Through its record label Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the Smithsonian Institute releases collections documenting traditional folk forms, ostensibly “to strengthen people’s engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others”. With this summer marking the 400th anniversary of the English landing at Jamestown, Virginia, the label has put out Virginia Roots, a 15-track digital-only collection of folk music from the commonwealth. The compilation contains an array of styles and traditions, which serves as both its greatest strength and weakness. As an overview of what was going on in musical traditions in Virginia in the middle of the last century, it gets the job done quickly and effectively. As a source of education about those developments (which you’d expect from the Smithsonian), the disc comes up a little short.
The scattershot approach to the collection isn’t as wild as it could be; after all, these cuts are acoustic, stemming primarily from old-time traditions, and not unlikely partners. However, the variety of styles means a listener can’t hone in one particular approach. It also serves to lump Virginia into a unified mass of culture. The opportunity arises for a willing scholar to start dissecting musical and cultural differences (or the European and African antecedents), but we aren’t given that analysis. We also lose out on chances to place individual songs (especially Kilby Snow’s “John Henry”) in a larger musical or historical context. The result of this approach, along with the digital-only nature of the release, gives it the feeling of a toss-off by Smithsonian Folkways, quickly culled from their archives in time for an anticipated anniversary.
Of course, accepting that this disc should serve only for a quick glimpse at some old folk music, you can start your exploration and worry about sorting out the details later. Fortunately, the individual cuts in the collection are generally pretty stellar, and range from landmark figures in their fields to people who won’t even turn up in the trusty Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the most remarkable performances come from the most well-known artists. The Stanley Brothers turn in two memorable performances of their particular style of bluegrass. The duo nail the instrumental “Hard Times,” with Ralph’s banjo trying to steal the show but never pulling away from Carter’s guitar (and neither outshining their accompaniment). “Rabbit in a Log” combines typical harmonies with instrumental exhibitions for a fun, rowdy performance. Two Dock Boggs cuts also show up. “Down South Blues” features a memorable banjo and vocal performance, while “Sugar Baby” takes a darker trun on the style.
The catch is that these are all performances fans of the styles will need to have, but will also likely come up with elsewhere. More fun to dig into are the (varyingly) less-noticed performers that make up the other two-thirds of the disc. Rufus Kasey’s “Coo Coo Bird” provides an assertive performance that sounds as if someone’s just about to come unhinged. Fortunately, Kasey’s banjo straddles the borderline perfectly and could have served as a template for later, more raucous approaches to the blues. The Virginia Mountain Boys, with “Clinch Mountain Breakdown”, deliver a cut as frantic as anything on here, but stay locked-in on each other throughout the piece. While banjos dominate the disc, Wade Ward and Glen Smith give the fiddle a brilliant moment in their “Soldier’s Joy” stomp (although, oddly enough, the track opens the collection, setting a somewhat inaccurate tone).
Taken on a performance level, Virginia Roots doesn’t miss. As an introduction to the various folk forms of Virginia, it covers the basics, provides great performances, and makes for a fun listen throughout. However, it still feels as if it’s come up a little short, missing out on an opportunity to make a bigger statement about the music of the area and to actually achieve the Folkways’ goal of enlightening listeners on cultural traditions. The group could have done much worse in making an assemblage of music, but it also could have done better with this collection.