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)
I was just complaining today about "limp-wristed" modern interpretations of hard-edged Southern roots music. This music wasn't made for a bunch of Northerners to dress up in hokey costumes and sing "quaint" songs about the good ol' days in the country. This is hard-won music from hard-working folks. So I was more than a little surprised to hear just how intense and gritty this album is from Swedish bluesman Bror Gunnar Jansson. I don't honestly know too much about him, but good goddamn his music sounds like it's bubbling out of the deepest pits of human anguish. He plays the kind of fractured, cracked, disturbed Mississippi hill country blues that I've always associated with artists like R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, and I still can't figure out how some kid in Sweden can sound like this. I guess that's the beauty of our modern age. True interpreters of Southern roots music can come from anywhere! If they can tap into the molten core of the music, the red heat that made this music so deeply compelling in the first place, then they've got my attention for sure!
On his debut album, it's clear that Jansson belongs in the same company as other young channelers of dark Southern roots, like Frank Fairfield, C.W. Stoneking, and The Dust Busters. Sending the liner notes through Google Translate didn't help too much, but the album seems to be a mix of original and traditional songs. Opening track "Dead Cold Hands," is an eerie, smoldering wreck of a blues song, and from just this starting track it's clear that Jansson's figured out the secret of great blues - don't be afraid to come close to derailing the song in order to express the emotion. For me, though, the real standout here is a near 7-minute long exploration of "Pretty Polly," one of the most common Appalachian old-time songs. But I guarantee you've never heard it like this. In the hands of Jansson, the song bubbles and roils like lava, almost hot to the touch. I don't know how well known Bror Gunnar Jansson is in the States, but from listening to this album, I think he deserves to be at the top of the heap of Dark Blues interpreters today. He certainly won't be stuck in the frozen North of Sweden for long. Not with songs this hot! Seriously, people, book this dude in the States. I want to see him play live!
12/07/2012 | comments (1)
A Killer's Dream
Incendiary young country singer and songwriter Rachel Brooke channels the darkest nights of American Southern music, pulling forth influences from raw, early country singing to Chicago blues greats, vintage New Orleans "jass" bands to old animated cartoons (see video below!), all tied together in the framework of her old-fashioned melodies. It takes a peculiar vision to be able to unite these many different sounds, but Brooke’s pulled off the most difficult task: she’s created a new sound from a pastiche of old music without sounding derivative. Instead her music sounds incredibly fresh, sepia-toned perhaps with the vision of our distant past, but as rough-edged and hand-honed as the best of today’s roots music. She’s quite the paradox: a young songwriter who perfectly embodies the music of the American South, but who lives in the wilds of Northern Michigan. An artist who grew up with parents in a bluegrass band, but who spent her teen years raging away in an all-girl punk band. A shy, soft-spoken introvert whose wall-shaking voice has earned her a place at cutting-edge roots music festivals like Muddy Roots. An icon of underground country music who covers jazz greats like Fats Domino on her new record. But when you sing this well and play like hell, who do you have to answer to anyways?
(P.S. This hand-drawn video takes the prize this month as one of our most favorite and often-watched videos around the Hearth Music office!)
On her new album, A Killer’s Dream, Rachel Brooke proves she has the chops to be named “the Queen of Underground Country Music” by tastemaker blog Saving Country Music. Playing with a full band for the first time, Brooke cut the whole album live on analog 2” tape. In fact, they didn’t even turn on a computer until the mastering began. Each track was nailed down in a few takes, and it’s thanks to the ultra-tight backing band Viva Le Vox that the music sounds so polished. The songs from the album are remarkably cohesive for having so many influences. “Fox in a Hen House” and “Late Night Lover” drip with the electric sass of the best Bessie Smith and Mae West songs, “Old Faded Memory” (a sweet duet with Lonesome Wyatt of disturbed country outfit Those Poor Bastards) yodels along like a sentimental Jimmie Rodgers number, “A Killer’s Dream” has the kind of rockabilly backbeat that would make Wanda Jackson proud, and “The Black Bird” sounds like it could have rolled out an old Betty Boop Halloween cartoon. The folk revivalists used to search for this kind of raw, haunting music in old 78s, but Rachel Brooke has tapped into these old eerie sounds and creates new music from their dusty pasts.
Rachel Brooke’s American Gothic roots music is the perfect paradox: it sounds like it could have been made a century ago, but it’s music that could only have been made today.
Rachel Brooke: Fox in the Hen House
Rachel Brooke: Late Night Lover
12/03/2012 | comments (0)
As any musician knows, Facebook is a nightmare these days. With a new algorithm that effectively blocks your posts from being viewed by your fans, and the constant demand to "sponsor" your content by tossing money into Zuckerberg's greedy hands, it's getting to be less and less fun each day. Used to be that Facebook was an amazing way to connect with your fans and advertise your work, but those days are over. So in looking for some kind of alternative (Twitter's not fun enough, Tumblr's too isolated, Instagram's too hipster-ish, and Google+ is a ghost town), we were happy to find out about Folk-Book. This new venture, sponsored by the folks at Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour, uses the Ning platform (the same platform that No Depression uses) to create a social network of people whose common ground is acoustic roots music. It's not totally free, but for $5.95 you get a lifetime subscription w/o ads, which is a pretty good deal. We thought we'd ask the folks behind Folk-Book to let us know more about this project:
Hearth Music Interview with Michael Johnathon of Woodsongs and Folk-Book
Who had the idea to start Folk-Book? What was the inspiration? Do you see it as a reaction to the continual problems musicians have with Facebook, or more of its own thing?
Michael Johnathon: Folk-Book is a social media site dedicated to the arts and music. All art, all music. Cello players, poets, banjo pickers, songwriters, Aunt Mable who loves country singers, Chris Thile fans, authors and more. I came up with the idea of Folk-Book after reading about the importance of social media, watching the landscape of radio and newspapers change, seeing record stores and venue drift away. After MySpace imploded from too many ding-dang ads and then Facebook's stock issue took a nose dive after they ram-rodded this horrid Timeline mess on users. Now they changed their formatting and only 15% of your "friends" actually see your posts anymore. The original concept of Facebook is gone, surrendered to the needs of marketing and the stick issue. I wondered the same thing when I considered the idea of starting a radio show like WoodSongs. How hard can it be? I thought the same after seeing my first opera and wrote the Woody Guthrie Opera. How hard can it be? So it was with a social media site dedicated to arts and music, family and friends with no ads, no ad links and no rubbish.
How hard can it be?
What is the ultimate vision for Folk-Book? How do you see the website working for the national and international folk music communities in a year? In five? Do you see Folk-Book as being a money-making venture?
MJ: I want Folk-Book to be a worldwide gateway to an audience that loves art, loves music, loves family and friends. It is a non-adverting, non-political, non-religious community of supportive fans, family and friends. In the 50's and 60's musicians would gather at pubs and coffeehouses to swap stories, songs and inspiration. Now a songwriter in Vermont can do it online with a new friend in Australia. There is no reason in five years that Folk-Book can't have millions of subscribers sharing positive passions with each other. The business model behind it is wise. For $5.95 anyone can get a lifetime membership. One subscription lasts forever with no ad-on charges or upgrade fees. No ads. No ad links. No garbage.
How did you personally get into folk music? What's your background?
MJ: Pete Seeger was my neighbor in New York. I didn't know who he was until I moved to Laredo Texas and played an old record by The Byrds called "Turn, Turn, Turn." When I looked at the song information and realized the writer was my neighbor, I thought, "Ohhh. That's who Pete Seeger is." So I up and moved to Appalachia, a little hamlet called Mousie, Kentucky, and went up and down the hollers with my guitar and banjo learning old songs.
How do you see Folk-Book filling a void in the social media world? There are so many options for social media today, what is Folk-Book offering?
MJ: Folk-Book is an community driven escape from commercialism and advertising. I think there is a HUGE audience that is sick and tired of being "sold" stuff and, as odd as this sounds as first, they are willing to pay for their freedom. That is the business model of Folk-Book. Pay a tiny subscription just once, you are in for life and are welcomed by a growing community of artists from around the world, plus fans and families. Members even have access to the "Front-Porch" which is our Sunday evening video channel. They can sign up for free, sit in front of the camera on their computer and present a 15 minute concert, read from their new book, talk about a new coffeehouse they are starting, give a violin lesson. Whatever they want so long as it is not political or religious in nature.
How long has the site been live? How has it been developing so far?
MJ: We've been up for six weeks as of this interview and already have a thriving community of 1000+ members from Vietnam to Germany and all points in between.
Subscribing is easy and can be done from anywhere in the world. Go to www.Folk-Book.com, enter your email address, click the PayPal button and you're done. If you don't have a PayPal account you can use a credit card. Folk-Book will NEVER sell or share your email address or ask you for an upgrade charge. Once you are a member, you are part of the community for life. It's a pretty ding-dang good deal. You can also become a member of Folk-Book for FREE by becoming a WoodSongs Radio Partner.
Is there a worry that Folk-Book might turn into a self-promotion site for singer-songwriters and folk artists? Social media sites can get swamped with self-promotion, like MySpace for example, so how are you planning to work with this? Maybe curate the content somewhat?
MJ: Nope. Look, as we all know the arts, by nature, is self-promoting. lol.
How is Folk-Book connected to Woodsongs?
MJ : Well, WoodSongs is me. Our webmaster is Ian Hart, who is brilliant, and he has been taking caring of the WoodSongs website for years. The proceeds from Folk-Book go to support the WoodSongs all-volunteer run broadcast, which in turn continues to help artists everywhere. So in effect, by joining Folk-Book you are also helping to support the WoodSongs Old-time Radio Hour.
Do you think that folk music is better suited than other music to social networks? It seems like it
should be, since it's such community-focused music.
MJ: The arts, all of it, is a caring, passionate, proactive fellowship. That isn't just the artists, it includes the audience and fans. Folk music is by its nature a reflection of all art ... folk, blues, bluegrass, country, celtic, old-time, songwriters, classical. Even opera and rock'n'roll. Folk-Book is a gateway to that huge grassroots audience worldwide.
With so many magazines and online outlets struggling, and musicians struggling as well, do you think that the folk music scene in the US is in trouble? It seems like there are more artists than ever, but fewer outlets than ever, which seems to be a bad combination!
MJ: The YouTube generation is the first generation in human history to recieve most of its art and music in a two-dimensional format. It's all MP3s, iPads, flat screens speakers. I hope that Folk-Book, like WoodSongs, will use the two-dimensional format to encourage people to get off their ding-dang butt and start playing, singing, sharing, doing, loving, writing and exploring. Life is short, there is only so much "young" in the bank. It gets spent with or without our participation. Sometimes we need the tools, the supprt, the encouragement to get out there. I hope Folk-Book will help millions of artists and fans do that.
Come hang out with Hearth Music on Folk-Book -
I should also mention another folk music social media venture started recently: Acoustic Music Pinboard. It's kind of like Pinterest, but more DIY and folk oriented. Check it out here:
11/30/2012 | comments (0)
There’s a very real crossroads in the music of Seattle-based singer and songwriter JD Hobson. Not the old Southern crossroads where Robert Johnson infamously sold his soul to the devil, though Johnson’s music echoes throughout Hobson’s new album, but the crossroads that used to run between the country blues and country music. As the hard-luck lyrics and twisted notes of the blues infiltrated country, so did the hard twang and relentless backbeat of country push and shove its way into the blues. On Where the Sun Don’t Shine, Hobson follows these old crossroads to a new place, to new songs born of country roads, but influenced as well by the neon lights of the city. Hobson makes music born of a new century, where artists can freely draw from a whole world of influences. But that doesn’t mean his music is a mish-mash of styles. Instead, he shines a laser-like focus on American roots music, searching for the meeting point between the gritty edge of outlaw country and the searing rawness of the country blues. Call it Outlaw Blues, call it Americana, but either way it’s a sound that draws on the old traditions with a very new feeling of hope.
How did Hobson come by this music? It’s engrained in his DNA– the product of a father who came to the Northwest from Virginia with a passion for the blues. Living in Seattle, Hobson cut his teeth in the city’s vibrant Americana scene, which has produced artists like Jesse Sykes, Neko Case, and Zoe Muth. His debut album charted in the top five on the KEXP Blues Charts, and also charted a path for Hobson as a young prodigy of country blues, capable of writing songs in the voice of an elder bluesman as well as re-interpreting the old classics. Now, with Where the Sun Don’t Shine, he’s come into his own. He channels the legendary Howlin’ Wolf with a blazing cover of “Spoonful,” and strips the traditional “Blues in the Bottle” out of its usual scratchy 78rpm sound, and opens the album with the haunting song “Last Kind Words” from the obscure female blues singer Geeshie Wiley. Of special note is Hobson’s gritty cover of alt-country troubadour Paul Burch’s song “Carter Cain”. Hobson’s originals on the new album are strong enough to rub shoulders with these classics–“Belly of the Beast” is a gentle look at salvation, “Big Mountain Blues” is an old-school coal mining lamentation, the title track is a slow-burning revenge song, and “Darkest Hour has Passed” is one of the rare hopeful blues songs about love. All the songs are delivered by the JD Hobson Band, and it’s clear that Hobson’s pushing his music in new directions through working with a larger sound. With Dan Infecto (Bob Wayne), on upright bass and Nick Auckland on drums, the band brings even more energy and depth to the soulful music their fans have come to love. In the end, Hobson puts it best himself:
“This music is about reaching down deep and coming up with something authentic and timeless. The trials, sadness, and triumphs of people here in America continue on today only dressed in different clothes. Times have changed, but we inherit the blues.”
JD Hobson: Darkest Hour Has Passed
JD Hobson: Last Kind Words
11/29/2012 | comments (0)
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