Various Artists: Mountain Music of Kentucky

(Note: This is a 1996 Smithsonian Folkways CD re-issue of a 1959 album that documented John Cohen's travels through eastern Kentucky. John Cohen, a musicologist and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, rewrote the liner notes and added more than an hour of music that was not included on the original Folkways release.)

There's a Buddhist concept called the beginner's mind. It basically suggests we approach every moment of our lives as if that moment has never happened before. Which, of course, it hasn't, but we carry our experiences, opinions, and preconceptions with us into each new moment. After we've seen 10,000 sparrows, we tend to miss the wonder, awe, and beauty of sparrow #10,001.

A beginner's mind is incredibly helpful when listening to Mountain Music of Kentucky. If you read a couple of quotes from the liner notes, you might understand why.

"These 1959 recordings present the vigorous music of Kentucky mountain people. They sang and played banjos with a terrific energy that is almost unheard of now. They learned their music in a setting totally different from our contemporary life, in an era before people got their experiences from TV or their music from Nashville, when people plowed with mules, canned beans and tomatoes from their gardens, and reclined on front porches with slatted wooden swings attached to rafters by metal chains. Their musical memories provide us with a glimpse of a pattern which had endured for centuries."

"Back then the musicians were less concerned with audience reception, recording criteria, or stylistic finesse. They sang with an energy that came directly from them. Their voices didn't have to be measured against the standards of the entertainment industry..."

I've listened to a few dozen Smithsonian Folkways releases in the past year, and I've even fallen in love with a few of them. This one was more difficult to get through than any of the others. But the rewards it holds are incredible!

If you're brave enough to find your beginner's mind and forget everything you know about music, you just might find a humanity within this CD that is as deep and beautiful as anything you've ever heard.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
These are field recordings that were made with primitive recording equipment in living rooms and front porches. For lack of a better comparison, listening to Mountain Music of Kentucky is like reading a novel written on tattered scraps of paper that were found in the closet of an old house. This is music created by real people in the places where they lived their lives. Subtle nuances like the bird chirping in the background of "Fair Miss in the Garden" are just one of the countless things that help make this music so special. Yes, this is a difficult album, but its difficulties are a vital part of its perfection.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The booklet deserves a five library card rating for the photos alone. Every one of Cohen's pictures tells a story, and every story is fascinating. But while a picture may be worth a thousand words, a picture cannot substitute for a thousand words. So Cohen's words are here to flesh out the story. When you put the pictures and words together, you end up with a wonderful story. The historical aspect of the notes is great, but my favorite part is Cohen's recollections of the brief time he spent with each of the performers. His words bring even more life to a very lively set of recordings.

An interesting element of Cohen's notes is that, by revisiting these recordings 35 years after they were made, he acknowledges some of the ways he's grown and changed. He writes about why he chose certain songs for the original release, and why he feels he was wrong to overlook other recordings that only saw the light of day on the '96 reissue. It's interesting to see growth and humility in a man who is obviously extremely intelligent and passionate about music.

Listen if you like: Merle Travis, Jean Ritchie, Alan Lomax, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Pete Seeger. Listen if you like outsider art. Especially listen if you like the idea of normal people sitting around and playing music together.

If it were food, it'd be: home made from scratch

1 comment:

bob_vinyl said...

Is the chirping bird kinda like the crickets on Night Drive Home?

On a more serious note, we here the term DIY thrown around a lot these days, but if you think about it, Cohen and even more so, the people on this recording were DIY to their core. And all before it was cool.