Old Folks Band

July 3, 2014
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String bands were common musical currency amongst the recording labels that trafficked in early country music. OKeh in particular had numerous such ensembles under its expansive roster in the 1920s and 30s. Few boasted the range of repertoire represented by the Scottdale String Band (SSB), eponymously named for a small town in Georgia where its members resided. The trio was fairly conventional in terms of instrumentation: Barney Pritchard and Marvin Head on acoustic guitars and either Belvie Freeman or Charlie Simmons on banjo-mandolin. Freeman or Simmons handled the lead parts while Pritchard and Head were usually responsible for rhythm. All four men were also longtime employees at the local cotton mill and that vocational association accorded their impetus as a musical outfit.

Old Folks Better Go to Bed celebrates the relative diversity of the SSB songbook over the span of nineteen tracks. Alongside expected square dance-ready, country-geared fare like the title track and “Silver Bell” the band also tackles a selection of blues and rags. That overt receptiveness to African American sources sets them apart from most of their immediate peers and the sequencing of the songs traces a natural progression in style from an early fixation on breakdowns and rags through a flirtation with more polished parlor song forms. Novelty numbers like “Coughdrop Blues, ” which opens and ends with a collective fit of exaggerated coughing, and “Kohala March, ” which draws from Hawaiian sources, also make appearances.

“My Own Iona, ” another island ditty is the only straight vocal number with verses. The emphasis instead sits squarely on instrumentals although many of the pieces contain spoken interjections like “Shake that thing” and “Black bottom, do your stuff!” that again intimate to African American influence. The string picking is uniformly proficient, particularly in the reverberating leads generated by either Freeman or Simmons. Truth be told though, the SSB comes off as a bit mannered and rote in sum despite earnest occasional efforts to spice up their sound like the vibrato-rich fiddle the shows up on “The Moonshiner’s Waltz.” None of the performances even remotely reach the sort of unhinged backwoods zeal of Uncle Dave Macon’s “Down the Old Plank Road, ” but that’s probably an unreasonable standard of comparison to begin with.

The SSB’s final session for Okeh in 1930 featured a quartet configuration with presumably Freeman and Simmons both on banjo mandolin. They recorded another session two years later, this time for Paramount and continued performing for the remainder of the decade before eventually disbanding. Essayist Tony Russell runs down all of these details in an enclosed group biography that also places them in the context of country music history. The music contains accompanying crackle and hiss, but considering the age of source discs it’s hardly any sort of deterrent to investigating these esteemed heirlooms from an earlier age.

Source: dustedmagazine.tumblr.com
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