Various Artists: Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records
An absolutely definitive anthology of traditional American folk.
Many in the 1960s were inspired by John and Alan Lomax's musical detective work of the previous decades to go out, buy a guitar or banjo, and then spend hours learning to play the centuries-old songs they had unearthed in their travels. An even more adventurous few went out, bought recording equipment, and sought to follow in their footsteps, seeking out paths previously untrodden by folksong collectors. Dave Freeman, Richard Nevins, and Charles Faurot were among the latter, discovering among the hills of southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina a rich, varied, and very much alive old-time musical tradition that featured a wealth of performers born at the end of the nineteenth century with roots reaching deep into the preceding centuries. Freeman, who began the label in 1963, eventually set up shop with his partners on Main Street in Galax, Virginia, in 1968, a deliberate and auspicious decision as it connected the folklorists to the Old Time Fiddlers Convention held annually in that city. Faurot had already begun recording the cream of the crop of musicians from the surrounding regions that gathered there every year for bragging rights among an otherworldly wealth of talent.
County records devoted itself to twin projects: making long out-of-print 1920s-era recordings of traditional music available to a contemporary audience through their 500-series of archival re-releases, and creating, through their 700-series, new recordings of old-time country and bluegrass performed by those still-living deep-rooted regional musicians of the northern Appalachian region. The just-released, four-cd anthology Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records devotes itself to the latter series, and nearly every track brings joy or revelation, oftentimes both.
Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records is an anthology that deserves a place among the great and groundbreaking anthologies of early American recorded music. This is a collection filled with discovery, celebrating the work of those local legends who, while anonymous in the eyes and ears of the mass audience, nonetheless shaped the course of popular music in the twentieth century. This collection belongs alongside Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Alan Lomax's Sounds of the South, and Dust to Digital's Goodbye Babylon in the collection of any serious devotee of American folk music.
The 113-track collection is masterfully compiled and produced by Charlie Faurot and Christopher King under direction of executive producer David Freeman. The introductory notes by Kinney Rorrer and extensive performer biographies and song annotations by Charlie Faurot, David Freeman, Bobby Fulcher, and Barry Poss demonstrate the lifelong commitment and depth of scholarship that went into both the recording and cataloguing of these songs. The liner notes are full of good humor and great stories about the performers and their songs, while the compilers are also careful to locate the songs in their traditions, illustrating connections that will remain of great value to scholars of American folk music.
The collection opens with Wade Ward’s “June Apple”, which will strike listeners to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as instantly familiar, as it borrows the opening banjo riff made so famous by Clarence Ashley in his definitive performance of “The Cuckoo” collected on that set. Time and again throughout this collection, the familiar reveals itself in unfamiliar and surprising ways, a testament to the variety of artistic impulses dipping into the common stream of American song and drawing from it individual inspiration. Freeman presciently chose to name the label he founded “County” as a reflection upon the distinctiveness still to be found among the players and folksong traditions encountered when moving only short miles between counties throughout the northern Appalachian region. Such distinctiveness is made plain throughout the collection, but nowhere better demonstrated in the three versions of “Fortune” found among the 113 cuts collected here. The version by Otis Burris and the Mountain Ramblers is a loose, rollicking, forward-driving instrumental dance tune played at a dervish speed that threatens to spin out of control but never does. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham offer a more loping version, less an invitation to dance than a braggard’s saunter, and one that restores lyrical verses to the tune. Meanwhile, The Camp Creek Boys’ version is fueled by the tight precision of its players, an almost academic performance compared the wild abandon of the Burris version.
The journey through these four discs will introduce listeners to an amazing array of talent, stories, and songs. Listeners will meet Virgil Anderson, whose homestead could only be reached via a treacherous swinging bridge strung over the Little South Fork of the Cumberland River and who was, as well as a master banjo player, an exceptional mountain dancer who could kick up his heels to any available beat, including that of butter being churned. Fred Cockerham played a fretless banjo, and his "Roustabout" is one of the collection's many highlights, his raspy voice the result of nearly freezing to death awaiting rescue while trapped in a car wreck. Dee Hicks, though illiterate, had memorized nearly 400 old ballads, including, famously, the more than fifty verses of the rarely-collected ballad "Jimmy and Nancy" (not collected here). And then there's the legendary Tommy Jarrell, who could be as quick-fisted in a fight as he was quick-fingered on a banjo.
This anthology revels in its collection of what Smith termed “Social Music"; that is, the shared passions of Saturday evening ebullience and Sunday morning contrition. The sounds of the fiddle and banjo dominate the former, with guitar and uplifted voices defining the latter. But even the early country gospel tunes are infused with joy, a thankfulness for the blessing of life’s pleasures.
From start to finish, this anthology is a gift to listeners.