various artists,
The Cowboy Tour
(Rounder, 2000)

various artists,
Deep River of Song: Big Brazos
(Rounder, 2000)

These two CDs provide an interesting contrast. Both are performed by people whose main line of work is not performing. The Cowboy Tour is subtitled "A National Tour of Cowboy Songs, Poetry, Big Windy Stories, Humor, and Fiddling," while Big Brazos is subtitled "Texas Prison Recordings, 1933 and 1934." So what we have are two albums of the songs and stories of laborers, the first group of whom do what they do by choice, and the second of whom serve involuntarily.

The Cowboy Tour chronicles the 1983-84 "road show" of nine performing cowboys from the American West and Hawaii. Although there are a few bright moments on this CD, much of it struck me as tedious, both musically and verbally. A lot of the songs simply go on too long, like "The High-Tone Dance" and "Streets of Laredo." I've enjoyed cowboy poetry, and have several volumes of it, but much of the poetry here isn't even read particularly well, with little attention being paid to scansion, which should be one of the foremost considerations of recitation. As for the "tall tales," many of them meander too much, and are loaded with "ah"s and "um"s, as though the tellers weren't really secure with their material (Ken Trowbridge is especially guilty of this). The tellers step on punch lines, or try and stretch them out too far, as though they've lost their sense of timing and rhythm.

The album picks up steam in its second half, with some interesting Hawaiian songs by Karin Haleamau and a few Spanish language songs by Johnny Whelan. Junior Daugherty offers up some fun fiddling with "Sally Goodin" and "Maiden's Prayer" (Daugherty plays a lot better than he sings). All in all, however, this album promises a lot more fun than it delivers. You'll find no slick Sons of the Pioneers or Bob Wills-style performances here, but just a bunch of cowboys letting their hair down. Maybe you had to be there.

As an emotional experience, Big Brazos delivers a lot more than The Cowboy Tour. This hour's worth of African-American prisoners singing the songs that helped them get through their days and nights is filled with pain, joy, heartbreak and triumph. There are mostly call-and-response work songs here, and the voices of these prisoners with names like Iron Head, Clear Rock and Lightnin' are rich, deep and sincere. John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax recorded these songs in the prisons, interviewed the singers and took photographs, some of which are included here, along with lengthy liner notes and transcriptions of the songs, which, as the notes correctly state, are all about "staying alive in hell."

There are twenty tracks here, and it's fascinating to see how many of them, nearly all from the slave tradition, became folk music standards: "Ain't No More Cane on This Brazos," "Black Betty," "Old Rattler," "Stewball" (which began life as an Irish broadside ballad), "Long John," "Go Down, Old Hannah" and more. In these early forms, the songs are far more effective than their later homogenized versions. They are at once document and testament. In the misery of the singers, there is majesty to be found.

Final verdict? If you're really, really, really into cowboys, you'll probably enjoy The Cowboy Tour, but casual listeners should be discouraged. As for Big Brazos, if you're interested in the true roots of folk, blues and R&B, or in the raw state of the human condition, this one is something you should hear.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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