Before Ry Cooder released his first solo LP in 1970 he had an already established reputation as an outstanding exponent of the bottleneck guitar. His work with Taj Mahal in the Rising Sons, on Captain Beefheart’s “Safe As Milk” & sessions for the Rolling Stones, most notably with Jagger’s “Memo From Turner” from the “Performance” soundtrack, marked him as an eloquent young stylist & one to watch. The “Ry Cooder” LP showed him to be a student & an archivist of marginalised American music from the early twentieth century. Side 2 includes songs by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Arthur “Blind” Blake, Sleepy John Estes & Blind Willie Johnson, all fine Blues names. I was a student too, I knew about these guys. There was another blind musician who was new to me…
Alfred Reed was born blind in 1880 & learned to play the violin on the farm in West Virginia where he grew up. He played at fairs, churches, on street corners, selling the sheet music of his compositions. It was 1927 before he recorded any tracks, 4 in July, 5 more in December. Two years later a couple of sessions produced 12 more sides & that’s all there is. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, heavily re-shuffled by Ry, using only 3 of the 8 verses, is a topical protest song recorded just a week after Black Tuesday, the Wall St Crash & the onset of the Depression. Reed was a conservative Christian, “Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls ?”, a warning that a woman’s short hair is against His will, is now anachronistic & funny. His colloquial, unvarnished lyrics hit the spot & his lament for the working man, “can hardly get our breath, taxed and schooled and preached to death”, certainly still resonates. Reed’s brief collected work, accompanied by his son Arville, includes more of this good country roots stuff & is certainly worth checking.
Ry Cooder was not finished with Alfred Reed. In 1976 he recorded “Always Lift Him Up”, a lovely, sympathetic lyric, & last year he was performing “You Must Unload”, more Appalachian wisdom concerning the road to Heaven for the wealthy churchgoer. “How Can…” has remained a centrepiece of his live sets, sometimes extended to a 10 minute showcase of fine musicality. In 1987 the noted documentarist Les Blank pointed his cameras at the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces for a version which makes space available for the keyboard of Van Dyke Parks & the singular accordion of my good friend (well, I spent one evening in his company) Flaco Jimenez as well as Cooder’s inimitable guitar work.
Cooder’s 2nd LP “Into the Purple Valley” continued his excavations of the Blues & the Dustbowl while incorporating a couple of Caribbean classics. “How Can You Keep On Moving” & “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All” were both on the 1959 LP “Songs From the Depression” by folk trio the New Lost City Ramblers which also featured 2 songs by Reed including “How Can a Poor Man…”. “Denomination Blues”, a direct, mocking commentary on 57 varieties of Christianity, was a perfect candidate for revival. “Well, the Primitive Baptists they believe that you can’t go to heaven ‘less you wash your feet & that’s all”. Funny because it’s true ? I couldn’t say. This song was my introduction to the unique talent of Washington Phillips.
Phillips was born in 1880 too, down in Teague Texas. He was a jack-leg preacher, looking for a temporary church gig or delivering street corner sermons. Like Blind Alfred Reed his only recordings, just 15 songs, were made between 1927 & 1929.I guess that his music is gospel-blues & he had some success with “Take Your Burden to the Lord”, a popular hymn. There is no supplication to the spirit of the Lord, moral homilies are delivered in a calm, mature, assured voice. I am not the most religious of men but I’m always open to advice about Life & how to live it from those who have knocked about a bit.From his lyrics Washington Phillips seems to have been a smart man & there’s an eerie beauty about “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” that just enchants me out of my secular socks whenever I listen to it. Then there’s the mysterious matter of his instrument of choice…
Well, there it is in the one of the surviving photos of Mr Phillips. The technical term is, I believe, 2 big old zithers welded together. It has been variously identified as a dulceola/dolceola, a celestaphone for the right hand, a phonoharp for the left. It does seem that the original instruments were intended to be played with a hammer but Wash chose to strum & pluck them. Whatever he called it the effect is individual & wonderful, providing a gentle, floating accompaniment to his lyrics. Gospel & Blues for sure, in this melodic, mature music I hear the roots of modern popular music & that is something.
Ry Cooder agreed & in 1974 he & producer Russ Titelman re-worked Phillips’ “You Can’t Stop A Tattler” into the classy & classic “The Tattler”. We’ll end with that & then you can get on to the Y-tube & discover more about 2 great musicians who deserve a wider hearing.