Bascom Lamar Lunsford: the Berea recordings

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr

Thanks to Tyler, I’m spending the morning listening to archival folk music recordings and grinning from ear to ear.

I’ve written about cousin Bascom Lamar Lunsford before. In the years since the CD reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music, which features several of his songs, quite a few folk artists have approached his tunes anew, with varying levels of success (check out Frank Fairfield’s version of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground“). But nothing’s like the real thing.

So I was thrilled to get a link from Tyler on Facebook pointing me to the digital archives at Berea College with a collection of forty-two Bascom Lamar Lunsford archival recordings, plus a few large group songs and a newsreel, available for free listening and download. The quality of the recordings, made for Columbia University in 1935 and archived by Berea, isn’t great — there’s reel-to-reel noise on most of them, and the otherwise revelatory performance of “Mole in the Ground” is marred by uneven recording or playback, leading the pitch to wander all over. But hey–free Bascom Lamar Lunsford! Go listen!

More reading: a Bascom Lamar Lunsford/University of Virginia/Virginia Glee Club connection.

Listen: “Swannanoa Tunnel” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford from the Berea archive

The Jane Siberry oeuvre

I’m most of the way through listening to Jane Siberry’s collected works, which she has made available for free download on a “pay it forward” basis. It’s a rare opportunity to listen to an artist’s evolution over a short period of time.

I had only ever heard, really, Siberry’s 1993 album When I Was a Boy, and some of her soundtrack work (“It Can’t Rain All The Time” from The Crow and “Slow Tango” from Faraway, So Close!). I was really, really into When I Was a Boy, to the extent that I forced “Temple” on anyone who would listen, with occasionally embarrassing results. (Okay, so “You call that far? You call that hot? You call that darkness? Well, it’s not” isn’t exactly high poetry.) But some of her songs reach so deep into the psyche, including “Slow Tango,” “Sail Across the Water,” and of course “Calling All Angels,” that I remained in love with the music anyway.

I’m not sure why I never found another one of her albums after that. Maybe it was the typography on the cover of Maria (I’ve never liked that particular script font). Or maybe it was because one album later she was self-releasing her albums and distribution fell off.

Or maybe it was because the two recordings that followed Maria were, respectively, Teenager, an album of modern recordings of songs that she wrote as a teenager, and A Day in the Life, a found-sound recording that followed her through a regular day. I think some artists benefit from editing.

But listening to the whole catalog puts those two albums in perspective. She followed them with a three disc set, New York Trilogy, that went all sorts of unexpected places, like a live band rendition of her trippy “An Angel Stepped Down (And Slowly Looked Around)” that might better the studio recording, a full album of songs about finding one’s own voice, and a moving double album of untraditional Christmas songs. And before When I Was a Boy were some deeply worthwhile albums, including The Walking, which feels like a successor to both Laurie Anderson and Astral Weeks. And Maria? A very cool album of offbeat vocal jazz — though, again, I’m not sure I needed the entirety of the twenty-minute “Oh My My.”

So it’s been quite a gift. Not sure about the best way to “pay it forward,” though, since I don’t have any music of my own to release. Maybe telling you to go download it is the right call. Strongly recommended: The Walking, No Borders Here, When I Was a Boy, Maria, New York Trilogy, and Hush. I’m not done listening yet, so maybe I’ll expand the list.

[audio:|titles=Calling All Angels (Choir version, no k.d. lang, from]