Various Artists

Classic Mountain Songs

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From the time of its inception in the middle of the 20th century, the Folkways label recorded plenty of traditional folk music from the Southern Appalachians. This well-chosen collection, oriented mostly though not totally toward tracks with vocals, has a couple of dozen examples from the Folkways catalog. Though it's not always totally clear when the songs were recorded (as opposed to issued), it's for certain that they were laid down between the mid-'50s and mid-'90s, with the bulk of them cut during the 1960s. While some might carp that pre-mid-'50s performances aren't represented, this does ensure a fairly high level of fidelity throughout, in versions that are faithful to how these songs have usually sounded over the past few decades and centuries. Appalachian music is usually characterized as music with high lonesome vocals with guitar and banjo accompaniment, and while many of the tracks here conform to that format, there are also a good number of a cappella vocals, as well as numbers in which the fiddle and autoharp play prominent parts. There are some fairly big folk names here, like the duos of Doc & Merle Watson and Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard; Clarence Ashley, who performs one of the most frequently sung and anthologized mountain songs, "Cuckoo Bird"; Roscoe Holcomb, who does an a cappella "Moonshiner"; dulcimer virtuoso Jean Ritchie; Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who does "Mole in the Ground"; Dock Boggs; and Pop Stoneman, patriarch of the Stoneman Family. Still, there are a lot of artists who aren't known to a more general audience, and they're responsible for some of the better performances, like the Phipps Family's Carter Family-like "The Red Jacket Mine Explosion," Berzilla Wallin's a cappella "Conversation With Death" (a song more often titled "Oh Death" in other versions), and Ola Belle Reed's "High on a Mountain." A few of these songs have made deep inroads into the consciousness of American popular music, like "Amazing Grace," "Barbara Allen" (titled "Barbry Ellen" in Jean Ritchie's rendition on this disc), "John Henry," and "Sixteen Tons," a massive mid-'50s hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford, but here done by George Davis, who says he wrote a song ("Nine to Ten Tons") that Merle Travis adapted as "Sixteen Tons."

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