I was listening to the Bristol Sessions tonight. There was an open mike recording session in Bristol Tennessee on July 29, 1927, hosted by the Victor Talking Machine Company. They made record players, and wanted to make records.
Singers, songwriters, musicians from all over the south travelled for an opportunity to record their work and sell it. These were the beginning days of the record industry. The Carter Family and the Jimmie Rodgers recorded their first sides that day. That stuff is gold.
But the tune that caught my ear was a standard and classic murder ballad, Darling Cora, recorded by a guy named BF Shelton. This song is something of a banjo requirement, and it is irresistible because of its structure and chorus, but this early version does something wonderful and hypnotic with the sound. Singer and banjo, alone, play and sing with a hypnotic rhythm, and the banjo sounds like a trance instrument and chime, rather than a, well, banjo. That’s good. Check it out.
Although Shelton went on to record some other sides, the only surviving cuts of his are from the Bristol Sessions. So there is the chance that his lovely spectral banjo sound is an artifact of the recording process, but when you listen to another of his recordings that day, a less captivating song by spades, his picking is still pretty awesome. Here’s Oh, Molly Dear:
These old cuts bring so much extraneous noise they alienate us from the start, but when you dig in it is revelatory to find pickers and players who are rocking new sounds out of the traditional. Shelton is doing that for me. Which is why it excites me to listen to old stuff.