Peggy Seeger (with her family and Tom Paley)

Here are two out-of-print albums featuring Peggy Seeger, another talented member of the Seeger family clan. The first one was recorded in 1957, before Peggy moved to England (she would spend most of her musical life there with her husband Ewan McColl). She’s accompanied with her two younger sisters Penny and Barbara. Together they sang the many folk songs they heard at home, while their parents transcribed them from field recordings. Many are children’s songs, play-parties songs and lullabies. They accompany themselves with banjo, autoharp and guitar.

The Three Sisters



The second lp, from 1965, was recorded with Tom Paley, after he left the New Lost City Ramblers and came to live in England. It’s a great collection of folk songs, played with guitar, banjo, autoharp and mountain dulcimer.

Tom Paley & Peggy Seeger 



Appleseed records issued lately a new record by Peggy Seeger with brother Mike called “Fly Down Little Bird”. It would be the last recordings Mike Seeger made before he passed away last year. Peggy and Mike wanted to record once again the folk songs they learned in their childhood, when mother Ruth Crawford Seeger would play field recordings from The Library of Congress over an over to transcribe them for songbooks. Most of the songs were recorded in 2008 at Mike’s home and this is really a “Close to Home” album. As Peggy said on the back of the disc, these are not “Children’s songs” but “Grown-up songs” as “we grew up on them”. The singing and playing of Mike and Peggy is really outstanding in its (apparent) simplicity and joyfulness. They revive this old songs with an elegant spirit and an authentic feel that is hard to match these days. This is easily one of the best folk record issued this year and a great testimony of Mike Seeger’s unique contribution to American Folk Music.

Listen to “The Dodger’s Song” , “Cindy” and “Blood Stained Banders”

-Visit Peggy Seeger’s website (you can buy “Fly Down Little Bird” there and read the lyrics of the songs)

Published in: on June 27, 2011 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  

Versions and variants of Barbara Allen (Library of Congress lp)

This lp, issued by The Library of Congress in their series “Folk Music of The United States”, compiled 30 different versions of the old ballad “Barbara Allen” as sung by american men and women in the 1930’s, in different Southern states but also in California. The recordings were made by Alan or John Lomax and other folklorists who worked for The Library of Congress at this time. Some tracks are complete versions of the song while others just give to listen one or two stanzas. The first versions are all sung a cappella and use a beautiful  modal and archaic melody (used for other ballads as well). By the middle of the record and until the end, we hear different variations of the most-well know “Barbara Allen” melody using a major scale while the guitar is introduced on some tracks. The lp ends with a rare african-american version of the ballad sung by Moses (Clear Rock) Platt, recorded at The Central State Farm in Sugarland, Texas in 1933. Most of the singers here were recorded “in the field” and are not well-known with the exception of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Aunt Molly Jackson and Horton Baker.

Hearing different versions of the same ballad (on my blog dedicated to  “Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music” , The Old Weird America, you can hear for each post, different version of the same song or tune) is always interesting as it seems everyone bring something a little different to the same story, varying some words or notes, and of course, the singing style or type of performance can vary a lot from version to version. (It is said that Harry Smith could tell from which county you were by singing to him your version of Barbara Allen!).

The lp includes a big booklet written by Charles Seeger (father of Pete, Mike and Peggy) which study in depth the performances of the disc. To read it, click here.

Download the lp here

-As a bonus, here’s Jody Stecher’s version, which appear on his great cd of ballads “Oh The Wind and Rain” (You can buy it directly from Jody’s website). I think this version of “Barbara Allen” is a real masterpiece. For more than 12 minutes, Jody sings with his powerful voice, with a fretless banjo accompaniment and manage to shift from the major scale melody to the modal melody heard on the first selections of the lp in the middle of his performance. The shifting itself from one scale to another is very subtle and sounds very natural and make this version one of my favorite of the old ballad.

Published in: on May 24, 2011 at 3:57 pm  Comments (7)  

Morgan Sexton

I recently discovered this great banjo player and old-time singer from Kentucky called Morgan Sexton. Born in 1911 in Eastern Kentucky, he lived the tough life many mountain people encountered during the 20th century, surviving through the Depression and hard times, working with the land and in the coal mines but enjoying the sweet relief and joy of music and dance shared with his fellow neighbors. Mr. Sexton had a unique banjo-playing style, using a two-finger picking approach with thumb and index and using many different banjo tunings to play the many old-time tunes and songs of his repertoire. On his recordings made when he was past 75 years old and struggling with black lungs and cancer, he sang with a gentle and soft voice with a strong mountain accent, giving each of his performances a very intimate feel. He won a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 and made a few recordings for the June Appal label. A documentary about his life can be watch on line on the Folkstreams website.

On “Shady Grove”, a cd compilation of his June Appal recordings, there are 26 tracks of his superb banjo playing and moving singing on traditional mountain songs and tunes, including some narratives.

Most interesting for me, it includes some great versions of many songs found on Harry Smith’s Anthology. As you certainly know already, I have a whole blog dedicated to the Anthology called “The Old, weird America”. I do a bit of research about every Anthology track, providing some other recordings by the artists and some variations on the songs.

Here are the tracks (in bracket is the name of the song as it appear on the Anthology):

  1. -John Henry (Gonna die with my hammer in my hand)
  2. -Old East Virginia (East Virginia)
  3. -In London City where I did dwell (The Butcher boy)
  4. -Old grey Beard (Old shoes and leggings)
  5. -Sugar Baby
  6. -Froggy-Went-a Courtin (King Kong Kitchie Ki-me-o)
  7. -Little Frankie (Frankie)
  8. -Omie Wise

Listen here

-You can purchase “Shady Grove” on the Appalshop website

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 4:00 pm  Comments (4)  

Hazel Dickens (1935-2011)

I sadly learned that one of the greatest american singer passed on today… May she rest in peace…

Published in: on April 22, 2011 at 4:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Betsy Rutherford-Traditional Country Music

This out-of-print lp was the only recording of Betsy Rutherford, from Galax, Virginia. Raised in a musical family (her uncle was Fields Ward, see my post of this great musician), she kept singing the old songs she learned from her parents or from the Carter Family at a time when many young Virginians turned their back on the mountain traditions and the music was revived by urban students in the Northern states. Like Hazel Dickens, she sang country songs with a powerful and dignified voice, with a traditional instrumental back-up or a cappella on the beautiful Jean Ritchie song “The West Virginia Mine Disaster”. On “Amazing Grace”, she sings in the lining out fashion like in the Primitive Baptist churches and it’s one of my favorite recording of this famous hymn. She can be heard singing with the great Ola Belle Reed on a recent cd issued by Smithsonian Folkways called “Rising sun melodies” (on “I believe in the old-time way” and “I am the man Thomas”). Young appalachian singer Elizabeth LaPrelle cites Betsy Rutherford was one of her favorite singer and sang “Rain and Snow” on her first record.

Track list:

1.Faded coat of blue

2.Rain and snow

3.John Hardy

4.The West Virginia mine disaster

5.Tramp on the street

6.Boys, be good to dear old dad

7.Drunkard’s doom


9.Will the circle be unbroken

10.Amazing grace

Download here

Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm  Comments (5)  

Hobart Smith and Robert Pete Williams lps

Here’s a double offer this month with two giants of traditional american music, Hobart Smith and Robert Pete Williams. Smith was one of the greatest old-timey musician to come out of the Appalachians, a mountain virtuoso on fiddle, banjo, guitar, piano, harmonica, etc…, playing all these in a energetic style combining the huge influence of african-american music with the traditions of his family who passed on to their children the old ballads (Texas Gladden,Hobart’s sister, was a great ballad singer) and fiddle tunes of their forefathers that came from England. Smith was recorded early on by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress and by Moe Ash in New York, and appeared in many festivals during the Folk Revival of the early 1960’s.

-Here’s an lp recorded in 1963 and issued later on Topic Records in England. It’s called “The Old Timey Rap”, a term used by Hobart to describe his banjo pickin style…

Track list:

1.Soldier’s Joy (banjo)

2.Peg and Awl

3.The great Titanic

4.Banjo group 1 (Black Annie, Sally Ann, Chinquapin Pie, Last Chance, John Greer’s Tune)

5.Short life of trouble

6.The devil and the farmer’s wife

7.Soldier’s Joy (fiddle)

8.Sitting on top of the world

9.Stormy rose the ocean

10.Bonaparte’s retreat

11.Cuckoo Bird

12.Columbus Stockade Blues

13.Banjo group 2 (Cindy, The girl I left behind me, John Hardy)

14.Meet me in rose time Rosie

15.Uncloudy Day

This lp is available now on a cd by Folk Legacy records with three bonus tracks (Buy it here)

Listen here

Robert Pete Williams is one of my favourite Country Blues artist. He had a unique style of singing and playing the guitar, very reminescent of African music in fact, giving to each of his performances a hypnotic and improvised mood. Here’s a bit of biography from Wikipedia:

Williams was born in Zachary, Louisiana, to a family of sharecroppers. He had no formal schooling, and spent his childhood picking cotton and cutting sugar cane. In 1928, he moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and worked in a lumberyard. At the age of 20, Williams fashioned a crude guitar by attaching five copper strings to a cigar box, and soon after bought a cheap, mass-produced one. Robert was taught by Frank and Robert Metty and began to play for small events such as Church gatherings, fish fries, suppers, and dances. From the 1930s-1950s, Williams played music and continued to work in the lumberyards of Baton Rouge.

He was discovered in Angola prison, by ethnomusicologists Dr Harry Oster and Richard Allen, where he was serving a life sentence for shooting a man dead in a local club in 1956, an act which he claimed was in self-defense. Oster and Allen recorded Williams performing several of his songs about life in prison and pleaded for him to be pardoned. Under pressure from Oster, the parole board issued a pardon and commuted his sentence to 12 years. In December 1958 he was released into ‘servitude parole’, which required 80 hours of labor per week on a Denham Springs farm without due compensation, and only room and board provided. This parole prevented him from working in music, though he was able to occasionally play with Willie B. Thomas and Butch Cage at Thomas’s home in Zachary. By this time, Williams’ music had achieved some favorable word-of-mouth reviews, and he played his first concert outside Louisiana at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.

By 1965 he was able to tour the country, traveling to Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Chicago and Berkeley, California. In 1966 he also toured Europe. In 1968 he settled in Maringouin, west of Baton Rouge and began to work outside of music.

In 1970, Williams began to perform once again, touring blues and folk festivals throughout the United States and Europe. His music has appeared in several films notably, the Roots of American Music; Country and Urban Music (1971); Out of the Blues into the Blacks (1972) and Blues Under the Skin (1972) the last two being French-made films.

His most popular recordings included “Prisoner’s Talking Blues” and “Pardon Denied Again”. Williams has been inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame.

Williams had slowed down his work schedule by the late 1970s, largely due to his old age and declining health. Williams died in Rosedale, Louisiana on December 31, 1980, at the age of 66.

-This lp was recorded for an Italian Blues label in 1977, while he was touring Europe, near the end of his life. He would record his last session three years after in Paris.

Track list:


2.Big fat mama


4.Must be another man

5.Promise land


7.Gamblin man

8.Talking Blues

9.Matchbox Blues

10.Watch yourself boy round by that deep blue sea


12.Greyhound Blues

Download here

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 3:54 pm  Comments (3)  

Dvd review: Clawhammer banjo lesson dvd by Hunter Robertson

I wanted to review this excellent new instructional dvd by Hunter Robertson that teaches 10 banjo arrangements of fiddle tunes in the clawhammer style. There are not so many instructional dvds on the market that focus on old-time banjo styles (the greatest being the 3 Dvds “Southern Banjo Styles” by Mike Seeger) and this one is rather aimed at advanced players so rejoice, all of you banjo frailers! Hunter is a great banjo player who already recorded two discs (the last one i reviewed on this blog here) and he did a fantastic job on this lesson by choosing well-known and not so well-known fiddle tunes and came out with intricate and enjoyable arrangements that will challenge most players. The tunes are by legends of old-time fiddling like John Morgan Salyer, Tommy Jarrell, Emmett Lundy, William Stepp, Uncle Bunt Stephens, Hobart Smith… There are at least four different banjo tunings used and a full array of clawhammer techniques are displayed and explained. This is about the content of the lesson but the form is also really well made, with camera angles and slow motions allowing the viewer to see both hands at work and not missing a lick. It’s worth mentioning that Hunter uses a rather simple Harmony banjo that was turn to a fretless (but you still see the frets marks) to teach the lesson and proves that one doesn’t have to possess a fancy instrument to play great old-time mountain music. As a bonus, Hunter explain a bit about two and three-finger old-time picking styles, and you can see a clip of him playing and singing (Hunter has a powerful and raucus voice that reminds me a bit of australian rock singer Nick Cave) the great song “Raleigh and Spencer”. For me, the cherry on top of this great lesson is the pdf booklet that goes in lenght to cite the sources of the tunes, the tunings, the discography and many other details that are really invaluable informations for the player and listener. Well done, Hunter!

Go here to buy the dvd (Hunter Robertson’s website)

-Here’s an excerpt of the video:

-As I said above, all of the arrangements on these dvd were inspired by old field recordings and 78rpm records of great fiddlers and most of these are available for free online thanks to the Digital Library of Appalachia (on the pdf booklet, you just have to click on the link to be directed to the exact page). Nevertheless, I compiled myself the 10 original fiddle tunes to help me learn them with Hunter’s banjo versions and you can download them as well for the same purpose and for your listening pleasure (just be warned that the recording quality on some of them is very bad…).

Track list:

  1. Lonesome John-John Morgan Salyer
  2. Candy Girl– Uncle Bunt Stephens
  3. Boatin’Up Sandy-Wilson Douglas
  4. Cripple Creek-Hobart Smith
  5. Unfortunate Puppy -Elmo Newcomer
  6. Ducks on the millpond-Emmett W. Lundy
  7. Bonaparte’s Retreat-W.H. Stepp
  8. Leather Breeches-John Morgan Salyer
  9. Raleigh and Spencer-Tommy Jarrell
  10. Ft. Smith Breakdown-Luke Highnight’s Ozark Strutters

Download here

Published in: on February 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm  Comments (3)  

CD review: Norman Blake & John Renbourn

With this new year starting, I was glad to see new records by two of my favourite musicians, Norman Blake and John Renbourn. One is american and the other is english, the two are masters of the acoustic guitar but represent two very different folk traditions. They both have been playing and recordings music for decades now and became each one in his own way two masters of their delicate craft, two wise old men of the Western world. Despit their different style and approch to music, what make them connected to me as a listener is their total integrity and modesty. In a music world full of gimmicks, looks and dullness, they just follow their own quiet path and continue to explore  and play the music they love best.

Norman Blake was raised in Sulphur Springs, Georgia, started as a back-up musician for people like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, became famous in the 1970’s for his flatpicking guitar abilities and started recorded both solo and with his wife and musical partner Nancy Blake. On his records, he plays also many other string instruments (most notably mandolin, Dobro and fiddle) and sings songs he has written or songs from the Bluegrass/Old-time tradition. On his early records, one could find also great flatpicked fiddle tunes and songs he wrote that became standards like “Ginseng Sullivan”, “Church Street Blues”, or “Last train from Poor Valley”. In the 1980’s, he made great collaborations with another great flatpicker Tony Rice and explored the possibilities of a modern string band with The Rising Fawn String Ensemble. From the beginning of the 1990’s and ever since he continued to play both with his wife Nancy and with other musicians, revisiting old songs from the “hillbilly” 78rpm records he loves, traditional folk songs and melodies in a more and more epurated style, letting others trying to be the fastest flatpickers in the world, while he concentrates on the songs or tune’s own internal beauty and poetry. And with this new album, “Green Light on the Southern”, he’s doing just that, play and sing the old songs he loves, from The Carter Family, Charlie Poole, etc…just like he certainly plays them on the porch of his farm in Sulphur Springs, out of pure love and dedication to Southern folk music.

-Listen to three tracks from his new album:

“Green Light on the Southern”

“He Rambled”

“The New Spanish Two-Step”

“I’ve seen the rural music I’ve loved since childhood grow fainter and farther away in a commercial and urban- ized society that seems to care little for the charms of old fashioned southern string music and its long gone practi- tioners… Here are some of the old songs I play and sing around home, one can live by the sentiment and poetry found in many of them.” – Norman Blake

John Renbourn is one of the most important and influential British fingerstyle player of this last decades. Since the 1960’s he has played and recorded both solo, and most notably with Bert Jansh, The Pentangle and with The John Renbourn Group. From the beginning he has mixed diverse musical worlds in his playing like Country Blues, Early Music, Folk, Jazz, and created exquisite  pieces of music. In his new disc, one can feel the ghosts of Erik Satie, Jelly Roll Morton, Bach, Big Bill Broonzy, Randy Weston and Fats Domino, all present in his beautifully crafted guitar solos (and with some clarinet too on some tracks).

-Listen to three tracks from his new album:

“Palermo Snow”

“Ugly James”

“Blueberry Hill”


Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 11:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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Brad Leftwich (with Dan Gellert, Linda Higginbotham…)

Here are two out-of-print records featuring old-time fiddler Brad Leftwich, one with fiddle and banjo player Dan Gellert and the other with his wife and musical partner Linda Higginbotham. Brad is well-known as a musician and teacher of appalachian fiddle and banjo music. He learned directly from old-time fiddlers giants like Tommy Jarrell and has spread his love and skills for the idiom ever since, both as a solo artist and with fellow musicians like Tom Sauber and Alice Gerrard (Tom, Brad & Alice).

The first record, called “A Moment in Time”, was issued in 1993 in the tape format by Marimac and was never reissued. And it’s a shame because it’s one of the best old-time fiddle record I ever heard. The playing here is astonishing, especially on the many fiddle duets, an art in itslef, and the rest is all fiddle and banjo music of the highest order. Brad and Dan’s styles are very complementary and blend perfectly together. I would come back to Dan Gellert’s music in a future post as he’s one of my favorite contemporary old-time musician…
The other record was issued in 1984 on County Records and features Leftwich with his wife and musical partner Linda Higginbotham (and Mark Richie and Bob Herring on guitars). It’s a great mix of fiddle tunes and songs (with three originals by Linda) and sounds as fresh and charming today as it sure was more than 25 years ago…
Dan Gellert & Brad Leftwich “A Moment in Time” (Marimac tape 1993)
1.Johnson Boys
2.Indian Nation
3.Fiddler’s Dram
4.John Brown’s Dream
5.Leather Breeches
7.Nancy Rowland
8.Hell on the Nine Mile
9.Paddy on the Handcar
10.Kansas City Rag
11.Molly Put the Kettle on
12.Danced all night with a bottle in my hand
13.Sandy Boys
14.Old Joe Clark
15.Prairie Dog
16.Ryland Spencer
17.Crystal Stream Waltz
18.Echoes of the Ozarks
(Click on the media player to hear the record)
pdf of the liner notes, giving the tunings and the sources of the tunes
Leftwich & Higginbotham “No One To Bring Home Tonight” (County Lp, 1984)
1.No one to bring home tonight
2.Breaking Up Christmas
3.Dry and Dusty/Bonaparte’s Retreat
4.Deep Elm Blues
5.Back to Scholl Blues
6.Tom and Jerry
7.Jack of Diamonds/The Lost Child
8.Ozark Mountain Home
9.I want more out of life than a broken heart
10.Rio Grande
11.Poor Girl’s Story
12.John Lover’s Gone
(Click on the media player to hear the record)
Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 8:43 pm  Comments (12)  

>Kentucky String Band Music Update

>I have corrected the tags on the tracks for the lps “Wish I Had My Time Again” and “Way Down South in Dixie” and also everything should be in correct order now….

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 9:11 pm  Comments (3)