“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” Hearing these CDs for the first time has been an incredible experience and takes me back to the 1960s, when I was first playing old-time music and my friends and I had nothing to listen to except the Anthology and the records of the New Lost City Ramblers. Out in California, in contrast, they had as a nucleus the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which lasted from 1958 to 1970, where musicians could listen to and jam with each other. This festival was held in Provo Park, which was “bounded by the Police Department, City Hall, Jail and Berkeley High School.” Thanks to Alan Oakes, who carried his “portable” tape recorder from festival to festival and from concert to concert, we have many hours of field recordings from those days, somehow boiled down to a two-CD set by Deborah Robins, Jeff Place and Henry H. Sapoznik.
They made their own music, but they learned from the old-timers too. There are tracks from Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Dad Crockett, and autoharp player Kilby Snow. There are the young voices of people who contributed to our music world for many years: Doc Watson, Sandy and Caroline Paton, Ed Trickett, Mark Spoelstra, Larry Hanks, Kenny Hall. And they combined into duets and string bands: Larry Hanks and Mark Spoelstra, both fans of Woody Guthrie, Kenny Hall and his friends (with a revolving cast but often including Ron Hughey, Frank Hicks and Pete Everwine), Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band (Jim Bamford, Mac Benford, Sue Draheim). Sometimes spontaneous string bands happened: Hank Bradley and Rick Shubb were shredding fiddle tunes and a young Doc Watson asked if he could add a guitar part. Fortunately for us, Oakes’ tape recorder was running.
It is fun to listen to these performances from half a century ago and try to guess where the artist learned the song. Today one can call up a YouTube video or dig out one’s collection of Document CDs but this was around 1970. “Milwaukee Blues” is of course from Charlie Poole, but somehow the artists play it in D and miss the wonderful fiddle double-stop you can get if, like Poole’s band, you play it in C. “The Hounds are Out” is probably from Bob and Ron Copper. Was the Young Tradition’s recording available in 1969, when Oakes recorded this? And “The Lady of Carlisle” was, I bet, learned from the New Lost City Ramblers recording. An incredible gem of this CD, to these ears, was the Sacred Harp hymn “Northfield,” sung just as it is written out in the Denson hymnal. And where did Shubb and Bradley learn all those fiddle tunes?
Both Mike Seeger and John Cohen spent a few days in those years recording many of these same musicians, resulting in Folkways FA 2436, Berkeley Farms (recorded by Mike Seeger) and Field Recorders’ FRC 609, Berkeley in the 1960s (recorded by John Cohen.) Cohen’s recording focuses more on the string band combinations of the various musicians living on Colby Street, while Seeger explored more exotic solo recordings and combinations including the first recording of Larry Hanks’ now-classic “Apple Pickers Reel,” international tunes such as “Ruach Na Marku,” “Bayou Pon Pon,” and even electrified instruments—“Hopeless Love.” These recordings serve as vertical slices of the old-time music world that Oakes taped.
This CD set belongs in your collection! We can only hope that Oakes’ tapes will be mined to give us a second and third CD set, hopefully with liner notes which are as good.