Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Angel Band" -- a bluegrass gospel tune for Clayville's jam session on Saturday of Holy Week

Since our first Saturday show-jam session at Clayville Historic Site falls during Holy Week this year, let's lead it off with a classic bluegrass gospel number called "Angel Band." It's probably most widely known from Ralph Stanley's vocal in the Cohen Brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou, but it's an old, old gospel song that got into the shape-note tradition as early as the 1860s.

Lead sheets in D at They're dulcimer tab, but they have the melody in standard notation and guitar chords.

Watch this space for details on next month's "Fake It Till You Make It" workshop from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18, in the barn at Clayville Historic Site, Ill. 125, Pleasant Plains. Part of the Clayville Pioneer Academy of Music program, this beginner-friendly workshop will feature basic jam session skills for beginning and novice players.

Here's Ralph Stanley singing "Angel Band," in the finale of the Down From the Mountain concert that was held in 2001 in conjunction with recording a soundtrack to go with the movie. Joining him on the chorus in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, along with many, many others who were involved with the movie, are Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, the Fairfield Four and John Hartford on fiddle, who emceed the concert.

Footnote: At an earlier stage in his career, Hartford played on the "Julia Belle Swain" on the Illinois River. He died less than a month after the concert after a lengthy battle with cancer.

"Angel Band" has been covered widely, by country artists including Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Stanley's original band, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys -- with his brother Carter Stanley on the high tenor part.

But the song itself dates back to the 1860s -- Wikipedia, as usual has the details -- and its melody was written by William Bradbury, a prolific hymn writer who is perhaps best known for "Jesus Loves Me." It was included in William Walker's 1866 shape-note Christian Harmony and is a staple of Christian Harmony singings in Alabama and North Carolina, where I first heard it sung.

Here it is in its natural habitat, at a Christian Harmony singing in Black Mountain, N.C. Nov. 11, 2006. The odd-sounding harmonies are typical of shape-note singing, and some of us believe they're where the "high lonesome" sound of bluegrass originally came from.

Another footnote. also lists a Norwegian translation: Min sidste Sol nu synker st'rk [stærk?]. #d159. Title, or tune name Beskuelsens Land. Evangeliske Psalmer og Aandelige Sange (Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs Nos.1, 2 and 3 Combined)‎. Udgiverens Forlag, Chicago, Ill., 1881.

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