When Cecil Left the Mountains

Historic recordings of Appalachian singers and musicians 1927 - 1955

Musical Traditions Records MTCD514-5

The arresting photos that Cecil Sharp took of his informants in the Appalachians during the First World War, the lovely song transcriptions of the songs collected then that appear in 80 English Folk Songs edited by Maud Karpeles who worked with Sharp on the trips through the mountains - both bring a strong wish to hear the actual voices that Sharp and Karpeles notated on those field trips.  Percy Grainger had demonstrated the value of recording in his famed Brigg recordings a decade earlier yet Sharp always eschewed recording his informants.  The nearest that we are ever likely to get to those voices is the tremendous 85 tracks packed on this double CD compiled by Mike Yates.

Mike has obtained these from a multiplicity of sources dating from 1927 to 1955.  They include some from Sharp/Karpeles' actual informants and others from family members and descendants.  Mike notes Cecil's fears that radio, records and improved roads and infrastructure would end the strong base of home singing that existed in isolated communities, but that he didn't allow for the fact that within a few years record companies would be following his path and recording the better singers and musicians for release on 78s, which in itself would give a status to mountain music and help to spread interest in it.  Other collectors including Alan Lomax also followed Sharp in the interwar years and their recordings as well as those by Karpeles returning in the 1950s are sources.  The albums probably reflect a broader, more comprehensive view of early 20th Century Appalachia; there are lot more fiddle, banjo and band tunes and songs of American origin here.

Some singers speak louder to some listeners than others.  For this listener the outstanding voice here is that of Emma Shelton.  Her singing of the likes of Gypsum Davy, Locks & Bolts and Fair Margaret & Sweet William are up there with the very best.  Fortunately there are eight of her songs here and the short 1955 interview where she describes singing for Sharp as a thirteen-year old is priceless.

Vic Smith, in fROOTS - 12.9.17

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