Milestone Recordings in American Music

3/7/09

Other Folk (1928)

“Folk music” is an ambiguous term, but at its core it refers to any popular music based on earlier, oral music traditions. That description could easily apply to all of the blues and country music being made in the 1920s, as well as a lot of early ragtime and vaudeville. The following four songs don’t easily fit into any of those buckets, but are all clearly “folk” music in the general sense. Early folk records like these provide a glimpse of music styles that predate recording technology. However, it is worth noting that these records were not made as faithful reproductions of earlier music forms, but rather as documents of the present. Music is constantly evolving, and while shades of the past remain, what we have here is nothing more nor less than the music of 1928.

Harry McClintock
The Big Rock Candy Mountains (Victor 21704, 1928)

Harry McClintock makes the most of his limited range and slightly scratchy voice in “The Big Rock Candy Mountains,” his most famous composition. That voice is perfect for relating the humorous, first-person narrative about a hobo’s paradise where “handouts grow on bushes,” “little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks,” and “they hung the jerk that invented work.” McClintock describes this fantastic place over a simple guitar melody that becomes more animated as the song progresses, until he finally finishes the song with a happy little whistle.

~ You may also like: Bill and Belle Reed, “Old Lady and the Devil” (Columbia 15336-D, 1928)

Bascom Lamar Lunsford
I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground(Brunswick 219, 1928)

In the folk classic “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Bascom Lamar Lunsford sings a series of non-sequiturs with simple banjo accompaniment. Each verse expresses a fully-formed thought that does not follow logically from the previous verse. And in some cases those thoughts are pretty indecipherable: “If I was a lizard in the spring, I’d hear my darling sing / And I wish I was a lizard in the spring.” Throw Lunsford’s wavering, emotive voice into the mix, and it all adds up to a very unusual but rewarding listen.

~ You may also like: Bascom Lamar Lunsford, “Old Mountain Dew” (Brunswick 219, 1928)

Carolina Tar Heels
Peg and Awl (Victor V-40007, 1928)

“Peg and Awl” is a song about making shoes, and while that may seem like a mundane subject, it is executed in a way that is marvelously entertaining. The song is sung from the perspective of a shoemaker who toils away year after year making shoes by hand with the tools of the day: peg and awl. When a new machine is invented that makes it possible to make shoes much faster and easier, the shoemaker rejoices, because “Peggin’ shoes it ain’t no fun.” Historically, the song gets the timing wrong: shoemaking machines weren’t in use until the late 19th century, not the beginning. But that’s really not the point; the real strength of the song is its presentation, which is catchy and subtly comical. The song is played on guitar and banjo, with harmonica added at the beginning and end. A rustic, nasal voice sings the verses, while another voice periodically interjects, “Peg and awl!” The word “awl” is always stretched out into an almost hound-dog like howl. At the end of the song, it is a howl of triumph when that second voice finally says, “Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!”

~ You may also like: Chubby Parker, “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” (Columbia 15296-D, 1928)

Buell Kazee
The Butcher’s Boy (The Railroad Boy)(Brunswick 213, 1928)

Buell Kazee was a Kentucky preacher who was very well versed in traditional songs. While the songs he sang were firmly rooted in the oral traditions of the past, Kazee used his musical training to transcribe them and update them for contemporary life. He also played them on banjo, a relatively new instrument compared to the songs he was singing, and one for which he had his own unique playing style. “The Butcher’s Boy,” one of his most enduring records, recounts the story of a girl who takes her own life after learning that the boy she loves is seeing another. Kazee’s strong, disciplined voice relates the unhappy tale, supported by his driving banjo.

~ You may also like: Buell Kazee, “The Dying Soldier” (Brunswick 214, 1928)

The Elders McIntorsh & Edwards’ Sanctified Singers
Since I Laid My Burden Down(Okeh 8698, 1928)

Gospel is a worship-based music that first evolved from the spirituals sung by African American slaves. In early examples of the form like “Since I Laid My Burden Down,” you can hear the soul-felt, rapturous kind of vocals that characterized those early spirituals and gave rise to the wealth of modern gospel music. The Memphis-based group was led by two of the elders of the Church of God in Christ, Lonnie McIntorsh (who also recorded on his own) and Edwards (about whom little is known). On this record they are joined by church members Bessie Johnson and Melinda Taylor. The lyrics are little more than a single phrase repeated over and over, but the quartet sings it with increasing passion and zeal, adding moans, hoots and hollers (“Glory!”) that make the record absolutely compelling.

~ You may also like another early gospel singer from Memphis: Rev. Sister Mary Nelson, “Judgment” (Vocalion 1109, 1927)

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