Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

I’ve been so impressed with the other three releases on pre-WWII blues/string band/hillbilly revivalists Old Hat Records that I decided to complete the quartile and order up this one. For the record, the other Old Hat compilations are “Down in the Basement” (essential), “Music from the Lost Provinces” (essential) and “Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow” (essential). This one? Good, maybe not so essential. It concerns itself with those African-American country blues or early hillbilly artists who lent their mournful or celebratory musings a violin interlude, or used the instrument as a full-blown lead. Sometimes the bands are in full-breakdown mode, with hardcore kazoos, jugs and whistles in the mix; other times it’s sad, raw, depresso blues with little in evidence beyond the singer and his song. Perhaps there are some out there who may have a hard time discerning what might make an African-American fiddler of the era different than a white one. Being a neophyte, it’s probably better if I let the liner notes do the talking:

“African-American fiddlers on early phonograph records offer a rich variety of technique and material, yet many share stylistic traits that distinguish their music from that of white performers. Their approach is strongly rhythmic, with a penchant for improvisation that may stray from the melody. The tone is often husky, and the phrasing flexible. They use the violin to paraphrase the human voice, following the texture and flow of the singer. Spontaneity is valued over rote performance, and these fiddlers often engage in repartee with colleagues and listeners. Such tendencies are evident on many early recordings, ranging from the rough Delta blues of Henry Sims to the smart jazz of Leroy Pickett. But other black fiddlers, such as Jim Booker of Kentucky, often performed hoe-down music much like their white contemporaries. So, while general distinctions might apply to black and white fiddling styles, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole either tradition considering the long history of cross-fertilization between the two”.

Allrighty then. “Violin, Sing The Blues For Me” has paid off more handsome aural dividends each time I’ve listened to it, but not the way some of the aforementioned compilations, Yazoo’s “Music From Kentucky” or the Revenant pre-WWII compilations have. Perhaps it’s because much of this has been captured elsewhere (the MEMPHIS JUG BAND’s “Memphis Shakedown” must be paying someone some fine royalties these days), or maybe in trying to capture a mood based upon the color of skin rather than content of character, the disc renders itself sloppily uneven in quality throughout the 24 tracks. There are certainly some highlights worth hearing: the BOOKER ORCHESTRA’s “Salty Dog” is remarkably similar in structure and riff to one of my favorite songs of any era, CHARLEY PATTON’s “A Spoonful Blues”, and I love both the band name and the performed song by the MOBILE STRUGGLERS, “Memphis Blues”. The whole thing’s best heard in smaller doses – at times it reminds me more of source material for a college music-appreciation class than tunes I wanna play over and over. The CD’s certainly got enough raw 78rpm gristle to chew on for neophytes and olde hands alike – it just doesn’t win top honors in my pre-WWII revival sweepstakes.