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Old-Time Mountain Ballads (County CO-CD-3504)


Balladry, in white comunities in the rural South, was traditionally unaccompanied - and, largely separate from the instrumental traditions that defined their dance musics. Influenced, however, by black players - who did accompany ballads - isolated geniuses across the region, sometime in the nineteenth century, began to build modal banjo styles which could naturally underpin the archaic ballads that had been sung in the region for hundreds of years...

And the results are stunningly documented, on a scant few handfuls of 78s, recorded in the 20s - back when a plethora of labels, amidst a boom, had no real idea what’d sell to such “hicks” and’d therefore issue anything at all - even great, and patently uncommercial, art.

We’re badly in need of a boxed set that’ll properly document the range of this material in depth but, until that day, this one cd’ll do a fine job as an introduction - albeit, it’s purview is to demonstrate the full range of recorded balladry of the 20s...and so, it also touches (as will I) upon much more far-flung stylistic territory than my introduction might suggest...

But...back to those banjos... Just listen - please - to the immortal B.F. Shelton’s “Darling Cora”...and admit that you had no idea any banjo could sound so unearthly beautiful... I know I didn’t, until I lucked upon this work in the mid-80s...and, it’s spell has never left me since.

Many/most of the truly powerful songs in the tradition are the so-called “murder ballads”. This is not...indeed, it transcends same, by dwelling upon a (benign) haunting of a surviving/loving husband by his deceased wife. Expressed in disconnected fragments of memory...and (heartbreakingly) resolved in truly prosaic and deeply humane twin stanzas, this is an art that - simply - cannot be bettered.

And, uncannily, the banjo style in such works is a transfiguation of the kora styles of West Africa...as are no black American recordings that we have. Such are the vagaries of time - and history - that “Darling Cora” is doubly that...

To finish...Uncle Dave Macon’s “Death of John Henry” is definitely one of his greatest works, and - perhaps, better than any other - proves just how much he learnt off black banjo players in his youth. Subtly (and freely) responsive, it is the very antithesis of later band stylings...and it’s rippling climaxes verily lift the spirit, affirming the continuity of life amidst death (as does Shelton’s masterpiece) - a fitting conclusion to a superb survey collection, drawn from a marvellously diverse and far-too little known tradition.




John Henry Calvinist