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Cambridge, Mass. 02140
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Ed Cray
This new Rounder compact disc is a grand party, a celebration of awe-inspiring artistry, and a reunion, of sorts, for those of us who recall our introduction to these recordings 40 and more years ago.
Here are 30 field recordings of ballads, songs, fiddle and banjo tunes, hymns, and work songs culled from the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Culture by banjoist-folklorist Stephen Wade. Together they comprise a marvelous survey of American folk music.
These songs truly are old friends; some I've known since the late 1940s, when they first appeared on 78s released by the Library of Congress. E.C. Ball and Vera Hall, Texas Gladden and Wade Warde, Jimmie Strothers and Luther Strong, and Sonny Terry and Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, among others, bring back vivid memories of when I first heard the songs.
Wade's CD reminds us of the gift these folks have given us, thanks to collectors who scoured the countryside between 1934 and 1946 like John Lomax, his son Alan, Herbert Halpert, George Korson and a dozen others. Their aluminum disc recordings cut on a 350-pound Presto machine inspired the first semi-pro folk singers Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbedder and Pete Seeger (and then, of course, the Seeger family, including mother Ruth, Pete's half-brother Mike, and sister his Peggy). Through them, and through the ceaseless promotion of Alan Lomax especially, these recordings indirectly inspired the urban folk music revival.
On this CD, listen to Texas Gladden of Salem, Virginia (who knew some 300 songs and ballads) sing her version of The Unfortunate Rake and understand instantly where Hally Wood, and later Joan Baez, found voice.
Listen to Jimmie Strothers singing The Blood-Strained Banders, and know the debt Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind indirectly owes that convicted axe murderer.
Listen to fiddler W.H. Stepp rip his way through Bonaparte's Retreat, borrowed note for note by Aaron Copland for the Hoedown in his ballet score Rodeo. As Wade's liner notes remind us, "whenever Copland's hoedown is heard -- and forty concert violins and a xylophone swell in unison -- a Kentucky mountain fiddler named W.H. Stepp continues to play for millions."
Or listen to domestic worker Vera Hall, of Sumpter County, Alabama, sing Another Man Done Gone and know how simple great singing can be. Or sigh with the crystalline purity of the voice of the Indian schoolgirl, credited only as "Margaret," singing the ineffably beautiful Creek Lullaby.
Here, too, is federal circuit court judge Learned Hand, as brilliant and well- educated a man as ever sat on the bench (his long correspondence with Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter is an exchange of coruscating wit and deep reflection on the law, society, and philosophy). Hand of Harvard College sings the Civil War ballad Iron Merrimac in a clear, measured voice -- incidentally establishing that "the folk" are not all unlettered mountain folk.
Do not be frightened off by the label "field recording" or assume these are scratchy recordings of raw singers croaking "this here song I learned from my mother back in Ought Six." Good reader, you do not often encounter such musical brilliance and sheer pleasure as Wade has culled for you. The recorded sound, though not high fidelity, is adequate and sometimes surprisingly good.
If there is any criticism of this CD, it is to ask why the knowledgeable Wade has selected for this "treasury" only material previously released by the Library of Congress. There are, literally, thousands of unreleased recordings in the archive deserving publication. Some of the cuts here, however, have appeared three and four times before in recordings and books. Most, I believe, are still available.
Wade's incisive, informative liner notes are drawn from his forthcoming book "American Folk Music: A Personal Treasury from the Library of Congress." I do not know what that explains: are the cuts here his favorites or are they the pieces that most influenced him (Wade is, after all, a performer as well as scholar)? Are they the only ones for which he had clearance? No explanation is given.
Still, the CD more than lives up to its title. This is a treasury -- a collection of gems. It is also a marvelous introduction to the dominant strains of American folk music -- Anglo-Irish and Southern black.
If the foolhardy folks at Rounder would re-release the two Library of Congress recordings of Maud Long telling her Jack Tales -- and maybe Illinois bringing out a companion anthology of Mrs. Long's repertoire of songs, ballads and tales -- my cup would runneth over.
Edited by Kerry Bernard