Eric Brace, of the celebrated Eric Brace / Peter Cooper duo (Pete appears in several songs here), was born in Placerville, California, 10 miles from the very spot that started the Gold Rush, one of the events that perhaps best presaged what to expect from capitalism for decades to come. In that economic miscegenation's best tradition, Placerville was called 'Hangtown' after the commonest 'justice' expedient in the last section of the frontier movement. Hangtown boasted not just the maddened hordes crazed with a greed necessitous to the system but also murders, whoring, claim jumping, bushwhacking, mule thieving, and a number of the colorful human traits we know only too well. Ahhhhh, those were the good ol' days, hm?
People arrived however they could, but one married couple, Betsy and Ike, spent five months walking 2,000 miles from Pike County, Missouri, only to end up at a dancehall fete wherein Ike, enraged with jealousy at Betsy enjoying dances with the other men gathered there, divorced her on the spot and stomped off, never, according to a song by John A. Stone, to be seen again. Brace decided that wasn't really the end of the tale and thus composed this concept album, Hangtown Dancehall, a musical play with eight singers taking various characters and a stars' gallery of top-flight instrumentalists: Jen Gunderman, Mike Auldridge, Dave Roe, and many others.
The result is of course a country/folk delight as well as an engrossingly convoluted plotline that ends, just as you'd expect, in redemption and renewal of love. C'mon now, y'all, didja really think Brace would be a meanie and have Ike end up on a tramp steamer headed for China 'r sumthin'? Heck no! He's a softie! Leave that kinda stuff to Kurt Weill…and speakin' of ol' Kurt, Karl Straub has spot for the guy and, as he and Brace worked up the whole enchilada over several years, used to call Eric and mention stuff like "What I've learned from studying Kurt Weill's modulation techniques is…".
What? Didja imagine all these great roots musicians live in a vacuum or only listen to the Grand Ol' Opry while watching re-runs of Deliverance? Gosharooties, no! Brains run them thar fingers, Hiram, and you might be surprised to find out just how eclectic their appetites are. It's what, when all's said and done, allows 'em to bring the good ol' days up to snuff, flawlessly evoking scenarios many years agone as if they happened only yesterday and just down the road a piece. You can bet Randy Newman, Steve Dawson, even Tom Waits and others are going to be listening carefully to Hangtown Dancehall, sitting back with dreamy smiles and manly sighs but thinking "Dammit, now I have this to compete with!!"…and loving the challenge.
The whole enterprise comes in an oversized way cool paper case with a 24-page booklet sporting complete lyrics and narrative passages linking everything together, topped off by period woodcuts by Julie Sola. Don't be surprised if, after you look up from reading it all, you might espy a dusty raggedy pan miner winking at you from just beyond the periphery of your vision. Hangtown Dancehall has been known to rouse up the ghosts of the past not only in Californy but all points north, south, east, and west.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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