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On Appalachian Music, With A Playlist


Around the globe, culture is
being homogenised by dominant styles of popular music,
spread far and wide by delivery platforms like Tik Tok and
Youtube. Even so, regional musics continue to be
surprisingly resilient. I’m not just talking about
variations like KPop, or like the Ghanaian drill music that
has been on the verge of becoming a global success (Yaw Tog!
Jay Band!) for the past 18 months. Nor do I have in mind the
global popularity of reggaeton, son, cumbia, bachata and
other forms of Latin music. There’s a good reason why the
Puerto Rican musician Bad Bunny has topped Billboard’s Pop
Star Power Rankings all year.

Instead, I’m talking
about the resilience of the genuinely off-the-grid regional
music – both old and new – featured on this week’s
Werewolf music playlist, which I’ve loosely called
Mountain Music. The mountains in question being the
Appalachians, which run from Georgia in the south to
Pennsylvania and New York (and beyond) in the north. What
I’m calling “mountain music” has largely been a
product of the central and southern Appalachians, including
areas in eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia,
Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

The resilience
of this music has been a by-product of talent, geography and
intense poverty. The Appalachians happen to run diagonally
across the east/west lines of much of the region’s
highways and railroads. People got left behind –
economically and culturally – along the ridgelines and
down in the hollows. It is not an accident that two of the
leading musicians from the region – Jean Ritchie and
Roscoe Holcomb – were members of the
Old Regular Baptist Church
.

This music isn’t a
museum piece, though. Young artists like the banjo prodigy
Nora Brown have been introducing new audiences to older
forms of banjo playing ( e.g. the clawhammer style vs the
dominant three finger style of bluegrass banjo playing
pioneered by Earl Scruggs). New audiences are also
gravitating to the nasal “high lonesome” style of
singing Holcomb learned in church, and which has become
associated with the ballads brought across the Atlantic by
the pioneers from England, Ireland and Scotland.

More
to the point, Brown and those who came before her have
diligently searched out and learned the regional variations
on old folk standards like ‘ Shady Grove” “Cumberland
Gap” “Trouble in Mind” etc etc. In many cases, these
variants have been learned – either directly or from
recordings – from musicians like Lee Sexton (1928-2021),
Addie Graham (1890-1978) Virgil Anderson (1902-1997)and Fred
Cockerham (1905-1980).

As Brown said in a recent
interview, this seeking out of the many different versions
of the older tunes is one of the constant
rewards:

….That’s one of the awesome things
about the music; you find a really great song and you’re
like, “Oh my God… this is the best thing I could have
ever learned… I love the song so much.” You [then] discover something else and you just get that feeling again.
It’s very cool to not only see how much recorded music
there is, but different versions of songs that maybe you
know one version of. For example, “Shady Grove,”
that’s a pretty common well-known tune, but there are a
lot of cool, unique versions of the song that are just
played differently… it could be in a different tuning, or
could be a slightly different melody. There’s always that
curiosity of finding out other things and listening to more
stuff.

You bet.

The playlist
tracks

This Werewolf playlist isn’t in any way
definitive, and I don’t lay claim to any deep knowledge of
the music, or its cultural wellsprings. Nora Brown has been
an inspiration to go deeper. Five years into her career,
Brown has only recently turned 17. The version of “Wild
Goose Chase” that kicks off the playlist came by way of
Virgil Anderson, and is featured on her just released live
album Long Time To Be Gone. Her 2020 recording of “
The Very Day I’m Gone” is based on Addie Graham’s
wonderful variation of the old folk music chestnut “500
Miles.”

The revenge drama “Frankie and Albert”
(also known as “Frankie and Johnny”) was inspired by a
murder committed in 1899, in St Louis, Missouri. At 22,
Frankie Baker shot dead her 17 year old lover Albert Britt
after he two-timed her with Nelly Bly, with whom he had just
won a slow dancing contest at a local tavern. It is one of
the very few murder ballads where the woman kills the man.
Here’s
a link
to a lively 1921 version with Frank Crumit on
vocals.

Omer Forster’s beautiful instrumental
“Flowery Girls” is
one of the highlights of this list
:

All his
life Omer has played in an archaic two-finger style (thumb
and index finger) which he can’t remember learning from
anyone; “it’s always been natural with me.” Nor has he
during his life been aware that his style was all that
unusual; apparently his friends and neighbours in rural
Humphries County [Tennessee] accepted the style without much
comment. But distinctive it is: soft, graceful, complex,
different both from the classic three-finger vaudeville
styles of the other middle Tennessee artists like Uncle Dave
Macon, and different from the claw-hammer style of the
eastern mountains.

Ira and Charlie Louvin were a
classic example of the region’s close harmony sibling
groups. (The Everly Brothers were the style’s most
successful pop practitioners.) “Kentucky” is from the
Louvins’ great Tragic Songs of Life album from 1956
– a time when, apparently, a lyric like “ I miss the
darkies singing in the silvery moonlight” could still pass
muster. Everyone loved Charlie Louvin. But Ira Louvin, who
played the mandolin beautifully and sang in a high quavering
tenor, was reportedly “as mean as a rattlesnake” in
private life. Somehow, Ira survived being shot four times in
the chest by his third wife Faye after he allegedly tried to
strangle her with a telephone cord. He eventually died in a
car crash in 1965, along with his fourth wife, Anne
Young.

Other tracks: “Matty Groves” dates back to
17th century Britain, and is another murder ballad.
Basically, the lord of the manor discovers his wife in bed
with a young man, and kills them both, but not without
regrets. Like many other English, Scottish and Irish
ballads, “Matty Groves” was brought to the American
colonies, and it eventually found a lasting home in the
Appalachians. The much recorded “Shady Grove” is an
offshoot of the same song. The other track by Doc Watson
(1923-2012) on this list is “Your Long Journey” –
which was written by his wife Rosa Lee, and is best known
from a syrupy version by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.
There is lingering controversy over the title. Arguably, it
may be “Lone Journey Home”( which makes more sense) and
the title could possibly have been misheard as “Long” by
the Smithsonian collectors, thanks to Watson’s strong
Tennessee accent. Or so the story goes.

Any number of
tracks could have been included by Bascom Lamar Lunsford
(1882-1973) a tireless folk music collector and practitioner
of America’s music and dance styles for over 60 years. He
also had a keen interest in the traditional music of
Cherokee Native Americans. Lunsford can be briefly glimpsed
in this
extraordinary footage of old style mountain clog
dancing.
It seems very odd to think that this event was
happening at the same time in the mid 1960s as
demonstrations were taking place against the Vietnam War,
and as hippies of the same age as these teenagers were
heading for Haight Ashbury. The old, weird America
indeed.

Despite the immense value of his collecting
work to American culture, Lunsford was a polarising figure.
In his autobiography, the folk musician Dave Van Ronk (no
shrinking violet himself) described Lunsford as ” a racist
anti-Semitic white supremacist who in later years would
steadfastly refuse to come to the Newport Folk Festivals
because of [Pete] Seeger’s involvement. ” (Seeger quit the
Communist Party in 1950. In 1995, he was
still describing himself
as a communist but by then, the
term had lost much of its cultural sting.)

Definitive
versions of Lunsford classics like “Goodbye Old
Stepstone” and “Old Mountain Dew” can be found on his
Music from Turkey Creek album. “Lost John Dean”
his 1928 recording of a 19th century song about a runaway
black slave from Bowling Green, Kentucky with superhero
powers, is also worth checking out.

Finally then, it’s
back to Nora Brown. Her version of “Jay Gould’s
Daughter” strips the song back to its foundations, as
tragedy befalls the child of the 19th century railway robber
baron.(Moral: wealth is no guarantee that harm will not
befall one’s nearest and dearest). As with much of the
music Brown has learned from her elders – like say, her
own take on “Little Satchel” by Fred Cockerham – the
tunes evolve, and eventually become her own over the course
of her repeated performances of them. So it
goes.

She‘s keeping her options open. “I’m not
sure if I want to continue a career in music for my entire
adult life,” she said a year ago in an interview. “But I
do know that I always want to play music. I don’t really
know exactly what I’m going to do, but I do know I want to
continue passing on musical traditions.” Here’s a
beautiful example of that process
, from back when she
was only 13.

Here’s the playlist:

© Scoop Media

 


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