Anglo-American songs and tunes from Texas to Maine
Musical Traditions Records MTCD516
1. Dunham's Orchestra: Mountain Rangers; 2. B F Shelton: Oh Molly Dear; 3. Mr & Mrs Ernest V Stoneman: Mountaineer's Courtship; 4. Lonesome Luke & His Farm Boys: Wild Hog in the Woods; 5. Emry Arthur: Ethan Lang; 6. Riley Puckett: Old Molly Hare; 7. Blind Boy Fuller: Cat Man Blues; 8. Bradley Kincaid: The Two Sisters; 9. The Hill Billies: Silly Bill; 10. Will Starks: The Fox Hunter's Song; 11. Riley Puckett: Soldier, Will You Marry Me?; 12. The Dixon Brothers: Jimmie and Sallie; 13. Louisiana Lou: The Export Girl; 14. Ernest V Stoneman and the Dixie Mountaineers: Hop Light Ladies; 15. The Red Fox Chasers: Two Babes in the Woods; 16. Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Darby's Ram; 17. Dick Devall: Tom Sherman's Barroom; 18. John Batzell: Money Musk Medley; 19. Bradley Kincaid: Fair Ellen; 20. The Stanley Brothers: Little Glass of Wine; 21. Taylor's Kentucky Boys: Soldier's Joy; 22. Frank Jenkin's Pilot Mountaineers: The Railway Flagman's Sweetheart; 23. Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers: Leather Breeches; 24. Ridgel's Fountain Citians: The Nick Nack Song; 25. The Southern Melody Boys: Wind the Little Ball of Yarn.Having over a good many years shared his passion for venerable American music through MT releases drawn from his own collecting trips and from 78 rpm recordings, Mike Yates follows up his collection from the period immediately post Cecil Sharp, When Cecil Left the Mountains, with a fresh concept. Again taking inspiration from Sharp, Yates has selected tracks from the archives to illustrate the flourishing of old music from the British Isles in the New World. But rather than taking the obvious route by following Americanized Child Ballads like Barbara Allen or The House Carpenter, Yates picks a number of songs well outside the Professor's remit, and adds to them a good smattering of instrumental pieces. He's dug out some spectacular and intriguing stuff.
It's true that some of these cuts have come my way in previous compilations, and I daresay you could track down a few on the web with time and patience. The point is, though, that Mike Yates has done the hard work for us in locating suitable pieces - several of which you wouldn't immediately think of as thematically appropriate - and also provided a characteristically thorough booklet's worth of notes and great period photos. A typically telling snippet is the revelation that Taylor's Kentucky Boys, who contribute a spirited Soldier's Joy including sung verses, were fronted by a black fiddler, Jim Booker, whose skin colour barred him from the band's official photograph, in which their manager is posing with the fiddle. Outrageous!
Yates makes the bold claim that his 25 tracks represent some of "the greatest recordings ever made of Anglo-American music", and there are indeed many gems. Dick Devall's Tom Sherman's Barroom - one of the few unaccompanied vocals here - is an outstanding piece of singing: keen, accurate, and retaining a strong sense of mountain style despite Devall's Oklahoma background. The song itself resembles melodically Texas Gladden's Bad Girl's Lament and is a key link in the evolution of the Unfortunate Rake / Young Man Cut Down In His Prime family. Revisionist theorizers have recently attempted to debunk the once-fashionable idea that St James Infirmary Blues represents one branch of that tree but - although obviously a conscious rewrite - the Armstrong standard retains the barroom setting and the funeral arrangements of Tom Sherman and is surely based on a common stock.
At the other end of the orchestration spectrum, we get full-on bluegrass with the Stanley Brothers' Little Glass Of Wine, which the denizens of Clinch Mountain were probably blissfully unaware is designated Roud 218 and known in England as Oxford / Worcester City. It's a magnificent performance, anointed with the most glorious note-bending, hair-raising vocal harmonies and Bobby Sumner's soaring fiddle. Talking of Oxford, Louisiana Lou's Export Girl is a version of a 17th century broadside that adopted several titles over centuries and several edits, but is commonly known as The Oxford Girl, Wexford Girl, Knoxville Girl and Hanged I Shall Be. Lou's hard tone and liberal used of vibrato don't quite conjure up for this listener her nickname, 'The Southern Songbird', but it's an interesting rendition.
B F Shelton's Oh Molly Dear - credited here as a version of The Drowsy Sleeper but also including a large chunk of Old Virginny - is a haunting piece accompanied by modal-tuned banjo, very similar in feel to the same singer's Pretty Polly. Much jauntier in feel, if not in content, is Emry Arthur's Ethan Lang, a clear descendant of Jack Hall with verses set, not to the usual tune, but to an air I recognize as If You're Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands!
Two of the most striking tracks are from African-American singers. Blind Boy Fuller is the better-known, skilfully using the ragtime picking style he learned from Gary Davis to accompany what sounds like a standard-issue 12-bar, Cat Man Blues. But wait, who exactly is this 'Cat Man'? He's the wife's nocturnal visitor, that's who. When she explains the stranger's presence with the flimsy, "that ain't nothin' but a cat", the narrator replies: "Lord I travelled this world over, mama, takin' all kinds of chance, but I never come home before, seen a cat wearin' a pair of pants". At which point Child Ballad scholars everywhere begin waving their hands and burbling excitedly about Our Goodman. The old 'drunken nights' tale was very popular in the American South, and I've even heard a Cajun version. Alphonso Smith reported in 1916 that the song was 'sung among certain of the Negroes' in Virginia, publishing a version called Hobble and Bobble that recalls the English refrain Hobs, Bobs, Well Done. As Yates notes, both Coley Jones and Blind Lemon Jefferson also had it in their repertoires.
The other African-American curiosity is Will Starks' Fox Hunter's Song. It's disorienting enough to hear a black Southern voice singing about foxhounds in England, the more so when you realise what the song actually is. Mike Yates gives a helpful steer, linking it to a 1650 broadside, The Fox Chase: armed with this knowledge, I couldn't help notice the tell-tale line "and the old dog she never looked behind her". Now, which foxhound had a reputation for not looking over its shoulder? Yes, faithful 'Traveller', star of the old folk club warhorse Dido Bendigo, for this is the same song! Here the hounds are named Roxahanna, Kim, Counselow ('Countess'?) and Jim, and much of the familiar phraseology has gone, but it's recognizable, though more probably (judging by its rarity) a relatively late import than a survival from early Appalachian settlers.
Several other folk revival favourites appear in unfamiliar guise. The Red Fox Chasers' rendition of Two Babes In The Woods, features sweet two-part harmonies accompanied by nicely flat-picked guitar and harmonica, and I know Bob Copper would have loved this take on a Copper Family classic. Darby's Ram is performed by collector and 1920 revivalist Bascom Lamar Lunsford with picked banjo; it's another interesting 'missing link', since - like Tom Sherman's Barroom - the old folk song was rewritten at some point as a new piece, the Charlie Poole hit Didn't He Ramble. The verses are completely different, but Lunsford's refrain consists not of the usual nonsense words, but something very close to Poole's, 'Didn't he ramble, 'til the butchers cut him down', revealing the template on which the new song was fashioned.
Child ballads are not completely neglected, with Bradley Kincaid, a mountain boy made good as a songbook editor and radio star in Boston, contributing Fair Ellen (a version of #73, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender) and #10, The Two Sisters. Owing to its popularity with US revival singers, the Dreadful Wind And Rain variant, including the detail of the 'singing bones', is often assumed to be the definitive North American version of Child 10. In fact, however, the most common collected type by a mile is the 'bow down' strain, popular too in England right up to Derbyshire man George Fradley's recording in the 1980s. That's what Kincaid sings here in his seemingly well-trained, high-pitched voice, which he pushes to a remarkable top 'A' without apparently breaking sweat.
Various combinations of the Skillet Lickers contribute three tracks, not always with Gid Tanner in attendance: Old Molly Hare - which we know in the UK as Fairy Dance - Soldier, Will You Marry Me, sung to the tune of The Girl I Left Behind Me, and my pick of the instrumentals, an astounding performance of Leather Britches (a version of Lord McDonald's Reel, Mike Yates informs us). This features some wild and hair-raising fiddle from Clayton McMichen and dizzying bass runs from Riley Puckett's guitar, the whoops of delight from the players sounding entirely authentic.
There are plenty more excellent fiddle tunes, dance band versions of Mountain Rangers (Haste To The Wedding) and Money Musk from Maine and Ohio demonstrating the Scots influence on Northern contra dance music. Heading back South, we have Ernest Stoneman's Hop Light, Ladies, and Lonesome Luke's Wild Hog In The Woods, which rolls along nicely with a caller lining out the dance moves - though relating it to the British ballad known in the US by the same title seems a bit of a stretch. I particularly enjoyed the cacophonously delightful performance by 'The Hill Billies' of Silly Bill, here performed with thumping piano and slightly radio-announcer-ish vocals from one Al Hopkins. I knew this one as a fiddle tune, but it seems it was originally a comic song, possibly of American origin but also collected in England, verses of which the band intersperses with instrumental breaks.
I expect Musical Traditions releases to satisfy both the music-lover and the musical historian in me. This does both in spades; it's by turns fascinating, enlightening, thrilling and lots of fun. I can't recommend it enough.
Brian Peters - 1.2.19
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