Review: “Down Home Music: A Journey Through the Heartland 1963”
In 1960, John Steinbeck, quite possibly the greatest writer of 20th century American literature and hands-down the best chronicler of the hardships faced by rural folks in the 1930s not named Woody Guthrie, took a trip across the United States and ultimately found himself disappointed. His account of the trip, Travels with Charley, is maybe my favorite Steinbeck work and one I would highly recommend (along with Clemens’ Life on the Mississippi and Larry McMurtry’s Roads) to anybody wanting a grasp of the “old America,” but a recent DVD from the Arhoolie Foundation entitled Down Home Music leads me to wonder if Steinbeck didn’t simply visit the wrong places. The DVD displays the last holdouts of American traditionalism to be alive and well as late as 1963 and judging by what happened in November of that year (on that note, I’m currently re-reading Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins in preparation for a possible writing project of my own), it is possibly the last account of those traditions to be caught on record without the gleam of nostalgia or the longing for a better time. The people in the film weren’t using their music in an attempt to connect themselves with or escape to a long-forgotten past. They were still living it.
Still, maybe Stenibeck’s problem was that he took such traditions for granted. Oftentimes it takes an outsider to notice what we Americans have overlooked. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Charles Dickens’ American Notes offer two such examples. What I’m getting at is that maybe a German film crew and director being guided by a German-born founder of an American roots music label was needed to really get to the heart of the last remnants of America’s past.
The project began when German director Dietrich Wawzyn and Arhoolie Records founded Chris Strachwitz took a month-long trip through America’s heartland in search of “jazz and roots musicians.” They found all of that and more in their travels and a fair amount of it is documented here.
Many of the artists featured here should be very familiar to roots music fans, beginning with legendary one-man band Jesse Fuller, who is shown performing his signature tune “San Francisco Bay Blues” in his basement. Throughout the rest of the film Lowell Fulson is shown performing at a Bay Area bar, Texas songster Mance Lipscomb performs at his rural home, steel guitar master Hop Wilson plays at a Houston club, the legendary bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins does several songs on the streets, The Lewis Family plays the Opry, and Red Sovine is seen in a Nashville recording studio backed by a group of Music City’s finest. The film ends with the film crew visiting the legendary old-time fiddler J.E. Mainer and his family in North Carolina.
However, the real treasures here are the many unknown and forgotten artists who are represented. Take for example California folk singer Barbara Dane. At first glance, Dane appears to be your typical 1960s American housewife, yet she can sing the blues as well as any other woman of her generation (and no, I am not forgetting Janis.)
Then there are those, such as the Black Ace, Willie Thomas and Whistlin’ Alex Moore who have been overshadowed by other blues artists of their era.
In New Orleans, they filmed the clarinetist George Lewis and his band backing Sweet Emma Barrett at Preservation Hall. Barrett performs a great double entendre number and Lewis plays his excellent “Burgundy Street Blues.” As Strachwitz points out in his commentary, the brand of jazz practiced by the band (and the modern version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for that matter) was heavily influenced by the blues and that was one of the great things about early forms of the genre.
Elsewhere the crew visits Navajo and Papago Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, witnesses a jazz funeral in New Orleans, take in a Cajun band at a Louisiana nightclub, visit the Mississippi farm of the Hodges Brothers, and watch as Blind James Campbell and his band play on the streets of Nashville, performing a unique brand of blues that features old-time country fiddling and a tuba player.
My favorite portions of the film, though, were those related to gospel music. We get a look inside several churches and a tent revival and witness the music and culture of both the black and white church. This part of the film begins in Oakland at the church of King Louis H. Narcisse and if there has been a more colorful character in the annals of gospel music, I’ve yet to come across him. The segment begins with Narcisse’s car being brought to a stop and a red carpet being rolled out so he can enter his church and he is indeed dressed in the regalia of a traditional Arabian king. In between bouts of preaching, King Louis and the Congregation do great renditions of “This Little Light of Mine” and a few other spirituals before the red carpet is rolled back out and the King leaves the building.
Next the crew captures Rev. Louis Overstreet, electric guitar in hand and kick drum at his feet, preaching the gospel blues on the streets of a Tuscon ghetto with his four sons serving as a quartet. After a brief cutaway to a tent revival by famed faith healer A.A. Allen, we join Overstreet again at his Phoenix church and hear more of his great music and preaching. Watching Overstreet and his congregation will be nearly enough to turn anybody into a true believer.
The DVD also comes with the option of watching the film with Strachwitz’s opinionated and greatly informative commentary which will reveal details about the early years of Arhoolie Records as well as the artists themselves, many of whom cannot be researched through a simple Google search.
Sadly, there are several flaws here as well. As on Murray Lerner’s documentary of the Newport Folk Festival from the same era, a low budget led to few complete performances being filmed (as they say, hindsight is 20/20). On the plus side, there are also very few extremely short performances where you won’t get the basic gist of the tune or performer.
The biggest flaw, though, is that this DVD is simply the remains of several other films. Wawzyn originally produced three feature-length documentaries for German television on blues, gospel, and “hillbilly music” from the footage he and Strachwitz had gathered, but unfortunately all three of the films have been lost. As a result, this DVD never really feels like a complete linear documentary, but rather a collection of scenes. Still, these are scenes any fan of American roots music will love seeing.