The Other Americana
The Squirrel Nut Zippers' Perennial Favorites
By Carly Carioli
AUGUST 3, 1998: Recorded more than a year and a half ago (it's been waiting on the shelves since their breakthrough hit "Hell" barnstormed its way onto alternative radio and MTV), the Squirrel Nut Zippers' third album, Perennial Favorites (Mammoth, August 4), picks up right where 1996's Hot left off, effortlessly re-animating strains of regional, early-20th-century American popular song, from the "hot jazz" of Satchmo, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway to firebrand Caribbean shrieks to bastardized harlequin saloon ditties. For all the current swing-revival hubbub, the Zippers are an older, weirder, more eclectic beast. They're closer to vaudeville than to Guys and Dolls and monogrammed bandstands.
Perennial Favorites opens the doors to a dozen more mostly overlooked passageways in American folk and jazz lore. Some will be familiar: the growling calypso number "Trou Macacq" is the brassier, brasher follow-up to "Hell"; "Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter" comes closest to the fast-stepping swing that's packing clubs these days. And they dig up plenty of new arcane territory. "Ghost of Stephen Foster" pays homage to the 19th century's most renowned composer of minstrel tunes (including "Camptown Races"). It's a testament to the Zippers' playful miscegenation, a reeling klezmer-bitten brass explosion with the singer confronting Foster's ghost to point out that the Camptown ladies did not, in fact, just sing all the doo-dah day long (they were, after all, prostitutes). On "Low Down Man," Katherine Whalen's languorous Billie Holiday-ish croon is framed by weeping pedal steel; her "My Drag" sticks close to the minor-key poetics of the title idiom, a late-'20s style of jazz dirge.
"All these traditions have lived on in some way," says violinist Andrew Bird, who's accompanied the Zippers live and in the studio (his violin and piano grace generous portions of Favorites) in addition to fronting his own '30s small-group swing ensemble, Bowl of Fire. "Except swing got a little too hip for its own good, and people stopped playing it in their kitchens."
"I haven't experienced neo-swing that much," admits Zippers multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/songwriter Jimbo Mathus. "I can only put swing in the context of the big-band era as it happened in the '40s, which was a very popular trend. People really got into it, they were able to market it and make a lot of money off it, and it passed away in a few years."
The Zippers are fluent in the wider primordial ooze of American folk, the malleable musics of the '20s through '40s, where jazz mingled freely with dozens of regional idioms (the blues of the Delta, bluegrass, calypso warble and Creole spice, highland balladry). But what makes them special -- what separates them from both purists (say, an old-time New Orleans brass band) and more casual appreciations (say, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) -- is their intimate connection. They embody a way of making music that's almost vanished, as well as an older way of being heard. They're aiming at people who aren't concerned with strict historical accuracy but instead can hear in it images they didn't know they recognized, who can feel a connection with its universal values, stories, troubles, and concerns.
Given that for many years this music has been more actively curated and archived than enjoyed, you'd think re-inventing it for a popular audience would be a herculean challenge. "It's not, man," says Mathus, "because I came to it totally self-taught and from the ground up. I had a little better chance than most people simply because I grew up with musicians who listened to a lot of classic bluegrass and country music. Being on the fringes of bluegrass and country music, being used to hearing that old kind of recorded music, my ears were sort of open to that. I loved my Flatt-and-Scruggs records when I was growing up. So when I heard Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong, it didn't sound old and funky or weird, it sounded good. I taught myself everything I know about it, and that didn't involve school -- that involved listenin', playin', and just bein' out in the world. Our approach is the opposite of the academic approach. That's why it's so different."
Mathus was raised between Clarksdale and Corinth, in Mississippi. "There's a lot of musicians down there and there's a lot of people that play music as part of their entertainment or their tradition or their family -- barbecues, family reunions, church, it takes the whole spectrum. That's the tradition I grew up in."
These living links to the music are an indispensable part of the Zippers' legacy. "My dad plays banjo," says Mathus. "That's where I got banjo, and that's how Katherine learned banjo. I knew how to play, because my dad had showed me, and I showed her. It's a complicated instrument, really. In its time it had a big role as a rhythm piece -- before drums it got played a lot. It works with our sound -- we make it work, we work with the limitations and the strengths of it. When you hear it, you know it's a banjo, so it has this quality, it has these connotations that are different from if it was just a guitar playing everything. When you hear that banjo, it's ringing out and it has a happiness to it that's just built into it. Part of its role is to add this sort of comedic rhythm."
In 1991, a few years before the Zippers, Mathus learned that Rosetta Patton, a woman who'd worked for his family and "practically raised" him, was in fact the daughter of Charlie Patton, a legendary figure from the first generation of blues artists. "Well, it's just one of those weird coincidences. And of course she never thought to tell anyone that Charlie Patton was her father because she didn't think anyone even knew who he was. Being a musician wasn't exactly something that your family would go around bragging about. It could get you kicked out of church! It was something that the outside world had to bring back to our people down there and let them know about -- that Charlie Patton was Rosetta's father. And for most people that still doesn't mean shit. But when I heard it, I flipped out."
When Rosetta had a stroke, three years ago, Mathus assembled a band including a few Zippers associates and former MC5 manager John Sinclair for Songs for Rosetta (attributed to "Jas. Mathus and his Knockdown Society" and released last year on Mammoth). It's an album of folk blues tunes, including covers of Big Bill Broonzy and Charlie Patton, with the proceeds used to help pay Rosetta's bills.
On Perennial Favorites, they pay tribute to another living link with "Pallin' with Al," a tribute to Fats Waller guitarist Al Casey, whose distinctive chorded-soloing technique was a big influence on both Mathus and the band's other guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, Tom Maxwell. The band met Casey in New York, where he still performs at the age of 82. "Al Casey was like my and Tom's blueprint for how to play swing guitar. Then this meeting was brought about and it went so great, and he was such a nice man, and we just enjoyed it so much that we've met him several times since and actually had his group perform with us in New York. He's just one of a kind."
If only on a tiny scale, the Zippers serve as a focal point for a small but slowly growing community of players who've inherited or discovered lost strains of American music. By embracing not only the old masters but a new generation of like-minded musicians -- Andrew Bird in Chicago, and Boston's Milo Jones, whose "I Raise Hell" they covered on last year's limited-edition Sold Out EP -- they hope to foster the kind of communal give-and-take that animated and warped the face of jazz and folk in the early part of this century.
Mathus explains, "This guy I just talked to a second ago said, 'You know it's funny because you seem to mention blues and jazz and country and gospel and everything as if they're the same thing, but back in that day how would Cab Calloway or Blind Willie Johnson or somebody have played all that?' I said, 'Man, I've seen Memphis Minnie's set list, and she had everything from blues to popular jazz on there.' They had to play everything. When they went in the studio they played what the people were paying them to play -- if it was a race record, then they wanted the most primitive shit they could dish out, and they had tons of that. But they also could play white people's parties and do jazz and waltzes, whatever was popular. Most people don't realize that. That's how the way it was in that era. Musicians could sit in with one another, orchestras could swap members, you could play, everyone knew the same collective material. And that's a really beautiful thing."
Hot plattersWe asked Jim Mathus for a list of albums/performers he'd recommend as required listening for the enterprising Squirrel Nut Zippers fan. In addition to these, be on the lookout for a full-length Zippers Christmas album to appear later this year.
* Memphis Minnie: "That's just some good-ol' down-home blues -- great, great singer."
* Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five: "That was the template for the hot-jazz sound that was recorded in the late '20s. He pioneered the sound."
* Louvin Brothers, Satan Is Real (Capitol): "They're a north Alabama duo doin' gospel music."
* Fats Waller: "Get his Bluebird recordings -- it's the late-'30s stuff."
* Django Reinhart: "He's a great Gypsy jazz guitarist.
* Slim and Slam (Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart): "People will flip over that shit."
* Sextetos Cubanos Vols. I & II (Arhoolie): "Just beautiful Caribbean music. Oh my God, it is great."
* Billie Holiday: "Get her recordings with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra. That's just superb classic jazz."
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