Month: December 2014

Jack Armstrong & Alice Ellis – Rothbury Hills

I guess we’ll end Excavated Shellac’s 2014 on a musically wistful note – but, not for any real reason other than traditionally the new year should bring a time of reflection, or new beginnings, right? This year should bring some surprises if you’re fans of this website, if all goes as planned. In terms of music-related activities, I spent most of 2014 working on some long and short-term music projects yet to be released, and helping some friends with their releases…but mainly I was just enjoying collecting and listening to music, shutting off all the noise, and spending time with friends.

If you’re a fan of the Secret Museum series, you might be familiar with the elegant Northumbrian smallpipes and Celtic harp tunes “Chevy Chase” and “The Cott,” performed by today’s featured duo of Armstrong and Ellis. It’s a special record and difficult to track down. This is the equally terrific flip side, issued on the obscure Manor label (not to be confused with other labels with the same name, active at the same time in the US and UK). This particular Manor label appears to have been around only for a very short time, issuing about a dozen records with fairly bad pressings, mostly of Northumbrian artists, before disappearing completely.

The Northumbrian smallpipes are one of several bagpipes of historic Northumberland, at the border of Scotland on the northeast coast of England. The smallpipes usually have one keyed chanter with a closed end and a cylindrical bore, and up to four drones. The pipes have a staccato sound due to traditional playing with “covered” fingering – meaning one starts playing with the holes covered on the pipes. These smallpipes, in the form they take today, were invented in the late 18th century.

Jack Armstrong began handcrafting his own smallpipes at a time in the early 20th century when there were very few people doing so. Born in 1904 in the town of Wideopen, Armstrong didn’t begin playing the pipes seriously until about 1928, and began competing. From a family of miners, Armstrong managed to successfully avoid that profession and continue playing music, adapting a style played by his father, also a piper. He formed a band named the Barnstormers that recorded for HMV, and became the official piper for the Duke of Northumberland in 1949, the same year this piece was recorded. He died in 1978 in Wideopen. His occasional accompanist on “Celtic harp,” Alice Ellis, was a composer herself, having composed the Armstrong standard “The Cott.” An occasional pianist with the Barnstormers, she passed away in 1995.

The tune “Rothbury Hills” is a “slow air” written by Armstrong, something that he specialized in – a style that was different from his contemporaries and emphasized the quiet nature of the pipes. Rothbury is a small town on the River Coquet, inland and northeast of Newcastle upon Tyne, and the hills in question are likely the nearby Simonside Hills. The Hills have a legend attached to them – that their evil, moss-hat-wearing dwarves called duegar can lead people astray if one is not careful.

Jack Armstrong and Alice Ellis – Rothbury Hills

Label: Manor
Issue Number: M-506
Matrix Number: MRC 10-1

Thanks to Bill Dean-Myatt and GordyB. Some photos of Armstrong (and more music) can be found on the British Library site, here.

George Sibanda – Izwe Lenja Bulo

For those of you who are not hardened collectors or intense early music fans, it’s pretty much a given that within the main preservation and collecting-spheres, primary reverence is given to “pre-war” recordings. Particularly American blues, country, and jazz. The common thought being, roughly, that before WWII, music in America was more regional, localized, more raw, and recorded without much technical embellishment. It very often contained a natural feel that began to vanish after the Great Depression due to a number of contributing factors, such as the advent of radio, coupled with the vast amount of recordings available, and the dire economic straits of the record industry at that time. Thus, musicians could easily hear each other and change or adapt at a much faster rate, homogenizing music as a whole. These are big generalizations of course, covered in a lot of literature, and with all kinds of exceptions, but on some major levels it seems undeniable.

Unfortunately, historians and collectors are sometimes guilty of applying the same generalizations about American music during this transitional or post-WWII era, to the music situation in the rest of the world. And although the Great Depression left the global record industry in an economic shambles, this did not mean that regional brilliance vanished on disc before 1939. In fact, from a global perspective, the post-WWII era was perhaps a rebirth of extremely localized music on record, due to cheap magnetic tape recorders, cheap pressing plant costs, and the advent of new transportation routes to areas that hadn’t yet had a chance to “sing.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to WWII, recording of Sub-Saharan music was sporadic, as I’ve outlined in various entries. Not only did it truly hit a stride much later compared with the rest of the world – in the late 1920s – but the recording of African music was stopped in its tracks a few short years after it began by the effects of the Depression. Once the industry recovered, the war began, and recording of Sub-Saharan African music halted again. When WWII was over, when the major European conglomerates, who almost exclusively controlled the world’s music industry, were picking up the pieces, independent competitor labels all over Sub-Saharan Africa began to appear, ushering in this new era.

The result of this was an extraordinary amount of regional recordings from ca. 1947 onward. THIS was the golden age of recording for Sub-Saharan Africa, not the music of the “pre-war” era. The recordings from this period were, in fact, more varied than the African music recorded prior to the war. Perhaps even more varied than the America of the 1920s-30s. The comparison is admittedly unfair, but I bring it up just as an example, because the music recorded in Africa broadly ranged from deeply traditional, ceremonial and functional music nowhere near Western concepts of what music was supposed to be, to all manner of adept songsters and troubadours on various local or European instruments, to crystalline, harmonious pop, influenced by everything from Cuban rumbas to Bill Haley – yet, distinctly African.

Within this post-WWII era came the guitar troubadours. Listened to today, one can’t help but compare their voices, picking styles, and melodies to American roots music guitar players from the late-20s and 30s – even musically there are often direct connections, as American country 78s were distributed in parts of Africa. Each guitarist had his/her own idiosyncrasies (and yes, there were women guitarists recorded), though they often fit into a particular regional style. I think it’s safe to say that the bulk of these players were from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, and Congo, though there were plenty of solo guitarists from Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi, as well.

While the Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda is undoubtedly the most well-known guitarist from this era, probably the second most influential was George Sibanda from Zimbabwe. Even his biography reads like legend – in that there is almost nothing to go on except his recordings, spread over about a decade on the Gallotone label, and the fact that he drank himself to death by the late-50s after achieving great celebrity and stardom from southern Africa to Kenya.

Sibanda was “discovered” by Hugh Tracey even before Mwenda. His name spread outside of Africa after his death, as people like Jim Kweskin and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott took turns covering his tune “Guabi Guabi.” However, few had the chance to hear his recordings outside of Tracey’s reissues and the American cover versions, until SWP Records issued a terrific CD of a selection of his recordings.

That CD is not complete, however, and a number of brilliant Sibanda tunes remain on elusive 78s. This is one of them. While Sibanda almost always was a straight-up guitar picker, this is a slide guitar piece, and is evocative – perhaps even a wholehearted copy – of American country music. If someone told you it was recorded in 1930, would you believe it? Would it make a difference in how you listen, or your opinion of its “value”? Sibanda recorded this in the 1950s, the equivalent of the “pre-war” era musically, in Africa.

George Sibanda – Izwe Lenja Bulo

Label: Gallotone
Issue Number: GB 1973
Matrix Number: ABC SR.12342