Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain is a powerful, widely celebrated novel that takes places during the Civil War. But Frazier's book is not about the war itself so much as the lives lived in the rural American South during its long dark night. Back Roads to Cold Mountain is a collection of music assembled by ethnomusicologist and roots musician John Cohen, featuring the songs, hollers, and hymns that served as inspiration for Frazier during the writing of his book. There are no modern, O Brother, Where Art Thou?-styled revisionings of the music from the Civil War era. Instead, Cohen went through the Smithsonian's and the Library of Congress's vast collections of field and commercial recordings of a cappella narratives, string band songs, fiddle tunes, and sacred harp singing and assembled this volume from sources that were close to the originals. In other words, many of the performers here had learned these songs as hand-me-downs from their ancestors. They were familiar not only with tune, but style, arrangement, and grain. The end result is a 27-track collection of stunning music that is haunted, ghostly, raw, sparse and ultimately dignified in its presentation.
What is particularly stunning is the brilliant sound of these recordings. Recorded between 1944 and 2002, these selections, assembled from previously released compilations and all but unheard field recording volumes, have something strange and unwieldy at their core. There are well known personages here like Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs or Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, whose tunes from here have been heard before in other settings. But there are many more obscure entries, as well, from the wild wooly balladry and spoken word narration of Oscar Parks, the shambolic banjo blues of Dink Roberts, and the hunted, forlorn soul-searing darkness of Dorothy Melton, and the roof-raising joy of the Sacred Harp Singers. In either case, the effect is the same: one of true Otherness, where dislocation, quark strangeness, and untamed spirits gather in order to whisper, cry, moan, shout and laugh in a language that has not so much died as disappeared. Cohen's notes and annotations are fantastic, as always; they are not merely informative and authoritative, but offer (because of his welcoming prose) a glimpse of the ciphers themselves; they speak from the hollowed out place in his own heart that has been touched by these songs and the people who sang them. This is essential listening for anyone interested in authentic American roots musics.