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Various Artists—Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues(Old Hat Records)

Various Artists— Bloody War: Songs 1924-1930(Tompkins Square Records)

When it comes to old-time country, the music captured at the dawn of the recording age is truly where the rubber—or perhaps the wooden wagon wheel—meets the road. The rural musicians one hears on the crackly 78s waxed in the pre-World War II period were born just before or after the turn of the last century, and were the final survivors of an era of oral tradition where songs were still learned firsthand; as phonographs became more affordable people began to learn and copy songs from records instead of only each other, steadily sowing the seeds of sameness. Thus, it can be said that record-making technology has been both a blessing and a curse: While it’s provided the invaluable service of preserving thousands of amazing performances and immortalizing almost as many of the actual songs, it’s also somewhat taken a hatchet to the very untutored innocence that defines the folk process. All of which means that raw, down-home sounds like the ones on these two fine compilations represent the last burning embers of a rapidly dimming epoch.

In addition to variations on the rustic Anglo-folk ballads passed down from their elders, topical songs were central to the repertoires of many early country artists. Floods, train wrecks, the Great Depression, and maritime disasters are staple subjects on the “hillbilly” records of the 1920s and ’30s. And of course so is working life and all that often goes with it: hard labor, tough conditions, poverty, and, shall we say, the less-than-fair conduct of many employers. Covering the years 1927 to 1931, Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues focuses mostly on the latter via music from Gastonia County in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The area was home to some incredible players, rough-’n’-ready types who performed at weekend dances but, come Monday, were once again back in the textile mills, toiling alongside their audiences. The 24 cuts here, all heavy on harmonica, banjo, fiddle, and guitar, include odes to workaday concerns (David McCarn’s “Cotton Mill Colic,” Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles’ “Been on the Job Too Long” and “Cotton Mill Blues”), as well as clog-hopping dance tunes (the title tract by McCarn, the Three ’Baccer Tags’ “Get Your Head in Here,” Fletcher & Foster’s “Charlotte Hot Step”). A beautifully assembled booklet includes an introduction by the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Justin Robertson and the fascinating account of assassinated protest singer-songwriter and labor leader Ella May Wiggins.

Another of the topics of the day was one that, quite tragically, also continues to be all too timely now: war. The 15-track Bloody War: Songs 1924-1930 explores this tragic subject with pieces that were written in reaction to World War I, such as “Uncle Sam and the Kaiser” by Ernest V. Stoneman and “The Rainbow Division” by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton. But, emphasizing the heritage of what were even then being marketed as “old-time Southern tunes,” the set also holds items harkening back to the Civil and Spanish-American wars (respectively, “The Faded Coat of Blue” by Buell Kazee and “Not a Word of That Be Said” by Wade Mainer, who is still alive at 103; and “The Battleship of Maine” by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers). Fans of early country should already know “white blues” king Frank Hutchison, as well as Fiddlin’ John Carson and the duo of G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter; cutting across the racial barrier are offerings by African-American blues acts Coley Jones and William and Versey Smith. Appropriately, proceeds from the album will benefit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. —Peter Aaron

Gastonia Gallop:
Bloody War:

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