Friends of Old Time Music

The Folk Arrival 1961-1965

Smithsonian Folkways 3CD boxed set SFW40160

Doc Watson (et al) - I'm Troubled / Brown's Dream / Hicks' Farewell / Lonely Tombs / Short Life of Trouble / Double File; Dock Boggs - The Country Blues / Down South Blues / Poor Boy in Jail; Roscoe Holcomb - East Virginia Blues / John Henry / Rising Sun Blues; Maybelle Carter - The Storms Are on the Ocean / Foggy Mountain Top / Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow / Sugar Hill / He's Solid Gone; The Stanley Brothers - The Dream of the Miner's Child / Have a Feast Here Tonight / Mansions for Me / Hard Times; Hobart Smith - Soldier's Joy; Mississippi John Hurt - Coffee Blues / My Creole Belle / Frankie and Albert; Jesse Fuller - Rockin' Boogie / Buck and Wing / Guitar Lesson / Cincinnati Blues / San Francisco Bay Blues / Stranger Blues; Sam McGee - Knoxville Blues; The Georgia Sea Island Singers (with various leads) - Riley / Before This Time Another Yea / Chevrolet; Arthur Smith - Hell Among the Yearlings; The Greenbriar Boys - Amelia Earhart's Last Flight; Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys - The Brakeman's Blues / Shady Grove / Grey Eagle / Walkin' the Dog / Live and Let Live / I Saw the Light / Lord, Build Me a Cabin in Glory; The New Lost City Ramblers - Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel; Fred McDowell - Going Down to the River / Write Me a Few of Your Lines; Joseph Spence - Bimini Gal; Stanley Thompson - Kneelin' Down Inside the Gate; McKinley Peebles - Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt; Horton Barker - The Miller's Will; Annie Bird - The Wandering Boy; Clarence Ashley - The Coo Coo Bird / Maggie Walker Blues / Amazing Grace.
The question of how to present musical traditions to new audiences is one that has exercised the minds of all sorts of people over the years.  Most readers, probably, can remember examples of events they have experienced which have got it right, as well as ones that got it less right, or even plain wrong.  Elsewhere on Musical Traditions, there’s my review of a recording (Freedom, Bridge 9114) of a concert presented by the Library of Congress in 1940, in which The Golden Gate Quartet and Josh White were presented almost as if they were anthropological specimens, whose role was to provide musical illustrations for the folklorist’s thesis.  Cover pictureAs observed in that review, the effect is strange and uncomfortable to modern ears, even if it seems to have made some sense in the culture of the day.  Things had changed a great deal two decades later, when the Friends of Old Time Music was formed in New York to come up with a more satisfactory approach.  When Mike Seeger is heard here introducing Roscoe Holcomb, it is as a friend; I almost wrote ‘as an equal’, but the tone of respect - even a slight touch of awe - in the former’s voice might tell a slightly different story.  Anyway, it is a long way from the patronising tones that grate so much on the Library of Congress recording.

The Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM) were formed by Ralph Rinzler, John Cohen, Mike Seeger, Jean Ritchie and Israel Young with the specific aim of putting together concerts in which New York audiences would have an opportunity to hear some of the great traditional musicians who rarely performed outside their home areas (and, in some cases, outside their homes).  Some, like Clarence Ashley, had made records in the 1920s and had recently been tracked down and ‘rediscovered’ by fans; others, like Fred McDowell, had been found by collectors on field trips (the founders of FOTM having been leading lights in both kinds of activity).  Whatever their background, these performers were responsible for some of the finest traditional music ever heard in the USA, but in some cases had never previously been heard in a concert setting.  Between 1961 and 1965 FOTM presented fourteen concerts in various locations, from the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village to the New York School of Medicine (as well as a few concerts in Boston and Philadelphia).  Many would feature two separate performers, like Doc Watson and Jesse Fuller (12th October 1962) or Dock Boggs and Mississippi John Hurt (13th December 1964), while others showcased a group such as the Stanley Brothers (9th June 1961).

Great care was taken in the preparation for, and presentation of, these concerts to ensure that the audience benefited from some background knowledge and understanding of the performers and the music.  To quote Peter Siegel’s account in the booklet: ‘they experimented with different methods …  One was the use of a presenter to inform the audience about the music to be performed, and often to consult with the musicians in selecting and sequencing repertoire.  Another was the presentation of workshops and accompanying program notes’.  All of this is unimpeachable, given the culture clash represented by many of these concerts - putting The Georgia Sea Island Singers on stage in front of a big city audience requires thoughtful consideration, for the benefit of both parties.  At the same time, FOTM seem never to have lost sight of the fact that, first and foremost, the audience had come to enjoy the music, or that the performers should have every opportunity to ensure that the music speaks for itself.

These three discs, each with almost an hour of music, offer some of the highlights of the fourteen concerts, with 53 out of the 55 tracks never issued before.  The presentation is highly attractive - a sturdy box, handsomely designed, with each disc in a separate slipcase, and a 56-page booklet, including an account of FOTM’s history and other commentary, as well as specific notes on each track.  Everything - box, slipcases, booklet - is bedecked with photographs of the musicians, beautifully reproduced, some familiar, others not so.  The sound quality is outstanding: clear, warm and full of life (the result, says the press release, of ‘thousands of hours of meticulous audio production by the Smithsonian Foklways team’ - all credit to them).  The discs are carefully programmed and edited in such a way as to give the impression of a single, long concert - a grand, glorious event in which these immortal geniuses of American music shared a stage and sang great song after great song in steady succession.  Now there’s some kind of fantasy.

Much of the material will be familiar to those who are already interested.  In one form or another, Roscoe Holcomb’s Rising Sun, John Hurt’s Frankie and Albert, Fred McDowell’s Write Me A Few of Your Lines, Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay and Clarence Ashley’s Coo Coo Bird for example, magnificent performances every one, are pretty much foundation material for a collection of American folk music.  But in each case, the version here adds something to our knowledge and pleasure - Dock Boggs’s Country Blues, for example, is subtly different to the version on his Folkways album, or the early version he recorded for Brunswick in 1927 - an utterly compelling performance.  And if you feel you could scarcely stand to hear another version of Amazing Grace, I would urge you to try this one by Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson and others.  In fact, this actual performance is said to be the one that first provoked the interest in the song in the folk revival.  If that’s true, it’s probably what put the song on the road that led eventually to the version for massed Scottish bagpipes that hit the UK charts in the 1970s, to the soundtrack of Braveheart and even to mobile phone ringtones.  But even such infamy can detract nothing from the exquisite, spinechilling lucidity of the harmonies in this rendition, a perfect conclusion to the last disc.

The only difficulty in reviewing this package is that in order to counteract an inevitable string of superlatives, you feel the need to cast around for something negative to say about it.  Impossible - the music is almost beyond criticism; you would really have to do it on the basis of something that this package is not trying to do in the first place.  It’s certainly true that it only scratches the surface of these people’s music - there’s a lot more to, say, Dock Boggs or Fred McDowell than you will hear on these discs.  But that’s not the point.  There’s plenty of other albums where you can follow through any interest that might have been piqued by listening to these discs.  I’d have loved to hear more of Sam McGee on this kind of form - his guitar instrumental Knoxville Blues is the kind of virtuoso performance that put the fear of God into so many young guitar players of the day; or Joseph Spence, whose Bimini Gal is as good as - maybe even better than - anything I’ve ever heard by this great Bahamian guitarist and singer; one song by the little known McKinley Peebles or one by Horton Barker (an unaccompanied comic ballad) seems scarcely enough.  The delightful musical banter between Ed Young and Emma Ramsey of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, or Hobart Smith’s scintillating banjo instrumental just leaves you eager for more.  No doubt they could have made this a four, five or six disc set without sacrificing the quality, but who really has any cause for complaint that they didn’t?  You might carp about the fact that the artist who probably made more records, on more different labels, than any of the others is the one who gets the most tracks, but how can you complain about seven tracks of Bill Monroe’s band sounding as good as it does here?  We also get two tracks by folk revival bands, the Greenbriar Boys and the New Lost City Ramblers, but as they featured FOTM leading lights Rinzler and Cohen respectively, and they donated their services free to help support the concerts, it would be churlish in the extreme to begrudge them the space, and they’re both excellent, especially the former’s Amelia Earhart.

An accompanying press release makes much of the influence of these concerts, and one of the booklet’s essays expresses similar views.  The extent to which the folk revival in the early 1960s enriched and broadened the parameters of popular music can hardly be exaggerated.  In providing a performance platform for these traditional musicians, FOTM can legitimately claim a key role in this.  No doubt records played a much greater part, but these concerts led both directly and indirectly to opportunities for the performers to make records, and also helped to foster the conditions in which people would buy them.  Certainly, in the music here, you can hear quite clearly things that influenced all sorts of people.  Not surprisingly, Bob Dylan is specifically mentioned in both press release and booklet, along with the Lovin’ Spoonful and Janis Joplin, but there’s plenty more, from The Byrds to Ry Cooder, to Donovan (whose song Hey Gyp, Dig The Slowness is a barely disguised version of Young and Ramsey’s Chevrolet), and on to more recent artists like Moby.  As I’ve noted in other reviews, recent years have seen a significant shift in perspective in relation to American traditional music and its practitioners, especially under the influence of commentators such as Griel Marcus.  In a way, this box, with its music, its narrative and its photography, restores the sense of these musicians as people - extraordinary people, no doubt, but none the less real human beings - rather than as the dark, otherwordly figures that some writers seem to prefer.

There’s a photograph in the booklet of Maybelle Carter, autoharp in hand, her handsome features showing all the durability and craggy dignity of a Mount Rushmore carving, which somehow seems just right for such a monumental figure in American music.  A similar sense of authority comes through in her performances here; the straightforward beauty of Foggy Mountain Top, accompanied by Carter’s own trademark guitar picking, is one of the highlights of these discs.  Introducing Bury Me Beneath the Willow, she tells the audience that she had originally recorded the song with the Carter Family at their first session in 1927 - ‘a long time ago’.  A long time indeed, but in fact, at the time of writing we are farther removed in time from that FOTM concert, than the 1965 event was from the Victor recording session.  In terms of our distance from the traditions that are so vividly featured on these discs, I’d venture that we are a great deal further, which makes this collection all the more of a treasure.  It’s hardly a cliché to say that we will never see the likes of these people again, but thanks to the foresight, the dedication and the efforts of the Friends of Old Time Music, and now the Smithsonian Folkways producers, we can at least get to hear them.

Ray Templeton - 15.11.06

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