choirs—Los Angeles’
Voices of Victory, Newark’s Back Home Choir, Chicago’s Helen Robinson Youth
Choir, and The Pentecostal Choir of Detroit. Although choirs and large choir-like
ensembles predominate contemporary African American gospel, small groups, vocal soloists,
and quartets defined the black gospel sound through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The
23-song collection on Golden Age Gospel Choirs surveys some of the innovators laying the
blueprint for African American gospel music of today. Before these and other
groundbreaking groups, church choirs performed mostly spirituals, anthems, and hymns. By
contrast, the rising gospel choirs brought both a new repertoire and huge, unprecedented
Most gospel music, of course, is made by individuals and groups whose names remain
unknown outside their local communities. A recently reissued compilation of recordings on
the little known Chalice label, a subsidiary of the renowned Stax Records, offers stirring
examples of 1960s gospel that never caught on with any national commercial trend. On Free
At Last: Gospel Quartets From Stax Records’ Chalice Label (Fantasy), The Dixie
Nightingales, The Jubilee Hummingbirds, The Stars Of Virginia, and The Pattersonaires sing
rootsy Southern gospel capturing the fiery passions and hopes of a turbulent era. There
are many gospel anthology packages coming out with all the legends of the tradition. But
this humble release from last year holds its own against all the best and brightest.