Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, |
Take Yo Time
Many younger performers choose to arrange traditional music in a contemporary form that elevates it -- well, removes it anyway -- from its rude origins. If you can pull it off, there's nothing wrong with that; as Martin Carthy is wont to say, the worst thing you can do to a folk song is not to sing it. Still, it is always a pleasure to hear old sounds newly done the old way, and even better when done sufficiently well that no sane and responsible listener is going to whine that it sounded better on a 78 somebody cut in 1929.
The time in Take Yo Time is a century and more ago, when banjos and fiddles rang from front porches, street corners and dancing-and-drinking establishments across the South. Alongside tunes and ballads one could have heard blues in its early, loose-limbed iteration.
Fiddler Ben Hunter and banjoist Joe Seamons, who hail from the Pacific Northwest, offer up a robust program of 14 dust-covered numbers. They range from material associated with African-American folk musicians (Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Willie McTell, Gus Cannon, Charlie Patton) and oldtime Appalachian balladeers (Clarence Ashley, Grayson & Whitter). Any passerby who knows the tradition casually will recognize three or four of these, possibly from the much or occasionally reissued originals. Again, I doubt anyone, or at least anyone not determined to embarrass himself, will bellyache. Hunter & Seamons are not only able but amiable. Warmth wells out from well-used instruments and is further carried on unaffectedly downhome singing voices.
Though Take Yo Time betrays not a single false note, I find Hunter & Seamons's arrangement of "Preachin' Blues" a unique sort of joy. It's ordinarily associated with Son House (who is said to have written it, though who knows?) and Robert Johnson. It at least has the feeling of something that came along -- in nascent draft, anyway -- not long after the blues was conjured into being in the latter 19th century. Its most lasting gift to the American imagination is an eerie, oddly unsettlingly image, one best not scrutinized too closely, of "the blues walking like a man."
To the best of my knowledge (and I like to think I'd know), nobody ever recorded "Preachin' Blues," implicitly a voice-and-guitar piece, as a banjo/fiddle duet, though it's not hard to imagine that backroads musicians who never crossed paths with an a&r man or a folksong collector may have played it that way before fading into the irrecoverable past. In any event, whatever inspired them to reconstruct the song as they do, Hunter & Seamons have done anybody who cares about such things (which ought to be everybody) a solid. We owe you one, guys.
music review by
20 December 2014
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