Andrew Calhoun,
(Waterbug, 2011)

Paul Friedman & Jody Kruskal,
Paul & Jody
(independent, 2009)

Though neither of these is a current release, each crossed my desk only recently. Still in print, they're eminently worth seeking out. If Grapevine and Paul & Jody do not take identical approaches to traditional music, they both attest eloquently to the power of folk song.

The strength attained by songs carried over decades and centuries through oral transmission is readily experienced but not easily explained. The cultural critic Greil Marcus once imagined a realm he called "Smithville" after Harry Smith, compiler of the famous Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), a realm where the characters, historical and imaginary, live as phantoms. When I read Marcus's 1997 book Invisible Republic (later retitled, in my judgment less happily, The Old, Weird America), I felt both relieved and validated: so that's where folk music is, in a parallel universe at once immediately accessible and far, far away. No wonder it so often feels so mysterious.

Nearly every song on Grapevine had entered my life by my mid-20s after folk music settled in to be a consuming interest and I searched out recordings of traditional material. Among the revival artists whose LPs contributed to my education was Ed McCurdy, who sang in a pleasing baritone, with or without solo guitar, on occasion accompanied by banjoist Erik Darling. Andrew Calhoun, a suburban Chicago resident who heads the Waterbug label, reminds me of McCurdy, except that Calhoun's baritone is darker and he boasts a more advanced guitar style. Many of the individual songs I picked up originally (as I imagine Calhoun did) from recordings by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Tommy Makem, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, Paul Clayton, Peter, Paul & Mary and other stalwarts of folk's golden age.

Unlike disposable pop songs, folk tunes generally tend to stick with one and to stay welcome. That doesn't mean that a particular version can't put you into a desperate rush for the exit, of course. There is, after all, the New Christy Minstrels', let us say, unusual rendition of the otherwise indestructible "900 Miles," suitable for listening only to those condemned to serve time in hell. And the Kingston Trio's reworking of "Worried Man" is uniquely unpleasant.

No such problems with Calhoun, however. He is a splendid, richly informed interpreter of the Folk Song Book. Like McCurdy he does not confine his attention to a single strain of the tradition. Here sea shanteys and cowboy songs and railroad ballads and hymns and Irish tunes and Stephen Foster rub shoulders, and comfortably. The one number that isn't at least a century old is Colum Sands' "Buskers." Well, that and a rewrite incorporating recent scholarship on the ballad's origins, Calhoun's revised and expanded "John Henry."

I am delighted to find some particular favorites of mine. I must have heard "I Ride an Old Paint" before I could read. To me it still stands among the most fabulous songs ever, and Calhoun honors it as persuasively as one could wish. The grand sea-going "We'll Rant and We'll Roar" rolls grippingly through his vocal cords (as does "Shenandoah" elsewhere on the disc). I hadn't heard "Rant" in decades. As his source Calhoun credits Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd's Whaling Ballads (1957), which is where I encountered it, too, though my own copy, uncovered in a remaindered-LPs rack, vanished long ago. What else can I say? Just that listening to Grapevine makes me happy.

While drawing on American folk traditions, Paul & Jody -- New Yorkers Paul Friedman and Jody Kruskal -- adopt an untraditional approach in arranging the tunes and songs for fiddle and Anglo concertina (with occasional assistance from Bill Peek on banjo and piano). The Anglo concertina is not an instrument one expects to hear behind Appalachian standards such as "Mole in the Ground," "Hang Me (Been All Around This World)" and "Rain and Snow." Thus, the pleasure at one level is in the intersection of traditional and the innovative. Conversely and oddly, the arrangements sort of make the material feel even more authentic and rooted.

"Please be advised," Kruskal tells me, "that what I play is not the English concertina or any of the various duet concertinas or the polka concertinas. ... My instrument is called the 'Anglo concertina' ... a German invention from the 1830s." After falling out of mass popularity around the time of World War I, it survived "in a few places where they kept a living tradition ... Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and England." Kruskal suggests the instrument failed to gain a foothold in the Southern mountains because it was too expensive for the poor people who lived there. Yet he shows how suited it would have been to the sort of music sung and played in Appalachia. In that context it functions something like a fuller-bodied harmonica.

Not every cut is of Southern origin, though. The album opens with a song I hadn't heard since I was a small kid, Smiley Burnett's "(It's My) Lazy Day," which turned out to be a welcome reunion with these ears. Some pieces come from as far afield as Pennsylvania, Quebec, Texas and Ireland. Friedman's fiddle and Kruskal's concertina make for an inspired pairing, and the latter's plain-spoken, unadorned vocals call up the peculiar, homey magic that has sustained these songs through their long journey.

Since this album was released, Kruskal, with fiddler Luke Richardson, has released Waiting for the Boatsman, to be reviewed at a future date.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 April 2017

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