November / December 1997 Issue
The Poor People of Paris: "Elle Se Souvient"
by Andrew Limanni
One of the most enjoyable performing groups in St. Louis for a fun and sophisticated night on the town has finally released their debut CD “Elle Se Souvient” (She Remembers). The Poor People of Paris, consisting of Elsie Parker, vocals, and Donita Bauer, keyboards, have long been known to St. Louis audiences as a great group to hear on beautiful, balmy summer evenings down at the Delmar Loop (especially at Brandts, where they commonly play). They offer something different from the typical singer-songwriter folkie stuff. It’s music to impress out-of-town friends with (how cool and chic we are in St. Louis!), or for a deliriously romantic evening with someone special.
I have been following these two talented artists for years, and am overjoyed fans can finally hear them at home. Donita Bauer plays keyboard beautifully and dramatically - she makes it sound like about 40 different instruments and her music transports one directly to the streets of Paris. And Elsie, besides being beautiful, smart and talented, sings as strongly as the great Edith Piaf of bygone days. Elsie originally learned the songs phonetically years ago when she didn’t know French, but has perfected the language so well that when she toured France earlier this year, they thought she was a local. Both women also play with the St. Louis Symphony.
In the classic French singing styles of Piaf and others of the 1930’s - 1960’s, the songs are all in French (explanations given). They include such favorites as: La Foule, the wonderful Elsie version of the great La Vie En Rose; Sous Le Ciel De Paris, Under Paris Skies - perhaps the prototypical French song; and Les Flans Flans Du Bal, The Racket from the Dance Hall. There are even two songs from famous French films - “A Man and A Woman” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Local French poet Marcel Toussaint wrote the lyrics to the title song Elle Se Sous Vient. He is releasing his book of poetry “Remember Me Young” this month, and can be contacted at Marctous@inlink.com.
The recording, done locally at Music Masters (one of our advertisers), is technically strong. This CD is absolutely delightful and has my highest recommendation. It costs $15 (cassette is $11) and can be bought everywhere locally or directly from Elsie and Donita at one of their shows or by writing P.O. Box 8092, St. Louis, MO. 63156 or PPofParis@juno.com. It makes a perfect romantic and hip Christmas present.
Harry Smith, editor: "Anthology of American Folk Music"
by Paul Stamler
Reissued by Smithsonian/Folkways
Back in 1952, an avant-garde painter named Harry Smith, with decidedly eclectic interests, put together six LPs worth of recordings of American traditional music — old-time, blues, Cajun, sanctified singing, Sacred Harp, ballads, dance tunes and much more. Folkways issued it as the “Anthology of American Folk Music,” and it’s not stretching matters to say that it was the most important recording in the history of the American folk-music revival. Performers as diverse as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, the New Lost City Ramblers and Dave Van Ronk learned their way into the American tradition from the Anthology.
Why was it so influential? At the time, unless you were a record collector, this music was completely unavailable — and except for Library of Congress recordings, very little music by source performers was available. You could listen to the few revivalists and their smattering of recordings, or look at books, but to hear the creators and keepers of the tradition, the Anthology was all there was.
But there were other reasons. The Anthology had a certain off-kilter logic in its organization, making it a good listen as an album, not just a collection of single songs. Harry Smith’s choices and sequencing were subtle, with themes and motifs dissolving into one another, then jumping like a well-edited film to a new style. And the decidedly odd notes and philosophy, which can sound slightly crackpot at times, appealed to the out-of-the-mainstream types that were interested in traditional music.
So why did the set remain influential? And why is it being re-released now, with great fanfare and ballyhoo?
The Anthology remained important because of its organization as a broad, cross-stylistic survey of the field. While individual records could give you the best of a Charlie Poole or Charley Patton, or an in-depth look at sanctified singing as a style, in few other places can you hear such a broad range of styles, hear the cross-fertilizations, hear styles you perhaps never knew existed. The Anthology is in many respects the best mind-opener for people just discovering the field, as I did in the late 60s. Hearing all those new sounds — I’d never heard Cajun music of any kind, or sanctified singers, or real shape-note singing when I came to the Anthology — broadened my knowledge in a few short hours, leading me in a dozen new directions at once. Few recordings have encompassed this broad a scope. Survey records are vital for new (and not-so-new) generations of listeners — and the Anthology remains, for me, the best of the surveys.
I’m happy to report that the reissued Anthology, released as a six-CD boxed set, builds on the strength of the original. All the delights of the Anthology discussed above — its subtle but skillful organization, its breadth of styles, its sheer quirkiness, and its eclectic nature — make it as attractive to current listeners as it was to previous generations. The Smithsonian/Folkways people did a damned fine job with the reissue: I was afraid they’d jimmy around the order, or substitute “more important” cuts for the originals, or add new stuff in between the old. But they didn’t; they did a good job on the biographical and discographical information, and they kept the overall structure of the set intact — including acknowledgment of its own history as a cultural artifact. They’ve even included some CD-ROM video and audio clips on the last disc. The remastering is marvelous; there’s no need to apologize for the quality of most of the recordings, and some of them put the musicians right in the room with you.
The Anthology is, pure and simple, a great listen, which (with any luck) will sell a bunch of copies and spur some recognition of the great musicians it presents. A few listeners will stop there, buying the set and letting their interest remain at that level. Others will find artists they like and seek out further material (as I did, way back when, for Henry Thomas, Dock Boggs and Blind Willie Johnson). A few will, I hope, take the music and do new and interesting things with it.
The Anthology is the one recording I’d choose if confined to a desert island. There are 6 CDs and two BIG booklets, so it’s not cheap (although the price per CD is something of a bargain), but you’ll never regret spending the money. This is grand and glorious music, brilliantly chosen and presented, and it will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Deborah Holland: "The Panic is On: Songs from the Great Depression" (Gadfly)
by Paul Stamler
Elsewhere in this issue (above), I reviewed the "Anthology of American Folk Music", a reissue of classic recordings from 1927-1932. At the end of that review, I expressed the hope that it might inspire contemporary performers to rework traditional material in new styles. Deborah Holland’s new recording, "The Panic is On", takes blues, old-time and popular songs written during the hard times of the 1930s and places them in undiluted 1990s settings. In doing so, she creates a brilliant example of how such reworkings can make moving and powerful music.
Holland (the former lead vocalist with the jazz-fusion group Animal Logic) is an astonishing singer -- expressive, rich, and with a perfect sense of the nuances of each song. Her choice of material is impeccable: Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” stands with E. Y. Harburg’s “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime” and the Carter Family’s "Worried Man Blues", along with lesser-known pieces from sources as disparate as blues singer Victoria Spivey and the musical "Gold Diggers of 1933".
And the arrangements are stunning. Holland and her collaborators (only two of them) have completely re-imagined each song from the bottom up, changing tempo, phrasing, chords, etc.. When I say “from the bottom up,” I mean that literally. The only instruments on most songs are electric bass and various percussion pieces. The production is very contemporary, with vocal effects, loops, etc.. It all works. There’s not a note wasted, not a phrase that isn’t carefully thought out. In some ways this recording reminds me of Fairport Convention’s “Liege and Lief;” the settings of these songs from folk and popular traditions are ground-breaking and imaginative, and although they sound utterly different from the originals, they are equally valid and meaningful.
"The Panic is On" is on Gadfly Records, and it deserves to sell a million copies. The songs are from our parents’ era, but as the singer notes, they “speak...of people with low paying jobs and people with no jobs at all. They speak of the homeless and the high cost of food, clothing and medical care. If you change a few numbers after the dollar signs, there’s not a song in the collection that couldn’t have been written today.