Lena Hughes: Queen of the Flat Top Guitar

Lena Hughes
Queen of the Flat Top Guitar
Tompkins Square

Not to be cheap or cruel here, but I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to suggest that the majority of this record’s target audience has been decimated by natural causes. One might be led by the title to suspect that Hughes was some kind of master blues player or trailblazing great. Not so — Queen of the Flat Top Guitar is an appropriately brief collection of one-guitar parlor melodies that now exist more for the purpose of providing historical checkpoints than they do for re-contextualization or even academic analyses.

“Parlor music,” in case you don’t know, is a style that was popular in the mid-to-late 19th century in Europe and especially in small towns in Midwestern America, a style that one could say appreciated a minor revival in the mid-20th century because of its (retrospectively thin) tonal ties to Delta blues and rustic bluegrass melodies. (Not to mention early 20th century American marching band songs.) Its melodic arcs are safe, comfortable, and familiar. It’s the kind of music that was played in humble cafés and, well, parlors, and the kind of music that’s now played — to the extent it’s played at all — by novice guitar players taking a recital-ish approach to their instrument. Appropriately, these direct, comfortable resolutions bear a lot in common with English hymns, and as anyone who was raised on English hymns can tell you, you’ll either approach said resolutions with the warmth of seeing an old friend, or you just won’t even notice or care about them in the first place.

Not to say this stuff is “easy,” mind you. Hughes — a late Missourian who learned and taught these songs while doing farm work and touring around the Midwest with her husband through the mid-century, recording these particular cuts in the mid-’60s — used open tunings that allowed for easy oscillations in the spare (if existent) harmony while the melodic lines were played on one string. (Usually.) But while one could easily follow this aesthetic without even trying to spark up the appropriate third and seventh chords with much distinction, Hughes does play these tunes with a more intricate hand than the norm. In “Pearly Dew” and “Spanish Fan-Dango”, the two most memorable melodies here, she carries on her lines in a way that can feel like two separate birds dipping in and out of each other’s graceful orbit; the sparse harmony often seems like it’s expanding into the melodies. (Check “Cedar Brook Waltz” for perhaps the most definitive example.)

It’s tempting to call these songs “delicate” — the tunes themselves, which of course feel as old as time itself in 2013, certainly entail that. (Reviewing a melody like “Under the Double Eagle” is a little like reviewing “Happy Birthday”.) But though Hughes’s slide phrasing is nothing to write home about (it sounds like she’s stumbling the harmony in “You Are the Only Star of My Blue Heaven” after the melody sinks down into the bass end, and the unison chords of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” are only passably handled), her playing has an earthy, grounded quality to it. There’s little of the icy precision that usually dulls the “academic recital” playings that so often render such material clinical. One could say that parlor music by definition entails an “earthy, grounded” quality, and that may be true. But Hughes’s chorus line in “Pearly Dew”, her lullaby phrasing of “Kentucky Moon Waltz”, and the humanly scratches and muted pings that pop up throughout these songs, throw the standard chord progressions into a kind of expansive relief. Your mileage may vary on this, but I find this stuff to be terrific “walking in the countryside” music; like a lot of ’20s Delta blues music, you become very aware that your feet are on the ground and you’re surrounded on all sides by giant, all-encompassing sky. It humbles you.

Anyway, it’d be nice to call this record a collection of lost masterpieces, but…no. As a historical reference, Queen of the Flat Top Guitar is useful (though not indispensable). As escapism, it will get the job done for its niche market. The tunes do run together a bit: “Letter Edged in Black” and “Galloway Bay” have similar melodies, and the opening measures of “Spanish Fan-Dango”‘s line will probably just distract you into humming “Daisy”. And some of it is just flatly unremarkable (i.e. “Galloway Bay”, “Silver Threads Among the Gold”) and disappears into the ether seconds after hearing it. (Even if you re-play them dozens of times like I did.) You’ll know how most of these songs resolve before they even get there. But what’s played in the interim could surprise you. Great? No. Queen? No. But for better or worse, one of the purest records I’ve ever heard.

RATING 6 / 10