- Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records
David Freeman, a native of New York City, established the County Records label in the late 1960s in his adopted home of Southwestern Virginia. With friends and field recorders Charles Faurot and Richard Nevins, and joined in time by folklorist Bobby Fulcher and future Sugar Hill Records founder Barry Poss, Freeman released scores of recordings by Southern traditional musicians. Mainly featuring old-time music (by both string bands and individual artists), the County catalog included re-issues of early 78 rpm records (the County 500 series), as well as new recordings (the 700 series). It would be difficult to overstate the importance of County Records to the old-time music revival and its influence on the musical tastes and techniques of the three generations of musicians who now make up the revivalist community.
This four-disc box set, a retrospective anthology of old-time music recorded and released by County in the 700 series, admirably accomplishes its stated mission, “to introduce people to the legends of old-time music”—though mostly within the context of one region, albeit a profoundly influential one, and one era. From the perspective of folkloristics, it is also a case study of how revivalist communities evaluate the art form around which they are built, as well as how they define themselves by a shared aesthetic.
Produced by Christopher King and the late Charlie Faurot, with David Freeman serving as executive producer, Legends of Old-Time Music presents the story of how a group of young men, mainly from the urban Northeast, became the arbiters of taste for subsequent generations of devotees of Southern string band music. Folklorists are naturally sensitive to this sort of cross-cultural interaction and the issues of authority and power that are invoked when “outsiders” tell a community’s story. The history of County Records and the production of this release serve as a model for how this kind of work can be accomplished respectfully, enriching and strengthening the traditions it celebrates.
A few definitions are in order for this review. A problematic designation for many reasons, the phrase “old-time” is usually applied to the traditional, pre-bluegrass style of string band music of Southern Appalachia—and to the string band traditions of other parts of the South and the Midwest (and elsewhere), solo instrumental music and balladry, and a network of related musical forms whose margins are drawn differently depending on who does the drawing. The “old-time revival” began in earnest some years after the wider folk revival; generally speaking, the first wave of revivalist old-time music came into its own between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. Finally, this review uses the term “Round Peak music” to refer to the repertoire and interconnected styles of old-time music associated with the area around Galax, Virginia, and Mount Airy, North Carolina. Round Peak itself is a small rural area about halfway between Galax and Mount Airy, on the North Carolina side of the state line. While some would point out that the musicians from Round Peak proper have their own distinctive sound within the broader Round Peak tradition, the phrase is often used generically, as in this review, for the subtly heterogeneous musical styles played in and around Grayson and Carroll Counties, Virginia, and Surry County, North Carolina.
The first of the four discs in this collection begins with Grayson County banjo player and fiddler Wade Ward’s banjo version of the tune “June Apple,” recorded by Faurot in 1964. It’s [End Page 93] an apt introductory track. At the time the recording was made, Ward was a living connection to the 78 rpm era of old-time music, when recordings by hundreds of Southern string bands, including Ward and his Buck Mountain Band, were commercially pressed and distributed. Recorded later by Alan Lomax and by John Cohen, Ward was a link as well to the world of non-commercial field recordings. Further, “June...