By now the social networks and big media outlets have spread the news that a pioneer of American roots music, Hazel Dickens, has passed away. We'd like to post some thoughts from our friend Art Menius, a well-known Folk-DJ from North Carolina and until recently, the director of Appalshop, a cutting-edge arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia. Appalshop produced an excellent documentary on Hazel: "It's Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song."
Thoughts on Hazel Dickens
This has been hard for me to process, even though I had been very worried about her for more than a week and was not surprised.
The greatest takeaway for me with Hazel is her courage on all matters except flying and revealing her age. The courage to leave home in the hills for the industrial harshness of Baltimore a half century ago. The courage to play bass in the hostile male world of bluegrass. The courage to partner with Alice Gerrard and record bluegrass albums with male sidemen. The courage to write bluegrass songs that raised issues a lot of people would rather not discuss. The courage to be honest and confrontational. The courage to speak truth to power in her art and to keep alive the tradition of hillbilly radical singers like Sarah Ogun Gunning and Aunt Molly Jackson while working in a genre that had little model or precedent for that save for odds and ends like Vern & Ray's "To Hell With the People, To Hell With the Land." Hazel combined two of my passions - hillbilly music and political art.
Through Hazel I could see my heroes that I did not have the privilege of meeting. James Still, Jesse Stuart, and Don West deserve all the praise they have received and more, but in the fullness of time, did not Hazel have far greater impact? Do people clicking on the video link below to Mimi's film about her ask themselves, "who is Cecil Roberts?"
Charles Barkley is not a role model. Hazel Dickens was a role model and so much more.
Perhaps even more than with Utah Phillips, there is no one to fill the void.
"Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song" clip
04/25/2011 | comments (0)
We've been working with Nell Robinson for about a year now and still can't get over her voice: at times as sweet and clear as a mountain spring; at times as rough-edged as a shot of whiskey. She knows bluegrass music inside and out, but isn't afraid to draw from other influences like early roots country and even hillbilly music from the 1920s. We're proud to present her on her first Northwest tour. She's bringing along bluegrass super-group John Reischman & The Jaybirds as her backing band, and with a band like that behind her singing, she's unstoppable!
Nell's working on a brand-new album, due out in May, and we're proud to present two exclusive tracks from the album. The first is a burning cover of the old Delmore Brothers song, "Last Old Shovel". The Nell Robinson band is made up of veterans from John Reischman & The Jaybirds, and you can hear what amazing players they are on this track.
The Nell Robinson Band: Last Old Shovel (an old Delmore Brothers song)
Nell's also been working a lot with Jim Nunally from Reischman's band. Jim's one of the most in-demand bluegrass guitarists in the US and tours as David Grisman's guitarist. Togther they've been re-discovering their love of early country music, and though they incorprate cutting-edge bluegrass, they also have some deep eep tang. As you can hear on this exclusive track:
Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally: Don't Light My Fire (written by Nell)
04/23/2011 | comments (0)
Hearth Music is very proud to partner with Raising Hope, a Northwest non-profit, to present A Concert to Benefit the Relief Effort in Japan. This Friday, April 22, the Seattle Art Museum will host this all-star benefit concert of performers from Japan, the US and Ireland. Japanese traditions have always been strong in Seattle, and we're honored to be part of an evening that explores some of these legacies. The mastery of host Hanz Araki on both the Irish wooden flute and the Japanese shakuhachi bamboo flute is a perfect example of the cross-cultural currents that define the music of the Northwest.
Info on Friday, April 22 Benefit
One of our favorite Japanese artists, Mako Willett, will be performing at this concert, so we thought we'd take a moment to introduce Mako and the music of the Okinawan sanshin.
Born in Okinawa, Mako moved to Hawaii when she was 11 years old. Exposed to island music, she developed a love of both traditional Okinawan music and Hawaiian song and slack-key guitar traditions. Moving to Seattle and the Northwest later, she continued her studies with her Hawaiian sensei via Skype, and eventually brought over his group, Ukwanshin Kabudan, to Seattle. She currently performs, singing and playing the Okinawan sanshin, and teaches students about Okinawan music and culture. Turns out Seattle and the Northwest have a sizeable Okinawan population, so Mako's talents are much needed in our region.
Mako w/Elizabeth Falconer: Akata Sundunshi (Okinawan children's song)
Similar in form to a banjo, the sanshin is an Okinawan stringed instrument derived from a similar Chinese instrument. Like the banjo, the Okinawan has a skin head and a whole lot of twang. The skin is traditionally python skin, and Mako has a gorgeous albino python skin sanshin:
The sanshin is the symbol of the Okinawan people. For centuries, Okinawa was a separate country from Japan, with a separate language and traditions. Some of this independence remains today, and the sanshin is a respected icon of Okinawan culture. Many households keep a sanshin as a a family heirloom. As Mako says, "People in Okinawa consider music as part of their lives." We're not experts on Japanese or Okinawan culture, so we'll leave the story of the sanshin to this beautiful video:
Sanshin: Strings of the Okinawan Soul
The origin myth of the Okinawan sanshin is tailor made for the Northwest. Inspired by the dripping rhythms of raindrops outside his hut, which had awakened him, sanshin pioneer Akainko (14th/15th Century) developed the instrument to mimic these sounds.
We first fell in love with Mako's music from her CD with Seattle-based musicians Elizabeth Falconer (koto) and Aiko Shimada (vocals/guitar). The group was called Dragonfly and they released one of the most beautiful albums to come out of our region. It combines Mako's love of Hawaiian and Okinawan melodies with masterful koto playing and beatiful, shimmering vocals. We've listened to this album endlessly and can't possible recommend it enough.
Dragonfly (Mako, Aiko Shimada, Elizabeth Falconer): Warabi Gami
THIS ALBUM IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Learn more about Okinawan culture and music from this entertaining travel blog.
04/22/2011 | comments (0)
Tonight (Friday, April 22), Columbia City Theater will play host to a whole family of indie-roots music organizations from the Northwest. We're looking forward to hanging out with our buddies at Northwest Folklife, Ball of Wax, and especially American Standard Time (we've been guest blogging for them for a while). It's all part of the Northwest Folklife Pre-Festival Party and it will feature two of our most favorite bands: Mighty Ghosts and Crow Quill Night Owls.
We reviewed Mighty Ghosts a little while back, and have been following their music since they were a hardcore, underground Portland stringband called The Mighty Ghosts of Heaven. Check out our review of their new album:
Hearth Music Review of Mighty Ghosts' new CD, Aberdeen
And here's a quick sample to listen to:
Mighty Ghosts: Mayfly
And of course, the Crow Quill Night Owls are our heroes. Coming out of the Northwest crust-punk community, Kit Stovepipe discovered early blues and jugtime music and became one of the best ragtime guitarists around. Maria Muldaur recently snapped him as a new "discovery" and featured him more prominently on her album than special guests Taj Mahal or Dan Hicks. Have a listen to this killer track from the Crow Quill Night Owls new album:
Crow Quill Night Owls: Wake Up Sinners
And a new discovery for us is Led To Sea, the solo project of violist Alex Guy. The viola is one of the most beautiful instruments we know of, and it's a damn shame that it's been so under-utilized in American vernacular music. Alex has toured and recorded with a host of indie band, including Xiu Xiu, Laura Veirs, and is currently on tour with popular indie duo Thao & Mirah. Her soft voice meshes perfectly with the viola, and the lush production sounds great. She's also supposed to be an amazing live performer!
Here's a video of Led To Sea opening for Laura Veirs in the UK:
See you tonight!
04/22/2011 | comments (0)
We just found this video on Facebook. It's a beautiful and inspiring jam between three very different and equally adventurous musicians. Yann Falquet is one of the premier voices of his generation in Quebec folk music. He leads the popular group Genticorum and is a powerful guitarist. Jayme Stone is a masterful banjo player whose work with African musicians and his study of the roots of the banjo in Mali led to an acclaimed album with Malian kora player Mansa Sissoko. Sandra Wong is an equally eclectic fiddler, known for her playing both on the fiddle and ont he Swedish nyckelharpa.
This video is everything we're about at Hearth Music: homegrown music making, music made with friends for the sheer joy of playing and sharing tunes. Enjoy!
Yann Falquet, Jayme Stone, & Sandra Wong at Planet Bluegrass
The song is one of our favorite French-Canadian songs, "Voici le mois de mais." It's an ode to Springtime, something which we desperately need right now in the Northwest. The tunes are "Reel d'Issoudon", a classic Québécois tune, and "Breaking Up Christmas", also a classic but in the Southern old-time tradition.
The video comes from Jem Moore of Descant Productions, a cool folk music video producer. Here's another video from them of Yann's band Genticorum. Three French-Canadian tunes to help you get a better feel for the lift and swing of their music.
Genticorum: Violon Guérisseur
And while we were probing the YouTube for this post, we found two amazing videos of Jayme Stone and Casey Driessen playing music from Jayme's new album, Room of Wonders, live. Driessen is the mad genius of the bluegrass fiddle, and we highly encourage you to search through YouTube for more of his music. He does things with the fiddle that we've never seen or even imagined.
Jayme Stone & Casey Driessen: Gap Tooth
Second Video of Jayme Stone & Casey Driessen: Obscure John Hartford song, "You Can't Run Away From Your Feet".
04/21/2011 | comments (0)
Oliver Swain: John Henry
I used to book the Folklife Festival in Seattle and it always saddened me to learn that the most amazing Canadian roots music bands could be living and performing just three hours North in Vancouver, and yet no one in Seattle had heard of them. While a few bands had made the border jump (Be Good Tanyas, The Paperboys, The Duhks), many other bands simply avoided the US like the plague (and with GW in power at the time, who could blame them?).
Well, it's about damn time that people start waking up and noticing the amazing roots music coming out of the deep woods of British Columbia, and the first place to start is the brand-new CD from whisper-voiced folk prophet Oliver Swain. I first heard his other-worldly voice about four years ago via MySpace when I discovered a red-hot alt-old-time band called Outlaw Social. He sang a cover of Dock Bogg's "Trouble in Mind" that transported me with its empty silences and his eerie, floating vocals. He was the bass player for Outlaw Social, which tripped me out when I heard his falsetto singing. Outlaw Social didn't last too long, unfortunately, but I know that there were heated festival bidding wars to snap them up while they were around. We hadn't heard such a new, refreshing take on old-timey folk traditions in a long time and everyone was excited.
Outlaw Social: Trouble in Mind (listen to Oliver's haunting vocals)
Outlaw Social also broke another amazing singer, by the way, Pharis Romero (then Pharis Patenaude). Pharis' edgy voice was as fragile as Oliver's, but had an edge that tied the band's songs together. She was also a killer songwriter. Pharis went on to marry banjo guru Jason Romero and to found the impossibly-good old-time band The Haints. Now word is that 2011 will also see the release of a duo album of Pharis & Jason featuring more of Pharis' original songs. We'll definitely be blogging about that!
Outlaw Social: Old Iron Pin (Pharis sings and wrote the song)
But back to Oliver Swain's new album. Having been at the center of British Columbia's roots scene with Outlaw Social and his earlier work with excellent folk band The Bills, he's brought together some amazing players to join him on the album (fiddler Adrian Dolan from The Bills, young BC guitar wunderkind Quinn Bachand, and Emma Beaton of Joy Kills Sorrow) and he's also brought some beautiful original songs. Though he's well known as a bassist, I was surprised by his omnipresent banjo playing on this new album. While not flashy, his clawhammer picking provides a great grounding to all the soaring strings that weave through his songs. I bet he'll get compared to Old Man Luedecke, another Canadian banjo troubadour, but while Luedecke excels as a modern Woody Guthrie, shooting straight from the hip, Swain is much more elegant and graceful. His music is full of silence, thought, and deep emotion. It's the Zen rock garden of American old-time music. I can't imagine jogging to his tunes or bumping them at the gym; the only way to appreciate this music is to listen. Simply listen. Close your eyes and listen. And feel.
Of the tracks on his debut solo album, Big Machine, I was most drawn to "John Henry" and "Little Satchel". Both these songs were taken from traditional sources, but Swain spins out of the tradition into dark little musical corners I'd never explored before. Little Satchel features a gently whining dobro that keens just at the edge of our perception, unsettling the traditional melody and the listener. John Henry's harsh vocal harmonies open the track and a freight-train bowed-bass rhythm nicely offsets Swain's wafting vocals. The title track, "Big Machine", is also quite beautiful. It's an original song of Oliver's that I first heard with Outlaw Social, but his version on this album has more depth and maturity than I was expecting. Outlaw Social played the song full of bounce and fun, but Swain's solo take is much darker and more thoughtful. It's another indicator of how much he's matured as an artist and how much mastery he has over his music.
I guess you could think of this album in terms of the "chamber folk" movement coming out of Boston and the Berklee College (Crooked Still, Natalie Haas, Joy Kills Sorrow), but really this is just a layer of the musical depth on Swain's recording. Swain's great talent is his effortless translation of old melodies and words into something thoroughly modern and exciting. This is old-time music as fine art.
Oliver Swain: Little Satchel