IN THE PINES: Tar Heel Folk Songs & Fiddle Tunes
Old-Time Music of North Carolina 1926–1936
Old Hat CD-1006
Reviewed by Dick Spottswood / The Old-Time Herald / February-March 2009
I like this collection so much that I need to be careful not to sound like a press agent. Producer Marshall Wyatt’s Old Hat brand has only published a few reissues, but each has hit the mark. In The Pines follows Old Hat’s debut, Music From The Lost Provinces: Old-Time Stringbands from Ashe County, North Carolina & Vincinity, 1927-1931. Here, expanded coverage takes in the entire state and includes solo performances, gospel singing, and other non-dance music.
Familiar names include J.E. Mainer, Fisher Hendley, G.B. Grayson, Dock Walsh, Ben Jarrell (Tommy’s dad), Wilmer Watts, the Dixon Brothers, and the Red Fox Chasers. More obscure, though no less consequential, are Mack Woolbright, Clarence Greene, Clay Everhart, Steve Ledford, and Frank Jenkins. The Carolina moniker is common to several ensembles who boast of their regional identity: the Carolina Tar Heels, Carolina Buddies, Carolina Ramblers (twice), and the Grady Family (“Carolina’s Best”).
Wyatt’s selections have been thoughtfully and lovingly made, reflecting his broad knowledge of early recordings. The level of artistry is consistently high, enough so that you’ll wonder why several of these treasures have remained hidden for so long. Though a number come from scarce Depression-era originals, no excuses need be made for sound quality. Sound restorers Chris King and Jeff Carroll have produced sparkling transfers even when dealing with 1920s Gennett-label products, which were sonically second-rate even when they were new, but manage to hold their own nicely here.
An attractive 24-page booklet contains an introductory essay, and song and performance notes for each of the collection’s 24 tracks. There are a number of unfamiliar and evocative vintage photos, including a reversed (i.e. left-handed) one of Charlie Poole from 1930 and a prison image of Otto Wood the Bandit, who looks seriously threatening and not at all contrite! Otto’s quirky story rates several paragraphs, as does that of the other infamous villian Tom Dula, who sparked the entire folk revival when the Kingston Trio took up his cause 50 years ago, nearly a century after his foul deed in 1866. Though he may not have merited it, Tom was well served by the influential blind fiddler G.B. Grayson, whose superior 1929 version was the first “Tom Dooley” on record.
Otto inspired three different songs, all recorded a few weeks after his death in a movie-climax shootout with the law on December 31, 1930. Most obscure was the straightforward Cranford and Thompson narrative included here from a Champion label 78- it’s one we missed in Country Music Sources!
The singing fiddler Ben Jarrell (1880-1946) was Tommy Jarrell’s father, and it’s wonderful to hear Ben’s 1927 version of “Jack of Diamonds” and to observe how closely Tommy followed it in his own performances. Original copies of Ben’s masterpiece are surpassingly scarce- I once owned a sadly worn pressing that was then the only copy known to exist. A far better one has since turned up and is presented here. Frank Jenkins’ banjo provides exciting counterpoint for Ben’s archaic fiddling, and it’s a performance to be treasured all the more because it was inherited and perpetuated so faithfully by Tommy Jarrell nearly half a century later.
Banjo player Clay Everhart played in the Carolina finger-picked style favored by Charlie Poole. The morose “Rose With A Broken Stem” (1901) is one of those schadenfreude-soaked fallen woman pieces that characterized pop charts of the late Victorian era before being consigned to the country music song bag after becoming sufficiently antiquated.
Probably the greatest surprise is the lovely “Sweet Freedom” by the Nance Family, a 1931 reading of the anti-slavery anthem that first was immortalized in the Civil War of the 1860s and memorably revived in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Hearing an abolitionist song performed by Depression-era Southern whites is a gentle reminder of the complex social attitudes that characterize the American racial experience.
I’ll note in passing that “Johnson City Hop” recalls “Preacher And The Bear” and Earl Scruggs’ “Dear Old Dixie,” and that “Carolina’s Best” resembles the popular Hawaiian “Hilo March” (1881) that was revived on an influential 1914 record by Irene West’s Royal Hawaiians, helping spread the Hawaiian music craze during World War I. I won’t go on, though there’s something I could say about nearly every track on this collection. Instead, let me recommend it without reserve and indulge in some shameless self-promotion: In The Pines is featured on a couple of webcast Dick Spottswood Shows in January and February, accessible via either www.wamu.org or www.bluegrasscountry.org.