Graded on a Curve: Norman Blake,
Day by Day

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake’s contribution to recorded music has been significant. He’s played on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Kris Kristofferson’s The Silver Tongued Devil and I, Joan Baez’s Blessed Are…, the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, and a slew of albums solo and as a duo with his wife, the multi-instrumentalist Nancy Blake. Day by Day is his latest, a nine-track set offering versions of his favorite folk songs alongside two of his own writing, all delivered in single takes. It’s a powerful, historically rich CD, available from Smithsonian Folkways and Plectrafone Records on October 22.

The first LP to feature the talents of Norman Blake, wherein he played the mandolin, was 12 Shades of Bluegrass by Bob Johnson and the Lonesome Travelers, released in 1963 by the Parkway label, though a year earlier he played guitar on and co-wrote “Uncle John’s Bongos” as recorded by Houston Turner and the Dixielanders, essentially a novelty tune about a Tennessean (that would be one Uncle John) who ditches the fiddle and starts slapping a set of bongo drums as he goes Greenwich Village beatnik.

Perhaps not the most auspicious of beginnings (and there’s a better-known version of “Uncle John’s Bongos” recorded around the same time by the country duo Johnnie and Jack with Blake also credited as co-writer), but that’s alright, as a couple years later he was playing dobro with Johnny Cash and heading down the road toward the Nashville Skyline.

Dylan’s album and the list in the intro up above might portray Blake as a high-profile session guy, but that’s not really accurate. While he was surely in demand, he spent as much time in studios working on his own albums or collaborating with his Newgrass cohorts Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Tut Taylor, and Tony Rice.

Blake also cut a handful of records in the early ’80s in tandem with the Rising Fawn String Ensemble, who included his wife on cello and who contribute to Day by Day’s final two selections, “The Dying Cowboy” and “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Together, these cuts provide an appealing capping contrast to the disc’s solo guitar and vocal thrust, though roughly mid-way through Blake switches to five-string banjo for “Old Joe’s March,” a composition of his own writing and an instrumental that strives for warmth and beauty of melody over sheer speed and dexterousness.

This has been something of an MO throughout Blake’s career and is indeed heard in Day by Day’s opener “When the Roses Bloom,” a song credited to George “Honey Boy” Evans, leader of the Honey Boy Minstrels. Those aware of the problematic, often outright racist use of stereotypes in minstrel shows and songs might be concerned over Blake’s dipping into that tradition, but worry not, as the lyrics are squarely focused on a Southerner who’s traveled North for work and is missing his girl back home.

It’s followed by another tune with minstrel show connections, “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” interestingly written by Paul Dresser, the older brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser, as the notes detail recordings of the song from the 1920s by Vernon Dalhart, Uncle Dave Macon, and Buell Kazee. This, together with the 1930 version of “When the Roses Bloom” by The Carter Family, strengthens Day by Day’s relationship to the era of record making that’s documented by Harry Smith on the Anthology of American Folk Music, which was released in 1952 by Moses Asch’s (pre-Smithsonian) Folkways label.

The Carter Family, Macon, and Kazee all figure in the contents of the Anthology, but Mac & Bob (that’s Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner) don’t, though they easily could’ve, as their “I’m Free Again” was cut for the Brunswick label in 1927. The song’s inclusion on Day by Day simply marks it as one of Blake’s favorites, but it also helps to establish that his love of the folk tradition runs considerably deeper than the three-volume Anthology’s 12 sides.

Additionally, Blake’s adjustment of the verses while adding a few of his own firmly weaves his artistic voice into the album’s overall scheme, which extends (rather than merely replicates) the American folk tradition. And speaking of voices, Blake’s singing is sturdy throughout, reminding me a bit of Pete Stampfel, though unlike the Holy Modal Rounder, I wouldn’t call the delivery here eccentric. It’s just solidly non-pro.

And as said, his pipes are absent from “Old Joe’s March,” the better to absorb the crisp banjo pluck as this original tune separates the minstrel songs from the broadside ballad to follow, “Montcalm and Wolfe,” which dates from the mid-18th century in the midst of the French and Indian War. Blake learned the song from a recording of Adirondack folk singer Yankee John Galusha as collected by folklorists Frank and Anne Warner.

It’s an expansive dose of storytelling followed by the Irish emigration tune “Three Leaves of Shamrock,” where Blake combines versions by Mac & Bob and the early country music cornerstone Charlie Poole while adding a melody of his own. It’s a nice prelude to “Time,” the second of the disc’s original compositions, this one played on guitar with vocals.

Blake’s songs fit into album pretty seamlessly, the thematic trajectory undisturbed as the concluding tracks with Rising Fawn String Ensemble brighten the program rather than disrupting it. In conclusion, please note that a few extramusical sounds get captured in the solo tracks. Some listeners might find this aspect distracting, but I was able to adjust pretty easily amid Day by Day’s overall immediacy, which documents a shining light of American Music in robust form.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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