Folk Masters
Great Performances recorded live at the Barns of Wolftrap
Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40047
For The Old Time Herald

Often in my spare time, I pour through my record collection, making compilation tapes of American roots music for my friends. The purpose of which is to impress them with mu impeccable taste and, basically, demonstrate how cool and knowledgeable I am. With this recent release, Smithsonian/Folkways has saved me a great deal of time and effort.

Recorded live at the Barns of Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA  between April 1 and May 8, 1992, the Folk Masters was series of 13 one-hour radio broadcasts intended to present “diverse, authentic traditional music and musicians from the Americas in a concert setting. If you’re like me and your local public radio station didn’t air this series, this CD offers an all-too-brief glimpse of the finest living examples of over 17 distinct folk traditions. The recording quality is superb and the performances have been seemlessly edited together, making the 22 artists sound as if they were all on the same bill. (A very nice touch.)

Looking over the performer listings, readers of this publication will no doubt be already familiar with the first four artists. The late Dewey Balfa (still going strong at the time of this recording,) Santiago Jimenez, Jr., the Johnson Mountain Boys and Boozo Chavis all put in the kind of strong performances for which they are known world-wide. 

Originally, the series was set up as thematic concerts and several of these themes are represented. The diversity of the acoustic guitar in American folk is surveyed by slack-key innovator Ledward Kaapana, old-time flat picker Wayne Henderson and the Piedmont blues of Cephas & Wiggins. The clarinet of Dr. Micheal White’s Crescent City Serenaders contrasts with that of Yiddish legend Sid Beckerman’s Klezmer Plus, noting the Jewish influence on jazz and vice-versa. The Texas Playboys, ably led now by fiddler Johnny Gimble and steel man Herb Remington, segue nicely into the much overlooked Claude Williams and his Kansas City style fiddle jazz. The wide range of the African-American Gospel and vocal tradition is represented by the McIntosh County Shouters old-time Georgia Sea Island style, the uptown quartet singing of the Birmingham Sunlights, the rollicking blues-Gospel of former Chess artist Fontella Bass and the innovative rap of D.C. based, plastic gallon drum, street singing from CJ and Five Gallons of Fun.

Pleasant surprises include La Familia Colon’s lilting jibaro music from Puerto Rico and the Chicago-based Tamburitza Orchestra Slanina, devoted to the preservation of Croatian culture, singing “Zagrebcan smo mi” or “People of Zagreb, “ made all the more poignant by the present horrific state of affairs in the former Yugoslavia. And there are a few disappointments, an uninspired walk-through of “Love In Vain” by Robert Jr. Lockwood and a painfully maudlin Sun Rhythm Section, but neither foul enough to spoil the whole disc.

From the first track, ironically “Last Goodbye” by the JMB, the the last indescribable joyful noise of the King’s of Harmony’s “When The Saints Go Marching In,” Folk Masters is a crash course in the wide variety of American folk tradition, and well worth checking out.


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