Interview: Danny Kroha Holds Lively Conversations with The Past On ‘Detroit Blues’ From Third Man




Six years ago, Danny Kroha released the album Angels Watching Over Me via Third Man Records. It delved into early Blues and Pre-Blues music in the public domain, and was recorded as simply as possible in an abandoned 100-year-old house in Detroit. This “recorded at home” feeling is something that Kroha has returned to for new album Detroit Blues, arriving February 5th from Third Man, though he’s upgraded the recording process a little and taken even bigger leaps in assembling songs into original arrangements. Some of the songs on Detroit Blues take the music from one song and combine it with lyrics from another to create an original piece, while some represent Kroha’s choices handling and assembling alternate verses of well-loved songs.

Danny Kroha’s other musical projects have included the Garage Blues band The Gories and Performance Art Garage band The Demolition Doll Rods, and you can see a certain through-line in his interest in less-than-pristine recordings and in early Blues traditions over time. It’s no surprise that he’s spent a lot of his time prior to and during the pandemic restoring vintage houses by hand, finding period fixtures and bringing them to renewed life. There’s also a strong sense of the presence of the past in Detroit Blues that goes far beyond reduplication of tradition. In creating a new and lively conversation, Kroha is bring the past and the present together in ways that recapture the freshness of early Blues and Pre-Blues music for our times. We spoke with Kroha about Detroit Blues, his recording methods, his song arrangement process, and even about building his own instruments to keep up with traditional approaches.

Americana Highways: I know that your current label, Third Man, also released your first solo album, Angels Watching Over Me. How close is the relationship between the work you did on that album and the work you’ve done for Detroit Blues? Is there a sequel relationship?

Danny Kroha: It’s basically a sequel. They are not separate at all. The main difference is that these recordings are a little better quality. I listened to my first album recently after not listening to it for a long time, and I was surprised by how low-fi it is. But I did record it on 4-track cassette, mostly, so what do you expect? This one is definitely higher in the “fi” department, but not too much.

AH: I heard that the location for recording the first album was a 100-year-old Detroit building. Was location important for recording this one, too?

DK: I just want that feeling of a record that was recorded at someone’s house. I really love the recordings of Doc Boggs that Mike Seeger made in Doc Boggs home in the early 60s. Then, in 1960, John Cohen recorded Roscoe Holcomb in his home. I like that Field Recording feeling of someone recording in their home rather than playing in a studio. The Detroit Blues album was recorded at my friend’s loft, so it’s kind of a studio, but it was also, again, just me sitting in a room playing and singing, so it still has that feel. It’s just a little bit better quality of a recording.

AH: When did you start becoming fascinated with listening to Field Recordings?

DK: I’ve always liked crude or even amateurish recordings, like 50s Electric Blues and 60s Garage Rock, and stuff like that. Around 1997, that Harry Smith anthology of American Folk Music came out on CD, and I got that around 1998. I became fascinated with that. I’d already been into some of that stuff, but to have all that Blues, Gospel, and Hillbilly collected together into one volume was a huge influence. All those recordings are from the 20s and 30s, so they are pretty crude sounding. I generally gravitate towards things that aren’t as polished.

AH: As time has gone on, has the internet been a big resource for finding recordings?

DK: Oh, absolutely. It’s crazy. Youtube is insane. If you want to know how to play something, look it up on Youtube, and guaranteed, there’s somebody teaching how to play that song. Not all of them are good, and you have to really go through, but you can find the guy who’s got it down. I’ll be reading a book, and they’ll be talking about songs that I’ve never heard of, and I’ll just sit there and look them up on Youtube. It’s an incredible reference tool, unbelievable.

You can also see people playing in old videos. These are things that, years ago, you would have only been able to see on a videotape that you traded with someone else. And you’d have to have rare stuff in order to do that. I didn’t have that stuff, though I had friends who had that kind of stuff. I’d go to their houses and watch 60s Garage bands. It was mind-blowing to see that stuff. Now a “rare video of Roscoe Holcomb” is not rare anymore, but at one time those videos were. You can’t know how great this [situation] is unless you experienced the days before this.

AH: Are there any research centers or libraries you’ve used to research this music?

DK: There’s a great used bookstore in Detroit called John King Books, and I’ll go there. I have found some good old song books and biographies there. But I haven’t actually gone to the library and looked that stuff up. I should try that. I think Detroit’s main library probably has some good records and reference books. But the convenience of the internet is pretty crazy.

AH: What you get with the internet is such high volume, so how do you find the songs you want?

DK: You have to know what songs you’re looking for, really. Also, there’s collecting old vinyl, like all the old Folkways records, with the books inside. I won’t buy an old Folkways album unless it has the book inside. I love the books. Some has come out on CD, but the vinyl has these amazing books, and a lot of these things are not on the internet. Reissues of music from the 20s and 30s that was put out in the 70s have liner notes that are not available on the internet or anywhere else. Vinyl copies of that stuff is a great resource for me.

AH: Does the fact that you appreciate vinyl have any impact on the sound you’re going for in your own recordings, or are you gearing more toward digital fidelity?

DK: I don’t think of it as vinyl vs. CD as far as sound goes, I just think about how it’s recorded. With going for the sound of a person in a room, there’s no artificial reverb. I did overdub things, but I overdubbed things in the same room where I played, so there’s a consistency in the sound. I’m not anti-technology, but I want that organic feeling. Some of the 60s Folk revival albums have lush reverb on the vocals, and it sounds great, but it’s not what I was going for on this. Maybe someday in the future I’ll try recording in the studio with plate reverb.

AH: You’ve probably had a chance to listen to the vinyl master on this album already. What do you think of it?

DK: I think it sounds great. People say that vinyl is “warm,” but to me, the bigger thing about vinyl is holding that thing in your hands and the mechanical properties of it. You’re holding this things that has grooves on it, and you’re putting it on a turntable. You’re setting a needle in the groove, and the needle physically vibrates, and you’re translating those vibrations to a sound. It’s a very physical, mechanical process. The CD is a laser light reading a digital code, so it’s a very different thing. It’s not so much about the sound as the process for me. You can see the mechanism of a record playing as you’re playing it. You can also hold this big photograph in your hand, and there are liner notes that you can easily read.

AH: Also, you’re focused on the mechanical aspects of making this music, so it makes sense to want the mechanical aspects when it comes to playing the record, too.

DK: Agreed!

AH: I noticed that on the first album, you had an original song, “Run Little Children.” Did you decide not to do original songs for the new album?

DK: Nothing came to me. I didn’t really try. My claim to originality on this record was that I did combine some words and music that hadn’t been combined before.

AH: When I was listening to the album at first, I actually did not know that. But when I read that afterwards, I was very impressed, because I could not tell that process had taken place. It is very seamless. It reminded me a little of art that’s created by assemblage but doing this in a musical way.

DK: Yes, absolutely. I’m really just taking two different things. I’m hearing a song and I discover that you can sing the words to another song with it. It’s not that crazy. It’s not like that’s never been done before. But in that sense, it’s a composition or an arrangement, and those can be unique.

AH: That also reminds me that you’re working with multiple different versions of the same songs and making choices based on that. How do you handle that? Is it about aesthetics?

DK: Words matter a lot to me. So if I find different versions of the same song, with different lyrics, I’ll pick and choose the verses I like from different versions and I’ll assemble that together. There was this Booker White song, “Sad Day Blues,” but it has really upbeat music to it. I thought, ‘“Sad Day Blues” doesn’t really go with this music’. But I’d been wanting to do a version of this song that Abner Jay does, and I had also heard a Rockabilly version of it. I’d been wanting to do that for a while, so when I heard the Booker White song, that was a way to do it. I was running the music through my head, and I thought, “That’s going to work.” So it came from a desire to do a song, trying to find a way to do it, and finding that way.

Or, with “House of the Rising Sun”, I really love that song, but it’s been done a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. Then I was listening to a Doc Boggs song, and I thought, “You could sing “House of the Rising Sun” to the music of this Doc Boggs song, and then it kind of sounds like Doc Boggs is doing it. That’s pretty cool!”

I love Furry Lewis’ song “Kassie Jones”, and I love to combine things from people who are thought of as the Blues with others. Though “Kassie Jones” is not really a Blues song, it’s more a Folk song of the “Songster” type. Then I took this early Country guy, Charlie Poole, and took the words from one of his songs to sing to this Furry Lewis song. It’s exciting to me to find ways to do that kind of stuff.

AH: It reminds me of what bands used to do in the early days of Rock ‘n Roll, when they were pressed for material, taking Blues songs and converting them as best they could.

DK: I’ve also noticed this with guys recording Blues in the 1940s and 1950s. Like Doctor Ross on the song “Cat Squirrel” which sounds like another song from the 40s. You can tell that Doctor Ross could half remember this old song, but because he couldn’t remember this whole song, he just made up some more verses. That happens time and time again. People half remember an old song and graft something onto it.

AH: That undoubtedly has been happening throughout human history.

DK: [Laughs] Yes, exactly! If you can’t remember the song, make up your own version.

AH: I wanted to say something about your version of “House of the Rising Sun”. I’ve been hearing that song since I was a young child, and even though it’s been done so much, it still has mysterious qualities. But your version has got to be the least pretentious or melodramatic version I’ve ever heard. It’s incredibly earnest in this really direct way. It seems like people often over-do that song, so it was great to hear.

DK: I’m really happy to hear that.

AH: The song “Up Above My Head” also really surprised me because it’s got this upbeat vocal style to it. Where does that one come from?

DK: That comes entirely from Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I’m pretty sure I first came across that song on Youtube, to be honest. I was looking at videos of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and there’s a good video of her singing that song. It’s kind of like “Angels Watching Over Me”, in that I can do it in an Open D, and it’s an upbeat Gospel rocker. I needed another song like that. Sometimes I feel like I need another song, a new one, that does a similar thing. I think I had read somewhere that played that song in an Open D tuning, and my natural inclination was to play that song in an Open D tuning. But that one is entirely inspired by her.

AH: How did you choose which songs you wanted to include on this album?

DK: Well, I started becoming interested in “Pre-Blues”, really great songs that aren’t Blues. That’s when I started going down that road and started being attracted to “Songster” stuff. That Pre-Blues body of songs was common to both Black and White musicians, which is important to me as well. I really want to bring those traditions together. I want people to see that everyone worked together at the beginning, and it all kind of came from the same place. I want this music to promote unity.

AH: I saw on the video for “Poor Howard” that this song really can be played with just you and a guitar. Is that all these songs really need?

DK: None of the songs really need anything else, it’s just fun to add things when you’re recording.

AH: Did you have to build instruments to use them to record this album?

DK: I did. I heard one 78 that was made of a Detroit musician called “One-String Sam.” Sam played a homemade, one-string guitar. He had a board with a wire on it, and he put a bottle neck on there to use as a bridge. I bought this record and listened to it being played with plucked notes, and with a slide, but there’s an overtone from the other half of the string, since there’s no dampening. This blew my mind and I said, “I gotta build one of these things.” So I did. Then I started playing it, but I actually found a commercially made one-string instrument from the 20s that was made for teaching. Since then, I’ve found lots of other recordings of people making one-string guitars.

I made my own Washtub Bass years ago. I’ve been intrigued by this stuff for thirty years. I think I’m just intrigued by homemade instruments that don’t have a set pitch. With one-string Bass, you change the notes by changing the tension of the string. So I was driving down the road one day, and I saw a five gallon metal can by the side of some railroad tracks, and I stopped and picked it up. It said, “Fire snake rail heater” and it turned out to be a railroad maintenance product. I put a string on it, and a stick, and that thing’s on the record.

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