Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

A World Made By God and By Hand

Thursday, December 18th, 2014



A World Made By God and By Hand

A Review of “Ogg Land: The Rediscovered Photographs of C.I. Ogg” by Kathryn Freeman
Review written by Eli Smith.  This article will appear in print form in the forthcoming issue of “The Quiet American.”

To view selected Ogg photos in high resolution CLICK HERE, and visit The Photography of Coley Ogg facebook page.  To purchase “Ogg Land” CLICK HERE.

C.I. “Pa” Ogg (1855-1950) was the main photographer in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he is only today starting to receive his due.  “Ogg Land: The Rediscovered Photographs of C.I. Ogg,” lovingly compiled by his great granddaughter Kathryn Freeman, offers an amazing look into the old ways of the mountain frontier.

In her introduction, Kathryn Freeman writes, “In the summer of 1992 I made a promise to my mother that I would try to create a book of my great grandfather’s old photos, I set out to learn all that I could about the man that was our beloved “Pa Ogg.”  After two decades of searching, my knowledge and archive have grown considerably… Pa Ogg’s work tells the story of Appalachia’s dramatic transformation from a farming economy to an industrial one.  His photographs were widely published, from the late 19th century, right up to the present, but nearly always unattributed.  He was an early photographer lost to history, a documentarian who made ‘art.’  The work is old, but it depicts a way of living that is far older than the photos themselves.”

As the fertile lands of Virginia and other states to the East became settled and accounted for, poor homesteaders, in search of their own stake, were forced to make the dangerous passage through the Cumberland Gap and other mountain passes to claim rugged land deep in the Appalachian interior.  Many were soldiers in the revolutionary war that received homestead land grants in return for their service in Washington’s army.  This book of photographs records the original mountaineer way of life in its final era.

This first volume of Pa Ogg’s work focuses on his beautiful documentation of the natural world and truly rural way of life in E. Kentucky from when he started making photographs around 1880 through the early 20th century.  Ogg’s photographic record preserves the reality of subsistence farming and hunting that had existed for 100 or even 200 years in the mountains, but was soon to be obliterated as people were convinced or coerced into a turn towards a coal mining economy, which now forms the basis of the region’s identity.

C.I. Ogg was unable to read or write, and was known to be modest man who did not like to “sign” his work.  For this reason, states Freeman in her text that accompanies the photographs, his prolific output remained nearly universally unattributed.  Ogg’s work was widely published in books, newspapers and on postcards, but has never been brought together under his name until now.  Despite limited formal education Pa Ogg mastered the technical process of photography, first using tin-type, and then sensitizing his own glass plate negatives, and as you will see in the photographs, he had a wonderful eye and sense for composition.  He used a customized farm wagon of his own design as a portable dark room, with which he traversed the dry creek beds and rutted paths of his territory.  Ogg was an insider, photographing people whom he had no cause, real or imagined, to objectify or distance himself from.  His photographs are stunning and immediate, and do not seem as old as they are, perhaps because of his closeness to his subjects.

[C.I. “Pa” Ogg with pet gopher]

Later in her introduction Freeman says, “I hope that those who view this book may begin to see the mountain people of Kentucky in a new light, dignified and strong, in all their dirt-rich glory.”  Marx’s “Labor Theory of Value” states that, “the value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of labor required to produce it.”  When I look at these photos, that concept causes me to think on the one hand of the riches of home and handmade everything that these subsistence farmers enjoyed, living in a world defined solely by nature and the products of their own hard work.  On the other hand these photos also reveal a hard life of stoic work and depravation, with sickness and death no doubt a daily burden.

In a recent email exchange, Kathryn Freeman wrote to me:
“There’s an awful good book called Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers, by Ronald D. Eller that was really helpful to me.  You might want to read it down the road… it deals with the industrialization of the mountains (coal and lumber), and he does a nice job describing the changes that took place from 1880-1930.  Pa Ogg’s work dovetails perfectly with that time period.  Also, it was around 1880 when the dry plate became commonly used making photographs easier… you could make up the plates ahead of time and carry them with you.  Also you could buy commercially made ones.  I think Pa Ogg made his own, for the most part.  He may have used some ready made ones later on.  Anyway, for me Pa Ogg’s work is the visual counterpart to that book; his work as a whole.  “Ogg Land” deals mainly with the agrarian side of his work.  Later on, he captured early coal mining operations, railroad, lumber, and coal towns, right up into the mid to late 1930s.  I’m still uncovering a lot of the later work, but I do have a few excellent examples from Harlan County.”

As a special bonus for this article, Freeman went on to write:
“He did a bunch of cool stuff for Berea College (in E. Kentucky), particularly before the Day law was passed (outlawing interracial education) in 1904.  Berea appealed to the Supreme Court and lost, so even though they were founded as a school for interracial and coed education before the Civil War by abolitionists, they were not able to fulfill that part of their mission after 1904.  So they focused on helping the mountain kids and funded a black college at another location to comply with the law.  One of my favorite Pa Ogg portraits for Berea is the 1901 football team, just for your enjoyment.  I love it…the picture of racial harmony and brotherly love.  The weird contraptions hanging round their necks are nose guards to prevent head injury and broken noses.”

In future volumes of C.I. Ogg’s photography, Freeman is planning to showcase his studio portraiture (such as this portrait of the 1901 Berea football team), the transition of the region towards industry, and other aspects of his work.  This volume serves as an amazing ode to American frontier life in the mountains before it was swept away by the railroad, the coalmines and Walmart, glory be its name.

The Union Makes Us Strong

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013
There is Power in a Union
New from Down Home Radio host Eli Smith:

Hello everybody,

My friend Peter K. Siegel and I have just released an album of Union and Labor songs that we’ve been laboring over for some time.  It came out great!  It features a number of old standards of the American labor movement, as well as several that are not well known but are really good and interesting songs.  Many of the songs were penned by old IWW (Wobbly) song writers, including several by Joe Hill.  The songs are rendered in an old time string band sound.

The album features Peter and myself, joined on a number of songs by Andy Statman, Craig Judelman and Walker Shepard.  The album also features really nice liner notes – a 20 page booklet with an essay written by Cliff Conner, lots of pictures, etc.

We really tried to make a high quality album that sounds great and is accessible to people, so that these great old labor songs might live again.  If you are interested the album is available in all the usual ways – Amazon, iTunes, CDBaby, stealing, etc….  We hope you will enjoy!

Solidarity Forever…

- Eli

Doc Watson Family Milestones

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Doc Watson’s daughter Nancy, Roy Andrade and others are producing an incredible 4 CD box set of recordings of Doc Watson and his family including Gaither Carlton.  They need your support right now to produce it, with less than 2 days to go on their fund drive: Click Here for the Kickstarter link.

This is a very important collection, which promises to be incredibly powerful, affecting and informative.

Here is a message about it from Jody Stecher followed by a short film about the production of the material and box set itself.  Amazing!

“Milestones” is the most moving and stirring collection of recorded music I have heard in a decade. I co-wrote the liner notes with Roy. “Milestones” is a book of Watson Family photo collages, assembled with scissors and glue over a 10 year period by Doc Watson’s daughter Nancy. And it’s four CDs of music.  The recordings are extraordinary musically but also historically as they comprise a major document of a local musical tradition that was made from within the tradition itself. Some of the music was recorded by Nancy as a girl. Her familiarity to the musicians she recorded gave her access to a side of the singers and players that a folklorist or “collector” from “outside” would be unlikely to ever see or hear.  This includes gentle loving renditions of beautiful traditional songs and tunes by her grandfather Gaither Carlton, sacred songs recorded at home prayer meetings and at Mount Paran Church, (more…)

Interview with John Cohen and Eli Smith

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Hello everybody,

Here’s an interview with John Cohen and myself for the No Depression roots music magazine about our recent album “Old Man Below” by the Dust Busters out on the Smithsonian Folkways label.  The interview was done by Chris Mateer who has the excellent Uprooted Music Revue blog site: http://www.uprootedmusicrevue.com.


The Dust Busters and John Cohen (of The New Lost City Ramblers) recently released their new album, Old Man Below, on the legendary Smithsonian Folkwayslabel. I am thrilled to present this interview with John Cohen and Eli Smith (of The Dust Busters) regarding their friendship, admiration for old time music, and musical collaboration together.

Eli, before we dig into The Dust Busters’ work with John Cohen, I’d like to ask you if you can you discuss your own personal musical history with the work of The New Lost City Ramblers and John Cohen?

Eli Smith: I’ve been very appreciative of the New Lost City Ramblers and John Cohen’s work in particular as a musician, field recordist, photographer and film maker for years.

I first became acquainted with the New Lost City Ramblers’ and John Cohen’s work when I was first starting out as a musician and fan of folk, blues and old time music back in high school in the late 1990′s. I loved the sound of the New Lost City Ramblers, thought and still think they are an incredible band and I also greatly appreciated the information about their sources for their music.

The Ramblers led me back to the original recorded sources of the music and those recordings have in turn become the core of my favorite music. I also greatly appreciate the field work that each of the Ramblers, of most particular note: John Cohen’s work in recording and making known Roscoe Holcomb, Wade Ward, Frank Proffitt and so many others.

Can you discuss what drew you to this genre of music initially and what keeps it fresh to you?

John: I first got involved with old time music in 1948 when I first heard re-issues of 1920s string band recordings. It was music that excited me, and music I could perform, or learn to play it. It still excites me today, and the challenges I felt in 1948 are still with me.

There is a quality of music contained in the old stuff that is lost in today’s music scene (it  has  been lost throughout the Folksong movement and revival.) It’s lost quality is what fed the New Lost City Ramblers for 50 years, and continues to feed me  today.

Eli: I liked music since I was a kid and I started playing guitar when I was quite young. However, it was not until my high school era when I heard old time music and authentic American folk music that I really cared about music specifically. I had heard music on the radio and television, my parent’s listened to some music around the house, but I didn’t care about any of it too much. I thought it was my fault that I couldn’t like any of that plastic garbage you hear everywhere.

Music is very close to the human soul, and when I heard old folk music that really spoke to me it hit me real hard. The music gave me a clarity in my mind that I required, and it was a lot of fun! And if you listened to the words you could learn a lot about some gritty subjects, about getting through life, and one can connect with people and history that you don’t hear about or get to feel anywhere else.

You met and toured together before the release of Old Man Below. I’d like to dig into your back story including how you met, hit it off, and what led up to your collaboration.

… Read More At: http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/interview-john-cohen-new-lost-city-ramblers-and-eli-smith-dust

Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Just a word to let everyone know that John Cohen’s new film, “Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky” is out now!  It has been released by Shanachie Video and is available for purchase by CLICKING HERE.

The film has been packaged by Shanachie as “The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb.”  The DVD includes John’s new film about Roscoe as well as his classic 1962 film about Holcomb, “The High Lonesome Sound.” You get both!

“Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky” recently premiered at the Margaret Meade Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History together with a retrospective of John’s work and also just won the award for Best Documentary Short at the Woodstock Film Festival.

Also, a very nice piece about John Cohen and the new film just aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition: CHECK IT OUT

Here’s a synopsis that I wrote for the program guide of the Woodstock Film Festival:

“John Cohen explores the life, philosophy and music of Eastern Kentucky banjo player, coal miner and construction worker Roscoe Holcomb. Holcomb has been injured on the job and forced into early retirement. He discusses his life and music and plays a number of traditional songs from his region. Using intimate footage of Holcomb at home as well as footage of his family, community and region, Cohen presents a remarkable and visually beautiful portrait of Roscoe Holcomb, a man who despite economic hardship and changing times has maintained a powerful and authentic personal music and philosophy.”

John used old footage from the early 60′s that he couldn’t use for “The High Lonesome Sound” because the technology didn’t exist at that time to put the film footage and audio into sync.  But now that is possible and was accomplished in expert fashion.  For this new film John also used really awesome color footage that he took of Holcomb and his family in the 197o’s.  It’s a beautiful film and a wonderful tribute to Roscoe Holcomb.

[Roscoe Holcomb with John Cohen, 1964]

Recent  reviews of the  film “Roscoe Holcomb: from Daisy, Kentucky.”
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(more…)

Lomax’s Southern Journey Reissued!

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

“People were saying that Southern folk song was dead, that the land that had produced American jazz, the blues, the spirituals, the mountain ballads and the work songs had gone sterile.” –Alan Lomax, 1960.

Happily, Alan Lomax’s 1959-1960 field recordings from the American South have been reissued on stunning LPs by Mississippi Records out of Portland, OR.  The reissue was currated by Down Home Radio friend Nathan Salsburg over at the Alan Lomax Archive/Association for Cultural Equity.  For more information, check out the blog entry at Root Hog Or Die, and be sure to check out Nathan’s awesome online radio show of the same name at EastVillageRadio.com.

Here’s a bit of what Nathan had to say about the reissue.  Read more on his blog entry at RootHogOrDie.com

“Without delving into the twists and turns of the most highly specialized folkloric record business or indulging in musings about its current strange renaissance and the stranger counter-cultural moment from whence it comes, I’m pleased to say that the season of my tenth year with Alan Lomax’s archive also marks the release of five new LPs commemorating Lomax’s most famous field-recording trip: what he called his “Southern Journey” of 1959 and 1960. Production for a commemorative series began exactly a year ago, after I met Eric Isaacson of Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Records – one of the principals in the unlikely vanguard of the vernacular music LP resurgence – at a panel discussion put on as part of Asheville’s fine Harvest Records’ fifth anniversary festival. While Harvest was turning five, the Southern Journey turned 50, yet there was not a whisper regarding it anywhere (outside of a season-long tribute series in Belgium, put on by the noble Herman Hulsens and the Ancienne Belgique). Adding insult to injury was the fact that not a single release of Southern Journey material was currently in print…” READ MORE

Photos From the Festival

Friday, June 11th, 2010


[Radio Jarocho at The 2010 Brooklyn Folk Festival.  Photo E. Smith]

Well, the 2010 Brooklyn Folk Festival has come and gone, and I can tell you that it was a great success!  It sold out every night, the new outdoor stage was a huge success and people had a great time!  The whole thing was professionally recorded by Don Fierro and we look forward to the release of at least one Brooklyn Folk Festival 2010  CD/LP probably over the winter on the brand new Jalopy Records label.  The music that was played at this festival was to put it plainly AMAZING.  I knew it would be good, but didn’t realize just how good.  As the organizer and MC I was very emotionally moved by the whole proceeding!  Truly.  Already planning for next year… well maybe I’ll take a break.  But I’m already excited!

Below are some photos I took at the festival.  All of my photos from the event can be seen at this link. Look out in the reasonably near future for some films from the festival shot by filmmaker Chris Low.  I’ll be posting up a bunch of those plus audio and some videos I took, etc.


[The Calamity Janes.  Photo E. Smith]


[Feral Foster.  Photo E. Smith]


[Rashad Brown performs at the outdoor stage.  Photo Susan Heske]


[Clifton Hicks (R) The Dough Rollers (L)  Photo E. Smith]


[The Tillers. Photo E. Smith]


[John Cohen.  Photo E. Smith]


[John Cohen screens his new film "Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy Kentucky." Photo by E. Smith]


[Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues.  Photo E. Smith]

To see all my photos from the 2010 Brooklyn Folk Festival Click Here. And check back for audio and video from the festival coming soon…

FolkStreams.net

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Here is a brief excerpt from the film “Homemade American Music” made by Carrie and Yasha Aginsky in 1980, featuring Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard as they pay a visit to Roscoe Holcomb.   This film follows Mike and Alice as they visit Tommy Jarrell, Lily May Ledford, Roscoe Holcomb and Elizabeth Cotten and recount their own history as musicians and students of the music.

The complete 40 minute film is available for viewing at: http://www.folkstreams.net/film,153

This incredible incredible website features literally dozens of amazing folkloric documentary films, mostly on music but also on other folk art forms.  It is worth it to watch everyone of these films- visit www.FolkStreams.net today!

Twelve Tunes for Two Banjos

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Eli here, you’re trusty Down Home Radio host.  When I’m not on DHR playing records and recording interviews, I’m keeping busy by making records of my own! Here’s an album my friend Peter and I did recently.  We asked ourselves, “can two banjo players play together?”  After some experimentation we were able to answer, “yes!”  Here’s a big ad for our new album:

12x2front by you.
“Twelve Tunes for Two Banjos” is a CD of old-time banjo duets played and sung by Peter K. Siegel & Eli Smith, using mostly 5-string but also 4 and 6-string banjos.

Track List:
(click tune to hear audio samples)

1. The Worried Blues
2. Jesse James
3. Soldier’s Joy
4. Goodbye Booze
5. John Henry
6. Otto Wood the Bandit
7. Marching Jaybird
8. Sweet Betsy from Pike
9. What a Friend We Have in Jesus
10. Poor Boy Long Way from Home
11. Ever See the Devil Uncle Joe?
12. New Prisoner’s Song

To Order:

Go to http://cdbaby.com/cd/siegelsmith where you can order online.  Its also on iTunes.

About the Musicians:

12x2back by you.

These are Peter K. Siegel’s first recorded banjo performances since he played on Elektra’s Old Time Banjo Project in 1964. Says Siegel: “You play this thing long enough, it begins to sound pretty good.”

In the interim, he produced more than 60 albums of traditional and roots-based music. Peter’s productions include albums by Doc Watson, Hazel Dickens, Joseph Spence, Roy Buchanan, Paul Siebel, and Los Pleneros de la 21.

Siegel founded the Nonesuch Explorer Series, for which he produced 15 albums of traditional world music. Folk Roots (UK) called Siegel “one of the earliest shapers of interest in world music.” His Gorô Yamaguchi album, A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky, continues to make its way spaceward in NASA’s Voyager Time Capsule.

His recent three-CD boxed set Friends of Old Time Music was released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The New York Times called the set “a boxed set of awesome and concentrated power” and The Boston Globe called it “a precious, wildly beautiful document.”

Twelve Tunes for Two Banjos by you.

Eli Smith is a banjo player, writer, researcher and promoter of folk music living in New York City. He regularly plays in a string band known as The Dust Busters, as part of the Roots ‘n’ Ruckus show at the Jalopy Theater and hosts the internet radio show Down Home Radio. He also presents Down Home Live, every second Saturday of the month at Banjo Jim’s on the Lower East Side as well as the Brooklyn Folk Festival, scheduled for May 21-23rd, 2010.

See below for our review in the Old Time Herald magazine: (more…)

Fire In My Bones

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

http://www.tompkinssq.com/uploaded_images/TSQ-2271-3%27-72dpi-773427.jpg

Here’s some preview tracks from the new Tompkins Square Records release, “Fire In My Bones,” a really amazing gospel compilation.

1. Don’t Let Him Ride – Mississippi Nightingales

2. Storm Thru Mississippi – Henry Green

3. How Long – Sister Ola Mae Terrell