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Listening to History: The McIntosh County Shouters


We see history far more fully than we hear it. We have plenty of shots of Abraham Lincoln and know precisely what he looked like from when he was a young politician until the last sad photograph of a haggard president taken less than a week before he was shot. But we can only imagine that Lincoln had a folksy and resonant voice because he was a big guy from the backwoods and that’s how he was portayed by Raymond Massey. We don’t know.

The McIntosh County Shouters

The sound of history also loses out in the era before the invention of photography. It’s impossible, really, to describe what something sounds like beyond the broadest adjectives. But painters can create detailed images of everything, from street scenes to battles. In addition to precise likenesses of the subject, portraitists sent sophisticated and nuanced messages via a complex unwritten language. Much was conveyed by  the subject’s visage (e.g. looking upward toward the future or downward in a depressed posture), what he or she is holding and the background. There really is no equivalent in music.

Of course, in some cases we have written music and piano rolls. But, for the most part, the gap between our knowledge of what things looked like and how they sounded are great.

If you trace the tree back — and not too far — it is apparent that rock and roll, jazz, the blues, religious music, country music, classical music and just about everything else are deeply related. What is shared between Kenny G, Ornette Coleman, Britney Spears, Aaron Copland, The Ramones and what you heard today in an elevator is far greater than what truly is different. It’s not even close.

A key stop along the way was the music brought to the Americas by from Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Music was a vital element of slave life, from religion to simply surviving the harsh reality of the fields. The McIntosh County Shouters provide some insight into what this music sounded like.

The Georgia group’s members are descendants of slaves who practiced the ring shout. Wikipedia defines the ring shout as…

…an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands. Despite the name, shouting aloud is not an essential part of the ritual.

The above recording was made by Art Rosenbaum in 1985. It features “Jubilee,” “Sign of the Judgment” and “Move Daniel.” “Sign of the Judgement” was on the soundtrack of the first episode of the first season of “True Detective.”

Here is the first sound ever recorded. In 1996, They Might Be Giants recorded “I Can Hear You” on original equipment at The Edison Historic Site in West Orange, N.J.

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Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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