DESERT ISLAND 25 OLD-TIME RECORDINGS (circa 1990)
By Art Menius probably for The Independent
That the old-time string band music that the major labels exploited during the 1920s survived from the era of the 78 and the cylinder testifies to its tenacity. Along the way it spouted both roots and branches: brother duet music, bluegrass, traditional country, and hillbilly boogie, while influencing French Louisiana and western swing music. By the late 1950s young urban folks began playing these old styles and seeking out old masters to document, creating a new universe of recorded old-time music.
1. Various Artists, Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian/Folkways).
Available in perpetuity through Smithsonian/Folkways, this multi-record set compiled in 1953 by Harry Smith collects a breathtaking array of commercially recorded roots music of the 1920s and 1930s.
2. Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers (County 505)
Country music’s first self-destructive hero, banjoist and singer Charlie Poole became one of Columbia Record’s best sellers in 1925 with songs collected here including “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and “White House Blues.”
3. The Skillet Lickers (County 506)
Georgia’s fiddle driven Skillet Lickers encapsulated the struggle between progressive and traditional musicians way back when in their wild edged string band.
4. Various Artists, It’ll Never Happen Again (Marimac Recordings 9110)
A fascinating, geographically diverse cassette sampling of lesser-known string bands of the late 1920s and early thirties, most otherwise available only on 78.
5. Various Artists, Cotton Mills & Fiddles (Flying Cloud FC-014)
Cotton Mills & Fiddles, on the other hand, assembles rare 1920s and 1930s recordings from a very specific area: the cotton mills of Piedmont North Carolina, which produced such artists as Poole, Kelly Harrell, and Walter “Kid” Smith.
6. Jimmie Rodgers, First Sessions (Rounder 1056)
“The Singing Brakeman,” Rodgers became the first country entertainer to achieve mass popular stardom, selling hundreds of thousands of records during the late 1920s, but died poor and tubercular in 1933. Since his influence lingers yet, it proves most appropriate that Rounder began placing his entire output on CD beginning with these 1927 and 1928 cuts.
7. The Carter Family, Clinch Mountain Treasures (County CCS CD 112)
For now these 20 tracks cut during their penultimate sessions in the fall of 1940 serve as the best helping on CD of the artists who, along with Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, epitomized commercial country music between the wars.
8. Various Artists, Ragged But Right: Great Country String Bands Of The 1930’s (BMG/RCA 8416-2-R)
Although guitar/mandolin duets gained prominence during the 1930s, full string bands continued to perform including the latter day Skillet Lickers, first female country star Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers, and groups lead by brothers J.E. and Wade Mainer.
9. Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith & His Dixieliners, Volume 1 (County 546)
During the 1930s Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith reigned supreme as the foremost fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry with backing from such superlative musicians Sam & Kirk McGee and, on these 1936-1938 sessions, the Delmore Brothers.
10. Various Artists, Are You From Dixie?: Great Country Brother Teams of the 1930s (BMG/RCA 8417-2-R)
Directly fueling both bluegrass and the Everly Brothers, the lead/tenor “brother” duet became a fixture in country music during the second half of the 1930s with some of the best group’s on Victor’s Bluebird label: Charlie & Bill, the Monroe Brothers, the Delmores, the Dixon Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys: Bill & Earl Bolick.
11. Various Artists, Something Got A Hold of Me: A Treasury of Sacred Music (BMG/RCA 2100-2-R)
Country music has always worn faces both sacred and profane. This CD contains 16 gospel recordings, mostly from the 1930s, by the Monroe Brothers, Carter Family, Wade Mainer, Uncle Dave Macon, Blind Alfred Reed, and others.
12. The Blue Sky Boys, In Concert 1964 (Rounder 0236)
Although the Blue Sky Boys, North Carolinians Bill & Earl Bolick, officially retired in 1951, they continued to perform and record sporadically through the mid-1970s with their classic brother duet style totally intact as their live recording demonstrates.
13. Nathan Frazier, Frank Patterson, Murph Gimble, John Lusk, & Albert York, Altamont: Black Stringband Music From The Library of Congress (Rounder CD 0238)
Before the ascendancy of the blues, rural African-Americans played old-time string band music for dances by both races. This disk makes available some inspiring 1940s field recordings from Tennessee.
14. Uncle Dave Macon, At Home: His Last Recordings, 1950 (Bear Family BFX 15214)
Tennessee’s Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Ole Opry and possibly the first professional country music entertainer in any modern sense, drew a great deal of his performing style and material from African-Americans. While far from his strongest technical work, these 1950 recordings capture both his spirit and the breadth of his repertoire.
15. The Hackberry Ramblers, Early Recordings: 1935-1948 (Old Timey 127)
Fifty years before anyone coined the term “World Beat,” Louisiana’s Hackberry Ramblers fused Louisiana French music, southeastern string band, and western swing into a breathtaking music of their own.
16. Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, Mule Skinner Blues (BMG/RCA 2494-2-R)
This CD collects all 16 of Monroe’s 1940 and 1941 recordings for Victor, made at a critical stage in his transition from the duet style of the Monroe Brothers to the full-fledged bluegrass sound he achieved by the end of 1945. Nothing better explains the connection, and the differences, between old-time music and bluegrass.
17. Woody Guthrie, Struggle (Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40025)
Using traditional tunes as the basis for political songs, Woody Guthrie developed the modern concept of “folk singer” as can be heard here on some of his most labor oriented recordings of the 1940s.
18. The New Lost City Ramblers, The Early Years: 1958-1962 (Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF 40036)
Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen, the original New Lost City Ramblers, can claim most of the credit for inspiring the string band revival by proving that younger folk could play evocative versions of the old-time songs and tunes.
19. The Doc Watson Family (Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40012)
By the beginning of the 1960s folklorists and musicians were heading to the hills looking for musicians and singers who had learned traditional material within the oral tradition. Ralph Rinzler came back from North Carolina with one of the greatest discoveries, Doc Watson, heard here on 1963 recordings.
20. Tommy Jarrell, Sail Away Ladies (County 756)
Soon the youngsters had unearthed both genuine folk musicians who played for their own enjoyment and recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s. Fiddler and banjoist Tommy Jarrell, whose father recorded commercially during the 1920s, played it the same at home or on stage and served as tutor to hundreds of old-time revivalists.
21. Double Decker String Band, Evolution Girl (Marimac #9021)
All too many of the excellent recordings from the 1970s of masters and revival groups had gone out of print even before the demise of the album, but groups remain recording fantastic old-time based music. Maryland’s Double Decker String Band has a sense of humour that Uncle Dave would like and an appreciation for the many different styles filed under old-time music.
22. Joe & Odell Thompson, Old Time Music From the North Carolina Piedmont (Global Village C217)
Cousins Joe & Odell Thompson are leaders among the precious few exponents of African-American string band music still performing with vigor and foot-moving drive.