The Alan Lomax Collection
Southern Journey Vol 2
Volume two of the Alan Lomax Collection, Southern Journey, is called Ballads and Breakdowns: Songs from the Southern Mountains. It was recorded in August, 1959 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia.
The opening track, Old Joe Clark, is performed by Wade Ward (1892-1971) on 5-string banjo. Using a claw hammer, or frailing technique, his rendition is melodic, rhythmic and unhurried. Until I read the liner notes, I was unaware that somewhere in the middle of the song he broke a string. I listened to it again and still couldn't find the spot. That's smooth playing.
The next song up is a traditional "murder ballad" called Poor Ellen Smith, performed by Estil C. Ball on vocals and guitar. It's typical of southern mountain ballads in that it has a story to tell and a moral to offer. They're either narrated by the murderer (who's really sorry) or by the falsely accused, but either way, it's always "the girl who gets it."
Next is Hobart Smith, the multi-instrumentalist who appears throughout the collection, doing a bright interpretation of a fiddle tune called Sourwood Mountain.
Spencer Moore, a tobacco farmer whom Alan Lomax described as "genuine as a rail fence," and Everett Blevins give us a song called The Girl I Left Behind Me. It's a tune that was made popular by the English settlers and describes a man betrayed by fickle love. It ends with the words, "my heart was pained and troubled, while trouble's on my mind, I'll always drink and gamble for the one I left behind." Maybe it's a good thing he left...
Another English ballad called Three Little Babes is sung by Texas Gladden, who was a particular favorite of Alan Lomax. Her voice has that pure mountain quality, which to me, is stark and steady. Texas Gladden recorded many of the region's enduring songs for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 40s. Her delivery is often haunting.
Breakdowns and reels were and still are very popular in the Galax, Virginia area. So much so, that since the 1930s Galax has been host to the Old Fiddlers Convention, which my friends and I used to attend when we were in college. June Apple is precisely the kind of tune we would hear while standing in the relentless August sun. Performed by 81 year old Charlie Higgins, a bonafide Old Fiddler, with Wade Ward on banjo and Bob Carpenter on guitar, the cadences of the song flirt with bringing a minor key up to a major. It's pretty.
Another murder ballad is The Banks of the Ohio, performed by Ruby Vass. Her guitar playing is solid, but the vocals seemed vaguely detached. I checked the liner notes for this one, and smiled when I read "she sings with the detached quality often encountered in the mountain singing of these bloody tales." In case you're wondering, "the girl gets it" in this one, too, but unlike Ellen Smith who just took a bullet, this unwilling bride is both stabbed and drowned.
Graveyard Blues is a great blues song sung by the intrepid Hobart Smith. I was actually surprised that it was Smith singing and playing guitar, as the Mississippi delta influence is so apparent that I was expecting Fred McDowell. He sings "come here woman, see what you have done; you've caused me to love you, now your good man's come."
The Burglar Man is a comic tale sung by Bob Carpenter. This type of song was popular in the days of vaudeville, and this one is pretty funny in a homespun sort of way. It's a good example of the genre.
Fly Around My Blue Eyed Girl features Hobart Smith on piano, and it's this particular tune that gets stuck in my head for days on end. "Fly around my pretty little girl, fly around my Daisy, fly around my blue eyed girl, you're gonna run me crazy." It's strange how some melodies get stuck under your skin. On the fiftieth go-round,you wish it weren't so.
Breaking Up Christmas, performed by Norman Edmonds, is a lively fiddle tune, the title of which refers to taking down the Christmas decorations after the holiday has passed. I was first introduced to this melody by an extraordinary fiddler named Tom McCreesh many years ago, and it was good to hear it again. Sort of like running into an old friend.
The liner notes, written by Andrew L. Kaye, are an excellent source of information and contain lyrics and photographs of the artists. It's always interesting to see a likeness of the artist you're listening to. All photos were taken by Alan Lomax.
In closing, I would like to mention that the sound quality is great on this disk. The fact that you're listening to actual field recordings done forty years ago doesn't get in the way at all. Ah, the magic of technology touching upon raw genius. In all, it's a really enjoyable collection of songs.
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz