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Marginalia

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In a recent interview, critic Greil Marcus talked about reading David Hajdu's Positively Fourth Street, which told the story about the relationships between Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Mimi and Richard Fariña. He disliked the book because, Marcus says, "the writer had clearly fallen in love with Richard Fariña -- as so many have before him -- and decided that he was going to write about how Richard Fariña was the real Bob Dylan, and Dylan was just a fake."

Hajdu's hardly alone in taking this sort of oppositional stance; there's a tendency among popular music fandom to celebrate minor artists and recordings as if their obscurity is an indication of quality. For instance, during Jazz Fest, someone said the recently reissued Searching for a Joy Ride by George Porter's Joy Ride (on Tuff City Records) was a major album. Joy Ride was Porter's first band after the break-up of the Meters, and the album has more rock crunch thanks to the Bad Roads' Bruce McDonald on guitar.

Searching for a Joy Ride, though, is most interesting as a document of a transitional period in Porter's career. The band grooves like a JV Meters, but the material is a little faceless, and there is little chemistry in the band. The enthusiasm the CD's champion had for it seemed rooted more in this material being out of print for almost 25 years than its actual musical merits.

That doesn't mean Searching for a Joy Ride and the other recent Tuff City releases -- Bobby Love's Rare Herbs and volumes four and five of Funky Funky New Orleans -- aren't a lot of fun. They are, but as corny as it sounds, great records don't sound dated, and these are trapped in the era they were recorded. The sonic fingerprints of the moment are all over them.

The highly compressed, fuzztone guitar sound Ernie Isley made famous on "That Lady" is common here, as are the disco rhythms that New Orleans funk bands were trying to decide how to deal with. Nothing here is pure disco, possibly because no New Orleans drummers or bassists could make themselves that mechanical, but Bobby Love's "D.T. Disco" comes close. That track and much of his album features his soul-jazz flute, also a sound that was in vogue in the early '70s. There is something very New Orleans about his fusion of dance music and psychedelia on "Butterflies Grooving" and "Julie D," but more than anything, the CD simply sounds quaint.

Funky Funky New Orleans Vols. 4 and 5 are similarly entertaining, with everything from novelty songs, jazz-funk covers of hits, and occasional appearances by stars like Deacon John, Eddie Bo and Ernie Vincent. The grooves are rarely so strong that they will get you out of your chair, but they'll keep you nodding pleasantly. For every genuinely soulful number like Larry Jones' "Action Speaks Louder Than Words," there are a handful of jams that don't really go anywhere, or tracks like "Higher, Higher" by Dome City Orchestra -- an electric piano solo played over the changes of Earth, Wind & Fire's "That's the Way of the World."

Those two discs document not the highlights of the moment, but the rank and file of musicians making funk in New Orleans in the early-to-mid-1970s. These musicians drew crowds and filled dance floors, but the recorded evidence here says they weren't so inspired that they defined New Orleans funk. In the end, what you hear in these tracks are people trying to figure out how to sell records. They were following the charts rather than a more personal muse, so the idiosyncratic vision that makes for great music is rarely heard here.

It's easy to overvalue these recordings. They're fun, after all, largely because many novel musical decisions were made. And, they're obscure. Rare records and tracks take on extra value for those searching for them because, as Marcus says, "If they've been hard to find, they will have an aura to them, and that aura is made up of everything you've invested in trying to get a hold of the stuff."

Still, the automatic preference for the marginal over the successful is disturbing, as if the mainstream is never right. It's easy to look back and see how often popular taste has been suspect, but the mass popularity of Elvis, "Satisfaction," Aretha Franklin and "Hey Ya" illustrates the folly of such assumptions.

Few have made unduly grand claims for these particular CDs, but their release and the Ponderosa Stomp -- where many attendees held this mindset -- started this line of thinking. Those who want to hold up the marginal and the overlooked as the true greats of popular music uphold many of the same musical values as the music industry they despise. They prefer novelty instead of personality and formula instead of invention.

Funky Funky New Orleans Vols. 4  and  5  are an - entertaining, diverse collection of novelty songs, jazz- - funk covers of hits, and occasional appearances by stars - like Deacon John, Eddie Bo and Ernie Vincent.
  • Funky Funky New Orleans Vols. 4 and 5 are an entertaining, diverse collection of novelty songs, jazz- funk covers of hits, and occasional appearances by stars like Deacon John, Eddie Bo and Ernie Vincent.

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