Norman Blake, who has recorded and collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Johnny Cash and Tony Rice, is a devoted keeper of the keys to the heritage and history of American popular music.
Blake’s latest record—which he recorded in a single afternoon in a Fort Payne, Alabama studio—contains of couple of original tunes cast in a starkly traditional mode. On the other selections, the 83-year-old singer/guitar and banjo player, does what he does best and what he’s been doing for decades. That is, reviving musical gems of the past, some from as far back as the mid-18th century.
You could even argue that Blake is doing this better than ever, since his voice has grown huskier and even more laconic with the years. “Montcalm And Wolfe,” for starters, is a stirring minor-key lament that first saw light as a broadside ballad written and circulated not long after the 1759 Battle of Quebec in the French and Indian War.
Blake also breathes fresh life into the mournful and somewhat more familiar “The Dying Cowboy,” which is, in turn a variant of an 18th-century British ballad about a dying soldier.
Day by Day, released by Smithsonian Folkways, also includes some more “modern” selections, such as “When The Roses Bloom,” written in 1913 by George “Honey Boy” Evans, the leader of an outfit called The Honey Boy Minstrels. The doleful “Just Tell Them You Saw Me” is a 19th-century Tin Pan Alley tune.
Blake is accompanied here and there by his wife Nancy (cello), along with fiddler James Bryan, vocalist David Hammonds, and guitar/vocalist Joel McCormick of The Rising Fawn String Ensemble. But the arrangements are mostly framed around Blake’s contemplative vocals and his intentionally austere guitar and banjo playing.
There is also a detailed set of liner notes that encapsulate the histories of each of these songs and provide insights into the emotional connections that inspired Blake to rescue them from obscurity, dust them off and introduce them to contemporary listeners.