US release date: 3 July 2001
UK release date: 6 August 2001
by Matt Cibula
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An Old-Timey Dance
These two CDs from last year towered over most everything else that was released. Both feature folk music back when it was really folk music: the latest cut on either of them, both are just about as far away from today’s musical tastes as they can be, and both feature songs that are one squazillion times scarier than anything dreamed up by Marilyn Manson. If you’ve ever heard the music of either multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith or his ballad-singing sister Texas Gladden, you’ll know how important these two discs are; if you’ve never heard of them before, then that’s why we write these things.
These albums are taken from the Alan Lomax collection that Rounder calls “Portraits.” Lomax, one of the greatest of field musicologists, just went around the world taping people singing and playing and talking about their music. Smith was one of his great finds: equally proficient on the banjo, guitar, and violin, and no slouch on piano, either. He had been playing dances since approximately forever, all over the rural South, and had never been recorded until Lomax came along. By the time they were done working together, Smith had become a fixture on the burgeoning “folk scene” of the 1950s and 1960s, playing to hushed and appreciative audiences on college campuses and festivals who knew they were getting the real thing — music produced for actual people rather than a record company.
Smith, a tall gaunt sort of a man, simply reeks of authenticity. His father bought him a $7 banjo from the Sears Roebuck catalog when he was seven; he learned fiddle from an ex-slave named Jim Spencer; he bought his first guitar with field-working money at 14 years old, and patterned his style after Blind Lemon Jefferson, who stayed at a railroad camp near his home for about a month. You can hear all these influences on Blue Ridge Legacy, as well as hearing his wonderfully high keening voice on such great stuff as “Drunken Hiccups” and “The Little Schoolboy”. This latter piece, one of the great murder ballads of all time, completely craps all over similar efforts by Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey — as creepy and great as those two artists are, neither one could touch Smith on this one. A horrible little song about two boys — maybe brothers, maybe not — who end up well, I won’t give it away. Let’s just say a hatchet is involved.
Smith is just about the greatest banjo player you’ll ever want to hear. His guitar work is great enough, and as a fiddler he is certainly very impressive, but damn, can the man’s fingers fly on the banjo. It is worth the price of the disc (or maybe a lot more than the price of the disc) just to hear someone who is so good and so distinctive at the height of his powers. But you get more. Not only have 18 of these 31 tracks never been released before, but you also get some great spoken pieces. Smith’s memory of playing country dances (called here “At an Old-Timey Dance”) is stunning in its matter-of-fact acceptance of violence and threat that he and his band had to go through just to play a gig. It’s a Spinal Tap moment way before McKean and Shearer and Guest were even twinkles in their various parents’ eyes. And when he explains that “I see a picture of everything I play”, you understand that this isn’t some noble savage situation — Smith was a serious artist, and calculated his art to help people have fun and dance their asses off. Good advice for mope-rockers and IDM mavens and abstract hip-hoppers, no?
His older sister’s disc might even be more of a revelation. Texas Gladden is a singer with a piercing voice and what seems to me to be the oldest of souls. She is the reason anyone ever heard of either of them — she dragged her brother to the White Top Music Festivals in the 1930s, where they were heard by Eleanor Roosevelt and invited to perform at the White House. Lomax didn’t find them until 1942, when he started to record them, but Gladden never really got the chance to have a professional musical career like Smith did. As she explains here, “Been too busy raising babies. When you bring up nine, you have your hands full. All I could sing was lullabies!” And what lullabies they must have been — did her children know that their mother was one of America’s musical treasures?
The very first track, “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife,” sets the pace for the rest of the disc. A few notes on the guitar (by her brother), and then she comes in: “There was an old man and he owned a large farm / And he had no horses to plow his land / With a fye-dye, diddle-aye-day, diddle-aye diddle-aye day”. Her voice isn’t pretty and it isn’t smooth, but it’s real and affecting and funny. By the end of the song, the farmer’s wife has been taken by the Devil to hell, and then returned because she’s too much of a pain in the ass. There’s some other hilarious stuff here. I liked “My Lovin’ Old Husband”, which might be a ghost story or maybe just the portrait of a very strange marriage.
But most of the disc consists of traditional tragic ballads and they’re the gems here. They’re mostly a cappella, and full of pathos and horror and the busted-up dreams of all of America. From “One Morning in May”, which is the deathbed song of a cowboy dying of syphilis, to “Mary Hamilton,” the first-person account of a lady-in-waiting who murders her illegitimate child by the King but is found out and about to be executed, woe leaks from every note and breath of this stuff. The saddest of all is “The Two Brothers”, her version of the same ballad that Hobart Smith calls “The Little Schoolboy”. Her version is amazing — it’s even deeper and eerier than his. The verse “Oh brother, when you go home tonight / My mother will ask for me / You must tell her I’ve gone with some little schoolboys / Tomorrow night I’ll be at home” is followed by the chilling “My little sister will ask for me / The truth to her you must tell / You must tell her I’m dead and in grave laid / And buried at Chesley town.”
Yeah, it’s good that O Brother, Where Art Thou? won the Grammy for Best Album; it’s fine that there’s a bluegrass revival and that people are (temporarily) more interested in roots music than they have been in many years. But if you want to hear the real raw stuff, these two albums are it.