Sunday, January 22, 2023

Roadside assistance

One summer evening about twenty years ago I left work at rush hour and joined a line of backed-up traffic using the on-ramp to merge onto the parkway I took to get home. Several minutes went by before I made it to the head of the line. The compact car immediately in front of me, driven by a woman who looked to be in her thirties, had no choice but to come to a complete stop and wait for an opening, to the considerable frustration of the drivers behind us, some of whom had started leaning on their horns. I could see the woman leaning anxiously out her open side window, intently watching the cars to her left until, finally, a car moved into the center lane and let her out. The gap was small, however, and so she immediately floored it to get up to speed with the flow of the oncoming cars. What she didn't see, and had no reason to expect, was that two bicyclists, who weren't supposed to be on the parkway at all, had crept up on her right and pulled into the highway lane just in front of her.

As soon as she realized what had happened she slammed on her brakes, but the bicycles were moving too slowly and her momentum was already too great. Boxed in to her left, with only a fraction of a second to react, she had nowhere to go but over the curb to her right. Her car lurched onto the grass border, flattened a small bush, and came to rest at the base of an overpass some ten yards from the pavement.

I had kept my foot on the brake pedal while I watched all this happen, but when the lane opened up I crept out, then carefully pulled off the road onto the grass. So did the car immediately behind me, which was a tan Ford station wagon that looked like it had seen better days. The bicyclists, in the meantime, had heard tires squeal and stopped along the curb to look back. I turned off the engine, walked over to the woman's car, and asked her if she was okay. She said she was but she seemed dazed, distraught. I stepped back a bit, uncertain, half-expecting a cop to come along and sort it all out. After a moment, when nothing seemed to be happening, a heavy-set Black man in his fifties got out of the station wagon and walked, with a barely perceptible limp that suggested a painful hip, over to the woman's car. Even before I noticed the instrument case in the back of the station wagon, I had no trouble recognizing the bass player and composer Clifford Margen. I had seen pictures of him in jazz periodicals and even in a spread in Life magazine. I had a few of his records, one of which some record company marketing whiz had unimaginatively entitled Margenalia. I also knew that he had a reputation for what one writer, with no particular axe to grind, had called "truculence and unpredictability."

The woman tensed visibly as the man approached, but as soon as he spoke to her she relaxed, again said that she was okay, and leaned back against the headrest. He walked around the car once to make sure there was no damage, but by the time he got back to the driver's window he could see that she was sobbing. I couldn't make out his words, but whatever they were they seemed to help and soon she was more composed. He had her take some deep breaths and eventually she managed an embarrassed smile. When it was clear that she was all right he glared briefly at the bicyclists, who were quietly slipping off, and also at me, then got in his car, started the ignition, flipped on his four-way flashers, and crept back to the curb. He waited until the woman had started her car, then put his arm out the window to hold back traffic and let her pull out ahead of him. When they were gone I got into my car and drove off as well.

There was an office party at work the next day, and while chatting with my colleagues I told several of them about the incident. They were about evenly divided between those who shook their heads over the woman's bad driving and those who deplored the presence of bicyclists on a road where they had no business to be. Just one of them recognized the name of Clifford Margen, and he wasn't sure what instrument he played: tenor sax, maybe? Only on the way home that night did I remember what I had, in truth, known perfectly well all along, namely that Clifford Margen had been dead for twenty years, the victim of a landslide on a deserted mountain road somewhere northwest of Mexico City. Even so, I had no doubt about my identification, just as I have no doubt, even now, that there's a tan Ford station wagon somewhere out there driven by a heavy-set Black man who's heading for his next gig and rescuing travelers along the way.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

You May Leave but This Will Bring You Back

The Memphis Jug Band was a shifting collection of African-American musicians that recorded some 70 or 80 sides of music between 1927 and 1934. Its guiding force was a singer, guitarist, and harmonica player named Will Shade. Other members tended to come and go, although kazoo player Ben Ramey and the guitarist (and ebullient vocalist) Charlie Burse were mainstays. Their music represented a strain of Black entertainment that was popular in its heyday in the 1920s and '30s but which is often forgotten or dismissed today, although a loyal corps of fans, collectors, and musicians have succeeded in keeping much of it in print for those who seek it out. Compared to saxes, electric guitars, and keyboards, kazoos and jugs just aren't generally regarded as being "serious" musical instruments, setting aside the fact that the band also employed acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and Will Shade's brilliant harmonica.

The first Memphis Jug Band compilation I owned was a two-LP album issued by Yazoo Records, which I must have bought not long after it was released in 1979. It had 28 tracks, good remastering, liner notes by the respected blues scholar Bengt Olsson, and some colorful front and back cover art by R. Crumb (who also created the trading card shown at the top of this post).
I got a lot of spins out of the Yazoo set but once CDs came along I started looking around for something I could play in the car, which is where I do most of my listening. (I can't comfortably read, converse, or even think with music in the background, but I can drive.) The Yazoo albums were eventually transferred to CD, minus five tracks, but I opted instead for a 36-track set from a label called Blues Classics. That label, which I think is now defunct, apparently had some sort of arrangement with Document Records, the big daddy in prewar American music re-issues, which originally was based in Austria. The Blues Classic set had perfunctory liner notes, but the tracks were well-chosen and it was cheap. I got twenty years out of it. Still, there were a few songs I remembered from the Yazoo set that I missed hearing.
This year I bought myself the 72-track collection on the Acrobat label shown below. Its liner notes, while extensive, lean a bit too much on Wikipedia and other online sources, and it includes some tracks of minor interest, but it's inexpensive and seems to be more or less as comprehensive as the alternatives. (What to include can be a matter for debate, as the band had various aliases and offshoots.) For the completist, Document Records probably has more thorough coverage, but their compilations aren't as conveniently packaged and several now seem to be only available as downloads. Seventy-two tracks should hold me for a while.
There are reasons why jug band music went out of favor — advances in musicianship, shifts in popular taste, complicated issues of racial and sexual politics, cultural embarrassment at anything that was perceived as "primitive" — but the best of it still has much to offer. It's lively and inventive, it's historically important to the development of American popular music, but most of all it's just plain exuberant fun. We should avoid nostalgia for the grim conditions of the segregated society in which it was made, but at the same time we shouldn't turn our backs on the vitality of its creators.

The first representative track, below, is from the band's initial session, in 1927. According to Samuel Charters, the vocalist is Will Weldon, but the song is really a showcase for the harmonica and kazoo. "Sun Brimmer" or "Son Brimmer" was a nickname of Will Shade's.

"Cocaine Habit" (1930) finds the band backing Hattie Hart, one of several female vocalists they worked with at various times, the most notable being Memphis Minnie. Shade's harmonica is again featured, and the guitar part is played by Tee Wee Blackman, who is said to have taught Shade the rudiments of the guitar.

"Everybody's Talking About Sadie Green" also from 1930, displays the band's vaudeville side; the lively vocalist is Charlie Nickerson.

Finally, here's one of my favorite tracks, one that's not included in the Acrobat set, probably because it was credited at the time to "the Carolina Peanut Boys." It's also from 1930 and Charlie Nickerson is again the lead vocalist, but it's the infectious instrumental section after the first couple of verses that really makes it sing. Vol Stevens plays the hybrid banjo-mandolin, and Shade once again is on harp. It's hard to resist.

The standard print sources on the Memphis Jug Band are the pioneering writings of Samuel Charters (The Country Blues, Sweet As the Showers of Rain) and Bengt Olsson (Memphis Blues); the latter is hard to find. There is an exhaustive, if somewhat outdated, online discography at Wirz' American Music.