Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Greatest Album in the World

High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina Collected by John Cohen in

Not words to bandy about lightly, I know.  But if I could only grab one album of music to take on the last spaceship leaving Earth, I think I would get this one.  Plenty of other people will bring "Hotel California" and I'm sure there will be plenty of Beethoven and Grateful Dead to keep us satisfied on our multi-year trip to Alpha Centauri.  But there might not be anything like this, or certainly anything as good as this, and that would be, as the saying goes, a crying shame.

I try to keep fluff to a minimum on this blog, but we must digress occasionally.  A little poetry and music never hurt anyone and you do better work if you have tunes to listen to while you're pushing a file.

"High Atmosphere", a compilation of recordings made in the Appalachian mountains in 1965 by John Cohen, was originally released in 1975.  What's a nice Jewish boy doing in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina?  Snagging the finest authentic mountain music ever recorded, that's what.  There are lots of other albums of original music out there, some of them splendid, some of them merely amusing, some pretty forgettable.  As with rifles and houses and furniture, just because it's old doesn't mean it's good.  But this music is good.  No, it's great.  And I mean great in the Julius Caesar sense of the word.  Thanks to Cohen, this music will live forever.  It was re-released in 1995, apparently with new material added, although I haven't compared the song list to my original vinyl LP to see what's been added.  (The pre-1995 CD did not have all the songs from the LP - I believe two were missing.  Be sure and get the 1995 re-release.)

If you have no prior experience with original recordings of Appalachian music, you are missing out.  Even if you don't wind up liking it, you should acquaint yourself briefly with it and keep some on hand in case you need a look into the past, (or you have some really cool friends over for moonshine and barefoot wrestling.)  This music is unaffected, raw, honest, unapologetic, spontaneous, joyous, and dreadfully sad.  Some of it is absolutely chilling.  Lloyd Chandler's "Remember and Do Pray For Me" will lift the hair off your head, as does his "A Conversation With Death."  Wade Ward's "Shady Grove" may be the finest version of this classic tune ever recorded.  Dellie Norton's two wonderful (possibly Elizabethan) ballads are sung in a voice that cannot be described easily in words.

There is a lot more of this music out there.  The magnificent "Mountain Music of Kentucky" is almost as good, and is more wide reaching in styles represented.  Bascom Lamar Lunsford's  "Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of North Carolina" is exceptional and shows one man's ability to both fully appreciate this music as well as authentically create it himself.  Tommy Jarrell's albums are seminal fiddle recordings.  Roscoe Holcombe is the Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson of this music rolled into one.  But there is no collection of Appalachian music that will wither you where you stand quite as effectively as "High Atmosphere."

Available on Rounder Records as well as Amazon.com and Emusic.com.  Incidentally, if you're into this stuff, a subscription to Emusic.com will give you access to vast quantities of original recordings of Appalachian, early country, and blues, back before the suits got ahold of our ancestors' music and made it into the flavorless paste that it is now.

Helpful links, no extra charge:

The Legacy Of Tommy Jarrell, Vol. 1: Sail Away Ladies

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rifle carving

A quick photo from last week showing the ground work done on my rifle.  Backgrounds taken down and smoothed.  The next step is modelling the carving, or putting in the three dimensional detail, although this pattern is pretty simple and in keeping with the spirit of the rifles on which it is based.

The rifle now, at present, is carved and has it's asphaltum stain on, and the first coat of oil.  Will add photos soon.  The asphaltum was a success, but very very BROWN.  No reddish cast at all, so I augmented with a little red stained oil.  Very nice so far.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Going down the rabbit hole

Well, it's begun - I'm going to build a rifling bench.  I got two blank rifling worms from Steve Bookout several years ago and one night the bench top was cleaned off so I thought I'd go ahead and throw a pencil line on one of them.  For the uninitiated, this is a long wooden pole with a series of slow spiral grooves on it that, when attached to an iron rod with a cutter on the end, will cut similar spiral grooves on the inside of a barrel, thus making it a rifle barrel.

Rifling grooves are described in their "twist rate", which is usually termed something like "one turn in 48" which mean that the spiral grooves will make one complete turn (from 12 oclock back around to 12 oclock again) in 48" of length on the pole.  This is an insanely slow rate of twist compared to modern rifle barrels which are often one turn in 12 or even 10 inches to stabilize long, pointed modern bullets travelling at very high speeds.  But a round lead ball is a leisurely, gentleman's tool, and need only spin at a sedate pace to achieve stability and accuracy.  My rifler, the first one, will be one turn in 56", for larger size barrels, from about .45 caliber and up.  I'll make a one in 48" for smaller than .45 caliber, as it's traditional that a slightly faster twist rate helps stabilize smaller caliber balls.

Here you can see the rough idea - this is the round rifling "worm" with a red line snaking slowly around it at a rate of one turn in 56".  If you look just beneath the red line you'll notice a pale whitish area - this is actually a piece of scotch tape that wraps around the worm.  I scribbled red Sharpie over one edge of the tape, making a crisp accurate line when the tape is pulled of.

How does the tape get on there?

You lay the angle out as a right triangle.  The base of the triangle is the length of the diameter of the rifler (in this case 9")  the other leg of the right angle is the maximum length of one turn (here, it's 56") and the hypotenuse between those two points describes the angle that will become the spiral groove, and is where you lay your tape down, carefully, upside down.  You can use other things - heavy wire would work too - and you roll (carefully) the rifler over this material to transfer it onto the rifler in a spiral pattern.  The rifler stays at all times parallel to the leg of the triangle that is 56" long, not the hypotenuse.

You get a rough idea - the small square is representing the 9" leg and the long straight edge is used to lay out 56", only it was laid out on the edge of the bench.  The hypotenuse just joins the two together.  The tricky part is getting scotch tape to lay down and behave, and then rolling the rifler carefully back across the upside down tape so that it's transferred.  Sight down the tape the full length and look for fairness - no odd bumps or curves - that will mis-guide the rifling cutter (to which this attaches, remember) as it cuts grooves in the barrel.

The beginning chisel cut made carefully down the length of the sharp edge of the red mark.

Use a 1" chisel and try to keep it honest the whole length.  Subsequent grooves are marked out with a divider and likewise cut.

There are photographs of some of this work being done in the Smoky Mountains in the 1920's.  The photos aren't particularly believable - they're set pieces staged for the purpose by photographers during the period when the park was being instituted and many families were being encouraged to find homes elsewhere - sorta like what happened with the Cherokee I suppose.  The photos show an elderly woman wrapping a hickory split around the worm (which would actually give you a pretty fair curve if the split was straight and smooth) and then carving the groove with a pocket knife, which (if you carved 7 grooves) would be my idea of hell on earth.  

She's obviously been splitting a good deal of hickory bottoming chairs - nice straight piece laying in the foreground would make several good wiping sticks (ramrods).  But I really don't think she carved all those grooves with a Barlow knife.  I believe these photos were taken outside to provide better light and more interesting backgrounds.  (Much of the photography of the Smokies was done by WPA photographers working during the Depression, and they already show a society collapsing under the weight of modernity.  We all grumble about the government forcing people off their farms, but truth be told, if the land hadn't become a park it would have all been sold to lumber companies and would today be malls and subdivisions.)

Here you see three rifling machine setups - the one on the left looks to be broken and taken out for the photograph only.  Notice how the two on the left use actual rifle barrels as the rifling "worm" - this is another way to do it - use a barrel to rifle a barrel.  But it's more time consuming to do it this way, and you have to pour a lead slug to ride in the guide barrel, which wears out...the wooden rifling rod on the right is probably better.  It's certainly the technology that was brought from European professional shops to the colonies.  The two machines on the right appear to be complete and functional.

Here it is in actual use.  I think the man in the photo is the investigator who wrote the article - he doesn't look like a mountaineer.  Looks like city people.  But here you see the rifling machine on one end of the long plank "bench", and the barrel being rifled on the right.  Pretty self explanatory.  Very elegant solution to the problem.

Trivia: what two tools were unique to the gunsmithing trade, that were not shared by any other trade?  One was the rifling machine and the other was the "pan drill" or the device that cut the shallow groove in the flintlock pan.  

A very nice dissertation on the longrifle culture on the Smoky Mountains is maintained by the National Park Service, originally published in 1941.  Many other photos.