Digging the past | Bleader

Digging the past

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Interest in America’s musical past is almost as old as American music, but since the Anthology of American Folk Music, the legendary box set assembled by Harry Smith and first released in 1952, was reissued on CD by Smithsonian Folkways a decade ago, there has been a more or less steady effort to uncover and make available just about every blues, old-time, gospel, and country record made prior to World War II. Labels like Revenant and Dust-to-Digital, to say nothing of longtime standard-bearer Yazoo, have put out one gem after another. Recently Tompkins Square Records got involved by releasing the three-CD box set People Take Warning, a wonderfully annotated collection of murder ballads and “disaster songs” that breaks down the violence and death into three distinct categories: man vs. nature, man vs. machine, and man vs. man.

But label head Josh Rosenthal isn’t only interested in the preserved past. In the summer of 2006 he checked out an exhibition of Alan Lomax photos and recordings in New York and was struck by a 1959 shot of Spencer Moore, a singer and guitarist Lomax had recorded “four and a half” songs by. The caption said Moore still played every week at a BP station near his home in Chilhowie, Virginia, so Rosenthal--as he writes in his liner notes for Moore's self-titled debut album, released on Tompkins Square this summer--traveled to Virginia three weeks later to record him.

Moore, 88, played in a tent show with the Carter Family when he was much younger, and he's the kind of living repository of American song that's rapidly becoming extinct. Though the quality of his voice has clearly diminished since the Lomax stuff, he still has astonishing presence and delivery. Most of the songs are from the standard repertoire--tunes associated with people like Roy Acuff, Vernon Dalhart, Riley Puckett, and Charlie Poole--but Moore’s time-ravaged croak and rudimentary guitar skills serve him best on a clutch of original tunes written by him and his wife. I shudder every time hear the stark “Our Baby Boy Is Gone,” which Moore succinctly introduces with, “My wife, she wrote a song after our boy passed away.” The song recounts the loss with austere frankness, and his willful decision to stop grieving because he’s certain they’ll meet again in heaven does little to blunt his pain.

Making sense of these old-time and early country reissues remains tough, despite the great number of them coming out--dozens of artists recorded just a handful of tracks apiece, a situation that means the tunes are often scattered across compilations. This difficulty is just one reason I’ve been so taken with a new reference book by British music historian Tony Russell. Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost (Oxford) isn’t a landmark work of scholarship--most of the shortish entries were written for specialist magazines--but as a single volume it does an excellent job briefly discussing the lives and work of some of American’s best- and least-known musical pioneers. He’s done his research, and reading some of the 110 entries has left me hungry to track down the actual music, a task made much easier by the handy discographical information that details where various tunes can be found on CD.

Today’s playlist:
Mônica Salmaso, Noites de Gala, Samba na Rua (Biscoito Fino)
Simon Nabatov & Nils Wogram, Jazz Limbo (Leo)
Floratone, Floratone (Blue Note)
Issac Delgado, En Primera Plana (La Calle/Univision)
Tin Hat, The Sad Machinery of Spring (Hannibal)

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