Released a few months ago, The New Young Fogies, vol. 1, is a compilation album of field recordings from a new generation of Appalachian old-time players. It's also a pure delight. About time someone took it on themselves to document some of the younger old-time musicians in the mountains, and if this album is an indication, which it must be, then the ancestral Appalachian home of American old-time music must be full to bursting with great talent. So much ink has been paid recently to Alan Lomax, or even to Woody Guthrie, that we seem to have forgotten that this music is still alive and being made today. Sure, it’s great that Lomax’s recording are being made available to anyone, but who’s carrying on his work today with real, living musicians? So much time has been spent arguing about authenticity, or lamenting the passing of ancient musicians, that a whole crop of new musicians has sprung up, hell two generations or more have arrived, to celebrate the music without much recognition. The music is still as vibrant and powerful as ever, but our sights are set so firmly in the past that hardly anyone’s around today to document what’s really happening. This isn’t musical history, this is musical life, and as anyone who really plays old-time music can you tell you, they got into the music for the friends and the community first.
Huge thanks should be given to young fiddler and folklorist Anna Roberts-Gevalt for this volume of music. Along with ace sound engineer (and fiddler) Joseph Dejarnette, she scoured her rolodex to pick out some of the best young musicians in the Appalachian mountains, recording them in intimate, informal spaces, and interviewing them as well. In their own words, and on their own time, they share the stories and tunes that are keeping the music alive today.
We caught up with Anna to hear more about how the project came about and what her thoughts were behind it.
Hearth Music Interview with Anna Roberts-Gevalt
What inspired you to want to record this younger generation of musicians?
Anna Roberts-Gevalt: I’d been daydreaming about ways to document all that is happening around me, with this music. This is a beautiful tradition of music, stories, and fellowship. I feel really lucky to have stumbled onto it. I guess this project, for me, came out of the desire to celebrate and share what is happening—at festivals, at house parties, in the quiet of people’s homes, too—these young people who, for one reason or another, have decided to pursue a particular vein of music. It’s unusual. It’s out of the ordinary, in this day and age. It’s not necessarily stage music, it’s music of everyday life. So not everybody knows this is happening, and I guess I wanted to have a CD that, when people asked me—what is this music? —I could hand it to them, in answer. It’s hard to describe traditional music sometimes, hard to explain how deep it reaches. There’s all of these young folks who are spending their time visiting people their grandparent’s age, who are obsessing over recordings and obscure fiddlers from the 20s and 30s, who are proud to be carrying on local or family traditions. And I felt that a CD, and accompanying interviews, would be the perfect introduction for the uninitiated.
There is some acoustic music and folk music out in the mainstream, but much of it is only loosely or tangentially based in the Appalachian tradition. We really wanted to celebrate the young folks who have truly studied the tradition, who are a link in a long chain, who have dug deep and immersed themselves in the stories and songs, and I guess I wanted to create a project that could get their voices out there.
We started this project two years ago—Joe DeJarnette moved to into our little house on the river in southwest Virginia from New York, and I had these ideas, and it turns out he had been talking about similar ideas with Ray Alden, who put together the first volumes [the Young Fogies albums, which documented baby boomer old-time players] for Rounder Records and who worked on the Field Recorders Collective. He passed away a few years back, and this album is dedicated to him. So, we just emailed the folks who we thought should be included, set up the sessions—we travelled to Kentucky a few times, but mostly people came up to Joe’s studio.
How did you find all the young musicians featured on this album? Did you put out a call for artists, or are they mainly drawn from jam sessions and events that you've attended?
ARG: Joe & I selected the musicians who appeared on the first volume (there’s another already in the works). There are dozens and dozens of incredible young musicians—it was a hard decision.
We knew all the musicians on the record—some only casually— through attending old-time festivals in Appalachia. We were really inspired by the young folks who are really deep into the tradition. These are young folk who have immersed themselves in the music & stories of a specific tradition, and region, and who have connected with older tradition-bearers. Don Rogers says it really beautifully: “The old time music of east central Kentucky has an accent, as does all pre-radio folk music.” I love to listen to accents when people talk, whether they are from Louisville, Maine, or Louisiana. There is something expressive about accents that is directly connected to the soul. This is no different to me when it comes to music.
A lot of the musicians on the record seem to have an interest in traditional culture outside of music. Is this a pattern you've seen?
ARG: Yes, indeed! For some folks, it’s a matter of choosing to live how their families have lived for generations, music included. For others, it seems that there was a desire (and nostalgia) to find a life that was simple, or one that was based on tradition, or country living—music is one part of that.
So, yeah. There’s a lot of plaid wearing kids in oldtime music, and we get excited to try homemade wine or so and so’s ancient cornbread recipe. We delight in old things as much as oldtime music. But this isn’t universally true. John Haywood, for example, also plays in a heavy metal band. And there are plenty of New Yorkers who love the tunes and would never want to live in the country.
Tell me about making the album. What were your thoughts on how to record the music? Were there any good stories about making the album?
ARG: I think Jesse Wells mentioned something along these lines in his interview: “People play old time music cause they truly love the music … what the music represents. The simplicity of making music for music’s sake. Doesn’t take much to do it either. Just a fiddle on the front porch. My dad just sits at home and plays. That’s what music’s for.”
I guess we wanted to try to capture music like that. The whole record was recorded live—no overdubs or anything like that. When you hear old-time music in person, there’s a beautiful rawness to it, and we wanted the CD to reflect that.
We did one session in Knott County, Kentucky, on the property of this wonderful older banjo player. It’s a rare piece of pasture in Knott County, where the hills are so close to each other. To get there, you have to literally drive your car up a creek for a hundred yards. We loaded Joe’s recording equipment into a pickup and brought it over to the house. We set up on the back porch of this cabin that was over one hundred years old. It was a beautiful summer night, raining here and there. I remember sitting on the porch as Brett Ratliff recorded “Jubilee”—it was dark, but for the light of a lamp, and he was recording, and two of our friends sat on the porch listening—two women holding their little kids in their arms, the kids sleepy after a long day. Something about that song, that old porch, the mountains all around, and the faces of these little sleeping kids— the music seemed such a natural part of that landscape. It was beautiful.
Tell me more about this younger generation of musicians taking up the old-time mantle. How do they fit into the rest of the folk music world?
ARG: I think there are a lot of younger people who play this music, and many on this record, who have no intention of being part of the folk music industry. John Haywood says it well: “People don’t play this music necessarily to perform it. It’s just kind of a communal music, sit-in-the-living-room kind of music where it sounds best.” They’re pursuing music seriously, but not as a professional career. This has been the case for generations. Folks on the record began to pursue this music because it was a family tradition, because they felt homesick for the mountains, because they wanted to be part of the music community, as a pursuit of knowledge, or simply because they fell in love with the sound of it.
To me, that’s why this music community continues to be so rich—it is played by people with such a diversity of interests & pursuits. Electricians, scientists, scholars, teachers, professional musicians, carpenters, hobos… That said, there are a number of folk on this album (myself included) who are full time musicians. I guess I feel like this is a fairly recent development, within the past couple of generations of this music, that this would even be a possibility.
What's your background? Where are you from and when did you move to Kentucky?
ARG: I grew up mostly in Vermont. My parents work with kids—my mom runs a mentoring program at the local elementary school, and my dad spearheads a statewide nonprofit that works towards encouraging students to become better writers. As a kid, I played classical music, violin and viola. Never practiced as much as I should have, but loved playing with other people. In high school, I began to learn about fiddle music, here and there. Six years ago, in college, I got swept up into it. It hit me like a wave. I bought a banjo right before my sophomore year, after seeing some kids busking in Vermont. I tried to learn how to play it off the internet, and took some lessons in Connecticut, where I was going to school. It was only 4 months later that I decided I wanted to spend the summer in Kentucky. In retrospect—I had no idea what I was getting into. I think I had some vague idea that there were lots of people playing banjo there, on their porches. In any case, I was motivated by this abstract but really overwhelming desire to get closer to the source.
So I moved to Whitesburg, Kentucky, and worked as an intern for the traditional music program at Appalshop. I fell in love. Became deeply obsessed with the music, the stories, everything. Came back the next summer, graduated school early, and moved back to Kentucky, eventually settling in southwest Virginia, where I live now.
Tell me about your earlier fieldwork projects, or projects outside of the New Young Fogies.
ARG: I was a gender studies major in college, and I was becoming really interested in feminism about the same time I was getting into oldtime. I remember reading a book about string bands, and there was a two-page section dedicated to women musicians, saying there were lots of them, but that the author didn’t really find that much information about them. That kinda galvanized me to get interested in women musicians of Appalachia, and I wrote a thesis about three generations of women (and girls) playing fiddle in East Kentucky. From there, I was fortunate to receive a grant from Berea College, to do oral histories about some of the women whose music is in the archive. The fruits of that labor are on my website, www.annarobertsgevalt.com/in_her_first_heaven, and I have published some of the articles in the Old Time Herald.
[Anna frequently performs with young Kentucky ballad singer Elizabeth Laprelle as Anna and Elizabeth. They specialize in making “crankies”, old-fashioned handmade story scrolls that bring old songs to life.]
I’ve also made a crankie with Elizabeth LaPrelle inspired by Lella Todd’s story, an artistic continuation of the research I had done. We had a really wonderful time doing research for our most recent show—we visited with grandchildren of two wonderful ballad singers, Addie Graham and Texas Gladden, and incorporated stories we heard from them, into our show, which we performed throughout our area, and farther afield. I was really inspired by the idea of sharing research in a really engaging way—trying help an audience feel the magic in the story, that we felt when we heard it firsthand.
Documenting these women’s stories, I realized that I was documenting untold stories—that was the thread that grabbed me, by the end. Women’s stories are one part of that. All these fiddlers who were field recorded—they all have a story, and often, that’s the part that you can’t really get from the recordings, from the internet. The generation before ours did incredible work, recording these people playing music—I’m thinking about the folks who did this in Kentucky: Bruce Greene, John Harrod. Those two have stories in their head from their field recording trips, of what the houses were like, what kind of food these people cooked, how they talked, what their days were like. That way of life, and those people, are mostly gone from the landscape. And, for me, there’s a big desire to learn the rest of these people’s stories—not just the tunes, but the recipes, the jokes, that way of life. Tunes, these days, are so easily shared online, in little mp3 files. It can be easy to forget, or ignore, any sense that these tunes came from real people. That’s a huge loss, in my mind- that connection between the tune, and the musician who played it.
Now, I am working on a radio documentary about the late fiddler Paul David Smith, who was a dear friend to many of us. As with my earlier work—I want to try to express who he was as a person, as well as a musician. Knowing him, it was all those times not playing tunes, all the laughter, and the quiet moments sitting side by side in his pickup truck—those were just as precious as the musical moments.
Do you think there was ever a time where this music was in danger of dying out? I grew up with so much of this rhetoric from the folk revival generation, and now it feels like the music is stronger than ever?
I think it depends on where you are, this sense of the music dying out or not. Roger Cooper, this fiddler from Lewis County, started playing when Lewis County was full of fiddlers. There’s a great quote from the liner notes of a Kentucky music project, where he says that he never knew how lonely fiddling would be.
A few months ago, I went to visit the grave of this great fiddler Isham Monday, in Monroe County Kentucky—he passed away in 1964. I had been learning a lot of the tunes he played from Bruce Greene—Bruce didn’t meet him either, but he spent a lot of time in that part of Western Kentucky, visiting with musicians. I wanted to see what the land looked like, to get a sense of it, to dig deep into trying to understand the tunes.
I spent the day in Tompkinsville—a small town with more than one abandoned storefront. Quiet. People in town, then in the library, had no idea who Isham was… They were amused, curious, that I would come so far to find a forgotten fiddler’s grave. Bruce Greene talks about this—visiting older fiddlers who felt like no one was interested in their music anymore. And so we owe a lot to the field recorders of the 70s, who were interested, and who recorded the tunes so that we could learn them.
I guess one tricky thing, is that there are all these places in Appalachia where there isn’t much fiddle music anymore, places that used to have so much music, and then at the same time there are areas up north or on the west coast where it’s thriving—biggest square dance I’ve ever been to was in Portland, Oregon.
In Southwest Virginia, the music seems really vibrant—it’s a place where locals still know how to flatfoot, and thousands come out for the annual Galax fiddler’s conventions. There are incredible afterschool fiddle/banjo programs that have done great work, keeping the music going.
I guess this gets back to why a lot of the new young fogies we featured are from Appalachia—we wanted their story to be told, we wanted to celebrate their local music, and to inspire the next generation, in these mountains. For there are pockets where the music has been going strong for generations, or places where local folks are working really hard to keep the music going, to try to reenergize folks about the music, to get kids playing it.
Do you think the players on the album see the music as a hobby, or more of a lifestyle?
ARG: Hard to speak for everyone—but it seems a common thread, that very few people play this music casually. There’s an intensity about the pursuit of this music that seems to encompass people rather fully. The music is also really social, for most, and so the music community becomes a circle of friends, and thus a deep part of the old time musician’s life. I think that’s why I love it so much. When I am surrounded by other old time musicians, I know I am surrounded by people who have plunged into what they love. We dive in deep.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE NEW YOUNG FOGIES ALBUM
-Brett Ratliff’s acappella singing on “Jubilee” is one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, perhaps even more so after reading Anna’s moving remembrance of recording him on the back porch of an old cabin. Brett’s a native of East Kentucky and works now as the Program Manager for WMMT, the radio station based out of the Appalshop offices in Whitseburg, KY. From his interview in the liner notes: “For me, this music is my connection to place and rite of passage. It is a mature society that honors its elders and establishes a way for them to share their wisdom. I feel like, by seeking out this music, I have developed a deeper connection with the people who are around me.”
Brett Ratliff: Jubilee
-“Milwaukee Blues” is a fabulous old-time song that demonstrates some of the influences of African-American country music in the South. It’s full of blues fiddling riffs and hard-luck lyrics and really bends the notes into new sounds. Sung here by Seth Folsom, a musical instrument maker and musician based in Lexington, KY, with fiddler and musicologist Nikos Pappas and Jesse Wells, archivist for the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music on guitar. Nikos relates in his interview: “After the Civil War, all these people from all these different states–and regions that had never been in contact with each other–all of a sudden they were thrown together, and they have to negotiate each other’s different styles. It’s no surprise that a lot of the fiddlers that people admire and listen to were born in that generation right after the Civil War. In some ways it’s very similar to people [today] meeting at festivals from all over the world.”
Seth Folsom, Nikkos Pappas, Jesse Wells: Milwaukee Blues
-"Double File" is a monster of a fiddle tune that’s animated many a late night jam session. I’ve even found a version of the tune way up in the Canadian province of Québec! Here fiddler Rosie Newton burns on the infamous bowings of the more intricate Southern fiddle styles. As she says, “Growing up with the music wasn’t a choice. Eventually, it was a choice. Old time, for me, is the right fit because I like the conversational aspect of it.” She’s in conversation here with ex-punk-rock-turned-farmer Andrew Norcross on banjo, Asheville-resident Sarah Jamison on guitar, and Joseph DeJarnette, the sound engineer behind this project, on bass.
Rosie Newton, Andrew Norcross, Sarah Jamison, Joseph DeJarnette: Double File
11/14/2012 | comments (5)
We just wrote about Eugene, OR-based singer-songwriter Jeffrey Martin a few months ago with an Inside the Songs feature, but now he’s back with a new EP that proves once again what a natural talent he has for writing great folk songs. Martin’s EP, Build A Home, is a stripped back affair, just his singing and guitar with beautiful harmonies from Portland-based multi-instrumentalist Anna Tivel. They make a great duo, heck they should be touring together! Here’s a look at Jeffrey and Anna singing the song “Angeline” from Jeffrey’s EP:
Jeff Martin's EP, Build a Home, weighs in at 6 songs, a little bit longer than most but not long enough to be a full-length. It’s a sweet little gem of an album, and should serve as a great introduction to Martin’s songwriting. For me, the standout track on the album is “Thief and a Liar.” It’s the best song I’ve heard yet written about the Wall Street debacle that’s still crippling our country. It’s not ostensibly an “Occupy” song, but it should be. Especially with a chorus like this: “I’m a thief and a liar of the very worst kind/I sell to the broken and I rob them blind/I’ll build you a house with my own two hands/and then burn it to the ground as quick as I can...” It’s not hard to rail about our country, which seems to be institutionally constructed to allow the rich to rob us all blind, mostly with our own permission. But the most chilling line from the song is this: “When’s the 99% gonna wake up and see/power is your finger on the trigger, not a head full of dreams.” I don’t think he’s necessarily writing this line as if he believes it; it seems more like something his anti-hero song narrator is saying. But after interviewing popular Northwest songwriter Laura Love last year about her brutal arrest and beating at the hands of Oakland police, it sure seems to be a cold-blooded statement of our times and of my generation.
There are about a million-and-one singer-songwriters out there plying their age-old trade, and truth is that it’s hard these days for the really great writers to stand out. But what can you do? The only thing is to keep making the best music you can and to let the great ones filter to the top. Hopefully Jeffrey Martin’s on the road to receiving the accolades to come. For now, you can say you knew him “when”.
PS: Congrats to Jeff on his second-place finish at the Mountain Stage New Song Contest!
Jeffrey Martin: Thief and a Liar
11/12/2012 | comments (0)
It's hard to keep up with the Celtic music worlds here in the United States. Seems the market has shrunk so much that many bands aren't even releasing or selling their albums over here. But I'm lucky enough to be on some mailing lists, so here are some sweet delights that have floated over to my mailbox, all of which are perfect for early Xmas shopping, I might add! Enjoy!
Nuala Kennedy. Noble Stranger.
Compass Records. 2012.
I've been hearing Irish flute player and singer Nuala Kennedy's name around for years, but this is the first time I've really sat down with one of her albums. I can't speak for her previous albums, but with Noble Stranger, Kennedy is plowing a most interesting new row of Irish trad music. She incorporates some very light indie touches (like Postal Service-esque blips and bloops), but the album is really focused on her beautiful voice and her swift flute playing. She covers plenty of traditional material, including old-fashioned classics like "The Banks of the Roses" and the really beautiful "Matt Hyland," but it's her original songs that push her music into interesting territory. Opening song "Gabriel Sings" is a real revelation for me, bringing in some tight songwriting with a fun, well-crafted melody and arrangement. Overall, this album balances well with itself, devoting time to newly composed tune, old ballads, and fun new songs from Kennedy's own pen. It's eminently accessible Irish trad, and Kennedy seems to be having quite the time searching for new horizons and new friends.
Nuala Kennedy: Gabriel Sings
the olllam. self-titled.
Compass Records. 2012.
I'm usually incredibly averse to albums that mix Irish trad and jazz, but the olllam is one of the rare exceptions that manages to have something new to say in both genres. It's not really jazz, per se, or at least the unaccessible modern jazz that can alienate listeners. What the olllam is really doing here is fracturing Irish tunes into kickass riffs, mostly on Irish whistle, then mixing in hard drum beats, guitar that alternates between sad wistful acoustics and some serious shredding, and bubbling Rhodes atmospherics. The album drips cool, and it's a really really listenable album. Uilleann piper and whistler John McSherry seems to have an endless array of fascinating projects (we wrote about his album with At First Light HERE), so it wasn't a surprise to see him leading this. The other two artists are Irish by way of Detroit, and are Tyler Duncan on pipes, whistle, guitar and Rhodes, and Michael Shimmin on drums and percussion. Don't go into this album looking for some cerebral blend of jazz and trad, it's really just an album of three powerhouse musicians having fun breaking and rebuilding the Irish traditions into pleasing sounds. To my ears, it sounds like the next progression from Lunasa. Where Lunasa created the smooth, polished sound of Irish trad-jazz, these guys are bringing in a sweet edge from the guitar and drums. Great album, I recommend this highly for listening. Try the first track, "The Belll", it is absolutely irresistible.
the olllam. the folly of wisdom.
Calum Stewart & Lauren MacColl. Wooden Flute & Fiddle.
Make Believe Records. 2012.
It's not too often that I get an album of all Scottish fiddle tunes, so this new album from wooden flute player Calum Stewart and fiddler Lauren MacColl is a very nice treat. Their instruments mesh beautifully, and there's something deeply satisfying about this kind of hand-made traditional music made on old wooden instruments. I've always held Scottish fiddling to be either too virtuosic and flashy, or too formalized, but the tunes on this album sound really alive and vibrant. There's no J. Scott Skinner arpeggiated strathspeys here, and there are some tunes that hardly sound Scottish at all, like the beautiful slow tune "Tomnahurich." Maybe that's because both players are from deep in the Highlands, and are connected more to the true Scots Gaelic roots of this music than the more urban forms of trad in Scotland. Or maybe it has something to do with their ties to Irish and Breton trad as well, since some of the tunes and ideas from these traditions seemed to have seeped in. Whatever the case, this is a gem of an album, full of fresh-sounding tunes and thoughtful musicianship.
Calum Stewart & Lauren MacColl: Rise Ye Lazy Fellow
Québec may be one of the most artistically inclined provinces of Canada, but it's still hard to get this music over here in the US, and by virtue of the language barrier, it can be a bit hard at times to connect with the music. Happily, young traditional musician Nicolas Pellerin et Les Grands Hurleurs has us covered on both counts. His new album, Petit grain d'or, is available as an mp3 download on Amazon, and it's one of the most accessible Québécois roots albums we've heard in a while. While we here at Hearth Music are huge Québécois folk music nerds and are happy to listen to scratchy archival recordings for hours, Nicolas Pellerin's blend of chamber string music with drop-dead gorgeous French vocals means that anyone will enjoy this album on first listen. Particular standouts include the title track, a clever restructuring of an old children's lullaby into an eerie adult tale, the opening track, "Tregate," a Breton traditional song given a tight string-fueled groove, and the West African influenced sounds of "De Fil en Chanson," inspired by a collaboration between Nicolas and bandmate Simon LePage with Malian masters Amadou et Mariam in Edmonton one year. Overall, this album pushes Québécois traditional music in interesting new directions and succeeds in showcasing the beautiful vocals of Nicolas Pellerin.
Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs: Petit grain d'or
The Paul McKenna Band. Stem the Tide.
Mad River Records. 2011.
I may be a bit biased here, since I worked as a publicist for the Paul McKenna Band's first tour through the Pacific Northwest, but I liked his music so much that I feel fine writing up a quick review of his newest album, Stem the Tide. Honestly, this album's got it all: fine songs, both original and modern; a killer band of instrumentalists with great taste in tunes; tasteful arrangements; and most of all, Paul's captivating voice. His thick Scottish accents shines through, bringing a gruff lilting quality to the songs, but the key is really his charismatic passion for the song. In any kind of traditional singing, I wonder if there isn't some kind of usual distance between the singer and the song. A kind of drawing back from the heart of the song's message in order to better convey the ornaments, or the trappings of authenticity of a traditional singer. Not so with Paul McKenna, he commits to every song and he sings them hard. The bitter politics of Scottish songwriter Lionel McClelland's song "Silent Majority" is brought to a fever pitch with McKenna at the helm, fairly spitting the words out in his rage, but never sacrificing the beautiful melody of the song. It's no small feat to maintain a high level of both musicianship and ferocity at the same time, in fact this balancing act is the sign of a true artist. McKenna's got it, and this intense charisma elevates the whole band. But it's not all raging vocals here, and McKenna turns in some deftly beautiful slower songs, without losing any of his vocal focus, as for example "The Lambs on the Green Hills," which I first heard from Irish band Dervish. McKenna is a huge talent to watch in Scottish and Celtic trad and this album proves it.
The Paul McKenna Band: The Lambs on the Green Hills
Aw jeez, how did I miss writing about this album? I think it fell into the crack between the seats of my car for about a year. I guess I don't clean my car enough. Whatever the case for my failure, this 2010 album of traditional Irish music with a modern bent is extremely worthy of wonderful reviews. Shannon Heaton is an Irish flute player based out of Boston, and on her album she brings together not only her husband's crack guitar and bouzouki work (Matt & Shannon Heaton have recorded a number of really great albums together), but other friends like harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and Irish bodhran prodigy Paddy League. It's a delicious album, perfect for repeat listenings on sunny days while swinging in a hammock, and it's eminently accessible even if you're not a huge Irish trad music nerd (like I am). It just sounds great. The tunes are perfectly arranged, Shannon's flute playing is impeccable, and each track sounds refreshingly different. This album is highly recommended.
Shannon Heaton w/Maeve Gilchrist: 44 Mill Street
11/09/2012 | comments (0)
Over the course of six beautiful albums, Elizabeth Mitchell has invited listeners to join her, her husband Daniel Littleton, their daughter Storey, and other friends and relatives to become part of an extended musical family. The honesty and sincerity of this approach to music making has won her countless fans, has helped sell 100,000 albums, and has brought her to national attention via features in NPR, People Magazine, HBO, NBC’s Tonight Show; her music was even featured in an episode of Futurama! Mitchell’s success is all the more impressive when you listen to the close intimacy of her new album, Blue Clouds, which sees her breathing contemporary heart into traditional folk songs, and transforming classic rock songs by David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, The Allman Brothers, and others into folk songs. Throughout the album, her soft, gentle voice melds with the innocent vocals of her young daughter Storey, her husband’s guitarwork, and the thoughtful, subtle accompaniment of friends like indie-folk duo Mike & Ruthy (Michael Meranda and Ruthy Ungar), folk legends Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, singer Amy Helm (daughter of Levon Helm), and Mitchell’s band You Are My Flower. The album is tied together by the beautiful artwork of beloved children’s book illustrator Remy Charlip, whose “childlike joy and sophisticated wonder” turned out to be a perfect match with Elizabeth Mitchell’s music.
Blue Clouds has been released by venerable record label Smithsonian Folkways, also home to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins. Elizabeth Mitchell is one of the bestselling artists on Smithsonian Folkways’ label, and with her new album, she’ll be bringing her music to new audiences.
In the land of Blue Clouds, anything can happen.
Watch a lovely clip of home and music HERE:
Give a listen to the beautiful "Hop Up, My Ladies":
11/08/2012 | comments (0)
Rayna Gellert is perhaps best known as the fiddler for firebrand alt-old-time band Uncle Earl, and though her old-time fiddling is truly wonderful, with her new album, Old Light: Songs from My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, she's turning over a new leaf as a singer and songwriter. Of course, many artists have tried this before, but it's not very common for someone to nail it quite so well. Released this October on New York-based Story Sound Records, Old Light is a gem of an album, and Rayna's original songs are proof positive that she's an new talent in this crowded field. Of course, Rayna's voice should be familiar to any fan of Uncle Earl, but listening to this album, she seems to have come into her own even more as a singer. On Twitter I called her "the American Kate Rusby", and I still stick by that statement.
The songs on Old Light are split evenly between original songs from Rayna's pen and traditional songs pulled from Rayna's lifetime spent immersed in American old-time music. She learned many tunes from her dad, Dan Gellert (a renowned old-time banjo player), and more from friends on her many travels. I was curious how learning tunes for so many years and now moving to writing tunes interacted with her musical memory bank, and it turns out Rayna was curious too. Much of the album is a musing on memory and what a fragile hold it has over our lives. I'll let her tell the rest in her own words:
Hearth Music's Inside the Songs with Rayna Gellert
Rayna Gellert: "Nothing"
"I had been picking away at this album for quite a while when a friend lent me a book called The Seven Sins of Memory (by Daniel Schacter). It's about how and why our memories are inaccurate, and the trouble this can cause. I'd been reading Musicophilia (the Oliver Sacks book about music and the brain), and I'd already written "The Platform" [the song on her album most concerned with memory] -- so this brain-related stew was swirling around for a while. This song came bubbling up out of that stew, informed by how the stuff we take for granted (our memories of our own experience) can be utterly WRONG. It's also addressing the project itself, in a way -- my friend David MacLean, who wrote the liner notes for my album (and about whom I wrote "The Platform"), referred to "Nothing" as my "mission statement". I guess it's a bit dark, since it's dwelling on how fragile and liminal it is to be alive and cognitive; but it's also saying we're all in this together, which I find very comforting."
Rayna Gellert: "The Stars"
"Being new to writing songs, it's really fun for me to find out what other people hear in songs I've written. This one has elicited all sorts of personal projections from folks, which is really touching, and makes me feel like I tapped into something. It must be a universal experience to reach a certain age and gaze back on a past that seems magical and innocent, before whatever loss or life-change or trauma came in and knocked us for a loop. When we recorded it I wanted it to sound a little drunk, but, despite the sense of disorientation in the lyrics, it's not about actual drunkenness. It's a sort of kaleidoscope of youth and music and blissed-out-ness that I'm trying desperately to make sense of through the veil of time, while simultaneously pinning so much onto a past that's gone. It is a personal song, and an exploration of one of my own "gone worlds", but one I hope other people project their own experiences onto."
Rayna Gellert: "The Fatal Flower Garden" (traditional)
"Most of the traditional songs on this album are songs that my parents sang. This one isn't -- it's one I heard on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (aka "the anthology"), which we listened to all the time when I was a tiny kid. It's performed by Nelstone's Hawaiians, and is creepy as all get-out. My vivid early-childhood imaginings of the story this song tells are burned into my brain. I pictured it all happening in our yard and our neighbor's yard (and house). My brothers and I frequently talk about how traumatized we were by some of the songs we heard as kids, but how those uncomfortable songs were the ones we wanted to hear over and over again. My goal in recording it was to evoke the melodramatic creepiness this song carries in my memory."
11/01/2012 | comments (0)
Martha Redbone's Journey to William Blake
Guest Blog by Zach Hudson
The amazing thing about singer-songwriter Martha Redbone’s new album, The Garden of Love, which sets to music twelve poems of English poet William Blake (1757 – 1827), is how well everything fits. It was as if the two were made for each other. Redbone herself tells of a similar feeling in an interview with NPR's Robert Seigel:
"We had his book of poetry out, and the first song that jumped off the page was ‘A Poison Tree.’ Just the title sounded so naturally Appalachian, which is where my family is from... To me, it was just almost as if the song had always existed in the words.” On The Garden of Love, Redbone draws on American folk, country, blues, bluegrass and gospel to orchestrate Blake’s poems, and her ability within these genres is incredibly varied, moving from foot-tapping melodies to lullabies to gritty laments backed by dobro.
This connection shouldn’t be too surprising. Blake drew heavily on the English folk ballad tradition, and much American folk music came from English ballads. In a way, Redbone’s album is like distant cousins meeting for the first time. They still share much in common—for instance, a love of meter and rhyme, so much so that an awkward or archaic phrasing (“does arise” instead of “arises”) for the sake of the beat or the rhyme is not only permitted, but customary. They share thematic interests: love, suffering, salvation, journeys, and music itself. There is a certain mystic weirdness, often involving metaphor, that American folk music inherited from the English ballad (I think of songs like “Wedding Dress”, “The House Carpenter”, “Wild Hog in the Woods”), and Blake shares this mystical quality. Consider “A Poison Tree”:
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears...
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
Although the lines of may seem foreign to the pop charts, they certainly aren’t out of place in Appalachian song. Curiously, “A Poison Tree” has been put to music by many other songwriters, such as Benjamin Britten (classical), Greg Brown (folk), Blur (rock), singer-songwriter Beth Orton and the Finnish a capella group Rajaton. In my opinion, Redbone is the only one to have really nailed it.
It often feels like Blake was writing lyrics in the first place. Alongside the fact that he entitled his most famous books “Songs of Innocence” and “Song of Experience”, his poems are written clearly in a verse structure, with even lines in multiples of four. This makes the transition much easier to folk music, but Redbone doesn’t simply take what she is given. She adapts her material to create something spectacular. For the first part of “The Garden of Love”, for example, Redbone uses two stanzas from another of Blake’s poems to round things out. The poem she chooses fits the theme and meter perfectly, and no one would think they were separate poems unless they knew beforehand.
Some lyrics fit song even better than recitation: “No, no! never can it be! / Never, never can it be!” sounds overdone when spoken, but when sung it becomes a punchy refrain. Redbone uses this ability to great effect, giving herself license to edit and reposition lines. She is faithful to the poetry, but that doesn’t mean she sticks to the plodding rhythm of a written line. If a note needs to be held for an extra beat, or if a four line stanza needs six measures to sing, she lets it happen.
This power that singers have—something poets on the page can never have—is significant. Singers can dictate the exact rhythm they want, instead of leaving it up to the natural rhythm of speech. Whereas we read a line of Blake’s like this:
Oh my children! do they cry,
Do they hear their father sigh?
Redbone can re-imagine it as this:
Oh my child- (beat, beat) -ren! do they cry (beat, beat, beat)
Do they hear their fath – er – sigh?
The effect is wonderful. It breathes life and vitality into the line. Kyle Alden found success for a similar reason with his 2011 album Songs from Yeats’ Bee-Loud Glade, which undertook a project similar to Redbone’s with the poetry of the Irish writer W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939).
The music can also change the feeling of a poem. “The Echoing Green” used to seem a bit trite to me. It’s a calm, pastoral poem about remembering the enjoyments of youth, but Redbone sings in a minor key, unaccompanied, and it sounds straight out of the Appalachian hills.
One aspect of American folk music that connects particularly well with Blake’s poems is religion. Redbone uses the tradition of hymns and gospel music to re-envision some of Blake’s spiritual poems. In “Hear the voice of the Bard”, the lines
…Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
are perfect for a country gospel arrangement, and would be impossible to tell apart from this tradition. Blake was intensely spiritual. As much as he ranted against the established church, he was deeply religious and rejoiced in the compassion of Jesus and the promise of salvation. On “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day”, Redbone goes whole-hog and gets a gospel choir to back her up. I can’t help but sway and clap my hands. I wonder if Blake would have done the same. It’s hard to get a sense of what Blake would have been like in person. His works and his biographers paint him as intense, opinionated, quirky, compassionate, and reverent. He was alternately (or concurrently) a loving husband, an obsessive artist and a social reformer. If he was anything, though, Blake was into Art, and Rocking the Boat, and the Common People, so I like to think he would have appreciated Redbone’s music.
I remain amazed at how Redbone can give such a perfect slice of Americana even when introducing a foreign element to it. This album could serve as a sampler of styles within American folk music, and Redbone hits each one squarely on the head. My only regret for the album is that it does not cover even more songs. I now wonder what some of my other favorite Blake poems, like “The Tyger”, “London” or “The Chimney Sweeper”, would sound like after Redbone has worked her magic on them.
Martha Redbone Roots Project: Hear the Voice of the Bard
Martha Redbone Roots Project: A Poison Tree
Thanks to Zach Hudson for this guest blog. He was the perfect person to write this review because he reviews both roots music (for the Victory Music Review), and poetry (for his blog New Poetry Review). Zach is a teacher, author and square dance caller in Portland, Oregon. You can find his new children’s book The Banjo on Amazon.