Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy
Edited by Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, Brooks McNamara
Wesleyan University Press, 1996
The editors of this collection cautiously circle their socially explosive topic as though it were a coiled rattlesnake. They adopt a yes-but approach to minstrelsy: Yes, minstrelsy was a shamefully racist phenomenon which degraded and stereotyped African Americans, but it provided the seedbed for all subsequent developments in American popular song, dance, and entertainment. The book's first article thus begins with Frederick Douglass's scathing comment on blackface minstrels as the "filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens." Having established the high ground, the book then examines from several perspectives the fascinating American tradition of blackface minstrelsy.
Minstrel shows were for over 50 years in the 19th century the most widespread form of American popular entertainment. Indeed, minstrelsy enjoyed a run of popularity equivalent to that of rock 'n' roll in our century, from the '40s through the '90s and then declining into decadence. Ironically, by the end of minstrelsy's dominance, it had been largely taken over by African-American performers who went on to shape from minstrelsy's death throes new forms of 20th-century popular entertainment.
By 1890, the minstrel stage as a venue for the popularization of new songs had yielded to the music publishers and the "coon song" craze, some of whose foremost composers were, like Ernest Hogan, African Americans who became the early shapers of Tin Pan Alley. African -American blackface minstrels moved from the traveling minstrel stage onto Broadway, as stars like Bert Williams established the beginnings of African-American theater. Minstrel dancing, the unrecorded nature of which remains a topic of speculation, was almost certainly the origin of African-American tap dance, and 20th-century masters such as the Nicholas Brothers, Honi Coles, and Savion Glover can best trace their ancestry to the work of the mid-19th century African-American minstrel dancer, Master Juba, whose syncopated, lightning steps so enthralled Charles Dickens on his visit to America. And the African influence on American music first formulated in the banjo and fiddle tunes of the minstrel stage moved into formal music with piano ragtime, the compositions of Scott Joplin, and the new orchestral music called "jass."
Followers and practitioners of old-time music will find much of interest and relevance in these studies of minstrelsy. The inexhaustible Robert Winans, for example, has examined all the remaining printed programs of the earliest minstrel shows to try to reconstruct their musical, textual, and instrumental content, and concludes that a "continuous line of development which is worth exploring further exists between early minstrel bands, old-time string bands, and modern bluegrass bands." The frequency of banjo duets foreshadows Da Costa Woltz, one suspects, and the most often-performed song of minstrelsy before 1852, "Miss Lucy Long," survives almost 100 years later in the repertoire of the Skillet Lickers. The list of song titles catalogued by Winans sounds almost like an Uncle Dave Macon set: "Old Dan Tucker," "Going Over the Mountain," "Who's That Knocking," "Old Jaw Bone," "Old Uncle Ned."
Other highlights of this book are Marian Winters's biographical article on the mysterious and tragic Master Juba (William Henry Lane, ca. 1825-1852), the best account of his life and significance we have yet read, and W.T. Lhamon's startling account of the sociological parallels between the rise of minstrelsy and the rise of rock 'n' roll. It occurs to us that the Great Folk Scare of the 1960s could also be placed into historical perspective by Lhamon's theory of the rise of new outlaw vernacular urban musics at periods of social unrest.
Certainly the most prescient article in this collection is one written by one James Kennard, and first published in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1845, barely two years after the first performance of a minstrel show in 1843. In ringing Emersonian rhetoric, Kennard quite accurately predicts the entire future of American vernacular culture as one that will be shaped not by its most honored and educated poets, but rather by the genius of its most despised outcasts, the enslaved American sons and daughters of Africa, whose songs and dances even at second hand were shaping on the minstrel stage a new national art.
Jon and Marcia Pankake
Back to Top
Bob Bovee & Gail Heil - Rural Route 2
Marimac CD 9066 (1996) (51:59)
Bob Bovee-vocals, guitar, harmonica, autoharp; Gail Heil-vocals; fiddle, banjo, guitar.
The Old Chisholm Trail / Westby Waltz / Chased Old Satan Through the Door / The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee / Bill Morgan and His Girl / You've Been a Friend To Me / Crow Black Chicken / Chiney Doll / Gastonia Gallop / Darling Nellie Gray / Eli Green's Cakewalk / I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister / Big Rock Candy Mountain / Nobody's Darling On Earth / Old Jaw Bone / Handsome Molly / Maple On The Hill / I Was Born About 4000 Years Ago.
I have reviewed several of Bob and Gail's previous recordings over the years and have caught them live many times, but this is something special, their first CD. Knowing them as I do, I understand that they'd have preferred to issue a 78 rather than to cave in to modern technology, but I am certainly glad they did. I strongly feel that they have an impeccable sense of old-time aesthetics. They have chosen some great material here, using their usual sources: family members, great musicians and singers from their localities (Gail is from Missouri, Bob from Nebraska, and they've lived in Minnesota for eons), and Golden Age old-time 78 rpm recordings. I've said it before and I'll say it again here - if I were in a working old-time band, I'd be doing a lot of the same material Gail and Bob perform. I love their choice of material and what they do with it. I've also long felt that Bob is one of the great singers of cowboy song alive today. You'll have to look elsewhere to get a large, good dose of that, but the lead-off song on this collection gives us a fine sample taste of "The Old Chisholm Trail." Gail also has some great vocal chords, which she uses especially well when singing Ozark ballads. She does an outstanding job here on Almeda Riddle's "Chiney Doll." And not only do they have superb lead voices, but they harmonize beautifully too. The Carter Family's "You've Been a Friend To Me" and Wade Mainer's "Maple On The Hill" are fine exemplars of this skill. They have a great knack, as well, for carrying off some of the perky old-time novelty pieces without sounding (too) cornball. "Bill Morgan and His Gal," "Crow Black Chicken," and "I Was Born About 4,000 Years Ago" fit into this category and are quite uplifting. And let us not forget their instrumental prowess. Gail hails from the St. Louis area and is well-versed in some regional styles of Missouri fiddling. Her interpretation of the classic ragtime-era piece "Eli Green's Cakewalk," composed by Sadie Kominsky, is a gem, though this is the "folk fiddle" version, only having 3 of the composed parts. Bob is a killer harmonica player too, usually doing his work in a rack while playing guitar, though one wouldn't necessarily know that without seeing him. Savor his "Gastonia Gallop." Bob also is one of my favorite old-time backup guitarists, even stepping out on occasion for a flatpick break. Both are fine banjo players, Gail favoring clawhammer and Bob leaning towards fingerstyle, and Bob even slips in some autoharp on this recording (a necessity on certain Carter Family songs, of course).
Bob and Gail and I share a lot of the same likes and dislikes, so it is natural that I would love their recordings. But sharing such aesthetics goes far beyond the bounds of friendship. If I did not know them at all I would still greatly enjoy them, based solely on the quality of their music.
To order: Marimac Recordings, PO Box 447, Crown Point, IN 46307
Back to Top
Bob Carlin - Banging and Sawing
Rounder CD 0197
Fretted and fretless banjo-Bob Carlin; guitar-Norman Blake, Jeff Claus; fiddle-Judy Hyman, Bruce Molsky, Brad Leftwich, James Bryan.
Too Young to Marry/Walk Along John/Ninety Degrees/Ora Lee/Far in the Mountain/Geese Honking/Old Sledge/Ten Yards of Calico/Paddy on the Turnpike/Indian on a Stump/Hosses in the Canebreak/Cuttin' at the Point/Grasshopper Sitting on a Sweet Potato Vine/Chinese Breakdown/Cider/Back Step Cindy/Farewell Trion/Black Snake Bit Me on the Toe/Little Boy, Little Boy/Big Footed Man in the Sandy Lot/Pretty Polly Ann/Spring Creek Gal.
Lester Flatt said that all you used to need for a band was a fiddle and a banjo, and certainly that combination has been a historical and artistic mainstay of southeastern old-time music. One might fear, however, that a long CD of fiddle/banjo duets, with no vocals, might be trying listening for all but the most avid aficionados. Not to worry. Master banjo-picker Bob Carlin has varied the musical textures by playing a program of fine tunes, some well-known, others not, with four excellent fiddlers and pushing his vituosity on the clawhammer banjo from sparkling melody-doubling, to rhythmic seconding, to compelling thumping and sliding on fretless banjo. And an occasional guitar rounds out the classic string band.
These are not brand new recordings; they were recorded between 1982 and 1985 and many were originally issued by Rounder. This CD is expanded with eight previously unreleased cuts.
With the exception of "Ninety Degrees," an original tune by fiddler Brad Leftwich (it is a beautiful archaic-sounding modal piece), all the tunes are traditional, and credit is given in the ample notes by Carlin, Bobby Fulcher, and the late Guthrie T. Meade, to sources ranging from living players like Clyde Davenport to early commercial releases. I'll try to single out a few of my favorite cuts. "Geese Honking," a Burnett and Rutherford tune by way of Clyde Davenport, is neatly fiddled by James Bryan; even sweeter is Bryan's fiddling on the lonesome "Farewell Trion," a Mack Blalock tune. Perhaps the tightest fiddle/banjo playing here is on "Paddy on the Turnpike," where Brad Leftwich's fiddle and Carlin's banjo work their way around the rhythmic and melodic intricacies of the Irish-American tune in perfect but not overbearing synch, the banjo fading back ooccasionally, so as not to overstate what the fiddle is doing. "Indian on a Stump," fiddled by Bruce Molsky, is an old southern tune that made its way into the repertoire of Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa. The famous Melvin Wine tune, "Old Sledge," is skillfully fiddled by Judy Hyman, with guitar by her husband Jeff Claus; on the B-part of the tune, the fiddle drops into a shuffle rhythm and Carlin's fretless banjo carries the melody with bass slides up and down the neck. Hyman has a penchant for a characteristic device of southeastern fiddling, surely derived from African-American playing - syncopated bowing that slurs from the last beat of a measure into the beginning of the next. I like the verve with which Hyman handles this on "Little Boy, Little Boy"; to my taste she overdoes it a bit in "Too Young to Marry," though Carlin's banjo is with her all the way.
By the way, Bruce Molsky likes this rhythmic technique too, and uses it artfully on "Walk Along John," an Oklahoma tune that the notes tell us is related to "Stony Point." I don't think so! "Stony Point" is in the "Pigtown Fling" family, and this is just "Walk Along John (With your Paper Collar On.)" Just a minor quibble. This is a wonderful disc that should be in the collection of anyone who values what the some of best of today's generation of old-time musicians are doing with the bountiful legacy of fiddle-banjo music.
Back to Top
Roy Carrier & the Night Rockers - Offshore Blues & Zydeco
Chubby Dragon CD 1003
Roy Carrier-accordion and vocals; Raymond Randle-guitar; Kevin Carrier-scrub board and chorus vocals; Ronald Carrier-bass; Troy Carrier-drums.
Chicago/Who Got Her?/I'm the One You Need/My Baby Don't Wear No Shoes/Kansas City/Hot Pepper/Leaving Lawtell/Living in the USA/Teebu/Black Snake Is in My Room/You Stole My Love/Tired of Worrying/She's In Love with the Zydeco/Let the Good Times Roll/Zydeco's Back Again/Mama Don't Know/You Don't Have To Go/You Got Me Dancing./You Used To Call Me In the Morning/On My Way Back Home.
Roy Carrier, from Lawtell, Louisiana, comes of a long line of notable Zydeco and Creole musicians including (on his father's side) the old-time Creole fiddler Bebe Carrier and his accordion playing brother Eraste, and (on his mother's side) the legendary Clifton Chenier. Roy's son, Chubby Carrier, is himself a well-known contemporary Zydeco musician who leads the Bayou Swamp Band. The family tree has provided Roy Carrier with his entire band (with the exception of guitarist Raymond Randle): son Troy (who started off on scrub board at age nine) plays the drums, while nephews Ronald and Kevin handle the bass and scrub board chores. This is very common in Zydeco music; Boozoo Chavis, John Delafosse, and Delton Broussard (to name just a few) all included their sons in their bands, while Clifton Chenier was accompanied by his brother Cleveland on rubboard.
On this, their first album, Roy Carrier and the Night Rockers hold forth with a really good version of "typical" traditional southwest Louisiana Zydeco: danceable, rhythmic, unaffected and fresh. There is nothing startlingly original here, but the production is honest and straight-forward, and doesn't sound tired or over-produced. The material is standard-issue Zydeco, the non-slick version. Roy Carrier covers several of Clifton Chenier's hits, and, while he claims credit on songs like "Leaving Lawtell" and "Chicago," these are clearly takeoffs on Boozoo Chavis. In fact, my daughter came into the room during "Leaving Lawtell" and asked if it was Boozoo playing! (This is the same daughter who at age four mistook the Stanley Brothers for Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher).
I must add that this practice of writing (and copyrighting) new songs which are practically indistinguishable from someone else's song is very, very common in both Cajun and Zydeco music; since it's impossible to pin down exactly which musician originally came up with these ideas, they are wide open for use by anyone who chooses to do so. Zydeco music seems especially well-suited to this process, being based on repeated riffs more than on melodic or harmonic structure. To me, this borrowing represents a nice continuum of the oral tradition; however, it also means that original material on an album doesn't necessarily mean that there is anything actually original on it! Thus, "I'm the One You Need" is very much like Clifton Chenier's "Tous Les Jours C'est La Meme Choses," while "Leaving Lawtell" strongly resembles Boozoo Chavis' "Doghill."
Roy Carrier pays homage to his R&B influences as well. "You Stole My Love" reminds me of Junior Parker's "Next Time You See Me." "Tired of Worrying" is pure Muddy Waters (it even talks about getting a mojo hand). "Living In the USA" echoes both Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. The R&B material in particular is helped a great deal by guitarist Raymond Randle's fine electric guitar licks.
The booklet is very nicely put together; it includes a Carrier family tree, a map of the part of southwest Louisiana from which the Carriers come, and good biographical information and photos of all the band members. I appreciate knowing something about the musical background of the players, and the family relationships add an extra dimension to the liner notes.
Finally, a caveat: I don't know if this album will be of enormous interest to all readers of the Old-Time Herald. It's definitely modern, teeming with electric guitar and electric bass, and is a whole lot closer to '50s rhythm and blues than it is to any kind of hillbilly music. It was put out by Ray Alden's label, Chubby Dragon. Ray Alden is a longtime old-time music stalwart who, among his many accomplishments, was responsible for the Young Fogies and American Fogies albums which he recorded on his trips across the U.S. He also for many years booked the old-time music stage at the Hudson Clearwater Revival Festival, and has been a great supporter of all kinds of old-time music for decades. Thanks, Ray!!
Suzy Rothfield Thompson
To order: Chubby Dragon Productions, 124 Quaker Bridge Road, Croton, NY 10520
Back to Top
Double Decker String Band - Chasing Rainbows
Marimac Recordings 9065D
Bruce Hutton-banjo, banjo uke, banjo mandolin, harmonica, guitar, Oahu guitar, vocal; Craig Johnson-fiddle, banjo, vocal; John Beam-guitar, banjo, banjo guitar, banjo uke, vocal.
Don't Get Trouble in Mind/Goin' To Germany/Old Melinda/Mary, Don't You Weep/When the Sun Go Down/The House of the Rising Sun/Cahsing Rainbows/I Got Shoes/The Deacon's Calf/Crippled Turkey/Jake Limber Leg Blues/Where the Gates Swing Outward Never/Raise a Ruckus Tonight/Viola Lee Blues/Saro/Echoes of the Ozarks/Waiting for Me/Keno the Rent Man/Darlin Corey/Down the River I Go.
It seems that each decade since the 1960s has produced one or two "star" revival old-time string bands that captured a national following in this relatively small, but immensely (in my view, and surely that of the readers of the OTH) important musical genre. First (in the late '50s, actually), came the pioneering New Lost City Ramblers, painstakingly studying the best models - mostly the early 78s - and injecting the spirit, poetry, and even the socio-political content of the music into the consciousness of urban audiences; in the '70s, the Highwoods String Band came to the fore, reigniting the Skillet Lickers' spark, and at about the same time the Hollow Rock String Band and its successor, the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, were mining pre-commercial era musical veins; the Double Decker string band came to prominence in the next decade, and is going strong, as this review will cheerfully assert. And maybe, the Freight Hoppers will be the old-time band of the '90s and the post-millenium? Of course this "top band" ranking is in a way contrary to the spirit and function of the music, which now as earlier works locally, with many excellent bands providing dance and entertainment music for their home communities, reaching beyond through touring, festivals, and media to greatly varying degrees. But this is America, where one must factor in airplay and fame, and my last OTH informed me that the Freight Hoppers' first release, and the CD at hand, the Double Deckers' Chasing Rainbows are getting top airplay in their category.
The Double Deckers indeed have a winner with this superb release. They work at the important crossroads of southern traditions: vocal and instrumental, and white and black, sacred and worldly. Their intent seems to be mainly to play and sing good music, and the entertain their listeners, but deeper poetic and social messages come across as they reinterpret for today's audiences songs recorded mainly in the '20s and '30s, but which reach farther back, at times into the 19th century. The instrumental work is right on, sensitive but not overstudied or slick, with melody carried on fiddle and occasionally harmonica, with various banjos, guitars, and their hybrids providing rhythm. There is singing on most cuts - solo, duo, and rich trio harmony. Where many newer string bands have an instrumental/vocal time break, with the instruments playing "way back yonder" sounds but the voices singing along in a here-and-now manner, the Double Deckers have a roots-of-the-music authenticity to their singing, without affected immitation: we hear their own honest encounter with southern singing styles.
The Double Deckers sing a few songs reflecting various southern religious attitudes. "Where the Gates Swing Outward Never" presents a totally sincere vision of the hereafter - what else could be expected from a song recorded by Emry Arthur, main source of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow"? "Waiting for Me," credited to the Carolina Ladies' Quartet, is sung a capella, in an equally affecting manner. "Mary, Don't You Weep," adapted from a recording by the Georgia Yellowhammers, is a different matter: the verses mix the religious with the comic and ironic, much like the Skillet Lickers' "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" and like the latter may have evolved as a white parody of Negro spirituals. The early white singers probably felt uncomfortable with the intensity and pain of the African-American spirituals, and needed to modify them with secular and humorous elements. There is no such equivocation in the Double Deckers' creditable rendition of a chain gang spiritual, "When the Sun Goes Down," originally recorded from anonymous singers by Lawrence Gellert, a great documentor of black protest songs.
"Raise a Ruckus Tonight" is a famous song that reflects a bitter yet humorous view of slavery and later social conditions in the South, that was sung by generations of black and white singers - whites may have learned something from it. One day, maybe a hundred years from now, singers may be able to go back to singing "she brings me chicken from the white folks' yard" rather than "the rich folks' yard" that we all sing (appropriately) today; the song is or at least was about race, not just social class. Anyway, the Double Deckers do a fine job with this song; their version is from many sources including the Georgia Yellow Hammers, who, as the notes say, "sometimes included the black musicians Jim and Andrew Baxter."
There are some good blues and jug band performances here: "Jake Limber Leg Blues," a Mississippi Sheiks song, and a very fine interpretation of Cannon's Jug Stompers' "Viola Lee Blues," with John Beam approaching Noah Lewis' lyricism on the harmonica, and good jug-blowing by Bruce Hutton. Less successful is "Goin' to Germany," another Cannon's Jug Stompers song - the singing is less "deep" and obsessive, and although no law says a jug band tune must be played with a jug, I miss that sound here. Not exactly a blues, but in the zone between blues and early string-band sound is "House of the Rising Sun"; the Double Deckers successfully wedded Woody Guthrie's minor modal melody to a bouncing fiddle line that reminds me of Fred Price's playing, and major chords in the back-up.
The title cut is a raggy, mandolin-led song, originally recorded by the Dallas String Band; the lively instrumental work and tight vocals completely rescue the song from its outrageously trite lyrics - "there is nothing I can do while that I am feeling blue but chase those rainbows in my soul." (The funny cover illustration by John Beam shows a fleeing rainbow, about to be impaled by banjo and clobbered by a fiddle.)
This collection also provides a grab-bag of fiddle tunes and folk-lyrics. Outstanding are "Don't Get Trouble in Mind," melding full string band with full trio vocals. Craig Johnson's fiddling of "Echoes of the Ozarks" does justice to this classic tune. Worth the price of the CD (I guess I can use that cliche once every five years) is "Down the River I Go"; the Double Deckers took an archival a capella song from West Virginia, and came up with a setting featuring duo singing backed by two banjos and banjo uke - great song, great performance.
The Double Deckers play some of the finest old-time music recently recorded on this CD, and they have also given us an updated patchwork of southern historical, social, and cultural lyrics and musical styles.
Back to Top
Mark Gardner with the Skirtlifters - Songs of the Santa Fe Trail and the Far West
MLG Recordings 01 (1996) CD (32:44)
Mark Gardner-fretless banjos, vocals, bones, drum; Clarke Buehling-fretless banjos; vocals; Tom Verdot-fiddle; Kelly Mulhollan-parlor guitar, vocal.
Uncle Sam and Mexico/Uncle Sam's Song to Miss Texas/California Bloomer/Joe Bowers/Calabra (Culebra) Waltz/The Battle Call/Fort Dodge/Fandango/Home Sweet Home! /Jim Along Josie/March de Los Novios/Doniphan's Expedition.
The principal character in this endeavor is one Mark Gardner, who, from his address on the cover, hails from Cascade, Colorado. Cascade has a population of about 1,000 and can be found just down the road from the U. S. Air Force Academy, near Colorado Springs. That would put him geographically in a place where he could relatively easily research the history of the Santa Fe Trail and the music that accompanied those pioneers who made the trek. Gardner states in the notes that this CD is primarily a sampling of the music of the Santa Fe Trail (1821"18801880) though other Western music from the mid-19th century also appears here. He has dug deep to unearth some obscure lyrics from old songsters and collections. His research has also led him to reasonable conclusions about what instruments probably were used to accompany such songs. His personal instrument of choice is a fretless banjo, played in the stroke style. To assist him in the reconstruction of historical musical accompaniment, Mark has enlisted the Arkansas-based group, The Skirtlifters, who are renowned for such musical reconstruction. Clarke Buehling, in fact, also built the tack-head banjos, styled after mid-19th century instruments, used on this recording. The songsters used for the resource material often indicated a melody in which to set the lyrics printed therein. When known, these airs have been rendered by this ensemble, and when unknown, they have used best guesses to determine a similarly appropriate tune of the era that would scan to the words. Unquestionably a lot of painstaking effort has gone into producing this recording. I applaud such effort and academic endeavor. But what is it that doesn't connect for me? Something is missing. The Skirtlifters and Mr. Gardner make an admirable effort to place the music in a proper historical context, but it comes across a bit too stiff. I sense that they did not have quite enough time to work together on this project to make it all blend and feel more comfortable, more familiar. It often is forced. Gardner has a pleasant, but contemporary-sounding, voice. It does not conjure up in my mind's ear that it is a voice heard in a pioneer prairie schooner (OK, probably wrong era, sorry); it's just not grizzled enough, or maybe it lacks an authoritative accent; I'm not sure just what though. I just am not convinced. With such effort expended to make the accompaniment "just right" (whether one feels it is "affected" or an "historical recreation" is nearly irrelevant here, for it is the way they chose to attack this project. ) I am uncomfortable with the lack of an historical vocal style (whatever that might be). The end result is not bad, mind you, it just is not convincing for me.
Taken at face value however, the singing and playing are all pleasant. Some of the melodies will be quite familiar to most listeners, though the settings will be slightly different than the pop-culture versions of these tunes. The lyrical content is quite interesting, especially to those interested in the poetry of the middle of the last century. But I must note with some irony that the only song that really felt natural, felt right, to me is the one ending the CD, Gardner's solo performance of "Doniphan's Expedition." Here is the only occasion where I felt that voice and banjo truly and entirely meshed in a comfortable union. The irony, you ask? This is the only "modern" song on the recording, penned by Gardner himself in 1984, recounting a part of the Mexican War.
To order: Mark L. Gardner, PO Box 879, Cascade, CO 80809
Back to Top
Scott Jackson - Shanty Tunes: Hammered Dulcimer
Self Produced CD
Scott Jackson-hammered dulcimer; Dana Hamilton-second hammered dulcimer; Shanda McDonald-fiddle; Jean Roberts-bass; Todd Noyes-guitar; Betty Odum-banjo, mountain dulcimer, pennywhistle; Annette Lindsey-piano; Mark Abbott-bass.
Round the Horn/Liberty-Soldiers Joy-Rosetree/The Old Needlecase/Midnight on the Water/Planxty Irvin/Missouri-Blackberry Blossom-Down the Brae/Greensleeves/Waltzing Mattilda/Red River Valley/Sandy River Belle/Margaret's Waltz/St. Anne's Reel/Over the Waterfall/The Children Still Sing/Ol' Rosewood Casket/Black Nag/Southwind/Seneca Square Dance.
Scott Jackson tells us he's been playing since "about 1985." He helped build the dulcimer he's playing (with David Lindsey), a long hammered-dulcimer tradition. This recording is a perhaps a snapshot of old-time instrumental music in the Alvarado/Nachodoches area of the vast musical galaxy of Texas and somewhat beyond, Mr. Jackson's side-persons being members of a number of area bands: The Prairie Land String Band of Oklahoma City, the Johnson County Band, and the Sweet Song String Band. There is nary a whiff of Texas fiddling herein, however. Nor do I see, except for "Round the Horn," any particular evidence that these tunes and pieces came from the seafaring tradition, which is what I always thought the term "Shanty" implied. When we reach cuts like Dana Hamilton's mountain dulcimer/guitar "solo," "Waltzing Mattilda," I'm afraid we have passed from the world of old-time music altogether and into the arcane land of contest dulcimer-playing.
This is, on the other hand, an obviously heart-felt labor of love by Mr. Jackson and his friends. It is certainly pleasant to listen to. His mother produced the excellent cover photograph of Scott at play, and he thanks her for providing him a "Christian environment," and God, as well, for "the ability to play and enjoy the music." Judging by his attire in the photograph, Scott spends some of his playing time in front of an audience. His CD will be a fine souvenir of an evening with Mr. Jackson and friends.
Wm. N. Hicks
To order: Scott Jackson, Rt. 3, Box 71, Alvarado, TX 76009
Back to Top
Peter Kessler and Gail Fratar - Take Me Up
Rolling Robin Records RR037
New Orleans/Gonna See My Baby Tonight/Loose Shoes/Cause I Don't Mean to Cry/Shuffle About-Boys Them Buzzards Are Flyin'/Lorena/One More Ride/Go and Leave Me Never/Old Spinning Wheel-Drifting and Dreaming/My Ollie Is Waiting For Me/Boatman-Go Long Mule/Rose of My Heart/Leavin' On That Train/Take Me Up/Road By the River.
Kessler and Fratar are two West Coast musicians who are both accomplished instrumentalists and tight harmony singers. Although the liner notes on this CD offer little information about the duo, I know that they have been performing together for years and that is quite evident in the way their singing and playing fit hand-in-glove with each other.
Gail Fratar plays guitar and clawhammer banjo, notably a lovely bit of the latter on "One More Ride" and the old Uncle Dave Macon number "My Ollie Is Waiting For Me." She also picks a mandolin duet with Peter on "Shuffle About"-"Boys Them Buzzards Are Flyin.'" Peter Kessler's guitar and mandolin breaks are expertly played, his bluegrass banjo parts on "Take Me Up" and "Loose Shoes" are precise and tasteful, and he adds incidental harmonica on one song. In addition, there is bass on all cuts but one, and usually fiddle, dobro or pedal steel. Three fiddlers share the duties: Ed Neff with a decided bluegrass feel on one, Brantley Kearns playing three with swing and bluegrass licks, and Suzy Thompson with a more old-time style on two.
Their repertoire is rather diverse including five contemporary songs, among those Fratar's originals "Gonna See My Baby Tonight" and "Road By the River." A pair of Delmore Brothers songs, "Leavin' On that Train" and "Cause I Don't Mean to Cry" are given swingy treatment. The Delmores seem to be favorites of these folks and it shows in their solid renditions of these songs. "One More Ride" comes from the Sons of the Pioneers, while Uncle Dave was the source for the above-mentioned "My Ollie" and "Go 'Long Mule." The poignant 19th-century "Lorena" and an interesting "New Orleans (I Love the Best)," gleaned from a Carolina Twins 78, are other high points.
Even with a fair amount of early country material, much of the feel of this recording is contemporary folk-country. Often the instrumental breaks have a more modern approach, particularly the bluegrassy dobro and mandolin on several of the selections, and, of course, the pedal steel guitar. That's not to say that they are not well-played and enjoyable, but don't be expecting really traditional renderings of the songs.
Back to Top
Ozzie Kotani (with Dennis Ladd) - Guitar Playing Hawaiian Style
76 pp., and accompanying cassette tape, 1995
Ozzie Kotani, with the assistance of Dennis Ladd, has produced an excellent introduction to Hawaiian slack key guitar. The reasonably priced teaching package includes an attractive text, guide to techniques common within the style of playing, nine clear tabs of pieces in three different tunings that can easily serve as the basic repertoire of a skilled player, and high quality recordings by Kotani of each piece on an accompanying cassette tape.
Slack key guitar is a indigenous finger-picked style of playing that can be found on all of Hawaii's islands. The earliest recordings were never easily available outside Hawaii, with the possible exception of those by the deservedly influential Gabby Pahinui. Instead, tourists would buy the locally produced 78s and LPs and bring them home to share with small numbers of enthusiasts. This limited distribution has changed recently with the appearance of multiple recordings produced and internationally distributed by George Winston and his Dancing Cat label. One of the recordings, a compilation CD called Hawaiian Slack Key Masters (Dancing Cat 38032) made the lists of several prize winners and "year's best" recordings just a few years ago. Ozzie Kotani appears on this compilation as does Sonny Chillingsworth, Leonard Kwan, Keola Beamer, Ledward Kapana, George Kuo, Raymond Kane, and Cyril Pahinui (Gabby's son).
The origins of the slack key guitar style are lost to the absence of written records and can be reconstructed imperfectly by consulting oral tradition. The most common story of the style's origins begins in the early 1800s when cattle were introduced to Hawaii. In the absence of any natural predators, the cattle reproduced rapidly and began to expand their territory beyond the limits originally imposed on them. In 1832, King Kamehameha approved the hiring of Spanish speaking cowboys from California, which was then part of Mexico. The vaqueros taught native Hawaiians various ranching and herding skills. Some of the vaqueros brought guitars with them and introduced the instrument to Hawaiians. The vaqueros returned home after a few years, having successfully taught ranching skills to their hosts, and left a few guitars behind. In the absence of today's aides such as written instruction books, tuners, and recordings, Hawaiians had to devise their own tunings and playing styles. One result is the fingerpicked style called "slack key," so named because players slack certain strings down to obtain open tunings that allow alternating bass picking patterns on the unfretted lower strings and melodies to be played on the treble strings with straightforward fingerings of the left hand.
In addition to open tunings achieved through slackened strings, another marker of the style is the use of alternating bass notes, played with the thumb that keep a solid rhythm throughout the playing of a tune.+ In the absence of large numbers of players in any specific part of Hawaii, guitarists developed a style in which they could play melody and accompaniment at the same time. A common reaction to hearing a slack key guitarist playing out-of-sight in another room is, "I thought I heard two people playing." A common correction teachers make with their students is, "Melody was okay, but you weren't consistent with the alternating bass accompaniment."Given the dispersal of people across Hawaii's seven inhabited islands, different tunings became used and shared in different parts of the island chain. Many times, tunings became common within extended families and would be part of the tradition handed down from fathers, uncles, and aunts to sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews. Estimates are that about 40 tunings have become common enough to be represented on commercial or archival recordings, but most skilled slack key guitarists today use no more than ten. If there were tunings that were once closely guarded family secrets, this is probably impossible today given the skills and excellent ears of guitarists who can hear an open chord played and then recreate it immediately from memory.
Up until the early 1970s, instruction in slack key guitar occurred within families or close friendships, or through informal classes organized by Hawaii's Departments of Recreation, community colleges, continuing education programs out of high schools and colleges, and the occasional back-of-the-stage jam session at concerts and festivals. These approaches continue with the addition of printed instruction books, the first appearing in 1973. Other printed and audio-visual teaching materials have followed with reasonable frequency over the last 20 years. Until the appearance of this book-audio tape combination by Ozzie Kotani, however, most other instructional materials have had one or more problems that have limited their usefulness. These problems include quirky and unstandardized tablatures; local production and printing without attention to adequate distribution; books based on photocopies of the author's not-very-clear handwritten tablatures; unpredictable moves back and forth from in-print to out-of-print status; unattractive pricing of materials leading to sticker shock among potential buyers; the absence of readily available recordings to demonstrate tunes summarized in the written tablatures; and books that were more treatments of a stellar guitarist's unique style and advanced arrangements than an instruction book geared to students.
This package by Ozzie Kotani avoids the difficulties over which he has some control. The tablatures use a standard form (in Hawaii, we say "a standard understandable on the mainland") that will be familiar to guitarists who have benefited from other instruction books on various fingerpicking styles. The tablature clearly indicates the bass notes to be played, and the distinctions (in a piece in 4/4 time) among half, quarter, and sixteenth notes are easy to read. The printing is clear and attractive to the eyes. The accompanying audio tape gives nicely-played presentations of all the tabbed pieces, and guitarists can read along or play along with the tape. Three tunings are introduced on the tape and all six strings are sounded for each so that listeners can change the pitch of strings on their guitars. The open G-tuning is common in Hawaii (lowest to highest: dgdgbd), where it is called "taro patch." Another tuning is called "double slack" (dgdf#bd), and it has the other name of Namakelua's tuning because it was commonly used by Auntie Alice Namakelua, an influential teacher and recording artist. The third tuning introduced is called "drop C" (cgdgbd), sometimes called "Leonard's C" because of its use by Leonard Kwan. It is an especially attractive tuning for tunes in the key of C because of the alternate bass patterns 6th string-5th string and/or 6th string-3rd string when playing the tonic chord. Two of the nine tunes that Kotani plays and discusses are standards that are known to virtually all skillful slack key players: "Maunaloa" and "Manuela Boy." The other seven are original compositions that are very much in the style of traditional and well-known tunes. I would not be the least surprised if several of these seven become jam-session standards over the next few years.
The book begins with treatments of basic slack key techniques and so assumes some familiarity with finger picking, basic chord formations with the left hand, three and four finger picking patterns, and so forth. For people becoming interested in playing guitar for the first time, I would recommend going through a basic fingerpicking instruction book and tape/CD combination before working with this first rate treatment of slack key guitar by Ozzie Kotani.
Distributed by Native Books, PO Box 37095, Honolulu, Hi. 96837-0095; tel: 1-800-887-7751)
Back to Top
Jake Krack - How 'bout that
Jake Krack-fiddle; Brad Leftwich-banjo, fiddle; Bob Herring-guitar; Dara Krack-guitar.
John Brown's Dream/Sweet Sunny South/I'd Rather Be an Old-Time Christian/Elk River Blues/Three Forks of Cheat/Shakin' Down the Acorns/The Logger/Melvin Medley/Greasy Coat/Hail Against the Barn Door/Pretty Polly Ann/Rye Straw/Washington's March/Spring's All Muddy/New Orleans/Bull at theWagon/Bonaparte's Retreat/Big Hoedown/Devil in the Strawstack/ Where We'll Never Grow Old/John Hardy/Napper/Lovely Jane/How 'bout that
It can be a problem to review recordings by very young people: they're young, you don't want to hurt their feelings, you want to encourage their music; on the other hand, music needs to stand on its own, without the cuteness factor. And when people, even young people, go to all the trouble of making a recording, the reviewer must assume they mean to be taken seriously. Luckily for this reviewer, Jake Krack, at 11 years old, deserves to be taken seriously. This CD, with its excellent accompanying band of Brad Leftwich on banjo and Bob Herring on guitar, is a little scary: if Krack can play this well now, what will he be like at 15? 30? 85? I hope I'm still around to hear it.
Jake Krack started with classical violin lessons when he was six, though he was most interested in fiddle music. Finally, when he was nine, Jake and his family found a fiddle teacher - none other than Brad Leftwich. Through Brad, he became immersed in the music of older musicians, particularly Tommy Jarrell and Melvin Wine, whose influences are clearly heard on this album. He has continued to study with Leftwich, and has visited Melvin Wine many times, even receiving an Indiana Arts Commission Grant to study Wine's music and other music of West Virginia.
My first listen through this album, I heard the influences more than the originality. The opening tune, "John Brown's Dream," has the Leftwich rolling sound (which I think, despite closeness to it, is different from the Tommy Jarrell rolling sound), and the first Melvin Wine tune, "I'd Rather Be an Old-Time Christian," sounds just like Melvin - same bowing, same notes, same mood: cheerful, but with depth. By the third listen, I thought I might be hearing some more personal interpretation,particularly on "Greasy Coat."
It's obvious who Krack's teachers are: on the tunes he learned from Leftwich, he sounds like Leftwich, and on the tunes he learned from Wine, he sounds like Wine. For an 11-year-old wonderful fiddler, this is not a problem. He is probably in the absorb-everything-you-can stage of learning music (not that this stage ever ends, but it does shift emphasis somewhat), and is doing exactly what he needs to do to become a truly marvelous fiddler. I'll be curious to hear how the Jarrell/Leftwich/Wine influences end up combining, not combining, or doing whatever they need to do to become Krack's very own.
I suspect that Krack's playing is a little looser and more personal in live jam sessions than it is on this recording (for whom is this not true?): after all, recording puts you on the spot, and can make you less interested in having fun than in playing the music right. This is not to say, however, that Krack's playing is stiff - it's quite fluid; however, I do get a sense of his trying to be true to his teachers, which is perfectly appropriate at this point, and gives each tune wholeness and solidity, not to mention grace. But I do find myself asking what he'll do with all this wonderful groundedness. I would like to sit down and play with him and find out.
This recording is delightful to listen to, not only because of Krack's fine fiddling, but also because of the wonderful band - here's a chance to hear nearly a whole CD's worth of Brad Leftwich's banjo playing. His fiddling and solo banjo-ing are in so much demand that we don't get to hear often enough his banjo in a string-band setting - where it is a true pleasure. And Bob Herring is one of the finest guitar players you could hope for - every strum is clear and deliberate, every bass note chosen on purpose to give a tune shape. Krack's mother, Dara Krack, also provides rich guitar backup on "I'd Rather Be an Old-Time Christian" and "New Orleans." Grey Larsen did a fine job of recording and mixing; the music actually sounds real!
The main thing is that How 'bout that is good to listen to, though it's hard to listen to all the way through, since I keep wanting to stop it, back up, and hear the tunes again, particularly "Spring's all Muddy," "Pretty Polly Ann"(much deeper than the Arthur Smith version), and this very greasy "Greasy Coat." Every tune here is a great tune, each deserving of recognition and play. It is beautiful to hear Ernie Carpenter's "Elk River Blues," especially now that Carpenter himself is gone. "Devil in the Strawstack," "New Orleans," "Napper" - all great tunes. I like that the album starts with "John Brown's Dream," a tune you can't hear too much, and a fine starting point not only for the CD but also for this most promising fiddler.
To order: Wisekrack Records, R.R. 3, Box 207, Spencer, Indiana, 47460.
Back to Top
Jim and Kim Lansford- New Harmony
JL 9601 (cassette only)
Jim Lansford-fiddle; Kim Lansford-piano.
Swamp Lake Reel/The Jaunting Car/Black Sally Goodin/Old Joe/Art Wooten's Quadrille-Oyster River Quadrille/Old Sport-The Baker/The Dead Slave/Otto's Waltz/Lost Indian-Hudson's Bay/The New Lamb/Trafalgar Hornpipe/Cognitive Jig-Corn on the Road/Forester's Hornpipe/Sunday Night Reel-Poppy Leaf Reel-Ivy Leaf Reel/Coming Through the Rye/Niagra Hornpipe-Middletown Hornpipe/Down Home Waltz/New Harmony-The Bride's Reel.
Jim and Kim Lansford are a husband and wife musical team from Galena, Missouri, who have been making a name for themselves as of late with their warm, sincere old-time duet singing and some highly danceable (and easy to listen to) fiddle music. Their latest recording, New Harmony, concentrates on the latter side of the Lansford's multi-faceted repertoire. In this 25-tune collection, the Lansfords draw upon a number of sources for their material - from Missouri Ozark fiddlers Art Galbraith and Lyman Enloe to Canadians Don Messer and John Durocher. In addition, a good percentage of the numbers played here appear in various published tune collections like Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes and R. P. Christeson's Old Time Fiddler's Repertory. Another two are J. Scott Skinner compositions, and Jim composed a couple himself. Despite the seemingly disparate sources and styles of material the overall sound created by Jim and Kim is quite consistent (and good). Throughout, Jim demonstrates his affinity for the playing of northern Missouri-style fiddlers like Cyril Stinnet and Casey Jones and also the playing of Bob Walters of Nebraska, whose fiddling on the radio in Iowa and Nebraska has left a lasting impression on several generations of Missouri fiddlers. Jim's own playing is impeccable - always in tune, smooth and precise, but never at the expense of drive. This is dance music, after all. Kim's piano playing is robust and forceful, in other words, an integral part in the music. She is always on the money - not your average "boom-chuck" back-up here - as she weaves in and out around Jim's fiddling using just the right bass runs and harmonic fills. Not only is the playing throughout quite lovely, but the overall sound quality is top-notch as well. Highly recommended.
To order: Jim and Kim Lansford, Rt. 4 Box 145, Galena, MO 65656
Back to Top
The Laurel Fork Ramblers - Bound To Ride
Arnold Spangler-fiddle, vocal; Melvin Felts-banjo, mandolin; Clara Sutphin-vocal, guitar; Dea Felts-bass.
Bound To Ride/Only A Phonograph Record/Liza Jane/My Main Trial Is Yet To Come/Find 'Em, Fool 'Em, And Leave 'Em Alone/Little Adobe Shack Out West/Darling Cora/Please Mama Stay Home With Me/Katy Daly/Johnny My Lover/Won't You Come And Pal With Me/Little Brown Hand/Got A Mule To Ride/Who's Calling You Sweetheart Tonight/Matthew 24/Pig In A Pen.
The Laurel Fork Travelers, from Laurel Fork, in southwest Virginia, play a brand of old-time music that I hope catches on with the younger generation of old-time and bluegrass music fans. Characterized by a complete lack of pretense and self-consciousness, their music stresses strong, hard-edged harmony vocals combined with the driving rhythm of instrumental dance music. In the Travelers, the vocal chores are ably handled by Arnold Spangler and Clara Sutphin, who sing with an authority that can only be achieved by those intimately familiar with the tradition in which they are performing. The band's instrumentation is pretty standard for that region of the Blue Ridge: fiddle, banjo (played in both clawhammer and two-finger style), two guitars, and string bass. They definitely know their stuff.
While I love this sound, it was the band's choice of material - most of it came from recordings - that immediately won me over. With sources of material like J. E. and Wade Mainer, Charlie Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Molly O'Day, Jim Eanes, and Arthur Smith, what more could one want? Arnold Spangler's fondness for the music of J. E. Mainer shows in his fiddling throughout, as well as in the choice of material like "Liza Jane." "Katy Daly," "My Main Trial Is Yet To Come," and "I've Got A Mule To Ride" come from the Doctor of Bluegrass, Ralph Stanley. The powerful "Matthew 24" was learned from Molly O'Day, probably the greatest of the early women country singers. That this band from Laurel Fork can successfully adapt material from such diverse sources says a lot. I suppose that somewhere there are still a few folks around who are concerned that mass media such as radio and records have had an adverse effect on folk traditions like old-time music. Well, if those folks gave this tape a listen, they would change their tune in a hurry. In the meantime, as long as folks like the Laurel Fork Travelers are around, the future of old-time music is in good hands.
To order: Heritage Records, Rt. 3 Box 290, Galax, VA 24333
Back to Top
Blue Moon Of Kentucky: A Journey Into The World Of Bluegrass And Country Music As Seen Through The Camera Lens Of Photo-Journalist Les Leverett
by Les Leverett (introd. by Charles Wolfe)
Empire Publishing, Inc.,1996, 135 pages
Professional photographer Leverett has been documenting the Nashville scene since 1960. He has a special love for bluegrass and part of this book reproduces photos in the permanent collection of the International Bluegrass Music Association Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. Charlie Wolfe's introduction notes that the book has "tried to avoid using too many pictures of bands performing in front of microphones," correctly observing that there are too many pictures of that sort in publication.
Those presented here include Jim and Jesse McReynolds in 1970 enjoying the companionship of fans in a wooded clearing, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in 1961 swapping fan mail on the bus, a 1972 long-haired Sam Bush regarding a bemused Roy Acuff through a pair of shades, Bill Monroe in 1982, showing off a horse outside a stall in the barn on his farm, and Flatt & Scruggs, Paul Warren and Curley Sechler, enjoying a meal at a roadside stop in Mississippi.
Seventy pages reproduce photos in the IBMA exhibit, along with captions on opposing pages. The rest, informal shots of familiar Nashville stars onstage, backstage, in dressing rooms, studios, at restaurant tables and other comfortable settings, make up the remainder. A nice surprise on page 101 shows Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong in 1970, seated on a Ryman Auditorium bench and clearly enjoying each others' company. Wouldn't it have been nice if a Leverett predecessor had photographed Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers when they met on that 1930 recording of "Blue Yodel No. 9"? You'll also find Conway Twitty, Boxcar Willie, Merle Travis, Carl & Pearl Butler, Minnie Pearl, Hank Snow, Grandpa & Ramona Jones, Sid Harkreader, Kitty Wells and lots more.Les Leverett is a skilled photographer with a knack for capturing his subjects appealingly; those in this collection have been well served.
To order: Empire Publishing, Madison, NC 27025-0717, 910-427-5850
Back to Top
J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers - Run Mountain
J. E. Mainer-fiddle, banjo, vocal; J.E. Mainer, Jr.-guitar, vocal; Glenn Mainer-banjo; Carolyn Mainer Wilson-guitar, vocal; Earl Cheeks-bass, vocal; Otis Overcash-mandolin.
Mississippi Sawyer/Ramshackle Shack/Run Mountain/Short Life of Trouble/If I Lose Let Me Lose/Greenback Dollar/Seven And a Half/Don't Go Out Little Darling/Over In the Gloryland/The Country Blues/Hop Along Peter/He's Coming To Us Dead/Crying Holy/Oh Those Tombs/Rhythm Blues/Two Little Rosebuds/Sally Goodin'/Maple On the Hill/My Home's in Louisiana/Wild Bill Jones/Shake My Mother's Hand For Me/I'm Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail/Mama Don't Allow.
Fiddler Joseph Emmet Mainer's peak years were in the mid-'30s, when he and brother Wade directed ensembles which produced a stream of southern broadcasts and records that successfully retained earlier string band and mountain song traditions, keeping them alive, viable and vibrant. Arguably it was the Mainers' strong presence which later led to the creative old/new sounds of the Roy Hall and Bill Monroe bands of the later 1930s.
J. E. was a fine, rough-hewn fiddler and singer in the Fiddlin' John Carson mold. His fiddling style was losing its appeal by the time of Hall's and Monroe's ascendance, though John Lomax thought enough of Mainer to include his 1936 "On a Cold Winter's Night" in a 1941 RCA folk song album. J. E. recorded only sporadically thereafter: for King in 1946 and 1959, for the California-based Rural Rhythm label in the '60s, and for this set in 1963.
By the time of these 1963 recordings, J. E. was in semi-retirement and playing only informally with neighbors and his grown children Glenn, J. E. Junior and Carolyn. The rough though professional ambience of the 1930s was gone, replaced by the intimate, less formal sound a family making music together and enjoying old songs they've always known. The original Arhoolie LP had 14 cuts; 9 more are presented here for the first time.
Back to Top
Curly Miller and Carole Ann Rose - Camp Meeting: Classic Banjo and Old Fiddle Tunes
Curly Miller-fiddle, banjos, bowed bass; Carole Ann Rose-banjo.
The Last Patrol/Leather Britches/Fight About the Fireside/Harry's Jig-Skiowa Jig-Congo Minor Jig/Slim Gals/Shattuck's Reel-Casey's Hornpipe/Radetzky March/Camp Meeting Jig/Sleepin' Lula-Old Blue Sow/Egyptian Princess/Twin Katy's Reel-Grape Vine Twist Jig/Dar's Sugar In the Gourd/The Jay-Hawk/Wild Horse/Edmonton Ear Boss-Monaghan Twig/Miss DeJersey's Memorial.
Some readers of the OTH may recall Curly Miller from his days with the great Arkansas string band (and banjo orchestra) the Skirtlifters, and wonder what he's up to nowadays. Well, when he and his wife and musical partner Carole Ann aren't growing mushrooms on their farm in the mountains of northwest Arkansas, they're playing some fine music, some which has been captured on this CD. On Camp Meeting, Curly and Carole Ann offer up a nice mix of musical styles and textures. At first it seems as if the material may be broken down into two broad categories--fiddle tunes and classic banjo pieces. But it gets a little more complicated than that. There are some well-known fiddle tunes included here that have found their way into the repertories of the present generation of old-time players via 78 records, published collections (e.g. Christesen's Old-Time Fiddler's Repertory, Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes) and field recordings - "Slim Gal," "Sleepin' Lula," and "Old Blue Sow." These numbers are all played with precision and vigor by Curley on fiddle with Carole Ann providing a kind of rudimentary chordal back-up (clawhammer style) on banjo. It's funky, but good. And I can say, from personal experience, it's great for dancing.
Then there's the stuff here that really grabbed my attention. Curly is also a fine classic style banjo player, and has apparently spent considerable time digging through 19th-century sheet music and tune collections. He has included several such pieces here (including "Radetzky March," a piece by Johann Strauss!), and by over-dubbing a second banjo and bowed bass, he manages to sound like a small band. I found the fiddle material that Curly unearthed and adapted from older published sources especially appealing. Curly and Carole Ann's arrangement of Dan Emmett's highly syncopated and dramatic tune from the minstrel show era, "Camp Meeting Jig," delightfully winds its way through some the oddest melodic twists and turns I've heard.
Although composer credits are given for some of tunes and a short list of printed sources is included in the insert, I would like to see this information covered in more detail. It's obvious that these folks have done a little studying up on their music, but the short shrift given to documentation here makes it seem that these folks are reluctant to give the appearance of being too scholarly in their approach. It's a minor quibble, though. The music speaks for itself.
To order: HCR 65 Box 214, Kingston, AR 72742
Back to Top
Bruce Molsky - Southern Old-time Fiddle Tour
Published By Fiddler Magazine
Julie Ann Johnson/Chinquapin Hunting/Sugar Hill/Sourwood Mountain/Ladies onthe Steamboat/Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase/Dance All Night With A Bottle In My Hand/Hell Broke Loose in Georgia/Suppertime/Grub Springs/Ed Morrison's Schottische/Jack Wilson/Booth/Big Scioty.
Fiddler Magazine produces all kinds of things beyond a quarterly periodical. Their whole thrust is getting learning materials and tunes out there for fiddlers, regardless of stylistic inclination. Typical of the material they produce, this tape of old-time tunes is by Bruce Molsky, a recognized and often revered practitioner of old-time fiddling.
The tape comes with a booklet containing tips on how to use the tape, some of the things to keep in mind when listening to the tape, and some notes about cross-tuning the fiddle. Each tune is listed with tips specific to the tune and some information about the Molsky's source for the tune. There is a discography at the end of the booklet. Throughout, Molsky mentions other related fiddlers or tunes. He makes suggestions in the notes, like playing tunes in different tunings to hear what they sound like on the fiddle. After all, exploring is half the fun.
Molsky quietly says the name of the tune and plays it through solo on the fiddle. After several times through with variations, he plays it through once, slowly. This allows the less initiated to grab the tune. The more observant will notice that many of the tune's embellishments drop away as the tune is slowed down. This is probably to be expected. The more simplified, slowed-down tune is more like the outline of the tune you might find in a tune book. It will sound like the tune, but will not have all the nice touches that the tune can carry. There are probably very few who could not learn something from this tape.
The more experienced fiddler will know most, if not all, of these tunes, or at least be aware of them. This is a learning tool and will help the beginner to intermediate fiddler gain in ear training and repertoire. The fiddling is excellent and it is so nice to have a solo recording of Bruce Molsky's fiddling! This tape has lived in my truck tape player rotation for some months now.
To order: Fiddler Magazine P.O. Box 125 Los Altos, CA 94022. The tape and booklet are $12.00 + $2.00 s & h.
Back to Top
The Phillips Collection of Traditional American Fiddle Tunes, Volume Two: Rags, Blues, Hornpipes, Waltzes, Polkas, Jigs, etc.
By Stacy Phillips
Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
I sat down to explore this book with my friend Mary, an excellent sight-reader and bluegrass fiddler who is somewhat familiar with old-time music. The first thing she said, looking at the music, was "These slurs look funny." She explained that slurs usually go directly from the center of one note to the center of another, but here the slurs sometimes extend to the outsides of the notes, or sometimes enclose one note but not the other. We speculated that music-writing software may have been at fault. Then her husband walked by and started flipping through the book. "Look at all these great tunes," he said. "We have to get this book."
The first tune we played was "Lost John," a tune she'd been wanting to learn. Both Kenny Baker and Ralph Troxell are given as sources for this tune, and I was mystified as to how both sources could be properly attended to in one piece of written music. It sounded pretty much like the "Lost John" I knew - the Ralph Troxell one - although quite a bit smoother, possibly since the person playing it has an impeccable bow arm and excellent intonation. After playing it though, she wasn't sure if it was the "Lost John" she'd meant to learn. She liked it anyway.
We went on to Jim Bowles' "Christmas Eve," because I wanted to hear how a really strange and bumpy old tune would come out translated into writing and back into fiddling again. This one sounded pretty darn close to the original, but Mary was so surprised by the tune's strangeness that she found it hard to play convincingly, and it came out sounding like a string of notes instead of a tune. In this case, I think the written music would be helpful as a companion to the recording. If Mary had heard the original, she would have been able to comprehend what the notation suggested.
When we embarked on "Cherry River Rag," I began to appreciate the enormity of the task Stacy Phillips set for himself in producing this book. He had to average Ed Haley's brilliance out into a few lines of notation: the tune sounded like the notes of "Cherry River Rag" to me, but it put the odd ending tag regularly at the end of the first B part instead of where Haley put it - sometimes at the end of the first A part, sometimes at the end of the first B part, and sometimes neither of those places. Haley also played each part an unpredictable number of times, and there's no written indication here that the player might decide where or when to play that phrase or the part it's in. There's also no indication that this is a fast tune. After I suggested that Mary speed it up, it sounded a little better. Certainly no law says "Cherry River Rag" has to be a fast tune - but to me, that's how the tune goes, and it seems strange to leave it out.
Your opinion of this book might depend on whether you believe a tune can be averaged, or on whether you think a tune exists only in its idiosyncrasies, differing from moment to moment, player to player. I admit to changing my mind about this all the time, depending on my purpose, but am generally of the cantankerous view that tunes don't exist at all in the abstract, only in the playing, and that therefore a book of written old-time tunes is an impossibility.
However, even non-extremists might see that any book that purports to present traditional American fiddling in written form automatically gets itself into a fix, since very often the people who know something about how old-time music sounds do not read music; conversely, the people who do read music often don't know much about how old-time music sounds. Those who will find this book most useful are probably those like Mary, who inhabit the overlap. They will be able to add or discover what is missing from the written pieces.
Innocent bystanders who run across this book might be intrigued by all the interesting tune titles, while beginners who can read music but can't find people to play with might be thrilled to find all these tunes written out, and might run gleefully off to their rooms to learn as many as possible. Many competent or even expert old-time musicians who can read music might find this book a helpful reminder of how tunes go. But old-time music fanatics, whether or not they read music, if they are interested in the histories of tunes, in the details of bowing and style, might find themselves disconcerted when they find the seemingly nonsensical attributions here. For example, in this book Ruthie Dornfeld is given as the source of "Logan County Blues," and nothing at all is said about Fred Cockerham. Of course it may be true that Phillips transcribed Dornfeld's playing for the book; but the fanatics described above will not see the point of that, believing, perhaps, that Cockerham is "Logan County Blues."
Some of those named as sources here might also be a little disconcerted to find that the sources they have learned from and cared about are not often named. Several contributors that I spoke with feel that their own names are given undue prominence.
Any players of old-time music, whether or not they read music, who believe that listening to sources and playing with others is the only way to really learn, and whose goal is not necessarily to know more tunes but to play loved tunes well, might be unable to imagine what the use of this book might be.
Phillips claims that this "book is meant to serve as . . . a snapshot of what fiddlers are playing in the latter part of the twentieth century." But in fact it does not. True, many of the tune sources here are musicians who are playing now, among them Armin Barnett, Kerry Blech, James Bryan, Bob Carlin, Ruthie Dornfeld, Jay Ungar, and Stuart Williams. But many tunes are listed as being from earlier sources such as French Carpenter, Ed Haley, Hoyt Ming, Doc Roberts, Arthur Smith, and John Salyer. I think that the well-meaning player sitting down to learn a tune from this book can't really be sure what she's getting. This problem might have been somewhat mitigated had brief biographies of the named sources been included. As it is, there's nothing to tell someone who doesn't already know that Armin Barnett is presently alive and playing in Seattle, Washington, and his fiddling has been influenced by the great Indiana fiddler John Summers, or that Ed Haley died a long time ago, so we can only figure out how he played by listening carefully to some very funky old recordings and interpreting as best we can according to what we know about how various fiddle techniques produce different fiddle sounds.
But Phillips tells us also that "This compilation is not meant to teach how to fiddle. . . . There was no room for discussion of the performance details of these melodies. The way to learn is to watch, listen and practice."
Then what is this book for? It's meant "to serve as a reference to the fiddler's repertoire," says Phillips. But what kind of reference? "I did not always opt for the oldest, putatively most authoritative setting of a melody but chose clear recordings of proficient fiddlers . . . who have absorbed a feel for tradition-based genres," says Phillips: While these are not exact transcriptions (which would entail some dense notation and analysis), each adaptation has been carefully chosen for representing interesting and authentic versions. In some cases I have consolidated elements from a couple of renditions to illustrate some possible variations. And he adds, "There are purposely no geographical information or stylistic descriptions of most of these pieces. Due to the complex interactions of melodies and styles from diverse regions over so many years, I think it is ultimately misleading to label most pieces as Southeastern Texas or 'Round Peak. . . ."
It's clear that what many old-time musicians believe is important has been left out of this book. When then remains?
Well, after "Cherry River Rag," Mary and I played a bunch more tunes from the book, this time aiming for ones I hadn't heard of before. Mary enjoyed "Galloping Fiddle," from Dale Potter, with the A part in D and the B part in B-flat. We played through several very lovely waltzes too. As the guitar player, I was pleased to notice that the guitar chords given are both useful and minimal, so that anyone with more elaborate taste can add chords as they wish, but plain tastes can be satisfied too. There are indeed some pretty cool tunes here, tunes in the regions of fiddle music too often ignored by players who need to have a passel of 32-bar tunes ready for dances. This is a tome if I ever saw one - approximately two tunes to a page, 370 pages.
Many of these rags and schottisches and "listening" tunes have some great dog-leggy twists to them. The waltz section could be a book in itself, and contains a range from archaic to Texas-y. In the long run, if this book promotes music-playing without distracting from music-listening, if people enjoy the tunes they learn from it, and if the arguments they have over it are amusing, informative, and not too antagonistic, then I guess the it's OK.
Back to Top
Charlie Poole - Charlie Poole And The North Carolina Ramblers, Volume 2
County CD 3508
Charlie Poole-banjo & vocal; Roy Harvey-guitar; Odell Smith, Lonnie Austin or Posey Rorer-fiddle.
If the River was Whiskey/Bill Mason/Baltimore Fire/Honeysuckle/My Gypsy Girl/Ragtime Annie/It's Movin' Day/Budded Rose/A Kiss Waltz/Jealous Mary/Wild Horse/If I Lose, I Don't Care/There'll Come A Time/Southern Melody/Mother's Last Farewell Kiss/One Moonlight Night.
Now that the issue of old-time CDs is on the upswing, it would be easy to pass on this re-reissue. But don't. This volume includes all of the old County 509 & about a third of the County 540 LP. It really deserves to be in everyone's library.
For the few who may not be familiar with Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, it's one of the all time classic string bands of the Golden Era and literally defines the Piedmont style.
Charlie plays a rippling finger style banjo. The guitar connects the chords with solid bass runs, while the fiddle glides sweetly above it all. It's a surprisingly full sound for three pieces. They play sentimental songs from traditional sources and Tin Pan Alley as well as snappy dance tunes.
While there are three different fiddlers, the sound never varies thanks to Charlie's distinctive banjo, vocals, and strong personality. The songs are basic to old-time and bluegrass repertoire and have even been illustrated by R. Crumb of Zap comic fame. (Of course the band hailed from Leakesville, Spray and Draper: the greater, metropolitan LSD area.)
The sound quality is very good and Charlie Poole and company are about as accessible as it gets. So even if reissued 78s aren't your cup of tea, this is worth a listen or two.
Like any self respecting Charlie Poole recording should, this disc has great tales of Charlie and his exploits written by Kinney Rorrer. Related to both Charlie and the primary fiddler, Posey Rorer, Kinney seems to have made promoting, playing, propagating and preaching the gospel according to Charlie his life's work. It would indeed be a wonderful world if all of the classic old-timers each had their own "Kinney." Of course, in a perfect world we wouldn't have volumes 1 & 2 but a big, juicy box set with the entire works of the North Carolina Ramblers, as well as the Highlander sides, previously unseen photos, maybe some Roy Harvey cuts and a mess of Kinney's "Poole tales."
While that doesn't seem to be forthcoming, this issue , along with volume 1 puts about 100 minutes of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers on the most durable recording medium currently available. That should help us all sleep a little better at night, especially when played on a bedside CD player.
A definite desert island choice.
Back to Top
Primitive Characters - The Leavin's
Chubby Dragon CD 1002
Sandy Stark-fiddle and vocals; Mike Donoghue-banjo; Chip Smith-guitar and vocals; Jim Reidy-banjo-ukelele and lead vocals; Paul Strother-bass and low vocals.
Elzik's Farewell/She's Got the Money Too/Fourteen Days in Georgia/Jordan Is A Hard Road/Crazy Creek/Just Gimme the Leavin's/Kennedy Rag/A Tiny Broken Heart/Chinquapin Hunting/Southern Moon/Jenny on the Railroad/Ways of the World/Willow Garden/Shady Grove/Polecat Blues/Saddle Up the Gray/Farmer's Daughter/Pretty Little Dog/It Won't Happen Again for Months/Lost Gal/Eyes Like Cherries/Durang's Hornpipe.
Old time fiddle music has quite a few unsung heroes: great musicians who are un- or under-recorded for various reasons. Hank Bradley leaps to mind, although he has recorded a few hard-to-get albums. Sandy Stark is another fiddler who has been playing fabulous music for decades, inspiring and influencing generations of players, and yet has never been recorded until now.
I had the great good fortune to play fiddles with Sandy about 20 years ago when, for a short time, we played in a band together. The band dabbled in a lot of different musical styles which was frustrating for Sandy who wanted only to play old-time stringband music; she was miles ahead of me in her pursuit of southern old-time fiddling, and left the band after a few months to pursue her other muse, photography (she is now a professor of Photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston). But during her short stint in the Bay Area, she had an effect on every fiddler who heard her play, including future luminaries like Laurie Lewis.
The Primitive Characters puts Sandy Stark's chugging fiddle, replete with broad bow sweeps and swoops, squarely in front. She is ably backed by Chip Smith's straightforward rhythm guitar (which makes effective and subtle use of bass runs), while Mike Donoghue's banjo blends whimsically with the redoubtable Jim Reidy's banjo-uke. The whole thing is anchored by Paul Strother's acoustic bass (which is a bit less audible in the mix than I would have liked - maybe it isn't even playing on all the songs?)
The Leavin's is chock-full of lovingly-played good old favorites; of the 21 selections on the album, the only one (with one exception which I 'll get to later) I hadn't heard before was "Pretty Little Dog." Songs from the likes of the Poplin Family, Uncle Dave Macon, and the Louvin and Delmore Brothers are interspersed with instrumentals from Byron Berline, Benton Flippen, andof course the prolific "trad." The Primitive Characters scrupulously credit their sources in the liner notes. For example, their tongue-in-cheek comment on "Eyes Like Cherries": "A song of beauty, love and commitment from the Poplin Family."
The instrumental tunes are, without exception, bursting with energy; even the slow tunes pulse with intensity while remaining deliberate in tempo. To me, Sandy's bowing is the most striking aspect of her fiddling, but on this album I also appreciate her intonation (not the "in tune" which Nashville session players strive for), which reveals how deeply she has assimilated southern old-time fiddle sounds, although her playing never sounds studied or contrived. Most impressive to me is the way she makes use of the fifth, using one finger to fret two strings. If you've ever tried to play the fiddle, you know how hard it is to to do this in tune! Rhythmically she never strays from the groove, interspersing subtleties of syncopation into the music without ever sounding mannered. I love the spontaneous quality of her playing and can easily visualize her arms-akimbo up-and-down motion as I listen to her fiddling on this CD.
The Primitive Characters, like most old-time stringbands today, tend to shine more as pickers than as singers. Jim Reidy, credited on the liner notes as the lead singer, does fine with humorous songs like "She's Got the Money Too" and the title song. The group harmony singing on ""It Won't Happen Again For Months" (my favorite song on this album) is perfect and makes excellent use of Paul Strother's big ole bullfrog croak of a voice. The sentimental songs are a mixed bag, but, to their credit, the Primitive Characters resist falling into the trap of over-emoting. "Farmer's Daughter" and "Willow Garden" (sung very nicely by Sandy) are both treated in a natural, unaffected way. On the Louvin Brothers' "Tiny Broken Heart," the balance between the two voices didn't feel quite right to me, and the intonation was sometimes off.
A mystery, which perhaps one of you readers can help clear up, is that of the "Kennedy Rag," credited in the notes to the Stripling Brothers. It actually is some other raggy tune in F, performed at a snail's pace (the liner notes say "Hippos wallowing through the cool of a ragtime fiddle tune" which is pretty accurate), which I have so far been unable to identify correctly. It sounds so familiar, but I just can't place it! Sandy says the tune came to her from Bob Ness, but he thought it was the "Kennedy Rag" too. Oh well, that's the folk process I guess!
The booklet is a bit skimpy, but the witty and brief notes on the songs do give the sources for the material. I would have liked some biographical information on the players and more photos too. Also it would be nice to know who is singing lead on which song.
I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Leavin's over and over again, something I rarely find to be true of contemporary old-time music CDs. Most old-time music is a lot better in person; sometimes the recordings suffer in comparison. If that is the case here, then I really would like to hear this band in person! I hope that The Leavins turns out to be just the first of many albums from this very fine group; they play their old-time music with a straightforward respect, depth, and humor, and groove like crazy to boot. What more could one ask for?
Suzy Rothfield Thompson
To order: Chubby Dragon Productions, 124 Quaker Bridge Road, Croton NY 10520 or Lagado Productions, 81A Boyd St., Watertown MA 02172.
Back to top
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys - La Toussaint
Steve Riley-Cajun & triple row accordions, fiddle, guitar, drums, vocal; David Greely-fiddle, vocal; Peter Schwarz-electric & acoustic bass, fiddle, fiddle sticks, vocal; Jimmy Domengeaux-electric & acoustic guitars; Kevin Dugas-drums; C.C. Adcock-guitar; Clifford Alexander-rubboard; C.J. Chenier-alto saxophone; Isaac Miller-pedal steel guitar; Kelli Roberts-triangle.
Je M'en Fous Pas Mal/Tes Parents Veulent Plus Me Voir/Katherine/ J'ai Rveill Ce Matin/Deux Vales/Wayne Perry/Ca Tu Dis et Ca Tu Fais Sont Pas Pareils/La Toussaint/Between Eunice & Opelousas/ La Valse D'Amiti/New Orleans Beat/Entre L'amour et L'avenir.
Various Artists - 15 Louisiana Cajun Classics
Beausoleil-Le Jig Francais/Nathan Abshire-Chere Te Mon/Wade Fruge-Port Arthur Blues/Dewey Balfa, Marc Savoy, D.L. Menard-J'ai Pass Devant Ta Porte/Wallace "Cheese" Reed-Fiddle Stomp/California Cajun Orchestra-Chicot Two-Step/Harry Choates-Poor Hobo/Hackberry Ramblers-Jolie Blonde/Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band-Two Step D'Amd/Canray Fontenot-Bernadette/Austin Pitre-Bosco Stomp/Magnolia Sisters-La Robe Barre/Dewey Balfa, Nathan Abshire-Basile Breakdown/Michael Doucet-Grand Tasso/Joe Falcon-Flames d'Enfer.
Austin Pitre - Opelousas Waltz
Bosco Stomp/Cajun Waltz/Widow of the Gully/La Valse de St. Landry/Evangeline Playboys Special/Opelousas Waltz/Perrodin Two-Step/Grand Basil/Lake Arthur Stomp/Cheres Joues Rose/Drunkard's Blues/Cajun Breakdown/Criminal Waltz/Church Point Breakdown/Jolie Blonde/Zydeco Sont Pas Sale/Tou le Soir (sic)/Louisiana Aces Special.
Not so long ago, Cajun music appeared only on folkloric LP sets or locally distributed 45s. Then, when Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie operation gathered momentum in the 1960s, Cajun slowly became a worldwide commodity. Today, fast food enterprises offer "Cajun" chicken and other similarly dubious culinary delights and new Cajun CDs are nearly as ubiquitous.
In the closing years of this century, most popular music seems to be anticipating the next one, with technotricks and other supposedly post-modern formulas vying for our attention.
Cajun music can be deafeningly rock-oriented too, but its best practicioners still take pains to remind us of their roots. Steve Riley's popular band, in its fourth release, has in its own words "taken the next step, towards composition[,] writing, arranging and recording our own music." Some tunes are originals; others come from Doc Guidry, Canray Fontenot, Clifton Chenier, Marc Savoy, and the little-remembered 1930s fiddler Wayne Perry, making it clear that the band isn't straying too far from its roots. As always, Riley and the Playboys are hot, musical and exciting.
The Arhoolie sampler is one in a series called American Masters, which introduces listeners to the label's blues, country and ethnic catalogs. It's a good set with strong cuts selected from 15 different CDs, though the inner booklet contains only cover reproductions.
One cut is from a new collection by Austin Pitre, best remembered for "Flum de Faire" (i.e. "Flammes d'Enfer") and his other powerful Swallow 45 rpms in the 1950s and 60s. Pitre died in 1981, after several years of musical inactivity. These recordings, made informally 10 years earlier, contain material from a garage session and a club date. Though there were problems with recording balance, Pitre's raw, searing voice and accordion sound just fine. Annotator Ann Allen Savoy contributes excellent notes (what would Cajun music history be without her invaluable work)? She discusses his early discography from the 1940s and 50s, making me hope that Arhoolie will gather it all together for a reissue, giving Austin Pitre a further historical boost.
Back to Top
Lonnie Robertson - Lonnie's Breakdown: Classic Fiddle Music From Missouri
Rounder 0375 CD (61:09)
Lonnie Robertson-fiddle; Troy Wilson-banjo; Paul Jones-guitar; George Rhodes-bass; Gordon McCann-guitar; Art Galbraith-mandolin; Jarrett Robertson-guitar; Melvin Lawrence-whoops; Wayne Lawson-guitar.
Lonnie's Breakdown/Ozark Mountain Waltz/Mountain Reel/Old Parnell/Untitled reel in Bb/Old Time Breakdown in A/Lady on a Steamboat/The Fiddler's Blues/Lonnie's Hornpipe/Big Sandy River/Jump Fingers/Saddle Old Kate/Rock All the Babies To Sleep/Speed the Plough/Caney Mountain Hornpipe/Hazy Hills Waltz/Taney County Breakdown/Lantern in the Ditch/Lonesome Polly Ann/Kaiser Waltz/Old Joe/Johnny, Bring the Jug Around the Hill/Cincinnati Hornpipe/Natural Bridge Blues/Untitled Reel in D/Wink the Other Eye/Malindy/Unnamed Bb Waltz/Rag in C/Rosebud Reel/A & E Rag/Bluebird Waltz/Arkansas Stomp/Katy Hill-Darky's Dream-Brown Leaf Rag.
Lonnie Robertson (1908-1987) was one of a long line of Missouri fiddlers in his family. He began fiddling seriously at the age of 13, first learning in cross-tuning, or "dischord," as it was called in his area. When Lonnie finally heard fiddlers playing in "standard" tuning, he switched over. He continued to play a few tunes in dischord, but alas, only one of them, "Lonesome Polly Ann," is heard here.
In addition to his family, Lonnie was influenced throughout his career by regional musicians such as Uncle Bob Walters of Nebraska, Casey Jones, Floyd Frakes, and Cyril Stinnet (all of Missouri), and he was also highly influenced by some stellar fiddlers on 78s: Clark Kessinger, the Skillet Lickers, and Doc Roberts, among others. Lonnie became a popular and well-traveled radio musician, playing on several stations in Missouri, South Dakota, Texas, Nebraska (where he played with Tennessee banjo player Homer Davenport who had recorded with the legendary Jess Young), Kansas, Virginia, Illinois, and Arkansas. Although some of his radio repertoire included fiddle tunes, much of it was in the brother duet vein. Many of his radio duets were with Roy McGeorge and later with his wife Thelma; in 1941, Lonnie and Ray Wade made some radio transcription disk recordings for border radio. When his radio career tailed off, Lonnie and Thelma settled in Theodosia in Ozark County, Missouri, where, in the 1960s he began to record some 45 rpm fiddle recordings on his own Caney Mountain label. Most of the recordings preserved here come from that era and from the following years where he began issuing LPs.
Technically, Lonnie used a short-bow style, somewhat different from the longer-bowed, smoother styles of some of the later northern Missouri players. He composed extensively and many of the tunes on this CD are his own pieces. His creations have very traditional underpinnings (some are merely parts of well-known tunes moved around a bit) and most seem to follow the "Missouri rules" of chord changes. His "Lonnie's Breakdown" sounds rather like "Spotted Pony" meets "Marmaduke's Hornpipe," but is in fact a totally "new" tune. He shows how easily he deals with flat keys on "Untitled Reel in Bb." "Big Sandy River" is a venture into Bill Monroe country, as he uses some bluegrass flavored bowing and double stops, but he also quotes some Texas style here, slurring occasionally with a longer bow stroke and inserting some trills as ornamentation. I really love his treatment of waltzes too, as with "Kaiser Waltz," which evokes visions of his fellow Ozarker, Carthy Sisco. Another outstanding cut is called "Untitled Reel in D." He has an outstanding dance band backing him on this cut. I could dance all night to this aggregation. I think they have coined a term in the Midwest, that of the radio fiddler. Bob Walters was perhaps the best known of this ilk, but I rank Lonnie Robertson right up there with Uncle Bob, based on this outstanding recording. Kudos to Gordon McCann for a superb production effort and elaborate documentation (along with Mark Wilson). It is a job well-done.
Back to Top
Helen Bonchek Schneyer - Somber, Sacred & Silly
Straight Arrow Recordings SAR 9104 (CD and cassette)
Helen Bonchek Schneyer-vocals, piano; Lisa Neustadt-harmony vocals; Dick Swain-harmony vocals; Kathy Westra-harmony vocals, cello.
Mary on the Wild Moor/Soon One Morning/Lonesome Robin/The Long-Lost Gold Mine/Over There/My Flower, My Companion/Queen Jane/Don't Marry a Man If He Drinks/The Nurse Pinched the Baby/Old and Gray and Only in the Way/Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl/He Turned the Water Into Wine/Only Remembered/This Old World/Are All Your Matches Sold Yet, Tom/The Cruel Mother/Seek and You Shall Find/Better Home.
This recording is a collection of traditional, religious, and sentimental songs, most with piano/cello accompaniment. Of the 18 cuts on the tape, 11 fall into the religious or sentimental category. Although three songs are sung unaccompanied, I would place this recording into the category of parlor music, a mainstay of turn-of-the-century mainstream American culture. Schneyer executes this material with emotion and skill, although she sometimes loses volume on the lowest notes. Most of the songs are in the key of G, and some sound like they might have been stronger pitched a little higher. But no matter. "Mary On the Wild Moor," "The Long-Lost Gold Mine," Schneyer's slyly straight-faced "Don't Marry A Man If He Drinks" (still good advice after all these years), "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl" - these songs work well, and the piano/cello accompaniment provides a gracious background.
Some songs are less successful. "Lonesome Robin," a speculative retrospective of Robin Hood's life as he approaches The End, is full of a jarring modern pop-psychology sentimentality. "Are Your Matches Sold Yet, Tom" is a whopping 6'21" long, without any story or interesting musical ideas to propel it. "Queen Jane" and especially "This Old World" work well as unaccompanied songs; Schneyer seems less comfortable with "Soon One Morning," which is almost two minutes longer than the other two. Some of the religious songs - "He Turned the Water into Wine," "Over There," and "Only Remembered" aren't outstanding and might have been left off the recording altogether. The total 70-minute length is somewhat daunting.
Two final observations: first, the recording is plagued with noises - people moving in their creaky chairs (it sounds like), and breathing. Schneyer's voice quality changes from cut to cut as though the engineer didn't measure the microphone distance between sessions, and didn't turn down her voice volume when she wasn't singing. These aren't huge imperfections, but I did notice them.
Second, why aren't there any liner notes? Where did Schneyer learn these songs? How old are they? Who wrote them? Why does she sing them? Why did she record them? This kind of information is really important. I might have looked more kindly upon some of the selections if I'd known more about their history. The recording is also available on CD and maybe it has liner notes. If so, they would be a welcome addition to the cassette.
Back to Top
Lauchlin Shaw and A. C. Overton- Sally with the Run-Down Shoes
Marimac 9064D CD 1996
Lauchlin Shaw-fiddle; A.C. Overton-banjo; Evelyn Shaw-fiddle; Fred Olson-guitar; Wayne Martin-guitar, fiddle; Alice Gerrard-guitar.
Sally with the Run-Down Shoes/Dancing Ladies/Duck's Eyeball/Ain't Gonna Rain No More/Italian Waltz/Going to the Army/Sycamore Shoals/Darling Chloe/Railroad Bill/Leather Britches/Soldier's Joy/Black Eyed Daisy/Virgil Craven's Breakdown/Rickett's Hornpipe/Hard Sweet Cider/Home Waltz/Dixie Darling/Girl I Left Behind/Railroad/Fair Home on a Hill/Little Moses/Mississippi Sawyer.
This project, the result of a collaboration between the North Carolina Arts Council and Folklife Institute and Marimac Records, is simply one of the most significant recordings of older old-time musicians to have been released in recent years. Like the recent Rounder recording of piedmont banjo player Marvin Gaster, it documents a fiddle and banjo tradition that has been largely overlooked - the fiddle and finger-style banjo music of the Eastern Carolina flatlands and sandhills. This recording flies in the face of the persistent belief, hard to dispel, that old-time music exists exclusively in the mountainous Appalachian region. Fiddler Lauchlin Shaw and banjo-player A.C. Overton [see OTH vol. 5 no. 2] have always lived in the gently rolling piedmont of eastern North Carolina yet they grew up in communities in which "you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a fiddle or banjo." Music was practically part of the air people breathed. Bands played at square dances and community events and musicians gathered often at big weekend house parties filled with tunes, laughter and flatfooting, fueled by hearty dishes like Mary Lily Shaw's "chicken slick" and Ava Overton's luxuriant cakes and pies. This recording of 22 tunes, made at the Shaw and Overton homes from 1988 to 1992 brings us a little bit of the flavor of those days, though you'll have to use your imagination for the "chicken slick" (the Eastern North Carolina version of chicken and dumplings) and chess pies. Lauchlin Shaw, an extraordinarily skilled fiddler with a large and interesting regional repertoire, was born in 1912 on a farm in Harnett County on land that had been in the family since well before the Civil War. This part of North Carolina, the Cape Fear River Valley, became home to great numbers of highland and Island Scots who migrated to America in the early part of the 19th century. Some, like Lauchlin's great-grandfather Torquil Shaw, followed the Cape Fear up into what is now the Anderson Creek Community. From the Isle of Jura, Torquil spoke Gaelic, and amazingly, Lauchlin and his relatives still know a few words and phrases. Though no one is sure whether Torquil was a fiddler, there was plenty of music, both vocal and instrumental, in the immediate family and community. One of Torquil Shaw's sons taught shape-note singing for over 40 years and fiddled old pieces like "Soldiers' Joy," "Mississippi Sawyer," and the tune that is the namesake of this recording, "Sal With the Run Down Shoes." Another son, Lauchlin's uncle, played both fiddle and banjo. Lauchlin remembers that this generation played in groups with a fiddle and banjo or occasionally just two fiddlers - one playing lead and one playing "second." This tradition is being carried on by Lauchlin and his daughter Evelyn, as demonstrated here on "Home Waltz," on which Evelyn plays the melody while her father plays a harmonizing "second" part.
Many of the tunes Lauchlin plays are local variants of more widespread tunes while others seem to be pieces that only seem to have survived in this corner of North Carolina. Pieces like "Sal With the Run-Down Shoes," (similar to "Jenny Lind Polka"), "Little Moses" ("Coon on a Log") and "Hard Sweet Cider" (which resembles "Paddy Won't Your Drink Some Good Old Cider") are regional versions of pieces that are pretty widely distributed. Others, on the other hand, like "Duck's Eyeball," (not the tune played by Luther Davis) "Virgil Craven's Breakdown," and "Fair Home on a Hill," which come from musical associates like the late Randolph County fiddler and hammered dulcimer player Virgil Craven appear to be regional/local pieces. One of my favorite tunes in Lauchlin's repertoire is one of these local oddities. This striking little tune, "Dancing Ladies," which is no relation to "Ladies on the Steamboat," is one Lauchlin learned from his mother's cousin Frank Nordan of Hope Mills, N.C. Also known by Marvin Gaster of Lee County, "Dancing Ladies" is a neat tune that doesn't seem to have survived elsewhere in the state.
Though his repertoire comes largely from tunes learned from neighbors, family and friends, Lauchlin was always open to learning new pieces. After the late '70s, when he was invited to play for a Chapel Hill clogging team on a European tour, Lauchlin began to host regular music parties. Musicians of all ages would come out to Lauchlin and his wife Mary Lily's house for music parties in the old home place they kept up behind their house. "Home Waltz" is Lauchlin's beautiful rendition of a tune which, though it originally came from Scotland as "My Ain Home," he learned from playing with younger fiddlers who very likely learned it ("My Own House") from a recording of the Highwoods String Band.
A. C. (Aaron Chaucley) Overton, Jr., plays the banjo in a lyrical pre-bluegrass finger style. A.C.'s banjo playing, though it can be intensely driving on dance tunes, is noticeably more melody-oriented than the playing of many other piedmont finger-style banjo pickers. Unlike Charlie Poole's style, for example, where the banjo part is centered around chords and runs, A.C.'s banjo renditions are worked around the melody. Because the tune is always right up in the foreground, it's a particularly pleasing sound for pieces in 2/4 time that were once songs or tunes in waltz time. A.C.'s melodic emphasis is very well illustrated with two gorgeous solos in the key of C on this recording: "Going to the Army," a variant of "Going Across the Sea" and the exquisite "Railroad" which came from his uncle, Herman Overton - some of the finest examples of banjo picking I've ever heard. Like all great old-time musicians, A.C.. uses his considerable skill to showcase the beauty of a tune rather than as a vehicle for showing off his own dexterity for its own sake. Though the styles are very different, A.C's playing of "Going to the Army" and "Railroad" reminded me of the exquisite elegance of Lee Hammons' "Walking in the Parlor."
A.C. and Lauchlin have been making music together, often with Chatham County guitar player Wade Yates, (who passed away in 1995) since the early 1950s. .A.C., who is 12 years younger than Lauchlin, grew up in Granville County, but moved in the '20s to Chatham County because the tobacco wilt blight drove the family to find work elsewhere. Like Lauchlin's family, many of the Overtons also played instruments and sang. Much of A.C.'s repertoire comes from a lifetime of being surrounded by good music. His mother sang ballads and his father played tunes like "Georgia Buck" and "Naomi Wise" on the banjo. His uncle Herman Overton was also a banjo player; an aunt finger-picked the guitar and another uncle was a fiddler.
This recording is a must-have for many reasons: rare tunes, great versions of classic tunes, cool waltzes and, finally, some of the most intense banjo-fiddle interplay this side of Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. I have to say that I found it particularly exciting to be able to clearly hear A.C. and Lauchlin's banjo-fiddle duets. At music parties both men, who have always been much too gentlemanly to exclude anyone, are generally surrounded by so many other enthusiastic musicians it's hard to appreciate their intricate and exhilarating banjo-fiddle work. Examples here featuring just fiddle and banjo are the dance tunes "Mississippi Sawyer," "Ain't Gonna Rain No More," "Sally with the Run-Down Shoes," and a great version of "Rickett's Hornpipe." It's also important to note that waltzes, very rare in the tune collections of Blue Ridge musicians, form a substantial chunk of Lauchlin and A.C's repertoire. Their versions of "Italian Waltz," and "Home Waltz," (with Evelyn) are actually the tip of a huge iceberg of 3/4-time pieces that they know. Indeed, both men could probably play nothing but waltzes for hours on end. Always, Lauchlin's deft, but uncloying touch and A.C's flights into the upper reaches of the fingerboard are lyrical without ever being hokey. Finally, there's some terrific, salt-of-the-earth guitar work here. I always appreciate strong but un-aggressive guitar backup, and the guitar playing of old friends Fred Olson, Wayne Martin, or Alice Gerrard is just right-on throughout. All three, who appear one at a time on different pieces, are highly competent and experienced guitarists who resist the temptation to leap into the foreground, concentrating on providing a seamless foundation of bottom-end support.
Dedicated to their wives, Mary Lily Shaw and Ava Overton, the release of this recording is quite poignant, since Mary Lily passed away this spring. Though Sally With the Run-Down Shoes represents the end of an era it stands as a magnificent testament to a time when music was an important part of family and community life. I can't recommend it more highly.
Back to Top
Mark Simos - Race the River Jordan
Devachan Music/Yodel-Ay-Hee CD-017
Mark Simos-fiddle, piano, mandolin, vocals; David Cahn-electric bass, mandolin, guitar; Jere Canote-guitar; Peter Langston-tenor guitar, acoustic bass; Dirk Powell-fiddle, banjo, mancolin, acoustic bass, Cajun accordion; Daniel Steinberg-piano, flute, melodica; Molly Tenenbaum-banjo; Mark Graham-harmonica; Piper Heisig-snarehead, vocals; Molly Stouten-vocals.
Sail Away Ladies-Sail Back Home Again/Scotty/Luther-The Last Straw/The Word In Edgewise/Lit Splickety-I'll Sleep When I'm Dead/Pony Boy/Dirk's Escape/Woody of the Lake-Neithammer Honeymoon/Armin's Socks-Sliding Up the Bannister-Common Cold/Buckeye/New Valley Forge-Sandy's Shoes/Mandolin Boomerang/Race the River Jordan.
I must confess, when I first heard about Mark Simos's Race the River Jordan CD, not being acquainted with him nor his music, I had little expectations of it. Since I have a strong personal preference for the "raw" sounds of old southern fiddlers, I hastily assumed that I would be put off by such a collection of new compositions. Boy was I wrong! This project rapidly earned my overwhelming respect.
This CD was not intended to be passed off as traditional old-time music. In Mark's words, the music is "new old-time style fiddle tunes." There are many noteworthy compositions as well as outstanding performances. Simos proves himself as a brilliant fiddler and composer. The man has one hell of a bow arm!
Mark did a terrific job of obtaining the help of an all-star cast of musicians for this project. There's lots of wonderfully tight fiddle/banjo passages with Simos on fiddle and either Molly Tenanbaum or Dirk Powell hammering out superb banjo. The full string-band pieces pulse with Jere Canote's consummate guitar, along with either Dirk, Peter Langston, or David Cahn on bass. There's also nice help from Daniel Steinberg, Mark Graham, Piper Heisig, and Molly Stouten.
The first tune takes off with Molly Tenenbaum's mighty solo banjo treatment of Uncle Bunt Stevens' "Sail Away Ladies," the only traditional tune on the CD. After a few rounds, Mark joins with very respectable fiddling that acknowledges Uncle Bunt's original brilliant rendition of the tune. Their tight fiddle banjo duet serves as a spring board from a competent and respectful treatment of the tradition to the rest of the CD which is filled with Mark's creative genius. Several of the pieces do stray a bit from traditional parameters with flute, snarehead or electric bass, but they too are performed with the same consistent high quality as is characteristic of the entire CD.
One of my favorite pieces is "Dirk's Escape." It's a fiery and intense banjo fiddle duet with Mark and Dirk. The drone effect of the fiddle (EDAE) is subtly accentuated in a strange but wonderful way by Daniel's melodica and Peter's digital sculpting of didjeridu sample, an interesting juxtaposition of tradition and high tech. They actually pull it off in a very classy and effective manner too! Clearly, this is a huge departure from tradition, but then in some "old-time" communities so is the simple practice of retuning the fiddle for different keys. Who is breaking whose rules? Seems like it's a matter of context appropriate behavior. There's tons of recorded examples of people abusing traditional music out of ignorance or arrogance, but this is definitely not the case here. Mark seems to be very reverently and respectfully parting from tradition, but doing so in a very deliberate, measured and informed fashion. If you can think this way and will allow yourself to do so, the effect is tremendous! I don't have a large appetite for old-time music played "innovatively" by any means, but Mark seems to have found a wonderful niche for his creativity and I respect what he has done. What do you reckon the old-timers had to say about Bill Monroe when he first embarked on his own innovative journey?
This project is a spirited and tasteful celebration of the old and the new. There are many "traditional sounding" fiddle tunes on this CD that were inspired by contemporary old-time musicians such as Nancy Dols Neithammer: "Scotty and Neithammer Honeymoon,";Dirk Powell: "Dirk's Escape," Woody Woodring: "Woody of the Lake," Armin Barnett: "Armin's Socks," and Sandy Silva: "Sandy's Shoes."
There are two slower heartfelt gems in this collection. "Pony Boy" is a fiddle/harmonica duet performed by the two Marks, Simos and Graham. Inspired by Simos's mother, it's a moving tribute to a mom's nurturing love and support. The voicing and interplay between the fiddle and harmonica are captivating and soulful. The title cut, "Race the River Jordan," is the only song. It is a tender, country sounding piece that seems to allude to the mystery behind old-time music and the people who comprise it.
Over the last 20 years, Mark has backed many of the great Irish traditional musicians as a guitar and piano accompanist both in concert and on record. His songwriting ability has become more celebrated since Laurie Lewis first debuted his "When the Nightbird Sings" on her 1988 Love Chooses You. His songs have been covered by other artists such as Ranch Romance, Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher, and Freyda Epstein and Acoustic Attatude. He's recently achieved great visibility and broad respect when Alison Krauss and Union Station recorded two of his songs, "Find My Way Back to My Heart" and "Deeper than Crying" on their new release, So Long, So Wrong.
After listening to Race The River Jordan probably a hundred times in the last year, closely reading the liner notes and visiting his web page at www.devachan.com, (where you can order the CD) I have become thoroughly impressed with the creative genius of Mark Simos. The CD is filled with both great compositions and stellar performances by many talented folks.
How many times have you been approached by people who have herd a little old-time music and have a tough time making the transition from the modern sound to the "old" sound? This CD is a wonderful bridge. I recommend it for yourself and for your friends.
To order: Mark Simos, Devachan Music, 36 Warwick Rd., Watertown MA 02172
Back to Top
Smoke Creek - Smoke Creek
Mike Murray-lead vocals, banjo, guitar, manjo; Susan Ellis-vocals, fiddle, guitar; with Leah Kaufmann-guitar; Ted Briggs-Comstock-dobro; Jay Finkelstein-guitar and bass vocal; Mary Bicknell-upright bass; Jim Bicknell-harmonica.
Banjo Tramp/Whiskey Road/Down By the Barber Pole/I Heard the Bluebird Sing/He Never Looked Her Way/Coleman's March/Briarpicker Brown/Old Bangum/Red Pickup/Foggy Old London/ You Already Gave the Bride Away/ Mac's Redemption/Walls/The Devil In a Private Hell/Turkey In the Straw.
Smoke Creek is a duo from Seattle, Washington, featuring Mike Murray on lead vocals and banjo and Susan Ellis on fiddle and backup vocals. Their music, while it does use some instruments commonly found in southern old-time music, is actually closer to folk-singer-songwriter music than it is to any kind of southern old-time dance music.
Of the 14 selections on this album, 8 are originals. Although many of the original songs on this CD are good, I feel it's unlikely to be of great interest to readers of the Old-Time Herald. The original songs are (to my ear, anyway) not in the least old-time sounding; instead, they belong to the contemporary folk tradition of story-telling in song, so beautifully practiced by folks like Nancy Griffith, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt. I actually like a lot of this kind of music, but it ain't old-time. To me, Smoke Creek's music has more of a New England folk festival feeling to it than a sweaty old-time fiddle convention.
The rest of the songs and tunes are credited in the liner notes to various "revivalist" musicians. Going as far back as possible to the source would have served Smoke Creek better; it can help keep traditional music (often gritty but flavorful) from becoming homogenized and bland. While I appreciate and admire very much the music of the Canote twins, Dan Gellert, and Ray Bierl, I wish that Smoke Creek would have made the extra effort to get a little closer to the roots of tunes like Buddy Thomas' "Briarpicker Brown." I love the Greenbriar Boys rendition of "I Heard the Bluebird Sing" but it's worthwhile to seek out the Browns' original version. "Foggy Old London" is a song I'm familiar with from the singing of Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys; the version done by Smoke Creek is in 4/4 time, and comes from Burl Ives. If Jimmy Martin is hush puppies fried in pig fat, then Burl Ives is Wonder Bread. I know which one I'd rather have with my barbecue.
Suzy Rothfield Thompson
To order:Smoke Creek, 5535 31st Ave. NE, Seattle WA 98105
206-523-9736 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to Top
State of the Ozarks String Band - The Way I Heard It
Bob Holt-fiddle; Alvie Dooms-guitar; Karen Kraft-banjo.
Old Indiana/Going Across the Sea/Shoe Cobblers' Blues/Lost Indian/New Money/Lost Train Blues/Charleston No. 1/Sugar In the Gourd/Cruel Willie/Dry and Dusty/Saddle Ole Kate/Missouri Mud/Black Mountain Rag/Bull At the Wagon/Lonesome Polly Ann/Midnight On the Water/Louisville Breakdown/Wabash Foxtrot/Little Dutch Girl/Green Valley Waltz/The Old Stillhouse/Redwing/I'd Druther Be A Fiddler/Starlight Waltz/The United States March.
The State of the Ozarks String Band is an ensemble lead by Bob Holt, a fiddler and farmer from Ava, Missouri. Ava, for the unitiated, is located right in the middle of Douglas County, deep in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri. In that part of the country, square dancing is still the preferred activity on the weekends and Holt and company keep busy playing dances nearly every week. Until recently, there have been precious few recordings available that are representative of the Ozark repertory and style of fiddling-this despite the many fine recordings issued by the Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association whose principal focus has been on the great fiddling that has long flourished in the central and northern parts of the state.
On this self-produced tape, Holt ably demonstrates why he is the most sought after square dance fiddler in his part of the country. He has a style that is custom-made to accommodate the tastes and aesthetics of the local dancers for whom he plays just about every weekend. In other words, there's nothing overly fancy here, not a bunch of highly ornamented melodies, just straight ahead, back-to-the-basics dance fiddling. He plays a variety of tunes-breakdowns, two-steps, fox trots, marches, and waltzes. Some are well-known and widely played across the country. A few seem to be of local origin, and a few are localized versions of tunes learned over the years from family, friends, and neighbors. Although Bob has been around long enough to remember hearing Doc Roberts 78 rpm records (the source of "New Money" and "Charleston No. 1") playing on his grandmother's Victrola, he came into his own as a fiddler in the era of great radio fiddlers like Arthur Smith, Tommy Magness, and Paul Warren. As one listens to Bob play "Lost Train Blues," "Black Mountain Rag," and "Pretty Polly Ann," the influence of these great players becomes quite apparent.
The focus of this tape is on the Bob's fiddling, but the rest of band deserves mention, too. Alvie Dooms is as rock-solid a back-up guitar player as you will find, period. He has played with Bob for years and has the timing down flat. Karen Kraft is a relative new comer to the Ozarks and old-time music. According to notes accompanying the tape, she has only played with Bob and Alvie since 1989. To my ears she sounds as if she's been at it all her life. The only caveat I'd offer here has to do with the overall sound quality. It's a bit uneven at times, but this should not put off anyone, except hardcore audiophiles, and I haven't noticed too many of them listening to great old-time fiddling lately.
To order; Bob Holt, HCR 71, Box 318, Ava, MO 65608
Back to Top
Jay Ungar & Molly Mason - Civil War Classics: Live at Gettysburg College
Fiddle and Dance Records #102
Jay Ungar-vocals, fiddle, viola, harmonica, banjo; Molly Mason-vocals, guitar, banjo, piano.
The Girl I Left Behind Me/Waiting for the Federals-Lorena-Cumberland Gap-Hard Times Come Again No More-The Yellow Rose of Texas-Tenting on the Old Camp Ground/Hard Crackers-Marching Through Georgia/Kingdom Coming/Battle Cry of Freedom/Dixie/Battle Hymn of the Republic-The Faded Coat of Blue-President Lincoln's Hornpipe/Devil's Dream-Fisher's Hornpipe/Leather Britches/Bill Cheatham/Ashokan Farewell.
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason have long been known among the small coterie of working acoustic musicians. Jay has of course seen his labors rewarded in recent years by his work on the much heralded PBS series The Civil War, directed by Ken Burns, and on other documentary projects by Mr. Burns. I have known and respected Jay's fiddling, as it branches out into its many tributaries - country backup, bluegrass, old-time, and Irish to name some if not all of them - since we met in the mid-'70s at some coffee-house or festival somewhere. Was it at the Ark in Ann Arbor, or the Winnipeg Folk Festival, or maybe on some Prairie Home shindig? Damn if I can remember, but I do remember standing on stage beside Jay as he ripped off a piece of some fairly standard tune we were all doing as an encore, and thinking, "Well, uh-huh! I'll just play a nice straight lead here and stay out of this boy's way."
This CD, as can be seen from the set list, is aimed primarily at the person who has just attended an Ungar/Mason concert and wants to take something home, and at people who loved the music in The Civil War and want some on their stereo. There is almost nothing at all here that hasn't been recorded quite a few times by quite a few "modern old-time" players (including in many cases myself), not to mention regionally placed traditional musicians of all sorts. The performances are solid, though they tend, even in the case of foot-stompers like "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and the fiddle-tune medleys starting with "Fisher's" and "President Lincoln's," to drift to the parlor end of old-time playing. Much the same can be said of the vocal work. Jay and Molly's harmonies are lovely and accurate, but lack the mountain, rural edge, and the whiff of moonshine and wood smoke. They present the songs, but I don't feel like they've quite lived them. None of this is to say that this CD won't entirely please the audience for which it is primarily intended. If your mother thinks your obsessive interest in, say, crossed-tuned masterpieces from Huckleberry, Nebraska has something to do with why you've given up your good data entry job and your wife and kids and moved back home "to work on this project," well, get her this CD. She'll be relieved, and think to herself, "These are nice people. Maybe my boy's going to be all right."
Wm. N. Hicks
Back to Top
Doc & Merle Watson - Watson Country
Flying Fish CD FF 651
Doc Watson-guitar, vocal, harmonica; Merle Watson-guitar, banjo; T. Michael Coleman-bass,harmony vocals; Herb Pedersen-harmony vocals; Ron Tutt-drums; Pat McInerney-percussion; Mark O'Connor-fiddle, mandolin; Sam Bush-fiddle, mandolin; Byron Berline-fiddle; Tom Scott-clarinet; Al Perkins-pedal steel; JoeSmothers-vocal; Bones Kahn-percussion.
Smoke Smoke Smoke/Along TheRoad/Sheeps In The Meadow, Stoney Fork/Blue Ridge Mountain Blues/California Blues/Down Yonder/Any Old Time/Bye Bye Bluebelle-Smiles/Leaving London/Red Rocking Chair/Black Pine Waltz/Freight Train Blues/Hobo Bill's Last Ride/Jailhouse Blues/Sadie/Fisher's Hornpipe, Devil's Dream/Sittin' Here Pickin' The Blues/Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.
The 18 songs and tunes here are drawn from Doc's three Flying Fish albums recorded in the early '80s, plus two previously unissued selections from those sessions ("Along The Road" and the "Bye Bye Bluebelle"-"Smiles" instrumental medley) and mostly feature Doc's trio of the time: Doc, his son Merle, and bassist T. Michael Coleman. They are augmented on one or another of these studio cuts by such hot young singers and players as Mark O'Connor, Sam Bush, Byron Berline, and Herb Pedersen. By the time of these recordings, Doc, the most reknowned musical denizen of Deep Gap, North Carolina, was a 20-year veteran of the commercial folk scene, and could and would play and sing just about any kind of music he heard, from the road-weary folkie laments of Dan Fogelberg and Tom Paxton represented here ("Along The Road" and "Leaving London," respectively) to the fiddle tunes he picked out melodically on guitar, a feat for which he is justifiably reknowned and much imitated, here demonstrated on the medleys "Sheeps In The Meadow"-"Stoney Fork" and "Fisher's Hornpipe"-"Devil's Dream." Doc has always been unmatched as an interpreter of bluesy country fare from the repertoires of such early country music recording stars Jimmie Rodgers and The Delmore Brothers. That talent is reflected here on "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues," "California Blues," "Any Old Time," "Hobo Bill's Last Ride," and "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar." Doc's warm, burnished baritone voice is ideally suited to these lyrics. He sounds less comfortable on the Merle Travis-Tex Williams honkytonk standard "Smoke Smoke Smoke," the most "uptown" number on the CD (it was a hit nearly 50 years ago). The swing feel which the song demands seems a little forced. Often, the instrumental interplay between Doc and Merle is delightful, as on their fingerpicking duet on "Leaving London," for instance, or Doc's guitar and Merle's frailing banjo on their fine, mournful version of "Red Rocking Chair." Merle also plays wonderful driving slide guitar on "California Blues," "Hobo Bill's Last Ride," and especially on "Freight Train Blues," which hurtles right along, driven by Merle as well as Sam Bush's bluesy fiddle in an arrangement that owes as much to Bob Dylan's version of the song as it does Roy Acuff's. Generally speaking, the simpler arrangements here are more appealing, but the accompaniments are generally complementary and unobtrusive (the sole exception being Mr.Bones Kahn's contribution to the "Fisher's Hornpipe"-"Devil's Dream" medley). The overall effect is certainly one of more polish than that associated with Doc's earlier, more traditional recordings; nobody will ever mistake the playing of Mark O'Connor or Sam Bush for that of Clarence Ashley or Gaither Carlton, but whatever Doc plays is good music, and if musicians of the caliber of those on this CD are involved, it's often inspired. Doc has always enjoyed the challenge of playing with the best musicians around him, and in the early '80s, that meant T. Michael, Sam Bush, Mark O'Connor, and the others on this CD. Doc had become, as reissue producer Mitch Greenhill points out in his liner notes, a presence, even an influence, in the commercial country scene, and certainly on the Sam Bushes and Mark O'Connors of the world. There is little doubt that the influences were passing in both directions by the time of these recordings. Doc's influence underwent a change in nature as well as in scope due to his participation in the Will The Circle Be Unbroken sessions with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and his major label recordings, and his recorded output sometimes strayed considerably from the Appalachian roots repertoire through which most fans first came to know him. (I recall a smooth country version of Pat Boone's hit "Moody River" from the '70s, for instance). He remains a presence to this day, if not the vastly influential force he was at the dawn of the folk revival when he pretty much bestrode the field like the colossus he has always been. It is only fair to observe that these recordings showcase only a small part of his immense talent, and probably not that part that is most likely to be of most interest to the typical reader of this magazine. Perhaps due to changing audience tastes, the changing nature of available venues, a diminishing number of sympathetic musical partners of the more traditional persuasion, Doc's own personal preference, or a combination of all these factors and more we can only guess at, Doc's approach to his music and his emphasis had by the time of these recordings shifted noticeably; these recordings do accurately reflect what he was doing on stage and in the studio during the early '80s.
Back to Top
Ring the Banjar!: The Banjo in American from Folklore to Factory by Robert Lloyd Webb
About 15 years ago, banjo collector and player Robert Lloyd Webb approached the staid halls of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and proposed that M.I.T.'s museum mount an exhibit of America's oldest and most characteristic technological artifact, the five-string banjo. Webb sold hard and M.I.T. bit, and in 1984 a handsome exhibit of banjos, banjo lore, and banjo ephemera went before the public. Webb edited a lovely catalog for the exhibit, writing the introduction and inviting Jim Bollman to contribute history and pictorial material as well as banjos from his fabulous collection. The catalog in turn has become a primary document in banjo history albeit one difficult to come by (we read it some years ago on a copy obtained via interlibrary loan from M.I.T.)
This lovely and valuable catalog has now been reprinted in paperback, to join the growing contemporary library of books devoted to research on and documentation of the banjo. Beautifully printed on slick paper and lavishly illustrated with photos (many in color) of the exhibits instruments, old prints and photographs, and catalog illustrations, this book will amaze and intrigue anyone interested in the banjo and particularly those who own a turn-of-the-century instrument.
Webb's chapter on the history of the banjo in American leads off, and is an intelligent distillation of the primary sources many of us are familiar with-Epstein, Jefferson, Latrobe-plus Webb's own research. His history generally subscribes to Bob Winans' theory of minstrel diffusion of the banjo to rural whites, a position that has been recently challenged by Cece Conway's argument that rural whites received the banjo directly from black players. [see review of Conway's book in OTH vol. 5 no. 6].
Jim Bollman's chapter, The Banjomakers of Boston, tells us with a collector's passion and precision probably more than most of us will want to know about mergers, buyouts, and subcontracting among 19th-century Boston manufacturers, but it does include invaluable lore about Fairbanks, Vega, Luscomb, Bay State and other companies forgotten by our century except among those of us who still cherish the instruments bearing these proud names. The pictorial material here, also from Bollman's collection, is especially lovely, as for example the 1890s portrait on page 50 of the lady posing with her Fairbanks "Electric" Number 5 with the bound fingerboard and engraved inlay (in mint condition, of course - sob).
The book's picture gallery focuses on primitive and eccentric instruments shown at the exhibit, but does include Bollman's own dizzyingly inlaid and engraved Fairbanks "Electric" and Deluxe Tu-ba-phone banjos. This section will nicely supplement in your library the banjo section in George Gruhn's pictorial history of American fretted instruments. Ring the Banjar! concludes with a good selected bibliography of further reading that is now, of course, 15 years outdated, but still essential.
In his introduction to this second edition, Webb states that the original catalog and exhibition stimulated new research in banjo history, notably the efforts of Scott Didlake of Crystal Springs, Mississippi, "who was sufficiently captivated by Ring the Banjar! to begin years of research to revitalize commercially-extinct varieties of gourds once used by slaves to make banjos." [See article on Scott Didlake in OTH vol. 5 no. 7.] We trust that this edition of Ring the Banjar! produces similar growth and stimulation among banjo students. The full story of the banjo, like that of America itself, is yet to be told.
Jon and Marcia Pankake
Back to Top
Tony Williamson - All For Naught
Mandolin Central MCP-0001
Tony Williamson-all instruments, vocal.
Romper Room 215/Bahama Mama/Bonaparte's Retreat/Grandfather's Clock/My Rocky River Home/All For Naught/Gathering Wildwood Flowers/Hound Dog Howl/A Closer Walk With Thee/Topsail Blues/Aura Lee/Cherokee/Dixie/High-Cross Blues/The Road To Pedro's/Lloyd Loar Mandolin Song.
This new CD from mandolin guru Tony Williamson, of Siler City, NC, was made as a tribute to his grandfather, A. H.(Naught) Williamson, whose advice to Tony to stick to one instrument was rather spectacularly ignored, to our benefit.
The subplot of the work is the attempt to match the music to the instrument which seems to suit it best. When one has the choices available to Tony, it would seem that there are no unsuitable instruments (the newest instrument being a 1938 Gibson J-35 guitar hiding amongst a veritable thicket of golden-age Gibson mandolins and prewar Martins), so I suppose the choice is in the ear of the picker. I have no idea what I would have chosen for these tunes, but Tony's choice for "Grandfather's Clock" and "Dixie" are proof positive that the mandocello does have a useful function outside a mandolin orchestra.
The most striking thing about this CD is the wide range of artists who have influenced Tony's style. Consciously or unconsciously, he has taken bits and pieces from just about everywhere. The two mandocello pieces listed above are reminiscent of John Fahey's guitar work in the early '60s and the first two cuts make me think of what Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) would have sounded like if he had played the mandolin. A number of these cuts are either in the classical or jazz styles ("Aura Lee," "Cherokee," "Road To Pedro's") but there are some gems from traditional music hidden in here, too. "Gathering Wildwood Flowers" is largely a tribute to Maybelle Carter (except that I never heard Maybelle crosspick her L-5) and the guitar work on the title cut, "All For Naught," sounds like something that should have been on a Flatt & Scruggs gospel album.
My main criticism of this album is that many of the mandolin tunes should have had some sort of accompaniment to support the virtuoso playing. It would have made these cuts more approachable to those of us who are (are you ready for this?) mandolinistically challenged and I don't think it would have detracted from the overall effect. Although solo instrumental recordings are not what I listen to as a general rule, I find that I enjoy this one, probably because it is so varied and because I do like Tony's playing. Now, if I can only figure out how to put the "Lloyd Loar Mandolin Song" on my answering machine . . .
To order: Mandolin Central, PO Box 728 Siler City NC 27344; 919-663-3551.
Back to Top
Various Artists - Billy in the Lowgrounds - Old-time Music From the Newport Folk Festival, 1966
Vestapol 13051 (VHS video tape, 60 minutes, B&W)
Clark Kessinger: Sally Ann Johnson/Poca River Blues/Wednesday Night Waltz/Billy in the Lowgrounds/Leather Breeches/Chicken Reel/Kilby Snow: Shady Grove/Please Don't Take Advantage of Me/Wildwood Flower/Close By/Jimmy Driftwood: Old Joe Clark/Cripple Creek/Galloping Horse/Lily Mae and Rosie Ledford: East Virginia/Johnson Boys/Isom Fontenot: La Valse De Dimanche Apres Midi/Almon & Virginia Manes: Romeo's Last Chance/Red Fox Waltz/Fiddle group: Turkey in the Straw/Red River Valley/Fiddle Contest: Tex Logan: Katy Hill/Grant Rogers: McMongan's Reel/Lily Mae Ledford: Cackling Hen/Clark Kessinger: Sally Anne Johnson.
Well now, this was a very fine surprise. I had seen prior videos of film shot by Alan Lomax at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s, blues artists for example, but I did not know that he also had filmed some of the old-time music contingent. It's shot with multiple cameras and synchronized sound, in crisp black and white, nicely edited too. Lomax apparently asked many of the performers to come to a house in Newport, Rhode Island, away from the festival itself, where he and his film crew could control the environment. Since these artists already were out of their traditional element, well. . . what the hey. One of the issues here is that Mr. Lomax sometimes has thrown people from different traditions together to see what kind of fusion would erupt. There are pros and cons to this approach. The pros would include very interesting music and reactions from the participants. The main con parallels the academic argument about whether the anthropologist or sociologist should interact or participate in the culture(s)he is studying, social scientists arguing that the observer should only observe, not create or manipulate. Some of this argument is already a moot point, however, as many of the artists in this video were professional entertainers, and that already let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. That dealt with, now on to the music.
The video kicks off with Clark Kessinger, at the top of his form. He's really into the scene, grooving, almost prancing, with lots of that body movement that he as well as Lomax is so fond of. Clark's accompanists of choice are with him: Gene Meade on guitar (pulling off some of his signature bass runs) and Wayne Houser on his nicely understated bluegrass banjo. It is one cooking old-time band. So much, in fact, that a couple of gents get up to flatfoot (no, this could not have been orchestrated by Mr. Lomax, could it?). The first gent who takes the floor is unidentified, but to me was unmistakably the great Cajun/Creole accordionist, Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin. A little detective work proved that to be true, and in fact, Bois Sec prides himself on his step dancing abilities. It is a special treat to see him float just above the surface of the dance floor. Next on the boards is Willard Watson, who limp-limbs around like one of the dancing dolls he was known to carve. Next musician up is the greatest autoharpist the world has known, Kilby Snow. His son, Jim Snow, and Mike Hudak also play autoharps with Kilby, and enter into some horseplay where Mr. Snow the elder plays all three autoharps. Snow's style is quite unique, somewhat because he played left-handed. This allowed him to create some techniques that have rarely been matched by other players.
The next segment involves Jimmy Driftwood with his mouth bow. Many of the other musicians chime in with relevant stories about similar instruments from their traditions while Driftwood talks about his and plays a few tunes. A couple of mediocre fiddle jams occur, probably to break up the segments. This ensemble includes bluegrass fiddler Tex Logan, New York state fiddler Grant Rogers (known much better for his singing), and Idaho natives Virginia and Almon Manes (who have a lot of violinister style to their playing), backed by Kilby Snow and his ensemble. It's an experiment that doesn't work very well. But it's obviously filler for this video.
Though listed as "The Coon Creek Girls," only two of the band are involved in this film. Six foot tall Lily Mae Ledford gives us her Kentucky clawhammer banjo and powerful singing, backed by her sister Rosie on guitar and harmony vocals. "East Virginia" and "Johnson Boys" were signature songs of theirs from their Renfro Valley days and it gave me shivers to hear them here. The next artist is Cajun harmonicist extraordinaire Isom Fontenot (who was at the festival, I believe, to play triangle with Canray Fontenot and Bois Sec Ardoin). He is stunning. I believe Harry Oster recorded him earlier, music that's been issued on the Arhoolie/Folk Lyric family of labels. I could stand to see and hear more of him, anytime.
The Manes have a segment with twin fiddling, backed by Jack Elliot on guitar. It's pretty, but not very substantial, in my opinion. The final segment is a simulation of an old-time fiddle contest, MC'd by Jimmy Driftwood, filmed at one of the festival stages. It is quite entertaining! Tex Logan kicks it off with his cross-tuned version of "Katy Hill" and a stellar backup group (Hazel Dickens on bass, Alice Gerrard on guitar, David Grisman on mandolin, and Smiley Hobbs on the banjo). Next is Grant Rogers with a fine northern reel, "McMongan's," using Kessinger's sidemen. Then Lily Mae Ledford slays them with her old-time warhorse, here done to entertaining perfection, "Cackling Hen." The grand finale is none other than Mr. Kessinger cutting up on the piece he opened the tape with, "Sally Ann Johnson," again getting into a cool groove.
While this tape does not quite have the pure old-time content of, say, Legends of Old-time Music or Times Ain't Like They Used to Be, it still is quite nice. And, if you are a veteran of the "folk scare" or a country blues fan, you'll probably spend some time ogling the people in the background too (Booker White, Reverend Pearly Brown, Mel Lyman, Jack Elliot, and others I could not positively ID, can all be spied lurking). Again, much like seeing Willard Watson and Bois Sec Ardoin dancing, this is a lagniappe, a bonus. I would not put this on a "crucial, must buy" list, but it may be one of the few places you can see Lily Mae, Clark, and Kilby, and that alone makes it a welcome addition.
Back to Top
Various Artists - Cotton Mills And Fiddles
Flyin' Cloud Records FC-014, 1
Charlie Poole with The North Carolina Ramblers-The Mother's Plea For Her Son/Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers-The Battleship of Maine/Kid Smith and Family-Little Bessie/North Carolina Ramblers led by Posey Rorer-Too Young to Marry/Kelly Harrell with Virginia String Band-I Want a Nice Little Fellow/The Four Virginians-New Coon In Town/The Carolina Buddies-The Murder of the Lawson Family/Posey Rorer and the North Carolina Ramblers-As We Sat Beneath the Maple on the Hill/Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers-The Wayward Boy/Four Pickled Peppers-When I Was a Baby/Dixie Ramblers-Long Eared Mule/Blue Ridge Highballers-Jule Girl/Buster Carter and Preston Young-Bill Morgan and His Gal/Norman Woodlief-I Fell In Love With a Married Man/Buster Carter and Preston Young-I'll Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms.
There are a lot of things which fall under the rubric of old-time music, and we can argue about some of them. When it comes to Charlie Poole, there is no argument. This CD, put together by Kinney Rorer is "a sampler of old-time string bands found in the rich pocket of folk music in the area comprising Spray, North Carolina, Danville, Virginia, and Fieldale, Virginia. All the recordings were made between 1926 and 1931." This area along the North Carolina-Virginia border was cotton mill country. There were many streams to power the mills, and hard-working mountain people who saw in the mills the hope of a better life. They brought their music and their sense of community with them.
There is more than one thread in this collection. "Too Young to Marry" is the classic fiddle tune also known as "Love Somebody," and leads off the instrumental dance-tune portion of the play list with Posey Rorer on fiddle, Charlie Poole on banjo, and Roy Harvey on guitar - the classic instrumental North Carolina Rambler setup. Rorer also fiddles on "Long Eared Mule," this time with Buster Carter on banjo and Lewis McDaniel playing guitar. "New Coon In Town" is also a fiddle tune (and the title of course reflects something else about the blue-collar South of the 1920s), with James Bigger on fiddle, Elvin Bigger on guitar and calls, Leonard Jennings playing tipple, and Fred Richards, guitar. "Jule Girl" also is pretty much an up tempo instrumental, a tune with Charlie LaPrade and John Thompson on fiddles, Lige Hardy on banjo, and Lonnie Griffith playing guitar and singing. It reminds me a lot of Uncle Dave Macon's work.
On the other side of the ledger are the various song-types of the era - wry songs of wayward love and wayward lives, classics from the rosy past like "The Battleship of Maine," sentimental songs like "Maple on the Hill" and "Little Bessie," and of course that monster hit of every decade since the '20s, "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms." I guess that's really another wayward song, isn't it?
Most of these songs and tunes will of course be familiar to most readers of OTH. They have been recorded again and again, by other old-time bands of the '20s and '30s, and by many modern bands as well. It's interesting to find them placed in this geographical and social context here, and to appreciate once again how strong the music was up there in that tough, mill-town country that, eventually, got renamed Eden.
Wm. N. Hicks
To order: 68 Glenridge Dr., Eden, NC 27288
Back to Top
Various Artists - Crossroads: Southern Routes: Music of the American South
Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40080
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry: Rising Sun/Allman Brothers: Statesboro Blues/Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Blue Monk/Les Quatres Vieux Garcons: 15 Ans/Vera Hall: Travelin' Shoes/SNCC Freedom Singers: Woke Up This Mornin' With My Mind on Freedom/Betty Mae Jumper: Mice and the Bad Angel-Turtle's Song to the Wolf/Neville Brothers: Brother John-Iko Iko/Bill Monroe: Whitehouse Blues/Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes/Lydia Mendoza: Anque Me Odies/Tammy Wynette: Apartment #9/Denise LaSalle: Too Many Hungry Mouths/Doc Watson and Merle Watson: Southbound/Kingsmen: I'd Rather Be An Old Time Christian/Mississippi Massed Choir: There Is None Like Him.
Beware! This "Enhanced CD" is a veritable bomb of information waiting to explode on your home computer. Not only can you play the CD on your conventional sound equipment, but you can slip the same disc into your CD-ROM, and if you know how to run the PCSETUP.EXE from your drive, the disc will shower you with photographs, text, music, and audio clips, and video segments. "This Enhanced CD," chortles the booklet, "contains enough information to keep you exploring the by-ways of southern music and culture for years to come." With this disc, we have been over into the inevitable future of music liner notes and supplemental material, and it works!
Musically, the album presents 16 previously issued commercial and field recordings, all recorded in the second half of the century, in an attempt to illustrate the varieties of southern American music. The emphasis falls heavily on the contemporary manifestations of southern music, with over half of the performances featuring electric bass and drumset, which, alas, will send some old-time aficionados to the Bufferin and others to the door.
The collection asserts but does not demonstrate the interconnections of these wildly varying musics as it ambitiously lurches from illustrating the blues to presenting vocal styles to defining genres to commenting on subject matter, all in a mere 16 selections. The production staff, headed by Anthony Seeger and Amy Horowitz and reading like the credits of a modern movie, wanted to use their eye-popping technology to give us an educational anthology, perhaps like those great Southern Journey collections done by Alan Lomax. However, the staff sacrifices coherence to their grim determination to be utterly inclusive - let's see, Indians, blacks, women, Hispanics, rockers, Cajuns, hillbillies, New Orleans, gospel choir - did we leave anyone out?
The album does contain wonderful music, of course, and nothing more stunning than the performance of America's greatest a cappella singer, Vera Hall. If there is singing in heaven, surely it will have the sweet power and dignity of this woman's voice rather than the gut-wrenching pyrotechnics of the modern gospel singers who close the album. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is a Mardi Gras street band playing a jazz tune-Congo Square meets Thelonius Monk, funny and sweet. The degeneration of modern rock 'n' roll has lent a retroactive nostalgic purity to the 1955 efforts of Carl Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" is now as quaint and distant from us as Charlie Poole's music was in the 1960s. Lydia Mendoza performs with a cabaret ensemble that reveals her as America's answer to Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf, street sparrow with accordion. And Tammy Wynette shows us the original of that cute little catch in the throat that is now de rigeur with female country singers. (The liner notes helpfully identify her accompaniment as "the pedal steel guitar"-we always wondered how they got that sound!) The Neville Brothers' Caribbean rap is fine until the Al Hirt accompaniment sneaks in the back door. On the down side, Greg Allman's parody of "Statesboro Blues" seems to be marred by some sort of gastrointestinal ailment-poor chap can barely gag the words out. Readers of this magazine will likely be well acquainted with the takes of Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, both from their recent Smithsonian CDs.
The listener may well be left pondering the connections between Vera Hall and Tammy Wynette, the Neville Brothers, and Bill Monroe, but this collection provides no answers to the questions it raises, no compelling vision to order the information it offers in such abundance. Perhaps what the technology of the Enhanced CD needs in order to present the richness of American vernacular music is the ordering intelligence of a Harry Smith, an Alan Lomax, or a Rich Nevins, a John Cohen or a Pat Conte-anthologists who have told eloquently some of the stories of American music in personal, often highly eccentric, but unforgettable visions. A teacher recently spoke to us about the new Clintonesque goal of putting computers into every classroom. "All the computer does is bring information into the classroom," he said sadly, "and a lack of information is not what's wrong with American classrooms." One suspects that Bill Clinton would approve of this well-intentioned CD, which puts American folk music on the information highway but with no one in the driver's seat.
Jon and Marcia Pankake
Back to Top
Various Artists - 60th Annual Old Fiddlers' Convention
Smokey Valley Boys-Breaking Up Christmas/Doug Rorrer-Whiskey Before Breakfast/Susan Gleason-The Alabama Waltz/David Cannaday-Little Liza Jane/Larry Pennington-Cumberland Gap/Richard Bowman-Sourwood Mountain/The East Coast Bluegrass Band-Thanks A Lot/Robert Ellis-Loch Lohman/Debbie Grim-Florida Blues/Jim Vancleve-Soppin' The Gravy/Evelyn Farmer-Jesse James/The New Ballard's Branch Bogtrotters-Jimmy Sutton/Big Country Bluegrass-I'm On My Way Back To The Old Home/Sabrina Kirby-Cold Frosty Morn/Scott Freeman-Town And Country Fiddler/J.C. Radford-Dark As A Dungeon/Bobby Lundy-Sally Ann/Joann Redd-Waltz Kitty Waltz/Polo Burguiere-John Henry/Wayne Henderson-Done Gone/Slate Mountain Ramblers-Lost Indian/Ricky Ellis-Red Apple Rag/Herb Brown-Fly Around My Little Miss/Clearwater-Little Girl Of Mine In Tennessee/Nathan Leath-Rosanna's Waltz.
This tape presents a sampling of some of the best performances in the contests at the 1995 Galax Old Fiddlers Convention. As might be expected the playing and singing here is consistently top notch. And because of the numerous categories of competition, both bluegrass and old-time, there are a wide variety of sounds presented here, from hard-core Round Peak old-time to contemporary bluegrass. In between are tunes played on guitars, banjos (clawhammer and bluegrass), dulcimers, autoharps, fiddles (old-time and bluegrass), and dobros. As is the case with compilations such as this, the wide variety means that some of the material won't please everyone. For instance, fans of the Smokey Valley Boys may not appreciate the more contemporary sounding "Foggy Mountain Rock" as played on the Dobro by Austin Clark or vice versa. I, for the most part, enjoyed the music throughout. The bluegrass bands leaned towards a more traditional sound as did the old-time bands. Doug Rorrer and Wayne Henderson both demonstrated that each can play the living daylights out of a guitar. There is plenty of hot fiddling, though the distinction between old-time and bluegrass seems to be getting a little blurred these days, which is fine by me. On the other hand, I did not particularly care for the mandolin numbers, which sounded like so much showing off to me. I found it interesting that a hammer dulcimer player placed in the top ten in the dulcimer contest. Things change, I guess. The two entries in the folk song category had me scratching my head, as well. Both songs were sung quite nicely, but I'm not sure either would qualify as a folk song. Susan Gleason sang "The Alabama Waltz" which was composed by a couple of guys named Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. J. C Radford did a nice job on Merle Travis_ "Dark As A Dungeon." Maybe the folk music police have been replaced by the ABC police? Maybe it doesn't matter. Overall, this is a nice collection, and would make a nice addition to your collection.
To order: Heritage Records, Rt.3 Box 290, Galax, VA 24333
Back to Top
<<<Return to 6-1 Index