shytone  books  music  essays  home  exploratories  new this month

music reviews

A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500)


Undoubtedly, the very best introduction to this material...and the next thing anyone should (immediately) purchase, after having fallen in love w/Harry Smith’s collection...and, for those (such as myself) that sadly can’t afford same - this serves equally well as a route into “the old weird America”...and it’s cheap, to boot!

For once, with this material, scholarship takes a back seat to great music - and, the result is a stunning affirmation of the key contention of generations of folklorists...that many of the very best never made professional careers, despite their undoubted talents - due the vagaries of temperament &/or more pressing life matters...

Some of this - such as the stunningly beautiful “Creek Lullaby” - has no real parallel in my listening experience. Others tap into deep traditions sometimes well (and sometimes poorly) represented in other sources...but all are - without exception - great “art”...and your life will be that much poorer if you never get to hear this unparalleled set.

Now...a trio of more detailed appreciations:

Texas Gladden’s “One Morning in May” is the - perfect - introduction to traditional unaccompanied white balladry. The ancestor of “Streets of Laredo”, it tells the story of a “fallen woman” dying of syphilis...and is heartbreaking in its formal reserve...the nasal edge to her voice cutting - like a knife - into the souls of listeners.

Jess Morris’s “Goodbye, Old Paint” is nigh-on unique...as the document of what a (very) old white Texas fiddler/vocalist learnt off an old black fiddler in his youth. Estimating dates in such things is very chancy...but, I (deeply) suspect that this one carries us back to well before the Civil War - and, aside from which, it’s purely riveting as art...simultaneously raucous & heartbreaking, it reminds us of all the great music that we (simply) can’t access - and, implicitly, demands more of ourselves w/in our own creations...

Finally...Charlie Butler’s “Diamond Joe” is - perhaps - the most purely beautiful holler ever recorded. I suspect that he was well aware of then current blues & gospel vocal stylings, and sought to incorporate what he felt of same into this piece. And, yet, it is still deeply archaic in spirit, seeped in a much more raw vocal style that Butler (miraculously) manages to transfigure into a deeply gentle art.

None of these three ever made a buck out of their music...and none have, as yet, had their complete recordings made accessible to we plebs...but, please, hear this - and help call for same...because, we can always do with (much) more of such greatness...




John Henry Calvinist