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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the references. This really brings to mind a movie called "Songcatcher". My son (16 at the time) described some early recordings of mountain music that we enjoy, as "Sounds like home". I understood him completely although neither of us grew up in the mountains.