Back at the Crossroads: The Holland Brothers’ Dueling Devils

One of the highest compliments paid to Chapel Hill NC’s Jennyanykind came from an anonymous reviewer of their album, Mythic (1995),dueling devils

Imagine Syd Barrett composing Astronomy Domine in the mid 90s and you’ll get an idea of what this album sounds like. For that reason, it’s an unusual record, since while most rock bands of the last few years have gone for a pumped up version of that grunge folk popularized by folks like Mark Lanegan, Thin White Rope, and the Meat Puppets, Jennanykind have honed in on the stylistic nuances of bands like Barrett’s Floyd and post-Nico Velvet Underground. A subtle difference, to be sure, but one worth exploring and, done successfully as it is here, one that shows it’s possible to look back for your influences and progress musically. Great stuff.

Jennyanykind were led by twin brothers Mark and Michael Holland. In the early 2000’s they disbanded the group and began exploring their individual interests in roots music, with Mark working in the blues idiom while Michael veered in a bluegrass/ragtime direction. Dueling Devils brings the brothers back together, albeit on opposite sides of an imaginary vinyl recording, each with five tracks of three minutes accentuating their oblique approaches to lo-fi music.

Now, why in the devil would a fan of progressive music spend time with what seems to be its antithesis? I would suggest we reconsider what is called “roots” music on its own terms and within its cultural context. For that, we need to a take a trip to the Crossroads.

On the night of July 4, 2005, I found myself on a spur-of-the-moment trip from Tupelo, MS to Clarksdale, in the company of Jeff Spencer, himself an accomplished guitarist. The ride included a two-hour conversation about music, about Eric Clapton and fellow-Mississippian and King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor, among others. We left the “hilly country” at 7:00 pm and crossed the Tallahatchie at 8:00 (both referenced in Charley Patton’s blues masterpiece, “High Water Everywhere”) and sailed into the ironing-board flat Delta with distant shacks and brewing storm clouds on the horizon. By 9:00 we reached the Crossroads of legend, the intersection of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. I jumped out of the car just long enough to have my picture made, but once back inside we discovered mosquitoes swarming by the dashboard light. We found ourselves swatting our way out of Clarksdale.

I asked how far it was to the Dockery Plantation, where Patton and, later, a young Robert Johnson had once entertained. “That’s Ruleville,” said Jeff. “I can take you if you want to go.”

Ruleville was another 45 minutes or so out of the way, and in the pitch blackness of a rural Mississippi night there would have been nothing to see. But what I had seen was enough to establish in my mind the environment into which the bluesmen of old had emerged. To a desolate and desperate place of gang labor and shared misery these men stood out as perverse and irresistible individuals, as showmen and shamans. To a culture that moved to the rhythms of call and response, the bluesmen broke all the rules and concocted a style of performance that, to borrow a phrase from folklorist Cece Conway, was “inimitable and unapproachable.” The blues — with variations of ragtime, jazz, and gospel mixed into the musical mojo bag — was designed to never be fully replicated. This was the work of possessed individuals, griots, spell-binding artists, intent on evoking frenzy and amazement. Two generations before Hendrix, Patton was playing his elaborate syncopation behind his head. It was not popular music, strictly speaking.

To illustrate, I’ve recently been listening to “This Is a Low” from Blur’s Parklife album. It is a cultural gem, composed around a nautical map on a handkerchief and the British Shipping Forecasts. It expresses an English band’s homesickness on the road. And it is pop music to the core, with a big, stirring chorus meant to be accompanied by tens of thousands of Brits in Hyde Park, arms raised. It’s the stuff of football supporters’ cheers.

But with the blues we honestly don’t know what the actual roots sounded like. We just make out enough of Patton, or the Bentonian craftsman Skip James, through a blizzard of crackles and pops on the best digital transfers. What we should hear in those sides are works of extraordinary eclecticism. We should hear the hedges being pushed over. We should approach them the way the original listeners found them.

To revisit these idioms, as the Holland Brothers invite us to do, is to return to the beginning of a music that packed a universe of originality into sides limited by three minutes of wax space. Every slide, every pull-off, every microtonal inflection is a dare. “See if you can do this.”

Mark Holland’s songs clearly emulate Patton. Recorded in stereo, he double tracks his voice (e.g. “My Baby Say She Coming”) to get the same disquieting effect of Patton’s original recordings (did Patton have a ghost voice? were his recordings haunted by demons?). He captures the energy of the Dockery frolics of old on “Coldwater Blues,” a rounder that takes him from one end of the South to the other. “Bic Lighter” works from a minor key to tell a story of dependence, where even “light” serves the cause of darkness.

Mark’s strength, both here and with Jennyanykind, is to capture an atmosphere where the veil between the natural and supernatural is rent. Malevolent forces are at hand, but his protagonists persevere and come to a new level of understanding, often at the expense of conventional wisdom (a good example is “Clear Tone Blues” from 2003). The griot was a storehouse of tradition, but his songs often mocked the culture around him.

Michael Holland’s sides pose a different challenge, recorded as they were live, in mono. This heightens the importance of his finger-picking and phrasing (as well as harmonica and kazoo) to emulate the parts of a larger band.  The playful “Dry Bones” draws from biblical characters (Enoch, Paul, Moses, the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy) to show the griot’s awareness of the “light come down.”   He then moves right into Charlie Poole’s rag arrangement of “Leavin’ Home,” a classic American murder ballad.

But his re-do of his own “Peas and Collards” (from an earlier album of the same title) is a swift-moving blues highlight.  It’s about the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day for health and wealth, made ironic by the fact that the South, for most of its history, has lagged behind most of the U.S. in both categories (the original version runs through a bitter litany of corporate interests whom “money loves”: Chase Manhattan, Exxon, the WTO, etc., but not momma or the song’s protagonist).

Whereas Mark’s sides are dark, straight-up blues, Michael’s are lighter; but both elements were found in Patton and other genre-benders from nearly a century ago.

A young Syd Barrett spent time listening to a couple of Carolina bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.  An aspiring, avant garde artist of today  would do well to spend some time recovering some of the essentials with the Holland Brothers.