Kentuckian Buell Kazee was a complex and influential folk musician in ‘the old weird America’ who gave it all up to preach. Recently, Appalshop re-released a memorial album that showcases the broad and nuanced context of Kazee’s music and life
It’s the first of July 1929, and at Brunswick Records’ studio in Chicago a recording supervisor invites a banjo-pickin’, tabacker-chawin’, moonshine-swiggin’ hillbilly to sit in front of a microphone (“Mike who?” the yokel will ask) and make a record. The hillbilly delivers some canned vernacular — “Well dog my cats!”; “Well that’ll make a black snake spit in a bulldog’s eye!” — threatens the engineer, and gets learnt what a cuspidor is. After the supervisor coaxes a few verses and “some of that old-fashioned banjo picking” out of his guest, who has by this point gotten himself drunk, both sides of the record are finished, to be released later that year in the Brunswick/Supertone catalog as A Mountain Boy Makes His First Record.
That mountain boy was a 28-year-old from Magoffin County, Ky., named Buell Kazee, and the recorded skit was of his own devising: two sides of 58 that he made for the Brunswick label between 1927 and 1929, the heyday of the “hillbilly” recording era. Those sides, however, are among the least representative of the mountain boy’s considerable musical abilities (and did not, in fact, constitute his first record). And, as Loyal Jones, retired director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College, writes in his notes to the June Appal label’s recently released CD of Kazee’s later recordings, “Buell did not look on them as major accomplishments.”
They are also a completely misleading portrait of the man himself (not that many fell for it; the record hardly sold and has never been reissued), as the June Appal album, Buell Kazee, released in June, makes clear. Kazee was well educated, deeply religious (he heard the call to preach at 17) and without a doubt one of the most remarkable talents in American folk music. His extensive repertoire of ballads, lyric songs and occupational pieces reflected an upbringing in a mountain community steeped in the “old songs” and entertained by square dances and bean stringings, where he picked up the banjo at the age of 5 and where his love of music was nurtured by his parents, both talented singers.
Kazee’s vocal delivery, however, belied the influence of a sophisticated musical education, and, while for some listeners it placed him in an uncertain territory between authenticity and affectation, it was wholly his own.
Kazee had studied voice — in high school; at Georgetown College, where he majored in English, Greek and Latin; and after graduation in Ashland, Ky., with a visiting tenor from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York — and he brought to his material a vocal sensitivity seldom heard applied to old-time music. For many, his “good voice,” as he called it, was at best an occasional distraction and at worst a liability. A Brunswick engineer remarked of it, “That’s fine, but it won’t ring on the cash register.” One of America’s foremost scholars of country music, the late Charles K. Wolfe, wrote in 2003 that “fortunately, only a few of (Kazee’s) recorded selections were seriously marred by his inclination to employ artistic vocal technique.” Indeed, most of Kazee’s recorded output is marked by a subtle synthesis of that technique with the “light throat” he explained was characteristic of mountain singing.
Though it might not have been the most “authentic” article, it marked Kazee as an artist of depth, grace and individuality.
Authentic or not, however, Buell Kazee’s career as a professional musician came to an end in 1929, despite offers of tour support for county fairs across the country and membership in the radio cast of WLS’s National Barn Dance in Chicago. His priorities were spiritual, not musical. As he is quoted in the June Appal CD: “I couldn’t go that way. My life was cast in a different direction and there wasn’t any reason to consider it. … I was going to preach all my life.”
He got out just in time. The Wall Street crash of 1929 sent the Brunswick label spinning into bankruptcy, and by 1933, the contributions of countless banjo pickers, blues singers, jug bands and old-time combos to the “race” and “hillbilly” catalogs of other record companies would be driven into obscurity by the Depression. Considering the grandiose and metaphor-prone enthusiasms of many die-hard fans of this era of American music, one might forgive its end being likened to the Roman sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE, which began the Jewish Diaspora, or perhaps in less loaded terms, the natural calamity that finished off the dinosaurs.
Whatever your preference, the outcome of the labels’ collapse was that many performers with gigantic repertoires and talents disappeared back into the folds of the fields, hollers, bottomlands and tiny Southern backwaters from whence they came and where they returned to work typical of those environments. Many old-time players like Clarence Ashley and Dock Boggs went into the mines. Bluesman Mississippi John Hurt farmed as a sharecropper. Others, such as Son House and Blind Willie McTell, like Buell Kazee, entered the ministry, with varying degrees of success. Others still moved north, seeking work (which some found) in industry. Many vanished without a trace.
Over the next 40 years, Kazee led congregations in Morehead and Lexington, wrote two books on Christian theology and taught at the Lexington Baptist Bible College. Surely he, despite a struggle with depression and an agonizing period of uncertainty about his faith after his wife left him in 1940, would have been content with his religious vocation, to keep any singing of the “old songs” a purely private affair.
But in 1952 the Folkways record company released Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-LP set reissuing old-time, blues, gospel and Cajun music from the pre-Depression 78 era. Up to this point most urban listeners had gotten their folk songs secondhand, from songbooks, summer camps and spit-shined renditions perfomed by the tuxedoed likes of the Weavers. The Anthology was remarkable because it transmitted American folk material democratically, from primary (if commercial) sources, without mediation. It also helped precipitate the period now known as the Folk Revival.
Smith — eccentric, occultist, avant-garde filmmaker, collector of Ukranian Easter eggs, Seminole quilts and 78rpm records — compiled his Anthology as a glorification of the “exotic” in American music; an exploration of the metaphysical space that writer Greil Marcus termed “The Old Weird America,” an era not even 30 years gone but separated from the early 1950s by a massive gulf of political, cultural and technological developments. Smith saw it as a catalyst for social change that, according to Marcus, was to “distinguish those who responded from those who didn’t.” You either got it or you didn’t, and a handful of dissatisfied young people coming of age in Eisenhower’s America really got it, responding to Smith’s mytho-anthology by identifying with the gamblers, hobos and murderers inhabiting the songs therein; recreating those songs to the best of their urban teenage abilities; and fantasizing about the vague deities who howled, moaned and keened them out.
One of those voices was Kazee’s. Harry Smith had included three of his sides — “The Butcher Boy,” “East Virginia” and “The Wagoner’s Lad” — and soon Folk Revival performers like the New Lost City Ramblers were trying their hands at Kazee’s tunes in Washington Square Park, admirably approximating his banjo frailings and tunings. But as the Anthology offered only aural hints as to such specifics of the original performances — Smith was more inclined to elevate them to the realm of musical mysticism (the set’s cover bears the hand of God tuning a monochord) — it occurred to some of the young revivalists that perhaps the best way to learn the collection’s songs was to seek out their original singers and players and study at the source. Some could still be alive.
Thus, in 1957, Gene Bluestein, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, tracked Kazee down in Lexington and recorded a session that Folkways soon released on LP as Buell Kazee Sings and Plays. It was a process that would be repeated many times over the next decade: young folk music enthusiasts “rediscovering” pre-war recording artists — elderly musicians with predominantly rural backgrounds and perspectives — then making albums of them and introducing them to predominantly young, urban, middle-class audiences at innumerable folk festivals. While those artists were pleased by the interest their music engendered, and often enjoyed the notoriety they received, such arrangements were not always happy ones.
Kazee was disappointed with his Folkways album, believing it had been recorded in too-casual circumstances and that it did not offer an adequate portrait of his abilities and repertoire. Later, in the Vietnam years, when Kazee shared festival stages with the likes of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, his conservative sensibility was scandalized by the trademark radical social notions of the folk revival. After all, however much the revivalists revered the Rediscovered as elder statesmen, the latter had reemerged into the cultural universe of the former, who called the tunes and determined, however inadvertently, how their saved-from-obscurity “contemporary ancestors” were presented.
Buell Kazee died in 1976, and Buell Kazee, conceived as a memorial album for the man, was subsequently released on LP by June Appal, the imprint of the Appalshop media center in Whitesburg, Ky. It was the first attempt — and a successful one at that, both in its release and now in its reissue — to showcase the broad and nuanced context of Kazee’s music and biography, drawing on recordings made in the 1960s by ex-New Lost City Rambler John Cohen, folk documentarian Mark Wilson (responsible for many other fine recordings of old-time musicians), Kentucky Educational Television and Buell himself. Here are child ballads; songs of teamsters and a railroad track-lining gang (the latter composed by Kazee); popular country tunes; a blues interpretation; and two very beautiful hymns, sung accompanied. There are no hillbilly skits included.
That this subtle vindication of Kazee should be provided by Appalshop is fitting, though to be fair, he is not in desperate need of it. The power and beauty of his 1920s recordings are not remotely in dispute. But a legacy of Harry Smith’s “exotic” Anthology, for all its inclusive brilliance, is a fetishism of pre-war folk musicians as foggy denizens of a mystical, bestial, primitive place, their ballads and banjo tunes emanating from the crackly surface of an old 78 like some kind of speech-in-tongues or tribal utterance. Appalachia, of course, is accustomed to this sort of exoticism, from (but certainly not beginning with) D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film “The Mountaineer’s Honor,” through the record industry’s pre-Depression hillbilly feeding frenzy, to the current voyeuristic fascination exerted upon it by the likes of New York City’s Vice magazine.
Appalshop, however, has been working hard in the face of this trend. Founded in 1969 as a media cooperative assisting Appalachian filmmakers in the telling of their own stories and those of their region, the organization has become one of the most visible and highly regarded advocates of rural issues, be they cultural, political, environmental or aesthetic. Through its films, theater productions, radio broadcasts and symposiums, Appalshop has proven that the reality of life in Appalachia resists pat generalizations, and has gone far in asserting the complexities of the experiences, perspectives and personalities of Appalachians.
Buell Kazee was nothing if not complex. Despite the fervor of his calling, nearly his entire life was marked by the struggle to reconcile his love and talent for music with his faith and devotion to his ministry. He disagreed with the assertion that the old mountain ballads should be exempt from sophisticated musical interpretation, as he considered them among the world’s great poetry. And though, as Loyal Jones has remarked, rediscovery “was not a totally happy experience for Buell,” it gave him the opportunity to “tell the story of his music, to create a spell,” and to enjoy the ovations of audiences edified and entertained by his performances. These complexities, illustrative of a thoughtful and sensitive man, helped to make Buell Kazee the profound musician he was.
Buell Kazee, the CD reissue on June Appal, is available from, among other outlets, www.appalshop.org/store/. Contact the writer at [email protected]