Mason Brown &
Chipper Thompson,
Am I Born to Die:
An Appalachian Songbook

(Banjosnake, 1999;
Dorian, 2001)

Now here's a real humdinger: fifteen great old Appalachian mountain ballads sung by two fellers who look and sound as though they stepped right out of the time when most of these songs were being written and sung in the hills and hollers. From the period-style photos of the singers to the antique artwork (with the handwritten proclamation that "This Programme Is Wholesomme & Goode"), you know you're in good hands. The 28-page booklet contains notes on each song and all the lyrics, so you can sing along. (And you'll want to!)

Brown and Thompson are not only dandy singers, they're damned solid musicians, using guitars, bouzouki, banjo, bass fiddle, bodhran, mandolin, tambourine, banjeurine (a half-sized neck banjo), feet, shaker, water-filled jars and "sack of junk." The rhythm rolls right along on the up-tempo tracks like "Jesse James" and plaintively wails and sighs on the mournful slow songs like "Wars of High Germany."

You'll find familiar songs here, like the aforementioned "Jesse James," "God Moves on the Water" and "Banks of the Ohio," but there are many more obscure ones worthy of rediscovery, such as the violent "Bruton Town" and the ancient-sounding "The Verdant Braes of Skreen." The pair does a chilling job with "Oh, Death" (given a new lease on life by Ralph Stanley's version in the film, O Brother, Where Are Thou?), and the title track, done with only bass fiddle and voices, will rattle in the hollows of your soul.

Most of these songs, even the zippier ones, are dark at heart, "wholesomme & goode" to turn you from the paths of sin, no doubt. The pleasantly titled "The Trees They Grow Green" is actually a tale of early death (a variant of "He's Young and Daily Growin'"). "The Pesky Sarpent" kills both a young farmer and Molly Bland, and "Lady Gay" isn't anything of the sort, when "death, cold death" takes her children.

These songs are delightfully grim, and come from English, Scots and American sources. Brown and Thompson do them vividly and authentically, whether murder ballads or songs of war or love. The whole package is a gem, highly recommended for the fan of old-time music and traditional balladry.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001

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