Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Music for New Year's Eve 2014

Happy New Year.  Down by the Riverside is an African American spiritual whose exact pre-Civil War origin is obscure.  It may have originated among slaves held on and near the Georgia Sea islands, whose rich musical contributions include Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Wade in the Water, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.  The riverside in question is simultaneously that of the Jordan and the Ohio, across which first the Hebrew slaves and then the American ones would find the promised land and live in peace.  The song was popularized after the war by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who also (decades later, with a different lineup) made its first recording.

This video is from Rainbow Quest, a show that Pete Seeger hosted and produced with money from his own pocket for one season in the mid-1960s, during his fifteen-year ban from network television for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It was shot on a no-budget set without rehearsals or a studio audience and broadcast on a single, mostly Spanish-language, UHF (ultra-high frequency) station in Linden, New Jersey in the days when UHF reception was notoriously poor.  Clips from it are all over YouTube these days, not because of the production values, but because of the quality of the performances by Seeger and his great guests, at least some of whom declined payment for being there.  There are 39 episodes and only the one with an obviously stoned Johnny Cash is a disappointment.

Here, Sonny Terry on harmonica and Brownie McGhee on guitar are less than halfway through their almost forty-year partnership.  They paired up in New York City in 1941 or '42, and toured (sometimes eleven months per year) and recorded together until 1980.  They were also occasionally actors, and here's a small irony--they appeared in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Burl Ives, who had a few years earlier named Seeger's name to HUAC.

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