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Welcome to the fourth installment of an ongoing series with Pickathon, showcasing footage from the Galaxy Barn located at Pendarvis Farm in Oregon: Courtney Barnett – “Avant Gardener”.

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Welcome to Dead Notes #10 where we revisit Two From the Vault, recently released by Light in the Attic Records for the first time on vinyl. 1968 was a deeply exploratory period in the early history of the Grateful Dead (previously reviewed in Dead Notes #2, #5, and #8) where sublime climatic jams are joyously inspired as Garcia’s licks and Pigpen’s swagger launch the group into new watershed moments. They were also performing new material from Anthem of the Sun in a suite – loudly exclaiming they were a solid ensemble that could both swing, yet tip-toe, at the brink of explosion, before instantly dropping back into reality while readying the crowd for the next roller coaster turn. Legendary Dead Archivist Dick Latvala had long called this era ‘primal Dead’ – as the group’s performances were so continuously raw, seething and unabashed. Anthem was finally released on July 18, 1968 and their label Warner Brothers immediately called it a ‘disaster not a triumph’ while NME raved ‘it’s so completely unlike anything you have ever heard before that it’s practically a new concept in music. It’s haunting, it’s pretty, it’s infinite … a complete mindblower’. Yet behind the scenes the band was in complete and utter shambles.

scullyWelcome to Jamaican Snapshots – the first installment of a recurring column illuminating Jamaican artists whose music largely flew under the radar outside genre enthusiasts. The column’s intent is to both highlight some of the immense talent produced on the tiny island and to create a rabbit hole leading to further artist exploration should a track strike the right nerve. If you’ve followed our ongoing Bomboclat: Island Soak series of mixtapes, then this is for you.

Noel Simms had many a moniker: Scully, Zoot, Mikey Spratt, and Mr. Foundation are a few of the most notable. Born in Kingston in 1935 and educated at the famed Alpha Boys School (where the Skatalites hailed from) he was a singer and percussionist who played and recorded with many of the greatest names in Jamaican music history: Prince Buster, The Upsetters, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Roots Radics, Big Youth, The Heptones, and Alpha Blondy to name but a few.

The following tracks are excellent examples of Simms’ smooth delivery as Mr. Foundation during the rock-steady era in 1967, via the Coxsone label. words / cognoscere

Mr. Foundation :: See Them A Come
Mr. Foundation :: Take It Cool

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Huddie Ledbetter, widely known as Lead Belly, is one of the most important figures in the history of American music. His recordings popularized songs that would become parts of the folk and blues canon, and Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, a new remarkable new box set, showcases his full range, featuring blues, gospel, folk, popular songs, and novelties.

Co-producer and Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place says the collection in an effort to “create something like a museum exhibit in a book with audio.” The lavish document serves as a demonstration of how historical context enriches the listening experience, with previously unseen photos, exhaustive notes, and detailed discography information accompanying four discs of recordings. “That way people get to know what these songs are about, that they have connections to something,” Place says. “It changes your entire listening experience when you really know that.”

Indeed, Lead Belly’s history is complex enough to warrant such deep investigation. He was first recorded by musicologist John Lomax while serving a sentence for attempted murder at Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana. Lomax played up the musician’s criminal background, invoking a previous murder and prison stint to present the singer to crowds as a barely reformed criminal. Viewed from a modern perspective, Lomax’s star-making efforts often display an ugly racial dynamic.

“…You see some of these film clips in [the Smithsonian Channel documentary The Legend of Lead Belly] where Lomax is the old white guy and Lead Belly is sort of playing this step-and-fetch-it character, [saying] ‘Here, mister bossman.’ It’s really kind of obscene,” Place says.

But ultimately, “It’s fortunate for Lead Belly that he did meet Lomax, who brought him to much wider audiences, albeit in a very strange way,” Place says. “If he hadn’t of run into Lomax, who knows if he might have stayed playing plantations down in the South and no one would have ever heard of the guy.”

Eventually, Lead Belly’s stature grew. Bolstered by his ability to perform nearly any kind of song, he found he didn’t need Lomax’s promotion. “All those other people around him, the Woodys and the Petes, they appreciated him for what he was,” Place says of Lead Belly’s friendships with the New York folk set, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, both of whom were profoundly influenced by his work.

In addition to Lead Belly’s best known sides, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection includes illuminating curiosities. 1941 recordings from WYNC’s Folk Songs of America radio program find him in singing rousing versions of “Baby Don’t You Love Me No More” and “Blues in My Kitchen, Blues in My Dining Room.” Also included is a kind of “duet” between Bessie Smith and Lead Belly, on which he sings along with a Smith 78 playing in record producer Frederic Ramsey’s apartment.

The collection serves as a glimpse into who Lead Belly actually was, beyond the myth and notoriety. “You can see him being silly or affectionate to his wife in a lot of these letters,” Place says. “In
[The Legend of Lead Belly] his great nephew talks about having him as a babysitter and he remembers him as this jovial old guy. But you also hear about his temper, and his getting into problems, too.”

Place suspects that at the core of Lead Belly’s public persona was frustration. “A lot of it really was bad timing,” the historian says of the way fame largely eluded the singer. “He was hanging out with Blind Lemon in the ‘20s, and Blind Lemon winds up a big star and Lead Belly ends up in jail for a bunch of years. He gets out of jail right at the height of the Great Depression, when nobody’s buying records at all. He puts out a few records that don’t sell, so he gets dropped from the label, right? Then he gets into the ‘40s and he’s hanging out with the white folkies in New York, playing to that little audience, but black folks in New York didn’t want to listen to his music – [didn’t] want to hear about cotton picking and stuff like that. Finally, after he dies one of his songs becomes the biggest hit in the country when the Weavers cover it. Had he lived two years longer he would have been rich, but he died without succeeding, not getting what he was after.”

While he never achieved that status in his life, his role in the preservation of American songcraft is undeniable. His figure looms over not only the fields of blues and folk, but pop music in general.

“Playing on the street and playing the places he was, it’s kind of like a Top 40 band might do today: you play the hits, the things people know,” Place says. “But he was also coming up with all these obscurities. He’d hear a Hawaiian song and he’d play that. Or ‘Rock Island Line,’ which was a jingle for the railroad company. These prisoners Lomax recorded in Arkansas were singing and [Lead Belly] heard it and of course he made it his, and it become this big thing because of him. That might have been one of the thousands and thousands of songs in that sits in the Lomax library that no one ever pays any attention to.”

In many ways, Lead Belly is the through line connecting Pete Seeger to Tom Waits, Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Meat Puppets, Odetta to the Billy Childish, the Grateful Dead to Nirvana; all performed his songs. “He did that with a lot of songs, picking them up and adding them to his repertoire,” Place says. “There are a lot of songs people know because he recorded them, and people recorded them after him.” words / j woodbury

jakeVia Paradise of Bachelors, the self-titled debut long player from North Carolina singer and guitarist, Jake Xerxes Fussell – a lively and wholehearted gem of folk, country and bluegrass.

Immersed in old world Americana, Fussell’s debut finds him accompanied by William Tyler on production and guitar, as well as Chris Scruggs on steel guitar, bass and mandolin, Brian Kotzur on drums and Hoot Hester on fiddle. Together, they light a fire that pays a warm and embracing tribute to the past, while keeping the arrangements and delivery easy and limber – making for a record that is not only gorgeous, but also a hell of a good time.

Tracks “Let Me Lose” and “Push Boat” positively groove. Everyone sounds so good on this record and if they accomplish one thing – it’s making you want to move. But Tyler’s luminous production creates an atmosphere for quieter, more plaintive moments as well. He exposes every nook and cranny of Fussell’s beautiful, creaky voice – aged beyond his years – and on “Star Girl” he melts together with Scruggs’ steel guitar spectacularly. Indeed, this band has an incredible chemistry, and their sounds often fuse together into one. On moments such “Rabbit on a Log” and “Georgia Buck,” Hester’s fiddle oozes across the tape while the guitarists dance around, across and on top of it.

The strange, arcane lyricism of these old tunes paint lush landscapes of rural life and pondering – a deceptive simplicity that Fussell’s voice and fingerpicking are suited perfectly. “Raggy Levy,” a song dating back to the Georgia Sea Island Singers in 1942, finds him singing about stone fences and sweet potatoes. It seems completely innocuous, but Tyler’s atmospheric production again comes into play and the low mix of organ and percussion swirl around Fussell’s emphatic delivery. Quietly, but unmistakably, the poignancy of this group’s paean to the vistas and spirits of their land take hold of you. And you don’t want it to let go. words / c depasquale

Jake Xerxes Fussell :: Raggy Levy

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For his 1970 counterculture headtrip epic, Zabriskie Point, Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni had an inspired idea. He’d hire American Primitive pioneer John Fahey to supply (at least part of) the soundtrack. Things didn’t quite work out according to plan, however.

Here’s the scoop from Fahey himself, from an interview with Byron Coley at Perfect Sound Forever.

“Antonioni says, ‘What I want you to do is to compose some music that will go along with the porno scene.’ I kept saying, ‘Yes, sir.’ Then he starts this, ‘Now, John. This is young love. Young love.’ I mean, that’s young love? All these bodies? ‘Young love. But John, it’s in the desert, where’s there’s death. But it’s young love.’ He kept going, ‘Young Love/Death’ faster and faster. I was sure I was talking to a madman. I’m still sure I was.

“So I experimented. I had instrumentalists come in and told them just to play whatever they felt like. They had to pretend to understand what I was talking about, especially if Antonioni came in the room. That was fun. They were very cooperative. I came up with some sections of music that sounded more like death than young love. It was actually pretty ominous. I played it for Michelangelo and he thought it was great. So he took me out to dinner at this really fancy restaurant and started telling me how horrible the United States was. We were drinking a lot of wine and I don’t remember which one of us started cussing. It started real fast and ended in a fistfight. You have no idea how much that guy hates the United States. What a jerk.”

Fahey was known to never let the truth get in the way of a good story, so his tale of drunken fisticuffs with Antonioni may not be entirely factual. But it is a good story! In the end, Jerry Garcia ended up supplying the (quite lovely) music for Zabriskie Point‘s famous desert orgy sequence. Meanwhile, some of the recordings Fahey made for the film found their way into the hands of collectors, and you can head over to the estimable Delta-Slider blog to check those out. It’s very interesting stuff, with Fahey conjuring up a desolate landscape with his solo acoustic wanderings. Not sure if there’s a lot of young love in there, but there’s plenty of death.  words / t wilcox

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Jennifer :: I Am Waiting (Rolling Stones)

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From Del Shannon to Arthur Russell: March, A Medley.

Aquarium Drunkard Presents: March – A Medley

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Beyond Spock, beyond his photography, beyond even In Search Of…: the late Leonard Nimoy, music maker. Best known for his novelty hit “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” there are deeper, more affecting cuts. See 1970’s The New World of Leonard Nimoy. Over stark country soul arrangements, Nimoy’s voice is worn-in on songs like “I Walk the Line,” “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” and “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Particularly haunted is his reading of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” There are other great versions of the veteran ballad – Johnny Darrell first recorded it, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition made it famous, and Waylon sang it – but Nimoy’s version remains something special. words /  j woodbury

Leonard Nimoy :: Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town

Elsewhere: read more about the music of Leonard Nimoy via Aquarium Drunkard’s Jason P. Woodbury.