various artists,
Afro-American Folk Music from
Tate and Panola Counties, Miss.

(Rounder, 2000)

First issued in 1978 as part of the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, these 14 tracks were recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942 and by David Evans in 1969-71. They could, however, be contemporaneous with each other. Not much had changed in thirty years, and thirty years further on, this music still vibrates with life and passion.

The 68-page booklet, doubled-columned and in small print, contains a wealth of information about the music, perhaps more than the casual listener will want. This is not, however, a CD for the casual listener, but one willing to listen carefully and anxious to investigate the roots of black music. For such listeners, this is a treasure trove. For others, let me politely warn you away.

The first track is of Napoleon Strickland, a fife player, playing and singing "Soft Black Jersey Cow" with bass and snare drum accompaniment. It's an unexpected instrumentation, but highly rhythmic and contagious, and one can understand how this music was enjoyed at parties. Fife and snare drums also play in an earlier 1942 recording of "After the Ball" by Sid Hemphill's Band. Whether it's the more primitive recording or less skillful playing, this tune is so discordant that one welcomes the end. "Old Dick Jones Is Dead and Gone" is a later simulation of a fife and drum band by a whistler and several people whacking chairs: the result is actually more melodic and more fun than the real thing, with the wood and metal sounds recalling African music.

We go from fifes to quills with "The Devil's Dream," in which Sid Hemphill more than redeems himself for the second track with a tour de force in which he shifts back and forth from whoops to quills with every breath. It's bizarre and literally breathtaking. "Granny, Will Your Dog Bite" is a variation on an old children's song that even made it into "The Devil Went Back to Georgia." Here it's done by Compton Jones as a vocal chant backed up by Jones whacking rhythmically on a washtub, and proves to be one of the less involving tracks.

Hemphill returns on fiddle to accompany his singing of "The Carrier Line," a blues ballad that marries the blues feel to the balladic method of singing/storytelling. We get some banjo (of the fretless variety, since the banjoist, Lucius Smith, removed the first four frets) with "New Railroad." It's a distinctive sound, somewhere between picking and frailing. Two versions of "Shake 'Em on Down" follow, the first played on a "bow diddley," basically a broom wire attached at two points to a wall, and played with a bottle slide, while the second is played on a slide guitar. Both make for good listening, with Ranie Burnette's guitar work simplistic yet soulful.

Othar Turner's "Black Woman" is the album's high point, a deeply moving blues with the force of a field holler, sung both with guitar and a cappella. Evans' notes are particularly valuable here. Turner's wife Ada follows her husband with "This Little Light of Mine," sung to the accompaniment of her own churning. The religious vein continues with a catchy choral rendition of "He's Calling Me," using a male vocal lead and female response singers. A brief children's chant, "Little Sally Walker," and a lullaby, "Go to Sleepy, Baby," provide a gentle conclusion to this aural album of African-American field recordings.

Those who love to delve into musical roots will find a lot of worthy prospecting in this package, and kudos to Rounder for re-releasing it. The package, with its superior sound, detailed booklet, and many photographs, is a class act all the way, and the music more than repays repeated listening.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 14 July 2001

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