Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways

It’s often said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.  The implication is this is a bad thing.  It may be in many settings, but in music it’s more the case that those who know history love to repeat it.  Shortly after World War II there was a concerted effort to record much of the traditional music that was being passed along and stylistically adapted to new tastes.  In 1948 Moses Asch formed Folkways Records to document traditional music and spoken word performances along with “the sounds of the world”.  Folkways went on to be a central player in the rise of folk music in the 60′s with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly.  In the early 70′s the Smithsonian acquired Folkways and integrated their historical recordings along with the Folkways catalog of over 2000 records.  More recently Smithsonian Folkways has released compilations highlighting various stylistic contributions to modern music.  Their latest is Classic African American Songsters.

Unlike many of the historical collections on the market today, Songsters doesn’t focus on a particular genre or artist, but instead delves in to the singers who were adapting traditional songs for the audiences of the day; songsters in the vernacular.  A few of the artists on this disc are well known.  Mississippi John Hurt sings about Monday Morning Blues.  Lead Belly, nee Huddie Ledbetter, does My Hula Love, certainly not one of his more well known tunes.  The Reverend Gary Davis belts out a pretty good Candy Man, a song I had associated with Lead Belly, but apparently of very vague origins.  Davis claims he first heard it at a carnival about 1902.  Given the recent popularity of the Alvin Brothers tribute, Big Bill Broonzy’s name will probably catch people’s attention.  Unlike the blues-oriented songs penned by Broonzy that the Alvins cover, here he does his own cover of the ragtime classic Bill Bailey.

There are also a number of songs you’ve heard countless times, but sung here by artists you probably haven’t heard.  And some of the interpretations are really a notch above the crowd, particularly given the recordings are sometimes 50-60 years old.  Brownie McGhee does an awesome job on Pallet On the Floor, a blues classic traced back to the late 1800′s.  From that same era of cotton field music, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins do a dynamite Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, a number Dead fans are sure to be familiar with.  The one that caught me most by surprise was Peg Leg Sam covering Froggy Went A-Courtin’, a kids song that supposedly dates back to the 16th century and done here with a nice bluesy harmonica.

Songsters cover Classic African American Songsters is not an album your hipster friends are going to tell you about because they’ve discovered the newest super-cool band you need to hear.  But if you want to hear what some current hits sounded like back in the day, or are a fan of acoustic music with bona fide authenticity, it’s worth a detour to get this record.

Anna Lynch – Anna Lynch

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written about North Of Nashville and True North.  Unwittingly, I was leading up to this week’s review–Anna Lynch.  As residents of Anchorage, Alaska, Anna and her bandmates are waaaay north of Nashville.  You’d never know that by listening to Anna’s self-titled release, though.  It has love songs and break-up songs, lots of tasty fiddle and mandolin parts, and a je ne sais quoi that seems born of a youthful fascination with honky-tonks.  It could just as easily have come from the mountains of east Tennessee.

Lyrically, Anna does show some Alaskan form with stories than have a pretty independent streak to their perspective.  Gone And Back is in some ways a female viewpoint on the male attitude  that dominates classics like Ramblin’ Man and Free Bird.  Railroad Man likewise covers that rambling spirit.  Baby Don’t Go To Work is a bluesy song about convincing someone to shirk their responsibility for the sake of love.  Not A Love Song is, of course, exactly that, but Anna confesses at the end that “I’ll never admit I’m wrong.”

Lynch cover Bandmates Peter Hamre on guitar, Garren Volper on bass, and Amanda Kerr on fiddle provide a solid background for Lynch’s lyrics.  You don’t really notice the instruments the first couple of listens, but gradually you realize how much subtle texture they’re contributing.  They play so well together, transitioning from solos to harmonies to just a presence, you picture long, sunless, winter weekends cooped up indoors with nothing to do but hone their craft.  I suspect that’s hardly the case, but it’s a musically romantic notion nonetheless.

I’ll wrap this up with my favorite verse from the disc, “boys in bars and Beer In Jars keep the blues away”.  True that, no matter how far north you are.

True North – Elsebound

For the first few decades of bluegrass music, it tended to lean toward the high, lonesome sound invented by Bill Monroe, or an old-timey vibe like the Carter Family or the Osborne Brothers.  Then in the 70′s a few artists emerged that pushed the boundaries of the genre; John Hartford, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, to name a few.  Hot Rize in particular managed to bring a relatively polished sound that was more listenable to an audience less familiar with back roads twang.  Listening to the latest album from True North I got that same feeling.  Call Elsebound a gateway drug to hard bluegrass music.

Primary songwriter Kristen Grainger also takes the lead on vocals for much of the album.  Her clear, warm voice brings the same kind of richness and familiarity to songs like Twist In the Wind and Hard Place that have made Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss so popular.  Vocally, the crowning achievement of the disc is One Voice.  Starting with just Grainger and a simple ukelele accompaniment the song builds by adding each member of the group until you get the full 4-part harmony and instrumentation, before finishing with just the one voice.  Showing her versatility, she also belts out a fine, fine traditional-sounding number with Shiny Black Shoes.

Another one of the appeals of Elsebound is that it keeps you listening with not just the virtuosity within individual songs, but also the variety across the album.  In addition to the typical bluegrass elements, the band veers into a jazzy vein with Come And See What I Got For You.  They cover a catchy Don Henry tune, BFD, that’s an ode to TLA’s.  Rattlin’ Bones, a Shane Nicholson/Kasey Chambers composition, is kind of hard to describe, but when I checked out the original I certainly like this interpretation better.  They even take some inspiration from 70′s California country rock sound with The Poet And the Carpenter.

Elsebound-Final-Cover-350x350 From the first time I listened to Elsebound I had the feeling that I’d heard it before.  And yet most of the album is new songs from Grainger, so it just seems that way.  The end effect, then, is one of presenting not just what bluegrass is, but what it can be.

Katie Deter – The Brooklyn Sessions

katie deterIt isn’t every day that a sixteen year old singer songwriter can captivate a producer through a social media post. In fact, the same would go for a 26 year old songwriter. However, that is exactly what happened in this case. When Brooklyn based producer/musician Brian Murphy saw a video of Katie performing posted on a mutual friend’s Facebook page, he reached out to her. Next thing you know, Katie and her father are on their way to Brooklyn for a recording. For the project, Murphy assembled a team of musicians that are essentially the backing band for much hyped group, The Lone Bellow. The result is a five song EP entitled “The Brooklyn Sessions”.

One word comes to mind when describing these songs. That word is “refreshing”, and the accompanying music captures the feeling perfectly. The perspective in these songs is what is so refreshing. Katie may have a sixteen year old’s view of the world, but it is her own view and accompanied by a healthy dose of humor. Take the opener ”The DMV Song”. It is all about how a drivers license to most people marks the first step to being “independent and free”. Katie rejects this conventional view and says, “I’ve got this spirit in me, and I will do with it what I please. I don’t need that piece of paper to prove I’m independent and free”. Kudos to her for realizing this now, because it seems that in each stage of life there is a piece of paper that tries to define us. All of the songs in this project deal with identity in one way or another. Katie deals with the subject of identity often with humor. On “I Wish I Was Irish”, you can’t help but laugh as she describes an idyllic vision of the future in a fun way. The song “Black Coffee” has the same feel when describing an aspect of love.

It is so enjoyable to listen to a collection of songs that can make keen observations without being too heavy. On “The Brooklyn Sessions” Katie’s comforting voice and perspective is accompanied by a well produced indie-folk framework. On the song “Gotta Grow Up” Katie sings about trying to “make my mom and dad proud”. I think she already has.

More Than a Feeling: A Special Boston Playlist*

FEATURED ALBUMS

Smith & Weeden, by Smith & WeedenSmith & Weeden

It’s always a treat to stumble across a band that, quite simply, sounds like they are having fun. Such is the case with the Providence-based quartet* Smith and Weeden, whose songs run the gamut from harmony-laced country to guitar-fueled rock.

In the country category are ambling tunes like “Drinking” and “Wondering.” Singer Jesse Emmanuel Smith has a voice perfectly suited for these songs, ably buoyed by the band’s tasteful harmonies.

“Drinking” is a ready-made country classic, bringing together a honky-tonk melody, a woeful tale of heartbreak and, well, alcohol. “Well you don’t get answers fast from a bottle or a flask,“ sings Smith, “I’ve got some time to kill so I’ll have another glass.”

How many songs of heartache do you know that include a snippet of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic?” Well, “Grace and Glory” does, along with some acoustic guitar traces of “Amazing Grace.” It makes for an interesting combination and a mighty fine song.

In the rock category are “Aim to Please,” “Boys in Bands” and “Playing a Part.” Guitarist Seamus Weeden shines on these songs, shifting from bruising power chords to nuanced solos with ease. His playing is full of character yet never loud and gratuitous.

They are a regional band for now, but hopefully they’ll hit the road and bring some of their rock and roll fun to a town near you.


THE PLAYLIST


Love Me Tender, Jess Tardy (from the forthcoming Sky City Lullaby)

Ten years! That’s how long it has been since Tardy’s last release. We could blame the delay on a lot of things, including a failed record deal, but let’s not fixate on the negative. Rather, let’s celebrate a sublime collection of (mostly) classics from the American songbook.

Tardy, with help from her friend (and talented mandolin player) Sean Staples, kept the arrangements simple. The restrained accompaniment puts the emphasis where it should be: on the songs and Tardy’s captivating voice.

Her take on “Love Me Tender” is a great example. Where others would be tempted to tackle it as an overwrought ballad, Tardy takes a different path. A mid-tempo swing and some exquisite harmonies give the song a fun 1940’s Andrews Sisters feel.

Other gems to be found on Sky City Lullaby include Tardy’s take on Ernest Tubbs’ “Waltz Across Texas,” Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and her own “City of Gold.”

Audio Stream: Jess Tardy, “Love Me Tender”

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Easy to Love, Old Jack (from the forthcoming What Is Home to You)

One might be tempted to label Old Jack as happy-go-lucky. Their sound would certainly support that description. The have a big band rock feel that is steeped in soul, overflowing with an assertive pop attitude and plenty of wonderful harmonies.

Listen closely to their forthcoming release, however, and the lyrics reveal a darker side. These are songs of considered reflection, expressing doubts and questioning life decisions. The result is something special, a collection that is lyrically dense and musically satisfying.

Audio Download: Old Jack, “Easy to Love”

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A Little Bit Low, Aloud (from the Mother West Records It’s Got to Be Now)

I love my twang but sometimes, especially on those first warm days of spring, I want to crank up the guitars and some full-on power pop. Lucky for me, the latest release from Boston quartet Aloud arrived at just the right time to satisfy my craving.

The group gets right to the point with their music, with nary a track over 3 minutes in length. Even better, the songs on It’s Got to Be Now are high energy blasts filled with tight guitar hooks and vocal harmonies. Most of the songs, including this one, recall classic late 1960′s pop yet with brim with a crisp 2014 freshness that is perfect for sunny afternoon listening.


Johnny St. John and the Doom Band, John Powhida International Airport (from the forthcoming release Airport Life)

Former Rudds singer-songwriter Powhida makes his return with John Powhida International Airport. The group took top honors at the 2011 Boston Rock and Roll Rumble and has spent the last few years meticulously crafting their debut release.

The resulting 15-song opus is a pop record of sophistication and eccentricity. It comes across as a smooth and sinewy mix of Prince and Hall & Oates with some jazz flourishes thrown in for good measure. Heck, even the song titles — “John Mayer Dines with Taylor Swift” and “Cover Me I’m Going for Milk” for example — give an indication of the humor and creativity in Powhida’s songwriting.

Audio Download: John Powhida International Airport, “Johnny St. John and the Doom Band”

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Woman of Mine, Russell Kaback (from the self-released Message of Love)

The Greenfield, MA-based Kaback has clearly studied at the Al Green school of music. His songs are sweet and soulful in just the right way. Message of Love saunters along with plenty of tasty horns, graceful guitars and luscious keyboards. Front and center, though, are Kaback’s soothingly smooth vocals.

Consider this track just a taste of what you’ll find across the full release.

Audio Download: Russell Kaback, “Woman of Mine”

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Let Me In, Brian Carroll (from the self-released Miscellaneous)

Carroll has quickly established himself as a presence on the Boston roots scene. Calling him a dabbler isn’t quite right, although he has spread his tentacles far and wide. Carroll hosts regular gigs that range from singer-songwriter showcases to picker’s extravaganzas and even found time to spearhead a forthcoming compilation of area songwriters covering one-another’s songs. If that weren’t enough, he just released a satisfying 7-song EP of his own mandolin-driven compositions.

Audio Download: Brian Carroll, “Let Me In”

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*Yes, I know several of these artists aren’t quite from Boston proper, but since when has Twangville been proper?