The Appalachian region was a melting pot where Afro-American song forms, particularly the blues, collided with European-based folk materials, particularly the modal ballad tradition, to create a haunting hybrid that, given its frequent preoccupation with grisly murders and obsessive tales of love gone astray, seemed to suggest a sordid world of ghostly retribution. Old-Time Mountain Ballads collects a handful of these songs that were issued on commercial 78s in the mid- to late 1920s, and truthfully, most of these tunes sounded ancient and archaic the moment they were recorded. Several are mysteriously beautiful, like Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford's fiddle and banjo classic, "Willie Moore," which has an enduring elegance, but the real strength of this collection is its several modal banjo pieces. Clarence Ashley (who was rediscovered in the early '60s with his skills still intact) opens the disc with "Dark Holler Blues," a variant of "East Virginia Blues," and his claw hammer banjo style sets a percolating rhythm for his high, scratchy, and keening vocal. Ashley can also be heard on Byrd Moore's "Frankie Silvers" here, adding the second vocal to a song that sounds like a doomed man's drunken last chorus. B.F. Shelton's "Darling Cora" and Buell Kazee's "The Wagoner's Lad" also feature modal banjo accompaniment, and both songs have a decided archaic tone, but also a stately elegance. As a quick introduction to the eerie world of Appalachian ballads, at least as it was commercially represented in the early days of the recording industry, Old-Time Mountain Ballads is a hidden gem. Sure, the songs are full of tragic deaths, brutal murders, and vistas of lost and lonely souls, but there is a rough and real beauty to them, and while mournful, they don't pull punches. Gothic as a cast-off rose floating in a deep and dark river, no other region of the Americas produced a folk music like this.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett