John Minton,
Going Back to Vicksburg
(Southern Can, 2004)

John Minton, a name heretofore unknown to me, turns out to be -- as I learn from a Google search -- associate professor of folklore at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. One doesn't have to be an academic, of course, to know a whole lot about traditional American music, and the impulse to apply one's own creative imagination to found musical materials is, well, an American (and not just American) tradition in itself.

When I first picked up this CD, though, I was a bit startled to see "Words & Music by John Minton" applied to titles such as "Midnight on the Water," "The Wild Ox Moan," "Poor Boy," "The Hell Bound Train" and others. These titles ordinarily are connected to songs that, handed down over the decades, did not exactly require Minton's assistance in entering the world. Minton, however, has simply taken the titles, and sometimes snatches of lyrics and melodies, and written his own songs, backed by Charlie Gilbert (banjo), Dave Kartholl (mandolin and bowed bass) and Rob Suraci and Susie Suraci (vocals and percussion). Multi-instrumentalist Minton plays guitars, bass, accordion, lap steel, organ, drums and percussion.

He sings in a voice that, depending on how you hear it, is either spooky or merely whispery. It is certainly sweeter than one expects to hear from a rooted modern folksinger. Actually, it wouldn't be out of place in '70s California country-rock bands (and their modern-day Americana equivalents such as Railroad Earth), and that is a sound I have always found easy to resist.

Still, two or three listenings into Going Back to Vicksburg, I fell under its spell. The album is tastefully put together, with attractive arrangements and literate narrative songs that suggest how traditional Southern ballads might sound in an alternative universe -- a nearer alternative universe than the one that, say, the Handsome Family occupies, though surely pretty much the same one where Grey DeLisle resides down the street.

A lyric sheet would have helped, however. Minton takes his time weaving his tales, and his soft voice will have the listener sometimes leaning toward the stereo speakers and straining to hear. It will be, on the other hand, worth the effort.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 30 July 2005