Harry Cox,
What Will Become of England?
(Rounder, 2000)

Imagine yourself in one of the circles of Dante's hell, say, the one reserved for the garrulous. Now picture yourself sitting on a stool (an uncomfortable one, of course) across from a man who looks like a much older version of John Cleese on Monty Python playing the chap who had his pants pulled half way up and wore the white handkerchief over his head and spoke with such a growl of a dialect that you could hardly understand him. [Editor's note: I believe the character in question was called D.P. Gumby, but don't quote me on that.] Now hoarsen his voice even further with decades of pipe tobacco and probably whisky and ale.

Now ... let him sing for you. Songs with many, many verses. Unaccompanied. Having fun yet?

Now ... give him a cheap accordion and an out-of-tune violin so that he can continue to entertain you while he rests up his voice for the next onslaught. Make sure that he sings most of the songs out of his range so that he has to strain to hit the high notes and loses the pitch on the low notes. Have him phlegmatically clear his throat a lot during and between the songs. Have him transpose words and correct himself and then talk about how good his memory is.

In between songs, have him talk to you in an accent thicker than cement gruel with raisins, telling you long, tedious stories about his youth and how rough it was and how his father had a hard life and his mother had a hard life and he had a hard life, until it becomes, again, like the Monty Python routine where one bloke says, "Oh, my family was so poor we lived in a packing crate," and the other bloke says, "Oh, a packing crate would have been luxury to us!"

Have him criticize any songs that were written since he was a boy, and tell you that none of them are worth singin', learnin' or listenin' to.

Now, put a guy in the other room that you can hear, but can't see, a guy who loves everything the old man does and makes unending comments about how wonderful it all is. Call him Alan Lomax. Have him record all this. Now put it on a 78:02 endless loop and repeat ad infinitum.

If you haven't figured it out yet, this entry in the "Portraits" series of the Alan Lomax Collection is pretty damn painful to sit through. It serves its purpose by giving a portrait of Harry Cox, a Norfolk "bearer and interpreter of the English folk song tradition," with these songs, tunes, and recollections recorded in 1953, but the presentation is as raw and bare-bones as you can get. This is a historical musical document, and little more.

Do these performances deserve to be preserved? Of course they do. Is it a good thing that they are released on CD? Yes, it probably is. Should you listen to it?

Not necessarily.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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