The Brewster Brothers at WROL-Knoxville; l, Willie G. Brewster, r, Ray Brewster, courtesy of Elaine Vaccaro.
John Hannah – My Home is in the Smoky Mountains / Bessie Rabb – Down in the Willow Garden / Willis and Dexter Bumgarner – Bonaparte’s Retreat / Myrtle Conner – Come, All You Young Ladies / Jack Johnson – I Started Out A-Courting / Cataloochee Trio – Sourwood Mountain / Bill Moore and Vic Peterson – The Ramshackle Shack / John Davis and Shorty Smith – Going Down This Road Feeling Bad / Myrtle Conner – Kitty Wells / Bill Moore’s Quartet – Crying Holy Unto the Lord / Unidentified guitar playing (probably Bill Moore) / Carl Messer - My Curly-Headed Baby / John Hannah – The Girl I Love Don’t Pay Me No Mind / Leatherman Brothers – John Henry / Bill Moore, Paul Buchanan, Hardy Crisp – Cackling Hen / Bill Moore – That’s How I Got My Start / Clarence Sutton – Don’t Forget Me, Little Darling / Myrtle Conner – Pretty Little Miss / Herman Smith and David Proffitt – Chinese Breakdown / Unnamed [CCC] Company 15 members – Mule Skinner Blues / Jim Sutton – Ticklish Rubin / Helen Gunter – The Big Bend Killing / Willis and Dexter Bumgarner – Polly Put the Kettle On / Zeb and Winfred Hannah – Conversation with Death / Myrtle Conner – Paper of Pins / John Hannah – Boston Girl / Clarence Sutton – The Dying Cowboy / Chub Karns, Francis Lum – Cripple Creek / Unnamed Company 15 members – Ground Hog / Boyd Strickland – Up on Big Pigeon / Unidentified – John Henry / Robert Ray – Driving Down the Highway / Myrtle Conner – Little Rosewood Casket / Betty Messer – On Top of Old Smoky
1939 was a year of introspection for the United States. Tragedy of unimaginable scope was unfolding in Europe, but here in the US, frayed and depleted from a decade of the Depression, our attention was directed inward. Many of the cultural milestones of 1939 had to do with America examining itself—with Americans learning about other Americans, whether of different races, regions, or economic classes, or of earlier eras. After Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, refused to allow Marian Anderson to perform for an integrated audience, she instead gave a concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and drew a crowd of 75,000 on Easter Sunday. Gone With the Wind premiered in movie theaters across the country, bringing the Civil War and sectionalism back to the forefront of national conversation, in a time when many veterans still donned their blue or gray or butternut for reunions and parades. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was also onscreen, and The Philadelphia Story was onstage, each in its own way a story about friction between members of different economic strata. Billie Holliday’s recording of “Strange Fruit,” and Steinbeck’s blockbuster novel The Grapes of Wrath, shook up the privileged and complacent, making them uncomfortably aware that many of their fellow citizens lived and died under cruel oppression; and those who could counted their blessings when a deteriorating Lou Gehrig declared himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
It was in this cultural environment that immensely important field recordings were made of traditional musicians in America. John and Ruby Lomax covered 6,500 miles of the South in 1939, recording as they went along, while Alan Lomax was busy broadcasting folk music over CBS Radio and helping introduce the world to Huddie Ledbetter. Herbert Halpert looked like a moonshiner hauling a load of hooch as he drove through the South, his vehicle weighted down in back with his heavy recording equipment; his 1939 trip yielded hundreds of important recordings, including those of Mississippi fiddlers Hatcher, Claunch, and Canoy. The WPA had other great documentarians fanning out across the country that year, including Charles Seeger and Stetson Kennedy. 1939 was the heyday of federally-sponsored fieldwork. It took the passage of thirty-plus years, and the efforts of a new generation of field recorders, before we would be blessed with another such comprehensive self-portrait of a musical moment in time.
One of the lesser-known of the field recorders who were at work in 1939 was Joseph S. Hall. In East Tennessee and western North Carolina, a huge cultural upheaval was taking place as entire communities were displaced to make way for the development of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The National Park Service recognized that a trove of heritage would inevitably be lost as the result of the federal government’s decision to preserve and recreate wilderness at the expense of local community life. To mitigate some of the loss, the NPS engaged Hall, a Sorbonne-educated Californian who was studying linguistics at Columbia, to set off into the Smokies and record the speech of the region’s inhabitants. Hall made local Civilian Conservation Corps camps his home-bases, while venturing into communities like Tuckaleechee and Cataloochee with his recording equipment.
Hall was evidently a personable sort who got along well with the people whose culture he was documenting; his love of hunting gave him entrée to the men’s social circles, and women were glad to tell him about their own interests, in which, according to Hall’s recollections, recipes and quilts were prominently featured. And although the main purpose of his research was to document speech, Hall found that music was an integral part of community life in the Smokies, which necessarily found its way onto the recordings as well. This CD, Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, offers a sampling of those musical performances.
One of the fascinating things about this release is that few of the artists presented are members of the pantheon of well-known traditional musicians who were active in the region in 1939. Some may be familiar—for example, fiddler Hardy Crisp was recorded several years later by Margot Mayo, Stu Jamieson, and Freyda Simon. But Hall was really collecting music at a grassroots level, and though some of the musicians he recorded have last names that are strongly associated with old-time music in the region, they’re not the individuals we might predict would be in such a collection; rather than Samantha we have Willis and Dexter Bumgarner, and rather than Grover we have Clarence and Jim Sutton. Because some of the artists recorded were members of the CCC, it’s not certain (though neither is it unlikely) that they themselves were natives of the Smoky Mountains.
Most of the songs and tunes on this disc are standards of old-time and early country music. Because Hall was not focusing his collecting efforts on music, this is not a collection of the sort many OTH readers are accustomed to, in which the musician records a large part of his or her repertoire, reaching back into memory for obscure material. More likely, the people who shared music with Hall were presenting the pieces from their repertoires that they considered their best. For that reason, although most of the music here is not unusual, many of the performances are fairly polished for field recordings.
Among the standout recordings here are five songs sung by Myrtle Conner of Gatlinburg. She has a clear, high voice, and sings in a totally natural manner that draws upon the natural sweetness of her voice rather than stylistic ornaments. She seemed to favor songs of lost love and courtship gone wrong—here she sings a lovely “Kitty Wells,” and the similarly mournful “Little Rosewood Casket,” as well as a cheerful “Paper of Pins” that reminded me of the version sung by Mary Jane Queen of Jackson County, North Carolina. I’d like to hear a whole album of Myrtle Conner’s singing, if there were enough material; I hope there are more recordings of her than these five. Another great plain singer here is Bessie Rabb, recorded in Allens Creek, Haywood County, North Carolina. She has a sharper, more world-weary voice than Conner, ideally suited to the one piece she sings, “Down in the Willow Garden.” There is other unaccompanied singing on this album, including a peculiar “I Started Out A-Courting” sung by Jack Johnson of Tuckaleechee Cove, in Blount County, Tennessee. The lyrics are sort of a blend of familiar versions of “The Old Man Below” with the “Old Shoes and Leggins” story. At times it sounds like Johnson is making up the tune as he goes along, with some curious variances of speed and key. It adds some unintentional entertainment to what’s already an interesting performance, and I quite liked it.
In the close male duets on this album, there’s a clear influence from the recordings of Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris, both fairly local to the region that Joseph Hall covered. In particular, a (cheerful, up-tempo) version of “Conversation with Death” sung by Zeb and Winfred Hannah, of Cove Creek in Haywood County, North Carolina, reminds me of some of the Mainer recordings on Bluebird. Bill Moore and Vic Peterson, recorded in Waynesville, North Carolina, sing in a similar style on “The Ramshackle Shack.” Theirs is an extremely polished performance, as are the other pieces that feature Bill Moore; clearly Moore and some of his partners were at least semi-professional musicians. There’s a nice “Cackling Hen” in which Moore and Paul Buchanan, also a guitarist, back Hardy Crisp’s fiddling.
For the most part these recordings are clean, though muted. Hall did a nice job of balancing the instruments and voices. On a couple of cuts, however, warping of some sort on the original recordings causes pitch changes that had me reaching for the Dramamine. A solid mandolin-led “John Henry” by the Leatherman Brothers of Bryson City, North Carolina, is thoroughly marred by wild pitch changes; it’s good that we have documentation of these two skilled musicians, but it’s quite hard to listen to for reasons that have nothing to do with their performance. Listeners used to the spectrum of sound quality to be found in field recordings of the era will probably take this somewhat in stride, though it will be jarring to broader audiences.
The liner notes include an essay about Joseph Hall written by Michael Montgomery, and an essay, “The Real Music of These Mountains,” by Ted Olson. Montgomery’s contribution will be especially interesting to readers who are intrigued by the whole process of field recording, and the interpersonal and intercultural relationships inherent to many such ventures. Olson’s essay, also excellent, is geared towards a very general audience, and not to those, like readers of the Old-Time Herald, for whom many of the concepts he introduces are givens—the difference between old-time music and later forms, the role of commercial recordings in traditional musicians’ repertoires, and so on. The song notes too offer few surprises for an old-time-immersed audience, but do a very good job of explaining the significance of the pieces for an audience who will be hearing “John Henry” or “Cripple Creek” for the first time. This is the primary audience for whom this CD is intended, as one might guess from the use of the name “song catcher” in the release’s subtitle. That said, there is a great deal of significant old-time music here, and OTH readers will find the album both interesting and enjoyable.
Proceeds from the sale of this disc support the work of the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit organization established more than fifty years ago. For months leading up to the release of Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, the producers searched for surviving artists who recorded music for Joseph Hall. They provided area newspapers with their names, asking relatives or friends to put them in touch, and circulated the lists on social media sites. It seems that the search is ongoing: at the end of the CD’s notes is the request, “If you are one of the performers, or know of somebody who is, please contact Great Smoky Mountains Association so that all surviving musicians may be recognized.” Discovering their music for the first time is a treat, and it would indeed be a great thing to learn more about these artists. Thanks to the Great Smoky Mountains Association for bringing well deserved attention to the early musicians of the Smokies, and to the contributions of Joseph S. Hall.
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