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A focus on Fred Cockerham’s “Little Satchel” and a tight session with Mason Porter, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

fredcockerham
Fred Cockerham

Nothing can stand in the way of true love or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. In fact, it seems, that many obstacles on this earth can block the meeting of two lovers. Such is the case in “Little Satchel,” a song composed by North Carolinian fiddle and banjo player Fred Cockerham. Continue reading →

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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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A song beyond the pines and a session from dynamic duo Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, both tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

Lead Belly | Hulton Archive
Lead Belly | Hulton Archive

A folk song is a living organism. They are continually and constantly adapted and adjusted to fit new circumstances and environments. A few scant lines can grow over the years to become a rich fully developed narrative, incorporating specific facts and people from the contemporaries that alter it. Over time, these facts can disintegrate, losing meaning or relevance, so the song might be remolded anew – trimmed of verses, stripped back to basics, or combined with other narratives to create something wholly new. No one owns a folk song and that’s the most wonderful part about this whole thing. Like the flora and fauna around us, folk songs are for all to admire, revel in, and most importantly, interpret.

One song that has grown in meaning and length around the singers that have taken it up is “In The Pines.” Since its origination, sometime in the 1870s and probably somewhere in the Southern Appalachian region, the song has been transplanted from genre to genre, adapted, evolved, and changed to suit the singer’s interpretation. Also known as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and “Black Girl,” the history of “In The Pines” is as thick and layered as the pine tree’s bark. In a New York Times article from 1994, the author cites that a dissertation on the song found as many as 160 different versions. He continues on, positing the question: “Why does a song like ‘In The Pines’ endure and permutate so insistently?” In asking this question, I think we get close to the roots of what makes folk music important and enduring. It has to do with universality and accessibility; language may change, narrative elements may fall off, but emotion, grit, sweat and blood don’t wash away so easy. It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” “In The Pines” has been viewed in many different ways, but in each case, the mood is intensely dark, a place where “the sun never shines.”

“In The Pines” written and recorded history begins in 1917 when Cecil Sharp, a folklorist and song collector, printed the song as a verse and a melody,

“Black girl, black girl, don’t lie to me,
Where did you sleep last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines,
and shivered when the cold wind blows.”

It’s amazing that from these four lines, the song has taken on such varied meanings. Different versions include people fleeing implied seamy pasts into the equally seamy pines, which can be symbolic for crimes, sexual debasement, and, of course, death. In many versions, a “long train” factors into the story, acting in some cases as a stand-in for Death and in others a means of escape. In even more versions, there are traces of prostitution, existential questions, and brutally violent events (involving decapitation by said train). The narrative may change, but the feeling remains as cold, dark, and lonesome as when Cecil Sharp wrote down those four lines.

The most influential recording of “In The Pines” is associated with Lead Belly, recorded in 1944. Musicians as diverse as Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Link Wray, Odetta, Bill Callahan, Dee Dee Ramone, Nirvana, and countless others have tackled the song, imbuing it with new meaning each time. We’ll hear a few renditions tonight on Folkadelphia Radio.

Also during this episode, we’ll premiere a session from the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, recorded at the end of last year. The two were married in 1999 and have been performing together since 2000. In 2013, they released Wassaic Way, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, an album that draws on the two’s rich musical past and pushes their Americana rock sound in fun, new directions.

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The devil in the details of The Daemon Lover and The House Carpenter, along with a fleet-fingered session from Marisa Anderson, tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

Brought over by English, Scottish, Irish, German, and other European immigrants in the eighteenth century, imported ballads make up a huge portion of the American ballad repertory. As one would expect from the transatlantic game of telephone, these oral stories changed over the course of travel and becoming a part of a new social and geographic environment. Names and locations are altered to suit locality (“Lord Randall” becomes “Johnny Randolph”), overtly sexual and taboo topics are glazed over, and the supernatural is disregarded or justified. The latter is the case for “The Daemon Lover” (originally compiled in James Child’s collection as #243), also known as “James Harris,” or most frequently in America, “The House Carpenter.” This ballad has everything one could as for: a beautiful lady and her husband, a former lover returned, infidelity, heartbreak, ships and the sea, a startling twist, the devil/daemon, retribution, and, finally, death.

In “The Daemon Lover” version, a man returns to a former lover, now married with children, after a long period of absence. The man convinces her to leave her new life behind, luring her with a fleet of ships, treasure in abundance, and pleasures of every kind. She’s caught (wouldn’t you be?) But she soon realizes that things are not what they seem – where are the other sailors, why is the returned lover gloomy and dismal, and why, I ask you, are his feet cloven? She weeps at the discovery that her lover is the devil, but it is too late. He snaps the ship in two, drowning them down to hell below. Chilling narrative! In the much more popular American version, “The House Carpenter,” the narrative amplifies the point-making element, transforming the ballad into a warning piece against adulterous elopers. Here, the returned lover is not sinister or immortal, the wife leaves her house carpenter husband, and both eventually fall victim to a leaky ship in a bit of moralistic poetic justice. Nothing against lessons about adultery, but for my money, I prefer the supernatural. Makes it all the more frightening. We’ll hear a number of renditions on this week’s radio program.

Also during this episode of Folkadelphia Radio, we’ll hear from perpetually touring instrumental guitarist Marisa Anderson and her diverse stylistic choices. Continue reading →

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