Some of the most haunting moments on the famed Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, recently reissued by the Smithsonian, come from a set of 1929 recordings by banjoist and singer Clarence “Tom” Ashley . These include his eerie, modal banjo-and-vocal versions of two ancient British ballads, “Coo Coo Bird” and “The House Carpenter.”
The former of these classic recordings was made in a temporary field studio set up in Johnson City, Tenn., in October 1929, just a couple of years and a few miles from the site of the Bristol sessions of 1927, where Ralph Peer discovered Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. To a casual fan, these two sides by Ashley might seem just another one-shot session by a great mountain musician who then slipped back into obscurity.
Not so. Clarence “Tom” Ashley (1895-1967) was a singer, banjoist, guitar player and comedian from Shouns in East Tennessee, but like a lot of first generation country musicians, he worked at a number of other jobs to keep his family fed. He did some sawmilling and some farming. He traveled as the entertainment for an old-time medicine show. And he did some “busting” — his term for playing on street corners for nickels and dimes.
Ashley made quite a few records, with groups like The Carolina Tar Heels, Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots, The Haywood County Ramblers, the Blue Ridge Entertainers, and under his own name as Ashley and Foster. But he also recorded a handful of solo numbers accompanying himself on the banjo — what he jokingly told his producer Frank Walker were “old lassy-makin’ tunes” that used a strange “sawmill” tuning on his five string.
Fortunately, Walker loved these old archaic mountain performances and let Ashley record several of them: “Little Sadie” (the same one Bob Dylan would pick up years later), “Old John Henry,” “Dark Holler” and “Naomi Wise.” The original ledger sheets show that Ashley also recorded some more modern love songs at these same sessions but that Walker wisely left these on the shelf and went for the more authentic stuff.
These six banjo sides, as well as 14 other examples of vintage Ashley, are now available on Greenback Dollar: The Music of Clarence “Tom” Ashley, 1929-1933 (County). Though Ashley was to be rediscovered by the folk revival in the 1960s and would tour and record with the likes of Doc Watson and Fred Price, not enough of his earlier work has been available. In fact, as far as I can tell, this is the first set ever issued solely devoted to Ashley at his prime.
It contains the definitive readings of a number of songs associated with Ashley or ones that have become standards in bluegrass and old-time music. Here is “Greenback Dollar,” with the sparkling harmonica backing of Gwen Foster; “Baby All Night Long,” the fine white blues heard here with Clarence Greene backing him on fiddle; “Haunted Road Blues,” “Short Life of Trouble,” and the surrealistic “Three Men Went a Huntin’.” Here is the best version of “Frankie Silvers,” the Appalachian murder ballad recently made into a mystery novel (The Ballad of Frankie Silver) by Sharyn McCrumb.
Anybody who has liked the Smith anthology and wanted more, or anybody who is wanting to find more stuff like they heard in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, will find it here. The remastering on these old records, done by County’s Christopher King, is as good as it gets, and the thick booklet of notes, done by Ashley’s friend Joe Wilson, corrects several misconceptions about Ashley’s complex career and offers new insights into his music. (Not many remember that during the 40s, lean years for old-time music, Tom Ashley worked as a blackface comedian in the live shows of Charlie Monroe and The Stanley Brothers.)
Though the year is yet very young, I can’t imagine a more satisfying and more appealing old-time reissue than Greenback Dollar. The quiet old man from Shouns with the ironic twinkle in his eye likely would have been pleased.