Various Artists

American Primitive, Vol. 2

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In the early days of the recording industry, many folk performers made just a few records, or only one record, before vanishing, their life stories and basic biographical data untraceable to this day. American Primitive, Vol. 2 assembles 50 tracks from such performers on this two-disc set, most from the late '20s and early '30s (the sole cut predating 1926 is Cousins & DeMoss' "Poor Mourner," from 1897). On one level, then, this is an incredibly valuable compilation for serious collectors of early American folk and blues music -- "names too obscure even for Harry Smith" (overseer of the revered Anthology of American Folk Music collections), as the liner notes declare. That's true -- not a one of these names will be familiar outside the hardcore collector circle. Mississippi blueswoman Geeshie Wiley is about the most "famous," and that's about as much for the unavailability of hard information about her as for her music. On a more general level, however, the anthology's of great value to anyone with an interest in such material, not just serious collectors, on several accounts. The level of the performances is almost up to par with those of the more famous early blues and folk musicians. The variety, from rural blues and Appalachian folk to gospel, ragtime, and minstrel-ish novelty, is much greater than it is on most such anthologies. The mastering, courtesy of the fine folks at Revenant, is about as good as it'll get for such aged discs, and the whole lot is given Revenant's usual scrupulous yet entertaining annotation. What you'll find particularly engaging will depend upon your particular tastes, but some of the more ear-opening digs into this archive include the sharp, pinching acoustic blues guitar of Henry Spaulding's "Cairo"; Homer Quincy Smith's penetratingly funereal "Go Down Moses"; the disconsolate humming of Pigmeat Terry; and the masterful blues-folk guitar picking on Bayless Rose's instrumental "Frisco Blues." Overall, it's a testament to the variety of expression picked up on record at a time when deciding what to record, and how to perform what was recorded, was a much more spontaneous exercise than it would usually be in later eras.

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