"When you are given a song that has been handed along from singer to singer over the years, you are entrusted with it, for it is the work of folk who are gone now. Their song. Not yours. It is not your place to change it. You must pass it along to others, and keep it as good as you found it. Sing it as you got it or not at all."
Sharyn McCrumb, "The Songcatcher," 2001
With that sage advice in mind, what we have here then is a two-disc collection of true folk songs. The first contains songs traced back to the British Isles and hundreds of years while the second is comprised of new world evolutions and creations well-founded in the tradition of the emigrants from those islands who settled in the Appalachians.
Cross-cultural and multi-generational, a variety of presentation styles are featured: largely minimally accompanied solos and duos with a handful of a capella showcases and a serving of slightly more elaborately arranged pieces. With only one of the performances previously released (Rosanne Cash's "Barbara Allen") "Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition" adds much to our understanding of this traditional music.
Featured are some of the most familiar ancient ballads - among them "Barbara Allen," "The Bold Lieutenant" and "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender" - often collectively referenced (accurately or not) as 'love songs,' mountain songs and Child or Sharp ballads performed by well-regarded performers including Alice Gerrard, Carol Elizabeth Jones, Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, and Archie Fisher, who searched his archive to donate both a stark "Thomas The Rhymer" and an epic "Tam Lin." In the tradition of her family, Donna Ray Norton offers "The Farmer's Curst Wife " and "Mathy Groves," truly tremendous performances. More than an historical document, disc one of "Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition" reveals yet again the enduring connection these songs establish between the Old and New Worlds.
The second disc features titles familiar to all who frequent old-time country, bluegrass and folk circles: "Omie Wise," "Wreck of the Old 97," "John Henry" and "Knoxville Girl." Amythyst Kiah's rendition of "Pretty Polly" takes the well-known song back to its English roots with Roy Andrade's exceptional clawhammer accompaniment connecting with more common interpretations. Doyle Lawson's solo "Banks of the Ohio" is impressive, as is the venerable Laura Boosinger - with the Kruger Brothers - with her reading of "Tom Dula." Corbin Hayslett makes three appearances, including an extended rendition of "Hiram Hubbard." The set closes with Cash's smokey "The Parting Glass," a toast to all who braved a trans-Atlantic crossing.
An essential collection with extensive, informative notes, "Big Bend Killing: The Appalalachian Ballad Tradition" provides more than two hours of music that can be returned to repeatedly as nuances are discovered with each listen. Released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association - a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting deepened understanding of and appreciation for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - this album succeeds in its mission of continuing the legacy and vibrancy of Appalachian balladry.