Dance Tunes from the Pennsylvania Coal Mines 1928-1930
Heritage HT CD 37
Of all the on-the-edge eastern European traditions offered to us in reissue format over the past few decades, musically this is the most densely packed. In fact, there is so much going on that it assaults the ears with almost physical intensity. By the end of the tenth consecutive track I was too exhausted to listen any more at that sitting, and had to leave the balance for another time. These comments should not, however, be regarded as negative judgement against the music. Quite the reverse, in fact, for this is some of the roughest, toughest immigrant music ever to reach the stores. With scarcely a hint of those music conservatory stylings apparent in some related traditions - perhaps the unknown violinist on Stefanova Solo Magyar comes closest here (sound clip) - one can only wonder how the Victor and Columbia companies allowed these ferocious musical beasts to escape the pressing plant. But thank God they did.
A quartet of groups are featured here, on items made between 1928 and 1930. These, according to the notes, represent practically the entire output of the genre to be recorded in the U.S. Instruments common to all four ensembles are violin, clarinet and uninhibited raucous bowed bass, with variously, the addition of second violin, cornet, accordion, piano and cembalom (hammer dulcimer). This latter, we learn, was 'an instrument normally considered essential to the cardas', though by whom is not stated. Indeed, a fine cover photograph shows three fiddlers with cembalom, cello and bass players, though no provenance or date is apparently known. On Muchal aj Stefan Kafehauze a voice extorting the musicians to play refers to them as cigan (gypsies), but this is probably a red herring.
Stylistically, there are hints of musical discord, evidently an integral feature of the genre, from the very first track, Ritki Zito (sound clip). These rise further to the surface on Horska, and carry on through Hraj Abo Zada-ok Daj (sound clip), and beyond. Despite the title, not every tune here is a csardas. A handful are polkas, and there is a single kolomika, beloved of Pawlo Humeniuk and his cronies. Traditional East Anglian musicians would have no trouble playing along with the polka Sanok, even if the tense, modal rhythmic lines might seem a little strange - or maybe not - (sound clip). Two versions of Ritka Buza indicate the malleability of the tradition. Michael Tokarick's band wring from it a great deal of pathos, while the cornet-led group led by Michael Stiber treat it as a stomping romp, in the process ironing out a good deal of its minor key nature.
Too often recently I have berated record companies for omitting full discographical details, especially the important matrix numbers that determine the recorded sequence. Full marks here to Heritage, who (not unexpectedly) draw upon compiler Richard Spottswood's mammoth ethnic discography Ethnic Music on Records (a prime candidate for this site's 'Enthusiasms' section if there over was one). As an aside, it may be of interest to learn that an updated version of that work is scheduled to appear in CD Rom format in the not-too-distant future. On the rear cover of this release, however, track listing dates and recording locations are omitted from the Slovaka Orkestra, Michala Lapchaka and the pair of conflated Michael Tokarick sessions. Although much of this is given in the actual notes, it looks sloppy and careless. Details of featured instruments on the former session are also omitted.
In format, if not in musical content, Michael Tokarick's recorded repertory closely mirrors that of Georgia fiddler John Carbon, whose complete recorded works have just appeared in Document's recently established vintage old timey series (DOCD-8014 to 8020). Like Carbon, he also interspersed his dance tunes with spoken skits featuring musical interludes. Unfortunately the verbal portions of six such items have been omitted, which I found both annoying and frustrating - although one can sort-of see the reasoning. Remember that old Herwin vinyl album where a bunch of negro sermons with musical accompaniment recorded during the 1920s ware reissued, but minus the sermons? Or the Sam Charters box set of vintage blues on Folkways featuring excerpts with voiceover? Such treatment can never be satisfying, and I would certainly have preferred the entire track, skits and all. In addition, I would have hoped for a better defined and more logical chronological running sequence. Did any listener really find the rearrangement of, say, the five Pachac A Juskanic Slovenska Orkestra items more entertaining than their original recorded sequence (and if so, in what manner)? This is altogether pointless and detrimental to the kind of historical veracity which Spottswood generally strives for.
Spottswood's notes are, as ever, of a very high standard, although he has to admit to a real dearth of knowledge concerning the featured musicians. He also fails, both here and in his published discography, to note exactly what type of 'accordion' is featured. It sounds to my ears like the insidious, squishy piano-keyed instrument, which had (regrettably) supplanted the older, more staccato, button accordion within many European and Scandinavian traditions by this date.
Great music, fine sound quality, good if functional sleevenotes, attractive packaging. One mark deducted for unnecessary resequencing, but a healthy nine out of ten. Buy it.
Keith Chandler - 4.5.98
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