Drop on Down in Florida
Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music : 1977-1980
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Drop on Down in Florida
Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music – 1977-1980

Dust To Digital ( www.dust-digital.com)

The two-LP Drop on Down in Florida was a testament to African American music in the late 1970s. As the nation’s Bicentennial celebration wound down and Jimmy Carter began governing, a group of young folklorists learning their craft and beginning their careers were out and about with reel-to-reel recorders in the Sunshine State where they found magic in the African-American secular and sacred song.

This 2012 edition of Drop on Down in Florida is more than simply a reissue. It comes with a book and an additional two dozen tracks, with one CD each for its secular and sacred recordings. The original project was modeled, in part, on the Florida Writers Project of the 1930s. Project administrator Peggy Bulger writes that they “were determined to find and record the musical traditions of African American folk artists in the same communities that were documented forty years prior.” So do the math. These musicians, who were already late in their lives in the 1970s, have all passed on through the years. This digital reissue is timely, important and if you have any serious affinity for southern, rural blues and gospel, a splendid update to a recording project completed three decades ago.

New reflective essays are provided, and along with track notes, lyrics and references, Drop on Down in Florida comes in as a two-hundred plus page book. The book’s layout and design is a little quirky; but that’s just fine. Sometimes, for example, you get almost as many words with the song references as you do with the track notes themselves. Its bibliography and discography are useful for those so inclined and you’ll enjoy the black and white photographs of musicians and life from the era.

Folklorists Brenda McCallum, Peggy Bulger, Doris Dyen and Dwight DeVane didn’t capture all they sought when the original recordings were made. But what they ably recorded is vital and satisfying. Your ears and sensibilities will be delighted.

We are all familiar with the blues; but the 'Secular Recordings' collection offers some less familiar approaches to the genre. In part, these songs are in the 20th-century tradition. Add to that the in-migration to Florida during the early decades of that century and blues traditions being mixed and modified as they moved and found new settings, and many these songs will surprise and delight. More significant is that we’ll never hear their like again and Drop on Down in Florida documents its regionally unique time and place.

Guitarists Robert Dennis (“Early One Foggy Morning,” “Mean Mistreater Blues”) and Richard Williams (“Old Forty”) sound familiar, but theirs is a blues that is personal and unique. There is an informality to these recordings that lends each man’s guitar and vocal style a real presence.

Moses Williams, “master of the ‘one-string guitar’” (actually a type of zither), lays out a unique and captivating repertoire. His style is from an old school minstrel novelty act that he perfected through his life. Some called the instrument a “jitterbug,” others a “yakkedy board,” and still others a “diddley bow,” but what you get here is a unique blues from a stretched out string and a pint bottle. He must have been an exciting find when these recordings were originally made. “Rolling and Tumbling,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Catfish Blues” and a few interview fragments make up the thirteen tracks. These tracks demonstrate the blending of traditional and commercial fragments into their own rural expression.

"Catfish Blues" by Moses Williams

Believer or non, the 'Sacred Recordings' disc is a treat. The simple and memorable “He Got the Whole World in His Hand” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by the blind Johnny Brown are captivating. There is a familiarity to the eight tracks given to The Williams Family because they blend styles and structure of secular and sacred styles and also because, like so much of this collection, theirs is a time when migration and radio were influencing guitarists and singers throughout the region. I enjoy the new-to-me “Do Lord, Remember Me”, and especially their rendition of the familiar “You Got to Move” recorded by Fred McDowell and made known to many of us on The Rolling Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers. This stripped down version is potent.

"Motherless Children" by The Williams Family

Then we go to church.
The congregation of the Testerina Primitive Baptist Church gives us “I Don’t Know What I’d Do without the Lord/Did Christ o’er Sinners Weep?” We hear what it is to testify from the Miccosukee Church of God of Prophecy with its “Altar Call/Congregational Prayer/He Set Me Free.” I used to wonder “Why, oh why, couldn’t there have been music like this in my own limited childhood church going experience?”

The 'Sacred Recordings' begins to wind down with “God’s Gonna Set the World on Fire,” and “Inside the Pearly Gates,” a pair of songs from the Florida-Alabama Progressive Seven-Shape-Note Singing Convention. Shape-note singing, the authors write, is a “social and religious, interdenominational musical tradition” that had been part of Florida’s musical life since the mid- or late-19th century. Finally, the collection offers songs from the Southeast Alabama and Florida Union Sacred Harp Singing Convention.

In "The Great Gatsby" Nick Carraway says to Jay Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can.” In a sense, the young folklorists who created Drop on Down in Florida got to do just that. They re-gathered, updated their work, added more material and have done what we call in the game of golf a mulligan. Editorial choices originally made because of space and other constraints no longer apply, so we have a package more robust than its original and a pleasure to experience. - Dick Dorsett

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