Category Archives: Folk

“From the Mississippi Delta to South Australia,” by Alpha Unit

Don Morrison salvages old galvanized sheet metal from sheds and farms throughout Australia. The older the metal, the better, he says; some of this reclaimed metal is over 100 years old. He takes it to his workshop in Summertown, South Australia, where he fashions it into metal-bodied acoustic guitars. Of his material he says:

Galvanised iron, or Galvo, is now an integral part of the Australian landscape and it seemed natural (to me at least!) to try it in a resonator guitar. The result is a truly awesome sound, very loud but with a surprisingly rounded tone. I should call it the Transcontinental guitar – genuine Aussie material, genuine Delta sound!

That “Delta sound” refers to Delta blues, one of the early forms of blues. This music arose in the Mississippi Delta, which, despite its name, is not a part of the actual delta of the Mississippi River. Rather, it is located in the northwestern part of Mississippi, bounded by the Mississippi River on the west and the Yazoo River on the east.

This alluvial floodplain is one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. It was here that Black field hands created the music we call blues, using chants, “field hollers,” and songs to make their work go faster. Ed Kopp writes:

While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun.

The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.

Although the sound of a resonator guitar is iconic to blues, blues musicians didn’t start out playing the resonator. The earliest bluesmen played an instrument called the diddley bow.

The diddley bow has been called “the godfather of American roots instruments.” It is the simplest form of the guitar and is the first type of slide guitar used in America. It was very easy to make, consisting of a string of wire tensioned between two nails on a board. A bottle or can wedged under the wire would create tension for pitch. The player would pluck the string while sliding a piece of metal or glass on it to produce notes.

One-stringed bow instruments date back to antiquity and developed in various parts of East Asia and in the west coast and Congo regions of Africa. Rural Black Southerners crafted these instruments and taught their children to play them. They would sometimes build one-stringed zithers on a wall, “with a strand of baling wire, two thread spools for bridges, and a half-pint whiskey bottle for a slider,” as slide guitar player Big Joe Williams recalled to one researcher.

Boys who showed promise on the diddley bow could graduate to a guitar if they were lucky enough to get a hold of one. Musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, and B. B. King all first learned to play on the diddley bow.

Once musicians could afford guitars they quickly abandoned the diddley bow. And when the resonator guitar came along, they had a way to present their music to even larger audiences. The resonator, with its crisp metallic ring, created the signature sound of Delta blues. When you listen to Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, or Bukka White – among many others – you’re listening to Delta blues. Others, such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, started out playing Delta blues.

This Delta sound is what craftsmen like Don Morrison aim to re-create. His resonators, like the very first of their kind, have built-in amplification – a feature that came about by demand.

Back in the early 1920s guitar players performing with dance orchestras couldn’t really stand out from the other players. Since there were no amplifiers, guitars were considered a part of the rhythm section instead of lead instruments. A vaudeville performer and promoter named George Beauchamp wanted an acoustic guitar that could play melodies over the orchestral instruments. He turned to John Dopyera, a violin repairman and luthier whose workshop was close to Beauchamp’s Los Angeles home.

John Dopyera and his brother Rudy experimented with various designs to achieve a smooth and balanced amplified sound and decided to mount cone-like aluminum resonators, similar to speaker cones, inside a metal guitar body. Dopyera found that using three smaller cones instead of one big cone gave the guitar the sound he’d been looking for. The tri-cone resonator guitar was born.

Beauchamp was impressed with the new design and proposed a business venture to Dopyera, who agreed. They created the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927. National guitars quickly became best sellers. The company soon created a wood-bodied model.

There were differences, though, between Beauchamp and Dopyera. Beauchamp preferred a single-cone resonator, not only because it was louder but because it was cheaper to make. For Dopyera, excellent sound and quality were top priorities. The two men finally went their separate ways when Dopyera found out that Beauchamp had claimed the patent for the single-cone resonator. In 1928 Dopyera quit National, with the intention of manufacturing his own single-cone resonator. John and his brother Emil formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company (named for the Dopyera Brothers).

Because National held the patent for his single-cone resonator, John Dopyera had to develop a new style of single-cone resonator. The single biggest change that he made was to the bridge of the guitar.

On a standard acoustic guitar, the bridge is glued directly to the top of the guitar. It has several functions: it holds the strings securely, sets the spacing of the strings, and acts as an external brace to the guitar body. Its other important job is transferring vibrations from the strings to the soundboard of the guitar. On a resonator guitar, the bridge is a part of the resonator cone.

For single-cone resonators, the cone has either a “biscuit” bridge or a “spider” bridge.

The National resonator used a biscuit cone, which is convex (pointing outward). Inside the tip of the cone sits a round wooden bridge (the biscuit), and set into the bridge is a small piece typically found on a guitar bridge – the saddle. The saddle keeps the strings elevated at the preferred height above the fretboard. The saddle transfers the string vibrations to the bridge and the bridge transfers them to the cone. The cone in turn vibrates, moving the air inside the guitar out through the sound holes.

For his Dobro resonator, John Dopyera decided to make his cone concave (pointing inward) and used an eight-legged “spider” bridge which straddled the cone. The vibrations from the strings travel from the saddle and down the spider “legs,” providing the cone with eight contact rods for vibration. The result is a loud, full-bodied tone.

Resonator guitars became popular in both blues and bluegrass. Dobro-style guitars, especially wood-bodied ones, were preferred by many bluegrass players. Blues players tended toward National-style tri-cone resonators. But plenty of guitarists break with tradition and use resonators in their own preferred ways.

Players liked resonators because, being louder than regular acoustic guitars, they could play for larger crowds in rural areas that didn’t have electricity for amplifiers. Street musicians, who had to set up without amplifiers, liked resonator guitars for the same reason.

Don Morrison makes both single-cone and tri-cone resonators. For his popular Rustbucket model, he says he flattens the corrugated steel sheets by walking on them so he can fit them through his ancient set of sheet metal rollers. Some of this old metal will still bear the makers’ stamps: Trademark Redcliffe, for example, or Lysaght Queen’s Head Australia or Emu Best. You’ll see these stamps on the backs of his guitars.

On some Rustbuckets he takes naturally weathered Galvo and adds an artificially rusted cone and sound holes, giving the guitar a distinctive, vintage look.

When he isn’t building resonators, Don Morrison is performing music, often Delta blues. During the ’90s his band, The Elmores, played blues classics by Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. He and his band Prawnhead are also a part of a “roots revolution” in popular music.

We honed our style on the streets and markets of Adelaide. We found the faster we played, the more money we made. We don’t play blues or folk, we don’t play country, we don’t play bluegrass, nor do we play rockabilly. But we play a mixture of all of those. We call it bluebilly.

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Filed under Acoustics, Africa, Alpha Unit, Antiquity, Asia, Australia, Blacks, Folk, Guest Posts, History, Labor, Modern, Music, Race/Ethnicity, Regional, Rock, South, US, USA

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

A great environmentalist song from long ago, in 1970! That’s almost 50 years ago! This was off of her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, a reference to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles where many hippies took up residence back then. There’s no way they could afford to live there now – it’s far too expensive. I have been through Laurel Canyon before, and it’s a beautiful drive. This was Joni’s third album and it is widely praised. Joni is originally Canadian, believe it or not. But by age 22, she was living in the US in Detroit, and by age 25, she was in Los Angeles. This song was covered by several other groups, most famously by Counting Crows, but I have heard that their version is not as good as this one.

I love Joni Mitchell, one of the great hippie folk-rock singers from the 1970’s. She was a genuine hippie. She lived in a large house on substantial acreage where she liked to wander about naked, smoke pot, and entertain various boyfriends.

And I would like to wish Joni Mitchell a happy 74th birthday. Yes, she is still with us. One more thing – she was always so beautiful. I have seen a photo of her at age 55, and she still looks fantastic. She was one of the greatest songwriters of our modern era.

Great epitaph for our planet with Donald Trump in the White House and Scott Pruitt as EPA head. Why do people who call themselves environmentalists vote Republican? How could they? Are there actually people who refer to themselves as environmentalists who nevertheless vote Republican? How can they justify it? Survey after survey shows majority support for all of our environmental laws, including the much-maligned Endangered Species Act. Yes, even the ESA has strong majority support. So majorities support environmentalism across the board, but a lot of them march off and vote Republican every year anyway. Go figure.

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The Band, “The Weight”

Of course, this was Bob Dylan’s backup band. It was very hard to describe where they were coming from, sort of folksy redneck hippies or something. They had deep roots in the older American folk music tradition, especially from Appalachia.

From 1968. The Band was one of the all time great rock bands, but most people probably have not heard of them anymore. They had a number of other fantastic songs.

Gorgeous music.

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Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, “This Land Is Our Land”

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

And I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me the golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me, a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple
By the Relief Office, I’d seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

Written by Woody Guthrie. Sung by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger (age 80).

From the great inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008. I was in a doctor’s office and the news came on that Obama had won. I saw the crowds mobbing the streets, all marching towards the main park of Chicago. The volatile Spike Lee was there. “This changes everything!” He effused. There was a little Black girl sitting next to me, maybe seven years old. I asked her if she liked Obama. She nodded her head shyly. I had tears in my eyes. How dare these idiots call me racist! What sort of racist cries tears of joy when he hears that America just elected its first Black president?

The three bolded sections above are the “forbidden lyrics.” Although Guthrie included them when he wrote the song in 1940, they are seldom performed in modern versions as they were considered subversive as promoting socialism or Communism. The song is actually a great socialist anthem. Woody Guthrie was definitely a leftwinger.

Given the choice, I would rather have the land owned by me (the state) than owned by some private individual. What’s so great about private ownership of land? What’s better for me, land that I can walk on or land that I can’t walk on? How bout the land that I can walk on?

One of the reasons for China’s great success is that the state owns all the land. Everybody just leases the land where their home or farm is. In The Netherlands also, the state owns all the land. Everybody just leases out whatever land they use. Same thing in Cuba, but in Cuba now, almost everyone owns their own residence. And a great argument for China’s success against India’s failure is that much of the poverty, malnutrition, etc. in India is caused by the private ownership of land, especially in the rural areas. India said they were going to do land reforms and they claimed to do them over and over but the truth is that no real land reform has ever been done in India, and semi-feudal relations still prevail in the countryside. Hence the horrific poverty, starvation, etc.

One of the all-time great folk songs ever written. A purely American song like virtually no other. I believe we should replace that horrible Star Spangled Banner with this much better song. This song also captures the true American spirit. The land does indeed belong to all of us, you and me. All that land the government owns, it doesn’t belong to the government. It belongs to me! It’s my land, dammit! How dare the rich give away my land to malign corporations and the 1%! Forget that. You take my land, and you give it all away to the corporations and the rich to abuse and destroy. What sort of democracy is that?

Plutocratic rule is never democracy. How can it be? The plutocrats are what? 1% 5%? Where do idiot Americans get it in their heads that rule by the rich or the ruling class is somehow democracy. Aristocratic rule is never democracy at any time or in any place. It can’t be. You either have conservatism, which is rule by the rich or the aristocrats, or you have democracy, which is rule by the people. That’s your only two choices. One or the other? Which one do you want? The rich will never rule in favor of the people. They can’t. They literally cannot. They must rule in their class interests. It’s nearly a law of social science as hard and fast as a hard science rule.

Written by Woody Guthrie! One of the best working class folk singer-songwriters who ever lived. He was also a tough, macho guy, a redneck, a worker, a blue collar roughneck with a cigarette dangling from his mouth James Dean style. This is what the Left used to be before it was taken over by effeminate men, butch women, man-hating feminists, White-hating minorities who idolize common street thugs, anti-nationalists advocating to turn all of America into a teeming Third World Calcutta, all manner of sexual identity and sexual orientation freakazoids with so many weird subgroups that they are almost beyond classification, and in general idiots, fools, deviants and dumbasses.

Woody Guthrie is what the Left used to be. He’s what the Left is supposed to be. He was born too soon. He was Alt Left before there was an Alt Left!

This guitar kills fascists!

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Filed under Asia, Caribbean, China, Conservatism, Cuba, Cultural Marxists, Democrats, Economics, Folk, Government, India, Latin America, Left, Music, Obama, Political Science, Politics, Regional, Scum, Social Problems, Socialism, Sociology, South Asia, US Politics, USA, Useless Western Left

Peter Paul and Mary, “Puff the Magic Dragon”

Damn, this was one of my favorite songs when I was a boy.

It came out in 1963 when I was six years old.

When Kennedy got shot. When I saw my father cry for the first time sitting in the old chair grimly watching the flag draped coffin in the grim motorcade with the mournful music on the old black and white TV.

I remember where I was when I heard it. I was in a parking lot of a store. Then we were in the store. They shot the President! They shot the President! Everyone was running around this way and that, not making sense. Nothing was making sense. There was chaos everywhere you looked. The radio was turned on in the store, droning away with the brutal staccato newsmen’s voices. We went back out to our car. There was news, the same news, on every station and nothing else at all. It was in the afternoon, that’s all I know.

Everybody who was alive back then knows exactly what they were doing when they shot the President.

When democracy died. When the dream of America died with the Deep State coup. When the joke of American democracy was shown as the pathetic sham it’s always been, a think veneer for Deep State and oligarchic rule, the very story of America itself.

But this song was always nice. There was always something hauntingly beautiful about it. It’s a silly little kids song, but if it doesn’t warm your heart, then you don’t have one to heat up.

Listen and enjoy. From 1963! The concert, live from 1965. Dig those haircuts!

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Filed under Democrats, Folk, Government, History, Modern, Music, Politics, US, US Politics

Woody Guthrie, “Miss Livichenko”

No pasarán!

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Peter, Paul and Mary “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

This is a great song that I remember from my childhood. It is actually a cover of a great antiwar song by Pete Seeger. Came out in 1962. It became a popular antiwar song in the Vietnam era, but the song was written and this version was released before the war really got going. Seeger took a long time to write this song. Started writing it in 1955 and finished in 1960. It was based on an old Cossack folk song.

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Gordon Lightfoot, “Rainy Day People”

This is a great song! Folk rock from the 1970’s. Is he from Canada? I love music like this…

And here in California, today, it is raining.

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Ian Tyson, “Four Strong Winds”

Probably the greatest Canadian song of all time, or maybe just the greatest song of all time. Some say this is the the real Canadian national anthem. Many excellent covers of this song have been made. I like Neil Young’s version very much. Ian Tyson wrote this song in 1964. He also wrote the great “Someday Soon,” the Judy Collins version of which was uploaded earlier. He was a cowboy and wrote some killer cowboy music.

May Canada keep its glorious socialist spirit forever and never turn into Moloch America!

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Judy Collins, “Someday Soon”

Now this song I really happen to like a lot! The song was written by Ian Tyson and it is about a rodeo. In this clip, she is singing on the Smothers Brothers show in 1969. Great footage of the famous Smothers Brothers. Younger folks are not familiar with them, but when we were young, we used to watch them a lot on TV. Something like watching Johnny Carson or Jay Leno later on. She sure is beautiful, and I also like her makeup, especially on her eyes!

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