November 20, 2013
Elizabeth Mitchell’s The Sounding Joy, released by Smithsonian Folkways for this holiday season, features new recordings of traditional American carols rescued from obscurity by the late Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger’s stepmother) in her 1953 songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas. These simple devotionals evoke, as Ruth Seeger put it, the “old-time American Christmas. . .not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.”
“That’s what we did in our house,” says Ruth’s daughter, Peggy Seeger, who is featured on the album, along with Joan Osborne and Natalie Merchant. We spoke with Peggy about her contribution to the recording as well as her memories of her mother and Christmastime.
Which tracks did you record on The Sounding Joy?
I was asked to do “Christmas in the Morning,” and I chose to do “Mother’s Child” because it was one that I sing a lot in concerts and I absolutely love the tune. But I didn’t care for the original words, “a child of god,” so I [changed it to] “I’m a mother’s child,” which any religion can sing.
So it was important to you that these songs appeal to all faiths?
Oh, yes, absolutely, definitely.
How did it feel to return to these songs?
I love them. The collection is very interesting because my mother was the daughter of a Methodist minister, and she was pretty atheistic. My father was a combination of an agnostic and an atheist. And I’m very surprised that so many of the songs mention God and the Lord. These are terms that I kind of tried to avoid. Now that I live in England, which is very multicultural, I avoid them even more than I would in the United States.
My mother had a real ear for picking songs. She got an awful lot of these, most of them off of the Library of Congress recordings. She brought home these 16-inch aluminum records and listened to them with a thorn needle—I’m talking about the mid-1940s, early ’50s, and the only way you could listen to those records was with a thorn needle because a steel needle would ruin the tracks. It was our job, the children’s job, to keep the needle sharp using a sparkler. You’d put the needle into a little clamp and then you whizzed a wheel around it that put sandpaper on it, and that sharpened it again.
We heard these songs in the house as [Ruth] was transcribing them, from a very early age. Grew up with them. I know them all. I always loved [my mother's] accompaniments. They’re not easy to play, actually. To play and sing these songs with her accompaniments needs a lot of concentration. It’s not just ump-chump-chump-ump-chump-chump, and it’s not just chords with the left hand. There’s a lot of contrapuntal countermelody going on there.
Why are these songs still relevant? What can modern audiences gain from this recording?
They have choruses that a lot of people can sing. A lot of repeated words. And for many people now, religious or not religious, Christmas is a time to get together. Having some new songs to sing at Christmas is a very nice idea. . . . Many of [these] songs sprang out of people singing together. That’s why there’s so much repetition. Often you have to repeat it for people to learn it and catch up with it, and for them to be able to feel themselves singing together, feel the edges of the room, as it were.
Do you celebrate Christmas?
Not anymore. . . . I’ve kind of lost interest in Christmas, with the horrifying commercialization. I don’t want to go into the stores anymore at Christmastime. I don’t want to hear all of the Christmas songs which you hear over and over ’til you are sick of them. . . .
The best Christmas I ever had was when I was about 7. It was a sad time for some people because there was an epidemic of polio in Washington, D.C, so we didn’t go into town to get presents. We stayed home and made presents for each other in the house. My brother, who was 9, got a little carpentry set before Christmas so he could make little cradles for our dolls. My mother taught me how to crochet and I crocheted things for my sisters’ dolls. My mother loved Christmas. She adored it.
September 23, 2013
Dave Van Ronk may be best known for the company he kept, which included Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But Van Ronk, a Greenwich Village fixture called the Mayor of MacDougal Street, was a skilled musician in his own right, as well as a mentor to others in the 1960s folk scene. A new Smithsonian Folkways compilation, Down in Washington Square, reveals his wide-ranging interests in blues, “trad” jazz, spirituals and even sea shanties. The album arrives just before Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film about a struggling folk singer, based in part on Van Ronk, who died in 2002 at age 65.
We spoke with Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place about the making of Down in Washington Square. Read on for his favorite tracks from the album and his thoughts on Van Ronk’s career, and preview the previously unreleased track, “St. James Infirmary,” below.
How did this compilation come about?
The Smithsonian acquired a record company called Folkways Records in 1947, with 2,200 albums. It became Smithsonian Folkways in 1988. There were two Van Ronk records on Folkways and some sea shanty stuff on a different record. In the early ’90s Dave himself put together a 1-CD set of his favorite songs from those albums, and then right after he passed away in 2002, his friends and family, his widow, brought us a live recording—one of his last concerts, which are reissued.
There’s been a groundswell of Van Ronk interest in the last year or so, mainly because he had a book called The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which is his memoirs. And the Coen brothers have a new movie coming out called Inside Llewyn Davis; it’s based on that book. The character in it is not really Dave Van Ronk, but it’s a composite character who’s a Van Ronk kind of character. As a matter of fact, there are images in it which are taken from Van Ronk record covers.
I started talking to [Van Ronk’s] widow Andrea Vuocolo [about a new compilation] and she was interested. I looked at all the stuff we had here in the archive, which was in addition to those [two] records I mentioned, and then Andrea [said she had] some things he recorded at home before he died that had never come out. His biographer Elijah Wald had a bunch of stuff that he’d gotten from Dave, from back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, that had never been out before. So between those three sources—it was just going to be a reissue, [but] now we’re adding all this additional, interesting stuff that no one’s ever heard before.
How much of this record is new material?
About a third of it—the third CD and a few other tracks. It became a 3-CD set and a bigger project than it really started out to be. We got Andrea to write an intro, memories of Dave, and then I wrote the rest of the notes.
How did Van Ronk’s music evolve over time?
He had a long career, starting in the ’50s with trad jazz, playing folk and blues versions of things; up through [Bob] Dylan and the early Greenwich Village years; up into some of the younger songwriters he mentored, like Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, people who came out in the ’80s and ’90s. . . .
He fell in with the folk crowd. There were jams in Washington Square Park and the jazzy stuff morphing into the folky stuff and the banjos and things. The world of the Village was turning into that folk world and he sort of went with the flow.
The later versions of some of [Van Ronk’s folk music] also became more sophisticated musically. He got into a lot of other things. Elijah Wald talks about how he used [Italian Baroque composer Domenico] Scarlatti, how he referenced this one classical piece in a folk arrangement that he did. There’s a song called “Another Time and Place” that came out in the ’80s—it’s a love song, probably for his wife, on the last disc. I couldn’t see him recording that in ’59, ’60—a straight love song like that.
What is trad jazz?
There are these jazz purists, people who believe that jazz stopped or was not worth listening to after about the 1930s. The big band, heaven forbid, bop and Dizzy Gillespie and [John] Coltrane, all the things that came after—to them that was not jazz. Jazz was what we often talk about as Dixieland, that early stuff. To them the golden age of jazz would have been 1910 to 1935, Jelly Roll Morton and people like that.
Starting in the ’40s there was a revival of these purists in the U.S. who were playing that older style of jazz, the kind of stuff you’d hear at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. By the time Van Ronk came along it was waning. He caught the tail end of that, but he was one of those jazz purists. So this record is a lot of Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton and songs like that.
Right on the tail end of [trad jazz] was a “jug band” craze, which [Van Ronk] also was involved in. It’s an upright washtub bass, a washboard, a banjo and sort of old instruments. But at the same time, there was a trad jazz thing going on in England too. People like the Rolling Stones started off in trad jazz bands. The Beatles’ first band was a “skiffle band,” which is the British version of jug bands. So they all came out of the same thing and took it off in different directions.
The tracklist for this album is like a musical history.
Yeah, it’s kind of a great sampling of other people’s music. There are some really important traditional musicians from the early part of the 20th century, blues and jazz, like Bessie Smith and Gary Davis and others. In the early days Van Ronk wasn’t writing as much original stuff. But later on he started writing a lot more of his own material.
How was Van Ronk viewed by other musicians?
He was a musician’s musician. All these people who were hip thought of him as being really the guy to go to, to talk to. He did a lot of amazing arrangements of other people’s songs. For instance, he was one of the first guys ever to record a Joni Mitchell song. He could spot people, other songwriters. Musicians knew him, and especially around New York City he was really huge. I think now all this publicity will be good, to get other people turned on to him. I hope this movie gets his name out there for people who don’t know it.
Were you in contact with the filmmakers of Inside Llewyn Davis?
They called and asked me some questions and wanted some props for the movie. They wanted it to look like a record company owner’s office in Greenwich Village in 1962. I said it has to look like mine. It has to be completely cluttered, because [anybody] like that is too busy creating and working on records to put things away. [The office] would be piled with tapes and old books and things everywhere. I offered [the filmmakers] extra copies of some old magazines we had from that era. They said that sounded great—but they never got back to me.
Why has Dave Van Ronk remained relatively obscure to the general public until now?
I guess some of his protégés were more charismatic—the [Bob] Dylans of the world—and got to be big stars and he was kind of left behind. “The House of the Rising Sun” that Dylan recorded was his [Van Ronk’s] arrangement. But he always sort of played his gigs, did records through his whole career, taught a lot of guitar and was just the guy around the Village.
Did Van Ronk have any hard feelings about not hitting it big?
I don’t know if there were hard feelings. But I noticed that YouTube video where he talks about the “House of the Rising Sun” issue, and he’s grumbling but it’s almost like fake grumbling, like at this point he doesn’t care anymore.
What are some of the highlights of this album?
I like “The House of the Rising Sun,” the version he didn’t release because Dylan recorded it. Van Ronk put it on a record later, but this is an earlier version than the one that came out. I’ve heard the first two Folkways CDs a lot over the years, so it’s the newer stuff that I’d focus on the most. . . .
Charlie Weber [Folklife media specialist] got all this [video] footage we shot of Van Ronk in 1997, which he’s going to put online. We released one of the songs from his Wolf Trap concert in ’97 on a previous album, but it was just the song. I thought his intro was just completely wild. It was so cool. It was the “Spike Driver Blues” intro [see below], so I wanted to make sure that this record had the actual intro on it. He was this great raconteur, storyteller kind of guy, so to get that kind of captures him, that gravelly voice and his personality.
Having the video really captures him because he’s sort of surprising. . . he was a huge guy. He could have been a lineman for a football team. He was probably 300 pounds and 6’6” or something. First time I met him, I was like, my gosh, I had no idea he was this giant guy.
Audio Sneak Preview: “St. James Infirmary (Gambler’s Blues)”
In this previously unreleased track from Down in Washington Square, Van Ronk delivers his take on the old Irish ballad “The Unfortunate Rake,” in which the rake is dying from the effects of syphilis
August 21, 2013
The top movie at the U.S. box office last weekend was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama loosely based on the life of White House butler and maître d’ Eugene Allen. Allen, who died in 2010 at age 90, served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan during his 34-year tenure. The new film, which stars Forest Whitaker as the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, is not a biopic, rather a portrait of race relations through the eyes of one man.
It is also not the first time Allen’s story has appeared on film. In 1994, Smithsonian Folkways released the documentary “Workers at the White House,” featuring interviews with Eugene Allen and other residence staff in a range of occupations. The film was directed by Dr. Marjorie Hunt, curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and was produced in conjunction with the 1992 Folklife Festival.
The documentary can now be found on the Smithsonian Folkways DVD White House Workers: Traditions and Memories. In the following excerpts, Eugene Allen talks about his career, his friendship with President Jimmy Carter and his farewell dinner with the Reagans.
August 1, 2013
In the latest issue of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, Boston-based musicologist Jeffrey Summit begins his essay on the Ugandan coffee cooperative Peace Kawomera with two tragedies: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013. Summit recorded the music of Peace Kawomera after the former and returned home in the aftermath of the latter. “In the wake of violence in my own city,” he writes, “I have been revisiting the music of this interfaith cooperative, and reflecting about the power and responsibility of each of us to create a climate of peace in our communities.”
Peace, the theme of the Spring/Summer issue, is of course a timeless ideal, but Summit’s words throw its current timeliness into stark relief. The issue takes an “international approach,” says managing editor Meredith Holmgren, “mak[ing] linkages of community peace around the world.”
The cover story, “Peace Songs of the 1960s,” brings the theme home to American readers and, in a Smithsonian Folkways first, compiles full versions of cited tracks in an embedded playlist. An essay by historian Ronald Cohen contextualizes these songs, including Bob Dylan’s “I Will Not Go Down Under the Ground” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” under the specter of nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War. Also featured is a video interview with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, whose songs were often made popular by other artists.
Former United Nations official Michael Cassandra discusses Nobel Voices for Disarmament: 1901-2001, a compilation of new and archival spoken-word recordings by notable proponents of peace. Michael Douglas, an Academy Award-winning actor and UN Messenger of Peace, narrates the album, which includes the voices of President Bill Clinton, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Progressive-era activist Jane Addams. The piece is accompanied by a multimedia lesson plan, which Holmgren says will become a recurring feature of the magazine.
In the Recording Spotlight is Peace Kawomera (Delicious Peace), the Fair Trade coffee co-op of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers—who happen to be excellent musicians as well. The collaboration, formed in response to 9/11, has proven both economically and artistically fruitful, underscoring the “importance of peace to economic prosperity,” says Holmgren. The article by Jeffrey Summit comes with photographs by Richard Sobol and video of a Peace Kawomera live performance.
This issue also marks the debut of “From the Field,” a Smithsonian Folkways Magazine partnership with the Society for Ethnomusicology which presents recent ethnomusicological field research to a general audience. The first installment, “Carnival of Memory: Songs of Protest and Remembrance in the Andes,” documents the music of Peruvian villages devastated by civil war in the 1980s. “People often seemed more willing to sing about the conflict than they were to talk about it,” writes ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter; their music helps them commemorate and come to grips with the violence. A photo slideshow and video recording situate these testimonial songs within the Andean carnival genre of pumpin. For Holmgren, the story exemplifies the difficult task of sustaining peace. “Peace isn’t something that happens,” she says. “It’s a process.”
July 31, 2013
The banjo conjures American musical icons: the overall-clad country band on an old porch, the bluegrass player in a sun-soaked field. Over the past century, famous players like Pete and Mike Seeger have established the instrument as an enduring piece of Americana.
Despite the banjo’s firm place in the American folk cannon, though, ethnomusicologist Greg C. Adams wants music fans to appreciate the eclectic, global contexts from which American banjo music grew. Since the instruments’ invention by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean nearly 400 years ago, the banjo has been picked up by a variety of cultures in and outside the Americas, each of which has contributed to the different ways America’s great banjoists have played.
For Classic Banjo, out this month on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Adams and archivist Jeff Place selected 30 of the past half-century’s best tracks by American banjo players that capture the diversity of American techniques and styles.
Adams, who has played the banjo for almost 20 years, recently talked to us about his love of the instrument, its history and what Classic Banjo means for a new generation of banjo enthusiasts.
Why make an album of American banjo classics?
Smithsonian Folkways is home to some of the most important recordings that reflect the ways the banjo is being used, especially in the 20th century. To have access to those materials, and to make those materials available, is vitally important to the ways in which we think about the broader history of the banjo. By the 1890s and moving forward, the banjo is increasingly used in the music industry. But how do we take what’s happened in the past century and compare it to how we understand the banjo’s broader history, which is a nearly 400-year history? How do we reflect upon the first 300 years of that history and embrace what we can learn from the 20th century forward? That’s why we put this album together.
What makes a good banjo track?
It’s a mix of the energy behind the performance, learning about the contexts of the performance and then learning who these people are and why they are significant. On the album, Tony Trischka and Bill Evans play the tune “Banjoland” with incredible precision. But you can also listen to “Golden Bell Polka,” by A.L. Camp, who at the time of this recording was a very old man. He’s playing this tune that would be associated with the late 19th and early 20th century, and so while you can tell he’s of an older generation by his performance, there’s still an integrity in his playing that says: ‘Yes, this man knew exactly what he was doing and in his day was an incredible player.’ It’s about appreciating not only the processes people go through as they learn to play the instrument, but how this process ties into the broader banjo tradition.
You had more than 300 albums to dig through in your search. How did you decide which tracks ultimately made the final cut?
We looked at several things. Who are some of the individuals that would need to be represented? What are some of the specific playing techniques that would need to be there? What kind of repertoire would help to reflect the vibrant nature of banjo music traditions? We have iconic people like Pete Seeger, Hobart Smith, or Mike Seeger, and we focus on playing techniques that are associated with, for example, bluegrass traditions, or with old time music—whether you’re talking about downstroke techniques such as clawhammer or frailing, as well as two- and three-finger picking styles. And then there are also people who are not picking the strings with their fingers, but using flat pics or plectrums.
How did these different techniques come about?
Different techniques materialize in different ways. In the 19th century, downstroke techniques were associated with the banjo’s commercialization through black-face minstrelsy and instruction books that taught African American techniques. This way of playing the banjo shares the same fundamentals with what we see in old time music circles, so if you see somebody playing clawhammer banjo—they would also call it frailing the banjo or thumping the banjo—you have a fundamental technique that unfolds in different ways, within different geographic locations, within different communities. Nobody’s going to play the banjo in the exact same way.
Banjo is increasingly prevalent in popular radio music, like songs by the band Mumford and Sons. What do you hope a young generation of banjo enthusiasts take away from this record?
What listeners are hearing people do today ties back to traditions that are hundreds of years old. It’s part of a much larger continuum. What they’re hearing in popular music, and perhaps what they’ll hear on a recording such as Classic Banjo, will inspire them to look deeper beyond just the sound of the instrument to the multicultural contexts in which the banjo exists. My hope is that we can reach as wide a public as possible.
What’s the benefit of the banjo’s growing popularity?
I feel like with the latest wave of popular awareness, we have a unique opportunity to really deconstruct the banjo’s use over time, coming out of slavery, its popular use though black-face minstrelsy, the way that it’s being gradually commercialized and what brings us to associate it more recently with old time and blue grass traditions. There’s a chance to have more of a conversation about the deeper aspects of this history. The banjo is not just a stereotype anymore. It is a gateway to understanding the American experience.