BY JENNIFER KELLY
Lena Hughes recorded Queen of the Flat Top Guitar in the early 1960s, but it harks back to a much earlier era, one before television, phonographs or radio, when an evening’s entertainment might consist of a succession of hymns, popular songs and fiddle tunes picked carefully out on a six-string guitar. Hughes herself came of age in the years between the two World Wars in Ludlow, Mississippi. Her father taught her to play the guitar, then considered a lady’s instrument, and showed her the fingerings for the old songs. She played all her life, not just guitar but banjo and fiddle as well, touring the Ozark Mountain folk circuit with her husband for decades. She only recorded this single album, which had all but been forgotten by the time of her death in 1998.
Almost but not quite. John Renbourne, the Pentangle guitarist who wrote the liner notes for this lovely reissue, admits that he had been looking for the original for years, as a source feeder for the folk and blues music he loved. “Lena Hughes’ playing is beautiful and depicts a bygone age, the musical sentiment of 19th century America – as iconic as quilting, shape-note singing and Tiffany glass,” he writes. “The music now termed ‘parlor’ was essentially the popular music of the day. Often light and romantic, it has tended to be dismissed as time passes. But the approach to the guitar – tunings, techniques, harmony – fed directly into the rural styles, ragtime and blues, and laid the foundation for the music that has gone on to shape the listening of the modern world.”
These are quiet, modest little tunes, the picking carefully precise, the crescendos modulated, even the ghostly blues slides reined in and civilized. The melodies are familiar, though perhaps not as familiar as they once were when tunes like “Spanish Fandango” were sheet-music blockbusters in the 19th century. Hughes’ version is an intricate waltz, plain spoken and practical in its rhythms yet overlit with the glow of wonderfully rounded, sustained notes. The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” even more effectively balances the earthy and the spiritual, its homely melody weaving through ethereal bends and flared notes.
You can hear little elements of blues filtering into these songs, yet they remain even-tempered, proper and, in their way, serenely beautiful. Leadbelly may have done wilder, more emotionally wrenching versions of some of these songs, but there’s a certain satisfaction in the pretty, well-tended garden that Lena Hughes presided over.
DOWNLOAD: “Spanish Fandango” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”