Finally, this hour, a musical time capsule. Lena Hughes was a masterful fiddler and guitarist born more than 100 years ago. She was never famous outside her native Missouri and she only recorded one album in her lifetime. Well, now that recording has been rescued from near oblivion by two devoted fans, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Some time in the mid-1960s, no one's really sure when, Lena Hughes walked into a recording studio, probably in Arkansas. What we do know is that she recorded 11 tunes on the guitar.


HOWARD MARSHALL: It's kind of like listening to 1880. You kind of get a wonderful, ancient vibration.

ROSE: Folklorist Howard Marshall wrote a book about traditional music in Missouri called "Play Me Something Quick and Devilish."

MARSHALL: It's quite simple, which always mystifies people. How can it be so simple and sound so good? Well, I think there's a message in that. If you're a musician, sometimes you hear a tune that drills into the back, darkest part of your heart and stays there the rest of your life.


ROSE: Lena Hughes was a master of parlor music, a style that was popular in the late 19th century, before the rise of recorded music. It was fashionable in those days for young women to play an instrument and the guitar offered a cheaper alternative to the piano. Parlor music isn't a big seller these days, but for fans of the genre, those tunes that Lena Hughes recorded in the 1960s are a treasure.

JOHN RENBOURN: Musically, it was a real throwback. Very, very, very few people remember that music or still played it and she just played it as I think it would've been, or as near as we're likely to ever hear somebody playing it.

ROSE: John Renbourn is a hugely influential British guitarist, both for his work in the band Pentangle and as a solo artist. Renbourn remembers hearing Lena Hughes for the first time in the mid-1970s, when her version of "Pearly Dew" found its way onto a compilation of music from the American South.

RENBOURN: A lot of people that were recorded in the folk revival did in fact play versions of those tunes, but not quite in the same pure way that she did.


ROSE: Renbourn knew next to nothing about Lena Hughes. He learned that she probably paid to record that LP herself and pressed only a few hundred copies, which she sold at fiddle festivals and other gigs. Renbourn tried for years to track down the record, but he never found one, until about six months ago. That's when he talked to record collector Christopher King, who had a copy, one that he'd found at a flea market in the mid-1990s. King, too, was a fan.

CHRISTOPHER KING: She's using these open tunings, and when she does a downstroke with her thumb, she fills out the room with this warm bass feeling. And then she plucks the melody.


KING: There's something haunting about the music that I think so many artists from the pre-war generation were able to tap into that for some reason, people nowadays can't.


ROSE: King arranged to have the LP reissued for the first time under the title "Queen of the Flat-Top Guitar." Renbourn wrote the liner notes. On the cover of the CD is a smiling, middle-aged woman wearing cat-eye glasses and a simple white blouse. She appears about as likely to teach Sunday school as to play at a local dance on Saturday night. But folklorist Howard Marshall says that picture doesn't tell the whole story.

MARSHALL: She was just the epitome of the attractive young lady who broke into kind of the hairy-legged men's world of fiddle playing. Because she was so good and so charming, she just could not be stopped.

ROSE: It turns out Lena Hughes was just as good on the fiddle and banjo as she was on the guitar. Hughes was born in northern Missouri in 1904 and got her start playing at square dances with her brothers in the 1920s. She took first place in some regional country fiddling competitions in the 1960s. Howard Marshall was working for the Smithsonian in the '70s when he recorded Lena Hughes playing and talking about her upbringing.


MARSHALL: How'd you get to play a banjo?

LENA HUGHES: Well, my sis and I, I was just 9 years old and we just started picking out. And she picked the guitar and I picked the banjo. My dad played the banjo just a little and he showed us. And so we did...

MARSHALL: Oh, he did. Same way that you play?

HUGHES: Just about. So we just begin to pick out. And then I just, the more I picked, the more rhythm I put in it, you know, and picked my different ways. You want me to just go ahead and go on?



ROSE: By the time Howard Marshall made this recording, arthritis had mostly limited Hughes to playing the banjo. But he says she still knew how to throw a good house party.

MARSHALL: When you knocked on the door, she swung the door open and just almost shouted, howdy, come on in. And she'd give you a piece of pie and some of the world's strongest coffee. And you'd be there all night, just playing music and talking and swapping stories. Really, the worst coffee you've ever tasted. Nobody could really stand her coffee, but nobody could bear to mention it to her.

ROSE: Hughes continued performing into her ninth decade, often with her husband, Jake, who also played the banjo. They never had any children, but Marshall says Lena Hughes was adamant about passing her music on to future generations.

MARSHALL: She was always saying, you know, I really hope this music doesn't die out. She would say that often when she got to be about age 90. I'd go pick her up, and we'd go play at a dance near where she lived. And she'd keep - all the way over there and back, she'd say, boy, I hope somebody will keep this music going.

ROSE: In the end, it's Lena Hughes herself who's keeping parlor music alive, with a little help from some fans she never met. Joel Rose, NPR News.

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