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Altamont: Black Stringband Music (Rounder CD 0238)


Way, way back - well before blues & jazz...and all of those other newfangled musics - there was what one Tony Russell termed a “common-stock” southern form, played by whites & blacks (and amerindians, to boot), mainly on fiddle and banjo. We can hear echoes of it all over, albeit by the 1920s, most blacks had abandoned it for newer styles, as the whites were largely to do during the subsequent Depression. Recordings of whites making such music are commonplace (albeit not that well-known)...but, blacks, now - that is another thing entirely...

Because, aside from a scant handful of 78s from the twenties - and another handful of field recordings by aged masters from the 70s and 80s, only the sessions represented herein survive to tell the tale at any length... And, without a doubt, the meanest/rawest & most powerful outfit on record is Frazier & Patterson - first unleashed upon the wider world on this particular Rounder release. And, whilst the other band here is fine, I’d have to say that Frazier & Patterson brook no comparison. My only complaint is that this disc lacks their complete recordings - something that was only corrected decades later, by the complementary “Black Fiddlers” (Document DOCD - 5631). But, this is (definitely) the place to start...

The sound of the black sub-strand of this common-stock could be very different from their white counterparts, albeit the ingredients were similar. Because, when the heat turned up, white bands tended to flow...in a development that eventually turned into bluegrass. In contrast, people like Frazier & Pattern got down & stomped...the drones turned feral, and the banjo hammered harder than any acoustic delta blues on record. No question.

“Old Cow Died”, and the solo banjo “Corrinne” particularly epitomize this...the former twisting into a nigh-on dervish strain - harking back to North-African savannah roots - whilst the manically-savage beatings which occur during the latter makes clear exactly what punk rock owes to this, one of the foundational meetings of black & white musics in the Americas...

When younger players today, some deeply versed in their history, offer us updated versions of same, sadly, far too many self-appointed “folk music” purists are all-too quick to condemn them as heretics - apparently infected w/the hard drive of rock’n’roll & such - forgetting (if those ignorant bastards ever knew)...that genuine folk musics of earlier times were wondrously diverse...and most of them were dance musics, by definition.

So, this is one of those very, very rare albums that almost anyone reading this NEEDS to hear. Forget the strictures of the folkniks...and, in fact, anything you think you know about old-time music. Because, if you wanna hear something of the black roots of rock’n’roll, “white” stringband musics, bluegrass, or the aforementioned punk rock - and, I kid you not - this one truly OUGHT to be right there, front & centre - in the very midst of your collection. And...played loud, just like it was way back when. Forget the scratchy sound - just fiddle w/the EQ & turn the damn thing up... Cause this one is - still - a revelation...




John Henry Calvinist