Music: Review of 'Classic Appalachian Blues' from Smithsonian Folkways

Music: Review of 'Classic Appalachian Blues' from Smithsonian Folkways
February 14, 2010
By Bill Friskics-Warren
The Washington Post

Appalachia isn't widely regarded as a wellspring of African American music, much less a cradle of the blues. But with the release of "Classic Appalachian Blues," a 21-track set of studio and live recordings made over five decades, the people at Smithsonian Folkways make a strong case for why it should be.

No doubt part of the reason for the region's lesser rank in blues circles is its lack of a signature style, such as that heard in the deep, heavily syncopated music associated with Delta blues pioneers Charley Patton and Son House. Generally lighter and more lyrical in tone than its brooding Mississippi counterpart, the blues that emerged from the Appalachian Mountains during the Great Depression ranged widely in type, encompassing barnyard stomps, ragtime, piano-driven boogie-woogie and proto-rock-and-roll. Much of it, as the Smithsonian set reveals, became an enduring part of the American musical vernacular, figuring prominently in the repertoires of rock-era luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Grateful Dead.

Among the "hits" included on "Classic Appalachian Blues" is Knoxville, Tenn., native Sticks McGhee's 1958 remake of his raucous 1949 smash for Atlantic Records, "Drinkin' Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)." Also here is Kentucky songster Bill Williams's declamatory update of "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," a runaway hit for Charlie Poole in 1925, as well as banjoist Roscoe Holcomb's arrangement of "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues," a popular "race" record for Georgia bluesman Barbecue Bob in the 1920s. The finger-picking of Piedmont blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis is represented in an instrumental version of "Hesitation Blues," a song later covered by the Jefferson Airplane spinoff Hot Tuna.

The cross-pollination of black and white styles is a recurring theme in the story told by the Smithsonian CD. The music's versatility, particularly as an accompaniment to dancing, is a big part of this story, as well. Most of the recordings here are social music, in contrast to the often solitary plaints of anguished Delta blues singers like Skip James and Robert Johnson.

Dating to the 1940s, 11 of the selections, including South Carolina bluesman Pink Anderson's "You Don't Know My Mind," were culled from recordings made by pioneering folklorists and song collectors such as Sam Charters, Ralph Rinzler and Moses Asch. The remaining 10 tracks, among them Martin, Bogan & Armstrong's "Hoodoo Blues" and J.C. Burris's chuffing take of "Blues Around My Bed," were drawn from live performances at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the 1970s and '80s.

To their credit, the extensive notes that accompany the collection never make the mistake of asserting that this material originated exclusively in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Some of it did. But much of it probably traveled back and forth with the vaudeville and medicine shows that used to play in Appalachia and the Delta, receiving in each a distinctive regional stamp.
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