The Dust Busters, with John Cohen, |
Old Man Below
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2012)
Though Old Man Below is a new recording by a new band, it calls up a host of fond memories from decades ago. Back in the spring of 1967, an acquaintance informed me of a band called the New Lost City Ramblers. A few days later, in a record store in Fargo, North Dakota, I found their then-new album Remembrance of Things to Come, purchased it on the spot and brought it back to my dorm room, for what proved to be many, many spins on my cheap record player. Not many things actually change your life, hyperbole aside, but every once in a while something does, and this did. It led to a lifetime's fascination with old-time Appalachian music. More than four decades later, what one NLCR member, the late Mike Seeger, called the Old Southern Sound is never far from my ear and mind.
Though hardly a household name, the NLCR influenced untold numbers of folk and rock musicians who came after them, most famously Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and Jerry Garcia. The band's story is told in Ray Allen's superb Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers & the Folk Music Revival (University of Illinois Press, 2010). It helps to know as much -- and to understand that NCLR co-founder and longtime member John Cohen is passing on the torch here -- when you sit down to take in the splendid Old Man Below. On the other hand, I suppose it isn't strictly necessary.
Like the NLCR in 1958 (Seeger, Cohen, Tom Paley; Tracy Schwarz would replace Paley in 1962), the Dust Busters comprise three young New Yorkers, in this case Eli Smith, Walker Shepard and Craig Judelman. None grew up in the mountain-music tradition; all came to it through personal discovery, followed by an intense desire to turn it into their own artistic expression. Old Man Below recalls the feeling of Remembrance, possibly the finest of the many albums the NLCR cut between 1958 and 2001. Like the NLCR, the Dust Busters manage the extremely tricky feat of deeply traditional performance leavened by non-intrusive creative touch. The effect is a kind of new vision that neither sacrifices the old and archaic -- one might justifiably call it the music's timeless quality -- nor comes across as mere imitation. This is not easy to do, as some unengaging neo-old-time outfits have demonstrated on unfortunate occasion.
Old Man offers up a generous 20 cuts of appealing material, some of it new even to a hard-core listener like me. Perhaps the most surprising is a variant of "Waiting for a Train," a traditional song best (or maybe only) known from the singing of Jimmie Rodgers. One would never guess what it is strictly from its unlikely title, "Waltz of Roses." In common with the NLCR, the Busters are careful to cite sources, here a 1929 recording by Prince Albert Hunt, who integrated elements of "Cowboy Waltz" and "Danville Girl" into this famous hobo ballad. The often-covered "Roving Gambler" boasts an unexpected melody that causes it to sound almost unfamiliar. There's a reason for that: the original, a 1946 Library of Congress field recording by banjoist Rufus Crisp, has never been issued.
In the case of the originals I've heard, the Busters manage to turn in unique readings, fashioning within-the-tradition but sure-footedly distinctive arrangements. They also bring a sense of joy and a depth of insight (at once emotional and intellectual) to the material sufficient to bestow upon the songs and tunes a sometimes nearly overwhelming power. As I type, I listen to their fierce rendition of an antique Civil War ballad, "Two Soldiers," which I first heard on a Mike Seeger album in the 1960s; Dylan later revived it on his 1993 World Gone Wrong. An unsparing story set on the union side of the Battle of Fredericksburg (1862), the Busters conjure up tragedy, death, defeat and dark beauty.
Smith, Shepard and Judelman, all accomplished singers seeming older than their years, switch vocal duties and play assorted, mostly stringed instruments, joined by Cohen, who -- albeit in an old man's ragged voice -- returns to such NLCR favorites as "Johnny Booker" and "Black Jack Daisy" (the latter also recorded on Remembrance). Of course, it is wonderful to hear him. It is also thrilling to be assured that, in the Busters, the old-time tradition is in sure hands indeed. One looks forward, too, to the making of a Dust Busters tradition. It starts happily here.
music review by
27 October 2012
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