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The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture

Reviews of the LoC's archives as they are reissued on Rounder Records (
Reviews are by Michael Stone and Brian Peters

  • Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners
  • Cowboy Songs, Ballads and Cattle Calls from Texas
  • Anglo-American Ballads, Volume 2
  • The Hammons Family of West Virginia
  • Negro Blues and Hollers
  • Songs and Ballads of American History and of the Assassination of Presidents
  • Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs and Ballads
  • A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings
  • Anglo-American Ballads, Volume 1
  • Railroad Songs and Ballads

  • Alabama Sacred Harp Singers: Sacred Harp Singing

The Hammons Family
The Traditions Of A West Virginia Family And Their Friends

Here, in a boxed set of two CDs and a 120-page booklet, are drawn together recordings made in 1973 by Alan Jabbour and Carl Fleischhauer in the remoteness of Pochontas County, West Virginia, which originally appeared as a Library of Congress double LP and the Rounder album "Shaking Down the Acorns". Few recordings of traditional singers and musicians can match it.

The collection features three elderly members of the Hammons family and two neighbors. From the delicious turn-of-the-century cover photo of three brothers from the previous generation, seated against their log-cabin wall, proudly displaying fiddle, rifle and phonograph (so much for the undiluted oral tradition!), to the family tree and the detailed analysis of song and music - right down to fiddle bowing patterns - this is a substantial work. An additional aspect of its appeal is the inclusion of lengthy pieces of spoken word, from supernatural tales to snatches of family history, related in dense rural accents that sound like they come from another world; by the end you feel like you've got to know these people a little, not just heard a bunch of tunes and songs. They're all passed on now, and folk like them are getting harder to find.

It's the music we're here for though, and it's a treat. Burl Hammons contributes a fine body of fiddle tunes, keening with the sound of open tunings, and full of unpredictable rhythmic and melodic twists (West Virginia musicians traditionally played alone, with none of the imposed discipline of the ensemble). It's wild, edgy music, rendered only slightly less startling to the ear by its absorption into the repertoires of revival string bands in the wake of the original release. Burl also turns in some unhurried and excellent banjo pieces, using both frailing and three-finger style. His brother Sherman turns in two additional banjo tunes, both men covering Sugar Babe in dissonant tunings that recall Dock Boggs' version of same, while family friends Lee Hammons (no apparent relation) and Mose Coffman add, respectively, some relaxed banjo reminiscent of Frank Proffitt, and fiddle tunes including a nice Rocky Mountain Goat. The bulk of disc two, however, is devoted to the songs of Maggie Hammons Parker, which range from ancient British ballads (versions of Young Hunting and Hind Horn) to North American standards (Little Omie) and gospel. Her melodies are always interesting ("In the Pines" comes with some spectacular leaps into the upper register) and the texts are full and detailed; you can imagine the excitement of folksong scholars on discovering her repertoire.

And that's my only cautionary note in recommending this collection. Is it only for academic study, or is it actually good to listen to? Certainly Maggie's singing shows signs of her 73 years, with a pronounced jump into a rather shaky upper register that isn't always easy on the ear, and neither is Burl's fiddling by polished Nashville standards. Moreover, the grouping together of all tracks contributed by each individual - so you get a whole bunch of fiddle tunes, or else unaccompanied songs, on the roll - is designed more for the serious student than the casual listener. So, if the real thing is too tough for you, better steer clear. But if you heard this stuff the first time around, you'll certainly want it on CD. And if you're new to the wonders of traditional and old-time music - maybe drawn in by the Freight Hoppers or Cordelia's Dad - don't miss the opportunity to find out where that music really comes from. Chances are you'll learn a whole lot more besides. - Brian Peters

Negro Blues and Hollers

In 1941, Alan Lomax joined Fisk University on a definitive Mississippi Delta recording project. Bottleneck stylist Muddy Waters led Lomax to his teacher, Son House, heard solo on "Special Rider Blues," "Depot Blues" and "Low Down, Dirty Dog Blues," and with Willie Brown and Fiddlin' Joe Martin on an a cappella work holler. David "Honeyboy" Edwards' "Worried Life Blues" invokes the troubled spirit of then recently deceased Robert Johnson. Edwards grew up with Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway, studied with Big Joe Williams, and absorbed the styles of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Elmore James when they played at local juke joints. Indeed, all the secular cuts allude in some way to this resonant blend of stylists. In Clarksdale, the Silent Grove Baptist Church served up a driving "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord," with infectious trombone, guitar and hand-clapping accompaniment. (That session also yielded Bozie Sturdivant's church-rocking "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down," heard on the Rounder's Library of Congress Treasury.) At a nearby plantation, Lomax captured the Church of God in Christ on a shouting, syncopated "I'm Gonna Lift Up a Standard for My King." Rounding out this primordial Delta blues portrait is fingerstyle guitarist-singer William Brown ("Ragged and Dirty," "Mississippi Blues," "East St. Louis Blues"), and a Brown duo with guitarist-singer Willie Blackwell ("Four O'Clock Flower Blues"). Made on the cusp of World War II, this recording captures a seminal moment of US musical history, just as the social circumstances of its conflictive creation were set to change, once again, irrevocably. - MS

Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners

Southern Appalachian folk music has so dominated popular awareness that, by comparison, the music of the northern Appalachian range is little known. In fact, there is a substantial folk repertoire from northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. These tracks (12 solo ballads and two fiddle instrumentals) were logged in 1946 and released the following year. Nineteenth-century railroad expansion and urbanization turned northeast Pennsylvania's hard-coal region into an industrial extraction zone, bringing successive waves of Welsh, Irish, English, Scottish and Polish miners, and subjecting the region to the unpredictable boom-and-bust cycle of capitalist "development." The quintessential company town resulted, a culturally, socially and politically isolated enclave that led miners to create their own entertainment, and to welcome itinerant singers who carried ballads from one "mine patch" to the next. The music's primeval Celtic flavor is immediately apparent in repertoire, melody, cadence and accent. For instance, "The Shoofly," a lament on the displacement caused by a local mine's exhaustion, borrows an English melody many will identify with "The Streets of Laredo," "One Morning in May" or "The Dying Cowboy." Yet despite its remoteness, the region was not beyond the reach of popular culture. Hence, "Down in a Coal Mine" was originally a stage song composed in 1872. Altogether, this primarily solo vocal music reflects the bleakness of social isolation, labor exploitation and mining disaster, the forging of working-class consciousness and the mediation of potentially divisive ethnic differences in the bloody union organizing struggles of the Pennsylvania coal fields. - MS

Cowboy Songs, Ballads and Cattle Calls from Texas

John Avery Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910) first brought this music to public attention, endorsed by Teddy Roosevelt, although Wild West shows, Frederick Remington paintings, short stories and dime novellas had long romanticized the cowboy. Concert and college-circuit singer Bentley Ball recorded "The Dying Cowboy" in 1919 for Columbia, the first of a new commercial genre. Jimmie Rodgers followed with his own cowboy recordings in 1927, leading Victor to sign Gene Autry ("the Oklahoma yodeling cowboy") in 1929. Autry plied his radio and recording persona into a 1934 movie contract that produced 90 films over the next 20 years; other singing Hollywood cowboys followed (including Tex Ritter, Rex Allen, Roy Rogers). The 1930s were the cowboy heyday in film, radio throughout the south and mid-west and popular song by the likes of Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Patsy Montana, Sons of the Pioneers, Riders of the Purple Sage). Lomax's work also inspired Broadway productions like Oklahoma, and even "serious" composers like Aaron Copland explored cowboy themes, while FDR himself declared "Home on the Range" his favorite tune. Hence, by the time of these songs' release in 1952, in popular imagination - where most Americans were likely to encounter him - the cowboy had come to symbolize personal integrity, heroic virtue and lyrical freedom in an otherwise corrupt, profiteering world. Unlike commercial "cowboy" music, which borrowed freely from blues, jazz, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, these songs, recorded by Lomax in the 1940s, were still being transmitted orally and sung, mostly a cappella, by musically untutored cowpunchers, making this re-release a raw and compelling corrective to all that went before. - Michael Stone

Anglo-American Ballads, Volume 2

In 1943, the Library of Congress issued its second volume of Anglo-American ballads, ten musically spare tracks from Appalachian Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. With an anti-materialist fatalism, they offer a grim recital of death and disaster, murder and mayhem, betrayal and seduction, the moral retribution of human tragedy. In practice, rural southern music - widely performed by local and itinerant musicians, string bands and family gospel groups - was an unstructured, highly localized idiom. Folk song persisted in a universe parallel to country music's 1920s emergence and the eclectic sacred and secular repertoire that fed its commercial popularity. Typically made in domestic and community contexts, folk song also found paid venues in traveling medicine shows, political events and, starting in the 1930s, recording and broadcasting. Hence, "southern" music constitutes an utterly hybrid form, combining European, African and North American features, and simultaneously transmitted as both folk and popular genres. If the typical folk artist was male, the music reflected the performance aesthetics of the maternal domestic sphere in which all learned to sing, as confirmed by artist commentary and performance on this album. Also manifest are the ethnic encounters of a developing south. As Hobart Smith told Alan Lomax, he first saw a guitar sometime before 1920, played by black work gangs lining track into Saltville, Virginia. Hobart's "Claude Allen" typifies the social context in which the music arose, a culturally Protestant milieu of congregational shape note singing, revival meetings, the tension between stoicism and hedonism, and the high, lonesome sound of a rural life more rooted in the global industrial imperatives of timber, mining, railroad and factory labor than in country music's idealized pastoral existence, a world that never was. - Michael Stone

Songs and Ballads of American History and of the Assassination of Presidents

Among the more oddly titled anthologies from the Library of Congress series Folk Music of the United States, this CD (recorded between 1937 and 1949, and originally released in 1952) gives a good sense of the classical (if outmoded) approach to the folklorist's vocation. The materialist view stressed collecting, documenting and collating as many variants of a tune as possible, to be studied as comprising a living oral tradition capable of reviving an otherwise remote cultural legacy. Indeed, the singers' own spoken commentary contextualizes the tunes, which treat as palpably familiar the mythic figures and moments of US history up to the turn of the 20th century: Washington the founding hero, the personalities and events of the Civil War, and the Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley assassinations. Strikingly, each of these tunes passed directly from one generation of singers to the next without the benefit of written transcription, prior recording or certainty of authorship. In a wholly for-profit musical culture, it is difficult to comprehend the distinctiveness of the folk process that this release sought to document. It is similarly hard to fathom that as late as 1949 there were still avid folk musicians and self-styled collectors of regional songs who had never recorded, and who (on the evidence of this CD) seem to have been but little influenced by the burgeoning commercialization and culturally homogenizing effects of radio broadcasting, recording, film and television on popular music. - Michael Stone

image Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs and Ballads

This 1942 release brings together field recordings made between 1933 and 1939 by the Lomax family and other recordists at the Archive of Folk Culture. Scouring rural Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the researchers concentrated especially on the state prison systems in search of folk artists (13 of the 17 tracks are of prison singers). The Lomaxes reasoned that the penitentiary's approximation of the brutal relations of chattel slavery might yield up the oldest of African-American song forms. Instead they found a wholly contemporary folk tradition steeped in the enduring cultural politics of North American racism.

This digitally remastered reissue presents a seasoned mix of spirituals, ring shouts, work chants, field hollers, ballads, songs of love and devotion, and testimonies of personal survival, songs and styles that have profoundly influenced American vernacular music. In so doing, it calls into question the persistent inequities of the US social experiment. Hence, this music endures - it belongs in the air, and in every serious public collection. Resonant before today's kinder, more gently cynical forms of institutionalized exploitation, these voices warrant wider-than-ever audition and reflection. Sustaining an insouciant sense of humor, irony, rage and tragedy in a continuous reworking of aesthetic sensibilities under the arduous conditions of African-American social history, this is thoroughly modern music. - MS

A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings

Since 1928, the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song has documented folk music in everyday practice, and it remains a wellspring for singers, songwriters, students and fans of vernacular North American music. Ethnomusicologist and musician Stephen Wade has selected 30 arresting performances between 1934 and 1946. They convey the ardent personal character of local performance when radio and commercial song had yet to anesthetize the nation's musical sensibilities. This exhaustively annotated collection includes African-American game and work songs, blues and gospels; Anglo-American cowboy and dance tunes, ballads and sacred music; a Louisiana Cajun ballad; a Creek lullaby and a Kiowa sacred narrative. (The lyricism of Mexican Americans is not represented, although many commercial recordings exist from the era.) There are many stellar performances, but Bozie Sturdivant's riveting "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down" alone is worth the price.

Culled along the back roads of pre-freeway America, logged on quarter-ton battery-powered recording outfits that filled an automobile trunk, seasoned with the offhand intelligence of an engaging, diverse humanity, these tracks rehearse the lyric articulation of a nation. A handful of progressive iconoclasts and romantic visionaries heard America singing and lit out for the territories to plumb a deep river of song. Only these voices remain, moving on the water with the power to quench fire in the blood and ease a worried mind. Just go on down by the riverside, ask around, drink that muddy water and listen up. - MS

Anglo-American Ballads, Volume 1

In 1942 the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song released "Anglo-American Ballads," the first in a field recordings series of exemplary national folk styles. Editor Alan Lomax made selections with the general public in mind, favoring a performance's aesthetic appeal over its value to academic folklorists. As a recordist, Lomax mostly worked the southern rural circuit. From Texas to Virginia he focused on earlier styles and songs, highlighting older musicians and underplaying emergent artists and genres. This gave the Archive a southern flavor, and fueled a more general conception of folk music as primarily rural, southern and archaic. Folklorists would later question these biases; hence, the early Library of Congress releases have become historic documents themselves, illustrating the state of the discipline circa 1940. This release includes four stunning vocals by Virginian Mrs. Texas Gladden: "The Devil's Nine Questions," "Old Kimball" (cf. "Stewball"), "One Morning in May," and the well-known tale of love and betrayal, "The House Carpenter." Rabble-rousing singer-guitarist Woody Guthrie offers an Oklahoma adaptation of "The Gypsy Davy," complete with an audible aside to his daughter Sue. There are two versions of "Pretty Polly," one sung by Virginia guitarist E.C. Ball (my personal favorite), the other by southern Ohio five-string banjoist Pete Steele. Rounding out the collection are lesser known artists: Tennessee singer Rebecca Tarwater ("Barbara Allen"); Virginia singer Horton Barker ("The Farmer's Curst Wife"); Kentucky singer-guitarist Basil May ("The Lady of Carlisle"); Wisconsin singers Emory DeNoyer (a lumberjack tune, "The Little Brown Bulls") and Pearl Borufsky ("The Rich Old Farmer"); and Texas cowboy singer Alex Moore ("The Sioux Indians"). Each performance stands on its own, while collectively they illustrate the enduring influence of British Isles music on North American folk song tradition. - MS

Railroad Songs and Ballads

In the North American cultural imagination there is no more compelling a source of symbol and metaphor than the railroad, as folk song traditions and popular music readily confirm. This occupational miscellany of previously unreleased Library of Congress recordings (22 tracks logged between 1936 and 1959) includes construction and craft songs, train calls, track-lining chants, instrumental imitations of railroad sounds, train-wreck legends, hobo and outlaw ballads, gospels steeped in train imagery, and folk appropriations of romantic popular songs with railroad themes.

White artists predominate here. Standout cuts include Aunt Molly Jackson's "Roll on Buddy," Mrs. Esco Kilgore's "The Train Is Off the Track," Merle Lovell's "I Rode Southern," George Lay's "The Dying Hobo," and Harry McClintock's "Big Rock Candy Mountain." More than half the tunes are sung unaccompanied, and excepting one string band piece, instrumentation where present is spare: solo guitar or banjo, occasionally seconded by fiddle or mandolin. The four African-American offerings are all a cappella: the conductor-like spiel of an anonymous Mississippi convict ("Calling Trains"), Henry Hankins' driving "Lining Track," Will Wright's austere "Gonna Lay My Head Down on Some Railroad Line," and "I'm Going Home on the Morning Train," an arresting gospel by E.M. Martin and Pearline Jones. Altogether, this release underscores the inconstancy and betrayal of American industrialization, voicing a populist social history of human displacement and exploitation, the stillborn aspiration and unquenched desire that have long animated the folk tradition. - MS

See also: Alan Lomax, Harry Smith

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