Anglo-American Ballads

Various Artists

Rounder CD 1511

Rounder Records
One Camp Street
Cambridge, Mass. 02140

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Ed Cray
(cray@usc.edu)

Forty-five years ago, near the end of the fall semester in Professor Wayland Hand's Folklore 101 class at UCLA, I first encountered Texas Gladden, Horton Barker and Pete Steele. The memory of their voices keening through the surface noise of the 78-rpm records is as vivid as any I can summon. Gladden and Barker from Virginia, and Steele from Kentucky were the first Appalachian folk singers I had heard, and their impact upon me was profound.

At first, I confess, I found it hard to appreciate their singing, even if I relished the ballads they had set down in field recordings made for the Library of Congress by the Lomaxes, John, Elizabeth and Alan. The voices were thin, the tones produced in the head and throat. When unaccompanied, and the best of them were, the meter and rhythm were elastic. (And even some of those who accompanied themselves, like Woody Guthrie, were rather casual about the number of measures stuffed between lines.)

But once you listened, really listened, dismissing bel canto or pop music prejudices, something magical could happen. A new esthetic took hold. Slowly you realized these singers were, first and foremost, storytellers. Words, not round pearly tones, were paramount. Second, it dawned that they sang as much for themselves as for anyone who might be listening. Sheer volume was unimportant. Then, finally, in my case, I came to understand that these people recorded then on Library of Congress AFS-1 had a different esthetic than Frank Sinatra or Eleanor Steber. Not better, not worse, simply different.

And when I grasped that, I understood why E.C. Ball, Pearl Borusky and Basil May -- in addition to Gladden, Barker and Steele -- truly were great musicians. And why this anthology deserves the attention of anyone who claims to appreciate American folk music.

Rounder's remastered compact disc is the third incarnation of the 78s first released in 1942. (A long playing record followed in 1956.) It is important as a historical document. It is important for anyone who would claim to have a reasonably representative collection of recorded American folk music. And it ranks with the legendary Harry Smith/Folkways anthology for introducing so many superb artists singing marvelous ballads in one fell swoop.

There are thirteen cuts on the CD. If any one must be praised it is Gladden's heart-wringing lament, One Morning in May, a female version of The Unfortunate Rake/Cowboy's Lament cycle. Or perhaps it is Emery DeNoyer's straight forward account of The Little Brown Bulls, a native American ballad from the Wisconsin woods. Or Steele's grim Pretty Polly, driven by his modal banjo tuning. Or perhaps it is any of the other ten stories-set-to-verse here.

It is good to have these old friends back. And to once again experience that moment of electric recognition of so many years ago.

Edited by David N. Pyles
(dnpyles@acousticmusic.com)

Copyright 1999, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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