And you shiver when the cold wind blows

spooky_forest_1_by_miwicz-d2pg9gvI’ve been to another ridiculously exciting Sleaford Mods gig which I’d like to post about, but before I do…

If, just suppose, you ever find yourself with a spare Wednesday afternoon, say in October, you could do a lot worse than spend an hour thumbing through the various versions of this…

In the Pines…

A genuine traditional country classic, I only came across this fairly recently on “Tragic Songs of Life” by the Louvins (yes, I’m still doing this…). It’s actually a pretty dark song, with various versions which are borrowed from (and added to) in true folk style. Elicit desires, cruel nature, revenge and even railway track beheadings all appear at times in its various guises.

It didn’t take long to realise that there are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of versions of it, from something like a definitive version by Leadbelly, through post-war country heroes like Bill Monroe and the Louvins, and into various sixties and seventies readings, right up to modern takes, including one by Janel Drewis for the Walking Dead 2 game. Along the way, we’ve heard from Dolly Parton (pretty much as you’d think), Tom Jones & Glen Campbell (truly, truly dreadful) and Nirvana’s slightly hysterical performance in the Unplugged series.

Here, for example, is a fairly straight performance by the Carter Family (a sixties incarnation, introduced in gloriously cheesy fashion by Johnny Cash):

 

It’s OK, but here, on the other hand, are the Louvins doing it as it should be done (still the yardstick as far as I’m concerned…)

 

And here’s a pretty cool modern take by Bill Callahan

 

And then…

Well, and then, there’s this, surely the blackest, wildest, most extreme version, I think I could ever imagine.

 

Brrrr!

Roscoe Holcomb was born in 1912, a coal miner who “worked construction” before the war, supplementing his earnings in tough, tough times playing guitar and banjo, as well as fiddle and harmonica at times.

The eerie, keening vocals in his “In the Pines” are very much a trademark.  At times you think you’re getting the measure of this unnerving vocal style before it goes further, to levels that make you wince. I’m currently out of emusic credits, which means I’ve only heard half of the Smithsonian collection which rejoices in the name of “An Untamed Sense of Control”, a lovely epigraph provided to the man by Bob Dylan.

Roscoe Holcomb.

I’m going to be coming back to this harsh, weird mountain man…

Your arm was resting on his shoulder… his eyes were filled with victory…

298062585For 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 its 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 just what 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 that much actual Louvins footage available. There’s this clip, though, complete with introduction by Ernest Tubb:

Wonderful stuff.

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”)