Posts Tagged ‘old time music’

h1

More Fiddling Around with Haas & Friends

26 November 2013

As the song title says, the frost is on the pumpkin. If that nip in the air is getting you down, here’s a two-song medley of old fiddle tunes that should buck you up:

Like an earlier medley, this video comes from a cozy house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a crew of fellow travelers, specifically Lily Henley and Kellen Zakula, who join Haas on fiddle, older sister Natalie Haas on cello and Rene del Fierro (off screen) on guitar.

The recorded history of the two tunes featured here— “Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire” and “Rebel Raid”— reaches back to two important early figures. The consensus in folklore circles seems to be that “Shove the Pig’s Foot…” was first recorded by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, whereas “Rebel Raid” is associated with the great Ed Haley.  Haas tells me that both tunes came to her by way of a more contemporary source: reigning old time fiddling master Bruce Molsky.

Though she has studied and played with Molsky and other current practicioners, Haas is well acquainted with the work of the earlier generations of fiddlers. In addition to Martin and Haley, she cites the work of Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Manco Sneed and Estill Bingham as influences. “There’s just a huge wealth of source recordings floating around through the old-time community,” says Haas, “so it’s always great to hear different fiddlers and older versions of tunes (as well as old tunes that are new to me still!).”

Name That Tune

“Shove the Pig’s Foot Further Into the Fire” has one of the key attributes of a good fiddle tune: a cryptic title. Vi Wickam has a concise summary of what little is known of the tune’s origins and meanings on his website. I buy the argument that the “pig’s foot” in this case refers to a blacksmith tool rather than an animal byproduct.

Fiddle tunes go in and out of vogue. “Shove the Pig’s Foot” has certainly enjoyed an upswing in popularity over the past few years. Traveling in its wake now is another old tune with a title that always gets folks scratching their heads, “Nail that Catfish to a Tree.” Given the success of these tunes, both of which have such long exhortations for titles, I am thinking of writing a contemporary number that I’m calling “Don’t Forget to Buy Milk.”

The redoubtable musician and teacher Mike Holmes once used “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” as an example of a tune that was better known in a particular region. He said that folks in Tennessee have always been keen on it, while it has only recently gained currency elsewhere. Holmes speculated that this pleasant melody might have benefited from a more appealing title. He could be right on that score, but for those who find the concept of nailing a fish to a tree at best surreal and at worst abhorrent, I can at least offer a little clarification. As anyone who has passed a summer afternoon fishing in a farm pond down South can tell you, catfish have skin as tough as Tyvek. One method for skinning one of these slithery critters is to nail it to something solid and then use pliers to pull off the skin. Nailing a catfish to a tree is therefore not so much bizarre as mundane. I’m aware that this explanation doesn’t really get us any closer to answering the more fundamental question of why this phrase got attached to that tune.

Perhaps “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” has a second meaning? Fiddle tune titles sometimes carry such hidden or coded messages. Take the title “Frost on the Pumpkin” I mentioned at the outset. The late, great Kenny Baker penned the fiddle tune bearing that name. You might assume that the title is meant to do no more than summon up a wistful image of rustic beauty, but several sources tell me that “frost on the pumpkin” is an old saying that refers to feeling randy. Whether or not the always grave and dignified Mr. Baker had making whoopee in mind when he wrote the song is beyond my ken. I will say this much: should “Frost on the Pumpkin” lead to “Makin’ Whoopee,” and thence to “A Bun in the Oven,” I heartily encourage you to name yer progeny Edden, Manco or Estill.

Once again, we extend our gratitude to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Jeff Boudreau— notloB mastermind— tells me that he has a trio of concerts featuring Brittany Haas coming up. Check his website for details.

Finally, thanks go out as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his tasteful editing.

Advertisements
h1

From “Buy Local” to “Goodbye, Local”

15 January 2013

I admit that this week’s post is something of a departure, in that it deals largely with a landmark near my home base in Beantown, a subject that might strike some of my far-flung readers as parochial. Bear with me, however, as I believe there are universal lessons to be drawn from this story.

Sandys_Music_Seen_from_SideThis past Saturday morning, I got word through Jeff Boudreau’s informative notloB Music blog that a Cambridge musical institution, Sandy’s Music, was closing. I was saddened by the news and thought I should stop by the shop to spend a few last bucks and say farewell. However, when I got to Sandy’s some hours later, I was shocked to find the store already mostly disassembled.

Members of shop owner Sandy Sheehan’s extended family were busily packing up the remaining merchandise and hauling a ragtag miscellany of cases, stands and instruments up from the basement.

Sandy has been in poor health for some time now and therefore was unable to participate in the process of winding up the business that he started back in 1970. Located on Massachusetts Avenue midway between those famed institutions of higher learning, The Plough and the Stars and The Cantab Lounge— I mean Harvard and MIT— Sandy’s Music has served as a funky, cramped oasis for lovers of traditional American, British and Celtic music for over forty years. It was the kind of place where you could go to buy a ukulele for yer kid or an extra E-string for yer guitar and wind up having a 45-minute discussion about autoharp makers.

Family_help_to_clear_out_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThat’s because presiding over the whole shambolic enterprise was the unassuming, owl-like presence of Sheehan. Were someone to write “The Ballad of Sandy Sheehan,” it could serve as an anthem for the whole Folk Revival generation. Sheehan and his brother were born in Canada but adopted by a couple in the Pioneer Valley, north of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a young man, Sheehan migrated to Cambridge, no doubt seeking to connect with others who shared his passion for traditional instruments and music. It was the 1960’s and the heyday of “group homes” in Cambridge. In these communal households, residents shared everything from cooking to political philosophies. Sheehan lived for decades in one of the most durable and renowned group homes, an old house known simply as Old Joe Clark.

As the name of his longstanding abode implies, traditional music has permeated Sheehan’s life. He opened his store to pickers, hosting an old-time session that ran for decades on Monday nights. Jon Gersh, a friend who led the session for many years, described Sandy’s as a “space for people to meet, and new people to try out traditional music in a totally safe setting.”

Chair_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThough he is said to play a little banjo, Sheehan’s instrument of choice is the turntable, and it has been through the airwaves as much as anything that he has been able to share his deep knowledge of music with the public. Starting in 1986, Sheehan has hosted a show called “Traditional Folk” on WUMB in Boston. There are few pleasures to compare with driving along the Boston waterfront of an evening to the accompaniment of some chestnut from The Skillet Lickers or The Blue Sky Boys, followed by Sheehan’s succinct commentary in his distinctive burr. During Sheehan’s convalescence, the show has lived on through reruns. Until Sheehan is back on his feet, it will be hosted by Gersh.

When he wasn’t installed behind the microphone or the counter of his store, Sheehan could often be found in the lobby of a concert hall or in the mess hall of a music camp, selling music and instru-ments. His wide-ranging involvement in the New England music scene earned him a Boston Bluegrass Heritage Award in 2009. He once told me that he would have liked to have gotten out to see and sell at more events, but that too often required him to close the shop on weekends. “That’s when we make the big bucks,” he said with a dry laugh.

In truth, of course, Sheehan never realized much money from his passion, yet his store endured, despite decades of tumult in the music business. In closing at this time, Sandy’s Music joins a long list of local record, sheet music and instrument vendors who have recently thrown in the towel, a sad parade that begs us to ask, why now?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s stores like Sandy’s were able to fend off the assault from big box stores like Guitar Center (for instruments) and HMV (for records) by focusing on hard-to-find, local and used merchandise. Of course, they also provided a much more personable shopping experience.

Truck_in_front_of_Sandys_Music_Cambridge

In recent years, however, many of the stores have been done in by the Information Revolution. What’s interesting is that the internet picked these shops clean from two opposing directions. On the one hand, Amazon and Ebay gave customers access to a globalized marketplace that pushed prices down close to wholesale levels. On the other hand, Craigslist and the like provided ways for buyers and sellers of instruments to connect locally without the need of a middleman (unless you consider Craig and his list a middleman). Some of the small shops have managed to maintain a toehold by working their own internet sales very aggressively. Sandy’s Music was doing that a bit, too, but of course it’s very hard to be “heard” in the hurlyburly of the worldwide web.

I don’t see any real way of stopping the march of time, regardless of whether the wheels are turning in the direction of progress or decay, but milestones like Sandy’s Music closing give us an opportunity to reflect on what’s lost amid all the change. Small music stores haven’t just given us a place where you could seek out and talk with people like Sheehan who were knowledgeable about music; they provided day jobs for people who dedicated their lives to art and culture. It has never been easy for people to make a living in music, whether as a promoter, collector, DJ or performer. Stores like Sandy’s provided a way for such folk to devote themselves fully to music they loved. The shuttering of these stores therefore impoverishes the music scene not simply because it leaves us with fewer business outlets, but because it deprives the people who keep that scene alive of a livelihood.

Flyer_to_Benefit_Sandy_Sheehan-Sandys_Music

Although Sandy’s Music is no more, Sandy abides. Unfortunately, he currently abides in a rehab center, and that of course is very costly. That’s why Gerst and a big circle of Sandy’s friends and supporters have organized a benefit show on his behalf. It’s coming up on January 22nd at Johnny D’s in Somerville, so now is the time to lock in yer reservations. A cavalcade of performers will be on hand, including The Dixie Butterhounds, The Hi-Tone Ramblers, Lorraine and Bennett Hammond, Put Your Hoe Down, Laura Smith and a small army of banjo players. On that last note, you are encouraged to bring your “weirdest banjo” and join the “Dreaded Banjo Orchestra.” An event not to be missed! With luck, Sandy himself will be on hand.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Jeff Boudreau and Jon Gerst for much of the info included here.

h1

Crooked Still: The Streets of Boston

12 July 2011

As yer Cousin Curly hastily packs his knapsack for Grey Fox, the largest of the New England bluegrass festivals, he pauses for a moment… Hang on a sec… [Sounds of third person voice being tossed into the verbal insinkerator.]

The point is, just as Grey Fox is a locus for the more progressive (sorry to employ that vapid term, but I’m in a rush) edge of the New England bluegrass scene, so has Crooked Still stood, for the past decade, as the lynchpin for a still youthful generation of Boston musicians. For the third year in a row, the band will be back at Grey Fox. It’s therefore fitting to take this opportunity to post a final segment (for now at least) of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring the band. In this installment, we circle back to the beginning, in a sense, by getting the band to talk about its roots in— and its ongoing connection to— Boston.

The song featured in this clip is “Lonesome Road.” As Matt Schofield notes in his super-helpful Grateful Dead Family Discography, some versions of the song overlap another popular ballad, “In the Pines.”

“Lonesome Road” goes all the way back to Crooked Still’s debut album, Hop High. This means that an eleven year-old kid who happened to stumble upon the band’s first commercial recording might be an entering freshman this fall at Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, or any of the other Boston institutions where the practice and performance of American roots music are being taught. Will that fresh-faced arrival on the Boston scene carry on the meshing of old and new that has marked Crooked Still’s work, or will they veer off in some new direction? In other words, where is the Boston music scene headed? I’ll be keeping my ears open as I tromp the fields of Grey Fox, and of course I’ll report if I sight any new genus or species of note. In the meantime, as always, let us know yer thoughts.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— RIP Kenny Baker. For anyone attending Grey Fox, be sure to catch the brief tribute to this fiddler extraordinaire, scheduled to happen around 3:30 on Friday. A stellar line-up will be paying homage to the man who for many still defines the bluegrass fiddle.

h1

Crooked Still: It’s Not the Tune’s Fault

7 June 2011

What happens when you fall out of love with a tune, or when you never loved a tune to begin with, but you still have to play it? That’s the impolite questions I posed to the members of the group Crooked Still in the latest segment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase.

The title of this segment— “It’s Not the Tune’s Fault”— comes from an expression bassist Corey DiMario attributes to one of his teachers at New England Conservatory, the noted bassist John Lockwood.

The song featured in this clip is of course the well-known murder ballad “Little Sadie,” and I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the tune by including it in this segment. I had the good fortune to hear Doc & Merle Watson play a concert at Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the 70’s, and that’s probably the first time I heard “Little Sadie.” I’ve heard a lot of renditions of the song in intervening years, but as with many people, I suspect, Doc’s version remains the archetype. Even after all these years, I’m still not sick of it.

Crooked Still seems to make a point of keeping their back catalog in play, as it were. In concert, they are as likely to play a tune from their first album as they are to play one from their most recent release. “Little Sadie” is featured on their excellent sophomore outing, Shaken By a Low Sound, an album that is now almost five years old. If anyone in the band is growing tired of recounting the tale of Little Sadie’s demise, they aren’t showing it.

I wish I had time to do some research on “Little Sadie,” but perhaps my faithful readers can help me out. To be honest, apart from the chilling randomness of the murder, the confusion as to the narrator’s name (perhaps it’s Lee Brown?) and the simple, all-verses-no-chorus structure, the song doesn’t sound that old. To my ears at least, the rhymes are too neat and the story progresses too logically to be a folk song with ancient roots. Or did the ditty just get a major overhaul in the hands of Mr. Watson or some other mid-century master? If you know, let me know.

Above all, I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on tunes that wear out their welcome. Do you find that it’s “hate at first listen,” or do songs just get old? Do you fall in and out of love with tunes? Do you agree with DiMario and Lockwood’s assertion that it’s not the tune’s fault? Whatever the case, is it possible to rekindle a love that’s lost? Enquiring pickers want to know!

Yer Pal— Curly

h1

Crooked Still: A Sound All Their Own

29 April 2011

I can’t think of another string band that has a more distinctive sound than Crooked Still.  I recently talked with the group about its musical identity. Was having such an identifiable sound a blessing or a curse? Did they consciously maintain a specific style, or did it just happen organically? Here’s what they told me…

It’s a measure of Crooked Still’s influence that you can no longer simply identify it as “the band with the cello.” Even so, the cello has been and continues to be essential to defining the group’s sound. When he joined the group in 2007, cellist Tristan Clarridge took on a seemingly impossible job: filling the shoes of the group’s original cellist, Rushad Eggleston. Eggleston essentially invented a new technique for his instrument, adapting the crisp chop developed by Richard Greene and Darol Anger to produce a complex and percussive rhythmic foundation. Clarridge had apprenticed with Anger in his Republic of Strings ensemble, so he was uniquely suited to take over for Eggleston. These days, working in concert with bassist Corey DiMario, Clarridge lays down a groove on many up-tempo tunes that will shake the rafters.

Another trademark of Crooked Still is its penchant for rediscovering old songs. The band clearly has spent many an hour listening to field recordings by itinerant folklorists. I assume this in how they came upon the song featured in the video clip above— “Cold Mountains.” Alan Lomax recorded the Appalachian singer Texas Gladdens singing this elegant ballad several decades ago. As is their wont, the band polishes up and adds color to their arrangement while remaining quite faithful to the melody and lyrics.

“Cold Mountains” is included on Crooked Still’s most recent release, Some Strange Country. When I first heard it, I thought it might be an original composition. Over the years, members of the band have written a number of their own tunes, an accomplishment for which they don’t receive sufficient credit. Come to think of it, my confusion could be held up as further proof of the group’s unique musical identity. Whether they are playing an ancient tune, a song by the Rolling Stones or an original number, their sound is always entirely their own.

There’s more from Crooked Still yet to come, but this is an opportune moment to thank the band once again for sitting for their collective portrait. A special tip of the hat to the group’s label as well, which is named— appropriately enough— Signature Sounds.

h1

Crooked Still: Building Songs Old & New

25 March 2011

Time for another installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring the cutting edge string band Crooked Still. Here the band talks about how they approach arranging their songs. Have a look and a listen…

From the outset, Crooked Still’s sound has been largely built on their reworking old tunes. As bassist Corey DiMario points out, at times these arrangements are so radical as to practically constitute an entirely new tune. This is why it’s often hard to discern which songs on a Crooked Still album are original compositions and which are traditional numbers: both bear the marks of the band’s collective style and sundry personalities.

In the case of the tune featured in this video, the band sticks pretty close to the earlier versions I’ve heard. The critical element they add— the “special sauce” that really makes the song come alive for me— is that hammering bass groove. Aoife O’Donovan explains that it was this hook, developed by DiMario and the group’s original cellist Rushad Eggleston, that provided the foundation for their version of the tune.

What’s remarkable to me is how much the resulting arrangement’s very contemporary beat recaptures the “straighter” but equally propulsive rhythm of Brother Claude Ely’s rendition (which you can experience here). Brother Claude was a revival preacher and singer who was especially associated with “Ain’t No Grave”(so much so that it’s also the title of a biography about him). Comparing Crooked Still and Brother Claude’s versions of the song, I’m struck by the fact that, although these artists undoubtedly followed very different paths to arrive at this material, they are united by an unfathomable bond, a common musical essence. That bond sums up the strength and the beauty of traditional music.

h1

Crooked Still A Decade On

17 February 2011

Hard to believe it, but the Boston-based outfit Crooked Still turns ten this year. Perhaps it’s because they’ve infused new blood into their line-up along the way, or because they’ve maintained a perch on the edge of bluegrass, pop and old-time music, or just because I’m really, really old, but whatever the case, the band still exudes a youthful exuberance onstage and off.

I recently caught up with the band in concert at a one-night bluegrass “festival” at the intimate Town Hall Theatre in Woodstock, Vermont. Before the show, the entire distillation apparatus— that would be Aoife O’Donovan, Greg Liszt, Brittany Haas, Corey DiMario and Tristan Clarridge— consented to sit for a group portrait. I asked them about their beginnings…

The “Casey” that Greg Liszt refers to in describing how he first met Rushad Eggleston, the founding cellist in the band, is the noted fiddler Casey Driessen. Driessen was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late 1990’s. During this period, one of Driessen’s professors at Berklee, Matt Glaser, formed Wayfaring Strangers, a group that pulled together musicians with backgrounds in jazz, bluegrass, swing and folk music to perform bluegrass and old-time tunes. Glaser invited O’Donovan, then a student at New England Conservatory of Music, to join the group as a vocalist. Soon thereafter, O’Donovan banded together with Liszt, Eggleston and NEC classmate Corey DiMario to form Crooked Still.

As this thumbnail history makes clear, Boston in the late 1990’s was a hotbed of musical talent, with everyone connected one way or another to everyone else. The style that emerged from this scene was seemingly oxymoronic: “innovative traditional music,” which is to say music that applied contemporary performance practice to ancient folk tunes and bluegrass. If this hybrid approach is the specialty of the house in Beantown, then Crooked Still certainly remains the house band. A decade on, the group continues to be the chief proponent of a peculiarly Bostonian brand of bohemian bluegrass. Thanks to their heavy tour schedule, their distinctive sound is now familiar to lovers of string band music from Malmö to Melbourne.

We’ll explore the group’s place within the Boston music scene and much more in forthcoming segments of Ye Old Performer’s Showcase, so don’t wander too far.

The tune performed here, “New Railroad,” is quintessential Crooked Still in that it synthesizes ancient and contemporary influences. The bones of the song, which form a dark and fragmentary narrative, are clearly very old, yet such diverse popular figures as The Grateful Dead, Joe Val, Dave Van Ronk and Grandpa Jones have forged their own versions of it. These latter-day renditions have all gone by the title “I’ve Been All Around This World.” Historians trace the original tune variously back to Britain or Kentucky. Hats off to Alex Allan who, with help from Matt Schofield and Jim Nelson, has compiled a fine online summary of what is known about the song.

Thanks to all the members of Crooked Still for sharing so generously their time, thoughts and music. Thanks as well to Flora Reed at Signature Sounds for her help with this profile.

%d bloggers like this: