David Lee with the Washington Sound record shop sign, in front of his storage trailer;
[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.
Here's "You've Been Gone Too Long" by Ann Sexton. As the liner notes explain, "the tune must make any list of curious, 'Jody' genre songs, for its reference to the archetypal male opportunist who, according to Vietnam-era folklore, would latch onto women whose husbands or boyfriends were serving overseas."
While we are currently in a golden age of reissues and unearthed music, with more and more coming out each week, what sets Said I Had a Vision apart is its combination of context (rural North Carolina, from the civil rights era to the Reagan era), the quality of its songwriting, and the absolute exuberance of the performances. Many such records have these qualities in unequal parts, but Said I Had A Vision contains songs that exceed the normal obscurity-fetish that similar records often cultivate. After I play this record through, I generally feel like everyone I know needs to hear these songs.
It should be no surprise, then, that the music press has embraced this record and the regional vision behind the Paradise of Bachelors label, which is co-curated by folklorists Jason Perlmutter and Brendan Greaves. I was excited to learn that Wax Poetics had featured Said I Had a Vision in a recent issue; here's Jon Kirby:
A man of faith, [David] Lee's output tended towards the spiritual. And although most benefit from Cleveland County's proximity to Charlotte's Arthur Smith and Reflection Studios, perhaps his most generous offering was recorded on location at Mice Creek Baptist Church, in nearby Gaffney, South Carolina. "On My Way Up" by the Relations Gospel Singers showcases the careening lead of Steve Allen, whose exorcism range leaves church-van tracks through a field of delicate piano and choral support, recalling the fly-on-the-wall intimacy of an Allan Lomax artifact. Much of Lee's color-blind songwriting was realized by the Constellations, a salt-and-pepper ensemble who, during Shelby's annual Art of Sound Festival last October, proved they could still do "The Frog," walking sticks in hand. "They were just like kids to us when they started," revealed wife Nelena of Lee's most allegiant act. "We was just like a big family, rolled up together." With the exception of "northern soul" curiosity Ann Sexton, most on Lee's short-but-sweet roster still reside in Cleveland County, like blue-eyed crooner Bill Allen from nearby Cherryville. "You probably drove past there!" exclaims Lee. "You should have hollered for Bill when you was coming through."Further write-ups on the resurgence of interest in Mr. Lee's work has appeared in Our State magazine and The Charlotte Observer. Earlier this year, Mr. Lee was awarded the Brown-Hudson award by the North Carolina Folklore Society, introduced by Mr. Perlmutter and Mr. Greaves. Afterwards, he gave a performance of "I Can't Believe You're Gone" and "I'll Never Get Over Losing You," the latter of which appears on Said I Had a Vision:
Paradise of Bachelors will release an LP/download of new material emerging from the South this fall: Poor Moon by the much-loved and critically-acclaimed Hiss Golden Messenger. Also in the works is a release of new and remastered material by Willie French Lowery, a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina and who has worked previously with the psychedelic bands Plant & See and Lumbee. I'll include a sample of each artist below; you can also follow the latest Paradise of Bachelors news on their Facebook page.
Hiss Golden Messenger from Gianmarco Del Re on Vimeo.
[Discovering Carolina Soul was originally published on September 23, 2010]
The former Washington Sound on Buffalo Street in Shelby, NC; from Carolina Soul
Throughout the sixties and seventies, at least one hundred African-American-owned R&B/Soul record stores thrived in the Carolinas. These retail shops, with their close links to recording studios and local record labels, were on the front lines not only of new musical ideas, but of the civil rights struggle itself. Today, this music's story is being told in a compelling fashion on the Carolina Soul blog/archive, which has spent the last five years locating and documenting the wide array of R&B/Soul music created in North and South Carolina--much of which has never been re-issued since its original release as 45 rpm records.
If you peruse Carolina Soul's extensive discography the material object of the vinyl record begins to stand as a symbol for a kind of rural-urban linkages that revolutionized the last half-century's artforms and its push toward social justice. This effort to rediscover these recordings, and to tell the stories of these musicians and their communities, is led by Jason Perlmutter (a chemist and local music collector) and Jon Kirby (an associate editor at Wax Poetics). Mr. Perlmutter, in partnership with folklorist Brendan Greaves, has begun the Paradise of Bachelors record label and is currently pressing their first release -- a retrospective of the music released on David Lee's various record labels entitled Said I Had A Vision.
Mr. Lee, who currently resides in Mooresboro, ran the Impel, Washington Sound and SCOP (Soul, Country, Opera, Pop) labels and often contributed his own songs to his musicians. Carolina Soul recently visited Mr. Lee, and, earlier in the year, the folks behind this project spent time talking with some of the artists who worked with him. Here we see the The Constellations, both then and now:
Here, from the Paradise of Bachelors' blog, is a description of the ground-breaking work done by The Constellations:
We spent an illuminating and pleasant afternoon in Mooresboro, North Carolina with the Lees; Harold Allen, Don Camp, William “Butch” Mitchell, and Benjamin and Bryan “Brownie” Guest of the Constellations. Hearing these gentlemen’s stories about unflagging brotherhood, camaraderie, and the timelessness of “love ballads”–in the face of physical threats, racist invective, and a Southern and national climate opposed to their very existence–was truly inspiring. The Constellations were the first mixed-race combo in the area, and they did it as mere kids, getting started in 1958 or 1959 as teenagers and only dissolving upon the departure of members to Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.
In that time, they recorded six energetic sides for David Lee, all of which belie their tender ages, plus two unreleased tracks–”Have You Seen My Baby?” and “I Want to Jerk”–which Mr. Lee sent to Benjamin Guest while he was serving in Vietnam. Those tapes may yet emerge for your delectation…
We can only hope to that some of this music makes its way on to Carolina Soul or onto a newly-pressed piece of vinyl via Paradise of Bachelors.
As a closing note, for those who would like to hear these gentlemen put these songs into a more eloquent context than I can provide, please refer to their interview with Frank Stasio on NPR's The State of Things.