Kelly Harrell

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1925-1926)

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Virginia singer Kelly Harrell recorded 40 some sides for Victor and OKeh Records between 1925 and 1929, which is an accomplishment in itself, considering he didn't play an instrument and possessed a voice that creaked, cracked, and keened around the melodies of his ballad-based folk material. Document Records has released his complete recordings in chronological order in two volumes, of which this is the first, and while most of what is here suffers from an overwhelming maudlin tone, a few tracks stand out as works of accidental emotional power that seem to work more by happenstance than design. "I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago" exhibits a historical sweep unusual for songs of the day, while "Peg and Awl" does a surprisingly effective job of presenting the impact of industrialization on solitary craftsmen, in this case, the shoemaker. Harrell's best-known recording is here, the pathos-laden "The Wreck on the Southern Old 97," which became the prototype for the train wreck song. Two of the ballads collected here, "O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother" and "My Horses Ain't Hungry," hold up a good deal better than they should, thanks to some sympathetic fiddle work, but most of the rest of the disc sounds like amateur night at the hoedown. Truthfully, Harrell's place in the folk world is really more historical than musical, but songs like "Peg and Awl" have immense value, catching a poignant musical moment (and a social one) in amber.

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