Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music: 1923-1936
Tompkins Square Records
5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
The story behind Work Hard is as wonderfully odd as the music this three-disc set contains. Some guys were cleaning out the house of a recently dead hoarder—Don Wahle of Louisville, Kentucky—and they knew enough to know that the boxes and boxes of 78 RPM records might be of interest to someone.
The Tompkins Square label culled much of its 42-track survey of hilbilly records from 1923 to 1936—including 19 cuts previously unissued in any format but 78—from Wahle’s collection, and the result is captivating.
I’ve always loved recordings from this era, because you can hear the performers (and those running the primitive recording equipment) trying to figure out exactly what it is they are doing. They’re not playing a barn dance with whiskey and dancing, they’re not playing in a church at the back of a holler, and they’re not playing in their parlor with family and friends gathered close. Most of them have never owned a record player. The closest they could have come to mass entertainment was a big fiddle contest, or the various radio shows that were beginning to fill the air and help songs and styles to spread quickly.
But one imagines the musicians recorded here shifting their feet, asking where they should stand and look, and holding back a little, not quite able to cut loose as in their native element. The picking is a little tentative at times too, but the effect is deeply satisfying. The rules of American popular music—country, pop, gospel, and even bluegrass, blues, and jazz—have long been codified 80 or 90 years after these sides were cut, and when we hear Earl McCoy’s staccato steel guitar on “John Henry the Steel Drivin’ Man” with that one unexpected note in his riff, Jimmie Tarlton and Tom Darby’s quavering, yodeling harmonies on “All Bound Down in Texas,” or the Happy Four’s shape-note arrangement with harmonica fills on “Climbing the Golden Stairs,” we can’t help but touch parts of our musical and cultural imagination stored way in the back of our amygdala.
The Work Hard songs on Disc One deal with imagery far removed from most of us—Fiddlin John Carson’s “The Farmer is the Man Who Feeds Them All,” Oscar Ford’s “The Farmer’s Dream,” Red Gay & Jack Wellman’s “Flat Wheel Train Blues, Pts. 1 & 2,” Pierre La Dieu’s “Driving Saw Logs on the Plover”—while talking about ideas we still confront: class division in “Poor Man, Rich Man (Cotton Mill Colic No. 2)” by David McCarn, consumer cynicism in “I’ve Got the Chain Store Blues” by the Allen Brothers, and the injustice of prohibition (alcohol then, certain drugs now) in “When the Roses Bloom Again for the Bootlegger” by Earl Johnson.
The Pray Hard cuts on Disc Three often address issues that came up when country boys went to the city, or city culture came to the country. The listener may not be entirely convinced to go dry by Gid Tanner’s “You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine,” but the scolding of the Georgia Yellow Hammers on “I’m S-A-V-E-D” will surely get him to takea firm position one way or the other. “The Gambler’s Dying Words” from Sid Harkreader & Grady Moore sports a melody quite similar to “Roving Gambler” to draw listeners close to hear their warining, reminding me of the chart my church youth pastor put up that pointed the impressionable to soundalike versions of dangerously secular bands.
The Kentucky Holiness Singers live up to their name with “I’m On My Way,” a tune with a proto-bluegrass mandolin break punctuated by a little shouting, and the Dixon Brothers turn in a lovely, pious performance on “Easter Day.”
The most fun here is of course on the 14 Play Hard tracks of Disc Two. Gid Tanner’s “Work Don’t Bother Me” captures the relish that those who worked so hard must have took to the weekend opportunity to tie one on and forget everything for a couple of days. The unnamed members of the improbably named North Carolina Hawaiians turn in a nifty “Solider’s Joy,” the dance number picked on ukulele, guitar, and steel guitar (picked Hawaiian style with some slides reaching into Duane Allman bird-chirping territory), the Carolina Ramblers rave their way through “Barnyard Frolic,” and the Hack String Band’s “Too Tight Rag” is the soundtrack to a cartoon short that hasn’t been made yet, with fiddle, mandolin, tenor banjo, and jazzhorn taking turns on lead licks.
I hadn’t heard of several of the acts on this set before, much less most of the songs, and this set can be enjoyed equally by old-time aficionados and new initiates into these strange and old sounds: you’ll get some of the more typical sounds from this style and era in songs you haven’t heard to death, and some real gems, patterns of sound you’ve never imagined, like the Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers’ “When the Moon Drips into the Blood,” and Whit Gaydon’s “Tennessee Coon Hunt.”