Various Artists

Black Secular Vocal Groups, Vol. 3

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Encountering the Document label's Black Secular Vocal Groups, Vol. 3 is a lot like finding a box of one dozen 78 rpm records at a garage sale. Each pair of songs would be found on flipsides of a given platter, and most but not all of the artists in this collection are represented by one such pairing. Stacked in chronological order, the set begins with two authentic old-time comedy sketches performed by Perry Bradford, Clifford Ross, and the Gulf Coast Minstrels in 1923. Even while enjoying their theatrical humor (and it is enjoyable), one cannot ignore the fact that the shiftless and lazy caricature displayed in "I Ain't Skeered of Work" is the kind of classically racist stereotyping that makes certain forms of early 20th century Americana difficult to digest. In 1924, the Seven Musical Magpies revisited -- and parodied -- the kind of Negro vocal entertainment that had been finding its way onto records since the mid-1890s. "Laughing Song" quotes passages of "Watermelon on de Vine" (soon to be covered by white Georgia string bands like Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers) and the out-chorus is accented with a pattern of rigidly exaggerated hilarity, a technique used by Polk Miller's Old South Quartette on "Oysters and Wine at 2 AM," and by Lew La Mar throughout most of Jelly Roll Morton's "Hyena Stomp." The Magpies really outdo themselves on "The Calliope" by crowing and yodeling, then uniting in a fabulous oompah-driven calliope routine that is worth hearing more than once. Taking potshots at long-deceased musicians seems to have become an annoying tendency among certain discographers, historians, and musicologists. For some reason, various commentators -- including the author of the album's descriptive liner notes -- seem to have it in for the Nonpareil Trio, who sang old-fashioned vocal harmony in a style since associated with barbershop quartets and have been roundly dismissed for not sounding "black enough". In February, 1929, they delivered a smart reading of W.C. Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues" and a sweet handling of "Susianna" (alternately "Suzianna"), a tune popularized by the orchestras of Sam Lanin and Nat Shilkret.

Eleven months later, a swinging little unit billed as the Four Dusty Travelers recorded "The Lonesome Road" with backing by the Ted Lewis Jazz Band. Lewis, who burbles his way through one of his patented sentimental vaudeville recitations, may have inadvertently inspired Louis Armstrong's skillful send-up version recorded for Okeh in 1931. On their recording of "Dinah," the Four Dusty Travelers underwent an identity transformation and became the Dixie Four. Norris the Troubador is heard on four selections recorded for the Decca label on the same day in August 1938. Researchers at Document have more or less identified this character as one Norris Mayhams. He also made records with his Barbecue Boys, with a group called the Blue Chips, and, eventually, with swing and R&B alto sax virtuoso Earl Bostic. On two sides issued under the name of the Hipp Cats, Mayhams taps into a jazz vein on "Chippin' Rock Blues" and "It Must Be Jelly (‘Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That)," a suggestive opus that became a lucrative hit when it was covered by Glenn Miller's orchestra.

To return to our original vision of one-dozen 78s tucked away at a garage sale, you hit the jackpot with four Bluebird discs yielding eight titles by the Lewis Bronzeville Five, a hip guitar and tipple-plucking vocal harmony group closely modeled after Austin Powell and the Cats and the Fiddle, with hints of Slim Gaillard in Royal Brent's lead vocal delivery. The range of expression in this group's selection is quite broad, from a Tin Pan Alley pick-me-up popularized by Billie Holiday through songs describing murderous domestic violence and a disastrous fire in Natchez, MS, to the disarmingly funny "It Can Happen to You." The Cats and the Fiddle comparison also applies to the Four Blues, who take a cool, hip approach to four tunes recorded for Decca in December 1940 backed by vibraphone, electric guitar, and string bass. Perfectly in step with where the music was headed at that time, this unit also sounded a little like the Delta Rhythm Boys. Which is a far cry from the slaphappy minstrelsy of 1923, and that's the point of this worthwhile collection.

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