Hard Times in the Country

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By Bill Friskics-Warren (http://archives.nodepression.com)

It’s become de rigueur, since the 1997 publication of Invisible Republic, to talk about Appalachian and other antediluvian songs and ballads as emblematic of what author Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America.” There’s certainly no denying the eerie cast of records from the late 1920s such as “Country Blues” and “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground”. The former finds Dock Boggs anticipating the gloom-ridden existentialism of “Stones In My Passway” and “Lost Highway”; the latter has Bascom Lunsford prefiguring the surrealism of “All Along The Watchtower” and “Little Wing”. But to ascribe a revisionist, and romanticized, construct like an “old, weird America” to the bulk of the nation’s rural, prewar musical output misses the mark.

Old? Absolutely. But weird? Not by half. The hardship and oppression that reverberate through many of the era’s recordings reflect the numbing grind that Southerners, scratching out a living during the Depression, knew all too well. Privation supplied the subtext for records in which hoedown bands induced their countrymen and women to stomp all over their blues, or to belly-laugh to keep from crying.

The eighteen prewar string-band and songster numbers included on Hard Times In The Country: Down And Out In The Rural South certainly attest to that. Blind Alfred Reed’s 1929 rallying cry “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live” could well have served as the album’s subtitle. The same could be said for just about any of the collection’s plaints about tenant farming or toiling in the coal fields and textile mills — everything from the Bentley Boys’ jaunty-in-spite-of-itself “Down On Penny’s Farm” to Frank Hutchison’s brooding, black-influenced “Miner’s Blues”. Witness “Weave Room Blues”, in which Fisher Hendley moans: “Working in a weave room fighting for my life/Trying to make a living for my young’ins and my wife/Some are needing clothes and some are needing shoes/But I’m getting nothing but those weave room blues.” The rolling banjo figure Hendley plays as he steels his resolve to face another day behind the loom is as inexorable as any factory whistle or assembly line.

The lyrics of these songs abound with strategies for coping with hard luck and trouble — some of the musicians seeking refuge in church, others in humor. “You heard about the farm relief/Well it’s finally got here/They’ve just about relieved the farmer of everything he’s got,” cracks Uncle Dave Macon to kick off the frailing banjo romp “Farm Relief”. Other tracks find their protagonists turning to whiskey for comfort, only to have the bottle let them down — or worse, land them on the chain gang, as it does in Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster’s juggy “Bay Rum Blues”. It’s no wonder that a fair number ran moonshine to stave off the economic and emotional chill, even if it meant contending with corrupt revenuers like those in Lowe Stokes’ “Prohibition Is A Failure”.

Hard times in the city get their due here as well, particularly the homesickness and crippling class-consciousness that plagued the southern Diaspora as debt-ridden sharecroppers, sawyers and miners headed north in search of work in strange, cold cities such as Baltimore and Detroit. Clashes between the rural ethos these migrants embraced and that which they encountered in the industrialized north, however, hardly qualify as “weird”: such was the alienation that displaced southerners routinely endured. (What is weird — or rather, unconscionable — is that such conditions would exist in the first place.) “Come downstairs to get a drink of water/Along come the boss, he’ll dock you a quarter,” sings one of the Lee Brothers in “Cotton Mill Blues”, ruing his decision to leave the hills of home for the lights of the city.

Even the picking and melodies were familiar to the people who heard these commercial recordings on radios and jukeboxes during the 1920s and ’30s. The former was the stuff of nightly parlor sing-alongs and weekend breakdown dances (showing plenty of cross-pollination with African-derived idioms), the latter of the hand-me-down folk and Tin Pan Alley tunes people whistled and hummed while they hung up wash, chopped cotton or pushed the plow.

Wailed and whined in everyday voices, the eighteen sides collected on Hard Times In The Country are the repository of a tradition (inherited from minstrel and vaudeville shows) that the children of the Depression passed on to their children. And not only to them: Vestiges of this music persist today in everything from the “love and theft” of Bob Dylan, Moby and Beck to the more explicit recontextualizations of Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks and the O Brother coterie — artists who make records no more or less weird than their forebears did.

More than just the sound of this music should resonate with listeners today. Anyone who’s ever worked hard for the money or been hounded by debt or bad credit should be able to relate to these recordings — or, for that matter, anyone who’s been gouged by high interest rates at the “company store,” whether owned by the mining boss or American Express. The social and economic conditions reflected in these performances might seem quaint today, but with the 13,000 wealthiest households in the U.S. currently controlling nearly as much income as the 20 million poorest, their message is as timely as it ever was.

The only thing weird about this collection, which is annotated beautifully by historian Bill C. Malone, is the lack of any testimony to the working woman’s blues. The inclusion of, say, the Coon Creek Girls’ cautionary “Sowing On The Mountain” and Aunt Molly Jackson’s “Hungry Disgusted Blues” would have underscored that hard times were all too familiar for the era’s women as well as its men.

 

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