Hobart Smith,
Blue Ridge Legacy
(Rounder, 2001)

Hobart Smith: Blue Ridge Legacy is the sort of disc that Rounder Records was born to produce. It is from the Alan Lomax Portraits series, and is well-positioned to help cement Hobart Smith's place in the pantheon of Appalachian musicians. With recordings from 1942 to 1963, this collection of 31 tracks boasts 20 never-before released tracks, including two versions of two tunes ("Cindy" and "Sourwood Mountain") and a brief interview segment on "the thrill of dance music."

Standards abound here, including a lean version of the old Childe ballad "Maid Freed From the Gallows" (#95), here essayed as "Hangman, Swing Your Rope." This song has been covered by everyone from Peter, Paul & Mary to Led Zeppelin, but Smith's version may be my new favorite rendering. Another Childe Ballad, "The Little Schoolboy" (#49), is heard here as "Two Brothers." There is a version of "Wayfaring Stranger" sung by Hobart's three daughters, and rollicking versions of "Sourwood Mountain" (later rendered superbly on banjo) and "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" rendered with gusto by Smith on the piano. "Drunken Hiccups" (sometimes seen as "Rye Whiskey") is here as well, along with a honkytonk piano version of "Dixie," and an up-tempo romp through "Old Joe Clark."

The two most distinctive tunes here are both banjo tunes, "The Cuckoo Bird" and "Last Chance." The former features a rolling banjo style and the curiosity that Smith doesn't actually sing any of the original verses invoking the cuckoo bird, while the latter is a tune in which the banjo is tuned in F except for the bass string, which is tune up to a D. The result is a song which ends in a relative minor, unusual for pieces in this tradition. Both are marvellous examples of the contributions of Smith to traditional banjo-playing.

As if all of this isn't enough, Smith anticipates Dylan by almost 20 years, going electric in 1946 in "Unidentified Electric Guitar Tune."

If you are a fan of traditional, Appalachian or old-timey music and don't already own this CD, what are you waiting for? If this music is alien to you, run out and get this disc anyway, and prepare for the best education in this musical style you might wish for. Thanks to Alan Lomax and Moses Asch, and aided by the marvelous liner notes of John Cohen, Hobart Smith is ready to take us all to school in delightful fashion.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 26 January 2002

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