Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music (Great Smoky Mountains Association)
This 70-minute anthology collects 34 songs from the archives of Joseph S. Hall, a linguist and anthropologist who, in the summer of 1939, documented the music, speech, and folklore of the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a revealing look into the mountain traditions of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, at least on par with Alan Lomax’s Appalachian field recordings. The disc offers familiar folk songs (“On Top of Old Smoky,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat”) as well as some odd regional variations (John Hannah’s “Boston Girl” instead of “Knoxville Girl,” for example, and Clarence Sutton’s “The Dying Cowboy,” similar to “Streets of Laredo”), fiddle tunes, ballads, blues, gospel, and string bands. Some of the performers, especially the string-band and vocal ensembles, sound professional, or at least polished—it was decades into the history of the recording industry, after all—but others, like Myrtle Conner and her unaccompanied ballads, have the rough-hewn quality of homestead amateurs.
The painstaking notes and essays by Ted Olson and Michael Montgomery are informative and detailed, and Olson especially emphasizes that the traditional music here is just that—traditional folk music, not bluegrass or commercial folk or country, though it’s related to all of those. By 1939 it was getting harder to tell the difference; the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff had injected mountain strains into commercial recordings, and radio and commercial hillbilly and blues records had shrunk the virtual distance between the mountains and the city. (Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music is a far more accurate representation of Appalachian music than Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music from 1952, which cobbled together commercial blues and hillbilly recordings from the 1930s as documents of early folk, and contributed to a somewhat cracked and incomplete history of folk music for the next 30 or 40 years.)
For all of Hall’s measured scholarship and the sober presentation here, though, there’s no way to obscure the weird thrill of this music. It’s alien and familiar at the same time, and the high lonesome sound of John Davis and Shorty Smith plowing their way through “Going Down This Road Feeling Bad” does as much to emphasize our romantic notions of the wild, untamed mountains as it does to dispel them.