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Folkadelphia Session: Coal Town Rounders

KISS – keep it simple, stupid. You’ve probably been told this or something similar your entire life. They’re saying that things function best if they’re kept simple rather than made complicated, so this should be factored into the design of whatever it is you’re working on. A similar concept is Ockham’s razor, which says that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. This is all highfalutin fancy-pants talk for simplicity being the key. This is what I’m thinking about when I think about Scranton, PA’s Coal Town Rounders. They’re not particularly flashy or showy, they’re not reinventing the wheel, they’re just making goddamn salt of the earth bluegrass. For one, you’ve got your instrumental chops, two- your tight harmonies, and three- a strong catalog of songs to mine from, so what more do you need? I promise you that if you get these guys in a room together, you’ll be moved to interaction – to dance, to sing, to clap, to grin like a fool. I know that’s how we were acting in the mixing booth during this session, which was tracked live at the WXPN Studio on January 11th of this year. Now, simplicity does not equal untalented or lacking in passion. Quite the opposite, it means that the Rounders have stripped away superfluous musical baggage that does nothing except weigh them down. As a mean and lean acoustic quartet, the boys are nimble and energetic, imbuing their fairly traditional bluegrass twang with a good chunk of reckless abandon, like the crazy train might be coming off the rails at any moment. Whoever needed guitar amps anyway?

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There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you, that’s to listen to tonight’s episode of Folkadelphia Radio featuring Scranton’s Coal Town Rounders

Blindlemonjeffersoncirca1926Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember you will die” and it is a commonly used motif in art serving to remind about the temporary nature of mortality. The motif can be seen throughout time and artistic disciplines, symbolized, for example, by skull imagery in paintings, depictions of the Grim Reaper and his danse macabre, cemetery architecture, and literary themes.

The subject of death and specifically burial instructions make up a significant portion of blues and folk songs, including “The Fatal Flower Garden,” “Country Blues,” and “The Butcher’s Boy.” None of these though is as detailed and poignant as Blind Lemon Jefferson‘s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” also known as “One Kind Favor,” originally recorded in 1927 for Paramount Records and included in the massively influential Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. We’re taking a close look at the song tonight on Folkadelphia Radio.

Jefferson was discovered in Dallas, Texas by Paramount Records and taken to Chicago to record throughout the 1920s, leading to commercial success and national acclaim. Jefferson’s unique style of playing and singing influenced the development of the Texas blues tradition and beyond. In 1930, Son House and Charley Patton, also recording for Paramount, were told to record their own take on the song, which led to the melody-sharing “Mississippi County Farm Blues.”"See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” has been covered by artists as diverse as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Canned Heat, Diamanda Galas, The Dream Syndicate, and more. As a continually fulfilled wish, many admirers over the years have taken the pilgrimmage to the Wortham, Texas cemetary on Highway 14, due approximately 85 miles south of Dallas to keep Jefferson’s grave site clean.

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Folkadelphia Session: Railroad Earth

A lot of what you read about Railroad Earth vibes with what we’re preaching here with Folkadelphia. We live in an era of music-making beyond traditional genre indentifiers, or alternatively, where “big” genres like “hip-hop” and “folk” have been exploded and splintered into near limitless gradations of “urban folk,” “Appalachian folk,” “country blues,” “cajun,” “nu-grass,” and so on and so forth until the end of time. There are also genre-inflected styles, like “electro-folk” or “folk-metal,” or any style that draws from the capitalized FOLK TRADITION. There is music that is incomparable, indiscernable, unrecognizable – sometimes you want to call it “folk” and sometimes you want to call it “hip hop,” and perhaps sometimes it’s not like either, a singular circumstance of creative collaboration and construction. Only an outdated, outmoded purist or traditionalist would bemoan the fate of the “big” genres. Come on now, we’re living in the post-post-post “Dylan goes electric” era (or whatever), beyond good and evil and classification, and we’re loving it. Diversity (in sound) is the spice of life anyhow, right?

Part of what we try and do with Folkadelphia, dear readers and listeners, is to introduce you to and refresh you on stellar songwriters and the highest caliber musicians. It’s as basic as that. These are people that are consciously keeping the rich history and legacy of folk music in mind when considering their artistic path, yet may draw upon it in vastly different ways. Taking a look at a few of our most recent Folkadelphia Sessions, we see Chris Kasper, CocoRosie, Quilt, Joe Kille, and Denison Witmer. I’m not sure that these ladies and gentlemen would ever share a bill outside of our radio show, but the fact is that they’re all incorporating folk elements in varying degrees into their music. In each case, the results are similar – people with something to say, stories to tell, and sounds to make.

That brings us back to our focus feature session of this week with Railroad Earth, who visited our studio in between playing back-to-back concerts at Union Transfer this February. On Last of the Outlaws, their new album and seventh overall, the recordings showcase a simple truth about the band –  that they are helluva good musicians and that they not only love playing together, but there’s darn fine chemistry happening there too. Beyond that, if we’re trying to classify the band’s sound, we’d be better suited using our time spinning the album again than wasting it on that fool’s errand. I read a review that described the band as “folk-pop-Celtic-bluegrass-roots-and-rock jam band from New Jersey.” They are stronger than that storm of oversimplified description. At that point, aren’t you basically saying that the band members are competent and skillful enough to navigate the waters of any style that might interest them? That they can integrate these stylistic elements into their unique Railroad Earth sound? I think so and their music, especially on Last of the Outlaws is the proof. There is really something for everyone within. At the core, stellar songwriting and high caliber musicianship.

We welcomed Railroad Earth, along with a battery of acoustic instruments in road cases, to our studio for a very special completely acoustic on February 25th, 2014.

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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 | http://laurajanebrubaker.tumblr.com/
Photo by Laura Jane Brubaker | http://laurajanebrubaker.tumblr.com/

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.

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

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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.