Andrew Calhoun & Campground, |
Bound to Go: Folk Songs & Spirituals
Bound to Go's very existence is a tribute to the determination -- and talent, too -- of longtime Chicago-area folksinger and songwriter Andrew Calhoun (who's also head of the excellent Waterbug label). This album, all traditional, consists in significant part of songs you've never heard before. "Authentic spirituals, shout songs from the Sea Islands, prison ballads and rare secular songs from the African American folk tradition," it says on the back cover. After decades' listening and reading, I know something about folk music, but of the 35 songs here, I'd heard 10 at a generous estimate.
In other words, this is a labor not just of love but also of extensive research into 19th-century texts, in which early collectors, moved by their singular quality and richly emotional content, wrote down slave and Reconstruction songs, most otherwise only in oral circulation. These are not early or proto-blues -- blues were another form of folk music, one that came along many years later -- but something else, much of it infused with a strong religious sensibility (alongside a thinly concealed longing for escape from tyranny and oppression). Others pass on humor and folk beliefs about magic, animals and birds, and some celebrate heroes and tricksters. Others are to be sung to or by children.
Calhoun and 17 other musicians, white and black, resurrect these wonderful songs from graveyard silence and place them inside spare arrangements with the voices up front. There is also an instrumental or two, including "Run, Brother, Run," which survived among white rural fiddlers, sometimes as "The Pateroller [Patroler] Song," sometimes under a much cruder title. Calhoun's well-informed liner notes put each song and tune into perspective. The packaging -- beginning with the beautifully entrancing cover painting by Georgia Sea Island artist Jonathan Green -- is a wonder in itself.
I've heard several outstanding traditional discs this year, but even with strong competition, Bound to Go has lingered longest on the player. Every listening yields a new delight or insight. At random, these from my experience:
I've been hearing Bob Dylan's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" ever since it appeared on his 1997 Time Out of Mind. The lyrics draw in good part from folksong imagery, overwhelmingly familiar to me except for one reference that I suspected had to be traditional, too, but for the life of me I couldn't place its origin: "I been to Sugar Town, shook the sugar down." Then I hear "Jaybird & Sparrow" on Bound to Go, about the jaybird -- the uptown cousin to the lowly sparrow -- "up in the sugar tree, sparrow on the ground, jaybird shake the sugar down." The first time the song played on my stereo, I happened to be sitting out on the front porch, watching a jaybird alight in a tree.
The spiritual "Hammering Justice" surely inspired Lee Hays to compose his well-known "If I Had a Hammer," and "Wake Up, Jacob" may have done the same for The Band and "Get Up, Jake." In other words, even if you haven't heard them before, these grand old songs have been in our lives -- as individuals and as Americans -- for a long, long time. It's just that until now we have had little opportunity to hear what they sounded like when they were newly minted. Now we get to know them as they were meant to be known. They will open up your head and your heart.
I can't tell you what your favorite cuts will turn out to be -- I'm still finding mine each time I return to this magnificent collection -- but I can guarantee you, I think, that the first two will be the title tune and "Sandy Land." And you're just getting started. A loving and fully realized work of art, music and memory, Bound to Go will take you to places you've never been, and then return you home.
16 August 2008
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