TERRY GROSS, HOST:
There's a new collection of old-timey music from the early 1920s to the mid-'30s called "Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard." Music critic Milo Miles says there's a fascinating story of how this collection came to be.
MILO MILES, BYLINE: The first thing to note about the collection of old-timey music "Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard" is that it resulted from a record-discovery event that happens less and less often, and soon will likely never happen again. The music was recorded between 1923 and 1936.
Most of the sides in the set are taken from 78s collected by the late Don Wahle of Louisville, Kentucky, and rescued from Dumpster destruction in 2010 by compiler Nathan Salsburg. Nineteen of the songs have never been reissued. Piles of moldy vinyl left behind by the deceased were once commonplace - no longer. Finding worthy old vinyl no one has heard since it was new is now almost miraculous.
Fortunately, "Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard" is not guided by rarity of the material. A durable, listenable song sequence seems to be the first priority, and you can't do better than starting with a sturdy, unfamiliar version of "John Henry."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHN HENRY")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) John Henry was a baseball boy, sitting on his papa's knee. Picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel, said the hammer'll be the death of me. Lord, lord. The hammer will be the death of me. They took John Henry to the White House. Throwed him in the sand. Three men from the east and a lady from the west said there's not gonna be a steel driving man, lord, lord. Said there's not gonna be a steel driving man.
MILES: Nathan Salsburg has done an exemplary job of organizing these tunes from a vanished world which few folks can remember today. The "Work Hard" disc includes songs about labor and commerce. "Play Hard" gathers a selection on leisure and partying. "Pray Hard" finishes the set with songs about Christian life and the afterlife.
There's other amusing, bygone quirks in the collection. A number of spoken skits are done as introductions, ideal for an audience used to listening to music on radio programs with a vaudeville format. And why so many fiddles making sounds like mules and trains and hounds?
Well, listening to such stuff in your home was the hi-tech special effect of the early 20th century. The one dog, so to speak, on the anthology is Whit Gaydon's "Tennessee Coon Hunt," a mad mosaic of yelping and yapping fiddle, growling and hollering vocals that sure is striking, but not worth experiencing more than two or three times. With other performers, such as Warren Caplinger's Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, the non-music parts are at least as spirited as the playing that follows.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
ANDY: Hello, Buzz. How you feeling this evening?
BUZZ: Fine, fine.
ANDY: Say, I'm going to have a dance here tonight now and the folks is coming down out of the holler. I'd like to have you boys clean up this barn. Let's get ready for this thing.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: This barn? We can run out...
ANDY: Get that old cow back out of the way and take the calf along with her too, will you? One, you get the hay shoveled out out of the way back there.
BUZZ: All right. All right.
ANDY: George, put that corn and oats over in one corner.
GEORGE: All right. This calf don't wanna go, Andy.
ANDY: Take the calf right along with her. Take the calf out along.
ANDY: Now this looks all right. This looks pretty clean around here. George, how your fiddle? In tune?
Oh, that's fine. How's your banjo, Willie?
That's good. That's good. How's your guitar, Albert?
Oh, that's splendid. Now let's play that ol' piece "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." That's great. That's great, boys. That's it, now.
(Singing) Old MacDonald had a farm. He-hi-he-hi-ho. On that farm he had some chicks. He-hi-he-hi-ho. Chick, chick here and a chick, chick there. Here a chick, there a chick, everywhere. Old MacDonald had a farm. He-hi-he-hi-ho.
MILES: There's a lot of variety on "Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard" - even a complaint about the rise of chain stores - but the currents of long-ago lives come through: the drudgery of the work that demanded the release of the party, which then required the penance of prayer.
The spare, rural nature of the religious songs on the third disc is particularly striking, almost better when they sound distant, unknowable, mysterious. John Jeremiah Sullivan puts it best in his liner notes to disc three, writing about the obscure "Beyond the Starry Plane" by the Red Brush Singers: I understand hardly any of the words. From the abyss of the static come "Dear Mother" and "No Matter What I Do" and "We Shall Meet Again" and "Jesus is My God."
I listen to this song and imagine Don Wahle listening to it, leaning forward to hear it better, an infinitesimal point of communion. There's a starry plane of such communion all over this collection, waiting to be heard anew after so many years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEYOND THE STARRY PLANE")
RED BRUSH SINGERS: (Singing) One day I'll meet you, Mother, beyond the starry plane. Where she'll not be a burden and she'll be well again.
GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed "Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard" on the Tomkins Square label. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.