Pokey Lafarge - 78s are the new MP3s
We’ve become well used to bands promoting their new recordings from the stage, be they CDs, downloads or the vinyl that quite rightly refuses to follow its supposed chosen path into obsolescence. But Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three can go one better than that.
The Louisville, Kentucky-born, St Louis-based LaFarge, whose celebration of early jazz, blues, western swing and bluegrass has been taking events such as Celtic Connections and Shetland and Denmark’s Tonder folk festivals by storm lately, can offer audiences a new CD, a recently released 7” single that was produced by Jack White no less, and the first of several planned 78 rpm discs for that extra taste of old-time authenticity.
A collector of 78s himself, LaFarge was elated to be offered a chance to follow his heroes such as Bessie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills onto a format that’s clearly close to his heart after meeting Lewis Durham, of vintage Americana specialists, siblings Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, in London last year. When not playing gigs with his sisters, Durham is a deejay specialising in old shellac records and set up a recording studio at home so that the trio could record the music they love in the way it was recorded originally, and his label only releases 78s by musicians whose sound suits the medium.
“It’s a thrill as well as an honour,” says LaFarge of the experience of being presented with a 78 bearing his name. “Lewis records just as it was done in the 1930s. He uses studio equipment that came from the old BBC studios and we laid down two songs straight to tape, no overdubs, just the live performance. The only problem is finding enough shellac but Lewis seems to be able to find supplies. I think he scares up old unwanted and broken 78s and melts them down.”
LaFarge’s love of old-time music dates back to his early teens, an awkward period in his life when, he says, he was unhappy generally but especially disliked the music that was popular at the time. He’ll be twenty-eight on the stroke of midnight when he and his band play the Classic Grand in Glasgow on June 25, so that dates his discovery of vintage blues in the mid to late 1990s.
“I’m not going to disparage anybody and name the guilty peoples’ names and make enemies but I think back then I was ready for a change and I found it at a pizza place in Louisville, called Jake’s,” he says. “The guy who ran it was an old guy called Juice and he played nothing but old blues over the speakers. The place was like a museum and basically we used to hang out there because we could smoke without our teachers seeing us. But when I heard this music – Ma Rainey was one singer he played a lot – I was fascinated. I’d chat to Juice and find out who the people were that he liked and go off on my own to the local library. I couldn’t get enough really.”
He didn’t begin to play music immediately. That came when his grandfather, a ragtime banjo player, started taking him round bluegrass festivals around Illinois and Indiana. At one of these festivals he encountered the music of the father of bluegrass, the late Bill Monroe and this led to him taking up the mandolin at sixteen.
“The more I looked around the more I realised that there was this whole treasure trove of great music that wasn’t the pop and rock stuff that I’d been hearing on the radio,” he says. “I checked out vintage blues, old-time fiddle music, banjo players, the bluegrass brother duos, Cajun music and when I heard western swing I discovered Milton Brown, and he, Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe are my three favourite singers, at least among the white guys.”
With a penchant for thrift shop-bought clothes he was creating his own look – spats, hats and especially bow-ties are his signature – and before establishing himself as a singer-guitarist in his own right, he became the teenage picker of hot mandolin licks with a band from Virginia, the Hackensaw Boys, all the time adding to his musical education through listening to New Orleans jazz and his all-time favourite singer, Ray Charles.
“People seem to think it’s kinda strange, having this young-ish guy dressing up in old clothes and loving old-time music,” he says. “But the way I see it, these clothes are the style I’ve always gone for. They’re maybe relics but they’re hand-made in the U.S., not in some sweat shop in the Far East. They look good and you feel good when you dress nice. The music’s not a nostalgia thing. I mean, if you look at classical music, that goes back hundreds of years, and nobody thinks it weird if people play that, whereas jazz by comparison is quite a young music. It’ll be around forever. All the music I play is strongly based on folk music – I need my soul to be nourished by these sounds – and I’m just passing on the tradition.”
His latest album, Middle of Everywhere, entered the European Americana charts at number three on its release last month, a tribute to the hard work he and his band have put in on tours of the UK, Ireland and Holland particularly and no doubt helped by their reception at Tonder, where the festival organiser broke with tradition and booked them for this year’s festival immediately following their spot last year. Interest from Jack White has done LaFarge no harm back home and around the world among the legions of White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather fans either.
“A radio station in Nashville was playing some sweet potato-themed songs at Thanksgiving and one of them was Sweet Potato Blues from our last album,” says LaFarge. “Jack heard it and called me up to tell me he loved my voice and the sound we made, and then invited us over to his studio in Nashville where we recorded four songs in eight hours. He was great to work with. It felt natural from the word go, he was able to make suggestions instantly that improved our tunes and he brought in a few musicians to add to our sound. The single we released sounded great and it got us to a lot of new people. I guess it gives us some cred.”
From The Herald, June 16, 2011.