This is the first of the supplemental blog posts relating to the 11/11/17 Bluegrass Signal show. The show is still archived until tomorrow night; click here and select "Bluegrass Signal" to listen.
Although I didn't begin the show this way, I wanted to start by looking at the three old ballads I included: "The Soldier and the Lady" (sometimes called "To Hear the Nightingale Sing" or "One Morning in May"), "Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden," and "Fair Beauty Bright."
Even though I love these old ballads, I almost didn't include them in my Veterans Day show because I wasn't sure they quite fit. It's not so much that the stories they tell are fictional--most of the stories told in these songs are--but that they approach the figure of the soldier in a very different way from the other songs I collected.
Most of these songs were written during or shortly after the wars they describe, and in general they present the soldier as a noble figure with "a heart that beat so true" (from "Faded Coat of Blue") whose "work has been well done" (as in Curly Seckler's "Purple Heart"). They often emphasize the youth and even innocence of soldiers by referring to them as "boys" ("He was just a blue eyed Boston boy"). The work of a soldier in these songs is almost like that of a chivalric knight, selflessly protecting others as in "Pray for the Boys": "They're on some battle line / In defense of yours and mine."
The soldier of the ballads is by comparison a romantic but morally gray figure. His participation in war itself is not the focus, serving rather as an explanation for his itinerant lifestyle. In "Pretty Fair Maid," the dangers of warfare and travel are discussed ("Perhaps he's on some watercourse drowning, / Perhaps he's on some battlefield slain"), but only in the hypothetical. In "Fair Beauty Bright," "the wars" enter the story only as a way for the hero to "see if [he'd] forget [his] beauty bright or no." He seems wholly unconcerned for his safety, and in fact it is the woman he left behind who dies, according to her mother, "for [his] sake."
Moreover, the songs subtly imply that loose morals are almost inherent to the soldier's profession. This is far and away the most evident in "The Soldier and the Lady," in which the bad-boy soldier lothario romances the lady even though he "[has] a wife back in London / And children [has] three." This figure is doubly dishonorable: he deceives one woman and is unfaithful to another.
It's important to note that, as in many old ballads, the seduction here is described using coded language rather than being explicitly stated. "To hear the nightingale sing" was a common euphemism for sexual activity right through the 19th century, and it's easy to read sensual undertones to someone playing on a fiddle especially since the lady asks the soldier for marriage right afterwards. (Some variations of this lyric lend themselves more to lascivious interpretation: "he played her a tune to the length of his string," for example) This summer I heard Maggie Carty sing a version with this refrain:
And they kissed so sweet and comforting as they clung to each other.
They went arm in arm along the road like sister and brother.
They went arm in arm along the road 'til they came to a stream,
And they both sat down together, love, to hear the nightingale sing.
In Maggie's version, the lady ends the song by pushing the soldier into the stream, making her feelings about his deceit pretty clear. Anna & Elizabeth sing a version that ends with a cautionary verse:
Young lady, young lady, take warning by me:
Don't place your affection on a soldier so free,
Don't place your affection on a soldier so free,
You'll be deceived like mine has done me.
The Bucking Mules' version of this song somewhat downplays the deception by switching the fiddle-playing verse and the marriage verse, which suggests that the lady is disappointed rather than dismayed by the soldier's revelation. This makes the lady into less of a victim, but does it really make the soldier any less of a scoundrel?
The romantic heroes of "Pretty Fair Maid" and "Fair Beauty Bright" are shown in a far better light, but their true and noble natures are depicted as being in spite of their military careers, not because of them. When the stranger/soldier in "Pretty Fair Maid" presents the possibility of a soldier's infidelity, he does so by listing it along with death at sea and in battle as possible reasons for her true love's absence. In so doing he implies that each hypothetical outcome is equally likely for a soldier--that her true love is just as likely to be "on some watercourse drowning" or "on some battlefield slain" as to be "to some fair girl married." His comment is designed as a test of the fidelity of the pretty fair maid he left behind seven years ago, but it also casts aspersions on the fidelity of soldiers in general.
In "Fair Beauty Bright," the narrator claims to go to the wars not for honor or because of conscription but rather "to see if [he'd] forget [his] beauty bright or no." He "served there in vain," meaning the soldier's life wasn't enough to make him give up on his love, but the detail is still telling. For one thing, even the attempt to break faith with a true love is pretty unchivalrous in the context of a romantic ballad. Moreover, what about the wars would help take his mind off his forbidden love? I suppose one could argue that fighting would serve as a distraction, but it seems just as likely (if not more so) that the hero imagines he might wind up "to some fair girl married" as the hypothetical soldier of "Pretty Fair Maid" was.
Do such songs really fit? Maybe not, but one might ask whether they fit in the Bluegrass oeuvre at all. They are so distinctly not Americana, but rather a tie to the Scots-Irish roots of the American settler forebears. I could go on and on about the role these old ballads play in Bluegrass in general, performed in such a different context from that of their origins, but the most salient point here is that their presence in the Bluegrass canon is a testament to their timeless resonance as both stories and songs. In the end my love for these old ballads won out over my concerns about their appropriateness. I'm particularly enamored of Tim O'Brien's rendering of "Pretty Fair Maid"; the varying rhythmic and harmonic textures created by the instruments provide a dynamic backdrop for Tim's splendid vocal, giving the recording a real sense of narrative motion and feeling. I had a number of versions of "The Soldier and the Lady" and "Fair Beauty Bright" to choose from, and the popularity of these songs alone seemed to be an argument for including them.
It's not the most comfortable thing for a a pinko-leftie Berkeleyan to admit, but war has always fascinated me. Throughout my life I have consistently been drawn to military themes and imagery, be they in history, in fiction, or in music. This interest has been met with puzzlement by many, and I've long struggled to explain my interest.
To some degree this can be justified as merely a function of the literature major's inherent fascination with conflict, the driving force behind all narrative and much of poetry as well. What is war, after all, but conflict brought to its greatest extreme?
It's also just, well, everywhere. My training in both music and literary criticism have heightened my awareness of patterns, and once you've noticed one allusion to war it's difficult not to see how ubiquitous they are. And is it any wonder? Whether celebrated or condemned, war has been a part of the human experience for as long as there have been humans (and, if our observation of chimps is anything to go by, probably before). Although there is almost nothing more dehumanizing, arguably, there is also nothing more human.
While thinking about how to describe my low-key obsession, I found resonance in the opening verse of this song by Chris Brashear:
Our family is proud of its lost soldier son
Not because they believe in the flag or a gun.
They miss him because they remember him well
And love him so dearly for the day that he fell.
War has always fascinated me, not out of patriotism or an interest in violence, but because of its capacity as both a component of and a context for the human condition.
It should come as no surprise that I've been planning this edition of Bluegrass Signal for a long time. I think it was Laurie Lewis's song "Return to the Fire" that initially put the idea in my head; I wanted to build a show in which Laurie's powerful unaccompanied singing wouldn't get lost in a sea of banjo-driven cheating songs. A few years later, I came across Mark Kilianski's song "The Blue Sky Ain't No Friend of Mine," a Woody-Guthrie-esque meditation on modern warfare and its costs. I immediately threw both tracks into a playlist in iTunes labelled "Soldiers and War," and the program grew from there. Some contributions were solicited, but many just fell into my lap over many months of listening. The collection spans over at least three hundred years of songs about soldiers, with contemporary songs like Mark's, Laurie's, and Chris's alongside ballads written during the Civil War and some even earlier. When I saw that the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end of WWI, was to fall on a Saturday, I felt the time was ripe to finally pull the trigger (pun intended) on this program.
In preparation for the Veterans Day show, I did a ton of research, not so much on the recordings as on the songs themselves: when they were written, by whom and about which war. Many fascinating patterns emerged in what is, I hope, a compelling program. As usual, only a fraction of my research and observations made it onto the air--hence, this supplementary blog. In this case I've opted to split the commentary up into several posts. I'll try to get as much of my commentary out as possible while the show is archived. In the meantime, let this post (and the playlist below) serve as a teaser for this Saturday's Veterans Day Edition of Bluegrass Signal!
To stream the show live online, visit KALW.org between 6:30 and 8 pm Pacific, Saturday November 11th. The show will be archived until Saturday November 18th; to listen to the archive, click here and then select "Bluegrass Signal."
VETERANS DAY - 11/11/17
STANLEY BROTHERS: Soldier's Grave/What A Friend We Have In Jesus (King/66)
DON RENO & RED SMILEY: Military Five String/The Very Best Of (Dot/64)
BILL MONROE: Rotation Blues/Bluegrass 1950-1958 (Decca/51)
THE BUCKING MULES: The Soldier And The Lady/Smoke Behind The Clouds (Free Dirt/17)
TIM O'BRIEN: Pretty Fair Maid In The Garden/Fiddler's Green (Sugar Hill/05)
TOM, BRAD, & ALICE: Fair Beauty Bright/Carve That Possum (Copper Creek/05)
RHIANNON GIDDENS: Julie/Freedom Highway (Nonesuch/17)
ANNA & ELIZABETH: Goin' Across the Mountain/Anna & Elizabeth (Trade Roots Music Group/15)
THE BLUE GRASS CARDINALS: Blue-Eyed Boston Boy/Welcome To Virginia (Rounder/77)
THE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN: Two Little Boys/25 Years (Starday/62)
THE WALLER BROTHERS: Faded Coat of Blue/The Old Photograph (Strictly Country/08)
PHARIS & JASON ROMERO: The Dying Soldier/A Wanderer I'll Stay (Lula/15)
RED ALLEN: Purple Heart/Keep on Going: The Rebel & Melodeon Recordings (County/66)
PIEDMONT MELODY MAKERS: Some Old Day/Wonderful World Outside (self/16)
THE STANLEY BROTHERS: Pray For The Boys/King 1961-1965 (King/66)
DEL MCCOURY: Take Me To The Mountains/Classic Bluegrass (Rebel/94)
CHRIS BRASHEAR: Lost Soldier Son/Wanderlust (Copper Creek/99)
MOLSKY'S MOUNTAIN DRIFTERS: Between The Wars/Molsky's Mountain Drifters (Tree Frog/16)
HOOT AND HOLLER: The Blue Sky Ain't No Friend of Mine/Reasons To Run (self/16)
LAURIE LEWIS: Return to the Fire/Blossoms (Spruce and Maple/09)
GINNY HAWKER: My Warfare Will Soon Be Over/Letters From My Father (Rounder/01)
About once a month, I fill in for Peter Thompson (no relation) to host Bluegrass Signal on San Francisco's KALW. This is a great treat for me; I love building sets of music around a theme or concept, finding an order with the smoothest transitions, and of course discovering great new music. It's also a great pleasure to help spread the word about upcoming events in the area.
Every September, hundreds of fiddle- and banjo-loving fools flock to the Bay Area for the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention. The BOTMC consists of many events spread out over five days: concerts, workshops, jams, dances, even a stringband contest. The booking for this festival is always phenomenal, and, this year being no exception, I wanted to highlight the performers on the bill for BOTMC 2017 in this week's program.
I programmed a show with a similar concept before last year's convention, in which every track played came from one of that year's performers (plus a few from Bill Evans, who also had a big show coming up -- to check out the full playlist click here and scroll down). This year, I decided to mix it up a little and test out some theme ideas I've been considering for future shows.
The show opens with a four-song set of what I've been calling "Southwest Bluegrass." There's a certain sound that sneaks into bluegrass music from time to time that's quite different from the Appalachian mountain music that provides the main foundation for the style. Whatever the source, whether it's cross-pollination from Western Swing or the obsession with the Latin beat that pervades 1940's and 50's pop music, I'm fascinated by this rhythmic and melodic infiltration that persists to this day. I picked out some of my favorites from the list I'm compiling, plus a track from Del Rey and Suzy Thompson's new CD, Communiqué. The humor of playing Hoot And Holler's "Goodbye Boozy Suzy" right before "See You In Seaview" from Del & Suzy was not lost on me, although I defend that transition as more than just a cheap joke.
Once while driving through a radio-poor area in rural Vermont I happened to encounter the hilariously-titled Tim McGraw song "Drugs or Jesus" (click at your own risk). The song itself didn't really resonate with me, but one line in the first verse really stuck with me: "It's a long long way from wrong to right / From Sunday morning to Saturday night." The song is all about how you have to choose one or the other, but I got caught on the idea that there was a space between the revels of Saturday night and the sanctity of church Sunday morning. "A long long way," and yet really no time at all passes. It seems to me that country music (and bluegrass, too) exists in that space, with one foot in the honky-tonk and the other behind a pew. That tension reflects our humanity, and it's one of the things that keeps me coming back to this music.
For my meditation on the "Saturday night/Sunday morning" theme, I drew on BOTMC alums, including Foghorn Stringband, who will be returning to the Convention this year. Their version of the Carter Family's "Gospel Ship" is a favorite of mine. Fun fact: the Foggies have an enormous tour van they call the Gospel Ship!
Putting together the rest of the show was pretty effortless. There are so many great performers coming to the Convention this year; it was just a matter of picking out my favorite tracks and trying to group them by some common thread. A couple of highlights:
I try to keep my on-air blathering to a minimum, so there's a lot of thoughts and research that go into a show that I never wind up sharing. I'm hoping to use this blog as a supplement to my on-air commentary, an enrichment for the extra-nerdy listeners out there!
To stream the show live online, visit KALW.org between 6:30 and 8 pm Pacific, Saturday September 2nd. The show will be archived until Saturday September 9th; click here and then select "Bluegrass Signal."
BOTMC PREVIEW – 9/2/2017
LOUVIN BROTHERS: Southern Moon/A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers (Capitol/60)
KATHY KALLICK BAND: In Texas/Foxhounds (Live Oak/15)
HOOT AND HOLLER: Goodbye Boozy Suzy/Reasons to Run (self/17)
DEL REY & SUZY THOMPSON: See You In Seaview/Communiqué (Hobemian/17)
FOGHORN STRINGBAND: Gospel Ship/Outshine The Sun (self/12)
GINNY HAWKER & TRACY SCHWARTZ: Climbing Up the Golden Stairs/Draw Closer (Rounder/04)
CANOTE BROTHERS: What Did I Do With That Thinga-Ma-Jig/Thinga-Ma-Jig (Clone Tone/98)
BUCKING MULES: My Wife Died On Saturday Night/Smoke Behind the Clouds (Free Dirt/17)
ANNA & ELIZABETH: Lovin’ Babe/Anna & Elizabeth (Trade Roots Music Group/15)
DAVID BRAGGER: Kiss Me Quick, My Papa’s A-Coming/Big Fancy (Old Time Tiki Parlor/15)
MOLSKY’S MOUNTAIN DRIFTERS: Old Kimball/Molsky’s Mountain Drifters (Tree Frog/16)
FOGHORN STRINGBAND: Columbus Stockade Blues/Devil in the Seat (self/15)
RED MOUNTAIN: Barnyard Dance/Throw the Old Cow Over the Fence (Whoop It Up/09)
DEL REY & SUZY THOMPSON: Everybody Two-Step/Communiqué (Hobemian/17)
BEN HUNTER & JOE SEAMONS WITH PHIL WIGGINS: Shanghai Rooster/A Black & Tan Ball (self/17)
MOLSKY’S MOUNTAIN DRIFTERS: Free Little Bird/Molsky’s Mountain Drifters (Tree Frog/16)
KIM JOHNSON: Dunbar/Keepers (Buffalo Skinner/09)
WB REID & BONNIE ZAHNOW: Katie Dear/Poca River Blues (Padsnug/07)
MODOCK ROUNDERS: Barlow Knife/Home Music (Buffalo Skinner/16)
ANNA & ELIZABETH: Won’t You Come And Sing For Me/Anna & Elizabeth (Trade Roots Music Group/15)
DAVID BRAGGER: Jingle at the Window, Tidy-O/Big Fancy (Old Time Tiki Parlor/15)
DAVID BRAGGER: Cripple Creek, Going to the Free State, Big Fancy/Big Fancy (Old Time Tiki Parlor/15)
FOGHORN STRINGBAND: Over the Garden Wall/Outshine The Sun (self/12)
MOLSKY’S MOUNTAIN DRIFTERS: Isambard’s Waltz/Molsky’s Mountain Drifters (Tree Frog/16)
ANNA & ELIZABETH: Voice from on High/Anna & Elizabeth (Trade Roots Music Group/15)
DEL REY & SUZY THOMPSON: Monongahela River Waltz/Communiqué (Hobemian/17)