Over a five day period in October 1929, Okeh recorded over 90 songs by 30
groups in Richmond Virginia. Of these 36 songs by 13 groups were released.
Although two of the records by the Virginia Male Quartet have never turned
up, the remaining 32 songs are presented on "Virginia Roots." As the title
suggests, it is a snapshot of music in and around Virginia at the time.
The Sparkling Four get the show on the road, with a couple of a cappella
religious songs. The album features several groups performing in this vein,
reflecting the general popularity of this sort of music at the time. On the
same CD you can hear a brace of tracks from the Golden Crown Quartet,
whilst the second CD includes four songs from the Monarch Jazz/Jubilee
Quartet who changed the middle part of their name to match the style of
their recording. The last vocal quartet track on the second CD, by the
Richmond Starlight Quartet is the odd man out, however, in that it was
taken from a slightly earlier recording made in New York.
One of the other main types of music featured is jazz/blues. At that time
there bands like the Bubbling Over Five played a mixture of blues and jazz.
Their two songs have almost a jug band feel to it, and their harp player,
known as Blues Birdhead, also recorded a couple of songs under his own
name, with piano accompaniment. Buck Mountain Band (guitar, banjo and
fiddle) also had a blues vein to their recordings here, performing a couple
of songs which already had a history. "Don't Let The Blues Go Down" was
perhaps best known as "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Yodeling Blues"
was a version of W.C. Handy's "Hesitation Blues" bolstered by some Jimmie
Rodgers style yodeling. It was recordings like these which straddled the
racial divide that existed around that time. Otis Mote offers another
couple of examples with "Tight Like That" and "Railroad Bill" both of which
had a history in the blues.
Mote also teamed up with his brother for a couple of more religious songs:
"Church of God Is Right" and "Home In The Rock." This more gospel oriented
approach was also at the heart of the recordings by Bela Lam and his Green
Country singers. In addition to the requisite harmony singing they also had
musical accompaniment in the shape of guitar and banjo.
There was also music that was made for dancing. John Watts "Babe" Spangler
was a fiddler of the time, who cut a couple of songs with lengthy
traditions, in the company of Dave Pearson on guitar. The first "Midnight
Serenade" is a Scottish tune known as "Miss Farqharson's Reel", whilst the
jaunty second, "Patrick County Blues" is also known as "Rochester
Schottische." The Salem Highballers, who were basically the McCray family
band, were a stringband who also recorded dance music, and the Roanoke Jug
Band performed in a similar vein. On the latter's "Johnny Lover" one of the
band members even acts as a caller at one point. They were unique in that
they were probably the only jug band who did not include a jug among their
line up, although they did sometimes place a jug on the stage at live
Slightly out of left field comes the Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra. The
orchestra's name is a true reflection of their style, and they were based
in Virginia. Like a number of bands of the time, they were formed around
work colleagues, and sponsored by their employers. Although Hawaiian music
may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of Virginia it is
interesting to note that many of the early architects of blues, country and
bluegrass music were influenced by Hawaiian guitar playing, which shows how
wide the music had spread.
Anyone with an interest in the cultural history of American music needs to
check out "Virginia Roots." It offers an important snapshot of a particular
period in time, and shows how blues, gospel and old-timey (for want of a
better description) music were all popular. The sound quality of most of
the recordings is good, although a few of them are scratchy, particularly
"Just Too Late" by the Monarch quartet. It is all nicely packaged too, with
a highly informative 48 page booklet.
Footnote: The release of the album coincides with an exhibition ("Creating
and Conserving Tradition") which runs up until March 22, 2003, at the
Library of Virginia in Richmond. If you are in the area, check it out. If
not, take a look at the web site
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