Monday 6 April 2009

The George MITCHELL MINSTRELS: On Stage With The George Mitchell Minstrels

(#32: 1 December 1962, 2 weeks)

Track listing: States Medley (North And South/You’re In Kentucky Sure As You’re Born/The Yellow Rose Of Texas/Georgia On My Mind/Stars Fell On Alabama/I’m Going Back To Old Nebraska/Dixieland/Carry Me Back To Old Virginny/North And South)/Happy Tramps Medley (The Lady Is A Tramp/In A Shanty In Old Shanty Town/Ain’t We Got Fun/I’m Sittin’ High On A Hill Top/Big Rock Candy Mountain/Side By Side)/Widdicombe Fair/Your Requests (Home On The Range/Back In Those Old Kentucky Days/I Went Down To Virginia/Sonny Boy/Mockin’ Bird Hill/Goin’ To The County Fair)/Cheep Cheep (Birdies) Medley (Dicky Bird Hop/Cuckoo Waltz/She Was One Of The Early Birds/When The Red Red Robin/Too-Whit! Too-Whoo!/Chee Chee Oo Chee/Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing)/”Down Memory Lane” (A Load Of Hay/One, Two, Button Your Shoe/You Are My Sunshine/Bei Mir Bist Du Schön/Memories Are Made Of This/Sing A Song Of Sunbeams/South Of The Border/Where Or When)/The Frog And The Mouse/Long Long Ago Medley (Long Long Ago/Roamin’ In The Gloamin’/Let Me Call You Sweetheart/Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland/Pack Up Your Troubles/Till We Meet Again/Roses Of Picardy/Long Long Ago)
“Beans” is a song, or perhaps a scrunched up partial photocopy of a song, composed by vaudevillians Chris Smith and Elmer Bowman in 1912 and recorded by singer/shouter James Albert (a.k.a. Beans Hambone) and DIY guitar thrasher El Morrow in May 1931. Through its dimpled hiccups can be heard the song’s medicine show origins, but the beneficent nutritional and spiritual qualities of regular bean intake do not seem to be paramount in either performer’s mind; after rumbling through a very cursory reading of the song’s overall tenor, Albert is already agonising at the prospect of a lifetime filled with nothing but beans, and before the first verse is even done both he and Morrow are off on their own tangent, freestyling morosely about the bean-laden road to the grave and even contemplating St Peter’s views on the inescapable nutrient. That it paves a direct path to Beefheart needs hardly be stated (“I run on BEANS! I run on LASER beans!!” he will make Rockette Morton say thirty-eight years later) but in all terms, and not merely 1931 or minstrel show ones, this remains one of the most extraordinary – and smallest-selling (385 copies) – of all singles. Is El Morrow even plucking a guitar or, as some commentators have suggested, a customised cigar box with strings stuck to it? Either way, he has a sense of tuning which is beyond individualistic, beyond even Harry Partch’s measured quarter tones; after a rambling intro which seems to join the dots between Charley Patton and Derek Bailey (well, someone had to), he doggedly continues to pluck something which isn’t quite the right key but is entirely in keeping with Albert’s hopeful misery; he keeps coming back to that tone-and-three-quarters-out middle note of his “riff” and it is possible to hear a new music fumbling its way into existence. It’s a cold shower keeping Albert’s dreams of red death in safe harness.

I speak of “Beans” here since it arose directly out of a tradition of minstrelsy which by the thirties was already a century old, and whose crosscurrents were considerably more complex than the simple dividing lines of facile history tend to make out; from black entertainers donning blackface to the young Lenny Henry touring with the Black and White Minstrels as their time drew, or was drawn, to a close, we cannot simply shrug the phenomenon off as a sternly stolid plantation whip of musical anti-development.

But I also speak of “Beans” here since it shows immensely more musical and other aesthetic imagination than anything to be found on the third George Mitchell Minstrels album; as with Astaire blacking up as Bojangles in Swing Time, “Beans” bears a startling beauty which transcends any imposed notions of thoughtlessness. I am also far from unaware that in only a few weeks’ time this tale will be dealing with other white Englishmen doing their best to emulate the sound and feel of black Americans from a differing era.

Still, when listening to On Stage – which was not a live recording but a representation of the kind of material you’d expect to hear in their stage show – one’s primary astonishment, as ever, is how the Minstrels managed to survive and indeed thrive in the mainstream of entertainment beyond 1962, let alone until virtually the eve of “Rappers’ Delight.” In the last album chart of 1962, despite all the varying revolutions discussed in this tale over recent weeks, three of the top five slots were occupied by Minstrels music. They were the first act to top the UK album chart with their first three albums. And yet twelve months later On Tour With The George Mitchell Minstrels struggled to reach number six.

There is certainly already an aura of foreboding about On Stage, and Derek Johnson’s effusion of a sleevenote takes on a decidedly more prickly and defensive character. “The keyword is entertainment,” he proclaims. “Pure, honest-to-goodness, straightforward entertainment…This, of course, is what the public wants in these frenzied, hectic days – sheer entertainment (note the rhetorical triplicate), without any pretentions. Would that this approach were adopted more often in show business circles!”

In other words: readers, the world you and I have known and loved is under threat, is about to be usurped. But don’t panic – “We invite you,” Johnson concludes, “now to settle back in your favourite chair, forget your worries and cares, clear your throat…Let’s go, shall we?” The spectre of the withering jackboot is not far from mind, as evinced by Johnson’s curiously creepy aside about this music’s capability to “act as a tonic to the most morose listener.”

Everything about On Stage suggests…indeed, seeps…the end of something. It’s hard to configure a setting where the fictive People Of All Ages would get together and roar out dismal pseudo-romps partially mis-echoing a culture which was clearly moribund, or at least in need of a radical spring clean. Tony Mercer croons “ Georgia ” as though Ray Charles had never happened. Readings of “Stars Fell On Alabama” and “Where Or When” when compared with Sinatra’s illustrate a difference between death and life. And everywhere there lurk these perfect Home Counties vowels, unchanging whether they be in “ Kentucky sure as you’re born” or on the “bonnie banks of Clyde ” (“Not forgetting “Eye-Oh-Way!”). Furthermore, whatever Louisiana plantation slaves would be doing in Scotland or going to Widdicombe Fair is not clearly explained. “Old Kentucky Days” is marred by a terrible, chirpy horn and woodwind arrangement which turns it into a Terry Scott sitcom pilot theme tune, even if the odd blasts of slide whistle and neighing trumpet on “Widdicombe Fair” itself invite the enticing prospect of Lester Bowie hijacking the entire proceedings (and the same song includes a moderately unsettling, sepulchral choral lament midway through). The romance of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” is surgically excised in favour of an unlovely mass bellow which is arguably worse than the Jordanaires at their worst (indeed, the whole enterprise makes me think of what a Jordanaires album without Elvis might have sounded like). Xylophones slide irritatingly up and down like Gestapo corrective tools.

Some songs – for instance, “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “You Are My Sunshine” - are more or less entirely obscured by unnecessary contrapuntal devices, but then show tunes appeared to be the only “recent” music with which the Minstrels seemed to be comfortable. It is virtually superfluous to say that their “Sunshine” perishes instantly when set next to the definitive George Russell/Sheila Jordan recasting of the same song recorded in the same year. But when the Minstrels strive to Go Modern the results are merely embarrassing; “Early Birds” reappears from their first album, but in a different arrangement, with the Television Toppers ashenfacedly going through some sub-Vernons Girls tropes (“Gimme gimme gimme… GOODBYE!”). Mercer struggles to maintain dignity and countenance as his reading of “Ain’t We Got Fun” is lent a Cliff Does The Twist setting. Yet another “South Of The Border” goes down the then fashionable cha-cha route but is almost inspired when set next to the embarrassed and embarrassing-sounding “Red Red Robin” who now apparently goes “cha-cha-cha-ing a-long.”

Added to this mantelpiece of what Lena rightly describes as “aural doilies” we get an unpleasant military bent to the proceedings. Thankfully Dai Francis’ Jolsonisms are kept to a relative minimum throughout the record, save for an interminable and overacted “Sonny Boy” (see instead Ken Dodd’s duff ventriloquist rendition of the same song, which remains definitive). But the ceaseless whistling and barking call the Hitler Youth rather too readily to mind. “The Lady Is A Tramp” is done as a, if you will, whistling waltz. The abominable “Birdie” medley begins with a stern whistling session and a command of “Get out of bed!” But “Where Or When” is interpreted as a Victory At Sea martial anthem, and the final lap of (mostly) World War I ditties suggest the Minstrels’ real core audience, and the thing of The War which Britain cannot ever bring itself to forget (and this tale will certainly be coming back to that very late on) – here we have full throated choral climaxes, orchestral thuds, timpanic tempests, everything short of a cannon being wheeled onstage.

Finally, however, it was all of little avail. Despite Johnson’s insistence on confidences being the core of the Minstrell’s businesses – “…a colourful and effective treatment of every song, simultaneously encouraging the amateur listener to join in the chorus, firmly convinced that his (sic) efforts are of equal merit!” – the record-buying demographic democracy elected to change their allegiances in 1963. The show continued both on TV and stage for a further fifteen or so years; even though the TV show’s final cancellation was ascribed to political pressure, the truth was that it had been losing ratings for some while and was proving prohibitively expensive to produce. But then it disappeared, wiped from the collective slate; it subsequently survived in sorely reduced form in whatever out-of-season coastal resorts and ageing audiences would have it. Of the main Minstrel stars, only John Boulter now survives, and I am not insensitive to Stan Stennett’s comment that the cancellation of the TV show was for Dai Francis the equivalent of having his oxygen supply cut off (“he lost his livelihood, his living and his will to live”) – particularly in view of the irony of a Jolson impersonator finding the going tough at a time when at least two of the leading protagonists in the seventies portion of this tale have repeatedly cited Jolson as their primary inspiration. I also note that Tony Mercer died young, of heart failure in 1973, barely into his fifties, and that after his passing a certain élan was lost from the Minstrels’ bonhomie. Both Francis and George Mitchell himself lived on until the early part of this decade but both were essentially broken and bewildered men, confused at a world which had changed and suggested subtexts of which they themselves would never have dreamt.

Indeed, this sense of displacement is one of the central secrets to the Minstrels’ wave of success; far from intentionally being racist, their mode was intended to be (even if aurally it didn’t resemble) one of a reassuring tonic to people who had lived lives in recognisable shapes and places and needed to be reminded of these constantly in a world which seemed to be doing its best to displace them from its surface forever. The Italian and Slavic émigrés who wept along to Jolson were weeping for their own, barely reachable pasts, not a forlorn foreclosure of a nineteenth-century plantation memory. Jolson’s message was “This is where we are” – whereas the most potent and dynamic of 20th century black music centres around the partly rhetorical question of “Where the hell are we?" (set, for example, On Stage alongside Mingus' Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, recorded at the same time as the Minstrels were dominating the lists). The landscape of this tale in 1963 is going to change rather violently; there is one more reassuring but vital bridge we have to cross, but not everyone was able to make that crossing, and it’s easier to damn the failed leapers than attempt to understand them. I make no claims whatsoever for artistic merit in terms of the George Mitchell Minstrels; I do not envisage playing any of these three albums again and certainly not with pleasure in mind. But this tale is in great part an attempt to educate myself about a certain strand of history as it has presented and re-presented itself over the last half century or so, an endeavour to avoid easy conclusions, uncover deeper truths and draw fuller and more satisfying pictures. We can’t get to the Beatles without understanding why the Beatles had to get to us. Otherwise the story of popular music really would be little other than an unending hill of beans.