various artists,
Ain't No Grave: A Tribute to Traditional & Public Domain Songs
(Dren, 2003)

The great English traditional singer Martin Carthy once remarked that the only harm you can do to the old ballads is not to sing them. In other words, don't worry about whether the presentation answers to some misguided -- and largely meaningless -- notion of "authenticity"; just do the song in a way that makes sense to you and works as musical art.

The cover of this fine CD has an electric guitar propped up against a weathered gravestone, perfectly symbolizing what you're going to find here: except for the Scottish "McPherson's Lament," venerable American folk songs rocked up or otherwise modernized. Well, not entirely -- Tim Eriksen's aching "Southern Girl's Reply," a statement of Confederate defiance caught between hopeless anger and life-deadening sorrow, practically defines musical time travel.

Otherwise, these are richly reimagined adaptations, the worst of which are merely enjoyable and the best of which grab you by the throat and shake you. Among the latter, there is the wrenching Civil War-era "Is the Battle Over?" (Sixty Acres), almost like an outtake from the Byrds' classic country-folk album Sweethearts of the Rodeo. There's also the Plaster Saints' electrified spiritual "John the Revelator," which opens the proceedings. And then there's Timothy the Revelator, who does a nice "Box the Fox" in an updated old-timey arrangement. Listen to "Riding in the Buggy, Mary Jane," done here by the Lisa Marr Experiment, and then hunt up Bob Dylan's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" (on his Time Out of Mind CD), and you'll find out where some of those lyrics come from. What is the tradition good for, after all, if not for looting?

Ain't No Grave proves that you can't bury these wonderful old songs. There's just too much life in them. It's a joy to hear young musicians carrying on the tradition with such intelligence, sensitivity and imagination.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 December 2014

Review first published in 2004;
reprinted by permission.

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