Various Artists - Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good T [Tompkins Square - 2012]
I don’t consider myself a record collector as such; sure, there are a couple of bands or projects that I’d like to have complete discographies of, but its really the sounds themselves I covet. Nevertheless, I have had recurring dreams in the past about going into a junk shop and finding boxes and boxes of abandoned joy.
Many of you will, I’m sure, share these visions (openly or nay); and thus I think the story of Nathan Salsburg should strike a chord… Salsburg was a frustrated collector of 78s, who contented himself with reissues of long lost shellac; but a phone call from a friend in March 2010 rather changed all that. This friend explained that an associate had spent the day clearing out the house of a Mr Donald Wahle, a recently deceased hoarder, and that he had found some old records. After visiting the house, and sifting through a dump truck, these “some old records” turned out to be a diverse collection of two and a half thousand pieces; ranging from the stars of pre-war America, to utterly obscure and long-forgotten rural outfits. It was these latter recordings that so excited Salsburg. In his work for the Alan Lomax Archive, he had long planned a themed compilation; and now he had been gifted the perfect material and framing for such a venture. The compilation is thus almost entirely drawn from Wahle’s collection, with three discs containing “occupational and hard-time material, dance tunes and novelty numbers, and sacred pieces” respectively. Fidelity is variable, but good; and Salsburg has deliberately used records from the collection, even where a better quality version was available. As well as these discs, the release comes with a book of truly extensive liner notes; compiling an introductory essay from the curator, with an essay and notes on each disc from an authority in that area. (Please note: I am reviewing a PDF of said book.)
“Work Hard” is the first of these discs, and indeed contains songs concerning “occupational and hard-time material”: thirteen songs which rail against wage slavery and dream of a life without it. They come from a variety of ensembles and solo performers, all of which essentially fit the “hillbilly” style which dominates the compilation. One exception to this is “Driving Saw Logs on the Plover”, by Pierre La Dieu (an alias of Oscar Grogan, a stage singer who actually recorded some “pop” sides for Columbia Records) which has a more effected, tutored singing style; providing a pleasant contrast to the general sound. Although several of the recordings are very “raw”, perhaps the polar opposite to Monsieur La Dieu is “Diamond Joe” by the Georgia Crackers - a fiddle/banjo/guitar/vocal trio, who charge through their almost mono-chord song with the motorik power of a juggernaut. It has an incessant force that suggests it will never actually end. The other ensemble tracks are a little more mannered; indeed, the first song on the compilation (“John Henry The Steel Drivin’ Man” by Earl McCoy, Alfred Meng, and Clem Garner) is an exuberant piece of rich harmonisation between guitars and vocals. This complexity is echoed in Darby & Tarlton’s “All Bound Down in Texas”, which has wonderful harmonies and yodelling touches; albeit darker and more mournful in tone. “The Farmer’s Dream” by Oscar Ford, in contrast, is a wide-eyed fantasy of wealth: a “great big watch and ring”, a “great big car” and flapper girls. A much rawer survey of the farmer’s lot comes from Fiddlin’ John Carson, whose “ The Farmer Is the Man Who Feeds Them All” is a hymn-like eulogy to his former profession. Performed solo, on fiddle and vocal, it bristles with an intense, intimate energy. This intensity is found in equal measures in Buell Kazee’s “Poor Boy Long Ways from Home”, which is a beautifully sad song on banjo and vocals: “I got no money, ain’t got no friends / Ain’t got nowhere to go” - as Amanda Petrusich’s introduction says: “When his voice shakes, it’s the saddest tremble in the whole world.” Singing on a similarly bleak topic, but with a more upbeat delivery, David McCarn provides probably my favourite track of “Work Hard”. His “Poor Man, Rich Man (Cotton Mill Colic No. 2)” is a brilliant little song, railing against labour exploitation and a miserable existence like a sprightly, and polite, 1930’s Crass: “You get up every morning before daylight / You labor all day until it gets night / You work a few days, get pale in the face / From standing so long in the same darn place.” “Let the poor man live and the rich man bust”, is the chorus’ declaration of class war; and indeed, McCarn’s prequel, “Cotton Mill Colic”, actually got him blacklisted. If that was the most exciting track on offer, the most fun were “Flat Wheel Train Blues, parts 1 & 2” by Red Gay & Jack Wellman. These brilliantly conjure up and narrate a train journey, using just guitar, fiddle and vocal; with the instruments creating all the sounds of the train. These “train songs” are a long established tradition in US folk/blues, but this is the first one I’ve heard that also imitates a mule…!
The second part of the triptych is “Play Hard”: fourteen tracks given a splendid introduction by Sarah Bryan. These recordings can be crudely divided into three: vocal songs, “skits” and instrumentals; and either document a world away from labour, or provide the entertainment for it. The overall tone is much more upbeat than “Work Hard” (obviously), and the content is noticeably different too. Though the first track, “Work Don’t Bother Me” by Gid Tanner and his band, isn’t too dissimilar in sound to most of the ensemble tracks on the previous volume; driven along by the near-standard backing of a fiddle, banjo and guitar. But vocally, the song is much more carefree and casual: “I don’t bother work / Work don’t bother me / I’m just as happy as a bumble bee” - a far cry from the misery catalogued on “Work Hard”. Often the instruments seem less encumbered too, as shown by members of the Sievers family (recording as the Tennessee Ramblers); their “The Preacher Got Drunk and Laid Down His Bible” has wandering fiddles screeching over a scuffing banjo backing. This screeching and sawing is built on by the Carolina Ramblers, whose “Barnyard Frolic” is a frenzied little breakneck jaunt. Both these last tracks feature animal impressions to some degree, which leads us nicely to the contribution from Warren Caplinger’s Cumberland Mountain Entertainers: “McDonald’s Farm”. Before this became a childhood staple, it was apparently a folk favourite; and its delivered with bouncy gusto here, conjuring images of a square-dance. Indeed, the song has a “skit” introduction, which has “Andy” ordering his fellow musicians about; getting them to clear a barn, because he’s “gonna have a dance here tonight”. There’s two other tracks here which are predominantly composed of “skits”: scripted spoken pieces, with the musicians acting out some situation. “Corn-Shucking Party In Georgia” has Herschel Brown and His Boys playing and gradually imbibing more and more of the demon drink, till their singing becomes a little wayward… It’s partnered on the compilation by “The Beer Party” by the excellently named Charlie Wilson & His Hayloft Gang; this takes a rather more “sober” approach, and combines little skits with passages of playing. They’re both fun tracks, and interesting for their content, but they’re not the kind of thing that linger too long on my stereo. In stark contrast to this, I can’t stop listening to the instrumental pieces on “Play Hard”; even a “lesser” track like Cheat ‘Em” (Allen Brothers) has sterling kazoo work to commend it! I’m a sucker for rags, and there are some breathtaking examples here: the Aiken County String Band’s “Charleston Rag”, which has echoes of bouzouki music in its playing; “Home Brew Rag” by the Cherokee Ramblers, which features a jug bass-line that sounds like some bizarre ancient analogue synth and the Hack String Band’s “Too Tight Rag” which is just tailor-made for my ears. Including tenor banjo, string bass and the mysterious “jazzhorn” in its large, seven-strong line-up, the Hack String Band stroll their way through a swaggering piece; walking the tight/ramshackle line perfectly. Glorious stuff. Another band who court the dangers of ricketiness, are the North Carolina Hawaiians; whose “Soldier’s Joy”, reflects the contemporary craze for Hawaiian music. If it’s slide guitar is sometimes a little rough around the edges, it’s infused with such joy that its easily forgiven. The one piece on “Play Hard” for whom “rough around the edges” are just wasted words, is the frankly earth-shattering “Tennessee Coon Hunt”, by Whit Gaydon. If I played this to you as a new release on the Chocolate Monk label, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Performed on fiddle and vocals, its a contribution to the “fox-chase“ song tradition; which I was blissfully unaware of till this point. Like the “train song” mentioned above, it also narrates a journey; except this time its the journey of a fox hunt. Its a staggeringly otherworldly piece, with Gaydon scraping and yelping himself and his fiddle into a frenzy. Simply put, its nearly one hundred years old now, and its about time you heard it.
The third, and final, part of the boxset is devoted to sacred songs: “Pray Hard”. Not surprisingly, all of the pieces featured have vocals, spreading the good message of the Lord - though not always with convincing sincerity. The first track, Gid Tanner’s hymn to temperance “You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine”, has a suspiciously slurred delivery; as well as the benevolent line, “They say the yellow corn makes the very best kind.” After this, though, voices are raised to the heavens with more committed faith; and often these voices are in larger, harmonising groups. At one extreme of this, you have the McDonald Quartette, whose “Oh Declare His Glory” is an ornate piece of four-part harmonies; its twists and tails making it sound strangely formal. At the other end of the scale, the vocal work of the Red Brush Singers, on “Beyond the Starry Plane”, is almost an unintelligible drone; completely with creaky baritone parts and muffled, but insistent, banjo. In between these polarities, there’s a clutch of songs sung in communal praise; with perhaps a division to be made between musicians singing sacred songs, and believers making music. Its a thin line, but it gives a sense of the different tones on display. In the first category, the Happy Four’s “Climbing the Golden Stairs” is a solid vocal song, aided by guitar and harmonica; but without the overt complexities of the McDonald Quartette. “I’m S-A-V-E-D”, by the Georgia Yellow Hammers, is a jaunty ensemble piece, with solo verses and group choruses; preaching against those who pay lip service to the lord above, with various pertinent words being spelled out - to a tune some of you may recognise more easily as “I’m England till I die”. Sharing the more obvious “musical” content of these tracks, but with a rawness that leans towards the “believers making music” category, there’s a wonderful song by the Corley Family; from Dallas, Texas. Their “Way to Glory Land” features four-part harmonies, and one of the most exquisite female vocals I’ve heard in a while; its a really great track, and notably one of the very few female-lead pieces on the boxset. Intricate harmonisation is to be found in much lesser quantities in the two remaining vocal group tracks: its these that sound like “believers making music”. Which is not a criticism at all - I’m a great believer in passion over technique. So, “I’m On My Way”, by the Kentucky Holiness Singers, is a fairly simple, unadorned piece of communal singing; complete with shouts of “Praise the Lord!” and the jaunty picking of what sounds like a mandolin. I’ve heard bluesier versions of this song before, but this is sung much straighter. Often these recordings are recreations of weekly worship, and Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers certainly conjure up this atmosphere in a more heated, Pentecostal style. “If the Light Has Gone Out of Your Soul” has great, raw vocal hollering, as well as passages of clapping; all of which unite to create a sense of passionate devotion. The smaller groups on “Pray Hard” are uniformly “musicianly”, but still play with great faith and feeling. Songs from the Dixon Brothers, Sid Harkreader & Grady Moore and Fields Ward and the Grayson County Railsplitters all combine folky vocal harmonies with articulate playing; whilst the Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers combine slurred, almost drunken, vocals with equally slurred playing. “When the Moon Drips Away Into the Blood” has some very testy, scratchy fiddle; but also features a bass - I think the only string bass to be heard on the compilation. There are two solo songs on “Pray Hard”: “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” by Alfred G. Karnes, which is nicely earnest; and the magnificent “My Christian Friends In Bonds of Love”. This song, performed by Elder G. P. Harris on fiddle and vocal, has a celtic flavour to its sound; its a wonderfully intense track, though this intensity bizarrely creates a genuine sense of serenity. This brings the compilation to a conclusive end, but there remains one track to be discussed: “Leave It There”, by Snowball & Sunshine. This oddity is the work of a husband and wife blackface duo: by day, James H. Dodgen was apparently a well-know lawyer; by night, he was “Rev. Snowball”, who preached across radio-waves and vaudeville stages. The track features the fearsome vibrato of his wife, Mary Pace Kimbrough Dodgen, who sings strongly but articulately against the backing of an unknown vocal group. The background drone of an organ, plus Rev. Snowball’s exhortations to the singers, create the definite sense of a staged church service; but not any sense of mockery or parody. As John Jeremiah Sullivan’s excellent introduction says of Snowball & Sunshine, “We have lost access to the pop-cultural categories necessary for saying what they even were.”
Well, this is quite a piece of work; we know precious little about Donald Pickett Wahle, but Nathan Salsburg has done his memory proud. Its an incredibly varied set of songs, despite the fairly limited palette of sounds on offer - with most tracks drawing from a selection of guitar, banjo, fiddle and vocals. This, of course, makes the rarity of a piano, kazoo, jug or “jazzhorn” appearance all the more welcome… After the first couple of initial listens, I thought I had my review planned out: a brilliant, commendable collection; but one that didn’t sparkle in my ears - purely due to my lack of excitement about the actual musical content. But you know what? The songs really do sparkle. I’m normally drawn to the religious songs in this territory; but every section of the compilation, whether working, playing or praying, has some truly breath-taking tracks. In particular, the instrumental contributions to “Play Hard” are completely irresistible to my ears; but every corner of the boxset shines. The truth is, you probably knew as soon as you read the title whether you’d be interested in this; and if you are interested, don’t hesitate (and for hardcore enthusiasts, nineteen of the tracks here are reissued for the first time). But if the title didn’t set you alight (and you’ve bizarrely/commendably read this far), then this is a fantastic introduction to the length and breadth of music being performed in rural America, between the World Wars. Whilst it documents the more obscure, the music itself runs from popular dance and song to more interesting novelties like the skits and the train and fox-chase imitations. If you like Hank Williams - and who doesn’t? - then take a chance and test the waters. Donald Wahle collected the 78s on “Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time, And End Time Music, 1923-1936” for years, saving them from the ravages of time (their moulding storage accepted!); and now Nathan Salsburg (and friends) have saved them again, from a modern dump truck. It’s thanks to all of them, that lost times and long forgotten people have not lost their voice.Martin P