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In Kurt Vonnegut’s Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s (which, being blessed with a vivid and memorable protagonist, is better than Vonnegut’s fiction), the author admits to “an undying fantasy that I would be a contented person if only I could become a member of a Folk Society.” As defined by Vonnegut’s teacher, University of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield, and described by the novelist, “a Folk Society was isolated, and in an area it considered organically its own. It grew from that soil and no other. The break between the living and the dead was indistinct, and bonds of kinship crisscrossed every which way. There was such general agreement as to what life was all about and how people should behave in every conceivable situation that very little was debatable.” Vonnegut latched onto the idea as a student in the 1940s, but two decades later many young Americans would become similarly preoccupied. One of the most obvious results of this generational focus was the commune movement, doomed to fail because in a true Folk Society the society forms the citizen, not the other way around. (Even more than high society, a Folk Society is something one is born into; by definition, its comforts cannot be sought.)
An even more visible result was the folk song revival. To observe that it ended up every bit as messy as the first, one need travel no further than the “folk” section of any record store. It is filled with simpering confessionals, maudlin reminiscences, protest songs earnest and clumsy enough to make all but the true believer blanch, and dreary odes to my-brother-the-whale. All are symptomatic of what folklorist Dick Weissman calls “folk based” music, actual folk music being too rough for the tender sensibilities of the “folkie.” (This should not be taken only as an indictment of the crass tastes of contemporary Americans; if Fiona Ritchie’s Thistle and Shamrock radio show is any indication, Celtic “folk” is even worse than our own. Clouded over with misty-eyed myth, sappy and nostalgic to a fault, it—not punk—is the true “no future” music of the British Isles.)
What good did come of the folk song revival involved not only the rediscovery of genuine folk musicians, preservation of their past work, and encouragement of their continued activity, but also the gentle reinterpretation and tasteful popularization of old-time folk music by urban performers. Of these, perhaps the most faithful to the old-time aesthetic were the New Lost City Ramblers, who performed old songs that they found on old 78s and among folk musicians. As Mike Seeger explained in the notes to his band’s Rural Delivery No. 1 LP, “It is unfortunate today that many believe the urban folksinger must create a new song or style, bad or good, or else be branded an imitator. This mania for wanton change is similar to that of tearing down fine old buildings to put up faceless new ones under the rationale of progress. The importance is in deciding where and how to progress.”
In November 1965, Rambler John Cohen took a trip into the hills of Virginia and North Carolina in search of banjo pieces in alternate tunings (think of him as an old-time Thurston Moore); he got a little sidetracked and collected quite a few ballads as well. High Atmosphere is a collection of the recordings he made. First released in 1974 and out of print for years, it has been reissued on compact disc with almost 30 minutes of additional material from the original dates.
From the get-go, we hear sounds that must have humbled Cohen and his comrades. For despite the Ramblers’ dominance of the urban trad scene, their music did not have what folk scholar Kip Lornell (after Robertson Davies) calls “what’s bred in the bone.” To know from whence that quality derives, it helps to hear ballad singer Lloyd Chandler of Sodom, N.C., describe the recording site: “We’re right here in the bend cove, in this old log house that’s been built ninety years.” “And how old are you?” asks Cohen. “Seventy at my next birth—three score and ten.” If to be an American is to be surrounded by things younger than you are, Chandler, sitting on the porch of his old house, singing in a manner older still, and surrounded by the ancient hills of the Appalachians, was an unusual sort of American.
And he made unusual music. “Remember and Do Pray for Me” is a minute-long blast of unaccompanied singing that overwhelms in its claim on the listener’s attention. Chandler manages only the first verse-and-a-half of the Baptist song of grief before his pounding heart cautions him to stop (after the line “My heart is almost spent,” he took Cohen’s hand and held it to his chest), but for that short time it is nearly unbearable. Loud at any volume, the song is spiritually deafening.
Even more imposing is “A Conversation With Death,” in which a sinner, claiming he is “unprepared for eternity,” begs for “time to fix my heart and change my mind” when Death comes vowing, “I’ll close your eyes /I’ll lock your jaw.” Since Chandler offers no pauses to distinguish between the two parties, the chilling exchange is forced inside, as if transpiring fully in the soul of the damned.
A distinguishing characteristic of this singing style is the “vocal flip,” in which the voice leaps in pitch at the end of a phrase, punctuating the middle or end of a line with a falsetto shriek. This technique is one that now finds favor among many female pop singers. There is a hint of it in Joan Osborne’s more impassioned moments; Maria McKee applies it to her blues-inflected country stylings; Dolores O’Riordan does it on virtually every syllable through parts of “Zombie”; and it reaches its ultimate abasement in the “you, you” yelp of Alanis Morissette.
But they’re all pikers next to Dellie Norton. Chandler’s sister liberally spikes three narratives of ruined love with peaks of anguish. The romance of Polly, “The Silk Merchant’s Daughter,” is spoiled by a meddling brother who uses gifts of fine gowns to tempt her from her unlanded lover, while the less diplomatic father of “Young Emily” simply beheads his daughter’s beau when young Edmund passes out drunk in a tavern. Faring slightly better is the sailor who returns “Early, Early in the Spring” from seven years at sea to find his intended “married to a richer state.”
Norton’s tales are sung as if their tragedies were preordained, but the true voice of Southern fatalism belongs to Frank Proffitt. Best known as the original source for “Tom Dooley,” which Frank Warner collected from him in 1938 and which fueled the folk song revival in 1958-59 when the Kingston Trio’s version was at the height of its popularity, Proffitt released three albums in the ’60s (two on Folk-Legacy, one on Folkways) that number among the greatest recordings of American folk music.
Distinguished by fluid fretless banjo playing and relaxed, unornamented singing, Proffitt’s style is a far cry from Chandler’s and Norton’s. His restraint, however, connotes not a carefree and placid temperament, but the devout resignation of a man who has survived decades of continual misfortune—drought, flood, and separation from his family. (Folk Legacy’s Sandy Paton notes that Proffitt worked on a WPA road crew during “Hoover Times,” at Oak Ridge during World War II, and at a spark-plug plant in Toledo.) Unlike many traditional folk artists who turn to developing new material, Proffitt was a gifted writer, and “Poor Man” (from his Memorial Album) reflects perfectly his despair before the whims of the elements: “There ain’t a thing for a poor man/In this world,” he sings.
On High Atmosphere, the same sense of surrender feeds “Pretty Crowing Chicken,” in which a departing lover responds to his beloved’s “When shall I see you again?” with “When the moon and the stars enter into yonder’s dream/And the sky shall shed no more rain.” Similarly, a rendition of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is sung not as if hell must be demolished brick by brick in a righteous fury, but as if it will be transcended, dissolved by an omnipotence that sucks all life out of this sorry sphere.
Although much of the album is devoted to the instrumental banjo tunes Cohen set out to record, a compatible tone is struck. When played at a reasonable pace (i.e., not overpowered with flashy, rapid-fire three-finger bluegrass picking), the five-string banjo can be startlingly poignant. In the attempt to coax a rolling drone from an instrument having a sharp attack, quick decay, and little natural sustain, the air is filled with the ring of the perpetual human strain against the unattainable.
Several banjo players featured on County Records’ classic clawhammer banjo anthologies (clawhammer playing involves striking the strings with the back of the fingernail) make an appearance. Sidna Myers shifts the melody of “Forkey Deer” back and forth between tinny high strings and rich lows, while Fred Cockerham, who produces an immediately recognizable sound by playing his Formica-fingerboarded banjo high up on the neck, shows off nimble thumbwork on numbers such as “Fortune” and “June Apple.”
For me, however, “June Apple” will always belong to Wade Ward, whose version appears on the first County anthology and is as good an example as I know of pure music: It’s not about anything in particular, but justifies itself through sheer formal delight. On High Atmosphere, Ward is shown to advantage on “Shady Grove” and “Old Joe Clark,” playing a rousing fiddle while Cohen backs him up with Ward’s own arrangement of the banjo part.
After Ward finishes playing “Half Shaved,” Cohen entices him into the discussion that gives High Atmosphere its title. Saying that throwing his banjo into an alternate tuning puts it into “a different atmosphere,” Ward attempts to explain his derivation of a tuning for a foxchase. When Cohen suggests, “Maybe that word “atmosphere’ has something to do with it,” Ward agrees, chuckling, “It’s a pretty high atmosphere when you get on the mountain where I had this fox race.” To the members of a Folk Society, it would seem, even the air they breathe constitutes a birthright.