EXCLUSIVE Track x Track: Joe Strouzer – 9th Ward Tape
Joe Strouzer – 9th Ward Tape is available via Little Paradise Records.
by Walter Price
Hand-me-down traditional blues, folk, and jazz songs have been the foundations of popular music since the dawn of recorded music. Sometimes whitewashed to fit the times and/or radio audiences. Which can seem illegitimate or labeled ‘cultural appropriation’ in modern times, but that was the way the world has turned for nearly a hundred years plus. But newer generations transfixed with everything is free and was invented yesterday don’t have the wherewithal to understand origins. So it’s increasingly important to keep the histories of music alive. Which is a hard road to travel if you want to be a big-time rock star… But well worth it for your soul.
UK’s Joe Strouzer is one of the legitimate artists doing his utmost to keep the traditional songs alive. He breaths continued life in story songs that popular culture is more often ignoring. His 2016 ‘9th Ward Tape’ travels the early part of the 20th Century’s songbook. Not the Broadway version but the oddly omitted rootsy songs that tell stories of the underdogs, laborers, good folks gone bad, and the people trying to just get by with what they have and live with what is has to be.
Country music of the early 30’s straight through to the late 60’s often could build on these songs in authentic ways. None better than Hank Williams Sr., who is the voice a vast swath of Country and traditional music is measured. The way he could lament sorrow, love, life, and loss with earnest soulful inflections. And I find similar sensibilities in what Strouzer does here. In manners that never mimic but celebrate and further the legacies of these tales.
And in an era with high-end recording technologies more and more available to the masses, Strouzer and company have been able to capture lo-fi atmospheres that add to the tactile atmospheres of these tracks. In a social media explanation about the recordings, Strouzer has said, “This album was recorded on Friday 15th April 2016 by Bill Howard and Duff Thompson in their vans. Bill’s van housed the Sansui SD-5000 stereo reel to reel recorder from 1972, which he’d borrowed from Max Bien-Kahn, and Duff’s van was used as the live room. This record was made using just two microphones, the songs are live takes recorded in four hours while the vans were parked in Jonathan Henley and Logan Braggs’ driveway in The Holy Cross, Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana.”
Another, if not the most intriguing, attribute on ‘9th Ward Tape’ is the harmonica work. An instrument that is rarely used properly these days. Usually added as a background accouterment, Strouzer uses the instrument to drive the stories. Upfront and brilliant, the mouth harp is an intricate part of the soul on this album.
‘9th Ward Tape’ was recently reissued via Little Paradise Records (Screamin’ Miss Jackson, Mark J. Lee). Joe Strouzer stopped by to go track by track this remarkable collection.
Trouble In Mind
First published in 1917 and written by Richard Jones, it’s a song which has been told by hundreds of voices and I wanted to add my take to the pile. If you listen carefully you can hear engineer Duff Thompson starting the tape machine rolling at the beginning.
Death Don’t Have No Mercy
A dark and powerful song first sung by Rev Gary Davis, I’d been performing a version from British artist Nia Wyn before I headed to New Orleans. For some of the pushed vocal parts, I had to point my head up at the ceiling of the van to stop the tape recorder from over-saturating.
Whinin’ Boy Blues
New Orleans native and jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton says he wrote this tune back in 1905 and you can find a long and, as Mr. Jelly Roll calls it, “smutty” version on his Library Of Congress Recordings. I first heard it from Gypsy Dave Smith in Newcastle upon Tyne when I used to listen at his weekly blues gigs along the cobbles of Pink Lane at the Jazz Cafe. Years later I get great pleasure from singing it on the streets of New Orleans, picturing Morton strutting in his bright red undershirt and diamond sock suspenders.
From Four Until Late
Written by Robert Johnson, it’s another song I used to hear Gypsy Dave Smith singing. I had an unforgettable meeting with Johnson’s Granddaughter Theresa in Crystal Springs, MS two years before this recording and I learnt to play it soon after, I wanted this record to show music from all along the Mississippi River and couldn’t leave Mr. Johnson off the track list.
Baby How Can It Be
Written by Bo Carter, it’s become a standard with the current set of New Orleans street bands playing old American music. I picked it up performing with fiddle player Jackson Lynch the month of recording, I’d only just learnt to play it before we cut it.
I heard Henry Thomas singing this on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music and fell in love with it, I play Thomas’s quills line on harp. I learnt the song on my first visit to New Orleans and it brings back great memories of picking old tunes and fishing down on the bayou with Doug & Ryan Page and Willie Singerman.
Son House’s signature tune, it’s become a staple of southern blues singers and rightly so. I loved this take as the tape machine motor slows down slightly during the harmonica solo, making the song speed up.
I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground
A traditional American folk song, I first heard it when my father played me Jackson C Frank’s record. I love the song, the singer is searching for escape through his dreaming and the images of the mole and lizard’s freedom play lightly on my mind.
St James Infirmary
I used to run a weekly blues club in Whitechapel, London, called Boxcar Joes Juke Joint and every week myself, Philip Overton, Willie Singerman and Billy The Barman would finish the night with a rip-roaring version of St James Infirmary. I’d been waiting to record it for a long time and was inspired to include it on this album after hearing the New Orleans marching bands at Mardi Gras the month before we recorded.
James Alley Blues
Written by New Orleans blues singer Richard Rabbit Brown and recorded in 1927, it’s a beautiful and simple song of unrequited love in a changing world. I picked it up from Blind Texas Marlin, a New Orleans local who I used to play harmonica with. My favourite lyric is “you’re in my daily thoughts, in my nightly dreams”.
Performed by Joe Strouzer in City Park, New Orleans, LA. 28th April 2017
Filming by Caitlin Davis
Written by Rev. Gary Davis
(Article cover photo by Rosie Reed Gold)
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