Ballads and Songs of Tradition
Various ArtistsFolk-Legacy CD-125
Folk-Legacy Records, Inc
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Since he first met the Beech Mountain, North Carolina-native Frank Proffitt at the 1961 Chicago Folk Festival, Sandy Paton, his wife Caroline, and Lee Baker Haggerty have sought out traditional singers to record their songs and ballads. Paton, Paton, and Haggerty have spent the better part of a lifetime scraping and scrimping to fund the next trip to the Appalachians, Ozarks, or upper New York state, making time to edit the tapes, writing and printing the unusually thoughtful notes that marked their records and tapes, and selling the successive releases that made Folk-Legacy a recorded resource of Anglo-American traditional songs and singers second to none.
Proffitt and his banjo were the first because, Paton explained, "there was no reason why we should not be able to hear Frank Proffitt himself sing his ballads and songs, rather than hear them filtered through Frank Warner's interpretations." (Collector-singer Warner and his wife Anne had encountered Proffitt in 1938, and learned some of his songs, including the American murder ballad Tom Dooley, later lifted and popularized by the Kingston Trio's version.)
In the years to come, Paton, Paton and Haggerty recorded literally dozens of singers, and dozens of songs from the likes of Proffitt, Horton Barker, Abe Trivett, Lawrence Older, and Edna Ritchie. They found Sara Cleveland in Brant Lake, New York, who knew a staggering 900 songs, 400 of them from oral tradition. They recorded in the Ozarks -- guided by the authoritative Vance Randolph, his wife Mary Celestia Parler, and the recently deceased Max Hunter. In New Brunswick, Edward "Sandy" Ives (the two Sandy's are often confused) introduced them to even more traditional singers, and once again they mined gold. Collectively, the Patons and Haggerty may be the most prodigious collectors of Anglo-American folksongs and balladry since Alan Lomax put his Ampex on the shelf. In all, they have produced more than 100 long-playing records, tapes and compact discs since that first release 39 years ago.
It has not been easy, or very profitable. (I imagine that Haggerty, whom Sandy Paton describes as "the guy who had a small inheritance that supplied the capital that enabled us to get going," might dilate on this.) Traditional singers, as you may have gathered, are not exactly big box office.
Still, they persevered. A new release might generate enough money to fund the next. If it did not, they waited until catalogue sales and Haggerty's inheritance paid off printer and record presser.
Still, one by one, the Folk-Legacy catalogue grew, a tribute to the two Patons and Haggerty, their dear friend and financial angel. (As this is written, bachelor Haggerty is hospitalized, and the concerned Patons are shuttling between home and hospital in Connecticut.)
In all of the releases, there have been some choice recoveries of the muckle ballads thought long-since dead: Sandy Paton lists among them Sara Cleveland's Queen Jane, a version of The King's Daughter Lady Jean (Child 52) never previously recorded in the United States; Frank Proffitt's Bonny James Campbell (Child 210); Jeannie Robertson's superb Twa Brothers (Child 49); and Joe Estey's Hind Horn (Child 17), of which there have been but seven other versions reported in the New World.
If nothing else, the Patons and Haggerty have proven these great song-stories are not dead at all---an oral tradition survives. In fact, Sandy Paton notes, the songs of the parents are preserved by the singing of the children. Frank Proffitt, Jr., sings his father's repertoire; Colleen Cleveland sings her grandmother's. As it was, so it is; time without end.
Which brings us to Ballads and Songs of Tradition, the first of a planned series of anthologies of traditional songs and ballads Folk-Legacy is to release. Here are 21 ballads by 13 singers recorded in North Carolina living rooms and Scots croft kitchens. They have been culled from the Paton archives. Many of them are previously unreleased---all of them are choice.
The Patons being comparative folklorists at heart cannot resist a touch of gentle scholarship in their choices. They provide contrasting versions of three ballads: Gypsy Davy (Child 200), The House Carpenter (Child 243), and a British 19th-Century broadside (?), which IS new to me, The Old Arm Chair. Of the 21 tracks, it is difficult to select favorites, but Scots housewife Lizzie Higgins' My Bonnie Boy is a marvel of delicately ornamented phrases. (Ms. Higgins comes by it naturally; she is the daughter of Jeannie Robertson and Donald Higgins, a master of the Highland pipes.) Her mother's Twa Brothers (Child 49) is truly gripping: six and one-half minutes of blood-drenched drama. Similarly, Marie Hare of Strathadam, New Brunswick, retells the grim fate of Lost Jimmie Whalen (Laws B 1); her sheer artistry compels attention, no matter how familiar or inevitable the story.
All of which, I think, is the point of this anthology. Paton, Paton and Haggerty are intent on demonstrating that folk singers do possess an aesthetic sense. It is surely different from that of the classically trained or popular singer, but nonetheless it is real -- and underappreciated. Voice, instrument, even self are subordinated to the words, to the narrative. That is the anything but simple artistry of the 13 traditional singers presented in this excellent first collection of a promised series of anthologies drawn from the Folk-Legacy archives.
Edited by: David Schultz