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Appalachia

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At the end of July I went on a little record buying binge, placing orders with four or five different labels. I’m still digesting all the great music that I ended up getting, but there have already been a few things that stuck out that I thought I’d recommend.

First off is a new recording from a band called The Black Twigs, from south western VA. The album is called Midnight Has Come And Gone. The Black Twigs are a string band in the grand tradition of southern western VA and eastern KY string bands. This isn’t bluegrass, but instead is part of the tradition that was a major influence on Bill Monroe when he created bluegrass. The majority of the songs are originals, written by the band members, but could be passed off as older songs if you tried. The covers include a nice little gem in the form of the Original Natural Bridge Blues. The linear notes of the album tell the story of how this song, when originally recorded, lost its second verse when the vocalist froze during the recording. Since the band couldn’t do a second take, they played through the goof up, and to this day, most people only know the song with a single verse. Well, while looking through some old family albums, one of the band members came across the original sheet music for the song, including the lost second verse. They made the decision to record the song in its completed form. Fans of old Appalachian string band music, who might be looking for a band that is continuing the tradition into modern times, would be well served to pick this album up.

The second recommendation I’d like to make is steeped in history and tradition. Coming from the Revenant label, this is a collection of songs recorded by Dock Boggs back in the 30’s, called Country Blues. If you’ve never heard of Dock Boggs, he was one of the grand masters of Appalachian country blues. There is a story in the linear notes, told by Boggs, about an incident that happened around the time of these recordings.

It seams that he and his brother-in-law were driving around a town near their home. When they started the trek home, the brother-in-law told Dock that they needed to get more gas and oil if they hoped to get up over the mountain that separated them from their home. The problem was that neither of them had the money for the supplies. Dock, noticing some guys he knew over on a street corner, hatched a plan. He walked over to the guys and struck up a deal with them where he would play a couple of tunes in exchange for the money that they needed. The agreement being met and the money having been collected, Dock got about to playing some songs. After a few minutes his impromptu concert was interrupted by the cops.

It seems that the small group of folks that Dock was originally playing for had swelled in size to a small mob, who were now blocking traffic in an effort to hear Dock play. The cops asked Dock to move things over to a near by park, that could better handle the crowd. He obliged, played a couple more tunes, and then passed the hat around. At the end of the performance, not only did he and his brother-in-law have more then enough money to buy gas and oil for the trip home, they were also able to treat themselves to a nice dinner with the proceeds. Such was the popularity of Dock Boggs.

If you have any interest at all in Appalachian music, then you really owe it to yourself to pick up this collection and hear Dock Boggs the first time around. (A decade after these recordings, Dock had given up playing music. He was later discovered by Mike Seeger in ’63, and came back to performing and recording during the folk revival)

Now, I will give a warning to folks who perhaps are not used to hearing pre-WWII recordings. The possibility of hearing pristine recordings from this age is so remote that it might as well be impossible. The recording techniques of the day did not even record in pristine formats. On top of that, Revenant is a label that prefers to not mess with the raw magic of old recordings in some misguided attempt to “clean” things up, which, more often then not, results in the destruction of the very thing that makes the music so magical in the first place. This is music that was recorded before music had become a business. There is a rawness and authenticity, and yes, even a little magic, in those old recordings. And the static and pops are a part of that.

Now, all this said, the recordings on the record are surprisingly clean. Some of the 78’s they used for this album must have been in pristine condition to sound this good. Even the worse songs on this recording still sound pretty good, but they are also presented as bonus tracks (alternate takes, and Dock playing with other folks)

You can find the Black Twigs album through VHF Recordings and the Dock Boggs album can be found through Revenant Records

Written by Matt

July 13th, 2005 at 7:23 pm

Posted in other,Reviews