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.
10/30/2012 | comments (0)
While visiting Smithsonian Folkways a few months ago, I learned that they have a large collection of Québécois and French-Canadian music albums. These are all old LPs from the 60s and 70s, but they've been digitally remastered and they're being offered now on custom-ordered CDs. Part of the mission of Smithsonian Folkways is to always have their albums in print. So their whole back catalogue is available for purchase, which is pretty amazing when you think of the international scope of this venerable record label. When you buy one of these older albums, you get a CD in a custom-printed package with the original LP art and a download of the liner notes. There are some great gems here and they're not too expensive ($16.98 for the disc, $9.99 for the download).
You can see all the French-Canadian albums available here:
Here are some gems I found:
-Alan Mills & Jean Carignan: My dad always spoke of this LP with reverent tones. He grew up listening to it in New Brunswick, and I think the sounds of this LP underpinned his love of his own musical roots. It's makes for kinda funky listening now, especially with Alan Mills' strange folk accents and songs. But I have a hunch that this album is a glimpse into the true soul of Canadian culture. You have salty Newfoundland sea chanteys, sad rain-soaked medieval ballads, mysterious Irish jigs, and creepy old stories about the devil roaming the snowy woods of Québec. Classic.
-Jean Carignan & Pete Seeger: Yep, this is a pretty cool collaboration! Seeger was a fan of Carignan, inviting him on his Rainbow Quest TV show and recording this album here with him. Seeger doesn't do too much more than shrom away on his banjo in the background, but it's still a cool album. Carignan's at the top of his game, and though he doesn't play any of his rarer tunes here, he does turn in some killer performances. A great buy for any Carignan fans. If you're not familiar with Carignan, he was perhaps the greatest fiddler of the 20th century; a music genius who learned Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian and even classical music traditions flawlessly by ear.
-Songs and Dances of Quebec: A great disc for fans of French-Canadian dance. Invaluable for the recorded square dance calls from the great caller Aldor Morin, with Jean Carignan's fiddling to boot! It's a grab-bag of cool tracks from different artist with some saucy songs, but the duo of Jean Carignan and Aldor Morin is the real draw.
"Danse Carrée" [Square Dance]: Jean Carignan, fiddle, Aldor Morin, caller
-Joseph Allard: This is a wonderful disc of 78s from the playing of Joseph Allard. Born in 1873, Allard moved back and forth between New England and Quebec, and absorbed a lot of playing tips from Irish fiddling. Carignan was a huge fan and took a lot from Allard's playing. Allard was unquestionably one of the best Québécois fiddlers of the 78 era and his repertoire is a treasure-trove of great tunes.
Joseph Allard: "Reel du Pêcheur"
-Alfred Montmarquette: This is a glorious disc of 78rpm records from the great Québécois accordionist Alfred Montmarquette. He was the template for Québec accordion and a wonderful playerof the one-row melodeons still popular today in the province. This album, and others in the series, were curated by Québécois harmonica player Gabriel Labbé and his tastes clearly run towards the waltzes, marches, and polkas that were popular in the early 1900s in Québec. Today reels are the tunes most look for, and I would have loved more reels on these. But the playing is so great that it hardly matters.
Alfred Montmarquette: "Clog de William Durette"
-Alan Mills: My dad had this LP in his collection when I was a kid. It's a stone-cold classic, full of all the prototypical French-Canadian folk songs. It's a bit dated now, and I personally find Alan Mills' singing a bit stilted, but there's no denying that this is the original classic album of French-Canadian folk song.
Not all the collection is great, of course. Some of the albums of songs, like the ones from Jacques Labrecque or Hélène Baillargeon, are pretty dated, but these gems here attest to some great hidden surprises in Smithsonian Folkways' collection!
10/29/2012 | comments (0)
The Western Canadian province of British Columbia may seem like a long way from the old-timey world of the American South, but not for songwriter and roots musician Annie Lou. On her new album, Grandma’s Rules for Drinking, she taps into the homey ruggedness of the Canadian West. Presenting a charming slice of Canadiana, she maps a homescape of hard-drinking grandmas, husbands away in the wilderness, rural dancehalls, blue-collar fashions, and, of course, the deep snows and silence of a Canadian winter. Annie Lou has the spirit of an old storyteller inside her, and injects this talent straight into her songwriting. Her songs tell stories, sometimes personal, sometimes not, but stories that ring true with all of us.
Grandma’s Rules for Drinking features the songwriting, singing, and guitar/banjo work of Anne Louise Genest, who spent twenty-two years in the Yukon woods. Recorded in Toronto, the album features the prodigious old-time fiddling of John Showman (New Country Rehab), the clawhammer banjo of Kim Barlow and Frank Evans, with Max Heineman (Foggy Hogtown Boys) on upright bass. The album was produced by multiple Juno-nominee Andrew Collins of Canadian alt-stringband The Creaking Tree String Quartet. Collins brought his extensive experience of pushing the boundaries of traditional music, plus some burning mandolin playing.
Rolling fiddle and banjo tunes (“Long’s March Home,” “Days Gone By”) bump shoulders with slice-of-life story songs (“The Plaid Parade,” “Teach Me To Dance”) and homey advice from relatives (the title track!). Genest’s depth and diversity in songwriting led her straight to a Juno nomination (Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy award) in 2010; a celebratory coup for a debut album! With Grandma’s Rules for Drinking, Annie Lou is poised to capture the imagination of North American roots music fans.
Annie Lou: The Plaid Parade
Annie Lou: Winter Song
Follow Annie Lou on Facebook: facebook.com/pages/Annie-Lou
10/24/2012 | comments (0)
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.