RESEARCH NOTES 6 – A CONVERSATION ABOUT AUSTRALIAN BLUES MUSIC: LIFE BEYOND THE MAINSTREAM

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research notes 6 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

Blues for Lost Souls*

Downhome Duo – “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” Instrumental

Gospel music represents “hope”.   Hope for a better life to come, hope for salvation, hope for redemption.  Gospel music is evolving.  The traditions are still there, the meaning is profound, but the experience is changing …  incredibly … through bands like The Turner Brown Band.  Gospel music has influenced folk and blues singers the world over.  But what of religion and blues?  How are they connected?   How does blues music produce people? What are the experiences and identities found within blues communities?   In fact, the title for this blog is the name of Greg Dodd’s charity “Blues For Lost Souls”, which he kindly gave me the permission to use.   Greg’s heart has always been at the centre of this blog.  He is very inspirational and his story compelling

Margret RoadKnight

research notes 6 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

Margret RoadKnight with Odetta

(courtesy Margret RoadKnight collection)

In 1964, the best tip Margret RoadKnight got was from a gospel singer who was in a Theatrical show “Go Tell It On The Mountain”

Referring to the avante guard of Gospel music at the time The Staples Singers  she said “you could sing that Margret.”  Remembering her one and only lesson from her singing teacher  “Oh No … I’m a Contralto.  That’s out of my range.”  Kindly, the gospel singer didn’t say “Oh rubbish!”  She did say “well I suppose I could be called a Contralto too but if it went out of my range, I’d just use a different voice”

And that’s the best lesson Margret ever had.  “After that I’d just try a different voice”

Odetta – “Water Boy”

As a teenager, Margret liked all sorts of music but what excited her was Black Gospel music.  She loved Mahlia Jackson and whatever Harry “Mr Calypso” Belafonte was doing.  For Margret that was folk music.  However, the music she was taught at school, like the ABC school of the air “Fo did I diddle I do” type stuff, was not what she liked

In her first job one of her co-workers twigged to what sort of music Margret liked.  She told Margret about Sunday afternoon concerts at Emerald Hill Theatre in South Melbourne.  A lovely little theatre in the round, upstairs as well.  (now it’s a carpet warehouse) She didn’t expect the range of music she heard.  Everything from chain gang songs, bush ballads to … there was one woman there and playing brilliant guitar.  She’d been to China and it was like a whole world

Margret discovered there was a whole other world of music than what she had been hearing on the radio or Bandstand.  Hence, she was an audience for that; collecting books, going to the coffee lounges, concerts and performances.  She found the records, “once you find one you discover the others and off you go.”   It became her hobby and she admits, “I’m lucky to be paid to be doing my hobby fifty-five years later”

“Traynor’s Folk and Jazz Club”, on the corner of Exhibition and Little Lonsdale streets, was one of the first folk clubs in Melbourne.  Frank Traynor was a trombonist in his own jazz band “Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers”

research notes 6 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

Barry Wratten clarinet; Peter McKay piano; Frank Traynor trumpet at Port Phillip District Folk Music Festival 1968 Melbourne

(courtesy Margret RoadKnight private collection)

In 1963, Frank hooked up with Glen Tomasetti, the woman who Margret first saw playing at Emerald Hill Theatre, and they realised that folk music was an “In” thing.  At first they opened a few nights a week eventually becoming the longest running seven nights a week folk club in the world.  The Jazz element was at midnight. Friday and Saturday jazz musicians would come in after their other gigs and they’d play overlapping with the folk singers.  That was how Margret got into blues … well blues of the jazz style

“I’d be sitting there singing in folk style “Careless Love” or something and one of these jazz guys said ‘you realise that you could sing that with a band don’t you Margret?’  So I sort of dribbled into it”

Judith Durham (Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers) “Trombone Frank”

Frank would have a few female “chick” singers back then.  Margret took over after Judith Durham went off and joined The Seekers. The band and Margret would do programs, it was sort of three for the price of one in a way.  Margret would do solo folk type set and then the band would do their stuff and she’d join them and sing jazz, blues and gospel music

Frank, for quite a few years, would take over the Melbourne Town Hall once a year and do a History of Jazz [concert].   Margret would often open it by singing an African song, maybe playing an African Thumb piano.  Then you’d have Charleston dancers or rag time pianists whatever, it just grew and grew.   Margret would come back and sing some jazz standards with the band.  Classic blues a la Bessie Smith or whatever and bring out her tambourine and play some gospel with them as well

research notes 6 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

Margret RoadKnight Port Phillip Folk Festival 2nd National Folk Festival

(courtesty Margret RoadKnight private collection)

“I did at one stage, [which] had no impact whatsoever, go to a teacher who [made  me do] the Da-da-dah-da-dah-da-dah (upscale) – ‘O yes so you’re a contralto’, which means your range is here and with a lot of work we can give you a note or two down the bottom and two or three extra notes up the top and we’ll get rid of any natural bridges that come down and then you’ll be a lovely singer,”

“Lovely” meaning you’ll sound perfect all the time in the Western idea of perfect

This totally didn’t gel with what Margret was reading and experiencing.  Especially black American music cos over there … well they like pure Western Operatic type voices.  Equally valued can be a shrill voice or a husky voice or somebody who goes into falsetto and they can use bass falsetto.  They change within one phrase.  They might have three different tones and so you might only have three notes in your range but if you know when to sing them you can still be a good singer.  It’s a totally different criteria for enjoyment of music

“so I just thought … “Oh No!” and I probably threw out the baby with the bath water

Papalote, Margret RoadKnight & Jeannie Lewis “Un Son Para Los Ninos Antillianos”

Steve “The Preacher”

For Steve ‘The Preacher’, religion covers themes of what it means to be human. “that’s particularly what blues is interested in.”  He argues that, the “theism” of blues has that as it’s focus.  What’s the experience of African American people?  The enslavement and then later even after emancipation … even today?  They are constantly de-humanised.  Blues often deals with religious themes in terms of the insistence of the humanity of the community

research notes 6 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

(Courtesy of Fiona’s personal collection)

Blues is the traditional expressive art form that is immediately reflective of the lived experiences of its exponents.  You won’t find blues artists who sit in isolation from life and write songs that’s not the tradition.  The tradition from the very first field hollers, the laments, even on ships crossing the Atlantic these are lived experiences and it’s not surprising that the lament is such a strong theme in blues music

“I think it’s one of the reasons why, when African American slave population came into contact with Christianity, they identified really strongly with the old Exodus stories…  They knew who Pharaoh was!”

In a Christian tradition you have a God who’s good and righteous and Holy.  Then you have a devil who is everything that God is not.  They are irreconcilable and one is the enemy of the other.  In traditional West African religious understandings “Gods” and there are many of them have both sides to them.  They can be wonderfully benevolent, or they can be tricky.  Steve uses the word “tricky” intentionally

research notes 6 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

(Courtesy of Fiona’s private collection)

If you look at West African religious traditions the trickster God is always present.  The signifying monkey, the monkey who starts telling stories – whispers it in the ear of a lion and an elephant just so that he can mess with them.  He sets them against each other, and he plays tricks.  He uses language in such a way as to deceive.   If you take the language literally, as in the monkey, lion, elephant story, the lion and the elephant listen to the trickster monkey and end up killing each other.   So Gods can be tricky or Gods can be good

“So religion is about two things magic and manipulation.  And I mean manipulation in the best sense, in a technical sense, a prayer is an attempt to manipulate realities”

You hear that a whole lot in the blues constantly like Sonny Boy Williamson writes “Mighty Long Time”.  You know he does this song where he is really pissed off and he’s going to do some signifying, he says “I’m comin’ to town”

You reckon that monkey knew how to screw things up?

And if you don’t understand those traditions, you don’t understand that language and the way it’s used

Now blues traditionally has appropriated Christian language and infused it again and again and again with monistic religious understandings.   Steve argues they come out of the deep West African religious roots of with whom this music is born

“that’s why it’s important that we pay attention to the African American writers and scholars who are speaking from within this tradition now. 

People like James Cone, John Michael Spenser and Kelly Brown Douglas, in the literary side of African American literary theory.

Find out how this language works, find out what traditions it’s appealing to rather than just overlay our understanding of what that is from a religious point of view”

Fiona Boyes “The Good Lord Made You So”

The blues emerges largely but not exclusively out of the Delta of Mississippi.  You’ve got the Yazoo River on one side of the Mississippi and on the other from Natchez to Memphis.  It’s a tiny space … it’s not even from Yamba to the Gold Coast and out to Lismore.  It’s not even Sydney to Lithgow and Wollongong and Newcastle.  It maybe that big, and yet here’s this energy that comes out, this musical force that comes out of there and when you look at that place, what do you see?

Oppression, dehumanisation, brutalisation and a degradation of people who while they are dragging themselves around in the sun and cotton fields are subject to daily brutalisation.  [It’s] inconceivable to us today.  This music emerges.   Now we are sitting here in Northern New South Wales talking about that and [Fiona] plays all over the world so what’s going on?  What’s that about?

Steve’s take on it is this.  Blues does two things and it does it simultaneously.  It universalises the particular, that is, some African American man or woman sang a song or a lament or a field chant or something and spoke about what they felt or what they desired and it was very particular to them.  But it had, when others heard it, had a universal appeal to it because you could go “I have those feelings, I have those desires.”   So it universalises the particular.  If you talk to the old blues people, they wouldn’t try and do anything clever, or try to invent something but it also particularizes the universal and universalises the particular so those two dynamics are going on constantly

Fiona Boyes “Angels and Boats”

Steve’s wife, Fiona Boyes finds it interesting that some blues players are considered gospel players, like Reverend Gary Davis  As much as he was doing what would be called “religiously themed blues” at the same time he was playing Ragtime pieces like “Sally where’d you get your liquor from”.  It’s almost like blues itself inherently covers all these different aspects of good earthy human existence.  From religious themes right down to sex and love often partying and drinking, rambling and homelessness, and it’s much more connected and all encompassing, than just splitting it off into different bits

Fiona’s experience in America, is that church provides really important social frameworks. Particularly in some poor areas where that is your only social safety net.  For a lot of people, it’s that sense of community

“that’s something blues does really well. 

blues engenders a sense of community and there’s a commonality to the humanness of the music”

Blues has been an ongoing exploration for Fiona because the first stuff she heard was early documentary recordings from the 20s and 30s, classic Chicago blues from the 40s, 50s.  So she became a fan.  It was many years later that she tried to become a player and start to play guitar.  As a player, her interest is in exploring all the different regional styles of blues.  That’s an ongoing exciting adventure.  Most recently with the cigar box guitars

When relocating around Australia, America, Europe, Norway, South Africa one of the first things you find is where your nearest blues society is.  Where the nearest blues gigs are, other players and you’ve found a community.   For Fiona, blues attracts a community in the same way a lot of churches function.  People reach out to one another and interact with one another.  They help each other.  A lot of Blues Societies will instantly get together if someone is in need.  Particularly in America, often people have medical costs that can’t be met or different things happen

research notes 6 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

(courtesy of Fiona’s personal photos)

For example:  On their last tour in America, they were to play a benefit for a community that had been really supportive on previous tours.  They’d set up concerts, which really helped Fiona’s tours.  The community had been devastated by Hurricane Michael and had been left hanging.  A year later parts of downtown Panama City are still blown down with people living in tents.  The destruction from that storm is still quite evident as you drive through the community.  Dear friends are living in a trailer in their driveway while they are still trying to get their house rebuilt

“So it was an honour to say, well look if you can find a venue how about we go and play a concert.  Instead of you coming out to support me, let’s go down and play a concert for you.  If only for moral support for the community but also as a fund raiser to help the local community.  It was one of the most profound gigs on the tour because of that feeling, that sense of community”

They had to find a venue cos the venue Fiona normally played in had been blown down.  Everybody pitched in.  Other people donated a building and came up with the PA.  They decorated the space

“and it was just really uplifting.  It was really moving”

 

Dutch Tilders with Greg Dodd “Corinna, Corinna”

A couple of hours drive north out of Melbourne you’ll be in Victoria’s High Country.  From Beechworth to Raymond Island, across the Alpine National Park, the mountain landscape wraps you in an exotic forest of eucalyptus trees, ferns, flowering bush of muted greens, grey and flowers of intense yellows, burgundy, pinks and blues.   The sun spotlights glades where rivers and creeks cascade before flowing to immense lakes and pasture lands.  Where wild animals and reptiles dominate the environment.  Varieties of birds’ sounds that are unique to the Australian landscape as they fly over huge open Alpine fields

Victoria’s High Country is an inspirational haven for artistic creativity.   It was on a farm commune in Beechworth where, in the 70s, Matt Taylor wrote “I Remember When I Was Young”.  In Yackandandah, Shayne Soall builds cigar box guitars and Peter Howell, the amazing double bass musician, plays at The Paynesville Wine Bar

After a five-year sabbatical from the dwindling professional blues music scene in Melbourne, Greg Dodd was working on his family farm in the High Country mending fences.  He had decided to become a farmer.  He’d given away his guitars and everything.     Driving in his ute with his two ‘workin’ girls’, the dogs in the back, listenin’ to the local radio.  Sometimes they’d have DJs or announcers go into the station but most of the time the music was on a loop.   He had quit the blues music scene, five years later he felt he was ready to listen to music again

Most of the ABC radio talk back was farming, farming, and more farming

“So I was right up the back doing this fencing and I turned the radio on and I tuned it to the local radio station and who’d ya reckon came on?”

“Dutch Tilders … a song… I’m like are you frickin’ serious? … It’s like I’m in the middle of nowhere up in the high country with no human beings in sight and I’ve just decided to listen to music after five years and I turn the radio on and on this loop playing I don’t know where they got it from  … there’s Dutch!”

Four more years passed but from that moment on Greg bought a guitar from the local music store and listened to music again and practiced.  He and his wife were ready to go back to Melbourne and the first person he called was Dutch.  Who invited him back to Dutch’s band, Greg was back to the blues family he had left 9 years ago

“Blues for Lost Souls was because I’m a musician.  Musicians and various other artists and whatnot have this ability or not an ability it’s a … what is it… its an ability but we have a vehicle if you like for lack of a better term to stage events to raise money and things like that”

Every time there is a crisis whatever it maybe like a bushfire, a flood, poverty or a musician is sick, Greg has played so many benefits over the years for various causes.   For example: on the world stage famous musicians put together for Farm Aid and Live Aid.    Musicians have always been able to band together and put on a show

From an early age, Greg has suffered with Tourettes Syndrome and absolutely knows what its like to be persecuted all the time.  He even suffered alienation in his family home growing up because they couldn’t accept it.   He was at high school in the 70s and the teachers would give him a hard time.  In 1975, he was thirteen, a Maths teacher split his head open by taking a big ruler and punching the top of his head with it and his fist with a big ring, split his head open … during a Maths exam

Due to the alienation, he used to watch TV alone in his bedroom on his little TV.  He was watching a show called ‘Roots’ and was absolutely transfixed by it. It changed his life because of the brutality of the slaves getting whipped

“It stayed with me from that time till forever and I grew up with this compassion for poverty and down-trodden people”

About 2012, Greg was sitting in the lounge room and he said to his wife “you know I reckon I could probably do something as a musician put something together and raise some money for stuff” and she said “for who? What would you spend the money on?”  So they researched all sorts of various charities and organisations and illnesses and whatnot and they both came up with homelessness

“its just so horrible and confronting and you know you walk through the streets of Melbourne and its just horrible I mean how do these people end up with nothing, sleeping on the concrete in Swanson street? […] and when you get into it and you study it and you look at it … you soon realise that there is a lot going on behind … in the brain, you’ve got to go back into their history.  People don’t just go “hey I’m going to be an alcoholic and take lots of drugs and be a prostitute and live on the streets.  It’s all got to do with mental health […]”

So homelessness was Greg and his wife’s focus.  They had done five events by 2018 [time of the interview].   Putting the call out to his best buddies and they are always there for each other.   Greg feels so blessed to have such a great group of friends within the blues scene, people who own the blues clubs and venues

“People donate so much stuff and it’s just incredible you know so its grown into this bit of a thing”

Greg Dodd and the Hoodoo Men “The Blues Is Out Of Sight”

 

Dom Turner

Like most professional blues musicians, Dom Turner has been on a journey to the source of blues music.  From when he was a teenager he has been analysing and defining those sounds to the point where today he is breaking boundaries not seen nor heard ever in blues music* [Dom’s music will be discussed further in “Speaking in Tongues” Research Notes 7]  

“Mississippi Fred McDowell, he’s kind of to this day my biggest hero really in the way that I play and he’s my biggest influence”

The definition of a “Back Slider”, according to the Urban Dictionary “To revert to sin or wrongdoing, especially in religious practice”  Quite an ironical name for a band “The Backsliders”  when you consider that one of Dom’s bands, “The Turner Brown Band” play The Sacred Steel “a musical style and African-American gospel tradition that developed in a group of related Pentecostal churches in the 1930s”

The Backsliders  “Dark Side of Newtown”

Dom took the name from a Lead Belly song, which was one of the very first blues records he got.   Lead Belly, Library of Congress recordings, and there’s a song on there called “The Backslider”.   Lead Belly’s description of a Backslider [paraphrased] is as somebody who was a drunk, a barrel-houser, a big partyer.  Generally, a musician really who then got religion.  Turned away from it, went back to their drinking and gambling ways

Blues music is a freedom.  It meant that people could travel, could make money, could escape hard labour essentially.  It also meant that they had a certain amount of freedom of speech because you could say whatever you want within the song for the audiences you are playing for.  This leads into, with blues music form, the incredibly strong connection with gospel music

“You know essentially, I’m not going to say all, I’m not going to go with an absolute here but the great majority of blues musicians from the early and last century and to this day too are very influenced by the church because the church was like, and is like, a safe haven for the African American community.  It was and still is in many respects a nurturing ground for great music through that whole gospel element”

Mississippi Fred McDowell “You’ve Got To Move” (England)

Dom has travelled extensively in Como Mississippi, the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell.   Fred would play at house parties, juke joints or festivals.  In Como he played in the Hunters Chapel Church and various other churches around that area.  On the weekend, there was no issue between moving between gospel and blues.  So when you look at the repertoire of, particularly these rural musicians, there’s a lot of gospel songs in there.  Fred McDowell’s most popular song “You’ve Got to Move” covered by the Rolling Stones, that’s a gospel song.  “When the Lord gets ready, you’ve got to move.”   First hearing it probably doesn’t twig to you that’s a very religious song.  So music within the church allowed people to nurture talent really and to express themselves.  Outside the church it was an element of freedom

Dom’s intention is to push traditional blues boundaries.  That’s the intention just to try to create something new.  That collaboration with Nikki Brown from Toledo, Ohio – The Turner Brown Band – she’s from The Sacred Steel guitar tradition.  Nikki is a steel guitar player, playing lap style slide guitar and almost solely within churches.  The steel guitar became the lead instrument rather than the piano or organ.  So the steel guitar in the way The Sacred Steel style of playing is very vocal

Unlike Hawaiian guitar or country steel guitar.  It’s a lot of single notes and it usually plays the vocal melody a lot.  Its also very wild in that, the idea is to get people worked up.  They call ‘em praise breaks.  They get them worked up and firing.  There’s a lot of really high notes repeated

Nikki plays in that style, Dom’s is kinda hybridised style using Fred McDowell and various other influences, outside of blues as well

“My idea was to see if we could have a kind of duelling slide guitar thing happening.  Try to create something new.  Even though we do versions of a lot of old songs or gospel songs or whatever its just trying to meld the blues hybridise blues tradition with Sacred Steel

Certainly, pushing a religious boundary in terms of Sacred Steel music because The House of God churches are very strict in many respects.  It’s a very strict religious code and its only in recent years that musicians have felt comfortable playing out of churches.   It’s still not an easy thing for them to do to come out and play in a secular environment outside of a church.  If Dom had asked her ten years ago, she wouldn’t have done it.   There are people within the church community that don’t think that’s the correct thing to do.  They feel that musicians should stay within the church

Some of the earlier examples; Robert Randolf probably one of the first to come out of the church and tour internationally from his House of God

“So yeah, we are pushing a boundary there that’s for sure and I’m not a religious person.   I’m clearly secular.  Nikki knows that as well and people within the community that I know there now know that as well”

Dell Grace is like the custodian of The Sacred Steel tradition in Toledo Ohio, which is the heart of Sacred Steel.  Dell knows that Dom is not a religious person but welcomes the idea of artists like Nikki going out in the community doing their work, spreading their word

The performance is for people to really let go and surrender to the music.  This response in general is that people are far more dramatic and more animated than what would normally be expected in a church

“Mentally I try to do that just let the music take you over, don’t fight it, that has such a great physical effect”

The Turner Brown Band – “I Don’t Know What You’ve Come To Do”

*Title “Blues for Lost Souls” courtesy of Greg Dodd 

First published – Sunday 22nd April 2020 at 8:00am

© Amanda Dweck March 2020