The Legends and the Lost

by

countrym

edited excerpt of review of  Tony Russell’s “Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost,” by Keith Chandler (http://www.mustrad.org.uk):

“Country Music Originals” takes the form of a chronologically-arranged series of brief biographies to which are attached even briefer playlists indicating where to hear tracks in the CD format by each of the chosen artists.  Practically every entry features at least one photograph of the named performer, and in addition we get the bonus of further contextual images such as 78 rpm record labels, song folio covers, advertising copy, and facsimilies of newspaper articles (regrettably at times, as that on page 127, lacking details of provenance).

Mr. Russell appends a postscript  to the biography of Ed Haley, a blind fiddler born in West Virginia in 1884 whose stylistic influence was widespread among many younger players throughout both that and adjoining states in which Haley travelled widely. He never recorded for any of the commercial companies, and his aural legacy lies in a series of home recordings (more than a hundred of which are extant) produced, it has always been assumed, simply for personal satisfaction.

Russell reveals (pages 79-80) that ‘recent research in West Virginia newspapers provides grounds for questioning’ that assumption, and offers an extract of an advertisement discovered in The Charleston Gazette of 27 September 1930 : ‘if interested, either as a seller or user, in 10-inch double-faced Phonograph Records, made by him, price 35 cents each, write Ed Haley Co., Huntington, W. Va.’  This would have involved a labour-intensive process, seated before a recording machine and playing through each selection as many times as were required to fill any outstanding orders.

Russell generally shows a nice turn of phrase which may be at odds with that demanded by strict academic publications, but which sits well in a volume that needs to exhibit the broadest possible appeal.  The instruments of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, for instance, ‘pierce the murk of surface noise like a lighthouse beam on a dark night’ (page 24); while of Hoyt Ming’s group he writes (on page 122), ‘The hour or so they spent making records in the Memphis Auditorium would buy them a time-share at Immortality Court …’

Each individual entry in the book is made up from sundry component parts.  Among these might be basic details of recording and other performance experiences, quotes from either the musicians themselves or those who knew them, partial transcriptions of a song or skit, the whole overlaid with Russell’s perceptive and insightful analysis.  One excellent example of this may be found when he discusses (on page 107) the vocal interjections to be heard on many of the items recorded by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter:

The effect of these homely devices is to relocate the mythlike narratives of half-forgotten seductions and murders in the known present: to ground them in the familiar geographical, social, and ethical landscape of ’20s Appalachia.  That this terrain was itself shifting uneasily beneath the pressures of modern life was all to the point: their tales, Grayson and Whitter might have argued, were, in their essence, for all time.

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