“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” asks the old saloon song, recorded most famously by Louis Armstrong. Speaking personally, my answer is “no.” I’ve been there a number of times, eaten passably well, and seen the sights, but I haven’t been in ages, and I don’t miss it one bit. In the period since my last visit, I’ve been to Cajun country dozens of times, most recently a few weeks ago, and as always, I’m ready to go back. But New Orleans? Not so much.
“He Is My Story” is a magnificent, long-neglected 1928 gospel recording by Texas-born African-American Pentecostal singer and pianist Arizona Dranes, who was the first person to play piano on a gospel recording and whose prowess as a singer and performer has been acknowledged by such gospel musicians as Thomas A. Dorsey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson.
“Twee” is often a pejorative, but the term is wonderfully apt here. Built mostly around twinkling guitars and keys, Levesque’s airy, winsome voice, and beats that range from being snappy enough to set hips to shakin’ to being as brittle as glass, the songs are soft, bright, and inoffensive (don’t call them “bourgeois”), with woodwinds and strings stopping by occasionally to complete the wistful spell that the band has cast.
Iris Dement is the best kind of artist. She doesn’t force her material, and like an intuitive chef she knows how long to let the ingredients simmer until the sum is much greater than the parts. Sing the Delta is an album that only gets better with each listen, only gets better the longer it marinates inside your head. Give it time and it will work on you.
At this juncture emerged Old Hat Records based in Raleigh, North Carolina, the brainchild of record collector and music historian Marshall Wyatt. In 1999, as his label’s initial release, Wyatt compiled Music from the Lost Provinces, featuring recordings from the “Golden Age” of old-time stringband music (1927-1931) by such stellar North Carolina–based acts as Grayson & Whitter, Frank Blevins & His Tar Heel Rattlers, the North Carolina Ridge Runners, the Carolina Night Hawks, and Ephraim Woodie & The Henpecked Husbands. Music from the Lost Provinces provided ample evidence of Wyatt’s gift for producing historical compilations and received glowing reviews from music scholars (Charles K. Wolfe called it “a breathtakingly beautiful album”).