Back in the day when I lived in Upshur County West Virginia, I took every chance I could to hang out with, listen to, and jam with the local fiddlers of that part of the state. Randolph County, the next county to the west, was always a hotbed of traditional mountain music, and its festivals drew me like a moth to the flame. Great old music was easy to find at annual events in Elkins, such as the Forest Festival and the famous Augusta Gathering. Renowned string band Gandydancer was always a welcome sight at such events, featuring an all-star lineup of multi-instrumentalists that included Gerry Milnes. Gerry recently retired after serving twenty five years as Folk Arts Coordinator with the Augusta Heritage Center, where he produced numerous audio recordings and films documenting the music and folklife of West Virginia.
Photo by Seth Joel
In partnership with Emily Miller, Gerry’s son Jesse Milnes now carries on the wonderful tradition of West Virginia folk music with the release in July of their duo album titled JESSE MILNES & EMILY MILLER: Deep End Sessions, Vol. 2. This collection consists of lovely old fiddle tunes and ballads, mixed with a few country songs and original compositions. It was recorded in the unlikely environs of Los Angeles, California at Deep End Ranch, with Jesse and Emily playing and singing around one mic. The result is a pure-drop distillation of West Virginia’s true mountain heart, showcasing Jesse’s traditional fiddling style, Emily’s country and oldtime singing, and their love of close harmony. This record is most certainly one of the top old-time releases of 2015. Recommended!
A couple months ago, I promised in a previous post to share some of the brilliant music I heard this summer at the Festival of Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA. One of my favorite discoveries is the duo of Ben Hunter (fiddle) and Joe Seamons (banjo, guitar). Their most recent album Take Yo Time was released almost a year ago and they were kind enough to pass one to me at the festival. This record is one of those that grows upon you with each successive listen: delightfully accomplished and deceptively simple, yet belying the skill and maturity required by the duo to pull off this broadly selected playlist of blues, folk ballads and early jazz.
Fiddle Tunes happens annually in the first week of July, when it takes over the former military barracks at the scenic Fort Worden State Park. One evening I was taking a stroll at dusk, enjoying the sight of a full moon rising over Puget Sound and the sound of music in the distance. I was drawn like a moth to a flame and upon rounding a corner in the evening dark, I came upon a scene that might have transpired on a warm humid Mississippi river bank in 1900. Someone had moved a table, chairs and lamp outdoors and the lamp cast a warm glow over the round table scattered with playing cards, ash trays and whiskey glasses. Laughter and profanity erupted as the poker gamers were entertained by Ben and Joe on guitar and fiddle, playing some jaunty rag from the old days. This is the kind of magic one might stumble upon any time and any place at Fiddle Tunes.
Here are two cuts from the album and a video. Enjoy!
LISTEN: Banks Of The River
LISTEN: Goin to German
Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons perform Captain Haney Blues at the Fretboard Journal magazine offices.
Rita Hosking has been a force of nature in the acoustic Cali-Americana music scene these past few years. With her husband and daughter as her foundation and band mates, Rita has gradually solidified her standing in the sweet middle ground between oldtime bluegrass, classic country, and modern singer-songwriter. Her 6th album, released on Tuesday 9/22/15, maintains her trademark sound: that fluid shimmer that somehow connects the listener to both their own personal history and the story of their ancestors. Surrounded by banjos, dobros, fiddles, and more, Rita Hosking sings bold homespun poetry to relieve the stress of the modern world closing in all around us. Recommended!
I’ll begin this post with an apology. With summer festival season in full swing here at Fiddlefreak World Headquarters, and my own new CD released in May, the blog has not been refreshed lately. Sorry gang! I’m just returned from the renowned and unrivalled-for-fun fiddle camp held in Port Townsend, WA and called Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. One could write a book on the amazing experience that is Fiddle Tunes, and I will write a series of posts to feature some of the great music I heard up there this year. Let’s begin with a listen to the recent release from La Famille Leger titled L’etoile Du Nord.
Dejah and Devon Leger of Seattle, WA are the talented young couple at the core of this band. If you recongize their names, it may be because they run a well-known music blog and promotion company called Hearth Music. At Fiddle Tunes, these two seemed to always be at the center of the sickest music sessions and parties, and Dejah presented a wonderful workshop on how to create crankies. Their new CD is a collection of heartwarming Acadian music (see below) that they field-collected in Eastern Canada. Since I don’t know jack about these wonderful fiddle tunes and old French songs, I will let them expound in their own words. Enjoy!
L’etoile Du Nord
“We are a true family band who play Acadian and French-Canadian music from Eastern Canada. We live in Seattle, Washington and play contra dances, concerts, festivals, and even dinner parties. Devon Leger plays fiddle, Dejah plays piano, guitar, sings & stepdances, Barb plays guitar, and Louis plays accordion, fiddle, spoons, and sings. Louis hails from a distinctive Acadian family from New Brunswick, and spent much of his youth in Québec City.
“Tunes from Hedar Bulger: After visiting André à Toto in Shipagan, New Brunswick, he pointed us to a fish market in nearby Le Goulet. Hedar Bulger owns this market, Le Marché de Poisson Bulger, along with his son and family, and is an older, retiring man with a warm smile and a great love for the fiddle. He played tentatively at first, but by the time we had to leave, he was playing tune after tune and didn’t want to stop! We learned these tunes in fragments from him, and learned that he has many more wonderful tunes as well.
LISTEN: Tunes From Hedar Bulger
“Ma Mie Tant Blanche: Dejah learned this song from the singing of Charlotte Cormier of Moncton, a pioneering woman of Acadian song collecting. The song is sung in an old Acadian dialect, and it’s yet another song about family troubles culminating in murder. The title loosely translates to ‘Honey, you look so pale.’ Probably because of blood loss.”
LISTEN: Ma Mie Tant Blanche
“The Acadians are the descendants of the 17th-century French colonists who settled in Acadia, some of whom are also Metis. The colony was located in what is now Eastern Canada’s Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), as well as part of Quebec, and present-day Maine to the Kennebec River. Although today most of the Acadians and Québécois are French speaking Canadians, Acadia was a distinctly separate colony of New France… The Acadians lived for almost 80 years in Acadia, prior to the British Siege of Port Royal in 1710. After the Conquest, they lived under British rule for the next forty-five years. During the French and Indian War, British colonial officers suspected they were aiding the French. The British, together with New England legislators and militia, carried out the Great Expulsion of 1755–1764 during and after the war years. They deported approximately 11,500 Acadians from the maritime region. Approximately one-third perished from disease and drowning… Many Acadians migrated to Spanish colonial Louisiana, where they developed what became known as Cajun culture. Others were transported to France.” MORE
If you’re not living under a rock in Greenland, you’re probably aware of Pharis and Jason Romero by now. NPR darlings from Horsefly BC. Makers of gorgeous banjos that are both rustic and refined. Two award-winning duo albums under their belts, and a couple of collaborations before that. Songs that mine the old-time tradition and blur the line between original and public domain. A smooth, vintage sound that could calm a drunken sailor. Or in their case–maybe a crying toddler.
Their new album A Wanderer I’ll Stay continues to map the musical back roads of old-school acoustic Americana. Two tracks are instrumental compositions that explore the lush sonic landscapes of Jason’s gourd banjos. Their version of Cocaine Blues from Luke Jordan is dark and fun at the same time, and young fiddler Josh Rabie (Water Tower Bucket Boys) contributes nice textural tones here and there. Marc Jenkins plays pedal steel on Billy Mayhew’s It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie (1936), a recycled waltz melody that was played during the British dixieland revival in the 1950s and 1960s in a fast 4/4 tempo. This song was recorded by many others, notably Billie Holliday, Slim Whitman and even John Denver.
Throughout, Jason’s banjos simmer and swirl on a warm sea of vintage flattops, with tight two-part harmonies that can only come from partners that are devoted to the music and each other. More so than previously, the new album A Wanderer I’ll Stay leans confidently into original material while keeping the burnished sheen for which the couple have become known. Recommended!
Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle just released their second album as a duo, a self-titled collection of spine-tingling mountain ballads and gospel songs. These two amazing young women faithfully evoke the hard life and simple joys of traditional Appalachian music on banjo and guitar, with harmonies that encourage the listener to lean close and absorb every nuance. If like me, you love the pure, unadorned music of the common man, look no further. These songs shimmer like genuine hard-core red-clay diamonds.
LISTEN: Soldier and the Lady
And that’s not all–Anna and Elizabeth host a radio variety show, they create and promote the lost art of crankies, and they present school programs. A crankie is a panoramic scene, rolled up inside a box, then hand-cranked so that it scrolls across a viewing screen, to illustrate a ballad song that is simultaneously performed live. In the mid 19th century, they were called moving panoramas, but the term crankie is being used now to refer to this very old art form. Here is a crankie that was hand-sewn by Anna and Elizabeth to illustrate the traditional ballad The Devil’s Nine Questions. (The men here are Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary, a duo known as the Murphy Beds.)
The Floyd Radio Show is a monthly old-time variety show consisting of radio plays, comedy bits, ads, jingles, and traditional music in its most authentic forms. Each show features some the area’s finest old-time musical acts, from storytelling banjo players to flat-picking guitarists to hard-driving string bands. It’s hosted by Anna and Elizabeth and held at the famous Floyd Country Store, an epicenter of old-time mountain music.
John Neufeld and Annalisa Tornfelt. Photo by Mary Winzig.
Annalisa Tornfelt first came to my attention as the singer for Black Prairie (Portland, Oregon), a folk-rock group that began in 2007 as a side project for members of The Decemberists and has since evolved into an influential force in Portland’s exploding indie music scene. Her new solo album The Number 8 is set for release on March 10 on Woodphone Records. For this project, the Alaska-raised singer used an analog 8-track tape machine to record just herself and her vintage Black Beauty Arch Kraft guitar singing 14 tracks composed by herself (with two co-writes). She worked with Mike Coykendall to record the entire album in 8 hours at Blue Doors Studios in SE Portland. (And yes, she plays her nyckelharpa on the record too!)
“I asked Annalisa to play a few fiddle tunes with me, which soon flipped to her picking up a guitar and singing Hank Williams,” says her Black Prairie bandmate, Chris Funk. “It was simple, but it was stunning… she grabs the all-too-familiar guitar and sings a song and you realize your bandmate and friend has the unique gift and power to make the weight of the world lift for three minutes.”
The Number 8 has a gorgeous, languid feel that ranges from oldtime country to modern indie-folk. There’s nothing here that I wanted to skip over. Each song compels a closer listen and a linger, to be savored like a Sunday morning cup of Stumpy’s at your neighborhood cafe. The Number 8 is a perfect soundtrack for a lazy hipster hang in the city where young people go to retire. Recommended!