The Voices of Panola County: A Southern Journey Revisited
In April of 2010, Robert, Bobby, Alberta, Delouse and Patricia gathered at the home of their parents, Raymond and Joella Walker to make a recording with field recordist Michael Reilly.
It would be Reilly’s third venture to capture the a capella gospel tradition of Como, Mississippi for Daptone Records, first inspired by the folk, blues and gospel recordings Alan Lomax collected for the Library of Congress in the middle 20th century.
It was during Reilly’s first recording – Como Now: The Voices of Panola County (2008) – that he encountered the Walker family and learned of their great musical tradition – introduced by the Como Mamas, the focus of his second project, Get an Understanding (2013).
Back in the day, Walker family patriarch Raymond was courted by both Fred McDowell and Sam Cooke, both of whom asked him to sing behind them on tour. (He respectfully declined on account of the singers wanting him to sing blues rather than gospel.) However, it was the Walkers’ voices and not their deep roots that captured the attention of Daptone and inspired Reilly’s return to Como to make a full-length record with them. Recorded in their living room, these performances are as deep and stirring as they are unembellished.
For Michael Reilly, this new release represents the third in a trilogy — the bookend testament to a decade-long relationship with the music and people of Panola County, and his own connection to the work of Alan Lomax.
I talked to Reilly about the Walker Family, his time in Como and the greater legacy of field recording.
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Tell me briefly about your background and what you do?
My name is Michael Reilly and I am a field recordist working mostly in music, as well as in film and TV. I’ve been doing that for 15 years or so, now.
How’d you get into that?
A circuitous route, really. I took a course about Black American Music at the University of Texas, and fell in love with the work of Alan Lomax and the ways of field recording. Then I moved to New York, got a job in film and gravitated toward music from there.
So how did you come to Panola County?
I was a personal film project that a couple of friends and I embarked on. We decided to take some time off work and do a road trip documentary-type thing.
When I learned that Alan Lomax’s archive was in New York I had struck up a relationship with them, so I asked if they had any suggestions for where we could stop and check out some local music. They mentioned this place called Como, Mississippi where Alan Lomax had recorded in 1959. The descendants of some of the people [Lomax] recorded still stay in touch with the archive, sending them their kids’ rap group CDs and whatnot. So we said, “What the hell, let’s go check it out and see how far the apple has fallen from the Lomax tree.” We wanted to see if we could find any reverberations from that time.
The kids were amazing, and we did these impromptu music videos with them, but we were most compelled by these kids’ moms and aunts who were deep into the church and gospel singing. They didn’t think much of themselves — they were just trying to entertain us while we waited for the kids to get out of school. They started singing and it sounded amazing. That sparked this long relationship with Como and the singers and people I met through them.
So what kind of “reverberations” did you end up hearing?
What we found through the parents, through these ladies who became the “Como Mamas,” was pretty direct. What we found through the kids, if there were any reverberations, was buried pretty deep under them trying to mimic Southern hip-hop.
There’s not a lot of the same songs from the Lomax recordings, since he was mostly into recording blues, but you can hear that same spirit loud and clear. It seems to run so deep and effortlessly. They don’t really think much of it, it’s just kind of a way of life. It’s kind of entertainment for them. In Como there are maybe two restaurants, and no hotels. Life there is going to church, hanging at home with your family and then whatever you may do for a living. As far as I can tell that’s how it was in the late ‘50s.
They said it used to be a thing in downtown Como that on Saturday nights everyone would park out on their front porch and folks would walk from porch to porch listening to people sing. A lot has changed, but not that much has changed in that way.
Given the generational divide you describe, what do you see dying out?
[sigh] I don’t know if it’s dying out, but maybe the aspect of it that I really respond to, those really old songs and spirituals, is changing.
The singing tradition is really strong [in Como], and I don’t think that is going anywhere; the kids that are coming up and singing in church are doing it with the same amount of conviction as the folks I’m recording for Daptone. But it is going toward a style that has a lot of instrumentation – drums, keyboard, bass, guitar – and it’s getting louder and louder.
Why do you think you respond to that older, more traditional sound?
It’s probably the darker aspects of it. [laughs] The songs coming out of sharecropping, not having a lot to eat and having really tough times, they have this essentially uplifting message but dark delivery and dark provenance. That stuff is just really compelling to me.
[This a cappella tradition] comes from a pretty vehement time in the church, when they thought music was a distraction. There might be some piano to accompany the singing but in church nothing was supposed to distract you from the message or the singing. Today, there’s enough concern with just driving the kids to church that whatever gets them in the door is fine with everybody. If they want the loud music, great, they’re in church. Let’s crank that Yamaha keyboard up!
How did you meet the Walker family?
The Walker family I met through that original group called the Como Mamas.
Was that your nickname for them?
[laughs] Oh, that happened when we recorded them and they didn’t have a name for themselves yet; they were just two sisters and a cousin who all knew how to sing the same songs.
I just called them the Como Mamas off the cuff. I asked them later if they liked that name and at first they didn’t; they wanted to be called something cumbersome like The Way, The Truth & The Life, from the Bible. They called back a few months later and said that everyone liked the name and they had come around to it.
[laughing] Got it.
Anyway. Everyone is competitive when it comes to gospel singing [in Como]. It’s kind of insular, and doesn’t really escape that area. But they’re also very humble in a sense, at least the Como Mamas are. So they said, “If you like the way we sing, you should hear Brother and Sister Walker.”
That kind of perked my ears up and I heard some more exciting stuff about them like, “Oh they don’t come out a lot … you’d be lucky if they let you record them.” They came out to one recording session we had publically at the church, and it was unreal. The songs were even older songs [than the Como Mamas], and even darker. It’s just an incredible sound they have.
So they just have a special sound in your mind?
Yeah they’re special. Raymond and Joella Walker, the patriarch and matriarch, really have the deepest roots I have found down there. Their brains are archives for that era in Panola Country that Lomax was recording in, so in my mind it was as direct a link as I could get to the era of Alan Lomax.
What’s the significance of these recordings, along with the others you made in Panola County?
I think they’re important. I don’t think anyone who hears these songs can deny them as a document that needs to be out there. First and foremost, it’s just the music; the sound of this record needs to be out there. Secondly, I see it as this tribute to the relationship I’ve had with these folks over the years.
Raymond has had a lot of health issues. He’s had a rich life but I don’t think he’s going to be around for a whole lot longer – his son has said as much – and we’ve both worked hard together to get this out now, as a tribute to [Raymond] so he can see his legacy encapsulated and be proud of it.
The art of field recording has a long history. What attracted you to it?
I took that course about black American music, which introduced me to Alan Lomax. I dove into his work. It was pretty romantic to me, to know there was a tradition of going into the woods and recording people, I fell in love with that.
I ended up buying what I thought was a pretty cool [recording] setup at the time. Looking into [Lomax’s] stuff, he had what was even then considered a rather lean recording system that filled an entire trunk of an old Chevy from the Library of Congress, a giant two-track tape machine. I got pretty into it.
What are some of your favorite Lomax recordings?
In the [Alan Lomax’s] Southern Journey there’s a song – “I’m Gonna Run to Jesus,” I think it’s called – and the guy singing actually kind of reminds me of Raymond Walker. You can tell the guy doesn’t have any teeth, Raymond doesn’t have any teeth, and he’s playing on a washtub, pounding out the beat. It’s un-freakin-real how cool the song is.
What’s the greater philosophy behind field recording? Is it more about the documentation or the music itself?
It’s pretty strictly about the music for me. If there was some ancient tradition and I came across it and the music was lame, I don’t think I’d do anything about it. Everything else is kind of secondary to the music, including documentation, religion… all that.
From all that you know about Lomax, was he motivated by something similar?
In some ways, yeah. He had a bigger crew, he was working a bunch of professors he was working with, but he was definitely about the music in the end. He says in several interviews, that he thinks it’s “the best music on earth,” the stuff he recorded. He says jazz can’t touch it, other kinds of folk can’t touch it.
What are the advantages and limitations of this approach?
The advantages and limitations are that you’re dependent on the acoustics of the room you’re recording in. I ended up recording the Walkers in their living room, in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, and it sounded incredible. I’ve definitely been in proper controlled studios that didn’t have that sound. [But with field recording] you only have a couple choices, and if none of them sounds good you’re kind of stuck. If the music itself is good, the recording will be good, but you can sometimes hear how it could sound better and you’re not able to achieve that.
Do you think you could get them to record in a real studio?
With this stuff, I think you have to match what you think will be the best scenario to get the best performance. I’m pretty certain this stuff couldn’t have sounded better in a proper studio, even if there was a great studio in Como that didn’t make them feel like fish out of water, like in New York City or somewhere. The Como Mamas have come up to New York to record at Daptone, and there’s just a bit of tension and nervousness in the room.
I mean, I’m probably selling them short by suggesting you couldn’t get these recordings outside of their homes, because they are true musicians through and through. You could probably get something really hot from them in a studio, it just might take a bit longer to get them warmed up.
This album has been called the end of a trilogy.
This Walker record is the cap on it, this decade-long relationship with Panola County – as well as with Daptone, who I’m grateful heard what I heard in this music. I think it’s a fitting end, a crescendo, a sign off. I’m not going to stop visiting Como, but I think these three records feel complete together, and I’m really pleased with that.
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