I spent quite a bit of time this week listening to a new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, and a few minutes yesterday urging you to buy yourself a copy. On Wednesday I also threw in Cephas & Wiggins’ great performance of “John Henry.”
As long as I’m posting about classic American music, I close out the week with the below Ann Charters recording of Joseph Lamb‘s “Ethiopia Rag” (1909). Although ragtime piano has become almost synonymous with the music of Scott Joplin, this obscures the fact that there were many other ragtime composers and pianists who deserve their time in the limelight as well. Lamb is certainly one of these; along with James Scott, he and Joplin form the triumvirate of great ragtime composers. Born in 1887, Lamb lasted the longest, passing on only in 1960, but not before recording this album at his Brooklyn home a year before his death.
Charters studied with Lamb for a short while (her husband was Samuel Charters, who wrote The Country Blues, and she herself went on to write the first scholarly biography of Jack Kerouac); she recorded “Ethiopia Rag” along with several others on this album, released nearly a decade before Joshua Rifkin’s landmark Joplin recordings. I’ll have the melody dancing in my head later today at Cafe Katja. See you there, or here next week.
When American roots music is celebrated, it’s usually done so with the Ken-Burns-like solemnity of PBS specials like American Epic — eminently worthwhile, but also studded with the kinds of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Jack White) who can tart up the joint enough to guarantee a least-embarrassing rating. All well and good, and if PBS can do its bit to put this kind of music in the public eye, then sure, you can have my five bucks a month to keep the squirrel running in his wheel. But really, this history-minded survey class favors the past rather than the present, and if you want to hear this music and see it performed today — live, as it was meant to be heard and performed — then you have to look elsewhere. And the next best thing to hearing it live is to listen to contemporary musicians who still feel it important to keep it out there, as entertainment of the highest quality rather than a trip down memory lane. Not that it’s going to make anybody rich, as this band recognized 30 or 40 years ago.
So it was with extraordinary pleasure that I sat down last night with Coney Island Baby, the new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, a local outfit based in the deep East Village, which has been performing “a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century” for more than a decade. To call the 17 songs on the album “roots music” — in the sense that PBS will tell you that true roots music is exemplified by groups like the Carter Family — is somewhat misleading. Eden Brower, John Heneghan, Robert Crumb, and Ernesto Gomez, the core group of the ERSB, have gathered together here a wide-ranging repertoire, from traditional blues and rags to more recent (relatively speaking) standards like “Nobody’s Business if I Do” and “He’s Funny That Way.”
This is not particularly concert music like formal ragtime, nor, when it was first written and performed, was it meant to be. Back in the day, before the Victrola, the only way to hear music was to either hear it live or play it yourself: pick-up bands who took possession of a gazebo or bandstand in a small American town for a parade or barbeque, roadhouses and juke joints in more remote regions of the south, an occasional visit from a touring minstrel show, or a few hours just sitting around with a few friends on somebody’s porch. (It’s something that Charles Ives knew well.) Coney Island Baby, at its best, puts you in the room with Brower, Heneghan, Crumb, Gomez, and the rest for spirited, relaxed musical good times.
Brower fronts the band with a solid, whiskey-dampened (if not whiskey-soaked) voice, a bright, mature sensual full-bodied woman’s tone instead of the girlish puerility of most contemporary female singers (as the father of two girls about ten years old, I’ve heard enough of these to last a lifetime). She’s bawdy and even a little beyond on “Moonshine,” “Skinny Leg Blues” and the delightfully dirty “Adam and Eve,” though capable too of some sensitive nuance on songs like “Nobody’s Business,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and maybe my favorite song on the album, “Arlena.” She’s backed by Heneghan on a strong, energetic guitar that offers a few of the rougher-in-the-best-sense moments (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, “Desert Blues”) and Crumb’s vibrant and subtle ukelele, mandolin, and banjo, while Gomez contributes a terrific harmonica, especially on “Moonshine.” The “Sometimes They Show Up If They Feel Like It Players” — Pat Conte on fiddle, Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle, Geoff Wiley on bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on guitar — fill out the one or two instrumentals on the album.
It’s worth pointing out that the term “American roots” is a little specious. The music that the ERSB performs may be characterized as distinctly American, but it’s only because that we’ve grown to hear it that way. This music didn’t magically spring up from the indigenous American soil but instead was the product of the music that was brought to these shores by a variety of immigrants and exiles, voluntary and involuntary: it has its origins in the music of Europe, but equally in the musics of Africa, South America, Asia, and even Hawaii. It doesn’t take long for enthusiasts of this music to go down the paths of its true origins. Heneghan does so in his own John’s Old Time Radio Show, often joined by Crumb, which I highly recommend; along with recent episodes about yodelling and ukelele music, Heneghan has also recently featured programs on early recorded African, French, and Brazilian music. Check it out, and do your part for immigration.
If you want to support this kind of music and the research that inevitably follows once you’ve developed an interest, why not cough up the monthly sawbuck that buys you membership in Smithsonian Folkways Recordings? Better yet, support your local band by purchasing a few of these fine offerings. And best, play them for your kids. My daughters Goldie (10 years old) and Billie (a year younger) joined me in listening to Coney Island Baby yesterday evening, and immediately started snapping their fingers and tapping their toes along to Eden, John, and the rest of their stylish gang. They loved it. So I’m doin’ what I can to corrupt the next generation. Order the album for a measly $14.99 (they’re throwing postage and handling in for free) and tell ’em Goldie and Billie’s dad sent ya.
An informative 2015 interview with Eden Brower and John Heneghan can be found here. And below, the East River String Band performs at this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival:
I’m feeling distinctly ambivalent about yesterday’s election results; as I sort this out, a little classic American music may be appropriate.
According to Bruce Bastin’s Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southwest, the American traditional “John Henry” was usually among the very first songs that Piedmont blues musicians would master. “Many bluesmen in the Piedmont recall this as the first song they ever learned,” Bastin wrote. “In many cases ‘John Henry’ was the only tune these inexperienced youngsters could play with any ease,” noting that many of these young musicians built their own crude, homemade versions of guitars.
Etta Baker recorded this version of “John Henry” in the early 1960s, and below is a rendition by John Cephas (guitar) and Phil Wiggins (harmonica). It’s ambivalent, too, and perhaps eerily appropriate.
UPDATE: I’m told that the two-LP vinyl release will also include a fold-out poster of the original cover art by R. Crumb. Damn me for lacking a turntable …
I’ve been a fan of Eden & John’s East River String Band for some time, so it’s with no little anticipation that I await the delivery of their new album, Coney Island Baby, out just this week from City Hall Records. Eden Brower and John Heneghan are joined by the likes of Robert Crumb, Ernesto Gomez, Pat Conte, Eli Smith, Geoff Wiley, Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch for 17 great American songs such as “Nobody’s Business if I Do,” “He’s Funny that Way,” “The Possum Rag” and “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home.”
The ERSB is one of the few outfits playing this peculiar kind of classic American music these days — equal parts Piedmont and country blues, Tin Pan Alley, and plain old good-time tunes. I wrote just a little about them here. The new album is available on eBay (now) and Amazon (not ’til January, though). Below is a taste: Eden and John are joined by R. Crumb in somebody’s living room earlier this year, playing the title track from the album.
Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of my father’s death (which I would have written about then, had work not intruded); he died very shortly before the birth of my daughter Goldie.
She’s ten now, and been asking quite a bit about heaven, especially about who ends up there and who ends up in the other place. We’re soft-pedaling that latter question, but asking her to rest assured that her father’s father is looking down and taking pretty good notice of her. I think he probably is. I confess that I miss my dad, and am sorry that I can’t hear what he thought of our current world situation — I’m sure he would have more than a few choice words about DJT — and especially what he thought about trying to raise two young girls in the midst of all that, and the country that DJT and his supporters are creating. I think I knew him pretty well, and know what he would have said about DJT and the people who would support and vote for such people. (“Idiot” was a favorite word.) Even after a rough life and a rougher marriage, his main concerns were for forgiveness, truth (he was, after all, a scientist), and love. He knew that the road of life and civilization itself tended more or less downhill. But he knew how to laugh about it, and probably would agree with Jonathan Swift that “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.” So many people today, it seems, have it the wrong way around.
I can think of no better way to memorialize him this year than with the below lovely and caustic song from John Prine’s latest (and terrific) album, The Tree of Forgiveness. A cocktail and a cigarette indeed. (You can keep your Leonard Cohen; I’ll take Prine any day.) I’ll be raising a glass to his memory tomorrow at Cafe Katja — a place that he would have loved too, with people who would have delighted him. Perhaps I’ll see you there.