Perfect Sound Forever


Joe Brennen

Country Blues! Free Jazz! Appalachian Banjo! Eastern Tonalities! Crashing together like the percussive striking of Zildjians! March music transmutating into Mississippi fife and drums! Bird songs, childrenís voices, presidential assassins, a singing bridge, and washes of Copelandesque strings! All rise from the swirl of the music, divergent but somehow becoming a coherent whole, leaving one wondering what was that!?! In our age of bland "audio commodities," it seems unlikely for this sort of proto-sampling to be produced by just one band. Yet in the late 1960ís and early 70ís a conglomeration of young musicians from the North and South, working along the unlikely axis from Memphis to Hoboken, created two albums borne of the glorious anarchy of American music. They took their name from the writing of William Burroughs, a fellow American visionary artist- INSECT TRUST.

While there are many traditions in American music, the one tradition that has made the greatest impact is the one of combining disparate styles into something new≠ witness bluegrass, western swing and rock and roll. Within this tradition the Insect Trust drew together the music they found around them to create music that sounds astonishingly fresh after nearly thirty years. There is a timelessness to their sound that does not easily date it. Aside from a little 60ís vernacular in the lyrics, you would be hard pressed to place it in time. The reason for this is that the band chose not to use the popular musical cliches of their peers. Instead of producing a Beatlesque psychedelic statement or blues boogie, they chose to blend country blues of the older musicians to whom they were apprenticing in the South with free jazz, both of whose sparks came from the African American visionary impulse, where styles sounded as if the musician had created music from whole cloth. Eccentric music, where Rashaan Roland Kirk and Skip James share common ground in the modal tonalities found in Eastern music and the Appalachian banjo stylings of Roscoe Holcomb.

Yes, what Iím hearing is eccentricity, vision, the need to produce music outside of, and without regard to, the popular convention of categories that reduces what we hear into auditory commodities to be bought and sold without any regard for cultural connection or spiritual substance. When I listen now Iím not sure if Iím listening to rock or jazz or some sort of avant folk music. It doesnít matter. This music taps into musical sounds and archetypes that evoke the loneliness of the Mississippi Delta. The theme of the ancient proto-blues tune, "Poor Boy Long Way From Home," seems to run through the second side of the first album- a tune that expresses displacement, the longing for place, so central in American music. The strain is played first on slide guitar, then is picked up by a string section, and later is restated on the recorder as the last song fades.

In other places, angry honking saxes a la John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders duel with a slide guitar on Skip Jamesí "Special Rider." The horn arrangement on "Reciprocity," with its New Orleans second line parade beat, predates the modernist marching band style of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band by at least ten years. Nancy Jefferiesí Eastern-inflected vocals are paired with fluttering avant-garde sax and Elvin Jonesí drums on "My Sister the Sun," and on a similar arrangement featuring banjo on "Miss Fun City." And so it goes, one surprise after another.

Over the years, I have viewed the band and some of its members as some of my music teachers. An early encounter with guitarist Bill Barth and vocalist Nancy Jefferies, on the coffeehouse circuit of the mid-60ís, was my first exposure. As a young musical sponge, I soaked up some of Barthís open-tuned guitar style, music I play to this day. The writing of saxophonist Robert Palmer over the years has led me in many musical directions with his ability to describe elements of music that are so obvious but completely missed by most. The threads that ran to and from the Insect Trust to other perennial favorites- John Fahey, Pharoah Sanders, Holy Modal Rounders, Skip James, Jim Dickinson, et. al., have continued to enrich my musical being. And of course, so have those two vinyl artifacts that contain all those wild sounds.

Note: Insect Trust produced two albums in their brief career, their self titled debut for Capitol and Hoboken Saturday Night on Atlantic. Bill Barth appears playing guitar duets with John Fahey on Mississippi Swamp Jam in Memphis Vol. 1 (Arhoolie) as the mysterious R.L. Watson and Josiah Jones. These were recorded in conjunction with 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival that members of the band had helped found. Public Television made a documentary of the festival that must be lurking in a vault somewhere. Insect Trust appears in this film. Barth also appears on Bukka Whiteís Memphis Hotshots album. The album features a band led by Barth and a cover with White sporting a space suit! A current recording by Barth can be found on the IUMA website. Luke Faust recorded with the Holy Modal Rounders on Alleged In Their Own Time (Rounder).

Bill Barthís rediscovery and relationship with Skip James is discussed by Stephen Caltís I'D RATHER BE THE DEVIL (DaCapo). Barth is one of the few people in the book that receives kind words from the author. Insect Trust is featured extensively in Robert Gordonís IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS (Faber and Faber). Bill Barthís monogram on his discovery of centugenarian bluesman Nathan Beauregard appears in "Confessions of a Psychedelic Carpetbagger" at the Bluesworld website. The first self titled album has been available as a European import on CD.

See the other parts of our Insect Trust tribute