Norman and Nancy Blake: The Morning Glory Ramblers
Genre: Vintage folk and gospel with unvarnished acoustic accompaniment
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Norman Blake is an American musical treasure known to relatively few but counted among the greats of acoustic roots music. Guitarist to legends like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, Blake - a master of old style flatpicking - recently added exclamation points to his already impressive resume via his involvement with the music for the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou. This was no mere lucky break - Blake is both a student and a champion of early American folk music, which made him a natural for the project. Joined here by his wife, Nancy, Blake travels further back in time than even O Brother did to capture the sound and spirit of rural America on The Morning Glory Ramblers, comprised predominantly of material from the 1800s and early 1900s.
The Blakes, singing in rustic but soulful voices and accompanied only by skillfully played guitar, dobro and mandolin, make no attempt to update these numbers. By presenting the music in such an austere fashion, they recreate not just its original sound but also the cultural and spiritual tone of the country both before and during the Industrial Revolution (with only a couple of chronological exceptions). The scene depicted here is one of a far less complicated lifestyle, and one in which the losses and struggles of everyday survival are squarely faced but assuaged by the buffer of a deep and abiding faith. While only a handful of the 17 tracks have overtly gospel-styled lyrics, much of the album is underscored by the implicit existence of a merciful God and Savior and the promise of an afterlife, both of which were earmarks of American life at the turn of the 20th century. It was the context in which the era’s "pop" songs were written, a context that forms the album’s most consistent thread. "The Sunny Side Of Life" (a prequel of sorts to O Brother’s "Keep On The Sunny Side") uses bright, evocative language that points to an ever-present source of power and illumination in a sometimes darkened world. Because of the shared spiritual reference point at the time this was written, there’s little need for scriptural specifics: "there’s shady dells where no gladness dwells and the clouds obstruct the view/ but a brighter way, like the light of day, is waiting now for you." In similar fashion, "We Are Climbing" and "Going Down The Valley" are both symbolic of an upward journey in which "the cares of life and Earth all pass" and "we shall stand upon the riverbank at last." "Precious Memories (Was A Song I Used To Hear)" is a newly written song that speaks of the comfort still offered by the much-loved gospel standby but also laments the absence of such songs in mainstream America: "precious memories was the song I used to hear/ late at night on the radio/ precious memories, on the air so cool and clear/ oh, but that was long ago."
While tracks like the openly evangelistic and heartily sung "I Ain’t Got Time" and "Fame Apart From God’s Approval" carry unapologetically biblical messages, The Morning Glory Ramblers takes a comprehensive view of life that includes songs of lost love and the promise of reunion as well as tunes that bow under the weight of toil and troubles. However quaint the music might sound to modern ears, its themes resonate today because they deal with experiences common to us all. What seems most alien about these songs, ironically, is their bedrock assumption that the God of the Bible is woven inextricably into the very fabric of American life. That irony can make this record a bittersweet revisiting of the U.S. of yore, yet it is nonetheless rife with hope in the face of hard times, both past and present. Ultimately, these vintage songs serve to reconnect us with the idea that faith - and the music built upon it - provides power for overcoming such seasons - a relevant and welcome notion in the 21st century.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This article was developed by UMC.org, a ministry of United Methodist Communications