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Various artists, ‘Sounds of the Ozarks II’ 

Lyon College

click to enlarge OZARK SOUNDS: Volume II.
  • OZARK SOUNDS: Volume II.

A spare but rewarding collection of folk songs recorded in Arkansas, “Sounds of the Ozark Folk, Volume II,” is a product of almost a decade of collecting by Dr. Quincy Wolf, an English professor at Southwestern College in Memphis (now Rhodes) and folk music enthusiast. Wolf's widow, Bess, donated his collection to Lyon College (he was an alum) following his death in 1981, and after almost half a century, they're finally seeing the light of day. Assembled in the spring of 2007 by Brook Blevins and the students in his Ozark Culture and History course, it'll be an invaluable addition to the library of any field recordings enthusiast.

Taking his place in a long line of collectors, from the Lomaxes and Warners to Moe Asch and Harry Smith, Wolf scoured the Ozarks throughout the '50s and early '60s. Many are familiar with the warmly crackling sounds from Smith's epochal “Anthology of American Folk Music” collection, released around the time Wolf started recording in Arkansas and perhaps the crowning achievement of this master of assemblage. But Smith was more of a secondhand gatherer, a genius record collector. Wolf actually traipsed into the wilds with recording equipment, ears peeled for rare snatches of sound like the most dogged of birdwatchers.

Many of the folks Wolf and others ended up recording were also collectors, their brains vast repositories of vernacular song, the songs themselves cumulative and changeable. Every tune is merely a version, often regional in nature. Most of the songs on this disc exist in a different form in other collections (for instance, a search through my iTunes library lists seven distinct takes on “Pretty Polly”), but Wolf's are peculiar to Arkansas. Some of the songs have sprung up from this very soil, including the unforgettable “Alice Mitchell and Freddy Ward” and the chilling “The Boy that Burned in the Berryville Jail.”

“Alice Mitchell and Freddy Ward” recounts the death of Freddy (Freda) Ward at the hands of Alice Mitchell. The song recasts the murder as the result of jealousy over a man, but history suggests an ill-fated lesbian romance between the two girls. “The Boy that Burned in the Berryville Jail,” reminiscent of songs on Richard Buckner's already-classic recording “The Hill,” is told in first-person from beyond the grave. Floyd Eddings, a wild youngster caught stealing a coat, burns alive in the Berryville Jail while the sheriff is away. Again, history adds a twist to the tale. Many believe Eddings lit the fire himself.

Arkansas generally appears as another character in the drama, with attributes that speak to the nature of its people and land. One wayfarer, in “The State of Arkansas,” meets a haggard “galoot” with “lantering jaws ... a photograph of all the gents that was raised in Arkansas.” Also known as “The Arkansas Traveler II,” the song is a marked variation on the earlier story. Instead of the weary traveler finding reluctant and tight-fisted hosts on his trip, the people he meets in Arkansas are more than happy to work his fingers to the bone in return for lodging and hard “corn dodgers.” His severe employers seem a far cry from the jocular and lazy music-lover of “The Arkansas Traveler.”

The stories told in these songs are alternately mournful and hilarious, the performances almost unassailable in their casual execution. The majority of the songs and the best of the bunch are delivered a cappella, in troublingly serene voices, craggy as the mountains and just as beautiful and daunting.

The wheezing flourishes of the better singers can displace us, transport us to some elemental moment, fix the song in our heads like fables. Even the less talented or sophisticated singers are lent an air of stateliness by the hiss of silence between their words.

Unforgettable ditties like “Steamboat Bill” and “Dick and John” speckle the disc, as well as energetic instrumentals, with rarely a misstep to mar an otherwise perfect collection. You can hear the Wolf Collection in full at www.lyon.edu/wolfcollection, but invest in the album for the fascinating and carefully researched liner notes (it's for sale via the same address). These songs have a history worth knowing.   ?                                        

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