various artists,
Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians
(Tradition, 2006)

This is one recording that has aged amazingly well. Originally released on the Tradition label in the mid-1950s, Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians introduced many citified, would-be folksingers to authentic traditional mountain music, performed by then-unknown local players such as Etta Baker and Hobart Smith, who would achieve prominence in later years on festival stages and albums on folk labels. It also captured still-obscure figures such as Lacey Phillips, Richard Chase, Boone Reid and someone identified only as "Mrs. Edd Presnell."

The LP (and now CD) grew out of a collecting trip that early revival artists Paul Clayton, Diane Hamilton and Liam Clancy took in Virginia and North Carolina in the summer of 1956. From the resulting tapes they chose the finest of the performances, consisting of solo pieces on banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonica and dulcimer. Every one of the 20 cuts is a little masterpiece. Many of the tunes -- "John Henry," "Shady Grove," "Sourwood Mountain" and more -- would become revival standards, but outside Appalachia in those days, most were little known to Americans raised on a diet of mainstream popular music.

Of the musicians represented here, at least one, the masterly Piedmont guitarist Etta Baker, is still with us, still performing "Railroad Bill" and "One Dime Blues" (an adaptation of a 1920s Blind Lemon Jefferson song and the template for Woody Guthrie's "New York Town"). Whatever the mortal state of the other artists (the liner notes, from the original album, are unhelpful here), the music at least lives on. The reappearance of this splendid recording is reason for gratitude and celebration all around.

by Jerome Clark
17 June 2006

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