Peter La Farge – On the Warpath – 1965 – Folkways

Peter La Farge - On  the Warpath - 1965 - Folkways

I was initially aware of Peter La Farge from listening to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan cover his songs and from reading about him in biographies on those two artists. The first recordings I heard of his were this album and As Long As the Grass Shall Grow which I bought when I was about 19 years old from Yesterday and Today Records, a shop that was in Parramatta which specialized in country records but also had some folk, blues and 60s psycedelia. They were both on one CD released by Bear Family Records.

There was a precision to Peter’s writing that I liked immediately, the songs were so well crafted. There was also something in his voice I could immediately relate to and that I have never heard before or since. Listening to Peter taught me a lot as a singer. I liked his rough hewn playing style too.

It took me about 18 years to get a copy of this on vinyl. Peter La Farge records aren’t exactly easy to find in Australia. In all my years of trawling through second hand record shops, op shops and specialty record stores I only ever found one album on of his on vinyl (a reissue of ‘Sings Women Blues’ on Verve) at Yesterday and Today Records back in the 90s and one album that had a track of his (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow on An Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music, Folkways) at Discovery Records in Hornsby, again back in the 90s. In both of those instances I didn’t have the money to buy them at the time so I just looked at the covers and had a read of the song titles and wished I could afford them and in both instances I went back a couple of days later to buy them when I had the money but they were sold already. It’s funny when I can remember exactly where I saw records that I didn’t even get to buy.

Ebay has altered my record buying habits lately and I now mainly shop online. I found this album there. It took about three weeks to ship to me and I was so happy to see that the cover was in mint condition and that the record had hardly been played. This is probably my favourite album cover. The photograph by David Gahr and the design by Ronald Clyne is striking. It hits the right balance of anger, defiance and pride. Like all Folkways LPs it is cheaply manufactured but it is designed really well and it comes with a nice booklet packed with notes, lyrics and musical notation of the songs.

This was the final album from Peter La Farge. He made five albums in five years. His first was on CBS and the rest were on Folkways. They are all good. He was an actor, a playwright, a rodeo rider, artist and a Korean war veteran. He committed suicide in October 1965. He was 34 years old. He packed a lot into a short life.

If you want to hear his recordings, four of his albums are available from Smithsonian Folkways and if you want to find out more about Peter, film maker Sandra Hale Schulman has made a documentary about him, The Ballad of Peter La Farge and she’s written a biography Don’t Tell Me How I Looked Falling: The Ballad of Peter La Farge.

Harry Belafonte – The Midnight Special – 1962 – RCA

Harry Belafonte - The Midnight Special - RCA - 1962

On this album Harry Belafonte branched away from calypso to American folk songs and blues. It was recorded in Webster Hall, New York City in 1962. This was the first Belafonte album I bought. It is a great record. He’s such a perfectionist but the gloss doesn’t kill the feeling. Harry Belafonte possessed one of the purest sounding voices, it was sweet like honey, smooth and light but it had guts and soul too. The versions of Midnight Special and On Top of Old Smokey are still my favourite recordings of those songs. I got this album when I was still a teenager and it was a time when I was starting to search for where the music I liked came from. I was starting to look at the musical ancestry so to speak. More than anything this record really got me interested in folk music. It was like a signpost pointing in two directions. You could go back further from here to people like Leadbelly and forward to people like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

One of the things this album is famous for is the appearance of a young Bob Dylan on harmonica. It was Dylan’s first professional recording gig. Apparently Dylan didn’t enjoy doing take after take after take and walked out after just one song (Midnight Special). Dylan was much more of a one or two take recording artist and it makes sense with the sounds that Dylan’s interested in. The point to remember here is that there is no right or wrong way to make art. There is the way that makes the most sense for the particular artist. For Harry Belafonte doing endless takes until he is satisfied works and for Dylan doing one or two takes and moving on to another song works. It’s interesting to note that on this record Dylan plays the harmonica with a lot more finesse than on his own recordings. Maybe it’s because he was holding it in his hands and wasn’t restricted by a harmonica holder but maybe it is because Dylan deliberately downplayed his own abilities on other recordings. Maybe it is a bit of both.

This album was pivotal in developing my appreciation of so much music. In that sense it was also pivotal in my development as a musician. I can’t stress enough how important it was to me. Great, great stuff.

Leadbelly – Shout On – 1972 – XTRA

Leadbelly - Shout On - 1972 - XTRA

This was the first Leadbelly album I ever bought. I was a teenager in high school back then. I’d read about Leadbelly but had never heard him before. Back in those days I didn’t know anyone who liked the music I liked and there was no internet and radio stations weren’t catering to my tastes so the only way for me to hear new sounds was to buy the records. It wasn’t like these days with Spotify or Youtube or things like that. There’s more accessibility to obscure music now than there was then. Back then it was a chore just to be able to hear the stuff. I can’t remember where I bought this record from, probably one of the secondhand record stores that were on Pitt Street. Most of them are gone now but there used to be a little pocket of record shops all together. I used to fossick through them regularly. It was heaven. When I took this home and first listened to it I was amazed. Leadbelly was great. His voice was incredible and his guitar playing was good too. The first thing I noticed was that he wasn’t a regular blues singer. In fact he wasn’t really a blues singer at all. He seemed to be singing songs that were older than the blues. It was a revelation for me, a teenager growing up in the 80s, to hear these recordings from the 40s of a performer who in many ways was archaic back then. Though he was great Leadbelly wasn’t that successful in his day partly because the material he was doing was seen as out of date. It is a shame. The songs were great, like nothing else I’d heard. John Henry, Ain’t Going Down to the Well No More, You Can’t Lose a Me Charlie. Amazing songs. This record really opened up many doors for me. It pointed the way down so many musical paths I could follow. It also got me thinking a lot about Leadbelly and his life. The few things I knew about him made it sound like a really difficult but incredible life and it had always seemed like the greatest irony to me that Goodnight Irene became a huge hit for the Weavers about 6 months after Leadbelly died. It still seems like a strange twist that he never got to experience that success. But anyway, I digress… One of the interesting things about these recordings was that they were live radio broadcasts from New York station WNYC-FM. They were from 1948, just a year before Leadbelly died. In the liner notes Fredrick Ramsey Jr talks of taping these at home with his Brush Soundmirror which was an early reel to reel tape machine. It always amazes me when there is one person out there who just happens to preserve something like that. So these recordings are sort of bootlegs in a way, though the album itself was licensed through Folkways. Thank you Mr Ramsey for preseving these. They opened my ears to so many musical possibilities.

Bob Dylan – World Gone Wrong – 1993 – Columbia Records

Bob Dylan - World Gone Wrong - 1993 - Columbia Records

World Gone Wrong is my favourite Dylan album. It doesn’t matter that none of the songs are written by him. Everything about it is perfect in a rough hewn, homespun, lonesome, bleak and burned out way. Starting with the cover art which for me was reminiscent of the art on  his 1965 album Bringing it all Back Home but this time he was solitary, alone. It seemed to be the same character in the photo but with his world imploded into a brightly coloured gloom. When I first heard it I was amazed. It was a follow up to his Good As I Been To You album. That was a good record of old folk songs and blues but the sound on this one was rawer, more alive. It was a perfect selection of songs. After years of putting out records that were of variable quality it felt like Dylan had returned to form and was going to stay that way for a while.