Some thoughts about animal folk songs

I started collecting animal folk songs in the summer of 2008. My band Bark Hide and Horn had just released our album National Roada folk-rock concept album based on old National Geographic articles. Many of the songs were about animals–honey ants, tree snails, trumpeter swans, even the first chimp in outer space. When we returned from a West Coast tour, I wanted to go deeper into animal perspectives. So I started looking for American folk songs written about or from animal’s points of view. I got lost in a deep woods.

Alan Lomax’ 1960 Anthology of American Folk Music was one of my main references. I pored over the pages looking for any reference to animals I could find. Inspired by the Artclash Collective’s “Fun-a-Day” Project, I learned, recorded, and wrote an analysis of a song from Lomax’ anthology every day of the month in January 2010.

What I found was a bizarre universe of talking, walking, thinking, feeling, stealing, praying, loving, hating, killing, living creatures. The animals of American folk music populated a cosmos in my imagination. I called it the Deep Woods. (I’m not the first to call it something like that. In addition to folklorist William Faulkner’s references to a deep woods, there’s the big woods of Uncle Remus tales and the piney woods of Gullah folklore.) In the Deep Woods all these animal characters came together and lived out our strange national fantasies in a violent but soulful democracy.

Meanwhile I had released another album with Bark Hide and Horn (called Animal Mind, fittingly enough) and started making puppets of Deep Woods animals. My afterschool job led to folk-singing and story-telling in a kids’ band with my now-wife Jessie. Children’s performances led to puppets. I created Bob Rabbit, the grandson of Br’er and a distant relative of Dylan. Mr. Possum, Froggie, Jim the Hound Dog… the characters of American folk songs took on new life in my hands. Literally, they came alive.

Bark Hide and Horn broke up in late 2009 and I started a new band, Scrimshander, with my BHH-mate Peter. As the Deep Woods reflected the dark collective unconscious of the U.S.A., Scrimshander songs went into murky, unexplored territories of our own minds. A few Scrimshander songs featured Deep Woods animals and I was planning elaboate puppet music videos in my head.

I made a career shift in summer 2010 and stepped down from my job as Afterschool Program Director at Friendly House to focus more time on my music and budding teaching artist career. I kept on leading arts and music programs at Friendly House, working with the kids on puppets (sock and large-scale protest-style), music (rock bands, a Pop Song Chorus), and folklore activities. Meanwhile I dreamed up Red Yarn Productions as a catch-all for my music, puppetry, and teaching artist work.

In 2011 I got serious about Red Yarn. He became my alter-ego, a red-bearded bard traveling the country and teaching children the stories and songs of the American people. At libraries, schools, cafes and community events, Red Yarn (and sometimes his Puppet Band) entertained kids with narratives stringing together songs of the past. Folk, country, blues, rockabilly, and ’60s folk-rock songs about animals all worked their way into Red Yarn’s sets. His suitcase of critters got fuller and fuller.

Now Red Yarn Productions is my full-time job. In June I got the nerve to leave my day-job at Friendly House. Without a safety net, I would have to figure out how to make this new career work. So that’s what I’m doing. And the Deep Woods? It’s as beguiling as ever. A week ago I submitted a grant to the Regional Arts & Culture Council with this impassioned closing statement:

I began my journey into the Deep Woods four years ago. Drawn to American folk songs’ strange narratives, twisted humor, and preoccupation with death, I dug into old anthologies, children’s books, vinyl records, and library databases. The animal characters and tales I found took hold of me, clawing their way into my music, puppetry, and teaching career. I discovered in the Deep Woods potent symbols of racial and class tension, weird American fantasies, the wilderness lurking beneath our civilized surface. But the Deep Woods is threatened from many sides—literally, through the destruction of natural habitats, and in the imagination, as the chaos of pop culture devours our memory of a shared folk heritage. I see this project as an opportunity to culminate a long chapter of my creative and professional life, and to help save the Deep Woods. More than just preserving these old songs, I wish to animatethem—bring them to life—and engage the community in doing the same. While folksingers have always updated older material, I want to rekindle and share the vibrant creative energy I’ve found in folksongs. Working with Nina and a talented team of puppeteers on our music video “Tails”, we tapped into that energy. I want to go deeper and reach more people, inspiring them to take creative ownership of our collective history. Portland strikes me as the perfect place to undertake this project. Here, at the edge of the real woods, we romance the folk, the frontier lifestyle. And we are looked to as a national model of how to build the future with reverence for the past. With RACC’s help, I hope my Deep Woods project will become a model of modern creative folklore.

I know that sounds pretty ambitious. When I’m the Deep Woods, I believe I can do it.

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