Kelly Harrell

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1926-1929)

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This second disc of Document's two-volume reissue of Kelly Harrell's complete recordings fares better than the first, mostly because Harrell (who recorded 40 some sides for Victor and OKeh between 1925 and 1929, this volume being the later recordings) isn't so maudlin here, and he gets more energy into his somewhat limited vocal skills. The opener, a parlor version of "The Cuckoo" called "The Cuckoo She's a Fine Bird," has undeniable charm, with Harrell pointing out that the cuckoo "never drinks water/she always drinks wine." The drunken barroom gospel of "Row Us Over the Tide" is also surprisingly effective, but the two tracks that stand out the most here are "My Name Is John Jo Hannah" and "Charles Giteaux." The former is a variant of "The State of Arkansas" set to a "Maggie Walker Blues" melody, and it benefits mightily from the fiddle playing of Posey Rorer, but Harrell's wild and loose vocal is a good part of why it works. "Charles Giteaux" has the assassin of President Garfield telling his story, and again, Harrell's keening, barely in control singing gives the song a haunting kinetic push. Harrell never learned to play an instrument, and when the Depression hit, the cost of supporting a band became prohibitive, so his recording career ended. True, he wasn't much of a singer, but Harrell left behind half a dozen or so folk tunes that would have vanished in the Appalachian haze if he hadn't recorded them in the 1920s, and he stands as an example of how sheer will and conviction can sometimes overcome a paucity of talent and ability.

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