It always used to be that if I wanted to know about new releases by my favourite artist, I would read Melody Maker or any of the music papers. Later, music papers turned into music magazines and I would always turn to the reviews section first to see what was about to come out. More exciting was to visit a record shop and thumb through the racks and magically find a new album by Green On Red or John Stewart. Another source of information was word of mouth, such as Jamie Reid at school talking about a new super group called Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Nowadays, the best source of new material is the “Release Radar” on Spotify which thinks it knows better than anyone else. Irritatingly, it is often correct. By analysing what I have played recently, it determines what I will like and picks a suitable track for me to listen to. It went a bit haywire recently when I was exploring terrible Cliff Richard songs but recently I have heard new songs by Kathleen Edwards, The Waterboys, Jaime Wyatt and Sarah Jarosz. They are all excellent.
This week there’s a song called “Poor Ellen Smith” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I had no idea that they intended to release an album. It gets a bit confusing with these two because their releases are either by Gillian Welch (she has released five albums, the last one was in 2011) or David Rawlings (he has released three albums, the last in 2017). They both appear on all these albums but this is the first one credited to both of them. I had to ask Paddy and he told me that they have two albums coming out this month – this one and another one of unreleased material from the past. Neither appear to be available on CD but will be available on Spotify. That’s irritating.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play folk music that is rooted in the American past. She has a beautifully mournful voice. He has a soulful voice and happens to be a brilliant guitarist – possibly the most precise guitarist I’ve ever seen perform. I’ve only seen them once – at The Brighton Dome with Paddy and Joy and they were mesmerising. Gillian and David, I mean although Paddy and Joy were very good company too.
On their website, they explain how this album came about. “For reasons better discussed in the history books, in the Spring of 2020 Gillian and I dusted off an old tape machine and did some home recording. Sometimes we bumped the microphone, sometimes the tape ran out, but in the end we captured performances of some songs we love. Five are first takes and five took a little more doing, but they all helped pass the time and held our interest in playback enough that we wanted to share them with you.”
The first song is “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” and it was written by Elizabeth Cotten. It was first released on an album called “Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar”. This album contained a song called “Freight Train” which was often played by the early Beatles as well as being recorded by Peter, Paul And Mary. “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” was written when she was in her teens, around 1910. When she was in her sixties, Elizabeth Cotten worked in a department store and helped return a lost child to her mother. The child was Peggy Seeger and, after this, Elizabeth Cotten started working as a housemaid for the Seeger household and, seeing all the instruments in the house, she started playing guitar again after a period of forty years without playing. This subsequently led to the release of this album when she was aged sixty five.
Track two is “Senor”, a Bob Dylan song from Street Legal. Bob Dylan said “In some kind of way I see this as the aftermath of when two people who were leaning on each other because neither one of them had the guts to stand up alone, all of a sudden they break apart… I think I felt that way when I wrote it.” It was written a few months after his divorce from Sara. On this version, David Rawlings takes the lead vocals and Gillian Welch provides admirable harmonies. It’s a very sad song.
“Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” is a very typically lovely performance and could have been taken from Gillian Welch’s first album “Revival”. This is a traditional song and was first recorded in 1924 by Samantha Bumgarner who was a highly accomplished banjo and fiddle player from North Carolina. (Elizabeth Cotten was also born in North Carolina). In June 1939, King George VI and Princess Elizabeth were invited by President Roosevelt to a concert of American music at The White House. Among the artists performing was Samantha Bumgarner.
“Hello In There” was written by John Prine. The song is deeply sensitive to the plight that some older people face when left to live lonely lives. “You know that old trees just grow stronger and old rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello'”. The John Prine version is great. This is deeply sad and melancholic.
“Poor Ellen Smith” is the song that Spotify decided that I would like. The algorithm works perfectly. David Rawlings takes lead vocals on this song which is about the shooting of Ellen Smith and the trial and execution of her murderer, Peter DeGraff. These real events occurred in North Carolina in 1894.
The title of the album is taken from the first song on side two, “All The Good Times Are Past and Gone”. This is another traditional song and has been recorded by many artists including Ralph Staney, Jimmy Martin and The Ozark Boys. The earliest recording, from 1930 was by Fred and Gertrude Gossett. David Rawlings sings lead on this version.
“Ginseng Sullivan” features Gillian Welch on lead vocals. It is written by Norman Blake but that’s not the lead singer of Teenage Fanclub. This Norman Blake is an American musician that I had never heard of until five minutes ago but has released thirty seven album since his debut in 1972. The harmonies on this version are sublime and David Rawling’s guitar playing is quite sensational. Just an acoustic guitar but the small solo in the middle is wonderfully precise and inventive.
“Abandoned Love” is another Bob Dylan song. It was originally intended for release on “Desire” and was first released on “Biograph”. There’s another fantastic guitar solo on this version and David Rawling’s singing, which is not always my favourite, is emotional and soulful on this version. He also does a wonderful Bob Dylan impersonation when he sings the words “abuse”, pronouncing it “abooooouuuse”. At the end the tape gets mangled and the song ends abruptly.
“Jackson” was written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber. It was a hit for Johnny Cash. “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout. We’ve been talkin’ ’bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.”
Finally, on this magnificent collection, there’s “Y’All Come”, written by Arlie Duff who was a basketball star, a war hero, a teacher and a popular singer. “He was said to have a big smile and a voice to match”. Every time he stepped on stage, audiences would clap their hands and implore him to sing “his signature song”, “Y’all Come”.
This has been like finding a previously unheard of record in a shop and rushing home to play it. Because I knew nothing about it until it magically appeared out of nowhere, with no fanfare, the excitement has enhanced my great pleasure in immersing myself in this astonishing music for the last hour.