C. W. Stoneking’s pursuit of old-timey music and recording techniques is the theatre applied to an original talent. By Dave Faulkner.

C.W. Stoneking's electric boogaloo

C.W. Stoneking
C.W. Stoneking
Credit: Kane Hibberd

The King of Hokum has gone electric.

On Gon’ Boogaloo (out now on King Hokum Records through Caroline) the 1930s-obsessed bluesman has forsaken “old Roy”, his treasured National steel guitar, and updated his sound with a more conventional Fender Jazzmaster electric. Like Dylan in 1966, this is a radical shift for the artist, however C. W. Stoneking probably won’t be hearing any jeers or shouts of “Judas!” from his audience. Despite this apparent modernisation, Gon’ Boogaloo is in fact Stoneking’s most archaic recording yet, revelling in the kind of primitive studio techniques that date back to the birth of recorded music.

The album opens with a stompin’ ring shout, “How Long”. The song begins with some plaintive, snaking guitar licks before setting up an infectious boogie. Finally Stoneking introduces himself: “My friends, how do you do?” Call-and-response vocals and handclaps punctuate this tale of the everyman, as he recounts the age-old journey from womb to tomb:

Nineteen hundred seventy four,

A river o’ blood laid me out on this shore

I don’t know why I’m here,

Born with a crack o’ thunder ringin’ in my ears,

My heart started to jump an’ I began to shout,

Stuck here wonderin’ what it’s all about

Ring shouts and field hollers are the direct progenitors of the blues so it’s significant that Stoneking goes back to first principles and begins his third album with one. The first blues song C. W. wrote was a field holler and with “How Long” he demonstrates he’s become quite an expert at the form.

The theme of first principles is even more apparent when we consider the rudimentary technology Stoneking and his engineer, Alex Bennett, used to record the album. The liner notes give a detailed description, but, in short, every song was recorded completely live with no overdubs over two days. All of the musicians were positioned around a single, ancient ribbon microphone, while Stoneking himself had an additional tube mike for his lead vocals and guitar. Technology-wise, this style of recording hasn’t been practised much since the 1930s – but this is no mere intellectual exercise in recording nostalgia. Forgive the pun but there are very sound reasons why this approach was chosen. It’s a little-known fact that this technique, using a single microphone, is the only way one can capture the harmonic resonances created by the natural mingling of soundwaves in the air. “Close” miking, mixed electronically, creates sonic artefacts that, in a certain sense, “delaminate” the sound. Simply put, four vocalists on four microphones will never blend as well as four vocalists who use only one. Stoneking’s ascetic aesthetic strips away the artifice of the studio, leaving nothing but the pure, unadulterated performance, making the album a document of an unrepeatable moment in time, and giving the performances a “lightning in a bottle” quality.

C. W. Stoneking spent his formative years in the Aboriginal community of Papunya, near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. His schoolteacher father had moved to Australia from the US as a result of the Vietnam War, bringing with him a large record collection and a love of poetry. All of these things left an indelible impression on the young Stoneking and traces of the Papunya patois still inflect his speech. Around the age of 13, C. W. first started paying attention to the blues. As he told a Dutch interviewer a few years ago: “I started listening to old blues. When I first heard it I thought it was kinda funny music ’cause it was so deconstructed and not really adhering … to any rules that I’d been told music [should] fit into. And the more I listened to it, I just liked it more and more.”

Although Gon’ Boogaloo is completely steeped in the blues it doesn’t actually contain a single song based around the classic 12-bar blues structure, the format that for most people defines the genre. The closest Stoneking comes this time is on “The Thing I Done”, which uses a 16-bar structure married to what I would describe as a rocksteady-tango rhythm.

“Blues” and “pedigree” are two words that never belong together because blues music has always been a mongrel breed. Stoneking himself put it beautifully in 2008, in an interview for Blues Matters: “I’m not an aficionado, but I have my own fads that need to be satisfied. I like to have things a particular way … but by the same token, some of these retro fanatics are such a bunch of narrow-minded uptight nerds that I don’t care for them much either – I like some fun in the world I wanna create.”

It’s a testament to how fundamental and flexible blues is as an art form that Stoneking can draw in elements from gospel (“Get on the Floor”), jazz (“Goin’ Back South”), rock’n’roll (“The Jungle Swing”), ’60s girl groups (“Tomorrow Gon’ Be Too Late”), late-’50s R’n’B (“Good Luck Charm”) and calypso (“The Thing I Done”), sometimes even several at once. But the music never loses its identity – it’s a blues album through and through. It helps that the mastermind is a gifted songwriter with a deeply spiritual affinity to the music he’s playing. There is no whiff of fakeness about anything Stoneking does as a musician.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t employ a bit of showmanship to spice things up. After all, his first album wasn’t called King Hokum for nothing. Though “hokum” is a specific racy style of blues from the 1930s, the word itself also sums up Stoneking’s onstage persona. Both in his singing and his patter between songs he affects a strong New Orleans accent and gives the impression of being part sideshow barker, part adventurer and man of the world and, just underneath the surface, 100 per cent snake-oil salesman. Shut your eyes and you can even imagine him as a veteran of the chitlin’ circuit, the black American music clubs and bars of the segregated US. Larger than life, he affects a dapper style of dress in all-white clothing plus a natty bow tie, hair slicked back with Brylcreem. It only adds to the mystique who he is a character that has somehow Rip-Van-Winkled his way into the modern world from a bygone era.

Some people may be puzzled by the existence of such a wilfully anachronistic entertainer in this newfangled age of predigested culture and computer-generated art. What possible relevance does an antique-minded artist such as C. W. Stoneking have for us today? Well, never mind the fact that he is very much of today, writing all his own songs. He told that same Dutch interviewer: “I ain’t from the past so it couldn’t possibly be from there. It ain’t bits of old music sticky-taped together, it’s all been made up fresh.”

When all is said and done there are only two kinds of music, and “old” or “new” are neither of them. Good and bad music – that’s all there is, folks. Whenever a human being chooses to express themselves it is always contemporary art, even when they’re borrowing the tools and vernacular of a different era. That very act itself is making a statement about today. Stoneking elaborated: “I always liked the texture of those old songs, you know? I just like the aesthetic of it, the same as a punk would like a punk aesthetic or a heavy metal person would do that – there’s nothing different about it.”

C. W. Stoneking is a brilliant songwriter who is unafraid to take serious risks in his work. Writing, performing and recording his idiosyncratic take on the world in his own inimitable style, he is rapidly becoming a national, if not global, treasure.

I don’t use the word often, but Gon’ Boogaloo is a masterpiece.

CORRECTION: The original article had Papunya near Katherine.

Arts diary

• MUSIC Melbourne Music Week
Various venues, Melbourne, until November 23

• VISUAL ART Pop to Popism
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until March 1

• INSTALLATION The Moment of Disappearance
Carriageworks, Sydney, until November 29

Last chance

• THEATRE Curiosity – Presented by Circus Oz and Dislocate
The Melba Spiegeltent, Melbourne, until November 15

• VISUAL ART Archibald Prize 2014
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Mornington, until November 16

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 15, 2014 as "Electric boogaloo".

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