Richmond Sessions: Various Artists - Virginia Roots
The 1929 Richmond Sessions (Outhouse Records)
In 1927, producer Ralph Peer embarked on what would be the most famous series of field recordings in American history: the legendary Bristol, Tenn., sessions that introduced the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to America and the world.
Two years later, he set up shop in Richmond, Va., and recorded 36 tracks by local artists of the OKeh label—just in time, alas, for the Depression. But the tiny Outhouse label has now collected 33 of these recordings in a nicely annotated Two-CD package, and it’s a wonderful addition to the available volumes of proto-Americana available on the Yazoo, Rounder and Document labels.
The sounds collected herein run the gamut of American rural music: string and jug bands, gospel quartets and blues performers. But what sets this compilation apart from other similarly themed albums is its sheer scope, often going beyond the limiting concept of “rural” music. There's a Hawaiian group (Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra) included and the influence of '20s hot jazz styles (Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Bix Biederbecke) is felt on some of the tunes here, most notably on the selections by the Monarch Jazz/Jubilee Quartet of Norfolk.
The opening track, the feral, ghostly “They Won’t Believe In Me” by the Sparkling Four is a cappella gospel from The Twilight Zone, piped in via a satellite feed from a parallel dimension. (It’s entirely possible if not plausible that one of the S4 was reincarnated as avant-saxophone icon Albert Ayler.)
The beginnings of bluegrass can be heard on the selections by the Salem Highballers and the Roanoke Jug Band (a young Bill Monroe must’ve been taking notes), and dig some dynamic '20s doo wop with the Richmond Starlight Quartet’s scintillating, virtually contrapuntal “Jazz Crazy Blues,” which betrays some classy cultural miscegenation (gospel, blues, hokum, and swing—all in a tidy three-minute package, with a hook most performers would kill for).
The sound quality ranges from a bit on the rough side (a couple tracks) to excellent (most selections). And don’t let the lack of any “big name” performers put you off—though there’s nobody here with the cache of Skip James, Dock Boggs or Blind Blake, Virginia Roots is a dizzyingly dandy, crazy-quilt compendium of lost-but-now-found American song.