Archive for the ‘CD/LP reviews’ Category

“Prayers from Hell”

April 13, 2014


Prayers From Hell: White Gospel & Sinners Blues 1927-1940 (Trikont CD)

reviewed by Frank Weston (

Prayers From Hell?  One might be tempted to sing “Too Late Brother, Too Late” – perhaps Rejoicing and Regretting From Earth might be more appropriate as a subtitle.  Whichever way you look at it this mixture of songs looking forward to the life hereafter or lamenting the consequencies of wrong doing during this life make up an excellent seventy three minutes listening.

Whoever is responsible, these 1932 recordings are good examples of the string band music of the era.  The two tracks from the Monroe Brothers Bill and Charlie are from 1937 and hearing them again I am reminded just how great they were as a team.  True there were brother duets using guitar and mandolin back-up that preceded them but none had the same dynamism created by this pair.

Charlie’s solid foundation bass runs on the guitar and Bill’s soar-away mandolin make for great listening.  Bill’s long career as the recognised ‘Father of Bluegrass’ following the break-up with his brother has tended to overshadow these excellent earlier recordings, and of course Charlie’s own later career.

This whole album is chock-full of excellent material from the vocal duets of the Dixon Brothers with guitar and slide guitar, Dorsey’s duets with his wife Beatrice backed by his own uniquely rich sounding fingerpicked guitar, the wonderful bounce of the Carlisle Brothers’ tenor and steel guitars to the full sound of Byron Parker and His Mountaineers.

This latter group, by the way, includes Snuffy Jenkins who along with his brother was one of the earliest players of the three finger banjo style later taken up by Earl Scruggs and which was to become such an important ingredient in Bill Monroe’s band and without which bluegrass may have remained under the general umbrella of country music and not been given its own pigeonhole.

Two artists new to me here are the husband and wife team Sherman and Edith Collins, they made one single session for Decca in March 1938 and no biographical information has so far been uncovered.  This is a vocal duet accompanied by their own two guitars, one of which seems to be capoed up reasonably high.

Their first offering is a version of the song first recorded by Bill and Charlie Monroe in 1936 and two days earlier than them at the same recording session by Wade Mainer and Zeke Morns, although it was the Monroe’s version which was issued.  The second offering by the Collins duet is one that was later taken and adapted by Woody Guthrie who changed the content of the song quite dramatically but only changed one word in the title from can’t to don’t.  Edith’s voice has that slightly immature for want of a better word mountain sound with a slight husky catch in it which I find appealing.  I think she would have sounded equally at home singing with Hartman’s Heartbreakers but that’s another ball game.

For those of you who don’t know, Trikont is a German label but notes are in German and English in the informative booklet.Just in case it isn’t clear from the above ramblings, I find this a fascinating and enjoyable album – highly recommended.

Turn Me Loose

August 12, 2013











Turn Me Loose: Outsiders of Old Time Music, edited by Frank Fairfield  (Tompkins Square CD)

edited review by Mike Yates (

Subtitled “Commercial recordings of Anglo-European-American vernacular music that challenge the stereotypes”, this is a second selection of 78rpm recordings mainly from the collection of American musician Frank Fairfield, and is a really fascinating collection of little-known and seldom-heard musical gems.

Let’s begin with the opening track, a version of the well-known fiddle tune Waggoner, played by Bob Skiles Four Old Timers, a family band from Texas.  The band comprises Bob Skiles on fiddle, his mother on piano, and his two sons playing banjo and … tuba.  And I guess that the tuba is the reason for this tracks appearance here.  Yes, it is unusual to hear a brass instrument playing in a so-called string band, but let’s not forget that there was once a tradition of German “oom-pah” bands in Texas, so perhaps the tuba is not that odd after all.

And what about that piano?  The Tweedy Brother’s version of Chicken Reel is played on fiddle and piano, the latter being described in the notes as “eccentric”.  Well, the pianist does get a little over-involved in the middle of the recording, but then so did many other old-time piano players, such as Al Hopkins (of The Hillbillies), Hobart Smith and Haywood Blevins.  Clarice Shelor, who played the piano on her family band recordings, was perhaps more reserved, but, at the end of the day, the piano was probably more common in old-time music than we like to suppose. (more…)

Early Harmonica Recordings from the 1920s & 1930s

August 2, 2013


Black & White Hillbilly Music – Early Harmonica Recordings from the 1920s & 1930s (Trikont CD)


This is all pure country music, before there really was such a thing. This is the folk music of England, Ireland, and Scotland wrapped up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and in the Appalachian plains, and was transformed into something so perversely American it was a freak show to the rest of the country when it finally was released on recordings.

These recordings by the Crook Brothers, DeFord Bailey (the first black instrumentalist on the Grand Old Opry stage), the Jackson County Barn Owls, the Riverside Ramblers, Karl & Harty, the Pickard Family, Dr. Humphrey Bate & the Possum Hunters, Lonnie Glosson, and others were the sounds of people telling stories to one another in the confines of their communities, playing the old songs as if they had a secret code not decipherable outside the holler.

Music was played by clans for other clans; many of them identifying their “turf” and placing the name “Ramblers” after it (there are four such acts on this disc). This is primarily string band music, unique because of the prominence of the harmonica in the ensembles themselves. Fiddle solos were replaced or at least augmented by harmonica.

As an album, it doesn’t have the power or the focus that other Trikont compilations have. It feels shoddily snapped together to meet a production deadline, with this theme as its only unifier. That said, it’s of more than casual interest because of the material, which is very fine, and most of it is so obscure that it is seldom (if ever) referenced.

Of particular note is the early swing flavor of the Nelstone’s Hawaiians, formed during the brief national craze for Hawaiian guitar music. It seems there was contact beyond the mountain ridge after all. Glosson’s “Lonnie’s Fox Chase” is part Irish reel, part blues shuffle, part stomping bluegrass thunder. Using his voice to add percussion in and out of rhythm, Glosson had a few tricks up his sleeve as a harmonica player, but he used them very effectively, bending pitches that give the appearance that he’s changing keys on the same harmonica, and then singing through the harmonica body as he blew into it, creating true microtones. This psycho track is worth the price of the entire compilation.There’s supposedly a guitar on this cut as well but you can’t hear it and it doesn’t matter.

The other solid jam is DeFord Bailey’s “John Henry.” This is a blues stomp from 1928. The polyrhythms created by Bailey’s harmonica allowed for shifts and breaks in the melody in which the body of the tune changed from a country shuffle to a steamy blues while remaining recognizably the same song. Despite its flaws, this is still a worthy collection.

Ramblers, Gamblers, Vagabonds And Revelers

July 29, 2013


Ramblers, Gamblers, Vagabonds And Revelers (4CD Proper Box Set)


Retracing the musical footsteps of the archetypes of the early American society and culture reveals all the elements which cross-pollinated and fused together to make the beast that was Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s.

From the world of Old-Timey and Country come the Carolina Tar Heels, Charlie Poole, Frank Hutchison, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and many more. The Country Blues of Peg Leg Howell, Robert Lee McCoy, Muddy Waters, Blind Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell showcase some of the most important musicians of the American Folk tradition. Add to that the Jazz, Cajun, Bluegrass and a multitude of other offshoots and styles and you can listen to the creation path of the style that took over the musical world and is still reigning ’till this day.

Covering much the same time span and social demography as the Lonesome Whistle Properbox set which came out in May, and featuring some of the same performers in the mix, the themes of this equally well-informed 4-CD anthology of roots recordings from the 1920s to the 50s are self-explanatory.

Audiophiles should be warned that early recordings are crackly transfers from shellac, which is entirely appropriate. It would be alarming if they were suddenly booming out in quadraphonic sound. Together with Lonesome Whistle, it comprises an eloquent diary of southern expression of the dispossessed either prevailing over circumstance, or simply falling by the wayside.

Many of the recordings provided repertoire for 50s UK skiffle, which in turn inspired the follow-up generation of British beat groups – along with rock ‘n’ roll. Includes an informative booklet on the history of American roots music and detailed information on each of the 100 tracks.

Women Singers from the Torrid Regions of the World

July 23, 2013


hot women2


Hot Women – Women Singers from the Torrid Regions of the World: CD Compilation By R. Crumb

Hot Women is a collection of 24 tracks taken from old 78 rpm recordings. They were gathered by none other than underground cartoonist/cultural icon R. Crumb, who also annotates the liner notes with what biographical information his friends could find on the web (Crumb himself knows not how to use the internet); we’re even treated to illustrations based on whatever photographs he could find of these women.

The earliest of the songs, like “Lu Fistinu Di Palermo” (Rosina Trubia Gioiosa of Sicily), comes to us from 1927; the latest, “Ballali Madja” (Hamsa Khalafe & Ali Atia, Africa), is dated around 1950. Most tracks come to us from the ‘30s, and possess both the eerie warmth and alien disembodiment that informs such cinematic tributes to the ‘30s as Triplets of Belleville and Pennies from Heaven, only more so: more so because while some of these “torrid regions” may be familiar to us (Lousiana, Cuba), others are decidedly less so (Tunisia, Middle Congo). I never imagined that Vietnam or Burma had viable pop recording industries 70 years ago.

Tony Baldwin handled remastering duties on Hot Women, and while I have no idea what the original recordings sound like, the effect is mesmerizing. The sound is still separated from reality, yet saturated with the physical effects of its context. “El Tambor De La Alegria”, a Cuban number from 1928, arrives as in a cloud of dust from the street, as though it exploded into being without the benefit of a producer. The mesmerizing “Chant D’Invitation A La Dance”, from the Middle Congo, built entirely on voice and finger piano, seems suffused with the miasma of an unfamiliar terrain and a stubborn refusal to be “properly” colonized.

If Crumb’s notes show an admiration for these women, his illustrations and the songs themselves seem to reflect the persistence of “exotic” cultures despite the oppressive gaze of the occidental eye. If Crumb’s cartoons turn misogyny on its head by deconstructing the misogynist impulse, his sharing of this music seems to critique colonialism by spreading its accidental treasures, the voices of the oppressed turning the entertainment of their oppressors into an expression of their own tenacity. This collection is grotesque, sexy, dissonant, desperate, and comical, both of this world and defiantly outside of it. These may not be the first hot women to haunt my daydreams, but they’re among the few I’ve ever felt so desperate to share.


Raw Fiddle

July 19, 2013

Raw Fiddle (Rounder CD), edited by Richard Spottswood


This two-disc set consists of 49 reissued songs and tunes taken from old 78s and chosen by the respected ethnodiscographer Dick Spottswood. The first CD carries the relatively more familiar material, from Southern (and, more rarely, Southwestern) white and black folk musicians, the styles covering the bases: dance tunes and hoedowns, blues, comic and novelty pieces, lyric songs.

The second features less often encountered sounds, of the sort now often called — vaguely enough — “world music.” Then it was just “foreign” to English-speaking Americans of the 1920s, when the bulk of these recordings were waxed. Here that means fiddle tunes and songs from Albania, Greece, Syria, Martinique, Trinidad, Scotland, Ireland, Cajun Louisiana, French Canada, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, the Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria — and sometimes fusions, where two countries bordered one another and cultures meshed. Most are performed by immigrants to America — thus not actually “foreign” in anything but relatively recent arrival — who brought the old-country traditions, today largely vanished, with them.

Be assured, however, that everything here can be listened to with pleasure, and furthermore, you don’t have to be a violin player to appreciate it, though of course violinists will be picking up all kinds of things passing by the ears of those of us who aren’t. No matter; this is not just outstanding music, but accessible and entertaining, too. Spottswood obviously wants listeners, whoever they are and wherever they come from, to enjoy themselves. We do.

Even on the first disc he is not driving the usual warhorses, old recordings that have been revived and reissued to the point of exhaustion. Maybe half of the Southern material is known to me as a longtime listener of source recordings, and the other still sounds fresh enough not to have outworn welcomes. I can’t imagine that anyone could ever object to renewed acquaintance with, for example, the Carter Brothers & Son’s magnificently unhinged “Give the Fiddler a Dram” or the Bang Brothers’ cheerfully lascivious “When Lulu’s Gone.”

Disc two has delights flavored with surprises, with only the Cajun, Quebec and Celtic music likely not to sound — well, adjectives like “exotic” or “unusual” or “strange” only betray the listener’s ignorance and ethnocentrism. Let’s put it this way: Unless you grew up in a culture where these particular styles of fiddling and singing were a part of your life (or you happen to be an ethnomusicologist), you will be hearing something you’ve had little to no exposure to before. If you’re like me, you’ll be making a point to hear more. There are lots of good old-time reissues on the market, but none quite like this one.

Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook

July 13, 2013

Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook (Rounder CD)

reviewed by Gilbert Head (

It’s difficult to imagine a world without Alan Lomax. I’m not sure I’d want to try. Our friends at Rounder Records (whom some will doubtless think by now are my closet employers) have gifted us yet again with an indispensable piece of popular culture. Framed in the larger context of Rounder’s extensive Lomax catalogue, this sampler is essential for anybody who would seek to understand the evolution of popular music, both in the United States and in the wider world.

Before mentioning a few highlights and favorites, a word about the exceptional liner notes: masterful. Jeffrey Greenberg’s song notes are rich in detail and annotation, and the essay on Lomax’s role as the chronicler of modern popular music (by Gideon D’Archangelo, Anna Lomax Chairetakis and Ellen Harold) gives the listener the full context of what Lomax means to those of us who would understand how the music of yesterday has led to the music of today. Greenberg in particular will take exceptional delight in linking old prison-recorded tunes to the likes of such ’70s wunderkinder as Ram Jam. Even without the music, the notes provide an instant primer on the connectedness of the musical past to the musical present and the musical future.

The challenge in programming collections such as this is what to include and what to leave out. The smart producer recognizes that “getting it all” simply isn’t possible in the format of a single CD, and so it is with this disc. Instead, listeners are given a taste, a suggestion of possible avenues for further investigation. While any of us could have populated a disc with equally worthy cuts, this selection need apologize to no one.

The disc opens with “Joe Lee’s Rock,” a gutbucket blues piece recorded in 1959, and moves to a 1940 recording of “Do-Re-Mi” with a running commentary by Woody Guthrie. The congregation of the Independence Church in Tyro, Mississippi, next delivers solidly with the call-and-response “Jesus on the Mainline” (covered later by Ralph Stanley, Ry Cooder and others). The work of Leadbelly is introduced with a 1934 Angola Prison recording of “Midnight Special,” and Vera Ward Hall’s “Trouble So Hard” is heard in another powerful recording from 1959.

Further on down the line, we get the original recording of “Black Betty” here by James “Iron Head” Baker and other prisoners in Mississippi in 1933, later to be immortalized by the aforementioned Ram Jam. Again from 1959, Sidney Lee Carter offers “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” a tune that would be expanded to great effect in the recent film O Brother Where Art Thou. That same year of 1959 would also yield the whimsical “Join the Band,” rendered with exceptional gusto by the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The surprises continue, with an early working of “Sloop John B,” recorded by Clayton Simmons and friends in the Bahamas in 1935. As is the case for all of these tunes, Greenberg notes that later popular artists brought the work into the mainstream (in this case, by the Beach Boys, in 1966).

The wonders continue. A very rudimentary form of “If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life” appeared first as “Ugly Woman,” presented here in a 1946 recording by the Duke of Iron. It is noted that Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole” (1938) would ultimately find a wholly different audience in the 1970s when it was covered by Led Zeppelin. The work song “Rosie,” from a Mississippi Farm Penitentiary recording in 1947, documents a prime preoccupation of men behind bars, and is counterpointed strikingly with the haunting instrumental “Alborada de Vigo” (1942). The disc closes with Georgia Turner’s hard-edged 1937 version of “House of the Rising Sun” and Leadbelly’s “Irene Goodnight,” also from 1937 (later recorded as “Goodnight Irene” by damned near everybody).

All in all, this is a wonderful collection. It will lead you to music you never thought of exploring, and you may never listen to your Animals or Hendrix or Zeppelin records in precisely the same way again.


“Unheard Ofs and Forgotten Abouts”

July 10, 2013
  • Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts” (Tompkins Square/Pawn CD)

    reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner (edited from

A mixtape of old tracks culled from Frank Fairfield’s personal record collection sounds like a proposition to be wary of, one that no doubt revels in the past simply because it is past. Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts spans the globe, traipsing from Scotland to Nairobi to China to the Appalachian foothills. In fact, the compilation often sounds diverse for the sake of diversity– not to show off how wide his collection is, but to demonstrate the various strains of music around the globe.

The brightest spots may be the transitions, suggesting a careful sequencing that contrasts wildly diverse musical traditions. Fairfield creates the starkest contrast by setting the two a cappella religious tunes right at the end. “Atepa Yion”, a Byzantine liturgy featuring Chanter P. Manea’s dizzyingly low bass, is measured and restrained, which makes “By the Pool of Siloam” by Chicago’s Rev. Frank Cotton sound all the more exuberant and desperate.

At only 16 tracks, Unheard doesn’t attempt to be representative of any one particular style or location, but that doesn’t prevent Fairfield from trying to sum up the world.  His tendency to overreach, while incompatible with bustling modern-day venues, actually proves noble on Unheard Ofs. Even though some of these songs are nearly a century old, they still sound immediate and lively.

The best songs here suggest the musicians are barely maintaining control of the rambunctious music. “Hundred Pipers-Miss Drummond of Perth-Sleepy Maggie”, a medley by Pipe-Major Forsyth and Drums, ends right at the moment when the repeating reel becomes too fast and too intense to keep up with. The increasing tempo gives it a hypnotic, almost abstracted sound, as if the musicians are trying to break the confines of the song and break through your speaker. Similarly, a version of “La Bamba” by the once popular Veracruzian act Hermanos Huesca, nearly trips over its own feet in its excitement; that it stays upright is both a miracle and a testament to the prowess of its players.

More interesting than the music, perhaps, is its presentation. These songs are deeply embedded in the familiar hiss and crackle of aged shellac and vinyl, which occasionally overwhelms the performers but generally remains a subtle sepia tone. That pervasive collector’s static suggests that Fairfield’s true preservationist urge is not primarily toward the music, but the medium.

These old records carry the marks of their many years, which give them each a unique character. If you compiled this same tracklist with records from another collector, it would be a very different album. The songs would be the same, but the textures and grain would change subtly but significantly from one physical object to the next. That is the most intriguing aspect of Unheard Ofs: He has based this entire compilation on the wear of specific, obsolete objects, which upholds the song’s excitability while casting them as fascinatingly dusty museum pieces.

Rags, Breakdowns, Stomps and Blues

July 2, 2013


Rags, Breakdowns, Stomps & Blues (Document CD)


These days the mandolin is almost exclusively identified with Bluegrass music but for decades it had maintained a regular showing in mainstream old time music, ragtime and blues (both urban and rural). This is illustrated to the dates appended to the title of this CD which refer at one end to Dallas Rag and Carbolic Rag, various display pieces, one each from the black and white traditions, and at the other Lint Head Stomp, a track often considered to be proto-Bluegrass.

The mixture is maintained throughout but is weighted in favor of black artists. Care has also been taken to present the mandolin in a supporting role or as a part of an ensemble. So, along with the finger-knotting rags, breakdowns and stomps from the like of Leecan and Cooksey, Prater and Haighs, The Dallas String Band, Mississippi Mud Steppers and Phebel Wright, you can hear the instrument working for its crust as part of a jug band, backing blues singers as Yank Rachel backs John Estes, or even keeping up with Arizona Dranes romping barrelhouse gospel piano.

The overriding principle has been excellence: excellence in selection, sound quality and presentation. The first two aspects are beyond reproach, carefully chosen track having been often lifted direct from good quality 78s and subjected to meticulous cleaning (without sacrificing any of the musical content), while the last is aided by a twelve page booklet, well illustrated in both black and white and colour, fronted by a glowing studio portrait of Charlie McCoy.

John Johnson

June 26, 2013


John Johnson: Strange Creek Fiddling, 1947 (West Virginia University Press)

edited from Paul Roberts (

The late John Johnson (1916-96) of Strange Creek in Braxton County, West Virginia was the sort of figure around whom legends easily grow.  A man of many and varied talents and an inquiring, restless mind he was not readily constrained by his mountain upbringing, first joining the Army and then travelling the length and breadth of the US as an itinerant worker.  He was a master of many manual trades, had an enviable reputation as an athlete and strong man, and was an accomplished poet and painter as well as a musician.  Indeed, he was already something of a legendary figure in West Virginia fiddling when he made these recordings at the relatively young age of 31.

The 23 tracks presented here have been selected from 80 sides recorded by Professor Louis Chappell of West Virginia University over a concentrated two day session in August 1947 using a homemade aluminium-disc recording machine – some four days after his historic recording session with the great Edden (Edwin) Hammons.  Since then Johnson’s legend has continued to grow among fiddle enthusiasts.  Chappell is reputed to have considered him Hammons’ equal and others have compared him to the great Ed Haley.  Despite ‘discovery’ by the Old-Time fiddle revival in the late 1970s as far as I know these are the only recordings he made, which can only have helped maintain their legendary status.

Before we go any further let’s make it clear that the music on this CD is not really on a par with the extant recordings of Hammons and Haley.  It’s quite possible that at his peak Johnson was a comparable figure, but anyone expecting music of exactly the same stature on this disc will be disappointed.  To be fair, it has to be remembered that when these recordings were made he had not played for several years and didn’t even own a fiddle – he had to borrow one from Chappell.  This is not immediately obvious.  There is a slight awkwardness now and again, especially in his noting fingers which tend to occasionally bluff the adjacent string in typical beginners fashion, and there’s one glorious pause-clunk in Wagoner when the end of the bow seems to slip off the string (we’ve all done it).  But these are minor problems, his technique is seriously impressive by any standard, and quite astonishing given the conditions under which he was performing.

Read entire review here.

Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still

June 22, 2013
Various Artists - The Warner Collection, Vol. 1: Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still

The Warner Collection,
Vol. 1:
Her Bright Smile
Haunts Me Still

Reviewed by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


Anne and Frank Warner collected folk songs  for over 40 years. Without an overabundance of funding though, their collecting was relegated to hobby status, and they would spend their weekends, vacations, and any spare time recording traditional American music along the Eastern Seaboard. In 1972, their collected recordings would be housed at the Library of Congress. Appleseed has  released a number of these recordings on Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still.

There are several things a listener will notice when first placing this CD in their disc player. First, that the number of selections-58-is a little overwhelming. The sheer number guarantees that many are under a minute, and only a few are over two. Individual singers perform many of these songs a cappella or with spare accompaniment. The fidelity ranges from very good to scratchy, but all of the words are clearly discernable.

There are a number magnificent recordings on Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still. Frank Proffitt is featured on seven tracks, and his performances include the ballad Tom Dooley, a song later borrowed and made famous by the Kingston Trio. Less polished and less romanticized, this version is sung at a brisk pace and accompanied by rhythm guitar. He performs a nice, long version of Little Maggie, a song that would become a bluegrass standard. Here, the haunting lyric is driven by Proffitt’s guitar and retains its old-time flavor.

Richard Hamilton offers two beautifully sung blues pieces, Freight Train Blues and Deep Elm Blues. A soldier stationed in New York, the Warners invited him to dinner and he brought along his guitar, leaving them with these soulful performances (and more than paying for his supper). There are a number of fairly morbid songs including Dorothy Howard’s Babes in the Woods, an anonymous singer’s Skin and Bones, and Eleazar Tillett & Martha Etheridge’s rendering of Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still. On this latter song, the singers deliver a devastating performance, complete with eerie, haunting vocals.

There is a nice balance between male and female performers on this album. It is interesting to note that when several people sing together, as on Wayfaring Stranger, the performers seldom harmonize. There is also an occasional instrumental, as with Been to the East by fiddler Steve Meekins. In several instances the performers are allowed to just talk, giving one a taste of their dialogue and the rhythm of their speech.

Once one takes the plunge into field recordings, there is no turning back. These recordings provide a listener with a reasonably priced way to enter and explore the beliefs and views of a completely different culture. Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still grows on the listener until there is nothing left to do but go out and purchase Nothing Seems Better to Me: the Music of Frank Proffitt & North Carolina, the second volume in the series.

County 701

June 18, 2013


from “Making Round Peak Music,” by James Randolph Ruchala:

“Clawhammer Banjo,” County 701, opened with Wade Ward’s “June Apple” and “John Lover’s Gone,” two Virginia favorites. Then, a bold contrast, comes Kyle Creed’s “Darlin’ Nellie Grey,” a banjo solo based on a popular song written by one Benjamin Hanby in 1856. Wade Ward’s banjo performances are driving, rhythmic powerhouses, with a twangy, echoing timbre.  Ward plays the main notes of his melody, and brushes across multiple strings to play chords in between the melodic phrases.

Creed’s performance displayed all the hallmarks of his style—melodic more than rhythmic, with a frequent use of the fifth string as both a drone and a melody string, many slides and open strings, very few chords. Creed brushes across multiple strings, too, but does so more slowly than Ward, creating the effect not of a chord, but of a melodic grace note.

But what really stands out after Wade Ward is Kyle Creed’s mellow timbre, reminiscent, perhaps of a xylophone or some other percussion instrument. This full and round timbre was what he called “plunky” and it would come to be an influence on players and builders of banjos, as will be shown in chapter six.

“Darlin’ Nellie Gray” is followed by “Ducks on the Millpond,” an old dance tune popular in Virginia and North Carolina, and Kyle uses it to demonstrate the lick that would come to be known, inaccurately, as the “Galax lick.” This move involves brushing across the long strings of the banjo before plucking the fifth string squarely on the beat to play a melody note, usually the high A.

Three tracks of Fred Cockerham’s wild fretless banjo playing follow Kyle. “Pretty Little Miss,” “Long Steel Rail,” and “Little Maggie” show Fred’s bag of inventive tricks: bluesy slides, wild intonation, very low drone strings for some tunings, strange noises and “clucks” that defy notation, and Fred’s low-pitched and expressive singing. If Kyle was the precise and
plunky side of what would come to be called Round Peak banjo, Fred was the bluesy and inventive side.

Rough Carpenters

June 14, 2013

Rough Carpenters (CD)  by The Black Twig Pickers

The Black Twig Pickers will appear at the Rendezvous, in Turners Falls, MA on Sunday, June 16. Please look here.

review of “Rough Carpenters” from

Two voices trace a melody through the air in unison, sparking miniature harmonies in their moments of divergence. They synchronize into a close lead — a Melody Plus, now with double the impact. This telepathic duet is known as a jugalbandi (literally “twins entwined”) in the Indian classical tradition. Fall deep into a skilled jugalbandi and you’ll come to perceive only one voice, nuanced to death, split across the room into two bodies.

On “I’ll Play The High Card, You Play The Ace,” our second taste of The Black Twig Pickers’ forthcoming Rough Carpenters, fiddlers Mike Gangloff and Sally Anne Morgan treat us to an Appalachian jugalbandi. The string duo winds through the traditional folk melody as one voice, their conjoined runs and double stops rising over a backbone of banjo and fingerpicked guitar.

Assertions of East meeting West aren’t so far-fetched here, given that the BTPs share half their personnel with drone/raga/psych explorers Pelt. If that ensemble overtly bridges cultures by deriving song structures and instrumentation from the carnatic tradition, the BTPs keep things closer to home, achieving a back-porch liveness gilded with a few jewels of the Baroda Palace.

The Black Twig Pickers have blurred the line between the modern and the Lomax for eight albums and counting, channeling traditional tunes through their experience with more “out”-minded musics. In the case of “I’ll Play the High Card, You Play the Ace,” considerations of the music’s lineage or geographical origin pale in the light of that Melody Plus: twin fiddles entwined for three wholly pleasurable minutes.

Charlie Poole with the Highlanders

June 7, 2013


new from Tompkins Square Records, reviewed at

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The Johnson City Sessions

June 5, 2013


“The Johnson City Sessions: “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” (Bear Family 4 CD and booklet)

edited from

In 1928, just as their fellow musicians had a year before in Bristol, men and women came in from the farms and down from the mountains to Johnson City. The lure was money, a chance at fame, or, at the very least, an opportunity to have their voices recorded on a 78 rpm record for posterity. The Johnson City sessions of 1928-29 that resulted may not have been the big bang of country music, but they were a major aftershock.

In 1928, Frank Walker of Columbia Records was hoping lightning would strike twice in the Tri-Cities area. The Bristol Sessions recorded by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company were tremendously successful, making stars of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

Walker put an ad in the Johnson City Chronicle asking “Can you sing or play Old-Time music?” “Musicians of unusual ability” were invited to “call upon Mr. Walker or Mr. Brown of the Columbia Phonograph Company at 334 East Main Street.” That address was the location of a defunct lumber company at what is now Colonial Way near WJHL.

“The Johnson City Sessions were better organized,” Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, said.



“There was more advertising, more scouting, more capital put into promotions up front.”
The ad ran three times in late September and early October. Olson said that more singers and musicians participated in the Johnson City Sessions than in the Bristol Sessions.


“They saw the ads and made it to the tryouts on Oct. 13, 1928, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The recording sessions were held over four days, Monday, Oct. 15 to Thursday, Oct. 18. A few of the musicians who saw the ad and heard it was happening had already recorded for Ralph Peer,” he said, “but most of those who recorded in Johnson City were not part of the Bristol Sessions.”

Among them were the Roane County Ramblers from the Kingston-Harriman area outside of Knoxville, who became one of the biggest bands to emerge from the Johnson City Sessions of 1928. Charlie Bowman of Gray — who recorded for Walker along with his brothers and sisters — was “a real success story,” Olson said.  While many of the musicians who recorded in Johnson City lived in East Tennessee, he pointed out, some of the musicians probably traveled from the Greensboro-Burlington area of North Carolina or from the Corbin, Ky., area. (more…)

“Turn Me Loose”

May 31, 2013


“Turn Me Loose: Outsiders of Old Time Music,” edited by Frank Fairfield (Pawn/Tompkins Square CD)

from and

Frank Fairfield curates another reissue of 78 rpm records – this time with the help of a few of his collector friends. The collection focuses on some of the most seldom acknowledged varieties of Anglo-American vernacular music. You’ll hear unusual performers, uncommon instrumentation and great fiddlers from California to Ohio, New Mexico to West Virginia. Forget “Americana”, this collection shows Anglo-American down-home music as it actually was and in many cases (although largely unrecognized) still is. With painstaking audio restoration by the great Michael Kieffer (Origin Jazz Library).

A great little set that really lives up to the promise of its title – and it’s claim to offer up “commercial recordings of Anglo-European American vernacular music that challenges the stereotypes”! The set’s a wealth of obscure 78rpm recordings that really defy genre convention – and which show that the 20s was easily one of the most experimental times in American music – a point when later common styles were really quite new, and still very fluid – bits of later blues, folk, or country intermingling equally – often from sources that you wouldn’t expect a decade or two later.

These tracks are all acoustic, but feature really inventive instrumentation – especially when modes of a generation or two before are pushed into new phrasings with decidedly (then) modern flavors. As usual with these Tompkins Square reissues, the sound quality is great – and the package offers up some good notes to help situate the music too.

1. Wagoner – Bob Skiles Four Old Timers
2. Don’t Get One Woman On Your Mind – Willard Hodgin
3. Bacon And Cabbage – Blind Joe Mangrum and Fred Shriver
4. The Whale Did, I Know He Did – Mustard and Gravy
5. Chicken Reel – Tweedy Brothers
6. Ladies’ Quadrille
7. Way Down Yonder Blues – Lemuel Turner
8. Money Musk Medley – John Batzell
9. Down In Tennessee Blues – Homer Davenport
10. Caliope – Lewis Brothers
11. Mythological Blues – Ernest Rogers
12. Dill Pickles Rag – McLaughlin’s Old Time Melody Makers
13. Arkansas Traveller / Turkey In The Staw – Alphus McFadyen
14. Mister Johnson Turn Me Aloose – Southern Georgia Highballers

La Musique de la Maison

May 26, 2013


La Musique De La Maison - Women And Home Music In South Louisiana (Origin Jazz Library CD)


“La Musique de la Maison” is a rich and historic collection of rare French ballads sung by Cajun and Creole women. Many people are now familiar with the French dance music of Southwest Louisiana, but in there exists a parallel, more private side of French Louisiana music: the a cappella songs (solo unaccompanied voice).

Because of where they were usually performed, these songs are sometimes referred to as “home music”: A mother and daughter sit on the front porch at dusk; friends take a mid-afternoon respite around the fireplace or kitchen table; extended family gathers at a wedding, and the songs flow as freely as the libations.

Traditionally, women have been expected to present what was considered an upstanding example of social behavior. Public musical performance, especially in the context of the bar or dance hall, was considered unseemly. So, with the public arena essentially off-limits, private or home music was left wide open for feminine exploration.

Old ballads or epic songs, drinking songs, game songs, and lullabies were sung at bals de maisons (home parties), veillées (evening visits) and family gatherings. Men and women sat out on the front porch or around the fireplace and traded songs for entertainment. The younger generation learned from their elders, either directly or by eavesdropping on the adults singing at the top of their lungs. Some of these songs also functioned at dances as reels à bouche, or dances rondes during Lent when voices were used as substitutes for forbidden instruments.

The home music songs of French Louisiana are a wondrous collection of tales with images more vivid than any modern film. They are timeless, beautiful songs filled with intrigue, sex, grisly murder, drinking, lessons in morality, and a heaping portion of humor. While some date back to medieval France and others contain more modern influences of the New World, all these songs touch upon themes that are universal and as relevant today as yesteryear.

The singers are young and old and as varied as their songs. The recordings in La musique de la maison were made from the late 1940s to the 1970s by many renowned folklorists, including Harry Oster and Ralph Rinzler, who visited these singers at their homes, schools and parties.

The advent of radio and television in the 1950s opened other entertainment options for the families of this rural area, so unfortunately the home music tradition began to pass away with its practitioners. In recent years, though, there has been renewed interest in these wonderful old songs from young Louisiana singers and bands. This makes “La musique” all the more important in providing support to continue this magnificent tradition.

Includes liner notes by Lisa Richardson, Marce Lacouture, and Carolyn Dural

“Country Fiddle: Fine Early String Band Music” on JSP

May 23, 2013


New 4 CD JSP release available here.











  • BABE
























Mister Charlie’s Blues

May 15, 2013


Review of “Mister Charlie’s Blues 1926-1938″ (Yazoo, 1970) from

In case you were wondering, “Mister Charlie” is an obsolete African-American slang term for Caucasian male that is in the same vein as “whitey,” “honky,” “cracker,” and “buckra.” These 14 tracks are not simply hillbilly recordings. More specifically, they are examples of Southern white musicians performing material that was either blues in a technical sense or had been strongly influenced by their black counterparts. As the Yazoo brain trust discusses in the liner notes,

While the bluesman’s imitations of white and pop music always rank as his most banal work, the hillbilly’s encroachments upon a genre that has always been held as the province of blacks make for fascinating music. They also make a mockery of the old notion that no white can play country blues, and even expose the deficiencies of many contemporary whites who work the blues idiom. The usual failing of the hillbilly blues guitarist is the same that nearly always inheres in white guitar-playing of the 1920′s: a preference for limiting picking patterns that the best musicians of either race always surmounted. In general, the sensitivity of the white blues musician is remarkable when one considers the race prejudices of his class.

Even though I’m not a musician, I think what they are getting at is that the typically white obsession with rigidity and structure has often stood in the way of artistic innovation, whereas the more improvisatory approach of black instrumentalists from the 1800s and early 1900s generally led to the development of new and uniquely American styles of musical expression.

The sides presented here for the most part focus on the hillbilly anomalies (i.e. those among “the best musicians of either race” mentioned above), and what wonderful exceptions to the rule they are. Indeed, certain labels in the 1920s and 1930s felt some of these performances sounded so authentically black that they were marketed as race records. (more…)

“Black Mirror”

May 11, 2013
  • Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Music 1918-1955 (Dust-to-Digital)

    edited from Mike McGonigal (

    Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Music (1918-1955) is an enthused, superbly-curated collection of rare 78s. The set was compiled by Ian Nagoski.  Nagoski’s been collecting 78s since he was in high school, intrepidly and often blindly looking for stuff that sounds cool, even if the labels were all in Russian and he had no idea what it was going to sound like. As you can guess from the title, this assemblage of material comes from long ago and far away, all over the globe: Syria, Thailand, Laos, Yugoslavia, Scotland, Cameroon, China, Vietnam, England, Turkey, and a dozen more.

It’s always a treat to be reminded of how much amazing music there is in the world that you’ve never heard. Seventy-five percent of this material has never been issued on CD, so both bushy-eyed world music newcomers and intrepid crate-combers will find an awful lot to dig in these 24 songs. In fact, only one track’s ever been released on a CD in the States before. Black Mirror stacks performers of great renown (at the time) next to uncredited musicians performing folk musics that stretch back for centuries. All of them are obscure today, of course.

When a thing is done with absolute love, it tends to show. I’m not a huge fan of CDs myself; I have a lot of vinyl and more mp3s than I can count. But it’s awfully hard to imagine these songs without the lovely 24-page booklet that comes with the set. The liner notes are lush with information about each track, as much as Nagoski could find anyway. He also brings the listener back to the very dawn of recorded sound by reproducing some of the earliest reactions to Edison’s great invention, the phonograph. Nagoski writes with awe himself about finding a special, strange record in a dusty corner, and about how amazing it is that these round, brittle discs can transfer such absolute magic from one generation to another.

There are indeed magical possibilities when it comes to assembling and editing a collection such as this; it’s no accident that alchemical symbols dot Harry Smith’s liner notes to his celebrated urtext, the three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music. Nagoski also quotes from his own translation of the spiritual-minded, avant-garde poet Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, even borrowing the album’s title from one of his works. All that places the material in a different context than one usually finds in globetrotting collections of ye olde records, which often suffer the post-colonial hangover of exoticism. Here’s to hoping that Nagoski compiles at least a dozen more records like it. Black Mirror just might be the most remarkable collection of its sort since Pat Conte ceased his CD reissue series Secret Museum of Mankind in 1998.

Mountain Blues: Blues, Ballads and String Bands 1927-1938

May 5, 2013



Country has been called the white man’s blues, but the phrase has probably only been truly accurate when applied to the so-called hillbilly records from the 1920s and 1930s, the period and genre covered by this four-disc, 100-track anthology from JSP.

Not that everything here is actually blues (the string band selections in particular are really dance reels that happened to have the word “blues” in the title), and a fair portion of these cuts don’t have any real geographical association with the Southern mountains, either, but you have to give a box set a title, so Mountain Blues it is.

With hindsight, a lot of these performances seem a bit generic, but there is a lot here, as well, that is startling in its freshness, even at a 75-year distance. Disc A gives us “Blue Grass Twist” (which isn’t bluegrass, mind you) by the South Georgia Highballers, featuring some amazing guitar work from Vander Everidge and some stylish, almost pop guitar from Riley Puckett (best known for his work in the Skillet Lickers string band) on “I Get the Blues When It Rains.”

Disc B presents Slim Smith’s jaunty “Bread Line Blues,” Clarence Ashley’s spooky modal banjo classic “Dark Hollow Blues,” and Samantha Bumgarner’s fragile singing and strong banjo on “The Worried Blues,” a version of “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Highlights of the third disc include the steel guitar work of Lemuel Turner on “Way Down Yonder Blues” and “Jake Bottle Blues,” and the zither playing of Nonnie Smith (who would enjoy a bit of a musical revival 40 years later in the 1970s) on the Perry County Music Makers’ “I’m Sad and Blue.”

The final disc features the amazing sound of Texas fiddle master Prince Albert Hunt on “Blues in a Bottle” (which the Lovin’ Spoonful — minus the fiddle — would cover successfully in the 1960s) and closes with the venerable guitar-and-fiddle team of Richard Burnett and Leonard Rutherford on “All Night Long Blues.”

Perhaps a bit too extensive for the casual listener, Mountain Blues will certainly please collectors and historians interested in the era covered, and it’s difficult to imagine a more comprehensive set of white blues 78s. The liner notes are a bit on the brief side, but they cover the basics, although the track notes that list the players and instruments aren’t always accurate. Still, there’s so much music here, it’s hard to quibble.

Mirth, Music, and Moonshine

April 29, 2013



Country Music has always included a generous amount of humor and never more so than during the 1920s and early 30s. After all, Country Music as we know it was born in the days of prohibition and record companies were quick to realize the potential of recording “skits” with their essentially rural artists charting these little adventures of the wily country boy attempting to outwit the revenue men while making illicit “moonshine” back in the hills.

This is a fun collection of rural comedy with some great music thrown in for good measure. It was also a good trailer for the complete versions of songs and tunes, which it was hoped, would wet the appetite of the purchaser to go out and buy the full version.

It is worth noting that, on the Okeh Medicine Show, the Black Brothers are Carson Robison & Frank Luther, and Bud Blue is in fact Fred “Sugar” Hall, one half of the Fields & Hall act. Recordings from 1928-1934.

The Okeh Medicine Show Acts I–VI
The Feller That Looks Like Me – Hillbillies
Over At Tom’s House – Blue Ridge Entertainers
The Fiddlers Contest – Blue Ridge Entertainers
Since She Took My Licker From Me – John Carson & Moonshine Kate
A Serenade In The Mountains Pts. 1 & 2 – E.V. Stoneman & The Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers
It’s Funny What Whiskey Will Do – Louis Bird
The Beer Party – Charlie Wilson & His Hay Loft Boys
Kentucky Bootlegger – Fruit Jar Guzzlers (Stevens & Bolar)
Day At The County Fair Pts. 1 & 2 – Skillet Lickers
I Ain’t A Bit Drunk – George “Shortbuckle” Roark
A Bee Hunt On Hell Fer Sartin Creek Pts. 1 & 2 – Skillet Lickers
Chickens In The Garden – Hugh Roden & Roy Rodgers

“Origins of Guitar Music”

April 24, 2013




Hugh Tracey issued a staggering total 210 recordings in his career so what we know as the received canon is not even the tip of the iceberg. A tobacco farmer in the thirties, Tracey learned work songs alongside his field-hands and was surprised no one else was remotely interested in the music.

A true African explorer, Tracey was the first to devote his life to finding and recording the music, and set off with two sound trucks and a crew of four to operate the recording equipment on his musical safaris from the Cape as far as the border of Sudan in the north. In those days, like today, the roads were non-existent in many places.

He needed 240 volts of power to run the recording machines, so his noisy generator truck had to be parked behind a hut or anthill, and he also had to deal with crowds that would show up to watch him record. He didn’t use mike stands but personally held the microphone rather than leave it to the inexperienced performers to play to the mike.

Four of the songs here were on AFRICAN ACOUSTIC … FROM THE COPPERBELT (the LP) issued by John Storm Roberts, a couple of tracks are on the GUITARS OF AFRICA put out by Kaleidophone in 1972, and a couple more are on the classic 1954 MUSIC OF AFRICA 5: “The Guitars of Africa,” which includes the “Classical Gas” of Africa (“Masanga” by Mwenda Jean Bosco) as well as the “Stairway to Heaven” of African guitar (Bosco’s “Mama na mwana”).

The latter is included on this new compilation; we’ll have to wait for a further issue to collect the other tunes. Six of the songs here have never been released before, so clearly there is a wealth of material in the archives. In addition there are the scholarly notes on each track by Tracey. (On the original albums he would tell you what the song was about and add other comments in his charming British accent. The only remnant of that here is his counting in one intro.)

Many of the original tapes were destroyed in a fire in the late fifties. This is a tragedy, but may have prompted Tracey on a further visit to the same regions to rerecord the musicians he could find. But the music was evolving rapidly as people moved to urban centers, particularly to find work in the copper mines, and became exposed to Western music through the radio.

Tracey points out echoes of Glenn Miller and Chet Atkins in some of the songs. The area covered by these recordings received British rather than French-run radio and, though the Congo was Belgian-controlled at the time, there’s a very different feeling in the music from the rumba sound that was emerging in Kinshasa concurrently.

Two other perennial favorites from the Tracey archives are here: “Elube,” by De Ndirande Pitch Crooners of Malawi and “Gwabi Gwabi” by Zimbabwean George Sibanda.

The recordings have been digitally restored. You can hear the simple percussion clearly (knife on Fanta bottle, or scraper), backing the vocals. This is one of the cornerstones of African popular music. There are 21 volumes in the series.

Jody Stecher and The Real Bahamas

April 21, 2013


The Real Bahamas (Nonesuch Records), recorded by Pete Siegel and Jody Stecher

by Jody Stecher (from liner notes):

We were strangers, conspicuously white-skinned, suspected of being Beatles (who had just been there filming Help!) or tax collectors. Peter Siegel was 21 years old; I had just turned 19. We had come to the Bahamas to record the spirituals and anthems of the region and, particularly, the distinctive Bahamian vocal style called “rhyming.”

On our first day in Nassau we began our search for the legendary singer and guitarist Joseph Spence. We asked everyone, and the response was uniform and predictable: “Sure mon, I know Spence”—until we arrived in his own neighborhood. Nobody knew of Spence, and a young woman standing in the doorway of a cottage sternly asked us why we were looking for him. When we said that we wanted to record Spence’s music she brightened and offered to take us to his house; gathering several small children from behind her long skirt, she escorted us next door.

Spence’s wife Louise seemed to be expecting us and served us conch fritters. In the corner was a black guitar leaning on a small amplifier bearing a sign: “Joseph Spence—The Voice from Heaven.” Spence himself came home, and after a tour of the banana trees in the back yard we set up a time to record him with his sister Edith and her family. This session was recorded in the yard of the home of Raymond and Edith Pinder, some distance away.

The yard was full of children and lush subtropical trees and plants. We began recording at dusk and, as the night deepened, more and more neighbors showed up. Edith’s husband, Raymond Pinder, sang bass, and their daughter Geneva sang the high parts (treble). With her strong and compelling voice, Edith sang lead most of the time. Joseph Spence would sing a part all his own, along with his unique guitar playing.

One song from that session, “I Bid You Goodnight,” became world-famous not long after Volume I of The Real Bahamas was released in 1966; the Incredible String Band and the Grateful Dead subsequently recorded the song, and it has also been used as the closing theme for several American radio stations.

The Reverend W.G. McPhee was very helpful in locating good singers and we recorded some of them at his home, including the Swain family and the legendary singer from Andros, Frederick McQueen, with his high-pitched, otherworldly voice and uncanny melodic sense. The Swain family—Shelton Swain, his son Ronald, and cousin Stanley—and George McKenzie were all from the island of Abaco. When still a boy, Shelton had learned his musical style in the sponge-fishing days from the great rhyming singer Peter Elliot; he recalled how Elliot took him on his knee after hearing him sing, saying, “Son, I could take you and run a nation.”

The Swains told us about a great singer, Bruce Green from Moores Island, and arranged a meeting with him. Mr. Green had with him two splendid younger singers, Clifton Green and Tweedie Gibson. The atmosphere of our hotel room, where this session was recorded, became elevated by the innate nobility and the pure, dignified presence of these three men.

We set out for Moores Island, hoping to find and record more rhyming singers but managed to get only as far as Marsh Harbor, on the island of Abaco. There we encountered Lyndall Albury, a singer of English ballads and folksongs. Marsh Harbor was founded by her ancestors, Loyalists to the English crown who had left the Carolina colony after their cause was defeated in the American Revolution. The layout of the village, style of the houses, the speech and bearing of the people were so much of another time and place that we felt ourselves bewitched and transported into a dream world far removed from 1965.

“Old Time Black Southern String Band Music”

April 17, 2013
images 1
Butch Cage & Willie B. Thomas: Old Time Black Southern String Band Music (Arhoolie)


With the  passing of African-American fiddler Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong and the remaining few practitioners like octogenarian Joe Thompson, America is losing its last links to the black string band tradition that dates back to slavery. At least one thread of this rich legacy will be preserved with this 1960s recording of Butch Cage (fiddle) and Willie B. Thomas (guitar) who lived in Zachary, Louisiana when folklorist Dr. Harry Oster recorded them.

Not only were the rural, raw musicians part of the resultant Country Negro Jam Sessions LP (also part of Arhoolie’s catalogue) but through Oster, they had the opportunity of playing the 1960 Newport Folk Festival.

Since Cage and Thomas were born in the late 19th century to sharecropper parents, you couldn’t ask for better pedigrees in time-honored American roots music. Both played suppers and house parties for years, culling songs from a vast repertoire of hillbilly, blues and spirituals, much like they do here.

Cage’s pipes boom over Thomas’ thin, papery voice, and Cage’s scratchy, earthy fiddling and Thomas’ straight, unvaried strumming support them. They warble in and out of unison while still maintaining a terrifically soulful chemistry. Eventually others get in the act and sing, making the tracks feel like a community effort.

The last two tracks are spiritually stirring, especially “You’ve Gotta Move,” where various participants harmonize on the refrain whenever the spirit moves them. Another forgotten piece of American’s music has just been revealed.

Rural Parlor Guitar

April 12, 2013


  Rural Parlor Guitar – Recordings from 1967-1971 (COUNTY CD-2744)

Artists: E. C. Ball, Earl Blair, Lena Hughes, Lewis Thomasson

RURAL PARLOR GUITAR is the one of the very few commercial recording to focus on this genre, and the only one to include multitude artists from different regions. Each of the four musicians was raised in rural areas in the early 1900s: Lena Hughes in northwest Missouri; Earl Blair in the Arkansas Ozarks; Lewis Thomasson in the open plains of Coryell County, Texas, and E. C. Ball in the southwest mountains of Virginia. They learned to play — without sheet music, radio or recordings – from family and other musicians.

All the defining characteristics of the parlor guitar genre are here: open tunings; the use of three and four fingers, arpeggios, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and harmonics. Many of the tracks have never been available commercially before; each is an excellent representation of parlor guitar. The tuning for each song is included.

“The guitar styles depicted in this CD are all different, yet very representative of what one might have found in the rural south eighty or more years ago. Only a handful of guitarists in the 1920s, such as Roy Harvey and Leonard Copeland, made commercial recordings in this flavor, making this collection an invaluable resource for parlor-style guitar.” – Jeremy Stephens

“19th century parlor guitar was the foundation or an influence for the playing of early rural guitar players as diverse as Elizabeth Cotten and Sam McGee. Probably even the early blues players. This CD presents some of the last players of this rarely recorded style.” – Mike Seeger

All the recordings, save for E. C. Ball’s two self-recordings, were made by Charlie Faurot on his trips to their homes from 1967 to 1971.


April 6, 2013


from and

FRC700 – The Hellbenders   $15 (available here):
The Hellbenders, Bruce Molsky and James Leva (fiddles), David Winston (banjo), Mary Winston (guitar) and Dave Grant (bass) made these recordings in Charlottesville, VA released on cassette in 1990 and digitally remixed and remastered by Al Tharp from his original recordings for this CD.

Dave Grant, who was the soul of the band, was killed in a work accident in 2002. He was an inspiration in music and in life. This album is dedicated with love and appreciation to Dave Grant.

The Hellbenders was a unique old-time musical feast. Inspired by players heard from all over Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, and by the classic old recordings of southern mountain music, they went in the studio in 1989 and recorded a cassette, kind of a testament to the music scene and everything that was happening around them at that time. High energy, no holds barred string band music, fiddles blazing.

1. Altamont
2. Train on the Island
3. Chinquapin
4. Tight Old Sally Gal
5. Red Mountain Wine
6. Betty Baker
7. She Took it Off
8. Indian War Whoop
9. Cider
10. Baby Waltz
11. Poor Little Mary (Sittin’ in the Corner)
12. Bravest Cowboy
13. Sambo
14. Woop Reprise

The Hellbenders play “Cider”:

The Devil’s Dream: Sid Hemphill

April 1, 2013


The Devil’s Dream
Mississippi Records (LP) $13

review from

In The Land Where the Blues Began, the folklorist Alan Lomax recalls his epic field-recording voyage through the Mississippi Delta in the early 40s, undertaken at a time when, for Lomax, the stakes felt particularly high. “I knew this was to be my last song-collecting jaunt before the Army got me, maybe the last time I would ever hear the alley blues and the hallelujah spirituals that I believe are the best art our country has produced,” he wrote, and not without discernible yearning.

That urgency would eventually yield the first recordings of Muddy Waters and Honeyboy Edwards, and the first recordings of Son House since his Paramount days, but it’s hard not to feel like Lomax’s desperation– for ferocity, inventiveness, some kind of rapture– was probably best assuaged by his discovery of Sid Hemphill, the so-called “boar-hog musician of the hills,” a fiddler and string band-leader once described to Lomax as “the best musician in the world.”

Lomax found Hemphill in Senatobia, deep in Mississippi’s Hill Country. He’d driven across a crumbling bridge and approached a “sagging, unpainted door on a weathered-gray, warping house.” Before he could knock, Hemphill, then 65, swung it open. “No one had told me that Sid Hemphill was blind, but it was the last thing you’d recall about him,” Lomax explained. “His face blazed with inner light.”

On August 15, 1942, Lomax committed 15 tracks by Hemphill and his backing band (Lucius Smith, Alec “Turpentine” Askew, and Will Head) to acetate disc. Hemphill never recorded commercially, and only Lomax’s field recordings of his work are extant– meaning that unless you knew a guy (shoddy cassette tapes of Hemphill’s songs, sourced from Lomax’s discs, have been spotted in the damp palms of 78 collectors for decades, passed about like contraband), The Devil’s Dream is the first time anyone has been properly able to access or disseminate Hemphill’s brain-scrambling yawp.

The album’s release this month, over 70 years after its creation– as a download through the Alan Lomax Archive’s Global Jukebox imprint, or on LP via Mississippi Records– feels both long overdue and right on time.

Hemphill’s masterwork is “The Carrier Line”, a rambling, six-minute blues ballad about the owner of a local logging railroad and the engineer who ran his train too fast. “You want me to put the whole 21 verses in it?” Hemphill asks Lomax before raising his fiddle and announcing himself. “Sid Hemphill! ‘Carrier Song’ was made and played by him, his band!” (more…)

“Imaginational Anthem”

March 27, 2013

Screen shot 2013-03-26 at 4.55.41 PM

available from Tompkins Square Records next month (from their newsletter):

Gatefold Vinyl : TSQ 2868 out April 20th (Record Store Day) Ltd 1500
CD : TSQ 2851 out April 30th

If American Primitive Guitar begins with John Fahey and the Takoma School, then the actual origins of this sound is found within this collection of fourteen classic solo guitar performances.  Recorded between 1923 to 1930, this set is the “Rosetta Stone” of style and repertoire tapped into deeply by Fahey, Basho & Rose, among many others.  Sam McGee, Riley Puckett, Bayless Rose, Sylvester Weaver, Lemuel Turner, Frank Hutchison and Davey Miller are the rural artists included in this anthology.

Each one of these showcases a particular technique and sensitivity sourced from the earlier 19th century parlor guitar tradition.  Several of these sides are reissued for their first time including Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Blues” which is the first solo finger picked guitar solo ever recorded.  Stunningly remastered and annotated by Christopher King.

JOE BUSSARD: “Guitar Rag / Screwdriver Slide”: 78 RPM VINYL TSQ 71136 LTD. 700 Units. Out April 20th (Record Store Day)
Famed Fonotone label pioneer and 78 collector Joe Bussard plays two tunes with a screwdriver.

Vinyl w/ Poster inside : TSQ 2882 out April 20th (Record Store Day) Ltd 1500
CD : TSQ 2875 Out April 30th

From 1926 to 1930 one of the most popular rural string bands on record was Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers.  Through their 78 RPM discs and their various performances, Charlie Poole was second only to Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers.  Poole’s uniquely syncopated three finger banjo picking style coupled with his Piedmont vocal inflections eventually colored and defined much of what we consider “old-time” music.  The classic configuration of banjo, fiddle and guitar with vocals was encouraged by the main label that  promoted Poole but he also wanted to record instrumentals featuring twin-fiddle and piano.  As renaming his group The Highlanders, Poole was able to actualize this musical vision.  This collection contains all of the sides that Poole made with Roy Harvey, Lucy Terry, and twin-fiddlers Lonnie Austin & Odell Smith.  Remastered in beautiful sound by Christopher King and with notes written by old-time musician and scholar Kinney Rorrer.

Slowtime Field Recordings

March 20, 2013


Slowtime Field Recordings – Volume 1 – Alabama

 In 1998, Matt Downer began conducting informal recording and interview sessions with the elder musicians of the Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia tri-state area. In 2011, the first set of these field recordings was released -  “Slowtime Field Recordings – Volume 1 – Alabama.”
This limited edition set  features a one hour dvd, a 20-track cd and a 16 page booklet in a handmade letterpressed package. The dvd features interview and live performance footage recorded at the homes of the musicians. The cd will feature live performances recorded at the homes of the musicians: Wayne Heard,   Jess Moore,  Willie King, and Cast King.

There Is No Eye

March 15, 2013


edited from Mike Yates (

Review of There Is No Eye: Music for Photographs (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40091)

‘There is no eye: music for photographs’ is a companion CD to John Cohen’s recent book of photographs of musicians There Is No Eye (Powerhouse, 2001).  Many – though not all – of the tracks on this CD are taken from his own recordings.

Bob Dylan’s Roll On John is taken from a 1962 radio broadcast.  Officially issued here for the first time, it has, in fact, appeared on a number of underground tapes.  On first hearing I was quite surprised how well Dylan sang the song.  Subsequent hearings, however, show a shallowness when compared with the source recording of Kentucky singer Rufus Crisp (Folkways 2342).

John Cohen has spent some considerable time documenting the music of eastern Kentucky.  Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian Folkways 40077) first introduced us to the singing of Roscoe Holcomb, among others.  When Roscoe’s solo album High Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian Folkways 40104) was reissued on CD I was disappointed that his haunting Man of Constant Sorrow had been omitted.

Now we know why.  It’s here!  Thank God!  Hallelujah!  John prints a number of comments about Roscoe Holcomb’s singing from other writers.  I especially like this one: ‘A voice that bypasses the head and shoots straight for the soul’.  I have to say that it came as something of a shock to learn that Roscoe had originally learnt the song from a recording by Ralph Stanley, his delivery sounding as though he had been born with the song already implanted in his mind.

One of John Cohen’s films is of Kentucky musicians.  Also titled The High Lonesome Sound, it focuses primarily on Roscoe Holcomb, although Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys are also seen performing their version of John Henry, which is likewise included here.  It’s a high-powered performance, one which contrasts sharply with the almost sedate performance of the Baptist song Come All You Tender Hearted sung superbly by Carter Stanley.

Other mountain – Appalachian, of course – recordings include Doc Watson and his father-in-law Gaither Carlton singing and playing Hick’s Farewell, Sidna Myers playing the exquisite clawhammer tune Twin Sisters and Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard performing a tight bluegrass version of TB Blues.

The 1964 recording of Paloma Blanco, performed by a Peruvian stringband, is exquisite.  It is preceded by the New Lost City Ramblers (John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz) playing a version of Buck Creek Girls that John had previously collected from Kentucky banjo player Bill Cornett.

What strikes me is how similar the New Lost City Ramblers sound to their Peruvian musical cousins.  The tunes are, of course, dissimilar, but, the manner of playing – the philosophy behind the playing – is clearly related.

Mississippi Records: 5 LP African Guitar Box

March 5, 2013


The African Guitar Box
Mississippi Records, x5 LP

“5 LP box set of classic African guitar based music recorded between 1951 & 1970. Mostly solo performances with guitar & vocals.

The first disc features classic acoustic guitar music from all over the African diaspora, with an emphasis on Congolese & Kenyan artists. The second disc has all electric guitar performances with minimal accompaniment on percussion – nothing remotely funk based. The third disc features a mix of acoustic & electric performances. Disc four presents more challenging compositional music on acoustic guitar than found on the previous 3 discs – not easy listening by any means, but very rewarding. The final disc is the most sublime & peaceful acoustic guitar & vocal performances you could ever imagine!

Collectors beware – much of this material has been reissued before, albeit not since the early 1980s in very hard to find compilation LPs. The records are housed in a beautiful heavy duty hand made box with a sliding lid on the side. Each box is unique & rugged in it’s own way.

The wood used to manufacture the box is all salvaged from the old Mississippi Record store location. The cover is a 2 color silk screen on high quality textured paper, carefully glued to each box. A real labor of love. One time edition only; pressing of 200 copies!”

American Primitive, Volume 2

February 28, 2013


edited from Ray Templeton (

American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939) (Revenant 214, 2 CDs)

One of the great appeals of listening to older recordings is their capacity to transport you through time and space, in a sense that appears to me to be experientially quite real (and if that’s not mystical, I don’t know what is).  I can almost feel myself standing alongside Elizabeth Johnson in that studio in New York in 1928 as she sings the extraordinary Be My Kid Blues.

On the other hand, some artists seem to be speaking to us from some quite unreachable place.  I would count among these John Hammond, an almost entirely obscure traditional singer and banjo player who recorded a handful of exceptionally beautiful sides in 1927 or Moses Mason, who rails about the Mississippi floods of the same year.

I could wax quite over-the-top, for example, about some of the tracks included on these discs – like Henry Spaulding’s Cairo Blues, whose string-snapping guitar accompaniment and sudden falsetto vocals have enthralled me for many years, or William Harris’s Bullfrog Blues, with its bizarre lyrics: ‘Have you ever woke up with bullfrogs on your mind?’

It would be impossible to deny the sheer weirdness of tracks like Homer Quincy Smith’s Paramount pairing from 1929 – a wild, solo voice against a wheezing organ accompaniment.  Likewise, Cousins and DeMoss’s Poor Mourner, at 106 years old the grand-daddy of all the tracks here, sounds pretty nutty to modern ears (even the note-writers abandon their customary over-awed tones to describe the banjo accompaniment as ‘a wonderfully undifferentiated mass of plonking’), but we can probably assume that these tracks didn’t sound so outlandish when they were new. (more…)

Watson Family “Milestones”

February 24, 2013

See Kickstarter description about the Watson Family’s “Milestones” box set here.

from Jody Stecher:

“Milestones” is the most moving and stirring collection of recorded music I have heard in a decade. I co-wrote the liner notes with Roy. “Milestones” is a book of Watson Family photo collages, assembled with scissors and glue over a 10 year period by Doc Watson’s daughter Nancy. And it’s four CDs of music.

The recordings are extraordinary musically but also historically as they comprise a major document of a local musical tradition that was made from within the tradition itself. Some of the music was recorded by Nancy as a girl. Her familiarity to the musicians she recorded gave her access to a side of the singers and players that a folklorist or “collector” from “outside” would be unlikely to ever see or hear.  This includes gentle loving renditions of beautiful traditional songs and tunes by her grandfather Gaither Carlton, sacred songs recorded at home prayer meetings and at Mount Paran Church, and recordings of her parents, together and separately.

There is no aspect of “performance” in these extraordinary recordings, no embodying of what the collector recordist might be perceived to be expecting. This is the Real Deal. And it’s way better than parodies and self-parodies.  Other recordings were made by Doc Watson on good quality home equipment and some of this is multi-tracked so we get to hear a Band-o-Docs.  These were done mostly in the 1950s and they present a truer picture of Doc Watson as complete musician rather than the recordings that were aimed at the folk revival of the 1960s.

Some of these recordings were done entirely on a Les Paul electric guitar and an electric bass, both played by Doc. Where else will you find “Groundhog” and “Stardust” on the same recording, sung and played by the same artist, and both done entirely credibly to say the least?  Other bands-o-docs are of vocal, banjo and harmonica.  There are also studio recordings by Doc done at Rich-R-Tone studios in Johnson City, Tennessee. That’s where the Stanley Brothers first recorded.

There are some great songs sung by Rosa Lee Watson and some written by her too. And some songs written by Doc. Both are great writers and singers. Other highlights are recordings of other family members. Doc’s mother, his brothers, his cousins, all make memorable music. There is even a banjo duet by Willard Watson and Doc Watson which I have listened to dozens of times and still hear new things each time.

Rural String Bands of Tennessee

February 23, 2013


by Kerry Blech (from The Old Time Herald):

Various ArtistsRural String Bands of Tennessee
County 3511

Ahhh, here is a very nice set of reissues, but please don’t be scared off by the bland cover art. It’s what’s inside that counts, and here we have some dandy recordings made originally between April 1925 (Davenport and the Young Brothers) and April 1930 (the Ridgel ensemble). Some of the Volunteer State’s finest fiddlers are represented here.

The best-known of the lot probably would be Charlie Bowman, who earned more than a modicum of fame with his stint with Al Hopkins’ Hill Billies. With his brothers, Walter (“that runt”) on banjo and Elbert on guitar, along with friend Frank Wilson on steel guitar, he illustrates why he was so popular among fiddle enthusiasts with Forked Deer and Money in Both Pockets / Boys My Money’s All Gone from the “Moonshiner” skit.

It is sheer pleasure to listen to these folks. Too bad they did not record much in this configuration. Anyone who’s spent time talking with Ralph Blizard knows about Dudley Vance and what an influential fiddler he was in Eastern Tennessee. His Tennessee Breakdown pulls parts from other well-remembered pieces to become a new melody, one that certainly illustrates why he was so popular.

Although it has become a darling number of the old time revival, Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase was never issued commercially. The old LP issue of it (and now this CD reissue) was taken from a test pressing. It’s a brilliant tune, exceedingly well-played. It boggles the mind to wonder why it was not issued on 78. Jimmy McCarroll was yet another gifted regional fiddler. (more…)

Banjo Diary

February 17, 2013

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 5.48.20 PM

review by Dave Freeman of

STEPHEN WADE “Banjo Diary” (SFW-40208)
There’s a lot going on in this new and attractive issue from the Smithsonian Folkways label, and it’s a record that we think any fan of old-time banjo will want to have. Wade, who has had records out before—includ- ing one on the County label—is a banjo historian as well as a good musician.

He cites a bunch of vari- ous sources in a fascinat- ing 40-page booklet of notes that is as informative as the music is good. Cov- ering the songs one by one, he cites and refers to people like Fleming Brown, Charlie Faurot, Woody Wachtel and Tony Ellis (a good friend) in his own career that started in Chicago. Fleming Brown was apparently a great early influence on other banjo pickers there in the 1960s, and he is mentioned often in the notes.

As to the music, Wade has a few other musicians help out, including Danny Knicely, James Leva and Zan McLeod, but the most noticeable is Mike Craver (Red Clay Ramblers) who provides an effec- tive pump organ tastefully in the background. The 18 tunes (Wade sings on about a third of them) are an excellent mixture of common and obscure pieces. Tunes like TRAIN 45, CUCKOO’S NEST, HOME SWEET HOME and LITTLE RABBIT get treatments that are slightly different than popular versions of these pieces.

But the most effective are several slow, moody tunes that are really lovely: ROCKY HILL, LITTLE BETTY ANN and HAND IN HAND. These are very reminiscent of a style played by Tony Ellis, which is not surprising as Wade & Ellis have been friends for many years. There are no weak spots in this superb recording, and it continues to grow on me the more I play it. Highly Recommended for Old-Time banjo fans.    $ 15.00

North Carolina Banjo Collection

February 11, 2013


by Molly Tennenbaum (from The Old Time Herald):

Disc 1 presents a million older-style players (mostly downstroke, and some up-picking), disc 2 a million more modern-sounding up-picking players. And the collection includes a huge amount of information. In the fat booklet full of notes and photographs, Disc 1 is introduced with brilliant essay by Andy Cahan discussing the player Manly Reece (b. 1830-d. 1864) and speculating about the origins of banjo music in North Carolina, while disc 2 is introduced with an essay by Robert Winans about up-picking banjo.

Though some of the pieces here are well known, have been released before, and are included because without them the collection would not fully represent North Carolina banjo, many of these pieces come from obscure or private recordings, so this is our first chance to hear them. The entire collection offers a wealth of music to return to over and over again.

Disc 1 starts out with those African-American players who, according to Winans, “represent the remnants of this once vital” black string-band tradition. Odell Thompson’s “Georgia Buck” gets the CD off with a deep low-in-the-throat rhythm. I find Libba Cotton’s “Low Baked a Hoecake” extremely beautiful-slow, rhythmic frailing between the single-note melody lines under Libba’s sweet light voice-it’s a dreamy sort of song. Dink Roberts’s “Fox Chase” also stands out, the opposite of dreamy. It’s got random-ish sung-spoken verses, banjo effects typical to “Fox Chase” tunes, and a snappy repeated melody line linking all the random parts. So much variety of approach even within this one tradition suggests that you can’t pin a banjo down, and the rest of the CD continues to make this point.

Some of my favorite cuts here are the ones by women: Samantha Bumgarner’s “Worried Blues” is an example of how good a woman’s high voice can sound with the banjo. So often women in old-time music sing in their lower registers. (Because it sounds more “traditional?” Because the Carter Family women had low voices? Because D & A, the keys of so many old-time tunes, are easier for men to sing in? Because the men in music have historically been more audible?) But Samantha Bumgarner, the first female country performer to record a 78, reminds us to use whatever voice we come with. I also especially love Bertie Dickens’s “Cleveland Marching to the White House.”

Of course the men are nothing to sneer at. Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Mr. Garfield” is wonderful-a loping banjo background to some very humorous verses. Walter Raleigh Babson’s “Hello Coon” is also especially beautiful, melody notes with light arpeggiated accompaniment.

Disc 2, as you may imagine, sounds more modern, even though it includes many recordings from the past, among them Ernest Helton’s 1925 “Royal Clog,” Charlie Poole’s 1926 “There’ll Come A Time,” and George Pegram’s circa 1943 “I Left My Old Home in the Mountains.” Despite the modernity, several of these picked tunes stand out to me as having an “older” sound, for example Dock Walsh’s 1929 “Come Bathe in that Beautiful Pool.”

When I Was A Cowboy

February 5, 2013


by Bob Bovee:

Various ArtistsWhen I Was A Cowboy Vols. 1 & 2 (Yazoo 2022)

The cowboy has long been our national hero, from the days of the dime novel, through the early film depictions by Bronco Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, and Tom Mix, to the singing cowboys of the ’30s and the TV cowboys of the ’50s and ’60s. Our argonaut, our knight errant, the mythic worldwide representative of our national character, he’s everyman, based in reality and exaggerated to epic proportions. His music, and I’m referring to the genuine article as opposed to the pale imitation fed us by the likes of Hollywood punchers like Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers, provides a revealing and exciting view of this “hired man on horseback,” as cowboy and author Gene Rhodes described him.

Where do I find this music, you might ask? And well you should, because it’s been hard come by lately. A few fine LPs of the old 78 recordings, notably RCA Victor’s Vintage Series Authentic Cowboys and Their Western Folksongs and Morning Star’s When I Was a Cowboy have been out of print for years. Marimac released a tape called Make Me a Cowboy Again for A Day, which is also no longer available. But now Yazoo rides to our rescue! They have given us two volumes on CD called When I Was a Cowboy (just as the above-mentioned LP was titled), described on the covers as “Early American Songs of the West, Classic Recordings From the 1920s and ’30s.”

You might decide two CDs, 46 songs in all, is a larger dose of cowboy music than you need. Cough up the dinero, pardner, for these are dynamite. Any collection of old-time music should include some genuine, and preferably vintage, cowboy recordings and these are not just the best currently available but, I believe, the best collection ever released. At least get one if you feel you can’t afford both, but don’t expect me to tell you which of the two to buy. They’re both too good to miss. (more…)

Old-Time Mountain Guitar

February 1, 2013


review by Jim Nelson:

Old-Time Mountain Guitar: Vintage Recordings 1926-1931 (County CD 512)

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.

“Black Europe”

January 27, 2013



Black Europe (Bear Family CD)  The first comprehensive documentation of the sounds and images of black people
in Europe pre-1927

Recordings on phonograph cylinders, gramophone discs and films, with both still and moving images, feature people of African descent in Europe from the earliest years of the recording industry and continued after the First World War. The contribution of these pioneering personalities on the modern mass media has not been noticed – recognition is overdue. Music, spoken word and dance, from all styles, categories, languages and natal lands provide a lost but rich resource. Many artefacts may be lost forever, but this project traces the surviving evidence.

Collected in two 12 x 12 inch coffee table book with more than 500 full-colour pages, here is a multitude of documents, artefacts and curiosities, from passport applications, personal memorabilia and letters, to sheet music, newspaper ads and fabulous poster art, complemented by contemporary postcards and images of  wax cylinders and disc records. In more than 100 chapters the life and times of these pioneering entertainers, musicians and linguists comes to life, from early film and sound examples to best-selling 78 rpm records, from ‘human zoos’ and minstrel shows to ethnological documentation and portraits of the (sometimes dubious) movers and shakers in European showbusiness of the time.

From African-Americans comes an aural kaleidoscope of entertainers and music from the last days of minstrelsy through ragtime and music hall artists to string bands, spirituals, and the early days of jazz in Europe, including the earliest examples of stride piano and rhythm scat singing, and some of the first records made anywhere of African-American folk music practices. From Africans come recordings of African languages and folk tales, religious music on both African and European models, and recordings of the popular music of the 1920s. Also documented is the involvement of those born in Europe of African descent in the wider culture of the African diaspora.

Black Europe, a boxed set comprising a slipcase with two hardbound, LP-sized books and a folder with 40 CDs (in paper sleeves) of music and sound documents, will be released in 2013.

Sutphin and Baugus

January 23, 2013

by Riley  Baugus  (from interview at

The new album is called Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus, Long Time Piedmont Pals. We were approached by Charlie Faurot of Old Blue Records to make the album. He is the collector that recorded Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins back in the 60s. Those recordings sort of got the ball rolling for the “revival” of Round Peak music, which really means that it spread outside the Surry County area and was discovered by loads of people who fell in love with the sound and the idea of the living tradition.

It is a collection of tunes that we have known since childhood as well as some we learned just for the recording. We included some tunes that we learned from recording of a great musician named Matt Simmons from Stokes County, NC. It is the county just to the North of us here and is often overlooked musically. “Drunkard’s Dream” and part of our version of “Wild Bill Jones” comes from Matt Simmons. It also includes a version of “Paddy On The Turnpike,” which we learned from H.O. Jenkins, the grandson of Frank Jenkins who played with Tommy Jarrell’s dad, Ben Jarrell in DaCosta Woltz’ Southern Broadcasters, in the late 1920s. We did a couple of tunes that we learned from field recordings of Fields Ward from Galax, VA and some tunes from Wade Ward, and tunes we learned from Tommy Jarrell, and others that we learned along the way from several different players.

It was huge fun to make. We recorded it all live. No overdubs, or punching in. We played the tunes and recorded them. Charlie set up in Kirk’s living room in true field recorder fashion, and we did the record. We like to think of it as our field recording. It’s cool to do a record that way without all the bells and whistles that you have at your disposal in a studio. Just the instruments and the voice and the room sound and whatever editing gets done. One of my favorite ways to record.

I played Banjo and Guitar on most of the recording while Kirk played Fiddle and Banjo on most of it, but we did switch around a bit too. I played Fiddle on a couple and he played Guitar and Old Time Fingerstyle Banjo on a couple. Most people tend to think that Clawhammer is “THE” old time way of playing 5 string Banjo, but Fingerstyles were just about as common in the Southern Appalachian region.

As kids we always loved the things that were old, seemed old or stood for the old ways. It was like getting to be kids again to do this record. We played tunes that we actually had to learn, and we spent several days together playing tunes and telling stories and just having fun, just like when we were kids.

Koo Nimo

January 21, 2013
Koo Nimo: Highlife Roots Revival (World Music Network CD TUG1064)

Koo Nimo is one of the last true veterans of highlife roots and palm-wine music, which dominated Ghana’s popular music scene throughout much of the twentieth century. Recorded in his backyard at home in Accra, expect acoustic guitars and rolling percussion all topped off with his gentle story-teller singing style.

Whilst listening to Highlife Roots Revival, you might be surprised to hear the faint crowing of a rooster or the distant murmur of a child’s voice bubbling underneath the guitars. But rest assured: it is no accident that these sounds were left in the mix; they were captured during a series of recording sessions, which took place in Koo Nimo’s courtyard at home in Ghana.

Adding a wonderful sense of intimacy to the album, these interjections underline the ethos of palm-wine music perfectly. This is, after all, a musical style named after the strong alcoholic drink imbibed at outdoor acoustic sessions, where musicians swapped their songs beneath the starlit sky and where palm-wine music was born. Join Koo Nimo in the spirit of palm-wine; kick back, tap your foot and listen to the stories unfold.

Palm-wine music has its roots in the burgeoning krio culture of late nineteenth-century West Africa. Portuguese sailors winding along the coasts of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana introduced the guitar to the region, an instrument itself circuitously related to the various harps and lutes of West Africa. Sea shanties mixed together local styles like gumbé and foreign influences such as Trinidadian calypso. During the early twentienth century, palm-wine gatherings were commonplace, often taking place under the shade of a large tree, with performers happy to play on as long as they were still being bought drinks.

Kentucky Old-Time Banjo

January 18, 2013

Cover picture

Kentucky Old-Time Banjo (Rounder CD 0394)

Reviewed by Jim Nelson:

This collection, assembled by Mark Wilson and John Harrod, captures a sampling of old-time banjo performances styles found in the eastern Bluegrass and mountain regions of Kentucky.  Although all the musicians here live in a fairly narrowly defined geographical area, there is a great deal of variance in technique and repertoire.  Wilson points out in the liner notes that it would be difficult to isolate any common denominator that clearly defines ‘Kentucky old-time banjo.’

While this is true, the music represented on this CD is quite distinct from that of what one hear in, say, North Carolina.  In general, the feel is gentler, more subdued and less syncopated than Fred Cockerham from North Carolina or Wade Ward from Virginia.  The predominant approach throughout this album is one based upon the style generally referred to today as ‘clawhammer’ or ‘frailing,’ though in Kentucky it is often called ‘rapping’ or ‘knocking.’

When utilizing this style, the player strikes the melody notes downward with the back of a finger (usually the index finger) and uses the thumb to sound a drone on the fifth string.  In a more complex variation of this style, called ‘drop thumbing,’ the thumb will sometimes play some of the melody notes on one of the other strings.  This style is generally agreed upon as being African in origin and has been documented as far back as the early nineteenth century. (more…)

Banjo Classics

January 13, 2013



   OLD BLUE CD-710
Various Artists


This is the second release of recordings from County Records and Old Blue Records, which contains – as much as possible – selections that have never been released before.  For the first time, two of the tracks pre-date all of the County and Old Blue recordings. Those two were recorded in 1958.  The 22 County recordings were made in the mid-60s to 1971, about a generation and a half after the first country 78 recording was released.  By chance, the eight Old Blue recordings were made about a generation and a half after the County recordings.

There are 32 tracks, but only 23 different tunes.  The repeated tunes are because of different approaches, techniques or tunings. All the recordings have never been released before.

This anthology has several purposes. One is to document the range of versions that exist in the tradition using side-by-side comparisons of the same and similar tunes. The second is to make the listener aware of some of the many artists working in the old time genre. The third is to reveal how the tradition persists and grows through the years. As with any art, the beauty of these pieces takes on more clarity with continued listening.

For the budding musician there is exposure to a level of performance that sets a bar for future goals of performance. For those who love old time music this is an opportunity to hear more great music from a wide range of musicians. As with all great art, continued listening exposes more of the subtleties of this music, revealing the depth of riches contained in these performances.

Lena Hughes – Queen of the Flat Top Guitar

January 9, 2013



Liner notes by JOHN RENBOURN.
LP/CD/DL available January 29th, 2013

A musical “amateur” that best exemplified true artistry, Lena Hughes was born in Grape Grove Township, Missouri, in 1904. Though she never recorded any 78s and only one LP, Hughes was most influential through her steady performances at various fiddler conventions and folk festivals throughout the Ozarks. She was an excellent fiddler, banjoist and guitar picker who retained the largely extinct repertoire of parlor pieces and the variety of specialized tunings that were necessary to play them. She lived most of her life in Ludlow, Missouri and passed away in 1998.

Lena Hughes’ repertoire can be divided roughly in half: finger-picked numbers adapted from fiddle tunes and recast parlor guitar pieces gleaned from popular sentimental songs, hymns, and 19th century airs. As a faithful attendee at folk festivals, Hughes was accompanied by her guitar-playing husband, Jake. Her most mesmerizing performances, such as Pearly Dew, Spanish Fandango, and Kentucky Moon Waltz, depend heavily upon the resonance of the open chord as it relates to the picking of the melodic line, primarily on one string.

This tonal reliance is most similar to the “celestial octave” that Washington Phillips employs, with similar effect, on his Train Your Child. This ethereal harmonic technique, which seems so natural in Hughes’ playing, is the holy grail for most finger-picking guitarists. Her lack of pretense and her mastery of this repertoire is what defines her legendary status.

These recordings were made in the early 60’s in Arkansas and released in very limited fashion as a private press LP. Remastered by Chris King. Designed by Susan Archie.

Hear “Pearly Dew”

Stranger on a Mule

January 4, 2013


“Stranger on a Mule – 31 Traditional Fiddle Tunes from the Southern Appalachians” by Bruce Greene (fiddle) with Don Pedi (mountain dulcimer)


Born in New York City in 1951 and raised in New Jersey, Bruce Greene would seem an unlikely person to become one of the finest old time southern Appalachian fiddlers of his generation. As did many of his peers, he began to learn folk music as a teenager during the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, mastering the guitar and banjo. His interest drifted into the fiddle music he began to hear, and by the time he was twenty years old, he was “hooked” thoroughly enough to move to Kentucky in search of the source of the music he had come to love and identify with.

Bruce attended Western Kentucky University, intending to become a folklorist, but his interest in fiddling was stronger than his scholarly ambitions, and he soon made the transition from learning about traditional fiddling to learning fiddle music in a traditional way. His travels around Kentucky led him to a number of old time fiddlers, and the next several years were taken up with informal apprenticeships with these old timers. In the process of learning from them, Bruce also recorded a great deal of their music, preserving a rich, often previously unknown part of our pioneer musical heritage.

One of Bruce’s greatest discoveries was the family of John Salyer of Magoffin County, Kentucky. Salyer was a true giant of a fiddler whose distrust of the commercial music industry had kept his music a secret from the outside world. However, the Salyers had home recordings of their father, which they let Bruce listen to and learn from. For a number of years, the old time music revival community was treated to these tunes through Bruce’s playing without ever getting to hear the true source. But Bruce’s long term friendship with the family has recently paid off for the rest of us, since the family gave permission to the Appalachian Center of Berea College to issue a cassette album of John Salyer himself. The music of the Salyer Family has been Bruce’s greatest inspiration over the years.


This CD is a selection of fiddle tunes, most of which come from fiddlers who were born in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds in Kentucky and Western North Carolina. We have been stubbornly carrying them on for the better part of a lifetime in our rural communities, where we have had the pleasure of playing at local dances, weddings, funerals, birthdays, potlucks, ramp festivals, and sorghum makings – all the places where homemade music has long been a part of everyday life. It is a joy and a privilege to be part of the mule-paced and timeless graciousness of this living memory and to carry it into the twenty-first century.

Tune list
Boogerman - Old Red Rooster – Nancy Dalton – Pretty Little Widow – Roosian Rabbit – Grey Squirrel Eating Up the New Ground Corn – Twine Mid the Ringlets  - Little Boy Working on the Road – Ten Steps – Stranger on a Mule – Christmas Eve – Little Lizee Anne – Laurel Lonesome - John Henry – Hog Eyed ManFrolic of the Frogs – Sleeping on a Corn Cob Bed – Run Johnny RunCome Along Terrapin – Three Forks of the Cumberland  - The Old Folks Played and the Young People Danced - Say Old Man I Want Your Daughter  – Betty Baker - John Salyer’s Shady Grove – Shady Lane – Lee Sexton’s Shady Grove – Old Aunt Jenny with Her Night Cap OnMcKinley Waltz – Old Beech Leaves – Hello John D
Old Tobacco Hills

Available here.

Early American Rural Love Songs

December 22, 2012

by Burgin Mathews and Bruce Eder (allmusic)

Despite its subtitle — Early American Rural Love Songs — Yazoo’s The Rose Grew Round the Briar features at least as many falsehearted lovers and broken relationships as requited love affairs and happy romance. Indeed, the emotional power of so many of these recordings stems from entwined themes of love and death, illustrated by the ballad metaphor of the rose and the briar.

The selections by Clarence Ashley and Dock Boggs are as stark depictions of forsaken, shaken, and demented lovers as the best pieces in those men’s repertoires. Especially haunting are the eerie harmonies of the lesser-known Shortbuckle Roark & Family on “I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man”; subsequent covers of this song by the New Lost City Ramblers or Jerry Garcia & David Grisman have never been able to recapture the tone of the original.

Another often-imitated recording included here is Grayson & Whitter’s “Little Maggie With a Dram Glass in Her Hand,” later translated into a bluegrass standard by the Stanley Brothers. While this collection delves deeply and unflinchingly into the darkest and lonesomest hollers of human relationships, love here is not exclusively somber or violent; it figures also, with equal emotion, into a smaller handful of breakdown pieces, and emerges with a warm beauty in Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Lula Walls.”

Though white “country” performers dominate the compilation, there are a handful of blues performances by Blind Willie McTell, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Leroy Carr, and others, which nicely widen the scope and power of the project. In addition to showcasing some of the great talents of the 1920s and ’30s, this collection masterfully presents love in the tradition that 19th century Southern ballads and early-20th century blues characteristically cast it: as harsh, terrifying, deadly, beautiful, and profoundly real. The Rose Grew Round the Briar is consequently one of Yazoo’s most effective collections and belongs in almost any collection.

St. Louis-based bluesman Clifford Gibson deftly picks “Old Time Rider,” followed by  Grayson and Whitter whooping it up on “Handsome Molly,” and a journey with a westward tilt, for Ephraim Woody and the Henpecked Husbands doing “Last Gold Dollar,” and then a coarser, rougher solo blues lament (“Built Right on the Ground”) from Teddy Darby.

Among the major luminaries featured are Canadian cowboy singer Wilf Carter (aka Montana Slim) doing “You Are My Sunshine” and Lonnie Johnson, who turns up twice, playing piano (while his Jelly Roll Anderson plays slide) behind Katherine Baker, the only woman privileged to appear here, whose mournful “My Man Left Me” leaves one asking for more, and then back on guitar with his brother James for the brooding, lusty “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.”

For guitar enthusiasts, the revelation of this album may be the work of Louis Lasky, an almost primordial Chicago bluesman, whose percussive guitar style and topical references make him unique for his era. The sound, except for Dock Boggs’ “Lost Love,” is generally very good, and the notes are nicely detailed.

Lomax’s Recordings Return to Haiti

December 21, 2012

This video is an except of a longer film showing Anna Lomax Wood returning in 2010 to one of the sites of Alan Lomax’s 1936-37 Haitian recordings, and playing the recordings for the villagers for the first time.


On December 21st, 1936, Alan Lomax sent a report to Herbert Putnam, the Librarian Of Congress, about his first impressions after arriving in Haiti.  This quote is published here…

“I have looked about enough to be sure this is the richest and most virgin field I have ever worked in. I hear fifteen or twenty different street cries from my hotel window each morning while I dress. The men sing satirical ballads as they load coffee on the docks. Among the upper-class families many of the old French ballads have been preserved. The meringue, the popular dance of polite society here, is quite unknown in America and has its roots in the intermingling of the Spanish and French folk-traditions.

The orchestras of the peasants play marches, bals, blues, meringues. Then mama and papa and kata tambours officiate at as many kinds of dances ⎯ the congo, the Vodou, and the mascaron. Then there seem to be innumerable cante-fables [oral tales punctuated by songs or rhymes performed by the audience]. Each of these categories comprise, so I am informed, literally hundreds of melodies ⎯ French, Spanish, African, mixtures of the three.

The radio and the sound movie and the phonograph record have made practically no cultural impression, so far as I can discover, except among the petit-bourgeois of the coastal cities. And American jazz is hardly known here except among the rich who have visited America. Composition, by which I mean folk composition, is still very active. So I think I can say that unless a piece of sky falls on my head, this trip will mean some beautiful records for the Library’s collection.”

10 CD box set of Alan Lomax’s 1936-37 Haitian recordings available here.

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Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band

December 12, 2012



Calypso Dawn: 1912 (Trinidad String Band): 1-CD Digipac (4-plated) with 32-page booklet, 24 tracks, playing time approx. 72 mns.

This is the story of an exciting discovery. The very first recorded examples of calypso music.

When researching aspects of the history of the Caribbean, American ethnologist Dick Spottswood unexpectedly uncovered an unknown musical treasure. From the depth of a library he fished out several flat cardboard boxes containing matrixes. The accompanying note said the recordings were made by a 12-piece jazz orchestra from Trinidad in 1912: Lovey’s Trinidad String Band.

          Who were these musicians We do not know much about them, and the internet doesn’t either. It is known, though that in May 1912 the dance band embarked on a tour to the United States of America as reported by the ‘Port-of-Spain Gazette’ a couple of days before their departure. The ensemble had been founded by violinist Lovey (real name: George R. Baillie) during the last decade of the 19th century. So by 1912 they were by no means unknown in their home country.
         We can’t say for certain which cities, festivals and ballrooms the Trinidad instrumentalists visited in the U.S.A. But this is clear: they stayed in New York City from late June into July 1912 where they recorded several songs of South American rhythms, first in the studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company, then at the Columbia Phonograph Company. In doing so, George R. Baillie and his men made musical history; they were the first to bring the sound of Calypso onto records.
        Recording technology back then was in its infancy and scratches and noise were common. So it’s amazing that the sound of these old, uniquely important recordings is actually pretty clear. They sound no worse than recordings from the ’40s or ’50s, says Richard Weize who has restored and issued many Calypso pearls from the early days of shellac records on his Bear Family Records label. For the restoration of these historic recordings he couldn’t have secured the services of a better man than mastering expert Chris Zwarg from True Sound.
          These completely restored masters should be of special relevance for the state of Trinidad and Tobago. Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1962, the islands finally became independent from Great Britain. The people celebrated carnival for a week, remembering and celebrating their own identity. Half a century earlier, Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band had played a substantial role in developing and promoting the identity of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.


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