Interview: Lynn Abbott
Interview with Lynn Abbott
Assistant Curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University
conducted by Ned Sublette on October 14, 2009
for the Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep program
“The Prehistory of New Orleans Music: Treasures from the Hogan Jazz Archive”
NED SUBLETTE: Could you tell me a little about the books you’ve published with Doug Seroff?
LYNN ABBOTT: Doug and I have been longtime co-authors, struggling to figure out what really happened in the world of African American music. We’ve published two books to date in that endeavor. The first one’s called Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music. It’s set in narrow parameters: the seven-year, like a final countdown to the commercial explosion of ragtime — just looking, trying to make an overview of African American musical activity in the final years before 1896.
NS: I was very intrigued by the story you told around the title of your book.
LA: It’s one of those phrases that was kind of frozen in time. People associate “out of sight” with something you would say in the ‘60s – certainly, I said it in the ‘60s. But we unearthed this whole parallel universe from the 1890s, where it had exactly the same meaning, and it had popular iterations in published sheet music and in journalism.
NS: But it disappeared in between, right?
LA: Well, it seems to have. I’ve seen very few references to it in between. Some people say jazz musicians used it in the ‘50s. Maybe they did.
NS: But between the 1890s and the 1950s we seem to have no record of this phrase that then recurs in the 1960s with the same meaning it had had seventy years before.
LA: Yeah. A submerged cultural phenomenon.
NS: And presumably where it went when it submerged was the barbershop.
LA: [laughs] Perhaps. It certainly was out of sight.
LA: Ragged But Right is our second book, published by the University Press of Mississippi like the first one. Some people call it a sequel, we see it as a sort of different animal. It looks at venues that were available to African American singers and musicians through which blues and jazz began to manifest themselves on the commercial level.
So we’re looking at circus annex bands, a very bizarre phenomenon where African American brass band / minstrel show combinations were placed inside of the sideshow of a circus, along with the so-called freaks.
NS: As well as black vaudeville and tent shows?
LA: Well, yeah, the other venues we look at are the tented minstrel show phenomenon that manifested itself in the South, an original phenomenon. Everyone knows, or people will be familiar with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, Silas Green from New Orleans , these type of shows that you see often alluded to, but the actual context of what was going on in these shows is little known.
NS: And the Smart Set, who kicked off a whole phenomenon in New Orleans .
LA: So said. That wasn’t where we were trying to go, but it just sort of kept staring at us, that this Zulu club coming out of the Smart Set show in New Orleans in 1909-1910, it seems to have been part of that. But it was bigger than that, it was a phenomenon that went on for years, the Smart Set – just the name seemed to irritate people in the mainstream, to think of a so-called “colored” smart set – but that’s what these people were, they were at the top of their game of professional stage musicianship and performance.
NS: And you’ve been working also a lot on quartet singing, right?
LA: Quartet singing is something of interest. It’s something I’ve worked on for a long time, and I’ve looked at the phenomenon in New Orleans more closely than some of my other work.
NS: So what’s the story? Gospel quartet singing – does it come out the barbershop? Does the barbershop come out of the gospel? Do we know?
LA: Well, you know, it’s all mixed up, but I know that jazz singers like Louis Armstrong say everything they did came from church, and then some of the early quartet singers who were in the church say it came from the barbershop, so if you listen to the earliest recordings, you’re in the barbershop, and those early guys would say, well, it all came from cornfield singing, and that is a resonant phrase. It seems to carry the weight of slavery, it just takes it right back to slavery time, it’s a euphemism for what was sung in slavery.
NS: I’ve never heard the term “cornfield singing” before.
LA: All the old singers would say, ‘oh, that was just some cornfield hollerin’,’ or something to that effect.
NS: What’s the selection we’re listening to in this program, “Sing On”?
LA: “Sing On” is a regional phenomenon. I guess we’re going to hook it on here to the Sam Morgan recording, which is the way most – if you’re thinking about New Orleans and this song comes to mind, people think of the Sam Morgan version. And about three years before Morgan recorded it, a vocal quintet here in New Orleans made a record of it. That’s why I say it’s regional. It was only recorded here, they can’t find recordings of this song elsewhere. It doesn’t seem to be a very old song. The earliest printed reference I’ve seen is from 1918, a little paperback songster from Austin,Texas, and then a guy in New Orleans named James Gayle bought the rights to it for the National Baptist Publishing Board in Nashville . But he operated out of the Pythian Temple building here in New Orleans , and he had a little bookstore there, specialized in religious music. He was a quartet singer, a big-time quartet singer, with the St. Mark’s Chanters of St. Mark’s Baptist Church here in New Orleans.
NS: What year is this recording from, then?
LA: This recording’s from 1924, three years before Morgan recorded it. So you see it come out of the church, it’s a wonderful recording, you’ll hear it and you can judge for yourself. I think this thing speaks volumes. It’s got a female vocalist like a platform singer, a churchhouse prima donna, you might call her. She was the choir leader at St. John’s Fourth Baptist Church, and she organized a community outreach choir of people from various Baptist and Methodist churches in the city, and this quintet was called on the record the Valentin Choral Club Quintet, but the older people in New Orleans remembered it as the Volunteer rather than the Valentin, and I think that’s part of, if you listen to “New Orleansese”, you might see that the record company misunderstood the name of the – they’ll say, ‘we called it the [demonstrates pronunciation].’ The quintet is a distillation of the choir that she formed, and they went out to put on a musical skit called “Heaven Bound.” This thing is ancient, and all the little churches had their versions of “Heaven Bound.” That was the reason for bringing this group together, that eventually was distilled down to the quintet that made the record; so it’s Alice Saulsby, the choir leader, singing the lead, and then you hear this male barbershop quartet behind her. And it just says, here, it’s backwards-looking but at the same time it’s looking right in the eyes of Sam Morgan.
NS: We don’t really have a lot of documentation of what went on musically in the church life of New Orleans , do we?
LA: Not much. This is the earliest commercial recording to come out of the black New Orleans religious community.
NS: And if there are any recordings of the Lasties in the Lower Ninth, I don’t know of ‘em.
LA: I don’t know of ‘em either, maybe some field recordings. But this is a commercial Okeh label recording, and according to the advertising, they went out of their way to come down and make it.
NS: What can you tell me about this interview y’all have with Lil Hardin, where she tells this story about the Freddie Keppard-Louis Armstrong trumpet battle?
LA: That’s one of those “cutting contests.” Having been there, Lil really casts a bright light on it. I wish she had been interviewed a hundred times. She must have had a million stories to tell. This is just one of the good ones. I’m glad they caught her on the little bit of interview that was done with her. She’s on the bandstand, she sees Keppard comin’, they’re in between songs. Keppard makes Louis give him his horn and he plays, and then she tells Louis to go get him. It’s just the spirit of Lil Hardin. Lil was a person who – she pushed Louis, she pushed the business end of her musical endeavors and was a very important person, ahead of her time in a lot of ways.
NS: We’re playing Mardi Gras Indians on this show, and we have what appears to be the first field recording of Mardi Gras Indians.
LA: Yes, Sam Charters in the street in ’54, he’s out there on Mardi Gras day with his tape recorder.
NS: And this is something that had existed in New Orleans since before the birth of jazz, and this is the first time it’s recorded.
LA: Isn’t that amazing?
NS: This is what happened in the first recording of guaguancó was made not until 1947, by Chano Pozo, in New York City . They’d been recording in since the 1910s but no one had ever recorded real guaguancó.
LA: It’s just like going back to the religious recordings: everything that happened in terms of black religious music on a national level can be interpreted in specific terms of what happened here in New Orleans. And going back to the jubilee singing movement that came out of Fisk University, right after the Civil War. There’s a parallel phenomenon here at New Orleans University, which is more famous for Professor Nickerson and teaching Jelly Roll Morton, et cetera. But this is a 19th-century phenomenon that was very strongly represented in New Orleans. There was a jubilee-singing troupe that went out to raise funds for a faltering orphanage out in Baldwin, out on Bayou Teche. Traipsing through Philadelphia, New York, all the New England states, to raise money to save this colored orphanage, and ended up singing in the White House, and ended up having this brilliant and complicated career that is unsung.
NS: Because it was never recorded.
LA: Not only was it never recorded, it just seems to not be of interest because there’s this notion that the jubilee troupes sang a Europeanized form of the spirituals. Which seems to confuse the purpose of musical education and make it seem to be something that only intruded on the music, when in fact it was a necessary component of harmony singing.
NS: What year are we talking about with this?
LA: Well, the Fisk troupe was out in ’71, and the New Orleans University Singers were out by 1878. They stayed in the field for several years. They generated some professional offshoots that survived into the early 20th century.
NS: After emancipation, there’s some kind of burst of energy and creativity that appears all up and down the hemisphere, and the gap between that and the beginning of recording, and then the gap between that and getting around to recording black music leaves us always in a position of almost trying to listen backward.
LA: Yeah, that’s what we have. You have these documents, and just try to see if we can work our way backwards from them. It’s not a very safe thing to do — I mean, you draw conclusions that sometimes require leaps of faith.
NS: This archive here, the Hogan, was founded, as I understand it, on a collection of oral histories. And you’ve been here how long?
LA: Past seven years now. But I’ve been conducting research at the Hogan for a quarter of the century.
NS: You must know what’s in these oral histories just about as well as anybody.
LA: Well, I’m becoming more and more familiar with them. A lot of my research is in contemporaneous newspapers and that kind of thing, so I’m looking at the oral histories perhaps differently from some of the other people who’ve used them. In other words, I’m looking for confirmation of things I’m seeing in contemporaneous sources.
NS: Is there any way you could sum up what you have learned from all of this?
LA: I learned that, first of all, we didn’t talk to these guys enough, and we still haven’t really learned to listen to ’em as well as we could. If you hang around this place after it closes and it gets nice and quiet in here, these people start talkin’ to you in here, and they say, you don’t have it quite right yet, you know? Get to work!
NS: Can you draw lines from what we’ve been talking about, all this music from, really, a century ago almost, and New Orleans today?
LA: Well, definitely there’s continuity. There’s a strong line of continuity from the get-go.
NS: Lynn Abbott, I want to thank you for being with us on Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep today.
LA: Ned, it’s been my pleasure.