And now for something completely different: genuine early American folk music! February 12 marked Abraham Lincoln’s 199th birthday (back when I was a kid, February 12 was a school holiday; now Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays have been shmushed together into a single ski weekend), so I though it would be nice to give a little virtual ink to this fine album of folk songs, most of them from Lincoln’s time; a few are even about Lincoln.
When I put it on for the first time, I was immediately struck by the lovely instrumental version of “Battle Cry of Freedom,” with mournful Dobro leading the charge—it instantly reminded me of Ry Cooder’s excellent version of the same tune from the underrated classic Boomer’s Story. From there, we get into vocal pieces that cover a broad range of folk styles from the mid-19th century: ballads, work songs, political tunes. When “Aura Lee” came on, I realized I’d learned it from my fifth grade teacher back in the mid-1960s (a hundred years after it was written), and could sing along from hazy memory. Guitarist/singer Chris Vallillo is an appealing guide through this forest of mostly obscure folk material—he delivers the songs completely without irony or modern cynicism, and he’s a sterling picker to boot. He’s ably assisted by a small group of acoustic players. The liner note annotations reveal that this or that song was a favorite of Lincoln’s, while this other one was used during his campaign. The notes on “Dixie’s Land (Dixie)” are particularly illuminating: “The famous line ‘I wish I was in Dixie’ is not a Southern expression as most folks might expect. It actually came from the circus people of the North who began to yearn for warmer climes as the increasingly cold weather began to make life in the tents unbearable.” Lincoln liked “Dixie” so much he has it played as his inauguration…and as the true uniter that he was, he also had it played to crowds outside the White House following Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Also cool is the 1990 Norman Blake tune “Lincoln’s Funeral Train,” one of just two modern songs on the disc.
The sound is both rich and pristine; top-notch all the way.
Must play: “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Dixie’s Land”
Produced and engineered by Chris Vallillo. Mixing by Vallillo.