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Folkadelphia’s Year-End List of Discovery and Wonderment, Part II

Photo by Laura Jane Brubaker | http://laurajanebrubaker.tumblr.com/
Leyla McCalla’s Folkadelphia Session | Photo by Laura Jane Brubaker | http://laurajanebrubaker.tumblr.com/

With a mixture of pride about our recent accomplishments, sadness about closing the book on 2014, and a constant craving for snacks, we arrive at the penultimate episode of the year for Folkadelphia on WXPN, airing at 10 p.m. tonight. What a ride. Thinking back on the year, it’s a blur of music. Seriously, no one can hope to hear that much music, right? Does anyone have a solid system for intake, choosing what to pay attention to, how much time to devote to a particular album, and then making a succinct decision about if it’s “good” or “bad?” If you do, please email me at fred(at)folkadelphia.com and reveal to me your secrets, magician!

That’s why the end of the year is crucial for me; it’s a time for me to look to others (critics and other curating robots) for direction, to potentially discover albums that slipped through the gaping cracks in the asphalt that I call my life. I could care less about “top” lists, so we will be side-stepping that format here. I talked about this idea, using the end of the year for discovery instead of reflection at length in the previous part of this write-up. Maybe I can do the same for you.
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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.