various artists,
Deep River of Song: Georgia,
Deep River of Song: Alabama
(Rounder, 2001)

These packed CDs are two more volumes in the Deep River of Song series, which is itself part of the Alan Lomax Collection that Rounder has been bringing out over the past few years. This particular series is made up of field recordings that the Lomax family and others made for the Library of Congress from 1933 to 1946, and constitutes an awesome aural record of primarily African-American music of the southern United States. These are not for the casual listener, but for those people who want to hear the raw, non-commercial recordings and styles that had such a great influence upon today's popular music, but are also historical documents in their own right.

Of these two CDs, I found the most entertaining to be the Georgia title, as it contains four tracks by the great blues singer Blind Willie McTell, including "Dying Crapshooter's Blues," a casual masterpiece of the genre. There are also such superb recordings as Jessie Wadley's version of "Longest Train I Ever Saw," and several recorded at southern prisons and work camps, where the convicts recorded work songs, most with haunting harmonies and contagious rhythms. Buster Brown sings two songs, accompanying himself on harmonica while rhythmically whooping. His 1943 "War Song" is a brilliant combination of old blues and contemporary lyrics. Sidney Stripling is heard singing and playing banjo on three impassioned numbers, including "Coonjine," a holdover from the minstrel tradition. There are also notable tracks by Reese Crenshaw (a classic version of "John Henry"), John Lee Thomas, Robert Davis and others.

The Alabama CD starts off with a moving "Another Man Done Gone," beautifully sung by Vera Ward Hall, who can be heard on ten of the 32 tracks here. It's a wise programming decision. On several she is joined by powerfully-voiced Dock Reed for some magnificent gospel duets. Blind Jessie Harris plays accordion and sings two numbers, one of which, "Honey Take a Whiff On Me," is a cocaine song that might require a parental advisory sticker in a less historical context. Richard Amerson offers some stories, songs and sound-effects harmonica in "Train on a Hill," "Hog Hunt" and "Steamboat Days," all highly entertaining. Several children and nursery songs, including the once-heard never-forgotten breast-feeding song, "Titty, Give Me Some Titty," are sung spiritedly by Mary McDonald. Harriet McClintock sings a tender "Go to Sleep (Little Baby)," and there are several songs sung by unidentified children. There's even an example of "Billy Goat Latin," which seems to be a variation of field holler voiced through the nose as well as the mouth. There's a great example of delta blues, "Worried Blues" by Tom Bell, as well as other fine recordings of work songs and nursery songs. All in all, it's a splendid overview of the black music of Alabama in the 1930s.

Both CDs boast over 60 minutes of music and a 40-page booklet with transcriptions and detailed notes on each track. If you have any interest in roots music, you'll find the real thing here, well recorded and excellently documented.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 24 November 2001

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