The Joys of Wonderful, Obscure Folk Music Finds


The Little Sisters: The Joys of Love (MGM, 1963)

Some album covers can intimate to a vinyl junky too rewarding and intoxicating a hit. Imagine a pair of blonde girls a la Edie Sedgwick -- beautifully and perfectly shot in black and white -- with lazily dressed blonde hair. The one in the background is laughing, whilst the other looks dreamily skywards. Both appear timelessly and unbearably chic. It can only be hoped that such a delightful promise can deliver even a fraction of its beatnik suggestion. The liner notes by the legendary Johnny Carson -- they appeared three times on his show in 1962 -- beguiling reveal: "The Little Sisters are actually sisters. Mary is 22 and Patty is 21. Each girl is married; Mary to a poet who speaks only Spanish (she speaks only English) and Patty is an artist. They live in Greenwich Village, New York City, a gathering place for artists, poets, and folk singers, as well as writers, sculptors, and musicians. A casual stroller through the haphazard streets of the Village might see the girls bustling about in the course of their daily routine. They usually wear plaid leotards, beige car coats and beanies -- one red and one green, but which one wears which one is a point I haven't yet pursued. Their father is a cartoonist. Their grandmother was a vaudeville artist." Forty-three years later in an English Record Fair, all that sounded too good to sound any good, but the sleeve was worth more than the dump bin price of a pound. Sometimes things turn out far better than one could hope. What emerged was a stunning record of remarkable brevity and freshness. The longest track is 2 minutes 18 seconds; the shortest 1 minute 30 seconds, whilst the entire affair lasts a mere 24 minutes. These little sisters understood the dictum that less is better.

The Joys of Love is a remarkably assured debut. It has elements of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Emmylou Harris, and Nanci Griffiths, but possesses a knowing maturity that one would expect an album from this time to contain. Imagine the theme from "Dueling Banjos" mixed with Francoise Hardy, filmed by David Lynch. But then again, it was produced by Creed Taylor, the found of CTI Records, and engineered by Phil Ramone. There is a strange mix of enthusiastic innocence and artful experience. Greenwich Village 1963 collides with a Kentucky Barn Dance from a hundred years earlier, but surreal isn't one of the many words such a time-warp proposition conjures up. According to Carson's liner essay, the girls decided to go on the road in their own adventurous and endearingly eclectic way: "They wrote letters to towns they planned to visit, and took whatever engagements at whatever prices were available. As a result they sang in homes for old folks, in schools and auditoriums and classrooms, in tiny clubs, and, on occasion didn't sing at all. To support their travels they took side jobs when they had to. They have been waitresses, shop clerks, and car hops in the cities and towns of the East and South. Much of the music included on this album, their first, was collected first-hand on their travels.

The songs aren't "discoveries," of course, but they are authentic because the girls learned a lot of them from their friends in Kentucky and Virginia and the Carolinas." This record is their record of an American sojourn. Appalachian melodies and banjo picking of extraordinary freshness results in a strange slice of American folk music imbued with an air of Greenwich Village worldliness. It seems to be their only long player -- a postcard from the past, which makes you wish you could have been there. It is all too romantic to thinking of these two striking young women continuing to stagger gracefully around Greenwich Village in aging splendor, a pair of Bohemian Beatnik Baby Janes who occasionally burst into song to startle the young. Songs such as "Cuckoo," "The Joys of Love," and "Black Girl" have such a vitality about them, it is surprising that this album rests so far below the radar of those who value the work of exceptional quality. Ripe for sampling, the record has a sweetness that is never cloying, but is far from tongue-in-cheek. A stimulating experience resides in such sophisticated simplicity.

Do yourself a favor and get searching. Probably grandmothers by now, these sisters should sing again, and this record deserves to be heard. There is an enthusiastic air of beginning from this that now reeks of unfinished business. Two albums in over forty years wouldn't exactly be overstating one's talent, and Mary may have finally learnt how to speak Spanish, and if she hasn't, at least that would be another story.