Monday, July 22, 2013

Le Chat Mort---the American Tour

    How very fortunate we are to have had Le Chat Mort visit Morgantown, performing at locales such as 123 Pleasant Street, the Morgantown Brewing Company and Black Bear's.  Le Chat Mort (pronounced either like it sounds in English or else "le shah morr" in French) means "the dead cat" and the group took that name because they once rented an apartment and found a dead cat in the freezer. Yech--probably an anatomy student lived there, or else someone who is really weird!).  Le Chat Mort is based in Stockholm Sweden, and came to Morgantown thanks partly to Morgantown expatriate Rachel Eddy, who splits time between Stockholm and Morgantown.  

    In any case, we were fortunate enough to host a brilliantly original group with a very unique sound.  The band is led by the incredibly talented Camilla Neideman on snare drum and lead vocals; David Nilsson on banjo, Peter Strömquist on Guitar and Matti Friberg on Upright Bass. Together they create a sound that draws from the Swing era, but also incorporates elements of Jazz, Old Time, Blues and Bluegrass.  

Listening to them on their latest album,  I was very impressed by the vocal leads by Camilla.  She has a very unconventional voice and commands the songs with great sensitivity and passion.  She also has the uncanny ability to dance the Lindy Hop while playing the snare drums.  Peter is perhaps the most accomplished instrumentalist of the group.  David plays the banjo with sort of a cross between chromatic and Scruggs style and perhaps his forte is blending the banjo in with different types of songs than one is accustomed to hearing.   Matti Freberg also does a nice job on the upright bass and seems comfortable with the variety of styles that the group plays in.  For example, when they visited Morgantown they played quite a bit of Old Time and Bluegrass, and so I was surprised that their album had a number of original tracks, but mainly done with a swing jazz kind of sound, at least in my opinion.  

    My favorite on the album is the seventh track, My Eyes Were Closed, which really highlights Camilla's vocals.  But I also like the part where the song picks up a light bluegrass rhythm.   David's banjo work is particularly commendable here, showing a way to play the banjo beautifully and lyrically in a slower song, blending well with Peter's guitar.  Matti also demonstrates a nice touch on bass.  In this case, the band shows that it's not just about how fast you can play, but the range and sensitivity that you bring to the song with different instruments and different styles.     

    I should also mention that before the Le Chat Mort peformance at 123 Pleasant Street, music fans were treated to a performance by husband and wife duo Kristian Herner and Rachel Eddy, who were their usual terrific selves.   My favorite from their set was a unique version of Cotton Eyed Joe, which was distinctly different from the popular version by Rednex a few years ago.  Believe it or not, Rednex is a Swedish group!

    I hope that Le Chat Mort will come back to America.  Indeed there is a thriving American Old Time musical community thriving throughout Europe, and Stockholm has become a hotbed of interest in Old Time.  Le Chat Mort is definitely a fabulous group in person, and the new album is great also.     


Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Few African Influences on Old Time American Music

Of course it is impossible to treat this broad subject in detail...but here are some of my notes of the particular items that have caught my eye, mainly while researching other songs

Polly waddle doodle all the day! (anonymous)

Camptown races, they sing this song,
Doo da!  Doo da!  Oh de doo da day! (Stephen Foster)

So are these just "nonsense syllables" made up by the fertile minds of folks like Stephen Foster, one of America's earliest and most celebrated folk composer and lyricists?

Maybe, but I kind of doubt it.  More likely, I think these lyrics are garbles from African languages, which were sung by African slaves, and which Foster co-opted for his own.  In fact, I hope someone will read this blog and recognize which African language inspired these lyrics.  

So did Foster plagiarize those lyrics?  A case can be made either way.   But in pre-Civil War America, the idea of ownership of African songs and lyrics was quite different than today.  In theory, an African-American could own copyrights, but in practice it would have been nearly impossible.  Even for a white man, it might be socially improper in some circles, to admit being influenced by African songs and lyrics, but it would be much easier for the white man to obtain legal title to them.
No doubt there are other features of African music that continue to pop up on the American music scene as well.  For example, Scotch Irish fiddle tunes almost always have lyrics, and often tell a story.  African songs are more likely to have a leader/response pattern:

Leader:  "My old master said to me..."
Leader:  That when he died he'd set me free!


You can hear the same pattern in Camptown Races:
Leader:  De Camptown ladies sing dis song:
Response:  DO DA!  DO DA!
Leader:  De Camptown track is five miles long
Response:  OH DE DOO DA DAY!

The other clue is the scale pattern used.  European music usually uses a seven note scale, whereas African music uses a pentatonic five note scale, dropping the second and seventh notes.  For many songs a minor scale is used, in which the third note is flattened by half a step.  

In addition certain patterns such as the 12 bar blues, occur frequently in African music.  I  remember in college, though, listening to a collection of folk songs provided by a student from Uganda, and on one of the songs I was able to sing "polly waddle doodle all the day" and the melody more less matched the recording.  There wasn't much doubt in my mind that the two songs had common ancestry.    I wish I could identify that precise song, but of course it is lost to me.  All I can say is that somewhere there is a record in Uganda that has a song that sounds a lot like Polly Waddle Doodle.  

     So, if the songs have the leader/response pattern in the lyrics, if the melodies resemble African melodies and are composed in the (African) pentatonic scale, and if it contains lyrics that are partially unintelligible to a speaker of English....well, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it probably is in fact a duck.  Camptown Races is based surely on some African song at least in part.  

    As for the issue of how people like Stephen Foster are to be judged, I think I would tend to come down on the side of those that feel they did more harm that good.  If they had not copyrighted the songs, then the songs might have been forgotten by now.  To me at least it doesn't seem fair to lay the injustices of slavery and racism at the feet of a mere compiler of folksongs.  

     Although American Old Time music is primarily derived from Scotch Irish sources, there has always been an African influence as well.  Gee, come to think of it, the banjo itself is an African instrument, and where would we be without banjos?   The African banjo was originally a drum with strings stretched over it, and eventually evolved with the assistance of American slavemasters and eventually exported back to Ireland and Scotland.

     Minstrel shows were a socially acceptable (more or less!)  way of bringing African music to the dominant culture, and heavily influenced the Old Time scene.  Much of our music has a minstrelly kind of sound to it (Raise a Rough House and Tear It Down come to mind). 

 Whistler's Jug Band had an version of Tear it Down (Fold it Down) circa 1930.  

     Uncle Dave Macon came from a family that operated a hotel, and hosted travelling musicians including minstrel shows and vaudevillians.  In those days of course there was no TV, so so find entertainment you would have to hear live entertainers, maybe performing in a makeshift auditorium or a carnival tent.  These performers traveled from city to city and provided one of the few venues in which African and European cultures were allowed to mix.

   Hence Uncle Dave learned many of his famous songs from musicians working the show circuit.  No doubt there are many, many other connections between African American and Old Time musicians, and Uncle Dave is just a single (if very prominent) example.  

 Dave Macon was one of several famous musicians who was influenced by vaudeville as well as minstrel shows. 

    Parenthetically, I might add that we don't like to admit that our ancestors used to like appearing in blackface and singing African-inspired songs.  However, the fact of the matter is that it indeed was considered quite acceptable at the time. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Honeywagon's Bluegrass Fusion: Michael Jackson's Billie Jean

     As another example of Musical Fusion (in this case taking a song that was originally performed in a Pop format, and incorporating elements of Bluegrass and Blues), please check out this video of Billie Jean, originally written and performed by Michael Jackson, but adapted by a group called Honeywagon: