Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Various Artists: Classic Sounds of New Orleans

Various Artists
Classic Sounds of New Orleans
Rating: 4.0/5.0
Label: Smithsonian Folkways


Depending on a listener's opinion of old-time jazz and blues, Classic Sounds of New Orleans will either be tediously inaccessible or a small but essential piece in that big puzzle of America's musical past. It focuses on a single region's musical heritage for a relatively brief period, primarily from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, though many of its songs date much further back. Some of the tracks have dodgy sound quality - lo-fi years before bands deliberately tried to sound like they were recording from the depths of a flushing toilet - and don't necessarily lend themselves to a lifetime of repeated listening. Still other inclusions, like a shoeshine boy singing "Hambone" in the French Quarter, street musician Freddie L. Small providing a harmonica-only version of a jazz standard, street vendor Dora Bliggen shouting about blackberries and Baby Dodds simply drumming for a couple minutes, seem best served in a classroom setting or for gravely serious discussion among that bearded professorial set for whom Moses Asch remains a patron saint.

But the album is also audio archiving at its finest, again confirming Smithsonian Folkways' standing as one of the most trustworthy record labels in terms of musical preservation. Its packaging is stellar, if anyone cares about that type of stuff anymore, while the release's overall aesthetics are faithful to the styles and sounds of the New Orleans jazz and blues represented here. Its front cover is a reprint of Doc Paulin's Marching Band and the back cover is that of The First Kid Clayton Session; between those covers, period photos of musicians with nicknames like "Snooks" Eaglin and "Wolfman" Washington help put the listener in a Crescent City mindset. The liner notes written by Coppin State professor Robert H. Cataliotti contain background information about the origins of these recordings as well as a history of each track, are richly detailed and examine these songs from the perspective of how they fit into both African American culture and New Orleans folklore.

Classic Sounds should not be dismissed as purely a specialist's release or as something only to be studied with detachment. The bulk of the album is thoroughly enjoyable, especially in moments that capture New Orleans' buoyant and jubilant spirit, like the jazzy bounce of the Eureka Brass Band's "Just a Little While to Stay Here," the ragtime piano medley of H.J. Boiusseau's versions of "Take Your Big Leg Off Me/Easy Rider/Mama Don't 'Low No Music Playing Here" and the wildly mad horns and vocals Jimmy "Kid" Clayton and his band bring to "Jimmy's Blues" and "Corrine, Corrina." Other songs are far less joyous and pack an emotional wallop like only the best blues can, especially Doc Paulin's rendition of the spiritual funeral procession song "We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City," the murder fantasy of "Careless Love ("I'll dig your grave/ I'll dig it with a silver spade") and the beware-of-stones-that-you-throw sentiment that Roosevelt Sykes brings to "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone." With its mournful vocals and simple guitar melody, Eaglin's interpretation of "Saint James Infirmary" also ranks as one of the album's more harrowing tracks, while Sister Dora Alexander's "Times Done Changed" expresses a dread for the present and a perhaps naive nostalgia for days long gone that could apply to nearly any generation.

In any collection like Classic Sounds of New Orleans, there will inevitably be some notable exclusions - "James Alley Blues" immediately comes to mind - but it's impossible to summarize an entire city's musical history on a single disc. Though all of the songs here have been previously released, they come from impossible-to-find albums and the broad overview that Classic Sounds provides is timely and welcome. Its appeal to a mass audience may be limited, and it's not an album that can easily be listened to start-to-finish, but it almost perfectly documents the key characteristics of New Orleans' diverse musical personality.

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