MT logo Letters - Jan to June 1999

Re: Bluegrass: the enigma

A friend pointed out to me recently that my name had been invoked on your site; he sent along a copy of David Campbell's interesting essay, and after reading it I thought it was worth making a brief reply.

Campbell's quite correct in saying that bluegrass is a distinctly modern, invented form of country music (though he wrongly locates that invention in the 1930s; the 1946-48 edition of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys was the responsible party).  He's not quite right, though, in thinking that "the sales pitch, in short, is that you will like [Jeff White's The Broken Road] whether you like country music or bluegrass."   While there's no doubt that White and his label would be pleased if the CD were to sell well to country music fans, the prospect is a dim one; much of today's country music audience is simply uninterested in bluegrass.  Rather, what my liner notes tried to deal with is the unmistakable hostility toward country music expressed by a significant portion of the bluegrass audience; it's a factor in this situation because White makes his living playing country music in a band fronted by a hugely successful artist who himself spent years playing bluegrass.

This peculiar - and, as Campbell points out, historically untenable - attitude is shaped by a number of things; the most prominent are a sort of traditional resentment of country music's movement away from rural themes and sounds (including, but not limited to, bluegrass) which goes back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the legacy of urban folk revival attitudes about "commercialism."   A surprising number of people who consider themselves bluegrass fans are quite ignorant of the music's origins in the modern (post-war) cultural marketplace, and many also look unfavorably on artists who "abandon" bluegrass for the country mainstream; since White's employer (and sideman on The Broken Road) Vince Gill is among those making such a move, my concern was that these notions might stand in the way of the album's acceptance by the bluegrass audience.  The sales pitch, to use Campbell's phrase, was that you will like Jeff's album if you're a bluegrass fan, even though he's tainted, so to speak, by his mainstream country association.  Rather than try to deny or downplay that association, I thought it best to instead point out that it is a natural one, consistent with the nature of bluegrass's history and musical character, as well as with White's and Gill's own records of accomplishment (hence the mention of their "bluegrass credentials").

It may be unfortunate - and in my view the "may" is an unnecessary qualifier - that such an approach is necessary, but my experience as a bluegrass musician and writer convinces me that it is.  Ultimately, of course, the test of the album is whether the audience likes it, but the test can only be made by some listeners if they'll put aside the notions I've mentioned long enough to actually listen.

Jon Weisberger - 6.6.99
Kenton County, KY.

Irish World Music Centre

Dear Rod,

I've just came across the above website whilst conducting a search for something else.  It appears to be a treasure house of important post-graduate research into maily Irish traditional topics which is bound to be of general interest to a lot of your readers and invaluable to help others in their own researches.  It was not clear from the website how many of the articles were available to be read on line but there were links to a good number of the authors.

Could I suggest that you bring it to the attention to your readers and put in a link to it?  There may even be some others who would welcome their studies being included in MT.  Some of the titles look as though they would make fascinating reading and there are some very well respected names amongst the writers.  I enclose the list of articles that are mentioned on their home page which is at:

... or contact Colm McGettrick at:

Best Wishes,

Vic Smith - 2.6.99

Research at the Irish World Music Centre - Ionad Cheol Cruinne Éireann

Postgraduate Research Students' Thesis Titles as of October, 1998

Student NameStatus
Thesis Title
Matt Cranitch PhDPadraig O'Keefe and the Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Tradition.
Sandra Joyce PhDThe Life and Music of Turlough O'Carolan
Niall Keegan PhDCommunication Beyond Performance: Notation and Speech About Traditional Irish Music
Anthony McCann PhDCopyright as a Key to Cultural Analysis: An Analysis of Copyright in the Context of Irish Traditional Music
Paul McGettrick PhDA Simulation Study of Irish Traditional Dance Music.
Mel MercierPhDThe Development of Irish Popular/Traditional Music
Maire O'KeefePhDThe role of the button accordion in Irish Traditional Music
Helen PhelanPhDPost Vatican 2 Liturgical Music in the Irish Roman Catholic Church 1962-1992
Johanne TrewPhDEthnicity and Identity: Music and Dance in the Ottawa Valley.
Desi WilkinsonPhDTraditional Music in Brittany and its Hiberno-Celtic ingredient
Jim HigginsMAContemporary Developments in Bodhran Performance Technique
Johnny McCartyMAA Trip to the City: Myth and Music in Sliabh Luachra
Georgette MulheirMAReconstructing Identity - The Romanian Doina Tradition since the 1989 Revolution
Jimmy O'Brian MoranMAThe Henry Hudson Collection of Irish Traditional Music
Past Graduates as of October, 1998
Aibhlín DillaneMAHarmonic Accompaniment in Irish Traditional Music
Liz DohertyPhDThe Fiddle Tradition of Cape Breton Island.
Colin HamiltonPhDThe Role of Commercial Recordings in the Development and Survival of Irish Traditional Music 1899-1993
Collette MoloneyPhDThe Bunting Manuscripts
Maria HolohanMAThe Tune Compositions of Paddy Fahy
Mary MitchellMARepertoire and Style of Six Kerry Musicians
Sheila RandlesMAThe fiddle Music of Connie O'Connell

Ennis on Ember - reply


Just a note to tidy up Vic Smith's story about Seamus Ennis on Ember (below).  Tradition records was started in the nineteen fifties as a joint venture between the American collector, Diane Hamilton and Patrick Clancy of the Clancy Brothers.  It acted as an outlet for records of the said ensemble, and as a showcase for mainly well known traditional performers, and for various revival singers who were associated with the American folk scene at that time.  Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd recorded for Tradition, as did Ed McCurdy, Odetta and Paul Clayton.  Basically, the best way to get yourself on Tradition seems to have been to get yourself known around the coffee house circuit.  Like many companies of that era, their releases nowadays tend to sound outdated.  To be quite frank, some of their productions were rather naff.

Even so, they frequently contained startling material.  Anyone who recalls the Jean Ritchie LP of Appalachian carols, with its naive cover, will know what I mean.  Other reservations notwithstanding, it contained the most electrifying performance of The Cherry Tree Carol I have ever heard.  Also, their catalogue did contain a number of rare gems.  They were first in the field with Murderer's Home, the Alan Lomax compilation of Mississippi work songs, which they called Negro Prison Songs.  They produced that very fine disc of Lomax's Scottish recordings, Heather and Glen, and the aforementioned Seamus Ennis LP, The Bonny Bunch of Roses - a rare gem indeed.

Following The Clancy Brothers' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and their subsequent signing by CBS, the company was sold.  There are persistent rumours that it was bought by CBS, but this sounds unlikely.  I think it much more probable that this corporation bought the Clancy's contract and Diane Hamilton, realising that Tradition was not a viable entity without them, sold the company to the highest bidder.  I have not yet determined who this was but, around that time, facsimile reproductions of Tradition records started to appear on Transatlantic's XTRA label.  Aficionados may recall Blow Boys Blow, an LP of sea songs, with Ewan and Bert, and a rather twee LP of Scots ballads by Ewan and Peggy.  Around the same time, or possibly a little later, one or two Tradition records appeared on the Ember label.  As far as I can remember, there was no overlap between these and what was issued by Transatlantic.  Whether they bought from Transatlantic stuff which the latter company did not want to put out, or whether they bought the rights from Tradition, or possibly even from another party, I have no idea.  Ember were not in the habit of acknowledging their sources.  As a result there was no acknowledgement from Ember that they had also bought some stuff from the Asch/Stinson catalogue.  This latter was presumably from an altogether different source, but it all went in the same melting pot.

Some time later again, I think about the late seventies or early eighties, the Tradition catalogue fell into the hands of Everest Records of California.  Everest were an extremely opportunistic firm, who seem to have stitched up strange deals with record companies all round the globe, and who ended up reissuing a remarkably eclectic mix of material as a result.  They adopted two policies towards their output.  The first was to reissue Tradition LPs in facsimile editions as per Transatlantic.  Unlike Transatlantic however, there was no acknowledgement to licensers.  The second was to junk the stuff in all kinds of piles and permutations.  They were even known to keep identical compilations of material under different LP titles and cover illustrations in their catalogue at the same time.  I imagine that quite a few enthusiasts got more than they bargained for.  In mitigation, I must say that their discs were extremely cheap.  Ember.jpg - 37.8 KAt a time, early eighties, when most LPs retailed for around a fiver, I bought from Everest a fabulous five volume boxed set of field recordings of flamenco musicians and singers, for just under ten quid.  I believe the discs hailed from the Spanish Vergara label, definitely a company for the connoisseur, and these discs were just astounding!  The pity is that Everest, in true mercantile fashion, never included a scrap of information about track or artiste listings.  Imagine wading your way through that lot without one word of Spanish.

Whether Everest bought the Tradition rights through Ember, is something I doubt, but there was clearly a tie up between the two organisations.  Turn certain Ember records over and one found a fatuous "Statement of Purpose" on the back.  This spoke eloquently of sound engineers spending "hundreds of hours tediously splicing, editing and adjusting", in order to restore priceless recordings back to listenable quality.  Turn certain Everest records over and one found the same statement word for word.  A listen to the quality of some of those releases, particularly 78 reissues, left the discerning ear in no doubt over how much codswallop that statement contained.

The point of all this is that, some years ago, the rights to Tradition passed into the hands of Rykodisc, as part of a deal they did with Everest.  traditon.gif - 1.0 KSince then Rykodisc have reinstated the Tradition logo and have been using it as though they are faithfully reconstructing the Tradition catalogue.  They are not.  They are reissuing the Everest catalogue under the Tradition name.  Tradition recording artists are there in plenty, although not in their entirity.  They are however supplemented by well known folk performers, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, Coleman Hawkins and Jimmy Witherspoon, all of whom appear courtesy of those Everest reissues.  It is extremely unlikely that such leading lights of the jazz world would have bothered themselves with a small time folk label like Tradition.  Equally, it takes a lot to imagine that the New York Pro Musica Antiqua would not have found a more appropriate outlet for their LP of English Mediaeval Christmas carols.

This ties in with a phenomenon, which might have puzzled those of us discophiles who can remember that far back.  Rykodisc have adopted a numbering system which looks like the Tradition matrixes, but isn't.  For example that famous compilation of Diane Hamilton's field recordings, The Lark in the Morning, appeared on Tradition as TLP 1004, but turns up on Rykodisc as TCD 1001.  The 1004 serial was reallocated by Rykodisc to an entirely different record, Ballads and Blues by Odetta.  Again, TLP 1013 was the number assigned to the aforementioned Bonny Bunch of Roses.  It is in the Rykodisc catalogue as TCD 1023.  The need to reassign numbers has of course come about from the boosting of the catalogue with non-Tradition items.

I am puzzled.  Rykodisc has a far better reputation in the recording world than one or two of the players in this chain of events.  Why then, if they have picked up a whole mass of cheapo records, do they try and hide the fact? Their discs, the ones I have seen at any rate, do not mention Everest, their publicity does not mention that company, and neither does their web site (see below).  Is it simply that, In a world of aging folkies, 'Tradition' is a more saleable name than 'Everest'?

Do not misunderstand me.  I have no objection to Rykodisc reissuing this material.  A lot of it is very tasty and, if properly documented, would be of considerable historic value.  However, issuing it under the Tradition imprint, without making the situation clear, simply compounds the confusion started by Ember and Everest.  Imagine how annoyed your average Fred McDowell freak is going to be if he buys Steakbone Slide Guitar, and then finds it to be a copy of an Everest reissue from the old Transatlantic catalogue.  Imagine the George Lewis fan who buys Jazz Funeral in New Orleans, only to find that Everest issued the same disc on one of their subsidiaries as Olympus 7117, about twenty years ago.

One other point of interest.  In this tangle of issues and reissues, only two companies seem to have taken the trouble to acknowledge their source; Transatlantic and Ossian.  Vic Smith is quite right.  Ossian leased the disc from Ember.  For the matter of that they have also leased Heather and Glen from the same source.  Unlike Vic, though, I see no reason to assume that the deal was necessarily dodgy.  It may be that they put out both discs for the simple reason that they have stood the test of time and are of no small historic importance and contain some wonderful material.  Other considerations aside, neither Seamus Ennis, nor most of the people who appear on Heather and Glen will be around to make records in future. 

From Rykodisc's Tradition website:

Tradition was started by Diane Hamilton in the 1950s as a label of quality, collecting the best music available.  Over the years, Tradition released albums of Americana, roots, folk and world music before they were cultural buzz words or bin designations.  Albums that crossed paths came from artists as varied as Odetta, Lightnin' Hopkins, The Clancy Brothers and others.  The releases were distinctive and timeless with great attention to detail, presentation and sound.

Rykodisc's relaunch of Tradition as a separate mid-price label will maintain the standard of high quality that was originally set in the Fifties and Sixties.  All of the masters will be digitally remastered and, with the archival recordings, sonically cleansed.  Archival photos have been sought and included within the updated comprehensive liner notes.  All releases are having their digital debut.

Tradition - a label of quality, then and now.

Fred McCormick - 25.4.99

Some Comments on Hammons Family Article

I only want to comment on a few details in Fred McCormick's very provocative article on the Hammons Family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.  The author speculates about why the family moved from state to state.  Gerry Milnes new book, 'Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia', includes a story about a feud on the Big Sandy River in Kentucky, which, according to Burl and Maggie, led the family to start the migration which eventually brought them to West Virginia.

The other comment concerns a sense of the place in which the Hammons' lived.  Before I visited West Virginia in 1998, I had built an impression that the Hammons' lived in a remote and fairly inaccessible area, which is not exactly consistent with the family livelihood of floating logs to market on navigable rivers.  While visiting Marlinton, the county seat of Pocahontas County, a friend took me to see the Hammons' home, about a 2-minute drive from the center of town.  While Marlinton must have been a smaller town in their day (it is not large now) and while they may have lived in other, more isolated places, the Hammons' house outside Marlinton was not isolated at all.  To me, that subtly undermines some of the speculations about how their traditions were preserved.

I would more strongly quarrel with the assertion that there is much musical commonality between the Hammons' music and the Round Peak style of Galax and Mt. Airy except insofar as both are southern Appalachian styles with a strongly African rhythmic influence in the bowing of the fiddle and the banjo playing.  To my ear, the music of the Hammons family has much in common with other West Virginia musicians such as French Carpenter and Wilson Douglas and not much at all with the styles of southwestern Virginia and northwestern North Carolina.

Finally, as to why the Hammons' did not record commercially, it is important to remember how socially isolated and unappreciated they were in their own community.  Even their uncle, the legendary Edden or Edn Hammons, who traveled to and won fiddle contests, was looked down upon as a husband who refused to work and support his family.  Thus the Hammons had no reason to believe that anyone wanted to hear their music.  I visited the local museum and casually asked if they had anything on the Hammons family, primed for the fact that they did not by my friend, Dwight Diller.  There and in the local motel where I stayed, I was only told stories about what awful people the Hammons were.  Dwight told me that the Library of Congress recordings were never available in any library in the county, and I am sure that the same is true of the recent CD issue.  When I commented at the museum that the music of the Hammons family is listened to and played around the world, I only drew a look of incomprehension.

Steve Goldfield - 3.4.99

Ennis on Ember

That excellent chap, Vic Smith, has been helpiing me fill in the gaps in the Traditional Discography.  A recent load of information was prefaced by the following:


First of all a little story, sparked off by the following one of your entries:

OSS59 The Bonny Bunch of Roses Seamus Ennis - Originally an Ember release

I bought two copies of the Ember album in 1971, one for myself and a second to raffle at the Lewes Arms folk club on one of the nights that we had Seamus booked.  ( You may even have been there - you used to come to various things of that nature at the Lewes Arms around that time).  He came to our flat for a meal and seemed in good cheerful form.  We went to the club and set up, Seamus picked up the raffle copy, went very quiet for a long while and then asked me if I knew anything about Ember.  I replied with what I knew which was that it was owned by a bloke called Jeff Kruger, who lived in Hove at the time and was known to be a pretty unscrupulous operator.  He had a lot of contacts with Country & Western music and Jim Marshall had told me some unpleasant things about him.

Anyway, after a long silence, Seamus quietly said, "I have no knowledge of the release of this album by this company."

When we came to draw the raffle, Seamus intervened and asked to be allowed to present the prize.  The winner came up and Seamus asked her publicly to give him a penny before he gave her the album - which she did.  Seamus then turned to the audience and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I have now received more money from this young lady than ever I did from the ..." looking down at the album and spitting out the words, " .... Ember Record Company!"

If Ossian licensed it from Ember, the deal sounds as though it was on pretty dodgy grounds.  It was in fact originally released in the USA on the Tradition label in 1959 (TLP 1013) and was reissued on CD in this country on the budget Tradition label, by the Ryko / Hannibal organisation in 1996.

Having said that, I'll make the details of this album my first this time ......


TCD 1023 The Bonny Bunch of Roses.  Seamus Ennis (1959)
A Little Bench of Rushes.  The Kerry Recruit.  The First House in Connaught / The Copperplate Reel.  The Farmer's Curst Wife.  An Leambh Sidhe (The Fairy Boy).  An Clar Bog-deil (The Bog Deal Board).  The Thrush in the Straw.  The Cuckoo's Hornpipe.  The Bonny Bunch of Roses.  Gol Na Mban 'San Ar (The Women's Lament in Battle).  The Wealthy Squire.  Hogan's Favourite / The Connaught Man's Ramble / The Lark In The Morning / When The Cock Crows It is Day.  Marrowbones.  Will You Come With Me Over The Mountains?
Originally on vinyl on the American Tradition label.

Vic Smith - 12.3.99


Rod Stradling - e-mail:  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos  GL5 2HP, UK

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