Norman Blake “Day By Day”

Smithsonian Folkways, 2021

Timeless versions of classic old-time tunes by a master interpreter and instrumentalist.

This is a special record, and it is all the more special because Norman Blake is now 83. If you think you have heard the name but can’t quite remember the details then a quick resume includes his session work in Nashville on guitar, dobro, mandolin and banjo, touring and recording with Johnny Cash at the height of his career in the ’60s, supporting Bob Dylan on his Nashville sessions and recording and touring with Kris Kristofferson and backing Joan Baez on her version of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. In the 1970s he backed John Hartford and played on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s classic ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ as well as starting his solo career that had a significant influence on the use of acoustic guitar in bluegrass music. If this wasn’t enough, he was a featured artist on the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ soundtrack which brought old-time music to a new millennium generation,  and he was a major influence on, and recorded with, bluegrass legend Tony Rice.

From an introduction like that the casual listener might expect that ‘Day By Day’ would be filled with guest artists covering various highlights from Norman Blake’s long career, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It is just Norman Blake on guitar or banjo on nine tracks,  two written by Blake with the remainder comprising some of his favourite traditional tunes he has loved and played for most of his life. recorded in single takes over an afternoon near Blake’s Georgia home. In a nod to Blake’s past, the Rising Fawn String Ensemble which comprises Blake’s wife Nancy on cello, James Bryan on fiddle, David Hammonds on vocals and Joel McCormick on guitar and vocals also makes an appearance. When Blake was a child in the rural South he listened to early country music artists on the family’s radio that was powered by a car battery as the family home was not connected to the electricity grid, and that is the spirit that is invoked by this record.

The first track is The Carter Family’s ‘When The Roses Bloom’ which has been recorded numerous times by Blake over the years and is here presented in a version that does not waste a note or a phrase and sets the tone for the whole record. Uncle Dave Macon recorded the first version of the 19th Century tune  ‘Just Tell Him That You Saw Me’ which was also covered by The Blue Sky Boys and is a link with the vaudeville influence in American songs. The lead single from the record is Blake’s version of Mac & Bob’s early country 1927 tune ‘I’m Free Again’ and features Blake’s own re-arrangement of the verses showing that while he is a clear link with tradition, he is not absolutely bound by it. ‘Old Joe’s March’ is an instrumental written by Blake himself, and while it blends seamlessly with the tradition tunes on the album, it is always nice to be able to simply concentrate of his playing.  Next, we have a broadside ballad that goes back to the taking of Quebec in 1759 during the Anglo-French Seven Years War which saw both English and French generals killed in the English victory, ‘Montcalm And Wolfe’. We are back to the 19th Century for ‘The Three Leaves Of Shamrock’, a song that acknowledges the influence of Irish ballads on American music and that was recorded by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers in 1929. Since stopping touring in 2007, Norman Blake has found time to write more of his own material and his own ‘Time’ blends in seamlessly with the other old-time tunes. Blake then delivers his version of ‘The Dying Cowboy’, a song covered by many country artists including Johnny Cash, and picks up on the Western aspect of country music even though it has its roots in a 19th Century sailors song. The final track ‘My Home’s  Across The Blue Ridge Mountains’ features The Rising Fawn String Ensemble and is another Carter Family tune that has been covered by artists including Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, The Delmore Brothers and jazz great Bill Evans.

One of Norman Blake’s innovations in the ‘70s was to use vintage acoustic instruments to record traditional tunes in an attempt to present the tunes as they may have been originally intended to be heard, and while he never limited himself to solely vintage instruments, it is another example of his obsession to simply support the song. This search for the true essence of a tune is continued on ‘Day By Day’ where Blake’s playing and vocals are only there to support the tune. If you have ever wondered what Norman Blake is all about but have never dipped your toe into his 50-year-old catalogue then have no fear, ‘Day By Day’ is an excellent introduction. If you already own some of Norman Blakes recordings you need to hear this new record so that you can marvel at how he has managed to continue to play for the song, pairing everything away to leave the essence of accompaniment and to do this in a single take by single take basis for a whole album. Norman Blake may have stopped touring in 2007, but ‘Day By Day’ shows he is still capable of making artistic statements that are truly in the moment.


About Martin Johnson 339 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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