Tradition’s Unbroken Chain and Inevitable Evolution
New compilations spotlight Danny Barker and the 1934 Lomax recordings
Music review by Ben Sandmel
Although Danny Barker (1909 – 1994) has been gone for more than 20 years now, he still occupies a special niche in the pantheon of classic New Orleans jazz and, in a broader sense, as a cultural icon whose appeal transcends genres. A skilled banjo player and guitarist, Barker also sang masterfully, segueing from suave crooning to street-level grit as the moment demanded. His most identifiable vocal trait was a declamatory tone that conveyed considerable dry wit, enhanced with hilarious ad-libs and asides.
Such sly acuity suffused both Barker’s music and his skill as a storyteller and memoirist. He gave interviews rich in keen observation and detail, using a variety of New Orleans accents and argot to portray the characters in play. He wrote three books from the perspective of an observer/participant: A Life In Jazz, Bourbon Street Black: The Black New Orleans Jazzman, and the posthumously published Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville. (A new edition of A Life In Jazz will be published this year by the Historic New Orleans Collection, with a foreword by WWNO’s Gwen Thompkins.) Barker wrote and co-wrote songs, too; “Save The Bones For Henry Jones,” for instance, was recorded by the duos of Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Mercer, and Ray Charles and Lou Rawls, as well by as The Pointer Sisters, among others. (Whether this enigmatic song is based in silly surrealist wordplay, deliberate sexual ambiguity, or both, is a topic calling for further examination.) In addition, Barker and his wife, Louise — an accomplished blues and jazz singer known professionally as Blue Lu — co-wrote a perennial favorite entitled “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” a.k.a. “Don’t You Make Me High.” New Orleanians respected the Barkers for their musical talent and wisdom, and adored them as two incredibly nice people. One indicator of such continued regard is the recent founding of the annual Danny Barker Guitar and Banjo Festival, conceived by the accomplished multi-instrumentalist Detroit Brooks.
Another is the recent release of an excellent two-CD anthology of the Barkers’ music by the local GHB label. Danny Barker, New Orleans Jazz Man & Raconteur (https://www.jazzology.com/ghb_records.php) touches on many important phases of the Barkers’ careers. Barker came from one of New Orleans’ great jazz dynasties, the Barbarin family, whose descendants remain active on today’s trad scene. Barker started out as a drummer and then tried the clarinet before switching to stringed instruments. In his late teens he toured Mississippi with the Louisiana blues, jazz, and ragtime pianist Little Brother Montgomery. In 1930 Barker moved to New York where he performed and recorded with the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Cab Calloway, among many others. Danny and Blue Lu also toured and recorded together.
The couple returned to New Orleans in 1965 and, five years later, Danny Barker founded the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band. At the time, traditional New Orleans jazz and brass-band sounds had reached a low ebb of popularity, with frequent dismissal as irrelevant music for old people. Barker played a pivotal role in creating the brass-band resurgence that continues to evolve at this writing. Players of future renown who came through the Fairview band included saxophonist Branford Marsalis; clarinetist Dr. Michael White; drummer Shannon Powell; and trumpeters Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Gregg Stafford, and Gregory Davis. Davis went on to found the Dirty Dozen, the first young group to meld brass-band tradition with contemporary stylings and material. Danny Barker continued performing until shortly before his death in 1994. Blue Lu passed away four years later.
Danny Barker, New Orleans Jazz Man & Raconteur presents the Barkers in a wide range of settings on recordings made between 1944 and ‘89. On trumpeter Jonah Jones’ “Stomping at the Savoy,” Barker’s precise rhythm-guitar playing helps drive a powerful dance-band groove. But Barker was an accomplished soloist, too, as heard in his deft guitar explorations on “Rampart Street Boogie,” accompanied only by bassist Pops Foster. “Danny’s Banjo Blues” finds him soloing on that instrument with equal expertise. “Salee [sic] Dame,” with vocals by clarinetist Albert Nicholas, harkens back to the days when French was commonly spoken in New Orleans, while Barker’s banjo reinforces the three-count tresillo beat that underscores New Orleans’ close connections with Caribbean culture. Similar rhythms push the Mardi Gras Indian song “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing.” In the 1940s and ‘50s Barker recorded some of this music’s first commercial adaptations, and his pioneering efforts still sound fresh, vital, and fun.
Blue Lu steps to the vocal mic for several songs including the sultry and none too subtle “It’s Right Here For Ya (If You Don’t Get, It Ain’t No Fault of Mine.)” The album’s many other highlights range from tender romance (“Nevertheless I’m In Love With You”), to comedic numbers (“Nagasaki”) and extremely spirited takes on such standards as “Eh La Bas,” “Royal Garden Blues,” “Saint James Infirmary,” and “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” The latter features Louis Armstrong, in typically fine form, on trumpet and vocals.
Compilations do not always achieve sonic or thematic consistency. But this mood-elevating album maintains an engaging pace over the course of 34 songs and two interview excerpts, presenting a well-assembled cross-section of Barker’s career. As such, Danny Barker, New Orleans Jazz Man & Raconteur makes an important cultural statement. And, for those with little interest in cultural statements, it works equally well as an inspired set of trad-jazz dance music.
Four years after Danny Barker moved to New York, the folklorists John and Alan Lomax made an epic, government-funded journey through southwest Louisiana to record folk songs. Their findings languished in the vaults of the Library of Congress until the 1980s, when musicians and folklorists including the Cajun scholars Michael Doucet and Barry Ancelet pored over them and heard — to their astonishment — a wealth of music that had essentially vanished during the intervening half-century. Ancelet recalls that “I turned to Michael and said ‘We’re going to have to rethink everything we thought we knew about Cajun music and zydeco’.” What they knew, up to that point, was based solely on commercial recordings of dance music from the late 1920s, which barely hinted at such far older traditions as a capella ballads, some of which have medieval roots.
After the 1934 recordings were released in 1987, heritage-conscious musicians began to insert some of the old songs back into the contemporary Cajun/zydeco repertoire, in slightly modernized form. Now a new four-CD compilation boldly recasts the sonic setting of selections of this material, while faithfully preserving the original lyrics. Co-produced by the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Joel Savoy and folklorist Joshua Caffery, I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country (www.valcourrecords.com), encompasses an adventurous variety of instrumentation and effects. Only one song reprises the classic Cajun-band format, underscoring that this is not a typical Cajun-music album. The origins of the songs range from the 15th century to the early 1900s, presenting both folk-rooted material and interpretations of popular songs by well-known composers. Most surprisingly, perhaps, is the inclusion of six songs in English, disproving the notion of French Louisiana as a cultural and linguistic monolith.
The contrast from song to song—there are 24 in all—is often striking, but the album flows cohesively nonetheless. “Les Garcons Sans Souci,” for example, sets Megan Brown’s vocals amidst a combination of military drum patterns, twangy electric guitar, and ambient, ethereal whistling. “Inch Above Your Knee,” powerfully sung by Kelli Jones-Savoy, with Joel Savoy on lead guitar, is a grim tale appropriately delivered a with raw, rural, rocking edge. At the other extreme, Jones-Savoy and Megan Brown reprise the Appalachian sound of the Everly Brothers in singing exquisite close harmony on the plaintive duet “L’Amour Qui M’a Séduit le Coeur.” Brown and Jones-Savoy also deliver a fine duet on the upbeat “La Fete Printenière.” In addition the two are members of the traditional Cajun trio T-Monde, whose new album Yesterday’s Gone (Valcour), comes highly recommended. Brown also shines here on the a capella ballad “La Jolie Fille at Le Garcon Colonial,” which does not diverge from the 1934 recording, and on the wistful “Madame Émélie,” with delicate banjo backing by Josh Caffery.
Michael Doucet emphasizes French Louisiana’s connection with Caribbean rhythms on the rollicking “Le Chanson De Théogène Dubois,” then makes a one-eighty turn on the somber “Je M’ai fait une Maitresse.” Ann Savoy sings with deep, affecting poignancy on “Aux Illinois,” as do Kristi Guillory on “La Fille de Quinze Ans,” and Anna Laura Edmiston on “Les Amours et les Beaux Jours.” “Amour et Fanatisme,” featuring Claire Caffery and Carl Brazell with Wilson Savoy, presents a 19th-century sound that suggests bourgeois parlor music with a classical/operatic tinge. Barry Ancelet sings in a gutbucket, country-blues style on “Viens Donc T’assis sur la Croix de ma Tombe.” The Creole fidder Cedric Watson joins forces with Joel and Wilson Savoy on a rousing rendition of “Little Liza Jane,” while David Greely presents a medley of fiddle tunes first recorded by Wayne Perry. “Orphan Girl,” by Tiffany Lamson, lead singer of the popular Lafayette-based band GIVERS, could conceivably find a home on contemporary rock radio.
With a sum far greater than its many parts, I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country constitutes an innovative quantum leap in the evolution of Cajun and Creole music, while simultaneously illuminating its deepest roots. The album was recently performed live, in near entirety, at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette. Hopefully, a DVD of this wonderful evening will be available in the future. Listeners who want to hear these songs’ original versions can find them at the website www.lomax1934.com, created by Joshua Caffery.
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist, and producer and is the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. Learn more about his latest book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by visiting erniekdoebook.com. The K-Doe biography was selected for the Kirkus Reviews list of best nonfiction books for 2012.