Mississippi String Bands, Volume One: Traditional Fiddle Music of Mississippi
County 3513 CD (1998)
Mississippi Possum Hunters: Mississippi Breakdown/Possum on a Rail/Rufus Rastus/The Last Shot Got Him; Carter Brothers & Son: Nancy Roland/Old Joe Bone/Miss Brown/Jenny on the Railroad/Cotton Eyed Joe/Saddle Up the Grey; Floyd Ming's Pep Steppers: Indian War Whoop/Tupelo Blues; Ray Brothers: Jake Leg Wobble/Choctaw County Rag/Mississippi Echoes; Leake County Revelers: Dry Town Blues/The Old Hat/Mississippi Breakdown; Narmour & Smith: Sweet Milk and Peaches/Avalon Quickstep.
Mississippi String Bands, Volume Two: Traditional Fiddle Music of Mississippi
County 3514 CD (1998) (61:51)
Freeny's Barn Dance Band: Sullivan's Hollow/[Mississippi Square Dance] Sally Anne/Croquet Habits/Mississippi Square Dance/Don't You Remember the Time; Nations Brothers: Magnolia One-Step/Sales Tax Toddle/Bankhead Blues/Negro Suppertime; Narmour & Smith: Carroll County Blues/Charleston #1/Captain George, Has Your Money Come?/Mississippi Breakdown; Leake County Revelers: Molly Put the Kettle On/Lonesome Blues/Wednesday Night Waltz/Johnson Gal; Clardy & Clements: Little Black Mustache/Newton County Hill Billies: Going to the Wedding to Get Some Cake/Little Princess' Footsteps.
One of the benchmark events in my lifetime of acquiring old-time records was the issue in the 1975 of the two LPs on the County label of Mississippi string bands. Up until that time, I had only heard a smattering of music from Mississippi here and there, and I had heard some of the artists included in the set, but had not known at the time that they were from Mississippi. Now we are ready to roll again with such excitement, for County Records has released a new and improved version with these two CDs.
All of the selections, save one (The Leake County Revelers' "Been to the East, Been to the West") that were on the LP are found here, as well as numerous additional cuts from the same artists that were issued on vinyl, and a couple of new artistsCto the CD medium at leastCClardy & Clements and the Newton County Hill Billies. There was a wide variety in fiddling styles to be found in the Magnolia State at the time these recordings were madeC1927B1935Cand most of them can be savored between these two discs. Let me stray from the music itself for a moment. Commendations must be given to the County production staff, Chris King in particular, for its selection of the music, as not one piece is a clinkerCall are superb. Richard Nevins must also be commended for his excellence in walking the tightrope of 78 rpm record remastering. He has suppressed noise just enough to clarify a great deal of the music, without being heavy-handed and destroying some of the subtle music signal that is necessary to fully enjoy this material. Dave Freeman has written enjoyable and informative notes. The cover art, by graphic artist David Lynch, is stunning and attractive (and color-coded so you know which disc goes with what packageCwhat a concept!) and the photographic reproduction of band photos in the booklet is stellar.
Volume One kicks off with the Mississippi Possum Hunters, who had two distinct sounds because they had two different fiddlers playing in different styles. Lonnie Ellis starts off this series on "Mississippi Breakdown" (a variant to the Leake County Revelers' "Saturday Night Breakdown" and The Newton County Hill Billies' "Nine O'Clock Breakdown") with his breakdown bowing style (also heard on "Possum on a Rail") that contrasts with the more raggy playing of John Holloway on "Rufus Rastus" (done here as an instrumental version of the Tin-Pan Alley ragtime song by Sterling and Von Tilzer, "Whatcha Gonna Do When The Rent Comes 'Round?") and "The Last Shot Got Him" (which is an instrumental rendering of a song John Hurt, who lived near them, recorded as "The First Shot Missed Him"). Holloway bows the cello on the cuts where Ellis fiddles, and Ellis plays mandolin on the cuts that Holloway fiddles. One band, much diversity. The Carter Brothers & Son were one of the more raucous groups to record old-time fiddle music, with brothers Andrew and George on the fiddles and George's young son Jimmie on a powerful guitar, with his bass runs often emulating the melodic structure of these tunes. The fiddles had a great rhythmic component, freeing the guitar to be nearly melodic. The Carters sometimes played in standard tuning, as with "Nancy Rowland," and sometimes in cross-tuning, like the rest of their pieces heard here, but always with lots of energy. They must have been enjoying themselves too, getting carried away so that George would sometimes forget lyrics and do a form of "lilting," and other times where the fiddles, which played in octaves on some of these pieces, would go out of phase a bit, seeming to almost play in a round! None of this detracts from any of my enjoyment of the Carters, who are one of my favorite old-time ensembles of all-time. The rhythms they conjure with those fiddles should be enough to get anyone up and dancing.
Surely one of the oddest of old-time band names would be Floyd Ming's Pep-Steppers. With a surname shared by the villain in a Buster Crabbe outer space serial of the time, these records must have enticed many a browser. Hoyt (his actual first name) Ming's music must have seemed as alien to many old-time music fans of the era, and even by today's standards. His "Indian War Whoop," with its odd timing and gradual blend of a long-bowed fiddle drone into a vocal whoop still must reign as one of the great "spacey" tunes of all-time. Roselle Ming supplied a shuffling foot scuff that caused the record company to come up with their band-name. When Hoyt and Roselle appeared at the National Folk Festival about 1973, they were still able to enthrall with that distinctive sound. Their "Tupelo Blues" also uses an odd timing device, which must also have contributed to their underground fame amongst the purveyors of crooked fiddle tunes.
Next up are the Ray Brothers, Will on fiddle and Vardman on guitar, from Choctaw County. (A photo of the earlier five-member Ray Brothers band graces the cover of the booklet for Volume One). Their tunes also tend to eccentricity, with a strong cant towards a raggy yet bluesy feel. Will has some wonderful bowing action during the string transitions, smooth and articulated at once. Tony Russell in his magazineCOld Time MusicC(issue 20) compares some of Will's fiddling style with that of Gene Clardy (about whom we'll hear more later) who lived for a time in Choctaw County. "Jake Leg Wobble's" odd meter most likely is a musical re-creation of the odd gait that afflicted those who suffered from the side effects of partial leg paralysis, attributed to prohibition-era imbibing of Jamaica ginger extract, a legal beverage then with a high alcohol content. "Choctaw County Rag" is a distant variant of the ragtime piece "At a Georgia Camp Meeting." "Mississippi Echoes" is a lovely C tune with much blues feel, rather reminiscent of some of the Stripling Brothers material from that era.
One of the most popular groups in Mississippi, and among the earliest to record, were the Leake County Revelers, renowned for their waltzes and for their multi-part vocals (rivaling the vaunted Georgia Yellow Hammers in this category, in my opinion). One of the questions raised by Dave Freeman in his notes is a seeming lack of vocals by Mississippi string bands. I think if one looks at the entirety of the Revelers output, one might not bemoan that, for they recorded many, many songs, with lush harmony treatments. We do not get a chance to hear that in this collection however. The compiler of this collection may be partly to blame for that. [The Document label recently has reissued the entire recording output of the Revelers on two CDs (8029 and 8030).] The Revelers aside, I would agree with Mr. Freeman's assessment that not many Mississippi bands issued vocal recordings, but I surmise that this had a lot to do with the wishes of the record labels and their A&R men. Perhaps the songs that many of these bands knew were already issued by other groups on other labels. It also is obvious that the instrumental repertoire from this state that did make it onto shellac is rather special, so perhaps the labels then had decided that would be their strong suit? In any case, many of these musicians were known to sing, but did not do so for posterity. But back to the Revelers. "The Old Hat" is a nice variant of "Lynchburg Town," featuring guitarist Dallas Jones' strong lead vocal and the vaunted fiddling of Will Gilmer. Jim Wolverton's five-string banjo and R.O. Mosley's banjo-mandolin (and sometimes mandolin) round out their usually easily-recognizable sound. "Dry Town Blues" is a ragtime-influenced instrumental. Their "Mississippi Breakdown," hardly a breakdown at all, is a stately parlor-like piece, highly reminiscent of their "Texas Fair," which was recorded at the same 1930 session (though not heard in this set). The Revelers also appear on Volume Two, with their first cut there being "Molly Put the Kettle On," a fiddle tune with intermittent singing (Dallas Jones here, too, I believe). "Lonesome Blues" has a melody that does its title justice. "Wednesday Night Waltz," their only waltz in this set, was their biggest seller and one of their first two records issued in 1927. It was covered by many, many other artists and has become a staple at dances. Its opening strains of third position double-stops is instantly recognizable. Their sudden segue into "Texas Quickstep" may seem jarring to us in this time and place, but may have been representative of dance tunes that changed tempo from that era, such as "The Rye Waltz." Many have recorded wonderful versions of this, but I do not feel that anyone has fully surpassed the beauty and elegance of Will Gilmer's gem. Their final number on Volume Two is "Johnson Gal," a rousing breakdown in the key of G that features a rare solo vocal by fiddler Gilmer. "See those girls / dressed so fine / ain't got Jesus on their minds; Want to go to heaven / want to go straight / want to walk through those pearly gates" sort of tells it all.
If not the most popular string band from Mississippi, Narmour & Smith certainly had one of the biggest sellers and most-covered in "Carroll County Blues." Willie Narmour and Shel Smith were from Carroll County and were rather prolific. What is most interesting is that very few of the tunes they committed to wax sound much like other pieces that were recorded (except for those covered by other artists after N&S cut them). "Carroll County Blues" has a rather odd meter that must have made it quite appealing to their contemporaries and still entices fiddlers and audiences alike even today. It can be heard on Volume Two here. Another odd meter piece, "Avalon Quickstep," is found on Volume One. And speaking of Avalon, it was home to the great songster and bluesman, John Hurt, who was a friend of Narmour & Smith's; in fact they are the ones who recommended to the recording company that he be signed to a contract. Another of their fine but odd-timed pieces also is caught on Volume One, "Sweet Milk and Peaches." "Charleston #1" might be related to a showpiece of the era, "Done Gone," but it certainly plays well in Narmour's smooth and bluesy style. Like its flip side, "Carroll County Blues," "Charleston" seems to have been covered by everyone and his fiddling brother. Such was the compelling nature of their music. A couple more oddities from their vast repertoire of same are included on Volume Two: "Captain George. . ." and "Mississippi Breakdown" (which is not the same tune as the Mississippi Possum Hunters have on Volume One).
The piece that kicks off Volume Two is hands-down my favorite tune from Mississippi, "Sulllivan's Hollow" (to learn more about the legend and lore of that rough parcel mostly in Smith County, I highly recommend you delve into your local public library's collection and read Sullivan's Hollow by Chester Sullivan, University Press of Mississippi, 1978). Freeny's Barn Dance Band was a two-fiddle affair that recorded six sides in 1930 (only "Leake County Two-Step" from that session is not included here). Leslie Freeny's elegant and fluid lead fiddling on "Sullivan's Hollow still gives me the shivers. Guitarist Fonzo Cannon provides the vocals on the "anguished titled," "Croquet Habits," which also features some fine fiddling. He also provides calls on the two Mississippi Square Dance sides (I now forget which one is Part 1 and which is Part 2). One of them is also known as "Sally Anne," the other seems to be a tune that has one part resembling "Fire On the Mountain" and the other reminiscent of "Little Brown Jug." Carlton Freeny, the tenor banjoist, also was part of the group that recorded five years later as the Freeny Harmonizers.
Deeply into a bluesy sound were Lincoln County's Nations Brothers, Shelton on fiddle and Marshall on guitar. Of the 10 sides they cut in 1935, 8 were issued and half of those are found here on Volume Two, all gems. "Magnolia One-Step" is nothing short of being a precious jewel, with some complex bowing licks. Shelton executes similar technique in "Negro Suppertime." The timing idiosyncrasies some say delineate much of Mississippi's golden age of fiddling are brought to a head in "Sales Tax Toddle." Great bowing, left hand slides, eccentric pauses and timing. . . wow, the whole nine yards. "Bankhead Blues" is simply one of the most beautiful and most slippery blues pieces ever recorded.
I had not heard Gene Clardy (fiddle) and Stan Clements (guitar) until I received this recording. They only cut four sides in a commercial career abbreviated by the Great Depression. Clardy hailed from Carroll County and was older than most of the others on this recording. He is said to have taught Willie Narmour and may well have been the creator of "Carroll County Blues," according to Tony Russell. I previously had heard the Nations Brothers rendition of "Little Black Mustache" and thought it grand, but it really pales next to Clardy's phenomenal rendition. I surely wish we had more of his playing to savor. It is abundant in ornaments and intricacies not found in the playing of the other fiddlers in this set, hearkening back more to a style that was more prevalent in the 19th century. Tony Russell adds: "Clardy died at a dance during the mid-'30s or thereabouts. One of his audience asked him to go on playing after he'd finished for the night, and, when Clardy refused, killed him." Let this tragedy be a lesson to us all. . . don't stop playing.
At the time the Mississippi LPs came out, not one of the Newton County Hill Billies' six OKeh recordings had been located by collectors of old-time music, I believe. Fiddler Alvis Massengale was located and visited about this time by several researchers, who interviewed and recorded him. They got him to play several of the pieces he had committed to 78s in 1930 by requesting titles found on the OKeh ledgers, which greatly astounded him. Soon afterwards, in 1974, he was invited to play at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. And then the recordings started to surface. And what beautiful numbers. "The Little Princess' Footsteps" is a gorgeous little C tune and "Going to the Wedding" is a dandy dance tune in G, with the guitar making some surprising chord changes. What an ensemble, as Massengale's fine fiddling meshes so nicely with the mandolin of Marcus Harrison and Andrew Harrison's solid guitar playing.
That covers the musical content, but this is an excellent package all around, with great sound reproduction, fine graphics, nice notes and photographs. It is not as earth-shattering an event as the issuance of the original LPs, but this reissue is still one of the great musical projects of the year, or even the decade. For those who crave something a little out of the ordinary, you cannot do any better within the old-time genre. And for those who simply like great old-time music, well, here it is.
The Reel Band
Mack Snodderly: fiddle; Flave Hart: guitar, banjo; Kirk Randleman: guitar, vocals; with Calvin Parham: bass; Cliff Stubblefield: 2nd fiddle.
Black and White Rag/Gold Watch and Chain/Bill Bailey/Golden Eagle Hornpipe/Bluebells of Scotland/Brilliancy/Leather Britches/Tall Pines/Clarinet Polka/Black Hawk Waltz (plus one not listed; "Flowers of Edinburgh" I think).
Dr. Mack Snodderly, according to the tape liner notes, has won over 70 fiddle contests. He is an accomplished fiddler with abundant contest licks and advanced technique. Guitarist/banjoist Flave Hart is also a contest winner with several bluegrass guitar championships to his credit. The third regular member of this North Carolina band is Kirk Randleman on rhythm guitar and vocals. His heartfelt, relaxed singing is heard on the only two non-instrumental numbers, "Gold Watch and Chain" and "Tall Pines." The band is assisted on this recording by Calvin Parham on bass and Cliff Stubblefield on twin fiddle on one tune.
This is a tape that some listeners might call old-time, and others not. Much of it I might say is bluegrass with "uptown" fiddle, three-finger chromatic banjo breaks providing a shower of notes, and sometimes flatpicked lead guitar. Several of the tunes, notably "Black and White Rag," "Clarinet Polka," "Black Hawk Waltz," "Brilliancy," and the seldom-heard "Golden Eagle Hornpipe" are what I'd expect to hear in modern fiddle contests. They may call this "traditional Appalachian music" in the notes, but I think that's a stretch. Most of it has more the approach of both western contest and northeastern fiddling.
Craig Stubblefield is credited with twin fiddle on "Bluebells of Scotland" and "Faded Love"; however, the latter tune is not even on the tape. "Flowers of Edinburgh" is included, but it's not listed in the insert. Unfortunately, this inattention to detail is also reflected in the music. There are numerous fluffs, and especially, problems with rhythm and timing that should not have been allowed to go uncorrected by musicians with this much expertise. Unless one is a big fan of these players or wants a souvenir of one of their performances, I expect most OTH readers wouldn't go for this tape.
To Order: Flave Hart, 677 Hart Road, Pisgah Forest, NC 28768; 704-877-3908.
A Cowboy's Life
Rounder CD 0420
Desert Sands/Platonia, the Pride of the Plains/Shorty's Saloon/Cowboy Again For a Day/Cancion Mixteca/Fair Lady of the Plains/Night Herding Song/A Cowboy's Life/Texas Cowboy/Ace in the Hole/Barnacle Bill, the Sailor/A Spanish Cavalier/Button Willow Tree/My Bonnie Black Bess/'Long Side the Santa Fe Trail/Comitan de Las Flores/El Corrido de Kansas/Reincarnation/The Hell Bound Train.
It's been a long time since Glenn Ohrlin had a new recording on a national label. A Cowboy's Life is the latest from the best real cowboy singer alive. Ohrlin received the National Heritage Fellowship in 1985, recognition given to artists preserving folk traditions in which they were nurtured in the face of commercial popular culture. If you want authentic cowboy music, this is where to find it.
Over the years Glenn Ohrlin has released other albums on Rounder, Philo, and Puritan, as well as some self-produced tapes, but I believe all of those are now out of print. If I'm wrong, I hope someone will write OTH to let us know. A Cowboy's Life is not Glenn's best recording, but it's one we can get, and it is a good one. The selection of songs is unusual and varied, including three Mexican numbers, two cowboy poems, two songs Ohrlin classifies as "New York wise guy songs," a parlor song, and a British broadside, along with a slew of cowboy songs.
Wally McRae's poem "Reincarnation" has become a standard for those performing western material in recent years, but Glenn really does it justice. Of perhaps even more interest is the poem "Shorty's Saloon" which Ohrlin brings to life in a fitting low-key, yet dramatic, recitation followed on the recording by "Cowboy Again For a Day," the two pieces in tandem presenting a nostalgic look at the West that was. Many listeners will know "Fair Lady of the Plains" as "Ranger's Command" from the Woody Guthrie version. In fact, it is often attributed to Guthrie, but it was his adaptation of a fine older traditional cowboy song. Among the other old-time western numbers I especially enjoyed "Texas Cowboy" with its portrayal of the Nebraska and Montana cattle country, the rarely heard "A Cowboy's Life" (is a dreary, dreary life. . .), and "Platonia, the Pride of the Plains," a tribute to an exceptional horse. I think only "'Long Side the Santa Fe Trail" and "The Hell Bound Train" of the cowboy songs here have appeared previously on Ohrlin records.
The "wise guy songs" are the cleaned up versions of the old sailor song "Barnacle Bill," which was popularized in the 1930s by citybillies like Carson Robison and Frank Luther, and "Ace in the Hole," of which no one seems quite sure of the origins. Glenn recorded "Barnacle Bill" before on a Rounder album of bawdy songs and the sanitized performance here is almost as funny. "A Spanish Cavalier" is a parlor song or popular piece dating to the 1880s that Glenn learned as a child from his mother. I find the melody following me around.
Glenn Ohrlin has always been attracted to traditional Mexican music and began learning some back in the 1940s. I remember hearing him play with Santiago Jimenez, Jr. ("Jimmy") and his conjunto at a late night party at the Frontier Folklife Festival in St. Louis in 1978 and Glenn fit right in. On this release he plays a lovely guitar instrumental "Comitan de Las Flores," the homesick song "Cancion Mixteca" with guitar and double reed harmonica, and "El Corrido de Kansas," a ballad chronicling a cattle drive to Kansas.
"Bonnie Black Bess" seems a peculiar song to make its way into a puncher's songbag. It's a British broadside ballad about the 18th century highwayman Dick Turpin and his horse. About this sad song Ohrlin says "as a lifelong horse lover, it always makes me bawl." I guess that's why he so seldom performs it and that makes it a bigger treat to have on record.
Mark Wilson recorded this album, bringing J.P. Fraley with him to Ohrlin's place in Arkansas. Fraley adds fiddle on several cuts, rather sweeter than I would hear it in my mind, but mostly not inappropriate. Gordon McCann also provides second guitar on some selections. It's well-recorded and you won't find a better reflection of "a cowboy's life" out there on any other recording. This is the "real McCoy."
The World in Our Backyard
Chubby Dragon CD 1005
Elefta (Hungary)-Gyimesi/Mezokolpenyi/Atlantic Bridge (Ireland)-The Group Reel Set/Polka Set/The Yuri Yunakov Band (Bulgaria)-Milevska Ruchenitsa/Lidija/Pepa and Her Singers (Bulgaria)-Dvorove Moi Shiroki/Lena Ergen Mamila/Grupo Huayno (Peru)-Corazoncito/Sikuri/The Vajira Ensemble of Temple Vajiradhammapadip (Thailand)-Jeen Khim Lek/Som Song Sang/Cheres(Ukraine)-Bukovyna Fantasy/Recordar E Viver (Portugal)-Meninas Vamos Ao Vira/Siga A Rusga/Mazin Hattar and the Marjieh Brothers (Jordan)-Ya Reem/Salam Alay/Ecocumbe (Dominican Republic)-Ya si da calor.
Many of us used to think that the path to the most interesting music(s) in the world had only two branches. One of these led to the mysterious and sometimes fiercely guarded archives of recordings of far-off cultures made "before the War," or however we defined purity. The other required plane tickets and courses in obscure languages, suspicious uniforms stamping passports and oh-so-casual suits who followed us around while we poked microphones at music which no one outside of the CIA could possibly have an interest in. Sometimes it was hard, after we left, on the musicians who remained to answer grim questions about their American associations.
All the while, of course, there was a third branch of that path right in our own back yard. Ray Alden certainly found it in hisClugged in some recording equipment, and emerged with these recordings of current practitioners living in Westchester County, New York. Verily, the God of all Romantics has a sense of humor. Seeing us distressed by our land of mass culture and TV commercials, said humorist has endowed it with a high-powered culture magnet. Enough grumpy grey suits on their side, and enough discount stores and schoolhouses on ours, and the magnet has acted to pull those dazzling musicians into moving in next door to us. Next to Ray, at any rate.
And he has made us a CD worthy of the grand concert at an Olympic soccer tournament. Westchester County now harbors musical Hungarians, Irish, Bulgarians, Peruvians, Thais, Ukrainians, Portuguese, Jordanians, and Dominican Republicans however they vote. No doubt others too, but the CD's full already.
Right away, here's a question. In a magazine devoted to old-time music, as its editors and readers usually define it, what connects this polyglot rumpus to the music so well popularized by the New Lost City Ramblers? Is it not that cultural discontent that led us away from the packaged pop music of the music industry 30 or 40 years ago, in search of some new strains unknown to the yammering hypesters? Harry Smith, who assembled and edited the critical mass of recordings which supplied the NLCR so well, was a cross-cultural pioneer who led a generation forward by listening backward in time to tribes not his own. He refused to abandon musical quality simply because its original market, the musicians' neighbors, had dried up. Ray has similarly gathered some current music of quality, which uses different scales and doesn't sing in English. Most is rooted in forms which endured long eras with little change. None of it sounds like the World Beat currently flogged by the industry either.
But unlike the old southern music, this collection represents a much wider array of styles and ambitions. It is indeed mostly string-band music, and ranges from good old dance tunes for their own sake, to dressed-up stage arrangements, to improvised virtuoso exploits and even classical compositions for the nobility. Most of the Golden Age recordings were made by home-schooled musicians; here, the Bulgarian choral music, the Thai and Ukrainian and Jordanian selections, are all arranged for the stage by conservatory-trained leaders. This treatment transforms folk arts into fine arts in the name of self-conscious cultural promotion, but changes both purpose and audience in the process.
All of it is well played or sung, with a minimum of whoops and yee-hoos to incite listless listeners. There is not space to give detailed reasons why one would buy a round for one band, sensitively applaud another, or hand the third 40 bucks to play the ruchenitsa long enough to dance your sweetie into availability. There is sufficient to salute Ray for documenting a pretty inspiring back yard. This reviewer is too shy to name the three or four bands whose efforts feel most like the good old stuff, largely because of exposing his ignorance of the reasons why the other bands surpass them. To be precise, the product is less like the Harry Smith Anthology than like Mike Seeger's Berkeley Farms album: a place at a moment in time, but a good place to be.
To order: Chubby Dragon Productions, 124 Quaker Bridge Rd., Croton-on-Hudson, NY 10520.
The Speed of the Old Long Bow:
A Tribute to the Fiddle Music of Ed Haley
Rounder CD 0438
John Hartford: fiddle; Bob Carlin: banjo; Mike Compton: mandolin; Rob Gately: string bass; Darren Vincent: guitar.
Hell Up Coal Holler/Yellow Barber/Lost Indian/Dunbar/Brushy Fork of John's Creek/Bonaparte's Retreat/Forks of Sandy/Cattlettsburg/Half Past Four/Blackberry Blossom/Pumpkin Ridge/Brownlow's Dream/Rebel Raid/Boatman/Ida Red.
This CD marks John Hartford's second consecutive recording which features instrumental old-time fiddling. Both have been tributes to the legendary West Virginia fiddler, Ed Haley, in whom Hartford has taken a great interest over the past few years. (He's currently working on a final draft of Haley's biography to be published in the near future.) Unlike the previous album, Wild Hog in the Red Brush, which purported to be a collection of tunes we knew Ed played but we hadn't actually heard him play on recordings, the present collection of tunes are ones Haley recorded and may also be found on the two Ed Haley albums that Hartford produced for Rounder.
The playing throughout is topnotch and tight, as one would expect, given the caliber of musicians involved. Hartford's fiddling is brisk, energetic, and slippery, propelling this album from start to finish. The banjo chores are ably handled by Bob Carlin. Readers of the OTH should be familiar with Bob as one of the premier clawhammer stylists in the country, and through his work as a producer of documentary recordings. Mike Compton, a first class mandolin player in the style of Bill Monroe, is probably best known in bluegrass circles as a highly sought after session player and as one of the founders of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Although he gets a good workout in the Hartford stage show, his job here is primarily to lay down a steady rhythm, which seems to be second nature to him. Darren Vincent and Robert Gately hold down the low end on their respective instruments. Among the tunes the band plays are some of my favorites from Haley's vast repertoire: "Lost Indian," "Dunbar," "Brushy Forks of John's Creek," and "Half Past Four" to name a few. Not surprisingly, the Hartford stamp is all over this CD start to finish, and although this is a tribute to Ed Haley, it's first and foremost a John Hartford album.
Although the playing and tune selection here are just fine, there are a couple of things going on throughout that need mentioning here. Though ostensibly this is an instrumental album, it's not really. Throughout every tune are vocal interjections from John, mostly impressionistic rambles about Ed Haley, his family and friends. I'm sure these are meant to be entertaining and keep things interesting (and no doubt will entertain and interest some folks). Most of the time I found it distracting. The same goes for the musical arrangement used throughout, a technique Hartford calls "windows" and describes as "loosely based on a big band device of changing the texture every eight bars." It's an interesting concept, but one that for me detracts more than it adds. I found myself wishing they'd just play the tune and quit messing around, not unlike their live performances. Despite these gripes, I'm glad that Hartford and company have chosen this path. I hope they continue down the road of old-time country music because they're bound to win more fans into the fold.
The Carter Family On Border Radio-1939: Vol. 2
Theme/Why There Is a Tear in My Eyes/Sleep Baby Sleep/Just Another Broken Heart/Corina/I Can Not Be Your Sweetheart/Red Wing/A Broken Down Saint/Weeping Willow/You Are My Flower/Gathering Flowers from the Hillside/The Last Letter/I Wouldn't Mind Dying/Who's That Knocking at My Window/Diamonds in the Rough/The Fatal Wedding/It's Hard to Please Your Mind/Death Is Only a Dream/Theme/XET Station Break/Theme/The Church in the Wildwood/Are You Tired of Me, Darling?/Sourwood Mountain/Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie/My Bonnie Blue Eyes/Yankee Doodle/Storms on the Ocean/Sugar Hill/Hello Stranger/Cowboy Jack/Nobody's Darling/Funny When You Feel that Way/Dixie Darling/Shortning Bread/Soldier and His Sweetheart/Polly Wolly Doodle All Day/My Gold Watch and Chain/River of Jordan/I Will Never Marry/God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign/Theme Out & XET Station Break.
This is the second of three volumes of Carter Family radio transcriptions that Arhoolie is releasing. The Carters, probably the best-known and possibly the most loved old-time group to record during the golden era, are also the most reissued old time artists. Nine volumes of their Victor 78s released on Rounder, as well as other reissues, have made a vast amount of their commercial recordings available to us today. But in these Arhoolie CDs taken from 17 transcription discs the Carter Family made for the radio station in Del Rio, TX/Villa Acuna, Mexico in 1939 we hear another side of the Carters.
The majority of the songs on this release are ones the Carters put on 78s but are in abbreviated form for the radio. Exceptions are Maybelle's lively guitar instrumentals "Red Wing," "Sugar Hill," "The Fatal Wedding," and "Shortning Bread" with Sara providing autoharp or guitar backup. These are very short snatches of the tunes, but never did they make any instrumental 78s. A.P. sings a few numbers with only his own guitar accompaniment, something he never did on record. Sara and A.P.'s daughter Jeanette, 16 years old at the time, offers four solo selections; Maybelle's daughters June, Helen and Anita are heard on six cuts in solo, duo or trio. This is certainly an aspect of the Carter's performances of the late 1930s that we miss on their 78 recordings. Still (I guess I'm a terrible curmudgeon), as much as I like the idea of children singing the old-time songs, I find it difficult to listen to in most cases, especially over repeated listenings. I don't include Jeanette in this statement for she was already a mature and affecting singer with the same heavy powerful voice of her mother. June also fares well in her one solo "Nobody's Darling." But the other kid cuts are pretty cute for my taste.
There's an abundance of good music on this CD; however, I find the 78 reissues more enjoyable and useful. Those who specialize in the Carters' music will not want to miss this chance to hear them as they performed for radio audiences. You do have to put up with Brother Bill Guild's comments and the "theme" (chorus of "Keep on the Sunny Side") four times during the disc, all of which wears thin after you listen a couple times. Hearing the earliest recordings of Jeanette may be worth it all, with memorable versions of "I Will Never Marry," "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," "Sleep Baby Sleep" complete with yodel, and "The Last Letter."
Notes by Ed Kahn furnish the background for Dr. John Brinkley's radio broadcasts featuring the Carter Family, but no information on the songs is given. The cover is a handsome hand-tinted (or is that now computer-tinted?) photo of Maybelle, Sara, and A.P. standing at the microphone as if ready to broadcast. If only we had radio like this everyday as the Carters provided back in 1939.
Got a Little Home to Go To
Rounder CD 0432
Bob Holt: fiddle; Alvie Dooms: guitar; Jim Beeler: banjo, electric guitar; Ted Heavner, Gordon McCann, Jim Nelson: second guitars; Patty Beeler: bass; Bill Conley: banjo.
Carroll County Blues/Sally Goodin/Red Hills Polka/Fort Smith/John Brown's Dream/Shoe Cobbler's Blues/Rabbit in the Pea Patch/Old Charlie Deckard/Flop Old Turkey Buzzard/Sugar in the Coffee-O/Hop Up, Kitty Puss/Arkansas Two Step/Doc Brown's Dream/Wolves a-Howling/Finley Creek Blues/Rattlesnake/Sally Went a-Hunting/Acorn Hill Breakdown/Lost Indian/Got a Little Home to Go To/Going Across the Sea/Molly, Put the Kettle On/The Ninth of January/The Old Stillhouse/The Old Country Waltz/Tomahawk/Black Mountain Rag.
One of the professional challenges most often discussed among recording engineers is that of capturing that undefinable "something" that makes some live performances great. A first-rate studio recording can have energy, drive, spontaneity, originality, recklessness and every other characteristic of a fine "live" performance. But somehow, without a grateful and enthusiastic crowd on hand, well, it's still just a great studio recording.
Particularly difficult is the task of capturing music played live for an appreciative and active set of dancers. As great as the music may work for the folks on the floor, the combination of uncontrollable building acoustics, utilitarian sound systems, background chatter and the caller's dance instructions usually make for a cluttered and chaotic-sounding recording. On recordings of public dancing events, it's not uncommon to have the din of tap-sporting hoofers drown out all but the vaguest outlines of the tunes being played. That's unfortunate, since as the bands themselves will often say, the dancers can inspire the performers, leading the music to places it wouldn't normally be able to go.
Well, here's a live square-dance recording that works. Douglas County, Missouri fiddler Bob Holt and his friends knock out a set of dance tunes that clearly keeps the crowd on the floor, and scarcely a thing is lost to the listener at the receiving end of the microphone. This is fairly unadorned, but rock-solid and rewarding traditional music delivered in a community social setting. It makes no pretensions to being great music and no apologies for its directness. It does sound and feel like a square dance, and is about as honest a recording as you'll find anywhere.
To be fair, though, Bob Holt is more than the "rough fiddler" he describes himself to be. While the live tracks, recorded in Ava, Cabool, and Taney Center, Missouri, in 1997, are pretty straight-forward and stripped-down, there are some interspersed non-performance numbers that show the finesse that Bob is capable of when music for listening is the objective. He is a well-rounded fiddler, facile with fast hoedowns, polkas, blues, country songs, waltzes and more.
In the ample liner notes, Bob discusses his heritage, childhood, work history, and musical life. A Missourian of East Tennessee stock, Holt absorbed the music around him from boyhood. He progressed from harmonica to mandolin and on to fiddle at an early age, pushed actively by his father, a non-player who couldn't seem to keep the tunes from running through his own mind. His dad's whistling, a grandmother's Victrola, and an assortment of fiddle-and banjo-playing relatives and neighbors gave Bob the start he needed, and he was an active dance fiddler by his teen years in the 1930s. He cites fiddlers Lonnie Robertson, Peter McMahon, and Dwight Lamb as influences, and later spent considerable time with Cyril Stinnett. He was a solid and popular dance fiddler for many years before leaving Douglas County for Iowa. During his 12 years there, Bob played dances actively with other ex-Missourians. He dabbled in bluegrass, played a lot of country music, but kept closest to the old-time styles which he still favors. Bob returned to his home state in 1965, where he has remained. According to Bob, it took very little prodding from the revivalists who found him there in the 1970s for Bob to get more active with his music. In spite of the rigors of active dairy farming, he made time over the years to play, teach, and attend festivals, though he has largely shied away from performance situations.
This recording offers a good dose of familiar-sounding, traditional Ozark fiddling with solid, if sometimes simple rhythmic accompaniment. The feeling is loose, the assortment is varied, and the effect is warm and reassuring. This is comfortable stuff that will creep up on you. Nothing too remarkable, but darned if it doesn't keep showing up in my player!
Louis Boudreault: Old Time Fiddler of Chicoutimi, Quebec
Voyager VRCD 322
Louis Boudreault: fiddle, foot percussion.
Celina Reel/La Grande Gigue Simple/La Cardeuse et Le Grand Triomphe/Deux Reels de Joseph Allard/Reel des Petits Poissons Lac Kenogami/Reel du Pendu/Le Batteux/Brandy Reel/La Gallope du Lac St.-Jean/Reel d'Odile/La Disputeuse/Le Reel Neuf/Le Reel Philibert/La Jartihre.
This CD, a re-release of a fine piece of field recording originally accomplished in 1977 by Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger, is a portrait of the music of Quebecois fiddler Louis Boudreault. Mr. Boudreault was born in 1905 in Chicoutimi. His father was a fiddler. When he was 11, says Mr. Boudreault, he picked up a small sized fiddler that his father was repairing and discovered that he could play a tune. So began his long playing career.
Mr. Boudreault played some weddings as a youth, but in a seemingly ironic twist, he found that the dust kicked up by the dancers at these affairsCwhich lasted sometimes three days!Cwas unhealthy. Retiring from professional music at the tender age of 15, Mr. Boudreault began to work building houses with his father as a carpenter, and, in the winter, worked as a logger. He would pick up the fiddle to entertain friends on the weekends.
Readers may recognize this story in outlineCit is similar in a way to that of Tommy Jarrell and to many other old-time players, men who stopped playing to work for most of their lives, then came back to their instrument in later life, as Mr. Boudreault did in 1970. One result of these successive life choices is a repertoire that reflects the music of an earlier day, a time capsule.
One feature of Boudreault's music is his use of cross-tunings, both AEAE and AEAC#. Although the tunes aren't annotated by tuning (it would have been nice), the ear can pick this feature up fairly easily due to the clarity of the recording. Even more striking is the French structure of the tunesCI was reminded of a cold foggy night in Brittany, the bombard keening in the mist and wood smoke somewhere down near a stage where the day's festival events had concluded hours before. Most of these tunes circle and circle, often never resolving in the expected way unless they move to a second, resolving tune in a medley. Heightening this effect is Boudreault's foot percussion accompaniment, driving on and on, racing the bow. Boudreault also uses effective and repeated bow rhythmCparticularly the bowed triplet. The music, in short, is dance music, and dancing music as well.
To understand a little more about the roots of the hypnotic, wheel-like quality of this music, consider some of Boudreault's annotations to some of the tunes: "Brandy Reel: a dance with four couples. It was a sort of tap dance, and could last an hour. Le Reel Philibert: His wife would start dancing and when she got tired Philibert would take over. . . . La Grande Gigue Simple: The reel that one must play to make a good stepper dance. When the time for this reel came, everyone able would try to outdo the others and it could last for hours."
There is also history embedded in this music. "La Cardeuse et Le Grand Triomphe: the name of great triumph was connected with the deportation of the Acadians: when everything was settled, a certain group succeeded in staying at their farm, and a fiddler composed this reel in remembrance of that deed." And, on a more local levelC"Reel des Petits Poissons Lac Kenogami: During the month of March the lumberjacks got together at Phre Lazard Hudon's to spend a week fishing for the little fish, take a little nip, and have Phre Lazard play his fiddle. Betting was forbidden and whoever got drunk was kicked out of camp. This way good humor reigned always and everyone stayed friends."
This CD reminds me in many ways of other CDs I have reviewed in these pages, notably the two volume Prince Edward Island Fiddling set and the CD of the music by Francis MacKay of Nova Scotia (both on the Rounder label). It is an aural window into a very specific culture of the rural past. The more carefully one is willing to listen, the more there is to learn and discover. There are some fine tunes here; the cross-tuned pieces are probably worth the price of admission to some fiddling readers of the OTH.
At the same time, one note of caution. Though the foot percussion is great for what it is, its repetition, cut after cut, became (at least to this listener) annoying and almost migraine producing! This is perhaps not a CD to play as ambiance. I am nonetheless most pleased to have found that another fine traditional musician has been rescued from oblivion.
Wm. (Bill) Hicks
'Til The Good Times Come
Trails End 098 (48:52)
Debby McClatchy: vocals, banjo, guitar; Dave Peabody: harmonica, guitar; Ross Campbell: anglo concertina, vocals; Maggie Holland: guitar, vocals; Chris Romaine: fiddle; Bruce Hutton: guitar, mandolin, Oahu guitar, banjo, vocals.
Baby Rose/It's My Lazy Day/The Winding Stream/California Humbugs/Colorado Song/It Was Silent So I Gave It Away/Honey, It Must Be Love/The Spell of the Yukon/Carolina Mountain Home/The Day the Yuba Ran High/Malakey Waits/Roll Along Kentucky Moon/I'm Going Back to Dixie/The Little Black Train.
Debby McClatchy certainly knows how to sing old-time music. Her rich, expressive voice envelops each selection on this CD, making even familiar songs distinctly her own. She has been honing her singing and instrumental skills for some 30 years now, performing in Great Britain as well as the United States, and her relaxed singing style is that of an artist who knows her music well and knows exactly how to present it. The music on this CD is drawn from sources as diverse as Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Gene Autry, and Blind Willie McTell. There are also a few selections that display her own not inconsiderable songwriting skill.
Much of the charm of this album comes from the well-thought-out arrangements that both set the mood for each song and also provide a continuity of style for the whole albumCa rare accomplishment. McClatchy's singing is accompanied on many of the selections by her banjo along with some combination of guitar and/or Chris Romaine's fine old-time fiddle, which gives the music an old-time string band sound. But the skillful use of harmonica, mandolin, concertina, slide guitar, and backup vocals, along with one unaccompanied selection, add variety to the album. Ross Campbell's concertina on "The Spell of The Yukon" is hauntingly beautiful. Dave Peabody's harmonica on "It's My Lazy Day" weaves in, out and around McClatchy's banjo like a trout stream flowing through the mountains. Bruce Hutton's slide guitar work on "Roll Along Kentucky Moon" is a singing line that almost makes this performance a duet. One element of the accompaniment that stands out in particular is McClatchy's remarkably effective use of the banjo to accompany her singing. She is one of the best old-time banjo players around; something that people who admire her singing often overlook. On this album, she demonstrates a remarkable ability to produce a soft, singing, lyrical accompaniment as well as the harder driving sound often associated with frailing style banjo picking.
The program notes identify the dates and locations of the recording sessions as well as all of the musicians and their instruments although some of the information on the specific selections is missing. Also included is background information on all of the songs. There are no song texts which is unfortunate because, although the album is well recorded, a few of the lyrics get lost in the mix.
In addition to singing and playing banjo and guitar, McClatchy is also responsible for the production including the excellent arrangements. Although the producer of the album is listed as Fulton Le Fever, an interview with McClatchy revealed that Fulton and Le Fever are two of her husband's shotguns to whom, in a moment of whimsy, she credited the production of her album.
To order: ($15.00 + $2.00 S&H) Debby McClatchy, RD 1 Box 74, Roaring Spring, PA 16673.
Yodel Ay Hee 024 (1998; 48:39)
Grant Dermody: harmonica & vocal; June Drucker: bass; Forrest Gibson: guitar; Scott Meyer: fiddle & vocal; Richie Stearns: banjo.
Salt River/Four Cent Cotton/Icy Mountain/Piney Ridge/Cumberland Gap/Cotton-Eyed Joe/Horseshoe Bend/Speed the Plow, Clinton/Black-Eyed Susie/Joke on the Puppy/Yew Piney Mountain/Goin' Away Baby/Sandy Boys/Bye-Bye Bird.
With the current air of full disclosure, let me clear my breast by opening this review delineating the connections between this reviewer and the band members. I first heard about fiddler Scott Meyer when he was a member of the Alaskan string band, Rattletrap, being informed about this talented fiddler by that band's banjo player, Steve Roberts. Steve came from my hometown, Cleveland Ohio, and had a stint playing with Tommy Jarrell. You can hear Steve and Scott play "Flatwoods" on the "Tribute To Tommy Jarrell" LP (Heritage LP 063). I also have been in the audience or on the dance floor when Richie Stearns played with the Horse Flies and the Renegades. I first ran into June Drucker in Philadelphia, back when she still played the banjo a lot. I also have enjoyed her rock steady bass playing in a number of ensembles, most frequently while she drove the rhythm of the Heartbeats. Harmonicist Grant Dermody lives in the neighborhood adjoining mine in South Seattle; we met when he delivered the review copy of this CD. I finally completed my Grand Slam of meeting this band when Forrest Gibson, the aptly named guitarist and current denizen of North Seattle, came to my birthday party not two weeks ago, at this writing. I will nonetheless be objective.
So how did these disparate elements come together, you ask? Here is what I gathered from various group members. . . . Although Scott, Forrest, and Grant all had lived in Alaska at various times, they did not all meet until the 1990 Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau (Forrest and Scott had played together prior to this momentous occasion, though). Grant had been giging in the Seattle country and Chicago blues scenes (even doing time in the classical and jazz demimondes) through the '80s. He heard Mark Graham play at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival in '89 or '90, started studying with him, and took off on an old-time music exploration. Grant then was blown away by Scott's fiddling at the 1990 Alaska festival and there also was greatly impressed with Forrest's guitar and mandolin work. The three jammed for the first time at the '92 festival and played sporadically together after that. In 1995, Scott and Grant did a formal duet performance at that festival. That is what eventually led to this recording. Forrest and Scott at that time had been playing together in Alaska in Cajun and old-time ensembles. Forrest also started playing blues with Grant about that time, continuing that practice when he later moved to Seattle. In the early '90s, Grant became friends with Al Tharp, erstwhile banjoist from the Plank Road String Band in days of yore, but at that time touring with Beausoleil. They'd hang out together whenever Al came up to Seattle. As Grant told me, "On one of these visits I played [Al] a tape of Scott's and my duo set at the festival. Al loved the sound and the ball got rolling. Al eventually offered us the use of his studio in New Orleans for a project. Forrest was immediately enlisted as guitarist, we went to Homer [Alaska] to bang out some tunes with Scott, sent a work tape to Richie and June and started doing all the rest of the prep we needed to do." To finish this little digression into the band's roots, Scott had initially met Mr. Stearns at Richie's wedding in 1985, and got to know him better when The Renegades toured Alaska in the early 1990s. Forrest, Grant, and Scott had played with June a few times at the festival in Juneau. In any case, Scott contacted June and Richie about the recording project because they knew June would be rock-solid on bass and Richie would be versatile enough to fit in with the styles they'd record.
This bi-coastal band brings a lot of varied experience and input into the mix and the result is quite interesting. The first thing that struck me was their choice of recording material, which includes some of my all-time favorite tunes. In some cases, they chose to perform them in a style closely resembling source recordings; in others they let their collective creative muses take the ball and run. In all cases, their execution is near flawless.
They open up with "Salt River," which Scott learned from Andy Cahan, who had picked it off an old (ca. 1950s) radio recording of Hillsville, Virginia fiddler Norman Edmonds. Scott takes the lead on this one, then backs off with a pleasant harmony fiddle behind Grant's harmonica lead. It's a fine flourish to start the album. "Four Cent Cotton," the Lowe Stokes/Skillet Licker war-horse, gets a treatment far removed from the wild multiple fiddle arrangements heard in North Georgia in the 1920s. The Improbabillies get in a funky, loping, laid-back groove, with Forrest laying down some blues-tinged guitar licks and Grant evoking the Chicago South-Side on his harp, with a strong lead vocal from Scott. "Icy Mountain" retains its West Virginia/Ohio roots sound (Ward Jarvis via Whitt Mead, whose pre-Rhythm Rats fiddling inspired Scott to learn this one) in a fairly straight reading of this tune. The ensemble pares down to a fiddle-banjo-harmonica trio for Bill Stepp's "Piney Ridge," and moves back to full strength for a lovely crooked version of "Cumberland Gap," with Scott's vocal pauses bringing just enough tension to the tune before it tumbles into the next part. I'd also like to insert an addendum here to the liner notes for the next track, "Cotton Eyed Joe," which they play beautifully. This AEAC# fiddle tune was disseminated into the (so-called) Revival primarily through the playing of Hawk Hubbard. Hawk told me that he had gotten it on a visit to Garry Harrison, fiddler and field collector extraordinaire from southern Illinois. Garry informed me that he got it from Noah Beavers of Elkville, Illinois, who sometimes called it by this title and sometimes not. Next up are a couple more instrumentals, "Horseshoe Bend," learned from the Stripling Brothers recording, but with Scott using a much more rhythmic bowing device than Charlie Stripling's, and a medleyCusing the aforementioned trio motifCof "Speed the Plow" and "Clinton," the latter being a probable misnaming of John Ashby's "Going to the Free State" (and having nothing to do with the President). The band again changes gears with the slow, plaintive, near-chant version of "Black Eyed Susie." It grooves and is highly reminiscent of the early 1980s incarnation of The Horse Flies.
Scott pays homage to Tommy Jarrell in tandem with Richie on banjo, on "Joke on the Puppy," which sticks pretty close to Tommy's archetype for most of the tune, but also incorporates some modernistic take-offs here and there. A similar approach, this time with the trio, is applied to the West Virginia evergreen, "Yew Piney Mountain." Another gear shift occurs with Jimmy Rodgers' "Goin' Away Baby." Uh, not that Rodgers, not the Blue Yodeler, and not the "Honeycomb" guy, but the Chicago bluesman. This acoustic band is in fine Chicago Blues fettle here, behind Grant's vocal. What's the term? Shuffle? A relentlessly subtle blues shuffle keeps it percolating, while Forrest executes some tasty guitar leads and fills, Richie takes a blues clawhammer banjo break, also contributing zesty fills, while Grant just burns it with his torrid harp solo. "Sandy Boys" is their square-danceable next-to-last number, owing, I think, a lot to the influence of the Easy Street String Band's recording (where Easy Street seemed to take Burl Hammons' banjo version and make a fiddle tune of it, straying from the better-known fiddle versions from Burl and his uncle Edden Hammons). It kicks. They finish the CD off with a harmonica showpiece adapted from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), "Bye-Bye Bird " with Richie's banjo counter-punting Grant's harp riffs, to an uncredited hand-pat percussion accompaniment.
This is quite the recorded tour-de-force for what in essence is a studio band, replete with wide geographical distribution. I've heard rumors that they may try to mount a tour. On the strength of this recording, I hope that they do and that they are encouraged to go back into the studio at least a second time, for I think they have a lot to say about various directions that old-time music can be taken today.
To order: The Improbabillies, 11205 Lakeridge Dr. South, Seattle, WA 98178 or Improbabillies@highwire.com.
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