Monday, December 13, 2010

Jamming with the dead in Athens, Georgia

Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 80, so it follows immediately upon my previous post, "No Chris Bess".

Jamming with the dead
By Chris King

Toward the end of that summer, Uncle Tupelo finally released the record they made with Peter Buck of REM. I didn’t rush right out and buy it. I was broke, thanks to my broken foot, and I wasn’t keeping up with post-punk bands as I once had. I was too busy casting my musical glance backward through the folklore stacks. Rampant buzz about the new Uncle Tupelo record began to draw me in, though. From the sound of it, I was hardly the only Cicero’s songster who had caught the folklore bug.

I eventually broke down and bought the record, which was titled after the session dates, March 16-20, 1992. It did require some breaking down on my part, because acute gig envy had set in by then. Everything I had heard about this record made me wish that it was our record. In the wake of a pop album, Still Feel Gone, and on the verge of a major label signing, Uncle Tupelo had gone to Athens, Georgia, holed up with the guitar player of REM, and recorded an acoustic batch of mostly traditional music. Brian Henneman from Chicken Truck went down with them to play on it, everything from slide guitar to mandolin. All of this sounded like a perfect description of the right thing to do.

I could hardly believe my ears when I finally dropped needle on vinyl. Not only were these guys digging in the same folkloric dirt I was digging in, they had even struck the same gold – and staked the first claim.

I had been dumping hundreds of folklore records onto cassettes in the basement of the Wash. U. music library. Nothing – other than Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music – got deeper under my skin than a collection of Appalachian field recordings called High Atmosphere. This was bare-knuckle, gutbucket stuff. Mostly spare, sparkling banjo miniatures, with shivery unaccompanied ballad singing and truly strange story songs.

My favorite of the songs – “Rolling Mills are Burning Down” by a guy from Marshall, North Carolina named George Landers – had the wildest vocal I had ever heard. The vocal staggered around a wobbly banjo figure with slurry recklessness, like a wild-eyed drunk that couldn’t stay on his feet. The garbling of the words felt like part of the emotion of the song, as if the guy could hardly bear to spit out his story, an incoherent tale about torched mills on fire, a girl gone wrong, and a longing for the cold grave.

Some guy named John Cohen made these field recordings back in 1965. He got such good material, he suggested in his liner notes, because he went around asking for banjo tunings. A technical opening question about their instrument seemed to put the mountain men at ease. The result were these intense, unguarded, almost unbearably intimate performances. Part of the record’s addictive quality, for an amateur folklorist like me, was the running thread of conversation between John Cohen and his mountain sources. At the head and tail of the tunes, you could hear Cohen’s calm, likable voice encouraging the musicians, whose speech had grit and character equal in fascination to their rustic instruments and songs.

I was all on my own in the folklore stacks. I had never seen a copy of High Atmosphere (issued by Rounder on LP in 1974) anywhere outside of the Wash. U. music library basement. No one I knew seemed to even know it existed. Now, spinning on my turntable, was unmistakable evidence that Uncle Tupelo had gone down to Athens, sat around with Peter Buck of REM, and recorded some of these songs!

Three of their old time covers – “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, “Warfare,” and “I Wish My Baby Was Born” – all appeared on High Atmosphere. It was obvious from the Uncle Tupelo recordings in Athens that the High Atmosphere versions were the sources of their songs. The coincidence pretty much knocked me out. As I blabbed about this discovery at Cicero’s, one of the basement bar’s beautiful bartenders, Heather Crist, confirmed that Jeff Tweedy had become fixated on one particular tape of Appalachian field recordings. “He was playing it constantly when we were driving around,” Heather said, as she poured me a beer. So Tweedy was even turning Cicero’s barmaids onto this shit. My gig envy got far worse.

That Uncle Tupelo’s versions of these songs were thin and unconvincing compared to the High Atmosphere originals was no consolation. Nobody my age – perhaps no American alive – could touch the voices of those old mountain men and women. Worlds have disappeared since they sang. Something in their singing was one of the things that went away. No contemporary cover version could recapture it. At least Uncle Tupelo had the sense and guts to grasp this forgotten document of that lost world, learn the material word for word and note for note, and put these fabulous songs into play once again.

Of course, reviving mountain music was as old as the hills in 1992. I didn’t know it at the time, but John Cohen had played with Mike Seeger in the folk revival combo New Lost City Ramblers. Cohen was right in the heart of the folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which would turn back into rock & roll when Bob Dylan plugged in. But I had skipped over the folk revival of the previous generation, bypassing the middlemen. I stumbled from post-punk right into the ancients themselves, face to face in the folklore stacks.

And now, some guys my age – who grew up in the same basement bar as me – were waking up the ancients, the very same ghosts I had claimed for my own. Uncle Tupelo wasn’t content to enshrine the dead, however: they poured them a shot of moonshine and jammed with them in Georgia.

I felt the same urgency as when I first heard Butt of Jokes bust out songs in the spirit of the Meat Puppets at a campus battle of the bands, when I was a lonely college transfer student, alone with all of this new music and nobody to share it with me. My sacred text wasn’t my secret, after all. It was still sacred, but it wasn’t a secret. It was out in the open, walking around, looking for gigs.

And what do you know? The guys from Butt of Jokes were my buddies now. They were my bandmates. So was a pretty good banjo player in the hills of Tennessee, who happened to be learning the art of capturing sound on tape.

Folklore wasn’t a basement in a university music library. It was a wide open road.


From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).


Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess

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