Enthusiasms No 12
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
(New York and London: Marion Boyars, 1999. ISBN 0-7145-3056-5. £9.95)
Now, I've never been to the Bahamas, and perhaps never will. But, as I've expressed in a numerous reviews over the years, thanks to the efforts of a number of collectors who have made their field recordings available I feel the greatest possible affinity with the musical culture of the islands. Alan Lomax was the first, in 1935, and those recordings are most accessibly available on Document DOCD-5579. Sam and Ann Charters followed nearly a quarter century later, and the majority of their musical acquisitions appeared on four Folkways vinyl albums, long deleted but (like all releases on that label) available as tape dubs from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The albums came with comprehensive booklets in which Sam Charters described much of the context of recording in his expressive poetical prose. Now comes an extended essay running to over 150 pages, which places the whole collection in its fullest context. As with his fine Roots of the Blues, this work is as much travelogue and psychological soul-baring as the story of a musical field trip, the story is at once moving and exciting, embarrassing and heart rending. It's a tale of two naive young lovers who packed a few belongings (including tape recorder, of course) and travelled to an alien shore, almost completely unprepared for the hardships, the burgeoning exploitation of tourism, and the poverty, grime and violence of that culture.
Some of the book is adapted, partially verbatim, from the Folkways sleevenotes, but is certainly none the worse for that. I was as moved today as I was all those years ago by the stories of encountering Joseph Spence, John Roberts and Frederick McQueen. After tracking down the last named legendary singer - a minor odyssey in itself - and hearing him sing for the first time, Charters wrote, back in 1958, 'In the stillness, when he stopped singing, I realised I was crying.' It's a reaction I shared vicariously then, and now again, both at various points points in the present narrative, and when listening again to the recordings straight afterwards. Like all great folk art it touches the soul.
Charters gives no specific travel dates, but at one point (page 169) speaks of 'the months on Andros.' From dates given in the Folkways booklets the span of recording actually occurred from 21 July to 19 August. Collating the accounts we realise that the first of these dates was 'the second night' and the second merely one (or perhaps) two days before departure. No doubt in retrospect four decades later those lazy days seemed to be elongated. I once had a similar, though much less exotic, experience, hitching around the south of Ireland in the summer of 1971. For years I told the story as having been anything up to six weeks' duration, but when I finally sat and worked it out it was really only about two.
An appendix lists the recordings made during those four weeks. Or at least the majority of them. On Folkways FS 3845 is a track recorded 'from a distance' of singing at a wake held for a dying woman. In the book Charters makes no mention of setting up his recorder, and one assumes that after so long he has some qualms about having intruded on such a solemn occasion.
The Charters caught the tradition in transition between the established proscribed ways and the popular mass culture slowly but surely insinuating its way in from the US mainland. I recently reviewed for this site a CD of modern recordings from the Bahamas. There was some terrific material there, but none of it holds a candle in emotional intensity to those 1958 tracks. Charters describes the dilemma in which John Roberts found himself, caught between the pride of singing in the old way and the possible censure of the younger generation, who had musically moved on. Back in Nassau on the way home, the owner of a bar-cum-guest house listened to some of the recordings and claimed, 'That's the old way. That's the old way when I grew up.' And, as with traditional music everywhere, the old ways are invariably the best.
This is my book of the year so far; and I doubt if anything will appear to topple it. Truly excellent.
Keith Chandler - 20.6.99
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