Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Days 30 & 31

I wanted to end the Lomax-a-Day project with a profound statement about the importance of American folk music, but after 31 days of this, I can't quite muster the energy. I can say this: I have barely scratched the surface. This giant, tangled web of songs contains millions of histories, millions of mysteries, and millions of keys to the American identity. I am bound to keep trying to untangle the web in my own way. Or maybe "untangle" is the wrong idea--perhaps to tangle yourself deep into the web is the ultimate goal. I urge everyone who cares about music, who cares about the idea of America, who cares about people telling stories, to do some tangling themselves. Lomax is a good place to start.

I'll let my last two recordings, "Railroad Bill" and a medley of "Careless Love" and "Troubled in Mind," speak for themselves. For the blues, "Troubled in Mind" sure strikes a hopeful tone: "Troubled in mind, I'm blue, but I won't be blue always/ Wind's gonna rise and blow my blues away."

Lomax-a-Day, Day 29

It's the last day of the month, and I have three posts to go. Lomax-a-Day Marathon, here we come.

The 'Work Songs' section of the Negro South chapter presents some particular challenges. I get the sense with most of these songs that transcribing the original, mostly improvised performance must have been a difficult task, especially for white, Western-music-trained musicologists. Every phrase contains rhythmic and melodic variation, with little of the repetition and predictability found in the white folk songs that fill earlier chapters of this anthology. The transcription process seems reflective of the whole history of white Americans commercializing and commodifying black American music: the songs are twisted and crammed into digestible structures created by whites, only to be misinterpreted and appropriated by white singers (like myself). In the by-line of "Don't Lie, Buddy," Lomax writes that the song was "collected and re-composed by Josh White." I'm not accusing Lomax of any more racism than is to be expected from a mid-20th century cultural collector--in fact, Lomax did a great deal to expose white Americans to black music and thus open an essential racial dialogue--but the word "re-composed" smacks of imperialistic musicology. Composition itself is a Western, scholarly concept that doesn't fit well with the organic development of most folk songs. Without a single author, without a definitive version, without an ego pining for credit, how can a song be composed? Perhaps Lomax could have just said "composed by Josh White"; if the song wasn't originally composed in the way we recognize, then how could it be re-composed?

Be aware of at least two degrees of cultural re-/mis-interpretation as you listen to my version of "Don't Lie, Buddy." The first was in Josh White's "re-composition." The second is my dumbing down of the rhythm, melody, and chord structure into something much simpler than what is printed, something I could wrap my structure-loving brain around.

One side-note: the "Jack the Rabbit" verse of this song is in the family of raccoon, possum, and rabbit songs I mentioned in yesterday's post, so I was delighted to find it once again in a seemingly unrelated song. I'm learning more and more that there is no such thing as "unrelated" in American folk music.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 28

My recent exploration of animal folk songs has often led back to a family of folk-lyrics centered around raccoon, possum, and rabbit. Three of the most popular characters in African-American folk tales (the Br'er Rabbit tales, for example), these furry varmints seem to have inspired a whole anthology's worth of slightly varying tunes. From what I can tell, the two most central verses are:

Raccoon has a bushy tail
Possum's tail is bare
Rabbit's got no tail at all
But a little bunch of hair


Possum in the 'simmon tree
Raccoon on the ground
Raccoon says to possum
"Won't you shake those 'simmons down"

These two verses are connected to countless others about the same animals, and sometimes pop up in totally unrelated songs (see "Twistification," Day 18).  It's a perfect example of the folk-lyric phenomenon I wrote about in my analysis of "The Fourth Day of July" (Day 10): a critical mass of common verses became the shared folk-song vernacular, with singers arranging them into endless permutations. 

As I searched for variations of raccoon, possum, and rabbit songs, "Bile Them Cabbage Down" was hiding right under my nose in Lomax's anthology. I've always heard that title, but never guessed that it too was linked to these common animal folk-lyrics. Not surprisingly, the chorus has nothing to do with the verses. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 27

OK, I'm one day behind, but I swear I'm going to catch up this weekend and post 31 songs by the 31st. Today's selection is from the 'Spirituals II' section of the Negro South chapter. "Wade in the Water" is one of my favorite spirituals, first introduced to me by my girlfriend Jessie's family. Each day-after-Thanksgiving, the Eller-Isaacs host a singing party, where they cycle through folk songs, pop songs, gospel songs... some with guitar accompaniment, some a cappella. At the first singing part I attended, two years ago in NYC, we sang a medley of "Wade in the Water," "Ride Sally Ride," "Let My People Go," and "Beulahland." While each of these songs is completely distinct, they locked together as if all minor-key spirituals are secretly part of one mega-spiritual, where all the anguished, searching, faithful voices throughout time are subconsciously in tune, in time, in harmony. It was an incredible introduction. Jessie and I sing together here, but I wish we had a room full of singers to really drive it home.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 26

You'll have to forgive me for posting this a day late. Last night I played a solo show opening for my friends Jim Stier and the Volunteers. I performed my favorite Lomax songs, so it was kind of like I was doing my Lomax-a-Day. But, in order to complete my goal of recording a song out of each section of the book, I need to do six more. This means no skipping a day! The good news is, I've entered the final geographical section, called 'the Negro South.' It's full of spirituals, reels, and blues, and it's the section I'm most excited to explore. So I should have no trouble with this home stretch.

No better way to start a day than by singing a beautiful spiritual. I recommend it to anyone with the midwinter blues. "When the Stars Begin to Fall" is a song I grew up on; we always sang a similar but more white protestant hymn-y version at my family's church. Singing hymns, and the feeling of community it made, was by far the best part of church. From an early age the black spirituals were my favorites. The lyrics of this one are so perfectly thankful:

My Lord, what a mornin'!
My Lord, what a mornin'!
My Lord, what a mornin'!
When the stars begin to fall!
You'll hear the sinner moan
To wake the nations underground,
Lookin' to my God's right hand
When the stars, the stars begin to fall.

The only nations underground I woke today were my downstairs neighbors. Is 7:45am too early to be hollering my appreciation for the loveliness of the morning?

When I started to record, the gray Portland clouds were shrouding the dim sky out of my apartment's east windows. Slowly, a sliver of yellow pushed up from the horizon. Layers of purple and pink and blue piled on. Now, a brilliant morning sun is beaming through the bare trees, through the dew and dust on the window, in onto my sleepy face. My Lord, what a morning!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lomax-a-Day. Day 25

The more I think about my posting yesterday, in which I complained about how hard it is to come up with an original idea around folk music these days, the more I realize how badly I was missing the point. The modern need for originality is a construct at best, a complex at worst. If my goal is to immerse myself in the folk tradition, then originality should be my last concern. A perfect moment to land on 'The Last West' section of the West, which is basically a chapter devoted to Woody Guthrie. Lomax reflects on Guthrie: "Woody has never tried to be original, in the sense of the sophisticated songwriter. Like all folk poets, he uses familiar tunes, re-works old songs, adding new lines and phrases out of the folk-say of the the situation that demands the new song. He feels that his function is to sum up and crystallize popular sentiment, to act as the voice of the common man. Although his songs are conversational in tone, they have a truth, an authenticity, and a punch which no other poet of this age can match."

I love this. The folk poet doesn't demand a new song to feed his ego, the situation demands it. The folk song is not an event in the way a new pop song tries to be; a folk song is a response to the events beyond our control. There is an appreciation here in the outer world's ability to provide the folk singer with all of the beauty and originality he needs. If he has mastered the form, then he already possesses the tools to respond to the world with an authentic reaction.

The Lomax-a-Day project is not, and should not try to be, an original exercise. It is, among other things, an exercise in relinquishing the selfish desire for originality. If anyone can remind me of this, it is Woody Guthrie. In 1941, Lomax contacted Guthrie on behalf of the Bonneville Power Administration, who wanted to use the folk singer as a "public relations consultant." The BPA hired Guthrie for a month to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of federal dams. Inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, Guthrie wrote 26 songs in 26 days. The situation demanded these songs. My first reaction was that it takes some serious creative originality to compose 26 songs in so many days, but perhaps Guthrie was just a well-honed folk poet. A finely polished mirror with the ability to reflect the world back to itself. Regardless, "Roll On, Columbia" is a classic, a source of pride for Northwesterners, a reminder to all that this world contains some serious beauty and power. It is a narrow human view to think that we are the only creators of beauty, the only generators of power.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 24

On Day 6, I found that Jim Henson had long ago beat me to the idea of puppet bands singing classic American folk songs. On Day 9, I discovered that Walt Disney, among others, beat me to the idea of modern kids' entertainment based on animal tunes like "Cock Robin." Yesterday I realized that Roger McGuinn, lead singer of the Byrds, has been cataloging American folk music, including most of the Lomax songs I've chosen, on his website McGuinn's Folk Den. And today I found out that Dan Zanes, who also beat me to the idea of being a kids' performer who doesn't make adults want to throw up in their mouths, has an album of 25 songs from Carl Sandburg's American Songbag (where Lomax found many of the songs he includes in Folk Songs of North America). As folk music has proven throughout time, there is no such thing as an original idea.

Both McGuinn and Zanes recorded versions of "Wand'rin," which Lomax calls "one of the most beautiful of American folk songs" and the "finest of American hobo songs." McGuinn gives it a Byrds-y treatment, with his clean Rickenbacker guitar work and high-pitched croon (which, I must say, has seen better days). Zanes' version is a lovely, lazy shuffle with guitars meandering through the mix like so many hobos through a train yard. Lomax's version has a slightly different chord structure, with a major III and VI instead of minor like in McGuinn's version. McGuinn's and Zanes' chords flow bittersweetly into one another with an ease of motion that Lomax's chords complicate. I think I like the off-kilter sound of Lomax's chords. The hobo feels the twinge of melancholy in his life of wandering, and half-apologizes in the refrain. But before he can get too down, he feels that chugging rhythm of freedom lifting his feet again.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 23

"A man of the old West hardly ever got downhearted about anything unless something happened to the woman he loved and was married to. They were a quiet, solemn kind of lot, mighty short on kissing and all that stuff women are supposed to set such store by, but I reckon they loved their wives as much as any men that ever lived, even if they rarely said so." (Lomax, 393)

"Colorado Trail" perfectly captures that deep but understated love. Clocking in at just under a minute, the song packs an eternity of longing into 32 words. When the man of the old West can't himself weep and wail for his lost love, he lets the rain and wind do it for him. It's telling that the only time the singer says more than he needs to is when he repeats the word "along"--"all along, along, along, the Colorado Trail." So simply put, he's doomed forever to ramble that trail, forever to remember his Laura.

Lomax-a-Day, Day 22

The Chisholm Trail, a path used for cattle drives from southern Texas into Kansas, ran straight through my hometown of Austin, TX. My aunt and uncle live in an amazing house that used to be a Chisholm Trail hotel in Belton, TX, about an hour north of Austin. So it felt appropriate to learn the classic ballad sung by cowboys riding that trail. "The Old Chisholm Trail" is LONG--Lomax says the song had a verse for every mile of the way between Texas and Montana. Only 9 verses here, but they show the range of subjects that a cowboy ballad might cover. Plenty of verses are about riding on the trail, but then a verse will amble away, the cowboy's mind drifting back to a girl in the last town he rode through ("I know a girl who's going to leave her mother...") or drifting forward to his destination ("Oh, Abilene city is a dang fine town"). But no matter where his mind wanders, it always returns to the job at hand: the girl's petticoats flop "like a pair of saddlebags"; in Abilene the boys "liquor up and twirl those heifers round." He knows he's chosen his fate; when he dies he'll be "herding dogies up in Heaven in the sweet bye-and-bye."

Doing a bit of research, I found several versions of "The Old Chisholm Trail" that share lyrics with this one, but I couldn't find any with quite the same chord pattern. Tex Ritter does a hilariously chipper, yodeling version here; Lead Belly, an unlikely cattle herder, gives it a spin here. I think the somber tone and endless repetition of Lomax's version are fitting, and strip away the glossy romance that the Tex Ritters and technicolor westerns play up.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 21

This is cheating, I know. Today my creative energy has been pulled away from the holy anthology. Today I wrote a song.

It's time for me to come clean. I've had ulterior motives all along. My hope was to dig deep enough into this old American music that my own songs would begin to come from that same hole. Maybe it's presumptuous, that I could tap into the great American spirit from whence all classic folk songs come. But a boy's got to try.

"Empty Ring" is part "My Bonny," part "Ring of Fire," part death-of-a-lover ballad. Close your eyes and tell me, honestly, if Lomax might have transcribed this song from a field recording back in the day. If so, I've achieved my hidden purpose. If not, I'll keep trying.

Ten days to go, after all.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 20

Sometimes the hardest part of learning Lomax's version of a folk song is learning to forget the version I'm familiar with. I've heard plenty of versions of "Jesse James," most recently and most indelibly on Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions. The version printed in Folk Songs of North America follows roughly the same chord pattern, but the melodic movement is markedly different. As I stumble through this recording, know that it's not musical incompetence, but opposing melodies beating each other out of my mouth.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 19

Setting out on this project, I couldn't have predicted that I'd find a song with the line, "No one can tell how my bowels feel." But "Lousy Miner" lays it all out on the line--the indigestion, lice infestation, and heartache that comes with mining for gold. I don't have much time to write tonight, so I'll leave it at this: only a bitter '49er could deliver ridiculous lines like this with a straight face and such a heartbreakingly lovely tune. Enjoy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 18

"Twistification" is a weird song in a lot of ways. Here are a few:
1) Twistification is not a word and appears nowhere the lyrics.
2) The chorus is simply the fives times table.
3) The verses seem totally unrelated. The first is about meeting a girl in the swamp, the second is about dancing, the third is about a raccoon and possum.

However, this song does have one of the awesomest stanzas I've ever heard:
"Take that little miss by her hand,
Lead her like a pigeon,
Make her dance just one more reel,
Scatter her religion."


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 17

Finally! We emerge from the Southern Mountains into the West. The first section of the West, 'Beyond the Mississippi,' contains the first song I learned out of this anthology, two summers ago. I returned from tour with my band, Bark Hide and Horn, having recently released an album entirely based on old National Geographic articles. Many of the songs were from the perspectives of animals, and I decided that I wanted to continue working from this angle. I began digging through my American music anthologies for animal folk songs, thinking I could rework them from the animals' points of view. The first song I found was "The Hound Dawg Song," and I was immediately obsessed. I decided that there was no point in writing a new song inspired by this one, since the original is a perfectly infectious, hilarious, tragic masterpiece about a boy and his dog. The only thing I add is the instrumental bridge, which in my mind is the dog's chance to wail out his misery. The narrator's voice breathes authenticity with every phrase, especially with his use slang: "ornery old cuss"; "passel of yaps"; "that just naturally made us sore"; "he lit into them gentlemen"; "he shore mussed up the courthouse square." The chord progression is simple and bittersweet. The minor chord adds a touch of adolescent melancholy that always cycles back around, no matter how hard the V7 chord tries to brush it off. The narrator is downright desperate: "they gotta quit kickin' my dawg around!" When he and Lem Briggs and ol' Bill Brown, and then Jim the dog, finally get their revenge, it feels like a fantasy played out in the narrator's head. Inevitably, the song loops back to the chorus, and the sad fact that the bullies win every time. To me, this song captures the plight of every wimpy boy, the devotion a child feels toward his pet, and the power of imagination to bring justice to an unfair world.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 16

The 'Hard Times and the Hillbilly' section of Southern Mountains and Backwoods reads like a Merle Travis songbook. Travis was a Kentucky coal-miner's son who hit it big in the late '40s with recordings of traditional and original mining ballads. His intricate finger-picking style, now known as "Travis-picking," influenced generations of folk guitar slingers. Travis inspired me to swap the flat-pick for the thumb-pick and my furious strumming for speedy finger-work. His "Nine Pound Hammer" was the first song I learned to finger-pick, my gateway into the world of bluegrass and folk music. I first heard Travis on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The long-haired cosmic cowboys assembled all of the greats--Travis, the Carter family, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson--and made a triple album of classic bluegrass songs. It rotated steadily on my family's record-player growing up, ushering me into the world of hillbilly and folk music.

"Dark as a Dungeon" is a well-known, somber miner's ballad. I love the image that Travis returns to several times--man's blood and body filling with the coal that he mines: "It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,/ till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal"; "I hope when I'm dead and the ages shall roll,/ my body will blacken and turn into coal." It's a powerful symbol of man's tendency to let his work consume him, physically and psychologically. It's also a dark reminder of the tragic toll coal mining took on worker's bodies, communities, and local landscapes.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 15

There are plenty of directions I could take this posting about "Tom Dula" (also known as "Tom Dooley"). I could write about how the Kingston Trio's version of the song launched the pop folk revival in the USA. I could mention how the Kingston Trio's version , like many of their songs, strips all the grit and authenticity away from the source, replacing it with an utterly palatable, white collegiate gloss. Or I could delve into the true story behind the song, and the popular theory that it wasn't ex-Confederate soldier Tom Dula who stabbed Laura Foster in the North Carolina woods in 1868 on account of her giving him an STD, but instead his jealous lover Anne Melton, and that Dula confessed to being the lone killer simply to protect Melton. I could even try to pin down the song's writer--Lomax claims in his notes that Dula composed the song the night before he was hung; others attribute it to a North Carolina journalist. But mostly I want to consider the murder ballad: a truly bizarre genre. In what other type of song would the singer cheerfully exclaim, "I met her on the mountain/ I swore she'd be my wife/ I met her on the mountain/ and I stabbed her with my knife"? Or whine to his pappy, "what shall I do?/ I lost all my money," and as an afterthought, "I killed poor Laurie too." The Tom Dula this song presents is a total sociopath, remorseless for his horrible deed. Are we supposed to sympathize? Maybe it's like the appeal of reality TV, the guilty pleasure you get in watching the suffering of someone who has made terrible decisions. Or maybe it's just a morality tale. Stay away from red whiskey and pretty women, boys, and you won't end up on the gallows.

My girlfriend Jessie provides the lovely harmony vocals. (She's a pretty woman, I admit, but I promise not to drink a drop of red whiskey.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 14

With some of these old folk songs, I feel like the meaning escapes me because the lyrics are cobbled together from a hundred different singers saying a hundred different things. "Dig a Hole in the Meadow" is opaque in a more deliberate way, as if the narrator is leaving out important details to leave us guessing. The chipper tune belies the violent trouble beneath the surface. Like any good mystery, it starts with a cadaver: Lulie is dead. "Dig a hole in meadow/ just to lay little Lulie down." The singer then rewinds to dimly illuminate the events leading up to her death. He first sees her at the still-house door, making him the bootlegger inside. Then he's frantically waking her--"go get me my gun... I'll die before I run." Trouble is coming, and we already know that it's Lulie who's going to pay. The third verse pulls us briefly away from the action, but reminds us the end is near. As if in a dream, the narrator sees Lulie "on the banks of the sea/ two pistols strapped round her body/ and a banjo on her knee." What a badass. Facing death while picking her banjo. Then it's "Wake up, wake up" again--is she already slipping out of consciousness? "What makes you sleep so sound?" I see the singer locked up in the still, pistols loaded, a dying Lulie in his arms. "The highway robbers are comin'/ Gonna tear your playhouse down." That's one way to break the news: sorry, little Lulie, it's a hole in the meadow for you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 13

"Shady Grove" is a subtly hilarious story of a desperate man trying to find a wife. The self-deprecating narrator knows he's little more than a grown boy ("Now I am a great big boy/ I think myself a man"), but he is fixated on his search for a mate. He finally has one by the last verse, but he's so hopeless that he loses her: "Every night when I come home/ My wife, I try to please her/ The more I try, the worse she gets/ Damned if I don't leave her." It was fun to choose and rearrange verses to emphasize this story line. As it's written in Lomax's anthology, the chronology is all over the place and several verses are unrelated. Sometimes you get the sense that he provides all of the verses he's ever heard sung in a particular song. This creates some interesting juxtapositions (one of the verses I didn't choose to sing in "Shady Grove" is about the singer's mulie cow--"took a jaybird forty year to fly from horn to horn"), and almost always provides plenty of material if you're looking to create a cohesive narrative. Maybe that's being untrue to the source material, but the way I see it, singers have been putting personal touches on these songs as long as they have existed. Now it's my turn.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 12

I took a bit of creative liberty with today's entry. This is actually a medley between two related songs--"King David," a black spiritual I learned several weeks ago from A Treasure of Afro-American Folklore by Harold Courlander, and "O David," a white spiritual from Lomax's collection. "King David" is the song that I use as the verses, with "Good Lord" as the imaginary choral interjection. "O David" is what I use for the chorus, with "Yes yes" as the intejection. The topic and several of the lyrics are identical. Lomax explains the interchange between black and white spiritual music: when shape-note and camp-meeting movements lost steam in the late nineteenth century, a new revival took hold of the rural South--the Holy Roller Church. "White Holiness churches, in the heart of the Jim Crow belt, invite Negroes to participate in their services. Negro churches have white members. Ministers and church officials move with remarkable freedom between Negro and white congregations. In the North and West, where this movement has taken a strong hold in city slums, Negroes and whites, possessed of the spirit, dance and roll on the floors together.... In this people's revival, Negroes and their music were openly received into the white church. 'O David,' a modern Holiness spiritual from Eastern Kentucky, has the shape of the most primitive type of Negro solo-chorus work song." Lomax's explanation is fascinating, but I take issue with the final sentence. "King David" is most likely the "Negro solo-chorus work song" that "O David" takes its shape from, but to call the earlier song primitive is overlooking its amazing artistry. The lyrics of "King David" are complex and poetic, gracefully weaving together Biblical moments and human concerns. "O David" is by far the simpler song, with its 3-5 syllable verses and repetition of phrases. Interesting how racial assumptions have dictated folk musicology through the years. Regardless, I hope you enjoy the spiritual mash-up:

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 11

I discovered "Rattlesnake" this weekend in the 'Across the Blue Ridge' section of 'The Southern Mountains and Backwoods.' I'm breaking my section-by-section approach for a day in order to go back to what I see as an almost perfect song. I'm fascinated by the use of animals in American folklore and folk song, in part because of their ability to illuminate the animal nature still intact in humans (see Greil Marcus' take on the cuckoo in yesterday's post). I also love a singer's or storyteller's journey into an animal perspective, both for the outsider status it allows in commenting on human culture, and for the sheer imagination it takes to inhabit an inscrutable brain and body. In "Rattlesnake," the singer effortlessly melds the animal and human perspectives. He starts each verse with an invocation and a question--"Rattlesnake, o rattlesnake/ what makes your teeth so white?" He then slips into the first person, answering his own question: "I've been in the bottom all my life/ an' I ain't done nothin' but bite." It's unclear just who's speaking. Is the rattlesnake answering? Or does the singer, through his own experience, feel the the miserable plight of this hated animal? The song goes on, creature by creature, revealing struggle after struggle. The line between animal instinct and human chore is blurred throughout. A few lines just kill me: "I've been in the bottom all my life/ till I'm mortified in my head"; "It's a wonder I don't smotherfy/ livin' down in the ground"; "Been robbin' your cornpatch all my life/ it's a wonder I don't die." Once again, what could be written off as a cute animal song for kids is in fact a profound, deeply sad meditation on life, duty, and death. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 10

"The Fourth Day of July" is the old, weird America at its best. In his book The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus, my favorite contemporary cultural critic and musicologist, offers a revelatory analysis of Clarence Ashley's version of the song, called "The Coo Coo Bird." "Depositing its orphans, leaving its progeny to be raised by others, to grow up as imposters in another's house--as America filled itself up with slaves, indentured servants, convicts, hustlers, adventurers, the ambitious and the greedy, the fleeing and the hated, who took or were given new, imposters' names--the cuckoo becomes the other and sees all other creatures as others. If the host bird removes a cuckoo's egg from its next, the cuckoo may take revenge, killing all of the host's eggs or chicks; in the same manner, as new Americans drove out or exterminated the Indians, when the cuckoo egg hatches the newborn may drive out any other nestlings or destroy any other eggs. As a creature alienated from its own nature, the cuckoo serves as the specter of the alienation of each from all." In this song, the fourth day of July, just like the Cumberland Gap (see Day 8), has a undefined historical gravity that pulls together seemingly unrelated "folk-lyric" stanzas (the name Marcus gives to interchangeable folk verses). The fourth day of July is when it all becomes clear--"and I see"--see why the cuckoo hollers 'cuckoo,' see why women love men, see old Willie passing by. On the U.S.A.'s birthday, for a glimmer of a moment, the mysterious hodgepodge of democracy makes sense. As does the parasitic behavior of the cuckoo bird--the very behavior that made our great nation.

I recorded this song in one take with my buddies Peter (bass, vibraphone) and Terence (guitar). As usual, I used the built-in microphone on my computer, so I apologize for the poor mix.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 9

In my posting a few days ago for "The Horse Named Bill," I was considering the amount of adult content in folk songs deemed suitable for children. In his description of "Cock Robin," Alan Lomax sheds some light on the subject: "Of the two best-loved children's ballads in English, the first is the story of an animal wedding in which all the animal guests are killed and eaten [I assume he means "Froggie Went A-Courtin'"], the second begins at an inquest and goes on to a funeral; nor is this strange when one considers the blood-stained stanzas of the Anglo-American ballads beloved of adults. In our culture, children, like their parents, have a passionate relish for violence--in nursery rhymes, cowboy pictures, comic books, murder mysteries, etc. Oppressed, humiliated, denied, bullied, and talked down to by a race of strong giants, their fancies have naturally run to violence and death. In their dreams they have revenged themselves and in their nightmares they have been punished for their guilt thoughts." Whoa. "Cock Robin" is certainly morbid, and a little research shows it's been printed in hundreds of children's anthologies, nursery rhyme collections, and song books for kids. In light of all this, the contemporary tendency to mourn the bygone innocence of childhood--and to demonize video games, movies, and the internet for implanting violent images in kids' heads--seems like cultural amnesia. It's true that modern media violence is more extreme than the violence of this song, but the fascination is nothing new. I love the animal cosmos that this song creates, where each character has a set duty and approaches it with grim seriousness. In my American Animal Folksong Puppet Epic, "Cock Robin" will have a central role. 

And speaking of questionable entertainment for kids, take a look at Walt Disney's take on "Cock Robin":

Friday, January 8, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 8

An important place can become its own universe in an American folk song. The Cumberland Gap was a pass through the Appalachian Mountains at the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. It became a key passage for early American pioneers heading west. In "Cumberland Gap," the site is where the American imagination wanders, where the action happens. The chorus merely places the place: "Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap, way down yonder in the Cumberland Gap." The verses mostly revolve around domestic trivia: "Me an' my wife and my wife's pap/ We all live down in Cumberland Gap"; "Old Aunt Dinah if you don't keer/ Leave my little jug a-settin' right hyer"; "I've got a woman in Cumberland Gap/ She's got a boy that calls me pap." None of this has anything specifically to do with the Cumberland Gap, but the place has such historical gravity that it pulls the mundane into it. It becomes a meeting ground for whole lineages, their stock stories and shared sentiments. Cumberland Gap is a Mecca for the common man and he doesn't know why. After hearing so much about the place, he journeys long and arrives, then he can't quite remember why he came. ("I know something was way down yonder in Cumberland Gap, I just can't recall what.") So he fills the place with the things that are important to him: his wife, his wife's pap, his Aunt Dinah, his illegitimate son. Of course, there are plenty of historical reasons why the Cumberland Gap is an important place, but in the world of this song, it doesn't matter. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 7

Instead of writing an entry this evening, I made a slideshow to accompany this lovely song. "Mary Ann," the song, and Mary Ann, the women. Enjoy:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 6

"The Horse Named Bill" is absurd. I'm not sure when it was written, but it seems way ahead of its time. To me it feels like 1960s free-association psych-folk, a stoned Bob Dylan doing talking blues at Philharmonic Hall, John Prine at his most off-the-wall. But obviously, the roots of nonsense folk go much deeper than I know. Alan Lomax puts it best: "The tall tales of the frontier were replaced by jokes told round the cracker barrels in the country stores. The fellows who inherited the Yankee predilection for stretching the truth just to hear it pop [amazing!] joined liars' clubs and competed in national contests. " 

Doing a little research after making this recording, I discovered that the song has appeared on several folk records for kids. What I love about "folk for kids" is that the perceived tameness of folk music in general allows all sorts of ridiculous, off-color humor to slip in the back door. "I'm going out in the woods next year/ And shoot for beer--and not for deer/ I am--I ain't/ I'm a great sharpshootress." What the hell?

My research also led me to discover that I am way too late with my idea of creating an American folk music puppet epic. Jim Henson beat me to this song a long time ago. Check it out:

My version pales in comparison to Lubbock Lou and his Jughuggers.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 5

"Not a thing on the river McClusky did fear..." So begins "The Little Brown Bulls," my pick for Day 5. The curiously phrased opening line is one of many seemingly simple but truly strange lines in this 1872 logger's ballad. Digging into the Lomax-a-Day project, I am ever surprised by the complexity of old American folk music. I'm ashamed to say it, but even a folk enthusiast like myself holds some preconceptions about the simplicity of folk music--it's the old American primitive, our taken-for-granted shared language. We think we all understand the folk vernacular; contemporary artists evoke our national musical canon with drawls, predictable patterns, and unadorned lyrics. In fact, every song I study from this anthology is deeply baffling in its language and music. In "The Little Brown Bulls," each sentence is painstakingly constructed in service of rhythm, rhyme, and meaning. Standard diction is thrown out the window; the subject of a sentence is often withheld until the last word. Archaic words like "gored stick," "girtin'," "skidding," and "scaler" add to the inscrutability. Meanwhile, what seems like a simple I IV V waltz surprises the listener each verse with its eventual descent into the relative minor.  I chose to hold out that minor chord, to bask for a moment longer in the refused resolution. It makes sense that a nationalistic ballad would have the Yankee ox-driver win over the Canadian Scot. That this song first presents the Scot as the hero, then subverts that notion with chord and sentence structure speaks to the sophistication of American folk music. 

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 4

I'm glad I started this project on a long weekend, or I may have been discouraged more quickly. I spent a good chunk of the pre-work morning trying to choose a song out of the "Pioneers" section. Groggy indecision led me to learn most songs in the section, until I finally landed on "Oleana." It's a satirical ballad about early Norwegian settlers who bought land from the swindled fiddler, Ole Bull (pictured in the video below). The Pennsylvania homesteads Bull sold turned out to be hilly, forested, and barren. Later it surfaced that the man Bull bought the land from didn't own it all. A Norwegian journalist wrote "Oleana" to poke fun at the settlers who dreamed of a free ride in America. My heart goes out to the immigrants, whose dreams couldn't have been too different from my own Scandinavian forebears. This song is full of great lines like "the little pigs... trot about this lovely land/ with knives and forks stuck in their backs/ inquiring if you'd like some ham." I had to wait to record until I returned home in the evening, not wanting to disturb my neighbors with a 7:30am version of this rousing tune. 

Moving through the anthology section by section, picking one song per section, might prove more difficult than I imagined. This morning I passed up classics like "Turkey in the Straw" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" in search of a deeper cut, but the deeper cuts weren't quite calling out to me either. Maybe it's just Monday. 

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 3

My pick for Day 3, "Satan's Kingdom," comes out of the North, in the "Shouters and Shakers" section. (Days 1 and 2 also came out of the North, from "Yankee Soldiers and Sailors" and "Old Colony Times," respectively.) The songs in this section are mostly old shape-note hymns--church songs written with shapes to signal musical notes so that evangelist composers could share their music with the untrained countrymen of new America. "Satan's Kingdom" is a typically fiery anthem, pitting good Christians in a war against "Hell's dark king." I love the power that this song gives to song itself. Voices topple prison walls, cities, whole kingdoms. It speaks to the moral force of congregational singing in early America: the hymn isn't just about the power of God, the hymn IS the power of God. Hundreds of voices in harmony prove the interconnectivity of life, the strength of moral community. I would love to hear this song with full four-part shape-note harmony, but since I'm trying to keep these recordings simple--as in one track, no overdubs--I had to let my electric guitar and distortion pedal do some of the shouting. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, days 1 and 2

The first project I'm documenting on Red Yarn is called Lomax-a-Day. A coworker turned me on to an awesome arts collective called Artclash ( This is the 6th year that Artclash has organized "Fun-a-Day," a project in which artists produce one piece of artwork each day for the entire month of January and then submit their 31 pieces to a final show.

I've been collecting old folk music anthologies, my favorite of which is Alan Lomax's 1960 Folk Songs of North America. I enjoy learning songs out of these old books, especially songs I'm not already familiar with. The details that are lost or added or changed in transcription plus the details that are changed through my poor reading of sheet music lead to an interesting (to me) reworking of history. So, my project is to teach myself one song a day out of Folk Songs, arrange it to suit my fancy, and record it on Garage Band. The anthology is divided into regions (the North, the Southern Mountains and Backwoods, etc.), and the songs of each region are organized loosely by subject or genre. I hope to record at least one song out of each subsection throughout the month.

Yesterday, New Years Day, I learned and recorded "Shenandoah," a classic that yes, I admit, I was familiar with already. The Boss does an amazing version of it on his Seeger Sessions, putting it in 3/4 time and singing a lot of lyrics that aren't in Lomax's anthology. I stuck pretty closely to the transcribed melody, but I enjoyed playing with the rhythm and dynamics to give it the grandiose feel it deserves. My favorite lyric is definitely in the third verse--"O Shenandoah, I'm bound to leave you/(Away you rolling river)/O Shenandoah, I'll not deceive you/(Away, we're bound away...)." So beautifully simple, but perfectly encapsulates this current that runs through the whole song, a confusion in subject. Is he saying goodbye to a river? A woman? A whole region? I don't know, but the current pulls you deep into the song's longing, who/whatever it's about.

Today I learned and recorded "Whisky in the Jar." It's an Irish ballad about an outlaw who robs Colonel Pepper (any relation to Sergeant or Doctor?) up on Gilgarra Mountain, gets turned in by his sweetie, is imprisoned, then busts out ("they put me in jail...but they did not take my fists, so I knocked down the sentry..."). The chorus strikes me as prototypical Irish folk fare ("Musha ringum duram da, whack fol de daddy-o... there's whisky in the jar" over a V I IV V chord pattern), but the verses are a different matter. First of all, the story they tell hardly relates to "whisky in the jar," except that maybe an outlaw needs to be good and soused to do his outlawing. Otherwise, the jolly chorus seems like an afterthought, as if an Irish folk song has to be about drinking even if its narrative isn't. The chord progression in the verses (I VI IV) is similarly at odds with the chorus, with the major root chord falling into the relative minor, trying to pull itself out with the IV, but falling again and again back into minor until the drunkenly cheery chorus comes along and has a good laugh about all this depravity. A few lyrics in the song just blow my mind, particularly this one in the first verse: "I drew forth my pistols and I rattled my sabre/saying 'Stand and deliver for I am a bold deceiver...'" Such amazing language.

As you probably noticed, I've posted the songs as videos, since Blogger doesn't have an easy way to embed mp3s yet. 

Red Yarn!

Thanks for visiting! Red Yarn is a blanket title for my explorations in folk music, puppetry, and storytelling. I'll use the blog to document my creative process and to share my progress with friends and family near and far.

Red Yarn is an extension of my creative output of the last several years. From summer of 2005 until December 2009, I played in a band called Bark Hide and Horn ( We made folky rock'n'roll music and penned songs about mating snails, shape-shifting pioneers, cannibal lovers, and insane inventors. Our 2008 album, National Road, was entirely based on old National Geographic articles. After a few key band members left, we decided to retire the moniker and pursue new projects.

Since January 2008, I've also played in a kids band with my girlfriend Jessie. We're called Jelly Jar, and we sing original and traditional folk songs, tell animal folktales with home-made puppets, and put on events to build creative community with kids and families. Jessie is super busy with grad school and not quite as obsessed with puppets and old folk music as I am, so I thought it was time to create a solo project.

Which leads me to Red Yarn. Red Yarn himself is an old storyteller, soothsayer, and animal whisperer. He looks and sounds a lot like me, only older, with a beard made of yarn. His best friend is a rabbit who may or may not be the direct descendant of both Br'er Rabbit and Bob Dylan.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the posts!

Andy Furgeson
Portland, OR