Appalachian Breakdown


“Folks in these parts call it Appa-latch-a…Over in Northern Ireland once I visited a beautiful walled city that lies east of Donegal and west of Belfast.  Now, for the last thousand years or so, the Irish people who built that city have called it Derry…but the British, who conquered Ireland a few hundred years ago, they refer to that same city as Londonderry.  One place: two names…When you choose what name you call that city…you are making a political decision…Now, I reckon Appalachia is a word like that…When we hear somebody say Appa-lay-chia, we know right away that the person we’re listing to is not on our side…” – Sharon McCrumb, The Songcatcher.


            This album is the result of a field trip by a bunch of songcatchers.  During the middle of the 20th century, songcatching was a popular academic pursuit. Young music students and musicians would go out in search of tradition songs that no one had heard before, a style that was different from all others. They categorized and cataloged songs, traced the songs roots and preserved a culture that was rapidly giving way to the more homogenous culture of McCluhan’s global village as broadcast media became more pervasive.  As one of the songcatcher’s role models, Alan Lomax, expressed it, "Our over-centralized electronic communication system is imposing a few standardized, mass-produced and cheapened cultures everywhere."


Songcatcher’s loved to hang around the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, and the rest of the region.  Because of the mountainous terrain, the people of Appalachia became somewhat isolated and the culture of the area remained as relatively undisturbed as the Acadian culture hidden in the bayous of Louisiana.  Where the culture was unadulterated, so were the folksongs, and many of the Appalachian folksongs had roots in the British Isles that were centuries old, adding a further note of irony to McCrumb’s observation about Derry. 


Finding an old Celtic Song, previously undiscovered and unadulterated was like pulling a diamond ring out of a box of Cracker Jacks to a songcatcher.  It sent musical scholars like Lomax, Pete Seeger and Liam Clancy of the noted Irish folk clan the Clancy Brothers up to these mountains. Clancy is one of the producers of this 1956 recording, along with Paul Clayton, who recorded a great deal of music for Folkways, and Diane Hamilton, an engineer who worked with the Clancy Brothers and also helped prepare re-releases of noted Appalachian musicians like Hobart Smith.


More than most recordings, these helped crystallize a time and a culture that was disappearing. It gave a voice beyond the stereotypes to rural America, adding a layer of beauty and sophistication to “the simple southern farmer.”  "I'd been out working all day in my tobacco fields," a local Appalachian musician recalled of meeting Lomax in the late 50s in the New York Times, "and he come by my house here. My wife come out and told me there was a man here, a Mr. Lomax, a New Yorker, who wanted to hear me play some. So I just got buckled up and tuned up and played for him."


Many of the songs captured this way became the lingua franca of the folk movement that this recording helped herald. “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad,” often associated with Woody Guthrie (and the Grateful Dead), dates back to the Civil War and maybe before.  “Skip To My Lou” is one of the songs here that traces its pedigree back to Scotland, where “loo” is a noun for love (as opposed to the contemporary English slang meaning…).  The epic battle of man versus machine, “John Henry” is a classic piece of Americana, while the hymn “Amazing Grace” may be one of the most performed songs on the planet, a staple of gospel choirs and pipe bands and everything in between. 


As old as the songs’ origins, the instruments of the area also date back.  The Appalachians are home to the classic fiddle tune and the three-string dulcimer, harmonicas, guitars, five-string banjos and mandolins. When to folk revival took place in the late 50s and early 60s, the college students and urban bohemians who took up and adapted the style called it “jug band music.’  For centuries in the Appalachians, it was just music. This is what got played at weddings and social gatherings. Every family had people who played, and a good player never went hungry.


The audio document you have in your hand or CD player was recorded in the field. While some field recordings – especially those that predate tape – tend to sound a bit rough, as you listen to this, you’ll notice just how well Ms. Hamilton did in capturing both the music’s essence and sonic range.  Especially considering the relatively limited nature of even the tape recording equipment available for remote recording in the mid-50s, these recordings have remarkable crispness and clarity, respecting the sound of the musicians’ instruments and playing, as well as the songs.


At the time this recording was made, only Hobart Smith had previously been recorded, in the field by Lomax and on a commercial recording with his sister, Texas Gladden.  He went on to have a remarkable career, fueled by this album and the Lomax recordings.  “…as his profession demanded, (he) could play just about anything on anything,” notes the All Music Guide’s Rob Ferrier.  For these recordings, he brought a fiddle and plays remarkable versions once and future standards like “Cripple Creek” (re-popularized as one of the recurring themes of the TV show “Hee Haw”).  He also plays several other fiddle tunes and the slavery era minstrel show piece “Pateroller Song” on a borrowed fretless banjo. 


Etta Baker’s career was even more remarkable.  This recording marked her debut.  After it, she went back to raising her children and working in a textile mill.  In her sixties – she was born in 1913 – she started playing the folk festival circuit, finally making her first solo album in 1991.  The title track of that album reprised her finger picking guitar rag version of “One Dime Blues.” She also displays some remarkable jack-knife slide work on her version of “John Henry.”


Her father, Boone Reid, demonstrates some fine bluegrass banjo on “Sourwood Mountain” and “Johnson Boys,” while her brother-in-law Lacey Phillips takes over the instrument for the venerable tune from the British Isles, “Soldier’s Joy” and the previously undocumented “Marching Jaybird.” 


            Playing a traditional three-string dulcimer made by her husband, Edd Presnell tackles the party favorites “Sally Goodin” and “Shady Grove.”  Harmonica virtuoso Richard Chase lays into the traditional British tune “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Molly Brooks.”


            Another ironic aspect of this album is the fact that all these songs are presented as instrumentals, though most have fairly well and widely known lyrics. As the songcatchers knew, traditional songs become traditional because they speak to people, both musically and lyrically. While listening these instrumental versions of “Skip To My Lou’ and “Going Down That Road Feeling Bad,” don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing along.  The artists and the songcatchers would expect nothing less.