'A Redneck Cab Calloway'


In The New York Sun: a nice appreciation of the great fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills, frontman for the Texas Playboys. Describing Wills' mix of jazz, blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley, critic Will Friedwald reminds us that the line between "authentic" folk music and "commercial" pop was blurred long ago, and that musicians were mixing genres long before anyone tried to cross country with rap or Irish folksongs with electronica:

bob wills.jpgTraditionally, we have been told that "roots" music forms like jazz, blues, folk, and country have a one-way relationship with the commercial music industry. New York publishers and record companies would smell potential profit in one of these primary forms, then dress it up and water it down in order to repackage it for the rest of the country and, eventually, the world. Yet…even by 1932, there was no longer such a thing as pure roots music. The phonograph had already entertained several generations, and particularly after about 1920 -- when commercial broadcasting began and when jazz, blues, and country began to be heard regularly on record -- everyone in every part of the nation began listening to everybody else….

In 1935, when the Texas Playboys entered a recording studio for the first time, the producer Art Satherley was surprised (and not in a good way) to see that the band not only included the expected guitars, fiddles, and banjos, but also saxophone, trombone, and a full jazz rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums.

At the time, Friedwald notes, "the mainstream music press labeled all sounds produced by black people as 'race music' and all music produced by white people anyplace other than the two coasts or the Great Lakes as Hillbilly. Wills hated this term, much the same way New Orleans jazzmen hated being called 'Dixieland.'" The labels have changed but the limits to the labels have not: Wills' music transcended all those genres, but for some reason he hardly ever turns up in, say, histories of jazz. (Ken Burns' 700-hour PBS miniseries Jazz never mentioned Wills once, though it found time to devote three or four episodes to Louis Armstrong's novelty hit "Hello Dolly.")

Obligatory YouTube link: Wills and band play the blues standard "Sittin' On Top of the World."