A trio of Washington favorites has opened the new year with vinyl offerings celebrating the pleasures of American folk music.
Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard are well-known in the world of traditional music, though neither performs as much in their Washington community as their fans would like.Seeger, an active folklorist and performer, grew up listening to the country music of the '30s and '40s on Library of Congress recordings, as well as learning it directly from family friends like Libba Cotton; in 1958, he formed the New Lost City Ramblers, a seminal group dedicated to playing the old music in the traditional style. The group disbanded only last year.
Gerrard came to the music during college, and teamed up with West Virginia songwriter and traditional singer Hazel Dickens for almost a decade. Gerrard, Dickens and Seeger wer together for a while in the '70s as the Strange Creek Singers.
Between them, Seeger and Gerrard have 30 albums to their credit, so it's surprising that "Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger" (Greenhays GR-704, marketed by Flying Fish) is their first album together. As Gerrard explains in her notes, "Mike and I have been friends for about 20 years now and married for 10 of those." They recorded all the songs in their home or at friends' homes. Gerrard writes: "This enabled us to sandwich it around kids, booking, rehearsing, working on films and just everyday life. . . On most of the tracks, there is a feeling of actually being in the room listening to the music."
That conception is the heart of traditional music. Made for and with friends, it consists of toe-tapping simplicity in a natural ambience, timeless themes and almost Gothic melodies with the accent on shared celebration. Songs are learned from a wide array of acquaintances.A rollicking "Bowling Green" comes from Cousin Emmy, "the well-known and powerful banjo player, fiddler, singer and rubber glove player," as Gerrard says. Dock Bogg's arrangement of "Sugar Baby" is recalled by Seeger, who during the '60s recorded and traveled with the legendary banjo player. "Pretty Polly" comes together after some experiments on a Smithsonian Folklife tour when the musicians had "some time on our hands, sitting around playing." Song after song is handed down, refined, recirculated -- kept alive.
Seeger and Gerrard handle an arsenal of instruments: guitar, banjo, piano, mouth harp, cello, fiddle, mandola. Their voices sustain the refreshing directness and honesty of traditional music -- even on an a capella song like "Oh Blue," the harmonies are basic, minimal, natural. There are sassy instrumentals: the clog-happy "Old Bunch of Keys" and the rousing "New Freedom March." Two Gerrard originals, the somber, elegiac "Love Was the Price" and the warmly nostalgic "Quiero Decir Gracias," are fine additions to folk literature.
Other highlights include Seeger's prancing "Doggin in the U.S. Mail" and some fine singing on W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." True musicologists and folklorists, Seeger and Gerrard have spent the better part of a quarter-century searching out the heart of traditional music without setting themselves beyond its pulse. When dedication becomes love and respect fuels enthusiasm, music comes alive, as it does throughout this album.
Bryan Bowers, who lived here for a number of years and continues to be a local favorite through frequent club visits, has released his second album, "Home, Home on the Road" (flying Fish FF-091) and it maintains the strengths and weaknesses of his debut effort. Put simply, there is no better player of that exotic folk instrument known as the autoharp. By adapting guitar-picking techniques, Bowers has given the autoharp a richer, more colorful sound than previous masters like Kilby Snow, Pop Stoneman or Maybelle Carter. His skills are deftly displayed on such instrumentals as "Flowers of Edinburgh," "Grandfather's Clock" or a Stephen Foster medley.
Unfortunately, Bowers sings a lot, too. On a bawdy ditty like "The Scotsman," exuberance overwhelms, even excuses, vocal indiscretions. On the haunting "Stately Mansions" and perky "Bad Boy," Bowers is covered by the instrumental and vocal support of Washington's Seldom Scene, who could make anything sound good and who succeeded here in elevating "Mansions" to their own high standards. But on "This Age We Live In" and Prison Song," Bowers sings laborious and simplistic platitudes in monotone lyrics that even his autoharp can't excite. His voice is a bit too direct, mixed up too high, and it overwhelms those songs. "Home, Home on the Road" suffers, but Bowers' talent pokes through often enough to make us hope for the next album.