The tall man on stage with a broadbrimmed hat on his head, an acoustic guitar in his hands and exotic mutton chops on his face sermonizes about an epidemic, vouches for the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue and belittles the hipsters “who base their identities on their record collections.” When he says “the rich will be made to pay,” the woman behind the bar counting money from her till mutters, “Oh, really.”
Is this 1929, or is it 2022? The answer is yes.
Montreal roots-music artist Andrew McClelland (known professionally as Li’l Andy) is in character at Toronto’s Dakota Tavern as Hezekiah Procter, a fictional creation of his. He’s backed by a band dubbed the Hash House Serenaders, who play waltzes and bygone styles on fiddles, banjos, tubas, jaw-harps and kazoos. McClelland as Procter talks about Toronto churches and points out the women in the audience wearing their “simple peasant blouses.” Then he sings Crib-House Drip, a jaunty song about the perils of visiting brothels.
The period-specific performance is the final stop in a short tour of intimate venues including Irene’s Pub in Ottawa and the Sadleir House Dining Hall in Peterborough, Ont. As much performance art as it is a concert, old-timey music has never been more fun-timey.
It’s all part of The Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter (1925-1930), an ambitious box-set project that includes a 127-page booklet that McClelland describes as a “novel in liner note form.” The theatrical live show, with all band members in character, has been a tricky undertaking.
“I have to stay in character and sing in a way that is not in my natural voice, and I had to relearn to play the guitar in a way that existed before bluegrass,” says McClelland, finishing a preconcert meal of pear salad and peppermint tea at an art-deco diner near the venue.
The Depression-era vocalizing he refers to is the kind of affected singing practised by the Al Jolsons of the entertainment world. The pre-Second World War microphones, McClelland explains, were not kind to baritone singers. As for his guitar playing, McClelland must resist the flashier techniques popularized after the era he currently visits.
“I have to be very straight in the way I strum,” he says.
McClelland grew up listing to 78 rpm records on his family’s hand-cranked gramophone, and is a junkie for extravagant, historical CD boxsets such as Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937. It isn’t just the music that attracts him.
“I pore over the liner notes,” he says. “I find the writing of them to be an undervalued form of music journalism.”
Diving into the biographical material of Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Poole, Hank Williams and others, McClelland noticed certain tropes – impoverished and sickly rural upbringings, bouts with alcoholism, etc. With that in mind, he conjured up an archetypal roots musician of the Herbert Hoover era and began writing liner notes for his fictional Hezekiah Procter, a hillbilly-music player, a Bible thumper, a man of sketchy morals and a Marxist who performs propagandist folk songs at rallies and writes union ballads for striking labourers.
The historically informed account of Procter’s life revolves around the actual Loray Mill strike of 1929 in Gastonia, N.C., and incorporates real-life figures. Writing songs in character as Procter was a transformative process. “It allowed me to break out of writing in a way that people would think I was writing about myself,” says the 41-year-old, whose research took place at the McGill University Library. The result is an upbeat package of musical patina, including Dr. Kerr’s Ballyhoo, In the Roebuck Catalogue and I See Jesus Comin’ Down the Road.
As well, the project was a way to evade the tricky issue of roots music bona fides: that blues musicians should be Black, for instance, or that any real mountain music artist must be related to the Carter Family by blood.
Over the past decade, McClelland has released five countryfolk albums as Li’l Andy, a cowboy-hat wearing persona he developed. If a Montrealer named McClelland wouldn’t be taken seriously as an Americana artist, he reasoned, perhaps someone called Li’l Andy might be. Likewise, it would be a waste of time for anyone to criticize The Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter as being fake when McClelland is so upfront about the fiction.
“We love when our performers are authentic,” he says. “When we hear people’s songs, we feel the material should reflect how they are in real life. I wanted to challenge that.”
(Mind you, when it came to recording the period-specific music, McClelland was a stickler for authenticity: Eighteen songs were captured on a 1937 Webster-Chicago wire recorder found on Kijiji. The toaster-size device uses a single microphone and, instead of audio tape, a thin magnetic steel wire.)
The box set is similar in scope and style to Loudon Wainwright’s Grammy-winning High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project from 2009. The real-life banjoist Poole was an underrecorded North Carolina native who worked in textile mills and died of a heart attack caused by alcohol poisoning in 1931.
As for Procter, he disappears in 1929, his obscurity and fleeting fame making a point.
“We’re all going to be unknown in the future, and everyone who tries to develop a certain level of fame is going to be a has-been,” McClelland says. “So, you have to ask yourself, how attached do you want to be to that?”
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