North Carolina Banjo Collection

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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.”

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