- I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful: Nimrod Workman
The singing of career coalminer Nimrod Workman first reached the ears of folk music enthusiasts in the 1970s via long-playing releases on June Appal and Rounder Records, as well as a biographical film produced by Appalshop. This output established Workman as one of Appalachia's most celebrated traditional singers and symbolically linked the region's idealized past with the reality of its ongoing political struggles. Workman's music is eclectic in character, encompassing both the nostalgic and the topical, the "traditional" and the personal. He felt equally comfortable with classic ballads and self-penned labor lyrics, approaching his singing with a notorious disregard for category. Workman's second career as a national folk performer reached a high point in the 1980s, when he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship and made such forays into popular culture as appearing on broadcast television's The Tonight Show. The evergreen Workman lived to the age of ninety-nine, passing away in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1994.
The posthumous release I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful comes as a welcome revisiting of Workman's musical artistry and his legacy as a key American folk revival "discovery." The album is a first-time publication of recordings made by Mike Seeger at Workman's Mascot, Tennessee, home in 1982. Seeger visited Workman twice that year with the support of an NEA Folk Arts Grant, intending "to record as much of Nimrod's repertoire as possible without feeling that we had to make an LP" (liner notes, p. 6). It is perhaps especially ironic that a vinyl LP has indeed finally been culled from these sessions, so long after the apparent waning of that medium. However, Seeger's original documentary intentions are honored, both in the amount and diversity of material included here. The release can hardly be accused of observing commercial-length conventions, featuring a whopping twenty-seven tracks and clocking in finally at fifty-two minutes. This is of course only a small sample of the original eighteen hours of recordings that Seeger made, but the reportorial elasticity he identified in Workman's music is nonetheless represented. The disc's content even ranges into narrative genres ("Talk on Doc Boggs," "Talk on Grandfather Nimrod") and closes out with an ambient snippet of goodbyes shared between Seeger and the Workmans ("Farewell").
Aside from an occasional question during the short spoken interludes, the audio consists exclusively of Workman's unaccompanied voice. Where prior releases featured some duet work (either with Nimrod's wife, Molly Workman, or his daughter, Phyllis Boyens), I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful focuses even more narrowly on Workman as a solo performer. Even if these field recordings were made with slightly different aims than either Passing Thru the Garden (June Appal Recordings, 1974) or Mother Jones' Will (Rounder Records, 1978), they are of a piece with his past work in terms of style and sound: Workman's singing darts from pitch to pitch, landing on long, expressive notes and then breaking their spell with a sharp upward swoop. Workman was already in his seventies when he began his recording career, but his noticeably weathered voice sounds none the worse for wear a decade later. Listening today, it is easy to hear why Seeger and other revivalists took such special interest in this creative personality. As in his previous recordings, Workman's energetic delivery here makes for an especially compelling example of "traditional Appalachian singing." (Saying this, we must of course recall that he had long helped shape the [End Page 222] way we imagine this category.) Seeger, too, deserves credit for his dedicated fieldwork and flawless location recording. The rapport between these two men is audible; they clearly enjoyed working together. Hearing the results for the first time is a privilege that folklorists and fans alike will no doubt appreciate.
Despite its documentary emphasis, I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful will reach more than just...