Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bascom Lamar Lunsford - "In the Shadow of the Pines"

In the Shadow of the Pines

I don't generally think there's much point to having a favorite single piece of recorded music, but if I was forced to claim one, this Bascom Lamar Lunsford track might be it. I could listen to Lunsford's delivery of these lines of regret and loneliness on repeat for hours. The words are devastating, but not just bleak: the speaker and his love had split, but he's trying to explain to her that he's had a change of heart and if she comes back they can be happy again. But "in life's dark pathway the sun no longer shines," so she should meet him "in the shadow of the pines." Not too promising for long-term happiness.

This emotional ambivalence is matched by Lunsford's creative enunciation, in his touching nasal Western North Carolina accent over droning banjo accompaniment. Listen at 2:20 to the way he holds out "you" at the end of "you took the ring I gave you" and allows an extra breath before moving on to the next line. Or at 4:09 to the bouncy staccato delivery of "I'd give this whole world gladly once again to meet you there / reunited. . ." In the first case, he might be drawing out the meaning of the line. In the second, I suspect he's just being playful with a song he's sung a thousand times. Either way, I'd rank Lunsford's singing with the art of the best instrumentalists. Not that the lyrics don't help. "I awake from bitter dreaming but to call aloud your name / I sleep again to dream of you once more." Ooof.

This recording is from a session Lunsford did in 1949 with the Library of Congress. As he explains in the intro -- in which his vocal delivery is just about as good as in the song itself (e.g. the pitches of each word in "this old love song" in the first line) -- this song is part of the "fine old traditions of the southern highlands." I'm no scholar of American folk music, but I understand Lunsford's identity to highlight the historicism that music. Lunsford wasn't some backporch hillbilly subject being caught on tape just before he slid away into the mists of time. He was a lawyer and an ethnomusicologist of his own culture: he curated a music festival in Asheville, NC, for many years. There's plenty to say about that, and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the weird phenomenon of the construction of the idea of American folk music. All that aside, though, I think it's possible to hear in this song a musical mastery that doesn't need context.