Virginia Roots': Toe-Tapping Treasures
By Eddie Dean
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 6, 2002; Page G01
They came from all over Virginia, bound for Richmond and a shot at glory: Blues Birdhead, a harmonica player much in demand at black society dances in Norfolk. Bela Lam and the Greene County Singers, a family string band from the remote Blue Ridge. The Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra from Hopewell and the Roanoke Jug Band, taking leave from the rayon factories where they'd formed their bands. Uptown and backwoods, white and black, they were a motley gaggle of performers gathered in the heart of the Jim Crow South, carrying on a long musical tradition of defying segregation.
It was October 1929, and OKeh Phonograph Corp. was holding sessions at the James K. Polk Furniture store in Richmond. Such gatherings in the South were commonplace, especially after the Victor Talking Machine Co.'s historic field session two years before in Bristol, Va., where country stars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were discovered. Based in New York, OKeh had conducted its own commercial sessions in Southern cities like Atlanta and Asheville, N.C. This time the label set up its mobile recording equipment in Richmond, the centrally located capital of a state rich in regional styles.
While the Bristol sessions were limited to old-time country musicians, OKeh cast a wider net, summoning three dozen acts of many stripes. Some had already made records for OKeh; others, like Babe Spangler, a champion fiddler and former state penitentiary guard, were local radio stars. For five days in mid-October, each got a turn in front of the microphone, and the result showed the full scope of Southern grass-roots music: lowdown blues and majestic gospel-quartet harmonies, manic fiddle breakdowns and solemn street-corner a cappella, wildcat yodeling and small-combo jazz, Hawaiian love songs and ballads about cop-killers. Next to this, the Bristol sessions sound as quaint as a Sunday afternoon quilting party.
The Roanoke Jug Band kicked off "Homebrew Rag" with stage-miked chugs of corn liquor and some deadpan hokum:
"Hello Ray, where'd you get that black eye?"
"Boy -- I fell out of a home-brew tree."
As it turned out, the joke was on them -- along with the rest of the musicians at the Richmond event. Just days later, the stock market collapsed. By the time the records were released, the Depression was in full swing, and the music industry took a nosedive that lasted for years. Just 18 78-rpm records (one song to a side) were issued, and they sold poorly. The performers vanished into obscurity.
That would have been the end of the story, if not for Ron Curry, a former punk rocker who has spent the last few years shaking hillbilly musicians out of his family tree. "Virginia Roots: The 1929 Richmond Sessions," compiled by Curry and released on Outhouse Records, is a lavish two-CD set that brings these long-lost records together for the first time. Among the recent slew of old-time music reissues, this compilation is something different. Presented in a single hefty helping -- 33 songs by 13 artists -- the CD gives an aural snapshot of the whole gamut of Southern working-class performers in one place at one time, a family reunion of all the black-sheep offspring of America's mongrel music.
The set makes clear that what is now called "roots" music was, in many ways, a flowering of all sorts of home-grown sounds, as cross-pollination through radio and records created new hybrids. This subject is further explored in a companion exhibition currently at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, "Virginia Roots Music: Creating and Conserving Tradition."
The sheer diversity of the music on "Virginia Roots" comes as a shock even to experts on early-20th-century American music. "I am really impressed at the wild variety," says Charles Wolfe, a country music historian and author of "A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry." "There was no field session quite like the Richmond one in its scope and variety. It captures the full range of vernacular music in the upper South at the dawn of the modern era."
A veteran of two dozen Richmond bands from punk to jazz, Curry was one of the original members of GWAR, a costumed shock-metal troupe that gave the world such albums as "Scumdogs of the Universe" and "This Toilet Earth." Through it all, the 36-year-old Curry, a self-described "transplanted mountain boy from Front Royal," remained an avid practitioner of old-time music.
His great-grandmother played banjo, which Curry learned at 11. A few years ago, he discovered that his grandfather's cousin Arnold Curry played with the West Virginia string band, the Williamson Brothers & Curry. Their 1927 record "Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand" appears on the "Anthology of American Folk Music," the venerable compilation of old blues and country 78s that has inspired generations of musicians from Bob Dylan to Beck.
Curry had been a fan of the anthology since someone dubbed a cassette copy for him in the '80s. "Hammer," a rendition of the John Henry legend, struck a chord with him even before he knew that a band member was distant kin. "It's totally punk," he says of the record. "There's nothing phony about it at all -- they're really putting their hearts on the line. There's a sort of urgency, and that's something I equate with a lot of early punk rock."
In 1998, a friend of Curry's was researching the saga of Henry "Box" Brown -- a Virginia slave who gained his freedom by shipping himself in a crate to Philadelphia in 1849 -- and he came across a reference to the Richmond sessions. Intrigued by this footnote, Curry pursued the lead to the Southern Folklife Collection in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he found notes from an OKeh ledger detailing the sessions. "Once I started digging, I realized that this was a lot more than just a handful of musicians," he says.
Tracking down the records was no easy task. Most are extremely rare 78s that sold a few thousand, if that. Some, like Otis Mote's "Tight Like That" and the Salem Highballers' "Snowbird on the Ash Bank," were the only known surviving copies. Two records by the Virginia Male Quartet have not turned up at all. To gather the remaining titles, Curry plundered the stashes of private collectors and the Southern Folklife Collection archive, eventually compiling a mix tape he distributed to fellow enthusiasts. "The more I poked around," he recalled, "the more I thought people needed to hear this stuff."
The project gained momentum when Curry began to uncover biographical tidbits. Though none of the musicians is alive, many of their descendants still reside in Virginia. The family of Elbert Coley, leader of the Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra, had saved band photos and press clippings, vintage 78s and Coley's nickel-plated 1928 National steel guitar. (This beautifully preserved instrument -- a chrysanthemum-design, tricone model prized by collectors -- is one of many artifacts on display at the Library of Virginia exhibition, which continues through March.)
Other performers' relatives had no inkling of these long-ago musical careers, which at the time were often viewed as less than worthy pursuits. Otis Mote was a 15-year-old vaudevillian when he appeared at the Richmond sessions with a guitar and a couple of songs he'd learned on the road: "Tight Like That," a smutty blues popular at the time, and "Railroad Bill," a ballad about a real-life Southern outlaw from the late 19th century. At the same session, Mote was joined by his teenage brother Tom on a pair of Pentecostal spirituals, delivered with just as much fervor as the sex-and-violence ditties.
Today's Mote clan reported that, after a rambling, wayward youth, Otis had become a born-again Pentecostal minister, and that's how they remembered him. "They didn't know he recorded," says Curry. "They're very religious people, and they said, 'We felt like it was Dad's hand guiding you to us. It's so neat to hear his voice.' " (There is one Mote carrying on Otis's performing legacy, albeit with a contemporary twist: His son Steve works as an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas.)
"Virginia Roots" documents a crucial historical moment, when the spread of records and radio influenced musicians from remote backwaters without snuffing out their individuality. "What you don't see in the other sessions was the way popular music was infiltrating the small cities in the South," says Wolfe. On his "Mean Low Blues," for example, Blues Birdhead copies a Louis Armstrong solo on his harmonica, no doubt learned from an Armstrong 78. The Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra is one of many ersatz ensembles, complete with leis and grass-skirted dancers, that emerged from the era's Hawaiian music craze. The fact that they were workers at the Tubize Artificial Silk factory in the Virginia Piedmont didn't stop them from crafting such exotic-sounding originals as "Sweetheart of Mandalay."
The Richmond sessions reveal how vernacular music had evolved by the late '20s, at once echoing centuries-old traditions and foreshadowing modern hybrids that led to rock-and-roll. Bela Lam and the Greene County Singers had an intricate "broken-time" vocal style passed down from generation to generation. Their music, suffused with biblical images of the apocalypse and the hereafter, is archaic even by old-time standards. The CD's rowdy secular numbers have roots just as deep: The Roanoke Jug Band's "Johnny Lover" boasts a melody that dates to the Civil War era.
In contrast to these ragged, rural strains, the Monarch Jazz Quartet offered the bold new sound of the city, an elegant a cappella style honed on Norfolk street corners. "What's the Matter Now?" has the pleading harmonies and lovesick lyrics that later found full expression in postwar doo-wop and R&B.
The Bubbling Over Five, also from the Tidewater area, was an eccentric band, featuring saxophone, violin, banjo and piano, whose specialty was off-kilter, slow-simmering jazz. Little is known about the Five -- or about the Monarch Jazz Quartet, other than an OKeh catalogue ad with a photo of the Quartet members in matching fedoras and dress shirts. Like most performers at the Richmond event, they are shrouded in mystery, the victims of bad timing. "Had it been done the same year as the Bristol sessions, we'd probably have heard a lot more about it," says Wolfe. "As it was, too much of this brilliant panoply of music remained unheard, unknown, unheralded. Hopefully this set will remedy that."
Curry, who makes his living as a remodeling contractor, spent four years on the project, and his meticulous effort shows in the CD's 48-page booklet crammed with photos, transcribed lyrics, and essays by musicologists. His aim was to present the music with the scholarship it deserved, after years of neglect by his parents' generation, embarrassed by their fiddling forefathers.
For Curry, "Virginia Roots" is but the first of many planned sallies against the record industry. "I want to undermine the corporate giants of entertainment and all the garbage they put out," he says. "This is as anti-Trashville" -- as in Nashville -- "as you can get. Trashville is threatened by the old stuff that has so much life to it, as opposed to the crap they're churning out now."
He is already preparing a CD reissue of the material recorded by the Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra and Bela Lam for OKeh in New York City -- before the ill-fated Richmond session. Like "Virginia Roots" -- perhaps the first old-time music compilation ever released on a punk-rock label -- it's a strictly do-it-yourself production, in the punk tradition.
This time around, the timing may be right. In the wake of the best-selling "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, roots music is on a roll. One of Curry's bands, a mandolin-and-banjo duo called the Hi-Tone String Ticklers, often plays as an opening act at rock clubs, and he has found a receptive audience for the resurrected songs of '20s blues artists like Daddy Stovepipe and Papa Charlie Jackson. "The crowd is such an easy sell," he says. "People are hungry for this stuff and they don't even know it."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)Further information about the "Virginia Roots" CD and Library of Virginia exhibition is available at www.outhouserecords.com.