Category: Mississippi John Hurt

Crooked Still Covers: Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Gillian Welch, Tradfolk

June 19th, 2008 — 11:21 pm

Boston-based “alternative folk/bluegrass” band Crooked Still emerged at the edge of the newgrass movement just after the turn of the century, and much of their subsequent success is due to the talents of the group members and founders: banjo wizard Dr. Gregory Liszt, double bass man Corey DiMarino, and breathy, emotive singer Aoife O’Donovan. But if their star rose quickly, it was thanks in no small part to a then-novel approach to traditional song, one which placed master cellist and all-around oddball Rushad Eggleston’s innovative, improvisational style and high-energy stringplay at the center of what was otherwise a sparse yet nuanced tradfolk stringband sound.

And rise it did. By 2004, the band was playing mainstage sets at both Newport Folk Festival and Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, where their debut album Hop High outsold all competition. Two years later, the release of Shaken By A Low Sound brought us more of the same, cementing their reputation in both the folkworld and the bluegrass circuit as a band worth watching.

And then, last year, Crooked Still announced that Rushad would be leaving the group.

Many of us in the folkworld feared that this would be the end of Crooked Still. Long before Ben Sollee’s avant-folk celloplay made him the darling of the blogworld, Eggleston had set the pace and standard for the cello as a contemporary instrument outside of the string quartet or orchestra setting, both through his work with Crooked Still, and as a member of several groups with master fiddler Darol Anger. Replacing Eggleston with another cellist seemed like a no-brainer for a group that had made their name trading on the interplay between Rushad and the other group members; adding another string player seemed like a safe bet, too. But would it be enough?

In a word: YES.

Since their inception, Crooked Still has always handled traditional folk music exceptionally well, and this new line-up continues the tradition with aplomb, bringing new life to timeless songs. But where their previous albums leaned heavily on tradsongs such as Little Sadie, Shady Grove and Darlin’ Corey — songs made familiar, if not popular, by older generations of folk and bluegrass artists, from Doc Watson to Jerry Garcia — their new album Still Crooked, on folk label Signature Sounds, digs deeper than previous efforts, tracing the roots of traditional folk through other, more obscure carriers, such as Ola Belle Johnson and Sidney Carter. The result is a set of songs that sound both fresh and timeless, in ways that their previous efforts could not be without escaping their songs’ history.

There’s also some surprises, here. Tristan Clarridge plays the cello with more subtlety than than Rushad did, but this only deepens the sound from where it was before. The addition of fiddler Brittany Haas brings a keening high note to the mix; in slower songs, especially, the higher stringsound rebalances lead singer Aoife O’Donovan’s breathy voice towards the sonic center of the Crooked Still sound, where once her vocals competed with the cello for prominence. The fuller setting brings out a side of Aoife as singer that is even better than before. The bigger sound that results is potent, and totally enveloping.

Those who could not imagine Crooked Still without their founding cellist need not be concerned. More importantly, though, those who thought it was impossible to improve on the Crooked Still sound will be surprised. The “new” Crooked Still sound is more traditional, in terms of genre, but it is also simultaneously something more than it was, a stellar maturation of previous efforts. Nowhere is this more evident than in Low Down and Dirty, Aoife’s first original composition for Crooked Still, a classic revenge ballad with a twist that comes across as some of the best folk I’ve heard in ages. Still sharp, wielded exquisitely, the cutting edge of traditional folk music remains in good hands.

Wanna hear it for yourself? You’ll have to buy the album for the originals, and the tradfolk; almost every song is a ten out of ten. But here’s a genuine label-approved Cover Lay Down exclusive, not one but TWO covertracks from Still Crooked, which hits stores next week: a wild, spunky take on an old Mississippi John Hurt tune, and a sultry, quiet public domain number with stunning backing vocals from Levon Helm’s daughter Amy, a fine musician in her own right. Plus a few older covertracks from Crooked Still’s earlier releases, to give newcomers a sense of their overall sound. Listen, and then run right out and buy Still Crooked to hear the rest. Or just come on out to Falcon Ridge Folk Fest this July, and see ‘em in person.

Since we’re in the mood, today’s bonus coversongs feature other cello players from the folkworld: newcomer Ben Sollee and his amazing Sam Cooke cover, and a cut from Fiddlers 4, a wonderful neo-appalachian quartet from some of the best genre-crossing string players in the business, featuring none other than Rashad himself on the low notes. Plus a youtube link for a great, spare solo cover by young folkcellist Lindsay Mac, who will also perform at Falcon Ridge this year.

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Crooked Still covers tradsong Wind and Rain

Further reading: Folk tastemaster Songs:Illinois has two MORE Crooked Still songs: one from Still Crooked, and one from Hop High.

915 comments » | Ben Sollee, Crooked Still, Fiddlers 4, Gillian Welch, Lindsay Mac, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson

Sam Amidon Covers: Tears for Fears, Mississippi John Hurt, Ella Jenkins

November 18th, 2007 — 09:26 am

The Amidon Family is about as local as a folkband can get. Stars of the artistically self-sustaining Brattleboro, Vermont music scene for decades, parents Peter and Mary Alice were carrying their love for Shaker plainsongs and traditional folkmusic from local farmer’s markets to a roadmap of traditional folkfans long before I moved to the area in the early nineties. Boys Stefan (drums) and Sam Amidon (fiddle, banjo, guitar) have been accompanying their parents since childhood; they formed Assembly (then called Popcorn Behavior) and set out on the contradance circuit before puberty, wowing audiences with their young virtuosity and bringing a faster pace than their parents had to the traditional folkreel set.

True, contradance and localfolk occupy a small niche even within the larger realm of folk music. But today, though both brothers support the increasingly avant-folk Assembly and The Amidon Family, neither Sam Amidon nor his music are local anymore. And the result — so far — has been a revelation.

Just four years after recording an entire album of overly-traditional solo fiddle tunes, Sam Amidon has begun to stretch the boundaries of traditional folk, bringing his banjo to support such Brooklyn experimentalists Doveman and Stars Like Fleas, and his interpretive style to a series of increasingly vivid recordings with a diversity of artists. Now, just a year after releasing an album of sparse, drum-machine-rich reinterpretations of traditional appalachian songs, Sam has been signed to tiny Icelandic indie superlabel Bedroom Community, where he’s poised to take the indiefolk world by storm with the full sound and moody, practically Bjork-like production of his upcoming solo release All Is Well.

Bloggers who know — including stereogum, Motel de Moka, and Said the Gramophone — use words like amazing and haunting and pretty fucking special to describe Sam’s recent work, both as a solo artist and as Samamidon (with Popcorn Behavior cofounder Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett). They’re not wrong: Amidon should be on the cusp of indie greatness. Though Sam’s love of traditional folk tunes has not faded — every song in his forthcoming work is in the public domain — his approach to them is unique and experimental, favoring the kind of moody piano-and-strings wash-of-sound production which fills the indie airwaves these days. There’s something of the careful, rich strumsounds and organmoods (and trumpets) of Sufjan Stevens and Jose Gonzales and Damien Jurado in here, and it’s as stellar in in the young Sam as it is in his forefathers.

How nice to find another take on the banjo- and guitarstrings so rich, so powerful, so respectful of tradition. While we wait with baited breath for February, here’s a few gorgeous covertunes from Sam, from the sparse to the orchestral: three from 2007 Samamidon release But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, and three from the upcoming All Is Well. Plus a couple of pretty coversongs from his Mother’s recent release Keys to the Kingdom, which Sam produced in between gigs.

Update: Stats show no one’s downloading anything but the Tears For Fears cover below. I know it’s tempting to just snag the song you’re familiar with…but try at least one of the other Amidon covers, eh? Your ears will thank you.

Get Sam Amidon’s But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted while you wait for All Is Well to come out.

To support Sam in all his incarnations, plus a full breadth of young folkartists from alt-indie to rural country dancemusic, check out Assembly‘s new jazz-influenced January EP, too, which features Sam on Irish fiddle and Stefan on percussion, and the myspace pages of NYC indiefolker Doveman and experimental indiekids Stars Like Fleas.

Tradfolk fans will also enjoy Peter and Mary Alice’s work, available via their website.

And see the Contra Corners map for the contradance nearest you — you never know when one or more Amidons will show up to play the dance.

Today’s bonus contradance coversongs:

(Full disclosure: the Amidons were my wife’s music teachers in elementary school; most of her immediate family has sung under Peter Amidon’s direction. Nice folks, all around.)

835 comments » | Contradance, Fromseier Rose, Iris Dement, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Amidon, Tears for Fears

Double Feature Folk: Bill Morrissey Covers Mississippi John Hurt

November 14th, 2007 — 08:34 am

In rare cases, a performer goes beyond the traditional one-song cover approach to cover a full set of an artist’s catalog. At their best, from Jennifer Warnes’ full album of Leonard Cohen songs to Billy Bragg and Wilco’s reinterpretation of the works of Woody Guthrie, such devoted efforts to reimagine a whole body of work go beyond mere song interpretations to cast new light on a deserving talent.

We call it Double Feature Folk — a case of featuring an artist who is himself featuring another — and we start today with Bill Morrissey’s 1999 tribute to the Songs of Mississippi John Hurt.

Mississippi John Hurt was one of those classic early blues artists from the days of Lomax and Leadbelly. Lost for years with but two mid-depression pressings to his name, he was tracked down in his twilight through a song reference to his hometown of Avalon, and given a few shining years in the sun — including a set at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival — as a revered elder statesman of the country blues before his death in 1966.

When he released his Songs of Mississippi John Hurt in 1999, Bill Morrissey was himself an elder statesman of the Fast Folk folk scene. Morrissey had cut his teeth on the blues, finding a balance between the New York folk scene of the sixties one one side, and the early lo-lo-fi sounds of Hurt and his country contemporaries on the other. Ten Grammy nominations later, he was known for having forged a unique brand of laconic early alt-americana focused on the milltown depression that hit his native New England in the late seventies and eighties.

So why a full album of Mississippi John Hurt songs? Hurt’s greatest hits were in no real danger of getting lost — this is a man whose early version of Stagger Lee is considered definitive. Instead, it seems likely that, even as folk and blues seemed to be giving way to the post-grunge and lo-fi indie movements of the late nineties, Hurt himself was starting to be forgotten.

For Morrissey, who attributed his right hand work “purely” to his discovery and subsequent embrace of the blues stylings of Mississippi John Hurt, this must have been a tragedy. Here was the antithesis of the Delta blues — a man who, in Morrissey’s words, was “elegantly melodic and funny” — and all that he was remembered for was a few old chestnuts he had made his own.

Reminding the growing fourth-wave folk community of its roots while pulling Hurt’s less iconic songs back together under his name seems, in this light, almost a noble ambition on Morrissey’s behalf. In celebrating those roots — the bouncy, playful blues lyric, the acoustic blues fingerplay — Morrissey redefined post-blues folk, a group which would include equally playful and lighthearted contemporaries Greg Brown and Chris Smither, just in time for a new generation of artists such as Peter Mulvey and Jeffrey Foucault.

And it works, too. Morrissey’s creaky, almost anti-melodic vocal style lends itself well to the surprisingly sweet songs of this iconic sharecropper. His eclectic acoustic arrangements bring horn, harmonica, and harmony without making these songs anything but lighthearted and fun.

Today, three tunes from Morrissey’s tribute to Mississippi John Hurt — plus a whole mess of covers, both by and of Morrissey and Hurt — which showcase the startling commonality of voice, perception, and style between two half-forgotten A-listers of their respective musical generations.

  • Bill Morrissey, I’m Satisfied (Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Bill Morrissey, Louis Collins (Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Bill Morrissey, Funky Butt (Mississippi John Hurt)

Bill Morrissey’s entire awardwinning catalog, including the fifteen-track Songs of Mississippi John Hurt, is available directly from Rounder Records. Mississippi John Hurt tracks are available on practically every good blues compilation, but all good bluesfans should have at least one copy of the Complete Studio Recordings of Mississippi John Hurt box set.

Today’s bonus Bill Morrissey coversongs:

And today’s bonus Mississippi John Hurt coversongs:

Don’t forget to come back Sunday for a very special feature on up-and-coming indiefolkster Sam Amidon, including covers of Tears for Fears, some souped-up traditional americana, and more Mississippi John Hurt!

659 comments » | Bill Morrisey, Devil in a Woodpile, Double Feature Folk, Greg Brown, Leadbelly, Lucy Kaplansky, Mark Erelli, Mississippi John Hurt, MuleboneUK, The Rolling Stones