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'American Primitive': Second Batch of Musical Gems
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'American Primitive': Second Batch of Musical Gems


The recordings are scratchy, you have to really listen, but the music on a new CD of early 20th century songs is remarkable. Taken from original 78 rpm records, the performances are by artists so obscure that they'd been overlooked by folk music archivists. Meredith Ochs has a review of AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, VOL. II.

(Soundbite of music)

MEREDITH OCHS, reporting:

When Robert Johnson went from obscure Delta Blues man to mass marketed musician, fans were as interested in his life story as they were in his music. That's not the case with Geeshie Wiley, one of the artists on AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, VOL. II. Like everyone else on this disc, virtually nothing is known about the singer and guitarist. Her songs are phantoms. They're the only evidence that she ever existed at all.

(Soundbite of music)

OCHS: These obscure songs tell the story of American music from the turn of the century up to World War II. Burgeoning record labels at the time were frantic to reach listeners, but they weren't sure how to do it. So they took a wet noodle approach to their business, recording as many performers as possible and seeing if anyone stuck to the wall. In the process they cataloged a vast array of indigenous American music. Gospel, blues, hillbilly, minstrelsy, early jazz. Almost anyone with a jingle to sing or a kazoo to play could make a record. Novelty songs like this one would be lost forever if not for the song catchers who compiled this CD.

(Soundbite of music)

OCHS: Of the fifty songs that sprawl across this two-disc collection, my favorite ones are by a singer named Mattie Mae Thomas. Her acapella performances were sung in the sewing room at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, more notoriously known as Parchment Farm, where she was doing time. It's hard to make out some of the words through the scratchy, raunchy sound, but you can hear in Mattie Mae's voice that her world was lonely and treacherous.

Ms. MATTIE MAE THOMAS (Singer): I made up songs just by being in prison alone.

(Soundbite of song)

OCHS: These recordings are like abandoned curios in a thrift shop. Their stories long faded away. The folks at Revenant Records wanted to give them a history, to restore them to the timeline of American music and that's exactly what they've done on this AMERICAN PRIMITIVE CD. It's not where the blues began, but it is sure one of the most marvelous sidebars.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: The CD is called AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, VOL. II. Our reviewer is Meredith Ochs.

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