|Friends Across the Pond
|Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance FAOCD 02
|J W Penland
|Standing on Tradition
|1869 Records. No issue number
Friends Across the Pond: Possum up a Gum Stump / Sail Away Ladies / Sugar in the Gourd / Cherry River Line / Wolves a-Howlin / Little Billy Wilson / Sweet Sunny South / Put Your Hand to the Plough / Yew Piney Mountain / Trouble on My Mind / Jenny Get Around / Didn't He Ramble? / Stonewall Jackson / Hop High My Lulu Gal / Martha Campbell / I Truly Understand / Stone Camp / Sugar Babe / Amazing Grace / Pretty Polly / Johnny Don't Get Drunk.The first Gainsborough Old Time Festival was held in 1994, the brain-child of Keith Johnson. Over the years a number of outstanding American Old-Timey performers have attended the annual event and, to celebrate ten years of the music, FOAOTMAD have brought out a splendid CD featuring many of these Americans performers. Almost all of the tracks are taken from previously issued American CDs, but, as these are often pretty obscure CDs, I doubt if many people will have heard much of this material before.
Standing on Tradition: Pretty Saro / Lady of Carlisle / The Old Man of the Mountain / Camp a Little While / Black is the Color / Jerusalem Mourn / When First Unto this Country / Rain and Snow / Young Emily / Pretty Fair Miss / Wayfaring Stranger / A Sailor Being Tired / Bonnie James Campbell.
The album kicks off with a rousing Possum Up a Gum Stump by the Celestial Railroad String Band, a set of performers who are new to me. The tune was 'learned from several sources' and that's all that we are told, which is a pity because it's a fine tune from the Streak o' Lean - Streak o' Fat family of tunes, the title Possum Up a Gum Stump possibly being taken from a 1928 Lowe Stokes' recording with the Skillet Lickers. And, for me, that's the one major problem with this CD. There are just not enough notes to explain about the music and the source performers. It's fine and proper to say that such and such a tune comes from, say, Tommy Jarrell, Jenes Cottrell, Marcus Martin or Fred Cockerham; but I suspect that many of these names will be unknown to some listeners. I hope that I'm wrong here, all of the above were fine performers who deserve to be better known today, but this may not be the case and some explanations would, I think, have been in order.
Having got that off my chest, let's get back to the music. Tommy Jarrell's Sail Away Ladies is performed by Tom Sauber, Brad Leftwich and Alice Gerrard and is as good as it gets. Sugar in the Gourd comes from North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin (who has a CD's worth of archive material issued recently by the Field Recorders' Collective - FRC505. The album contains 39 tracks, though Sugar in the Gourd is missing) and is played as a lovely old-timey fiddle solo by Rayna Gellert. Diane Jones' Cherry River Line comes from Jenes Cottrell of West Virginia (and it's great to see that some of Jenes Cottrell's recordings can now be heard on another Field Recorders' Collective CD - FRC202, along with other fine West Virginian musicians including Phoebe Parsons and Wilson Douglas). Cherry River Line belongs to the 'Where'd you get your dress' group of songs, to which is added 'It's lonesome here / Lonesome all the time / Lonesome on this Cherry / Cherry River line'. Although The Rough Deal String Band's Wolves a-Howlin is similar to the version recorded by the Stripling Brothers in 1929, it is actually closer to that wonderful classic of old-time music, Greenback Dollar, which the Weems String Band recorded in 1929. (The Stripling Brother's can be heard playing Wolves Howling on Document DOCD-8007 and the Weems String Band's Greenback Dollar is on Old Hat CD-1004.)
Little Billie Wilson is, of course, the tune that Eck Robertson used to kick off his Brilliancy Medley (reissued on County CD 5515), surely one of the most aptly-titled pieces ever recorded, and Dan Levenson's banjo version is full of subtle and intricate phrasing. Likewise Kate Lissauer's version of Sweet Sunny South, one of the few songs that Cecil Sharp collected in the Appalachians by a known composer. Kate's tune comes from the late Buddy Thomas, an all-time favourite of mine, and Buddy can be heard playing it on his Rounder CD Kitty Puss (CD 0032). Dwight Diller has appeared regularly at Gainsborough since 1998, and seems to have taken on the role of 'father-figure' to many UK fiddle and banjo-players. His Put Your Hand to the Plough comes from fellow West Virginian player and singer Jenes Cottrell and, again, is splendidly sung. (If, by this time, you are getting the impression that I'm quite knocked-out by this CD, well … I am!) Yew Piney Mountain, performed by the Reed Island Rounders is another West Virginia tune, one often associated with Wilson Douglas and French Carpenter, although the notes fail to mention them. It's another intricate Appalachian tune and, like many others, might sound quite simple on first hearing. But, try playing it and you will soon begin to realize just how complex a piece it is.
Trouble On My Mind / Jenny Get Around come originally from the playing of Kentucky fiddler John Salyer. Try, if you can, to hear the cassette John Morgan Salyer - Home Recordings 1941 - 1942 that was issued in 1993 by the Appalachian Center at Berea, Kentucky (AC003), and then listen to the band Gandydancer playing the two tunes. Like all the performers heard on this album, they have captured the essence of old-timey music and, in the best possible way, have added just a little of their own character to the music.
The New Deal Stringband features Tom Paley and Joe Locker, two Americans who have been living and playing in Britain for years. Here they play and sing their way through Charlie Poole's Didn't He Ramble. Sarah Grey has also been resident in Britain for some time now. Her Hop High My Lula Girl belongs to the Roustabout family of songs and starts off with yet another 'Where'd you get your dress' verse. Although credited to the singing of Jim Miller, Hop High My Lula Girl seems very close to Fred Cockerham's influential version that can be heard on The North Carolina Banjo Album (Rounder CD 0439/40). Dave Bing is another regular Gainsborough visitor. His Stonewall Jackson comes from Jimmy Wheeler of Portsmouth, Ohio, and Jimmy can be heard playing it himself on another recently issued Field Recorders' Collective CD - FRC401.
Bob Carlin's Martha Campbell is another tune from Buddy Thomas, although it was popularized by Doc Roberts, who recorded two versions in 1925 and 1929. Carlin is one of the greats of banjo-playing and his playing is just superb. Ron Mullennex is another fine banjo-payer. His own composition Stone Camp is well within the tradition and is followed by a version of the popular Sugar Babe, this one from the Hammons Family of West Virginia.
Although Bruce Molsky's version of I Truly Understand is said to be based on the version recorded by Shortbuckle Roarke and Family (re-issued on Yazoo CD 2200) it is also very different. In fact I find this to be one of the highlights on what is a very fine CD indeed. Molsky's voice and fiddle interweave in and out forming some very 'un-Roarke' harmonies at times. And the resulting piece is just spellbinding. Another delight is Debby McClatchy's version of Amazing Grace, one sung to 'a less familiar tune'. Actually the tune belongs to The House Carpenter family, which is quite well-known in America, and works well with this hymn. Pretty Polly, sung with banjo accompaniment by Riley Baugus, comes from the playing and singing of Fred Cockerham. Fred used a very well-known tune and Riley's banjo-playing really captures Fred's complex style. And this brings us to the final tune, Johnny Don't Get Drunk, ably played by the Konnarock Critters. We are told that, 'the origins of this traditional tune are not known.' In fact, it would seem to be a version of the minstrel song De Old Gray Goose, first published in the 1840s, which ends with the verse 'Monday was my courting day / On Tuesday I got married'. And a quick look in Gus Meade's Country Music Sources (Chapel Hill, 2002, p.756) shows that John Ashby used the title Johnny Don't Get Drunk on one of his County LPs (County 727, issued in 1970).
Listening to this CD I am reminded of the history of the revival of interest in Old-Timey music. In the '50s performers such as the New Lost City Ramblers (which included Tom Paley) started to copy songs and tunes from the old 78s. By the '60s enthusiasts were seeking out some of the performers who actually made those once-forgotten 78s (Tom Ashley, Dock Boggs etc.). And then younger performers started to seek out other traditional fiddle and banjo players who had not recorded, but who had, nevertheless, continued to play the music in their homes and with friends. And here the names of Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham, Wilson Douglas, J P Fraley, etc, come to mind. Most of the people on this CD belong to the latter group of enthusiasts and it is thrilling to realize just how wonderfully they are able to play the music today. Oh Brother Where Art Thou? may have stimulated a short-time interest in the music (bearing in mind that, to many Americans, the music in Oh Brother was perceived to be Bluegrass music!) but, in truth, it is the performers on this and many other similar CDs who are now the guardians of the music.
Joe Penland has not visited Gainsborough, although he has spent time in the UK touring both England and Scotland. Joe is from Madison County in North Carolina - the area where Cecil Sharp collected many of his best songs - and grew up listening to singers such as Lee, Doug and Berzilla Wallin, Cas Wallin and Dellie Norton. His CD contains a dozen songs and ballads from these singers, plus one of his own songs The Old Man of the Mountain which concerns the life of Lee Wallin, Joe's favourite singer. Interestingly, Joe Penland is no mere copyist. Today we can listen to recordings of many of the singers who taught him songs (quite a few are on the Musical Traditions CDs Far in the Mountains) and Joe clearly puts his own stamp on each performance. His thoughtful version of, say, Lady of Carlisle is sung in a far less extrovert manner than the versions that Doug Wallin or Dillard Chandler used to perform. And I especially like When First Unto this Country, sung here as a duet with Mary Eagle. All in all, a very interesting and entertaining CD.
When I was last in Madison County, some five years ago, I realized that hardly any of the older singers were still with us. And, apart from one or two singers, such as Sheila Kay Adams, there seemed to be precious few younger singers around with an interest in the old songs. But, things seem to be changing and there are now CDs available from Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O'Sullivan and Josh Gosforth, who all hail from Madison County. Like Joe, they have all inherited a wonderful store of songs, tales and musical styles. Hey, things are starting to look good again in that part of the woods.
Standing on Tradition can be ordered on line at: www.ivycreek.com
Mike Yates - 28.8.04