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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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Folkadelphia Session: Heyward Howkins

Heyward Howkins might be a fairly new addition to the City of Brotherly Love’s music scene, but front man and songwriter John Howkins is certainly no greenhorn. Howkins gained attention in the early aughts playing lead guitar with The Trouble With Sweeney and he is also a founding member of The Silver Ages, the Philly-centric men’s choral group that puts on notable performances (especially during the holidays). As Heyward Howkins, Howkins and his band have released two impeccable albums – 2012′s The Hale & Hearty and late 2013′s Be Frank, Furness. What continues to draw us here at Folkadelphia back to Howkins’ music is his immense storytelling powers, wrought with detail, witty wordplay, clever turns of phrase, and, the best in my opinion, references that give a wink and a nudge to Philly. Plus, we like the “Be Frank” part, as we formerly ran a record label of the same name.

What can we say about Heyward Howkins that WXPN & The Key’s John Vettese has not already written in his excellent review of Be Frank, Furness? Vettese wrote that The Hale and Hearty caught our ear “with both evocative word choices and clever imagery laid gracefully atop breeze acoustic-rooted instrumentation” and that “Howkins is a musician who likes to give his listeners a thing or two to chew on.” On this latest album, the music end of things is fleshed out, nearly as expansive as the lyrical content. As for me, I often seem to get the line from the title track stuck in my mind, “Even cut brandy is carefully fortified, but our actions still mortifying. And the orange line nags with champa and a twist cap wine, but above we’re all mortified.” That’s how this record works on you; pictures become ingrained in the imagination.

It was fresh off the release of Be Frank, Furness that we welcomed Howkins and his band – Josh Newman (bass), Vince Tampio (melodica, trumpet, vocals), and Erik Schmidt (drums) into the WXPN Performance Studio to track song for the latest album and more.

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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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Folkadelphia Session: Marissa Nadler

Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

In 2014, Marissa Nadler released July, a collection of story songs that only she could have made. By that it is meant that without Nadler, these songs don’t exist, they could not possibly exist in this world. July is both the essence of and the essential Marissa Nadler. On this her sixth full-length album, she gives off the aura of mastery, displaying her growth as both a creative entity and unique voice in the folk world. While all of the musical pieces may not have been in place like they are now, from even her first album, Ballads of Living and Dying (2006), Nadler has had a strong conception of self and style. Her evolution has been subtle and calculated, fully incorporating sounds and ideas into her art – gothic songwriter on Little Hells, shimmering Americana on her self-titled album, and now, atmospheric elegance on July. For this record, Nalder worked with producer Randall Dunn, best known for work with noise and metal bands like Sun O))) and Earth, but also the avant-psych-folk of Six Organs of Admittance for instance. Dunn adds textural embellishment to Nadler’s world; on previous records, Nadler has sung from the deepest subterranian depths and resonant caves or from the empty woods and loamy ground, here Dunn gives her a new stage, the darkened night sky from which to command.

Nadler’s stories often touch on our mortality, existential issues, and time, but it is the strong feelings and the slow burn of emotions that remain with the listener even as the words fade away. When I hear Marissa Nadler’s music, particularly with July, I imagine those large bindered photo albums that exist in everyone’s hallway closet, gathering dust and being largely forgotten. I like to think that Nadler is the champion of these books of small, intimate stories that are spread across time and space, that all of us have within us. She imbues her sound with the silver-tinged, the black and white contrast, the sepia-toned, and the fading colors of these photographic stories. The more I consider it, the more I hold it to be true – Marissa Nadler is the folk singer of our memories.

This Folkadelphia Session has been a long time in the making. We first collaborated with Marissa back in November of 2013 while she was in the Philadelphia area. This was before she had fully conceptualized her live set-up for the songs of July. She told us that she would return, armed with a larger sound. Fast forward to March of 2014, she returned with celloist, songwriter, and vocalist Janel Leppin. For the listener, we present a nearly album-sized collection, pulling mostly from the latter session.

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

blindwilliejohnson

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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Folkadelphia Session: Tumbling Bones (playing Tin Angel this Fri. 6/20)

Good things take time and effort to become good, however vague a quality that is; think about aging wine or steeping tea, or for non-drink related activities, art. Yes, let’s think about art. Most people are not born prodigious and even more have to labor, sweat tears and cry blood in the process, to reach adept musicianship and a unique “voice.” Most don’t even get there. This formula is further complicated in music group situations because you need something called chemistry. A question of synergy, of “is the whole greater than its parts.” So there are elements of intention and of chance when forming a band. Boy, did we luck out with Portland, ME and Philadelphia, PA based Tumbling Bones. Self-described as four young men playing old time inspired music, Tumbling Bones gives us everything – musicality, imagination, virtuosity, and that incalculable component that pushes their performances to new heights. Tumbling Bones certainly worked hard to release their very first full-length album Loving A Fool. For one thing, founding members Pete Winne and Jake Hoffman have been playing together and touring the world in some form or another as Tumbling Bones for a decade, but it seems as if the addition of Kyle Morgan impelled the band to lay down their songs in the studio. As we well know, intent and chemistry and all other aspects can come to a full stop without capital. Money is for spending and the band continued to work hard, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign. The final result is the aforementioned long player, a testament to the group’s dedication, devotion, and powerhouse performances. What we get is a blend of original compositions and uniquely dynamic takes on traditional tunes. I’m glad Tumbling Bones took their time and lined up all of the pieces before recording a proper album because Loving A Fool is a seriously good debut that will stand up over the years.

 

We attempted to capture the energy, chemistry, and skillful playing of the band back in March before their show at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia. The band returns to that very venue this Friday, June 20th.

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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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