Nimrod Workman - "Jack Straw Straddle" (I Want to Go Where Things are Beautiful)
The first word that Nimrod Workman brings to mind is endurance. This was a guy who worked in coalmines for 42 years, endured forced retirement on account of black lung disease, and lived another 43 years before dying in 1994 at the age of 99. He’s also a guy who could make a couple records for folk labels in the ’70s, pop up in bit parts in a fewmovies and still be remembered today.
The music on I Want to Go Where Things are Beautiful exudes the life force that fired that endurance. Whatever trials Workman encountered as a miner, union organizer, or folk circuit fixture, they didn’t weigh him down when he sang. And his singing is just about all you get here; he tells a few short stories, and there are some handy context-setting liner notes by label boss Nathan Salsburg and original recordist Mike Seeger, but across 27 tracks, Workman sings old songs, familiar songs, and made-up songs without a lick of accompaniment.
Seeger did his job well. Workman’s big voice and post-dental diction never overwhelm the mic, and on a song like “Barbara Allen” you can feel the air shiver around him. Parts of Workman’s repertoire will be pretty familiar to old-time music collectors, or even those who usually case other joints. You’ve doubtless heard “Casey Jones,” “Shady Grove,” and “Oh Death,” and if you’re a Brit-folk fan you know “Lord Daniel” as “Matty Groves.” Workman sings the mortality-tinged material like a talisman; when he implores Death to pass him by for another year, you get the feeling that he’s going to get his way. And he did. Workman might have been 87 years old and toothless when he made this record, but he was still quite spry and 12 years short of the day he’d meet his maker.
But as powerful as the dark stuff is, the novelties draw you in just as much. Reportedly Workman sang throughout the day, and many of these songs reflect good humor, not tragedy. It’s that spirit that makes 52 minutes of spittle-flecked a capella singing so magnetic.