An article I wrote on jazz music in New York's Capital District was the cover story in the Preview section of today's Times Union. The cover image is a recreation of Art Kane's legendary 1958 photo "A Great Day in Harlem". We got more than sixty area jazz musicians, photographers, writers, DJs, etc. to come out and pose on the steps of one of the brownstones on Albany's Madison Avenue. I is quietly proud...
For many years I have contemplated writing a book on the Anthology, and now I think the time has finally come.
My proposed title is Changed Through Music: Why Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music Still Matters.
Now, at this point I'm in the process of writing a few sample chapters and crafting a proposal to send to publishers. However, I do know that I want to have a chapter featuring various perspectives on the title. So: I ask YOU - Why does the Anthology still matter? Tell me in 50 words or less, and the best responses may well make their way into the finished book. Send your response to email@example.com with the subject line "Why the Anthology Matters". I look forward to reading your responses!
Here's the review I did for the TU on Saturday's FreshGrass show:
If one word were to sum up the FreshGrass Festival at Mass MoCA, it would be eclectic. The music performed crossed and recrossed genre boundaries. Boston’s the Novel Ideas, for example, played raw, electrifying roots rock laced with country harmonies, while the trio Haas Kowan Tice mashed up traditional string band music with chamber strings to great effect.
Read the whole article by clicking the link below:
One of the reasons I haven't been posting here lately, apart from general laziness, is that I have recently made the move into the lucrative (ha) field of freelance writing (largely music, but also features, book and theater reviews, etc.). Anyway, here's a piece I did for Thursday's Times Union on the FreshGrass Music Festival in North Adams, MA, which features an interview with Grammy winning banjo player and all around swell gal, Alison Brown:
The spirit of Appalachia will settle in the Berkshires this weekend when the FreshGrass Music Festival hits Mass MoCA for three days of music, heritage and moonshine.
Well, the UEA conference was a tremendous success. I showed up a bit late because of London's street signs (they're inconsistent, at best, completely absent at worst), but was in time to hear all of the papers. For those who care, here is the day's program:
9.00 - 9.30 - Coffee and Registration
9.30 - 9.45 - Welcome - Ross Hair & Thomas Ruys Smith, School of American Studies, University of East Anglia
9.45 - 11.00 - Keynote - Professor Geoff Ward, Royal Holloway, University of London: '"Spun in a wheel of vertigo": Harry Smith and the Magic of History'
11.00 - 11.15 - Coffee
11.15 - 13.00 - Volume 1: Context -
Rani Singh, Director of the Harry Smith Archives, '"America Changed Through Music": Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music Turns 60'
Rory Crutchfield - University of Glasgow, 'An Act of Cultural Subversion? Conceits and Critical Responses to the Anthology'
Ross Hair, University of East Anglia, 'Harry Smith, the American Diogenes'
Kurt Gegenhuber, The Celestial Monochord, 'Smith's Amnesia Theater: "Moonshiner's Dance" in the Context of The Anthology of American Folk Music
13.00 - 13.45 - Lunch
13.45 - 15.00 - Volume 2: Influence -
James Boaden, University of York, 'Stan Brakhage and Films in the Folk Style'
Phil Langran, University of Lincoln, 'Writing the South: Harry Smith and the Stories of William Gay'
Paola Ferraro, University of Rome, La Sapienza, 'The New "New Weird America" of U.S. Black Metal: Returning to Appalachia with Panopticon's Kentucky
15.00 - 15.15 - Volume 3: Legacy -
Alexander M. Stern, Where Dead Voices Gather, 'Technology and the Anthology: From Shellac to the Cloud'
Jake Faulkner, California Institute of the Arts, 'Re-envisioning America: A Multimedia Homage to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
16:30 - 18.00 - Music - 'Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music at 60: A Transatlantic Legacy' featuring performances by Rapunzel & Sedayne and Ewan D. Rodgers
The day was amazing and full of highlights: Kurt Gegenhuber's enthusiastic presentation, punctuated by repeated exclamations of "What are you gonna do with that cow? Improvise, Frankie!"; learning about the novels of William Gay, with whom I was not previously familiar and who I plan on reading ASAP; Paola Ferraro's fascinating discussion of the influence of American Folk Music on the new wave of American Death Metal; meeting Rani Singh and listening to her stories about Harry Smith's last years; meeting Jake Faulkner and hearing/seeing the incredible works of art he commissioned for his multimedia project (including an amazing black and white film set to "The Wild Wagoner" that seemed equally influenced by A Hard Day's Night and the cover to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan); not to mention meeting some incredible people, listening to the free exchange of ideas through the medium of a shared passion, and hearing some truly inspired musical performances.
I must say that of all of the papers, mine was probably the least academic and least scholarly. It was somewhat daunting to make my relatively simple observations about the Anthology and my experience blogging about it. Nonetheless, it was an honor to speak on the same stage with all of the others and I was made to feel most welcome. Many thanks to Ross and Thomas for putting this together. It was truly the experience of a lifetime. I would also like to thank everyone who presented. It was a privilege to hear your ideas and to have an opportunity to speak with you. Finally, I would like to thank those who attended. It was a pleasure to meet so many fascinating people. It was an experience I'll not soon forget.
In addition, I recently discovered that the Financial Times did an article on the conference and the Anthology and this blog got a mention. Pretty cool! Check it out...
Below are some videos featuring Rapunzel and Sedayne (aka Rachel McCarron and Sean Breadin) and Ewan D. Rodgers.
Exciting news! On September 15th I will be presenting a paper at a special, one-day conference on the Anthology:America Changed Through Music: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music at 60, hosted by the University of East Anglia's School of American Studies at UEA London. The title of my proposed paper is "Technology and the Anthology: From Shellac to the Cloud". Naturally, my experience writing this blog will be discussed. Keep an eye on this space for further details!
Before I begin this review, a moment of full disclosure: Chuck Pinnell, guitarist and producer of Dark River is my aunt Suzi's ex-husband and the father of my cousin, René Pinnell (who is a big wheel in the computer world. Look for his apps Hurricane Party and Forecast. Yes, I know...I know. My family is disgustingly accomplished. One day maybe I'll join them. Sigh...). What is the point? The point is twofold: One, yes I was asked by Chuck to check out this CD and was sent a review copy. Two, my relationship to Chuck and Suzi has absolutely no bearing on my opinion of the music. If I think it sucks, I will say so. As it happens, I don't think it sucks... Nevertheless, I can easily see how one might question my objectivity in this review and think that I'm just using my blog to shill for family, however much I might protest that this isn't the case. Having said all of that, let's get to the music...
Dark River: Songs of the Civil War Era was conceived by producer Chuck Pinell, an Austin based guitarist and composer. According to his liner notes, Chuck came up with the idea for Dark River while working with fellow musician Slaid Cleaves on a film project. Chuck recruited a number of extraordinarily talented musicians to provide interpretations of songs ranging from Stephan Foster's "Hard Times" to the Irish ballad "Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier." The result is an eclectic slice of Americana; bracing as a double shot of bourbon and refreshing as a drink from a cool mountain spring.
The album kicks off, appropriately, with a rollicking version of "Shiloh" or "The Secesh". The alternate title takes its name from the secessionists of central Tennessee who lined up to fight for the Confederacy following the 1862 Battle of Shiloh. The battle was one of the bloodiest of the war: 10,700 Confederates were killed or wounded for no gain whatsoever, while the Union squeaked out a narrow victory at a cost of 13,000 killed or wounded.
"Shiloh" is performed here by fiddler Warren Hood and mandolinist Rich Brotherton. Hood's youthful voice perfectly matches that of the speaker, a brash young man bravely striding into battle following one of the Confederacy's heaviest losses. Instrumentally, the performance is pitch perfect and beautifully recorded. It is an auspicious beginning.
The rest of the album does not disappoint. Each track is unique, providing an original take on some very familiar melodies and featuring magnificent performances. The fact that several musicians show up throughout the album providing instrumental support keeps the album from feeling like a patchwork affair, a hazard of multiple-artist projects. Some highlights:
Drew Nelson's weary reading of "Hard Times", featuring a lovely harmony vocal from Tina Mitchell Wilkins; Rebecca Folsom and Celeste Krenz's angelic performance of the spiritual "Swing Low" (a song I've had particular affection for ever since my mother sang it to me as a lullaby when I was little); two lovely Irish songs performed back to back (in memory of the many Irish lads who were recruited into the Union army, some directly off the boat): Slaid Cleaves gives us a haunting and haunted rendition of "She Moved Through The Fair" while Erin Ivey keens a heartrending lament for her lost love on "Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier", an American version of the traditional "Siúil a Rúin" (with the chorus beautifully sung in Gaelic).
The album features some wonderful instrumentals that really highlight the tightness of this group of musicians: Producer Pinnell's fine reading of "The Last Rose of Summer," Rich Brotherton's version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and Jeff Plankenhorn, whose lovely dobro enlivens his version of "Home Sweet Home" (a song which also appeared on the Anthology).
I would be remiss if I did not mention my own dear aunt, Suzi Stern. It was Suzi who hipped Chuck to Where Dead Voices Gather and suggested that he might contact me for a review. Suzi is also the artist on Dark River with whom I am most familiar (we lived in the same house for the first several years of my life, for cryin' out loud). So I may, again, sound biased when I say that Suzi's contribution to Dark River is a stand-out. Suzi performs a version of the minstrel show standard "Oh! Susanna" that makes the hair on your arms stand on end. While most of artists on Dark River are solidly within the bounds of folk, country, and traditional music, Suzi is a jazz musician. Her arrangement of "Oh! Susanna", which features her piano playing as well as her vocal, perfectly blends modern jazz with American Folk Music (and there is an argument to be made that jazz is as much a "folk" music as blues, but that's another post). Leah Zeger's fiddle provides a gentle counterpoint to the rubato piano line laid down by Suzi, while Chuck plunks a mean banjo, in addition to his contribution as a guitarist. Suzi holds off on the familiar "don't you cry for me" chorus, creating a tension that builds throughout the performance. It is, truly, a highlight on an album of highlights.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Chuck for his patience. He sent me a copy of Dark River many months ago (over the summer, in fact). I like to live with an album for a while, and listen to it interspersed with other albums, before I attempt to review it. This is probably the reason I will never be a professional music critic, but I think it allows me to do justice to the music. Thanks to Chuck and to all of the artists who made this wonderful album possible...
Dark River is available on Amazon.com, CDuniverse, iTunes, and fine internet music retailers everywhere.