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The Appalachian Sounds of Fonotone Records

The Appalachian Sounds of Fonotone Records
By James Calemine


“I went out in the open field/Black snake bit me on the heel,
I’ve stood around and done my best/Shoved my head in a hornet’s nest.” 
                                --Joe Bussard

This Fonotone Records collection highlights the work of Joe Bussard. An avid 78 record-collector, Bussard also served as a formidable musician on these classic sessions recorded mostly in his basement.

For over 50 years, Bussard has collected vintage 78s. This outstanding Dust-To-Digital release contains a prestigious collection of mountain music, country, folk, bluegrass and hillbilly blues.

This handsome cigar box contains one church key (bottle opener), 5 CDs of 130 songs, a packet of Fonotone artist photos, original record labels and a 160 page book outlining Bussard’s story and old vintage magazine articles written about his endeavors. Bussard’s first music loves were Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry which led to countless treasure troves of rare American music.

Fonotone Records began in 1956. In 1968, Bussard explained his main focus: “I don’t make many records of my own. I’d rather record other people. I make records of weddings and other special occasions, but mostly I make recordings of old records that people want but can’t find.”

The music on Fontone Records represents some of the best unheard jug band hoedowns ever recorded by serious musicians. Some of these prolific players were moonshiners, farmers, old pickers, junk collectors, postal workers and obscure musical heroes that played some of this country’s finest traditional music. The sessions were often recorded with only one microphone. Bussard ran the entire operation—producer, talent scout, tape engineer, disc cutter, label maker, paster as well as packager and distributor—from the basement of his parents’ house.

Personal highlights on disc one include: Bussard’s “Chinese Breakdown”, the Sunny Side Sacred Singers’ “Power In the Blood” and a young John Fahey recording for Fonotone as Blind Thomas on the instrumental called “Wanda Russell’s Blues”. Fahey once retorted when questioned about Bussard’s strict conviction regarding old music compared to contemporary bluegrass: “It’s like Flannery O’Connor said—to the hard of hearing you shout, for the almost blind you draw large and starling pictures…”

Just the instrumentals on this collection rank as master craftsman at the height of their powers. “Foggy Bottom Shuffle”, an instrumental by Bob Coltman (Danville Dan), sounds like a sonic memory to some autumnal mountainside torch ballad. “Soldier’s Joy” exists as one of the oldest fiddle instrumentals brought to America by immigrants.

Every one of these songs deserves examination, but of course, time leans on this reviewer. The Barnes Brothers perform “Fox Chase” and epitomize families handing down old music traditions from generation to generation. “Baker’s Breakdown”, performed by the Adcock Family, features the Adcock boy on banjo, father on guitar, sister on bass and eleven (!) year old brother on mandolin stands as a remarkable family talent.

West Virginia disc jockey Lee Moore’s “Boweavel” tells the story many farmers feared. “Bugle Call Banjo” by the Bluegrass Travelers personifies a quicksilver aptitude these players developed in early youth. “We Need More Rattlesnakes” is a talking blues Ted Kreh performed as Milo Way. Joe Bussard plays a slow blues on “Jug In The Shade” with friends Bob Coltman, Oscar Myers and Jerry Marcum.

The Welch Brothers render “Lost Indian” with two fiddles and a banjo that echoes down the holler. Bussard wrote a song called “The Death of John Kennedy” on November 30, 1963. Columbia Records turned down the song, claiming they did not want to capitalize on tragedy.

John Fahey played his guitar with a paint brush with interesting results on “Paint Brush Blues”. After this first disc, one realizes Bussard’s love for music and his musical talent. Disc two begins with Bussard and Bill Hoffman playing Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”. Lucky Chatman’s Ozark Mountain Boys play a ditty called “Bluegrass” that epitomizes mountain folk that grew up in this musical culture.

Bussard heard the 1930s hobo song called “Rome, Georgia Bound” and decided to record this old wanderer’s anthem. “Blind Blues” was one of the first John Fahey recordings—even though he called himself Blind Thomas. Bussard also recorded “Up Jumped The Devil” with a player who used a resonator on his banjo while a harmonica player and mandolin wizard kept a mercurial melody.

“The Virginia Ramble” by the Virginia Ramblers ranks as an amazing piece of music. The Beachley Sisters sing “Nobody’s Darling But Mine”—a dark parlor song that endures as an old tune of death, loneliness and love’s despair. The Bussard tune “The Flight of Astronaut John Glenn” earned Bussard a letter from Glenn. “Hillbilly’s Guitar” was the first recording Bussard ever made. Another Bussard song, “Mandolin Blues” features Ted Kreh, who Bussard called “a hell of a mandolin player. He was one of the best musicians I ever seen.”

The Adcock Family begins disc three with “Shady Grove” a song Jerry Garcia always loved to play. Mike Seeger recorded for Fonotone as Birmingham Bill and his version of “Cumberland Gap” would make any coal miner proud. “Fisher’s Handpipe” represents a fine display of dueling banjos. “Cackling Hen” serves as a classic Fonotone field recording—featuring Joe Birchfield on banjo accompanied by his wife on vocals and daughters on spoons.

The Bluegrass Travelers’ “Banjo Stretch” contains a sound never heard in these modern times. Fahey’s “Some Summer Day No. 2” was used for a documentary on venereal disease, which the song had nothing to do with at all. Bussard plays on "Black Cat Blues”, “Two Black Jacks”, “Frankie” and “Short String Strut” which furthers his musical prowess.

Disc four opens with the talented Adcock Family playing “Sara Jane”. It’s rare these days to find a family in which every member has mastered an instrument. Bussard plays on each disc following the chronology of Fonotone Records up until 1969, the year before the company folded. These recordings contain no electric instruments.

Ted Kreh sings on “Big Legged Mama”: “Say, big legged mama won’t you kindly keep your dress tail down/Honey, you got something make a bulldog hug a hound.” “Confession”, by the Wild Mountain Boys”, contains that high and lonesome sound-- like an old ghost train fading down the track.

“Poor Boy Blues” was a song John Fahey added a bridge to the old bluesman Bukka White’s “Po Boy”. Fahey corresponded with the bluesman during White’s stint in prison which later led to White’s rediscovery.

Disc five highlights many of the aforementioned artists. Bill Bailey and Frank Stewart cover “Cripple Creek”, one of the oldest songs researchers traced. Bussard recorded Mason O’Bavion on his front porch in Marshall, Virginia, in 1960 for this version of “John Henry”. Another Bussard band, The Georgia Jokers, render a ragtime stomp Blind Willie McTell knew called “Atlanta Rag”.

Clarence Fross’ version of “Old Hypocrite”, recorded with only him playing banjo, proves an original. In Cecelia Conway’s book From Africa Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions, the writer described Fross as “a West Virginia black who learned to play the banjo from his slave grandfather and father.”

Bussard explained the track by his Gabriel’s Holy Testifiers’ “Lay My Armor Down”: “That was a big record. Boy, we sold the living fire out of that. That was one of my favorites.”

This Fonotone Records release—played for days on end—sounds like some silver-threaded fever-dream soundtrack leading to old wooden front porch steps…breathing wild mountain air…in a bygone era…

related tags

Mystery and Manners,
Mountain,
West Virginia,
Virginia,
Tennessee,
North Carolina,
Kentucky,
Discourse,
Lore,
Music,

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