Fascinating and ambitious project that shines a light on the roots of Old Time music and the start of commercial recording.
We’ve had some really good multi-media projects come to us for review this year, and there does seem to be a definite trend towards projects that combine different media, but this may well be the most interesting to date. Canadian singer/songwriter Andrew McClelland, better known under his performance name, Li’l Andy, has produced a project of some considerable ambition and vision and has done so with unqualified success; this is a project that really deserves to be properly recognised for the triumph that it is. “The Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter” is a box set comprising two vinyl albums and a novel. So far, that’s not that outstanding, but it’s the way Li’l Andy has immersed himself and his artistry in this project that is so exciting.
The novel, ‘The Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter’, is a biography, written in liner note form, of a fictional old-time country musician, living and working in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th Century. The novel tracks Hezekiah’s life as the son of a businessman reduced to manual work by the loss of the family’s savings, a situation that impacts heavily on the young Hezekiah and his politics and faith. Born Henry Fortescue Procter, Hezekiah is the name he adopts when he later becomes an evangelical preacher and the author paints a fascinating picture of a man both religious and dissolute who rises to success on the back of his part in a traveling medicine show. What is particularly enjoyable about this novel is the depth of the author’s research and the way he gets under the skin of his characters. You very quickly forget that Hezekiah is a completely fictional character and find yourself drawn into Procter’s story and his rise to prominence with the Hash House Serenaders, the group that he fronts and records with – and who are all based on the personalities of the musicians that Li’l Andy worked with when recording the songs that accompany the novel in the box set.
As well as being an entertaining novel, Andy’s book is also something of a history lesson, delving back into a time when the music business was in its infancy and the hucksters of those days are just finding ways to make money out of writers and performers on a larger scale. The thing about this novel is that, though it is a work of fiction, it is firmly rooted in the facts of the time. A central character in the book is Ralph Peer, the self-proclaimed ‘musicologist’ behind the Bristol Sessions, widely described as “The Big Bang of Country Music” (which Andy references in his book). Procter becomes involved with Peer and his desire to catalogue ‘traditional roots music’, much of which was created specifically so that Peer could directly profit from registering the copywrite. It’s a really interesting look at that side of the ‘song catcher’ role in the cataloguing of roots music and I think this will encourage anyone reading the novel to research a little deeper into the practices of some of the field recording folklorists and their activities of the time.
At only 127 pages long, including all the song lyrics, album details and reference notes etc, this is not a lengthy book but the author packs a lot of information into its pages while still managing to tell an entertaining story. This is Li’l Andy’s first novel and it’ll be interesting to see where this fledgling author goes from here. He clearly has the ability, judging by this book, to write entertaining and informative work. Hopefully, there’ll be more prose from his pen in the future.
The novel is, of course, just one aspect of this project and the recordings that accompany it are really quite special. Li’l Andy has been described as “Montreal’s best country songwriter today.” (Pop Montreal) and he has released four albums in the course of his career to date, but nothing he has produced before bears any resemblance to his output as Hezekiah Procter. The two albums included in the box set are the “Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter 1925 – 1930” and comprise of 29 tracks in total – but you get two versions of some of them! Li’l Andy has said that writing as Hezekiah Procter was a challenge he set himself – “could I write made-to-order songs for another genre? Could I get away from this singer-songwriter template and write “as” someone else?” Not only does he succeed in writing as someone else but he does an outstanding job of doing so. Songs like ‘I See Jesus Coming Down the Road’ and ‘When the Fire Comes Down’ burn with the passion of the religious, American working man of the 1900s and that belief that a better, fairer world would come, if not in this world, then certainly in the next, and they would sit comfortably alongside established songs of a similar era such as ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’. Similarly, his ‘Jennie Blythe’ and ‘In A Gingham Dress’ could’ve come straight out of the Appalachian mountains in the 1920s.
Raised on the music of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, who both featured heavily in his parents’ record collection, Li’l Andy says that he’s always had a connection to country music that allowed him to write in this way but to tap into that old time sound of the 1920s so authentically, shows an astonishing historical knowledge of old-time country music that has allowed him to imbue these songs with a really authentic feel. He’s helped, in no small part, by the musicians that play on the album(s) and the amazing array of instruments they use. Then there’s the sound itself. Li’l Andy is quite definite about what he wanted from the sound of these songs – “I realized: “I have to make these recordings sound old!” Recording them digitally — on ProTools or whatever — would’ve ruined the effect. Even recording them on analog with multi-tracking would have ruined the effect. I wanted the recordings to sound authentic to the story I was telling of this evangelical, 1920s Marxist country singer from the era when commercial recorded music was just starting”. That was, perhaps, the biggest of the many challenges he set himself in realising this project. He needed to find a recording medium that reflected the way these songs would’ve been recorded back when they were supposed to have been written. After a lot of false starts, he finally found a wire recorder from the 1930s, a Webster-Chicago reel-to-reel machine recording onto a thin strip of steel wire, and they recorded the album on that and it is quite an amazing sound – and the story of how and where they found it is a good one too. I won’t go into details here but, since hearing about this amazing project, reading the novel, and listening to the music, I’ve subsequently interviewed Li’l Andy about the life and music of Hezekiah Procter and we’ll be putting that interview up on the site, in full, in the next couple of weeks. It’s well worth reading to get the full, inside story of this amazing project.
To help you appreciate just how different the recording is, you also get a second disc of songs tracked to a half-inch analogue tape machine. Li’l Andy’s aim in doing this is to get people to think about what sounds more real, and is ‘authenticity’ preferable to a crisper sound. There’s a lot about this project that has a very interactive feel; a real attempt to engage the audience on a more expanded scale than that of the average recording.
Finally, there’s a performance art aspect to this project as well. Andy has actually performed as Hezekiah Procter, along with his band, keeping it all in character and playing these songs to a live audience, as shown in some of his videos from the project (available on YouTube).
This really is an amazing project and I would urge everyone to check it out. It’s quite astonishing, in today’s fiercely commercial world, that an artist would take the time, money, and effort to explore the past history of their music in this way, and it seems a shame that this fascinating project is not more widely known about and appreciated.
Andy is a two-time award winner at GAMIQ (Quebec Independent Music Awards) and he has, so far, received three nominations for his work this year – “Songwriter of the Year” and “Traditional Singer of the Year” at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. And then “Best Country Album” at the Gala Alternatif de la Musique Indépendante du Québec. It would be nice to see this project get some acknowledgment outside of his home country.
You can find “The Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter” at Li’l Andy’s Bandcamp site, where there are a variety of options and combinations for buying the albums and the novel https://lilandy.bandcamp.com/merch