A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange by Linton Corbie (LCorbie@sbd.com)
This is the fourth CD by the thrice Grammy-nominated duo Norman and Nancy Blake. This unique couple specializes in American folk and country music, and their fans will be most satisfied with the broader range of sounds on this album. This results from Norman and Nancy's facility with and inclusion of instruments such as the six-string banjo, piccolo mandolin, and National resonator guitar. Along with their already familiar instrumental arsenal of guitar, mandolin, fiddle, cello, and, of course, wonderful vocals, this CD should easily emerge as yet another triumph for the Blakes.
Of the sixteen songs on the album, only one charming instrumental, Thebes, is an original Blake composition. The rest of the CD's selections are the fascinating result of Norman's intensive research into obscure tunes of America's past. Several of them are pretty and rhythmically diverse instrumentals which allow the Blakes to showcase the sensitivity and virtuosity which have endeared them to millions.
Those songs with vocals, though, are in my opinion what make this album truly significant. Students of American sociopolitical history will find these old songs to be particularly revealing as to the thoughts and concerns of the common man as far back as the Depression years. One such example, which recounts the 1936 re-election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, is the lively and witty double entendre entitled The Democratic Donkey (Is in His Stall Again.) Here, the sentiment expressed is one of cynicism and humor mixed with a sense of resignation, as a certain class of people come to realize that they have been hoodwinked once again by a manipulative politician who will "ride me into town...into the same old stall again." In spite of the gravity of the scenario, the song is quite infectious, and it is easy to find oneself singing the catchy chorus long after the song has ended.
Another very telling number is the tune called Starving to Death on the Government Claim. In this one, a claim holder living out west describes the hardship, deprivation and homelessness which surround the lives of those working out on the plains. In the midst of his misery, he notes ironically that though he lives in "the land of the free," his home is really with "the grasshoppers, bedbugs and fleas." Throughout all his suffering, however, there is a certain irrepressibility of spirit as he asserts, "I'll sing of its praises/ I'll tell of its fame/While starving to death on the government claim."
The Blakes' renditions of these songs effectively convey the sentiments involved. Their vocal harmonies are rich and, while Norman's lead singing is quite passive, it has a heartfelt quality. That element of conviction is very evident in the gospel songs I Know My Name Is There and Angel Gabriel.
My only complaint about this CD is its inadequate liner notes. Besides listing what instruments each of the Blakes play on this album, along with the titles (complete with pictures) of their previous three CDs, there is nothing else. All things considered, though, this is a wonderful album to own. I discovered that the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. This is truly music of substance.
Edited by Henry Koretzky