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V/A - Drop On Down In Florida

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Artist: V/A

Album: Drop On Down In Florida

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Jan. 8, 2013

Nowadays, it looks like everybody with a killer collection is a musicologist. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the collections that record collectors like Mike McGonigal, Christopher King, Jonathan Ward, and Ian Nagoski have assembled for labels like Tompkins Square, Dust-to-Digital, Hinter, and Mississippi Records may not adhere to academic standards of research, but they know how to frame these recordings as part of a story that pulls you in and makes you want to hear and understand. And there’s no denying, they have ears for the killer cuts. If this stuff lives on, they’ve got something to do with its survival. But there’s also a wealth of research and recorded music out there that was obtained from the source, not mediated by record labels. Some of it is associated with institutions like the Smithsonian who stand a reasonable chance of preserving it and putting it before people who want to know, but some of it was generated by shorter-term circumstances. If you don’t luck across it in the right library, you might never find it.

The double LP Drop On Down In Florida was such an effort. It was compiled between 1978-1981 by the Florida Folklife Program, with help from an NEA grant. Its task was to document elements of African-American musical folk practice that revealed the links between Floridian communities and those in other parts of the south. There was a stretch of time during the 20th century when Florida was the only Southern state to increase its African-American population through immigration; there were jobs there, especially for people who already knew about agricultural work. So a survey of black music in Florida was actually a survey of music drawn from all over the south. The original LP was pressed and distributed in 1981, and went out of print about 10 years later. Since then, most of the musicians on the record and at least one member of the original production team have passed on.

That could have been the end, except that Dust-to-Digital decided to reissue the record. As is the label’s wont, they haven’t just repressed the set. They’ve found the surviving compilers, had them rewrite and expand the text, and doubled the amount of music from 25 tracks to 53. It is still divided into one disc secular and another sacred, but several performers benefit from being represented by half a dozen or more tracks instead of one or two. The presentation, as usual for this label, is sterling; it now comes in a hardbound book with 218 pages of text, black and white photos, and a new cover image whose coloring looks like it comes straight out of a ’70s news magazine. The writing tells you things that your average Mississippi release might not. There’s a wealth of history and analysis of the music’s place within its society. And there’s a definite shortage of the juicy life details that you might get if Nagoski were writing the liner notes. The writing suffers a bit from dryness, but is generally lucid; if you have the patience, they have the information.

It’s the music, though, that’ll keep you coming back. The singers and players aren’t people you’ve heard before; they sang for the people they worked with, their families, or their churches, not for a recording studio. Not that there’s anything wrong with the recording here; that grant must have covered some decent microphones, because the music is rendered with delectable clarity. There’s no distortion in the home recordings, and every string snap and knock of slide against neck comes through on the guitar selections. So does a lot of sound that you’d never get on a commercial recording: kids passing by, family members chipping in, and the general bump and rumble of players who never learned how to slick it up for the stage.

But if the presentation is a bit raw and the performances casual, they’re by no means unpracticed. Acoustic guitarists Robert Dennis and Richard Williams, electric guitarist Emmett Murray, and one-string player Moses Williams all had established repertoires, songs that they played over and over. There’s no fumbling here, and plenty of excellent music. Richard Williams appears on both discs, singing both about the trouble that hard work and bad whiskey have caused him and (with a couple family members) the salvation that got him through. Moses Williams uses one string on a plank to get an impressive approximation of a slide guitar, and uses it to accompany family blues standards and more personal remembrances of family and employers. The sacred disc also includes examples of a form of music, Shape-Note singing, that has died out since these recordings were made. Shape-Note singing used shapes rather than conventional musical notation to cue the singers, and it was once the cause for conventions of singers from congregations throughout the south. It has since died out in Northern Florida, the victim of changing tastes as one generation succeeds another. The past never stops fading, but collections like this remind us of what we’ve lost.

By Bill Meyer

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