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From the Devil's Music to God's Country 

Local label Birdman connects with divine gospel

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
The folk-blues revival of the 1950s and '60s generated an awful lot of crappy music made by earnest kids; this is fact, as clearly documented in the film A Mighty Wind. But the revival also empowered dozens of people to arm themselves with tape recorders and go forth in an effort to record the source of this music, a bunch of little DIY John and Alan Lomaxes. These well-meaning folks were often part academics (taking detailed, census-type notes or tracing every single variant of individual Appalachian ballads) and part cons (perhaps adding their own names to publishing rights on songs they never wrote, or paying for a phenomenal recording with a shot of whiskey). At the risk of sounding corny, a few were simply record-collector enthusiasts obsessed and in love with American music and intent on finding its living, breathing source — or at least its remnants — and who were perhaps not against partying with and befriending these musicians once they found them.

Back in 1969, 19-year-old Bengt Olsson (who you can lump squarely in with that latter group of collector-fans) was a bit late to the folk-blues archiving game. Most surviving, documented Appalachian folk/Delta blues musicians had been rediscovered, including such stars of Harry Smith's celebrated Anthology of American Folk Music as Dock Boggs and Bukka White. But Olsson, from Malmö, Sweden, was so in love with American music, he just had to visit the U.S. After saving up money by working extra shifts at a printing plant, he headed to the States with a fellow enthusiast. The two bought a used Chevy in upstate New York and headed to Chicago, where they encountered the great electric-blues musicians Hound Dog Taylor and Magic Slim in nightclubs that stayed open almost 'til sun up. "We slept in the daytime and went to clubs at night," Olsson relates over the phone, clearly still excited about that time even though it was almost 40 years ago. After a week spent in the apartment of the guy who ran Delmark Records, the duo headed to Memphis and then further on to places in the South they'd never heard of before. Olsson returned to the region by himself in 1971 and '74.

Self-financed and operating without much of a plan, Olsson didn't always have it easy. He got kidnapped once in Mississippi, after attending one of fife and drum patriarch Otha Turner's harvest picnics, where moonshine and goat meat were as much a part of the rowdy festivities as the hypnotic, polyrhythmic sound of the music. "I was having too much fun to go back to Memphis, and told my friends to go on without me," he relates. "In the morning Otha drove me up to the highway and said a bus would come along in 20 minutes. But as this was Labor Day, it turned out the buses didn't run on schedule. So I figured I should hitchhike. I got picked up by two white guys and as soon as I got in, it was clear they were real drunk. They said they'd been up all night, and that the car was stolen. They pulled a gun and started making threats like, 'You're never getting out of this alive,' but we soon started to get followed by a police car. The boys tried to shake the police on side roads and when that happened, I jumped out and started running!"

In addition to such tastes of rural outlaws, Olsson discovered and documented a wealth of obscure traditional music over the course of two more trips throughout the South. He found blues-based musicians no one else had recorded, players of astonishing force. There were even a few overlooked greats from the '20s and '30s, such as Dewey Corley from the once hugely popular Beale Street Jug Band. "We were really interested in finding out where no one had gone before," he explains. Until recently, Olsson's recordings had only been released on a few comps on the European label Flyright in the '70s. David Katznelson, who runs the local label Birdman (home to garagey records by the Cuts, the Gris Gris, and Howlin' Rain), first came into contact with Olsson when Birdman released It Came from Memphis Vol. 2 in 2001, a disc compiled by blues scholar Robert Gordon; it contained a few of Olsson's field recordings. Katznelson, who'd put out two excellent Otha Turner albums, quickly realized the worth of Olsson's tapes and bought the rights to them.

After transferring the tapes to disc for reference, the first CD Katznelson popped in was by someone named Perry Tillis, a blind blues musician Olsson discovered living alone in abject poverty in rural Alabama. Tillis sang beautiful spiritual numbers in the style of prewar Delta blues. "I felt like I'd just unearthed a pot of gold," Katznelson enthuses. "It was almost hard to listen to; it was so real with feeling, purity, and sound. His guitar playing is like a fragile mosquito, and his long, monotonous riffs explore Velvet Underground territory." Released last month on Birdman — two years after Bishop Tillis' death in 2004 at the age of 85 — his CD Too Close is a thing of great, ragged beauty. It's amazing that Too Close is a debut album. But as Tillis himself told the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture's publication The Field in 1995, "I never did want no records much. There just wasn't enough in it. See, I could get out there with my guitar; I played the blues and I'd get out there in a club or some building and make myself $2,000 a week. I couldn't get that on records."

The music consists solely of Tillis' voice and guitar, with occasional percussion caused by his feet stomping the loose floorboards in his house. From the first song, his take on "God Don't Like It," a track that advises against drinking moonshine, to "Kennedy Moan," a rousing political number, it's all stirring stuff. Most folks into this music see the "sanctified blues" of the '20s and '30s (Ed Clayborn, Blind Willie Johnson) as a stillborn bridge from the devil's music to God's, between the sound everyone knows is the blues and the stuff we all recognize as gospel. But if you look for it, it's obvious that bluesy, visceral gospel music was made on into the '50s (Ola Mae Terrell, Utah Smith), the '60s (Staple Singers, Rev. Overstreet), the '70s (Charlie Jackson), and even today (Rev. Isaiah Owens). Asked about this music's rarity, Olsson says, "I think sanctified blues as a tradition lived on as long as 'regular'] blues," but surmises that maybe "sanctified people didn't buy the records as much, plus you didn't have sanctified records on jukeboxes except for maybe Sister Rosetta Tharpe."

Too Close is one of those releases that not only redresses historical wrongs by giving this unheard artist broad release, but that also should be listened to on repeat. It's astonishing stuff. Birdman plans to issue multiple discs culled from Olsson's recordings over the next few years; there's a lot to dig through. If the other releases — by the likes of Lum Guffin, Perry Tillis, and Lattie Murrell — are even half as good as Close, it'll be cause for serious celebration for fans of roots music. Olsson admits he was a little shocked at the interest in his recordings. "But when I listened back, I was pleasantly surprised," he adds. "[The tapes] sounded better than I imagined!"

About The Author

Mike McGonigal


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