Sunday, November 02, 2008

glisten: The Work of the Father, part two

More info on my father and the background on how this piece came to be is available here. I'm pleased to be able to play host to this piece; the interview puts Lomax's work with The Golden Gates into an interesting perspective and the previously-unheard releases that make up the post's musical component are catchy, pitch-perfect and a rosy look back to FDR-era folk music.

Again, here's Pops.

The Golden Gate Quartet from the 2/8/1941 Norfolk, VA. Journal and Guide
Left to Right: Earl Robinson, Clyde Riddick, Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, Orlandus Wilson and Burl Ives

The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartette made their first stage appearance in New York City at Carnegie Hall, as part of John Hammond's historic "Spirituals to Swing" concert in December 1938, which led to an extended series of engagements at Barney Josephson's exclusive Café Society in Greenwich Village. It was at this time that Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax began to make use of the Gates' talents in radio shows and concert/lecture/demonstrations. In 1995, I had the pleasure of speaking with the great Golden Gate Quartet bass singer Orlandus "Dad" Wilson, who joined the group in 1934 and remained a member until his death in 1999, about the Quartet's experience working with Lomax. A rough transcription follows with Mr. Wilson's comments italicized and my own in bold; you can listen to the original recording of our conversation by clicking on the link.

"The first concert we did like that with Lomax, this was what they called the Pan-Am Music Festival, which took place in Mexico City. We went to Mexico and we spent about three weeks doing that music festival and a few of the cities in Mexico. This was in '39. And then in 1940 we came back and we did the concert at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. We did a few of these concerts like that. We did one at the college, Columbia University in New York. And we did one down in the Village at one of the small theaters that they had down in the Village. These turned out to be very successful musical concerts. Then we came to Fisk and we did the one in Fisk in 1941.

"They were in the form of a demonstration? Lomax would lecture…"

"Lomax would do lectures. He would talk about the folk music and the connection of the blues and the folk song. Because in this we had Josh White with us doing these concerts. And we did demonstrations on the stories of the things that arrived with the spirituals, in connection with the folk music. And we did the sketches. We did things like 'Mr. Rabbit' and things like that. We did the dramatic story behind this. Because we had spirituals that we used to sing, 'Then my little soul going to shine, shine,' 'Then my little light is going to shine, shine, shine.' In the folk version of this it was about Mr. Rabbit, they'd say 'Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Rabbit, your ears are very thin. Yes, bless Lord, I've been splitting the wind. Then my little soul going to shine, shine.' And we did dramatic stories about this. Clyde Riddick was playing the part of the rabbit and Willie Johnson he was playing the part of the hound dog that was chasing the rabbit. And I was narrating the story, trying to get Mr. Rabbit and the hound dog together you know. All this sort of thing. At the end of the dramatic thing we would go into this song, 'Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Rabbit…'"

Here, following a brief introduction by Lomax, is 'Mr. Rabbit', recorded on December 20, 1940 at The Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress.

The Golden Gate Quartet - 'Mr. Rabbit, Your Ears' Mighty Long'

Orlandus Wilson with his wife, Gun (1994)

"Was that a song that you all knew, or did Lomax introduce you to that song?"

"We knew the spiritual version, 'This Little Light of Mine is going to shine, shine, shine.' In the folk version the words was about the story of the animal kingdom."

"Lomax taught you that song?"

"Yeah. He was doing this folk music series called 'Back Where I Came From,' and we was doing different folk songs, and this was a folklore version of the song 'My Little Light's Gonna Shine.' When we did that it turned out to be so successful we did a series of these programs with Josh White; and we did some with Burl Ives and with Woody Guthrie."

"Actual concert programs with them?"

"Yeah. And Pete Seeger. But the ones that we did in Mexico and the ones that we did at the Library of Congress in Washington and the one we did at Fisk was just us Lomax and Josh White."

"Sterling Brown?"

"And Sterling Brown, yes."

"Was he on all the programs, Sterling Brown?"

"Sterling Brown was on the one we did at the Library of Congress and also here at Fisk, but he wasn't in Mexico with us."

"Did you ever have the opportunity to meet the Fisk Jubilee Singers or any members, to the best of your recollection?"

"No. I never met any of the Fisk Jubilee Singers."

"Were you aware at all of the minor uproar that your appearance at Fisk caused in 1941? Did you hear anything about that?"

"No. We only heard things that Lomax would tell us. How successful it was, and how the people enjoyed it so much. During that time we only saw Lomax on a weekend or something like that, when he came into New York; because he was doing his duties at the Library of Congress in Washington at that time."

"Over the past couple of days we've discussed the perceived distinction between spiritual music and gospel music, and the strict lines that some people draw in their minds between what they are doing and what anyone else is doing. Time magazine, this is May 12, 1941, wrote a review of the program at Fisk."

"I didn't know this."

"You know, this is like the old saying from years ago in this profession. Everyone even spoke of Duke Ellington that way; here was a man that was fifty years ahead of his time. I think the same thing amounted to what we were doing, that the Gates were probably fifty years ahead of their time, what we did then. It wasn't that we were only criticized in this way by these people, but even by some of the churches that we sang in. They said, 'Well, who are these guys doing all the side-slapping, all the rhythmic syncopations in this type of music?' We were criticized by not only just one organization like that; there were many churches that criticized the Golden Gate Quartet. They would refuse to let us sing in the churches."

I showed Wilson the Time article, with its derogatory reference to "hotcha," etc. The hidebound attitude reflected by the Time article wasn't shared by Fisk University alumni secretary Andrew J. Allison. His comments appeared in the campus publication Fisk News (May 1941) directly rebutting the sentiments expressed in Time piece.

You can look over scans of both articles in pdf format by clicking this link.

"What was it like working with Alan Lomax in a context like this?" Was it smooth and easy?

"Yeah. Alan was very easy to work with. The things that he knew about folk music he mixed this in with what we knew about the spiritual feeling of folk music. What was really exciting for Lomax with what we did, was that Willie Johnson was someone who could make stories sound so fantastic. Because Willie Johnson could make a fantastic story out of nothing. This was a thing that really made Lomax so attached to what the Golden Gate Quartet was doing, involving the folklore stories that he was putting together. Willie Johnson had a lot of expression in the things that he did, the stories that he could tell. It was no one that was able to do the great narrations like he did. He was someone that had such a fantastic way of doing these things. The expressions that he could use, no one else was able to use the same expressions and feeling."

"You didn't ever feel like Alan Lomax was trying to force you into some kind of a mold that was outside of your natural expression?"

"No, I don't think so. What Alan did with us, he would listen to what we were doing and if it came close to the things that he had collected in his search in the folklore he was really satisfied with it and he would mix it in with what he had to offer. The same thing with Josh White and the blues. The same thing with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, what they were doing."

"These things were kind of an outgrowth of the 'Back Where I Come From' radio show?"

"Yeah. The things that we knew to do and Josh White knew to do. And Hudie Ledbetter, Huddie he had so many stories that we could laugh about, you know. Willie Johnson, he had such expression that could mix into the stories that Huddie would be telling that was breaking everybody up."

"I'll bet that was a great radio show."

"Yeah, it was really fantastic."

Some years later I was able to acquire a nine-and-a-half minute abridged copy of the 1940 'Back Where I Come From' show that prominently featured the Gates contributions to the program. The recording culminates with a chorus of 'So Long, It's Been Good To Know You' by The Gates, Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives.
The Golden Gate Quartet - 'Back Where I Come From'

The Golden Gate, circa 1939; clockwise from top: Wilson, Johnson, Langford, Owens