Author Archives: Fred Knittel

Forget trying to classify them and just listen: Railroad Earth’s Session, and “Katie Cruel’s” importance in music, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

Photo by Laura Jane Brubaker |

Photo by Laura Jane Brubaker |

For the last handful of weeks on Folkadelphia Radio, we’ve been focusing on a featured song, digging a little into its history, context, and importance in music and art, and listening to a few selected renditions, usually of diverse style. This week, we’ll put a spotlight on “Katie Cruel,” a ballad that appears to have often drawn its verses, themes, and melodies from other older songs. In most contemporary versions, the narrative generally revolves around the titular narrator that despite hardship and adversity (for instance, the townspeople call her “Katie Cruel,” which seems, you know, unfriendly) remains steadfast in her journey to follow her heart’s desire.

“Katie Cruel” is said to have originated during the American Revolutionary War, but its pieces are related to Scottish ballads and broadsides, such as “Licht Bob’s Lassie,” which tells the story of a woman following infantrymen (Lichtbobs), and “Leaboy’s Lassie,” which changes the infantrymen to migrant farmers. The thematic elements are also related to “The Hexhamshire Lass,” best known from Fairport Convention. The melody and more thematic elements of “Katie Cruel” are pulled from “I Know Where I’m Going,” which continues to be a popular song and became the title of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s 1945 film of the same name.

However it is interpreted or performed, Katie Cruel remains a central character in the folk song canon.

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Folkadelphia Session: Chris Kasper

Philadelphia is a true hotbed of musical activity. Cheap rent, collaborative vibes, an abundance of musically-minded people, and a solid support system for developing acts are just a few of the factors that help to make this city into a real deal music town. My favorite aspect of the greater musical community is, well, just that – that it’s a community. Philly feels tight-knit, but it isn’t exclusive or closed off to newcomers. It’s a support thing. Folks here play in lots of bands, they pop into each others’ recording sessions, and are always seeking ways to include one another in projects. Recently, I was thinking about the WXPN Performance Studio, the space where Folkadelphia, as well as Gene Shay’s Folk Show, World Cafe, The Key Studio Sessions, and most other WXPN-related in-studio sessions are tracked, and what musicians come through to record. I got to thinking that there is a contingent of local musicians that have spent a significant amount of hours in the room, that returning to WXPN is like coming home in a way. For these musicians and since the building’s construction, the space perhaps represents a safe zone for collaboration, experimentation, and uninhibited performance.

Chris Kasper is a Philadelphia local songwriter that we have looked for opportunities to include in what Folkadelphia does. We’ve seen how amazing he’s been working with WXPN on various events and we’ve listened to his four albums, especially his most recent Bagabones, with attentive ears, feeling considerable excitement at his impressive lyricism and turns of phrase. What has always drew us closer to Kasper is his collaborative spirit; many of our favorite Philly musicians play with or alongside Kasper, to name a few: Kiley Ryan (the two also work together with Foxhound), Phil D’Agostino, and Daniel Bower. For fun, you should construct a diagram where each of these musicians were connected to other bands they have collaborated with in some way, then expand from there, then expand from there, and so on. You’d need a lot of paper. What you’d get is a spider web of musical community goodness and that’s what Philadelphia is all about.

Towards the final days of 2013, Chris Kasper, along with Kiley Ryan on fiddle and Phil D’Agostino on bass, spent an evening recording with Team Folkadelphia. It’s a case of total chemistry, where the musicians are tight locked-in with each other, existing only in the present moment, and playing with a sense of joy. You didn’t need to give them a tour of the recording space, they’ve been here before.

Poor murdered “Pretty Polly” and a session with Chris Kasper, who fronts a strong local crew, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio


Pretty Polly” is the name of a rather grim and gruesome American murder ballad based on an even older British ballad called “The Gosport Tragedy.” The biggest difference between the two is a matter of narrative darkness. In both versions, a man murders his girlfriend after he learns she is pregnant, but, whereas in “Gosport,” the murderer receives his swift comeuppance while trying to escape his fate, the perpetrator in “Pretty Polly” often leaves the scene of the crime without punishment in this world, instead deferring his “debt to the devil” until the end of his own life.

Depending on the version, things can take a cringeworthy turn involving incest, insanity, premeditation, pejorative language, obsessive behavior, and, of course, the supernatural. It’s no wonder that this story continues to be one of the most popular and widely covered in the folk music world and beyond. To put it plainly, it’s a messed-up story. We’ll hear a few of the many versions available to us on the air.

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Folkadelphia Session: CocoRosie

Photo by Rodrigo Jardon

Photo by Rodrigo Jardon

When I attended college, I opened my mind to ideas and culture that I had never thought about or been witness to before. I felt the need to absorb, learn about, and understand anything and everything that constituted “newness” to me. Definitely a cliched concept, but cliches are what they are for a reason, right?. As an active (and rather obsessed) member of WKDU, Drexel University’s free-format student-run radio station, I spent countless hours laying around on third-hand couches in the auxiliary listening room, or sitting crosslegged in the massive record and CD stacks, or crouching down to dig through piles of unorganzied music. I imagined myself as a sponge, taking in and retaining as much as I possibly could. I have a few truly vivid memories of hearing “band x” or discovering “album y” for the first time. In the chill of jaded music and music-industry thoughts and the bleakness of impersonal internet listening habits, I stoke these memories back to dark-red embers to renew the warm passion that comes from a simple love of music – discovering it, listening to it, seeing it, and sharing it – then I feel better.

While spending my time in that sacred windowless basement space, a band that throttled my conceptions of genre, style, instrumentation, and songwriting was CocoRosie. They continue to do so. The thing about the Sisters Casady and co. is that you can never stay comfortable for too long while listening to them. Once you start to figure it all out, they completely change the game by introducing new variables into their sound and challenging what you are hearing and believing about them. I first discovered their 2007 album The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn and tried to grasp what I heard. It was not easy for my uninitiated ears. Too quickly and easily described as “experimental” or “freak-folk” to make sense, it is much more difficult to label the band. They write fairy tale stories definitely not meant for children, ballads that sound simultaneously antiquated and futuristic, hip-hop that eschews hip-hop conventions, folk music that disregards folk music instrumentation, and so on. In a way, CocoRosie take on everything and the result is a new sound. Not all of it is easy to listen to though. It is often violent in imagery, chaotic in sound, and jolting in transition. But the space between disturbing and serene is large and CocoRosie exist on that whole spectrum, sometimes during the same song or even the same minute.

On their fifth album, Tales of a GrassWidow, released last year and produced by former Folkadelphia Sessioneer Valgeir Sigurðsson, the Casadys and their collaborators maintain those inimitable and indescribable elements of their previous work, while expanding their focus to incorporate a greater pop sensibility. The album is a sleekly laminated collage of sounds, styles, and colors – what a journey.

At the end of 2013, CocoRosie spent the evening recording with us in the studio, giving us a taste of what their live show sounded like. Heavier on the hip-hop and dance elements, like beatboxing and synth pads, they showed us that even with their complex music, they can still bring a party.

Why Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is a modern ballad and CocoRosie’s genre-bending session that blew my mind, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

CocoRosie by Rodrigo Jardon

CocoRosie by Rodrigo Jardon

At her recent concert at the International House, Norwegian musician Susanna (of the Magical Orchestra) performed a chilling rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” trading in the familiar guitar riff for dark piano chords. Inspired by its universality, a quality that grants many ballads and tunes timeless, Folkadelphia will be focusing on “Jolene” and playing back a few diverse covers of this classic song.

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Folkadelphia Session: Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

Most of the time, you find the music before you find out anything else. Usually first contact in the musician-listener relationship takes the shape of waveform to eardrum via speakers or a headphone-like device. If our interest is piqued, we look up the name, we try and learn more about the band, we ask who are they, if they on tour, and what does the rest of their music sound like. The next stage in our musician-listener relationship usually involves concert attendance. To enjoy a new discovery in their live element is to strengthen your bond to the music. The next level in the relationship involves seeking out and finding likeminded fans of the band. This is where you express your passion for the band and, every once in a while, build a lasting community where music is the cornerstone. Who knows – you might turn someone on to the band and the cycle begins again

It doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes you find the fanbase first before you hear a single song from a band. Admittedly, that’s how we discovered Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. We kept running into people that would strongly recommend and lavishly praise the band. They were beyond passionate (and a little pushy admittedly – a good sign from a fanbase). Why would we ignore wold-of-mouth recommendations? We live for those special moments – to be let in on the (maybe) secret awesomeness of a group. We’re sure glad that these kind folks clued us in. We’re here to pay it forward to those of you who might not know about Holcomb and co. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors write and perform some of the most refreshingly honest, down-to-earth, and catchy pop & rootsy Americana music, especially on their most recent album Good Light. I think you’ll soon agree and join the neighborhood of fans.

Drew Holcomb, Ellie Holcomb, Nathan Dugger, as well as baby Emmylou Holcomb trick-or-treated at our studio door on Halloween of last year. Clad in Star Wars costume, they stopped by with their instruments for a lovely stripped down set. A gift from them to us and now to you, dear reader.

Irish supergroup The Gloaming and a galaxy-saving session with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, tonight on Folkadelphia

Since we’re friends, let’s be real with each other – supergroups, especially when self-proclaimed, are usually a bust. The collaboration between this highly acclaimed, highly respected group usually produces sub-par music compared to each individuals’ normal output. Every once in a while though, synergy takes hold, chemistry kicks in, and the result is something unbelievable and out of this world. The Gloaming, a collaboration between pianist Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), guitarist Dennis Cahill, fiddler Martin Hayes, hardanger Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, and singer Iarla Ó Lionaird, lives up to the supergroup title and then some more. On their debut eponymous album, The Gloaming create lush and extremely dynamic sonic landscapes that are rooted in the Irish folk tradition – perfect for Folkadelphia listeners. Watch this introduction to the Gloaming:

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