NEW YORK CITY—What do the Black Rose of Texas band, playing at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola in Manhattan October 16, and the Brooklyn Folk Festival, October 21 to 23, have in common? How about the song “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”?
The Black Rose of Texas band at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola–with all the singers. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Officially, this song was written by Armand J. Piron and published in 1922. Louis Armstrong claimed he wrote it, sold it for $10 but never got the money. In any case, it was a big hit. Fats Waller did it, Dave Van Ronk, and even the Beatles (live in 1962).
Another thing these two events had in common is guitarist Justin Poindexter, who is in the Black Rose of Texas band and played pedal steel with Meg Farrell’s honky-tonk group in Brooklyn. Let’s see what went on at these two venues.
In Brooklyn, an absolute highlight was the last act encountered, the Lovestruck Balladeers, virtuosos who play ramped-up ragtime and other great old American styles, as well as global sounds “seldom heard beyond the walls of low-lit dance halls at the edge of the known world.”) Aaron Jonah Lewis is a phenomenon not to be missed on fiddle, but he’s also a master of very early banjo playing. The other band members are Jake Sanders (guitar), Dennis Lichtman (clarinet), Sean Cronin (bass) and Dalton Ridenhour (piano). Switching instruments is common. Lichtman also plays incredible mandolin and does a twin-fiddle thing with Lewis.
The Lovestruck Balladeers in full cry. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Words fail me in trying to describe how great this group is, but fortunately I shot some video. This is their version of Scott Joplin’s famous “Maple Leaf Rag”:
And here’s an original by the Lovestruck Balladeers:
Nora Brown, playing as she does often with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman, was in especially fine form in Brooklyn. At 15, she’s coming into her mature voice, and singing more confidently, and she continues to absorb tunes and banjo tricks from a wide variety of in-person influences. “Wild Bill Jones,” I don’t think I’ve heard her sing that before.
Nora Brown, with her new maturing voice. (Jim Motavalli photo)
“Rose Connelly,” a murder ballad if ever there was one, is also known as “Down in the Willow Garden,” and Brown gave it the proper drama. “Jenny, Put the Kettle On” was nearer to its original source and closer to the bone than versions by, say, Burl Ives. Brown and Coleman went all the way to the reaches of Quebec to meet members of the legendary Foghorn String Band. That’s dedication.
I liked Amethyst Kiah best singing covers. She has a rich, forceful singing voice, heard to good advantage on “Sugar,” a Tori Amos B-side. The highlight, though, was her take on “Trouble So Hard,” originally recorded by one Vera Hall in an Alan Lomax recording, then acquired by Moby for his hit album Play. But you need the whole song, not a sample.
Connecticut’s own Jacob Wysocki was a find on Saturday morning. He’s from a rural town called Norwich, and he appears to have done deep study on the Internet and the Cecil Sharp archives to arrive at his unique approach to old-time music. He’s a very good guitar player and singer, with added value from the pan pipes that, he told me, exist in every culture.
Wysocki, who looks sort of like a countercultural version of Michael J. Pollard, had a funny line of patter. He said his mother warned him to watch out, because they were stealing milk crates down at the Cumberland Farms in Norwich. To make his guitar sound like a snare drum, he inserted a folded Pokemon card under the strings. Altogether a unique performer and one to watch.
Bill Carney’s Jug Addicts had to start without their bass player, but he showed up later. The group performed a spirited version of “He’s in the Jailhouse Now.” That’s a really old song, and Jimmie Rodgers recorded it in 1928.
The Jug Addicts are blessed with a number of good singers, including the rub board player, who emulates the florid style of the 1920s or even earlier. They’re the group that played “Sister Kate,” and the old-timey feel made a good complement to multi-instrumentalist Clifton Davis. He also loves that era—and the piano music of Jelly Roll Morton, which he has transposed to the guitar. The San Diego resident also plays in string bands, including Skillet Licorice.
The late John Cohen, a mainstay of the New Lost City Ramblers, was a Renaissance Man who also took photographs, did field recordings, helped organize the legendary Friends of Old-Time Music shows that brought Roscoe Holcomb and others to New York, and, in his later years, played in the Downhill Strugglers with Jackson Lynch and festival organizer Eli Smith. So it was natural that there’d be a tribute to Cohen at this year’s festival. It was heartfelt, with many performers, including Smith, Lynch, Brown, Tim Eriksen, Peter K. Siegel, Brett Ratliff and others. Siegel, a fellow Friends organizer, said he’s worked with Cohen “on projects and off for half a century.”
Eriksen is a national folk treasure, even though he often played punk rock in his band Cordelia’s Dad. His is an early singing style, out of the shape notes and often unaccompanied—though he is a gifted guitar and fiddle player. Most affecting was “The Blackest Crow” and a long Irish ballad about a jolly tinker that somehow led to some Tuvan throat singing. He’s a historian, too, and told us about “The Great Disappointment” when William Miller’s prophesies about the end of the world in 1844 did not come true. Gabriel did not blow his horn, but at least Eriksen got a ballad out of it. Here’s a video of “Pumpkintown”:
The Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band, from Canada, is a male/female team that writes original songs in the jug tradition. Good songs too.
Minnie Heart has a vintage voice that reminds me of Maria Muldaur. “Oh Boy” was about getting really high. Here’s the video evidence:
Stillhouse Serenade was an interesting mix, sort of a jazz/folk combo. Material included a song from the jazzier side of Ray Charles repertoire and Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd.” I wanted to hear the harmonica player, Trip Henderson, sing more. Guitarist Mary Olive Smith got to do a couple numbers, including Gillian Welch’s “Tear That Stillhouse Down.” Piano player Charles Giordano, a regular with Bruce Springsteen, was a treat to hear.
Stillhouse Serenade was an interesting folk/jazz mix. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Lovestruck Balladeers I’ve already mentioned. They had a field day with some Scott Joplin rags, essayed some originals, and even tackled Erik Satie. And don’t let me forget Ukrainian Village Voices, who sounded stirringly Kyiv but are from the East Village, and the Ban Chinese Music Society, whose pipa player was amazing—and a good MC, too.
The Ban Chinese Music Society. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Brooklyn Folk Festival is held at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, which opened in 1847. The self-taught artisan William Jay Bolton made the 54 stained-glass windows (one is lost). I hadn’t noticed before a brass plate in the floor of the aisle that read, “Thomas Messenger, To the Glory of God, 1883.”
Queen Esther fronts the Black Rose of Texas band. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Over to Dizzy’s Club in midtown Manhattan. The Black Rose of Texas band was set up for country swing, but was very eclectic, with great singers on hand. Queen Esther asked why she never saw people who looked like her in the old Gunsmoke reruns, although there were lots of African-Americans in the Wild West. (See my book, The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Outlaws.)
The band with Poindexter on guitar included Minnie Jordan on fiddle, Jeff DeMaio on pedal steel, Jarrett Engel on bass and Steve Williams on drums, and together they tore in an instrumental named “Speedin’ West” that highlighted DeMaio’s steel guitar.
Poindexter, who has a fine tenor voice, sang a rousing version of his great-grandfather’s favorite song, Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again.” For “Time Changes Everything,” a Bob Wills favorite, DeMaio offered serviceable vocals.
Then it was time for the women. Queen Esther took us traveling down Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Lonesome Road.” She sounded great in front of a country band. Sister Tharpe, a mean guitarist, is said to have invented rock and roll—“Elvis copied her, Chuck Berry copied her,” Esther said—but she works in country, too.
Then out came the incomparable Kat Edmonson. She’s a jazz singer through and through, but for this show she donned cowboy duds and sang “Don’t Fence Me In.” But it’s OK because it was written by Cole Porter for a failed Broadway show, and that music is the essence of the Great American Songbook.
Esther’s version of Wanda Jackson’s “Big Iron Skillet” was a female empowerment anthem that echoed the late Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Then out came Synead Cidney Nichols, the evening’s third singer, to rock out on “Cow Cow Boogie.” She’s new to me, comes to New York by way of Trinidad and Tobago, and will make her mark soon. She said she didn’t know much about cowboys, but on stage she got the gist.
“I Had Someone Else Before I Had You,” from 1946, was another great take from Kat Edmonson. She pointed out what I already knew, that bluegrass, jazz and blues all went into the country-swing mix, but then added that polka was in there, too. That I didn’t know.
And they did “Sister Kate,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Stay a Little Longer” with the four singers in combinations, and another Wills feature, “Faded Love” (as an instrumental). Sad to say, after that it was over. Too short! This multi-colored country-swing thing in repertoire has some legs. Let’s hope Black Star gets together again.