various artists,
Ozark Folksongs
(Rounder, 2001)

Historical recordings fall into two categories: the first are recordings that are both relevant and wonderful to listen to, and the second are recordings that are relevant but mostly painful to listen to. Unfortunately, this CD re-release of Vance Randolph's 1941-42 field recordings falls into the second category.

Like most of the Rounder CDs of field recordings, the packaging is exemplary, including a 40-page booklet with copious song notes about the 35 tracks and many photographs. The recordings naturally show their age and the conditions under which they were recorded, but the lyrics are easily understood throughout (a good thing, since they are not printed in the booklet). There are, however, some very distracting tics (as in the recurrent crack on the nigh-unlistenable master of "Farewell Since All Is Over").

What makes so much of this CD so tedious are track after track of a cappella versions of traditional English and Scottish ballads or variants thereof. They're not sung particularly well, and are of interest primarily as musical testaments. The working folklorist or the folk tradition purist may find much of interest here, but the less dedicated and less patient listener will quickly grow bored. The track programming doesn't help, as, for example, Charles Ingenthron sings five of these pieces in a row (15 minutes worth) in a droning and moaning voice guaranteed to drive crazy anyone with a semblance of proper pitch.

There are a few items that may get you tapping your toes. Most of the songs done with guitar or banjo are enjoyable, such as "Brown Eyes," "Granny's Old Arm Chair" and "The Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim," a parody of "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane." But Booth Campbell never seems to get the right chords on his banjo, and the resulting pain is excruciating. There's some nice flatpicking guitar work on "Chicken Reel" and some decent fiddling on "Leather Britches" and "Natchez Under the Hill," complete with double-stops. One of the few fun unaccompanied vocals is "Harvard Student," filled with racy double-entendres.

Ironically, the best thing on the album is "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies," which really isn't an Ozark folksong at all, having been written as a commercial gospel song and recorded several times commercially before this field recording was made. It's similar to hearing a 1974 garage band recording of "Johnny B. Goode." Still, it's performed quite well, with solid vocal harmonies and instrumental breaks.

There's far more dross than gold here, however. Some of these voices are extremely difficult to listen to, and unless you're a true scholar of this material, you will press that button frequently to get you to the start of the next track, which, unfortunately, will be just as hard to listen to as the one you've left. Recommended for the folklorist and the tone-deaf only.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 23 March 2002

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