Ed McCurdy,
A Ballad Singer's Choice
(Tradition, 1956;
Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

Among the pleasures of the past year was having this album, which I hadn't heard in many years, back in my life. If anything, A Ballad Singer's Choice is better than I remembered it. It recalls a nearly forgotten hero of the folk revival, generally remembered -- though probably not by many -- as the composer of the once-ubiquitous anti-war anthem "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."

McCurdy, however, was no singer-songwriter but an interpreter of a broad range of traditional songs: erotic, religious, ballad, cowboy, seafaring, children's -- short of blues and other African-American approaches, just about anything that English-speaking folk found worth preserving. Born in rural Pennsylvania in 1919, he was singing folk songs over Canadian radio in the later 1940s and recording albums in New York City in the 1950s. His most commercially successful were two Elektra albums jointly titled When Dalliance Was in Flower, described by revival historian Ronald D. Cohen as consisting of "double-entendre Elizabethan songs, decorous yet titillating." McCurdy's other recordings have aged better, I think -- or would have, if not for the unhappy consideration that nearly all remain out of print, which makes this reissue a particular cause for celebration.

In the early 1960s expectations of folk-music performance changed when Bob Dylan's raw singing, as well as the influences of "rediscovered" tradition carriers like Clarence Ashley, Son House and Dock Boggs, pushed artists and would-be artists in the direction of variously imagined "authentic" presentations. Before then, however, revival singers tended to deliver songs in smooth, trained voices, some of them so cluelessly as to generate little more than uncontrolled shuddering if heard today. McCurdy had a polished baritone, but probably nobody more persuasively matched it to the material. His voice managed to convey sorrow, humor, conviction and -- always -- warmth. Choice is McCurdy in top form, making for one of the most satisfying and affecting revival recordings of its time.

As was the custom in those days, McCurdy's accompaniment was as simple and plain as could be: his own guitar, joined here and there by New York's most prominent folk banjoist of the period, Erik Darling. The 19 songs consist of the familiar -- though probably not all that well known in 1956, when folk had barely begun to register as a popular-music genre -- and the obscure, including pieces I have not yet to hear elsewhere. When was the last time you were in listening range of "The Lovely Ohio," "To the West," "Back Bay Hill" or "A Great Big Sea Hove in Long Beach"? The last, a comic song from Canada's Maritime provinces, is the reason, I suspect, that a certain Newfoundland-based, sometime-folk band calls itself Great Big Sea.

As always, McCurdy's taste is a marvel -- no mediocre songs, no tossed-off performances, nothing except real emotion and honest performance. I am thrilled that the sweet old American parlor ballad "Dear Evelina" and the ruefully humorous "Dreary Black Hills" are under my roof again. These are songs that, sad to say, long ago passed out of the repertoires of revivalists, overwhelmingly focused on the rural music of the American South. "The Star of Logy Bay" -- another Maritimes ballad -- boasts an awesomely gripping melody and a poignant narrative. Well, I could go on and on. Let's just say I love this record.

His musical career in eclipse, McCurdy ended his recording career in the mid-1960s and in time moved to Nova Scotia. He became an actor on Canadian television and died in 2000. A Ballad Singer's Choice documents what we're all missing.

by Jerome Clark
10 February 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.