Vieux Farka Touré Speaks on Malian Music, Culture, and Politics
by Devon Léger
live concert photos by Sean Jewell
Sitting backstage at Dmitriou's Jazz Alley with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré earlier this year, he’s visibly tired. Tired of being asked about the state of affairs in Mali, tired of speaking in English, a language that comes with some difficulty for him, and tired of the upheaval Malian society has undergone in the past few years. At the time we talked, Mali had recently been freed from the Islamist fighters who had hijacked the Tuareg revolution, overriding the Tuareg desire for sovereignty and self-government with shari’a laws prohibiting music, dance, damaging Malian culture, and killing civilians. Part of what’s making Touré weary is the knowledge that even though the Islamists have been overthrown, the new government doesn’t seem to be much better about music than they were. But then later that evening, Touré will show no evidence of fatigue, tearing through a long set onstage at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley to an audience enraptured by the sounds of his virtuosic guitar-work and singing, projected through a top-flight sound system usually reserved for jazz purists. The space gives Touré room to breathe with his music, and the ornaments begin swirling and eddying around the room, ripping out of his instrument as he strides along the stage. He’s been called the “Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara,” but all I can think of is that he’s more like Clapton than Hendrix. An artist content to build on the foundation of tradition, pushing ever forward without fear, but not intending to rewrite the instrument itself. Touré’s clearly born from the same cloth as his father, the great Ali Farka Touré, and indeed a cover of one of Touré Sr’s songs during the evening (I think it was “Diaraby”) was met with rapturous applause.
"We don’t love a government that doesn’t love music."
In talking to Touré before the show, I found that he had a huge respect for the traditions of Malian music, something that surprised me, since he’s often seen as an innovative collaborator with Western/world music artists like Dave Matthews or Idan Raichel. But like his father, Touré rides the line between the looping, trance-like rhythms of North African guitar (rhythms that bands like Bombino and Tinariwen have popularized) and the ornate ornaments and swirling melodies of Southern Mali (think Amadou et Mariam or Habib Koite). Living between these two worlds may have instilled in him a sense of balance between tradition and creation, but it was the upheaval in Mali that turned him back to tradition with his new album, Mon Pays. I wanted to ask him more about this, so I immediately switched to French on meeting him backstage. Lounging on the couch in the green room, he put away his phone and focused in on the interview (translated here from the French).
Hearth Music Interview with Vieux Farka Touré
Hearth Music: Where do you live now? Do you live in Mali now?
Vieux Farka Touré: I live in Mali, yes, I live over there.
How long have you lived in Mali?
VFT: Always! I was born there, grew up there, and I live there now. With everything that’s happening, you’re obligated to stay there. You’re obliged because your country is your country. We can’t leave Mali, that’s not right.
And you’re going back to Mali.
VFT: Yes, I’m going back at the start of next month or soon.
What’s the situation like in Mali now? Have things gotten better?
VFT: Well, the thing is that Malians are good people and they don’t know much about violence. And then to have coup d’états, or people with bad intentions who are causing this… but at least now it’s over. Now things are better, they’re like over here [in the US]. There aren’t as many problems.
And have people returned to their homes?
VFT: Yes, everyone’s back home now.
Can you say that peace has returned to Mali?
VFT: We can’t say exactly that Mali is at peace, but peace is returning.
Do you think having music forbidden changed the opinions of Malians ? Did people realize how central music is there?
VFT: We don’t love a government that doesn’t love music. Me, I don’t love a government that doesn’t love music. And our government today, I’m not ok with the fact that we can have soccer matches and everything else, but not music. I don’t understand that… There are musicians who live from day to day… what can they do? Then the bureaucrats kick them out of their house when they can’t pay their rent. That’s not right, you see? Maybe they can forbid music for weddings or those things, but musicians that play in the bars, we should let them play because that’s all they have. They’re not paid a salary per month, they’re paid by what they do.
Well, it’s the same thing here in the US!
VFT: That’s right. That’s the system. If you don’t play in the evening, then you don’t eat in the morning.
Do you think that young people in Mali have realized yet that music can be a way out or a chance to travel and build a good career?
VFT: Sure, there are a lot of good musicians in Mali, but when it comes to music it’s not just what you know. I’ve understood that you have to have a chance, an opportunity. An opportunity to travel abroad, or to have an international career. That’s very important. And when you get the chance, you say “Thank God!”
Do you think that young people see Malian traditions as something to export, or do they see outside music as the solution, maybe more popular music?
VFT: Well, today where we are, the young people are more likely to perform rap music or music like that, but the truth is I’ve always told people to play traditional music first. If there’s rap, it must be traditional.
Why do you say that?
VFT: To keep the traditions alive.
What happens if we don’t keep the traditions?
VFT: It dies.
Like if we let hip-hop destroy everything?
VFT: Yeah, that’s not right. We must keep the tradition alive… Because when the young people focus on hip-hop, they forget the traditions. So traditional music begins to fall away little by little and then it’s gone. That’s the reality today.
Even though there are artists like you and your father and other master traditional artists in Mali who have or had big careers, it’s still the hip-hop that’s attracting the youth.
VFT: That’s true, because when a traditional musician in Mali does a concert on a big stage, pffft! People don’t come. But when a hip-hop artist does a concert…Phew! It’s full! You see?
Have you wanted to mix your music with hip-hop?
VFT: Ohhh, I have friends in hip-hop and I’d do that. Sometimes it’s good to do that to pass the message to the youth who don’t listen to traditional music.
Your new album, Mon Pays, seems more traditional than ever for you. Why the difference?
VFT: You know, being a musician, each time you make an album, you’re showing people your talent, your abilities, and you should give them something new. You have to convince your public that each time you do something, it’s going to be that much better. And certainly this album is an homage to Mali. So I said to myself, “OK, Mali is still Africa. So if you do an album, you must create an album that resembles Africa.” So the music should be African music. Not rock and roll, or jazz. So that’s why I made this album.
But on this album you have a collaboration with Israeli artist Idan Raichel that’s really different.
VFT: Yes, he’s my friend, and he played the piano, but the album is all traditional. For me, it’s traditional Israeli music mixed with traditional Malian music, you see.
For you, it’s all traditional.
VFT: That’s right.
So if the tradition is the base of the music, then for you it’s traditional music.
VFT: Yes, that’s right.
VFT: I’d also like to say a bit about my organization that I’m putting together. It’s a humanitarian organization to help orphans and malaria victims in Mali, people like that. It’s called AMAHREC-Sahel.
What will this organization do in Mali? Is it based over there?
VFT: Not only in Mali, but also in New York with Modiba Productions. This is a way to help people… We don’t have one single objective, we have lots of objectives. We are open to new ideas. We look for where there’s a problem, not only in Mali. If there’s a problem in Chad, for example, we’d go to Chad and do a concert for an orphanage. We go there, and we do something good…
Can you tell me one lesson your father taught you?
VFT: The lesson he really taught me was about patience and calm, meaning you must be truly patient in your life because then you can go very far. Don’t jump, go forward step by step, because when you jump from the top step to the bottom step on a staircase, you risk a fall. This way you’re sure to arrive at your goal in good shape. Y a pas de problème!
Northwest Roots: Logging Songs in Washington State
by LLyn De Danaan
Scratch the urbane surface of just about anybody I know, and stories of a grandfather or great grandmother who worked in the coalmines or the woods come pouring out. I suppose it is the company I keep (often determined by my affection for those who share or appreciate my own Irish-Welsh heritage working class heritage) or a fascination I have for people who stir their coffee with their thumbs. A few months ago, I listened to a fellow musician tell tales about his grandpa’s fiddle, the one he played with a cello bow when he joined in with the Québécois in his logging camp. From another pal, I heard the story of a banjo-playing father and a pair of grandparents who ran a big logging camp near Spirit Lake, Idaho. That story was embellished with tales of the team of horses that hauled logs out of the woods and a pet bear that lived on kitchen leftovers. Many of these anecdotes are based on real or inflated memories of ancestors who not only lived in the rough also filled their evenings with music as they lounged beside warm stoves in the evenings. These were the dark, after work hours when laborers fetched their instruments from under their bunks or off the rough iron hooks where duffels hung. Those work calloused hands, sometimes missing a few digits, fetched fiddles, spoons, banjos and musical saws and joined in jouyous harmony. Feet scuffled an clogged in time with the melodies and sometimes, instruments that had traveled with them or their forbearers across the Atlantic and then migrated with them over the vast North American continent all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These were tunes that cemented a certain bond among working people, entertained them, and gave them a barrelful of laughs at the end of arduous and danger-filled days underground or in the woods.
But these songs were far different from those recorded and produced in the past 50 years. For example, the “logging song” genre, starting with “The Frozen Logger” by James Stevens, is rife with “pseudo-folklore.” These newer songs were composed by singing loggers who came from the woods but became known as individual performers and recording artists. Their songs were based upon their experience in the woods but drew heavily on the conventions of country and western music, and, interesting as they are, seem not to have captured or transmitted the spirit of the rough lives of the woodsmen or ”shanty” boys in the east or in the early days of the Northwest. It is a different genus of music and disconnected, in some ways, from logging music’s 19th century roots. Those roots, admittedly, are not easy to find. Even folklorists have been accused of “censoring” or rewriting what they heard from the old timers for they were often bawdy songs and even the names of tools and the work in the woods were loaded with sexual innuendos that made the greenhorns blush.
My first introduction to logging songs of the Pacific Northwest was listening to “The Frozen Logger” as sung around the piano at the James house in the Seattle area during the late 1960s. Dave had an original copy of the sheet music as arranged and sung by The Weavers and signed by the writer, James Stevens. Stevens spent his young years in the woods and sawmills of the Pacific Northwest. He called himself a “hobo laborer.” We have him to thank for the popularity of the Paul Bunyan stories, first published in 1925. Stevens’ telling of the stories was based upon tales that had circulated among lumberjacks for years. In the Evergreen State College Archives, there are old reel to reel tapes I found of singing loggers like Hank Nelson, who grew up near Coos Bay, Oregon and worked as a timber faller in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, and Woody Gifford, known as a logger poet, among others. At the taped performance I viewed, Nelson wears a plaid shirt and suspenders. He has dark curly hair and expressive eyes. The person who introduces him says it was “like getting a beast out of the woods” to get him to appear. Nelson pays homage to Buzz Martin and sings a Buzz song, “I’m sick of settin’ chokers in the rain.” At his presentation, he brings his pal, Woody Gifford, on stage. Gifford provides percussion for the next tune by hitting an iron wedge with a sledge.
Sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s I visited Camp Grisdale. I was hauling a reel-to-reel Sony Portapak camera and video tape recording outfit with me. It seemed heavy as heck but in reality was only about a 7-pound weight slung from my shoulder.
Simpson Timber Company owned Grisdale. It was opened in 1946 and represented a, “departure from traditional living arrangements,” company reps said, in Washington forests, “where lumberjacks bunked in ragged railroad cars perched on sidings.” Grisdale was built to be permanent and to, “serve a wholesome, stable community for a man and his family.” This characterization of the old logging camps is at least a tad hyperbolic and that of the new is loaded with feel good words: wholesome, stable, and family. This was not necessarily how loggers would have described their old lives nor their goals for a better working situation when they began to unionize. And indeed, it was the hard work of the unions that got them the “modernized” camps like Grisdale. These new, updated digs were, in other words, not the result of the largesse of the big companies. The unions, including the I.W.W. or Wobblies, worked hard to assure 8-hour days and a more just work climate for the loggers.
The song “Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks” describes exactly what the loggers wanted and it could have served as a blueprint for Simpson and Grisdale:
“Take a tip and start right in—plan some cozy rooms
Six or eight spring beds in each, with towels, sheets and brooms;
Shower baths for men who work keeps them well and fit
A laundry, too, and drying room, would help a little bit.” (2)
The recording is Joe Glazer’s rendition. Glazer was called “labor’s troubadour.” He published “Songs of Work and Freedom” and was a founder of the Labor Heritage Foundation to “curate and promote the culture of the American Labor Movement. He recorded many of the songs from the I.W.W. period in the Northwest.
A second version of the song was recorded in St. Maries, Idaho. It is sung by Earl Gleason whose family had over 100 years of experience in the Idaho woods where Harold Barto of Ellensburg, Washington collected the song in 1917.
The words vary somewhat from the published I.W.W. version:
Fifty thousand lumberjacks
Goin’ in to eat
Fifty thousand plates of slum
Made from tainted meat,
Fifty thousand lumberjacks
All settin’ up a yell
To kill the belly robbers
An' damn their souls to hell. (3)
Here is a recording of Gleason’s version:
Photo: Loggers at Simpson Camp 5 near Grisdale, Washington State
Songs about unemployment and economic hardships among those who still work in the woods continue to be a theme of more contemporary singing loggers like Bob Antone and the late Buzz Martin. This one (below) on YouTube was recorded by Buzz Martin on the Ripcord Music label:
Martin made his own guitars, and, influenced by the Grand Ole Opry, began writing his own country western songs, most of them on logging themes. He worked in the woods as cutter, high climber and whistle punk and began performing in logging camps and in dances in the Northwest. He toured with his family ensemble called, appropriately, “Chips off the Old Block.” He died in 1983.
By 1946 Simpson Timber Company had to do better if they were to attract people who would stay in this soggy wet forest where 160 inches of rain a year would grow moss on your boots and mushrooms in your ears if you stood still long enough. I visited Grisdale with my friend, Karen James and her father, Dave James, who served as Simpson’s PR man and historian for many years. The Grisdale camp, James said, was a big investment for the company. It featured freestanding family homes, “a two-room schoolhouse, a gymnasium, and a grocery in the middle of the forest.”
When it closed in 1985 it was said to be the “last of America’s logging camps.” And it represented the decline and demise of a way of life and the end of an era. “To the rigging-slingers and grapple-loaders, chokers and chasers, Camp Grisdale, lying at the end of a twisted, rutted road between civilization and rawest nature, was more than a job.” It was, locals said, a sad day for the men in the cork boots and red suspenders. Some had known nothing but the camps as had their fathers and grandfathers.
That day in the woods 40 miles up the Wynochee above Montesano in the Olympic Mountains, I stood near a team of men as they prepared to fell a behemoth of a fir tree. They made a huge undercut down low on the tree. Years ago, loggers notched the tree up high, inserted a springboard, and cut the tree from that position. You can still see tall stumps all around forests in the Northwest. On the stumps, you can make out the notches where the springboards were inserted. I watched these seasoned laborers in awe. Norman Maclean described their work beautifully:
"… A [lumberjack] could not remain a logger and be outworked. If I had to ask for mercy on the saw I might as well have packed my duffel bag and headed down the road. … Sawing it is something beautiful when you are working rhythmically together— at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when sawing isn't rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness—maybe even something more disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn't working right. " -Norman Maclean
Those were the days when trees were felled with axes and long crosscut saws pulled with one faller at either end. The modern chainsaw was patented in 1926. The woods, subsequently, changed dramatically.
As the men I watched cut deeper into the tree, great gushing buckets of sap flowed as easily as a waterfall out of the center of the tree. It was astonishing to see that much liquid coming out of a tree. Millions of sap cells seemed to be exhausting their carefully held supplies all at once and pouring out their life stuff as the saws dug deeper and deeper. When the great wedge was finished to the satisfaction of the team, the team made a back cut. The sound of the saws, an angry sound of a thousand troubled mosquitoes, was insistent. The team would have their way with the tree, no doubt. Then there was a heavy, surprising earthquake, a ground trembling moment, as the colossus fell. Nothing could prepare me for the finality of that fall. It was like, I thought, the day I saw a grand, shining marlin I had caught die and turn dull and blank before my eyes. I was moved and afraid at the same time. I was afraid at what I was capable of doing to such majesty. A little voice inside me said, “this just isn’t right.” But hundreds of thousands of people, mostly men, have made their livings and fed their families pursuing and bringing down these giant trees or damming rivers, or slaughtering buffalo or chasing whales. It is the stuff of myth and song and great literature. Think Hemingway, Melville, and Samson. Man and nature, the small insignificant man standing up to and conquering the mighty. The book of Genesis exhorts, “Go forth, multiply, and subdue the earth,” and we’ve been doing it ever since. There is danger, death, impossible odds, the risk of the gamble, in short, a human life against the great “it”.
We went back to camp and were escorted through a lunch line where raw men shoveled t-bone steaks on to their plates, some piling the steaks even higher than the precarious stacks of pancakes they’d had for breakfast. I didn’t hear what James Stevens heard when the loggers sat around the table and called out, “chase that java and canned cow over here, Stub” or “chase us a slab of that bull, will you Slim” or “chase along a bowl of strawberries” (beans) or even “chase down the punk and the skid grease” (bread and butter). (4)
That was my day with the “timber beasts” of Grisdale. Their fathers’ and grandfathers’ history included tales of hardship, heroism, loss, and periods of radicalization including strikes called by the I.W.W. and, of course, these stories and tales were carried forward and informed by music.
Llyn De Danaan
LLyn De Danaan is a Northwest writer and anthropologist based out of Olympia, WA. Her latest book, Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay, is out now via The University of Nebraska Press. It's a look at the Northwest Native experience at the dawn of the 20th century through the eyes of Katie Gale, a fiercely independent woman with a tragic story.
NOTE: This article was edited and condensed from the original, which you can read HERE on LLyn's blog.
New Orleans, Louisiana
by Devon Leger
I've known Rising Appalachia for a long time now, first as the folk duo of sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, raised by Appalachian and roots music loving parents in the South, and then as the fusion-oriented bandleaders that they are now, bringing an openly welcoming, community-based aesthetic to their music today. Their latest album, Filthy Dirty South, is an eclectic affair based on their lives in New Orleans' wildly vibrant roots music scene and their travels as far abroad as the communes of Goa in India. Having come from the South, and making the kind of multi-cultural, forward-thinking music most people might associate with the Left Coast, I was curious to find out more about how Leah and Chloe thought of the South, and how their music fit both in New Orleans and in farther corners of the region.
Hearth Music Interview with Rising Appalachia
Hearth Music: Where are you both from? Did you grow up in folk music?
Rising Appalachia: We grew up in downtown Atlanta, GA rather immersed and happily steeped in both traditional music: Appalachian, Irish, Jazz, and world harmony singing from our parents and their musical community, as well as in the urban pulse of underground hip hop, soul and the spoken-word movement. Although that might seem an unusual combination of influences, we had fun navigating the cultural melting pot and bouncing from fiddle festivals in the Appalachian mountains on the weekends to our downtown high-school and underground dance clubs in the city and have found the overlap to be a huge creative inspiration in our work as musicians, performers, story-tellers, and bridge builders.
What does "folk music" mean to you today? You've been in and around the genre for a long time, but have also been looking at what it really means, more than what it sounds like. So what are your thoughts on the benefits of folk music?
RA: Folk music, by one definition, is "music, usually of simple character and anonymous authorship, handed down among the common people by oral tradition". This rings true to the fact that most folk music across the globe was originally created, written, and passed between poor and/or under served people of all regions, which throughout time, has proved to be some of the best music around. To us, there is something real, graspable, and authentic in folk music that really defies the common boundaries of stance and stature in all our lives and brings out something common and shared between us all. Hip Hop is the underground folk of the urban American youth...
We have been able to travel all over the world as song collectors, and although original songwriting and music is often shared and made available to us, often times it's the grandmother songs- the farmer songs- the dance songs- and the ancient seasonal chants that people are the most excited to share with us. Folk music can be our common tie, unifying without having a common language, and beautiful no matter how much of the words you understand. Its humble. Its grounded and rooted in community and a sense of place as well as history and an understanding of where we come from. Its timeless.... and in our modern rush paced society... that's about as valuable as anything else out there.
A big ol' gumbo pot of living... people of all race, class, religion, dance styles, education backgrounds... front stoop living, and song swapping.
Tell me about the song "Filthy Dirty South". How did it come about?
RA: Chloe wrote the song "Filthy Dirty South" a few years back when we had a little time off in New Orleans to write and learn songs down in that musical center of the universe. It was and continues to be a huge influence in our writing and social lives, providing a social, creative, spiritual and communal frame work for the entire Rising Appalachia crew. That song in particular was pulling from a few experiences that we all had as a band, which was two fold. One was the tragic and dirty BP oil spill disaster in Louisiana, and the other was the fracking and mountain top removal chaos that was happening and continues to happen in Southern Appalachia... (which is where our original bass player was from, and told stories of gas companies literally knocking at the door of his family home seeking land rights constantly). The song is about the environmental resources that are extracted from the south in all these dirty and harmful ways, why they happen, and evolves into a call for southerners especially but everyone to pay attention to that and work towards some better options for such a beautiful region of the country. It also ties into the idea that there are places in all our lives and homes that suffer from neglect, and asks us each to take some time to nurture those parts of the world, and those parts of our homes.
You both clearly have a strong DIY, community-minded spirit. How has this meshed with New Orleans? Has New Orleans recently become a center for young community-minded artists, or has it always been this way?
RA: We cannot really speak on personal reference to what was going on in New Orleans before Katrina and before we got swept away in its magic, but post 2005.... and in our own humble opinion having traveled all over the world, it is one of THE strongest and most DIY communities we've had the pleasure to call home. Because there are limited financial resources in that city compared to most major art centers in the country, there is both a necessity and a sort of old-school "call upon your neighbors" mentality of sharing, collaborating, being transparent, and involving as many artists as you can in any and every project that comes to fruition. I imagine, in its way, that New Orleans has always been this way and will hopefully continue on this route even as money and new investment filters in. A hot bed of culture. A big ol' gumbo pot of living... people of all race, class, religion, dance styles, education backgrounds... front stoop living, and song swapping. There is a very primal need in mostly all of its inhabitants to express themselves and tell the stories that are so rich and unique to that center of the south. Although we'd all like to keep it a secret, anyone that ever sets foot on the banks of Miss New Orleans can feel that creative power run right through them, and impatiently awaits the next time they can return...
Do you feel that being on the farther left side of the political spectrum in the South clashes with Southern values? Have you come up against resistance to your songs, especially songs like Filthy Dirty South. Or are you finding that more and more people are coming away from conservative values after seeing their scorched-earth results?
RA: Well...thats a good questions... I am certain that not all southern folk like everything that we have to say...but this is true the world over. There are no clean lines in people's belief systems not of any community great or small. We are each our own animal. That being said, we believe deeply in the positive and powerful parts of Southern culture as well. The music and dance and eating and socializing traditions that brought people together no matter what your background. There was and still is a lot of poverty in the south that lends to certain amount of DIY attitudes that keeps communities strong and independent. We also are big supporters of the re-envisioning of the south... recognizing that it has been the brunt of a lot of negative stereo-types that ALTHOUGH DO lay in some historical truth, are also not the main voice of Southern radicalism, human rights, traditional medicine, and feminism that are also deeply rooted in Southern communities. There is a quiet nature to the South...but there is also a hotbed of righteous activists that are doing deeply important work ...and that gets overlooked.
Tell me about the new EP with The Human Experience? Who are they and how did this come about? Were you going for an "electro-trad" sound specifically?
RA: Ha! Not exactly "electro-trad"...but as big time lovers of deep bass music, we wanted to see if we could bring an element of our personal soul sound into the highly electronically minded world...It is the first step at an urban bridge...a dj dance party...a "swamp/womp" style! We do so much work recreating old music in a way that feels fresh and vital to us, we thought perhaps we should take a crack at adding our flavor to a contemporary sound. David Block is an old friend of ours and his inspiration to make it happen and to really try out a full on collaboration of sounds was compelling to us. It has begun just one more path for sound sharing...
Do you think there's a real divide between our generation and the generation of our parents when it comes to roots music? Do you feel like you guys get support from both sides of the generational divide? Or is there a real gap there?
RA: I think there is a gap for sure, but not a canyon. There are some linguistic differences...different words for the same general needs...but i find that most roots music lovers love the same thing. And even with more contemporary styles...there may not be too much of a crossover in listening, but there is alot of respect for powerful minded music of all styles. Music with soul and spirit. Who doesn't like that?
Elizabeth Mitchell's Thoughts on Folk Music and Families
Woodstock, New York
by Devon Leger
It’s impossible to separate the joy of folk music from the joy of discovery. I think that discovery is at the heart of our passion of musical traditions; we’re all looking for that moment where something old and unknown touches us and changes the way we look at our collective past. And I think this feeling relates in some way to faith. Not being especially religious myself, I imagine the feeling of realizing that an arcane Biblical verse suddenly applies to your actual living life must be somewhat similar. I felt this when I heard “The Cherry Tree Carol” for the first time. It’s an old Christmas Carol based on Biblical apocrypha. Not the established Gospels that everyone knows so well, but the more mysterious later gospels. The Cherry Tree Carol (which is also a Child ballad) comes from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, probably written in the 7th century. The song (and the gospel) cover the infancy of Jesus, but the song relates such a raw human emotion that I don’t think is covered in the Bible. In the song, a very pregnant Mary is traveling with Joseph, walking through the heat, when she asks him to gather her some cherries (or sometimes dates) since she is “with child.” Surprisingly, he bites back with a nasty quip: “Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.” So baby Jesus, from in his mother’s womb, uses his powers to cause the cherry tree to bow low to the ground so Mary can pick them herself. It’s such a surprising moment and so utterly human. Of course Joseph would be jealous of Mary and Jesus. Any man would struggle with feelings of jealousy at the thought of raising another man’s child; it’s a deep deep human emotion, rooted at our core. Which brings me back to Elizabeth Mitchell. When interviewing her earlier for No Depression, she stated simply that her album of Christmas music (The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of Ruth Crawford Seeger) was, at the heart of it, the story of mother and child. Mother Mary and Baby Jesus, the most beautiful heart of the New Testament, or Ruth Crawford Seeger and her son Mike Seeger, two people at the heart of a movement to revitalize old traditions, or even Elizabeth and her own daughter Storey, who’s been at the center of her family-based music since the beginning.
So in that spirit, we talked to Elizabeth Mitchell to get her perspective on making music en famille, as the French say.
Hearth Music: Do you think it’s harder to make music professionally in a family? You’re drawing inspiration from her family, and there has been a fair number of families in American folk music that were central, but do you feel the pressure of making music creatively and as a business in a family?
Elizabeth Mitchell: I don’t know if it’s harder or easier, it’s really what we’ve done since our daughter was born. There are challenging and fulfilling sides to it both. There’s something that is going to be innate in singing with your family. There’s going to be something that’s running in your blood and in your daily shared lives that is going to create a different kind of harmony than people that are just coming together within that moment to create music. There’s something enriching about that but there’s also something really challenging about that. But I think, ultimately, it’s something that I feel very fortunate and grateful to be able to do. I’m very inspired by the Seegers; I’m inspired by the Carter family. I’m inspired by the McGarrigle-Wainright extended family; they’re another present-day extended family that’s making really extraordinary music together.
What about touring as a family? I talked to Kimya Dawson and she talked about the difficulties of touring as a family...
EM: Yes, it’s a challenge. It’s something I feel lucky to be able to do because we spend a lot of our time together. My husband, Daniel, has been playing in Amy Helm’s band for the last couple of years, so now there are certain times of the year when he takes off and we don’t see him for a while. So, we are even more grateful for the time that we do get to go off on the road together as a family. It’s getting more challenging as our daughter gets older; she’s 12 now, in middle school and it becomes harder and harder to go away for long periods of time and to find a balance out on the road. Our time when we’re actually there playing music is wonderful but anyone that’s ever toured knows that that’s an hour of the day and that the rest of the day, there’s all of this other activity that isn’t quite as obviously related to the act of making music. That’s a sign for an adult to have to go through all of those sacrifices that lead up to that 90 minutes at the end of the day or for us, with children’s music, at the beginning of the day. It’s harder to ask a child to have to make all of those sacrifices, all for that 90 minute experience of creativity.
Does your daughter, Storey, perform with you when you’re touring?
EM: She does, yes.
She sings beautifully on the album.
EM: Thank you. She sings, she plays the guitar now, she plays ukelele, she plays recorder. She’s pretty good at holding down a beat on tambourine. She’s part of what we do live and I think it’s fun for kids to see her up there playing music with her family although now she is 12 and she looks like a young woman. A lot of the kids that come to our show see the picture of her in the liner notes from You Are My Little Bird when she was 5 and they’re expecting to see a 5 year old up there. You watch their eyes going up and up and up, going, “Wow!” because she’s a pretty tall 12 year old but that’s also fun to see that adjustment of expectations.
What would be your advice for parents who want to get their kids performing music organically, in the sense that it comes naturally. I think a lot of parents struggle with, “Should we push them into music or let it come naturally?”, especially musician parents. I know I struggle with it. What would your advice be?
EM: I think that it’s great to play music together at home, outside of a performance context. We left it up to Storey to join us on stage when she was ready and when she wanted to do it in the way that came from her. Playing a lot at home, one of the first instruments we gave her was a harmonica. If we handed her a harmonica in a certain key, the key of C, then we just sat down and played in that key, then she couldn’t hit a wrong note. So, there’s no fear associated with playing the instrument, whereas a piano or an instrument that has so many more possibilities for right and wrong. That’s a really good place to start where it’s about breath and expression and phrasing. A harmonica really lends itself to that first moments of an instrumental expression of music. Ukeleles are a lovely place to start, the strings are nylon, so they’re soft on a child’s hand as opposed to a guitar and you can learn 2 chords and play many songs for that satisfying experience of playing a song and expressing yourself that way.
Throughout your career, you’ve worked so much with folk music for children, but how have you balanced the darker aspects of folk music when you’re dealing with children?
EM: Everybody makes a different personal choice when it comes to that. I really respect where everybody comes from on it. For me, it falls on the side of “I really don’t go there that much.” I’ll go to sadness, but darker things I stay away from because I think there are times when you are spending with your child where you want to have an oasis. You want to feel peace. I think that that’s been the guiding thread in my work with children is to keep it a peaceful space. In other parts of your life, it’s important to acknowledge the complexities of life and to wrestle with them, and to face them but, in the records that I’ve created, I’m trying to create a really peaceful time. So, I’ve kept those themes out of the picture for the most part as a conscious choice.
The Christmas and holiday season is a time for a lot of people to sing with their family. Has that been the case with you?
EM: For a while, every Christmas, that would be the gift we made. You Are My Flower, our first children’s album, was made as a Christmas gift. That was its intention; we weren’t going to release it. It was not a plan, “This is our new record to put out in the world.” It was, “Let’s make a gift for our nieces and nephews, our friends who are having babies.” So, it all started as a Christmas gift and since then we’ve made recordings as what can we offer to our families, something creative. So, we’ve recorded a handful of songs and given them as a gift to our families. Yes, we do like to sing together but we always do. I don’t know if Christmas is special in that way.
Do you feel like there’s a third folk revival happening in our generation? Not Pete Seeger but the people right after Seeger were the second folk revival and there’s the big Coen brothers movie that’s out that’s going to be about this second folk revival, but is there a third one for our generation that’s been going on?
EM: I don’t know; maybe there is. It’s interesting that you hear banjos on top 40 radio now. I think that’s really, really interesting. I feel it more in the evidence I see that people are playing instruments and playing music together. There are more ukeleles out there than I’ve seen in my lifetime, being played now. People are actually doing it. I think that people are over-saturated by iPods and digital music culture where everything is hundreds of thousands of millions of albums at your fingertip at any time. I think that that has hit a wall and people are like, “Maybe instead I’m going to pick up a ukelele and sing with my friend.” I see that as the best evidence for a third folk revival and I really hope it just keeps growing.
The Anarchist Folk Ideals of Blackbird Raum
Santa Cruz, CA
by Devon Léger
The image of the anarchist has traditionally been an image of menace. Whether a black-clad, masked, bomb-throwing terrorist in the early 20th century, or a black-clad, masked, molotov-cocktail throwing rioter in the early 21st century, it’s remarkable how consistent the stereotype has remained over the years. The implied violence of these images lies at the heart of the fear many in authority seem to have for anarchists. Then again, an anarchist did assassinate the actual president of the nation (William McKinley, 1901), so there’s a precedent for this fear. But the reality is that anarchy may be our best hope for moving forward in a new century riven by class warfare, massive economic disparity, untrustworthy governments, and social malaise.
I’m not talking about anarchy based on a philosophy of violence, but anarchy based on a philosophy of community. This isn’t the glamorous kind of youth-revolt-anarchy, but the slow-burning anarchy that fueled the Occupy movement. It’s the idea that ordinary people can run their own lives, and that rather than paying homage to an unfair pyramid of social class, we can instead organize to effect change while still remaining equals. This kind of anarchy favors horizontal organizing, where groups and committees decide on ways to move forward, and the goal is for all voices to be heard. Really, it’s about adults actually acting like adults and taking their futures into their own hands. We see it absolutely everywhere around us, but we don’t know what to call it. As more and more people awake to the harsh reality of our modern world, it becomes more and more important to find ways to rethink the old paradigms.
Enter Blackbird Raum. A tight coalition of young, black-clad, patch-wearing anarchist folk musicians from Santa Cruz, they’ve become the leaders of next generation folk and punk anarchist musicians. They belong to a generation torn between a digital life overseen and controlled by massive corporations and a remarkably vibrant unplugged life on the streets among handmade communities. Their last album, False Weavers, is a dizzying mashup of punk speed-folk and old-time stringband influences, with lyrics that reference everything from the French resistance and Penny Rimbaud, to Chief Joseph and Edward Abbey.
We caught up with Blackbird Raum online–well, the three main voices for Raum: singer and banjo slinger CASPIAN, singer and accordionist ZACK, and singer and mandolinist MARS to find out more about where they came from and what it means to bring anarchist ideals to folk/traditionalist roots.
Hearth Music: Tell me how the band was formed. What was the impetus to start playing folk music?
CASPIAN (CPN): We were living in these crappy shacks in the woods, no electricity. Even when we’d be staying at a house it wasn’t like we could have drums there. There are really stringent noise laws in Santa Cruz so having an acoustic band seemed really like the only option. Someone gave me a banjo so I played it and of course some folk arbiter came along and said “you’re doing it all wrong!” which I’m sad to say I believed for a bit. Somewhere along the line we started going to contra dances and oldtime jams. We met older people and started learning about this huge wealth of music, but we never stopped doing our thing, we never joined up with someone elses group. We just take in what’s going on around us, steal the parts we like and make our own thing.
MARS : In a way, we sort of played what was lying around. I remember sitting around this squat called "the kitchen" playing acoustic guitars with Caspian, because thats what was there… I think if we had a bunch of money and resources, we could have been super calculated about what we were doing. But we were taking what we had, and creating a vision out of that.
ZACK : I got an accordion, for some reason, and I was travelling around the country by freight train—with no case for the accordion!—and occasionally busking for enough money to get into the Chinese buffet. I didn’t know anybody who really played accordion and I had no clue what I was doing, but since I didn’t know any songs and pretty much had never listened to accordion music, I just made it up… I literally had zero interest in or knowledge of folk music at this point, a phenomenon that continued for a few years into the formation of the band. At the time I was listening strictly to heavy metal with some forays into fantasy-based power metal like Rhapsody and Dragonforce.
Did you guys have earlier roots in folk or black metal?
CPN: When I was in high school the token metal dude would play me different famous bands on his Walkman and I would frown. Then one day he played Ulver for me and I didn’t give him his thing back until school was out. In the space of one year they had recorded what I think is one of the best black metal albums, and then one of the best neo-folk records. Kveldssanger was the first album of contemporary folk music that I owned.
Some of us had a black metal band a few years back called Skraeling. We would put on these shows in the woods inspired by our friends in the Northwest who were at forefront of the whole Cascadian Black Metal thing. There were all these amazing bands up there that never really got it together to get a great recording, or do any kind of promotion for their music, but they were presenting things in this purposefully ritual way that had included a very up-front critique of the modern world and the destruction of nature. We saw Fauna a few times play in the woods before we put on a show for them in the state park in Santa Cruz. Threnos and Iskra were some other early bands playing black metal with punk politics and values.
ZACK : We would do these renegade shows on state park land, with a generator and the kind of map-point method of publicizing the location that was reminiscent of the 90s rave scene…
Why does the group call Santa Cruz home? What is it about the area that keeps you there?
MARS : I'm from New York originally and I stumbled upon Santa Cruz when I was 17 and traveling around. What kept me there originally was the community of people I met, and the forest they introduced me to. I fell completely in love with the chaparral and the redwoods. The forest helped me grow in so many ways. This town is expensive as hell to live in, and now that I no longer squat, those two things are still what keeps me here, though the context has changed. I have a daughter now, and that community has grown into an extended family for us. And the very forest that we lived in, and that taught me what it means to be alive, is being threatened by development right now. I feel deeply compelled to be here to protect and defend that place.
Blackbird Raum Art by Cannon Dill
Is there a larger "folk-punk" movement that you all are part of?
CPN : Ever since there has been punk there has been folk-punk. Patrik Fitzgerald’s first album was in 1977. Chumbawamba and The Pogues were some early greats. There are so many different scenes and subgenres of punk, and pretty much any band that includes acoustic stuff is labelled a folk punk band.. I’m not even sure it’s a real genre of music, or at least it wasn’t until recently. We’re happy when one of our friends starts a new acoustic band so we have someone else we’re really excited to play with, but these bands are often more united by a shared community than any particular sound.
Why do you think punk and folk have always been so closely tied? What is it that links the two?
MARS : Its the people’s music! You don't gotta be rich or go to school or read music to learn them. Both are best learned by just being around it.
Both are as much about the culture they come from as they are about the music itself. Both seem simple at a quick listen, but if you listen closely, there's so much room for nuance and subtlety. I feel similarly about Hip-Hop.
ZACK : I wouldn’t say that they have always been closely tied, and even with our band, a common complaint is that we sound too punk or too folk. Sonically, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, so if there is a link, it must have to do with accessibility. Most songs, punk or folk, have three or four chords and a similar, easy to comprehend, song structure; anybody who can play folk music can play punk music and vice versa. Both folk and punk had a political awareness stage, the former in the 60s and the latter in the 80s.
LISTEN To "The Lash" from Blackbird Raum on Soundcloud.
Tell me about anarchist roots of the band.
CPN-. I don’t propose some program by which people will be led to a utopia of lentil soup and orgies. I have seen places like the native community in Black Mesa, or the squatting community in Hamburg, where people organize together to meet their own needs. They manage to respect each other and the earth, and solve their own problems because they have fought for the space to do so. I have also seen ancient forests destroyed to make Victoria’s Secret catalogs. I have seen hundreds of miles of hideous strip malls staffed by unsmiling people with no access to health care. I’ve seen cops beat people for no reason. Asking myself which side I’m on isn’t something I have to think very hard about. Our music is heavily informed by this vision of the world, but we try not to write propaganda songs, or songs for some particular political cult or social identity. If our audience wants to learn they will do better to read a book, and since I’m a book nerd, I’ve conveniently recommended some in the liner notes [of False Weavers]. We personally are anarchists, but our music isn’t about answering questions so much as asking them.
What is the anarchist movement like today? It seems there's unprecedented governmental interference, FBI moles, brutality from cops, and a general view from many in the public of anarchists as a bunch of hooligans. In the time you've been playing music, do you feel like the anarchist movement has become more paranoid and repressed? Do you think there's a new Red Scare coming for anarchists?
CPN-In the last two years of heavy traveling we have hung out with French union leaders, radical prostitutes, Swiss anarcho-punks in their 50s. We have stayed with squatters of the dirty and clean types and working people who spend their days hanging drywall and their nights fighting neo-nazis. We have talked with vegans and hunters, hippies and hard criminals. Anarchism is a feeling about life as much as it is some particular ideology...we are all waiting for the world of power politics to go away and I think we will wait a long time.
To be more specific to your question, most anarchists don’t engage in black bloc activities, or even spend much time thinking about them. Generally the stuff we do doesn’t make very good news copy. I can imagine the headlines “Anarchists Wrote Another Book Today, Cogent Discussion Ensues” or “Meeting of The Babysitting Collective Passed Without Incident” don’t sell as well as riot porn. Recently Brazilian Black Blocs have been called in by the teachers union to help protect their strike against police brutality. It’s a case of anarchists going to where there is conflict between people and power and using their willingness and preparation to act in the interests of the poor. That’s really different from showing up at some peace rally and smashing up a bunch of random businesses because you think that’s what radicals are supposed to do. I enjoy rioting, looting and all that…but I think that unless it’s going to be really well thought out I’d rather not present it to other people as some grand political gesture. I guess that’s what Raiders games are for. When I want to make myself feel good about calling myself an anarchist though, I don’t think about the black bloc or opaque French texts, I think about my heroes like Alan Moore, Emma Goldman and Kenneth Rexroth.
MARS : Because anarchists value individuality and horizontalism there isn't
one central platform or position that defines "the anarchist movement".
That is also what keeps anarchism fluid, adjusting to new realities as
conditions change. For me, the word anarchism is an impoverished
description of my simultaneously simple and nuanced values. I deeply
desire autonomy, freedom, and communities where everyones needs are
valued. But really it’s a deep trust, a trust that I can figure out what is
best for my life, even if I mess up along the way. A trust that a
community can figure out together how to meet their own needs, and a trust
that even though we don't have all the answers, we can probably think of
something healthier than the current set up.
As for state repression, its not new. It's important to learn from
history. The Government certainly does. Tactics for repression on this
continent have been being refined since Columbus set down his first foot.
The then illegal actions taken by the FBI during COINTELPRO were refined
and made legal under the PATRIOT Act. This means heightened repression and
oppression for everyone, not just Anarchists. Its no secret that this has
drastically affected Muslims and undocumented immigrants.
CPN : There already was a new red scare, called the green scare (though to be fair, the actual red scare was waaay worse), that decimated the anarchist and radical environmental movement in the early 2000s, so much so that the militant environmental movement in this country has gone, in ten years, from something that was a beginning to be a real threat to destructive industry to something that is almost non-existent. There’s an excellent book on the subject called “Green is the New Red” by Will Potter, and I encourage everyone who thinks that there are no political prisoners in this country to read about the Marie Mason case. The tactics the government uses to diffuse social movements are extremely diverse, ranging from sentences for vandalism that are longer than some people in this country receive for voluntary manslaughter, to police infiltration tactics that make you question whether or not your friends are paid informants.
In the Northwest (and the West coast in general) in the early 2000s you had this massive scene of people interested in anarchist and ecological resistance. Everyone I met was treesitting, starting an infoshop, something like that. They chased the cops out of the Whiteaker district in Eugene, the WTO protest had just happened. The winning momentum was catching. In a way it was really inspiring...
In a few years it was all over, people you knew were doing these massive sentences, rumour mongering and divisive people (some in the pay of the FBI) were able to shut down communication and debate about key issues. In a short while you went from this vibrant scene to these people sitting around in bars bawling about the good old days. People got scared, I mean it’s really awful to slowly realize that one of your friends is a mole, or to be socially ostracized on the basis of some weird rumour. Spirituality tends to follow repression in resistance movements. After the Red scare a lot of people on the left turned to Willhelm Reich. After the 60s went kaput everyone started getting gurus. Post the green scare people turned to black metal eco-nihilism, paganism, or “rewilding” therapies.
I have also seen ancient forests destroyed to make Victoria’s Secret catalogs. I have seen hundreds of miles of hideous strip malls staffed by unsmiling people with no access to health care. I’ve seen cops beat people for no reason. Asking myself which side I’m on isn’t something I have to think very hard about.
Has Obama helped or harmed the situation? It seems there's even less room for political dissent under his regime than with Bush, which seems kind of amazing
CPN : Obama might be a really good guy dedicated to making a difference, yet stuck in a cynical and unmovable system…or he might be an empty figurehead representing an abstract “hope” instead of any kind of tangible change in the conditions of our lives. To me this isn’t a very relevant distinction, as the results are more or less the same. Our political system is based around noisy arguments over important, but ultimately sideline civil liberties issues: e.g. contraception, or handguns. Meanwhile the Energy, Military and Medical industries quietly pillage the populous and cause irrevocable damage to the environment. Obama will never be able to offer us credible answers to global warming and the economic inequities of our society because to do so he would need the consensus of a system that is gridlocked by design, a system greatly benefiting the most powerful people in the world.
MARS : There was a lot of anger and disenfranchisement after two Bush terms. Instead of using this anger to take apart these broken systems and build something new that can better support our needs and desires, the System re-appropriated that anger by presenting a hopeful possibility for change. Should we be surprised that its only gotten worse? What I want is for folks to stop valuing voting and campaigning over building REAL power for ourselves and our communities.
Is Blackbird Raum a cop magnet? It seems you guys get busted or overwatched by the cops a lot more than should be the case.
CPN-We played in Seattle during Occupy and we could clearly make out figures with telephoto lenses in an abandoned office building across the street. I just walked out into the street, flipped them the bird and they scampered off into the darkness as if it was ME that was the shadowy government agent with near unlimited resources and minimal organizational transparency. I don’t want to whine about our experiences, as they aren’t really that bad. If you want to learn about state repression, ask Jeremy Hammond, who just received a ten year sentence for nonviolent computer crimes.
What are the folk roots of the album? What folk or roots music has been inspiring you recently? What do you take from old-time music especially that you put into Blackbird Raum's music?
CPN : If you’re asking about people that have influenced my playing...on the banjo I’d say Tom Riccio of the Red Hots, as I learned banjo before I got too snobby to learn from recordings of modern players. Marcus Martin is one of the best fiddlers of all time, I can’t really do it, but I learned a lot of John Salyer and Ernie Carpenter tunes with all the bow licks that I could figure out. I more or less try to use the most archaic techniques I possibly can... As far as more contemporary folk influences I’d say we really like a lot of 70’s stuff like Steeleye Span, or Planxty. The Andy Irvine/Paul Brady album is easily one of my favorite records. I saw Dick Gaughan when I was in Dublin and he still kills it. The song “Beast of Carthage” is my weak-ass attempt at a Michael Hurley impression. Martin Hayes, Buffy Sainte Marie…
Do you guys have ties to crust punk? I know that "crusty" is a label thrown around a lot for folk punk groups, but what are the real ties there? And maybe you could break down just what a "crusty" is, since I know many people aren't familiar with crust punk music or culture.
CPN : Crust is a subgenre of punk music that came out in the mid 80’s English squatter scene with bands like Amebix and Discharge. It was really bleak music and everybody dressed like Mad Max with patches. It was kind of an evolution of the whole CRASS anarcho-punk thing, except these people weren’t arty, they were frightening.
I remember the first time I met crusties that played folk music it blew my mind, they seemed so talented, and they could go wherever they wanted and busk for their living. It’s really grown in the last few years...There are gypsy jazz bands, appalachian music, a lot of jug bands, punk/folk crossover bands like us. It’s all connected to New Orleans, trainhopping, the crusty thing. So many of these people are great musicians and very sweet, but there’s also a lot of really drunk, entitled people that carry around broken banjos, accost passersby and generally blow up the scene. It’s probably like when hippie went from meaning you were friends with Abbie Hoffman to meaning that you were zonked out wandering around the Haight wearing a carpet for a shirt. The interactionsbetween the “crust generation” of folk musicians and the people in the trad music scene can be really amusing and sometimes these older musicians come up to me and want me to explain what face tattoos or dumpster diving is about.
ZACK : crust is the best way to stay punk as you age.
Caspian & Zach w/CRASS
What were your earliest folk influences? What was the music that kicked you over from what you were doing towards your current obsession with roots and traditional music?
MARS : My dad introduced me to Woody Guthrie. I just loved the
simplicity. There was so much said in the space. But my real folk
influences came when I dropped out of high school and started hitchhiking
and riding freight around the country. I was just around it. Those were
the instruments people had. It made sense to play folk music.
CPN : I listened to a ton of country blues growing up, all those big names like Robert Johnson or John Hurt. When I started playing in a jug band we would do Holy Modal Rounders and Gus Cannon tunes but I was playing some of that stuff for years before I ever heard the original versions. I didn’t have a computer or iPod, this is before all that crap was on YouTube anyways. I had a tape player, and then somebody gave me a copy of Ernie Carpenter’s “Elk River Blues” and it was all over. I listened to that tape literally hundreds of times.
MARS : I really like the tradition of learning by ear. I like how you can
meet someone and exchange a tune. Somehow those experiences are so
powerful to me. The chance to give and receive those gifts. I appreciate
too the story telling aspect of traditional music. While our lyrics are
often vague, we've also used them to tell stories, like about Ned Kelly,
or the Lucasville prison uprising.
CPN : When old time music became bluegrass, it went from being something that white, black and native people all over north america played, to being the sole province of southern white people (the industry did the same thing to the blues in reverse). Bawdy or rebellious lyrics, and the ancient and strange manner of playing the fiddle went the way of the dodo, and suddenly you were supposed to wear a suit and do some “picking and grinning”. These sanitized and stereotyped images of American life are still being sold back to us as “Americana”. We purposely avoid this label, while trying to incorporate aspects of the old music into what we’re doing.
I don’t want to hear music that makes me feel like I’m in a church or a starbucks. I want to hear music that makes me feel like I am in hell, or purgatory, or alone on a mountain.
---PURCHASE--- False Weavers
Thanks to Blackbird Raum for being so open with their excellent responses!
Best of 2013: Sam Amidon
by Devon Léger
Sam Amidon takes the thing most sacred to my heart, musical traditions, and completely re-envisions these traditions for a new world. He’s perhaps the only indie roots artist today who understands that your singing becomes MORE emotional when you remove all emotion from your voice. That’s an ancient trick from the old ballad singers that seems to be mostly forgotten today (shout out to Anais Mitchell for also getting this). Here’s an artist who only sings old traditional songs (with the occasional pop song cover) and collaborates with bizarre Icelandic composers AND is signed to a major label (Nonesuch) and showered in amazing press. If Facebook has taught me one thing, it’s that it feels good when people I admire find success. And there really aren’t enough like buttons in the world for me to express my admiration for Amidon’s powerful, challenging, and inspiring new album, Bright Sunny South.
On Bright Sunny South, Amidon’s dead vocals and eternally sad inflections run the sound, rolling along like a depressingly beautiful river on an overcast day. On the banks of this river, he’s assembled a crew of oddcap musicians, creative free thinkers from the world of avant-garde classical composers (Shahzad Ismaily) and American indie folk (Thomas Bartlett aka Doveman). The album is as bleak as a New England forest in winter; the trees of tradition–usually so lush and full of life in any other American roots album–are stripped bare by Amidon’s season, and where the leaves used to whisper in the breeze to each other with the voices of the old folk singers that came before us, the bare branches here only serve to scrape together unsettlingly.
The album is made up of nearly all traditional songs, as is Amidon’s MO. Each song is re-interpreted from the ground up. The eternally chilling song “I Wish I Wish” gets an especially transformative treatment. Part Mr. Rogers piano, part cold-as-ice lyrics, part uplifting glockenspiel, part jazz trumpet coolness. Mmmm, it’s so good. Tracks like this and “He’s Taken My Feet” show how Amidon traffics in opposites, and seems to genuinely enjoy music that clashes with itself. Check out his video for the old song “As I Roved Out” and you can see this shimmy in the music, pulling him towards some kind of tranced-out Wicker Man moment.
Some of the most interesting moments on the album come from Amidon rendering pop songs into American folk songs. Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” and Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” here become totally unrecognizable to anyone who knows the originals. This isn’t done lightly, in fact Amidon infuses these songs with the weight of true folk music, ushering in the ghosts of old generations that circle the DNA of folk music. He can do this because he’s first and foremost an actual folk musician. His first album was all Irish fiddle tunes, he formed an amazing contra dance band in New England (AldersonAmidonMurphy), and he knows the traditions better than almost anyone else I know. This isn’t something you fuck around with. Folk music taps the most sacred heart of humanity. It doesn’t flinch away from the centuries of marital betrayals, infanticide, murder, religious terror, torture, or just plain human shittiness like most art that seeks to reach deeper into our collective. So when Amidon injects this kind of DNA into a pop song, he knows that it will mutate into something older, something more powerful than the original. It’s not something any other artist can do as well (on a side note: I’m getting so tired of folk artists re-interpreting pop songs as whispery folk songs), it’s really a mark of Amidon’s genius as an interpreter of American roots music.
Anyways, the point is you should buy this goddamn album immediately.
Also, “Weeping Mary” might be the best song I’ll hear all year.
Best of 2013: Luke Winslow-King
New Orleans, Louisiana
by Devon Léger
I remember reading a music critic at some point belittling the contributions of Willie B. Harris, sometimes musical partner and probably first wife to the truly great gospel blues singer/guitarist Blind Willie Johnson. Man, fuck that critic. Harris was a key part of Blind Willie Johnson’s singing, tempering his hard growl with a beautifully uplifting soprano lilt. Her singing physically lifted his songs off the ground, pulling them up from the streets where he first made and performed them -lifting them- to a higher realm. Thanks to the overtly sexist blues music industry, she’s a footnote to history. Or perhaps more charitably you could say that Johnson’s unbelievable brilliant slide playing simply eclipsed everything else in his recordings. Whatever the case, we remember Blind Willie Johnson today almost as a solo artist, though he was joined by both Willie B. Harris and also maybe his wife Angeline on most of his recordings. Neither of these women are listed on the 78s themselves, and they’ve faded into the fog and obscurity of our age.
I bring up this inequity because I love Luke Winslow-King’s music so much. And though he’s gotten a crapton of press for his new album, The Coming Tide, which channels both Johnson’s legacy and the joyful brassy jazzlines of New Orleans, his co-singer on the album, Esther Rose, is just as important to his winning formula. In fact, when they both cover Blind Willie Johnson’s “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”, you can hear Johnson’s music echo through to a new age. Winslow-King’s whole album is based on echoes and shadows, but so cunningly reshaped that they look like fully fledged characters. There are a lot of artists trolling the waters of America’s race records from the 1920s, but Luke Winslow-King brings both a dapper elegance to his music, and also a sexy, edgy undercurrent. That’s what made Blind Willie Johnson and Willie B. Hayes music great as well. That edge of terror, the blind horror of religion that keeps our children up at night. On “God Don’t Never Change,” Johnson spits forth an Old Testament God roaming the pulpits of the South, striking down the sinful with biblical plagues (Spanish influenza) and blinding small children (Johnson himself). In one of the most powerful phrases put to wax, he sings about “God way up in Heaven, God way down in Hell.” And walking side by side with Johnson’s sweaty horror of a religion, is the sultry, mysterious, demanding, unsettling voice of Willie B. Hayes, echoing around him.
On The Coming Tide, Luke Winslow-King and Esther Rose not only tap into the soul of one of the most mysterious and disturbing of all the African-American folk artists recorded in the late 1920s, they manage to bring this spirit into a new century, drenched in nostalgia for the old world of New Orleans and street buskers on every corner, but also informed by the digital staccato of our lives. It’s a beautiful and masterful album that you need to have now.
Best of 2013: Eamonn Coyne & Kris Drever
Dublin, Ireland & Kirkwall, Orkney Islands
by Devon Léger
On paper, this album shouldn’t work as well as it does, and that’s really the magic at the heart of the collaboration between Irish tenor banjo player/mandolinist Eamonn Coyne and Orkney singer and guitarist Kris Drever. Both artists come from different traditions, but together Drever and Coyne find an enviably powerful synergy on Storymap, their second album. BTW if you haven’t heard Irish banjo before, keep in mind that it’s very different from American banjo. The tunes are flat-picked with a dead and heavy rhythmic sense, and played at extremely impressive speeds. Irish ornamentation on the banjo is limited to triplets, but these ring out like machine gun shots, and doubling up notes (playing 2 eighth notes instead of a quarter note) is used as a trick with the ability to remarkably ramp up the rhythmic feel of a tune. On Storymap, the tunes pour forth like a cascade of water.
Joined by Scottish fiddlers like Simon Bradley and Megan Henderson, Coyne’s banjo playing is swift and powerful, a testament to the genre. Not one to be left behind, Drever’s front and center with Coyne here, flatpicking guitar with banjo duets on opening track “Ceapaval” and tripping along lightly through the “Pot Luck,” three tunes, one of which was written by our good friend Cahalen Morrison! But it’s the songs and the thoughtful arrangements that make this album so beautiful. Drever’s singing on “Farewell to Stromness” fully channels the brine-soaked music of the Orkney Islands, influenced by the camaraderie of hard lives at sea. I’m a huge fan of Drever’s work in any outfit he’s in, and though the songs here can’t match the intense, searing power of the song “The Viking’s Bride” off the first Drever/Coyne album, Honk Toot Suite, they’re still standouts in every way.
There’s a photo of Kris Drever and Eamonn Coyne recording this album, each looking to the other from far across the room and from behind their microphone array. This picture is an illusion. It can’t be true. When you listen to the album, both artists play in a kind of mind-meld, their instruments turning and weaving together like stock cars on a race track, the music arrangements bubbling under Kris Drever’s dreamy Scottish brogue like a warming tea kettle. This is one of the best Celtic albums to have been released in 2013.
Best of 2013: This Is How We Fly
Dublin & Dingle, Ireland; Stockholm, Sweden; Mount Pleasant, Michigan
by Devon Leger
The first time I heard the new album from This is How We Fly, I jumped on Facebook to proclaim, “if you want to know what Irish traditional music will sound like in 50 years, you should listen to This is How We Fly.” It was a bold claim, but I stand by what I said and still believe fully that this supergroup of young musicians is making music now that will change how we see Irish traditions down the line. Just as Lunasa ushered in the era of mellifluous low whistle driven Irish trad with complex arrangements in the early 2000s, or Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill defined Irish music in the late 80s and early 90s with their use of synths and harpsichords, what we’re hearing now from This Is How We Fly, and especially key contributor Caoimhin O Raghllaigh will stamp the early 2010s with a specific sound. That sound is driven by O Raghallaigh’s fiddling, and more specifically by the way he creates tune compositions that are fractured into hypnotic, trance-like loops. It’s a sound that could easily have been inspired by hip-hop sampling, and in some ways it’s anathema to the tradition itself, with its near religious reliance on the heavily regulated 32-bar tune structure. But O Raghallaigh seems to be searching for something deeper. He understands the tradition better than anyone else right now, having already cut albums that are so deeply in tune with the old traditions that sound radically out of step with today’s Irish trad. So in some ways he’s a throwback; an echo of earlier sounds from the tradition. But with This Is How We Fly, he’s able to reform the traditions he loves, almost like a potter working in wet clay.
This Is How We Fly brings together fiddler Caoimhin O Raghallaigh with the stunning American stepdance Nic Gareiss, Swedish percussionist Petter Berndalen, and Irish clarinetist and composer Seán Mac Erlaine. Together O Raghallaigh and Ma Erlaine craft the melody and the harmony, with O Raghallaigh’s hardanger fiddle providing the looping melodies, few of which conform to the standard structure, but all of which are gorgeous and memorable, while Mac Erlaine weaves in and around these loops, providing counterpoint, harmony, dissonance, or unison playing as he feels the music. It’s improvisational, I would imagine, but sounds like it’s crafted with great thought and reflection. Mac Erlaine is a wonderful composer and he brings a lot to the arrangements of the music. Like O Raghallaigh he understands the tradition inside and out–he’s previously worked with the complex and difficult Irish slow air repertoire, bringing that into a jazz idiom–so his improvisations and remixes of the music carry much more weight than another who might only be dabbling in the tradition.
Behind the melody, percussionist Berndalen builds the beats that spin the music along. His percussion on mostly acoustic instruments meshes wonderfully with the stepdancing of Gareiss. If you’ve never heard Gareiss before, he’s one of the most beautifully eloquent stepdancers alive. He’s studied Irish sean-nos stepdancing, as well as American stepdance traditions, and he’s built a personal style of stepdancing that’s intimately tied to the music. He’s so in tune here that every brush of the foot on a sandy floor brings a sound of organic beauty to the music, as the rhythm of his feet blends with Berndalen’s percussion.
This Is How We Fly’s album is a thing of great beauty and an incredibly hopeful look forward to the future of Irish traditional music.
Çiǧdem Aslan's Fresh Take on Rebetiko
A century or more ago, in cities like Smyra, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul, Greeks and Turks lived peacefully side by side during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. People laughed and loved and sang together. In the bars and the hash houses, they played the music that was the root of what came to be called rebetiko, songs about poor people like themselves, the criminals and lovers, the musicians, the beauties and the strong women known as mortissas. Çiğdem Aslan (her name is pronounced Cheedem) reaches back to that earlier age on her debut solo recording, Mortissa, out now on Asphalt Tango.
“Most of the songs are in Greek,” Aslan explains,” and I didn’t know the meaning when I first heard them. It was the music I could relate to, I felt close to them even if I didn’t understand a word. Once I learned what they were about it was even better. Most of them are love songs. They’re familiar to me in the way they express things. The way a woman tells off her lover is similar to what I heard in Turkey.”
Rebetiko has always been the music of society’s outsiders, and Aslan can understand that very well indeed. Although born and raised in Istanbul, her parents are Kurdish and she grew up near Gezi Park, the scene of riots earlier this year, recalling that “my neighbourhood was full of leftist groups. There were always police there. It was a ghetto, it wasn’t even considered Istanbul. So I’m an 'other,' too; I come from a minority background and that usually makes you more open and understanding towards others. My luck was that I encountered many 'others' to expand my vision.”
Music was always around and “culturally part of our daily life. When I went to secondary school it was in a Greek and Armenian area, so I heard their music. One of the songs on Mortissa is the second or third rebetiko song I learned, years ago.”
The musicians who form the core for much of Aslan’s album are mostly from the North London Greek and Turkish communities, although Nikolaos Baimpas, the wonderful kanun (plucked dulcimer) player and musical director whose playing on the album is stunning, often performs with prominent musicians back in Greece.
What brings them all together is rebetiko. Often described as the Aegean blues, it’s the music of the underclass, the people with nothing except love and life. Today, in this new age of austerity, there are plenty of people who can understand songs like “Çakici,” which celebrates the legendary Mehmet Efe, a thief who gave to the poor, or “Pane Gia To Preso,” an ode to leek – the slang word for marijuana. And, of course, there are the songs of the mortissas, the independent women who don’t behave as society expects and who give the album its name. Part of rebetiko is smyrneika, songs from the Aegean port city of Smyrna, which absorbed the influence of travellers from across the Middle East into its music.
“The thing about the Smyrna school of rebetiko,” Aslan notes, “is that females were more dominant as singers, unlike Athens.”
But while Aslan might evoke the past with her voice, she has no desire to make it a museum piece. Her rebetiko and smyrneika are living things, full of tears and laughter that speak loudly and emotionally to today’s audiences.
“Otherwise there’d be no point,” she insists. “They’ve been recorded, they need changes for a contemporary audience. What I’m doing is adding details and highlighting the similarities between the cultures. Even something like a double bass in there makes it more modern. It’s adding your personality. What I’m doing is putting my feelings into the songs, trying to reflect what they make me feel.”
With Mortissa, Çiğdem Aslan crosses time, making rebetiko startlingly alive and relevant in the 21st century. As she says, “it shows there are no cultural boundaries in music.”
Report on WOMEX 2013
by Dejah Léger
Considering my entire knowledge of Cardiff was based off episodes of the television show Torchwood, I was ready to expect alien sex in bathroom stalls and underground secret lairs at the Millennium Center. Instead, I flew in late at night to a completely Captain-Jack-free airport alongside other bleary-eyed travelers. We waited together awkwardly in the soggy darkness near an unlit bus stop trying to guess the Welsh pronunciations on the surrounding street signs. When the bus finally arrived, the flustered driver—unaccustomed to such a hoard of late-night arrivals—was overwhelmed with our 20£ notes and ran out of change. As he shut us into the bus to go find smaller bills, we heard him call out, “For feck’s sake, I’ve got a whole load of these music folks! The chaos begins!”
Music folks. Exactly right. Every one of us on that bus was heading to WOMEX, the World Music Exposition, and for the next four days, we invaded Cardiff, Wales like a hoard of alien creatures.
I won’t bore you with details of how many times I got lost, looked the wrong way while crossing the street, or just held out a fistful of assorted coins to cashiers saying “just take it! I don’t know how the fuck these work!” Instead, I will tell you the amazing world I stepped in to when I entered the WOMEX building. Imagine if you took the musical world, then squished that world into a little bitty room, put its people in little bitty booths, and then tell them that their only goal is to buy, sell, trade, and play music for the next four days. That’s WOMEX. Total amazingness; or, as the Welsh say, Fftyhioththydd.
I had very clear goals as a Roots & World Music Publicist and first-time Womexican. In many ways I was like an undercover agent, with my cover being that I was not as totally overwhelmed, socially awkward, and terrified as I really was. In meeting those directives as Secret Agent Leger, I was able to rub elbows with some of the coolest, most innovative, exciting people in the field of music performance and publicity. Here are a few of my favorites:
Breton-born beatboxer Krismenn rocked the stage as a one-man show with unbelievable depth. Using loop machines, he captured live tracks on instruments that he flitted back and forth between like a busy bee. Once his virtuosic beatboxing tracks were laid down, he would start to sing. For all the initial discotek set-up, once Krismenn began singing, it was like being transported back 200 years. Krismenn sings in very old Breton, in the raspy, haunting style that defines the genre. “I want my grandma to being able to understand what I’m singing,” he said. “I want to keep the old language alive,” he added, noting that modern-day school-taught Breton differs greatly from what the older generations speak. While he generally sticks close to his home European turf, Krismenn is well worth checking out on the interwebs; and if you ever have a chance to see him perform live, DO IT.
Here's a video from Mondomix of Krismenn's performance at WOMEX.
There was, as far as I personally witnessed, only one encore allowed at the performance venue, and that was because the stage managers were afraid of complete riot if they didn’t acquiesce. That group was none other than the Yves Lambert Trio from Québec. Yves Lambert fronted the Québécois powerhouse group La Bottine Souriante for many years, and is probably the man who invented parties. He looks like Blackbeard the Pirate, oozes charisma, and has a voice that I once heard described as “rich as a 900-calorie cheesecake.” Accompanied by Tommy Gauthier and Olivier Rondeau (both hailing from his previous group the Bébert Orchestre), the Trio whipped the audience into a frothy frenzy that threatened to bubble over into complete chaos at any second, all while Yves Lambert sat there grinning demonically. ‘Pure laine’ traditional tunes and modern Québécois sensibilities combine in this fantastic show that you can catch at Festival du Bois March 1st near Vancouver BC, if you happen to be of the west-coast persuasion.
Here's an amazing video that was taken in the BBC radio Wales studio with fellow Womexicans Richard James and Gareth Bonello!
We Banjo 3
Just when I was wondering where rocking Irish music that didn’t suck went to, here comes We Banjo 3. As spit-polished as an heirloom cross, these four boys sent electric volts through a packed room using, as their name suggest, banjos. While they don’t consistently tote out all three banjos at once, they all CAN play a mean tenor; and they flesh out the sound with guitar, fiddle, bodhran, and bones and some killer vocals. The band consists of two sets of brothers—the Scahill brothers and the Howley brothers—who should donate their genetic material to science so that we can better understand how all this talent gets passed down. Far from the whiskey-soaked Irish music that harkens back to moss-covered cottages, We Banjo 3 takes traditional tunes and injects them with a hearty does of crack and caffeine and then lets loose on an unsuspecting audience.
Check out for yourself how hard they rocked at WOMEX:
Emily Portman Trio
Amidst the chaos of WOMEX, there was a place of calm, and that place was in a tiny room upstairs, down a long, confusing corridor, where the Emily Portman Trio sent out waves of tranquility with some of the most transfixing music I’ve heard in a long time. Their unearthly harmonies and instrumental arrangements were indescribably unique in a genre where reinvented English ballads are par for the course. The music wasn’t lullaby soft; it was more like quiet revolution soft. These three women are going to be the next big thing to hit roots music.
Here's one of their lovely performances at WOMEX. And hey, at the end, you can see me and my shiny blond hair sitting totally transfixed in the front row. I'm famous!
Genevieve is not a musical act. She is, however, one of the most dedicated and authentic music agents that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I had long wanted to meet Genevieve in person, after become Facebook friends over our mutual love of the group she promotes, Le Vent du Nord. If you have never heard Le Vent du Nord, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Do you not like music? Do you hate smiling? Poor you. Go listen to them. Right now.
If you want to hear what real Québécois music is and where it is going, you need to know Le Vent du Nord. And if you want to know Le Vent du nord, you need to know Genevieve Nadeau. Sometimes it's important to point out the people who make the music business a functional and wonderful place in which to work, who do their jobs so seamlessly that their success is measured only by the overall success of the group they work for. It was lovely, too, to be able to high-five over being mothers and hard-working ladies in the music business. There’s not that many of us out there. I’m not completely sure how to say “fist-bump” in Québécois French, but there are some things that just transcend the language boundaries.
As us music folks trickled out of Cardiff almost as quickly as we came, I’m sure the gracious, amazing, gorgeous city of Cardiff was a little relieved to just get back to its regular Torchwood tourists. On that last day in Wales, a hurricane hit the country. I waded out to my taxi at 4 in the morning through water up to my mid-shins, and there were questions of whether any of the planes could take off. I climbed into the back row of a bouncing airplane and watched suitcases outside being tossed around in the winds for a while. When the pilot announced that we were going to stay grounded until the hurricane passed, I did what any Womexican in a hurricane-rocked plane would do—I fell fast asleep. Because that, my friends, is literally what Womex is: a complete and total whirlwind.
Shanren's Roots in China's Yunnan Province
by Devon Léger
The music of China’s Yi minority people may be some of the most misunderstood music in China. That’s not because the Yi are an obscure culture, in fact they’re one of the best known of China’s many minority cultures, and certainly the best known of the ethnic groups in Southwestern China. It’s because mainstream Chinese culture pays little credit to minority cultures, other than tokenist anthems like the very famous “Dance of the Yi People”. This rather long piece of Chinese classical music is stately, minor-key oriented, and quite beautiful. It’s one of the staples of Chinese pipa repertoire, so it’s found on most discs from Chinese pipa players. What’s funny is that Dance of the Yi People has little to no resemblance to anything from actual Yi culture. It was composed in 1960 by a mainstream Chinese composer and it’s actual relation to Yi music is highly highly suspect. Yet that’s what everyone thinks when they think of Yi music and culture in China. It’s too bad, because it obscures the true Yi music, the high-pitched wailing lute-based music that you’d hear in the mountains of Yunnan in traditional villages.
LISTEN to "30 Years" from Shanren on Soundcloud
Thankfully, a new group, Shanren, is pushing hard to expose and celebrate the music of Yunnan Province’s minority people. Shanren’s new album, Left Foot Dance of the Yi, is enjoying widespread release in the West, and though it’s not fully traditional, it’s based on field work to some of the 26 ethnic groups that exist in Yunnan’s borders. Additionally, some of the members of Shanren are Yi themselves, though it’s not too clear who. As a group, Shanren makes a kind of Chinese folk rock, but with much more emphasis on the folk side of things. They’re also able to really pull off the sound of Yi music, the high-pitched vocals, the frenetic instrumental strumming on the many-colored beautiful lutes, and the danceable rhythms. The title song, Left Foot Dance of the Yi, is a great example of Yi music, and is based on the signature one-footed dancing style of the Yi. This track sounds like the kind of parking lot party where you’d likely find traditional Yi music and dance today in Yunnan.
Yunnan has a remarkable breadth of traditional cultures, and Shanren present a lot more than just Yi music. “Laomudeng Village” comes from the Nu people and features the intriguing dabiya lute with a great deep and buzzing sound. “Song of the Wa” comes from the Wa people and has a rhythmic vocal sound almost like rapping. Other songs come from Yi sources, or even a traditional childrens’ song from Kunming. The instruments are largely stringed, like the four-stringed xianzi or the three-stringed qinqin, and come from China’s large tradition of round-ish lutes. I was sad there wasn’t any hulusi, a reed mouth organ, on this album, though that may be more popular with the Dai people of Yunnan. Overall, Shanren do a marvelous job bringing the traditions of Yunnan’s minority people to light and making the music accessible for folks who haven’t been exposed to this often rare music.
Baby Aristocrats Band
by Kit 'Stymee' Stovepipe
We'll folks, here's a genuine rarity!
78 quarterly lists this in their "rarest 78's" section but doesn't give an estimation of how many copies there might be floating around out there, so, it's anyone's guess folks!
This copy came to me through a trade with Devin Champlin of the Gallus Brothers who said :
"I got that record in Aberdeen, WA at a seriously messy junk shop. Was in a shopping cart with a bunch of random shit like a lamp...some cool Greek stuff there too. All of it was loose in the cart and some were broken. I think they were 50 cents but he just gave me 3 for a dollar."
Devin has really good luck finding 78's. He once junked a Henry Thomas on Vocalion while we were record hunting...
This 78 is a rare one, and unfortunately it comes to us in rare messy junk store shopping cart condition. In 78 Quarterly it only lists one copy owned by Jim Lindsay in "NM-" condition.
Special thanks again to Devin Champlin for rescuing this little gem from the shopping cart gallows of Aberdeen.
Kit 'Stymee' Stovepipe is one of the best ragtime/jugband/country blues guitarists in the country, though he came to the music from a crust punk background. Along with his partner Alex, he formed The Crow Quill Night Owls and has been touring their juggedy ragband music all over the US. I named their latest album the Best Folk Album of 2013 in No Depression and stated pretty clearly that if you missed out on this record, it's your fault! Get hip, people:
50 Feet of Song starts with the simplest of premises: 50 actual feet of Super 8 film equals about 3 minutes of runtime. This 3 minutes mirrors the standard length of a song; a convention left over from the physical limitations of 78rpm records. Inspired by the visionary work of Alan Lomax, the folks at 50 Feet of Song hit the road all over the Pacific Northwest, recording artists at festivals, in hotel rooms, and on front porches creating new field recordings with old technology.
Each artist gets 50 feet of film and no more, so they'd better be sure to get their songs in at three minutes! The audio is professionally recorded on the spot, so the films sound great acoustically, but the image shimmers and flickers, and you can hear the film rolling in the background.
Super 8 is a throwback to a lost age, when everyday fimmakers could get their hands on the gear to make their own movies for the first time. We're so used to multiplex IMAX screens, HD Vimeos or pixellated YouTube videos that we've forgotten the feeling of actual film. The natural lighting filtered through Super 8 tricks the mind, reminding us of old folk music documentaries from the 70s, like the work of Les Blank.
Here at Hearth Music we've become addicated to the films of 50 Feet of Song. There's something so tangible in a medium that's lately become forbiddingly fantastical. Ghosts flicker at the edge of the film, and ghosts echo in the songs as well.
OUR FAVORITE 50 FEET OF SONG VIDEOS:
An Interview with Sam Doores of the Deslondes
New Orleans, Louisiana
by Mindie Lind
photos by Sarrah Danziger
Many moons ago, on the banks of the ever magical Port Townsend, a handful of street musicians and I spent a full 48 hours singin’ songs, listening to old records, talking about things Woody wrote, pickin’ up the guitar and then passin’ it again. We were all ill-showered and dressed in dusty church clothes. One of my favorites of the crew that night was Sam Doores—Sam was young, with the kind of chiseled face that was made for country music. He was indisputably handsome, like Robert Redford. In fact, Sam told me a story about some guy who saw him walking along a southern street, stopped his truck and yelled out, “Hey you, you look like some Broke Ass Robert Redford” and then nudged over to his buddy, “Don’t he look like a Broke Ass Robert Redford”– It’s true, he kind of does.
A year or two after Sam’s departure from the Northwest, a mutual friend and I climbed in my car with a package from Sam Doores and the Tumbleweeds.
“It’s Sammy’s new country band!”
We pushed the disc in and just drove!
“Holy shit, this sounds fucking awesome!”.
The album played through once and we put the car in park, looked at each other, restarted the engine and played the whole thing again. I can say without exaggeration, that I have listened to this disc, at least once a week since-- Sam Doores can sing the twang right out of my little gospel soul and I have not tired of it; I’m not sure I ever will.
Now Sam Doores has renamed his earlier band The Tumbleweeds, turning them into The Deslondes. With a new album coming 2014 and national tours with his friends in Hurray for The Riff Raff and Pokey Lafarge, this year will be the year they break out. Mindie Lind of Hearth Music caught up with Sam on the phone to ask him more about his plans for the new year:
Hearth Music: First of all, I’ve been writing this interview up and writing out your new name The Deslondes a lot. What happened?
Sam Doores: Well, there is a famous band in Sweden in the 70’s called the Tumbleweeds. There is a band in Australia with the name as well. We were figuring out the logistics of whether or not we could have that name. Long story, but Tumbleweeds was taken….and our other names were too long.
I’d say!! Sam Doores, Riley Downing and The Tumbleweeds is almost too much to write for this interview and I’m only a little bit lazy.
SD: Yea and it didn’t acknowledge that there are more than two songwriters in the band. So it made sense that we become The Deslondes.
So, Where’d that name come from?
SD: Deslonde St is the street I live on in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the lower ninth ward in New Orleans. The band has all lived on Deslonde at one point or another... And that's where we rehearse and write our music. It's also where we made our first recordings. My house sits right on the Mississippi River and we got a big old backyard with chickens. Deslonde's a state of mind down here… mighty peaceful.
Ahh, that sounds nice!
Since I knew you long before you were a ‘Tumbleweed’ or a ‘Deslonde” I’ve always been curious how you all ended up getting together?
SD: Each person in the band I met under different circumstances actually, I remember I met Riley Downing maybe 5 or 6 years ago at Woody Guthrie Folks Festival. And we just met, trading songs around the fire. We didn’t play in a band together until 3 or 4 years after we first met, cause he had his own band, Tamper Dan and the Dirt Merchants, and I was in a band with my buddy Cameron called the Broken Wing Routine and I performed a lot of solo things too.
I just felt like I always understood where he was coming from musically, loved his songs. He kinda had this country thing going on that was what I wanted our music to sound like. He also had other things going on with his music that was more than just country: had some good ol’ soul and covered some old New Orleans songs. I decided to give it a shot and we started playing well together.
One of the things that I just love about The Deslondes, is this awesome blend of two great singers as well as two different styles of songwriting (which can often seem so misplaced, like you are hearing two different bands, but it doesn’t feel like that on your album) Is that something you intended to do or did it just pop out?
SD: I think that’s just naturally how it happened. We just put together the songs we had, you know….they were coming from these three places: mostly soul, gospel and country.
YES! You’ve hit on what’s so special about your album Holy Cross Blues, which is this fantastic intersection of soul, gospel and country— Seems like we are at a time where folks are drawing a distinct line between soul and country – how do you think they compare?
SD: I think they have always been siblings. I mean, I grew listening to Hank Williams albums along with gospel organ, and back up blues…other kinds of soul. Ray Charles covers Hank Williams songs and he puts a soul spin on ‘em. I think good country musicians and good soul musicians have always respected each other. I think they are coming from the same place, you know.
Where is that? Where do they come from?
SD: Well, I think they both came from church. I guess country music tended to come more from the Carter Family-style and Jimmie Rogers-style church. But if you think about it, they both have white and black in ‘em. Hank Williams, the biggest star of country music his musical mentor was Tee-Tot- a black blues singer. And Jimmie Rodgers, his musician mentors were mostly black- He played with Louis Armstrong... I think if you were to draw lines between country and soul, you aren’t listening to the right country music or you’re just don’t listen to it…. with an opened mind.
Seems like a lot of that blending is coming out of New Orleans right now: I wanted to ask how New Orleans has shaped your sound, its famed for being the musical capital, do you think that is true? What’s going on in New Orleans for music right now?
SD: I’d say it’s kinda like an unofficial music school going on there. There is a lot of young traveling musicians that come through, and are hanging out in the winter. Everybody trades knowledge and trades songs, and it’s very industrious, musically…I don’t think I could be in a place that more exciting for that. There’s not much competition. Everyone’s just playing with each other. I think it’s starting to happen everywhere…There’s a musical renaissance, maybe in the works.
I wanna shift modes a little bit and share some of your music with the folks out there, and ask you some questions about a few songs on the Album: Wrong Time To Be Right: This song is so descriptive –Makes me think I know exactly what is going on, but maybe I don’t, can you tell me a little more about what it’s about?
SD: Well I hate to break it to you, but “Wrong Time To Be Right” was actually written by this old guy Cast King. You gotta check this guy out; he was an old man down in Alabama and he recorded some records when he was really young. And this guy out there did that Ethnomusicology thing where he went around recorded a bunch of old musicians in the hills. And so there is this little striped down recording of him singing “Wrong Time To Be Right” and when I heard it, we sat down and arranged a different version that was a bit more upbeat and danceable and starting playing it around town. But it’s the kinda song where I wanted to chase that man (Cast King) around…I totally wish I had.
HA! That’s awesome. I’d love to hear more about a song you did write: How about “I Got Found”?
That one I did write. I remember when I wrote that, I was riding with Cameron to the Woody Guthrie Festival for the first time we ever rode out there, all the way from Olympia, Washington, where I just dropped out of school. We were driving through the Arizona/California border, in this little Vanogan and it was like 110 degrees and there was no air conditioning. The vibe from that song came from the sweltering heat of the van as we were drinking milk and eating fried chicken. I wanted to write a song that had a humming-gospel-work-song kinda feel to it…Cameron helped me write one line, the one that goes, “I was once lost till I got found”. And then we sang it at the Woody Guthrie festival at the hootinany and a bunch of people liked it so we kept it in the repertoire.
Cameron… I first met him at your show at the Paramount- He wasn’t in the band till that show, right?
He wasn’t. He is now. He left Seattle with us, is playing and singing with us professionally and adding a lot to the band. He didn’t plan on leavin’ with us that time, we spontaneously asked him to come because we thought he sounded great and he just hopped in the van.
Yea, its kinda full circle right now.
Did he have a life back here, or a job?
He wasn’t working a job, thank god. He has a girlfriend and she was nice enough to let him go. [in the background Cameron yells out “Why you gotta say, I ain’t got a job….”]
The Deslondes will be touring and recording this new album starting in February—until the release date go check out their first Lp, Holy Cross Blues, and the rest of their website, for tour dates near you this Spring!
What we do at Hearth Music is primarily music publicity. HearthPR works with the best Roots, Americana, and World artists in the US, Canada, and aborad. We only work with artists whose music we love and we build long-term relationships to support their art. Here are some artists we're currently working with.
It means something that the word about Americana roots duo Cahalen Morrison & Eli West spread first among musicians. Their debut album was passed around the ranks of some of the best American roots bands, raved about to fans online, and seen as a model to strive for in songwriting and musicianship. In this way, you could think of Cahalen & Eli as musician’s musicians. They’re the artists that other artists run to see at a festival. This is because their music seems effortlessly simple, but is complex enough to engage us far beyond the usual way we listen to roots music. Cahalen Morrison’s songwriting is as much informed by the dark lyricism of Cormac McCarthy as it is by Appalachian stringband songs, and Eli West’s angular, racing arrangements owe as much to the speed and aggression of early jazz as they do to bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe. Together they make music that draws from the well of American tradition, but reshapes these traditions into beautiful new forms.
So much of the American dream lies along an open road. Woody Guthrie lived this, Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck wrote about this, and Bellingham, WA songwriter Robert Sarazin Blake is searching for it. He’s based out of this small town in the Pacific Northwest, but he’s a far ranging artist known to roam the East Coast as easily as the West Coast, even as far as Ireland. The song is what fuels Robert Sarazin Blake’s travels. The joy of sharing a song, singing it among friends, and hitting a stage to play it before a new audience every night. There’s a joy in the simple craft of songwriting in Blake’s music, and that joy shines through in his new album, Robt Sarazin Blake. Recorded in Brooklyn during a hot summer week, the album presents Blake’s signature beatnik roots songwriting. Over an undercurrent of intricate guitar and bouzouki runs, his lyrics swirl like the smoke in an old Greenwich Village folk coffeehouse, covering themes of war, old women, and the freedom of the lonely night.
Art is born from tension. And this tension is something that Seattle folk singer and songwriter Naomi Wachira feels every day as an African living in America. It’s the tension of any artist torn between two worlds, and the only way to overcome this is to create something that overcomes the divide. That’s why Naomi’s songs are so hopeful; they point toward a better future for all of us.
There’s no doubt that there’s a better future in store for Naomi Wachira, especially after coming off such a great breakout year in 2013. Named the Best Folk Singer in Seattle by alt publication Seattle Weekly and featured on their cover, Naomi became the toast of the town, which in turn led to a friendship with the much-loved indie songwriter Damien Jurado, who came onboard to produce this album. Other key collaborators that Naomi brought in, renowned Seattle bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, cellist Natalie Hall (Macklemore), drummer Darren Reynolds (Patrick & The Locomotive), and Latin percussionist Lalo Bello, all brought their own ideas to the accompaniment, guided by Jurado’s desire to keep the music as vibrantly alive as possible. The result is Naomi Wachira’s debut full-length, a portrait of a Kenyan artist at home in the Pacific Northwestern United States.
Born in a log cabin, Annie Ford was raised in a small rural Virginia town. In a little slice of turn-of-the-century Americana, Annie chopped and stacked wood, hung clothes on the line and spent her days making scarecrows and swinging on rope swings. Annie was a real-life Annie Oakley—reared in the sparse, rustic darkness of rural America—and like Oakley, she knew she’d find her destiny out West. She hit the road, spent a few years in New Orleans and ended up in Seattle, where she lives today. She took on the great American tradition of playing music on the street to earn a few bucks (busking). Annie soon became a regular fixture at the world famous Pike Place Market, putting her in touch with some pretty big names, like Gill Landry, of Old Crow Medicine Show. Landry, impressed with Annie’s fiddle skills, asked that she join him on a national tour! When she returned to Seattle, it was as a full time musician. She began fiddling and singing with a wide range of bands: jug bands, ragtime bands, American folk, Rock n Roll and Klezmer. After 10 years of being an in-demand side-musician, it was time for Annie Ford to strike out on her own. She opened an old notebook full of songs she’d been working on over the years and used it to start The Annie Ford Band, which combines Annie’s compelling story-telling and dark Appalachian roots with her knack for modern genres like rock n roll, jazz and punk. Coming out of Seattle’s Ballard Avenue country music scene, The Annie Ford Band represents a regional community of true underground Americana!
Boston singer Dietrich Strause is more than just a songwriter; think of him as a storyteller or a narrator. He narrates the lost moments of our lives: times when our minds turn back to lost loves, times when twilight cast a shadow on our day and pushed us into reverie, times when we chased after our youth and dreaded our age, times we spend escaping from the world in our garden, and times we draw together in sorrow. His new album, Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart is aptly named. At least one song on this album will reach out to you, and if you let it in, you’ll be the better for it.
From their home in the Colorado Rockies, The Railsplitters have been scaling new heights with a refreshing and charming range of Bluegrass and beyond-Bluegrass tunes. For a debut album, The Railsplitters sound remarkably assured, playing with the kind of abandon that their live shows are known for. Bringing real depth, and formidable talent, this group draws influences from all the greats-- from Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs to modern groups like Uncle Earl and Crooked Still. The Railsplitters are nothing if not enthusiastically bluegrass and contagiously so, with rapid tempos, unusual instrumentals and goodtime-breakdowns! Using powerful female and male vocals, enchanting harmonies and masterful instrumentals, The Railsplitters have the kind of raw power that can raise mountains and maybe even a few eyebrows.
The music of French Canada has an undeniable joie-de-vivre, a kind of infectious energy born from the slapping ‘tac-tic-a-tac’ of les pieds (a seated form of clogging), the jumping, syncopated fiddle bowing, and the driving force of the button accordion. Or maybe it’s the rowdy drinking songs, or the eerie ancient ballads of medieval France that have lasted for centuries in the New World. Whatever the case, Québécois power trio De Temps Antan have this energy in spades, as they prove on their newest album, Ce Monde Ici-Bas (The World Below). It makes sense that these three artists would have such a powerful sound; each member of De Temps Antan (guitar/singer Éric Beaudry, fiddler/singer André Brunet, accordionist/harmonica player/singer Pierre-Luc Dupuis, was formerly a leader in the massive, multi-platinum Québec folk band La Bottine Souriante and has toured the world over on some the biggest stages. With De Temps Antan, they’ve taken the energy they brought to arena performances and channeled this into a shockingly powerful trio.
As we draw to the twilight of the year, it seems appropriate to be listening to Vancouver, Canada’s The Abramson Singers, whose music seems to come so naturally from the grey skies over wintery British Columbia. Their new album, Late Riser, is layered with rich vocal harmonies, indie pop and folk songwriting, and the kind of shimmery dissonance that bandleader Leah Abramson learned from years of singing Appalachian music. If this music sounds different, it’s because of Abramson’s eclectic taste in music and her deep ties to Vancouver’s innovative indie roots scene. Like her friends in Vancouver indie roots band The Be Good Tanyas (Samantha Parton guests on Late Riser!), Abramson knows the roots of American music inside and out, but brings a decidedly fresh approach to her music. Inspired by Canadian history as equally as local stories of heartbreak and longing, Abramson writes songs that subvert the folk or pop songwriting structure, blossoming beyond these boundaries into something entirely new.
The life of an artist is one that frays the tether to safety and comfort. Yet, it is on this edge of risk that magic happens, and The Show Ponies’ new album We’re Not Lost is proof of the rewards of taking a leap of faith. Funded entirely by crowdsourcing, the album is a realization of both their ardent fan base, and the power of setting a goal and trusting the process. “The paradox of having a pretty good idea where we’re supposed to end up but having no clue what’s between you and the final destination is one I think we all experience,” says Jason Harris (banjo, guitar, and vocals). “It’s what gives the five of us this absurd and, at the same time, rational notion that we’re not just random agents of movement and location, but that we’re moving toward something.” What they’re moving toward is becoming one of the hottest Old Tyme groups out of the West Coast, with a stellar sophomore album that flirts effortlessly with a modern new-roots sound and a hard-driven progressive beat.
Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman have had quite a time these past two years! Their progressive bluegrass band Front Country took home the Band Contest trophy at both the Telluride and RockyGrass festivals, was invited to play on the Mountain Song at Sea Caribbean cruise, and has been touring incessantly to great acclaim. Melody herself released a critically acclaimed album, Gold Rush Goddess, in 2012, and recently won the MerleFest songwriting contest. Between these triumphs, Melody and Jacob came back to their California Bay Area home, rebuilding their lives together as two people whose bond has only tightened with all this travel and success. In October 2013, Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman will release their first album as a duo, We Made It Home, and you can hear in the music their joy at building a life together. Produced by bluegrass/roots music legend Laurie Lewis, the album projects comfort and intimacy. Their voices raised in harmony, their instruments intertwined, Melody and Jacob’s original songs and carefully chosen covers tap into their collective eclecticism. Under the layers of rich acoustic tones and powerful vocals, the songs draw from the realms of astronomy, ethnomusicology, feminism, folklore, and family history.
A collaboration of four red-hot players, Old Buck makes its home at the convergence of Southern old time and bluegrass traditions, making music that “just feels right.” With the talents of Riley Baugus, Debra Clifford, Sabra Guzmán, and Emily Schaad, this all-star stringband combines a love of old time traditions with a fresh new take – plenty of singing, layered arrangements, and influences from punk to vintage Americana to gospel. While the players overlapped in their interests and projects prior to forming Old Buck, the band itself was born as one of those edge-of-your-seat, time-of-your-life jam sessions that take flight and never quite come back down. Now the band has poured all that passion and enthusiasm into their debut self-titled album. With each member an acclaimed artist in their own right, it’s no exaggeration to say that Old Buck is a supergroup of Southern roots musicians.
Jon Pontrello of the Moondoggies & Pepper Proud - Lou's Got the Flu
by Mindie Lind
In December, Hearth Music celebrated Roger Miller's birthday with one hell of a tribute at the Columbia City Theater. The Roger Miller Tribute Night was a huge success, with a packed house,14 of Seattle's finest musical acts performing their favorite Roger Miller ditties, and heartwarming highlights from the formidable Iaan Hughes (of KBCS) who shared photos, videos and stories of country music's favorite class clown! We love Roger Miller and we were stunned at just how many folks came to celebrate the whimsical country music legend: from Annie Ford Band's bold and sassy cover of "Atta Boy Girl" to the Low Hums psych twang rendition of "Tall Tall Trees" to Liam Fitzgerald's loud and rowdy crowd -pleasing sing-a-long of "Dang Me", the night was a real pleasure and honestly, al the genuine Roger Miller love was a real surprise.
There was no greater pleasure and no greater surprise that evening than Jon Pontrello's take on "Lou's Got the Flu". Along with Seattle folk sweetheart Pepper Proud, Pontrello's (of the Moondoggies) version is a long way from Roger Miller's frog-throated, off-kilter 1-4-5. Pontrello said, "I thought it was a really funny song about a guy who had the flu and then after really listening to it, I thought, Man, this guy really does have the flu". This realization may explain Jon and Pepper's haunting hue to one of Miller's lesser known and sillier songs. Although we are very loyal Roger Miller fans here at Hearth, we are starting to prefer Pontrello's sweet, somber and uncluttered version to Miller's original- we can't seem to get it out of our heads!
Lucky for us, Jon Pontrello and Pepper Proud headed to the studio the day after The Roger Miller Tribute (now that's quick!) to record "Lou's Got the Flu" and we are so excited to share the exclusive premiere with you here! Enjoy and good luck not getting this catchy tune in your head!
Seattle buddies: Jon Pontrello & Pepper Proud are sharing a show at Empty Sea Studios on March 1, 2014. Details HERE.
Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra. Gipsy Manifesto.
The masters of Balkan Roma brass are back with their first album since 2010’s Devla. With the new album, Gipsy Manifesto, they’re pushing their music farther than ever, incorporating a fuller band with drums, guitar, accordion, even synthesizers, and bringing Euro disco beats and vocal effects as well. But the core of the music remains the same: the insanely virtuosic musicianship of the brass players, the crystalline purity of Marko’s trumpet playing, and the wild sense of “Gipsy” humor. The album’s a blast to listen to, and you simply won’t believe how good the brass instruments sound. It’s like bubbling lava listening to this music; the brass players reach virtuosic heights that should make any classical or jazz player weep with shame. And they do it all without losing their sense of fun. Simply put, this album is irresistible.
Fromseier + Hockings. Flot Gevir.
2013. GO’ Danish Folk Music.
GO’ is a great Danish folk music label that puts out a lot of music that we’d like to recommend. I think Denmark has always lagged a bit behind the other Scandinavian countries in the world of Scandi roots music, so it’s great to have such a steady flow of music coming from there. This duo is made up of fiddler Ditte Fromseier, from one of the little Danish islands that house some of the country’s best music, and guitarist Sigurd Hockings who brings a blend of Celtic and Scandinavian guitar accompaniment techniques. Flot Gevir is really more of an EP, but at 26 minutes feels complete enough to be thoroughly entertaining. The press release calls this release “playful,” and I think that’s very apt. Though perhaps it should be said that this is as close to playful as you can get from the dark, wintry world of Nordic roots music. A track like “Inger Elises” has all of this darkness we’ve come to love, but then the following song “Novet Om Livet Selv” loops in a swinging fiddle riff that could come off a Darol Anger jazz-fiddle album. Whether Fromseier + Hockings swing between dark trad and fun modern fiddle sounds, the point here is that they play with remarkably deft precision and a subtle sense of humor.
Casey Driessen. The S1ngularity.
2013. Red Shoe Records.
Casey Driessen is easily one of the most inventive and creative fiddlers out there today, and his new album, The S1ngularity, feels more experimental than any other roots music album I can remember this year. Not experimental as in inscrutably avant-garde, but experimental as in I can almost see him in a lab measuring sound waves to get the coolest new sounds out of his instrument. There’s a mathematics behind this music, a careful precision behind the wildness of the playing, but this foundation happily props up the music more than it obscures it. Driessen’s insanely inventive cover of Billie Jean, made all through his looped violin, is a great example of this: technically dazzling but also a helluva lot of fun. One of the keys to Driessen’s magic is the bluegrass chop, the percussive, short-range bow attack made popular by bluegrass fiddlers to keep the beat in between solos. It’s a great technique and has been used more and more recently for percussive impact in string ensembles. I think the chop is one of the keys behind the popular cello folk styles that people have been using recently, mostly originating from Rushad Eggleston, formerly of Crooked Still. Here Driessen turns the fiddle into a rhythm instrument, something which was new for me. The track “Tanuki Attack” is all chops and beats, and he turns out surprisingly strange sounds from his fiddle. But the most powerful track on the album, for me, is the traditional song “Working on a Building,” which Driessen nails down with ferocity. His fiddle buzzes like a table saw, and he growls his way through the old testament justice of the song.
Capercaillie. At the Heart of It All.
2013. Compass Records.
I came to Scottish trad music a lot later than my first interest in Irish trad, so Capercaillie is a very late discovery for me. But while I was lagging, everyone else knew that this was one of the premier Scots Gaelic band for at least three decades. With their newest album released in late 2013, I think the revelation here is just how much Capercaillie still respect the traditions behind the music. With a 17th century seafaring lament and an old waulking song (traditional song genre sung during the waulking of the tweed) bookending this album, Capercaillie wear their roots on their sleeve. Of course, Scottish Gaelic poetry is an ongoing tradition, and one of the stand-out tracks on this album, “Fainn an Dochas,” is a contemporary song about addiction, though it sounds for all the world like an ancient ballad to us non-Gaelic speakers. There are touches in this album of the more polished sounds of early Capercaillie that I usually associate with the group, but this is still a traditional album through and through. Plus the special guests lend a lot of cred to the work: Julie Fowlis, Kris Drever, Aidan O’Rourke, and Kathleen MacInnes. The tunes sparkle among the songs, aided by fiddler Charlie McKerron and fluter/piper Michael McGoldrick, but the star of the album beyond a doubt is the fragile, mature, and soulfelt singing of vocalist Karen Matheson. She’s at the heart of it all here, and the songs she sings are at the heart of Scots Gaelic traditions.
Bat Country. Love’s the Only Engine of Survival.
From front to back Bat Country's highly energetic and epic doom-Americana first (and last album), "Love's The Only Engine of Survival" is something like a the frosty steps you hear in a graveyard late at night or early in the morning, before all the ghosts come out to get drunk--then they stumble out and ask you to play in the dirt, don the highest and blackest heels you have and put on a puppet show.
There is a point that you notice this album moves well beyond it's casket-noir roots, carrying extra note of ghostly provocateur and for good reason: After bassist, friend and God's Favorite (Beefcake) Clown- "Meshugunah Joe" was killed at Cafe Racer in May 2012, Bat Country did a double flip off to the Grim Reaper, finished the Joe's previously recorded tracks, and had one of hell of a funeral cabaret and for the rest of us: what a fun fuckin sadness, what a fun fuckin album.
-review by Mindie Lind
2013. Beacon Ridge Productions.
Brishen is led by the Canadian guitar wunderkind Quinn Bachand, and specializes in “gypsy jazz” (or Django jazz or jazz manouche). The group is made up of some of British Columbia’s best roots musician (fiddler Richard Moody of The Bills and vocalist/rhythm guitarist Reuben Weir are standout players here), but the young Bachand is still the central point of the group, and rightfully so. His playing is shockingly masterful for someone so young, full of not only the wild virtuosity of youth, but a remarkable amount of subtle restraint. Together with fiddler Moody, he truly embodies the dual spirits of gypsy jazz: wildfire playing with beautifully dreamy interludes. On Brishen’s debut album, the band dips into the classics of jazz manouche, like “Blue Drag,” “Belleville,” or “Nuages,” and also bring forth quite a few lovely compositions of their own as well as some surprises, like a surprising cover of “Nude” by Radiohead. The whole album seems effortlessly put together, an extremely difficult trick when you’re playing with music as exacting as gypsy jazz. Huge hats off to all involved here!
Andy Statman. Superstring Theory.
2013. Shefa Records.
Superstar mandolinist Andy Statman is perhaps best known for his many wonderful albums of Jewish traditional roots music, but here he brings in an impromptu trio of master musicians–himself, Tim O’Brien, and bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland–for an album of wholesale cuts at a master level. The musicianship is spectacular here, and you get the impression these three could play at this level just jamming backstage in the green room. The tunes on the album follow some of the rambling paths that Statman has been down before: “Waltz for Ari” has that lovely dark klezmer feel that Statman does so well, while “Surfin’ Slivovitz” has been described as “Bill Monroe meets the Ventures.” Overall the tone of the album is bluegrass virtuosity, and it’s great to hear Statman back on his old stomping grounds. One of the standout tracks here actually goes to Tim O’Brien who sings a version of Dave Van Ronk’s “Green Green Rocky Road” that truly does homage to Van Ronk’s vision. Not to mention a killer version of “Come On Let’s Go”, the old 50s standard. Jeez, Tim, maybe you should do an album of early 50s rock n roll covers on acoustic instruments!! All in all though, what great joy to hear Andy Statman cut loose with some of the few musicians who can match his level of playing!
The Sojourners. Sing and Never Get Tired.
2013. Little Pig Records.
I’ve been trying to get right with God for a while now. I figure we’re all on our own journey here, so I wasn’t too concerned with my own path until my family got kicked out of a Catholic cathedral this past Christmas Eve. To be fair, St. James Cathedral in Seattle was overloaded with people that night, plus camera crews from the local TV station, so a bunch of kids in their pajamas running around trying to find a seat may not have been conducive to their show. But dang, watching them close the doors on the cathedral and turn people away, I started to wonder. What kind of church turns someone away? Well, thankfully The Sojourners are here to ease my worried mind. This trio of old school African-American gospel singers from Vancouver, BC (of all places!), lays it out on the very first track of their new album: “You don’t knock, ring, push, or hold, the door’s wide open a-waitin’ for your soul/You don’t knock, no no, you just walk on in.” Yeah, that’s the kind of religion I like. The kind that opens its doors to everyone, no matter who they are. And that’s exactly the good news that The Sojourners bring. Over a bed of slow-burning, stripped-back electric blues, they bring the kind of gorgeous, layered harmony you’d expect from the gospel tradition, plus a healthy dose of cool. The songs reference all kinds of modern ideas and images, so this isn’t strictly traditional, throw-back gospel; what it is, is exactly the right kind of come-to-Jesus music that us conflicted atheists need these days.
Eleanor Murray. Bury Me Into the Mtn.
Eleanor Murray has been making records out of Olympia, WA since 2008, and her newest, Bury Me Into the Mtn, is doing what all her live performances have done for me in the past–call up the dopamine in my body to distort my perceptions of sight and sound, inducing a tranquil euphoria. The second track on the album, “Virginia”, is my favorite track–it’s gotten, according to iTunes, more plays than any other song I’ve ever played–because of its bold melancholia. It has the kind of lyrics that make songwriters wonder how the fuck someone can write something that good. The entire album is as pretty as it is feral; middle-American backwoods feral; running with sweaty hair and a bold unbeaten pace feral. Eleanor Murray’s enchanting ability to feel youthful and wise at the same time reminds me of Mississippi John Hurt or Elizabeth Cotton. Even though I may not know where my roots are, I feel closer to ‘em just listening to her sing.
-review by Mindie Lind
Joa have everything I love about Breton music: eerie, medieval musical modes, ancient-sounding dance tunes, and the flat, almost buzzy, and utterly entrancing Breton singing technique. They also have none of the things that usually turn people off from Breton music: incredibly loud bombardes, incredibly high-pitched binious, or giant bagpipe ensembles. In short, this is just about the best band to listen to if you want to get into the music of French Brittany. On their debut album, the lineup is simple, but the music intricate and beautiful. Ronan Bléjean’s accordion meshes perfectly with Malo Carvou’s wooden flute, with both instruments pulling down some great instrumental dance tunes. Bléjean’s also mastered the bass accompaniment on the accordion, a surprisingly rare thing these days, and brings a lot of syncopated chording to the music, which helps a lot. But singer Armel an Héjer is the true star here, a pitch-perfect Breton vocalist who not only carries the best of the tradition in his singing, but is also able to push just beyond the tradition to something new. His singing in the opening song Yann Nikolas was a revelation to me, sounding almost like classical Indian vocalizations at times. His singing is angular and mathematical, but drenched in the kind of rawness that makes Brittany’s songs so beautiful, even to people who can’t understand the words. This group really does have all the best qualities of the tradition at their command.
KITHFOLK is a digital roots music magazine published quarterly by Hearth Music. Hearth is primarly a music publicity agency, but in KITHFOLK we're mostly writing about artists we do NOT promote, unless otherwise stated. Devon Leger does most of the writing and Dejah Leger does the graphic design. See our website for more information.
The next issue of KITHFOLK is scheduled for May 2014. Thank you for your support!
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