I've long been inspired by Portland's old-time music scene. From the raucous music of Foghorn Stringband, who I'm lucky enough to be working with now, to the amazingly powerful and wonderful experience of the Portland Old-Time Gathering, Portland's roots music scene has been the best in the nation for years. I was sad to hear of the passing of Bill Martin just over a month ago, since he seemed, in many ways, to be the heart of the old-time scene in Portland. His tireless community organizing was inspiring to me and many others, so I asked ex-Portland (he lives in Vancouver BC now) banjo player, singer, and square dance caller Paul Silveria to reflect on what he learned from his friend Bill Martin.
Bill Martin: 1947 - 2012
Dance Caller, Musician, and Old Time Community Organizer
Guest Blog by Paul Silveria
If you don’t know Bill Martin by name, you probably know him by the legacy of old-time music and dance he helped create in Portland and on the West coast. Bill was a recognizable figure when I met him, a stout man with a greying beard, a twinkle in his eye, and almost always clad in his trademark overalls. Bill was a capable guitar player who dabbled in numerous other instruments including dobro, bass, and cello (among others). Bill was an enthusiast to the nth degree. He loved old time stringband, bluegrass, jug band, country blues, and cajun music. His house was full of CDs, records, and books about traditional music, and he shared his passion in many ways.
Bill is best known as a square dance caller. In the late nineties, as he saw that old-time music was on the rise in Portland, he set out to make old-time square dancing a part of that wave. He began by calling dances with the new bands that were popping up in town, like the Dickel Brothers and Foghorn Stringband, and soon began training a crop of new callers. I had recently begun to discover old-time music when I got roped into the scene. At a weekly happy hour show Bill was talking with his bandmate Michael Ismerio during a break and mentioned that he wanted to teach new callers. Michael pointed at me from the stage and said “Paul, you should learn to call dances.” The thought of diving deeper into the music was very appealing, so I spent the summer with a few other musicians and fledgling callers, learning figures and the skills needed to pull off a dance. From the very beginning Bill was adamant that we learn to teach the figures effectively. There were few veteran dancers, and if we wanted the community to grow we needed to engage beginners. Bill would say “It’s a party first, and a dance second” - Dancers who enjoyed themselves would come back and bring their friends.
Making square dancing a centerpiece of the old-time community had another tangible benefit. It gave non-musicians a way of interacting with the music. Old-time music can be as inaccessible as it is intriguing; Musicians play crooked tunes, ramble on about alternative tunings, don’t usually have dynamic arrangements, and often don’t sing. Dancing is a way to bridge the gap. Bill knew intuitively that the dancers were an integral part of the community, and worked hard to engage newcomers, and also challenge them a bit, giving them satisfaction when they learned a new figure. I think the popularity of square dancing has kept the old-time music community in Portland going strong for the past decade, during which time Bill’s enthusiasm for dancing spread, having a significant impact on old-time music in Seattle, across the west coast, and beyond.
While spreading the gospel of square dancing, Bill was a also tireless promoter of old-time music. Bill kept a website and regularly sent out a newsletter detailing new releases of music, PBS documentaries, and, most importantly, listing upcoming shows. This resource was invaluable, it kept us in the loop and allowed Bill to share his knowledge of the music with those of us (like me) who were just discovering it. Bill’s reviews and rants were highly curated - music he thought we should check out, bits of history he thought we should know, the passing of important musicians. However, his calendar of shows was not edited at all. Every show he heard about went into his calendar and he regularly searched band and venue websites to make sure he didn’t miss anything. This level of inclusion was very important to him. He wanted to encourage musicians, and give us the chance to see bands for ourselves, rather than pass judgement on our behalf.
In his final months and weeks, Bill was driven to organize his work and pass it on. Bill was adamant that the community not stagnate. Through Bubbaville, an arts organization he helped found, he wanted to continue to fund and promote projects that would pull new people into the community, and continue to connect Portland to other old time communities across the country. That sense of community and connection is Bill’s legacy. His love of the music, and his love of a good time, continue on in us.
The best way to learn about Bill is from the man himself. Check out these links:
Bill Martin on Oregon Art Beat
A documentary about Old-Time music in Portland. These folks are all connected to Bill Martin, and many of them were directly influenced by him.
Thanks to Paul Silveria for the guest blog! You can keep up with Paul at his website: www.squaredancepaul.com. Paul records as Professor Banjo and has a new album out as well: Professor Banjo - Live in Seattle.
10/22/2012 | comments (0)
I've been sitting on this album for a little bit now, afraid that anything I could say about it would only diminish how much I really love it. I've jealously guarded these songs, savoring them, enjoying them, singing along to them, for once in my work not wanting to share them around with everyone. I wanted to keep them special. To keep them for myself. But like anyone that tries to hang on to the fragile treasures of life, I keep forgetting that these things only grow stronger by sharing and appreciating with friends.
So now I open my arms to you, friends, to share the songs of British Columbian songwriter Jenny Ritter. I've been keeping tabs on her since she was in the wonderful, but criminally under-exposed, band The Gruff. They were like Po' Girl, back in the late 90s and early 00s, turning out hand-crafted folk songs with a slight Celtic tinge to the instrumentals. Great music, but what I remember were the songs. Anything Jenny touched in that band turned to gold, and their song "General Store" stands out to me as truly beautiful. The Gruff broke up a while ago, and I hadn't heard from Jenny since, until happening on a post of her single, "We Must Sing," on Facebook. My jaw dropped. The soaring vocal harmonies, that clear clear crystal clear voice, the beautiful words, the catchy melody, this was fine fine songwriting. When I got my hands on the whole album, Bright Mainland, I realized that this was the kind of music that a lot more people needed to hear about. It's got that special spark of life that makes a song come alive, the very rare spark that so many singer-songwriters are questing for and so few really have. I've literally stayed up late crying to these songs. And I get teary eyed half the time I hear them. What surprised me was how much more the songs came to mean once I got Jenny to break down the inspiration and stories behind a few of them. Also, I hadn't realized how funny she is! I'm SO happy to be able to share this with you all now:
Hearth Music's Inside the Songs with Jenny Ritter
"This song came about when I had moved from the Island to Vancouver, and the unfamiliar city was squashing me. In the predictably angsty aftermath of both a band breakup and a relationship breakup, I was having a good old fashioned identity crisis. This is a pretty common story. You know the one. The one where you get a tattoo. You drink too much. You live alone in a tiny one room apartment. Except for the mouse who nests under the sink. You name him Hank, but later he gets stuck to sticky paper and dies. Okay, that was a tangent. My apologies...
Anyway, the point is, that I was a stranger in Vancouver, and I didn't know my role in the community. This is something that's important to me. I didn't know what the city wanted from me, what I could provide, and I rode my bike to and from my dead-end job and felt useless. One of the things I loved about the neighbourhood though, were the back alleys which run behind all the residences in East Van. I felt - and still feel - this strange vibrance to those quiet lanes. I wished that I lived in a house with a back alley. And I wished for love and lots of babies. That's where the lines in the chorus come from "Dreaming of our families, waiting in the future, waiting in the alleys".
I wrote this song while I was actually riding my bike home from work in the middle of the night... It's probably dangerous to be concentrating on songwriting while cycling, but you know, strike while the iron's hot and all that.
We Must Sing:
Oh man, this song came from such happy feelings, mixed with a little bittersweetness...
There is a music festival on Mayne Island, BC, which is put on by a bunch of my dearest friends. It happens to be on the very same property where this album was recorded. It also happens to be on the weekend of my birthday, and one year I hired my dream band to back me up. On stage I grinned so hard I think my cheeks broke. On top of all of this, I was in the process of falling for a foreigner - someone I had agreed not to fall for, but we were there together, just swaddled up in temporary bliss.
I've always thought if there's a heaven, it's a music festival. So amidst all this love and celebration, I became aware of how everyone I know is this gorgeous fiery hotbed of artistic talent. We have so much to express, and are compelled to let it out through music, or art, or whatever... It's truly compulsive. I mean, happiness begets creative productivity as much as sadness. And all the feelings in between. Whatever they are, they're clawing their way out. I feel so proud of all the artists I know who are putting their hearts on their sleeves and sharing their talents with the world.
That's why I got my choir to sing on this recording ... Did I mention that I run a rocknroll choir called the Kingsgate Chorus? Uhhh... I do. So it was important to band together in a big group, and ... well, sing about singing! Express ourselves about expression, and how it makes us stronger. I seriously love working with those guys so much. They really brought the whole song home for me.
You Missed The Boat:
Every year I travel to this idyllic farm in Northern Ontario, and am graciously, unconditionally hosted by a couple of dear friends. There's a darling little cabin on their property called "the Hobo House", in which I live, which I guess makes me a willing hobo. I end up writing a ton of music there every time, and call it a self-imposed songwriting residency.
When I wrote "You Missed The Boat," I was being a hobo, and suffering from yet another breakup. Huh, yeah, this is turning out to be an embarrassing theme in my life... So the song is both a triumphant Fuck You to someone who had dumped me, and also a lament for the loss of the very same relationship. I was sad, but not that sad, as it was Springtime in the Ontario woods. There's only so much grieving one can do when the river is rushing, birds are singing horny songs from the treetops, foxes are barking, wild leeks are sprouting everywhere... I was traipsing around in borrowed gumboots, and getting the same message from the world no matter where I looked; Basically, life goes on. I was processing the end of the relationship through observing nature, and all it's resilience. I was a little .... shall we say, "impaired", thus the "I was blind in one eye/deaf in both ears" lines, but I was coming out alright. And at the same time, flipping the bird at the one who missed the boat. I always think of the part when we burst into the "La da da daaas" at the end of the song as being the moment we find closure, and begin celebrating whatever new chapter of life lies ahead."
After we both realized that breakup songs seem to be a real thread in her music (and I consider "You Missed the Boat" to be one of my favorite breakup songs!), I asked Jenny to go into what makes a good breakup song. Here's her answer:
"Honestly, breakup songs sometimes kind of gross me out. I mean, we've all been through it, right? But if you can approach the concept with a new perspective, I'm all aboard! For example, I love them when they're quirky: I think "Papa Was a Rodeo" by the Magnetic Fields is probably the best breakup song ever. Holy moly, those lyrics are genius. But it's written with this ridiculous mix of brutal blatancy and metaphor. I feel the same about "Mitzi's" off of Luke Doucet's first solo album for the same reason. It's covers quite a lot of imagery, but it's set in the context of a destructive relationship which he wants to end. It's dark as hell, and I love it.
YET... I have to admit I'm also a sucker for a good sappy overemotional heart-wringer. Like "Two" by Ryan Adams, or "You're Still on my Mind" by the Byrds, or Gillian Welch's "Back In Time". So I guess the goal for me is to write something in between... something you can think about, even smirk at a little... clever turns of lyrics, while still acknowledging the emotional content. There's nothing like a good wallow, right?"
BUY THIS ALBUM!! In addition to these three tracks, you also get my most favorite track "They Can't Tell", a song so good I could write a whole blog post about it. Seriously, this is beautiful music.
10/16/2012 | comments (1)
Language barriers can make it a helluva hard time to really understand a music, so it’s no surprise that most reviewers and music writers think of Cajun music as being something separate than country music. If you listen to the lyrics though, Cajun music is as country as they come. All these old Cajun songs that people think are based on some medieval French ballad are really mostly just made up of phrases about lost women and lost men. Whether they’re lost to the oilfields of East Texas, or lost to the arms of another man, Cajun music is made for drinking beer and trying to forget your latest breakup… by reveling in it. That’s not where new Cajun outfit The Revelers draw their name from, but it could be. Cajuns love to revel in their own culture, and thank god for that.
The Revelers are drawn from the ranks of the Red Stick Ramblers, one of the best young Cajun bands around. But the Ramblers are known as much for pushing the envelope, bringing swing and jazz into the music with a ferocity that’s made them the darlings of roots music festivals everywhere. Now these members of the Ramblers have put together a true Cajun country band in The Revelers. Sure, the accordion rides front and center, and sure most of the songs are in Cajun French, but the first and last thing you hear is the country twang and swamp-pop sizzle of Southwest Louisiana.
The Revelers are coming out of a red-hot scene around Lafayette, Lousiana. A scene known not just for awesome bands (Feufollet, The Givers, Pine Leaf Boys, Cajun Country Revival, Lost Bayou Ramblers) but also for cutting-edge community arts work. Glenn Fields, the Revelers’ drummer, organizes the much-buzzed about Black Pot Festival, a model for community-based roots music festivals. Seems like everyone I know these days is asking “Are you going to Black Pot this year?” And it’s not like the rest of the US hasn’t noticed this scene. Anthony Bourdain recently made the trip out to Southwest Louisiana to take part in a boucherie (hog butchering party) with Linzay Young and Joel Savoy, and the big news here is that The Red Stick Ramblers were just added to the cast of HBO’s New Orleans epic “Treme” as recurring characters. Why is this scene so hot? Because the musicians involved are massively talented and totally committed to making music for fun, rather than for profit. A lot of people could learn from this example.
But back to the album. The Revelers debut full-length is just a hell of a good time. They're a tight band, featuring two fiddlers: Daniel Coolik and Blake Miller (who also plays accordion throughout), with guitarist Chas Justus and bassist Eric Frey, plus drummer Glenn Fields. Opening track “Des Fois” by Miller is a great example of Cajun country music. It’s a remarkable well written song, and big thanks to the digital liner notes for translating the French. “Je me lève dans le matin aves des larmes aux yeux des fois/Des larmes aux yeux quand même je voudrais sourir/Un cigarette et un whiskey me fait sentir mieux/Je crois cette vie va me fair mourir” (I wake up in the morning with tears in my eyes sometimes/Tears in my eyes even though I want to smile/A cigarette and whiskey makes me feel a little better/I believe this life is gonna kill me”). The next two tracks, “If You Ain’t Got Love” and “Cry for You” sound like 70s country, with just the right kind of rhinestone bling. They’re in English too, a relative rarity for the new breed of Cajun musicians. The Revelers also channel some good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, and by old-fashioned, I mean closer to rockabilly than Springsteen. “Kidnapper” is a killer rocker from Jewell and the Rubies, and “Jukebox Blues” is vintage swamp pop from Louisiana songwriter Tommy McLain. Of course, traditional Cajun music pops in, with the great Dennis McGee fiddle tune “Wang Wang Blues” and the classic “La Valse de Cadiens.” Really the songs are as eclectic as they can be, but all are anchored by the unflinching fiddle/accordion chore of Cajun music, and by a remarkable amount of tasty twang.
If you want a litmus test for what’s going on in SW Louisiana these days, try out The Revelers. They’re paving a new path with their old school take on Cajun and Country music.
The Revelers: Des Fois
10/15/2012 | comments (0)
HearthPR is proud to be working with Chris Brashear, as he brings effortless folk mastery to his new album, Heart of the Country. To anyone who knows his career, it should come as no surprise. From Missouri to Italy, Chris Brashear has called many places home, but he’s always traveled with a musical instrument in hand. Skilled on guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and bass, Chris is a highly sought-after musician. From touring as the fiddler for folk duo Robin and Linda Williams, and forming a stunning super-group of bluegrass musicians in Perfect Strangers (featuring Bob Black, an ex-Bill Monroe band member, Jody Stecher, and Peter McLaughlin), Chris Brashear has been at the forefront of American roots music for years. On Heart of the Country, though, what stands out are his beautiful vocals and rock-solid songwriting skills. He sings with the conviction of a true musician and the wisdom of someone who’s seen much of his life on the road.
And these are road stories. Stories of people like the rural dancers in “Mama’s Opry,” the old men remembering their hard pasts in “Time the Perfect Stranger,” and the hazy springtime of a day spent driving through the Midwest in “Hills of Arkansas.”
Listen to "Time the Perfect Stranger"
Listen to "Hills of Arkansas"
To add to Chris’ songwriting and singing, Heart of the Country pulls in a cast of talented musicians, including Tim O’Brien (fiddle, mandolin), Mike Compton (mandolin), Todd Phillips (upright bass), Al Perkins (pedal steel guitar),and Hollis Brashear (harmony vocals). Produced by Grammy Award winner Jim Rooney (Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent, John Prine), this album is the complete package, and clear proof that Chris Brashear is a musician’s musician, respected by his many peers for his obvious talents.
Heart of the Country at once has the effortless-sounding grace of bluegrass merged with the newness of a songwriter’s gift.
10/14/2012 | comments (0)
Pete Seeger casts a huge shadow over most of the 20th century's folk movements, and perhaps unsurprisingly, this shadow looms as well over the first decade of the 21st century. At 93 years old, he's enjoying as much fame now as he ever has, and he's been getting dues for his tireless and endless work to promote American roots music. He's seen five generations of Americans love and embrace their own heritage, and he's been at the forefront for all of this!
This Sunday, October 14, Northwest Folklife is presenting a tribute to Pete Seeger, and also to renowned songwriter Steve Goodman. We're happy to offer a pair of tickets if you're interested in attending (plan to singalong all night!). Just send us an email or leave a comment telling us how Pete Seeger has influenced your life or your music. Tell us what Pete's legacy means to you and how he's changed the way you think about roots music or community music.
WIN A PAIR OF TICKETS to Folklife's Pete Seeger Tribute!
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us what Pete means to you!
The best comments will be published here and on social media!
MORE INFO about the show:
Tribute Times Two
Anthems of Activism
Pete Seeger and Steve Goodman
Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012,
at the Historic Admiral Theater in West Seattle
benefiting Northwest Folklife
4pm: PETE–The Songs and Times of Pete Seeger
One-man multimedia performance by Seattle banjoist Peter McKee
7pm: Steve Goodman–Facing the Music
Concert by Tom Colwell with special guests and MC'd by Clay Eals
Pete Seeger has played banjo and inspired countless audiences for the past 70 years. For more than half of that time, Peter McKee has been an admirer and student of Seeger’s banjo playing and political activism.
McKee, a Ballard resident and Seattle attorney who has represented disabled people seeking Social Security disability benefits, is co-founder of the Seattle folk band Clallam County. The band has performed throughout Washington state for more than 30 years, including “For Pete’s Sake: Sing,” Seattle’s popular 90th birthday celebration in 2009.
So it is only natural that McKee was inspired to create a one-man, multimedia performance in tribute to Seeger’s music and activism (4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, at the Historic Admiral Theater). At the core of his interest is Seeger’s unique ability to forge social change through embedding in American and worldwide culture some of the most stirring civil-rights and peace songs of the past century – and getting people to sing them.
“Anyone who ever attended a Seeger concert at the height of Pete’s solo performing days undoubtedly experienced his unique gift and the core of Pete’s life – his ability and his zeal to get complete strangers and reluctant audience members to become part of the night’s event by joining their untrained voices together in singing many of his songs,” McKee says.
McKee is fond of quoting Seeger’s oft-stated entreaty to his audiences: “If you can sing high, take the high tenor line on the chorus. If you sing low, take the chorus’ bass line. And if you are a monotone, grab the center and just hold on!”
At the Oct. 14 Seeger tribute, the audience no doubt will join in with McKee in singing many of Seeger’s best-known tunes, including “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer.” The presentation also will feature vintage video, images and audio recordings evoking some of the most memorable social movements in which Seeger has been involved.
BONUS: Check out this entirely awesome video of Pete Seeger on the Colbert Report!
10/11/2012 | comments (1)
Having just written about Daytrotter's upcoming Justin Townes Earle / Dawes vinyl split and interviewing founder Sean Moeller, I 'd moved on to other writing projects and wasn't paying a lot of attention when they first announced a large, exclusive Daytrotter session with Mumford & Sons. Plus, I'm that horrible kind of hipster that wears a T-shirt like "I listen to bands that don't even exist", so I rarely listen to roots music groups that are actually hugely popular (Old Crow Medicine Show being my only exception). Plus, I kind of thought they were part of this new movement of poorly played roots music, where the banjo's more of a prop than an actual instrument. But good goddamn I was SO WRONG about them. I wish I could apologize for how wrong I was, so this article will have to be like a kind of apology for my wayward thoughts.
Recorded during their Gentlemen of the Road Stopover tour (a really cool project that saw them settling into a town for a full day of music and fun before their evening shows), the Mumford & Sons Daytrotter sounds incredibly relaxed. This only makes the excellent musicianship all the more evident. You can fake it all you want in the studio, but when you kick back for some late night picking with your buddies on a tour bus, you've got to be great to make it sound this good. Cool buddies too! Two of the tracks are covers of Appalachian old-time songs "Little Birdie" and "Angel Band" with renowned banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn. Bringing her on as a stroke of genius, and her swift banjo picking and beautiful singing helps define these two songs. Also joining the session are Rounder records songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. But the real focus of the albums is the songs. I love Daytrotter, but what I love most about what they do is how they encourage bands to take on adventurous covers. I always feel a little cheated when a session goes up with just the songs on the band's album. I LOVE when an artist on Daytrotter takes a huge leap to cover something really unusual. Case in point, the new Sarah Jarosz session has a crazy cover of Joanna Newsom's classic "Book of Right On". Check that out!
Despite starting off with a song ("Not with Haste") from their new album, Babel, the rest of this session is dedicated to carefully chosen, totally awesome acoustic covers from interesting sources. Bob Dylan's there of course, but with a song I'd never heard, "I Was Young When I Left Home". It's a beautiful folk song, appropriately recorded in 1961 at an informal session at a friend's house and released only much much later via his Bootleg Series vol. 7. I'm no Dylan expert (much more of a neophyte), but I hadn't heard this before. What a great song! Warming my cold heart, Mumford & Sons sweet, mellow cover of " Not in Nottingham" is easily one of my favorite tracks from this session. Anyone who's seen the excellent Disney movie "Robin Hood", remembers this beautiful song, one of the highlights of many-a childhood. I hadn't realized that Roger Miller wrote the songs for this movie, nor that he was the narrator and voice the part of the minstrel rooster. Mumford & Sons follow this Roger Miller song up with another, perhaps better-known, Roger Miller song: "Reincarnation." I'm a totally newbie to Roger Miller's music, but recently fell head-over-heels for his songwriting, at once funny but also touchingly poignant, after hanging out with O'Brien Party of 7, who just recorded the first tribute album of Miller's songs. Check out the interview and article on this album HERE. The penultimate track of the Daytrotter session is a beautiful Guy Clark song, "Partner Nobody Chose", and the final track is perhaps the strongest, an acoustic version of the Bruce Springsteen ballad "Atlantic City".
Bob Dylan's "I Was Young When I Left Home"
Roger Miller's "Not in Nottingham" (if that raccoon chain gang doesn't melt your heart....)
Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City"
It's one thing for Mumford & Sons to fill an album with well written songs, in fact it's what we'd expect. But I kinda think it says more about their songwriting that they're so able to recognize great songs in such unheralded places. And it's certainly a testament to their ability to play American roots music that they can draw from so many sources while still sounding wholly original. Mumford & Sons carry a very real authority with their music, and I don't think I really realized this until I listened to their Daytrotter session. If you haven't already hopped onboard their train, this might be the perfect stop to hitch a ride.