Sunday, 6 December 2009

Polyphony lives in Alabama

Polyphony lives ! This is one of Charles and Ira Louvin's greatest hits. Their close harmony is so tight, it's almost symbiotic, as if each voice grows out of the other. Like twins, intuitively completing each other's sentences. Ira (b 1924) was the tall, haunted looking brother, the creative fireball who wrote many of the songs and played a strange mandolin he built himself. His is the high tenor and does descant that can reach countertenor heights, truly surreal.Charles (b 1927) sings the steadier lower part.

This kind of harely accompanied harmonic singing was what people did in isolated mountainous areas in the Bible belt. No easy transport, no mass communications. People were dirt poor and made their own entertainment. Somewhere along the way, part song left the church and became folk idiom. Traditional folk tunes from Europe adapt, hymns become popular song. It's very creative.

This song, one of their greatest hits, develops like Lieder : anxiety, self doubt, sudden reversal on denouement, but understated and sincere. Love in that chaste, tentative but deeply felt 19th century way. It's even Allnächtlich im Traüme !

What I love about the Louvins is that they're so unself conscious that they they can be kitsch, because they're so totally sincere. It's refreshing. They sang a lot of goispel songs, but all that piety didn't help the troubled genius of Ira Louvin. By age 30 he was alcoholic. He married four times, and attacked at least one of his wives. Charles couldn't cope and the duo split up. In 1965 Ira was killed in a drunken car crash. Eeriely, many of his songs were about the evils of drink and drunk driving in particular - another very Liederish irony. Charlie's still performing, aged 82, he wrote a song remembering his brother which makes me weep.

Below is a rare clip from a radio show they did in thhe early 1950's. In those days people just turned up at the studio and sang and talked - no fancy takes. It's the real thing, not so far from performing live at home or with friends. They are so unsophisticated that they ask the audience to send dollar bills in the post to buy songbooks. (People used to buy song books then so they could sing the songs themselves, before records became common. I love the innocence of this clip, it comes from another world.

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