STEPHEN SMITH: Book Could Have Offered More Detail
I'm sure that somewhere in the deepest, darkest reaches of the universe there's a market for Tim Barnwell's "Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia" (Norton, 187 pages, $49.95).
It's not that "Hands" is an awful coffee table book (is there such a thing?). It's beautifully produced and includes a CD of 20 songs that are also appealing. And it's chock-full of mildly interesting black-and-white photographs of folk artists who practice arts and crafts of various sorts, most of them lucky enough to dwell in the Southern Appalachian mountain range -- which means that many of these artists are North Carolinians. If you've lived your life in this state, there's a reasonable chance you'll know one of the folk artists included in the book.
Less thoughtful Christmas shoppers will probably be attracted to the book as a gift for that hard-to-buy-for artsy-fartsy uncle who has nothing to do but pine for the past and moan and groan about how old Father Time is gobbling up people whose rarefied skills will vanish with them. Uncle Artsy can leave the book open on his coffee table, and he can play the CD as cocktail party background music. The tunes will be admired for that unmistakable, old-timey mountain twang backed by fiddles, guitars and banjoes galore.
If it's a rainy day and you have nothing better to do, the "oral histories" that accompany the photos will help pass the time. David Holt, who recently appeared with Doc Watson at the Sunrise Theater, contributes a typical example: "To me it's really incredible to see how all the influences that came into the mountains mixed together. The English and the Scots-Irish brought their music with them, but when it mixed with the African-American music early on, it became distinctly American. This area was very isolated and there weren't many black people, but the black musicians around here influenced a lot of people." Well, yeah. If you're browsing in a bookstore, you probably already know this.
Oral histories are almost obligatory in coffee table books, but the transcriptions in "Hands" aren't particularly enlightening.
Fiddler Joe Thompson says, "My dad, his brother, my granddaddy, all of 'em played music. I got started under my dad, just like they got started under theirs and it come from way on back ."
There's a breakthrough in human thought -- and poor Joe, one of three African-Americans included in the volume, is the only artist whose transcribed oral history contains a colloquialism. Go figure.
Doc Watson, the most famous artist included in the collection, didn't contribute an oral history, and other folk artists are also lacking personalized bios. That's a disappointment. And there's at least one minor but irritating discrepancy in Joe Thompson's bio. He's credited with living in "Mebane, North Carolina, in Graham County." Graham County is in the Western part of the state abutting Cherokee and Swain counties, and the Graham County directory lists no township or crossroads by the name of Mebane. The only Mebane I know of is in eastern Alamance County. (If I'm wrong about this place name thing, I apologize.)
Enough already. There's no use flailing a dead horse. Barnwell is an adequate photographer, and if an occasional photo is a trifle insipid, it's forgivable. And, yeah, the oral histories are just interesting enough to make them worth reading. The CD is a keeper, but it's hardly worth $50.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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