12 O'Clock Track: The old-time fingerstyle guitar of Lena Hughes

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In recent years the excellent Tompkins Square label has become one of the most important exponents of new fingerstyle guitar music, releasing terrific work from the likes of James Blackshaw, William Tyler, Ben Reynolds, Daniel Bachman, and Peter Walker, as well as many others who've contributed tracks to the label's Imaginational Anthem series. Plus, the imprint has reissued or uncovered recordings from bygone pickers like Harry Tausig, Mark Fosson, and Richard Crandell. Next week the label will reissue the lone album by a much more obscure American guitarist named Lena Hughes, Queen of the Flat Top Guitar (it was originally released back in the early 60s on the Power label as Queen of the Guitar Pickers and her Flat Top Guitar). Hughes, who died in 1998 at the age of 94, spent most of her life in Ludlow, Missouri, and according to the liner notes she performed regularly at folk conventions and festivals; she also was a strong fiddler and banjo player. She was usually accompanied by her guitar-playing husband Jake when she performed at such festivals, performing a repertoire often dubbed parlor music—the popular music of the 19th century, when normal folks entertained themselves performing tunes from sheet music in their parlor.

The extensive liner notes by the brilliant guitarist John Renbourn (of Pentangle fame) go into detail about the specific tunings Hughes employed here, and while most of the material itself predates the recorded repertoire of blues and old-timey music, her approach embraces many of the ideas that would become the bread-and-butter of what was eventually known as American Primitive guitar playing. As he writes, "the approach to the guitar—tunings, techniques, harmony—fed directly into the rural styles, ragtime, and blues, and laid the foundations for the music that has gone on to shape the listening of the modern world." The shape and directness of the melodies are deeply pleasurable and clean and Hughes articulates them without fuss, usually embellishing the tune on a single string, while she uses the other strings to shape out the rolling chord progressions and straight forward rhythms. It sounds deceptively simple, but this amateur was no hack. Below you can check out the wonderful opening track, "Pearly Dew."

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