Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oil Drum

Damn. It's been a good couple of weeks. We hope Mr./Senator/President-Elect Obama does well, fingers crossed 'n' all that. Shit, we'd be happy if can get about 5% of what he's promised accomplished. That'd be, oh, what, about a 105% improvement over the last 8 years? Well, here's hoping. It could all fall apart,of course, cynical bastard that I am.

Now then.

We've got a ton of shit to cover between now and Thanksgiving, when we begin our world-famous daily Xmas postings. The odds are not in our favor of getting everything in before Thanksgiving, considering our posting schedule, and the fact we have, you know, a life, and sumsuch. But let's give it a go.

To start with, I'd like to tug on yr coat a little about my favorite record label find of the year, and one LP in particular.

Mississippi Records
(can't find an official site) is a strange oddity, apparently starting out as a way to release personal records and those of friends and influences. Somewhere along the way they started releasing limited edition records of obscure Blues, Country(ish), Soul, and whatnot artists, sort of like Numero Group, but even more, ahem, out there, whatever that is. Some of our favorites, and, yes, we've been trying to collect 'em all, include: "Last Kind Words", "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today" by Washington Phillips, "I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore", and "Life Is A Problem", a fantastic Gospel collection.

But one record in particular stands out.

We often repeat a few phrases and words 'round these parts. Trash and garbage are two of our favorite descriptors, for reasons that are often obvious, at least sound-wise. So we're thrilled to introduce a feller for whom those words can finally be retired

George Coleman, aka "Bongo Joe", played the oil drum. 55-gallon oil drums. Yup.

To get an idea exactly what and how Coleman plays, please allow me to quote the record's "liner notes" by one Mr. Larry Skoog, with typos unchanged:

"Coleman's drum is a 55-gallon oil drum shaped with a hand ax in a curious series of dents, bulges, cuts and wrinkles. His drum sticks are made from hammer handles, the bases of hand oil cans filled with pebble and BB shot to provide a rattle, and rubber chair leg caps. The entire set-up is the result of trial and error experimentation that has occurred since George was turned down for a drummers job in Houston during the late forties."

It's hard to pin down Coleman's style into a neat little package like Jazz or Blues. It's not either, really, but maybe a little bit. As a street performer, one could try to link Coleman to Moondog, minus the theoretical albatross, but that doesn't work either. Coleman was no savant. His is a more tribal and rhythmic performance, designed to move yer ass not yer cortex.


Coleman sings/raps/rants over the top of his rhythmic constructs. Like any street performer, Coleman's got...opinions about the world. But Coleman's not a crackpot...he's remarkably prescient, anticipating the social disconnect of the IPod generation, 40 years early (!), with the track "Transistor Radio", linked below. There's a kinship with The Beats, though denied by Coleman, in terms of vocal delivery, his rhythmic incantations matching his tribal drumming. Since Coleman preceded the Beats by some years, it would be more apt to say they were influenced by him, though I could find no evidence of any them copping to it (Coleman's base was Texas, so it's hard to imagine much in the way of crossing paths).

Coleman began performing publicly in the 40's and continued, primarily as a street performer, until the early 90's, when health concerns took him off the corner and the public eye. He died in 1999 at the age of 76.

Chris Strachwitz, the man who recorded "Bongo Joe" for Arhoolie, said of Coleman: "He was the original rapper.... I tried to record him in the street, with the crowd interaction, but my tape machine went out. I took him to a friend's house and recorded him there...He was an amazing drummer, too. I just saw him as a wonderful storyteller. He was an improvising genius. His songs are powerful little statements."

"Bongo Joe", recorded in 1968, is a revelatory album, and highly recommended to all readers of this here little corner of the blogosphere (I feel silly writing that word, frankly). It's available on CD from Arhoolie, with bonus tracks, but the LP reissue (on Mississippi) remains essential (it's the proper track listing, with the proper sonic playback.)

Shake yr boots!

George Coleman: Transistor Radio (mp3)

George Coleman: Cool It (mp3)

Support your local, independent snake oil salesman. Buy in bulk. Barrel size, even.

1 comment:

S R Management said...

Thanks for remembering Bongo Joe. If you are ever in San Antonio, you can go to the Institute of Texas Culture and see Joe's story and his "Bongo Bike" an adult sized tricycle with his bongos mounted on the back. When we were there we were fortunate enough to meet his "business manager" Helen Glau. She was a very nice grandmotherly lady in her 70's. She shared stories of Joe and said they were actually more than business associates, but in 1960's Texas that just wasn't something you'd publicize. He was very well known in both San Antonio and Galveston for his performing. He was a true Texas character. You can read more about him at:


Thanks again.