Lomax-a-Day, Day 4

I’m glad I started this project on a long weekend, or I may have been discouraged more quickly. I spent a good chunk of the pre-work morning trying to choose a song out of the “Pioneers” section. Groggy indecision led me to learn most songs in the section, until I finally landed on “Oleana.” It’s a satirical ballad about early Norwegian settlers who bought land from the swindled fiddler, Ole Bull (pictured in the video below). The Pennsylvania homesteads Bull sold turned out to be hilly, forested, and barren. Later it surfaced that the man Bull bought the land from didn’t own it all. A Norwegian journalist wrote “Oleana” to poke fun at the settlers who dreamed of a free ride in America. My heart goes out to the immigrants, whose dreams couldn’t have been too different from my own Scandinavian forebears. This song is full of great lines like “the little pigs… trot about this lovely land/ with knives and forks stuck in their backs/ inquiring if you’d like some ham.” I had to wait to record until I returned home in the evening, not wanting to disturb my neighbors with a 7:30am version of this rousing tune. 

Moving through the anthology section by section, picking one song per section, might prove more difficult than I imagined. This morning I passed up classics like “Turkey in the Straw” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in search of a deeper cut, but the deeper cuts weren’t quite calling out to me either. Maybe it’s just Monday. 

Lomax-a-Day, Day 3

My pick for Day 3, “Satan’s Kingdom,” comes out of the North, in the “Shouters and Shakers” section. (Days 1 and 2 also came out of the North, from “Yankee Soldiers and Sailors” and “Old Colony Times,” respectively.) The songs in this section are mostly old shape-note hymns–church songs written with shapes to signal musical notes so that evangelist composers could share their music with the untrained countrymen of new America. “Satan’s Kingdom” is a typically fiery anthem, pitting good Christians in a war against “Hell’s dark king.” I love the power that this song gives to song itself. Voices topple prison walls, cities, whole kingdoms. It speaks to the moral force of congregational singing in early America: the hymn isn’t just about the power of God, the hymn IS the power of God. Hundreds of voices in harmony prove the interconnectivity of life, the strength of moral community. I would love to hear this song with full four-part shape-note harmony, but since I’m trying to keep these recordings simple–as in one track, no overdubs–I had to let my electric guitar and distortion pedal do some of the shouting. Enjoy!

Lomax-a-Day, days 1 and 2

The first project I’m documenting on Red Yarn is called Lomax-a-Day. A coworker turned me on to an awesome arts collective called Artclash (artclash.com). This is the 6th year that Artclash has organized “Fun-a-Day,” a project in which artists produce one piece of artwork each day for the entire month of January and then submit their 31 pieces to a final show.
I’ve been collecting old folk music anthologies, my favorite of which is Alan Lomax’s 1960 Folk Songs of North America. I enjoy learning songs out of these old books, especially songs I’m not already familiar with. The details that are lost or added or changed in transcription plus the details that are changed through my poor reading of sheet music lead to an interesting (to me) reworking of history. So, my project is to teach myself one song a day out of Folk Songs, arrange it to suit my fancy, and record it on Garage Band. The anthology is divided into regions (the North, the Southern Mountains and Backwoods, etc.), and the songs of each region are organized loosely by subject or genre. I hope to record at least one song out of each subsection throughout the month.
Yesterday, New Years Day, I learned and recorded “Shenandoah,” a classic that yes, I admit, I was familiar with already. The Boss does an amazing version of it on his Seeger Sessions, putting it in 3/4 time and singing a lot of lyrics that aren’t in Lomax’s anthology. I stuck pretty closely to the transcribed melody, but I enjoyed playing with the rhythm and dynamics to give it the grandiose feel it deserves. My favorite lyric is definitely in the third verse–“O Shenandoah, I’m bound to leave you/(Away you rolling river)/O Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you/(Away, we’re bound away…).” So beautifully simple, but perfectly encapsulates this current that runs through the whole song, a confusion in subject. Is he saying goodbye to a river? A woman? A whole region? I don’t know, but the current pulls you deep into the song’s longing, who/whatever it’s about.

Today I learned and recorded “Whisky in the Jar.” It’s an Irish ballad about an outlaw who robs Colonel Pepper (any relation to Sergeant or Doctor?) up on Gilgarra Mountain, gets turned in by his sweetie, is imprisoned, then busts out (“they put me in jail…but they did not take my fists, so I knocked down the sentry…”). The chorus strikes me as prototypical Irish folk fare (“Musha ringum duram da, whack fol de daddy-o… there’s whisky in the jar” over a V I IV V chord pattern), but the verses are a different matter. First of all, the story they tell hardly relates to “whisky in the jar,” except that maybe an outlaw needs to be good and soused to do his outlawing. Otherwise, the jolly chorus seems like an afterthought, as if an Irish folk song has to be about drinking even if its narrative isn’t. The chord progression in the verses (I VI IV) is similarly at odds with the chorus, with the major root chord falling into the relative minor, trying to pull itself out with the IV, but falling again and again back into minor until the drunkenly cheery chorus comes along and has a good laugh about all this depravity. A few lyrics in the song just blow my mind, particularly this one in the first verse: “I drew forth my pistols and I rattled my sabre/saying ‘Stand and deliver for I am a bold deceiver…'” Such amazing language.

As you probably noticed, I’ve posted the songs as videos, since Blogger doesn’t have an easy way to embed mp3s yet. 

Red Yarn!

Thanks for visiting! Red Yarn is a blanket title for my explorations in folk music, puppetry, and storytelling. I’ll use the blog to document my creative process and to share my progress with friends and family near and far.

Red Yarn is an extension of my creative output of the last several years. From summer of 2005 until December 2009, I played in a band called Bark Hide and Horn (www.myspace.com/barkhideandhorn). We made folky rock’n’roll music and penned songs about mating snails, shape-shifting pioneers, cannibal lovers, and insane inventors. Our 2008 album, National Road, was entirely based on old National Geographic articles. After a few key band members left, we decided to retire the moniker and pursue new projects.

Since January 2008, I’ve also played in a kids band with my girlfriend Jessie. We’re called Jelly Jar, and we sing original and traditional folk songs, tell animal folktales with home-made puppets, and put on events to build creative community with kids and families. Jessie is super busy with grad school and not quite as obsessed with puppets and old folk music as I am, so I thought it was time to create a solo project.

Which leads me to Red Yarn. Red Yarn himself is an old storyteller, soothsayer, and animal whisperer. He looks and sounds a lot like me, only older, with a beard made of yarn. His best friend is a rabbit who may or may not be the direct descendant of both Br’er Rabbit and Bob Dylan.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the posts!

Love,
Andy Furgeson
Portland, OR

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