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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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Folkadelphia Session: Leyla McCalla (formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops)

I first learned about Leyla McCalla the way that most people probably did – as a cellist and member of the progressive traditional African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, during their Grammy award-winning release Leaving Eden. I’m sure glad I did. Without wasting any time, McCalla embarked on a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund her debut solo album entitled Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, which was released in early 2014 (around the time we had her group in for this session). Vari-Colored Songs is a testament to McCalla’s creativity, passion, and diverse upbringing and influences. Of Hughes, she explains that “reading his work made me want to be an artist. I wanted to honor his life and legacy and my own creativity through him.” She does that and much more on the album. For the most part, the classically trained McCalla weaves together plucked, pulsed, and percussively performed cello with Hughes’ words. She also incorporates Haitian folk songs, Creole influence, and bluesy soul into her sound. The album is not showy or dramatic, and like Hughes, is powerful with concision, featuring simply a few instruments – voice, banjo, cello, guitar – used to great effect. She is certainly a rising artist who is following her dreams, not deferring them.

Leyla McCalla and her trio – Taylor Smith on upright bass and Marshall Baker on fiddle – recorded with Folkadelphia at the WXPN Performance Studio on February 8th, 2014 before their concert at the Tin Angel.

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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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Folkadelphia Session: Marian McLaughlin


A year before we had her into the studio, Marian McLaughlin, a songwriter living in Washington D.C. (but born in Philly, she wrote with emphasis), sent me an out-of-the-blue email in which she detailed her unique technique. She described her music as “fractal folk,” an ingenious take on finger-picking style guitar work layered with a unique system of storytelling. She wrote that she makes her own myths while elaborating upon others, that her songs “explore existence, alliteration, assonance, and dissonance.” That really struck me as interesting – not only thinking about the “what” that she’s singing and playing, but the “how” she’s singing and playing, and about how those elements interact and sound together. This is truly macro- and micro-music making. To listen to McLaughlin is to go on a trance-like journey, letting the music point, push, and drive the audience’s thought process based on the changing geography of the soundscape. This is done with intention. McLaughlin has incorporated the tenets of dérive into her writing and playing. Dérive developed as a concept in psychogeographics in 1940s Parisian artistic and political collectives and was taken up in the 1950s by Situtational Theorist Guy Debord. The idea is that a person would be led on an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, via the aesthetic conditions of the surrounding architecture and geography. The goal being to encounter a new experience and escape the monotony and predictability of every day life and routine. Extrapolate this idea to music and you arrive (or I should say, you may be led) to Marian McLaughlin and her brand new album, aptly named Dérive.

Marian and her bassist Ethan Foote joined us at the WXPN Studio to perform new music and lead us on an uncanny and unusual musical expedition.

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Folkadelphia Session: Liz and the Lost Boys

Philadelphia is a city of convergence and divergence. Things come together, things fall apart. They coexist on the same block, sometimes with ease, sometimes with painful friction. A South Philly punk show house is shut down, three show houses open in West Philly. A troupe of bluegrass players are joined by a clarinetist, as the banjo player leaves to practice with his hair metal band in a Fishtown apartment. Some kind of circle of life. The effect is an equally beautiful and freak-show melting pot of diverse culture, tradition, and heritage. Similarly, local music and art styles don’t just approach or touch or rub against one another, but instead they overlap, extend beyond, and mash up on each other. It’s messy, it’s gross, but it’s organic and homegrown. Philadelphia exemplifies a consistent disregard for clearly designated “genre boxes.” We’re all a bunch of reprobates and degenerates when it comes to purity, but that’s why we’re a scrappy and lovable music scene.

As far as musical classification goes, Philly’s Liz and the Lost Boys are a mixed-breed band. I mean that in the most endearing way. Speaking of convergence and divergence, the Lost Boys exist at the edges of most things music. Their sound is where jazz rubs against classical, where pop overlaps on indie rock, where the theatrical and musical meet. They are an example of the building up and a building upon of musical ideas on top of one another, but in another sense, they also represent the dissolution of the importance of classification. If you are a listener of Folkadelphia, you recognize our frequent long-winded tirades on the meaninglessness (and honestly, nonexistence) of clear-cut genre boundaries in the present day, obviously because of our show, focusing on folk music. FOLK MUSIC (capitalized) has splintered off into nearly endless sub- and mini-genres. Purists be damned! Evolve or die! So, in a way, Liz and the Lost Boys have staved off a musical existence of tedium, banality, and unimagination in favor of creative richness, possibility, and hopefully longevity. With this in mind, we invited the band in for a session earlier this year to show off songs from their latest full-length and single. Here’s what we captured:

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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.