We can learn a lot from how Boston fiddler and songwriter Laura Cortese (cor-TAY-zee) approaches her music. On her new album, Into the Dark, she’s turned the humblest sounds and ideas from American roots music into a gloriously ambitious musical project. The album centers on her masterful songwriting, but feels like a huge community affair, bringing in her many friends from the Boston acoustic music scene and abroad. She does everything on a large scale here, flying in friends from afar, arranging wickedly complex, borderline-classical string movements, singing with a power bordering on triumphant, writing compelling original songs, fiddling like a woman possessed, and drawing back into her creative muse to pull forth entrancingly beautiful ballads. Cortese’s not content to rest on her laurels as one of the best young American fiddlers (originally inspired by the Scottish fiddling of Alasdair Fraser), or as a lion of Boston’s creatively-electric roots music scene. She plays every song on this album (and every show) with an enthusiasm as fresh as her inventive fiddle lines and vocal interpretations. Behind the boldness and passion, Into the Dark shows at its root a deep confidence in the power of music played without artifice of any kind.
As one of the most in-demand side players in Boston, Cortese’s far-reaching career has included stints as an instrumentalist with Band of Horses, Pete Seeger, Rose Cousins, Jocie Adams (of the Low Anthem), and Uncle Earl. She recorded a duo album with Jefferson Hamer, founded musical collective The Poison Oaks with roots music icons like Aoife O’Donovan and Sam Amidon, and has released two solo albums under her own name. The past few years have found Cortese in creative overdrive, balancing sideman duties, solo tours, and recording sessions. With Into the Dark, all this energy spirals into one central place, which explains the album’s powerful sense of focus.
Though Into the Dark features carefully curated covers (Laura Veirs’ “Life is Good Blues,” the incredibly catchy “Heel to Toe” from Sean Staples, a beautifully-stripped back version of the stringband classic “Train on the Island”), most of the songs come from Cortese’s pen. There’s a push and pull here between the past and the present: though her songs are foundationally based on American folk music, they also tackle current issues. “Brown Wrinkled Dress” is a vintage Americana story set to song, evoking subtle and beautiful images (a steamed up window, a gold watch and chain) to tell the oldest tale: a man’s betrayal of his wife. But the opening track, “For Catherine,” though it too seems to be based on tradition, speaks to the chilling and brutal rape in 2009 of a young woman in Richmond, California (close to Cortese’s hometown of San Francisco). “Village Green” states the album’s mission and speaks to Cortese’s greater purpose as an artist. “And in the dark I would sing/Sing a song whispered low/Singing for the people in the shadows. I would not wish for petticoats or gloves of crocheted lace/But for a story worth being told…”
Laura Cortese: "Village Green"
Laura Cortese: "Heel to Toe"
05/02/2013 | 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 spirit of the West is alive and well in the music of Los Angeles-based roots music collective The Dustbowl Revival. This rambling, rolling spirit is the same spark that lit a fire under the past two centuries of Westward migration in America. It comes from a need for wide-open vistas, rollicking street parties, laidback lifestyles, and communities that you build yourself. For the folks in The Dustbowl Revival, West Coast living suits them just fine. Their high-spirited blend of old school bluegrass, gospel, jug-band, swamp blues, piercing brass blasts, and the hot swing of the 1930’s has made them one of the hottest roots music bands in LA and garnered them praise from the likes of tastemaker radio station KCRW, the Los Angeles Times, and alt-paper the LA Weekly! That’s what happens when you owe your allegiance to old-school inspirations like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Sevens, Fats Waller’s barrelhouse vibe, Bessie Smith’s ass-kicking backroom blues, and New Orleans brass bands. Growing steadily from a small string band playing up and down the west coast (hundreds of shows in the last two years), The Dustbowl Revival has blossomed into a traveling collective featuring instrumentation that includes fiddle, mandolin, trombone, clarinet, trumpet, banjo, accordion, tuba, pedal steel, drums, guitars, a bass made from a canoe oar, harmonica and plenty of washboard and kazoo for good luck. This ain’t no fake-mustached hipster revivalism here, The Dustbowl Revival are the real deal, shouting and hollering the nearly derailed, buzz-saw crazed music of the American South that first inspired them.
The Dustbowl Revival’s new album, Carry Me Home, is a full-on assault on the idea that folk music should be in any way restrained or boring.
Check out the official video for "New River Train":
The Dustbowl Revival barrel through old-school songs like the spiritual “Swing Low” or the old stringband number “New River Train,” bringing a kind of raucous energy born from all-night parties and impromptu street parades. The biblical wailer “John the Revelator” gets a gin-soaked barroom reimagining here, with ceiling-scraping clarinet solos, and a creepy chorus line that would have done Son House proud. And the original songs rock just as hard as the traditional songs. “Riverboat Queen” blends the 1920s-influenced blues vocals of Caitlyn Doyle together with a Tom Waits cabaret feel that taps equally into the world of Balkan brass and accordions. “Josephine” veers into doo-wop, but with a decidedly cracked modern approach. “Soldiers Joy” may be an age-old song about the horrors of the Civil War, but lead singer and songwriter Zach Lupetin gives the song new words and a new feel to reflect the reality of modern warfare. It’s part of a pattern that unites The Dustbowl Revival’s many different influences: the old music traditions that inspire them are evoked not for some kind of vintage aesthetic, but because The Dustbowl Revival honestly believe that these old songs and sounds have a lot to say today. You can find the same burning energy that made the old recordings so electric in the Los Angeles city street music of The Dustbowl Revival.
The Dustbowl Revival: Swing Low
The Dustbowl Revival: Josephine
04/24/2013 | comments (0)
Iarla Ó Lionáird has a preternatural ability to change the way we hear traditional music. Heir to the rich and ancient tradition of Irish sean-nos singing (unaccompanied ballads in the Irish language), he's turned this insider musical art form (often performed in pubs with closed eyes and near-trance-like energy) into the arena shows of his former band Afro-Celtic Sound System. He didn't do this by changing the tradition, but by moving even deeper into the tradition than you'd think possible. With Afro-Celt and with his earlier solo albums, he used sparse electronics, strings, and minimalist arrangements to create soundscapes to support the songs. He created a modern context for an ancient sound. This isn't something easy to do, and it took a lifetime of mastery for him to manipulate sound this deftly without losing site of the transcendent core of the music.Talking about why he turned down early offers to record before joining Peter Gabriel's Real World Records, Ó Lionáird says "They wanted to treat it as folk music. But sean nos is darker, more passionate and ancient than that. It has never been about strutting your stuff. You stand there and hold it. It's all about empathy."
Now, Iarla Ó Lionáird has a new album out, Foxlight, and it's a beautiful new round of songs, surprisingly most from his own pen. Not many artists are writing new sean nos songs these days, but it seems to come naturally to Ó Lionáird. So much so that the listener would be hard pressed to tell the new songs from the traditional songs on the album. Curious to know more about the inspiration behind the songs, we asked Iarla to participate in one of Hearth Music's Inside the Songs features. Here's what he had to say about three songs on the album.
Inside the Songs with Irish Singer Iarla Ó Lionáird
"I suppose this song started as a waking dream that I had about my own family. During the making of the album this was the first time in my life where I was surrounded by my own children, my wife, the household hubub as it were of daily family life. And I think all of this mayhem and all that beautiful chaos infiltrated and fed into the creative process of making the record at every level. This dream had at its core a somewhat dis-embodied and yet stark realization, and a sense of responsibility for all the lives that I had created with my wife and their independent trajectory. It was suffused with a sort of speculative energy pervading the writing and by that I mean this song as I was writing it explored this idea of the realization on my part that the future really belonged to them and that I would have to be not just satisfied with that but in fact understand that this was quite simply the order of things and the way things should be.
The song lyric itself describes a quasi-dreamlike situation of my then very young children dancing around the bedroom in the morning as I was sleeping and me somehow slowing everything down and looking at them as creatures connected to me but also as independent and beautiful entities unto themselves. At the end of it all what this song is really about is acceptance. It's about taking every day and every moment as it comes and being thankful for what we have."
"This is an ancient song composed by the blind harper Turlough O'Carolan (1670–1738). O'Carolan is famed for his harp music but is much less appreciated for the many songs he composed during his life. He composed this song in praise of Eleanor Plunkett of Robertstown in the County of Meath who was the only survivor of her family following a fire in which their home was destroyed. I came across this song many years ago whilst preparing for a concert with quite a few harp players and it is extremely well known as part of their ancient repertoire. These harpists were unaware of its provenance as a song and so I commenced a period of research, uncovering quite a few verses and working on them editorially to see if I could make them fit well with the melody. I felt from the beginning that the composer had perhaps performed this song in a semi-spoken manner thus the lyric did not always fit perfectly with the meter of the melody And what a beautiful melody it is.
Still throughout my several years of preparing this song for the recording I decided to strip back much of its harpish mannerisms and articulations. I love the version we settled on for the album. I believe it has an open expansive quality that retains the core value of O'Carolans tremendous melodic sense as well as the touching sentiment with which the composer addresses the lady in question, having, as he says, nothing to offer her but his music. There is a particular delight also in recovering this song from the past and giving it voice for the first time in centuries. Special thanks is deserved her by composer Jon Hopkins for playing piano so beautifully on the recording."
"The Goat Song"
"Inevitably we are lucky if we grow up in a house which has music song and dance. I was doubly lucky in that I grew up also in a region of West of Ireland where singing, traditional singing was endemic. My mother's family were well-known as singers but particularly her aunt Elizabeth Cronin who was recorded in the 1950s by among others Alan Lomax and Jean Ritchie for the Smithsonian Folkways Collection. So in that sense singing was in the blood and I learned many's the song for my own mother as a young boy. The Goat Song is one such song. This is a comic and light song and it describes humorously how a person is trying to milk two yellow goats into a hat but that the hat alas has several holes in it thus leaking the milk all over the place.
Initially I was unsure about including this song on the record thinking perhaps that it was a little too trite but my producer Leo Abrahams prevailed upon me, as he often did when I was in doubt, and good sense made me reconsider that it had its charms and more than deserved its place. It also pleased me greatly to have recorded this song for my mother knowing that she would enjoy it so much and that it would rekindle memories of the past for both of us. In all of these recordings for my album Foxlight I am incredibly indebted to Leo for all of his patience, extraordinary skill and enormous dedication to the project."
Special thanks to Iarla Ó Lionáird for agreeing to talk about the songs. Check out this video about the making of Foxlight:
04/22/2013 | comments (0)
There’s something remarkably different about fiddler, singer, and songwriter Lily Henley’s music. On her debut EP, Words like Yours, her songs will sound familiar to fans of American roots music, but are tinged with Old World accents and surprising melismas and ornaments. That’s because she lays claim to more influences than most roots musicians today. A child of the folk revival, she grew up traveling to fiddle and song camps, zig-zagging her way along the path of her own curiosity. She was initially inspired by Celtic music, especially Irish fiddling and the highly-rhythmic Cape Breton fiddle style. While in Boston, where she was attending the New England Conservatory, Henley tapped the local scene to connect with a younger generation of songwriters and instrumentalists, and has continued to work with top-flight young traditionalists like Rushad Eggleston, Brittany & Natalie Haas, and Tashina & Tristan Clarridge. However, it was her move to Tel Aviv, Israel for three years that cemented her current work. There Henley became inspired by the language and rhythms of Sephardic culture, and the flowing and bubbling vocal lines of Ladino music and language seeped into her own songwriting and brought a new repertoire of music as well. Never losing sight of her original interests in Celtic and American roots music, her new sound could be called Old World Americana. This blend of Old World influences, ranging from the Fertile Crescent to the Celtic Isles, with the fiddle and song traditions of the New World, is the key to Lily’s music. It’s the extension of her love of the rhythms of human language and her passion for bringing old traditions into new light.
On Words Like Yours, Lily Henley’s voice sparkles clear and bright, soaring over her complex, winding arrangements and her crack team of acoustic roots players: Dominick Leslie (The Deadly Gentlemen) on mandolin/mandola, Duncan Wickel (John Doyle, The Duhks, Cathie Ryan) on 5-string fiddle, Jordan Tice (Tony Trischka, Brittany Haas) on guitar, and Israeli artist Haggai Cohen-Milo on bass. The album was produced by renowned Israeli jazz composer Omer Avital, an artist who, like Lily, has followed his own roots back to Israel and the Middle East. Making Words Like Yours, Lily was looking, as she says, for “a way of interpreting old influences so that they don’t lose what I love about them, but so that they are authentic to me as a young American songwriter and fiddle player.”
Throughout the album, Lily’s beautiful vocals weave in and out with her stellar backing band and her powerful fiddling, bringing her music to new heights. Her influences intertwine, sometimes all at once, as in the second track “Dark Girl,” a traditional Sephardic song. Her fiddle blazes through riffs born from Celtic and American sources, while her voice sings achingly in Ladino, with Dominick and Jordan’s mandola and guitar picking out Irish bouzouki-inspired counterpoint. Opening track, “Two Birds,” is a great taste of Lily’s songwriting: “Looking down with my eagle’s eye/Everything’s so tiny from the sky… Are you still here with me?” One of the highlights is the final track of the album, a song from the much-loved Israeli singer-songwriter Ehud Banai. It sounds as old as the hills of Jerusalem, but it’s actually a new composition that translates as “Canaanite Blues.” It’s a beautiful song about loss and longing, “Since you left, much here has changed/It’s an electronic world, it’s a little hard to talk/And words like yours/Nobody says anymore.” This song echoes Lily’s music, for even in a digital world the words of the Old World can still have great power.
Lily Henley: Her Song
Lily Henley: Dark Girl
04/19/2013 | comments (1)
Young Tennessee old-time fiddler/banjo player Joseph Decosimo’s album, Sequatchie Valley, is one of my jealously guarded treasures. It’s an album filled with unexpected delights: beautiful tunes and songs learned directly from elder musicians from Joseph’s home state. The fiddle tunes are often beguiling: the softly loping rhythms of Bob Douglas’ tune “Jenny in the Cotton Patch” wind their way as if along an old dirt track. Each tune is like the tip of an iceberg; they’re seemingly short vignettes of Tennessee rural life that actually reflect years of friendships, community life, and good times spent with neighbors. The “goofy” tune “Hy Patillion” came to Joseph in much the same way as an excellent old joke, passed around with a smile and wink from old friend to new friend. Joseph’s a marvelous fiddler, able to snake his way around the twisted winding rhythms of Southern old-time music with such ease that you find yourself following his path with ease while listening. And he’s a beautiful singer. Despite the strange title, the song “The Old Cow Died in the Forks of the Branch,” is a masterfully subtle example of how to make an archaic antique sound as fresh as a beating heart.
I first met young old-time fiddler Joseph at the annual Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend in 2010. He was there helping out with the older Tennessee fiddler Mike Bryant, but was up all night with the rest of us playing killer old-time jams anywhere we could find a spot. I was blown away by his impressive repertoire of beautiful Tennessee tunes and songs (I also hadn't realized what a wonderful singer he is). Here was a young guy who'd clearly done his homework, soaking up the tradition at every possible opportunity. I wanted to interview him to find out more about what makes Tennessee fiddling so special and to find out more about where he comes from.
Joseph Decosimo and Mike Bryant at Fiddle Tunes Festival 2010:
Hearth Music Interview with Tennessee Fiddler Joseph Decosimo
Tell me more about where you grew up? What kind of town? Close to the famous Cumberland Gap? Did you grow up around music?
Joseph Decosimo: I grew up on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, up above Chattanooga. Signal Mountain is on Walden's Ridge—a finger of the Cumberland Plateau that runs for miles and miles. It's a beautiful place with big sandstone bluffs, deep gorges, and lots of trees. Although Signal Mountain has grown a lot during my lifetime, it's still easy to slip away into the woods up there. Most of my father's family lived within a few miles of us. My grandmother's people have been in Tennessee for a long time and have lived up on Signal Mountain for several generations. It's a place that feels like home.
As for Cumberland Gap, we're pretty far from Cumberland Gap. Signal Mountain is down on the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau, while Cumberland Gap is further up north on the Kentucky line. I grew up down closer to the Georgia line and not too far from the Alabama line.
As far as getting into the music goes, I didn't really grow up in the music. My parents didn't play or anything like that; but they encouraged me to listen to any kind of music that wasn't trashy pop stuff. They also were and continue to be really supportive of my music. I got a banjo in seventh grade and quickly found a place where folks were playing music just a few miles away from my house every Friday night at the Mountain Opry. It was in an old school that had been turned into a community center. Bands would sign up to play for slots throughout the evening, and folks would jam outside and in the back rooms. There were a lot of bluegrass players there, but for some reason, I wasn't drawn to their sound.
There was an older guy named Don Sarrell who came every week and played in the house band. His banjo playing really caught my ear. It was different from what most of the guys were doing. Don played a nice two-finger up-picking style of old time banjo. I wouldn't have been able to articulate the difference at that time, but I heard something different and beautiful in the way he played. I spent hours in the practice rooms listening to him—the sounds that came out of his banjo washed over me and embraced me. It was powerful stuff. Don's father had played, and Don was trying to get a sound like his father's. There were a small handful of folks playing old time music around Chattanooga at that time, but I didn't meet them until I was in college. These days, there's a pretty vibrant old time scene in Chattanooga, but when I was growing up, it wasn't really there.
Walk me through the basic geography of Tennessee. I'm a West Coast boy, born and raised, so pretend I know nothing about Tennessee.
JD: Tennessee is an interesting place. These days I'm living up in the northeast corner of Tennessee—just south of Johnson City in a little town called Jonesborough. The big mountains—5 and 6 thousand foot mountains—of East Tennessee are just east of us. I'm living just down the road from Bristol and Johnson City, where some of my favorite musicians recorded back in the 20s. You can follow the line of the big mountains down the eastern edge of the state, running a little east Knoxville and on down a bit east of Chattanooga. As you head west, you get into the ridge and valley area where the Tennessee River and the Holston and Clinch Rivers cut down through the state. It's still East Tennessee. A bit further west, the Cumberland Plateau cuts down through the state. It's a big sandstone capped plateau with some wild areas, sandstone bluffs, and deep gorges. I grew up on the plateau and love the landscape. I consider the plateau to still be a part of the Appalachian region, although it's pretty different than the mountains further east. Then you drop into Middle Tennessee where the land starts to roll. There's some big hills, but it's got a whole other kind of beauty than the mountains. I haven't spent much time in the western part of the state towards Memphis, so I can't say too much about it. The eastern part of the state, from the border with North Carolina on back to a little bit west of the Cumberland Plateau would be considered part of the Appalachia. It's roughly the eastern third of the state.
This might be a bit of a tangent, but I've been thinking about it some lately: this way of defining—relying on geological features—doesn't always square up with that people think about the region when they think of Appalachian music. Because the history of the old time music revival centered so much around what was happening around Tommy Jarrell and the folks in that region along the North Carolina and Virginia line, people often use "Appalachian fiddle traditions" to refer to a narrow slice of music made in the Blue Ridge. I'm beginning to think that a term like that is pretty useless. There were people playing fiddle and banjo music throughout the South— in the mountains, in the piedmont, and in the flatter places.
How would you describe the Tennessee fiddle style? I hear a lot about the Kentucky long-bow players, and I hear a lot about the Blue Ridge style of Tommy Jarrell, but don't hear as much about Tennessee fiddling.
JD: That's a great question, and I don't think there's an easy answer. Tennessee can lay claim to some pretty amazing and diverse fiddle styles. Arthur Smith's slicker, notey fiddling influenced a whole generation of fiddlers throughout the South and beyond. Down where I grew up, around Chattanooga, it seems like a lot of the older fiddlers were influenced by the wild and wooly North Georgia sounds. Gid Tanner, Lowe Stokes, and Clayton McMichen spent some time hanging out in Chattanooga back in the 20s. Maybe a lot of what gets labeled a North Georgia sound could also be called a Southeast Tennessee sound. At the same time, I hear a lot of influence from African American musicians in the music that was played around Chattanooga. One of my favorites fiddlers from around Chattanooga, Bob Douglas, played an incredible raggy piece called the "Maybell Rag." It came to him from a black guitar player who was working on barges on the Tennessee River. One of my other favorite fiddlers from down there is Blaine Smith. His playing swoops and slides in a way that reminds me of the syncopated and swooping rhythms from African American fiddler John Lusk. They also shared several tunes in common.
Bob Douglas - Sequatchie Valley
Check out Joseph Decosimo's version of this tune, "Sequatchie Valley" from his album:
Allen Sisson lived further east, up in the mountains along the North Carolina and Georgia lines. His playing sounds totally different from the others. It's filled with triplets and complicated melodic lines. It sounds really old to me. JD Harris who was from further north in Flag Pond Tennessee had a similar sound. Their music has an austere and composed beauty. Then there's Charlie Acuff [second cousin to the famed Roy Acuff], who plays with an incredibly sweet touch, employing vibrato and playing stately tunes that he learned from his grandfather. One of my favorites lately has been Jimmy McCarroll from the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau. He recorded his driving and totally sophisticated and blues-inflected fiddling in the late 20s. So I guess there's no way for me to describe a Tennessee style. Each of these fiddlers had their own sound, and I've only scratched the surface. I guess there are some similarities. Folks in Tennessee tend to play a lot of tunes in the key of G, but they play in plenty of other keys too. Beyond that, I'm not sure what to say.
What two Tennessee fiddlers do you most wish old-time players around the US would know about? Obviously Clyde Davenport is a HUGE stylistic influence all around, but think of two sadly ignored names here that you wish would be household knowledge.
JD: For the last few years, I've been obsessed with a fiddler named Jimmy McCarroll. He recorded with his band the Roane County Ramblers for Columbia back in 1928 and 29. He manages to reinvent the tunes with each pass. It's powerful, creative stuff. He can do just about anything. Although he's a contemporary player, Mike Bryant is a mind-blowing fiddler. He's been really generous sharing his music with me and bunch of other younger players. His touch on the instrument is a total paradox–searing intensity paired with the most intricate bowing and fingering. Mike hasn't been ignored, but I can't help but mention him.
Do you think Tennessee and other Appalachian fiddle traditions have gotten short shrift in the old-time revivals? Blue Ridge playing has become such an archetype, that it seems other regional Appalachian styles have gotten lost in the shuffle.
JD: The old time revival was an interesting thing. There are so many compelling sounds that came from around the Blue Ridge, especially along the North Carolina and Virginia line around Mt. Airy and up into the mountains. I can't blame musicians for being drawn to those sounds. When I was working on my Master's Thesis, I spoke with Bruce Molsky about the time he spent with Tommy Jarrell and the other guys. It sounds like it was rich. It also sounds like it was a major point of connection for a lot of the folks who were getting into the music back then. Nowadays, things seem to broadening. That's not to say the folks who came before have not opened new doors. There are a number of players of my generation from Kentucky and West Virginia who are dedicated to playing music from their home. They've spent time visiting with the older players and listening back to commercial and field recordings and are trying to create a sound that honors their region. You can hear some of them on The New Young Fogies album [see our interview with Anna Roberts-Gevalt about that project HERE]. In a way, the obsession with something that often gets mislabeled Round Peak leaves the rest of us with a lot more territory to explore. It's kind of liberating. There are plenty of folks and a bunch of younger people who have chosen to learn about the music from their home. It's become one way to connect to a place, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing the music from your home transcends any sense of being slighted or overlooked. In the end, it makes for a much more interesting music community when you have folks who are really digging into particular repertoires.
You've learned a lot from older players. Which of these players is still living? Do you still visit them?
JD: Clyde Davenport lives up in Jamestown, Tennessee—right up on the Kentucky and Tennessee line. He keeps a garden and still takes in visitors although his hearing is pretty bad. He loves to mess with folks who visit him. The first time I came by, he answered the door and told me he didn't have any instruments to play—there was a fiddle sitting on his couch. We went back and forth about whether or not he had any instruments for a while. Eventually, we made our way in and spent the rest of the day playing music. After I finished college, I'd go and hang out up there a good bit, especially during the summers. We'd play music, talk about the music, walk around his garden, eat meals together, and run errands in town. All the folks who've spent much time with these musicians know how it goes. It's rich but exhausting. His wife Lorene keeps him straight. I haven't been up there as much lately because I was living in North Carolina, but I'm hoping to get over his way more. I'm actually going to be playing at his 91st birthday party this evening.
Charlie Acuff, who taught me a lot when I first started fiddling, is still around. He lived in Alcoa, Tennessee where he and Dorothy raised a family. He worked in the Alcoa aluminum factory. He's getting into his mid 90s now and can't play so much. During my last couple of years of high school, I'd get up there about once or twice a month. Charlie is in an assisted living place now. I've dropped in a few times when I've been on my way between North Carolina and Tennessee. These visits have shown me the tremendous power of this music. Although his memory is failing him, I've watched a change come over him as I've played some of his grandfather's tunes for him—a physical change—from shallow breaths to deeper breaths. I've watched tears well up in his eyes and had them well up in mine as I've fiddled some of his tunes for him. The music resonated in both of us in different ways, but it connected us in a way that runs deeper than words or memory.
These days I'm hoping to get down and see Charlie McCarroll a bit more. His father was the great Jimmy McCarroll I mentioned earlier. I've been visiting and learning from him some the last few years. He's got some beautiful family tunes that he's shared with me.
I talked with Chance McCoy, a great old-time fiddler from West Virginia, and he said he never felt that comfortable visiting older players. He wasn't really their friends to start off with and it felt a bit forced. Have you experienced this? There's such an aesthetic that we all have to learn from old-timers, but has that been a struggle at times? Not only finding the few old-timers left, but getting along with them?
Chance is great, and I can understand where he's coming from. I'm not sure how it worked, but it felt right to come alongside the older musicians I've gotten to know. By some strange events, spending time with older musicians became my main way of learning while I was in high school. I never went to festivals during high school and college. Instead, I'd go and hang out with older players. It wasn't really intentional. It was more that I was fascinated by their music and by them. In some beautiful way, these encounters and friendships have grown into something that goes much deeper than the music. I have a tape of my first visit up to Charlie and Dorothy Acuff's house. I spent most of the time trying to get my banjo in tune. I can listen back and hear Charlie patiently coaching me along. After that tape, I made other tapes: each tape documents the music. They document the ways that Charlie taught me to move the bow. They document the way that he taught me to sweeten up a note high on the E string. Beyond the music, these tapes document the friendship that was growing. When I was a freshman in college, I can remember playing these tapes when I got homesick. Just hearing Charlie talk and play and the sounds of his house was a comfort. I don't think there was anything forced in the relationship. Although Charlie gave me a lot, I hope that I reciprocated.
Getting along with Charlie was easy. He is gentle and patient. Getting along with Clyde Davenport, as anyone who has visited him can attest is something else. Clyde is wonderful, but he is a total trickster. You learn to play along and to dish it back out to him. The whole experience of visiting has taught me about being patient. It has taught me that these musicians are people. It reminds me that there is much more to them than just the name that gets linked to a tune during the conversation between tunes at a jam. It's taught me about what it means to be a good visitor. These visits are socially exhausting, but they're totally rewarding. Not only are you trying to absorb complex musical things, but you're navigating and creating relationships across generational and social lines. I try to encourage younger players to go and spend time with older players. If old time music is a tradition, it seems critical that we value and spend time with the people with links to the past as we make our music for the present. It's that reaching back into the past to create something to satisfy my needs in the present that makes me love this music.
Joseph Decosimo - "Jenny in the Cotton Patch"
Joseph Decosimo - "The Old Cow Died in the Forks of the Branch"
TO PURCHASE JOSEPH DECOSIMO'S ALBUM, SEQUATCHIE VALLEY:
Photos/Notes on Other Tennessee Fiddlers from Joseph Decosimo:
"Sequatchie Valley fiddler Clint Kilgore stands in his backyard in Victoria, TN in the summer of 2006. The Cumberland Plateau rises behind him in the background. He was a fine fiddler who played with some notable fiddlers during his childhood, including Jess Young and Lowe Stokes. My version of Hy Patilian comes from Jess Young's playing."
"Jean Horner is a violin maker from Westel, TN up on the Cumberland Plateau. I play two of his fiddles. He sources much of his wood from East Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau. His instruments are becoming increasingly popular among younger old time musicians."
"Cumberland Plateau fiddler Bob Townsend stands beneath his name at a monument built in honor of all the traditional musicians who have played in and around the Sequatchie Valley through the years. The monument is located just outside of Dunlap, TN. Bob Townsend has turned much of his musical energy towards learning the repertoire and style of fiddlers from the Cumberland Plateau. He's one of the finest representatives of fiddling from the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau around. We've played a lot of music together over the last decade, and he's been very generous in sharing the older tunes that he's figured out. I initially learned Newt Payne's 'Great Big Taters' from him."
"Tom McCarroll standing in his garden in June, 2011 in Lenoir City, TN. Tom is Charlie McCarroll's older brother. He fiddles, plays guitar, and sings. His fiddling has a more rugged drive than his brother's more polished playing. It's equally compelling and bears witness to the diversity of sounds even within one family. While Charlie took many of his musical cues from his father and uncle George, Tom feels that his playing reflects his grandmother Rosie's fiddling. He tells me that when he was very young, she propped him on a bed with pillows and put a fiddle in his hands. Like so many of these other musicians, fiddling and music making has been one part of their lives. I like this picture of Tom in his garden because it speaks to the fact that these musicians have led full lives that extend far beyond the music. For many of them, music has been a gift to be shared with friends and neighbors much like the produce from Tom's garden that he shares with his neighbors."
NOTE: Joseph Decosimo returns to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes as teaching faculty this year accompanying Charlie McCarroll! MORE INFO HERE. June 30-July 7, 2013, Port Townsend, Washington State. www.centrum.org/fiddle