Historically, the longevity of melodies has depended largely on their reproducibility. As popular music arose in the 20th century, this reproducibility often hinged on its method of dissemination (via sheet music, player pianos, gramophone players, TV, film, etc.), but running in parallel with these technologies was the oral tradition of folk musicians, which necessitated melodies that were, at the very least, memorable in order to be refashioned and retransmitted.
It’s no surprise that a song like “Sleepy Time Down South” has lasted over 80 years. The song, originally performed in 1931 by Nina Mae McKinney (in a film called Safe in Hell) and later popularized by Louis Armstrong (who, importantly, was the first jazz artist to actually choose which songs he played), is a perfect example of where the two above-mentioned methods of reproduction meet. Not only was the song heard widely on TV, film, and radio, but it also had a downright gorgeous, heart-wrenching melody that has survived its many variations, from Billie Holiday and The Boswell Sisters to Wynton Marsalis and Louis Prima.
With “The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South),” the intro track to The Music Tapes’ forthcoming album Mary’s Voice, Julian Koster takes the melody and runs with it. Aside from removing the beats, which already serves to highlight the melody, Koster stretches it the way he does his own melodies, straining his voice to emphasize the song’s dynamic range in the process. By the time he mutters the refrain, he sounds exhausted. Interestingly, the lyrics are altered by Koster too, most notably the second line of the song. Which is a good thing: the original tune is about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and featured the lyrics “Darkies crooning songs soft and low.” Somewhere along the way, the line was changed to “Folks are crooning songs soft and low” (which is the version Louis Armstrong sang, but not without losing a portion of his African-American audience). Koster, however, goes back to the original lyrics as a source of inspiration, changing “darkies” to “the dark is,” a play on words that both undercuts the melody’s racist origins and keeps in line with his aestheticization of nature.
While the information age has pushed aside the necessity of memorable melodies for reproduction (I can hear you downloading Merzbox right now), I can’t help but have a renewed faith in the power of melody not only to provide continuities with our past, but also to revise it. Listen here:
Mary’s Voice, the follow-up to Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes (#30 on our Favorite 100 Albums of 2000-2009 list), is part one of a two-album series. The album, due September 4 on Merge, features pop-up artwork (seen above) and is available now for pre-order.