The money and the added tourists meant opportunities for musicians and entertainers, with most hotels and restaurants offering limbo contests, fire dancers, and mildly salacious calypso, songs like "Gin & Coconut Water," "Donkey Want Water," and "Hold Him Joe," performed by groups with names like The Royal Colonials or The Sea Island Goombah Band. And, for a brief period in the mid-60's, BOAC passengers flying into Nassau would be met at the end of the runway not by customs officials but by crisply uniformed waiters offering complimentary rum & cokes, and by Blind Blake, a small, ageless guitarist in straw hat, dark glasses, and near-psychedelic green & yellow print shirt, who sat in the shade and sang "Yellow Bird" and "Island In The Sun."
So for most folklorists and ethnomusicologists, going to the Bahamas in 1965 would have been a little like going to the Hamptons. Fortunately, neither Seigel nor his partner Jody Stetcher were folklorists or ethnomusicologists; they were college kids, journeyman musicians and enthusiasts, and, in the best tradition, they were just a little late and right on time.
"I was part of The Folk Music Society at NYU, and one of the perks that came along with that was that we got to take over halls to put on events," Siegel remembers. "We decided to bring up Joseph Spence for a concert in the spring of '65, and it was my job to look after him and show him New York. I took him up to the top of the Empire State Building , took him around town, and eventually we wound up at my family's place in the Village. I was still living at home, you know. I didn't have any money, so I lived at home until I got a job at Elektra late that year. Fifty five dollars a week. Then I got my own place. But back then I brought Spence up to my room, where I had a tape recorder, and I recorded him playing my guitar, my Martin, just sitting on the edge of my bed. He just kept shaking his head and saying, 'Man, you oughta come down to Nassau, see how I live,' and I thought.....well, why not? I had a Nagra and some mics, and I called my friend Jody to see if he wanted to come along. Three weeks later we were wandering around Nassau looking for Spence's house."
Siegel and Stetcher spent the better part of a week recording Spence and his extended family, being passed on from musician to musician. A lot of the best singers from the out islands happened to be visiting Nassau proper that week, so they got a wide range of material and styles, from the dark refracted blues of Joseph Spence to the wild and improbable harmonies of his in-laws, the Pindars, and the high, yearning vocals of Frederick McQueen, a singer who, like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, seemed to embody the pure reach and hope of gospel music mixed with the ache and despair of the most solitary blues. Overall, there is a ragged toughness to the group singing, a confidence born of knowing the way home so well, so surely, that there is no need at all to watch the road,; the singers blend chaos and harmony into a strange and singular music, the way birds, in a night sky, will blend a flurry of wings and motion, all arcs and feathers, into a sudden, pure formation. Think of The Band at their most casual ("Ain't No More Cane" from THE BASEMENT TAPES) or Ladysmith Black Mambazo without the overarching sweetness; that's not really it, but you can just about see it--or hear it--from there.
Siegel and Stetcher returned to New York and brought their tapes over to Moe Asch at Folkways, who, to their delight and astonishment, agreed to release them. At the time, Folkways was the great repository of roots, blues, old-timey and foreign or "ethnic" musics, with a catalog that was as wide as it was peculiar (Dock Boggs, Woody Guthrie, and Bongo Joe shared shelf space with Bedouin piano music, Henry Miller's reminiscences of growing up in Brooklyn, and, my personal favorite, SOUNDS OF A JUNKYARD.) Getting a record accepted by Folkways was a dream for most musicologists, akin to a writer's getting a short story printed in The New Yorker, with one crucial difference: there was no money in it. Asch paid several hundred dollars, if that, for the rights to masters, and was somewhat casual or frugal about further payments. "Moe's idea of a royalty check," as one former employee noted, "was a flip through the paper to see where KING KONG was playing." Still, most musicians and musicologists were simply thrilled to be accepted, to be brought into the community.
Siegel then called up Sam Charters, hoping for a benediction of sorts.
"Charters came down to my folks' place and came up to my room and sat there, listening to the tapes, his head in his hands," Siegel remembers. "And he finally just got up and said, 'I can't believe you went all the way down there and came back with....THIS!' And he pointed at the tapes in disgust. 'They sound awful!' I was crushed."
Peace be with Sam Charters, a man who has given more to blues and American roots music than any five people you could mention, but his response to the tapes that turned into THE REAL BAHAMAS seems more than a little grumpy, as if he realized, instinctively, that his fine and definitive recordings of Bahamian folk music had just been knocked off the map. And not necessarily because Siegel & Stetcher's were better or his were worse, but because, in the intervening 8 years what had changed was....everything.
Siegel kicked around the Village, playing a little music, doing a little recording, waiting for his Bahamian record to be released. And waiting.
"At the end of the year, I got a call from Elektra, that they were interested in me for a staff job as an in-house engineer/producer. Paul Rothchild (who went on to produce The Doors) had produced the group I was with (The Even Dozen Jug Band) and knew that I was interested in engineering and in making records, and he put in a word for me. Folkways still hadn't done anything with our tapes, so I simply went by their offices, picked them up from a shelf there, and brought them with me to my job interview. Jac Holzman (founder and then-president of Elektra) gave me $250 for them."
Folkways' loss was everybody's gain. Elektra, at the time, was a small, very independent folk & blues label that was undergoing growing pains. Their roster included Phil Ochs; Tom Rush; Tim Buckley; The Paul Butterfield Blues Band; and Koerner, Ray & Glover; though their biggest selling artist was Judy Collins, a folk singer blessed with a knack for finding extraordinary songs and writers long before they were known (Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman). Her most recent album, IN MY LIFE, had paired her with a young arranger, Joshua Rifkin, who had expanded her sound to include strings, harpsichord, and flutes, instruments not usually associated with folk albums of the time, which tended to stick with a couple of guitars, string bass, and maybe a harmonica if you were going to get fancy. Rifkin had also created a succesful novelty album for Elektra, THE BAROQUE BEATLES BOOK, an affectionate refraction of popular Beatles' tunes recorded in an exaggeratedly formal, baroque mode and presented with a jokey, illustrated cover. That album's popularity led Elektra to consider releasing real baroque & renaissance music, especially as there were recordings from the Netherlands that could be licensed for next to nothing. To that end, they created a budget label, Nonesuch, that sold for about $2.49 a disc (most full-priced albums then cost $3.98) and that had informal drawn or painted album jackets, not all that disimilar from The New Yorker's sophisticated look, that were as far from the severity and self-seriousness of 1960's classical covers as you could get. And when albums of foreign or international musics were available, these would likewise be licensed and released on the Nonesuch International Series (later changed to the Explorer Series). It was here that THE REAL BAHAMAS finally saw the light of day, late in 1966.
To call it one of the most loved and most influential albums ever released isn't too much of an overstatement. The old saw about the Velvet Underground is that, though they didn't sell many records, everyone who bought one started a band; everyone who bought THE REAL BAHAMAS seems to have covered one or more of the songs. Over the years, that list has grown to include The Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder, The Incredible String Band, Aaron Neville, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Van Dyke Parks, and Taj Mahal, among others. Hearing the harmonies of The Pindar Family for the first time, Brian Wilson set out to write his own Bahamian hymn ("He Come Down," a version of which appears on the justly forgotten CARL & THE PASSIONS album); but finally he just returned to listening to Frederick McQueen and The Pindars instead. It's a record that musicians have passed from hand to hand for three decades now, and home-taping might very well have been invented for the sole purpose of dubbing this one album. "We were down there for what? A week? And here, thirty years later, there are four albums! (A second volume of THE REAL BAHAMAS- --most of which will be included in the upcoming reissue---was issued by Nonesuch in 1978; KNEELING DOWN INSIDE THE GATE and THE SPRING OF '65 were recently issued by Rounder). What's that all about?" Siegel shakes his head in disbelief.
Like a pitcher who sticks his glove out instinctively and winds up catching a line drive to win the big game, Siegel is more than a little bemused and frustrated at having his career defined by a holiday in the sun long ago. He's done fine and substantial work since then, having produced albums by Roy Buchanan, Paul Siebel, Elliot Murphy, and pipa master Tang Liangxang, among many others, and having recently started his own label, Henry Street, distributed by Rounder, releasing lovingly produced albums of Chinese hammer dulcimer music, Puerto Rican plena & bomba, and Norwegian fiddle tunes, with Vietnamese, West African, South Indian, and further Chinese recordings to follow.
But THE REAL BAHAMAS really is the one, the shining moment, and whether captured through luck, skill, or happenstance, the result is the same, the music just as wondrous. It's no insult to a chef that a three star meal can be eclipsed by one perfect, ripe peach (in fact, the smarter chefs tend to keep a few perfect peaches on hand). Still, Siegel's mild frustration very neatly bookends Charters' own irritation.....why? Or, to put it another way, WHY? Why did a simple album of Caribbean spirituals and folk tunes exert such a powerful hold on generations of musicians and listeners that even now, thirty years n, it's spoken of with the fondness and awe usually reserved for PET SOUNDS, SGT. PEPPER and KIND OF BLUE? Especially as much of the basic musical information it contains had been available for years to anyone who was looking.
Timing, of course, in music as in love, is everything. The very climate that existed in 1965, when the album was recorded, was charged with posibility: the Beatles had pried open the candy box of American culture, making anything possible (even better, making the IDEA of anything possible); Bob Dylan had just plugged in, revitalizing the blues and sharpening the language of popular song; and there was a growing blurring of boundaries---the Byrds were listening to John Coltrane, John Coltrane was listening to African music, African musicians were listening to James Brown, and on and on. Just as important, the emergence of FM radio, coming into its own in '65, meant that the sacred lines of communication were open for business; dee jays, temporarily encouraged to be creative, were bending and blending genres, finding late-night links between flamenco and Delta blues, between Bartok and Albert Ayler, and, miraculously though not surprisingly, an audience was there for it.
Coming out as it did at the dawn of FM radio, THE REAL BAHAMAS was able to tap into the first stirrings of curiosity in world music and was able to provide the gentlest, most welcoming doorway into the whole idea of other musics (not to mention other worlds). Which was, and is, so necessary.
One of the problems of living with too much information and too many possibilities is learning how to be astonished in the world and yet at home in it; how to make the familiar fresh and exotic, as if seeing it or hearing it for the first time; and, conversely, how to see or hear parts of ourselves in the foreign or unknown...not in the "Small World After All" version of glossing over very real differences, but in finding the way that certain edges and patterns fit together, how certain energies converge, to the point where you can hear Stephen Foster's Southern melodies in Chinese orchestral music, find bits of country blues in the music of Vietnam, start to notice some of Brian Wilson's gorgeous harmonies in the sad and yearning hymns of Gesualdo. Not that the musicians were even remotely aware of each other; but in burrowing deep into the truest parts of themselves, they came out the other side into someplace universal.
Lyrical, graceful and welcoming, THE REAL BAHAMAS is the best possible introduction to world music, to the ways in which the universal and the local converge, offering the thrill of the exotic alongside the comfort and security of the known, presenting songs that are almost familiar---American spirituals and blues, English hymns and folk songs---refracted through a strange and personal sensibility. "We Will Understand It Better By And By," "Don't Take Everybody To Be Your Friend." There is a sense of comfort and reassurance in the familiarity of the melodies, in the Biblical cadences or the sing-song patterns of the rhymes.
"There's a B for the beast at the ending of the wood Goodnight Goodnight He eat all the children that would not be good Goodnight Goodnight"
Still, the closer you listen, the less familiar things get. In the best possible sense.
It would be possible to chalk up THE REAL BAHAMAS as a fluke, a lucky break, though luck, I think, had only a little to do with it. It's easy to forget that Siegel & Stetcher were both active and dedicated musicians (it was Siegel's Martin that Joseph Spence played in New York), and also easy to forget just how important that can be to other musicians (especially ones whose lives have, for the most part, been lived on a tiny island and whose only experience of whites may have been tourists sitting poolside sipping Planters Punch).
When Peter Siegel & Jody Stetcher arrived in the Bahamas, they weren't just engineers and producers and fans; they were working (well, semi-working) musicians. That may not necessarily remove barriers, but, as guitars are passed back and forth and strings are tuned, there tends to be a blurring of lines. Siegel's credentials are particularly impressive, in retrospect, when you take a look at some of the other members of his group, The Even Dozen Jug Band (even though this starts to feel like the obligatory scene from the made-for-tv movie, where the hero pulls out a crumpled picture from his boy scout days--"Here's the old gang: Bunny Wailer, Little Charlie Manson, Ike 'The Moose' Turner, Joey Stalin....I wonder whatever happened to those guys.") Siegel's fellow members included John Sebastian (who went on to lead The Lovin' Spoonful); Maria Muldaur (then Maria D'Amato, who joined the Jim Kweskin Band, married Geoff Muldaur, and later had a hit with "Midnight At The Oasis"); Steve Katz (who went on to The Blues Project and Blood Sweat & Tears); mandolinist David Grisman (known for his many bluegrass collaborations with Jerry Garcia); Stefan Grossman (who's gone on to codify and teach the guitar stylings of Rev Gary Davis, and who's recorded duet albums with John Renbourn).
All these musicians were responsible, to one to degree or another, for helping to bring blues and roots music into the mainstream of popular culture, and were part of a burgeoning Greenwich Village scene alive with the belief that music was inordinately powerful, that the right song at the right time could move mountains. This was the environment that Siegel came out of, and that is the spirit that he and Stetcher brought with them to the Bahamas---naive, optimistic, eager, utopian. Small wonder that the singers and musicians they encountered responded in kind, creating an album as hopeful and as joyous as you're ever likely to hear.
Thirty years on, it hasn't lost its shine.
Brian Cullman is a writer and composer living in New York City. He spent much of his childhood growing up in the Bahamas
These recordings were reissued in two volumes in 2003.
HOLIDAYS IN THE SUN originally appeared in FI magazine.
The recordings, The Real Bahamas, are on Elektra Records. All images in this article are from the 1998 Elektra reissue.
©Brian Cullman, 1996, 1998 all rights reserved
see also: The Americas