Just as silent movies rekindle an awareness of simpler times and more innocent art, string band music evokes a long-forgotten America in which this music rarely reached beyond thhe immediate community of the people who played it. Before radio eliminated borders and brought an end to rural regionalism, string band music flourished, particularly in southern mountain regions, where its English and Irish roots settled without bowing to other influences. The music coming out of Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas and Tennessee tended to be up-tempo and high-spirited, oriented to ensemble playing, with the emphasis on a whirling blend of instruments rather than hot soloists. For the first 35 years of this century, it was truly populist music.
The Double Decker String Band has managed to transform the recording studio into a time machine; it has also managed to evoke the innocent enthusiasm of this old-time music without coming across as either custodians or archivists. "Giddyap Napoleon" (Fretless 144) is filled with rambunctious, toe-tapping, homemade music that's been learned from 78s by such delightful aggregations as Joe Foss and His Hungry Sandlappers ("Oh How He Lied"), Al Hopkins' Bucklebusters ("Bug in the Taters") and George Edgins' Corn Dodgers ("Ozark Mountain Home").
Some of the sources are a bit more familiar -- Dock Boggs, Virginia's John Ashby, Riley Puckett, the Mississippi Sheiks. What is common to all the selections is a disarmingly simple structure supported by intricate and elaborate ornamentation. On a song like "Ida Red," Bill Schmidt on fiddle, Craig Johnson on five-string banjo, Bruce Hutton on mandolin and John Beam on guiitar all push the exuberant melody with a powerful orchestral blend; though the picking, bowing and plucking is feverish throughout, there's no sense of "solos."
The songs on "Giddyap Napoleon" are a satisfying blend of sanctity ("Hallelujah to the Lamb") and social commentary ("Riley the Furniture Man"). There's a Victorian-era ballad, a wonderfully syncopated ragtime march ("At a Georgia Camp Meeting"), as well as a lovely (and original) waltz that suggests what the Chieftains' ancestors might have done had they emigrated to the Appalachian Mountains. There's also an enduring sense of familiarity to plaintive fines like "With your wife's small feet in the middle of your back, there's no place like home."
Beam and Johnson are blessed with voices that sound as though they were lifted intact from old 78s: unaffected and authentically timeless. The band's sprightly instrumentals are laced with twin fiddling, triple banjos and scintillating twists and turns; all the musicians are excellent. The New Lost City Ramblers spurred an interest in music of a slightly later era when they arrived in the late '50s; Tracy Schwartz, a longtime Rambler, writes on "Napoleon" that "this music is less structured than its grandchild of today and yet it is highly evolved and fairly drips with character." Young band like Double Decker, which commutes between homes in Washinton and Baltimore, celebrate a music that fed into the waters of bluegrass, country and popular music without ever forgetting the heart at its center. Hearing Double Decker's joyful repertoire mayu inspire a search for similar albums. Like early blues and jazz, old-time music has been erratically documented. Almost all the major record companies control substantial collections of roots music, but without the dedication of such small, independent companies as County, Rounder and Folkways -- and, of course, the archival immensity of the Library of Congress -- this music would have disappeared from the public ear entirely. One of the more interesting recent releases in this vein is a three-volume collection of rare classic recordings of old-time fiddle band music from Kentucky on Morningstar:(M45003,4,5) "Wink the Other Eye" (Vol. 1), "Wish I Had My Time Again" (Vol. 2) and "Way Down South in Dixie" (Vol. 3).
Much of the music on these albums is obscure; in fact, half of the 78s used in the mastering are the only existing copies. But it's also a highly entertaining collection, as well as an enlightening one. One hears many superb fiddlers, including Doc Roberts, H. L. Bandy, Leonard Rutherford and Jim Booker Jr., the only black hoedown fiddler on record. There are reels and square dances, rags and ruckuses. The albums are full of tight, driving renditions of tunes that were handed down, handed over, shared and enjoyed through many generations. They are ready to be enjoyed again.
The surface noise on the tracks never obscures the power of the material, and when one realizes that these three volumes represent only a small portion of the music recorded by one record company (Gannett) in one state (Kentucky), it opens up a world of possibilities for homemade music that can be enjoyed or played. As Jimmy Johnson's String Band puts it on the first cut of the first volume, "Open the gate and walk on through. He's a fine old dog and he won't bite you."