DAILY RECORD: Been Here All My Days

by | Sep 15, 2010 | MUSIC

Various Artists – Been Here All My Days: Selections From the George Mitchell Archive (Mississippi Records)

Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Records (named for the street on which the label is headquartered rather than any particular geographical/cultural pattern in their releases) has again and again proven itself a godsend for music fans interested in recordings of forgotten and marginalized artists. Their releases, often hand-assembled and produced in relatively limited quantities, catalog field recordings, early folk music, obscure post-punk, free jazz, and music from around the world, but the area in which the label has been most consistent is in its reissues of early blues musicians. Been Here All My Days, a collection of highlights from the archives of amateur folklorist George Mitchell, is no exception.


Various Artists – Been Here All My Days: Selections From the George Mitchell Archive (Mississippi Records)

Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Records (named for the street on which the label is headquartered rather than any particular geographical/cultural pattern in their releases) has again and again proven itself a godsend for music fans interested in recordings of forgotten and marginalized artists. Their releases, often hand-assembled and produced in relatively limited quantities, catalog field recordings, early folk music, obscure post-punk, free jazz, and music from around the world, but the area in which the label has been most consistent is in its reissues of early blues musicians. Been Here All My Days, a collection of highlights from the archives of amateur folklorist George Mitchell, is no exception.

Many albums released or re-released by Mississippi have an interesting back story, either regarding the musicians themselves or the reasons behind the music’s initial fade into obscurity. Therefore, to fully grasp the overarching concept of the album rather than just to view it as a collection of songs, one must first consult the extensive liner notes. George Mitchell was seventeen years old in 1961 when he and his friends drove from their Atlanta home to Memphis in order to track down any of the blues musicians they loved who might still be alive. Beginning the following year, Mitchell spent over two decades travelling through the South with a tape recorder and an overwhelming desire to document an era of American music which was rapidly drawing to a close.

The bulk of the recordings, especially those compiled on Been Here All My Days, reflect something of a transitional period in the music so beloved by Mitchell. While there is a strong inclination towards the rural country blues of the early 20th century, there are no efforts to constrain the music by placing it in a fixed frame of reference devoid of past or future–a common occurrence in retrospective efforts such as these. Almost all the musicians included possess some connection with early gospel music, and while some turned towards more secular pursuits, the connection with the past is inescapable. As singer Green Paschal puts it: “I don’t like these jumped up songs that people sing now… I believe in the old way. I just like the old songs.” Others saw more of a connection with more contemporary sounds–the energy of amplified Chicago blues, rhythm and blues, and early rock and roll. George Mitchell recalls Georgia bluesman John Lee Ziegler performing Sam Cooke songs accompanied by a spoon player.

The album loses some conceptual cohesion, however, when it attempts to find a historical place for the music. On the one hand, the music compiled by Mitchell is portrayed as a vibrant, vivacious enterprise, regardless of how far removed by time, culture, and geography a listener may be. While George Mitchell was likely just as much of an outsider to rural African-American communities in the deep South as other folklorists like Alan Lomax or Harry Smith (although the liner notes’ assertion that Lomax was a northerner are in fact mistaken), his approach is described as less stodgy and academic than that of the more rigorous ethnomusicologists. His Georgia accent was also more familiar and relatable to those whom he recorded, which by extension allowed him to document looser, more accurate portrayals of the blues, as it actually sounded as performed by little-known but greatly talented practitioners. The recordings are an incredible testament to the evolution of musical tradition in the hands of individuals who often possessed little more than their instrument and their voice. There is an easy-going, casual nature to the recordings which aids their quality. One gets the feeling of being present in the room with the musicians as they played, a feeling undoubtedly encouraged by the performers’ ease around the unassuming southern boy recording them.

In attempting to dismiss or diminish the aims of more traditional ethnomusicologists and music critics, the liner notes claim that such individuals strive for documents steeped in academic versions of authenticity, to the extent that the actual music is attached to a fixed place in history at best, and portrayed as a historical oddity at worst. Which is a fair criticism–just to pick out one example, for all the brilliant work Greil Marcus produced, his relegating of long-standing folk traditions like the fife-and-drum bands of North Mississippi to the category of “Old, Weird America” casts such music in the role of the empirical other. It becomes something to be gawked at and dissected rather than genuinely appreciated for its own aesthetic contributions to America’s cultural oeuvre. While the liner notes to Been Here All My Days seem to have no problem pointing out these attitudes, however, sometimes their tone becomes almost reactionary. Just because some “self-proclaimed blues ‘scholars’” hope to retrospectively categorize and isolate the music they love does not necessarily mean that hip hop is the only living form of blues in the South, as the liner notes claim. It is a strange argument, one at odds with both the praise lavished upon the individuals making and recording the music, and the fact that many musicians whose first recordings were made by George Mitchell–R.L. Burnside comes to mind–lived and performed well into the 21st century.

Arguments about consistency and authenticity aside, however, the music compiled on Been Here All My Days is an absolutely necessary addition to any collection of early blues, due to the circumstances of its creation. While the low-fidelity recordings from the 1920s-50s possess an evocative charm, sometimes the lack of sonic clarity can undermine the music’s power. And while many recordings made by the same artists later in life (especially those compiled by the aforementioned ethnomusicologists and a handful of labels attempting to capitalize on the popularity of otherwise-forgotten artists in the wake of the early 1960s folk revival) benefit from advances in recording technology, many of the performances lack the creative spark of older material. This may be due to the performers’ unease in front of strangers attempting to document their art as if it were some near-extinct flower to be catalogued for future generations of botany textbooks, or may be caused by the simple and inevitable ravages of age.

Been Here All My Days sidesteps all those potential pitfalls. While some of the artists might have been able to offer a more fiery performance in the decades prior to these recordings, there is a seasoned maturity present on these recordings. The performers display a facility with the songs which lends each more leeway when adding the sort of personalized touches that can only be acquired with decades of experience. Many of the artists have internalized their surroundings to such a degree that in songs like John Lee Ziegler’s “Who’s Gonna Be Your Man,” or Houston Stackhouse’s “Big Road,” weeping slide guitars hum like August cicada cries and loose-limbed drums thump like distant train rumbles. That said, this does not at all undermine the material’s sophistication. The call-and-response vocal harmonies of “Hold My Body Down” by Robert Johnson (whose obscurity may be related to his sharing a name with the most famous/infamous blues musician of all time) possess an eerie cadence, not dissimilar to the ensemble arrangements of Sacred Harp singing, as Johnson alternates lines with a choir of his eight gospel-singing children. Or for material more inclined towards a minimalist aesthetic, Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Going Home” is a song stripped to its barest essence, an a capella rendition which might seem basic if not for the harmonic interplay with her backing vocalist.

The performances are as strong in lyrical realms as they are in the musical aspects. The aforementioned Robert Johnson song intimates apocalypse and resurrection, a Book Of Revelation crammed into a concise three-minute meditation on mortality and transcendence. Furry Lewis’s “Good Morning Judge” approaches the protagonist’s day in court with a smirking sense of humor that can’t quite cover up the song’s tragic core: the plight of the poor and uneducated who fall victim to the prejudiced machinations of the law. “They accused me of murder and I never even hurt a man / they accused me of forgery and I can’t even sign my name,” Lewis sings. In couplets like that, much of the approach of these musicians is epitomized: the ability to channel adversity into creativity; the knowledge that there are two types of experiences in the world – good experiences on one hand, and on the other, ones that can inspire songs.

The material presented on Been Here All My Days might represent variations on the blues which are too subtle for casual fans. There is none of the thundering darkness of (the other) Robert Johnson or the loping pathos of Skip James, but the artists compiled offer a great insight into the ways in which a variety of people could internalize an art form as a means of creating something intensely personal. Mississippi Records has a near-perfect track record in terms of uncovering such material, and this is no exception. Beginners might be well-advised to seek out some of the label’s other compilations such as I Woke Up One Morning In May or Last Kind Words, both better introductions to the breadth of early blues in general. However, Been Here All My Days is absolutely recommended for anybody interested in music, of historical importance, which refuses to sacrifice timeless qualities like individuality and heart.

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.




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