For a while, I’ve been meaning to say something about this Louvin Brothers book I bought in the summer, which I’ve just finished. These days,
the brothers are in danger of being chiefly remembered for the fantastically lurid cover of their 1959 “long-player”, Satan Is Real. It’s actually a terrific record I’d recommend to anyone but mostly you’ll come across it’s sleeve used as an illustration of old-time fifties hokum. All of which I think is a bit of a shame, their instinctive and intricate harmonies and their ear for a fine old tune deserve more. What would the Everlys have sounded like without Charlie and Ira?
The book’s great, contrasting chief song-writer and mandolin player Ira’s hell-raising, hard-drinking ways with the more pragmatic support of God-fearing younger brother Charlie. It’s a fine, fine read (the pages on the photoshoot for the famous album cover are particularly interesting – the scene was pretty much what just it looks like: two nervous hillbillies in front of a huge pile of burning tyres, watched by a pitchfork-wielding, homespun Lucifer.)
Surprisingly (considering how regularly they played the Grand Ole Opry) there’s not tha much actual Louvins footage available. There’s this clip, though, complete with introduction by Ernest Tubb:
It’s all sent me off on a bit of a Steinbeck / Folkways sort of adventure and I’ve recently downloaded the first volume of Harry Smith’s classic Anthology of American Folk Music. Compelling stuff it is as well, stuffed full of once-real stories and echoes from a simpler, more chilling world. Many of the songs, however, as well as being documents from the past (and in some cases are recordings of songs that were of-another-age even back then in the thirties), still sound remarkably relevant to these musical times. I’m thinking of some of the banjo and fiddle work which manages to sound both folksy and edgy with a pretty modern monotone, repetitive style. Some of the vocal performances are just crazy too, pretty much feral in some places. I’m thinking particularly of the tracks by Clarence Ashley, Buell Azee, William & Versey Smith and the, intriguingly named Carolina Tar Heels (no idea …).
Unbelievably, there’s this clip on YouTube, again from the fifties I think, of an interview and performance by a sixty-year-old Clarence Ashley. He sings “Coo Coo Bird” which I first heard done by the Holy Modal Rounders. It sounded haunting on their first album but, as some wise old stick points out in the comments, actually sounds even more ghostly and affecting than any of the other (many) versions.
This! This is history! (Song starts at 3:30, but do listen to the interview – “Well” I says “Give me that banjer”)