|Push Them Clouds Away|
|Old Time Country Music, 1924-38|
|Musical Traditions MTCD101|
|Old Ship Sailing for the Promised Land|
|White Gospel Music, 1926-38|
|Musical Traditions MTCD102|
|Yearlings in the Canebreak|
|Texas Fiddle Music, 1924-30|
|Musical Traditions MTCD103|
|Where the Southern Crosses the Dog|
|Mississippi Fiddle Music, 1928-35|
|Musical Traditions MTCD104|
|John 'Seven Foot Dilly' Dilleshaw|
|Georgia Bust Down ,1930|
|Musical Traditions MTCD105|
In 1970, CBS issued a series of LP compilations illustrating a series of essays published by Studio Vista, which discussed different aspects of the blues. The LPs were all excellent, but my personal favourite was that which illustrated the best and certainly the most needed, of the books - Blacks, Whites & Blues by Tony Russell. I didn't read the book until some years later, but the record, together with Russell's sleeve notes, had done its job already. Like many another, no doubt, I bought the record because I was familiar with some of the artists on it. Like many of my generation, not to mention most blues enthusiasts at any time, I had made the racist assumption that what excited me about their music had something to do with the fact that those artists were black. Friends joked that I listened only to musicians that were black and dead. Now I could retort that they had only to be dead. For some years, I continued to imagine that the term 'black music' meant something, but the essential lesson was learned: fine American musicians were as likely to be members as victims, of the Ku Klux Klan. (I'd been shielded from this rather obvious truth, by my upbringing. A decade earlier, my father had worked with two prominent old-timey musicians, and fell out with them when they called him a 'nigger-lover'. His personal reaction was quite proper; his mistake was in promptly losing all interest in their music.)
The social-historical accidents and ideological manipulation that form the context and subtext of British enthusiasm for traditional music have obliged many people to discover various American musical traditions via their interest in blues. In the case of pre-war country music, it was Tony Russell's work that compared the recordings of black and white musicians with a view to establishing their similarities rather than their differences. Many of which differences, it turns out, are related more meaningfully to region than to race. What a pity it is that, a quarter of a century later, the marketing of American country music is still untroubled by the notion of racial integration; that Sony have to call their new collection (which, 'minus the comparative black tracks' is surely not an updating of Russell's compilation) White Country Blues. It's a pity, too, that the capacity of a cassette inlay does not allow Tony Russell to be properly expansive about the material contained in the Musical Traditions Old Time Music Series.
Tony Russell calls this series of cassettes (now CDs) a 'coruscating treasure chest', and so it is. Much of the material (almost all, according to the compiler) has never before been reissued in any form; certainly, most of it is not otherwise available, now, and all of it deserves to be heard. Having little knowledge of, or interest in, sound reproduction as such, I am probably not best qualified to judge the standard of reproduction here. Suffice it to say that the compiler's warning that 'On a very small number of occasions a record's excellence or importance has taken precedence over technical considerations' should be taken as a courteous formality. It has been known, from time to time, for extreme rarity to combine with an obsession for completeness, resulting in sound reproduction too uncomfortable for any but the most ardent anorak. Nothing of that sort occurs throughout the five cassettes under review. The first, and longest volume (twenty tracks and every one a winner), will be of the greatest general interest, being a survey of the entire field to be covered by the series. The entire musical field, that is; there is, for instance, no sacred music, which is saved (so to speak) for the second volume. There is also a relatively high proportion of novelty items and other oddities that might be hard to fit into a specific category. All of which makes a thoroughly entertaining mix, and an excellent introduction for anyone that needs one. Many of the tracks exemplify the finest qualities of the music of the period (1924-38) - those qualities that predate the showy sophistication of swing and the showbiz excesses of bluegrass. The earliest recording is Old Liza Jane by the East Tennessee fiddler Uncle Am Stuart, who is actually accompanying the then unknown Gene Austin, who may also have played the simple piano accompaniment. It's a beautifully measured, stately performance, and an instructive contrast with more familiar and riotous treatments.
Much the same might be said of the first two tracks on the tape, Ida Red and Silvery Bell, both recorded in 1928, and both later to be transformed by Bob Wills. Silvery Bell is played by the Gibson String Trio, which consisted of two banjo-mandolins and a guitar. Ida Red, by the Tweedy Brothers of West Virginia, is accompanied by excellent twin fiddling and magnificent piano. Charles Tweedy reminds me of Beryl Marriott. This tape even includes a solo piano recording: the familiar Sally Gooden played by one W M Smith on what Russell calls 'an early example of a treated piano'. The discography states that it's a piano 'with mandolin attachment'. To these ears, it is not clear what this means, but it's clear enough that Smith was a damn' good piano player. The other instrumental solo here is Scotch Patrol, an extraordinary tour de force on tenor banjo by Albert Bellson. It was described by Gennett as a 'bagpipe imitation'. It doesn't sound much like bagpipes, of course, but neither, with its dramatic drone effects, does it sound like any tenor banjo you've probably heard.
The five-string banjo is not heavily represented (indeed, it is barely audible on two of the four tracks in which it is included), but its most obvious appearance is a highly unusual one. In view of the popularity of steel guitar, during the period, perhaps it ought not to be surprising, that at least two banjoists tried applying the technique to their own instrument. Blues fans may be surprised to discover that Gus Cannon was not alone in recording the result, though he was the first. Cannon's Poor Boy was his only effort of the sort, perhaps because he thought it was the only proper approach to the song. In 1929, on the other hand, Doc Walsh of the Carolina Tarheels recorded three songs in this manner, of which A Precious Sweetheart From Me Is Gone is included here.
There are other examples of 'novelty' instrumentation. The Home Folk Fiddlers' Plantation Mem'ries contains no fiddling at all, but it is a medley of popular tunes played on steel guitar, accompanied by a second guitar and whistling - an exuberant bird imitation which may or may not be mechanically aided. Mr Johnson, Turn Me Aloose by The South Georgia Highballers features a bowed saw, as well as fiddle and guitar. The autoharp, banjo and ukulele played by The Yellow Jackets are unfortunately inaudible; what's left is a sprightly trio of harmonica, guitar and bones. Perhaps the oddest track of all is The Indian Tom Tom by Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band. Henry Hall plays good, fluid fiddle, while Clarence Hall plays his guitar like a drum, and Harold Hall chants in the Native American manner familiar to all (if only from Hollywood westerns). This is astonishing and lovely stuff. The Halls apparently recorded only one session; I for one would like very much to hear the rest of it.
Too much should not be made, however, of this collection's most eccentric features. Standard, but excellent, string band fare is provided by Fiddlin' John Carson & Moonshine Kate, Fiddlin' Powers & Family, The Carter Brothers & Son, and Fisher Hendley & His Aristocratic Pigs. There are also three examples of the genre that has come to be known as 'white' or (more euphemistically) 'mountain' blues. It Can't Be Done by the Allen Brothers is a typical humorous talking blues, though it is rather less typical of them, in that (like their Maybe Next Week Sometime, to which it was a follow-up) it's accompanied only be Lee Allen's guitar and kazoo. The more obscure Rafe Brady sings and flat picks Ace & Jack, from a home-cut disc of unknown location and date. The tape ends with a splendid Feet, Don't Fail Me, in which Bill Carlisle is menaced by 'a gentleman cow'. Which came first, I wonder: all cattle being called 'cows', or cattlemen being called 'cowboys'? Then again, such absurdity may simply be part of the coon stereotype, along with the comic cowardice which is the basis of the song's humour.
There's plenty of good singing, here, including some fine group examples. The Murphy Brothers Harp Band make a lovely vocal trio of Little Bunch of Roses, alternating with nimble twin harmonicas. Nothing is known of the Murphys: the discography claims two guitars, though only one is obvious; the album notes further confuse the issue, by referring to the singing as a duet. I suspect that the band was a trio, all three singers playing their own instruments. Another popular ballad, Lorena, is offered by the Carter-like Blue Ridge Mountain Singers. A delightfully old-fashioned female duet is accompanied by autoharp and guitar. In marked contrast is the other example of female harmonizing, a convincingly bluesy How'm I Doin' by the Aaron Sisters, an unaccompanied vocal trio. (Tony Russell, who should know better, refers to 'the a capella setting' - but perhaps he knows a church where they sing like this.) The second cassette, of course, is all about singing. At least, from a musical point of view it is. Someone overheard me playing it, and asked where he could obtain such music. I spent some time trying to interest him in the other volumes, before discovering that he was a born-again Christian, and his interest was purely religious. No doubt, for such a listener, this tape holds many joys, but it has a great deal to offer the rest of us, too. In fact, unless one is squeamish about such matters, this volume is no less entertaining than the first.
It opens with the familiar Shine On Me, by Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers: wild, ragged, raucous singing with driving stringband accompaniment. The vocal trio manages to sound like a congregation. All of which description would also fit William Rexroat's Cedar Crest Singers, Ben Jarrell with Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters, the Carolina Ramblers String Band, Fiddlin' John Carson & His Virginia Reelers, who provide the title track, and Al Hopkins & His Buckle Busters, who close the collection with Hear Dem Bells, a delightful example of holy minstrelsy. Some purely choral pieces, with minimal or no accompaniment, are only to be expected, and the examples chosen are all splendid. Turn Away, by the obscure Lubbock Texas Quartet, is simply gorgeous. The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, a necessarily scaled down Sacred Harp congregation, render Cuba, The Laurel (Mississippi) Firemen's Quartette, What A Change, and the Deal Family of North Carolina, 'Twill Be All Glory Over There. 'Grand' remains the proper term for them all.
Doc Walsh makes a welcome return, with Bathe in that Beautiful Pool, another of his slide banjo pieces (will the third, Laura Lou, appear later, perhaps in a volume devoted to the banjo?). Another banjo track is the exception to the collection's emphasis on singing. Uncle Dave's Beloved Solo is an instrumental showpiece by Uncle Dave Macon, and is as odd as its title, especially in this company. A wonderfully bouncing performance is When He Died He Got A Home In Hell, which is accompanied by excellent steel guitar and banjo, as well as a second guitar. It's by Kid Williams, which is not the name of any of the musicians involved. The singer was Walter Smith, one of Charlie Poole's circle. He recorded later with Odell Smith on fiddle and Norman Woodlieff on guitar; they called themselves The Virginia Dandies, who contribute here the amusingly titled God's Getting Worried (about your wicked ways, in case you're wondering).
The remaining tracks are all vocal duets. The Reverend Calbert Holstein & Sister Billie Holstein are described as street evangelists, the evidence for which may be purely aural. Certainly, their Ring The Bells of Freedom admirably demonstrates both the rough vocal power and the utter conviction necessarily associated with such thankless activity. The same applies to anther couple, known only as Williams & Williams. The funereal solemnity of their magnificent Through Your Sins be as Scarlet is perhaps the most surprising highlight of the collection. Finally, any album offering an otherwise unavailable recording of the incomparable Cliff Carlisle automatically demands attention. His contribution here, When The Angels Carry Me Home, is a lovely duet with his young son. Anyone not moved by this must have been carried home already. MTCD103 and 104 are probably of the least general interest, being devoted to the fiddle music of Texas and Mississippi respectively. Both are decidedly bluesy, with the inevitable ragtime and minstrel-show influences and, on MTCD103, the occasional hint of the western swing that was to come. The Mississippi collection is the narrower of the two, consisting entirely of instrumentals, all but two of which are fiddle-guitar duets. The exceptions are sides by Lukes Milner & Curtis, whose twin fiddles are accompanied by The Magnolia Ramblers, playing guitar and purely rhythmic mandolin. The collection is dominated, not surprisingly, by William Narmour and Shell Smith. The remaining tracks are divided between The Nations Brothers of Lincoln County and the Ray Brothers of Choctaw County.
'Yearlings in a Canebrake' is more obviously varied, though it too is divided between only five (groups of) artists, including the only two sides recorded by Captain M J Bonner, and a single tune by Fiddlin' Jim Pate. The latter's Prisoner Boy is a virtuoso piece, accompanied on guitar by his son Tom. Assuming that this was not his only recording, Pate is another who deserves a fuller hearing. Captain Bonner recorded in 1925, when he or the record company apparently could get away with calling him The Texas Fiddler. His splendid, driving fiddle was accompanied on harp guitar by Fred Wagoner. Chenoweth's Cornfield Symphony Orchestra recorded even earlier, and are represented here by three archaic and slightly chaotic performances. W B Chenoweth played fiddle and was accompanied on banjo, guitar and, possibly, a second fiddle.
The Red Headed Fiddlers were 'Red' Steeley and his longtime partner 'Red' Graham, who played banjo. Two of their delightful duets, Far In The Mountain and Never Alone Waltz, are included here. It seems Steeley always recorded under the name The Red Headed Fiddlers, even when Graham was not involved. Two others of his sides here, The Steeley Rag and Paddy On the Handcar, are accompanied on tenor guitar by his daughter Mildred. The remaining three 'Red Headed' tracks are accompanied on guitar and mandolin, as well as Mildred's tenor guitar.
The most interesting character here is Prince Albert Hunt, who is described as 'a sort of Texas Charlie Poole'. He specialized in blues, and enjoyed the dissolute lifestyle, not to mention short life, that is popularly thought proper to the bluesman. Apart from the fiddle-guitar duets Wake Up Jacob and Houston Slide, Hunt provides the only songs in the collection: the familiar Blues In A Bottle, Travelling Man and Waiting For A Train (which he called Waltz of Roses). Prince Albert Hunt claimed to have been 'drunker 'n a hoot-owl' when he first recorded. The same was probably not true of John Dilleshaw and his associates, but drink-fuelled hell-raising is a prominent feature of Georgia Bust Down. This, the fifth volume, is by far the most important to date, as it's the first to be devoted entirely to one group of musicians - and a group not generally known through reissues. (To put it another way: I'd never heard of them). What's more, it consists of almost all of a single recording session, which took place during several days in March 1930. Vocalion recorded 'Seven Foot Dilly' and his Atlanta Circle, in various combinations, probably in the hope of an effective response to Columbia's Skillet Lickers. John Dilleshaw was a left-handed giant with a big, warm voice, and a nice line in deadpan drollery. He was also a good flatpick guitarist. Dilly & His Dill Pickles comprised himself, Harry Kiker on fiddle, Shorty Lindsey on tenor banjo, and Shorty's father Pink Lindsey, on string bass. This group apparently had worked together for a couple of years by the time of this session, and very good they are. Dilly also brought in two other fiddlers, however - Joe Brown and Ahaz Gray - and when he recorded at least four duets, he chose to do so with Gray rather than with his own brother-in-law, Kiker.
Eight of the 16 tracks here are by The Dill Pickles; six of them excellent, driving instrumentals, spiced with Dilly's drawling backchat, which Vocalion thought necessary for commercial appeal, and which does not detract from the music's effect as it might have done. Hillbilly humour does not always travel or age as well as hillbilly music, but John Dilleshaw's is the best of its kind. The other Pickles contributions - both sides of a disc entitled The Square Dance Fight at Ball Top Mountain - take the idea of humorous narrative to its logical conclusion. This is an outstanding example of the rural-drama-with-tunes genre, for which The Skillet Lickers are especially well known. Dilly plays for a square dance, with his friends, and is harassed by a drunk, so he knocks the drunk out with a bottle. The dance resumes, the drunk returns with some friends, and all hell lets loose, before the interlopers are chased away and the dance reaches its proper end. And all in the space of a 78. It's genuinely funny, very musical, and astonishingly atmospheric.
A similar, if less dramatic, pair of slides is called A Fiddler's Tryout In Georgia, in which Dilleshaw is joined by the fiddlers Brown and Gray, who compete with each other and end up in a draw. This is more comical than convincing - the cries of appreciation that greet the fiddlers' efforts sound more like the desperately dutiful whoops of adults at a child's birthday party. This seems to have been Joe Brown's only contribution, but Gray went on to make two instrumentals with Dilly, and a pair of surprising vocal duets: Nigger Baby and The Old Ark's A-Movin'. Finally, Dilly recorded two rather good talking blues, on his own. Vocalion recorded only two more sides by Dilleshaw. Their absence here surely must mean that no copies of them are available.
This series of cassettes clearly is going to be very important, and has got off to a splendid start. Anyone seriously interested in old-time music will want them all. Do yourself a favour and buy the first five volumes at the special price. If they sell as well as they deserve to, there is every chance of their being issued on CD, which (for us bereft vinyl junkies, who only ever used cassettes for personal compilations and the like) is where they belong. Life, dear reader, really is that bowl of cherries.
David Campbell - 16.3.97