Bethany & Rufus,
900 Miles
(Hyena, 2006)

As I listen to this album -- as I have quite a few times by now -- my imagination carries me to a 1950s nightclub, to a performance venue where folk performers played before there were folk clubs and festivals to sustain their careers. That was also a time before Bob Dylan appeared on the scene to stress, more influentially than anybody else, the practice of "authentic" -- which is to say unvarnished -- delivery of traditional material.

In the decade before the revival kicked in around 1960, urban "folk" musicians rubbed shoulders with jazz people and crooners. All but a few sang traditional songs in smooth, polished fashion, and some recorded them in settings borrowed from period pop and jazz. I used to think those old folk records were too corny to bear, but I have come to conclude that even if some surely were, others were not; there was simply a different guiding esthetic, and arrangements either worked or didn't work in that context. If that understanding does not come to you, you are missing some good music and, moreover, betraying your temporal chauvinism.

Bethany & Rufus -- Bethany Yarrow and Rufus Cappadocia -- don't sound like any folk musicians you've heard recently. But if you know something about the burgeoning revival of five decades ago, you'll get something of a sense of how they could have come upon the idea of a kind of chamber-jazz-classical approach to traditional standards, like the title tune, "East Virginia," "Linin' Track" and "St. James Infirmary." In other words, little of this sounds remotely authentic; yet all of it is pretty wonderful.

Bethany (yes, Peter's daughter), who all but defines smoke-swirling vocalization, may conjure up visions of high-toned watering holes more than of high mountain tops. Even so, the music feels deep and inclusive, the sort of triumphant fusing of wide-ranging ideas that only an exceptionally gifted -- not to mention more than casually informed -- singer can pull off. Rufus, whose background is in jazz and world musics, plays a five-string cello of his own invention (electronically altered to expand the instrument's bass range) with impressive taste and originality.

Except for one cut ("If I Had My Way," a.k.a. "Samson & Delilah") the arrangements, stark and atmospheric, depend on Bethany's guitar and occasional percussion interacting with Rufus's cello. Hearing such nontraditional settings, one is led to reflect just how good those old songs are, how even when radically reimagined they still maintain their integrity and their power.

As Martin Carthy's dictum has it, the worst thing you can do to a traditional song is not to sing it. Bethany & Rufus do honor to the spirit, if not the letter, of this material, and that is precisely what the tradition deserves. After all, none of us lives in that long-gone world that bequeathed us these songs, to make of what we will. It is up to us -- or to richly gifted artists like Bethany & Rufus -- to carry them into our own world, find them new homes, and dress them in fresh clothing.

"The Swallow" gets a lovely but uncharacteristically straightforward treatment of the sort one might expect to hear on a recording by June Tabor or Kate Rusby. So does Phil Ochs' "No More Songs," among the most poignant of his compositions. It's impossible to listen without thinking it portends his heartbreakingly premature death, after which there would be just as the title prophesied, at least from that songwriter, still missed after all these years.

review by
Jerome Clark

11 August 2007

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