More Treasures From the Old Byways of American Music | Bleader

More Treasures From the Old Byways of American Music


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Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939
I can always count on the New York label Tompkins Square, run by Josh Rosenthal, to place music I've already heard in an interesting new context or introduce me to some near forgotten twist in the tangled history of American music. A number of recent releases from the label illustrate this nicely.

Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939 is a sort of delayed follow-up to a superb three-CD set from 2007, People Take Warning, a collection of songs contemplating, describing, or bemoaning disasters, both natural and manmade. This new 15-track compilation was assembled by Rosenthal along with the talented Christopher King, a producer of historical recordings who brings a rare mix of erudition, conceptual thinking, and visual opulence to just about everything he touches. Among the projects he's had a hand in are People Take Warning, Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: the Worlds of Charley Patton, Ernest V. Stoneman: the Unsung Father of Country Music: 1925-1934, and Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937.

Bloody War is modest in comparison to those multidisc efforts, but it still packs a punch. In particular, the opening tune, a 1936 Zeke Morris song called "Just as the Sun Went Down," has the ineffable timelessness of the best folk music. It was composed in 1898 and first recorded by blind country guitarist Riley Puckett in 1924. The version by Morris—a member of the great hillbilly band J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers—features just his voice and acoustic guitar, and describes dying soldiers in the aftermath of a battle. No particular war is mentioned and no special context is necessary. "Wounded and bleeding upon the ground / Two dying soldiers lay / One held a ringlet of thin gray hair / The other a lock of brown." That's some classic pathos: as two men meet their ends, they think of loved ones. But the next verse twists the knife, with Morris making clear that the first soldier isn't thinking of his wife or girlfriend but rather his mother, who's "home alone / Feeble and old and gray." It makes you think about the tragedy of people giving their lives in war before they've even had a chance to find loves of their own. You can listen to this track below.

Nothing else here strikes quite the same raw nerve. Some songs have a humorous, mocking tone, such as the 1928 version of the title track performed by Jimmy Yates's Boll Weevils, where singer Al Treadway plays the country bumpkin sucked into battle: "My captain said to fire at will / I said, 'Which one was he?'" Others refer to more specific historic incidents: "The Battleship of Maine," by Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers, takes a witty antiwar stance in its lyrics about the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana's harbor in 1898 (remember the Spanish-American war?). Wade Mainer's "Not a Word of That Be Said" from 1939 raises the real possibility of brothers facing one another on the battlefield.

On a strictly musical level the highlight for me is the end of "Everybody Help the Boys Come Home," a 1927 recording by William and Versey Smith, who implore listeners to contribute financially to the war effort without delay—I love the powerful male-female guitar-preacher delivery and the excellent tambourine work. (Blind Willie Johnson later recorded his own take as "When the War Was On.") Many of these songs resonate today, given the ongoing loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan; fittingly, a portion of the proceeds from album sales goes to Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Roland White: I Wasnt Born to Rockn Roll
I Wasn’t Born to Rock’n Roll is a straight reissue of a wonderful 1976 album by veteran bluegrass mandolinist Roland White, originally released by the Texas indie Ridge Runner Records. Before he became a fixture in mainstream bluegrass, working with the likes of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and later the Nashville Bluegrass Band, he led hot folk-revival pickers the Kentucky Colonels with his guitar-playing brother Clarence White—who soon after joined the Byrds. I Wasn't Born was recorded three years after Clarence was killed in an auto accident, cutting short a Colonels reunion. There's something special about this album: though it was made with White's working band, and in his brief liner notes he says they'd been playing the music for "at least a year," the performance still sounds incredibly vital and off-the-cuff. Many of the songs are bluegrass and country classics associated with Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmie Skinner, the Carter Family, Jimmie Davis, and others—several turn up in a high-octane medley titled "Marathon," which crams bits of six tunes into 7:38. Despite the mad chops on display from White and his band, the performances are never merely show-offy, favoring ensemble buzz and improvisational concision. They don't make 'em like this any more. Below you can hear "Head Over Heels in Love With You."

Finally, the label also recently released Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts, a compilation of 78s from the collection of one of its current artists, Frank Fairfield, a guitar-, banjo-, and fiddle-playing singer who's clearly living in the wrong era. The 16 tracks have no serious thematic, stylistic, or musical connection; they're just a bunch of Fairfield's rare records—Scottish bagpipe music, Hungarian Romany tunes, Indonesian sunda, and more—but they're all pretty swell.

Zeke Morris: "Just as the Sun Went Down":

Roland White: "Head Over Heels in Love With You":

Today's playlist:

Nadia Sirota, First Things First (New Amsterdam)
Kris Davis, Ingrid Laubrock, and Tyshawn Sorey, Paradoxical Frog (Clean Feed)
Albatrosh, Seagull Island (Inner Ear)
Joana Amendoeira, A Flor da Pele (Le Chant du Monde)
Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound, 3 (Fania)

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