The stoic couple that grace the masthead of this blog are E.C. and Orna Ball, a pair of singers and musicians who are responsible, to these ears, for some of the most affecting music ever to come out of the Southern Appalachian mountains — or anywhere else, for that matter. On December 8th, the Tompkins Square label in New York City will release an album that I put together to pay tribute to the Balls and to commemorate the anniversary of E.C.’s death in July of 1978. (Which happens to be the month of my birth — suffice it to say that I’ve already indulged in all manner of that shade of sentimentality.)
The album gathers a large number of singers and musicians for whom I have great affection, appreciation, and respect, and who provide fairly non-standard interpretations of songs from the Balls’ repertoire — mostly traditional (or nearly-so) country gospel and folk songs, but a few of E.C.’s originals too. It was played in large measure by a Louisville group of much-earned local renown called the Health & Happiness Family Gospel Band, and an additional grip of good friends and talented musicians.
What follows is the introduction I wrote for the album, as well as the album’s track list and a note about the provenance of the songs in E.C. and Orna’s recorded output, should you be interested in hearing the originals on which we drew — and I do urge you to so be. Downloads of some available below. And should you pick up “Face A Frowning World,” I hope you’ll enjoy it, and find that we’ve given E.C. and Orna a portion of the tribute they so greatly deserve.
(All photos courtesy of the Blue Ridge Institute. See below for their involvement.)
To ears used to the high lonesome sound of the Southern Appalachian mountains, the music made by Estil Cortez Ball of Rugby, Virginia, can seem out of place. His rich, relaxed baritone seems a world away from the plaintive keen of a Roscoe Holcomb, a Clarence Ashley, or a Nimrod Workman, and his guitar playing, gifted with genius and grace, always takes its time, while so many of the region’s instruments flail and frail as fast as they can.
Perhaps it was E.C. Ball’s day jobs that made his music sound that way – he ran a service station and drove a school bus: two occupations requiring patience and a gentle touch. No doubt his deep religiosity and commitment to sharing the gospel of Christianity inspired a certain forbearance in him. But most likely, like the best of artists, the music he made was just a reflection of who he was — in his case, thoughtful, diligent, and honest, with severity, gentleness, and humor in equal measure.
One thing certain is that he, with his wife, Orna, made music prolifically. The Balls’ repertoire was legions deep, and was open to all manner
of material: not just hymns or country gospel — traditional, borrowed, or of their own devising – but play-party songs, blues, ballads, self-composed comic numbers and E.C.’s sui generis guitar instrumentals. They performed on two Sunday morning gospel radio programs and in churches of every denomination throughout the Blue Ridge. They were the subjects of frequent recording sessions — at the hands of John A. Lomax (the first to record E.C., in 1937) and Alan Lomax (first in 1941 and again in 1959), then John Cohen, Mike Seeger, Mark Wilson, Kip Lornell — and were featured on a number of LPs, both with their Friendly Gospel Singers and on their own. But this recorded output represents just a fraction of their repertoire. Indeed, as more archival collections of Blue Ridge mountain music are cracked open, inventoried, and presented to the public, more insight into E.C. and Orna’s prodigious songbook becomes available. They rarely recorded more than a handful of the same songs twice, and their recorded legacy extends into the hundreds of songs.
So it wasn’t easy to make selections for this tribute album, and some aspects of the Balls’ repertoire have been under- or un-represented: there are none of the mountain ballads — “Pretty Polly” or “Poor Ellen Smith,” most famously — and no attempts (and they’d only be attempts) to recreate any of E.C.’s sublime guitar pieces. Two of his most endearing comic numbers are tackled here — “The Early Bird Always Gets the Worm” and “Plain Old Country Lad” — as well as the Balls’ immensely winning “Jenny Jenkins,” but it’s the religious material that predominates. It’s this material that always struck me the hardest and deepest. It’s no wonder that E.C.’s composition “Tribulations” has spread far and wide, often being declared “public domain” or “traditional” when appearing in someone else’s hands. It’s hard to imagine one man writing such a thing; a terrifying meditation on the end of days as envisioned by the Book of Revelation and a celebration of a hard-won faith in redemption. But E.C. and Orna Ball, as writers, arrangers, performers, were most often most effective with the songs they felt the strongest, and so in the hopes of adequately and respectfully representing them, it’s primarily their sacred material we’re presenting.
I feel compelled to mention that of the 30-odd contributors to this record, not all are believers a la the Balls; in fact, few are. I’m not. I do hope, however, that our interpretations of these songs — sacred or secular — will serve the ultimate goal of honoring the talents of E.C. and Orna, informed and inspired as they were by the traditions of their region and of their faith.
While this album is a tribute to both E.C. and Orna Ball, it was conceived, in the winter of 2007, as a memorial to E.C., who died July 14, 1978, at the age of 64. The plan was for its release to mark the 30th anniversary of his death, but although, like all such plans, it’s a bit late in finding fulfillment, I’m overjoyed that it finally has. A thousand most sincere thanks to the Health & Happiness Family Gospel Band and all the contributors for their interest, generosity, talent, and patience.
As E.C. and Orna Ball left no heirs, royalties from the sale of this album will be donated to the Blue Ridge Institute, which documents, preserves, and promotes the folkways of the people living in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Thank you, too, for your interest in E.C. and Orna Ball.
“Face A Frowning World: An E.C. Ball Memorial Album.”
01. INTRODUCTION by E.C. Ball.
Recorded by Alan Lomax at E.C. and Orna’s home in Rugby, Virginia, August 1959. Previously unreleased. Used courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.
02. HE’S MY GOD. Sung by Dave Bird
Original on “E.C. Ball and the Friendly Gospel Singers,” 1967 (County Records). Out of print.
03. JOHN THE BAPTIST. Sung by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Original on “E.C. Ball,” 1972. Reissued on CD in 1996 as “E.C. Ball with Orna Ball.” (Rounder).
04. JENNY JENKINS. Sung by the Handsome Family
Several original versions recorded by John A. Lomax (1937), Alan Lomax (1941 and 1959), and John Cohen (1965). Those of Lomax the elder and Cohen are currently in print on, respectively, “E.C. Ball and Orna: Through the Years, 1937-1975,” 1999 (Copper Creek) and the CD reissue/expansion of Cohen’s “High Atmosphere” compilation, 1974 / 1995 (Rounder).
05. WARFARE. Sung by Joe Manning
Original on “High Atmosphere” and “E.C. Ball and Orna: Through the Years.”
06. PLAIN OLD COUNTRY LAD. Sung by Pokey LaFarge
Original on E.C. and Orna’s “Fathers Have A Home Sweet Home,” 1976 (Rounder). Out of print.
07. LORD I WANT MORE RELIGION. Sung by Rayna Gellert
Original unreleased. Home recording made by E.C. in 1970.
08. THE EARLY BIRD ALWAYS GETS THE WORM. Sung by Michael Hurley
Original on “E.C. Ball with Orna Ball.”
09. WHEN I GET HOME I’M GONNA BE SATISFIED. Sung by Jon Langford
Original on “White Spirituals” LP in the Southern Folk Heritage Series, 1959 (Atlantic); reissued in “Sounds of the South” box-set, 1993. Both out of print.
10. TRIBULATIONS. Sung by Joe Manning and Glen Dentinger
Original versions on “White Spirituals”; “Sounds of the South”; and volume five in the Southern Journey series, “Deep South… Sacred and Sinful,” 1960 (Prestige). Reissued on “Southern Journey #6: Sheep, Sheep, Don’cha Know the Road” in the Alan Lomax Collection CD series, 1997 (Rounder). Only version currently in print is on “E.C. Ball and Orna: Through the Years.”
13. WHEN I CAN READ MY TITLES CLEAR. Sung by Glen Dentinger
Original on “E.C. Ball with Orna Ball.”
14. BEAUTIFUL STAR OF BETHLEHEM. Sung by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Dave Bird, and Catherine Irwin
Original on “E.C. Ball and the Friendly Gospel Singers.”
15. FATHERS HAVE A HOME SWEET HOME. Sung by Jan Bell, Jolie Holland, and Samantha Parton
Original on “Fathers Have A Home Sweet Home.”
16. JUBILEE. Sung by the Sandpaper Dolls
Original on “Fathers Have A Home Sweet Home.”