The first thing to note about the collection of old-timey music Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard is that it resulted from a record-discovery event that happens less and less often, and soon will likely never happen again. The music was recorded between 1923 and 1936. Most of the sides on the set are taken from 78s collected by the late Don Wahle of Louisville, Ky., and rescued from Dumpster destruction in 2010 by compiler Nathan Salsburg. Nineteen of the songs have never been reissued. Piles of moldy vinyl left behind by the deceased were once commonplace. No longer. Finding worthy old vinyl no one has heard since it was new is now almost miraculous.
Fortunately, Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard is not guided by rarity of the material. A durable, listenable song sequence seems to be the first priority, and you can't do better than starting with a sturdy, unfamiliar version of "John Henry."
Salsburg has done an exemplary job of organizing these tunes from a vanished world that few folks can remember today. The Work Hard disc includes songs about labor and commerce. Play Hard gathers a selection on leisure and partying. Pray Hard finishes the set with songs about Christian life and the afterlife.
There are other amusing, bygone quirks in the collection. A number of spoken skits are done as introductions, ideal for an audience used to listening to music on radio programs with a vaudeville format. And why so many fiddles making sounds like mules and trains and hounds? Well, listening to such stuff in your home was the hi-tech special effect of the early 20th century. The one dog, so to speak, on the anthology is Whit Gaydon's "Tennessee Coon Hunt," a mad mosaic of yelping and yapping fiddle, growling and hollering vocals that sure is striking, but not worth experiencing more than two or three times. With other performers, such as Warren Caplinger's Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, the nonmusic parts are at least as spirited as the playing that follows.
There's a lot of variety on Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard — even a complaint about the rise of chain stores — but the currents of long-ago lives come through: the drudgery of the work that demanded the release of the party, which then required the penance of prayer. The spare, rural nature of the religious songs on the third disc is particularly striking — almost better when they sound distant, unknowable, mysterious. John Jeremiah Sullivan puts it best in his liner notes to disc three, writing about the obscure "Beyond the Starry Plane" by the Red Brush Singers: "I understand hardly any of the words. From the abyss of the static come 'dear Mother' and 'no matter what I do' and 'we shall meet again' and 'Jesus is my God.' I listen to this song and imagine Don Wahle listening to it, leaning forward to hear it better. An infinitesimal point of communion." There's a starry plane of such communion all over this collection, waiting to be heard anew after so many years.