Tom, Brad & Alice,
Holly Ding
(Copper Creek, 2000)

It is no secret that I am a fan of folk music, especially the real thing as opposed to the folk-pop folderol that has so often passed itself off as folk in times gone by. (I won't name names.) This review is reserved for the exclusive laud, glorification and praise of Holly Ding by Tom, Brad and Alice. From the very beginning, I can tell that these folks love bluegrass -- they sound fabulous, apparently loving what they do, and their liner notes are some of the most fascinating I have ever read.

Most of the songs are traditional, tried and true pieces often forgotten by modern artists. The others are exquisite examples of this fine genre, fitting flawlessly among the older gems collected here. And whenever possible, the accompanying story has been included with the song, adding to my listening delight. Knowing something of their history really does make a difference, especially with the ballads. Also included are fairly complete notes on the musical aspect of each number; I have never come across such careful notation.

Tom Sauber of California has more than 30 years of experience in making and recording traditional music, and his efforts on this CD prove that it was indeed time well spent. Oklahoma native Brad Leftwich has put in 25 years singing, playing, teaching and writing -- all different aspects reflecting his love of traditional music. And last, but most certainly not least, native Californian Alice Gerrard has put in many years as musician, singer, songwriter, mother and collaborator with filmmakers and folklorists. Together, these three powerhouses blend into a magnificent team.

"The Cuckoo" is a traditional tune featuring two banjos. "Poor Ellen Smith" is about the 1892 murder of Smith by Peter DeGraff in North Carolina. According to the legend, DeGraff denied his guilt until he was on the scaffold. The third song breaks out of the traditional mode as Tom, Brad and Alice cover an old Hank Williams tear-jerker. "Alone and Forsaken" is a personal favorite of mine because it is one of the first songs I can remember my Dad playing on a scratchy old 45. I was not disappointed with this faithful rendition of this often overlooked jewel.

"Backstep Cindy" is another traditional song with a curious twist in the tale of how these three musicians learned it from various sources in North Carolina, California and a book called Negro Folk Rhymes by Thomas Talley. This may not be divine inspiration for the recreation of a lost lyric, but it is clever and certainly makes for a wonderful, lively song that makes the effort well worth our appreciation.

"Cause I Don't Mean to Cry When You're Gone" is a song written by Alton and Babon Delmore. Tom changed the melody line to suit himself; having not heard the original, all I can report is a fine, powerful song well worth hearing. The next number was penned by Alice and was recorded previously, both by Pete Seeger and herself, but this a cappella version is her favorite. No wonder. "Sail Away Ladies" is another traditional tune with words taken from Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes.

The liner notes say "doney" is an old-fashioned endearment meaning "darling." The song "Doney" makes more sense knowing this bit of trivia.

"Mama's Gone" was recorded by Leadbelly as a slow blues number, but Tom, Brad and Alice's uptempo version is also a satisfying treatment of this traditional classic. "The Christian's Good Night" was found originally in the 1938 Cokesbury Worship Hymnal. It is a simple and stirring song that truly sums up the Christian belief of reunion after this earthly life. A moving piece. The tempo picks up with the instrumental "Lonesome Hill." A real toe-tapper, it doesn't sound a bit lonely to me and is a welcome bit of cheer after some of the sadder pieces preceding it. "Little Old Log Cabin Of My Dreams" returns the listener to sad reminisces and reveries of the sometimes not-so-good old days. Memory has a way of gilding these things, however, and this rendition is strong in its sympathetic simplicity.

The next set of four numbers starts with a particularly heart-wrenching rendition of "Lone Prairie," a traditional favorite which has never sounder sadder or more lonely. "Catlettsburg" is a few miles from Ashland, Ky., and as a port on the confluence of the Ohio and Big Sandy rivers, it became a center of music and entertainment in its day. Hence its immortalization in music. Being from Tennessee, I grew up hearing the "Tennessee Waltz," but Hank Williams' "Alabama Waltz" is a tune unfamiliar to me. (Alice wrote the additional verse.) The next song returns us to the realms of traditional gospel of "Moses and the Israelites." Much thanks go out to Tom, Brad and Alice for keeping this rarely recorded alive and passing it on to another generation.

"Little Margaret" is like a backwards version of "Barbara Allen," with a great ghost story included. It is this sort of ballad which so endears bluegrass to me, and this is a perfect example of the genre. Again, the somber mood is broken by an upbeat number, a real hoot of a song, "The Red Hot Breakdown." This hilarious song pokes fun at hypocrites trying to get into Heaven in other than the standard fashion. I found it a bit timeless in its wry message. This song alone is worth the price of the CD. "Dear Friends Farewell" finishes off this fabulous collection with a hymn included in shape note and Baptist hymnals all across the South. It ends Holly Ding on a sad, sweet note. Perfect.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, this entire CD is a treasure trove of old-fashioned songs that are a bit rare to modern ears. Tom, Brad and Alice are expert performers with a real feel for the music as well as an obvious love of their work. Their choices are inspired and appreciated.

[ by Debbie Gayle Rose ]

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