Archive for Sustainable Music category
We're back again with our annual guide to the hugely humongous Northwest Folklife Festival, this Memorial Day Weekend, May 24-27, 2013. This is the largest community music festival in the nation, with (last I checked) 800+ bands, 25+ stages, and so much music and dance that it's physically impossible to see even a small fraction of the things you'd like to see. Now, some people like to wander around the festival, a shawarma and a cold lemonade in their hands, but I'm the kind of type that goes looking for something or someone new and amazing to discover. So I went through the schedule looking for cool things you might otherwise miss. Here's the:
HEARTH MUSIC GUIDE TO THE NORTHWEST FOLKLIFE FESTIVAL 2013
All of these picks and more are selected on the Hearth Music Folklife Schedule. Feel free to check it out and copy our itinerary!
American Standard Time. Sponsored by No Depression + BECU
Monday, May 27, 3:30-6:30
Fountain Lawn Stage.
This is definitely the coolest show at Folklife this year, so put this sucker on your calendars folks!! Greg Vandy is the host of The Roadhouse on KEXP and he also runs the blog American Standard Time. That's where he premieres his beautifully shot mini-docs on roots artists like Frank Fairfield, Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton, Alela Diane, John Cohen and the upcoming one he's doing on The Crow Quill Night Owls. Vandy does amazing work, bringing top-flight roots bands to Seattle via KEXP and his blog and his showcase at Folklife will be star studded.
The Crow Quill Night Owls. 3:30pm.
The Sumner Brothers. 4:00pm
The Slide Brothers. 5:00pm
The Sojourners. 5:40pm
In addition to mad-genius jugband The Crow Quill Night Owls and Canadian barn-rockers The Sumner Brothers (both of whom we've worked with and written about before), Greg's bringing out two groups to represent African American traditions that don't often get covered at Folklife: gospel quartets and sacred steel. The sacred steel group is The Slide Brothers, key players in the recent movement to take Southern sacred steel guitar playing out of the churches and on to concert stages. It's a huge coup to get them at Folklife and a chance to catch a little heard tradition of American music dead-center in the festival. The second group, The Sojourners, are a trio of men living in Vancouver BC that Greg saw at Folk Alliance. Here's some more info on The Sojourners and their new album:
The Sojournersare a traditional African-American gospel trio that bring powerful instrumentation to their rich harmony singing. They were founded in Vancouver BC after a meeting between Canadian roots country singer Jim Byrnes and Vancouver gospel singer Marcus Mosley. Byrnes asked Mosley to pull together some friends and Mosley brought Will Sanders and Ron Small together. All involved loved the sound of this new trio, and Byrnes dubbed them The Sojourners. On their latest album on Black Hen Records (Byrnes' label too), The Sojourners dive deep into the repertoire of African-American sacred song, supplementing their powerhouse vocals with roots blues from Black Hen label founder and Canadian folk icon Steve Dawson and some lush soul influences as well. It's a compelling sound that works because of the faith and authenticity in the vocals; all three singers were established church singers before joining up, though they each hail from different parts of the US (Chicago, Louisiana, Texas) originally. On their new self-titled album, some of the highlights include a moving cover of Rev. Gary Davis' classic "Death Don't Have No Mercy," a great version of Los Lobos' "The Neighborhood,"and a hard-rolling cover of the popular spiritual "Brother Moses Smote the Water." This is classic gospel music done very very right. They're gonna be great onstage at Folklife!
The Sojourners: Brother Moses Smote the Water
Friday, May 24, 7:30-10:00pm
The crusties and folk punk kids have been a big part of Folklife for about the past decade, I'd say. There are some killer musicians in their ranks, and some remarkably creative ideas on how to bend folk traditions to a new generation focused on digital grassroots resistance like the Occupy movement. Rogue Folk is a showcase of the best of these groups, some traveling up from California to participate (and to spend time street performing!). Blackbird Raum is the king daddy of the scene and a totally compelling group to watch live. They're all hardcore trad music fans as well, and contra dancers too. I'm looking forward especially to Matador. This darkfolk trio out of Santa Cruz has a mesmerizing sound, half clashing-strings and ominous fiddle lines from Dorota and half eerie spacial vocals from Dorota and guitarist Matthew. Their music would fit well with the unsettling writing of Polish author Jerzy Kosinski. Their last album, The Taking, sounds like a cross between an acoustic black metal band and a street performing folk singer. Great combo and they'll surely be very interesting on stage!
Matador: The Dispossessed
The Gembrokers. 8:10pm
Blackbird Raum. 9:30pm
Maple Folk Showcase. MC'd by Devon Léger of Hearth Music.
Saturday, May 25, 11:30am-3:00pm
Northwest Court Stage.
Yours truly will be MCing this fun showcase of Northwest bands with strong Canadian roots. Here at Hearth Music, we love any kind of Canadian roots music so this is a special treat for me.
Samanthan & Tom Braman. 1pm
La Famille Léger. 1:40pm.
Canadian Celtic stalwarts Blackthorn will be back this year for a popular show, as they've long been a fixture at Folklife. My own band, La Famille Léger (made up of all the folks who run Hearth Music), will be playing French-Canadian music from all over Québec and Eastern Canada. Lovely father/daughter duo Tom and Samantha Braman (guitar/fiddle respectively) will be playing fiddle tunes inspired by the Cape Breton repertoire (see our review of the new album from Sami Braman's teen trio The Onlies HERE). New French-Canadian ensemble Podorythmie will close out the show, maybe with some crankies! But for now I'd love to talk about the young woman opening the show: British Columbian Celtic fiddler Kierah.
Saturday, May 25, 11:30am
Northwest Court Stage.
Growing up the youngest of seven children in British Columbian stonemason family with strong Irish historical roots, Kierah must have felt a real need to stand out, and stand out she does with her newly released album. It's not just her technical prowess as a traditional fiddler that makes her new album, Stonemason's Daughter, note-worthy, it's her touch with the old tunes and her taste for composing new ones. On the set "That Dang Paddy Ryan," Kierah reins in the speedy fiddling and tucks into two great Irish tunes, reveling in the back beat that so rarely gets drawn out of that music. Her sets of Scottish Cape Breton tunes are wonderful as well, which is worth noting; Cape Breton fiddling is just about the trickiest tradition of Celtic fiddling to pull off. Her original tunes are great as well, not sounding totally derivative of traditional tunes, but sounding grounded enough in the tradition to be fun to play for most other fiddlers. The album was produced by Adrian Dolan, the fiddler/multi-instrumentalist from The Bills (who's also touring with Ruth Moody) and he brings a subtle hand to the album, giving Kierah's fiddling a powerful backing that really completes this package. On the set of original tunes "Granville Island Espresso" he whips himself and guitarist Adam Dobres (also from Ruth Moody's band) into such a frenzy that the track becomes pretty epic. It's not usual to hear acoustic traditional music kicking this much butt. Stonemason's Daughter appears to be Kierah's third album, since she's been fiddling and recording since she was just a kid. With this new album she's matured into one of the best young Celtic fiddlers in Western Canada and a name to watch.
Kierah: That Dang Paddy Ryan
Fisher Poets on the Road
Saturday, May 25, 6:30pm
SIFF Cinema Narrative Stage
The Northwest's tradition of fisher poetry is sadly underreported, though it's a rich and vibrant living tradition that anyone can experience at the annual Fisher Poet's Gathering in Astoria, OR. Fishermen (both men and women) gather during this festival both on stage and in impromptu pub sessions to tell stories of their lives of commercial fishing and to recite beautiful, hard-bitten poetry from the Northwest seas. Fisher poetry is one of the American occupational poetry traditions, along with cowboy poetry, logging poets, trucker poets, and probably others. Any profession that requires long periods of time spent in silence is perfect for creatig poetry, and this is the story I heard about the formation of Northwest fisher poetry is that the long journey from Washington and Oregon ports to the Alaskan fishing grounds is the root cause. As fishermen trundled along burning diesel to get North, they wrote poems and read poems over the CBs. Of course, today's fisher's poets aren't just constrained to writing about the sea; Oregon poet Clem Starck writes poems about chainsaws and carpentry, even laying concrete. But what he shares with other fisher poets (and occupational poets) is a gift for transforming the hard machinery and cold work into something beautiful.
At Folklife, fisher poet Pat Dixon has organized a panel on Commercial Fishing Work as part of Folklife's 2013 cultural focus on labor and labor traditions. He's bringing Clem Starck, maritime singer Mary Garvey, and the wonderful fisher poet Sierra Golden, an Alaska fisherwoman. Golden's a deft and powerful poet and I really hope she gets a chance to tell some of her poems. Check out a few samples HERE.
Check out Pat Dixon's excellent site that features the best fisher poets with sound and video samples:
In the Tote
Giddy Up: Country Roots (sponsored by BECU)
Sunday, May 26, 6-9pm.
Fountain Lawn Stage.
There's quite the movement today in Seattle of what's being called "Ballard Ave Country Music." This means young, sometimes hipster-ish bands that play traditional and roots country or indie music inspired by country roots and perform along the bars of Seattle's heavily gentrified Ballard neighborhood. Places like The Tractor Tavern, Conor Byrnes Pub, and even The Sunset can be hopping over the weekends, full of folks with PBRs and a need for a serious dose of twang. And there's some pretty great music coming out of this scene, of course. Top of the heap, in my eyes, is the Annie Ford Band. We've written about Annie before, and I definitely think she's one of the best roots musicians in Seattle. New to us were The Ganges River Band and Country Lips.
Country Lips. 6:15pm
Annie Ford Band. 7:00pm
The Ganges River Band. 7:45pm
Ole Tinder. 8:30pm
The Ganges River Band sure kicks off their new single, "I Am Your Man," right. They pour on the buckets of pedal steel twang, and lay back into a classic country kind of song about holding on to fleeting love. They don't seem retro for the point of being retro, just honestly enamored by the sound and feel of old-school country music. Their Bandcamp page labels them "a rowdy Texas country band currently living in Seattle," but it looks like the band is the brainchild of Ballard resident A.P. Dugas, who's been turning out intriguing alt-country songs in Seattle for a little while now. The Ganges River Band have just released their first self-titled album, and with songs like "I Am Your Man" and the absolutely excellent "Six Bottles of Wine" leading it off (Stuck out here in Houston/day dreamin' about leaving/But I'm doing fine.../On six bottles of wine) this is a great signifier of the deep county roots along Ballard Ave these days.
Country Lips are the perfect kind of band to see at Folklife. I didn't immediately gel with their Bandcamp music, but I totally fell in step when I saw their live KEXP videos. They're a raucous crew, a seeming pastiche of Ballard Ave types tied together with a lot of alcohol and a love for hardcore twang. The vocals are engaging, the instruments are picked hard, and the band seems to be having a load of fun. It's gonna be a helluva great time hanging out with these bands on the Fountain Lawn. You should try your hand at a country two-step!
Northwest Stringband Throwdown.
Sunday, May 26, 6-9pm.
Fisher Green Stage.
Just across teh way from the Country Roots show, the humble little Fisher Green Stage will be throwing down with four up-and-coming Northwest stringbands. Led by the hard-driving Seattle alt-grass band The Warren G. Hardings (who put on a killer live show), these bands come from as far afield as Portland and feature a variety of styles from bluegrass to jamgrass to alt-country to hardcore old-time. I'm especially excited about The Porterbelly Stringband. I was sad when the excellent NW alt-time band Nettle Honey broke up, but it turns out two members of that band have made it into Porterbelly with the addition of young fiddler Noah Frank. I don't know too much about them, but looks like they've been playing the underground square dance scene in Seattle, which means that they can play hard. Audio tracks on their Facebook page are damn promising, including a nice romp through the classic "Billy in the Lowground" and a nice old-time tune I hadn't heard before: "Old Buzzard." Banjo player Johnny Fitzpatrick, one of the Nettle Honey guys, sounds hot on these tracks, blazing through some three-finger picking that matches Billy in the Lowground's fiddling note for note. This band's gonna be hot on stage. I can just tell!
Wide Open Spaces, sponsored by BECU.
Monday, May 27
Fisher Green Stage, 1-3:30pm
I have no idea what this show is supposed to be about or why the name, but sometimes these are the best shows at Folklife. And as I ran down my list of awesome Hidden Gems and New Discoveries at Folklife, I realized three bands on that list were in this show. So dang, this is the place to be Monday afternoon before you head to the American Standard Time show!
Pepper Proud. 1:00pm.
Tara Stonecipher. 1:40pm.
Br'er Rabbit. 2:20pm.
Blvd Park. 3:00pm.
NEW DISCOVERIES & HIDDEN GEMS
part of the Wide Open Spaces show.
Monday, May 27, 1pm
Fisher Green Stage.
Folk singer Pepper Proud has been indeed making Seattle proud recently, mainly off the force of her powerful acoustic performances and her gorgeous debut album, Riddles and Rhymes. And I do mean gorgeous. Pepper's voice has the gentlest bit of twang, a remnant of her West Virginia homeland, and the subtlest sense of fragility. It's a voice that pulls you in instantly. The kind of voice that makes you lean in a little closer to catch every word, to enjoy every moment. She's a great songwriter too, which is no small feat. "Fishing Blues" was the first song I heard from her via the beautiful YouTube Ballard Sessions of Seattle filmmaker Eratosthenes Fackenthall. It's a beautiful folk song, indebted perhaps to the old fishing blues songs, or maybe just connected to that old sepia-tinged country image in my head. It's a song about fishing for treasure in everyday life, a song whose first verse could almost be taken from an innocent children's book, but there's also a twinge of the sadness of growing up in the song. It's part of her larger tropes in this album that blend the sweet and whimsical with the sad and slightly bitter. There's a hard edge riding just underneath Proud's music and that's what makes it so interesting. Everything sounds like fragile gossamer, driven by Proud's crystalline voice, but it's like washing your best wine glass by hand. It's a beautiful object to be sure, but there's an underlying level of fear in knowing that one wrong move can cause it to shatter, cutting open your hand. That tension between beauty and danger is the core of Pepper Proud's music and one reason she's so compelling.
Tara Stonecipher & The Tall Grass.
part of the Wide Open Spaces show.
Monday, May 27, 1:40pm
Fisher Green Stage.
Eugene songwriter Tara Stonecipher rides that perfect line between singer-songwriter lyricism and country twang. It's always a sweet combination, since it balances out the weaknesses in both genres. If you get tired of the freer-form melodies of singer-songwriting, the delicious country harmonies pull you back. And if the snare-driven backbeat and thump-a-thump bass of country begins to wear, the more expressive lyrics will bring you around. Stonecipher sounds remarkably mature and confident for releasing a debut EP with her band The Tall Grass (as in Tara Stonecipher and The Tall Grass), and that's part of what makes her worthy of attention. Really it seems like she's beginning to master two different worlds, a pretty mighty task. Her song "Dogs" is a perfect example. She's got the cresting vocal break that defines country singing, but the song as a whole is an affectingly emotional journey through a break up. Not sure how the dogs factor in, but I'd definitely like to listen to it a few times more just to find out. That's the sign of a good song and a good songwriter. You get a little lost in their songs.
Tara Stonecipher & The Tall Grass: Dogs
part of the Wide Open Spaces show.
Monday, May 27, 2:20pm.
Fisher Green Stage.
Br'er Rabbit bill themselves as "Folk-Stomp Americana" and that's just about right. 30 seconds into the first song, "Roller," on their new EP, and I defy you to keep from stomping along. There's an infectious joy to their music, certainly helped by the liberal use of ukulele and tambourine, but also by the sunny vocals of singer Miranda Zickler. These are just the kind of sunny vocals we need in the midst of a rainy Northwestern summer. Formed by brothers Nathan and Zach Hamer, Br'er Rabbit has a definite Lumineers vibe going on musically, which I like a lot, but seem to have a stronger folk foundation than the Lumineers. They've also got the taste for a singalong, a fine key point in any roots band, and the songs on their EP are all delightfully singable. Nathan, Zach, and Miranda are all excellent singers, and there's nothing better really than finding such a fun folk band amongst folks so young. There's an underpinning of traditional music, but I love the fact that they're clearly in this to have a great time. This kind of abandon is at the heart of true folk music and it's at the heart of Br'er Rabbit's music as well.
Br'er Rabbit: Roller
Friday, May 24, 7:20pm.
Northwest Court Stage.
Three of the best and brightest young folk and Celtic musicians in Seattle teamed up to make The Onlies. I know these kids well and they've got that wonderful, boundless enthusiasm of youth, and it shows on their second album, Setting Out To Sea. They've matured considerably since their 2011 album (which was great too), and they've expanded the sound of the group to feature multiple fiddle arrangements (all three are excellent fiddlers), some original songs and tunes, and a growing confidence in what was before just a way to have fun with friends. They've been learning this month from acclaimed songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello as part of the innovative youth music project More Music at the Moore, and it's clear that they're taking their musicianship and craft more seriously than ever. They've been getting great press too and may even have a West Coast tour getting put together. Each of The Onlies, Riley Calcagno, Samantha Braman, and Leo Shannon, are still in high school, so it's hard to believe that they sound this polished at such a young age. I had a Celtic band when I was in high school, and though we had an absolute blast playing music, I can assure that we didn't sound anywhere near as good as these kids. The tunes on Setting Out To Sea range across the Celtic traditions, from renditions of Irish tunes like Rakish Paddy and Lord Gordon's Reel, to old-time, Cape Breton, and French-Canadian tunes. Original tunes, like Sami Braman's "December March," rub shoulders with traditional tunes and rollicking fiddle tunes are slipped into songs and run through with obvious glee. A beautiful new Scandinavian tune by Ola Bäckström, "I'm Not Fed Up With the Pacific Ocean," benefits from winding harmony lines in the fiddles, and Liz Carroll's twisty tune "Half Day Road" gets a great treatment. Jeez, if they're whipping off Liz Carroll tunes at this age... Sigh. Kids these days!
The Onlies: Grey Owl
Hank Bradley & Cathie Whitesides.
Friday, May 24. 8:20pm.
Alki Court Stage.
Hank Bradley is one of the best old-time fiddlers on the West Coast, and probably in the US, though he doesn't get the recognition he really deserves. He was a seminal figure in the early folk revival old-time boom, and his bootlegged cassette mixtapes of old 78s influenced a lot of people as they were handed around from friend to friend. He's also a powerful tune composer. I've been in classes with him teaching tunes he's written and I can say he does things with traditional old-time fiddle tunes that I've never heard or conceived of before. For years, Hank and his partner Cathie Whitesides have also been performing traditional Greek and Balkan music. They'll probably do mostly this at Folklife, and it's a trip to hear how they can mash the odd and intense rhythms of Balkan music with the drones of old-time fiddling. Hank's his own master class in traditional fiddling, so step up and get some wisdom from a true master!
The Family Carr.
part of the Global Contra Dance.
Saturday, May 25, 12:00pm.
Kevin Carr's one of my favorite fiddlers and an all around great guy. For years, he's been teaching fiddle at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, and he's always quick to help anyone starting out on this difficult and demanding instrument. As fiddler, his style draws from many different traditions–and he's one of the few fiddlers I know who's proficient and respected in each of these traditions–but always manages to sound like his own. There's a lilt to his playing, a lift, and there's also a joyful quality to his ornamentation. His playing is beguiling to me, and I've sat with him at about a hundred sessions over the past decade or so, always enjoying myself immensely. Throughout the time I've known him, he's always played music with his wife, Josie Mendelsohn. Josie's a wonderful piano player (guitar, spoons and fiddle too!) and a great soul as well, so they make a great team. In fact, Josie was a member of the Good Old Persons back in the day with Laurie Lewis! Kevin and Josie tour the Northwest playing contra dances and concerts and Kevin's a wonderful storyteller and bagpiper too. For such a talented duo, it's a true joy to see that their love and passion for music has been passed on to their kids. It hasn't always been an easy road of course–it never is growing up with a lot of expectations from parents and friends that you'd become a musician as well–but the spark was lit in both kids, Molly and Daniel Carr and they've joined with Kevin and Josie to make The Family Carr (great band name btw!).
For Molly, it all clicked into place during a trip to Galicia. Kevin had been going to Galicia for years and learning the music, and Molly found the same comradery there that kept drawing Kevin back. She stayed for a while, and formed a killer young band called As Faiscas. On the new album, Molly sings some beautiful songs, including the Galician song "Canto de Monzos," which includes a beautiful tune on the Galician bagpipes (gaitas) as played by Kevin. Daniel Carr weighs in as well with a charming cover of "Sail Away Ladies," and Josie and Molly's haunting version of the French-Canadian song "Je Sais Bien," is another highlight (this song appears in Josie's indispensable book of French-Canadian songs published by Mel Bay). Kevin sings as well, leading up a fun version of the great old-time song "Wild Hog In the Woods." As mentioned, the album wanders across incredibly diverse ground, as Appalachian old-time tunes rub shoulders with French-Canadian dance tunes learned from old masters and wild Galician tunes join hands with Irish trad session pieces. It's all a lot of fun and a great window in the kind of diverse world of folk music that my generation enjoys today thanks to the hard work of the first folk revival. It's also a great window into the joy of making music as a family.
The Family Carr: Wild Hog in the Woods/Elzic's Farewell
part of the Team Up for Nonprofits Show
Saturday, May 25, 1:00pm.
Fountain Lawn Stage.
Bradford Loomis came as a surprise for me. I thought I knew the Seattle roots music scene pretty well. And it's not like he's unknown here; in fact, he's quite well known from his many performances at Seattle roots shows. It was, again, the video from Eratosthenes Fackenthall's Ballard Sessions that converted me to his dark Americana music. This was the video:
It starts off nice and simple, with a beautiful, heartfelt folk song, but by the end he's practically wailing! I got ahold of his new album, Into the Great Unknown, and it's in a similar vein to this video but with a full backing band and some gorgeous harmony singing. This is what Americana should sound like today, and too often does not. These are expertly crafted songs that owe a huge debt to the historic roots of American music but refuse to be bound by any stuffy idea of tradition. They can flip over into a killer mainstream country sound that would put plenty of wannabes in Nashville to shame, but they can also flip back to an old-school tent revival shout. And best of all, these songs are singable and hummable and just plain fun to listen to. Pay attention folks, this guy's going places!
Bradford Loomis: See You On the Other Side
FOLKLIFE HOT TIPS
Folklife's an insane event, but these hot tips will guarantee you have the best possible time.
-Volunteer for a shift. Folklife runs on about a thousand volunteers, so they need help. Go to the second floor of the Center House to sign up. Usually you get cool jobs. But the real thing you get is a participant button. Which leads me to:
-The Participant's Lounge is the best part of Folklife. Located just next to the new skatepark, the participant's lounge is where all the performers go to hang out all weekend and jam up a storm. It's a magical place with free drinks, cheap beer, good conversations and fascinating musical encounters. It's everything that's great about Folklife and you can only get in with a participant button.
-Get Inside if it's hot and you're tired. Folklife's exhausting on hot days and the crowds are insane. Get inside for an indoor theater show and you can sit down and feel a million times better. I recommend Center House Theater. It's the best listening space at Folklife and when I worked there we'd always throw the coolest and strangest bands in there. Also try the Folklife Cafe.
-Get your beer at the Northwest Court. The crowds are mellower up there and you can singalong to sea chanties.
-Give Folklife your damn money. Folklife runs off a few hardy, overworked souls and it doesn't charge at the gate. That means anyone in Seattle can experience not only some great music and dance, but the cultures of the folks who live around them. That's an amazing mission that deserves some of your bucks.
-Enjoy the street performers. This is actually like a second festival wrapped up in the first one. Street performers range from crusty jugbands to little kids with violins to dudes who staple dollar bills to their chest. It's awesome.
05/22/2013 | comments (1)
Kickstarter videos can be a difficult thing to produce. It's hard to ask your friends, fans and colleagues for money, so invariably they seem a bit a forced. But as Kickstarter's become the main way not only to support recordings and touring, but also to interact with fans, the Kickstarter video has become a central statement for an artist.
So with that in mind, I hope you'll check out the charming and intriguing video from Portland songwriter Leo J (of Leo J. and the Mêlées). His Kickstarter utterly won my over. He's looking for funds to support a cross-country bicycle trip to sing his own folk songs, which are pretty excellent, but also to gather folk songs and stories as he traveled to make into podcasts under the name Common Place: new world folk tales. He labels this project: Folklore Podcast - Folk Music Tour - Bicycle Pilgrimage. Check it out:
I was intrigued by the stories he mentions here in the video and by what exactly he's looking for while he bicycles around American communities. So I reached out and he had a very nice response:
"Basically, what I'm looking for, Devon, are stories of folklore, modern and traditional. Stories that give identity to a place and its people. Stories that are hard to believe and difficult to prove, but have gained a sort of mythical weight. Stories that you can't find on Google. Stories that are so embedded in a place that they can only really be told there. Stories of change and culture that comes directly from a relationship of a people to the place they live and not from some outside force with its own motivations.
Ultimately though, I just want to tell engaging, touching tales and I imagine the criteria will shift as I see what I come across. I'm very interested in the shifting and churning that goes on in this country: locals vs outsiders, folk culture revivals, urban sprawl, immigration and what it means to the way we relate to each other and the land around us."
Check out his Kickstarter and kick him some bucks. He's got 48 hours left. Good luck, Leo, and be sure to hit us up when you start posting some of your story podcast! For now you can listen to his new album which we've been really enjoying:
PS: Thanks to my buddy April at Common Folk Music for hipping me to this!
05/14/2013 | 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)
I spend a lot of my time thinking about how traditional music and traditional culture is still relevant in our lives. I listen to a lot of bands that are putting new spins on old traditions, and I work as a publicist building a narrative for this work. But every now and then something comes along that absolutely floors me. Some aspect of traditional culture that had been made so incredibly vibrant for the present moment that I can almost hear my ancestors speaking to me through the generations. Today, Québécois storyteller and singer Fred Pellerin accepted the medal for l'Ordre national du Québec, The National Order of Québec, a knighthood. It's perhaps surprising that a traditional storyteller could be given one of the highest honors for a French-Canadian, but after watching a key video of one of Fred's stories, it's clear that he's a visionary for a new generation of French-Canadian artists.
This story is amazing for a number of reasons. He's telling it before a crowd of thousands of Québécois at the National Holiday (St. Jean-Baptiste) celebrations, so you can't get much more of a national stage than that. Only the finest performer can silence a crowd of this size, and I've never seen it happen with a single storyteller. And the audience is at rapt attention. But what's really amazing are the layers of subversion that he folds into the story. On the surface it's a remarkably patriotic story of the creation of the Québécois flag. But what he's really telling here is a deeply powerful and inspiring parable about authority and government. A story of how the incessant fear-mongering of our times cripples not only the people but more importantly the government itself. Of how the spirit of a nation is held within only the bravest individuals, often the most oppressed individuals, and how these individuals can change the nation just through their own vision. This is everything in the Québécois spirit distilled into one story. And what's amazing to me is that he can convey ALL of this from the vessel of a traditional story that one might have heard in the parlors of a tiny town in Québec. He's taken a traditional form and made it vibrantly alive. I'm heartbroken that this isn't in English, only because I think we Americans need this story now more than ever.
TRANSLATION: (loosely translated with my father)
This is story that Fred learned from his village of St.-Élie-de-Caxton. This story takes place at a time that is no more. When the sky was still a destination for our dreams. Where we dreamed more of the sky than of going South [to America]. At this time in the village of St.-Élie-de-Caxton, there was a major fire. The fire burned up the church, and because the old priest had poor reflexes, it burned him up too. To keep order, the bishop sent a brand-new priest to the village. The priest arrived in his brand-new vestements, not a crease to be seen. He arrived in the village with his nose up in the air, and the people of the village liked that because they thought he had his eye on the heavens, up in the sky. The priest calls a town meeting, and asks if everyone is there. When everyone is counted, they find that the village witch is missing. She's an old lady living far on the edges of the town, suspected of causing the rain to fall and known to be able to read the future in tea. But not in the leaves, in the tea bags (which takes her hours). The priest begins to sow fear and distrust among the people, calling for them to watch out for the witch. So the witch retreats to her home and leaves the village alone. But even there the priest attacks her. When she waters her garden instead of attending mass, the priest tells them that people who do this will be poisoned by their vegetables. When she goes to the forest to chop wood in the winter instead of attending mass, the priest says that she'll freeze. As time goes by, the priest begins to retreat inside of himself with all this fear-mongering and loses sight of the sky. The village builds telescopes and parabolic dishes to try to get him to look up, but he just can't. They take him to a doctor, but can't find out why he can't look up to the sky and the heavens. Finally they call a large town meeting, and there, in a moment of silence, the witch speaks up. "If we can't bring the priest up to the sky, we must bring the sky down to the priest."
The next day, she goes outside of her home, walking under the large expanse of one of the sunniest days in Québec. She reaches up with her telescoping ice scraper, and hooks a corner of the sky. She pulls down this corner of the sky and loops it into her spinning wheel. Flooring the pedal of the spinning wheel, she begins to spin blue wool out of the sky. The spinning wheel starts spinning so fast that she starts pulling in chunks of cloud as well. Then when it's all spun, she sits down in her rocking chair in front of her stove, breaks off two rabbit ears from her TV antenna, and knits a huge blanket. This wool blanket has four blue squares, two white stripes, and four splotches of cloud in each corner. [NOTE: at this point, everyone realizes he's talking about the Québec flag, and the flags in the stadium start waiving and people start cheering.] The witch asks the village idiot to climb to the top of the highest tree in the village to attach the flag, which he does. The wind takes the flag like a giant sail as it flies over the village. Seeing this, the priest finally looks up at this miniature sky. He stares for a long time at all the folds and details of the flag. He clears his throat, and everyone waits for his sermon. He says "Is everybody here"? And they count and they count, and EVERYONE is there. The idea of the flag is so wonderful that everyone wants it. The movement spreads throughout the village to every home and to every village. "A sky for everyone." All the houses fly the blue flag.
NOTE: Fred uses this phrase a number of times: "Est-ce qu'il y a du monde encore deboute au Québec?" which could be translated as "Are there people still standing in Québec?" but also has the second meaning of "Are there people still awake in Québec right now?"
Congratulations to Fred Pellerin on this honor. Here's a link to a news story that has a video of his acceptance speech. Like this story, it's a beautiful and heartfelt mediation on what it means to be Québécois.
Fred Pellerin reçoit l'Ordre national du Québec
Here's a video of Fred and his brother, Nicolas, singing together. The song is "Le chêne" by the great Québécois songwriter Gilles Vigneault.
Fred's newest album, C'est Un Monde, has lots of songs!
12/19/2012 | comments (1)
Released a few months ago, The New Young Fogies, vol. 1, is a compilation album of field recordings from a new generation of Appalachian old-time players. It's also a pure delight. About time someone took it on themselves to document some of the younger old-time musicians in the mountains, and if this album is an indication, which it must be, then the ancestral Appalachian home of American old-time music must be full to bursting with great talent. So much ink has been paid recently to Alan Lomax, or even to Woody Guthrie, that we seem to have forgotten that this music is still alive and being made today. Sure, it’s great that Lomax’s recording are being made available to anyone, but who’s carrying on his work today with real, living musicians? So much time has been spent arguing about authenticity, or lamenting the passing of ancient musicians, that a whole crop of new musicians has sprung up, hell two generations or more have arrived, to celebrate the music without much recognition. The music is still as vibrant and powerful as ever, but our sights are set so firmly in the past that hardly anyone’s around today to document what’s really happening. This isn’t musical history, this is musical life, and as anyone who really plays old-time music can you tell you, they got into the music for the friends and the community first.
Huge thanks should be given to young fiddler and folklorist Anna Roberts-Gevalt for this volume of music. Along with ace sound engineer (and fiddler) Joseph Dejarnette, she scoured her rolodex to pick out some of the best young musicians in the Appalachian mountains, recording them in intimate, informal spaces, and interviewing them as well. In their own words, and on their own time, they share the stories and tunes that are keeping the music alive today.
We caught up with Anna to hear more about how the project came about and what her thoughts were behind it.
Hearth Music Interview with Anna Roberts-Gevalt
What inspired you to want to record this younger generation of musicians?
Anna Roberts-Gevalt: I’d been daydreaming about ways to document all that is happening around me, with this music. This is a beautiful tradition of music, stories, and fellowship. I feel really lucky to have stumbled onto it. I guess this project, for me, came out of the desire to celebrate and share what is happening—at festivals, at house parties, in the quiet of people’s homes, too—these young people who, for one reason or another, have decided to pursue a particular vein of music. It’s unusual. It’s out of the ordinary, in this day and age. It’s not necessarily stage music, it’s music of everyday life. So not everybody knows this is happening, and I guess I wanted to have a CD that, when people asked me—what is this music? —I could hand it to them, in answer. It’s hard to describe traditional music sometimes, hard to explain how deep it reaches. There’s all of these young folks who are spending their time visiting people their grandparent’s age, who are obsessing over recordings and obscure fiddlers from the 20s and 30s, who are proud to be carrying on local or family traditions. And I felt that a CD, and accompanying interviews, would be the perfect introduction for the uninitiated.
There is some acoustic music and folk music out in the mainstream, but much of it is only loosely or tangentially based in the Appalachian tradition. We really wanted to celebrate the young folks who have truly studied the tradition, who are a link in a long chain, who have dug deep and immersed themselves in the stories and songs, and I guess I wanted to create a project that could get their voices out there.
We started this project two years ago—Joe DeJarnette moved to into our little house on the river in southwest Virginia from New York, and I had these ideas, and it turns out he had been talking about similar ideas with Ray Alden, who put together the first volumes [the Young Fogies albums, which documented baby boomer old-time players] for Rounder Records and who worked on the Field Recorders Collective. He passed away a few years back, and this album is dedicated to him. So, we just emailed the folks who we thought should be included, set up the sessions—we travelled to Kentucky a few times, but mostly people came up to Joe’s studio.
How did you find all the young musicians featured on this album? Did you put out a call for artists, or are they mainly drawn from jam sessions and events that you've attended?
ARG: Joe & I selected the musicians who appeared on the first volume (there’s another already in the works). There are dozens and dozens of incredible young musicians—it was a hard decision.
We knew all the musicians on the record—some only casually— through attending old-time festivals in Appalachia. We were really inspired by the young folks who are really deep into the tradition. These are young folk who have immersed themselves in the music & stories of a specific tradition, and region, and who have connected with older tradition-bearers. Don Rogers says it really beautifully: “The old time music of east central Kentucky has an accent, as does all pre-radio folk music.” I love to listen to accents when people talk, whether they are from Louisville, Maine, or Louisiana. There is something expressive about accents that is directly connected to the soul. This is no different to me when it comes to music.
A lot of the musicians on the record seem to have an interest in traditional culture outside of music. Is this a pattern you've seen?
ARG: Yes, indeed! For some folks, it’s a matter of choosing to live how their families have lived for generations, music included. For others, it seems that there was a desire (and nostalgia) to find a life that was simple, or one that was based on tradition, or country living—music is one part of that.
So, yeah. There’s a lot of plaid wearing kids in oldtime music, and we get excited to try homemade wine or so and so’s ancient cornbread recipe. We delight in old things as much as oldtime music. But this isn’t universally true. John Haywood, for example, also plays in a heavy metal band. And there are plenty of New Yorkers who love the tunes and would never want to live in the country.
Tell me about making the album. What were your thoughts on how to record the music? Were there any good stories about making the album?
ARG: I think Jesse Wells mentioned something along these lines in his interview: “People play old time music cause they truly love the music … what the music represents. The simplicity of making music for music’s sake. Doesn’t take much to do it either. Just a fiddle on the front porch. My dad just sits at home and plays. That’s what music’s for.”
I guess we wanted to try to capture music like that. The whole record was recorded live—no overdubs or anything like that. When you hear old-time music in person, there’s a beautiful rawness to it, and we wanted the CD to reflect that.
We did one session in Knott County, Kentucky, on the property of this wonderful older banjo player. It’s a rare piece of pasture in Knott County, where the hills are so close to each other. To get there, you have to literally drive your car up a creek for a hundred yards. We loaded Joe’s recording equipment into a pickup and brought it over to the house. We set up on the back porch of this cabin that was over one hundred years old. It was a beautiful summer night, raining here and there. I remember sitting on the porch as Brett Ratliff recorded “Jubilee”—it was dark, but for the light of a lamp, and he was recording, and two of our friends sat on the porch listening—two women holding their little kids in their arms, the kids sleepy after a long day. Something about that song, that old porch, the mountains all around, and the faces of these little sleeping kids— the music seemed such a natural part of that landscape. It was beautiful.
Tell me more about this younger generation of musicians taking up the old-time mantle. How do they fit into the rest of the folk music world?
ARG: I think there are a lot of younger people who play this music, and many on this record, who have no intention of being part of the folk music industry. John Haywood says it well: “People don’t play this music necessarily to perform it. It’s just kind of a communal music, sit-in-the-living-room kind of music where it sounds best.” They’re pursuing music seriously, but not as a professional career. This has been the case for generations. Folks on the record began to pursue this music because it was a family tradition, because they felt homesick for the mountains, because they wanted to be part of the music community, as a pursuit of knowledge, or simply because they fell in love with the sound of it.
To me, that’s why this music community continues to be so rich—it is played by people with such a diversity of interests & pursuits. Electricians, scientists, scholars, teachers, professional musicians, carpenters, hobos… That said, there are a number of folk on this album (myself included) who are full time musicians. I guess I feel like this is a fairly recent development, within the past couple of generations of this music, that this would even be a possibility.
What's your background? Where are you from and when did you move to Kentucky?
ARG: I grew up mostly in Vermont. My parents work with kids—my mom runs a mentoring program at the local elementary school, and my dad spearheads a statewide nonprofit that works towards encouraging students to become better writers. As a kid, I played classical music, violin and viola. Never practiced as much as I should have, but loved playing with other people. In high school, I began to learn about fiddle music, here and there. Six years ago, in college, I got swept up into it. It hit me like a wave. I bought a banjo right before my sophomore year, after seeing some kids busking in Vermont. I tried to learn how to play it off the internet, and took some lessons in Connecticut, where I was going to school. It was only 4 months later that I decided I wanted to spend the summer in Kentucky. In retrospect—I had no idea what I was getting into. I think I had some vague idea that there were lots of people playing banjo there, on their porches. In any case, I was motivated by this abstract but really overwhelming desire to get closer to the source.
So I moved to Whitesburg, Kentucky, and worked as an intern for the traditional music program at Appalshop. I fell in love. Became deeply obsessed with the music, the stories, everything. Came back the next summer, graduated school early, and moved back to Kentucky, eventually settling in southwest Virginia, where I live now.
Tell me about your earlier fieldwork projects, or projects outside of the New Young Fogies.
ARG: I was a gender studies major in college, and I was becoming really interested in feminism about the same time I was getting into oldtime. I remember reading a book about string bands, and there was a two-page section dedicated to women musicians, saying there were lots of them, but that the author didn’t really find that much information about them. That kinda galvanized me to get interested in women musicians of Appalachia, and I wrote a thesis about three generations of women (and girls) playing fiddle in East Kentucky. From there, I was fortunate to receive a grant from Berea College, to do oral histories about some of the women whose music is in the archive. The fruits of that labor are on my website, www.annarobertsgevalt.com/in_her_first_heaven, and I have published some of the articles in the Old Time Herald.
[Anna frequently performs with young Kentucky ballad singer Elizabeth Laprelle as Anna and Elizabeth. They specialize in making “crankies”, old-fashioned handmade story scrolls that bring old songs to life.]
I’ve also made a crankie with Elizabeth LaPrelle inspired by Lella Todd’s story, an artistic continuation of the research I had done. We had a really wonderful time doing research for our most recent show—we visited with grandchildren of two wonderful ballad singers, Addie Graham and Texas Gladden, and incorporated stories we heard from them, into our show, which we performed throughout our area, and farther afield. I was really inspired by the idea of sharing research in a really engaging way—trying help an audience feel the magic in the story, that we felt when we heard it firsthand.
Documenting these women’s stories, I realized that I was documenting untold stories—that was the thread that grabbed me, by the end. Women’s stories are one part of that. All these fiddlers who were field recorded—they all have a story, and often, that’s the part that you can’t really get from the recordings, from the internet. The generation before ours did incredible work, recording these people playing music—I’m thinking about the folks who did this in Kentucky: Bruce Greene, John Harrod. Those two have stories in their head from their field recording trips, of what the houses were like, what kind of food these people cooked, how they talked, what their days were like. That way of life, and those people, are mostly gone from the landscape. And, for me, there’s a big desire to learn the rest of these people’s stories—not just the tunes, but the recipes, the jokes, that way of life. Tunes, these days, are so easily shared online, in little mp3 files. It can be easy to forget, or ignore, any sense that these tunes came from real people. That’s a huge loss, in my mind- that connection between the tune, and the musician who played it.
Now, I am working on a radio documentary about the late fiddler Paul David Smith, who was a dear friend to many of us. As with my earlier work—I want to try to express who he was as a person, as well as a musician. Knowing him, it was all those times not playing tunes, all the laughter, and the quiet moments sitting side by side in his pickup truck—those were just as precious as the musical moments.
Do you think there was ever a time where this music was in danger of dying out? I grew up with so much of this rhetoric from the folk revival generation, and now it feels like the music is stronger than ever?
I think it depends on where you are, this sense of the music dying out or not. Roger Cooper, this fiddler from Lewis County, started playing when Lewis County was full of fiddlers. There’s a great quote from the liner notes of a Kentucky music project, where he says that he never knew how lonely fiddling would be.
A few months ago, I went to visit the grave of this great fiddler Isham Monday, in Monroe County Kentucky—he passed away in 1964. I had been learning a lot of the tunes he played from Bruce Greene—Bruce didn’t meet him either, but he spent a lot of time in that part of Western Kentucky, visiting with musicians. I wanted to see what the land looked like, to get a sense of it, to dig deep into trying to understand the tunes.
I spent the day in Tompkinsville—a small town with more than one abandoned storefront. Quiet. People in town, then in the library, had no idea who Isham was… They were amused, curious, that I would come so far to find a forgotten fiddler’s grave. Bruce Greene talks about this—visiting older fiddlers who felt like no one was interested in their music anymore. And so we owe a lot to the field recorders of the 70s, who were interested, and who recorded the tunes so that we could learn them.
I guess one tricky thing, is that there are all these places in Appalachia where there isn’t much fiddle music anymore, places that used to have so much music, and then at the same time there are areas up north or on the west coast where it’s thriving—biggest square dance I’ve ever been to was in Portland, Oregon.
In Southwest Virginia, the music seems really vibrant—it’s a place where locals still know how to flatfoot, and thousands come out for the annual Galax fiddler’s conventions. There are incredible afterschool fiddle/banjo programs that have done great work, keeping the music going.
I guess this gets back to why a lot of the new young fogies we featured are from Appalachia—we wanted their story to be told, we wanted to celebrate their local music, and to inspire the next generation, in these mountains. For there are pockets where the music has been going strong for generations, or places where local folks are working really hard to keep the music going, to try to reenergize folks about the music, to get kids playing it.
Do you think the players on the album see the music as a hobby, or more of a lifestyle?
ARG: Hard to speak for everyone—but it seems a common thread, that very few people play this music casually. There’s an intensity about the pursuit of this music that seems to encompass people rather fully. The music is also really social, for most, and so the music community becomes a circle of friends, and thus a deep part of the old time musician’s life. I think that’s why I love it so much. When I am surrounded by other old time musicians, I know I am surrounded by people who have plunged into what they love. We dive in deep.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE NEW YOUNG FOGIES ALBUM
-Brett Ratliff’s acappella singing on “Jubilee” is one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, perhaps even more so after reading Anna’s moving remembrance of recording him on the back porch of an old cabin. Brett’s a native of East Kentucky and works now as the Program Manager for WMMT, the radio station based out of the Appalshop offices in Whitseburg, KY. From his interview in the liner notes: “For me, this music is my connection to place and rite of passage. It is a mature society that honors its elders and establishes a way for them to share their wisdom. I feel like, by seeking out this music, I have developed a deeper connection with the people who are around me.”
Brett Ratliff: Jubilee
-“Milwaukee Blues” is a fabulous old-time song that demonstrates some of the influences of African-American country music in the South. It’s full of blues fiddling riffs and hard-luck lyrics and really bends the notes into new sounds. Sung here by Seth Folsom, a musical instrument maker and musician based in Lexington, KY, with fiddler and musicologist Nikos Pappas and Jesse Wells, archivist for the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music on guitar. Nikos relates in his interview: “After the Civil War, all these people from all these different states–and regions that had never been in contact with each other–all of a sudden they were thrown together, and they have to negotiate each other’s different styles. It’s no surprise that a lot of the fiddlers that people admire and listen to were born in that generation right after the Civil War. In some ways it’s very similar to people [today] meeting at festivals from all over the world.”
Seth Folsom, Nikkos Pappas, Jesse Wells: Milwaukee Blues
-"Double File" is a monster of a fiddle tune that’s animated many a late night jam session. I’ve even found a version of the tune way up in the Canadian province of Québec! Here fiddler Rosie Newton burns on the infamous bowings of the more intricate Southern fiddle styles. As she says, “Growing up with the music wasn’t a choice. Eventually, it was a choice. Old time, for me, is the right fit because I like the conversational aspect of it.” She’s in conversation here with ex-punk-rock-turned-farmer Andrew Norcross on banjo, Asheville-resident Sarah Jamison on guitar, and Joseph DeJarnette, the sound engineer behind this project, on bass.
Rosie Newton, Andrew Norcross, Sarah Jamison, Joseph DeJarnette: Double File
11/14/2012 | comments (5)
While visiting Smithsonian Folkways a few months ago, I learned that they have a large collection of Québécois and French-Canadian music albums. These are all old LPs from the 60s and 70s, but they've been digitally remastered and they're being offered now on custom-ordered CDs. Part of the mission of Smithsonian Folkways is to always have their albums in print. So their whole back catalogue is available for purchase, which is pretty amazing when you think of the international scope of this venerable record label. When you buy one of these older albums, you get a CD in a custom-printed package with the original LP art and a download of the liner notes. There are some great gems here and they're not too expensive ($16.98 for the disc, $9.99 for the download).
You can see all the French-Canadian albums available here:
Here are some gems I found:
-Alan Mills & Jean Carignan: My dad always spoke of this LP with reverent tones. He grew up listening to it in New Brunswick, and I think the sounds of this LP underpinned his love of his own musical roots. It's makes for kinda funky listening now, especially with Alan Mills' strange folk accents and songs. But I have a hunch that this album is a glimpse into the true soul of Canadian culture. You have salty Newfoundland sea chanteys, sad rain-soaked medieval ballads, mysterious Irish jigs, and creepy old stories about the devil roaming the snowy woods of Québec. Classic.
-Jean Carignan & Pete Seeger: Yep, this is a pretty cool collaboration! Seeger was a fan of Carignan, inviting him on his Rainbow Quest TV show and recording this album here with him. Seeger doesn't do too much more than shrom away on his banjo in the background, but it's still a cool album. Carignan's at the top of his game, and though he doesn't play any of his rarer tunes here, he does turn in some killer performances. A great buy for any Carignan fans. If you're not familiar with Carignan, he was perhaps the greatest fiddler of the 20th century; a music genius who learned Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian and even classical music traditions flawlessly by ear.
-Songs and Dances of Quebec: A great disc for fans of French-Canadian dance. Invaluable for the recorded square dance calls from the great caller Aldor Morin, with Jean Carignan's fiddling to boot! It's a grab-bag of cool tracks from different artist with some saucy songs, but the duo of Jean Carignan and Aldor Morin is the real draw.
"Danse Carrée" [Square Dance]: Jean Carignan, fiddle, Aldor Morin, caller
-Joseph Allard: This is a wonderful disc of 78s from the playing of Joseph Allard. Born in 1873, Allard moved back and forth between New England and Quebec, and absorbed a lot of playing tips from Irish fiddling. Carignan was a huge fan and took a lot from Allard's playing. Allard was unquestionably one of the best Québécois fiddlers of the 78 era and his repertoire is a treasure-trove of great tunes.
Joseph Allard: "Reel du Pêcheur"
-Alfred Montmarquette: This is a glorious disc of 78rpm records from the great Québécois accordionist Alfred Montmarquette. He was the template for Québec accordion and a wonderful playerof the one-row melodeons still popular today in the province. This album, and others in the series, were curated by Québécois harmonica player Gabriel Labbé and his tastes clearly run towards the waltzes, marches, and polkas that were popular in the early 1900s in Québec. Today reels are the tunes most look for, and I would have loved more reels on these. But the playing is so great that it hardly matters.
Alfred Montmarquette: "Clog de William Durette"
-Alan Mills: My dad had this LP in his collection when I was a kid. It's a stone-cold classic, full of all the prototypical French-Canadian folk songs. It's a bit dated now, and I personally find Alan Mills' singing a bit stilted, but there's no denying that this is the original classic album of French-Canadian folk song.
Not all the collection is great, of course. Some of the albums of songs, like the ones from Jacques Labrecque or Hélène Baillargeon, are pretty dated, but these gems here attest to some great hidden surprises in Smithsonian Folkways' collection!