Category Archives: Bluegrass

“A lot of good people have done gone on”

John_Hartford

John Hartford was one of the great unsung heroes of the American roots music revival.  His banjo and fiddle chops were top-notch.  His songwriting was robust.  He made some great records in the late 60s, including “Gentle On My Mind,” which later became a hit for Glen Campbell.  During that time he was a staple musician on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Johnny Cash Show, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  He also contributed mightily to the countrified sound of the Byrds’ watershed Sweetheart of the Rodeo (hear his fiddle on “I Am a Pilgrim”).  His early-70s albums reinvented bluegrass, particularly 1970’s Aereo-Plain.  Often considered his masterpiece, Aereo-Plain has long been out of print and is now very difficult to find.  For more about it, check the Rising Storm.

In addition to composing and performing music, Hartford was a writer, a dancer, a licensed steamboat pilot, and even provided some narration for Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary.  Hartford was the weird heart and soul of newgrass music – a true and vibrant individual.

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The Byrds – “I Am a Pilgrim” from Sweetheart of the Rodeo [1968]

Gentle On My Mind” (1967) from Natural to Be Gone, 1967-1970 [2002]

Back in the Goodle Days” from Aereo-Plain [1971]

Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 1960s, 1970s, Americana, Bluegrass

Elvis Costello, live


I caught Elvis Costello at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA Thursday night.  I haven’t heard much of his new bluegrassish album but he and the band sounded pretty good.  To be honest, I have trouble dealing with great rockers outside (particularly, after) their prime, be it EC, Dylan, or otherwise.  It just seems weird.

In keeping with his appropriated American identity, he played a lot of stuff from King of America (Indoor Fireworks, Brilliant Mistake, American Without Tears) and even one from Almost Blue (Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”):

He also covered the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” which seemed to draw more applause and singing-along than “Blame it on Cain” or “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes.”  They also did a nice work-up of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.”

Other highlights included a couple tunes from his incomplete concept opera about the life of Hans Christian Andersen.

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Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 2000s, Bluegrass, Live, Rock

Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 1 of 3: Ballads

For the next three days I will be discussing the Anthology of American Folk Music, which I have recently acquired in a handsome-as-hell reissue package. These 6 CDs have been called “the holy grail of folk music,” but I prefer to think of them not as an impossible gleaming cup floating in a shaft of light in some far-flung castle, but as a chipped hand-thrown clay mug we mere mortals can drink from whenever we’d like, whether we are worthy like Parsifal or not (and we’re probably not).

Harry Smith, a beatnik and experimental filmmaker, spent years combing through commercially recorded music of the late 1920s and early 1930s to compile the Anthology. Smith wanted to put together a truly populist anthology of old-time music, which is why he used commercial recordings on gramophone disc rather than earlier wax cylinder recordings or the field recordings of Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and the like. Smith’s assumption is an interesting prospect. Folk culture by definition is both populist and extremely localized, and quality commerical recordings are able to account for both strands of folk culture: popularity and particularity. As Smith put it, these recordings, many of which sold tens of thousands of copies when first released, made available “the rhythmically and verbally specialized musics of groups living in mutual social and cultural isolation.”

The anthology is divvied up into three sets: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. Today I will focus on three of my favorites from the Ballads disc. By the way, narrowing twenty-seven ballads down to three is very, very difficult, so I have tried to include my favorites while also giving you faithful readers an accurate representation of what is included.

Clarence Ashley – “The House Carpenter” (1930)

Also known as “Tom,” Ashley was from the East Tennessee mountains, and his high lonesome voice and banjo picking sounds like the shadowed hollows and mysterious grassy balds. During the 1960s folk music revival, he began playing the college and festival circuit with the likes of Doc Watson. One of the odd pleasures of the Anthology is the goofy notes that Harry Smith wrote for each selection. For the songs on the “Ballads” discs, these notes take the form of lurid headlines: “Wife and Mother Follows Carpenter to Sea; Mourns Babe as Ship Goes Down.” It is absolutely chilling when the narrator of the song, after convincing the house carpenter’s wife to board his ship and set sail, says, casually, as she weeps for her lost child: “Well, we hadn’t been on ship but about two weeks. I’m sure that it was not three.” And, according to Wikipedia, this song is based on the Child ballad “The Daemon Lover.”

Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers – “White House Blues” (1926)

Many of the songs on the Ballads discs concern news items of previous years: boll weevils, Casey Jones, the Titantic, automated cobbling machines. There’s even a song supposedly written by Charles Giteau, James A. Garfield’s assassin. My favorite is this assassination lament sung by Charlie Poole, a hard-drinking moonshining textile worker from my area of the country, the NC Piedmont. “Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s doing his best. McKinley’s in the graveyard, taking his rest.”

Mississippi John Hurt – “Frankie” (1928)

John Hurt’s name is one of the few I recognized when I first began listening to the Anthology. It’s clear that Bob Dylan modeled some of his early singing after Hurt’s low-pitched, buzzing voice. For me, Hurt’s vocal performance embodies the weird allure of the Anthology: the promise of a palpable past, more genius songs than even the 84 included here. Plus, John Fahey said this version of “Frankie & Johnny” featured some of the best guitar-playing ever, and who am I to disagree?

Coincidentally, music blog River’s Invitation is posting folk songs this week. Do check them out. Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird” is absolutely essential.

UPDATE: Please check out The Old, Weird America for an in-depth analysis of the Harry Smith Anthology.

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Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1920s, 1930s, Acoustic, Americana, Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Roots rock, Singer-Songwriter, Traditional

“I took her to the city/where the air ain’t clean”

The Flatlanders – “Rose From The Mountain” from More A Legend Than A Band (1980) [recorded 1972]

Here’s a mountain song for ya’ll. I’ll be climbing a few this weekend.

Look for me under your bootstraps (or, rather, here).

More Flatlanders on SWR

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Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1970s, Acoustic, Bluegrass, Country

“Gonna wade right in.”

The Louvin Brothers – “Let Her Go, God Bless Her” from Tragic Songs of Life (1956) and “The River of Jordan” from Satan is Real (1960)

In my journey into country music, I have not heard two voices mingle as perfectly and with such conviction as those of Ira and Charlie Louvin. I dare say that these are the best vocal harmonies in popular music.

“Let Her Go, God Bless Her” showcases Ira’s superb mandolin work while “The River of Jordan” is a rousing testament to the boys’ ability to translate their religious fervor into gorgeous songwriting.

Check out two great tunes from Satan is Real over at The Rising Storm.

Some video of the Louvin Brothers

Buy the Louvins here

Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 1950s, 1960s, Bluegrass, Country, Gospel