Weekly roots review

First installment of a round-up of folk/roots/Americana related news. Which incidentally only features female artists (making my own Women’s March over the Digital Realm of Americana.)

“Kungfu-Appalachian Indie-folk-rock”
When you manage to gather three artists whose name all begin by W, it’s always worth starting a band. Especially when those artists can mix banjo, guitar, trumpet, piano and traditional Chinese stringed instruments like guzheng. That’s the idea behind the Wu Force, the trio made up by Abigail Washburn (banjo/cello banjo/cello), Kai Welch (piano, guitar, trumpet, looping station/vocals) and Wu Fei (guzheng). Their self-titled EP was released on January 27th and is available for preview on souncloud right here. Fans of Washburn have already seen her collaborating with Welch and, she’s already performed with Wu-Fei. Therefore, the Appalachian-Asian mix of the trio shouldn’t feel too surprising.

Banjo blues

Blues/folk artists Valerie June picks up her Gold Tone banjo to perform Got Soul, from the latest album The Order of Time on CBS. She also performed a few other tunes from the same album such as Astral Plane or Shakedown. But this blogger is always partial to the banjo.

Once a protest singer…

Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Baez gave an interview to Rolling Stone about her playing at the Women’s March of San Francisco. She isn’t apparently too fond of Madonna’s speech, as you can read here.

No beer no liquor for miles around

The genius of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings doesn’t need any form of introduction. After releasing a double album of bootlegs of their 1996 debut Revival, they’ve just dropped an adorably quirky stop-motion music video for a song they never released previously, the drinking song Dry Town.

Women and guitars

Although that could be the wet dream of many an Americana aficionado, it’s actually a feature by Acoustic Guitar about female artists, guitar players or luthiers that focuses on their relationship with the guitar.Aforementioned Valerie June and Gillian Welch are interviewed among other Americana leading figures like Rosanne Cash, Melissa Etheridge of Ani DiFranco, and a couple other female artists-luthiers or classical guitarists.  They discussed the challenges of making it into the industry and not being pigeonholed due to one’s gender.

Not one to mince her wordsmargo-price-2-1

If you’ve listened to Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter, you’ll not be surprised that Margo Price is as frank in her interviews as she is in songs like This Town Get Around or Hands of Time. A delightfully honest interview/album review is available on the Independent.



Buffy Sainte-Marie, the artist and the advocate.

buffyAlthough she got her break with the rest of the sixties New-York folk scene, the Cree singer-songwriter has always evolved in a class of her own. This year, she will receive the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at Canada’s JUNO Awards.

In a recent interview with Acoustic Guitar, Sainte-Marie describes her entrance on the folk scene: a Cree native of Canada, brought up by foster parents in Massachusetts, she wasn’t really taken by the message of peace conveyed by folk-singers of the time: “They were singing “This land is your land, this land is my land.” They didn’t realize how offensive that is to Native-American people.” She would make sure they eventually did, as she penned several songs to describe the plight of Natives, such as Now That The Buffalo’s Gone, Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee, or My County ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying that she describes as “Indian 101 in six minutes” (tested in class: it works). The song covers everything from broken treaties to westerns to American Indian Boarding school, broken treaties and diseased blankets. A visibly shaken Sainte-Marie performed the song for Peete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.

Still, Sainte-Marie isn’t a mere poster girl for Native Americans. She’s also passionately anti-war and one of the first song she ever wrote, The Universal Soldier, became a hit when covered by British singer Donovan (and was more recently covered and updated by First Aid Kit.) Singing the song as an anti-Vietnam war anthem, she got herself black-listed from radio by the Nixon administration. See below for her own words on how she wrote the song.

buffybwOther of Sainte-Marie’s songs attracted attention through covers. The biographical Cod’ine, which tells of her addiction to the substance, was covered by artists as diverse as Courtney Love, Janis Joplin or Donovan or Gram Parson. She also became the first Native-American woman to receive an Academy Award for co-writing Up Where We BelongOne of my favorite songs of hers, The Dream Tree, gained renewed attention through a cover by young Canadian fiddler Owen Pallett.

The Dream Tree is extracted of Sainte-Marie’s 1969 Illuminations album. This proved to be a turning point in her career: it completely tanked. Departing from her usual style, she produced it entirely electronically. Here voice is often altered, and the sounds all come from synthesizers. She kept on experimenting afterwards and elements of electronica are still present in her most recent albums. Many people now credit Illumination for paving the way to Freak Folk creations of Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom.

Native American music is also feature in several of her songs. Her the educator (she was trained as a teacher after her studies in theology), Sainte-Marie used her five-year role in Sesame Street to educate about mouth bows (which work a bit like a jaw harp.) Talking of badassery, here’s a clip of her breastfeeding on a kid’s show. Imagine the stir if it were to happen today…

She also wrote Starwalker, a song she defines herself as a “incendiary powwow rock”.

By now, you must have noticed and either hated or loved her distinct vibrato which is often considered her trademark. Sainte-Marie, a self-taught guitarist, is also famous for her personal tunings – she used more than a dozen- which inspired fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell to create her own. Mitchell credited Sainte-Marie for helping her launch her career: she covered The Circle Game and also introduced her to managers that helped Mitchell build a career.

Today, Sainte-Marie, an artist, singer-songwriter, educator, is all but retired, as her latest album shows. This Humanitarian award crowns decades of artistry and advocacy for an artist who escapes categorization.

Fantastic Beasts and In Which Songs To Find Them – Part I

Folk music, coming from (you guessed it) folk-lore, is replete with magical creatures. One just has to know where to look for them.

Nicholas Berchem (1620 - 1683) - A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum
Nicholas Berchem (1620 – 1683) – A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum

And it is perhaps easier to start looking for them in European folklore. Local legends and old mythology have peopled  European folk with a wide variety of creatures the tales of which made it into folk songs. Sometimes, these animals are not particularly fantastic, at least not in appearance…

The Darby (Derby) Ram is a fine example of this category. Collected in Roud’s Folk index, it dates back to at least 1867, as it appeared in Llewellynn Jewitt‘s Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire on this year. It tells of a ram so huge that his horns reach up to the moon, and the wool on his back reached so high that eagle made their nest there. Needless to say, the butcher and the tanning boy who tried to slaughter this wonder of nature were punished: one was drowned in blood, and the other one was carried by the flood. The Kossoy Sister (one hit album wonder in 1956) worked their twin-sister harmony magic on this tune while keeping it close to the text reported by Jewitt, with a banjo accompaniment from Erik Darling who would then go on to replace Pete Seeger in the Weavers (yes, I enjoy English tune sung by Americans.) A statue of the ram has actually graced the town of Derby since 1995.

Not all extraordinary animals are as benevolent as the placid ram. We have for instance known since the days of Calydon that having a bloodthirsty boar in the neighborhood isn’t usually a good omen. A similar image is to be found in the opening sequence of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, but that’s not our topic here. The quintessential folk singer Jean Ritchie had a song called Old Bangum about such a wild boar and how it was chased by Bangum (available on streaming services apparently, but I don’t have access to those myself.) The song is based off Sir Lionel, another of the Child Ballads in which the wild boar is a pet either to a not-so-jolly giant or to a hysterical old woman who attacks the knight for killing her “pretty spotted pig.” It has been adapted by several other folk artists, but the most original (meaning “less traditional”) is perhaps Breton harpist Cecil Corbel’s version, in which the boar “will eat you meat and suck your blood.” Charming little critter. (Notice that in both Ritchie’s and Corbel’s version, the boar has no owner.)

One doesn’t have to go too far back in time to hear of such legendary beasts. Cryptozoology (the search for fantastic animals) keeps many of those tales alive, from the Loch Ness Monster to El Chupacabra. The one that interests us here is the beast of Bodmin Moor, a large cat which is say to hunt on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The region is keen on keeping the legend alive, for obvious touristic reasons. It inspired British folk trio Kadia to write a song about this “demon cat of monstrous scale” and the sad tale of a young couple who were only hoping  for a romantic night on the moor.

For a myriad of wondrous creatures, one has to leave the folk cannon and turn to newer compositions, such as Peter, Paul and Mary’s Autumn to May. Apparently written by the men of the trio, this gentle song takes the listener onto a magical journey to meet a dancing dog with legs fourteen yards long or a swan living on an oyster and hatching snails (not to mention the vest-wearing traveling frog and a flock of flying sheep kept in the music box.) The men’s guitars duet in the background as they take lead, with harmonies from the honey voice that is Mary Travers’ (R.I.P 😥  )

Now, a very similar song, Little Brown Dog, appeared on Judy Collins’ Golden Apples of the Sun, in which she mention is was compiled in Ruth Crawford’s Seeger Animal Folksongs for Children… which was released in 1950, thus 12 years before PPM. The version sung by Collins had already been released in 1957 by Peggy Seeger, Ruth’s daughter. Both PPM and Collins’ tracks were released in 1962. Collins sings what is to me one of the most oddly poetic lines of the folk revival…

I buyed me a little bull he was four inches high
Everybody feared him who ever heard him cry
When he began to bellow he made such melodious sound
That all the walls in London came tumblin’ to the ground

Well, I’m sure these critters have barely whetted you appetite… Perhaps you’d like to hear about shape-shifting animals? Very well then, but in a next article.


Spinners and songsters-Songs from textile workers

Girl Working at a Cotton Mill
Young girl working in a North Carolina cotton mill.

As I was preparing a class on the history of labor in the US, I delved into the narratives of textile workers, especially women. Of course, it brought to mind several folk songs and I decided to dig a little deeper into the musical depiction of textile work in various English-speaking countries.

The songs that I was reminded of seemed to have various purposes. Some of them seemed to be simple songs used by textile workers to pass the time or give themselves a working pace, while others document their living condition and some are downright protest songs (looking at you, Hedy West.) Again

Waulking songs

Waulking is an old practice which was kept alive into the twentieth century by Gaelic Scots, mostly in the Hebrides apparently. It is the process by which women clean and beat the tweed to soften it. Of course, beating the cloth created a rhythm, and the women added vocals to this rhythm. Vocals can be lyrics in Gaelic or meaningless syllables (called “vocables”), could talk about romance or be simple gossip between the women taking part in the luadh.

The structure in itself is (necessarily) repetitive, as the lead singer gives the words and melody, which are repeated by the chorus of women as the lead singer takes her breath. This is visible in the video below or in this one.

Nowadays, artists like commercially successful Capercaillie of Julie Fowlis have brought those songs to a new audience. These songs have also been exported by Scottish migrants to Nova Scotia and more precisely Cape Breton, where enthusiasts keep the heritage alive by performing and sharing their “milling songs” (more history and audio on this link.)

In Scotland, some women seem keen to keep this tradition alive:

Songs of weaving

Moving on to a completely different beast, I am leaving behind the Scottish handicraft as citizens of the British isles were thrust into the industrial revolution in the 19th century and had to adapt to a whole new production system.

One of the most lyrical songs on the period was probably even older than that. The Four Loom Weaver probably originated in The Poor Cotton Weaver, which is supposed to have been written in the very early nineteenth century according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The song, dug up by renowned folklorist Ewan McColl, inspired Silly Sisters June Tabor and Maddy Prior (of Steeleye Span fame) to record it on the first of their two records. They revisited it 42 years later in the video below. Tabor introduces the song by explaining how skilled workers saw their wages fall by nearly two thirds, but the song has reemerged several times throughout the nineteenth century in times of crisis, and even made an appearance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 Mary Barton: “Do you know “The Oldham Weaver?” Not unless you are Lancashire born and bred, for it is a complete Lancashire ditty. I will copy it for you”. The version presented in the novel is lyrically similar to other versions of the song, with added regional accent.
The narrator is a weaver without work who can only look at his own clothes falling apart as he tries to survive on nettles.

The weaving idiom has spawned many other songs, but not all as grim as the Four Loom Weaver. The Doffing Mistress is ripe with spinning vocabulary: frames, doffers, tying up ends… Not going into the technicalities of doffing which I don’t claim to master (but Wikipedia does), let’s just say the process of doffing the frames require small, nimble and speedy hands, which made it ideal employment for children. In this traditional song, the doffing boys have a new supervisor, or “doffing mistress”, Elsie Thompson, who benevolently “helps them at every [spinning] frame” and urges them to “tie up the ends [of fiber]”. If they are happy to oblige the new doffing mistress, they won’t obey the same orders coming from the boss: “Yes, tie our ends up we surely do/ For Elsie Thompson but not for you.” I guess Elsie has some sort of… “natural authority”?

In Anne Briggs’ a-Capella version, the little nonsensical refrains adds to the  illusion of the tune as a work-song, meant to be performed while they worked.

Protest Songs

Of course, the industrial revolution and the industrialization of the textile industry evolved in a similar way in the USA. One of the best-know composition on the subject is without a doubt Cotton Mill Girls, by Hedy West (to whom we owe the folk classic 500 Miles, made famous to my parents’ generation by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and to my friends by Justin Timberlake and Carrey Mulligan. And consider yourselves lucky I’m leaving out the 1960s French adaptation.)
Back to Cotton Mill Girls, written at the height of the folk revival in the sixties, West speaks from the perspective of one of these children who fled the countryside (“go to cotton country and get ahead”) to work in terrible conditions in the cotton mills (“us kids worked twelve hours a day, for 14 cents of measly pay”). This reflects the real lives of families who left the rural South of the US at the turn of the 20th century to move into cotton mill villages of the Piedmont. Such villages offered houses to the families of mill-workers (some of which even had running water) but also allowed the bosses to control every aspect of their lives. By 1890, in some states, the work force of the cotton mills was made up by 40% of women and 25% of children between 10 and 15.¹ Child Labor was legal in the US until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

For more scholarly information on cotton mill villages, head over to JStor :

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd et al. “Cotton Mill People: Work, Community, and Protest in the Textile South, 1880-1940.” The American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 2, 1986, pp. 245–286. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1858134.
That’s it from me on the topics of waulking, weaving and spinning. Not promising anything, but I’m quite interested in looking into miner’s songs for a future article…

¹Victoria Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls. Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1986)

Ballad-The Two Sisters

Being somewhat of a traditionalist and murder-ballad aficionado, it seem natural to make this Child Ballad the subject of my first post here. Jealousy, murder and a magical instrument, what’s not to love?

twosistersThis ballad was apparently published as a broadside in the 1650s under the title “The Miller and the King’s Daughter.” These title-characters have come and gone in the various versions of the song on both sides of the Atlantic, but the gist of it remains the same. An older sister (often a brunette) pushes the younger, fairer one in the sea or a river, most often to seduce the knight that did like both but clearly preferred the younger fairer one. The body drifts away to a bank where it is find by a miller. In some version, the miller disappears to be replaced by a minstrel, and sometimes both characters appear. The musician (miller or minstrel) decides to turn the dead girl’s corpse into an instrument (as you would…) sometimes a harp, sometimes a fiddle. He then goes to play the instrument in front of the parents of the two girls, or in front of the knight who has married the elder sister. The instrument begins to play by itself, telling the story of the younger sister and finally putting the blame on the elder one by the end of the ballad.

Justice is therefore served and it is once again proved that crime doesn’t pay (or at least not eternally, since in most versions the elder sister did marry the knight and live in wealth before the harp’s revelations.)

Musically, most versions include a refrain at the end of each verse, which has greatly varied. You’ll notice that the English versions presented below have varying refrains (the one in Pentangle’s version, “Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom” is actually taken from another Child Ballad, Riddles Wisely Expounded; but other version have gone with different refrains as you’ll see with Emily Portman), while the American, Irish and Scottish Gaelic version went with “Oh, the wind and the rain”.

Research seems to have established the Scottish origin of the ballad, although English variants do exist and are the ones which influenced the American iterations of the tune.¹

It is also worth noticing that the ballad sometimes appears in fairy tale collections in prose, under the title Binnorie. This and other tales of singing bones from all over the world (yes, this is apparently a genre…) can be found collected, translated and edited by Prof. D.L. Ashliman on the website of Pittsburgh university.

Personal favorites:

This version by British folk artist Emily Portman is by far my favorite. The simple voice and harp accompaniment (by Rachel Newton) creates a light and yet eerie atmosphere which of course evokes the tune played by the magical harp at the end of the ballad. Very subtle harmonies are to be heard on the refrain during the drowning scene, and again towards the end of the ballad as the harp plays the accusatory tune. The refrain is wisely omitted at the end of some of the verses which avoids too much repetition. A little reverb seems added to the conclusion of the ballad, to suggest the illusion of “the king”s hall” in which the minstrel brings the magical harp.

Pentangle perhaps has the most famous version on the eponymous album Cruel Sister, released in 1970-the band’s only album completely made up of arrangements of traditional songs. McShee’s lead vocals (harmonized by the men), Jansch’s guitar and Renbourn’s sitar stand out in this track which, as I mentioned before, lifts the refrain from another totally different ballad.

An “Irishified” version can be found on Altan‘s Local Ground album, which sets the story in County Clare, Munster, Ireland. It’s interesting to note that the band, well know for its song in Irish, decided to keep the lyrics in English, and went with the “Wind and Rain” refrain.

Unlike Altan, the ever-wonderful Scottish folk singer and multi-instrumentalist Julie Fowlis did translate the song into her preferred Scottish Gaelic to offer a bilingual Gaelic/English and necessarily-shortened version of the tune on her album Uam.

Finally, we’re moving on to the other side of the pond where the tune took root as well. The best version is to me given by one of my personal goddesses, Gillian Welch. She and her duet partner David Rawlings harmonize on the Irish version (notice the mention of Country Clare) on the soundtrack of Songcatcher, a movie about a musicologist discovering and collecting traditional tunes in the Scots-Irish communities of Appalachia at the turn of the twentieth century.

And finally, a more bluegrassy arrangement of the tune by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, on guitar and mandolin.

Fans of Loreena McKennitt may also checkout her version under the title The Bonny Swans. Tom Waits also did a version on his Orphan album.

¹ Taylor, Archer. “The English, Scottish, and American Versions of the ‘Twa Sisters’.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 42, no. 165, 1929, pp. 238–246. http://www.jstor.org/stable/535038.