Bridget Ball &
Christopher Shaw,
Songs from the Big Front Porch
(Twining Tree, 1996)

The aptly named Songs from the Big Front Porch by Bridget Ball and Christopher Shaw indeed sent visions of big porch swings and hot, lazy afternoons in the sun spinning through my head. This is an album full of folk songs, and just about all of them sounded like something you could hear coming out of a transistor radio on your porch if you were around in the 1930s or '40s. This is a good collection of songs, encompassing a variety of sounds and instrumentation and could easily inspire sing-alongs and dancing on the listener's own porch -- all of which is encouraged by the inclusion of guitar chords in the liner notes.

Ball and Shaw, a husband-and-wife team from the Adirondack region of New York, provide vocals and guitar on the album. They make an excellent team with their rich harmonies and fluid voices. They are joined by an impressive array of guest musicians who bring with them an equally impressive array of instruments. The sounds of the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bass, accordion, Scottish small pipes, hammered dulcimer, autoharp, harmonica and even the good ol' triangle grace the album.

The album begins with your traditional country hoedown tune, "Old Joe Clark." This version includes some of the best-known verses, as well as Ball and Shaw's favorites. "Gold Watch and Chain," representing early American country music, sounds most definitely like a porch song, and the autoharp adds a good dimension to the instrumental end of things. Fine harmonies and instrumentals add to Merle Travis's pungent "Dark as a Dungeon," a folk favorite from the 1940s.

Now, what album containing "porch songs" would be complete without a song about a house? "This Old House" is a welcome addition to the album, and Shaw's voice suits it well. Although the song is not, according to the liner notes, a "traditional" folk song, Ball and Shaw indicate that they would like to see it become one. And after listening to this fine rendition of it ... hey! So would I!

In "Wild Mountain Thyme," I thought it was a little funny that they would choose to use the Scottish small pipes for a traditional Irish tune, but they actually suit the song quite well, as does the dulcimer. Bridget has a lovely voice as well. Next comes "Diggy Liggy Lo," a fun old Cajun tune, enhancing by some good fiddling and accordion (and, of course, the triangle). "Blow Ye Winds of Morning" is an upbeat, happy kind of whaling tune, in which Ball and Shaw have used some artistic license to see that the whale gets away in the end.

"Life's Railway to Heaven" is a bluegrass/gospel song dedicated to the railroad men by its composers. Apparently, Ball and Shaw came across this one in an old hymnal bought at a flea market for 50 cents ... I'd say it's worth more than that, as the instrumentals alone make it worth a listen. Next comes a song with some character! It would be your old cowboy tune -- the one that every kid with a homemade lasso knows, "I Ride an Old Paint," which is perhaps better known by part of the chorus, "ride along little dogies". And, speaking of kids, Ball and Shaw have included "Jenny Jenkins", a fun traditional children's tune, to which they have added some lively instrumentals. The album comes to a close with "Red River Valley", a Canadian folksong written in 1869, and "How Can I Keep From Singing," a pretty-sounding traditional hymn graced with rich vocals.

So, for the listener who likes some good, old-fashioned, down-home, country-porch-swingin' tunes, this is the album for you! Ball and Shaw are a wonderful team÷their voices work well together and they have included a good variety of musicians on the album who compliment the music well. The songs selected for the album are a good cross-section of different types of folk music, and would make for good listening on a warm, sunny afternoon. Provided, of course, that you have a big enough porch.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]

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