Various Artists

Plum Pitiful: 20 Sad and Tragic Bluegrass Songs

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The old folk songs of the Southern Mountains drew on a wide array of sources, from modal Irish laments, ancient Anglo ballads, remorseful hymns, and Afro-American blues, rolling everything up into a seemingly endless schedule of dashed hopes, broken hearts, cruel murders, train wrecks, and dying soldiers, until it would seem the only release from this vale is death itself. "I'm a man of constant sorrow/I've seen trouble all my days," sings Ralph Stanley in the now-classic Stanley Brothers version of "Man of Constant Sorrow," which is included here, and that sorrow is hardly any wonder, given the horrors that seem to unfold constantly in those ancient tunes. This litany of misery was the legacy that bluegrass assumed when it emerged in the late '40s and early '50s, and although the racing banjos and mandolins brightened things up a bit, nothing said high and lonesome like a good old murder ballad, nothing was sadder than a tale of love gone horribly wrong, no matter how many racing banjos propelled it. Plum Pitiful may have been assembled with tongue partly in cheek (there is even a sad-eyed hound on the front and back covers), but there is a lot of misfortune being documented here, ranging from cold, calculated murder ("Pretty Polly," "Down by the Willow Garden") to pure dime novel pathos ("Old Shep," "Orphan Joe"). In the end, with so much misery being bandied about, a song like "Mother's Not Dead (She's Only Sleeping)" becomes unintentionally hilarious, even though it isn't remotely funny. It's hard to imagine what occasion this collection is most suitable for, but it is probably no more depressing than any single day's newspaper, and the murders described here are certainly a lot more chilling (being executed for love) than the cartoon rants of latter-day gangsta rap (where violence seems to be mostly about revenge). Constant sorrow, indeed. It's a wonder anyone can sleep at night.

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