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Trevor Ault of Mardles

reviews Songs of Old Appalachia by Alice Wylde

This is the real thing "authentic, traditional and old time mountain singing" exactly as described on the label. It's not bluegrass (jazzy and slick) or country and western (stereotyped and sentimental). This is real, unadorned, plain, beautiful American folk music.

Alice Wylde now lives in England, but was born, grew up, and lived for forty three years in West Virginia. Her songs were learned from her mother (a constant singer in the house), from church, from relatives and from singing visitors. She has a wonderful, slightly husky voice that reminds me of Ralph Stanley, most well known for his version of O Death in O Brother Where Art Thou? There is often a hitch (like the start of a yodel) at the beginning or the end of a line, and the diction is always clear and clean (a great boon in a singer). It's a real pleasure to listen to. There is an interesting range of songs here. Some of them in subject and melody seem to be clearly derived from British precedents. Babes In The Wood is a good example the story of children abandoned to die in a wood, the robin covering them in strawberry leaves, and the birds lamenting them. But mostly the songs relate to American places, characters and history. There is a song, for example, about the Boston Tea Party, and one about a battle in the civil war. There is a warning to young women about the rural, unprepossessing character of West Virginia Boys, and a very lively song about Old Phoebe Ice, who is "strong as an ox" and can fiddle up an all night party "she's a darn good gall for the shape she's in". In the song Groundhog a woman called Sal comes to the rescue of a worn out hunter and his dog who is cornered by three hogs: "here comes Sal with a hickory stick/ she killed all three with just one lick". And afterwards, when the hogs are skinned and cooked: "here comes Sal with a snicker and a grin/ groundhog juice all over her chin." The words, here as throughout, are plain and delightful and often, as in the ballads of failed love, very powerful.

Some of the songs are unaccompanied, and here Alice's voice sounds most like Ralph Stanley's, quite haunting. On some she accompanies herself very effectively on banjo a good example being Unclouded Day, a church song which I had loved in the Staples Singers' version and which I find I like equally well in this much earthier version. Some also have the sensitive and well judged addition of Dan Stewart on banjo, guitar, dulcimer or fiddle.

So with the minimum of means this CD achieves great variety and richness. I did wish at times for more information about the songs with the CD or on a website at least some translation of very American terminology and history. But that is a minor niggle. The music does stand by itself and is a great addition to anyone's folk library.

March 2013