On Thursday night at Intuit, Drag City hosts a free event to celebrate the release of I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful, an album of a cappella vocal performances by Kentucky coal miner Nimrod Workman, who was born in 1895 and died in 1994. The recordings collected here were made by folklorist and musician Mike Seeger in 1982, and they’ve never been issued before–the only previous Workman releases I know of are two out-of-print albums, one on June Appal and the other on Rounder, and a 1975 film documentary called “To Fit My Own Category.” The documentary takes its title from something Workman says on-screen–“I made this song to fit my own category”–and indeed the stunning music on the Drag City disc seems to belong to its own world.
Workman did much of his singing and “songwriting” (he adapted old-timey classics and country songs of the day, adding his own lyrical and melodic twists) while working in the mines. “I’d be in there by myself, couldn’t hear nobody nowhere,” he told Seeger. “Just nothing but me and my light, in that dark place. I’d be a-loading my car, and I’d sing till I get it loaded.” Some of his best songs deal with the hard realities of his dangerous job, but his broad repertoire isn’t limited to accounts of his work.
Workman was almost 90 when these informal recordings were made, and his articulation is a little mushy. But everything else about his voice retains its undeniable power: aching emotion crackles from every raw shout, every twangy dip in pitch, every nasal moan. His version of “O Death” certainly rivals any I’ve ever heard by Ralph Stanley.
The album was produced by Nathan Salsburg, a resident of Louisville, Kentucky, and the production manager of the Alan Lomax Archives. He’s a also a guitarist, and recently turned up on the third volume of Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem series.
The Intuit event starts at 6 PM. The new album will be played and 30 minutes of previously unissued video of Workman will be screened. Salsburg is scheduled to attend.
Wayne Escoffery and Veneration, Hopes and Dreams (Savant)
Jake One, Presents White Van Music (Rhymesayers)
Bik Bent Braam, Extremen (BBB)
Issa Bagayogo, Mali Koura (Six Degrees)
Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12)