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January 13, 1994 * Vol. 4, No. 13

Norman and Nancy Blake

by Chris Barrett

The idea that music has transporting powers is hardly new. Almost any of Lou Reed's albums from the '70s can leave a listener stranded on a wet Bronx curb with the 3 a.m. shivers. Stumbling into earshot of Chopin's piano nocturnes generates a sensation similar to showing up unannounced and underdressed at high tea. The music of Norman and Nancy Blake, then, is something like those futuristic elevators you hear about in Tokyo skyscrapers, that move both vertically and horizontally. Their antique combinations of strings and voice will not only yank you away to another place, but another time as well.

Norman Blake lives in the past and likes it there. The music he plays is either rescued from the 1800s and early 1900s, or composed in styles from those periods. Since recordings of (and access to) historical music is becoming more limited as time passes, listeners may puzzle over what someone like Blake listens to for inspiration.

"Well, I don't buy many records," Blake says. "I listen to the radio some, I guess I'd listen to a little of everything—country, jazz, some rock. You'd probably call what I listen to most 'folk music.' Some I like, some I don't." With a laugh, he adds, "The more I listen, the more I find there's two kinds of music: the kind I like and the kind I don't. I either understand it or I don't, you know.

"Every time our culture gains something, it loses something," Blake says, explaining his unabashed preference for music that predates his own birth. "Transportation and electronics bring us all closer together, but that isn't always better. There was a time when music and songwriting weren't influenced by pop culture the way they are now."

The Blakes are expert players of many instruments (Nancy plays fiddle, mandolin, guitar and cello; Norman plays just about anything with strings). What's more important than their musical talents, however, is that they have damn good taste in old songs.

"When I hear a song that is artistically and poetically good," Norman says, "I interpret it and then play it the way I feel it."

For examples of the kinds of songs that strikes Norman as poetically and artistically good, pick up one of the dozens of recordings that he's made both with and without the company of Mrs. Blake. The duo's most recent, 1992's Just Gimme Something I'm Used To (Shanachie), fans the pages of about 150 years worth of calendars and atlases.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The settings, characters and situations in the songs the Blakes sing would be right at home in many of the genres that Blake says he doesn't understand. "Little Matty Groves," for instance, is right out of the 'hood. Groves beats a nobleman's time and gets caught in the sack with the missus. A la Hamlet, everyone ends up dead, the lovers buried side by side with the husband at their feet.

The Blakes' upcoming concert at the Laurel Theatre is something of a professional homecoming for Norman. His career as a six-string guru began when his first band, The Dixie Drifters, took a stint as the studio band on WNOX's Tennessee Barndance. He has since attracted a wide range of fans, most of whom share his occupation.

Blake refuses any credit for helping to make historical music available. That many would disagree is beside the point. Rounder Records has embarked upon the noble task of re-issuing the Carter Family's Victor sessions on CD, but is only about 40 songs into those archives. So the Blakes' version of "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" on Blind Dog (Rounder)—like many of the other tunes they've revived—remains the only version in print.

As much as he loves the Carter Family's music and other music of that period, Blake is not impressed by the CD reissue trend. "I read where somebody was saying that taking those old records and putting the music on new records was like digging up bones from one place to bury them in another," he says, laughing.

Presumably, the preferred alternative is to re-record the songs, or better yet, let them fly from the front porch or stage. How fine that those are the very things that Norman and Nancy do best.

© Metro Pulse