January 23rd - The Six and Seven-Eights String Band of New Orleans

The Six and Seven-Eights String Band of New Orleans - The Six and Seven-Eights String Band of New Orleans, 1956

After a fairly heated and - I believe - important weekend, I thought it would be nice to truck with a little light music. This is an album by the Six and Seven-Eights String Band - or, as written in the liner notes, the 6 7/8ths String Band, which reads a lot better - playing New Orleans jazz in a string band configuration on guitar, steel guitar, bass and mandolin. For some reason, it is some of the most soothing music I've ever heard.

According to the liner notes the 6 7/8ths was founded when three of the members were in college together in 1913; at the time of this recording they had played together on a semi-professional basis for over forty years, performing a style of jazz that had reached its zenith two world wars previous and had almost never been recorded - from a time period that I always find musically very interesting. There is an beautiful description of the genesis of the group from Dr. Edmond Souchon, MD, the guitarist and implied leader of the group:

There is, of course, a lot not said in the liner notes about race - it's never explicitly stated but given the way members mention patronizing black musicians as teachers it seems safe to assume that all of the members of 6 7/8ths were white, which may account for their choice of instruments as well as their popularity, according to the liner notes, among the "silk-stocking set." I'm writing this not to denigrate these men and their musical abilities, but I think it's important to consider race whenever you're talking about early 20th century popular music forms.

It is really fantastic, fun music - there's a moment in "When The Saints Go Marching In" when one of the players - at this point all men in their 50s - absent-mindedly sings just the words "when the saints," once, and it's just absolutely perfect. The notes from Dr. Souchon are well-written and very interesting - and it's not enormously surprising to find out that contrary to the modest claims of the notes he was a well-regarded musician, writer and jazz historian in his own right. He did many different things to preserve early jazz - from managing the New Orleans Jazz Club to establishing the National Jazz Foundation - but I am especially glad that he also preserved it just by continuing to play it.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways