In Sacred Trust
The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes
Smithsonian-Folkways SFW CD40141
CD plus 78 page booklet.
Heaven's Airplane ; Banging Breakdown ; Buck Creek Girls ; Fly Around my Pretty Little Miss ; Brown Skin Blues ; John Brown's Dream ; Cuckoo Bird ; Cripple Creek ; John Greer's Two-Step ; Wabash Blues ; Jim and Me ; Old Joe Clark; John Henry ; Give Me Your Heart ; What Did the Buzzard Say to the Crow ; Soldier's Joy ; Uncloudy Day ; I Feel So Good ; Cumberland Gap ; Jim Along ; Soldier's Joy ; Railroad Bill ; Railroad Bill ; Old Joe Clark ; Wayfaring Stranger ; Chatham Hill Serenade ; I'll Meet You When the Sun Goes Down ; Indian March ; Walking Boss ; Woman at the Well ; Clog Dance with Guitar ; Black Annie ; Wildwood Flower ; Full of Music as I Could Be ; Katie Went A-Fishin' With a Hook and Line ; K.C. Moan.Hobart Smith was one of the greats of Old-Timey Appalachian music. And this, his third CD, is just chock full of amazing music!1 These recordings were made at the Chicago home of banjo-player Fleming Brown (1926-84). Apparently Fleming made a total of nine hours of recordings. 'In 1983, in the throes of his final illness, (Fleming) gave (Stephen Wade) these tapes. Pain filled his eyes as he handed them over, knowing what they held and what they signified to both himself and Hobart. He hoped, he said, that they would someday become a record.' But Stephen Wade, who has produced this CD and written the booklet of superb notes, tried to interest several record labels without success - which says a lot about the state of the record industry in America - before Smithsonian-Folkways came to the rescue.
I'm not going to go into Hobart's background - I did that in the review of Hobart's Rounder CD - except to say that he was brought up in the Appalachian Mountains of south-west Virginia, that his sister was the ballad singer Texas Gladden2, and that he mixed with both black and white musicians when he was a young man. In Sacred Trust contains almost 75 minutes worth of excellently recorded material. There are folk and Gospel songs, blues, fiddle, banjo and piano tunes, as well as a short spoken piece, here titled 'Full of music as I could be.'
Although Hobart considered himself a fiddler first, I suppose that most people came to his music via his banjo-playing. And Hobart really was a good banjo-player. Here we have a couple of his well-known pieces Black Annie and Banging Breakdown (sometimes called John Greer's Tune, after the person who first taught Hobart the tune). I suspect that these recordings may have captured Hobart at his best here. Then there are some lesser well-known pieces, Wabash Blues, Chatham Hill Serenade, I'll Meet You When the Sun Goes Down and John Greer's 2- Step, along with versions of some better-known tunes, such as Buck Creek Girls, Soldier's Joy, Railroad Bill and Katie Went A-Fishing. On two tunes, Cumberland Gap and Old Joe Clark, Hobart gives us two versions of each tune to show how different people used to play these items. There is also a splendid version of the rare tune Walking Boss that Clarence Ashley used to play and sing.
Fiddle tunes include John Brown's Dream (a version that clearly show's its relationship to the Little Rabbit family of tunes), Old Joe Clark, Soldier's Joy, a mournful Wayfaring Stranger and a version of It Ain't Gonna Rain no More - here titled What Did the Buzzard Say to the Crow? I must say that, to my ears, this tune sounds more like one of the Old Hen Cackled tunes, complete with the sound of the crowing cockerel. And there are three tunes played on the piano, Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss, Wildwood Flower and a curious piece called Indian March. According to one of Hobart's relatives this tune was 'heard from real Indians' but, to be honest, it sounds more like the kind of thing that would have been played in cinemas to accompany silent movies.
There are three Gospel songs, Heaven's Airplane, Uncloudy Day and The Woman at the Well, together with a number of guitar-accompanied songs, such as Railroad Bill, Jim and Me and Give Me Your Heart. The Woman at the Well is of interest to me, because it is based on the same Biblical text (John, chapter 4, verses 1 - 30) as is the ballad of The Maid and the Palmer (Roud 2335, Child 21), although the two songs are totally distinct, and it only goes to show how different people, in different locations and at different times, can produce works that are, in many ways, poles apart. There are also blues, such as the unaccompanied I Feel so Good which, as the notes suggest, stems from a recording by Big Bill Broonzy. At times Hobart Smith's voice certainly sounds like Broonzy. Hobart said that he learnt this piece from a black singer called 'Blind Lemon', who also taught him how to finger-pick Brown Skin Blues. It has been suggested that this was Blind Lemon Jefferson, although most researchers now think this unlikely.3 K.C.Moan, played with a slide, may also have come from 'Blind Lemon', although other black musicians also played the tune to Hobart in his younger days.
According to the booklet notes, Hobart was an all-round musician who could also play mouthorgan, mandolin, organ and accordion, although there are no examples from any of these instruments on this album. 'Musicians Black and White - mandolinists, tenor guitarists, twelve-string players, local songwriters - emerge in family recollections of the players Hobart sought out. His drive to absorb songs, styles, and instrumental techniques of those around him contributed to the multiple musical roles he came to occupy within his community; from piano playing at church revivals to performing for square dances and ice cream suppers. He formed a string band with John Greer and later another with his brother. Still later he formed another with his children. He competed in fiddle contests and provided entertainment for lodge meetings, land sales, and society affairs. As a multi-instrumentalist, he gravitated towards "anything," he said, "that has strings or a note".'
It is often the case that a performer's best material gets to be heard on his, or her, first album. But this is not the case with Hobart's three CDs. They are all superb. A few tunes heard on In Sacred Trust have appeared elsewhere (in other recorded versions), but about two thirds of the material heard on this CD is new to my ears.
So, full praise then to Fleming Brown, for recording this material, to Stephen Wade, for writing some excellent notes and for all the work that he did to get this CD issued, and to Smithsonian-Folkways, who, unlike others, actually issued this wonderful music. It looks like Christmas has come early for me this year!
Mike Yates - 10.12.05