various artists,
Ballads & Songs of Tradition
(Folk-Legacy, 2000)

This loaded, 21-track CD is subtitled "from the Folk-Legacy Archives," and is accompanied by a 56-page booklet that requires a special extra thick jewel-box, the like of which I've never seen before. I wish I could say the same for the music -- that it's the like of which I've never heard before -- but after all, this is an archival collection of songs recorded between 1956 and 1964, so I shouldn't complain. There are some lovely songs beautifully sung here, and also some interesting songs, well, not as beautifully sung. Sandy Paton, one of Folk-Legacy's founders and the writer of the liner booklet, says, "I should add that caveat to this entire compact disc. What you will hear here is just what we heard while collecting these songs in Scotland, in Canada, and in various regions of the United States." These, then, are basically "field recordings," but are, with a few exceptions, nicely recorded and engineered. Whether all of the performances are worthy of the recording is something the individual listener must decide, according to his or her tastes.

As to my own taste, there couldn't be a better way to start this CD than with the lovely, ethereal voice of Scotland's Jeannie Robertson, who can make even a bawdy song sound heaven-sent. The voice and fretless banjo of North Carolina's Frank Proffitt are heard next in a variation of "Gypsy Davy" called "Gyps of David." Proffitt has a great voice, rich with the ancient tones of the mountains. The real "Gypsy Davy" follows, sung by Lawrence Older of New York, who has another untrained but superb singing voice. Jeannie Robertson returns with "Are You Sleeping, Maggie," sung in her intense and magical voice.

Why do the old, tired voices always sing the longest songs? That's what I ask myself upon hearing New Brunswick's 76-year-old Joe Estey tackle "Hind Horn" unaccompanied. Though Estey's voice is still capable of some graceful ornamentation, the track becomes a chore to listen to, and is not helped by being one of the few poorly mastered tracks on this collection. The variance between loud and soft passages are so great that you turn up the volume to hear the lyrics, only to be blown away a few measures later.

Another Scotswoman, Lizzie Higgins, gives us "My Bonny Boy," but her voice is not the instrument that Jeannie Robertson's is. There is dialogue at the end of the track, but recorded at such a low volume that one has to crank up the volume to hear it. After another Scottish ballad by Frank Proffitt, we hear Lee Monroe Presnell of North Carolina sing "The House Carpenter." Even though the voice is faded with years, there is a haunting intensity to it, and a soulfulness that belies the fact that Presnell has sung it hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. Another version follows by Dave Thompson, just as effective in its own way.

"Twa Brothers" receives a glorious reading from Jeannie Robertson. You tend to forget that it's unaccompanied, as there is such a depth of musicianship here. We go from the sublime to the raw, with New Brunswick native James Brown's "The Jolly Tinker." There's not much voice left, but what's there is spirited. "Tom Sherman's Barroom" by Vern Smelser of Indiana follows, a variant of what would become "Streets of Laredo."

In order for a song (and especially a long ballad) to be effectively sung unaccompanied, the singer must have either a wonderful voice or exceptional dramatic skills. I hear neither in Marie Hare's rendition of "Lost Jimmy Whalen." Like too many singers on archival and field recordings, she is merely a recording instrument, a device for retaining what might be otherwise lost, and quickly becomes tedious to listen to. Another such human archive is Arkansas' William Harrison Burnett, called a "splendid singer" in the notes. To me, his "I'll Get Married A-Sunday" sounds nasal and pinched.

Joe Estey is back with "The Bunch of Watercresses," and I wanted to bail out at the first line, with a low note he can't hit. There's no real sense of rhythm or propulsion in a song that lasts for ten verses. Thank God Jeannie Robertson comes back again with "The Overgate," using some back-up singers for a change.

We return to the mechanical with Smelser's rendition of "The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn" and Burnett's "Sweet Sixteen." Then Mrs. Miner Griffin of Arkansas tackles "He Never Came Back," a humorous song, but with absolutely no humor in her voice, no wink, no nudge, no nuthin'. She's like a defective music box, mildly tuneful but soulless.

Two versions of "The Old Armchair" close out the CD, the first by Presnell, and the second by Grant Rogers of New York. I must confess it was a blessing to hear a guitar start Rogers' track, after the unaccompanied musical wasteland through which I'd been passing for the previous four songs. Rogers sings the song with a good, spirited voice, and it was just so damned good to hear a guitar again!

It reminded me that there's a whole lot more to folk music than merely being quaint and authentic. Rogers gives a musical presentation, an actual performance. Too many of the other performances are merely repetitions of rote memorization. They're interesting to a scholar of the Child ballads, or a folk music historian, but not particularly of much value to the casual listener. So your enjoyment of this album will depend on your own depth of interest in the genre. The deeper it is, the more you will enjoy it. All the song lyrics are transcribed, and the copious notes make for fascinating reading. I should also mention the many fine photographs of the singers: that of Lee Monroe Presnell is a masterpiece of portraiture.

For those who prefer music over documentation, the Jeannie Robertson and Frank Proffitt tracks are well worthwhile. A CD of Proffitt songs is promised, and I would hope that the same would be done with Jeannie Robertson. Her recordings are sublime, and the highlights of this collection.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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