“bury me”: three views of folk through death obsession

May 17th, 2010

joe pug
Joe Pug by Adrian Bischoff

Certain phrases skew themselves toward certain types of music. “I Will Follow” has a tendency to be in pop music–think Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” or Death Cab for Cuties’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark”; for whatever reason, “Bury Me” has a tendency to be in folk music. Perhaps its the genre’s overall fascination with death. Death and bad-man ballads are common in traditional folk music from the American South, a tradition that carried into country, bluegrass, folk-revival and the various forms of music that have roots in that music. “Folsom Prison Blues” and “O Death” are just two of many examples.

So perhaps its just in folk music’s DNA to look toward death. The idea of death and requests about one’s burial aren’t exclusive to folk music, of course, but many folk songs, including the three below, have these as common themes.

’60s folk revival revival:

I loved the live version of this song so it was one of the first I listened to when I got Joe Pug’s (myspace) latest release and first full length, Messenger. The record version doesn’t disappoint and I think it stands as one of Pug’s greatest lyrical achievements since “Hymn #101″.

Sitting solidly within the tradition of the folk music revival, and particularly Dylan’s early work, I would call Joe Pug folk music revival revival (but I’m silly).

Joe Pug – Bury Me Far (From My Uniform) (mp3) (buy)

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Old-timey ballad:

One of my favorite songs, this comes from Lomax’s 1958 recordings from the Ozarks. Almeda Riddle has a classic voice; perhaps that’s understating it: Almeda Riddle has a perfect old-timey ballad voice. This song, which came from a broadsheet, has a classic tune and is dripping with melancholy both lyrically and musically.

This song sits solidly within old-timey balladry and, as I mentioned, is a perfect example of the style that was common and appreciated.

Almeda Riddle – Bury Me Beneath the Willow (mp3) (buy)

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Country singer-songwriter:

Otis Gibbs (myspace) is an artist that I came across when I was DJing at KZSU. This song is a nice waltz that really hits its stride in the chorus, where the melody is backed with lush and lovely harmonies.

His style is a bit hard to describe, drawing on elements of country, particularly classic country, but also displaying elements of modern folk singer-songwriter music and old-time dance music. In the end he creates something that is thoroughly not Nashville, not pop country, but still identifiable as country.

Otis Gibbs – Bury Me on a Rainy Day (mp3) (buy)

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Bonus (cowboy ballad):

Bury Me Not on the Lone Prarie is a cowboy song that’s been recorded by the many artists including the Carter Family and Johnny Cash. This is a lovely version from a collection of old-time music.

Fields Ward – Bury Me Not on the Lone Prarie (mp3) (buy)

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song obsession friday! (for the week ending july 23)

July 24th, 2009

Song obsessions are those songs that we listen to on repeat. I noticed that my obsessions are often a week long. I also thought that other people might have similar obsessions. I’ve collected a panel of a few like-minded individuals and gotten their “song obsessions of the week.” Quite often it’s easy to explain why the song is good; it’s much hard to explain why we’re obsessed. Maybe you’ll become obsessed with one of these.

Adrian (me):
Bookmiller Shannon – Buffalo Gals (mp3) (buy)

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My head is so skittish with all the things related to my upcoming move going through it that nothing stays in it very long. But the other side to the move is finally ripping a lot of stuff I’d let fall by the wayside, including this excellent (really truly excellent, not just some blogger hyperbole) volume of the Alan Lomax Southern Journey series. I was listening through it the other day and this 57 second gem of a banjo track really stuck out. It’s so compelling in its combination of frantic playing and beautiful melody.

Keith:
Lilofee – Lock & Key (mp3) (free with purchase @ insound)

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Well if you enjoy electro-pop songs with narrators that overtly taunt the listener we’ve got a discovery here. I especially enjoy how the singer layers on a few extra unsettling details after the “watcha gonna do?” line, yet leaves the eventual conclusion of the scenario to our imagination. Considering the balance of the lyrics are a dissertation on the sexual mores of today’s youth I have a feeling plenty of research was done before positing their findings in song form.

Dave:
Chad Vangaalen – Clinically Dead (mp3) (buy)

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It’s catchy. I mean, it starts off with a great hook and a nice beat. The chorus is the kicker though, I love the fuzzed out keys (or whatever it is). It’s also short, which always adds to obsessibility(sp?).

jean ritchie’s singing family of the cumberlands

April 22nd, 2009

A couple weeks ago, I finished Singing Family of the Cumberlands by Jean Ritchie. It was a recommended book for a class I took in the fall of 2002 and I’m glad I finally decided to read it.

Jean Ritchie was the youngest of thirteen children, growing up in Viper, Kentucky, in the Appalachian Mountains. Her family was well known–and well documented–for singing ballads, in the Anglo-American folk tradition. That is to say, they sang ballads that came over with English, Scottish and Irish settlers and could still be found on both sides of the Atlantic. The best documented of these were the Child Ballads, but that could be a whole other post.

Written in 1955, the book is a memoir of her childhood. As fascinating as her descriptions of growing up in the early part of the 20th century in an isolated part of the Appalachians are–and they are–what really makes this book special is the songs. Interspersed in the book are transcriptions of the ballads. Say there’s a vignette about learning a particular song around a fireplace on Christmas. Well, the song is there in the book, both music and words, if you want to sing along.

The writing is wonderful and evocative, too. She immediately sets quite conversational tone and it feels like she’s telling you her family stories from the armchair next to you. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Cash by Johnny Cash.

Jean Ritchie – the Merry Golden Tree (mp3)

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If you have any interest in Appalachian music or culture, I’d recommend this book.

Jean Ritchie’s still alive and she still does occasional live performances. Her website seems to have expired though, so I’m not sure where to get more info.

You can pick it up at amazon. Buy Jean Ritchie’s music at amazon.

And as a bonus, here’s Jean singing a duet with Emmylou Harris. Gorgeous.

my four favorite sacred harp recordings

January 7th, 2009


Little girl leads Odem’s Chapel 1949, still from Awake My Soul

I’ve posted a couple times now about Sacred Harp singing.

That discussion got some feedback from a friend of mine: I like that song, where can I get more of it?

So here it is: my four favorite Sacred Harp recordings:

  1. Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – Southern Journey, Vol 9: Harp of a Thousand Strings – All Day Singing From the Sacred Harp
  2. V/A – Awake My Soul OST
    Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Convention – New Britain, 45t

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  3. V/A – I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings
  4. Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – Southern Journey, Vol. 10: And Glory Shone Around – More All Day Singing From The Sacred Harp

They’re all pretty good and the recording quality is nice on all of them except some of the older tracks of 85 Years. I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them.

berkeley’s sacred harp singing

November 16th, 2008

I’m not a reporter; I’m a fan. Musical experiences are something I take part in primarily, if not solely, because I want to, not from some duty to report back on them. I just want it to be clear that when I do something like below, writing on the experience here is a by-product.



Little girl leads Odem’s Chapel 1949, still from Awake My Soul

Monday night I tried my hand at Sacred Harp singing. There are local groups that sing and I went to the one that meets weekly in Berkeley (Mondays from 7:30-9:30pm). I’ve written about Sacred Harp before.

They meet and sing in a small chapel in a theological seminary just north of the UC campus. Pews are moved around to make a square with a couple rows per side: basses are across from trebles, altos are across from tenors. Some started–the first person to lead got up in the center of the square and called out a number–28, I think it was. We all turned our books, the Sacred Harp, 9th Edition to that page. The leader–in this case, but sometimes it was another singer–sang the starting notes. We sang through the song once on “so la fa mi” then through with the words and then the cycle repeated. We repeated this process until the evening was up–perhaps 40 times in total.

I was a bit nervous about giving this a try. I haven’t sung from music in a number of years and even then it was quite briefly, with a lot of voices to hide behind and with a lot of rehearsals to get the notes right. It turned out to be fine, of course. I still can’t sight sing, but I could follow the strong singers in my section just fine. By the end I had even picked up the names of the shape notes. As it turns out, these help a lot–going from “fa” to “fa”, for instance is always either a fifth or an octave.

When it came my time to lead, I said I’d pick one–one of my favorites, “Sherburne”–but didn’t want to lead it. I got cajoled into leading that song with someone else.

Anyway, at this group at least, people sang. And loud. And without any pretensions or adornment in their voices. It was a lot of fun. Just letting your voice go and singing out. And the people in the group were quite welcoming and curious about what lead me to be there. If you have any interest in trying it out, I’d encourage going some week.

Alabama Sacred Harp Convention – Sherburne (mp3)

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song obsession friday! (for the week ending November 14)

November 14th, 2008

Song obsessions are those songs that we listen to on repeat. I noticed that my obsessions are often a week long. I also thought that other people might have similar obsessions. I’ve collected a panel of a few like-minded individuals and gotten their “song obsessions of the week.” Quite often it’s easy to explain why the song is good; it’s much hard to explain why we’re obsessed. Maybe you’ll become obsessed with one of these.

Adrian (me):
Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – David’s Lamentation (mp3) (buy)

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On Monday night I went over to Berkeley to try some Sacred Harp singing (more about that style previously). More about that later.

It turned out to be a lot of fun and we went through a lot of songs in the course of the evening but the one that stuck with me was “David’s Lamentation”, particularly the part that goes: “And as he went, he wept and said ‘Oh my son!'” It was just stuck up my head all week. I think it’s how dramatic that part of the song is–the pause and full dark harmonies right at “Oh my son!”–that got me repeating that over and over.

Keith:
Fred Lane & Ron Pate’s Debonairs – White Woman (mp3) (buy)

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Well, if oddball is the theme they don’t get more curious than Fred Lane. Shrouded in mystery, Fred’s work magically appeared in re-issue form on the Shimmy Disc label in the mid-80’s, as he mated various 60’s era styles with his unsettling perspective. In this particular song Fred infuses the details of a rather banal event with importance, then tosses in a few more left-field lines to make it even more questionable. If your sense of humour is more conceptual than literal many repeat listens are guaranteed.


Rob:
King’s Singers – the Oak and the Ash (mp3) (buy)

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This recording was an obsession a few weeks running last month. As always, the King’s Singers carry the arrangement (in this case, Gordon Langford’s) impeccably. I love how the harmonization works to temper an otherwise bombastic short-short-long rhythmic pattern without wholly sanding off its folksy edge.

live on the air: “I once was Canadian” on KZSU

November 11th, 2008


cred: me

My radio show is live on the air at 3pm. “I once was Canadian” is on the air on KZSU (almost) every Tuesday from 3-5pm Pacific on KZSU 90.1 FM in the Bay Area or you can listen online.

During my show you’ll be able to follow along online with my playlist.

Update: Here’s the playlist

  • Alabama Sacred Harp Convention – David’s Lamentation
  • Silian Rail – Awake
  • Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Weeping Pilgrim, 417
  • Johnny Flynn – Ghost of O’Donahue
  • Jay Jay Pistolet – Oh Caroline
  • Crooked Fingers – Sweet Marie
  • Sufjan Stevens – Lord God Bird
  • J Tillman – Crooked Roof
  • Bon Iver & Sarah Siskind – Lovin’s for Fools
  • Donovan – Catch the Wind
  • Gary Lewis and the Playboys – This Diamond Ring
  • The Associations – Windy
  • The Foundations – Baby, Now that I’ve Found You
  • the Supremes – Run, Run, Run
  • Ames Harris Desert Water Bag Co. – Checking Myself
  • Raphael Saadiq – Seven
  • the Kinks – A Well Respected Man
  • Beach Boys – Why Do Fools Fall in Love
  • Dorothy Berry – You’re So Fine
  • Laura Marling – Ghosts
  • Horse Feathers – Curs In The Weeds
  • Lewis & Clarke – Be The Air We Breathe
  • Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal
  • Jason Isbell – Dress Blues
  • David Bazan – Please, Baby, Please (demo)
  • Bishop Allen – the Same Fire
  • Jens Lekman – The Opposite of Hallelujah
  • Early Day Miners – Summer Ends

song obsession friday! (for the week ending October 31)

October 31st, 2008

Song obsessions are those songs that we listen to on repeat. I noticed that my obsessions are often a week long. I also thought that other people might have similar obsessions. I’ve collected a panel of a few like-minded individuals and gotten their “song obsessions of the week.” Quite often it’s easy to explain why the song is good; it’s much hard to explain why we’re obsessed. Maybe you’ll become obsessed with one of these.

Adrian (me):
Almeda Riddle – Bury Me Beneath the Willow (mp3) (buy)

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Coming home from work today I just felt like hearing this beautiful song by one of the best voices of the American South, Almeda Riddle three or five times. It’s on of my all time favorite songs. It’s just so pretty and melancholy.


Natalie:
Tilly and the Wall – The Freest Man (mp3) (buy)

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I pretty much forgot this song existed until a friend put it on at a party last weekend. And then I remembered that I loved it.

singing old-time gospel on four sides of a square: an introduction to sacred harp singing

August 25th, 2008

Gospel singing might bring about a number of images to mind: modern mass choirs, fiery vintage small group gospel, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, James Brown (and Rev. James Cleveland) in Blues Brothers, old Southern gospel, or spiritual bluegrass. I think very few people would immediately think of Sacred Harp singing.

Alabama Sacred Harp Convention – Sherburne (mp3, recorded 1959, from Southern Journey, V. 9: Harp of a Thousand Strings, All Day Singing From the Sacred Harp)

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Sacred Harp is a form of shape note singing, which was developed as a form of notating music such that four shapes on either a line or a space indicate the eight notes of the scale, allowing easier sight-singing than standard notation. (See the scale graphic below.) Sacred Harp was a hymn book written using shape notes in 1850s. It’s been sung in pretty much the same way since that time, largely in the American South. If you’re curious on more of the details, check out this page on how Sacred Harp is sung.


public domain

Alabama Sacred Harp Convention – Ocean (mp3, recorded 1959, from Southern Journey, V. 10: And Glory Shone Around, More All Day Singing From the Sacred Harp)

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I like the music and I like the idea of the music. Usually there is a different conductor for each song, conducting in the center of singers lining four sides of a box. The singers run through the melody tune once on solfege before running through the song once. They then move right on to the next conductor and the next song. There’s no practicing or rehearsing songs. My favorite idiosyncrasy in the style are that the singers just sing. There are usually no pretenses of being polished.

This is, in many ways, truly American music: democratic, individualistic and unpretentious. This is (usually) not music done for performance, not something practiced to death. People sing because they want to create the music, not because they want to be perfect. And the singers usually sing in their natural voices, not trying particularly hard to blend in perfectly with the group. That said, beautiful music comes out of Sacred Harp conventions and groups.

Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Convention – Invocation (mp3, recorded 2006, from I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings)

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If you want more information, I’d encourage picking up any of the CDs I’ve plucked tracks from here. They’re all worthwhile, with my favorite being the first, Southern Journey, Vol. 9. There was also recently a documentary, Awake My Soul: the Story of the Sacred Harp that came out two years ago. I haven’t seen it yet, but from the trailer (below), it looks really interesting.

Lee Wells & His Jasper Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – North Point (mp3, recorded 1930, from I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings)

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trailer for Awake My Soul: the Story of the Sacred Harp

For those that aren’t content just listening to the music, Sacred Harp singings still happen all over the country and right here in the Bay Area where you can join in singing. You can still buy the Sacred Harp book either at some of the singings or from the publisher.

And, as if that’s not enough proof that this music is still out there, there’s a compilation, Help Me to Sing of current artists coverings songs from the Sacred Harp. It will includes Elvis Perkins doing a version of “Weeping Pilgrim” which Perkins has been doing for a while (and that I’ve been previously impressed with). That compilation comes out October 14.

Update: For a limited time, you can watch Awake My Soul on Pitchfork.tv.

the story behind the Woody Guthrie live recording

February 16th, 2008

2007 saw the release of the first, and possibly only, live Woody Guthrie recording, The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949. A wire recording that had sat in a closet for 50+ years arrived at the Guthrie Archives in 2001. It took years to restore; it was finally released in 2007 and won a Grammy in 2008.

The most interesting part to me, is the restoration process. There’s a great article in Science New about it. Be sure to listen to the before and after sound clips. It’s pretty amazing what one can do with a computer algorithms and some math.