Music is ill-suited to being described in words, so I'll use an entirely different experience to try and convey what listening to this Anthology is like.
I once knew a fellow who had grown up on Bechtel construction project sites around the world. As a kid playing in the dirt at these sites, he'd collected a box full of those stone tools that humans made and used for something like three million years. I found that once I had turned one of these slips of chipped obsidian or shale over for a moment, it settled naturally into my hand. There was a spot for my thumb, another spot for my forefinger, and my hand was making a scraping or digging motion with the thing. The tool and my hand still remembered their ancient partnership, without any volition from me. This sensation was simultaneously disturbing and satisfying and made the hair stand up on my neck.
This sensation is very close to what I feel listening to this anthology. You will not hear the familiar, highly produced music we're now so comfortable with. You will hear the voice and sound of music as it has been for millions of years -- and you will recognize what you are hearing as being utterly, essentially human.
These recordings were, of course, made only 75 years ago in the 1920's, surely part of the modern era. Yet this was the last moment in time between the old world and the new world. We still sing and play music for the same reasons we always have, but the way we used our voices and instruments for millions of years has been changed by technology. So if these not very old recordings feel strangely like a link to something ancient and mysterious, that's because they actually are.
There is a great beauty in the voices on these recordings, many of which are almost shrill, almost off-key -- unfamiliar to our pampered contemporary ears -- but also perfectly right. There is a mystery in the odd and sometimes fragmentary lyrics, whose once important meaning is now lost.
We can still share the depth of feeling through the music itself, sometimes so strongly that your heart leaps as though you'd been kicked from inside. But, as it says in the booklet of notes, while we can share in the emotions that impelled someone to sing about The Coo Coo Bird in the first place, we'll never know why it was important to live on a mountainside in order to see Willie go by.
Perhaps the true power of this Anthology is that every recording is genuine in a way that is no longer possible. I recommend it.
However, I can recommend another set that is along the same lines and is, in my opinion, vastly better. Title: "Roots 'N Blues Retrospective 1925-1950" on Sony/Columbia. It is a four CD set (it still has much more music than this Anthology set; the six CD's here are not that long) and there isn't a bad song on any one of them. It has a broader scope: folk, bluegrass, acoustic blues, and lots of very unique stuff that is somewhere between vaudeville and burlesque. It has all the charm and humor of a simpler and more genuine era in American life. That set proved to be what I expected this set to be. (I won't mention that it is only two-thirds the price as well, because if you're seeking out music of this genre the cost is probably of incidental concern.)
The Retrospective set has only a few reviews behind it but please don't let that chill you. If you get it and strongly agree/disagree with me, I'd be interested in knowing as I'm really curious why this set has the notoriety and that set does not. But I'm confident that if you throw a few logs on the fire and pour yourself an icy cold beverage of your choice and put one of the Retrospective CD's on, you'll have a glowing smile on your face in no time at all. With this Anthology set some other state of mind will predominate, one less visceral and ultimately less fun.
Let's just say I wouldn't trust a musician that did not have at least a passing familiarity with... Read more