Sunday, December 06, 2009

Blues in the Bottle, at Tater Diggin’ Time: A Dead Voice Gathered, Just Barely

Note: The following has nothing to do with politics or government ... or maybe it does.
–– Hidalgo Hidalgo, editor emeritus,
Slampo’s Place

Late, late t’other night, while piddling on the Internet (is there any controlled substance as capable of sending the user on extended, pointless, insidiously time-wasting jags?), our meanderings brought us to a site called, somewhat unimaginatively, Old Weird America, the phrase the author-critic Greil Marcus formulated to describe the ethnographic emanations from Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, the Ur-text from which Dylan and hundreds of lesser mortals cribbed, and which was the real subject of Marcus’s book Invisible Republic (which ostensibly was about Dylan’s Basement Tapes). The site appears to be maintained by an obsessive, Middle Eastern-looking Frenchman who goes by the handle “Gadaya” and who, apparently as a selfless act of l-u-v, has devoted himself to profiling each and every musician or band who appeared on Smith’s anthology. It so happened that our eyes fell on the entry for Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers, a Dallas-area "hot string" combo whose Wake Up Jacob appeared on the Smith anthology. Prince Albert––his full name was Archie Albert Hunt; apparently he assumed the royal title from the side of a tobacco tin––is believed to have recorded only eight songs for the storied Okeh recording company before a jealous husband drilled him in the heart with a .25 automatic as Hunt and his killer’s wife exited a joint called Confederate Hall in Dallas in 1931. Prince Albert’s best known contribution to the American songbook was Blues in the Bottle, a sprightly, careening number made known to future generations through the Lovin‘ Spoonful’s reworking on one of its mid-'60s LPs. (That version, as best we can remember, did not include the declaration by Hunt, a white man who performed in blackface at medicine shows, “This old black daddy, I can stand to see you die,” nor did it include that most sublime of extended metaphors regarding unresponsiveness: “Dig your taters/It’s tater diggin’ time, pretty mama ... [but] Ol’ Man Jack Frost/Done killed yo’ vine.”)

Any-a-ways, the Frenchman’s site linked us to and this absolutely fascinating (to us––you may be bored to tears) 29-minute film about Hunt that a guy named Ken Harrison made in 1974 for Dallas public TV station KERA, before going on to bigger and better things. Harrison undertook his project in the true nick of time, as he was able to interview a number of people who remembered––sort of––Hunt, including the fiddler’s son, P.A. Hunt (who had a startling resemblance to our late Uncle Lefty), assorted cousins (a couple of whom identify themselves as “double cousins”) and a fellow musician named Harmon Clem, who try their best to fill in the blanks on Prince Albert’s mere 31 years on earth (mostly in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area).

The film doesn’t reveal a whole lot about Hunt. Forty three years after his death, memories were worn, sometimes contradictory: One ol’ boy (unfortunately, Harrison doesn’t identify his interviewees as they speak) recalls the younger Hunt as a “quiet” lad who liked to stick to himself; the other Stetson-wearing ol’ boy on the porch right next to him chimes in that Hunt was a “jolly” sort and a “comedian” who “always had somethin’ to say, doncha see?” Ah, yes.

But Harrison's film tells you a lot about what Texas, or at least a good part of it, was like in 1974––check out the shot-from-the-car-window footage of the rolling East Texas countryside, set to Prince Albert's Travelin' Man (was that farmer with the horse-drawn plow a set-up shot?)––which in turn suggests what Texas might have been like in 1931 and 1900, and, if you listen closely, something about why Texas is like it is today. If you’re of a certain age and station, the old-timers Harrison interviewed 35 years back seem intimately familiar. The two double cousins––both in cowboy hats, one with a plug in this cheek and the other with a butt hanging from his lip––are raw-boned tenders of a junkyard whose straightforward, unself–conscious presence before the camera hints at how much the race has diminished in the ensuing decades (although the dental care apparently is much improved). The fiddler Clem recalls how Dallas was when he first arrived there: “There was a bunch of poor people runnin’ up and down the street in 1928 up to ’33. And it was all gettin’ on relief so you couldn’t get a job for love or money. Well, we played them eating joints down in Deep Ellum, we were playing, making a little money in there.” And Hunt’s son, born in 1922, recalls how little his father was around when he was young––he doesn’t really have much good to say about his daddy––and how he and his family would often awake in a house with nothing to eat (which sounds like real hunger, as opposed to “food insecurity”).

Born in Terrell, east of Dallas, in 1900, son of a “full-blood” Irishman and “near-full-blood” Cherokee woman, Hunt apparently grew to be the rounder and rambler that Jimmie Rodgers only sang about. The subject of his assumed (or wished-for) negritude is touched on just briefly in Harrison’s film, when the wizened Clem relates, “He’d get that black on him, and there wadn’t a nigger that could imitate him at all, hardly.” The Inimitable White Man Who Sang Like a Black Man But Could Not in Turn Be Imitated by a Black Man! Ain't that America? In any case, Prince Albert seems to be the missing link between Bob Wills and Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose picture Harrison flashes briefly in his film, without explanation or identification.

Hunt’s story seems similar, save for its abrupt ending on the Dallas sidewalk, to that of Emmett Miller, a blackface singer-comedian of the same vintage whose elusive biographical particulars the writer Nick Tosches spent many years chasing until they effloresced into his brilliant Where Dead Voices Gather. Maybe Harrisons’s film, dressed up by modern editing techniques and supplemented with up-to-date research and documentation, could do for Prince Albert what Tosches did for Miller. Or maybe not. Meantime, you can download Hunt’s Blues in the Bottle, as well as other stuff from the Smith anthology and elsewhere, for free here. Hunt also cut a tune called Houston Slide, which (we think) can be had for nothing here.

Correction: In the original of this posting, whatever you call it, we erroneously referred to the maker of the film on Hunt as "Ken Hammond," which we believe to be the result of a devilish transposition of the names of a former local newspaper editor and the late producer John Hammond. Although we much prefer "Ken Hammond," the filmmaker's actual name is Ken Harrison. We regret the error.

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