Greg Greenway: ”Barney in combat boots and black pants,” with the sense of humor that that self-description implies; erstwhile rock ‘n’ roll guy who still sounds like ’70s folk-rock much of the time; percussive guitarist and piano player; writer of inspiring political anthems and sensitive songs about men’s issues and love. Joe Jencks: teddy bear with a Barry White voice, union activist, narrator of amazing story-songs about multiple facets of the American experience. Pat Wictor: sensitive poet, terrific slide-guitar player, singing sweet and thoughtful songs about love and spirituality.
As individuals, they are all among my favorite performers. Together, they are Brother Sun, singing and playing all of the above with the addition of gorgeous harmonies and interpersonal banter that makes the band’s shows more fun than anything else I can think of. Inspiration, wit, humor, political awareness, and an overwhelming sense of love: for one another, for the audience, for just about all of humanity.
The subject line is a quote from Tim Eriksen, whom I discovered this past fall at Passim and saw again last night at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass.; it gives a sense of Eriksen’s eclectic approach as well as his charismatic energy and sense of humor. He’s a not-quite-former punk rocker who mostly does traditional and trad-style Americana in his very own style, with a stunning voice plus guitar, fiddle, and banjo–the latter occasionally bowed rather than picked. Oh yes, and in his real life–or should that be spare time?–he teaches ethnomusicology at a Massachusetts college and conducts shape-note workshops and conferences. The other two members of his current group, Zoe Darrow on fiddle and Peter Irvine on assorted percussion, provide straight lines for Eriksen when they’re not demonstrating their own outstanding musical skills.
People who have been around this part of the folk map for a while may also know him from the ’90s folk-rock band “Cordelia’s Dad.” That style is less in evidence these days, though not completely gone. Most of the current set list is in a very traditional style. Some songs really are from nineteenth-century New England, done Eriksen’s way; more of them are lyrics he set to original music or vice versa, or mashups of traditional tropes or….you name it. Often I can’t tell which is which, and he is Not a Reliable Informant–not, I’m sure, for lack of knowledge, but because, well, that’s all part of the fun. The shtick also includes anecdotes and commentary, not always to the point of the songs–very often something starts out as an introduction and goes to unexpected places, or just wanders off into its own space and gets dropped so that a song can start–but always entertaining. In the current mix, many stories have to do with Pumpkintown, “a fictional town in Western Massachuetts, where I learned the songs.” Sometimes there are a cappella renditions of material identified as traditional Macedonian songs learned from his family–“and I can’t translate, but I can give you the sense of it, because Macedonian sounds sort of like Serbian, which I speak badly.” Sometimes there’s overtone singing–think Tuvan throat singers, or jew’s-harp sound created with voice alone. Occasionally the songs are very modern; my favorite of those is about the mice that infested his house (that was the house with the serial killer in the attic), accompanied by interesting dissonances from Darrow fiddling with what appeared to be one or two strands of horsehair as a bow, and Irvine using a standard bow but on his xylophone. Irvine didn’t play the cymbals with his keys this time, but I’ve seen him do that in the past; mostly, last night, it was bodhran, or a small percussion instrument unfamiliar to me that looks sort of like a tambourine made out of duct tape but has a wonderful deeper sound, and occasionally it was a more standard acoustic drum set. The dissonant stuff is less to my taste, but anything the Trio de Pumpkintown does makes my ears happy.
[Comments to a particular singer/songwriter's mailing list, revised.]
I was chuckling at the various “if I never hear Pancho & Lefty again…” comments [on the mailing list], having remarked very recently that it’s on the short list of pop songs that I never tire of. (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is another, despite its having been the background, on a boom box outside, while I took the SAT. It’s also another where many people disagree with me.)
I grew up listening to, among other things, the traditional ballads (long story-songs) of Anglo–American folk: Songs passed down through the generations, whose authors’ names are long since lost, but which are known by many people in a culture, and sung by professionals onstage and equally by people in the shower or at work or whatever. One of my friends has a large hard drive on her computer entirely dedicated to versions of the Child Ballads. My library is not so complete as that, but still contains dozens of examples from the collection with which Francis James Child blessed us.
Don’t get me wrong. I also love an enormous amount of “singer/songwriter stuff,” the modern “folk” whose authors are known and which is performed for audiences, for pay. But to my mind these are different genres, and modern “folk,” copyrighted and mostly sung by those who write it, is in the second category. And of course it’s a spectrum, or rather several spectra across different dimensions. There are singer/songwriters whose work is acoustic pop-with-guitars or maybe pianos, and singer/songwriters whose work is rooted in and almost indistinguishable from the ancient traditions,* and everything in between. (To my mind, modern–ish political folk—Woody Guthrie, for instance, and his spiritual descendants—is either somewhere in the middle ground or orthogonal to this particular discussion, off on another plane.) My taste tends very strongly toward the latter: trad-style or neo–trad or whatever we choose to call it. And count me among those who can hear a good song over and over and over, performed by different artists or the same artist, in similar or wildly varying styles, and still enjoy them no less. For whatever that’s worth.
* Stan Rogers used to introduce The Witch of the Westmorland (as Roger spelled it, along with other edits—-the folk process in action!) as “a 300–year–old ballad written by my friend Archie Fisher,” and that’s the sort of thing I mean.
Dave Carter was the son of a Pentecostal minister and a mathematician, a man who dropped out of a graduate program in math to write music and then studied transpersonal psychology, religion, and whatever else interested him. Tracy Grammer is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist with a degree in English lit (and probably much more, but she’s more private about background) who was Dave Carter’s “partner in all things” for the last decade or so of his life. The phrase “postmodern mythic American music” was their own description, and I don’t know of a better term from anyone, though mythopoeic would also suit.
In June 1999, I picked up Dave and Tracy’s first CD, When I Go, listened to the title song (Dave: “my shamanic banjo hymn”) and was instantly enthralled.
This was everything I’d been listening for: haunting melodies that sounded centuries-old, on acoustic instruments, with intensely literate wordplay, mythic stories, great voices, wonderfully interstitial genre-blending… Besides the title track, the CD contained songs ranging from the talking blues-ish Don’t Tread On Me (Dave: “This is the product of an imagined meeting, in a hotel room somewhere, of Jack Kerouac, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan”) to the lovely counterpoint duet Kate and the Ghost of Lost Love, to the Arthurian cowboy ballad (!) Lancelot, to flat-out trucker tall tale Little Liza Jane to…well, wherever Dave’s fertile imagination wandered. “The music of my heart” was the phrase that occurred to me and has never left.
I was fortunate enough to see the duo perform live in November of that year, and many other times over the next three years. Their second and third recordings, Tanglewood Tree and Drum Hat Buddha–similar mixes of songs, a bit more professionally produced, more of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard and wordplay and “true stories”–appeared in 2000 and 2001.
I was even blessed to talk with Dave a little, after concerts, and to email–about the music and how it touched me–before he died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in July 2002, just before his 50th birthday and a week before the duo was scheduled for their main-stage Saturday night debut at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The time-slot turned into a celebration of the music performed by many Falcon Ridge artists (Chris and Meredith Thompson doing “Tanglewood Tree”! Chris Smither’s “Crocodile Man”! Pete and Maura Kennedy’s “When I Go”!)* with Tracy closing the hour and allowing us to join her in mourning. (“People keep telling me how brave I am to be here, so soon after Dave Carter died, but really–where else could I find a community that understands and shares the loss?”)
Tracy has continued bringing us Dave’s songs–as well as adding others to her public repertoire, mostly covers although the one composition of her own that has been shared with the public leaves me hoping there will eventually be more–with her own musical artistry and ever-more-beautiful voice and violin. In addition to Seven Is the Number (re-recorded versions, by the duo, of an album Dave had cut before meeting her) and American Noel (Christmas songs the duo recorded as a commercial project), she has given us Flower of Avalon (Tracy’s solos on Dave’s songs) and, in 2012, Little Blue Egg (solos and duos, from newly rediscovered tapes).
I’ve since discovered other songwriters who speak to my heart, but Dave Carter’s songs are still at the very top of my list; when I started planning Folk Crossing, there was no debate about who would get pride of place.
*Don’t know some of these other artists? Stay with Folk Crossing, and you will; they’re all on the agenda.
Welcome to Folk Crossing!
I am an avid fan of several kinds of “folk” music, including (but not necessarily limited to) traditional British/Irish/American folk, some acoustic singer-songwriter music, various world/international traditions and fusions, blues, bluegrass, and filk.* (On occasion, I also listen to early music, jazz, classical, rock, pop, country, or…you name it, I’ll give it a try, but may not write about it here.) Often fans of one or two of these sub-genres ignore the rest. During the year that I hosted a radio show at a university station, I was repeatedly told how unusual it was to have a show that played trad and singer/songwriter and “world” music. Earlier, I had joined my then-local folk club, a venue that showcased all of these plus bluegrass; as a Lifetime Member, I could attend unlimited concerts–in my best month ever, that meant twenty!–and sampled much of the unknown but was stunned by how little overlap there was in the respective audiences.
Compartmentalizing has never appealed to me; rather, I am drawn to the interstitial, the crossover, the fusions. Thus, Folk Crossing: a mythopoeic crossroads where I imagine the genres meeting, conversing, exchanging ideas, sometimes walking in twos and threes along a new path together. I want to explore any of these roads that appeal to me, and I invite all who share my tastes (or who think you might share them) to join the pilgrimage.
*Not a typo, though it started out as one! Filk is the music sung specifically by and for the community of science-fiction and fantasy fans: often at conventions and other gatherings; usually about science and SFF themes; usually written by fans and professional SFF writers, some of whom are also professional musicians; sometimes poems from books set to music (e.g. the songs in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work), sometimes original, sometimes parodies of existing songs.
Notes and Guidelines
– I refer to it simply as “music,” but most of the time what I love is songs; the more lyrics-intense, the better. I may discuss the formal music qualities, to the best of my untrained ability, but I’m more likely to talk about songs than instrumental music, and very likely to talk about the words as well as the tunes.
– Discussion is welcome, but I always reserve the right to moderate–so please, be polite, and keep it related to the music.
– Initially at least, the purpose here is “music evangelism” rather than criticism. Which is to say, I’m not planning to review artists whose work doesn’t appeal to me personally, but primarily to provide info about what I consider the good stuff, as I do for friends. Some of you won’t share my taste; most of you will share some likings but not everything. Comments explaining what you personally don’t like about something are welcome here, when polite and appropriate; attacks on artists, genres, or fans thereof are not. Recommendations of similar music, preferably with links to legal online examples, are enthusiastically solicited.
– And please do not get into the “what is folk music” debate, which I’ve seen causing havoc in discussion groups. “It’s only folk if people learn it from one another, without recordings!” “It’s only folk if nobody gets paid for it!” “It’s only folk if we don’t know who wrote it!” NO. I am sympathetic to some of these views, but will not specify which because that’s not the purpose of this blog–except to say that highly professional, produced, popular-radio songs are generally not within “folk” as I understand it, and are unlikely to be discussed here.
On the other hand, the variously-cited remark, “All music is folk, I never heard [whatever animal] sing it,” is also unwelcome. For this, I’ll be autocratic: Posts that violate the guidelines will be hidden at my sole discretion, and especially if I think the conversation is getting derailed.
Walk along with me, and I will walk with you/On the paths of joy and paths of sorrow too/Walk along with, walk along with, walk along with, walk along with me and I will walk with you.
And if our pathways meet but for a little while/We’ll still have time to share a word, a song, a smile…
And at our destination we may meet again/Then I’ll smile and say, “It’s good to see you, friend…”
– Eileen McGann, “I See My Journey”