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Dai Jeffries of Folking.com

reviews Poor Ellen Smith by Rattle on the Stovepipe

Rattle On The Stovepipe are Dave Arthur, Pete Cooper and Dan Stewart who play American old-timey music with the classic guitar, fiddle and banjo set-up, added harmonica and mandolin and a couple of excursions on melodeon. Poor Ellen Smith is their sixth album for Doug Bailey’s label.

Most of the material here is traditional, or as traditional as it can be having knocked around America for anything up to a century and a half and the band squeeze seventeen tracks into the set. Only one, ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ can be counted as a vignette so Rattle On The Stovepipe combine the pace of square dance tunes with a laid-back feel particularly in the songs. The set opens with ‘Dead-Heads And Suckers’, somewhat adapted to make sense of the text and put it the context of the early twentieth century. It’s still traditional, though, that’s just the folk process.

The title track is a classic murder ballad from Winston-Salem – a sort of American equivalent of Midsomer where Omie Wise also came to a bad end. ‘Stackolee’ came from further north in St.Louis, committing his crime on a particularly blood-soaked Christmas Day. More modern, and certainly less violent, is Bob McDill’s ‘Rodeo Man’, a pure country song with a touch of melodeon to remind us that we’re close to the Mexican border. I think I’d like to have heard Dave Arthur’s melodeon fills higher up in the mix but it’s a fine line with such a romantic song.

Arthur wrote two songs here. The first is ‘Southern Soldier’ which sounds very English and that’s the point being made. At the time of the American Civil War the country was full of immigrants, few of whom were ideologues but were fighting for their own patch of ground. The second is ‘Blood Red Roses’, not the familiar shanty but inspired by Bert Lloyd’s version from Moby Dick.

The top instrumentals include the well-known ‘Waiting For The Federals’, the twin fiddle attack of ‘Walk Along John To Kansas’ and the bouncy ‘Little Billy Wilson’. The harmonica player front and centre of the cover picture, by the way, is the celebrated painter Jackson Pollock, pupil and band-mate of the artist, Thomas Hart Benton.