Archive for Gangsta Folk category
Southern California songwriter and roots musician Walter Spencer has carved a name for himself on the streets of Los Angeles with his dementedly witty songs and frenetically eclectic performances. His songs may seem strange to squares, like his long-form ode to Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, his song "Weed" about, well weed (and which was featured on the show Weeds!), or his call-to-arms for the Occupy movement, but they make perfect sense in the DIY clash of punk music, hippy values, and raunchy folk rock that is the hallmark of Southern California. Getting his start in LA punk bands, Spencer’s love of American old-time music blossomed during his time as the raging bassist for the notorious Water Tower Bucket Boys. Touring the US and Europe, the Bucket Boys were known for their intense shows that blended Appalachian square dance tunes with bluegrass covers of punk icons like Rancid. After leaving the Bucket Boys, Spencer struck out on his own as a songwriter, aided by his friends, some of the best roots musicians on the West Coast. His albums since then, A Sunday Night Roast in 2010 and Red Romance in 2012 have been rollicking roots music celebrations, anchored by Spencer’s gravelly voice, folked-up lyrics, and kickass stringband picking.
In 2013, Walter Spencer has been exploring his songwriting even more, honing his craft at home and delivering his folk anthems to the masses. His new album, Love is the Balm, is the result of this period of work, and it’s his most self-assured release to date. Opening with the title track, a rollicking, cracked country song inspired by the life of Johnny Cash, the album runs across a wide range of ideas, both musically and philosophically. “This Precious Life” is a lovely ode to fatherhood and parenting, inspired by Spencer’s study of Buddhist meditation, while “Delrium Tremens” is a song about the difficulties of quitting life’s addictions, whether cigarettes, drink, or even a bad relationship. “Beyond the Fence” is about an inspiring stay at the hippie art commune Topanga Canyon outside LA, the eerie banjo song “Trail of Corpses” was inspired by a chilling article on a Sudanese massacre, and the stringband inflected song “Backstepper’s Blues” tells the story of a great old-time fiddler whose life rode off the rails. Spencer’s music is as wildly eclectic as he is himself, prone to fascinating flights of fancy and crazy diversions, but tied together by a great heart.
Walter Spencer's just about what Woody Guthrie would have sounded like if he came of age in the 21st century, as equally hopped up on underground punk shows as urban square dances, howling out songs for the common man on the streets of Los Angeles.
Walter Spencer: Beyond the Fence
Walter Spencer: Backstepper's Blues
06/21/2013 | comments (0)
Well it's only June, but I'm going to call it and say that the award for Weirdest/Most Gonzo Roots Music Recording of 2013 will be a tie between the madcap sea chantey compilation Son of Rogue's Gallery and the unprecedented collaboration The Uncluded, which joins the anti-folk of Kimya Dawson with motormouth hip-hop MC Aesop Rock. Here are a few thoughts on each of these strange strange releases and why they're so oddly compelling.
Son of Rogue's Gallery. Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys.
2013. Anti Records.
Son of Rogue's Gallery is an off-the-wall, frenetic, partially insane compilation of celebrities and rock stars and folk legends singing old sea chanteys and pirate ballads. It's bankrolled by Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski of the Pirates of the Carribbean movies, and I guarantee you will not find stranger or more interesting artistic duets on any album this year. Much of the buzz for this album has been about Tom Waits & Keith Richards duet on the old folk song "Shenandoah," which is a pretty fascinating cover of the song. Shane MacGowan's cover of "Leaving Liverpool" is getting lots of press too, and deservedly so. He sounds almost lucid and his voice is actually pretty listenable. But these collabos are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia slams her way through the call-and-response chantey "Sally Racket" accompanied by indie folksters Akron/Family. Ivan Neville's New Orleans funk cover of the classic "Mr. Stormalong" is another favorite of the album. Hollywood icon Anjelica Huston turns in a totally feasible cover of my favorite maritime song: "Missus McGraw". Consider the lyrics to this one:
Mrs. McGraw lived on the seashore
for the length of seven long years or more
When a great big ship sailed into the bay
"It's my son Ted with his legs away."
Then up comes Ted without any legs
And in their place are two wooden pegs
She kissed him a dozen times or two
Saying "My son Ted is it really you?"
"O were you drunk or were you blind
when you left your two fine legs behind?
Or was it walking on the sea
That cut your legs from the knees away?"
"I wasn't drunk and I wasn't blind
When I left my two fine legs behind.
But a cannon ball on the fifth of May
Cut my two fine legs from the knees away."
The songs are brilliant throughout. Salty, sandy, rough-as-fuck sea anthems that have somehow stood not only the test of time, but the death of the sea as the primary means of intercontinental travel. I wonder sometimes how these old songs survive, and I wonder even more so how songs as strange, disturbing and archaic as those collected in these volumes have survived. But the real reason is they're just damn fun to sing!
Of course, not every track works perfectly, and as a whole the album is dizzingly diverse and eclectic, but that's the fun. A good pirate crew had crewmates hailing for many ports of call across the world, all drawn together by the bounty of their seafaring trade. This compilation's the same thing: a chance for many different artists to shelter together on a strange journey. It suits the spirit of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies perfectly while also bringing some much needed new life to the old sea chantey tradition. Plus it's a lot of fun to listen to and discover (and sing along with!).
The Uncluded. Hokey Fright.
While Son of Rogue's Gallery draws most of its strangeness from the combination of wildly divergent artists collaborating on obscure folk songs, The Uncluded's first album, Hokey Fright, draws its strangeness from the simple combination of two artists that seem very different, but actually have a lot in common. Anti-folk hero Kimya Dawson and hip-hop MC Aesop Rock may seem totally unconnected on paper, but less so in the studio. They've both made their bones off their stream-of-consciousness lyrics, street-wise rhymes, and DIY values. While Kimya became nationally known through her extensive work on the film Juno, Aesop was at the center of the 90s backpack rap world. After falling in step with each other's music and muses on Twitter, they started collaborating and found that their unpredictable musical stylings meshed well together. Though Kimya is ostensibly a folk artist, her songs inspired by folk music and performing often with just her voice and an acoustic guitar, she's always had a rap-like flow to some of her songs. And though Aesop's known as a speedy and radically creative MC, he was actually the one to approach Kimya first to trade music, so clearly has far-reaching tastes. After trading songs over email, both artists bonded over the sad passing of hip-hop artist Camu Tao, a close friend of Aesop's. Because of this Kimya asked Aesop to guest on her song "Walk Like Thunder" from her 2011 album, Thunder Thighs.
The two developed a close friendship from this experience, and began to tour together. When I interviewed Kimya for the now-defunct Cowbell Magazine in 2011, she talked about her and Aesop connecting over "critter hunting," a funny theme that features throughout the album. "That’s what we do for fun," she said, "we stay up to like one o’clock in the morning with flashlights, like walking along the creek looking for frogs."
Kimya also talked how they both had more in common than people might think: "It’s really cool because I think once people pay attention, you know, who might not have listened to hip hop or might not have been into folk music, they realize that he and I are just a couple of blabber-mouthy nerds. If they pay attention to the words, they realize that we are actually really similar." I've written before about how two wildly eccentric artists can somehow straighten out their eccentricities by collaborating together. But I'm not sure that's happening with The Uncluded's album. It's more like they're just holding hands and taking a walk together, letting each other speak in their own fashion. Love it or hate it (and we happen to love it), this is definitely one of the most strangely compelling folk albums of the year.
06/02/2013 | comments (0)
In honor of May Day (International Worker's Day), we're proud to present this interview with Appalachian labor activist Saro Lynch-Thomason, who recently released an impressive compilation album, Blair Pathways, of artists dedicated to remembering the Battle of Blair Mountain. This was one of the largest civil uprisings in US history and the largest armed rebellion since the Civil War, and it all stemmed from Appalachian miners who determined to regain their human dignity. Forbidden from unionising, their strikes broken through violent means– like families machine-gunned by strike breakers–and their voices largely ignored, West Virginia miners rose up in a series of skirmishes that have become known as the West Virginia Coal Wars.
Close to a hundred years later, young activist Saro Lynch-Thomason has assembled an album remembering these wars and the culture of labor activism. It's a wonderfully eclectic album, tapping into historical West Virginia music traditions, not only the old-time stringband music we're used to hearing about, but also the music of early 19th century immigrants to the region, like the Italian song "Stornelli d'esilio" and other great Southern genres like African-American gospel. The guest list here is just great: The Stray Birds bring in a killer cover of the labor song "Welcome, Mother Jones", two of my most fav old-time players Tim Eriksen & Riley Baugus sing "The Company Store," young ballad singer Elizabeth Laprelle covers "Lonesome Jailhouse Blues," and Dom Flemons of The Carolina Chocolate Drops covers "Harlan County Blues." I'd also like to thank Saro for bringing the amazing young Appalachian singer Sam Gleaves to my attention through his tracks on this album.
As a quick aside: Sam Gleaves' new album, A Little While in the Wilderness, is a must-have for any fan of Appalachian music. A student of famed ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams (like Elizabeth Laprelle), Gleaves was born and raised in the hills of Southwest Virginia, so he should know the historical area of Blair Mountain well. He loves his home and takes its preservation seriously. When I shot him a quick email to get a review copy of the album, he emailed back and concluded with this heart-breaking little sentence: "Thanks also for celebrating Saro's incredible work, I hope your review of it convinces more people that our mountains are worth saving." Sam's got a beautiful voice, and his album touches on both the unaccompanied ballad traditions of his home and the more raucous stringband traditions. He's too young to be singing this well and with such authority and I hope more people will get the chance to fall in love with his music. -BUY Sam's Album HERE-
Sam Gleaves, Myra Morrison, Jordan Engel - Law in the West Virginia Hills
In order to learn more about the history of Blair Mountain and this new CD compilation, we called up Saro Lynch-Thomason at her home in Asheville, North Carolina to get the scoop.
Hearth Music Interview with Saro Lynch-Thomason
So, what’s your background? Did you grow up in Appalachia?
Saro Lynch-Thomason: Not technically, but certainly in the South. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, which is in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee, but my family, on both sides, stretches back several hundred years in Appalachia. So, I definitely feel very connected to the region.
What brought you out to do this album? Do you travel out to the area of the West Virginia Mine Wars a lot?
Saro: For several years, since high school, I have working on mountain-top removal issues in Appalachia. I have become inspired to do this particular project because there is a mountain in West Virginia called Blair Mountain that is being destroyed due to strip mining for coal. Blair Mountain was the site of a historic uprising of about 10,000 miners and supporters back in 1921. So, back in June 2011, there was a week-long march that traced the march that the miners took during the rebellion and it was really inspiring to see everyone… the bravery and the versatility people had to have on that march. We got a lot of support from locals and there were some hard times too. I became interested in what kind of music had kept that original movement back in 1921, had kept those miners going and those communities strong. So, that’s why I started this project, by doing research into the music of those Mine Wars, of those Coal Wars.
Do those Mine Wars include Blair Mountain or were those earlier?
Saro: Sure. Let me clairify. There are several different Coal Wars or Mine Wars that happened all over Appalachia, northern and southern. Some of the earliest ones happened in the 1870s up in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania involving a group of union organizers who are now referred to as the Molly Maguires. It’s happened anywhere where the coal industry has been dominant in Appalachia. The Coal Wars that this particular CD focuses on were in West Virginia and they occured between 1902 and 1921. There were 3 main periods of conflict that I’m covering: one was strikes in 1902. The second was what are called the Painted Creek and the Cabin Creek Strikes in 1912 and 1913. Then, most famous are called the Mingo-Logan Wars from 1919 to 1921 which culminated with that march to Blair Mountain in August of 1921.
What were the miners striking about for the most part?
Saro: At a basic level, it was for dignified treatment. These wars are often looked at as wars for union recognition and they were. But, at a broader level, whether people wanted the union or not, they wanted to have dignity in their workplaces and in their home places. One of the main demands of the miners, every time they struck, was to eliminate the mine guard system which essentially meant that these folks were being guarded at work and being spied on at home by private spies and by armed guards that were hired by the coal companies. The minute that you started talking union or started talking about changes in workplace safety etc., you could get blacklisted and you couldn’t find any work in the coal field. These miners were asking for unions and, along with that, they wanted to insure that the mine guard system went away and that they could be paid in American dollar bills instead of in scrip which was a replacement form of money that they could only use at company-owned establishments. So, they were asking for several different things, but it all comes down to humane treatment and a life with dignity.
Right. This might be a bit ahead of the questions but… do you feel that the issues now with mountain-top removal in Appalachia and the protests against it, are those still in line with the workers? Or, are the workers on the other side of this? Do you feel the movement to stop mountain-top removal is in the workers’ best interests and do the workers agree?
Saro: In terms of what it means to have a dignified life in Appalachia, whether you’re a coal miner or work as a nurse or a homesteader, whoever you are... To have a life with dignity in Appalachia means to be able to not have the risk of getting cancer from the water you’re drinking or to live in a healthy environment, that’s not going to harm you because of the effects of practices like mountain-top removal. People are in a really challenged place because mountain-top removal pays better, in many cases, than other forms of income in parts of Appalachia especially West Virginia and parts of Kentucky. Union locals marched with us to Blair Mountain. A lot of miners are concerned especially in the UMWA itself is concerned, which is the United Mineworkers of America, is concerned about saving this mountain and is concerned about jobs. I can definitely say, it depends on who you ask but, if you look at, statistically, how many jobs have left Appalachia, especially because mining has become more mechanized, you could see that deep mining provides more jobs for people in Appalachia and the elimination of mountain-top removal provides for healthy Appalachians, no matter what you’re working background is.
It seems that, back with the Mine Wars and Blair Mountain, that there were a lot more workers who were actively fighting, even physically fighting, for these rights. Does it seem that you’re not seeing that as much now that it’s really split and is that because the marketing is so much better on the proponants of mountain-top removal?
Saro: There is definitely a very successful form of propaganda… Yes! (laughing) I think the myth that is perpetuated now is that it’s the tree-huggers versus the workers and that the tree-huggers can’t possibly understand or care about the economic needs of the workers. This is a total myth and it is definitely a way to divide and conquer and keep people from organizing, from unionizing themselves and also from communicating with people who are trying to do hard work around environmental issues in their own communities. This is part of the myth, that the tree-huggers are all from out of state or aren’t from here or are different economic backgrounds. In fact, the people who care about this the most are people who are living in the coal fields and trying to find out how they can keep their water supplies clean and also have a good job for themselves and for their families. These problems go hand-in-hand; they’re completely inter-related. The major myth that these companies tell their workers is that these problems are not related and that they should be ignoring the issues that they’re facing at home.
Did you find that the mine companies, back when you were doing all this research, that they had similar marketing or propaganda too?
Saro: The way that these movements came about was because there were all sorts of powerful new philosophies happening in the country: populism, democratic populism, socialism, anarchism... and all these movements were having influences on workers and how they saw themselves and the rights that they were beginning to see they deserved. The coal operators response to that situation was definitely anxiety and paranoia and this fear that the workers wanted to take labor… that labor was going to be taken away from the coal operators and their mines wouldn’t exist anymore. A lot of miners and philosophers were envisioning that workers would have control over their own means of production. [The coal operators] produced their own propaganda that was anti-populist, anti-communist. There were also efforts as we saw during the mine wars, even the state itself, the West Virginia government, made efforts to destroy the offices of papers that were socialist and anarchist in what they were pronouncing. There was definitely a lot of control over the media during that period too.
That’s interesting. Maybe we could back up and you could talk about mountain top removal. When did it come about? Why is it popular? There are some pretty obvious reasons why it’s a problem.
Saro: Mountain top removal is a form of surface mining for coal. It began in the 60s in Appalachia and it involves scraping the topsoil off of land. You take off the topsoil; you take down all the trees and then you blast and create sidewalls along mountain tops in order to scrape out, with huge machines, the thin seams of coal. It developed as a way to get coal out of the ground faster; it developed as a way to employ less people and use a more mechanized form of production and it also developed because coal seams were getting thinner and thinner. The quality of coal and the amount of coal that is coming out of Appalachia now, and coal companies will tell you differently, but it is less and less. The quality of coal that is being mined now is what would have been thrown away by our grandfathers. It was not considered as good... what happens in the process, is that the coal, which acts as a natural filter underground, it catches and holds on to hard metals. All those hard metals are released into the water system. The animal, plant life and human life is all exposed to these hard metals, not to mention that when these mountains are gone, erosion and flooding become huge issues and people lose their homes. Flooding has become so much worse as a result. That’s just a few of the problems around mountain top removal. It makes communities sick and it endangers communities because of the waste that is produced.
It seems that it’s kind of a short-term gain. It’s like clear-cut logging; you get something in the short term but you’re really killing the business in the long term.
Saro: It’s definitely killing Appalachia. The recovery process… there’s no way to measure it. It takes countless numbers of years for that kind of topsoil and the complicated beauty of the forest to form. To take that all away, recovery takes so long. The coal companies will do things like spray, they’ll spray a hydro-seed, quite often of non-native, fast-growing grass across the landscape to make it look green so it gives a semblance of health but it’s trying to hide away the fact that this land has been devastated in a way that it can’t recover from for thousands of years.
Let’s talk about the album. I really love the album. It’s a beautiful album. You’ve got a lot of really great artists as well. Are all the artists specifically from Appalachia or at least, deeply connected to Appalachia?
Saro: Several of the artists are connected to Appalachia. People like Elizabeth LaPrelle and Brett Ratliff and Sam Gleaves, Riley Baugus, Wayne Erbsen. I would say the majority of the people on this album are connected to Appalachia. The folks that are from further places, from the Northeast or down in Florida etc., they all were really excited to be a part of this CD because of their love of that labor history or because of their sense of the environmental urgency, their love of the land of Appalachia. So, everyone had a different emotional connections to participate in this.
Do you think that this kind of work is helping? I remember that Daniel Martin Moore and Jim James and Ben Sollee did that big album about mountain top removal. Did you see an effect from that and are you seeing an effect from this? Do you think it’s helping?
Saro: I do. It’s all about how much the word can get out. The immediate satisfaction is the emotional reaction that it creates in people. Using music to tell the story creates an emotional validation, for people who really care about these issues and that’s a really beautiful part of this process. In terms of it making a real difference as a whole, I really hope it can teach people who are not aware of this history to become engaged with it through this music. I will be doing a lot of touring and other forms of promotion to get people to know that the story exists and that they can engage with it through music.
Where did you learn the music and the songs?
Saro: Some from CDs... but I also moved to western North Carolina about 3 years ago and have been studying off and on from local ballad singers. A good friend of mine is Bobby McMillon who is a really wonderful historian and ballad singer. I’ve gotten to learn directly from several people while I’ve been here and that’s been really wonderful.
How did you pick the tracks? I love how each of the tracks somehow relates back to the mine wars. Did you choose the tracks or did the artists choose the tracks?
Saro: I chose the tracks. It was a complicated process. I had a whole series of tracks, a bit longer than what ended up on the CD and, in many cases, was able to give artists a few different choices, saying, "Which one of these appeals to you?" And in most cases, there wasn’t even music for the musicians to listen to. They were just given a set of lyrics because a lot of these songs are sourced from old mine workers’ journals and that sort of thing. We might be able to guess what tune they were to, but we don’t have the music for it. So, I would give the artists a few different choices and ask them what inspired them more and then they’d choose a piece to do. Based off of that, I would move on to the next artist and figure out what part of the story they could cover as well.
So, you actually went back and did a lot of research to find the songs.
Saro: Yes, I did research through the West Virginia state archives and through the national archives in D.C. Fortunately, these labor wars are better known than some. A lot of books have been published on this history and those books provide links to music that was being utilized during these campaigns as well.
The main question I really want to ask about the project is: What can we learn today from the history that you’re presenting here? What can this history teach us about what’s happening today?
Saro: What captures me the most about this story is that these folks were driven to a place where they they didn’t feel like they had much to lose by standing up for themselves. They were working amongst people who were from incredibly different backgrounds from each other. There were Hungarians, there were Italians, there were blacks who had come up from farm work in the south, there were white Appalachians, there were young men from New York. These people are working in such diversity with each other and they don’t even know how to physically talk to each other quite often but they’re working in the same miserable conditions and they just reach a point where they know that if they stand up for their own dignity they’re going to potentially lose their lives, but it’s worth it. I think we can learn from these people’s willingness to overcome their differences and their misunderstandings across the spectrum of backgrounds and ethnicities and languages to demand what they deserved as human beings: to live with dignity. In our country today, we’ve been taught that we’ve been deprived of that history. We don’t know that exists and through that deprivation, we don’t know that it’s possible for us to reach inside and honor that spirit that tells us that we are able to ask for what we deserve. The story serves as an inspiration and tell us that as Americans we have that heritage if we choose to acknowledge it.
This CD was created to bring attention to what is happening to Blair Mountain right now. It is under threat of mountain top removal mining and pretty important parts of the battle that took place there, are fought exactly where the coal companies urgently also want to mine. If people go to my website which is: Blairpathways.com, they can learn more ways to bring attention to what’s happening at Blair and hopefully, save it from being strip mined.
"Being people in the 21st century it is easy to lose sight of all of those before us who fought for the freedoms enjoyed now. Blair Pathways is a call for historical equity which is bringing every story in our history to the forefront so that it can shine its light on the past and show us the way to move toward the future. Don’t let the heroes who fought with their hearts and fists die in vain. Celebrate them and let their stories be told!"
-Dom Flemons (The Carolina Chocolate Drops)
“I’m involved with Blair Pathways because I think that the landscape is an indivisible part of mountain music. I hope that the more we know about the land and its history, the better care we’ll take of the mountains and each other.”
“Wendell Berry once said that ‘what we stand for is what we stand on.’ If we, then, ignore nature’s red flags; if we become apathetic; if we refuse to step up and promote real change, every one of us – then we’ll soon have nothing left to stand on and therefore nothing left to stand for.”
“I am involved with Blair Pathways because these mountains are my home and I want to help ensure that this will be a healthy place for me to raise my family. We owe it to the miners, the families, and everyone else who has given their life in the struggle for social and economic justice in the coal fields to educate ourselves and continue the fight.”
05/01/2013 | comments (1)
The California Recordings is an intriguing slice of lo-fi indie-folk from Calgary-based songwriter and folk traveler Mike Tod. It's the result of Tod's travels through the wooded hinterlands of Northern California in summer 2012, and it's the results of one afternoon spent in front of a recorder with just his voice, a guitar, and some lovely backing vocals from friend Alyssa Jean Gardner. It's beautifully simple stripped-back folk music, with lyrics that gently ruminate on his travels and thoughts. Used to be this kind of lo-fi folk was a lot more common, but I guess we're moving into an era of more heavily produced, deep harmonized, hand-clapped folk anthems from groups like The Head and the Heart and Mumford & Sons. I like both those groups, but I'm struggling now to remember any of their songs. Mike Tod's more in the vein of The Lumineers, who understand that folk songs were made for singing along. He's at his best on this release when he's playing with folk idioms, not exactly subverting them, more like turning them over and over and admiring them. The best song is his truly lovely take on the classic "Inch by Inch."
There's a lot to this album and it certainly deserves repeated listens. And I hope that this is the prelude to a more produced album that can explore more of Tod's muse. He's certainly got a lot of room to move from here. And on a final note, everything about this album reminds me of Northern California. I was born in California and raised in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and I miss my old home a lot. I can't really describe how he does it, but somehow Tod's managed to tap into the red-dirt and Ponderosa pines of my home to dig up music that sounds perfectly at ease on the banks of the Yuba River. I love that most of all about this album.
01/18/2013 | comments (0)
I was just complaining today about "limp-wristed" modern interpretations of hard-edged Southern roots music. This music wasn't made for a bunch of Northerners to dress up in hokey costumes and sing "quaint" songs about the good ol' days in the country. This is hard-won music from hard-working folks. So I was more than a little surprised to hear just how intense and gritty this album is from Swedish bluesman Bror Gunnar Jansson. I don't honestly know too much about him, but good goddamn his music sounds like it's bubbling out of the deepest pits of human anguish. He plays the kind of fractured, cracked, disturbed Mississippi hill country blues that I've always associated with artists like R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, and I still can't figure out how some kid in Sweden can sound like this. I guess that's the beauty of our modern age. True interpreters of Southern roots music can come from anywhere! If they can tap into the molten core of the music, the red heat that made this music so deeply compelling in the first place, then they've got my attention for sure!
On his debut album, it's clear that Jansson belongs in the same company as other young channelers of dark Southern roots, like Frank Fairfield, C.W. Stoneking, and The Dust Busters. Sending the liner notes through Google Translate didn't help too much, but the album seems to be a mix of original and traditional songs. Opening track "Dead Cold Hands," is an eerie, smoldering wreck of a blues song, and from just this starting track it's clear that Jansson's figured out the secret of great blues - don't be afraid to come close to derailing the song in order to express the emotion. For me, though, the real standout here is a near 7-minute long exploration of "Pretty Polly," one of the most common Appalachian old-time songs. But I guarantee you've never heard it like this. In the hands of Jansson, the song bubbles and roils like lava, almost hot to the touch. I don't know how well known Bror Gunnar Jansson is in the States, but from listening to this album, I think he deserves to be at the top of the heap of Dark Blues interpreters today. He certainly won't be stuck in the frozen North of Sweden for long. Not with songs this hot! Seriously, people, book this dude in the States. I want to see him play live!
12/07/2012 | comments (1)
If you're like me, you're missing the heck out of HBO's medieval epic series Game of Thrones at the moment. Season Two just ended and Season 3 isn't due until March 31, 2012!! You're missing hating on Joffrey Baratheon, pining over the trials and travails of Daenerys Targaryen, and cheering openly for The Imp (Tyrion Lannister) and Rob Stark. And if you've read the books, you're also dreading the possible arrival of the Red Wedding in Season 3 with all your heart (don't google it unless you like HUGE spoilers!). But either way, we've got a long wait ahead of us until the next season comes out on HBO.
Well fret not dear reader, the annals of American folk song have retained a goodly number of horrific, medieval ballads to tide you over until the sexy bloodbath that is Game of Thrones returns. While hunting some of the rarer ballads down, I made sure not to look across the pond for inspiration. The British and Celtic folk traditions have tons of old medieval ballads about courtly intrigue and bloody political gambles, but I wanted to find these here at home in North America. I love that the tales and legends of the Middle Ages still echo in our ears today, handed down carefully from generation to generation, each one hoping to find something in the old songs that could match with their own lives.
So here are a few examples of old ballads in the New World that sound like they could be ripped from the pages of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones.
Ralph Stanley: Little Mathie Groves
This is the all-time classic medieval murder ballad and it's a perfect foil for Game of Thrones motifs in American folk songs. The wife of a nobleman, Lord Arnold (sometimes Lord Daniel), seduces a younger member of the court, Little Mathie Groves. When Lord Arnold discovers this (in other versions, there's some element of courtly intrigue and gossip that lets him know about the tryst), he calls Mathie Grove out of his bed and challenges him to a duel. Little Mathie does well, but not well enough, and is struck down. And in this particularly horrific version from the great American songmaster Ralph Stanley, Lord Arnold kills his wife as well, slicing her head off and kicking it against the wall. It seems that so many murder ballads take place outside in nature, or in the village, but this one is nestled deep in a castle, with the unfortunate events unfolding before everyone's eyes. It's the tabloid-rag of murder ballads, and definitely in keeping with the murderous castle-bound intrigues of Game of Thrones.
On a high, on a high,
on a high holiday,
on the very best day of the year,
little Mathie Grove to the church did go,
The Holy Word to hear.
Some come in all dressed in white,
some in purple and blue,
and then come in Lord Arnold's wife,
the flower among the few.
She looked at him, he looked at her,
the like had never been done,
'til she got up and took his hand,
and bade him come along.
Well they tossed and they turned in the bed all night
'til they lay fast asleep.
when they woke up in the new morn dawn,
Lord Arnold stood at their feet.
He said "Get up, little Mathie Grove,
and put your clothing on.
For it'll never be known in old England
i slade a naked man.""
I shan't get up, I won't get dressed,
I fear so for my life!
For you have got two very short swords,
and me not nary a knife."
"Well yes I've got two very short swords;
they cost me deep in the purse,
and you shall have the better of the two
and I shall take the worse."
"And you may strike the very first blow,
and strike it like a man.
and I shall strike the very next one,
and kill you if I can."
Well Mathie struck the very first blow,
it hurt Lord Arnold sore.
and Arnold struck the very next one,
left Mathie layin' dead in his gore.
He turned his eyes to his wife in her bed,
the rage and the hate saw she.
"Who do you like best now?" he said,
Little Mathie Grove or me?"
Very well do I like your brow," said she,
"very well do I like your chin,
but I like Mathie Grove in all of his gore,
better than you and all your kin.
Well, he took her by the hair of her head
he led her through the hall,
and with his sword cut off her head,
and kicked it against the wall.
Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer: Les Trois Gentilhommes
Sorry to switch to French, but this is one of the best of the bloody old complaintes (ballads) of French Canada. It's still sung today and this version is from one of the best trad bands in Quebec, Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer. An all-male a cappella group, Les Charbonniers are a treasure trove of old songs and wildly inventive male vocal harmonies. The narrative of this ballad fits perfectly with the world of Game of Thrones, where the soldiers of the king (or kings) ride where they please, murdering peasants by the villagefull.
The song itself tells the story of three brothers traveling the countryside. Happening upon a beautiful peasant girl, they attack and rape her. She escapes and alerts the nearest town, where she lives. When the brothers arrive at the town, the local constabulary arrest them and try them for the rape. They sentence all three to hang, but little do they know that the brothers are actually royalty from Paris. Their other brother hears of the sentence and races South from the capitol, whipping his horse bloody. He arrives just in time to see them all hanging and races to cut them down. The two older brothers survive, but the littlest dies from the hanging. So the remaining brothers turn the King's soldiers on the town, burning it to the ground and murdering everyone in sight so that the streets fill up with blood to the level of the horses' flanks.
LES TROIS GENTILHOMMES (translated to English)
There were three gentleman brothers of King Louis' court.
On the road they encountered three beautiful young maidens,
Who they took aside and had their way with.
The youngest brother who molested a girl: You should have repented.
If you pass by the nearby town you will be thrown in jail.
They passed by the town and this is exactly what happened to them.
The youngest one cried and sobbed, saying "I am afraid to die".
His two brothers tried to encourage him, saying:
"Don't cry my brother, we have another brother in King Louis' court.
If he knew what was happening, he'd be here in a flash.
He'd kill the marquis of the town, and burn the countryside.
He would judge the countryside, and judge that all should die."
The jailer was nearby and heard everything they said.
[The jailer to the judges of the town:]
"Listen judges, listen to what the brothers had to say."
Meanwhile, their brother in King Louis' court
Met a poor beggar on the pont de Paris [bridge in Paris].
"Ah, tell me my poor friend, what is the news of the countryside?"
"The news, my gentleman friend? Your three brothers were arrested."
"My poor friend, what is to happen to the prisoners?"
"I think, my gentleman friend, that they will hanged at seven o-clock"
"Tell me, my poor friend, can I make it there by seven o'clock?"
"No, no, no, my gentleman friend, you ride much too slow!"
The brother put his hand on the bridle, and rode faster than the wind.
When he got to the hills, his horse was sweating blood.
When he got to the town, he saw his three brothers hanging from the gallows.
He saved Pierre, he saved Jacques, but for little Jean it was too late.
From the mouth of the little Jean flew a white pigeon.
The older brother blew on his trumpet, and summoned his men.
He said to his soldiers "Dress yourselves all in white.
We are going to pass through the town killing everyone and burning everything."
Women cried out from their windows to all-powerful God:
"For the love of a brother, why kill so many people, so many men, women and children?"
From the four corners of the town, the gutters flowed with blood
From the four corners of the streets, the horses walked in it up to their flanks.
They didn't spare anybody: it is the town of innocents.
Castle By The Sea: Tim Eriksen
I'll confess I picked this one mainly for the castle by the sea references, but really this is a great song that ties into the simmering hatred of the sexes in Game of Thrones. Marriage and love are used as weapons either to cripple an opponent or exploit their weaknesses, and men and women alike revel in a very real battle of the sexes. In traditional American music there are many songs of men murdering their wives and lovers; it's kind of the basic premise of the murder ballad. But here the lover's a little quicker than the man and does him in with bit of swift treachery. This is one of the more cinematic of the old ballads, with the six drowned maidens, the sylvan bower, the castle by the sea, and the generally action-packed narrative. It's also strange that Boston town got slipped into this one. Last I checked there weren't many castles around Boston. Unless there's a Boston in the UK that I don't know about...
Tim Eriksen: Castle by the Sea
(from the excellent album Northern Roots - Live in Namest)
The Castle by the Sea
Arise, O arise, my lady fair,
For you my bride shall be,
And we will dwell in a sylvan bower
In my castle by the sea.
And bring along your marriage fee,
Which you can claim today,
And also take your swiftest steeds,
The milk white and the grey.
The lady mounted her white steed,
He rode the turban grey.
They took the path by the wild sea shore,
Or so I've heard them say.
As she saw the walls of the castle high
That looked so black and cold,
She wished she'd remained in Boston town
With her ten thousand pounds in gold.
He halted by the wild sea shore,
"My bride you shall never be!
For six fair maidens I have drowned here,
The seventh you shall be."
"Take off, take off, your scarlet robes,
And lay them down by me.
They are too rich and too costly
To rot in the briny sea."
"Then turn your face to the water's side,
And your back to yonder tree.
For it is a disgrace for any man
An unclothed woman to see."
He turned his face to the water's side,
And his back to the lofty tree.
The lady took him in her arms,
And flung him into the sea.
"Lie there, lie there, you false young man,
And drown in place of me.
If six fair maidens you drowned here,
Go keep them company."
She then did mount her milk white steed,
And led the turban grey,
And rode until she came to Boston town
Two hours before it was day.
Lord Randall: Jimmie Driftwood
Boy, they sure love poisoning in Game of Thrones. From the opening of the book, the poisoning of Jon Arryn was the first blow in the game of thrones that leads to the total destabalization of the kingdom. And other characters get poisoned too, though I can't say who without a big spoiler alert. Suffice it to say that poisoning is a particularly medieval form of assassination. This great version of the Child ballad "Lord Randall" comes from Ozark Mountain singer (and songwriter! He was famous for writing the "Tennessee Stud" and "The Battle of New Orleans!) Jimmie Driftwood. It's a simple song, for sure, but there's something deeply poignant and sad about the way it captures the last dying hours of Lord Randall as he returns home from courtship. I love how each version of this ballad unveils the guilty party in the last verse as Lord Randall wishes for her death.
"Where have you been a-ridin',
Lord Randall, my son?
Where have you been a-ridin',
My handsome young mon?"
"Been a-ridin' and a-courtin';
Oh, make my bed soon."
Chorus: "I'm a-weary of a-courtin',
And I fain would lie doon.
Heart weary of a-courtin',
And I fain would lie doon."
"What had you for your supper,
Lord Randall, my son?
What had you for your supper,
My handsome young mon?"
"Red lips that were pizen.
Oh, make my bed soon."
"What will you to your sister,
Lord Randall, my son?
What will you to your sister,
My handsome young mon?"
"My trunk full of diamonds.
Oh, make my bed soon."
What will you to your brother,
Lord Randall, my son?
What will you to your brother,
My handsome young mon?"
"My horse and my saddle.
Oh, make my bed soon."
"What will you to your lover,
Lord Randall, my son?
What will you to your lover,
My handsome young mon?"
"A strong rope to hang her.
Oh, make my bed soon."
Nelstone's Hawaiians: Fatal Flower Garden
Kids have it especially hard in Game of Thrones. Much of the books are devoted to the endlessly depressing and bloody plights of the children in the story, especially the wanderings of Arya Stark as she tries to reunite with her family, and the forced escape of Bran Stark (whoops, spoiler alert!). Kids don't have it much better in medeival ballads, and a harrowing example is this old song which has been nicknamed "Fatal Flower Garden", though it also goes by "Sir Hugh" and "It Rained A Mist". It's horrifying from beginning to end and really sets the scene for the abduction and murder of an innocent child. It's also interesting that the murderous woman is here portrayed as a gypsy. She's also been portrayed as a Jew in early versions of the ballad.
It rained, it poured, it rained so hard,
It rained so hard all day,
That all the boys in our school
Came out to toss and play.
They tossed a ball again so high,
Then again, so low;
They tossed it into a flower garden
Where no-one was allowed to go.
Up stepped a gypsy lady,
All dressed in yellow and green;
"Come in, come in, my pretty little boy,
And get your ball again."
"I can't come in, I shan't come in
Without my playmates all;
I'll go to my father and tell him about it,
That'll cause tears to fall."
She first showed him an apple seed,
Then again gold rings,
Then she showed him a diamond,
That enticed him in.
She took him by his lily-white hand,
She led him through the hall;
She put him in an upper room,
Where no-one could hear him call.
"Oh, take these finger rings off my finger,
Smoke them with your breath;
If any of my friends should call for me,
Tell them that I'm at rest."
"Bury the bible at my head,
A testament at my feet;
If my dear mother should call for me,
Tell her that I'm asleep."
"Bury the bible at my feet,
A testament at my head;
If my dear father should call for me,
Tell him that I am dead."
These are just a few examples of old, murderous, medieval songs in American traditional music. What are some other ones you can think of that mesh with the courtly-intrigue and medieval warfare of Game of Thrones?
BUY THE MUSIC PLAYED HERE
Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer's self-titled debut album
Ralph Stanley: A Mother's Prayer
Tim Eriksen: Northern Roots - Live in Namest
Anthology of American Folk Music