- August 07, 2020
- Devon Léger
- Album Reviews
by Devon Léger, Folk Alley
Since the start of this COVID crisis, Bandcamp has been waiving their fees for artists on the first Friday of each month. These “Bandcamp Fridays” have become an excellent excuse to pick up new music and merch in order to support your favorite artists, most of whom are seriously struggling right now. With live music the last possible thing to come back, we’re looking at the middle of 2021 at the least until artists can start to make a living on the road again. Help them out now and when we can gather together again, hopefully we’ll still have great artists willing to make music for us. Because Black Lives Matter, this list is a roundup of some of the best Black roots music on Bandcamp that’s been released recently, much of it from elders of the traditions.
Do what you can to support artists and to amplify Black voices this Bandcamp Friday!
79rs Gang - Expect the Unexpected
The Mardi Gras Indians provide some of the most striking images of New Orleans’ culture, with huge, scaffolded costumes covered in feathers, beads, and rhinestones. This African-American tradition supposedly originates in the 1700s when Native Americans in Louisiana would shelter and hide runaway slaves, and today Mardi Gras Indian tribes throughout the city parade through the streets with dazzling, hand-sewn costumes, some weighing over 100 pounds. The music of the Mardi Gras Indians usually features call-and-response vocals and hand percussion and tambourine, it’s music for marching! Though Mardi Gras Indian music has been reworked before, this new album from 79rs Gang is an absolute revelation. Tapping into hip-hop, electronic music, and Haitian/Caribbean roots, Expect the Unexpected burns with the fire of a red-hot Louisiana summer. Formed by two Big Chiefs from rival Mardi Gras Indian gangs that came together to resolve their differences, Jermaine Bossier and Romeo Bougere set out to bring new influences to the music, which they say was previously based more around artists like The Meters and Ivan Neville. Working with producer Eric Heigle (Lost Bayou Ramblers, Arcade Fire), it seems at first that 79rs Gang are foregrounding elements of hip-hop, bringing more rapping and heavier beats. Bossier’s said that he wanted to bring more storytelling as well to the songs on the album, and Expect the Unexpected certainly speaks to the moment. “Culture Vulture” calls out those looking to profit from Black culture, and “Stop the Water” references the wounds of Katrina that residents still feel. Maybe the reality is that this has always been the sound of New Orleans, whether we hear it in hip-hop or folk music. Rhythm to make you dance, rhyming to call out your rivals, and a powerful story of resilience that runs throughout.
The Mighty Sparrow - Live at 85!
Perhaps the greatest living calypsonian (after Calypso Rose, in my opinion), The Mighty Sparrow is an absolute legend of calypso. From his roots in Trinidad, he’s taken calypso around the world while preserving its roots in Caribbean culture. At 85 years old, he’s still going strong and living in New York. Still singing, still performing, still watching the news and crafting music that matches the moment. This hot hot live performance is taken from his 85th birthday celebration at Joe’s Pub in New York City where he ran through some of his classics with powerful gusto. If all you know of calypso is Harry Belafonte, The Mighty Sparrow will hopefully show more of the meaning behind the music. Calypso is meant to be a tool for the powerless, a way to poke fun at rivals, but also at authority. It’s full of coded messages and subversive ideas speaking out against those in power who’d ignore the people whose lives they are affecting. It’s music that could mean a lot to us now if we listen.
Gee's Bend Quilters- Boykin, Alabama: Sacred Spirituals of Gee's Bend
The African-American quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama are famous throughout the world for their inimitable creations of visual art. Their quilts are dazzling, transcendent, powerful to behold, and they’re also the creation of a community. You don’t hear much about individual quilters, because the Gee’s Bend quilters prefer to work together, to create together. Part of this might come from the brutal repression they’ve faced in their tiny community. Aside from the stark lack of amenities in this part of Alabama, they’ve also faced direct persecution from authorities. When their community sought to shelter freedom riders during the Civil Rights era, the local police shut down ferry service to Gee’s Bend, effectively isolating them. Despite their quilts being featured on postage stamps, copied endlessly by corporations, even promoted as bedsheets by Kathy Ireland, the quilters have seen little of this profit, held back in part by the white gatekeepers who’ve promoted the quilts internationally and by opaque copyright laws. It’s a tragic story and also very typical for how white people have profited off Black art for many many decades. This album of sacred spirituals from four of the Gee’s Bend quilters (Mary Ann Pettway, China Pettway, Larine Pettway, and Nancy Pettway) is a testament to the power of the gospel and the resilience of some of the finest artists in the nation. It’s a stark, stripped back album, just four voices raised in harmony around old gospel songs, but there’s a power to the music, and a power to the emotion. A power to the sense of self that has driven the women of Gee’s Bend forward through so much upheaval. As China Pettway says, “I think quilting and singing is a healing for our soul. This record should be heard over the whole world because somebody will see the light.”
Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys - La Danse à St. Ann’s
Accordionist and singer Goldman Thibodeaux is one of the last la la players in Louisiana’s Black Creole community. La la music was the precursor to Zydeco, the music that Clifton Chenier started off with. It was the music of porch playing and community parties, rarely recorded, featuring bluesy fiddle, driving accordion, Creole French lyrics, and a mellower beat. La la bridges the gap between the seminal creation of Cajun and Creole music by Amédé Ardoin, and the R&B-infused genesis of Zydeco by Clifton Chenier. Recorded at the Lawtell family reunion, Thibodeaux is 87 years old on this album, but takes clear delight in tearing through these classic favorites. It’s a snapshot of an informal music made for dancing and family fun, and Thibodeaux sparkles throughout. The album’s out now on Cajun fiddler Louis Michot’s eclectic record label, Nouveau Electrique Records, and Michot fiddles on the album as well. Though his work with the Lost Bayou Ramblers pushed the edge of traditional Cajun music, Michot’s always had a folklorist streak as well, releasing field recordings at will. More of this please and long live Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys!
Hubby Jenkins - The Fourth Day
An erstwhile member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hubby Jenkins is a marvelous folk musician, playing guitar, banjo, bones, and holding forth from his New York apartment every Tuesday evening with an interactive livestream reading from his collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books. He’s a renaissance man for sure, and this new EP, The Fourth Day, released for a previous Bandcamp Friday, is just a sample of his talents. But it sure satisfies! Each Black gospel track highlights his powerhouse singing and guitar work, at turns evoking Reverend Gary Davis, Henry Thomas, Blind Willie Johnson and other guitar greats and blues icons. The blues and the gospel have always had a tenuous relationship, but it must be that both have fueled the other, since there’s such a long history of bluesmen and women that moved between the sacred and the secular. Jenkins’ EP is a reminder of what a great talent he is and how long it’s been since his last album! More music please Hubby!
Swamp Dogg - Sorry You Couldn’t Make It
Swamp Dogg is the psychedelic soul alter ego of musician Jerry Williams, Jr, a voice he’s been experimenting with since the 1970s. Working with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in 2018, his last release was a strange autotune masterpiece reckoning with love lost. For his new album he’s seemingly gone back to his roots, which sound like old-school soul. But what we’re actually hearing is country music! Williams has loved country music from a tiny age (the first song he sang on stage at the tender age of six was Red Foley’s “Pieces of You”). Now he’s come full circle, though he’d contend that much of his musical output has been country even if others insisted it was soul, blues, or R&B. It’s a reminder that so much of American music has been an attempt to split apart Black and white musicians along racial lines, enforcing a kind of musical segregation that goes against the true history of the music which is more intertwined than we’d ever imagined. Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is a blast of a country soul album and features two duets with John Prine that are worth the cost of admission alone. Pick it up and let it rock you back and forth between two worlds.
Freeman Vines - Hanging Tree Guitars
Book Pre-Order - HERE
CD Pre-Order at Bandcamp - HERE
This multimedia project from Music Maker Relief Foundation is a harrowing look at the legacy of racial violence in America and a testament to the power of artistic creation. Bluesman, luthier, griot, and philosopher, Freeman Vines has been building guitars for years, working mostly with castoff materials. He’s been looking for a sound, a tone that he’d heard from another musician’s guitar years ago and his search to recreate that tone had driven him almost mad, nearly ruining his hands as well. He didn’t sell his guitars, though folk art collectors came knocking, he focused instead on the creation. That creation took on new weight when he was given two planks of wood from a hanging tree in his community where white people hanged Black men. The journey from this tree, through the stories passed down among white lynchers in their families, to Vines and Music Maker founder Tim Duffy, and then into life as eerie, haunting, hand-crafted guitars is incredibly powerful and can be found in Vines’ upcoming book Hanging Tree Guitars. Working with Duffy and folklorist Zoe Van Buren, the book blends narrative, field work transcriptions, poetry, and tintype photography into an intense document. To go with the book, Music Maker is releasing an album of selections from their archives that speak to the Black experience. The Glorifying Vines Sisters (relations of Freeman) bring forth a beautiful gospel song, “I’m Ready,” Rufus McKenzie’s “Slavery Time Blues” sounds uncannily modern with its laments over the current situation in the White House, and Aldophus Bell’s “Black Man’s Dream,” dedicated to MLK Jr has a stanza of “Change America, change” that we should all be shouting from the rooftops.