Norman Blake’s Day By Day

cover art for Day By DayI probably first read Norman Blake’s name on the extensive liner notes that came with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark country album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, but I’m sure I first saw him perform a few years earlier on the Johnny Cash Show, which I watched religiously and on which Blake was guitarist in the house band. Both of those endeavors were among key events of the past half century that redefined and repopularized American roots music. Some of the other key events? Well, there was Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain, the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand. He was on those, too. And a lot more.

All these years on, Norman Blake and his wife and musical partner Nancy Blake still live and make music in Rising Farm, Georgia, a small town near the Alabama border. He’s been recording for roots labels like Rounder, Shanachie, and Flying Fish since 1972, and in 2004 started releasing records on his own Plectrafone label (including 2015’s Wood, Wire & Words).

Day By Day is another lovely collection of songs from Norman Blake and his resonant instruments of wood and wire. It features mostly old songs that go back to before the turn of the 20th century in this country and even farther back in British and Celtic traditions. There’s the likes of “Three Leaves Of Shamrock,” an old Irish ballad outlining the hardships of the emigration to America, with origins in the 1880s. Blake draws on a couple of versions including Charlie Poole’s recording (which was called “Leaving Dear Old Ireland”) for the lyrics on this one but used his own tune. And “Montcalm And Wolfe” goes back even farther. This somber old broadside ballad is based on the tale of an important battle in the history of North America, as the French and English fought for control of what’s now Quebec and all of eastern Canada. But it’s told through the eyes and heart of a young woman left alone by the death of a young soldier on the English side, back home in a little village in England.

“The Dying Cowboy” also goes way back to long before there were cowboys, a morality tale of a young rake who’s been mortally wounded in personal combat that he took too lightly. Most Americans know it as “The Streets Of Laredo,” but Blake’s version is told mostly from the point of view of the dying youth, not the random stranger who encounters him on the street, “wrapped in white linen.” This one is a lovely arrangement with Nancy Blake on cello and members of the Rising Fawn String Ensemble including fiddler James Bryan, vocalist David Hammonds, and guitarist/vocalist Joel McCormick.

Of slightly more modern provenance is the opening track “When The Roses Bloom,” a lightly jaunty country love song, in which Blake keeps keeps the odd meter in A.P. Carter’s arrangement. There’s a sad traditional love ballad “I’m Free Again,” and “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” an old Tin Pan Alley weeper about a chance encounter with a “fallen” woman who is too ashamed to go home to her mother.

Blake plays banjo on a tune of his own, “Old Joe’s March,” with a technique that sounds like it combines traditional claw-hammer and Scruggs style rolls. And the album wraps appropriately with “My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains,” a well known traditional song that also features the lovely harmonies and playing of the Rising Fawn String Ensemble.

Day By Day was recorded in a single afternoon at an Alabama studio just a half-hour from his home. It was recorded with loving attention to detail, which shows in the way Blake’s warmly worn voice comes through, the long fade-outs on final notes, and the lovely tones of his instruments. As Blake says in the liner notes, “These recordings are age appropriate, and I am comfortable with them. They were done live in the studio in one afternoon. There are pick and fingernail noises that are part of the performance, but I feel the material overshadows these imperfections.” Hardly imperfections, they’re part and parcel of the music. The down-home but professional booklet includes Blakes notes on every song, lots of photos, and other notes. A quality package all around.

(Plectrafone/Smithsonian Folkways, 2021)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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