The air up there: An old-time-music classic turns 40

Feeling just a little too happy these days? Want to temper that blitheness of spirit with the bitter taste of your own mortality? You’d do well to pick up a copy of the CD High Atmosphere (Rounder Records), a musical survey of the Virginia and North Carolina high country made in 1965 by musician-filmmaker John Cohen. The recordings that comprise High Atmosphere turn 40 this month.

Brace yourself, move ahead to Track 23, and listen to Lloyd Chandler sing “A Conversation with Death.” The four-minute song calls to mind Ralph Stanley’s performance of “O Death,” whose inclusion in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? vaulted the bluegrass legend to a new tier of popular acclaim. But Chandler’s singing, even more than Stanley’s, has a gnawing, chilling quality: Yes, I have come for to get your soul, to leave your body and leave it cold./ To drop the flesh from off your frame, the earth and worms both have their claim.

This is death with a capital “D,” and Stanley’s setting of the tune, though a close musical cousin to the version Chandler sings, seems positively buoyant by comparison. A photo by Cohen from the CD’s liner notes shows Chandler’s shadowed face, trapped somewhere between agony and exultation. He seems to have some personal knowledge of the tragedy he sings about.

Cohen set out from New York in November 1965 with his wife Penny and their 5-month-old daughter Sonya in a cramped Volkswagen Beetle. “Sonya was born that summer at the Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan went electric,” Cohen, 72, noted last week during a phone conversation from his home in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

This was John Cohen’s great fortune — to pass through some of the important cultural waypoints of the 20th century. He photographed the Beat poets in some of their intimate moments, documented the early days of Bob Dylan and the last days of Woody Guthrie. Cornering mountain musicians and wheedling them into performance was nothing new for this songcatcher; a few years before, he’d “discovered” the legendary Appalachian singer Roscoe Holcomb at his home in Daisy, Kentucky. A year before the trip that yielded High Atmosphere, Cohen and his wife traveled to the Peruvian Andes to record cultural traditions there.

Still, 40 years on, Cohen says he’s “not sure I’d do something like that now.” To document the journey, he brought with him a camera and a Nagra tape recorder, which he carried on loan from a folk-music society. His ultimate destination was the home of Peter and Polly Gott, friends who’d moved to Madison County four years before; his intent was to learn the different ways the banjo was tuned in Appalachia.

The Cohens drove south in the shadow of the Blue Ridge on a route that first took them to three homes in Virginia: They visited Sidna Meyers in Hillsville, fiddler Wade Ward in Independence and singers E.C. and Orna Ball in Rugby.

Just across the border in North Carolina, at Low Gap (near Mt. Airy), Cohen recorded banjo player Fred Cockerham, whose sophisticated double-thumb picking style and bluesy singing have inspired countless old-time musicians since. At Deep Gap, Cohen recorded Gaither Carlton, Doc Watson’s father-in-law; near Boone, he put the honeyed baritone voice and banjo playing of Frank Proffitt to tape.

But it was farther south and west, in Madison County, where the Cohens tarried, finding a wealth of tunes and ballads that bore an unmistakable kinship to the music of the old world, especially from England and Ireland. The relative purity of the county’s musical tradition had long been celebrated; in the 1910s, British musicologist Cecil Sharp had spent time there, marveling at and carefully transcribing the ancient ballads he encountered. Later, American folklorist Alan Lomax made recordings in the area.

Moving forward from the banjo-tuning premise, Cohen found that each musician, in the act of bringing their instruments to pitch, unlocked a store of memories and songs. Soon tunings became “irrelevant,” says Cohen; in fact, much of High Atmosphere is made up of a capella singing from Madison County musicians Lloyd Chandler, Dellie Norton and Dillard Chandler. The instrumentals are shot through with odd modalities and chord choices, the songs with vocal swoops and keening that can seem, at times, alien to modern ears. It is old-time music without training wheels — sometimes jarring, often melancholy, but always free of contemporary polish and affectation.

In 1974, Rounder Records issued the best of Cohen’s recordings as the LP High Atmosphere. It eventually went out of print, but Rounder reissued it as a CD in 1995, with nearly half an hour of additional music.

“It’s never sold a lot, but it’s had a deep impact,” Cohen says.

Bound to come back

Well-known Asheville traditional musician Cary Fridley, 36, is one of a host of young players who’ve fallen under the album’s spell. Fridley says she especially likes the disc’s ballads, “because they’re so pure … they’re passed down, generation to generation, from a time before radio — never written down, probably never recorded before that time.

“That’s got to be so much better than music written to make money.”

Two Christmases ago, Fridley resolved to learn every song on High Atmosphere. “I got through the first eight and took a break,” she says with a laugh. “I’m just obsessed with it. It’s magical stuff.”

Fridley’s 2001 release Neighbor Girl features no less than three ballads drawn from High Atmosphere. She also arranged the E.C. Ball gospel tune “Warfare” from the album for her former band the Freighthoppers.

“Warfare” recently cropped up on another old-time CD, She Waits For Night by the all-women group Uncle Earl, which features Asheville-based musician Rayna Gellert.

Alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, too, seemed to have drunk deeply of the High Atmosphere spirit. The band’s spare offering March 16-20, 1992 has three tunes culled from Cohen’s recordings: “Warfare” again, “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and “I Wish My Baby Was Born.” That last, a short ballad performed by Madison County singer Dillard Chandler, is one of the most affecting tracks on High Atmosphere, and further evidence of the album’s wide influence. Recently the song made its way into the movie Cold Mountain, where it was sung by the trio of Riley Baugus, Tim Eriksen and Tim O’Brien.

O Death, O Death, please give me time/ To fix my heart and change my mind./ Your heart is fixed, your mind is bound/ I have the shackles to drag you down.

“How sad, how sad,” says Lloyd Chandler, finished with his song.

Sad, indeed, to know that the world Chandler and his musical peers inhabited — its now-faded cultural fabric; its frolics, lords and swords; its high and holy days — is gone forever. But reassuring to know that we still have something of that world — a shred perhaps, but something no less — in the durable medium of recordings like High Atmosphere.

[Freelance writer Kent Priestley is based in Asheville.]

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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