A question: What does it mean when a folk tradition is passed down through vinyl rather than from villager to villager and without a personal and social context? That was answered in the ‘60s by folk revivalists such as Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur. As part of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band (along with Maria Muldaur and others) these two popularized obscure performers and songs from the past. The two have joined back together to make a new album. (This is not the first time.) They list the records they originally learned the material from in the liner notes as a badge of honor. Several of the 15 tracks originally appeared on the 1952 Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. In this world of streaming music, Kweskin and Muldaur want to let listeners know they acquired their repertoire the old-fashioned way, through 20th century discs.
That’s funny, but it also indicates the central issue surrounding this release. These songs are valued for their authenticity, but they are being recreated with perfect acoustics for people to listen to on their personal devices. Muldaur and Kweskin are fine musicians and do select great songs, most of them not well-known. Consider their version of Julius Daniel’s nasty 1927 “99 Year Blues” that begins with the lines “Give me my pistol / Three rounds of balls / Gonna kill everybody / I don’t like at all.” Two old men impeccably singing and playing drains Daniel’s song of its menace and mystery. It’s a terrific song, but….
In the publishing world, they would call something such as this a coffee table book. It’s pretty, pristine, well-researched and informative. There is much to like and admire here. Take for example the two guitarists good time version of “Sweet to Mama”. It’s fun. However, the words become meaningless as everything that matters can be found in the syncopated tempos. Muldaur’s voice is just another instrument in the mix. Kweskin’s does the same thing on the Zimbabwe folk song “Gwabi, Gwabi” that he first heard on a British 10-inch LP. He feelingly articulates the words, but one would guess Kweskin had little understanding of the lyrics. The sounds of the words matter more than their meanings.
Generally, the more upbeat songs work best. The duo’s covers of the sweet-natured Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louise Collins (Angels Laid Him Away)”, “C-H-I-C-K-E-N”, and “Frankie” reveal the respect and pleasure they continue to get from Hurt’s music. (They did befriend him in the ‘60s.) Other highlights include Muldaur singing a beautiful and wistful “Tennessee Blues”, Kweskin’s decorative five-string banjo take on “Just a Little While to Stay Here”, and the gentle camaraderie these two singers and players share. That sentiment comes out on every song.
Is it folk music? Maybe; that depends on one’s definition of the term which can generously be described as “slippery”. Maybe there never was once such a thing as folk but just a series of folk revivals during the last 100 or so years. Those that listen to this music will treasure the beauty of the musicianship. These guys got the goods. Others may find the artifice bothersome. They are not the real thing and have never claimed to be. Their honesty and talent are in clear evidence on their latest release.
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