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Far in the Mountains, Volume 5: Echoes From The Mountains

Songs and tunes from Mike Yates' Appalachian Collections, 1979-83

Musical Traditions Records MTCD513

William Marshall & Howard Hall: 1. Train on the Island;  2. Polly Put the Kettle On;  3. FortuneDan Tate:  4. Groundhog;  5. Poor Ellen SmithTed Boyd:  6. Pig in the PenPug Allen:  7. Soldier’s JoySam Connor:  8. Ten Little Indians;  9. Granny Will Your Dog Bite?Stella & Taylor Kimble:  10. TroublesDan Tate:  11. Waggoner’s Boy;  12. Sally AnnRobert L Tate:  13. SallyAnn / Old Molly Hare / Baby-O;  14. Down by the StillhousePug Allen:  15. Turkey in the Straw;  16. Sally GoodenMorris Norton:  17. Dicky Said to Johnny / MirandyTommy Jarrell:  18. Sail Away Ladies;  19. Say Darling Say; ;  Doug Wallin:;  20. The Little Mohee;  21. Pretty Fair Miss All in Her GardenCharlie Woods:  22. Cindy;  23. Eighth of January / Green Mountain Polka   ;  24. Walking in the ParlourEunice Yeatts MacAlexander:  25. The Preacher and the BearPug Allen:  26. Old Joe Clark;  27. Bull Durham;  28. Fisher’s HornpipeInez Chandler:  29. The Leaves are Green;  30. Daddy Had a Billy GoatBenton Flippen:  31. Cripple Creek;  32. Lonesome Road BluesRobert L Tate:  33. The Lawson Family MurderMitchel Hopson:  34. Shout Little LulaDoug Wallin:  35. Let her Go, Let her Go;  36. Darling CoraWalt Davis & J C McCool:  37. Under the Double Eagle;  38. Whistling Rufus;  39. Wildwood Flower;  40. Silver Bells;  41. Bully of the TownEvelyn & Douston Ramsey:  42. Beautiful Star of BethlehemBenton Flippen & Friends:;  43. Breaking up Christmas.
A fifth volume, emerging a decade after the first four?  If this didn't have the name of Mike Yates attached to it, and wasn't published by Musical Traditions, you might be forgiven for approaching it with a certain amount of caution.  Could there really be another hour and a quarter's worth of truly worthwhile music and song left from those field trips?  Remarkably, the answer is an entirely unequivocal affirmative.  The sheer quality of what is included here is quite extraordinary - the energy, the individuality, the strength of the traditional roots.  When you listen to these singers and musicians - for all their advanced ages at the time - there is little sense of clinging precariously to the fragile remnants of something that was once strong; this sounds as alive and as potent as ever it was. 

The majority of what is included - though not to an overwhelming extent - is instrumental music, the traditional dance tunes of these Southern states (North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee) many of which have connections back to the old world, and which were spread not only through the oral traditions, but through the products of the early recording industry.  Tommy Jarrell is probably the biggest name here, and what a player he was - his two tunes here, Sail Away Ladies and Say Darling Say have all the stimulating qualities a dance tune needs, while somehow hinting that there is more going on beneath the surface of the notes (as all the best traditional players could do).  But this isn't about big names, and there are so many fine instrumental performances included that singling individual ones out isn't especially productive or indicative.  Suffice to say that every one of these musicians combines enviable technique with musical articulacy and a robust commitment to their performance, whether it's the drive of Pug Allen's fiddle adding character and power to the familiar Soldier's Joy, or the subtle lift of Rob Tate's banjo bringing out the beauty of the tunes in his medley.  Actually, talking of familiar tunes, I will single out for remark how Allen injects such vitality into standards Turkey in the Straw and Sally Gooden - incredible, really.  Fiddles and banjo are the main instruments here, but there's additional variety in Walt Davis's fine guitar-playing, his repertoire as presented here taking in popular composed tunes like Under the Double Eagle (complete with stamping foot) and Silver Bells, as well as the Carter Family's evergreen Wildwood Flower.

Doug Wallin has a beautiful voice, strong and true and naturally rich in that high and lonesome quality that makes Appalachian music so distinctive and so compelling.  His songs The Little Mohee and Pretty Fair Maid all in a Garden are good, full versions of lyrics that occur on both sides of the Atlantic, especially the latter.  Let Her Go seems (as the notes point out) to be put together from various floating verses, and Darling Cora is a fine take on this highly characteristic and well-loved Appalachian song.  Dan Tate's delivery on Poor Ellen Smith is reminiscent of the early version recorded by Green Baily, but the words are quite different, and apparently contradictory on the question of whether the first person voice represents the murderer or not!  A fine version either way.  Stella Kimble's Troubles is just a fragment, but delightful at that, and the instrumental version that follows, where she accompanies her husband's fiddle on her banjo is lovely.  We also have two other women singers - Eunice Yeatts MacAlexander with her Preacher and the Bear, related to Traveling Coon, and Inez Chandler, whose The Leaves Are Green is a version of Black is the Colour, and one of the collection's many highlights.  She sings is in a slow, sparingly ornamented style that serves both to bring out the beauty of the melody and intensify the expression of the song's sentiments.  If only it was a verse or two longer!  A few songs are accompanied, including Robert Tate's The Lawson Family Murder, with the banjo echoing the sung melody, probably learnt directly or indirectly from Walter Smith's commercial recording, cut shortly after the events described in the song actually took place.  On Dicky Said to Johnny, Morris Norton not only accompanies himself on the banjo, he follows it up with the dance tune Mirandy which he both sings and plays on his mouthbow.

The collection closes with a couple of seasonal offerings - Beautiful Star of Bethlehem in fine two-part harmony by Evelyn and Douston Ramsey, and finally Breaking Up Christmas, led by Benton Flippen on fiddle, with a lively little band whose old timey sound rounds it all off perfectly.  It probably doesn't need saying that the 26-page booklet is packed with information about songs and tunes, with plentiful details of published versions and earlier recordings.  The knowledge and research that underpins these is outstanding, as impressive as ever.  There is less about the musicians themselves, as that ground was covered pretty thoroughly in the booklets with the earlier volumes (also reproduced in full on this website).  Even so, Mike Yates' introduction sets the scene for the music concisely and effectively, referring back to the work in the area carried out by Cecil Sharp 100 years ago, as well as that of the record companies in the 1920s and '30s.  Very different motivations there, and quite different results, but we can be so grateful for both.  And for Mike's, too.

One of my hobby-horses (ridden a few times before in MT reviews) has been to reject the efforts of those whose writings about American traditional music insist on presenting it as something full of darkness and shadow, its executants mysterious - even dangerous - figures with esoteric tendencies.  I have no trouble accepting that in all traditional music there is more than meets the eye, that there are depths and subtleties that are resistant to our modern sensibilities, but the insistence by a few influential writers on promoting their notion of 'the old, weird America' seems self-serving to me.  It puts the music in a box that might suit their rhetorical purposes, but that does it no favours.  The music on this disc is full of light, full of life, and it tells an entirely different story.

Ray Templeton - 23.4.13