Elijah WaldMusical Projects

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Elijah Wald onstage at Sumperk Blues Festival I've been a musician for a lot longer than I've been a writer. I started playing guitar at age seven, and made my living off it for a dozen lean and hungry years, starting at age 18. I performed everywhere from street corners and cafe terraces to bar gigs, coffeehouses, and  the occasional concert hall, as well as gigging fairly often as a sideman with the legendary string band master Howard Armstrong and oldtime New England stalwart Eric Von Schmidt. My main influences were Woody Guthrie (on record), Dave Van Ronk (in person), and the great blues fingerpickers of the 1920s -- Rev. Gary Davis, Willie McTell, Lemon Jefferson -- as well as the Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence (I made a DVD teaching his style) and the Congolese master Jean-Bosco Mwenda, whom I studied with for a couple of months in Lubumbashi. 

Elijah playing guitar, age 9In recent years, I've compiled a kind of musical memoir I call my Songobiography, consisting of videos of over three hundred songs, with stories of how I learned them, what they mean to me, where they come from, and whatever else seemed relevant. Since the pandemic let up, I've been doing more gigging and plan to get back on the road as soon as I finish up another couple of book projects. If you want to be alerted before I come through your area, drop me a line and I'll put you on my mailing list. (There's a contact link on my homepage.)             

I've made a few recordings over the years: an LP in the early 1980s, a cassette in the early 1990s, and a CD a few years after that, which I am still fairly pleased with, mostly because of the trio of fine musicians who joined me. A few years ago I did a tour of Japan, documented on my Mikami Kan page, and I'm currently booking future gigs in the US and anywhere else folks might want to hear me -- festivals, music camps, concerts, coffee houses, low dives and honky tonks. If you know of any promising options, please check out my press/promo kit with live concert videos, enthusiastic quotes, and suchlike.

Street Corner Cowboys (available for download from Bandcamp) is a collection of a bunch of my favorite pieces, sung and played with some of my favorite musicians:
Robbie Phillips: one-string wombat bass
Matt Leavenworth: fiddle and mandolin
Paul Geremia: harmonica

The music ranges from blues to jive, swing, country, Bahamian, and African pieces. There are a couple of songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson, one by Woody Guthrie, one by Jean-Bosco Mwenda, and one by Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, as well as a couple of newer things from Butch Hancock and Townes Van Zandt. The musicians are all past masters of their instruments, and it was a fun session. The cover painting of us was done by Howard Armstrong, a fine painter as well as a terrific fiddler, mandolinist, singer, and bon vivant, alas no longer with us.

I'm also pleased with the  instructional DVD I did on the guitar style of Joseph Spence. I'm not going to claim I have it all exactly right, but it shows a lot of his unique moves and is a reasonable guide for anyone who wants to understand his language -- and it really is a language; once you've learned how it works, you can use it to say what you want to say, rather than just recycling his pieces.

Aside from my own recordings, I have produced or compiled a few albums over the years. I took on these projects because I loved the music, and I unabashedly recommend them all (except my LP, about which I am abashed):

The Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Box: "The Journey of Chris Strachwitz" (Arhoolie)

I won a Grammy for the notes to this one, but the real honor was just being asked to do it. By far the most ambitious album project to come my way, it is a five-CD history of Arhoolie Records, the rootsiest of roots music labels. It includes 106 songs by 96 artists, all recorded by Arhoolie's president and founder Chris Strachwitz, a quirky and unique figure who has done as much to preserve and popularize classic American music as anyone alive. Chris started the label with a record by Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb in 1960, and has built up an unmatched catalogue of blues, Cajun, Tex-Mex norteño, and a whole bunch of other styles. We conceived this box as a sort of musical autobiography, following Chris’s journey through the byways of American music (with occasional detours to Austria and Afghanistan. I wrote a 68-page book, giving the history of Arhoolie and track-by-track reminisences from Chris about the artists and recording sessions. The book is lavishly illustrated, the music is great, and I could not be prouder to be associated with a retrospective set than I am of this one. (Incidentally, along with the Album Notes award, Chris and I were also nominated as co-producers in the Best Historical Album category.) You can find out more about it and hear some samples at Arhoolie’s site, which is also full of a lot of other great music.

Snooks Eaglin: New Orleans Street Singer (Smithsonian/Folkways)

When I was a kid, my older half-brother left his records with us for a couple of years. Of them all, the one that excited me most was Snooks Eaglin's debut album on Folkways. Eaglin would go on to be known as one of the great guitarists and eccentrics of New Orleans R&B, but on this album he just plays acoustic guitar and sings--but no one else ever played like that. He used flamenco rasgueados, lightning-fast lead runs, jazz chords, all backed by irresistable second-line rhythms. His version of the jazz standard "High Society" was the all-time virtuoso intrumental of the folk revival era. And his singing was just as good, a loping, bluesy voice that recalled Ray Charles one minute, a country singer the next. When I got a chance to supervise the reissue of that album, it was one of the greatest joys and honors of my life. And we found a bunch of unreleased tracks to flesh out the original. I cannot recommend this album highly enough. You can hear samples at the Smithsonian/Folkways site, and can buy online from them or--my suggestion--from New Orleans's own Louisiana Music Factory, which needs your support.

Dave Van Ronk: The Mayor of MacDougal Street (Rootstock)

Compiled as a companion to Dave's memoir of the folk revival, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (Da Capo Press, 2005), this is a collection of rare and unreleased recordings made between 1957 and 1969. It shows both familiar facets of his work -- Jelly Roll Morton's "Buddy Bolden's Blues," Muddy Waters's "Two Trains Running" -- and startling departures like a lovely version of "On Top of Old Smokey," the Brooklyn street song "Shaving Cream," and a Trotskyist bluegrass number, "Way Down in Lubyanka Prison." Most of the tracks are solo, but there is one cut from the rare Skiffle In Stereo LP, and a live number from Dave's rock band, the Hudson Dusters. The intention was to show the breadth of Dave's work, so there are also two a cappella performances of old British ballads, one from the late fifties and another from the mid-sixties, showing how his ballad style evolved. There are songs by Bertolt Brecht, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen, as well as a previously unreleased Van Ronk original, "In Conditional Support of Beauty." All in all, this may be the most varied Van Ronk album ever released, and fills out our understanding of a superbly tasteful and talented artist who was the king of Greenwich Village at the height of the folk revival and a defining influence on everyone from Bob Dylan on down. To buy direct from Rootstock, follow this link. To hear my spoken commentary on the album, and track by track discussion of the songs, go to Sidetracks.

Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson (Yazoo Records)

Designed to accompany my book Escaping the Delta, this includes 23 tracks that show Johnson's own musical sources. Some are Delta artists like his mentor Son House and Charlie Patton. Others are records he clearly liked and adapted: Kokomo Arnold's "Old Original Kokomo Blues" and "Milk Cow Blues" (sources for "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Milk Cow's Calf"), Leroy Carr's "When the Sun Goes Down" ("Love in Vain"), Peetie Wheatstraw's "King of Spades" ("Queen of Spades"), Skip James's "22-20" and "Devil Got My Woman" ("32-20" and "Hellhound on My Trail"), Bumblebee Slim's "Cruel Hearted Woman" ("Kind Hearted Woman"), Hambone Willie Newbern's "Roll and Tumble" ("If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day"), Lonnie Johnson's "Life Saver Blues" ("Drunken Hearted Man" and "Malted Milk") and Tampa Red's "Things Bout ComingMy Way" ("Come on in My Kitchen"). There are also records that, while Johnson may not have heard them, show the kind of musicians or songs that affected his work, such as the Mississippi Jook Band's "Hittin' the Bottle Stomp," a perfect example of the way local juke bands played songs like Johnson's "They're Red Hot," and gems from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Scrapper Blackwell, and the Mississippi Sheiks. A lot of people today think of Johnson as the roots of the blues, but he had his own roots, and this compilation lays them all out. It should be available in early January, timed with the book release, , and it should be in all good record stores. If for some reason your local store can't help you, you can also buy it online by clicking this link, and you can hear samples of a few tracks at the Yazoo site.

Dominic Kakolobango: African Acoustic (Africassette)

A close friend of mine, Dominic Kakolobango is the only artist recording in the classic Congolese acoustic style of Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Losta Abelo, once the most popular guitar music in Africa. Born in Zambia and raised in Southeastern Zaire, he studied and played with the old masters, absorbed their work, and has expanded and developed it into a unique and personal style. To the basic line-up of lilting vocals, acoustic guitars and coke bottle, he adds touches of blues and soukous. I play some acoustic guitar on a few songs, and the Flemish blues harmonicist Ludo Beckers makes an appearance as well, but the main sideman is the electric guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku. Mandjeku made his name playing with the legendary Franco, and is one of the most in-demand players on the European soukous scene, but he also has a rare grasp of the older, quieter styles, and his taste and lightness of touch that make him a partner rather than a competitor to Dominic’s acoustic work. The album includes original songs as well as new versions of Eastern Congolese classics, and even a Texas blues song, reflecting the range of music that Dominic has absorbed over the years. The result is deeply rooted in the tradition but also completely contemporary, a young voice revitalizing a golden age of African popular music.

To hear some samples and learn more about this project, go to the Africassette website.

To learn more about this kind of music and get some classic recordings of the Congolese masters, check out my African Acoustic page.

Perry Lederman: This World Is Not my Home< (Teamwork)

Perry was one of the great fingerpickers of the 1960s, a friend and influence to artists including Bob Dylan, John Fahey, Michael Bloomfield, Jerry Garcia, and many, many others. Somehow, though, he never quite got around to making a record until the last months of his life, when we went through his old tapes, culling the best versions of favorite pieces, and he recorded a handful of beautiful new cuts. Perry’s playing was most strongly influenced by the quieter, more "country" blues artists, people like Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, Etta Baker, and Sam McGee. Born in New York, he was one of the formative players in the early folk-blues revival, then came out to the San Francisco Bay area, where he lived until the 1980s. In the 1970s, he quit guitar for eight years to study Indian classical sarod with Ali Akbar Khan, and his later guitar work shows touches of this, without ever wandering out into spaciness or self-concious "fusion" experiments. Perry was a marvelously soulful, funny, insightful, and imaginative player, and this album gives me great pride and pleasure. The fidelity is up and down, but the music is wonderful, and the liner notes by Al Young are a touching remembrance of a great musician and fascinating character. (You can also check out my obit of Perry on this site.)
I no longer have copies of this CD for sale, but you can find them on the Perry page of his wife's website.

Preacher Jack: Return of the Boogie Man (Rounder)

I was not around when these tracks were recorded, but I helped choose them from old studio tapes, and did the liner notes. Preacher Jack Coughlin is a crazed and brilliant pianist and singer who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Albert Ammons, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, and Liberace, though other people often compare him to Jerry Lee Lewis. He has always been a favorite of mine, and once he started playing regularly at Frank’s Steak House in Cambridge I made it down there every week for a couple of years. I was never disappointed. No album will ever capture the sheer, manic power of a great Preacher Jack night, but this one has some of the greatest boogie-woogie piano, honky-tonk vocals, and rock ’n’ roll energy anyone could ask for. You can hear musical samples on Amazon. You might also want to check out his solo instrumental album, Non-Stop Boogie (Solo Art), for which I did the liner notes as well.

The Mississippi: River of Song (Smithsonian/Folkways)

This is a two-CD set, designed to go with the book and PBS TV series in which a bunch of us traveled the length of the Mississippi, visiting musicians who seemed representative of each region, from gospel choirs to blues singers, German polka to riot grrl punk bands to Spanish ballad singers. All in all, a very varied set of music, recorded in live settings that capture the full flavor of the styles. It includes a ridiculous Scandinavian vaudeville number, some good blues, a unique acoustic session with the Memphis Horns and Ann Peebles, Fontella Bass singing with her mother, a hot Eddie Bo track, plus Cajun, zydeco, norteño, rockabilly, and god knows what all. There is a lot more information on River of Song's website , and you might also want to check out the book on my Books and Writings page.

Josh White: Free and Equal Blues (Smithsonian/Folkways)

This was put together while I was working on my biography of Josh, from the many recordings Moe Asch did for his Asch record label. These sessions were done in the mid-1940s, the golden age of Josh's career, and Asch gave him the opportunity to range through all his repertoire, from blues to pop tunes, plus a bunch of political songs that range from the merely historically interesting to wonderful numbers like the title song, a very funny protest number with a lyric by the pop songwriter Yip Harburg. This is really Josh at his best, and Smithsonian gave me a chance to write very complete notes on both Josh and the individual songs. You can find out more about this one, and hear samples on the Smithsonian/Folkways website.

Elijah Wald: Songster, Fingerpicker, Shirtmaker (Reckless)

My LPMy legendary LP, produced by Bill Morrissey, back when we had a record company together for about a year, before he went on to fame and fortune. Co-produced by my ex-half-sister-in-law, Hazel, whose main contribution was dancing the Charleston in the control booth when I played "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue." Liner notes by Dave Van Ronk. My favorite thing about this album was always the cover photo, which I like to think makes me look like a cross between Elvis and Dracula. If anyone wants a copy, I still have a basement full, and can give a much better price if you care to order in bulk -- aside from their dubious sonic virtues, they make excellent skeet.

Corridos y Narcocorridos (Fonovisa)

This is an anthology of Mexican corridos, which I compiled to accompany my book "Narcocorrido." Issued by Fonovisa, the largest independant record label in the US and main player in Mexican regional music, it has eight tracks by Los Tigres del Norte, the defining band in modern norteno music. These include their classic hits "Contrabando y Traicion," "La Banda del Carro Rojo," "Jaula de Oro," and "El Circo," and show their evolution from the seminal drug ballad band into the most thoughtful social commentators on the contemporary scene. The eight other tracks are a gunfighter ballad from Luis y Julian; narcocorridos from Chalino Sanchez, Jenni Rivera, Grupo Exterminador, and the guitar-and-tuba trio El Canelo y los Dos del Sitio; Pedro Rivera's corrido of the Rodney King riots; a corrido of guerrilla war from the guitar duo Los Pajaritos del Sur, and a paean to the corrido writer Rafael Alvarez Sanchez by the Michoacano harp band Los Hermanos Jimenez. There are extensive notes about the bands and songs. However, this CD sadly went out of print when Fonovisa merged with Univision, though secondhand copies occasionally turn up. Lyrics to all but one of the included corridos are on my cd lyrics page.

Other projects

I also co-produced the first LP by New England’s master songwriter Bill Morrissey, as a reciprocal deal when he was producing the above album. It was soon picked up by Rounder, and then Bill decided to re-record all the songs for the CD reissue. I was not around for that session, and thus am no longer listed as co-producer, but it is still a great album.

I also have done liner notes for various albums that I was not involved in producing or compiling, but which I still heartily recommend, among them these:

 Peter Keane and I have played together a lot over the years. I liked this album, Walkin' Around, and liked some of his later ones even better. He moved to Austin, Texas, decades ago, and I'm overdue for a visit. Meanwhile, there is information about him on his web site.

Les Sampou is likewise an old friend and great player, and I was very pleased that she asked me to do the notes to Fall from Grace. You can find out more on her web site.

Dave was one of my best friends, as well as an early musical hero. Sunday Street and Somebody Else, Not Me are among his finest albums, and I was thrilled to do the notes for their CD reissues. I have lots more about Dave on the page for his memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

This was Dave's last concert. He was going into the hospital the next morning, and knew it might be his last, but his stories were as sharp and funny as ever, and he played and sang at the top of his form. ...and the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended... is a masterpiece from beginning to end.

I loved having the chance to do the notes for the reissue of Ramblin' Jack Elliot's Early Sessions with Derrol Adams They still sound great, and there is music and more at his web site.

From New York to London(Jasmine) has many of Josh's greatest recordings from the '40s and '50s. The Best of Josh White (Tradition) is an odd session with an English jazz combo.

Eddie Kirkland was, in my humble opinion, the hardest blues musician on the road in the 1990s. I actually liked his live album better than this one, but his live shows were best of all.

Robert Pete Williams was one of the most soulful singers and distinctive guitarists ever recorded. From Louisiana, he comes closer than any other bluesman to retaining a traditional African approach in his music. All of his albums are great, especially the ones on the Arhoolie label, of which this one, Poor Bob's Blues, is the most recent release.