[27 January 2004]
Women in America began staking a claim in country music long before recording equipment existed. The women country singers are the ones known as the Flowers in the Wildwood and on this disc they sing their old time country music in high sweet voices with only the sparsest of instrumental accompaniment. Though edging out from folk tradition, this music is made by women who were for the most part commercial country singers, because that’s who typically made it onto records and the radio, after all.
This collection dates from the decade before World War II, with a few precious offerings reaching back as far as the 1920s. These 25 rare recordings, released by Germany’s quirky Trikont label, seem untouched by modern technology. There of course has been remastering, which allows for the sparkling clarity, but in this case it seems the mid-range has been brought forward again. The end result of such engineering relies on the quality of the original recording; in this case, the physical condition of the 78-rpm used for transfer. So the music here sometimes sounds a bit distorted, or scratchy and hissy; on one track, the needle clicks and skips through a deep scratch. But rather than being a distraction, these flaws just lend to the experience. This is exactly how these old records used to sound, probably when played for the very first time. The listener today, in mind at least, can easily slip into an easy chair in a room lit only by kerosene lamps, being entertained by a record spinning on the hand-cranked Victrola or the nightly broadcast coming out the floor model radio. The music pouring out the speaker is from that distant world.
The range of music here is as wide open as any prairie. From the 1933 Tin-Pan Alley sound of the Girls of the Golden West on “Round-up Time in Texas”, complete with pop-styled yodels all the way to the bizarre Dezurik Sisters clucking, clicking, hiccuping, and yodeling their way through “I Left Her Standing There”. Both groups were popular radio performers. The Girls of the Golden West had a public persona of having deep roots in the Golden West, and they assumed a twangy “Western” accent in song. There are an awful lot of esses whistled through the teeth for two girls born and raised in Illinois. The Dezurik Sisters can’t contain themselves and erupt in a gentle two-voice yodel during their sweet lullaby “Go to Sleep My Darlin” (both songs drawn from their only recording session in 1939). The sisters most likely learned to yodel in Minnesota, where they originated. After the country music circuit dried up for them, they reinvented themselves as a polka band.
The country music pendulum keeps swinging. Some players, deeply rooted in the rural South, offer a chance to hear authentic mainstream old time music. In the ensuing years, their vibrant work has become required repertoire for performing string bands. The Kentucky-bred Coon Creek Girls (“Little Birdie” and “Flowers Blooming in the Wildwood”) and Virginia’s own Carter Family (“Just Another Broken Heart” and “Walking in the King’s Highway”) are as integral to the genre as, well, cornmeal is to hush puppies. Others, every bit as genuine, though popular in their time have long since faded from the limelight. Like Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis sawing a fiddle, frailing a banjo, and telling us all about that “Big Eyed Rabbit”.
Others, even more obscure, provide a fascinating glimpse into the cultures women developed for music in those distant times. The Southland Ladies Quartette (“My Loved Ones Are Waiting for Me”) and the Wisdom Sisters (“Prayer”) are two sides of the same coin. Each group was recorded in 1927, and while the Wisdom Sisters hailed from Atlanta, Georgia, the Southland Ladies Quartette resided in Indiana. But traditions traveled with the people. Using the Southern religious harmony, both groups are firmly footed in the tradition of Southern singing schools, which taught shape note harmonies.
The compilers unabashedly include two songs that fall in the category of racial characterization, originally released because the record companies recognized where their appeal might lie. The Aaron Sisters with the Song-o-pators singing “How’m I Doin’” could conceivably be regarded as an innocent use of black dialect and slang, but not so easily can “Lorena” by Jo & Alma, the Kentucky Girls. The popular radio stars give a restrained sentimental treatment to this tear-jerking syrup, a song of the old South: “It was way down upon the old plantation / That Massa he owned me as a slave / He owned a yellow gal called Lorena / And we courted where the wild bananas sway”.
This compilation moves from the slick cowgirl swing of the great Patsy Montana expressing her love and regard for “My Poncho Pony” to the bald-faced profanity of Louisiana Lou who promptly introduces herself: “I just got out of jail / Leavin’ town tonight / Goin’ back to the one / Who can make my jelly right” (“With My Banjo on My Knee Blues”).
There are too many songs and artists on this rich offering to even sketch. Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Baker present a deceptively simple outline of profound loss “On the Banks of the Old Tennessee”. A quick-paced song carried by Mrs. Baker accompanying herself on autoharp, the lyrics ask for no sympathy but explain what has happened to account for her condition in the world. The loss keeps growing with each added verse: Her father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, and her friends are all dead and buried along the banks of the Old Tennessee. How’s that for being completely alone (and by extension unloved) in what had to have been a cold, cruel world?
While there’s no changing some reality, the contributing conditions can be changed. Aunt Molly Jackson presents a short respectful speech before launching into her modal “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues) Pt. 1”. Born Mary Magdalene Garland in 1880, her early experiences with the rural mining industry fueled a lifetime of action against that establishment, and her outspoken songs said as much and more. She recorded only four of her songs in 1931, and only two of those were ever released. By the end of that decade, though, Aunt Molly was recorded extensively by the Library of Congress.
This is altogether a fine collection of music made by women in early country music. An imaginative and respectful treatment of the people and the genre, with luscious packaging to boot, Flowers in the Wildwood deserves a place in anyone’s library. While you have to really be in the mood for the music to settle in and listen, if it’s handy you can begin drawing the connecting lines between these women in early country music and those who have since followed.