various artists,
Deep River of Song:
Virginia and the Piedmont

(Rounder, 2000)

This is yet another offering in the Rounder series, The Alan Lomax Collection. Those who know Lomax and his work need no further explanation; those who don't, should know in brief that Alan Lomax (among others, including his father John) gave a substantial part of his life to researching, documenting, field taping and preserving of the legacy of folk music. The Lomax father-and-son team began their recording work for the Library of Congress in 1933, and Alan revisited this body of field recordings with Peter Lowry in 1981. The focus of the Deep River of Song series (originally 12 albums, with more planned) was the rich heritage of African American folk music. It is this music which is the stuff and substance of the disc reviewed here, Deep River of Song: Virginia and the Piedmont, subtitled Minstrelsy, Work Songs and Blues. As the full title implies, the thrust of this disc is labor songs of the upper Atlantic Seaboard South, particularly the upcountry of the Carolinas and Virginia.

As is usually true for compilations of this type, the original source recordings are of variable quality. While this means a loss of sound quality to the untrained ear, the field recordings have an immediacy to them which captures the spontaneous quality of the music quite nicely. These tracks were recorded between 1933 and 1946, and so the source tapes will reflect that era of audio technology. The listener is invited to keep in mind also that, with few exceptions, these tracks were not laid down in a studio environment, but were recorded in surroundings as varied as farm fields and penitentiaries.

The other issue with this sort of compilation is the choice of selections offered. I find that the 28 tracks offered here provide a generous cross-section of the music surveyed, with musical forms from camp hollers to call-and-response songs all being explored in a variety of settings. The performers range from the polished professionals (the Golden Gate Quartet with Josh White) to the more elemental Jimmie Strothers and Jimmie Owens. They range from the unknown Michael and Ezra Lewis to the well-known Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

The songs themselves are all gems. Some particular standouts are "Wild Ox Moan," a levee camp holler of the first stripe by Rollie Lee Johnson; "Fox Chase," a spirited story-song by Terry and McGhee; the amazing "Run, Sinner, Run," by the Golden Gate Quartet; "Take This Hammer" and "John Henry," two reworked variants on classic rairoad work songs; and "Bitin' Spider" by Willie Williams and an unidentified backup group. The blues portion of the spectrum is well represented by "Prison Blues" (Robert Higgins) and Sonny Terry's "Worried Blues."

For fans of this sort of music, this is a must-have for your collection. For those who may be unfamiliar with the source material for the more mainstream blues and gospel giants, this disc is your opportunity to understand what roots music is all about.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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