Don Fleming, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris dropped by the Cobert Report to discuss the the folk music legacy of Alan Lomax and the Cultural Equity archive. Cobert, as we’ve seen before, loves good music. The interview and the attending performances are a tiny bit awkward, but mostly due to Cobert’s insistance on being involved. I’m sure we wouldn’t want it any other way (at least in this setting).
WordPress and CR’s flash videos don’t get along, so find the video here.
We’re honored this week to have an essay from guitarist and folklorist Nathan Salsburg. On Nathan’s album Affirmed (out today on No Quarter records), you’ll hear solo guitar picking that baffles the logical senses: too intricate to be so melodic, too pretty to be so complex. Nathan’s playing is virtuosic but disarming; the runs and chord progressions are complex, but his emphasis is always on the bright and pristine nature of the tunes. Artful restraint is a rare trait for a guitarist of such skill and Nathan’s restraint on Affirmed is a gift to us. His focus, instead, is on the songs. There are eight in all (and only one non-instrumental among them), each wonderfully crafted to tell a story, in this case about race horses and indefatigable spirit.
When I asked if Nathan would be willing to write an essay for us about his musical roots, I had no idea that he was also a folklorist and traditional music expert working for the Alan Lomax Archive I mentioned here a few weeks ago (read a great interview detailing some of his work there here). Serendipity, of course, is always welcome.
I’m extremely pleased, then, to introduce our first guest essayist, Nathan Salsburg — a champion for tradition, artistry, and innovation:
My earliest and most formative musical experience was my father’s playing “Railroad Bill” to me, on the guitar, for a lullaby. It was the closest thing I’d get to the “folk process” — he’d learned it off some fellow-traveling Washington Square Park folkie, who’d learned it, perhaps, from another, who’d learned it, perhaps, from another, and so on back to Saltville, Virginia’s late, great multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith, who had come through New York City for one of the Friends of Old-Time Music concerts in the early ’60s, and whose recording of the song, made for Alan Lomax, was then easily accessible on LP. (There are lots of versions of “Railroad Bill,” but his was the only “text,” as the professors call it, resonating through the early days of the Great Folk Scare.)
I was 17 when my father taught me its finger-style rudiments, and, like Fred McDowell said about his first tune, Tommy Johnson’s “Big Fat Mama Blues,” I worried those strings to death trying to play that song. After much effort I arrived at a tenuous satisfaction with my rendering, and could confidently pick it out for impressed friends who, having spent most of their conscious musical development in thrall to, say, the Bad Brains or Born Against, rarely if ever heard music like this. Five years later, however, I finally heard Hobart Smith’s recording. And it was a sublime and sublimely disappointing revelation: I was nowhere close to getting to the soul of the thing. I didn’t know and wasn’t told that Hobart had learned it from an old albino fellow in Saltville’s Smoky Row who had learned it from god only knows who; that Hobe’s was just a step in one of an innumerable quantity of staircases in the labyrinthine folk process, spreading out and up and down into infinity from the Ur-note struck on that celestial monochord Harry Smith turned so deftly into an enduring fetish. If I had, or had been, maybe I’d have adopted a more sanguine perspective, considering what I’d worked out for myself as one of minor-est stars in the song’s grand firmament, but a contribution nonetheless.
Eleven years after hearing Hobart Smith’s “Railroad Bill” for the first time, I’ve achieved a bit more sanguinity with regard to my own playing and its ever-increasing gallimaufry of influences, but the song has lost none of its power over me. It still rings as perfection’s essence, the tonic of the heavenly spheres — like the quarry of some famous Hindustani classical singer I was once told of, who practiced 15 hours a day for sixty-some-odd years, in vain pursuit of that single perfect note sounding forever just out of reach. And though there are countless other guitar performances that boggle my mind with their breathless grace and gravitas and humanity (and even, as some blockheads might say, greater “proficiency”), whatever it is at the core of “Railroad Bill,” deep down there in its banging heart, continues to delight, inspire, taunt, and drag me on after it, forever sought and forever hidden.
Check out the title track from Affirmed here.
And be sure to pick up a copy of the record over at No Quarter where you can get it on vinyl for only $11 (or on CD for a dollar less).
Thanks again to Mr. Salsburg for his wonderful essay. We hope it’s the first of many artist writing submissions here on the site.