I write somewhere around here that I’m disinclined to use this forum for the reviewing of records, as it seems like the internet is comprised solely of pornography and record reviews, but one of the latest Arhoolie releases has struck me as something so exciting, fresh, and sui generis and, being so surprised that I felt thusly, I wanted to do my part to spread the word about it.
Chances are you’re like me: regardless of how much you fancy that you care for the traditional music of the world, that of Western Europe is well towards the bottom of your list, with the Germanic variety probably bringing up the rear. (That’s probably why I have seen, as they say in the King’s English, fuck-all about this record, which came out last July. Nothing in shops, not in magazines, not on the record-reviewing internet.) Almost wholly obscured on these shores by the classical tradition, the oom-pah band, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss” — and over-shadowed closer to home by the made-for-TV pseudo-folk of Volkstümliche — the songs sung and tunes danced to in the country beer-halls and alpine cowsheds might be some of the most unheard music in the world.
So this project, begun in 1967 and completed in 1998 by the dynamic duo of Johnny Parth (native Austrian; founder of Document Records) and Chris Strachwitz (native German; founder of Arhoolie Records), was a necessary one, but few might have guessed it’d be so good. Recorded at performers’ homes, in pubs, on the street, and in a ski lodge, these two CDs include unaccompanied ballads sung solo and in duets and trios; dance tunes and lyric songs played by brass bands and on clarinet, accordion, drums, and cimbalom; instrumentals on harp (traditional and jew’s), brick xylophone, and something called a “grenade glockenspiel,” which is in fact just what you think it might be. They’re packed with warmth, tenderness, giddiness, and humanity, not to mention some downright filth, much (though hardly all) of which is provided by the Original Herberstein Trio. These three elderly men performed regularly at a tavern in Eastern Styria, and their repertoire is filled with sly, raw, and kinky sex. Erectile dysfunction abounds, as do euphemisms involving barnyard fauna and pieces of fruit. Priests get involved in some nasty business, and one gets thrashed by a cuckolded husband. I’m sure the Arhoolie gang were pleased to be able to stick a “Parental Advisory” warning on the cover of this one, though as long as your kinder aren’t fluent in any number of Austro-German dialects or in a position to get their hands on the PDF file on Disc 1 that contains all lyric transcriptions, you’ll be all right.
It’s not all gleeful filth and nastiness, though. Strachwitz and Parth met dairy farmer Fefi Eibisberger at her home in the Styrian mountains, and with her plaintive yodel and hammered dulcimer accompaniment she’s one of the most affecting voices I’ve heard in recent memory. Her ballad of the changing seasons — “When the Heath Cock Has His Mating Season” (it’s more innocent that it sounds) — and delicate songs of milkmaids’ amorous affairs are utterly lovely. Somewhat less lovely but no less tender is the hyper-falsetto of street singer Emil Thun, who Parth rightly describes as sounding like an Austrian Tiny Tim. His “When My Grandfather Was Twenty-Years Old,” even in translation, is an achingly lonesome bit of pastoral poetry, made all the more so by his bizarre vocalizing.
Portions of these discs have been previously released on LP by Arhoolie and Roots (in Austria), but plenty of unreleased material has been included here. Truer, more humane music has seldom been recorded, and I can’t recommend this set more highly. As Karl Scherrer, Lower Austrian innkeeper, singer, and brick xylophonist croons:
Therefore, my dear people, do me the honor
and come to my inn, you won’t regret it.
My playing and yodeling will excite you,
so when you think about me later, your hearts will laugh.