Early American Rural Love Songs

by

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.

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