Sunday, June 19, 2005

Are You From Dixie?

(ARE YOU FROM DIXIE? was the first really good old country compilation that I ever bought. It's out of print so I'm going to be posting the whole thing this week. I'm also putting Billy Altman's great liner notes too. Thanks Billy! You did a great job, where's volume two?)

Are You From Dixie?
Great country brother teams of the 1930’s
By Bill Altman

Throughout its better than sixty-year recorded history, one of the mainstay of the country music tradition has been the sound of the family coming together in song. Be it the Carter’s of the 1920’s or the Judds of the 1980’s, we hear in the voices and instruments of the performing family a dual celebration – the intimate joy of sharing the means the musical creation, and the prideful carrying forth of the generational legacy that has nurtured that creation.

Perhaps nowhere is this double sense of celebration more strikingly evident than in that most basic of family musical units, the duet – two voices wrapped in harmony, two instruments rhythmically intertwined. And certainly in no place and at no time was the country duet ever more prominent than in the Southeastern United States in the 1930’s. Spurred on at the close of the previous decade by both the national recording success of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as well as the enormous rise in the demand for live radio performers, countless numbers of home trained brother teams who previously never envisioned themselves as anything than, at best, local celebrities suddenly found themselves before far-ranging broadcast and recording microphones eager to transmit their music to equally eager audiences. Some like Alabama’s Delmore Brothers, would quickly rise to widespread prominence: others, like the Dixon Brothers of South Carolina, would find their regional popularity primarily a gratifying respite from lifelong jobs as mill workers. Some, like Bill & Earl Bolick of North Carolina, soothed and delighted their listeners with nostalgic tales of home and hearth, while others, like Tennessee’s Allen Brothers, shocked and delighted them with risqué pictures from life’s other side. But wherever they came from, and wherever their paths eventually led, all of them contributed, in some special fashion, to the wellspring that would ultimately be known as modern country music. It is toward a deeper understanding of the components of that wellspring, as well as to showcase some extraordinary American music, that ARE YOU FROM DIXIE?, a collection of songs from six seminal 1930’s brother teams is presented.

While the Allen Brothers, Austin and Lee, hailed from Suwanee, Franklin County, Tennessee, they were usually referred to as “the Chattanooga Boys” in recognition of the city some 25 miles west of Suwanee where they found themselves throughout most of their rollicking career. Interested in music literally from infancy – Austin began toying with his mother’s fiddle as soon as he was old enough to clutch a bow, while Lee was taking piano lessons by age three – they eventually settled on guitar (Lee) and banjo (Austin) by the early Twenties, when they left home together to try their luck as entertainers. Over the next ten years, the Allens crisscrossed the Southeast with a collection of spirited – and sometimes “naughty” – tunes, performed in a rambunctious style that linked the sound of pre-World War I minstrel music to the more modern leanings of blues and barrelhouse jazz. The Allens made their recording debut in 1927, but left their original label after that company issued one of their records in its “race” catalogue rather than in its white-oriented “hillbilly” series. The Allens angrily initiated a lawsuit (eventually dropped) and promptly signed with RCA Victor, where they recorded fifty-seven songs from 1928 to 1932. They stopped performing together in 1934; Austin moved to New York, where he found work as a radio announcer and singing bartender; Lee remained in Tennessee and became an electrician.

Much of the Allen Brothers’ material dealt with carousing – a morally loose lifestyle that usually courted danger and trouble, and one that Allens characteristically depicted with devilish carefree glee. “Jake Walk Blues” a song whose title derived from the debilitating physical condition caused by drinking bad Jamaican Ginger, or “Jake” that was smuggled into the U.S. during prohibition, became a topical hit for the duo in 1930, and features the Allen’s trademark sound – Austin’s grinning lead vocals and jaunty tenor banjo, and Lee’s syncopated guitar and remarkable kazoo. (The younger Allen’s skillful manipulation of this most humble of instruments is showcased neatly on the infectious “Roll Down The Line”) As for the Allen’s most famous song, “A New Salty Dog,” suffice to say that a certain car manufacturer probably wasn’t thrilled to hear lines like “I got a gal, she’s raised in the sticks/she does her lovin’ in a Packard ’26,” and that the verse “I got a gal, she looks so bum/but she’s got more ways to lovin’ than Wrigley’s got gum” certainly didn’t endear the Chattanooga Boys to the purveyors of Doublemint. Then again, after the hundreds of covers of this classic over the years, one could certainly agree that no publicity is bad publicity.


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