19. Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard- Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music 1923-1936

Try Harder. Great story, mediocre music. That’s how I’d sum up Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard, the 3-CD compilation of American county music released in 2012 by Tompkins Square.

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Let’s start with the great story. In 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky, Nathan Salsburg, noted guitarist and curator at the Association for Cultural Equity, the Alan Lomax archive, stumbled across news of a local man, recently deceased, with 78s in his house, destined for the dumpster. Salsburg rushed over to discover a large stash of early country records hoarded by little known collector, Don Wahle. The collection included many rare and un-reissued sides. Salsburg stayed the dumpster hands and rescued everything not already succumbed to mold and disintegration.

Salsburg, entranced with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, had long been mulling an aggregation in the same vein, and saw in Wahle’s hoard the opportunity. Of course, the difficulty for Salsburg is that Harry Smith’s Anthology stimulated modern interest in early recordings of country, blues and gospel music in America, whereas Work Hard follows decades of exhaustive reissues and examination. Smith had the field to himself, with the choicest cuts still unknown to the wider world. Today, there’s a reason why some sides remain unissued- they’re not very good. Contrary to booster rhetoric, by definition not every old country record can be a classic. Inevitably, many old sides are thoroughly derivative and second-rate. Yet to my ears, that’s primarily what is offered by Work Hard.

To the uninitiated, and that may be the primary audience for Work Hard, the collection may appear fresh and unexpected. The old photographs, quaint imagery and raucous delivery may be compelling to many a casual listener. The tale of the old record collector who’s precious finds were nearly lost to the crusher is a great lead that garnered much more mainstream press interest than is typical for this kind of release. If nothing else, the “work, play, pray” themes grasp at a little more coherence than Smith’s “ballads, social music, songs”.

The couple of stronger tracks come from familiar sources. Buell Kazee’s Poor Boy a Long Way from Home is another slice of that performer’s insistent banjo and dark notes, in stark contrast to the also-rans crowding the rest of the set. Elder Golden P. Harris, who made two custom recordings for the Consolidated Recording Corporation in New York in 1931, and made two more, date unknown, on his own label, also gets a spot. I had heard only the stunning I Want to Lead a Christian Life, so was excited to experience one of the remaining three. I was not disappointed- same fervent voice and ancient violin propel My Christian Friends in Bonds of Love. No surprise that both the Kazee and Harris tracks have been reissued previously, but so far as I know, there is no in-print CD collecting the works of Kazee or Harris. Now those would be fine additions to the 78 reissue canon.

Guest essays, particularly that by Amanda Petrusich on the “Work” theme, are a welcome complement to the standard discographical  ephemera and biographical scraps. Petrusich asks the intriguing question as to when we stopped writing songs about work. The main reason a fair number of old country records are about work is because the performers were typically no more than semi-professional. There was also a deep association between this country music and a certain way of life. But I take issue with Petrusich’s cheap swipe at the “bloodlessness of the modern-day desk job,” which she contrasts with the supposed nobility of more physical labor worth setting to music. Lazy boredom in the present, dependent on yet dismissive of the fruits of technology, obscures the weaknesses and romanticizes the strengths of the past. I find it easier to romanticize pre-modern rural life from a laptop in an air-conditioned office. Modern work is a rich source of material, and it’s lack of imagination that dictates relationships and partying as the only things to sing about.

I feel a curious sense of guilt criticizing so many of the reissues reviewed on these pages. The passion and care of the compilers, the exquisite packaging and the voiceless dead seem to deserve more. But as I will continue to argue, without sharper perspective and more debate, without pushing beyond reverence, without trying harder, reissues also risk neglect, dumpsters and ketchup.

Verdict: Both Work Hard and Pray Hard averaged 1.75 (c.59th percentile), with Play Hard, weighed down with one too many cheesy sketches and workaday breakdowns, bringing up with rear at 1.64 (82nd percentile). The 3-CD set is available from Tompkins Square.

8. The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of and The Return…

Bigger Dreams. The reissue of 78s and field recordings of American blues, gospel, jazz and country music is the most developed activity of its kind. Stylistic and geographical limits, a short span of “classic” recordings and decades of work have resulted in near-complete compilation and contemporary availability. One of my earliest signposts to old world music read “Delta Blues”, but the allure proved much more powerful than reality, forcing me to broaden my horizons to the rest of the world. Yet for many collectors, blues or jazz is all-encompassing.

These two CD sets on Yazoo, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (2006) and The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (2012) are intriguing progress markers in this business of reviving interest in old music. The first set focuses on the extremely rare, pointing to the fact that the broader reissue project is near-completion, new discoveries are thinning and only the exceptional can make a splash. But consistent with past reissues, the selection is strict blues, country, etc. The second set mixes a few more rarities with an attempt to lay out the “best” recordings of these vintage styles. The selection also includes some random Irish and Polish tracks. These innovations speak to the need to move from quantity to quality, now quantity is not the problem, and a recognition that extolling American roots music but ignoring the rest of humanity makes no sense. The notes mention that “collectors today” are much more open to musical variety than those in the past.

But the attempt at quality and diversity feels half-hearted. Contrary to most reissues, the Return CD disavows any effort at biographical or chronological detail, arguing that this information is easily available at the click of a mouse. The tracks are in no particular order, rarities scattered among classics, with no obvious signposts for the novice. The few “other ethnic” tracks seem especially arbitrary. It is not clear why certain tracks are viewed as “classic”, indeed many appear merely rare, although I’d agree that some were obvious for inclusion. The compilers are at pains to say that appreciation of this music is simply “about the music”, but for the collectors its clearly much more important than that.  As with Opika Pende, these sets are supposed attempts to popularize old world music, but in fact only appeal to collectors who crave the very details omitted to (fail to) reach the popular audience.

My effort with U-PM is most definitely to popularize old world music, which does include focusing “on the music” and not record labels, matrix numbers, and speculation about what a performer’s grandfather did for a living or what he had for breakfast. But U-PM is equally about more sweeping analysis, stronger judgements and bigger detail. The Return CD suggests that progress is being made on both fronts, but its still early days.

One welcome feature of these sets is the attention to collectors themselves. Rather than just a footnote, the collector is center-stage, with discussions of personalities, media, methods, tastes and excesses. The collectors are rightly positioned as essential players in the transition from past to present. A book/CD account of the great record collectors, in any genre, is a big missing piece of the puzzle for any serious assessment of recorded music.

Verdict: 1.81 (Stuff- about 52nd percentile) and 1.89 (Return- about 39th percentile). The second set features quite a number of tracks I already own, which I exclude from my database to avoid double-counting. Some of these are outstanding pieces, like Last Kind Words Blues by Geeshie Willie and I’ll Lead a Christian Life by Elder Golden P. Harris, and would have lifted the average. For me, the best new discoveries include Track 17 on CD1 of Stuff, “The Grey Eagle” by J. D. Harris, and Track 19 on CD2 of Return, “Seneca Square Dance” by Fiddling Sam Long. Both sets are available from Yazoo.