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Under the ground and the skin: a song feature on The Springhill Mining Disaster and a session with Psalmships, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

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Folksingers often act as the voice of the people, creating a memorial, protest, speech, opinion piece, or treatise in verse and music. Peggy Seeger along with Ewan MacColl took up the mantle to tell the tale of the industrial accident at Springhill, Nova Scotia. The Springhill mining disaster can refer to any of three Canadian mining disasters which happened in 1891, 1956, and 1958 within the Springhill coalfield, near Springhill, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. Seeger wrote a vivid song to comemorate the 1958 tragedy. What occurred on October 23rd, 1958 is referred to as a “bump,” or an underground earthquake caused by increased tensions in the earth due to the removal of coal without support replacement. Smaller bumps had been felt that day, but at 8:06 a bump large enough to register on seismic monitoring caused the floor and ceiling of the mine to abruptly crush together, while releasing debris and gasses. Of the 174 men working in the mine at the time, a total of 75 died, with 74 being killed either instantaneously or soon after due to suffocation. As rescue operations strove to free any remaining survivors trapped underground, Canadian and international news media went to Springhill, notable for being the first major international event to appear in live television broascasts (on the CBC). On the sixth and seventh day after the bump, two groups of trapped miners were freed and brought to the surface. The intensity of the event, its widescale media coverage, and the vividness of Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s “The Ballad of Springhill” have continued to captivate musicians, especially those wishing to honor those who were trapped and lost. Tonight, we’ll hear a few renditions of the song.

We’ll also premiere a Folkadelphia Session with our longtime friend and supporter, Joshua Britton and his musical project Psalmships. Wildly prolific and a new set of songs always in the works, Psalmships has just completed and released I Sleep Alone, a brand new album that keeps haunting long after the final note rings out. Back in April, Britton, along with local greats Brad Hinton and Chelsea Sue Allen, stopped by the studio to share a few of the new cuts with us. I Sleep Alone is now available and Psalmships will be celebrating the release this Friday, July 11th at Bourbon & Branch with Chelsea Sue Allen and Nathan Edwin. A previous Psalmships + Folkadelphia collaboration, known now as My Endless Black, can be heard here.

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More wicked deeds by Willie in “Banks of the Ohio” and Heyward Howkins’ lyrical session, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

Illustration by Rebecca Dart
Illustration by Rebecca Dart

In many ways, Joan Baez was my gateway to the larger folk music world and the traditional songs that are fodder for inspiration and performance. I recall in particular dropping the needle on her early 1960 records over and over. Joan Baez, Vol. 2, released in 1961 on Vaguard Records, introduced me to many staples of the folk world (and features a great backing band in The Greenbriar Boys). Among the songs is the tragic murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio.” Despite the popularity of the song, neither its origination or authorship is known, except that it dates back to the 19th century. Interestingly and probably not coincidentally, the song dates back to the same period as another murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” which we previously covered. Both songs relate the story of the narrator, a scorned lover named Willie, who ends up brutally murdering “the girl I loved the best” (or Polly in the case of “Pretty Polly”). From the first recording of the song by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers in 1927 (for the Victor label) to Vandaveer’s recent rendition for their murder ballads album, the song continues to inspire with its tragedy, drama, and bloody passionate conclusion.

Tonight on Folkadelphia Radio, we will also premiere a session from local Philly group Heyward Howkins, led by John Howkins. Continue reading →

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Who’s that a-writin’ about tonight’s Folkadelphia Radio with a session from Marissa Nadler

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Blind Willie Johnson’s influence will likely outlast us all. I say that as a matter of fact  because his 1927 recording of “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” was included in the 1977  Voyager “Golden Record.” Today though, we’re going to talk a about the traditional song “John The Revelator,” first recorded on April 20th, 1930. This recording session, for Columbia Records, would be Johnson’s last. “John The Revelator” is a call-and-response Gospel song, where Johnson “calls” “who’s that writin’?” and Willie Harris, Johnson’s first wife, “responds” “John The Revelator.” The song did not originate with Johnson, but as of time of writing, I could not find any previous instances of the song being performed or the history of the song. The song references John the Apostle, reputed author of the Book of Revelations in the New Testament, describing visions he had about the opening of the seven seals, the coming return of Christ, and the Final Judgment. When listening to the song, Willie Johnson sounds powerfully impassioned and almost fanatical in delivery, while Willie Harris sounds small and distant in comparison. Many may have heard this song as part of Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music collection. Or perhaps, they may have heard any number of rendition over the years, from Son House, to the Blues Brothers, to Beck, to Steve Vai, to Depeche Mode. Many try to replicate the sheer force and urgency of the original record, but very few come close.

I often consider “Folkadelphia’s essential artists,” or core musicians that exemplify qualities of what we find important in modern folk music. One part of what we try to do here is to give a platform for musicians and artists that bridge the gap between the old ways and the new sounds and ideas, who are continually evolving, changing, manipulating, and weaving – working in different aspects of folk music tradition and storytelling into their craft. Since the beginning, Marissa Nadler has been one of the artists. Hear why tonight on Folkadelphia Radio, where we will premiere an excerpt from Marissa Nadler’s Folkadelphia Sessions, recorded 11/10/2013 and 3/16/2014, the latter featuring Janel Leppin on cello and backing vocals.

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Long John, he’s long gone, plus the arrival of Tumbling Bones’ energized session, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

A Darrington Farm Prison  chain gang, possibly from 1934.
A Darrington Farm Prison chain gang, possibly from 1934.

As I reclined in my big blue worn-out listening chair letting Tom Waits work his magic on my stereo, I jolted forward with a burst of excitement. Hearing ol’ grizzly voice there singing the line “John, John, he’s long gone…” during a middle verse of “Gun Street Girl,” a track on Rain Dogs (1985), more than a few connections were made in my brain. Waits is referencing a famous escape song “Long John.” Waits however takes his John in a different direction, as he’s “gone to Indiana, ain’t never coming home.” This however isn’t the first instance I’ve heard of altering John’s narrative. When I began to dig a little deeper into the history of the song, starting with a 1951 recording of Brownie McGhee and a rollicking recent version from Woody Pines, as well as some instrumental takes from bluesmen Sonny Terry and Reverend Gary Davis, I realized that there was a lot more going on. A good introduction to “Long John” is in 1920 when W.C. Handy, the so-called “father of the blues,” published a version of the song with words from black songwriter Chris Smith, based on an earlier form of this song, which also sometimes goes by “Lost John,” “Long John Dean,” “Long Gone,” or “Long Gone John (From Bowling Green),” Supposedly the song’s narrative was based on an escaped black prisoner from Bowling Green, Kentucky, but it is likely that this was fabricated by Handy. It’s probable that this cycle of songs extends back to the 19th century, starting as a negro work song. Versions that are called “Old John” seem to focus more on a slave who outsmarts his master, while “Lost John” finds John a victim of the prison system, which he escapes from. The instrumental version, mainly performed on harmonica, became quite popular during the minstrelsy era. Lauded 20th century song collectors Alan and John Lomax recorded “Long John” at Darrington State Prison Farm in Texas in 1934 for the Library of Congress. In this example, a group of black prisoners, led a man identified as “Lightning” chant the song as they engage in collective labor – a moving, visceral renditon. From the 19th century to beyond Tom Waits, “Long John” continues to inspire performance and transformation of the story of John and his desire for freedom.

Also on Folkadelphia Radio, we will premiere a session from Portland, Maine & Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based Tumbling Bones. Without a doubt, this is one of the most energetic and downright virtuosic performances we’ve witnessed in the studio. We caught the band as they just released their latest LP Loving A Fool and right before they headed off overseas as part of the prestigious American Musicians Abroad program. The band is back from across the pond and in town this Friday, returning to the Tin Angel to do it all again. Don’t miss them!

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Tell the rambler, the gambler, and the backbiter that Folkadelphia Radio is on tonight, with a session from Leyla McCalla

Leyla McCalla by Laura Jane Brubaker
Leyla McCalla by Laura Jane Brubaker

Truth will out. You can fool those around you, you can even fool yourself, but you can never fool God or avoid judgment. Divine judgment is the focus of the traditional song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” also often titled “Run On” or “Run On for a Long Time.” Like many stories, especially folk songs, the characters cannot escape the choices they have made or the actions they have taken. Think on “The House Carpenter,” where a wife chooses to leave her family for a lover only to find he’s the devil, or ”The Twa Sisters,” in which jealousy is the cause of sororicide yet the murder is revealed through supernatural means. “Run On” is more prophetic in its approach. In it, an angel of God appears to John (are we talking about John the Baptist or is John an everyman stand-in?) with a directive (“do my will!”) – warn “your fellow man” that “what’s down in the dark will be brought to the light.” Sin is a stain that does not wash out and “you can run on for a long time[, but] sooner or later God’ll cut you down.” A portrait of a vengeful God contrasted nicely with the description that the “man from Galilee” spoke in “a voice so sweet.” In most of the recordings of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” it is called a traditional, but I cannot find a clear history, though it does appear to have ties to gospel repertoire. The earliest recorded version (as far as I can tell) comes from the Golden Gate Quartet, originally called the Golden gate Jubilee Quartet, founded in 1934 and still around today. The quartet recorded “Run On” in March 1942 as the B-side to “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer” for Okeh Records.The lyrics paint a vivid picture and the music is potent that it’s recorded history spans time and genre, being tracked by musicians like Moby, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, The Gaslight Anthem, and many more.

On this episode of Folkadelphia Radio, we will also premiere a live recorded session from Leyla McCalla and her trio of musicians, as they appeared on tour in February of 2014. McCalla’s music reflects her experiential diversity and wide range of influences. She has Haitian heritage and grew up traveling around and studying classical cello, eventually moving to New Orleans. From there, she joined up with the Carolina Chocolate Drops during their Leaving Eden album. Since then, she raised funds for a debut solo album Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, which consists of Hughes poetry set to music, Haitian folk songs, and much more.

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We’re bound for Shady Grove and the varied sound of Philadelphia’s Liz and the Lost Boys, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

Liz Ciavolino of Liz and the Lost Boys (Alicia Brown/Tori Powers)
Liz Ciavolino of Liz and the Lost Boys (Alicia Brown/Tori Powers)

Person, place, or thing? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? These are legitimate questions when considering the often performed “Shady Grove.” Hundred of variations exist, some featuring minor changes in wording or verbiage, while others seem unrecognizable from each other. The biggest difference that exist seem to hinge on the fact that we are not sure if Shady Grove is a person or a place. A particular interesting idea is that “Shady Grove” is a bastardized version of the name “Sadie Grove,” mispronounced somewhere along the way (this actually does happen – in Liza Wells, for instance, ”…he knew Liza well” becomes “he knew Liza Wells.”) As sung in some renditions, if Shady Grove is a place, where in relation to Harlan is it located? If Shady Grove is a person, who is she? Options include, but are not limited to, a wife, a child, and, in one interpretation, a victim of obsessive abuse from the narrator. I believe that much of the confusion stems from the lack of concrete source material. Some scholars posit a connection to the 17th century ballad “Matty Groves,” which then degraded and transformed after its transatlantic journey and through the years. The Library of Congress has a instrumental fiddle take performed by Henry Reed in 1966, which incorporates variations on a “widespread British and American air, showing up in such disparate places as the British ‘Boyne Water’ march and some Appalachian variants of the ballad ‘Barbara Allen.’” This could give creedence to some suppositions that “Shady Grove” originated as an instrumental song with an assemblage of lyrics tacked on. In keeping with the immigrated explanation, the African bania (banjo), as well as the mountain dulcimer (see Jean Ritchie), were used by Scots-Irish Appalachian settlers attempting to imitate the drone pipes of Celtic bagpipes, perhaps legitimizing the 18th century Appalachian connection for “Shady Grove.” Whatever the case may be, “Shady Grove” continues to delight and entertain, as it also continues to transform and mutate.

Tonight on Folkadelphia Radio, we will premiere a session from one of our favorite up-and-coming Philadelphia local groups, Liz And The Lost Boys. They ran a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2012 to fund a full length album and single released last year, working with our friend, engineer, producer, and musician Jeff Zeigler. The band, led by Liz Ciavolino who sings and doubles up on harp and piano, have found a sonic comfort zone at the convergence of baroque pop, skittering jazz-rock, and chamber classical. Listening, you never know quite what to expect around the corner of a verse or chorus.

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Pretty Polly redux and a sonic dreamworld session with Sondra Sun-Odeon, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

Sondra Sun-Odeon's 'Live at Studio 34' release
Sondra Sun-Odeon’s ‘Live at Studio 34′ release

More often than not, I can be found walking down the street and whistling “Pretty Polly.” It’s one of those timeless melodies that has a way of needling its way into my brain. I’m not alone; the ballad has been performed throughout the years by Dock Boggs, Burl Ives, Aoife O’Donovan, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny, and even Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, to name a few. That being said, I thought it would be proper to revisit the American murder ballad on this week’s episode of Folkadelphia Radio. We first featured the song about a month ago on the air, discussing its ties to an even older British ballad called “The Gosport Tragedy.” Depending on the version you listen to – and there are hundreds of variations – you might be hearing it told as a first person narrative (“I courted Pretty Polly”) or a third person narrative (“Then he threw a little dirt on her and started for home”), you could have elements of the supernatural (ghosts), insanity, incest, and obsession. All in all, the tale remains grim and violent however or whenever you hear it.

Also tonight, we’ll air a brand new Folkadelphia Session featuring the Brooklyn-based, but perpetually touring experimental songwriter Sondra Sun-Odeon, formerly of the dark psych act Silver Summit. Continue reading →

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