Just prior to mp3s and streaming platforms, not to mention the vinyl resurgence, Old Hat was nearly on par with Dust to Digital for not only allowing many of us to hear 78-era recordings scrubbed of so much noise, but more importantly for giving the music context and thoroughly detailing this framework. (The double disc set Good for What Ails You is one excellent case in point.) Of course, the idea of compiling early 20th century black fiddle-based recordings is something to which the label has already devoted two CDs; Violin, Sing the Blues for Me and Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow! came out in 1999 and 2001 respectively. And while this collection pulls from tracks, and even artists, not featured on either of those discs, almost everything here has already seen the light of day in one reissued form or another thanks to labels such as Yazoo and Document. Yet the fact that this has been released exclusively on vinyl allows it to reach the hands of folks not interested in CDs or perhaps not even old enough to remember their heyday. Not only that, but we’ve got increasing contemporary reminders of the African American influence on music often seen as “white.” Atop that, we’re living in times where the white nationalism always percolating in this country’s underbelly has been allowed a nasty emboldening thanks to increasingly racist White House policy. So, it’s as good a time as any to be reminded of just how huge a role the most marginalized among us have played in shaping sounds we often take for granted. And it’s a damn fine collection too.
To, in all likelihood, oversimplify, slaves heard marches, jigs, and reels played on violins by their white oppressors, took up the instruments, slathered this stuff in syncopation and minor tonalities from sub-Saharan Africa, and radically altered American fiddle styles forever more. But as collections of music go, this one is as varied as any. There’s the narcotic walking guitar and fiddle of Jim and Andrew Baxter’s “Bamalong Blues;” the decidedly uptown version of “Midnight Special” by the State Street Boys, featuring Big Bill Broonzy and Zeb Wright as alternating violinists; the nearly unhinged Hawaii-meets- the-blues hybrid “Steel String Blues,” with vaudeville player E. L. Coleman on fiddle; and the truly formal, perhaps even stiff, “I Seen My Pretty Papa Standing on a Hill,” by vocalist Hattie “Eva” Parker, featuring an unknown ensemble including violin. Elsewhere, there’s blues, fiddle breakdowns, and rags by everyone from Taylor’s Kentucky Boys to the Mobile Strugglers.
As for notes, the booklet includes excellent photography and notes for each track that go a distance in setting the scene at the time. The cover shows a gorgeous portrait of an unknown left-handed fiddler of color done by William Sidney Mount in 1850. The musician is breathtakingly handsome, dressed to the nines, and with his face turned to the artist and his hat cocked, he appears at once to express longing and certainty, as if mortality was no match for what he had on offer.