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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.

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Folkadelphia Session: Sondra Sun-Odeon (with Orion Rigel Dommisse)

We fell in love with the sound that Brooklyn-based (though perpetually touring) experimental songwriter Sondra Sun-Odeon was making back in the Spring of 2013 and we’ve been hooked ever since. Sun-Odeon, formerly of psych rock group Silver Summit, was fresh off the release of her new solo work Aetherea when we worked with her on a show in Philadelphia at the Studio 34 space. At that concert, we recorded her set and those song eventually became Folkadelphia’s first official release - it’s available as a pay-what-you-will download and limited poster design. Seeking more ways to collaborate, we partnered with Fire Museum Presents on her most recent Philadelphia concert this past November at the now-defunct Highwire Gallery for a bill that also featured Orion Rigel Dommisse and Fursaxa, two songwriters that also push at the boundaries of traditional songwriting and music making. It was on this visit to the City of Brotherly Love that Sun-Odeon recorded this Folkadelphia Session at the WXPN Performance Studio.

Sondra Sun-Odeon’s sound is not easy to pin down, but the aptly-titled name of her album Aetherea points you in the right direction. The music is of the air, the sky, the limits of existence and consciousness – it is not necessarily the music of the earth, the dirt, the basic and base emotions. However to describe the sound as elemental would be germane. Distant, but ever presently glowing like a beacon in the fog of reverb and echo, Sun-Odeon’s voice leads the listener through a dynamic soundscape. Silken strands of guitar lines and melancholy cello can quickly transform into dark, swirling clouds of noise, distortion, and powerful percussion. Sun-Odeon is a mercurial force of nature, drawing upon her many talents to create an immersive experience.

While we are a folk radio show, in vague terms, we find that it is important to seek out musicians, storytellers, and artists that are breaking beyond the boundaries of their disciplines to create art that is unique and imaginative, rather than rehashing what has already been done. Sondra Sun-Odeon takes the classification of “singer-songwriter” and completely stretches, skewers, and severs our safe definition of what that means. Let her guide you.

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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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Folkadelphia Session: Ryan Lee Crosby

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Music discovery on the Internet is all well and good; you’re surfing through the pages on Spotify, trying to find a related artists, you’re checking out what your favorite music blogs posted this week, or you’re endlessly scrolling down your Tumblr dashboard, clicking on streams. It’s a fine way to find new things, but nothing will ever beat word of mouth recommendation from a trusted music peer. Nothing. There is just some additional component, some missing link that binds a couple of music nerds together when one of them speaks “…but you’ve heard this, right?” or “…if you like this, you have got to make sure you check out this.” Maybe that component is the soul.

Such was the case with Ryan Lee Crosby, a Boston-based musician, referred to me by a favorite songwriter of mine, Allysen Callery, whom I count as a majorly credible source for musical knowledge and endorsement (plus, the words of Folkadelphia Sessioneers hold serious weight). Crosby was gearing up for the release of his fourth long-player, Institution Blues, seeing him channel Mississippi hill country artists, acoustic blues, and a touch of swirling psychedelic into his sound.

We ended up welcoming Crosby into the studio at WXPN at the end of the year. Alone, with arm and handfuls of his instrument, amp, and records, you couldn’t help but consider the loneliness of a solo touring musician and its lengthy downtime between gigs, the endless trance-like drives, the dingy sleeping situations. It’s enough to dissuade anybody, but here Ryan Lee Crosby was, chipper and excited to play for us, ready to weave a song of his own personal American blues.

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Folkadelphia Session: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion


As the saying goes, two heads are better than one, and that’s exactly the case with the married dynamic duo of songwriters Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Both are stellar musicians solo, but together, the sum is greater than the parts – that’s some chemistry! You might say that America runs strong in their veins — SLG is the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie (and daughter of Arlo) and Irion is the grand-nephew of John Steinbeck. The two have been crafting their own brand of Americana since the turn of the millennium and have, in addition to solo and other collaborative work, released four albums, including last year’s Wassaic Way. On their latest, recorded with help from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, the couple indulge their sweet tooth, maximizing big ol’ hooks and bolstering their twang with some heavy power-pop guitar. All in all, you can’t help but have a good time with the band.

On their visit to our studio, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, along with their band, stripped the songs from Wassasic Way down to bare bones, shining new light on these wonderfully catchy compositions. They return to Philadelphia to perform at the Boot and Saddle on June 25th.

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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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