Takoma Park, long a refuge for traditional-minded musicians (many of whom gather at the aptly named House of Musical Traditions), is currently represented by several excellent folk recordings. The albums with perhaps the broadest appeal are Cathy Fink's "Doggone My Time" (Rooster Records 120) and Magpie's "Working My Life Away" (Collector Records 1936).
Fink, who plays the banjo, fiddle and guitar, and sings in a lovely, clear voice, reserves one side of her album for solo performances. Included are songs by Stephen Foster, Hank Williams and Si Khan, each beautifully sung and each arranged in a distinctly refreshing manner. For example, the jingle jangle sonorities that make Fink's banjo pieces so lively and appealing are muted on Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," giving the song an appropriately dark and somber texture. The use of bent and sustained notes subtly reinforces Williams' plaint. Rather than trivialize the song by updating it or turning it into a dusty period piece, Fink sings it honestly and faithfully, paying special attention to the words. Listening to Fink handle this threadbare lyric -- words that have all but lost their meaning over the years -- is like hearing the song for the first time.
In a more contemporary vein, Fink's version of Kahn's "Coal Mining Woman," an attack on sexism, also benefits from her vocal and instrumental ability to make every word count. Kahn couldn't have asked for a better interpretation. On side two, Fink is joined by several fine musicians, including guitarist Steve Abshire and dobro player Mike Auldridge. The sound is fuller, more expansive, buoyed by the western swing pulse of Patsy Montana's "That's Where the West Begins," complete with yodeling harmonies, and a naughty but nimble original called "No Tell Hotel" that, like so much of this album, is hard to resist.
Magpie's music will also appeal to anyone who enjoys a song well sung, especially if it's political in nature. On "Working My Life Away," the duo -- Terry Leonino and Greg Artzener -- have gathered a compelling collection of songs about labor, protest and the environment. It's a wonderfully eclectic assortment of tunes, written by, among others, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Hazel Dickens and the Delmore Brothers. In less talented hands, these songs might collapse under their own weight, so fraught are they with topical struggles. But Leonino and Artzener are natural storytellers. Their lovely harmonies constantly please the ear, and their instrumentation -- guitar, mandolin, harmonica and the like -- is diverse enough to keep the arrangements varied and interesting.
Whether it's Magpie's adamant a cappella version of Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore," or its whimsical yet poignant version of Dickens' "Working Girl Blues," the duo makes a strong case for the continuing vitality of folk music and the folk tradition.
Less accessible but still expertly crafted is the old-timey sound of the Double Decker String Band's album, "Sentimental Songs and Old Time Melodies" (Fretless FR 160). Much of the string-band music revived these days tends to dwell on the jive or hokum numbers popular in the '20s and '30s. Although Double Decker isn't reluctant to exhume these ditties -- they even include a rhythmically infectious obscurity called "Then It Won't Hurt No More" written by the authors of "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms" -- the group's reach extends well beyond the usual sources. Antebellum fiddle tunes, Tin Pan Alley numbers and material associated with Charlie Poole and Riley Puckett are rendered with an ear for accuracy and authenticity. Fiddler Bill Schmidt's astringent tone is the band's most identifiable asset, but the assortment of banjos, mandolins and guitars played by Bruce Hutton, Craig Johnson and John Beam make for a consistently satisfying and often lively instrumental mix.
Another folk music album recorded and distributed locally is Joe Glazer's "Jellybean Blues" (Collector Records 1935), an uninterrupted broadside directed at the Reagan administration.
Pick a member of the current administration -- virtually anyone will do -- and Glazer will have his or her name sung in effigy, twisting in the wind as in:
Cowboy came down to the mountainside
Wearing a coat made of grizzly hide
His hips were narrow but his grin was wide
Gentleman Jimmy Watt
Drove a station wagon, sure looked good
Its sides were handcarved sequoia wood
With a stuffed bald eagle mounted on the hood
Gentleman Jimmy Watt.
Of course the appeal of an album like this has more to do with one's political bias than musical taste. Let's just say that Glazer, who sounds a bit like writer Shel Silverstein and isn't above appropriating familiar melodies for his own purposes, is working in a time-honored tradition. Who knows, he might even give Mark Russell a little competition in 1984.