The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number8

Reviews

Old-Time Mountain Guitar Vintage Recordings 1926-1931

Various Artists

County CD 512

Roy Harvey & Leonard Copeland: Lonesome Weary Blues/Sam McGee: Buck Dancer’s Choice/Roy Harvey & Jess Johnson: Guitar Rag/David Fletcher & Gwen Foster: Charlotte Hot Step/David Miller: Jailhouse Rag/Frank Hutchison: Logan Blues/Roy Harvey & Leonard Copeland: Greasy Wagon/Melvin Dupree: Augusta Rag/Sam McGee: The Franklin Blues/The South Georgia Highballers: Blue Grass Twist/Lowe Stokes & His North Georgians: Take Me to that Land of Jazz/David Fletcher & Gwen Foster: Red Rose Rag/Roy Harvey & Leonard Copeland: Back to the Blue Ridge/Johnnie and Albert Crockett: Fresno Blues/Roy Harvey & Jess Johnson: Jefferson Street Rag/Melvin Dupree & Frank Locklear: Norfolk Flip/John Dilleshaw & the String Marvel: Spanish Fandango/Bayliss Rose: Jamestown Exhibition.

Historically, little attention has been paid to the guitar and its important role in the development of country music, at least in comparison to the fiddle or banjo. Recordings like Old-Time Mountain Guitar will hopefully serve to rectify this situation. This is one dandy reissue.

Featured throughout are solo and duet performances by some of the best guitarists of the first generation of commercially recorded country music, many of whom are probably well known, but primarily for their work as accompanists or within ensembles. A lot of musical ground gets covered in this collection. Robert Fleder’s essay in the accompanying booklet (which also has some rare photographs of some the players) examines a few of the historical reasons for this. As he points out, parlor guitar music of the late 19th century is the direct ancestor of much of the music heard on this CD. There is much aural evidence present in many of these performances to support this claim. The most noticeable stylistic elements of parlor guitar heard here are the use of the thumb as an alternating bass while the other fingers picked out intricate melodies, and the use of a variety of open tunings. Both black and white musicians adopted these stylistic elements, applying them to whole new musical genres, which emerged in the early part of this century. Readily recognizable in many of the cuts on the CD are the many African-American influences that greatly affected early country music (and all that was to follow). Among the selections we hear in this great mix are blues pieces, rags, and even a little jazz.

There’s not a disappointing selection to be found here, but there are some true standouts. The CD starts with "Lonesome Weary Blues," a duet from Roy Harvey and Leonard Copeland in which the two guitar parts (one in an open D tuning) are so completely intertwined that it is nearly impossible to discern one guitar from the other. Frank Hutchison and fellow West Virginian, Jess Johnson (with Roy Harvey) are featured playing slide guitar on one cut each. Johnson and Harvey give us "Guitar Rag," which closely follows Sylvester Weaver’s influential 1923 recording of the piece, and which probably served as the basis for the Western swing classic, "Steel Guitar Rag." Hutchison’s piece, "Logan County Blues," bears no small resemblance to the parlor piece, "Spanish Fandango," which is also heard here in a classic version played by John Dilleshaw and the String Marvel. The finger picking on the cuts by David Fletcher and Gwen Foster (the Carolina Twins) bears more than slight resemblance to the ragtime style that dominated the playing of many black guitarists in the Piedmont region. I haven’t mentioned the two cuts by Sam McGee, but it goes without saying that he was one of the all-time great finger-style guitar pickers. This is certainly evident in his renditions of "Buck Dancer’s Choice" and "Franklin Blues."

Some inventive and exciting flat picking pieces are also included among these recordings. Hoke Rice’s dazzling breaks and fills on "Take Me to that Land of Jazz" are nothing short of amazing and probably represent one of the earliest examples of flat picked lead guitar in country music or jazz. Flatpicking is also featured on the cuts by Melvin Dupree and the Crockett Brothers, Johnnie and Albert (of Crockett’s Kentucky Mountaineers). Dupree’s numbers are pretty ragged both in style and execution, while the Crockett’s playing reveals a polish that can only be realized from years of working on the vaudeville stage. Old-Time Mountain Guitar is a great collection from start to finish; it is both historically significant and makes for immediately enjoyable listening. As one of the best reissues of 1998, it should be part of everyone’s collection.

Jim Nelson

Quaker Girl

Tony Ellis

County CD 2723 (1998 43:50)

Tony Ellis: banjo, fiddle, fretless banjo, bass, guitar; Bill Ellis: 6-and 12-string guitars; Zan McCleod: percussion, bouzouki; Debbie Norris: celtic harp; Louise Adkins: pump organ; Ron Smith: vocal.

Mama Juana/Ohio Waltz/Downtown 5th Street Rag/Fox Hunter’s Reel/I Fell in the Fishing Hole/Hand in Hand/Paint Creek/Cold Frosty Morning & Money Musk/When I Think of You/Quaker Girl/Silver Dollar /Malvern Hill/Pretty Little Waltz/West Virginia Joe/Message to Seamus/Northwest Territory/Going to Town/My Freedom Home.

Tony Ellis may well be a name familiar to a lot of readers of this magazine, but perhaps not in an old-time music context. He has a stellar reputation as a bluegrass musician’s musician, for instance, having played in both Bill Monroe’s and Mac Wiseman’s ensembles and also fronting a top-notch outfit in Ohio for years. I first met Tony, however, during his musical partnership with old-time fiddler Lonnie Seymour, of Chillicothe, OH, where Tony then lived. That eventually became the new incarnation of The Ross County Farmers, along with Jeff Goehring on guitar, who put out a very nice tape on the Marimac label. Tony has also been justly honored by being chosen to tour as a part of the Masters of the Banjo show. Most folks probably know his music these days from his Flying Fish recordings, where they’ve experienced his "original" side, that is, his own compositions. One could think that original music might not be a good fit as review grist for a magazine that is dedicated to old-time music, but many of Tony’s originals could easily pass for old traditional tunes—though others obviously do not. Tony has many numbers on this CD that do slide in and out of the old-time mold quite well. The title tune seems to loom up out of history, perhaps from the antebellum South, as he picks a large-pot fretless banjo, which I surmise from its sound, very deep—like what I’ve heard called "slave banjos." The melody sounds archaic as well as the tone Tony pulls out of his 5-string. Tony’s son Bill plays what I’d call "contrapuntal texture" on a bell-like 12-string guitar that adds to the overall ambiance of this piece. The final cut, "My Freedom Home," also uses this same "slave" banjo to good effect, along with an understated vocal by Ron Smith (the only vocal on the CD). The penultimate tune, "Going To Town" (not the Arthur Smith piece, but one of Tony’s own) again could be a tune from antiquity. "Silver Dollar" is another that could have been a rave-up in the ‘20s, as it somewhat reminds me of Uncle Dave Macon’s Fruit Jar Drinker-era spirit. "Paint Creek" is another tune with a timeless quality.

It is rather ironic, in a sense, that the two real, traditional, old-time tunes on this CD, "Cold Frosty Morning" and "Money Musk," which Tony fiddles in front of Zan McCleod’s celtic bazooka, does not have an old-time feel at all. Likewise, the only other piece here that is not one of Tony’s own, "Fox Hunters Reel," which he also fiddles, fails to sound convincingly Irish, as his bowing and phrasing just don’t connect celticly. It’s not badly played by any means; it merely no longer sounds Irish, which may have been Tony’s intent. While many of the other numbers on this disc do not have an old-time flavor, most are still quite interesting (while all are exceptionally played, by the way). "Downtown 5th Street Rag" is a gorgeous tune that could have arisen in the ragtime era. Tony executes it beautifully on the 5-string and Bill’s lovely fingerstyle ragtime guitar is totally on it, even taking a break that is killer. "Pretty Little Waltz," is aptly descriptive. "I Fell in the Fishing Hole" is a seamless display of Tony’s melding of old melodic ideas with new conceptualizations, meshing beautifully, with tasty slide guitar provided by Bill. Old-style bluegrass of course is featured here in some of Tony’s compositions as on "West Virginia Joe." Some of the pieces sound quite moody, very cinematic, and on reading Tony’s notes to those tunes, it turns out they were written for or inspired by individuals involved in film or the stage. "Message to Seamus," for Tony’s friend (and favorite fiddler) Seamus Connelly, is a lovely Irish-style tune that seems to be unable to decide whether it is a schottische, a hornpipe, or a strathspey—frankly it doesn’t matter, as it is fine as is. Tony also plays one solo guitar piece, "Hand in Hand," a lilting melody he composed as a wedding air for celtic harp. Though beautiful it is, it seems again ironic that the resident harpist on this recording, Debbie Norris, was not used here. All in all, Tony has created a number of memorable tunes—especially of interest to OTH readers will be the several modal old-time sounding pieces. It certainly is not the hard-core old-time music that Tony grew up with in North Carolina, but we already know he can play that type of music exceptionally well. He is in a creative phase and is spouting forth some great music. It’s a nice diversion for me from the field recordings and 78s that are my main fodder. Kind of like dessert.

Kerry Blech

Going to the Races

The Crooked Jades

Crooked Music CD 001

Jeff Kazor: vocals, guitars; Lisa Berman: vocals, Dobro,Weissenborn, banjo; Tom Lucaw: vocals, banjo, fiddle; Dan Lynn: vocals, bass. With guests Steve Pottier, Sue Sandlin, Chad Clouse, Stephanie Prausnitz, Elise Engleberg.

Visits/Those Six Years/Train on the Island/Black Eyed Susie/44 Gun/Lugs & Bugs/Sail Away Ladies/Texas Canon/Medicine Springs/Little Dortie/Going to the Races/Texas/Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures.

The Crooked Jades hail from San Francisco, and if you’re familiar with the San Francisco old-time/bluegrass tradition, you have a pretty good idea of their sound. If you’re not familiar with extant or extinct string bands like Grant Street (Laurie Lewis), The Good Old Persons, or Any Old Time, you should make contact with their recordings, and with the Crooked Jades. East-Coast bluegrassers should pay attention to several of the numbers on this CD, including "Those Six Years," "44 Gun," "Sail Away Ladies," and "Going to the Races."

The San Francisco old-time/bluegrass genre tends toward composed songs which sometimes make no sense, instrumental solos which are both flashy and subdued, and excellent mellow vocal harmony blends. To my taste (which admittedly runs towards California small-town gourmet cafes), that’s easier to take than the machine-shop-on-speed banjo and vocals you sometimes get from Appalachian bluegrass bands. The Jades do play bluegrass style, with three-finger resonator banjo and alternating instrumental solos, on a number of pieces on this CD: "Visits," "Those Six Years," "Black Eyed Susie," "Medicine Springs," and "Texas." You would never mistake it for a North Carolina product, however.

Dobro guitar, played by Lisa Berman, adds a lot to many of the songs on this CD—I also appreciated her vocals. Tom Lucas adds a good sound to many of the pieces with a non-resonated clawhammer banjo. As a matter of fact, a lot of the pieces on this album sounded like good mixtures of old-time instrumentals and vocals. "Going to the Races," with dual vocals, guitar and Dobro, demonstrates the virtue of a very slow performance backed with superb harmony. "Green Pastures," similarly solemn, with guitar and four voices, is very good, even if it stopped before I was ready.

The acoustics are not as slick as some I’ve heard, but I think that means they made a group recording rather than adding one dead track to another. If that’s the case, I applaud it, as it makes the sound more vibrantly real. If the recording was really done one track at a time, somebody messed up the mix.

As winter settles into the tundra, I get a yen for San Francisco. The Crooked Jades reportedly appear regularly in a cafe called Radio Valencia, and, lets see—do I have enough frequent flyer mileage?

Lyle Lofgren

To order: Jeff Kazor, 687 Chenery St., San Francisco, CA 94131; 415-587-5687; crjades@aol.com; http://members.aol.com/CrJades

 

The Weiser Reunion

Benny and Jerry Thomasson

Voyager CD 309 (1998 reissue of 1973 LP 43:39)

Benny Thomasson: fiddle; Jerry Thomasson: tenor guitar; Dale Thomasson: guitar.

Cripple Creek/Salt River/Apple Blossom/Liverpool Hornpipe/Paddy on the Turnpike & Snowbird in the Ashes/Sally Johnson/Draggin’ The Bow/Leather Britches/Waggoner/Billy in the Lowground/Don’t Let the Deal Go Down/That’s A-Plenty/Kansas City Kitty/Jack of Diamonds/Grey Eagle/Soppin’ the Gravy/Cotton Patch Rag/Hotfoot/Durang’s Hornpipe/Twinkle Little Star.

I reviewed the cassette release of this recording for the OTH in the spring 1994 issue (vol. 4, no. 3). Since nothing but the medium on which this recording is available has changed, that is, the music is exactly the same (no additional cuts), my opinion has not changed. For those who do not have that issue lying around to consult, let me recap. Benny is one of the big names in Texas fiddling, being one of the fiddlers who popularized (if not one of the progenitors of) the style that now seems to dominate contests. He was born into a family of fiddlers near Dallas in 1909, and was in the center of the evolution or creation of the modern Texas fiddle style, which added some jazz concepts to old-time fiddling, featuring lots of variations around the chord structure. Benny retired from both his job and competitive fiddling in the early 1970s and moved to Kalama, Washington, near his son Dale. Benny remarked that when he still lived in Arlington, TX, his son Jerry and other nearby relatives never came to visit, but once he moved, they made concerted efforts to get together. The music generated in these reunions had a particular vitality. In June, 1972, Benny and Dale traveled to Idaho to attend the National Fiddle Championsips in Weiser, where they connected again with Jerry. Hours of mutually inspirational playing occurred outside of Benny’s trailer. Brooks Otis recorded these sessions, which have appeared on 1973 vinyl, a 1993 cassette, and now, on CD.

One of the things that many people say about contest fiddlers is that they try to avoid losing by not making mistakes rather than trying to win by pushing the boundaries. Since this jam session is for fun and not for money or trophy, Benny takes a lot of chances, resulting in particularly spirited gems, with the envelope consistently being pushed. And despite this, fiddlistic characteristics are never deserted for violining or jazz. It is hot, very much old-time, fiddling, by any standard. Old-time warhorses, swing numbers, rags, no matter what crossed Benny’s strings, he added as much feeling as he could muster. Jerry’s chordal backup could be a primer in Texas-style tenor guitar backup, too, although here and there he obviously is flying by the seat of his pants and occasionally finds himself down a blind alley; but that is when Benny yells out the change, helpful to the last. This spontaneity only adds to the enjoyment and vitality. You can almost feel the pulse and taste the whiskey.

Benny died in the mid-1980s, a few years after he left Washington to return to Texas. With such a reputation as he possessed, it is a wonder that so few recordings of him are now available. But that only points up the importance of this recording. Obviously the Voyager folks, Phil and Vivian Williams, realize this and have kept it in print all along, changing as media standards have changed. This recording will definitely please fans of Texas fiddling, but it also should inspire all fans of great fiddling, regardless of style.

Kerry Blech

 

Gortex Britches

Loon County

Loon County LC-002

Tom Carlson: fiddle, Hardangfel, banjo uke, vocals; Roger Cuthberston: fretless banjo, guitar, viola, vocals; Jo Schubert: guitar, string bass, vocals.

Gortex Britches/Happy Hollow, 5 Miles of Ellum Wood/I Get My Whiskey in Rockingham/Selmer Ramsey’s Waltz/Cotton Eyed Joe/Hard Times/Lost Indian/Lutefisk Cookin’ Time in Loon County/Erik’s Coot/Kiviks Polka/Pretty Little Shoes, Cluck Old Hen/Cuttin’ the Cheese, Enchanted Isle/You’re Bound to Look Like a Monkey When You Are Old/Saturday Night Waltz/Gypsy Girl/Lost Train Blues.

Loon County is an old-time band from Minnesota and as such feels the need to adapt the southern style of music to their northern clime. This results in many puns and parodies of well known old-time pieces. "Gortex Britches" is actually an all-weather version of "Leather Britches," and "Lutefisk Cookin’ Time" is a parody of "Chitlin’ Cooking Time in Cheatum County," and so on.

While this humor may run thin, it is all done with a broad smile. The local and original tunes hold up better than the standards. The fiddling on these tunes takes on a clarity of style that is not present on the revival material where it is frenetic and exudes energy but little else.

The southern tunes sound as if they are festival versions, with a dose of those "look at me"-style banjo licks that are annoying. They demonstrate a sound that is a generational and not regional style. The somewhat muddy mix does little to enrich the listening pleasure. Their singing, while adequate is neither old-time or country and is just the thing that makes bluegrass fans say that old-time bands can’t sing.

This is a regional band that may do well focusing on their regions and the music they probably know best. It is not a bad recording, but perhaps focusing more on their strengths would result in a recording with more appeal.

Robert Buckingham

To order: Loon County, 4735 Lakeway Terrace, Shorewood, MN 55331 http://www.visi.com/-tcarlson

 

Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Know

Jim Watson

Barker 1218

Jim Watson: vocals, guitar, mandolin, bass (with various guest artists).

Them Beautiful Bottles/Just Keep Waiting ‘Til the Good Times Come/I’m Going To the West/Miss the Mississippi and You/Walls of Time/Leaving Home/Elzic’s Farewell/Faded Coat of Blue/Bill Mason/My Carolina Sunshine Girl/Young Emily/Mother the Queen of My Heart/Sugar Coated Love/Reunion in Heaven.

Jim Watson has had tremendous impact over the years on the course of "new" traditional music, during his long tenure as a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers, a member of the Hollow Rock String Band and other bands in the Chapel Hill, NC area, as a soloist, and currently as bassist and singer with Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Group.

Jim has recently completed the first recording to feature his own name, and it’s a good one. Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Know is an interestingly mixed bag containing old-time country and popular songs, traditional fiddle tunes, bluegrass, ballads, and material not quite so easily pigeon-holed. It features a slew of guest artists, and shows the breadth of Jim’s abilities. The truth is, to do this one justice the bin divider in the CD store would pretty much have to be labeled, "String-Band, Eclectic." Despite the mix of styles, moods and tempoes, Jim manages to stay true to the forms, resulting in a comfortable recording that balances tradition with authentic originality.

This recording opens with a rousing and joyful Hank Bradley tune called "Them Beautiful Bottles." This number features Watson on vocal, guitar, bass and mandolin, Bill Hicks on fiddle, and Joe Newberry on clawhammer banjo—a high-energy, good-time. Jim’s singing is high, quirky, and thoroughly engaging, and the song whets the appetite for the material that follows.

While there are no weak spots on this one, there are a few cuts in particular that kept me coming back. "I’m Going to the West," so well done recently by Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, here features the wonderful harmonies of the Fine Group, with Linda and Robin Williams. Both versions are what the "repeat-play" button was meant for! "Leaving Home," a Frankie and Johnny variant, is a ripping duet vocal with Alice Gerrard. "Elzic’s Farewell" is an ancient-sounding modal fiddle tune that features Bill Hicks’ fine bowing with Jim’s mandolin. There’s a funny and wonderful version of Jimmie Rodgers’ "My Carolina Sunshine Girl." (There’s just something magic about the lilting rhythm of that one.) We also get a taste of The Green Level Entertainers ("Walls of Time" and "Sugar Coated Love"), Mike Craver (harmony vocal on "Faded Coat of Blue"), and Tony and Gary Williamson (Flatt & Scruggs’ "Reunion in Heaven"). And scattered about in there, we get fine piano from Chris Frank and more of that great Newberry banjo.

Jim’s got lots going on in here to keep it interesting. Among the stronger echoes are those of Rodgers, Charlie Poole, the Carter Family and the classic bluegrass bands. Ballads such as "Young Emily" reach deep into the mountain traditions and, to me, are reminiscent of Doug Wallin in particular. All of these styles blend well together here. And get this—remember how LP records had an A and B side? Well, this CD features a list of tunes on the left and a separate list on the right! They’re conveniently blended into one long stream of stereo music, so that you’d never know except from the notes. And Jim’s dog, Belle, graces every printed surface. We can only assume that Barker Records is one of Belle’s projects.

Charlie Gravel

To order: Jim Watson, 132 Justice Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516; 919-968-1476

 

Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years, 1963-1968

Smithsonian Folkways SF 40108 2 CDs

Dock Boggs: vocals and banjo; Mike Seeger: guitar on some tracks. Brochure notes by Barry O’Connell and Mike Seeger.

Down South Blues/Country Blues/Pretty Polly/Coal Creek March/My Old Horse Died/Wild Bill Jones/Rowan County Crew/New Prisoner’s Song/Oh, Death/Prodigal Son/Mother’s Advice/Drunkard’s Lone Child/Bright Sunny South/Mistreated Mama Blues/Harvey Logan/Mixed Blues/Old Joe’s Barroom/Danville Girl/Cole Younger/Schottische Time/Papa, Build Me A Boat/Little Black Train/No Disappointment in Heaven/Glory Land/Banjo Clog/Wise County Jail/Sugar Baby/The Death of Jerry Damron/Railroad Tramp/Poor Boy in Jail/Brother Jim Got Shot/John Henry/Davenport/Dying Ranger/Little Omie Wise/Sugar Blues/Loving Nancy/Cuba/John Hardy/Peggy Walker/I Hope I Live a Few More Days/Turkey in the Straw/Calvary/Roses While I’m Living/Leave It There/Prayer of a Miner’s Child/Coke Oven March/Ruben’s Train/Cumberland Gap/Careless Love.

Dock Boggs (1898–1971), a coal miner, singer and banjo player from southwestern Virginia, performed locally and recorded 12 songs for 78s between 1927–1929. He gave up music during the Depression but resumed it, and his career, in the early 1960s when Mike Seeger visited him and began a friendship and partnership that lasted until Boggs’ death. Boggs played at festivals, in concerts, and at coffeehouses during the 1960s’ folk revival when Seeger made the recordings that comprise this CD. Many were issued on earlier Folkways LPs and I suspect they are well-known to many OTH readers, and for good reason.

Boggs’ music is riveting. He had a preference for modal and pentatonic tunes, for blues, and for lyrics centered on violence and death. He was surrounded by it—as a union advocate, he was involved in the violent struggles that took place in central Appalachia. He was no stranger to fights and gun battles; death claimed the lives of his friends and he was close to it himself. Yet in his music he was an artist, not a propagandist. He sang traditional songs, old ballads and blues. He sang topical songs about death in the mines, such as "The Death of Jerry Damron," on this recording. A few of the songs and most of the arrangements are original.

Boggs’ banjo playing was unusual. Rejecting the clawhammer style that his family played, he forged a new thumb and two finger style based, as Seeger writes in the notes, on parlor guitar playing and banjo up-picking. Boggs felt that his innovations were derived in large part from African-American banjo and guitar styles. In the teens and twenties he visited nearby African- American communities—the coal mines were filled with blacks and with immigrants from southern and central Europe, and the musics mingled—and Boggs closely observed the musicians there.

This is a double-CD set, with 50 songs and tunes. The music is so intense that it demands attention. Most of the favorite Boggs tunes are here—"Down South Blues," "Country Blues," "Pretty Polly," "Wild Bill Jones," and his magnificent rendition of "Bright Sunny South." Because he did not imitate African-American blues but, rather, took them into himself and let his artistic spirit bring forth a blues based in his soul and in the traditions of his community, he succeeded where others failed.

One aspect of his music may not be well understood. It is spare, stark, and perfectly formed. To an urban, college-educated, middle-class sensibility, a chilling song like "Oh Death" borders on the macabre. One wonders what demons drove him. Yet the demons were in the community. The Old Baptist hymns that surrounded him featured similarly stark imagery. One example of many: "Oh ye young, ye gay, ye proud, ye must die and wear the shroud." Thus Calvinist stoicism seeped into the mountain people’s lives. Although Boggs was not an Old Baptist, he both inherited and fought against his culture’s view of the world and its possibilities.

In addition to the music, this double CD has a double-dose of liner notes. Barry O’Connell, a professor of English at Amherst College, contributed a heartfelt essay, really a meditation on Boggs’ struggle to achieve dignity as an artist while living a working-class life under difficult conditions. The whole essay accompanied an earlier Folkways LP and although it is not printed in its entirety here it can be downloaded from the Smithsonian Folkways Web site. When I first read the essay years ago I was so moved that I wrote O’Connell and told him so. That began a friendship. Mike Seeger also writes movingly about his years with Boggs, and contributes informative notes about the songs and Boggs’ sources. There is much to ponder about Boggs’ life. And then there is the magnificent legacy of his music. This is an essential album.

Jeff Titon

Hot From the Kitchen

Wilson Douglas and Gruder Morris

Roane Records RR-107 CD 41:31 (1998 issue of 1973 field recordings)

Wilson Douglas: fiddle; Gruder Morris: guitar.

Raggedy Ann/Sailor’s Hornpipe/Devil in Georgia/Cotton Eyed Joe/Rickett’s Hornpipe/Goin’ Downtown/Fisher’s Hornpipe/Pretty Little Shoes/Blue Eyed Girl/Rocky Road to Dublin/Paddy on the Turnpike/Arkansas Traveler/Old Mother Flanagan/Cluck Old Hen/Devil Among the Yearlings/McLeod’s Reel/Walkin’ in the Parlor/Cumberland Gap/Chicken Reel/Buffalo Gals/Forked Deer.

I first encountered Wilson Douglas, fiddler and native of Clay County, WV, in the early 1970s, at the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville. I recall enjoying his playing at the time, but I confess that I was more interested in some of the older musicians there, such as Lee Triplett, Ira Mullins, Doc White, and others. He and I have crossed paths a few times in the ensuing years, and as time has passed, my admiration for the man and his music have grown considerably.

The cover of this recording has a photo of Wilson and Gruder—with their friend Marple Drake—from about 1936, making Wilson about 14 then, fiddle in hand. So one knows that Wilson and Gruder, who was Wilson’s uncle, have had a long, long musical association. There is virtually no personal information in the liner notes, but I did a little digging, and got some background on Gruder Morris from Jimmy Triplett, Gerry Milnes, and Scott Prouty. Gruder, who played guitar and banjo, but only guitar on this recording, was born in late 1918 and died in 1980. Gruder’s second cousins, once-removed, are John and David Morris, well-known old-time musicians from Ivydale, WV. Gruder worked as a mailman most of his life. It seems as if the producers of this CD assumed that most who bought it would already know a lot about Wilson’s life, as there is almost nothing about him in the notes. To learn more, I’d suggest reading "Wilson Douglas: A Determined Mind," a fine article by Paul Gartner in the winter 1995/’96 issue of the Old-Time Herald, or finding a copy of Wilson’s first recording, a 1975 LP on the Rounder label, The Right Hand Fork of Rush’s Creek, which contains extensive biographical notes.

Many of the Upper South fiddlers of Wilson’s generation play in what some call a "transitional" style, that is, they have strong underpinnings of the old repertoire and style, but they have been heavily influenced by some of the major figures who have modernized fiddling-radio fiddlers such as Arthur Smith, Tommy Magness, Tommy Jackson, and Uncle Bob Walter, for example—and many of the more famous bluegrass fiddlers. One of the older fiddlers from his area who had a major influence on Wilson was French Carpenter. If you’ve done any serious listening to French’s playing, you will marvel at how well Wilson learned in his apprenticeship. And, no, Wilson has not merely mimicked Carpenter’s repertoire and style, but has internalized it, added something from his own experience and made it his own. And it continues to sound like a timeless piece of music from days of yore.

This CD comes from a field recording made on January 5, 1973 at Wilson’s house by Tom Brown. Of the 44 tunes that Dr. Brown recorded, 21 are issued here, a very nice cross-section of Wilson’s repertoire. At 51, he may have been at his peak, though in the intervening years, I have never heard him play a clunker. What is especially exciting here is the interplay and tight rhythm exhibited by Wilson and Gruder. Gruder’s guitar playing merits a special description as well. It is not like the old-time backup styles heard on 78s or field recordings, and it does not resemble the more modern backup style that has been heavily influenced by bluegrass and country music guitarists. Gruder’s style is heavily rhythmic, as he alters the meter to match Wilson’s phrasing on each tune. It is quite reminiscent of dulcimer strumming. Because they played together for so long, it works incredibly well. Wilson is at the top of his game here, with variations of his phrasing, alterations of his bowing patterns, and his exquisite slides and grace notes. So many of these tunes remind me now of my first trips into West Virginia: "Devil in Georgia," "Pretty Little Shoes," "Old Mother Flanagan," and "Walkin’ in the Parlor," particularly. Some of the pieces here are rendered in homage to his great mentor, the aforementioned Mr. Carpenter. Wilson’s rendition of "Forked Deer" reminds me of Carpenter’s (and of fellow central West Virginian, Rector Hicks’) version. And some of these pieces express such a strong emotion as "essence of West Virginia" that I can’t get them out of my head: "Cotton Eyed Joe" (which also has phrases reminding me of Marcus Martin’s "Sugar in the Gourd"), "Rocky Road To Dublin," "Blue Eyed Girl," and "Cumberland Gap." Wilson is very strong on these tunes, heck, on all of them. Even a tired old warhorse like "Sailor’s Hornpipe" becomes an alluring tune in his capable hands. More and more people have taken notice of Wilson’s music in the past few years, but the fine job done by the production crew for this CD is certain to increase the overall awareness of this fine musician.

Kerry Blech

To order: Roane Records, Route 3, Box 293, Spencer, WV 25276 [Sadly, Wilson Douglas died on March 10, after this review was written.—Ed.]

 

Stories the Crow Told Me

John Cohen

Acoustic Disc 34

With Sue Draheim, David Grisman, and Jody Stecher.

Rambling Hobo/The Story that the Crow Told Me/Farmland Blues/Cannonball/Twin Sisters/The Highwayman/Buckdancer’s Choice/Which Side Are You On?/Sugar in the Gourd/Fine Sally/Chittlin Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County/Chilly Winds/Danville Girl/Talkin’ Hard Luck/Sally in the Garden/My Name is John Johanna/Twin Sisters/Dark Holler/It’s Hard to Love/I Walk the Road Again/Alabama Gals/Rolling Mills Are Burning Down/Chinquapin Pie.

"A one-man Harry Smith Anthology" is how a friend described this CD. That’s a perfect description, for even though this CD is not a compilation of old 78s, it does convey a similar feeling: it’s the best old-time music from many traditions, played hauntingly, humorously, heartfully, and arranged in some magic order that sticks in the mind and makes the different sounds feel like one music.

John Cohen has already contributed hugely to the shaping of our old-time ears with his collections of field recordings, both recently reissued and essential for both beauty and history. The double CD set Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian/Folkways CD 40077) presents recordings Cohen collected in 1959, of artists such as Roscoe Holcomb, Lee Sexton, James Crase, and many other fine singers and players. High Atmosphere (Rounder CD 0028) presents music recorded in 1965 in Virginia and North Carolina, including Wade Ward, Fred Cockerham, E.C. and Orna Ball, Gaither Carlton, and Frank Profitt. Many pieces now widely played were first heard in these collections, in all their stunning strangeness—Roscoe Holcomb’s "East Virginia," Fred Cockerham’s "Little Satchel," and Wade Ward’s "Half Shaved," for example.

And though many of us were not lucky enough to run into these recordings early on, we did manage to find our way to old-time music by means of that band Cohen was in, The New Lost City Ramblers, who brought us music we immediately loved forever but had never heard of before.

It is possible to be a great musician without doing as much homework as Cohen has, but the homework does pay off. When you spend time with the music, playing tunes and songs for many years in many phases of life, the music gets richer: the humor is more wry and witty, the energies run deeper, the melodies and textures find more complex layers. Cohen’s solo banjo pieces here (especially Gaither Carlton’s "Rambling Hobo" and Sidna Myers’s "Twin Sisters") show this richness of living with a tune for a long time. But don’t let me talk myself into a corner here, since Cohen has not only just now turned into a great musician. He’s been one for a long time, but now we get to hear the details.

"Chilly Winds" and "Alabama Gals" are more fine banjo tunes here. Cohen’s voice-and-banjo version of "Which Side Are You On?" is beautiful—it’s nice to hear the song in a general old-time music context instead of in a labor-song context. It stands alone, a bit Dock Boggsian, spooky and scary. I love Cohen’s unaccompanied singing of "Fine Sally." "I Walk the Road Again" is another beautiful unaccompanied song, about hobo-ing. It’s from a source recording of George Edwards of the Catskill Mountains, a recording made by Moe Asch that has never been released. How exciting, a song not heard before! "Sugar in the Gourd," with Cohen on banjo and Jody Stecher and Sue Draheim on two fiddles, enlightens me a little: For years I’ve been trying to pull away from what Cohen calls "the distinct sound of Berkeley fiddling from 25 years ago," thinking, well, that was just the music I enjoyed before I knew any better. But this cut allows me to revisit that sound and hear its real energy and coherence. Cohen says, "For me it is a pleasure to play banjo behind these oozing and intertwined fiddles." Oh yes, and Cohen displays some sharp guitar here too: "Cannonball" and "Buckdancer’s Choice" especially stand out.

Cohen is well accompanied by several fine talents: Jody Stecher, Sue Draheim, and David Grisman. Stecher’s guitar, fiddle, and other miscellaneous instrumental contributions are, as always, perfect, every phrase managing miraculously to stand out on its own and also blend in with the whole. Draheim’s fiddle appears on many songs, but I especially like it on "The Story That the Crow Told Me," where it makes a drony and circular organ-grinder sound. When I saw Grisman’s name I feared too much Dawginess, but Grisman has a sure grasp of these idioms and sounds happy to stay in them. Especially enjoyable was Grisman’s banjo-mandolin on "Farmland Blues," his autoharp on "Cannonball," and "Alabama Gals," and his tenor banjo on "Buckdancer’s Choice." I flinch only on "Chinquapin Pie," where the mandolin harmonics get too artistic for me.

If I had enough money for one CD only, and I had to choose between Stories the Crow Told Me and High Atmosphere, for example, I’m afraid to say I’d choose High Atmosphere. Nevertheless, I hear all kinds of slides, damps, and strange unresolved moments in Cohen’s "Twin Sisters" that I never managed to hear in Sidna Myers’ playing of the same tune on High Atmosphere. Now that I’ve heard them in Cohen, I can go back to Myers and hear them there too, but only just barely. I still need someone like Cohen’s help to hear music well. So on second thought, I really need both High Atmosphere and Stories the Crow Told Me. Cohen’s practice and articulation delve into the music and bring it forward. And yet the music remains mysterious: Cohen knows that no matter how far into the music you go, there’s always infinitely more there to find.

Molly Tenenbaum

To order: Acoustic Disc, Box 4143, San Rafael, CA 94913

 

The Cedar Point String Band

Roane Records CD 101 (1997 reissue of 1983 LP 37:01)

Franklin George: fiddle; David O’Dell: banjo; Bob Roark: guitar.

Liberty/Magpie/Sourwood Mountain/The 8th of January/McLeod’s Reel/Harv Brown’s Dream/Flowers of Edinburgh/Sally Goodin/Massa’s Gone Away/Kitchen Girl/Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss/The Cuckoo’s Nest/Temperance Reel/Cripple Creek.

Franklin George looms large in my personal education and experience in old-time music, and was one of the more visible locals espied during my earliest visits to music events in West Virginia, most notably at the State Folk Festival held each June in Glenville. Not only was he a masterful fiddler, but he was friendly and freely shared his skills and knowledge. Frank influenced a lot of the northern urban neophytes in those days, many who are major figures on today’s old-time "revival" landscape. Armin Barnett, for one, cites Franklin George as one of his main inspirations. Another person Frank shared his music with was a teenaged David O’Dell, who became a prize-winning banjo player and teamed up with Franklin and guitarist Bob Roark (who sadly died in 1993 at age 44) to form the Cedar Point String Band. O’Dell has learned well from his friend and mentor, as he seems able to anticipate any and all of Franklin’s variations, staying with the fiddle almost note-for note. Roark provides a steady underpinning, creating a tight ensemble sound, probably honed from playing for many square dances.

The tunes found here are ones that have come to be associated with Frank, and it is fair to say that his rendition here of "Magpie" is the quintessential version. The band’s interpretation of "Sourwood Mountain" is a beaut as well, as it rolls along—no tricks, no gimmicks—just solid musicianship. George’s long-standing interest in Irish and Scottish music is also evident here with his version of "McLeod’s Reel," "Flowers of Edinburgh," "Cuckoo’s Nest," and "Temperance Reel," all owing a lot melodically to settings of those tunes found in the old Isles, though Franklin certainly has added a lot of his personality and West Virginia flavor to them. It is very pleasing music, essential old-timeness, if you will. The extremely short playtime is certainly a drawback, though—I could stand to listen to a lot more of this band! (Though it is not quite the same, those who feel similarly may want to seek out Roane CD 104 Reflections of the Past by George and O’Dell, from 1995, reviewed in OTH vol. 5, no. 5, fall 1996; I think Franklin’s playing on this Cedar Point String Band recording is much stronger.) How many bands make you "want" to listen to "Cripple Creek" and "Sourwood Mountain"? These gents certainly do.

O’Dell writes in the update portion of the liner notes that the band played its last gig about a year after the LP was recorded, in 1984, after he went off to college in Berea, KY. Though David has since moved back to West Virginia and plays now and then with Franklin, they no longer are a band. As he puts it, "the music we made as The Cedar Point String Band lives mainly in our memories, our hearts and souls, and on this recording." Thanks, for putting all that into your music, and for sharing it with us.

Kerry Blech

To order: Roane Records, Route 3, Box 293, Spencer, WV 25276

 

Elizabeth Cotten - Live!

Arhoolie 477

Elizabeth Cotten-guitar

Freight Train/Washington Blues/Jumpin’ Jack/Shake Sugaree/Banjo Story, Rattler/Vastopol/Guitar Story/Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie/Elizabeth Story, et al., Honey Babe, Your Papa Cares for You/Spanish Flangdang/’Til We Meet Again.

Do today’s guitar players sufficiently acknowledge the debt they owe Elizabeth Cotten? Her distinctive, crystal-clear style of alternating bass and melody-line fingerpicking are heard in the work of John Fahey and many other modern guitarists. But nobody can quite emulate her special sound, partly borne of playing a regularly strung guitar left-handed and hence "upside down," her thumb picking out the melody line.

Elizabeth Cotten died in 1987 at the age of 96, but back in 1904, when she was 12, she was composing songs that are still classics of fingerpicked guitar. This collection, recorded at concerts in her ninth decade, shows her art undiminished by age; her playing sounds as good as that recorded 40-odd years earlier for Folkways Records. It also includes "Libba" telling several stories of her childhood in Carrboro, NC, a mill town near Chapel Hill, and of making up songs with her grandkids. Having Elizabeth Cotten for a grandmother, now there’s something to envy! Her personality radiates in this recording: spirited, warm, funny, down-to-earth and gifted with unquenchable music.

If you play solo guitar, or think you’d like to, or are a fan of Elizabeth Cotten’s and would like to get to know her better, this CD is probably as close as you can get to having a visit with her.

Nancy Crooks

 

La Pointe

Balfa Toujours

Rounder CD 6071

Christine Balfa: guitar, triangle, washboard, banjo ukulele, vocals; Dirk Powell: accordion, fiddle, guitar, banjo, vocals; Kevin Wimmer: fiddle, vocals; with Mitchell Reed: bass; Peter Schwarz: bass, fiddle; Nelda Balfa: triangle.

Kingpin Special/Restez, Mom et Pop, Restez/Freight Train Blues/Pa Janvier/Marshall’s Club/Les Tracas De Todd Balfa/Nonc Charlot/The Freeman Fontenot Medley/Bayou Teche Special/Bernadette/La Valse De Bayou Lafourche/Blacktop Blues/Le Reel de Courville/Un Ange Pour Tour de la Louisiane.

Balfa Toujours is a sort of younger generation Cajun power trio, made up of Dewey Balfa’s youngest child, Christine Balfa; her husband, traditional music wonderboy Dirk Powell; and Dewey’s finest prot’gé, gé, fiddler Kevin Wimmer. Sometimes they add a bass player. On this recording both Peter Schwarz (of Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys) and Mitchell Reed play electric bass; both musicians also happen to be stellar Cajun fiddlers, although Reed plays only bass on La Pointe. Nelda Balfa, one of Christine’s sisters, adds triangle as well. Like Balfa Toujours’ other albums (they have three—two on Swallow and another on Rounder), La Pointe is a well-crafted collection of traditional and original Cajun songs. Traditional material from accordionist Octa Clark, from the master of old-time Cajun fiddle, Dennis McGee, and from Creole inspirations like Freeman Fontenot, Boisec Ardoin, and Canray Fontenot is mixed half-and-half with Cajun-French songs penned by Christine and Dirk.

This original material has, for me, been the high point of the Balfa Toujours repertoire (although the traditional material is beautifully wrought), and La Pointe contains several new gems. These range from fairly modern-sounding Cajun waltzes like "Restez, Mom et Pop, Restez," to hot accordion instrumentals (Dirk’s "Kingpin Special," which kicks off the album into immediate overdrive), and some bluesy numbers, like Dirk’s wonderful humorous lyrics to Octa Clark’s "Freight Train Blues." Indeed, the hallmark of the Balfa/Powell compositions is their attention to lyric content, which is not always very strong in Cajun music. There generally tends to be an awful lot of "Tu m’as quitt’ pou pour t’en aller" in most Cajun songs, and that’s true not only of the older material, but also of many of the recently composed Cajun songs I’ve heard. Instead of trotting out the old Cajun clich’s, Ds, Dirk and Christine have songs that actually tell stories and deal with real life issues. "Les Tracas de Todd Balfa" is Dirk’s hilarious sendup of a cousin’s troubles. I especially liked the part where the protagonist’s dog has eaten all the food; he just shrugs and says, "Oh well, like that my dishes are already washed." This fits right in with my own style of housekeeping. (Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad. . . and we don’t have a dog anyway.)

Balfa Toujours started out as a vehicle for Christine and her sister Nelda, using music (and songwriting in particular) to help cope with the loss of their dad. Like many of their previous songs, "Restez, Mom et Pop, Restez" deals with parenting issues, and the knowledge of how a working musician often must spend a lot of time away from the family adds a great deal of poignancy to this song. "Restez" raises the question of whether it’s better to go out to work for extremely long hours in order to earn a good living for one’s family, or whether it would be better to keep the family together and perhaps not have quite so much money coming in. Both Dirk and Christine write a fair number of songs from a parent’s perspective, but they themselves have no children. I will be curious to see how these songs’ content changes if and when Christine and Dirk themselves become parents.

"Un Ange de la Louisiane," which ends the album, is a slow waltz that tells a story in a beautifully poetic way. The song contains a subtle message about racial harmony in southwest Louisiana, a subject rarely addressed in Cajun music. The only example that comes to mind is the Balfa Brothers’ song "Indian on a Stump," which pays homage to the Native Americans of southwest Louisiana. Bravo to Balfa Toujours for tackling this difficult subject! The spirit of Dewey Balfa continues to pervade the music of Balfa Toujours. The Balfa/Powell original "Marshall’s Club" starts out with a snippet of Dewey’s voice announcing on his radio show. It is typical of Christine to generously share her dad with the rest of us. The traditional tunes and songs here are all played with the excellent technique and panache which one would expect from musicians of this caliber. "Nonc Charlot," a lighthearted two-step, is a moving tribute to the Balfa Brothers’ sound, in which Kevin Wimmer does his very best Dewey imitation, even getting the elusive Dewey intonation right! It is a pleasure to hear this seemingly simple fiddling done with such deep feeling. Listeners who enjoy "The Freeman Fontenot medley" (a fiddle-accordion duet) will definitely love the excellent recently released Boisec Ardoin/Balfa Toujours album (Allons Danser, on Rounder) too. On this cut, Dirk and Kevin capture the feeling of the old Guidry and Babineaux recordings from the ’20s.

There are several pieces from the repertoire of Dennis McGee: the haunting "Pa Janvier," a minor-key song which has been in Michael Doucet/Beausoleil’s repertoire for decades, and "Reel De Courville," which is performed at the same blistering pace as on the old Dennis McGee recording. Dirk’s seconding is wonderful (I assume it is Dirk, but there are no credits for individual tracks). It is a great pleasure to hear seconding done by such a fine musician! The art of Cajun seconding receives less attention than it ought to, but Dirk has definitely mastered it. The cut is flawless, and both fiddlers play with a hell-bent-for-leather intensity.

The sound of this album is pretty good, but (in my opinion) not as good as the previous two albums, which were both recorded in a studio. According to the liner notes, La Pointe was recorded on "vintage analog equipment" at the home of Christine and Dirk, then mixed at a studio in Maurice, LA, and finally mastered in Lafayette. The sound on the instruments is very nice, but the vocals sound a bit thin and far back in the mix to me (particularly Christine’s voice). I found myself wishing, too, that the electric bass were not quite so pervasive. However, it’s a fact that having the bass will make this album more marketable, and I’m all for anything which would result in music like this getting played on the radio. The bass gives the music that extra "kick" one finds in the more "rocking" music of younger Cajun bands such as Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, but I got tired of it after awhile. I was relieved to find that it was not on every single track. The booklet contains all the words to the songs, plus English translations, and notes by Christine and Dirk. A nice touch is the symbols that adorn the pages; they are original Acadian cattle brands, all of which belonged to Christine’s relatives. Like Dewey Balfa, Balfa Toujours has the gift of imbuing traditional music with an immediacy that is completely contemporary. I love the way they pay homage to their ancestors while bringing the music right up to the end of the 20th Century.

Suzy Rothfield Thompson

Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky: Up the Ohio and Licking Rivers, Volume 1

Various Artists

Rounder 0376 CD

Buddy Thomas: Portsmouth Airs/Snakewinder/Turkey Gobbler/Pumpkin Vine/Feed My Horse on Corn and Hay/Short’s Addition/George Lee Hawkins: Bumblebee in a Jug/Meg Gray/Humphrey’s Jig/Darling Girl/Rat’s Gone to Rest/Callahan/Boatin’ Up Sandy/Greek Medley/Big Footed/Alfred Bailey: Lansing Quadrille/Weddington’s Reel/Big Indian Hornpipe/Alexander Waltz/Bell Cow/Tilden to the White House/Alva Greene: Indian Squaw/The Pet Indian/I’ve Got a Grandpa/The Blind Man’s Lament/McClanahan’s March/Flannery’s Dream/The Winding Sheep/Buck Hord/Perry Riley: Getting George Bush Upstairs/Getting Wild Again/Jaybird in a High Oak Tree/Warfield/Charlie Kinney: Lost Hornpipe/The Belle Cow/Bob Prater: Blackeyed Peas and Cornbread/Grand Hornpipe/Onion Tops and Turnip Greens/Clarence Rigdon: Kicked Up a Devil of a Row.

I don’t know if the perfect recording has ever been made, but this, and Volume 2, are mighty fine. When I was learning to play fiddle, there seemed to be a dearth of recordings of Kentucky fiddlers. Two of the people involved in this project, Gus Meade and Mark Wilson, took care of that by the mid-’70s by recording and/or producing LPs on the Rounder label by J.P. Fraley, Buddy Thomas, and Ed Haley. While working on those, and a few other outstanding old-time LPs, they began to record as many of the old fiddlers in Northeastern Kentucky as time would allow. As Mark Wilson writes in the notes, many things intervened to thwart their efforts to issue that material in a timely manner, but now, 20 years later, it has finally seen the light of day. And hoorah. Only a handful of the magnificent fiddlers in this set will be familiar to most old-time music enthusiasts, but more will be known after these recordings disseminate. Bootleg tapes of some of this music have been in the underground for some time, so a few of these tunes have been making the rounds, and people have heard already of George Hawkins, Buddy Thomas (of course), and perhaps Alva Greene, but for the most part, the general public may become as stunned as I was when I first heard much of this music.

One cohesive element (besides the obvious one bestowed by residence in the Bluegrass State) is that each of the fiddlers on this disc (and Volume 2) had developed his or her style and repertoire prior to the onset of mass media and the saturation of popular culture. Yes, some popular music had entered into the communities of these players, but most had their regional or personal styles ingrained before this occurred. In some cases, more uptown tunes entered their repertories, but such material underwent a stylistic metamorphosis from the original to become assimilated into the regional or personal style.

Buddy Thomas probably is the best-known fiddler in this set. His LP Kitty Puss was very well received and quite influential on the old-time revival in the mid-1970s. It was reissued on CD about a year ago (Rounder 0032).

We get another healthy dose of his versatile playing here—a half-dozen gems, ranging from an archaic sound (in the best meaning of the word) to the highly polished, finessing of a tune. Though a young man when these recordings were made, he, in the words of his prot—gé Rgé Roger Cooper, ". . . half lived in that way-back time and liked doing it that way." In addition to his reverence for older styles however, Buddy excelled at both the contest and Nashville approaches to fiddling, but his preference was with the older ways. Buddy died all too soon, at age 39 in 1974. A versatile musician, Buddy can be heard on backup guitar on several cuts here too. He also introduced Mark and Gus to many of the musicians found on this set.

George Lee Hawkins was another great fiddler, from Bath County, who had some renown outside his own community, having recorded in 1946 for Artus Moser, discs that went into the AFS collection at the Library of Congress. George’s fiddling may be my favorite of all the players on this set. His "Humphrey’s Jig" is one of the all-time mind-blowing performances, even more so if one can visualize his dancing left arm driving the bowing intricacies in this showpiece. (In fact, John Harrod did capture Mr. Hawkins doing just this on videotape at a small festival held at Morehead State University.) He was known as a "hornpipe" fiddler; he actually did play mountain hornpipes in that old dotted rhythm rather than turning them into driving reels, as most southern fiddlers do. Listening to him bow and phrase is an advanced lesson in the finer intricacies of old-time fiddling. He also obviously enjoyed his art. His introduction to a piece he learned from one of his mentors, the black sharecropper Bill Trumbo, sets the tone: "‘Rat’s Gone To Rest’ . . . with D-Con!" And we also have some fine lyrics from him for "Boatin’ Up Sandy"—"Way down yonder boating up Sandy/Red top boots and a quart of good brandy/Some like chicken foot, I likes the liver/I loves the pretty girl who lives on the river/Sometimes drunk, sometimes boozy/Old Johnny Huckleberry a-hugging his Susie." Now that is poetry! One of George’s mentors was the legendary Tom Riley (some home recordings of Riley are said to have survived) who later moved to Marion, IN, where he would be an influence on John Summers. Summers sometimes would accompany Riley on visits back to Bath County. It is interesting to compare Summers’ versions of tunes to those of Hawkins.

Perhaps the most archaic-sounding fiddler in the set is Alva Greene. His sound moves me so much viscerally that I have a hard time placing Mr. Hawkins as my favorite (it is a photo finish, after all). Alva’s "Indian Squaw," "Buck Hord," and "Flannery’s Dream" are tutorials in rhythmic playing that should be made mandatory studies in any fiddling class.

The few cuts of Perry Riley are intriguing; he was a fine player as well as being Buddy Thomas’ older cousin and one of Buddy’s teachers. Alfred Bailey is cut from the same cloth as George Hawkins. Bob Prater has a driving style that put him in great demand for square dances. His great banjo playing accompanies several other fiddlers on this recording. Charlie Kinney, rough and ready, is another of my favorites. Then there is the lone cut of Clarence Rigdon. He plays one of my favorite tunes, "Kicked up a Devil of a Row." It has even more surprising twists and turns than I had thought possible.

This set should be in the collection of all fiddle enthusiasts, in my opinion. It is an incredible tune library and a real tutorial in older rustic styles. Not only that, the booklet notes here, by Mark Wilson, should be mandatory reading for those interested in old style fiddling. He also is able to place most of it in perspective, puts a human face on the disembodied sounds coming from your speaker, and expresses his and Gus’ great exuberance for their mentors and friends. There are a few notes of sadness here to report though. Because of the inevitable interruptions to people who are performing a labor of love (rather than being paid to do a job), this project took two decades to come to fruition. Gus Meade died suddenly in 1991. The shock of this incident made Mark Wilson and John Harrod (the other collector, and producer of Volume two) realize the urgency and fragility of this project, so they mapped out a scheme to ensure its publication. Mark notes with great sadness that the time lapse between recording and issue meant that nearly all the subjects of this collection never got to hear themselves on a commercial recording. I too feel sad that this did not occur in a timelier manner. Mark does report that the families of these fiddlers are very proud to see their kin’s names in print and to be able to hear their incredible music in perpetuity. Amen.

Kerry Blech

 

Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky: Along the Kentucky River, Volume 2

Various Artists

Rounder 0377 CD

Darley Fulks: She Danced All Night in the Fiddler’s Shoes/Atlanta Schottische/Snowstorm/The Downfall of Paris/Andrew Jackson/Pharaoh/Lella Todd: Everybody’s Favorite/Earl Thomas: Boatin’ Up Sandy/Billy Stamper: Red Lick/Columbus Williams: Poor Girl Waltz/Van Kidwell: Last Gold Dollar/Johnny Inch Along/Jim Woodward: Rough and Ready/Midnight/Ed "Buck" Barnes: Morgan on the Railroad/John Masters: Snowbird in the Ashbank/Shippingport/Camp Nelson Blues/Garfield March/One Eyed Riley/Bill Hatton: Christmas Calico/Vincent Crawford: Sand Riffle/Everett Kays: Bacon Rind/Kelly Gilbert: Granny Will Your Dog Bite?/Old Time Billy in the Lowground/Brickyard Joe/Johnny Get Your Hair Cut/Bill Livers: Old Virge/Up and Down Old Eagle Creek/J.B. Miller: Crab Orchard Quickstep/George Winter Tune/Severn Creek/Artie Vandergriff: Jenny Baker/Jarvie Hall: Billy Wilson/White Wing Waltz/Clarence Skirvin: Going Up and Down Old Buffalo Creek/Old Flannigan/Indiana Home.

Here is the other great Kentucky fiddling anthology volume. It differs in many ways from Volume 1. Geography is the first difference. Where Volume 1 involved northeastern Kentucky and the area along the Ohio River, this set delves more upriver in the tributaries of the Ohio, with styles that are more eccentric in some ways than those of the other volume. There also are notable influences here of some famous Kentuckians who recorded in the so-called "golden age of old-time music," in the ’20s and ’30s. Doc Roberts was a major influence, of course. His legacy is most noticeable in the playing of Van Kidwell. Doc obviously was influenced by some of his neighbors, the well-known Booker Family. Jim Booker, an African American, recorded in 1927 with the otherwise all-Caucasian string band, "Taylor’s Kentucky Boys." As well as the mountain breakdowns, Booker and his family also played raggy and bluesy pieces. The Booker Orchestra had recorded "Camp Nelson Blues" in 1927 and here we get to appreciate it from John Masters. Much more of the Booker Family’s repertory was never recorded commercially, but the great music was passed down from generation to generation. A good deal of this volume demonstrates how fresh and vital this music sounds today. Jim Woodward plays "Rough and Ready" and "Midnight" and Masters does a terrific job on "Garfield’s March," for instance. Then we have Bill Livers’ playing. He was a black fiddler from Owen County, with whom this volume’s producer, John Harrod, played in a band. Livers gives us two gems, "Old Virge" and "Up and Down Old Eagle Creek." I want more, please.

Another echo from the 78 era is from Bill Hatton, whose father and brother made some 78s (the Hatton Brothers’ "Wish I Had My Time Again" can be heard on the Morningstar LP of the same name—rumor has it being reissued on CD sometime in the future). Bill’s "Christmas Calico" is a dark-sounding cross-tuned piece from the "John Brown’s Dream" family of tunes. Another legendary fiddler on 78s was Andy Palmer of the Jimmy Johnson String Band. We hear echoes of him in Vincent Crawford’s "Sand Riffle." Yet another amazing player is Darley Fulks. His fiddling is full of phrasing and rhythmic surprises and none of his tunes were at all familiar to me. He too would make for interesting further study. Lella Todd is the lone woman fiddler on these two volumes. She plays a delightful, uplifting dance piece entitled "Everybody’s Favorite." She hailed from Estill County. A much younger fiddler on this set, Billy Stamper, is also from Estill County. He plays "Red Lick," an excellent and lyrical D tune that I first heard on a tape of Lella’s playing. That calls to mind one of the great charms of these two volumes. Granted, most of these tunes will be totally new to most listeners, but some of us who have heard many of these pieces before. . . well, maybe we heard them played by someone else from this collection rather than the particular cut that was issued. Or maybe we heard a version by the same fiddler, but made at a different time. It then becomes a real live illustration of variation. But one needn’t have a voluminous tape library to appreciate this, for most of these fiddlers play variations within each of these pieces, but not the rather predictable stock variations used by many present-day contest fiddlers. There are more subtle variations at work here, maybe only a shift in rhythm or bow emphasis, or an ornament here or there, a pause. It’s an education on subtlety and simplicity. It’s a peek into the past. Again, I need to praise the writer of the booklet that accompanies the disc. John Harrod, like his associate Mark Wilson in Volume 1, has written a brilliant description of the setting for this music, has made these musicians real flesh and blood, and has imparted his and Gus’ enthusiasm. Of special note is his commentary on the role of these three collectors (Gus, John, and Mark), amateur folklorists if you will. They went into this not only collecting and documenting, but they tried to assimilate and internalize what they were obtaining. They tried to learn to play these fiddle tunes in the styles of their subjects. Perhaps this gave them some insight that other types of collectors did not have. I am sure volumes have been written on the similarities and differences in such approaches, between the academics and the enthusiasts if you will (these are not mutually exclusive, of course), but perhaps that is fodder for the Issues column of this magazine and not for the review pages. It is even a subject of disagreement between the producers of these recordings! Be that as it may, I am jazzed by these two volumes of Kentucky fiddle field recordings and heartily recommend them to each and every reader. I also must extend thanks, on behalf of music fans everywhere, to the record company, Rounder, for believing in these independent producers’ quality, and to the collectors—Mark, John, and Gus—but especially to the musicians for creating such beauty.

Kerry Blech

 

Kentucky Old-Time Banjo

Various Artists

Rounder CD 0394

Blanche Coldiron, Earl Thomas, Jr., Billy Don Stamper, Buell Kazee, Paul Smith, Bert Hatfield, Bert Garvin, Travis Wells, Vernon and Zora Judd, Dora Mae Wagers, Roscoe Holcomb, Razor Wolfinbarger, Hobert Bowling, John Kinman, Omar Hook, Jim Gaskin, Asa Martin, J.P. & Danielle Fraley.

Devil’s Dream/Tally Ho!/Boatin’ Up Sandy/Granny Went to Meeting with Her Old Shoes On/John Hardy/Roll On Buddy Roll On/Rippling Water/Down the River Oh You/Red Lick/Walking in the Parlor/Wild Bill Jones/Heathen Ridge Stomp-Mama’s Breakdown/Hot Corn/Swannanoa Mountain/Blackeyed Susie/Forked Deer/Little Boy Working on the Road/Johnny Inch Along/Stackolee/Sugar in the Gourd/Lonesome Road Blues/Cripple Creek-Susanna/John Henry/Hallelujah, I’m a Bum/Home Sweet Home/Rocky Mountain Goat/Everybody’s Favorite/Sourwood Mountain/Darker the Nights/Soldier’s Joy/The Blind Man’s Lament/Callahan/Young Edward/Turkey in the Straw/Hawk’s Got a Chicken and Gone/Chicken Reel/State Rock/The Fun’s All Over.

The folks on this CD are unassuming lovers of old-time music who all play the banjo. They all have found their voice and as such the variety of talents and styles makes for some great listening. There are shades of bluegrass, ancient sounding pieces, and lots of great old-time picking in two-finger, three-finger, and frailing, or clawhammer and double thumb styles. The music is punctuated with vocals and fiddle. Some of the names here will be familiar to fans of old-time music. Those who are familiar with fiddler Owen Chapman’s work will know most notably Roscoe Holcomb and Buell Kazee, Paul Smith and Bert Hatfield. Earl Thomas and Billy Stamper have made appearances on earlier Rounder recordings. The remainder will not be so well known outside of their respective region. Earl Thomas is a fine banjo player whose playing is archetypal. His timing and melodic development works in either solo setting or behind a fiddle equally well. His banjo has a great tone and every cut he is on is a pleasure to hear. Bert Gavin is a fascinating stylist. He can play a very melodic style. He does a version of "Stackolee" with the accompaniment of J.P. and Danielle Fraley. This performance is very reminiscent of Charlie Poole’s style; perhaps it is J.P.’s sweet longbow fiddle. Then there is "Lonesome Road Blues" by Blanche Coldiron—an old tune is almost reinvented, not so much by changing anything in the tune but in playing it with a freshness that is too easily lost over time. Blanche Coldiron’s vocals and driving banjo have this freshness spiced with a zest that makes this cut a rise above the ordinary.

There are 38 cuts on this CD. To go through each one would take pages. From the highly melodic settings played by Paul Smith to the cut using the banjo for rudimentary accompaniment, all of the material here is worth hearing. Suffice it to say that this is one of the must-have CDs for fans of old-time banjo. The greatness of this music will not be matched in a collection like this any time soon. There is not a clinker in the whole collection. The level of playing is superior and diverse. There is a richness here that is like a medicine spring, a balm for the spirit. The notes by Mark Wilson and John Harrod are quite detailed and make for some informed reading. Some of the pickers represented here are personal friends of these men and as such, an endless source of joy and wonder. We owe these men a debt of thanks for a task that they enjoy but is time consuming and not all easy. These are all field recordings and they traverse quite a span of time. For instance, Omar Hook’s joyful "Home Sweet Home," recorded over 30 years ago, is played as a bouncy polka with just a hint of Renoesque tenor style licks to add a special pizzazz that makes it really shine. While all of the names here are well known, there are some mighty interesting folks playing these tunes and they are wholly worthy of your attention. Miss this recording at your own risk.

Bob Buckingham

 

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