By Larry Stephens
Old–time, roots, Americana, folk and bluegrass are musical cousins with, to some degree, overlapping fan bases. It’s not unusual to hear an old-time tune during a bluegrass show and the old–time/folk/roots relationship isn’t something most people care to define—it’s too much fun to enjoy the music. Old–time, as its name implies, is a link to when our ancestors were struggling to survive, moving westward searching for new lands. Roots shares some of that imagery but also incorporates blues, folk and other influences.
The music from Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur is described as roots music, but you’ll hear links to all the genre mentioned above. “The Cuckoo,” recorded by the Osborne Brothers in 1975, can be heard on bluegrass stages and is described as a 13th–century round. It was probably first recorded by Clarence “Tommy Tiddy Waddy” Ashley in 1927. Varieties are as numerous as stems of grass in a hay bale but the version on this CD is as pretty as any I’ve ever heard. They give a simple interpretation with just a guitar accompaniment on this track, but the CD is rich in instrumental variation with a long list of supporting musicians. Besides guitar, you’ll hear fiddles, a variety of resonator guitars (National Tricone, Dobro, Pogreba Baritone Weissenborn Guitar), Steel Guitar, 5– & 6–string banjos, bass, accordion, brushes (on box and on snare), penny whistle and kalimba.
You can hear the National Tricone played by Cindy Cashdollar on “Louis Collins (Angels Laid Him Away),” a number dating back to 1928 and Mississippi John Hurt. The metallic, resonator sound adds a special element to this number. The Weissenborn is played by Cashdollar on the “Diamond Joe” track and you’ll hear her take a break at 1:50. This is a song of unclear origin recorded first by Alan Lomax as sung by an inmate, Big Charlie Butler, at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1939. The history of these songs is as interesting as the lyrics and tunes. “Frankie,” another Hurt song, is a variation of “Frankie and Johnny” that I haven’t heard before. It’s an easygoing if macabre song of love and murder underscored by the guitar picking of Kweskin and Muldaur. I remember a variation of “The Boll Weevil” from the song book my dad used in the late ’40’s. This version comes from another Lomax recording, this time the sweet voice of Vera Ward Hall in 1937.
As you might guess, a number of blues songs are included. “Fishing Blues” came from Tin Pan Alley but this version came from Henry Thomas back in 1928. Cashdollar is featured here on 6–string banjo as well as Suzy Thompson who plays fiddle on many of the tracks. “99 Year Blues” is a tale of woe, grief and murder ending in a sentence of 99 years. Kweskin has a relaxed voice that carries you along on the melody line with only two guitars for support. This dates back to a 1927 recording by Julius Daniels, originally produced by Ralph Peer and found on the Harry Smith Anthology.
Muldaur sings lead on “Tennessee Blues,” a song by Bobby Charles and featuring an accordion played by Van Dyke Parks. It’s also been recorded in bluegrass by the legendary J. D. Crowe. Muldaur is a good singer but doesn’t have the relaxed sound of Kweskin. “Downtown Blues” features a constant fiddle background from Thompson and has a classic bluesy sound. This is another product of Peer, recorded by Frank Stokes and Dan Sane.
Part music, part history lesson, this is an enjoyable CD if you like the old–time sound and roots music.