Times Ain’t like They Used to Be: Early Rural & Popular American Music From Rare Original Film Masters (1928-35)
edited by Dana Heinz, Yazoo Video/ Shanachie .
The musical film short was a long way from the modern music video, and these twenty-two newsreel recitals by musicians from Jimmie Rodgers to Uncle John Scruggs to Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys couldn’t be further from the titillations of MTV. No narrative links together this early-thirties hit parade. Rodgers comes on first, in an eight-minute performance from 1929. He asks for a cup of coffee at a contrived railroad-station restaurant, then sits playing while it brews and an old woman crochets in the rocker next to him. He sings “Waitin’ for a Train,” “Daddy and Home,” and “Blue Yodel.” The Whistler’s Jug Band follows, doing its hit, “Foldin’ Bed”; Elder Michaux leads his gospel choir; a country string band performs on someone’s back steps, a fireside cowboy choir croons “Home on the Range"; Uncle John Scruggs emerges from a hen house to play banjo for his dancing grandchildren.
The most unexpected discovery is the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, leading his jazz orchestra in 1929, thirteen years after he lost the title. Johnson introduces his band as his “new way of knocking them out” and then mugs and swings cartoonlike punches as he conducts several scorching renditions of “Tiger Rag.” Some of the films are charmingly stagy; collectively they present seventy minutes of the back yards and jazz clubs and churches of America as it entered the Depression, with many of the entertainers who helped get the country through it.