VARIOUS ARTISTS - Meeting's a Pleasure Vols.1&2 / 3&4

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Meeting's a Pleasure Vols.1&2 / 3&4
Musical Traditions MTCD341-2/3-4

Subtitled 'Folk-Songs of the Upper South' this 4-CD set on the admirable musical Traditions label must qualify as one of the bargains of 2007 even at this early stage of the year. The American 'Upper South' illustrated here is an area largely featuring Virginia and Kentucky that has produced untold riches in traditional music over the years.  The 131 (yes, one hundred and thirty one) tracks included here demonstrate the breadth and depth of that contribution.

Compiler Mark Wilson has drawn on recordings made by himself, Guthrie T Meade, and John Harrod, in the 1970s, 90s, and 2000, and assembled the material under four thematic headings thus: Vol.1 'Come All You Men and Maidens', mostly love, courtship, and humorous songs, Vol.2, 'Cruel Willie',  focusing on the darker side of life with songs such as The Death of Harry Simms,  and The Rowan County Troubles.  Vol. 3, 'I'll Have a New Life', hymns and gospel songs, including a version of 'Day Is Breaking In My Soul', better known as 'Bright Morning Stars', superbly sung by Nimrod Workman, normally so extrovert, but here using long drawn-out phrases and an intimate reflective tone, almost as if he were singing to himself.  Vol.4 covers songs of an African American influence, plus historical and topical material.  I should point out that although I draw attention to songs here, there are a hefty number of instrumental tracks spread through the four volumes.

In fact, the sheer variety of songs, tunes and performers to be found on these CDs is astonishing.  Ballads, gospel, hymns, union songs, comic songs, are all here sung by unaccompanied soloists or groups, or singers with guitar, mouth organ or banjo. These stand alongside instrumental soloists, and bands using banjo, guitar and fiddles, (including one being played by the strings being beaten with straws), playing a dazzling array of tunes.  It's an absolute feast.

Some famous names such as Sara Gunning, Roscoe Holcomb, Buell Kazee, Nimrod Workman, Jim Garland, and Asa Martin, crop up, all living up to their reputations while others mostly unknown (to me anyway), like Emma Pruitt, Mary Lozier, and the wonderfully named Blanche Coldiron, a whiz on banjo and vocals, show they can hold their own with anybody.  Grand singers and strong performances are found on all four CDs.  Among my favourites are The Dixon Sisters harmonising a weird but wonderful Davy Crockett, Wash Nelson's straightforward telling of The Jam on Gerry's Rocks, and banjo ace Buell Kazee singing Little Bessie so movingly that, despite his deliberately gentrified accent, it brought a lump to my throat as it recalled a family incident.

Many of these recording were done 'in the field' with the occasional background noise evident but that doesn't matter, everything here is eminently listenable. Not all the voices are easy on the ear, but all of them are beautiful. This is real people's music from real people, compiled by a man who understands both. Before closing let me mention the booklets that accompany these records: 88 pages in total of information, song words, and commentary by Mark Wilson, often controversial, always interesting.  The whole package is a joy, and a 'snatch your hand off' bargain. at £16 each, or £30 together.

Gordon Potter

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This album was reviewed in Issue 75 of The Living Tradition magazine.