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When Cecil Left the Mountains

Historic recordings of Appalachian singers and musicians 1927 - 1955

Musical Traditions Records MTCD514-5

It's 100 years since Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles made the second of three expeditions to the Appalachian Mountains in search of old ballads carried across the ocean by 18th century migrants from the British Isles.  Painstakingly noting down songs by hand in remote log cabins - Cecil notating the music and Maud the words - they amassed a hugely important collection of over 1600 pieces, a fitting reward for their considerable exertions.  Anyone leafing through the resultant English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians is bound to wonder what the singers of those beautiful but sometimes stark melodies might have sounded like.  Sharp, a firm believer (with some justification) in the accuracy of his own transcriptions, had never set much store by the new-fangled phonographic equipment that Percy Grainger had already used to make recordings of the likes of Joseph Taylor in Brigg.  Although he did make some enquiries in America about hiring such a device, carrying the delicate machinery by mule over the miles of rugged mountain tracks that the collectors negotiated on foot on a daily basis would surely have been impractical.  So we have no aural record of those trips.

All is not lost, however.  Thirty-two years after Sharp had said his last goodbye to an area where he'd experienced great physical hardship but also his life's richest experiences, Maud Karpeles returned to the Appalachians on an expedition supported by the Library of Congress, in the company of the American ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell, who later penned an evocative if unflattering description of Maud as 'a slight figure under a witch's hood' walking ahead of her into the woods 'looking like someone who might have grown up under a mushroom'.  Their mission was to seek out any survivors amongst the singers Karpeles and Sharp had visited and befriended, this time armed with a tape recorder.  It's from those recordings, and a second batch made in 1955 when Karpeles returned to the region with the mountain folksong enthusiast Evelyn Wells, that Mike Yates has drawn a large proportion of the material for this very welcome double CD release. 

Yates's vision, however, stretches beyond Karpeles's recordings.  Sharp's final expedition in 1918 preceded by just five years the earliest commercial 'hillbilly music' recordings by Eck Robertson, whose historic fiddle cuts were soon followed by releases from Fiddlin' John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon and others.  Less than ten years 'After Cecil', Ralph Peer was assembling talent in Bristol, Tennessee, and country music was born.  Yates has set out to explore the work of less-celebrated musicians from the inter-war years, when folk and commercial music coexisted and fed off one another to glorious effect.  To this end he has added to the Karpeles tracks a number of early Alan Lomax recordings, 78 rpm commercial releases, and contributions from performers at the White Top Folk Festival, a deeply purist 1930s event tainted by the white supremacist philosophy of one its main movers, John Powell.1  Maud Karpeles met Powell during her 1950 trip, and discovered that he was an admirer of Sharp's work.  Mike Yates's articles on Sharp's original Appalachian visits and their immediate musical aftermath are well worth reading, and his further researches fill the accompanying booklet here with valuable information on the performers and their songs and music.2  However, there are one or two gaps that - having recently researched Maud's diaries and notebooks for the period in some depth myself - I'll take this opportunity to fill in.3

When Karpeles arrived in her old haunts in 1950, she found that much had changed with arrival of roads, electricity and civilisation in general.  The old log cabins had been torn down, muleback travel was a thing of the past, and even the ubiquitous wild hogs of Sharp's day (source of the fat in which mountain food was routinely fried, much to his disgust) had disappeared, disease having decimated the chestnut trees on the mast of which they lived.  More distressingly, if predictably, the habit of ballad singing was in steep decline.  In Sharp's day, pretty well everyone he met in the more remote backwoods settlements would give forth the old songs.  His erstwhile colleague now found that survivors of the singers they had met thirty years previously could barely remember them - often requiring prompts from Maud's copy of English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians - and that their offspring took little interest.  Religion, too, had contributed to the process: during her second visit in 1955 she discovered to her disappointment that Alice and Sudie Sloan, young members of a Kentucky family who in 1917 had been enthusiastic singers, had been 'saved' and completely given up on the old songs.

There were some successes, however.  In Madison Country, North Carolina, Emma Hensley (now Shelton) whose family had become Sharp and Karpeles' close friends back in 1916, whose schooling they had facilitated financially, and who they'd treated with kindly indulgence even when she ran away after three days at the same school, now gave Maud the warmest of welcomes, and pledged assistance in her quest.  At Hot Springs, NC, where Sharp's most prolific singer Jane Gentry had once regaled them with ballads and Jack tales, she found Jane deceased but her daughter Maud Long preserving at least part of her repertoire.  And in Afton, Virginia, where Sharp and Karpeles had befriended and taken down songs from the former confederate soldier Philander Fitzgerald and several members of his family, Maud met his daughter-in-law Florence Puckett, formerly Mrs Florence Fitzgerald, who as a 23-year-old had herself contributed 11 songs to Sharp's collection (Mrs Puckett, since widowed and remarried, is identified incorrectly in the liner notes as Mrs Fitzgerald's daughter).  Several other survivors or descendents were located, but Maud noted sadly that the best singers were all gone, while Emma Shelton's efforts to locate promising performers often proved disappointing as 'her swans turned out to be geese'.  However, although Maud clearly did her utmost to track down as many singers as possible, she somehow managed to miss the Wallins - Cas, Lee, Berzilla and Doug - and the Chandlers - Dillard and Dellie (Norton), all of them accomplished singers who lived very close to the area of Madison County that she visited, and who were recorded decades later by Mike Yates amongst others.

So what do these singers, several of whom learned their repertoire and style in the early 1900s, actually sound like?  Well, they confirm a long-standing belief of mine: that it's hopelessly simplistic to generalize about 'the traditional singing style' of any given region (I remember hearing recordings of Sam Larner for the first time, and being rapidly disabused of the dogma that authentic traditional style is deadpan and inexpressive!).  The conventional wisdom is that real Appalachian ballad singing is characterized by the 'high lonesome sound' associated with Roscoe Holcombe, is nasal, harsh, and most probably decorated with the kind of 'feathering' - the yelp-like upturn at the end of a phrase - that you'll have heard from Dellie Norton, Dillard Chandler, Sheila Kay Adams and others.  The striking thing about nearly all the Karpeles singers is that they sound nothing like that.  Emma Shelton, Florence Puckett and Maud Long all prefer a softer vocal style, without the 'feather' or much noticeable ornament, often sounding intimate rather than declamatory.  Emma Shelton contributes the most pieces of any performer on the two CDs, with ten items from both 1950 and 1955.  These include several narrative songs recalled with the aid of Sharp's book, such as a melodically interesting version of Locks and Bolts - a lyric which Yates reminds us was most probably written originally by a 17th century London ballad hack.  Many of the most popular Appalachian ballads have a similar source, contradicting the widespread misconception that the mountain repertoire is 'Scots-Irish' or, worse still, 'Celtic'.  Emma also provides a rather stilted spoken account of meeting Sharp for the first time, and several examples of what Sharp called 'jigs' - ditties intended for dancing - which she embellishes with some skilful mouth-music.

Maud Long seems to have preferred the children's songs from her mother's repertoire over the many ballads she sang for Sharp, and here gives us a Burl Ives-reminiscent Frog Went A-Courting, a breakneck rendition of the cumulative Tree in the Wood, and The Bird Song, again an old English text with some additions from blackface minstrelsy.  I wonder whether Carl Perkins heard this song from black labourers in the cotton fields where he worked as a boy, remembered in later life the line 'one for the money and two for to go', and adapted it to his own ends?  Like Maud Long, Florence Puckett isn't a distinctive vocal stylist, but I really like her Jimmy Randal (aka Polly Vaughan), pitched low and with an unusual, dark-edged melody.  Her version of The Cuckoo is good too, carried on a wistful, unresolved tune, different in a few details from that notated from her by Sharp all those years before, and shorn of three verses.

Of the remaining singers located by Karpeles, Mrs Oscar Allen - Ada Maddox in Sharp's day - is another fairly plain singer who had a fine tune for John Randal (Lord Rendal) but could recall only one verse, just as she had in 1918.  Sharp has been criticized by the likes of D C Wilgus for favouring melodic variants at the expense of texts in his published editions, but this must be at least partly because some singers remembered only snatches.4  Mrs Allen's Housecarpenter, to a variant of the well-known tune, retains eight verses and a good sense of the storyline.  William Henry Stockton (the son of one of Sharp's singers) contributes just three verses of Sweet William and Lady Marget at the kind of slow, deliberate pace that reminds me of some of the Irish ballad singers recorded by Tom Munnelly, while his text and tune strongly resemble Emma Shelton's - unsurprisingly, since they were near neighbours and probably related.  Ella Shelton (Emma's sibling, who had also married into the locally extensive Shelton clan) sings Dear Companion in a style very like her sister's.

Dol (Adolphus) Small, a 'delightful old man with a lovely twinkle in his eye' was still able at 81 to give forth Young Hunting and another Housecarpenter variant, while Linnie Landers, a teenager when she met Sharp, sang for Maud a very high-pitched and eerie Wife of Usher's Well.  Another other-worldly performance comes from Mrs Charlie Noel, whose Cruel Ship's Carpenter Maud thought 'a remarkable performance, very wandering and primitive'.  Mrs Noel was sister-in-law to Lizzie Roberts, Sharp's source for Black is the Colour - widely but wrongly assumed to be an Irish song on account of revival performances.  Matty Dameron, sister and widow of two more of Sharp's singers, also favoured children's songs - including the eccentric Turly Yurly - and chatted engagingly with Maud.  Lelia Jowell (the daughter of a former source in Virginia, credited here as 'Leila Yowell'), contributes a excellent Farmer's Curst Wife despite Maud's verdict that she 'had very little voice' and was 'not sure of her words'.  Again the style is light and relaxed, with no yelps or catches.

In fact, the only singer here who does sound 'typically Appalachian' is one Victoria Morris, not known to Sharp, who I've discovered was introduced to Maud by Arthur Kyle Davis, the Virginia song collector.  Davis had recorded several songs from her previously on aluminium discs, and thought her a fine singer of ballads with strikingly good melodies.  Maud found her a 'rather dour person' whose singing was 'not exactly pleasing but interesting because of the pronounced glottal stop' - in other words, 'feathering'.  Such faint praise does a disservice to Mrs Morris, a fine singer with a good command of ornament; it would have been nice to have heard more than the two pieces - Jack Went A-Sailing and Wake Up, Wake Up (a version of Earl Brand) by which she's represented here.

Following the example of Sharp, who had taken the trouble to notate several mountain fiddle tunes and may indeed have been the first collector to do so, Karpeles did not confine her efforts to singers.  It was probably John Powell that put her on to White Top festival regular C B Wohlford, who told her that playing his banjo was "the only thing that will get rid of the blues" - which may be why he was willing to perform for her tape recorder despite his wife having had a heart attack that very morning.  Wohlford picks Cumberland Gap and an interesting Mississippi Sawyer featuring an unusual modal B part.  (Yates wonders whether he was the same musician who performed for FDR at the White House in 1934 - yes, Mike, he was indeed!).  Andy Edwards had, so Maud believed, 'been a very good fiddler in his younger days', but despite the onset of deafness and problems with tuning, his take on the familiar Bright Camp (The Girl I Left Behind Me) retains plenty of rhythmic bounce.

The Sugarloaf Sheltons - whose portrait adorns the front of the CD box - are a particular delight.  A visit arranged in August 1955 by Emma Shelton to her relative Polly Shelton - yet another of Sharp's 1916 singers - found the old lady unable to remember any songs, but her son Dominow (not 'Dominia' as credited) proved adept at the banjo despite having played the instrument for less than a year: "He never puts it down except when he goes to work", commented his mother.  He told Maud that he played in "the new way", which she believed was a matter of tuning, also commenting that he played with two fingers and thumb, using picks - in other words what we would now call bluegrass style.  Having recorded Cumberland Gap and Little Maggie (plus Bile Them Cabbages Down with Emma singing, not included here but something I would like to hear) Dominow arranged to bring a couple of relatives along the following day, and duly turned up with Dale and Roy Shelton, fiddler and guitar player respectively.  The band, apparently an informal ensemble, was delighted by Maud's suggestion that they christen themselves after the nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, and turned in several excellent recordings with a distinct bluegrass flavour - bear in mind that Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and Flatt and Scruggs had been recording and broadcasting for several years by this point.  Twenty-four-year-old Dale proved an excellent fiddler whose double stops and slides suggest he'd been influenced by the pioneering styles of of Chubby Wise and Benny Martin.  The Sheltons contribute several fiddle tunes including a driving Fire in the Mountains, Pike Country Breakdown and Lost Indian (not the Eck Robertson / Ed Haley tune, but the one with an A part resembling Cherokee Shuffle, as recorded by both Chubby Wise and Kenny Baker).  Their finest hour, however, comes with Bonaparte's Retreat, a languid, measured rendition that incorporates the 'Little Egypt' C part with flattened 7th - an indulgence frowned on by modern old-time players but popular in the 1950s as a result of recordings by Pee Wee King and a Hank Williams instrumental version.  The Sugarloaf Sheltons twist 'Little Egypt' subtly so that it blends really comfortably with the old Bonaparte melody - it's lovely.

That more or less covers the Karpeles recordings.  As well as the performers from White Top she committed to tape, Mike Yates has included a couple recorded under the auspices of the festival itself.  A Mr F A Church sings Katy Morey at such a sepulchrally low pitch that it's not immediately obvious that it's a comic song (of the pushy-young-man-outwitted-by-a-woman variety), and quite a good one at that.  Another case in which delivery doesn't quite match subject matter, is Mrs Clyde Sturgill's stunningly intense performance of the apparently harmless romantic tale Sweet Jane.  The low notes shake you to your boots, and her bluesy slides have me wondering whether she'd listened to some black singers at some point (she was clearly not herself a black singer, since such were not allowed at White Top).

Turning to the Lomax material, much of it consists of fiddle music.  There are five cuts from Bill Stepp and six from Luther Strong, fine players recorded in the late 1930s on behalf of the Library of Congress - which holds a wealth of material by these and other musicians taped by Lomax in its American Folklife Center.  Both men's tunes have a tendency towards crookedness, Strong's modal offerings Adeline and Give the Fiddler a Dram standing out, while Stepp impresses mightily with the cross-tuned and apparently unique Piney Ridge, and his wild and furious Gilder Boy. Luther Strong's father-in-law Beverley P Baker gets a slice of the action too, although I barely recognized his Waynesborough at first on account of an eccentric guitar accompaniment that resolutely ignores conventional notions of harmony.  Also recorded by Lomax for the LOC (though strangely not credited as such here) are eight 1941 cuts of Virginia fiddler Emmett Lundy, most of which appeared previously on an LP released in the UK by Topic in 1977.  If a couple of Lundy's tunes sound strangely familiar it's because they are versions of British country dance standards New Rigged Ship and Haste to the Wedding adapted to 3:4 march rhythm, but more arresting to these ears are his Highlander's Farewell, with its grinding, drone-drenched A part, and the unfamiliar but very attractive melody Sheep Shell Corn by the Rattle of his Horn.

Wrapping up the Lomax tracks is a smattering featuring some of the many singers preserved on his Kentucky tapes.  Of prime interest to Cecil savants will be Eliza Pace, the only person recorded by both collectors, and a colourful character known locally as a moonshiner.  The recording quality of her Tom Boleyn (aka Brian O'Lynn) and Cruel Brothers (Bruton Town) is undeniably rough, but they are good songs worthy of inclusion.  Jim Howard, from the coal town of Hazard, contributes a gruff rendition of Groundhog, accompanied by a sawing fiddle drone, that I find very compelling.

Further cuts boasting a Sharp connection are the four recorded commercially for the Victor label during the aforementioned Bristol sessions, by a string band made up of members of the Blackard and Shelor families whom he'd met at Meadows of Dan, Virginia.  Sharp knew that Joe 'Dad' Blackard was a well-known 'banjer-man', but preferred to note his unaccompanied ballads.  However, those whose hearts have a special place reserved for raucous early string band music will warm to the sound of twin fiddles and banjo backed by a thumping piano, with Joe singing lead on Suzanna Gal and harmonizing with the harsh tones of daughter Clarice on Big Ben Gal.5

That just about wraps up the music in this fascinating box set.  I've left until last, though, perhaps the most curious tracks of the lot: Horton Barker was another White Top stalwart, again probably introduced by John Powell to Maud Karpeles, who was rightly impressed by his light and accurate singing.  The first CD opens with his engaging and tuneful Hares on the Mountain, which sounds awfully like the song I heard performed by Steeleye Span some 45 years ago; we all know the Appalachians were a goldmine for old English folksongs, but to find this one so unchanged is remarkable indeed.  Track 2 is Mr Barker's copiously ornamented Pretty Sally, which again sounds terribly English.  Mike Yates was obviously as suspicious as me, and suggests that Barker learned Hares from a visiting academic.  On the right track, but not quite.  It turns out that Maud was well aware that Hares on the Mountain was precisely the version noted from Louie Hooper and Lucy White in Hambridge by Cecil Sharp, which had been learned by Horton Barker from Andrew Rowan Summers, an early American revival singer (who later made an LP for Folkways), and an enthusiastic member of the White Top Festival set.  Summers had also set an American text of Pretty Sally to the English melody Pretty Peg of Derby, and - lo and behold! - his recording is almost note-for-note the same as Barker's, ornaments and all.6  Horton Barker was clearly something of a musical magpie, supplementing his small family repertoire at every opportunity.  It's a delicious irony that Maud Karpeles should have found herself in Virginia in 1950, recording from an Appalachian source singer a piece that had come full circle from her mentor's work in England.  Strange are the ways of intertwined tradition and revival.

These recordings are entertaining, quirky, occasionally thrilling, and most especially a fascinating aural counterpart to Cecil Sharp's Appalachian collection.  A number of the Karpeles recordings have been in my 'unofficial' possession for some time, and it's a pleasure to see them made available generally at last.  As Victoria Morris said, on learning that her songs would soon be heard in England, "It is right that you should take them back where they belong".

Form an orderly queue ...

Brian Peters - 13.8.17

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