Issue #20 Dec/Jan 2007

Vol XIII Academic Archive: Clothesline Revival’s View of a Century     
by Joe Allen

 Aldo Leopold’s proto-environmental text A Sand County Almanac (originally published in 1949 by Oxford University Press) is a month by month account of his Wisconsin homestead. In the second essay “February – A Good Oak,” Leopold writes of the felling of a 80-year-old oak tree by hand. The essay follows the strokes of the saw, narrating a collaged history, ring by ring, year by year, all the way back to1865. He concludes the deceptively straightforward allegory by stating:

The saw works only across the years, which it must deal with one by one, in sequence. From each year the raker teeth pull little chips of fact, which accumulate in little piles, called sawdust by woodsmen and archives by historians; both judge the character of what lies within by the character and the samples thus made visible without. (16)

He continues, “It is not until the transect is completed that the tree falls, and the stump yields a collective view of a century. By its fall the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history.”

             Regular readers of this column know I often return to old-time music to re-orient myself in the history of 20th Century American music, but only recently did an album provide the kind of perspective Leopold attains. The album is Clothesline Revival’s second release, Long Gone (released in 2005 by Paleo Music). Producer/arranger and former archeologist Conrad Praetzel and multi-instrumentalist Robert Powell are the architects. Their first album, Of My Native Land (Paleo Music 2002), featured contemporary singers Tom Armstrong and Wendy Allen covering songs by Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and other traditional songs. It also includes a few unusual a cappellas from the Smithsonian Folkways archive or the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. With both newly recorded vocals and sampled a cappellas, Praetzel and Powell construct a sonic terrain of off-kilter samples, rough-hewn beats, old-time atmospherics, and live instrumentation. For Long Gone, Praetzel worked solely with found a cappellas from the same two archives. While the originals might have been recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1930s or 40s, the songs could have been floating around Appalachia or the South for decades. It is uncanny how such old songs can be seamlessly recontextualized with 21st century sampling techniques. On any highway drive with my family chanting the call and response of “Satisfied” or “Shortenin’ Bread,” there is no doubt that these songs have clearly been revived. Praetzel has gone deeper into the American archive of recorded music than anyone, and his startling juxtapositions reveal a collective view of a century of American music. 

            Long Gone’s own naturalistic epigram seemed like the appropriate place to begin when I spoke to Conrad.

 Why did you include the quote, "They said that music grew like a grapevine that is never pruned, that each year it puts on a little more" at the end of the Long Gone liner notes?

    I deliberately closed the CD with “Music Has No End.” Neil Morris, Jimmy Driftwood’s father remembers how his father described that music was an alive and growing thing. His father said. “They say that music was like a grapevine that is never pruned, that each year it puts on a little bit more.” I love the analogy and the open mindedness of that statement. I’d like to think that Long Gone is part of last year’s growth.

Most of the sources of Long Gone are from the
American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress or the Alan Lomax Archive. Why did you select each archive?

    The approach I used with all of Long Gone and several songs on Of My Native Land was to build an arrangement around an archival field recording of an a cappella vocal. Fortunately with the internet you can find and listen to thousands of these old recordings on-line. I spent days checking out the collections at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress web site, anything with a cappella vocals. I also checked out the Alan and John Lomax Collections, on the Rounder Records web site. They have 30 second samples posted on their site, and I bought the CDs that had source material I was considering.

    Eventually for Long Gone I used five source vocals recorded by Alan Lomax, three recorded by his father John and four from the American Folklife Center. I also used a vocal from the Max Hunter Collection. Max Hunter was a traveling salesman with a passion for folk music. He hauled his tape recorder around the Ozarks and collected songs while delivering his sales pitch. His collection is also available on-line.

    I contacted the Library of Congress and they made it clear they had no objection to my use of the source material. Their contribution to the recordings, they told me, was considered public domain. They let me know, though, that there could be additional permissions (and copyrights) I may need to obtain, and that was my responsibility. The same was true with the Max Hunter recording. So basically I did a web search for each vocalist and song title looking for the performer, or their family for permission, and possibly for publishing information on the songs. Keep in mind these recordings dated back as far as 1939, and most, if not all, of the vocalist are no longer alive. The searches didn’t produce any useful leads so in these cases I credited the performer, archivist and collection and figured I did the best I could.

    Licensing of the Lomax recordings was much more involved. What complicated things was that I didn’t get the full picture when I researched permissions for the first Clothesline Revival CD, Of My Native Land, the John Lomax recordings of “Calling Trains” and “Pullin the Skiff”. I contacted the Library of Congress and they said they had no objections. They suggested I contact Rounder Records, and they also had no objections. So I thought I was in the clear.

    I was well into recording the second Clothesline Revival CD, Long Gone, before I once again contacted Rounder Records about more Lomax recordings, hoping that as before there would be no obstacles. This time, though I learned that I would need to obtain permissions and copyrights from the Lomax Estate. On top of that, I also discovered that the Lomax Estate would have to approve my use of the source material. I imagine this is always the case when licensing master recordings, but my impression from my earlier research was these would be public domain. This left me, for a while, in the limbo state of not knowing if over half the songs would even make the new album.
After several months fortunately it all worked out fine. They approved of the roughs I’d sent and we worked out fees that were very reasonable. Later on, after hearing the final versions, Anna Lomax, Alan’s daughter, wrote to tell me what she thought of my arrangements. She had some positive things to say, and some definitely not so, but still she recognized that I had a deep connection with the singers and songs, and she was overall encouraging. I’m thankful it all worked out. In retrospect I should have worked out clearing the rights before even starting a song. The thing is when the inspiration strikes it’s hard, as an artist, to not just go with it …

 Where did you first get the idea to reuse such archival material?

     My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno was the first use of archival material I heard and still a favorite album of mine. The first vocal sample I used on an album was from a sermon by Prophet Omega, a radio evangelist who preached from his apartment in Nashville back in the 60s. He’s sort of legendary cult figure now. The sermon was called “I Am What I Am.” and I was working on the CD Receive back in 1996.   I found it on a very eclectic mix cassette a friend had given me. I remembered playing a cassette a friend had given me of the sermon in the front room, and at the same time playing an instrumental I was working on in the studio. I'm standing in the hall to see how they'd sound together, and it was absolute magic. The next archival recording I worked with was Leadbelly singing "Cow Cow Yicky Yicky Yea" and that led to doing the Clothesline Revival CDs. It took over a year to get the rights to use that recording.

 How do you know when you find an a cappella can be revived?

     There are several things I look for when selecting a cappella recordings to work with. I'll usually end up listening to a song hundreds of times before I'm done, so I need to feel a real strong pull from the singer and song to stay inspired. I also need to feel I can build something new around these recordings. That's really the whole point. It's best to start out with an open mind as to where they could go, if there was an obvious direction I figured it was probably a poor choice. Other things I would look for were strong character performances, songs that work on different levels emotionally and ones that stayed pretty close to pitch throughout.

How would you characterize the relation between your songs and the original tracks?

    Presenting and supporting the vocal was first in my mind. So the vocal always controlled the arrangement and not the other way around. That meant using the entire vocal, if possible, and not as sample bits thrown in. I wanted to place the vocal in a different world than the listener would expect but in a place that still felt, in its own way, as authentic as the original. I incorporated both real roots instrumentation, like dobro, stand-up bass and steel guitar with a variety of more electronica type sounds, beat loops and atmospheres. The trick was always finding a way to bridge the real and electronic, and the past and present and to keep it sounding real.

    One thing I was listening for in the original performances and songs was some sort of depth or complexity of emotions, where you could interpret the songs in a variety of ways. This would also allow me to explore different arrangements that would bring one dimension or another out.

Why are a few of the originals available on your web site? Do you hope to revitalize interest in the songs you sample?
    I have several of the vocal source recordings on so folks can hear the original a cappella vocal and compare to my arrangement. They all stand up just fine on their own. It’s a shame, but I’m sure it’s somewhat rare for someone to sit and listen to an album entirely of old field recordings, even more so, of just a cappella vocals. I hope that this CD will introduce these treasures to an audience they wouldn’t normally find.