Sunday 25 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'From the Appalachians to Kerry'

Mary Francis Hurt at the gravesite of her grandfather, Mississippi John Hurt, in Avalon, Mississippi, in the documentary series, American Epic.
Mary Francis Hurt at the gravesite of her grandfather, Mississippi John Hurt, in Avalon, Mississippi, in the documentary series, American Epic.
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

At this stage, they have learnt to just ignore whatever is my latest enthusiasm. They are stoic. They've seen it before. It will pass. And it could be worse. Usually it's nothing that is going to trouble them. The worst they can expect is to be slightly bored if they get caught by me.

Last week, my wife was pushed to the extreme of wifely duties. And she bore it with grace. Bore being the operative word. So she was patient while I ranted on to her about how poor people in the Appalachian Mountains at the beginning of the last century had no radio or records, so basically the only music they ever heard was that of their neighbours, when they all played on each other's porches. And she managed to pretend to pay attention to how three people from this remote area drove for a day in a Model T over dirt tracks, one of them nine months pregnant, another nursing a new baby, to be recorded by the men from Victor Records on the new-fangled Western Electric recording device. And how they were the original Carter Family, and how their recordings became one of the threads that would make up modern American music as we know it.

She began visibly losing patience as I regaled her with the story of Charlie Patton. She feigned disbelief that there I was, all this time, assuming Robert Johnson was the father of the blues, when all this time there was Charlie Patton, who schooled not only Johnson but also Howlin' Wolf. And wasn't it incredible how the Delta Blues as we would know it was basically born out of one plantation, Dockery Farm?

She actually just walked off when I started telling her about the invention of the Hawaiian steel guitar. In the late 19th Century, Joseph Kekuku, an 11-year-old kid with his guitar, was walking home along the railroad tracks one day, and he picks up a metal bolt, and something strikes him about the noise the bolt made when it hit off his guitar. He starts using the back of a knife to practise this technique, and eventually he goes into the workshop in school and makes a slide. This would, of course, become, to our ears, the defining sound of Hawaiian music. Kekuku would eventually travel to America, becoming popular on the live circuit there. And in 1915 when the World's Fair was held in San Francisco, he played in the Hawaiian pavilion. The following year, Hawaiian music would be the most purchased genre of music in the US. But wait, that's not the really mad bit. The really mad bit is that this is where the slide guitar in American Country music came from. So that sound, that would define a whole other genre, came from that 11-year-old kid.

By the time I started telling her about the Memphis Jug Band she had really had enough. The father-in-law called and she passed me over to him for a while to hold forth on Mississippi John Hurt and how he was rediscovered by the folkies in the 1960s, living in poverty in a shack in Avalon, Mississippi, after they found his song Avalon Blues, and how he then became the big hit of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

The father-in-law has a certain tolerance for this kind of stuff, so he bore it with good grace for a while, before eventually beating a hasty retreat. I think he could have done without my follow-on texts.

And that was all just from one documentary series, called American Epic. In fairness, it's an amazing documentary and many of you probably saw it when it first came out. I'm not acting like I'm the first one ever to discover it. But to see these stories of how just one dirt-poor individual can pretty much invent, or crystallise, or kick off a whole genre of music was, for me, mind blowing.

I've stopped trying to tell them the stories about it now. But the other beauty of the modern world is that unlike those people in Appalachia, I can access all this music instantly on Spotify, so now I'm subjecting everyone to really primitively recorded music from the early days of the last century. My wife has pointed out that if this music was made by equivalent people in Ireland, like old farmers from up a mountain in Kerry, I probably wouldn't be listening to it. I have assured her that that is my next mission, to search out the step before American Epic. Because it is clear from listening to all this music, from the Hillbilly stuff, to the blues, to the Cajun music, that it has its roots in Irish music. I guess I'll start by searching out Philip King's Bringing It All Back Home.

Oh yeah, it's going to be a long summer in my house.

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