Reverend Buell Kazee (1900-1976) was no ordinary folk singer, with degrees in Greek and Latin, not to mention classical voice training and serious theological study. Raised in the mountains of eastern Kentucky (Magoffin County), he grew up with his mother’s hymns and ballads and his father’s banjo picking. It wasn’t until he was studying literature in college that he realized that the Elizabethan ballads he was reading were the same texts he’d heard sung in his childhood. Having picked up the banjo at age 7, he had accompaniments for them, which he then demonstrated to the class. Since he had his heart set on the ministry, he hadn’t taken what he’d preserved seriously.
After college, when he was teaching voice and Bible studies at Cumberland College, he was discovered by a scout for Brunswick Records, for whom he subsequently cut 58 sides, released between 1927 and 1929, doing so largely to pay off the debt to his voice teacher.
He quickly learned how to subdue his “good” voice in preference to the rougher style Brunswick wanted, but rejected a showbiz career in order to stick with the ministry. Rediscovered in 1958, Kazee overcame a lot of his prejudices against secular music to perform widely at folk festivals and concerts, although he was rather cantankerous about the mores and politics of his audience.
But as shown by these recordings, largely made in 1965 for a Rounder album that didn’t come off, his voice training kept him limber. His phenomenal memory for ballad lyrics never wavered, nor did his fluid and idiosyncratic banjo style.
Many a Folk Scare performer learned songs from Kazee’s Brunswick records, which is why these versions of “The Lady Gay” and “Black Jack Davy” will sound vaguely familiar. No, he’s not as rough and scary as Dock Boggs, but he’s not Burl Ives, either. The Real Thing comes in many a flavor, and Kazee’s was undeniably one of them.