Monday, October 19, 2015


George Coleman  Bongo Joe  Arhoolie album cover

George Coleman's nickname was Bongo Joe, but no one seems to know why, least of all George.  In Houston during the late '40s, he was turned down for a job as a drummer in a local band because he did not own a set of drums. George got real mad, found a discarded oil drum (Houston has plenty!), dented it with an axe, and hit the streets.

A self-made beatnik, George played for tourists in Galveston and found work in a coffeehouse in Houston.  But no one really appreciated his art so George moved to San Antonio, where he played for small change in front of the Alamo and where, on December 7, 1968, on portable equipment, this bizarre album was recorded.

Coleman's instrument is a 55-gallon oil drum which he pounds with the handles of oil cans filled with pebbles and BB-shot. His voice is that of a '50s R&B shouter.  At odd moments, he will mumble to himslef, and when he cannot think of anything to say, he whistles or makes bird noises.  He is given to mad outbursts of panting and laughter. Although seemingly composed on the spot, his lyrics are hip, filled with bawdy humor and structured as fables. George slings the bullshit real good.

Eight songs comprise this album, released in 1969 as Arhoolie 1040, and entitled simply "Bongo Joe."  Each of these songs sound like Bo Diddley and Mardi Gras music thrashing it out at the same time. Complete with barking and woofing, "Innocent Little Doggy" is the tale of a mutt who is run over by a drunk driver. George describes the dog's flea-bitten corpse in detail, comparing it, rather tragically, to a Skid Row bum.

On "Transistor Radio," a woman grieves for her dead husband only because he is being buried with her only radio.  "Cool It," the funkiest cut here, is worthy of James Brown, especially when George rants about "too much outasight and not enough insight."  Other titles include "Dog Eat Dog," "Listen at That Bull," and "I Wish I Could Sing"--titles that speak for themselves.

This record exists because Arhoolie, one of the great labels dedicated to the preservation of musical roots, felt that George's sound was a solid link between African roots and American black music. Since other cultures used drums as a way of conveying simple messages, then, according to the liner notes, George's craft "is the logical extension of this primitive art into modern culture."

Whatever the highfalutin justification for the record's release, it just sounds like rock 'n' roll to me.

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