Wild Rose of the Mountain: Eastern Kentucky Fiddle Music
Rounder CD 0037
|I thought in my heart when I was going astray,
That Iíd strike some fine job and get wonderful pay.
But alas it is harder to act than to say ...
|George Curtin (MicheŠl ” Tuama)
Sad to relate, I never caught up with this little gemís previous incarnation back in 1974. That was the year I decided to forsake an affluent career, and the luxury of record buying, to make a belated stab at the hallowed halls of academe. I got a whacking great degree, plus a lot of laughs, and I chewed the fat with some rare eccentrics, and suffered one or two interminable bores. Alas, my return to normality coincided with the bitter winds of Thatcherism and economic slump. If the dreaded lady achieved nothing else, she made sure that poverty would be my boon companion to the end of my days.
For all that, my feelings of grief are currently less pecuniary than aesthetic. I am going mad at the thought of what I missed out on all those years ago, for this is about the most delightful record of Southern Appalachian music I have ever heard. Moreover, you who were well heeled enough to buy the original need not gloat or assume that you are going to get away without updating. When you realise that the archetype has been augmented by fourteen newly recorded tracks, any sales talk will become instantly redundant.
Let me tell you what reinvesting will bring. The record first saw the light of day as Rounder 0037. Itís title then was as now, and it consisted of eighteen tracks, on which J P was accompanied by his wife Annadeene on guitar. In the intervening years, she has regrettably passed on, and the new cuts are accompanied by their daughter, Danielle. Before proceeding, then, courtesy demands that I compliment the complement. I am normally no fan of accompanists, for they all too often seem to see their role as one of domination, rather than support. Here, the backing, while not overly imaginative, is consistently unobtrusive and tasteful, and it certainly doesnít take the shine off the central instrument. J P Fraley plays with a style that is vivacious, virtuosic and danceable, and yet is so laid back and warm and relaxed, that listening to him is like stepping into a warm bath. His bowing and finger work are sure and certain and he displays a delightfully elegant cleanness of tone. (Sound Clip - Cluckiní Hen)
But who to compare him with? Fraley is as individual a player as he is satisfying to listen to. The booklet does not give his present age, but it contains various clues, which lead me to picture someone somewhere in his seventies. If so, we are discussing a musician who would have been in his mid to late forties when the original LP was cut. It should not be too difficult therefore, to identify a formative influence among the then older generation of fiddlers. Well, the sound is unquestionably Southern Appalachian, but I cannot think of anybody from that region or anywhere else, who sounds anything like him. The booklet notes mention the legendary Ed Haley, who lived not all that far from where J P grew up. I dug the Haley LP out and I cannot discern any basis for identifying a Haley:Fraley concord. Nor should I expect to, for J.P.ís impressions of the man seem limited to childhood memories of hearing him play in the street. However, the booklet also invokes comparisons with Clark Kessinger. Well, I can see what is being got at, although to equate the two seems a bit like comparing Yehudi Menuhin with Stťphane Grappelli. My curiosity unsated, I got down Sandberg and Weissmanís usually helpful Folk Music Sourcebook. There a note, presumably written by one of the editors, tells us that Fraleyís style displays a mixture of Irish and bluegrass influences, whilst leaning on piping techniques.
As far as this disc is concerned, suggestions of Irish influence seem a bit like reports of Mark Twainís death. Moreover, I wonder how far an Appalachian musician would have to look, before finding a bagpiper to learn from. Yet there is one Irish fiddler he does remind me of. Please do not laugh if I mention the name of Martin Hayes. He doesnít play around with the melodies the way Hayes does, and he certainly doesnít sound like him. Itís just that Hayesí lazy way with a tune is somewhat reminiscent of Fraley. In both cases, the melody seems to waft out of the f-holes, like the Aahh!! in a gravy advert of days long gone.
I found the programme almost as redolent as the playing, and the most fragrant blossom of the whole disc has got to be that title track. (Sound Clip - Wild Rose of the Mountain) The booklet describes it as exquisite and I can find no room for argument, except that the same epithet can be ascribed to several other pieces. Among them, I would number Clucking Hen, and I noticed Frank Weston drooling over a tune of this title in his review of volume 3 of Traditional Fiddle Music of the Ozarks (Rounder CD 0437). I Havenít heard that release yet and canít be sure whether itís the same tune. But if itís as good as Fraleyís, I shall be delighted. I was also tickled by a melody which is identified here as The Red Headed Irishman. The title involves an amusing piece of etymological sleuthing which, the notes tell us, was carried out by that musical detective, Samuel P Bayard. The piece is known in Ireland as Gilderoy, and its title there is a corruption of Giolla Rua - this being as Gaeilge for Red Haired Youth. Get it? Well, if you donít, youíll surely recognise it as the tune which Mrs Sarah Makem used for The Little Beggarman. (Sound Clip - The Red Headed Irishman)
My fancy was tickled even further by a melody which is identified here as Farewell to Norway. I wondered if this might be East Kentuckyís answer to The Japanese Hornpipe, but no; it is a pop tune which J P heard in a Norwegian airport lounge, liked the sound of and learned.
The original LP programme appears to have been retained intact, which means that the newly recorded tracks have been added on to the end. It would be a funny old world if these didnít show a little of the rigours of age, and to be perfectly honest, they do. The rhythms are generally more sedate and the playing has lost a little of its deftness. No, Iím not going to tell Rounder where they get off, because J P Fraley is still a very tasty fiddler, and one who can blow up a storm when the mood takes him. Moreover, I have had occasion, a couple of times recently, to comment adversely on Rounder playing times. Itís a pleasure, therefore, to report that this one weighs in at just over seventy minutes. It is also gratifying to observe that somebody at Rounder exercised what ought to be a cardinal principle; make sure the punters get their moneyís worth. Most of all, itís a pleasure to know that J P is still around to cut those extra tracks. I hope that will be the case for many years to come.
Allow me to introduce the booklet. Wisely, I think, not all of the original notes to the tunes have been retained. That is because Mark Wilson, who produced the disc along with the now deceased Guthrie T Mead, felt that some modernisation was in order. Well, times change, and so do states of knowledge, and there are some salient comments regarding Wilsonís present feelings on regional playing styles. All the same, the original notes contained one piece of political correctness, which I feel should have been corrected. I refer to a tune which is usually called Run, Nigger, Run. As the notes point out, the title reflects its origin in slave times. It is likely that the piece began as a coded message; the function of which was to warn slaves about the paterollers, who used to round up escapees and curfew busters. Here, though, the title appears as Run, Johnny, Run, and the accompanying note appears to indicate that the alteration comes neither from tradition, or from J P, but from Wilson and/or Meade. Curiously enough, Musical Traditions recently published a letter from Mike Yates, discussing the use of the word Nigger in folksong. My disgust at racism needs no reiteration, for I have made my feelings known in MT on many previous occasions. However, Mikeís letter raises an important point about the question of value freedom in the study of folklore generally, and how we view folklore, and what we want out of it. Although his letter singles out the sexual bowdlerisation of Sharp and Baring-Gould, manipulation and distortion of the social culture of the common people goes back well over a century before these two gentlemen became active. Moreover, the motives of bowdlerisers were by no means confined to the repression of sexual desires. They were just as likely to be stimulated by thoughts aesthetic or antiquarian or political or nationalistic, or by good old fashioned hard cash.
The problem which arises from this is that we do not know how to handle folklore. It has come down to us, either as the strivings of a people who are heroic or ethnic or proletarian, or else as a cute and cuddly combination of kindermšrchen and curious custom and quaint belief. It is none of these things. Like the human race which spawned it, it is fraught with frailty; and some of it is good and some of it is bad and some of it is ugly; and some of it reflects social norms and values I would not care to drag in on the sole of my shoe. But until we learn to accept folklore as it is, and not as we would like it to be, we cannot comprehend the idiom in which we work. In the meantime, the rest of the human race will continue to view their artistic cultural heritage as a pastime for dilettantes and dreamers and rare eccentrics - and interminable bores.
But there is a more specific reason why I do not feel that the title should have been amended. It is that the music of the Southern Appalachians has been the subject of ethnic bowdlerisation ever since it was discovered by the outside world. To the ladies of the settlement school movement, just as much as to Cecil Sharp and Samuel P Bayard, it was ethnically Anglo Saxon. It was pure and white just like them. To a later generation of Hibernian pundits, it is either Irish or Ulster Scots. They seem unable to decide which, but are in no doubt as to its Celtic credentials. In neither case are the parties willing to acknowledge what is in all probability the most important root element of this music; plantation slavery. As if to underline that point, there is another track on this disc, where J P sings the following:
Oh, my little girl, if you donít do betterAn obvious reference to slavery, and the practice of selling slaves Ďdown the riverí. I have no doubt at all, that whoever amended the title had their heart in the right place. It would be ironic however if, in the name of good race relations, the part which black people played in moulding this music was denied or undervalued.
Put you on the boat, gonna send you down the river
Boat began to sink, my heart began to quiver
Oh, my little girl, youíre going down the river.
Iím glad to report, though, that a brief but delightful autobiography has been retained intact. It contains some illuminating information about the land and times J P grew up in, as well as various childhood recollections of Ed Haley and other fiddlers of the neighbourhood. Being edited from interviews, rather than written by J P himself, I suppose it qualifies as a piece of oral history. Whatever you call it, the text flows across the page in that easy, homely style which characterises so much worthwhile vernacular biography. If youíve ever read Fred Kitchen or Spike Mays, or Bob Copperís Song for Every Season, youíll enjoy reading this.
By any standards, this is a superb release. If I were a Frenchman, I would pin a Legion of Honour medal on its chest; and to hell with having to kiss it on both cheeks. The problem is that the market in sublime American fiddle music is a little crowded at the moment. Apart from the fact that J P features on three other Rounder discs, there are the Ozark must haves, which I mentioned above; and there are two West Virginia UP releases of Edden Hammons, plus another of Johnny Johnson, due out very soon. If poverty restricts you to just one blazing record of fiddle music a year, get your next ten yearís supply in now.
Fred McCormick - 21.3.01
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