FRIENDS OF OLD TIME MUSIC - THE FOLK ARRIVAL 1961-1965 (3CD Long Box)
Smithsonian Folkways (SFWCD40160 )
Doc Watson, Arnold Watson, Gaither Carlton, Dock Boggs, Fred McDowell, Roscoe Holcomb, Maybelle Carter, The Stanley Brothers, Hobart Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys, The Watson Family, Jesse Fuller, Sam McGee, The Georgia Sea Island Singers, Arthur Smith, The Greenbriar Boys,The New Lost City Ramblers, Joseph Spence, Stanley Thompson, McKinley Peebles, Bessie Jones, The Clarence Ashley Group, Ed Young and Emma Ramsey, Horton Barker, Annie Bird.
In 1961, Ralph Rinzler, John Cohen and Izzy Young with help from folk music fans, folklorists and musicians like Mike Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Sam Charters and Alan Lomax formed an association called the Friends Of Old Time Music whose aim was to develop new ideas for presenting real traditional music in concert.
At that time New York was awash with singers like the New Lost City Ramblers, Tom Paley and Jack Elliott who were creating interest in the origins of their music so the time was right to bring in real old timers and give the folk revivalists a taste of the genuine thing. Musicians like Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt and Maybelle Carter who, having recorded in the 1920s and 30s, were moderately well known while Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers were known and loved by their own specialist audiences. Then there were the brand new discoveries like Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb and Fred McDowell who were destined to become major figures in American music. Every one of them was bemused to think that their music would be of the slightest interest to a bunch of city folks up in New York city.
Thankfully, they were persuaded to travel up and perform in the now legendary fourteen concerts organised by the FOTM and these 3CDs contain some of the gloriously vital live music they made. There are 55 tracks in all, 53 of which have never been out before - not even on the original vinyl LP Friends Of Old Time Music FA2390!
Of course, every track is terrific. Roscoe Holcomb plays like a man possessed on the thundering banjo piece East Virginia Blues, Maybelle Carter consolidates her place as the mother of country music on her charming Storms Are On The Ocean and the Stanley Brothers bring a chilling slice of their high lonesome sound to The Dream Of The Miner's Child. This is the only time you'll hear Ralph and Carter duet on that particular song but these CDs are peppered with never-heard-before moments. Others that come to mind are Maybelle Carter's banjo piece Sugar Hill - a song picked up from Dad Crocket's 1929 recording and Jesse Fuller's aptly named Rockin' Boogie - a storming slab of finger-bustin' guitar picking and forceful harmonica. There's also his Guitar Lesson where he charms the audience with his guitar techniques and humour before coasting into Cincinnati Blues and demonstrating how to play ‘knife' style slide guitar.
Clarence Ashley breathes new life into his 1929 hit The Coo Coo Bird but where the original is a delicate lurching slice of mystery, the 1961 live version is much more forceful and dramatic with the drive of his defiant banjo echoed note for note by Doc Watson's tough acoustic guitar picking. Watson pops up on many performances and every time he amazes with his brilliant guitar work and beautiful crystal clear vocals. Bill Monroe demonstrates why he was regarded as the father of bluegrass when he unleashes the power of his band (that included folk like Del McCoury, Kenny Baker and Bessie Lee Maudlin) on stuff like I Saw The Light, Shady Grove and Grey Eagle.
To represent the blues, we get performances from two of the very best: Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt. Fred McDowell enthrals the congregation with some dynamic, thrusting slide guitar; his Write Me A Few Of Your Lines is one of the most stunning performances on the album while Going Down To The River is filled with long tension-filled vocals lines that are only released by his tremendous funky runs on the guitar. John Hurt gently eases in with every ounce of charm he can muster and delights his audience with his easy rolling picking and wonderful vocal style. Sounding strong and confident, he plays note perfect runs on the semi-ragtime Creole Belle before delving into the effortless flow of the magnificent Frankie And Johnny. The legendary Kentucky singer Roscoe Holcomb is no stranger to the blues form too and blasts out stellar versions of two great tunes - East Virginia Blues on banjo and Rising Sun Blues on guitar before digging deep into the tradition for a killer version of John Henry - just another three excellent items that are in good company with the abundance of riches that you'll find on this truly fabulous box set.
The presentation is long box style containing the 3 CDs in slip cases and an action packed booklet which not only has excellent notes on every artist and song but fascinating chapters by the people who were there. Peter K Siegel describes the forming of FOTM and the work they did, John Cohen fills in the spaces Siegel misses and Jody Stecher adds an article called Remembering The Concerts before getting to grips with the track notes.
Smithsonian Folkways has put out some thrilling recordings over the years but this one takes some beating. Five big bright burnished stars for this - and nothing less!
Review Date: January 2010