Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970) had one of the longest careers of the early country blues musicians. Born in New Orleans, he was best known for his precise musicianship, his vocal talent, and the single-note guitar lines that became a staple of later blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll music. He sat in with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five for several sides recorded in 1927; as Gunther Schuller noted in his book Early Jazz, “Armstrong is no longer outnumbered four to one but has a strong ally. Johnson’s swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly highlights of modern jazz.” He continued to work, performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith, until just about a year before his death in relative obscurity in Toronto. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Ellington wrote, “[Johnson] must have must have been a good man, because he spoke only good about other people, and I never heard anyone speak anything but good of him. God bless Lonnie Johnson.”
Among his early successes was the below 1928 recording of “Careless Love.” Samuel Charters wrote about the recording in his seminal 1959 book The Country Blues, describing it as “one of [Johnson’s] finest achievements”:
“Careless Love” in successively bitter verses blamed love for an entire life of troubles; finally turning on the personified image of desire with:
… damn you, I’m going to shoot you, Shoot you four — five times. Then stand over you until you finish dying.
Otherwise it’s been mostly a slog, but I’ve been trying to keep up on my reading; whether my current choices testify to either my admirably broad range of interests or my pathetic inability to focus is an open question. Charles Drazin’s In Search of the Third Man came down off the shelf this week after Marilyn and I enjoyed a beautiful restoration of the film — for which Robert Krasker won the Best Black-and-White Cinematography Oscar, the only Oscar The Third Man won — at Metrograph on Saturday night as a pre-Valentine’s Day gift to ourselves. (That showing of The Third Man was sold out; and Metrograph has extended the run of the film through February 21. Run, don’t walk, to 7 Ludlow Street for the next screening.) I’ve been trying to recommend The Third Man to others with little success. Among other things, it’s still a wry comment on the naive innocence of post-war Americans in the midst of a corrupt, cynical Central Europe devastated by a violence unimaginable to Americans, the America/Europe divide still as wide as it was when Mark Twain published The Innocents Abroad in 1868. Drazin’s book is a fine, comprehensive look at the making of Carol Reed’s film and sets it in historical context.
On my Kindle, on the other hand, is Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure; Shteyngart may be the most able satirist of both pre-Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, as well as the absurdities of the West, since Vladimir Voinovich, and that’s saying something. Why I should be interested in Gary Shteyngart’s life at all is a mystery to me, but I can say that about so many things.
I’ll lift a glass to The Third Man at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there. And below, a “trailer” for Little Failure from 2013, featuring a discussion between Shteyngart and his husband James Franco as they look forward to the publication of the book (with a special appearance by Jonathan Franzen). It’s worth a peek.
On February 21, the David Zwirner Gallery at 519 West 19th Street will open “Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact,” a major retrospective of the work of R. Crumb. “The exhibition will feature a wide array of printed matter culled from the artist’s archive: tear sheets of drawings and comics, taken directly from the publications where the works first appeared, as well as related ephemera,” reads the press release for the exhibition. “Further illuminating Crumb’s practice, the show will also feature a selection of rare sketchbooks and original drawings by the artist.” The exhibition will also feature digital touchscreen versions of many of Crumb’s sketchbooks, not to mention:
Also on view will be a group of historical works on paper by English and American satirists and illustrators including William Hogarth, James Gillray, Thomas Nast, and Art Young, offering a unique opportunity to understand Crumb within the great traditions of social critique that extend back to the eighteenth century. In addition, director Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed 1994 documentary, Crumb, a film that explores the artist’s life, career, and family, will be screened continuously throughout the run of the show.
It’s a long overdue tribute to a graphic artist who came to be one of the great satirists of American culture of the 20th century. More information about the exhibition can be found here; it runs through April 13. Not long ago I managed to grab myself a giclée print of the work at the top of this post; I wrote briefly about it when I did. You’ll find that below.
[“You just want to throw up your hands,” the original title of this post] is an appropriate response, I suppose, to so many things these days. But the quote comes from R. Crumb, as he attempted to explain the reaction to his enthusiasm for early 20th-century popular music:
You play old records for most people, and, if they listen at all, after the record’s over they turn to you and say, “So what is it you like about that old music?” You just want to throw up your hands.
Crumb may be best known as a cartoonist, of course, a prophet without honor in the land of his birth. His “A Short History of America” lithograph above says a great deal in a mere nine panels. A few years ago, Josh Jones wrote in a short essay about the lithograph: “Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural — a time … when ‘people could still express themselves.'” And “A Short History of America” also suggests that, like Mark Twain, Crumb is a moralist as well.
As a teenager I was a great enthusiast of not only Crumb’s comic work but also his excavations of early American popular music with his band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb continues to play old records for people, most recently for John Heneghan’s “John’s Old Time Radio Show,” a periodic podcast. Recently he’s been featuring early recorded world music from South America, Africa, and other regions. Go there and he’ll play them for you, too. And below, Crumb plays ukelele on “Coney Island Baby” with Eden Brower and John Heneghan’s East River String Band, recorded in France late last year. A new album by the same title is promised soon. [UPDATE: Read about that album here, released early this year.]
Elizabeth Cotten‘s “Freight Train” is one of the more moving examples of the Piedmont Blues, and a somewhat late entry into its early history. Cotten, born in 1893 in North Carolina, was a self-taught guitarist who when young began to write her own songs. She gave up guitar playing after she married and had children in the 1910s. Much later, in the early 1950s after she was divorced and living in the Washington D.C. area, Cotton was working in a department store when she helped a lost young child find her mother among the aisles; the child was Peggy Seeger, and her mother Ruth Crawford Seeger. Shortly thereafter the Seegers hired Cotten as a housemaid; at that point, Cotten picked up the guitar once more and learned it all over again from scratch.
She came to prominence thereafter with performances and a few recordings for Folkways Records; she died in Syracuse, New York, in 1987. Below, a late recording of “Freight Train,” which she wrote at the age of 11. In the liner notes to her first album, she said:
We used to watch the freight train. We knew the fireman and the brakeman … and the conductor, my mother used to launder for him. They’d let us ride in the engine … put us in one of the coaches while they were backing up and changing … that was how I got my first train ride.
We used to walk the trestle and put our ear to the track and listen for the train to come. My brother, he’d wait for the train to get real close and then he’d hang down from one of the ties and swing back up after the train had passed over him.
These days I’ve been enjoying Samuel Charters’ groundbreaking 1959 study The Country Blues (reissued by Da Capo Press in 1975 with a new introduction by Charters); at the same time the companion LP of the same name, released by Folkways Records, has been getting some play around the house as I make my own efforts towards cultural appropriation by learning country blues guitar. The first cut on the LP is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” released by Paramount Records in 1927. The single is important for American popular music in a variety of ways. According to the Wikipedia page for Jefferson, it’s been selected as “one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Carl Perkins, the Beatles, and Jerry Lee Lewis also covered it.
A native of Wortham, Texas, the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson worked as a street singer and visited several states in the course of his travels. His successful recording debut in 1926 launched the vogue for country blues. Before his mysterious death in 1929, Jefferson recorded 85 sides and established himself as the most popular blues guitarist of his era. An off-beat guitarist known for his free phrasing patterns, he was one of the most inspired singers found in blues.