The Farwells,
The Farwells
(Tin Halo Music, 2015)

Jesse Milnes & Emily Miller,
Deep End Sessions, Volume II
(independent, 2015)

The Farwells, who are Debra Clifford and Becca Wintle, have a taste for the gloomy end of traditional Appalachian music. There's no shortage of that. A whole lot of mountain music is dedicated to the proposition that life is a series of desperate tragedies that end only, if one is faithful and fortunate enough, when we have reached our heavenly home. Dreary as such a vision of earthly existence is, it has generated an abundance of moving songs and tunes.

With skeletal arrangements that predate the string bands that shape many modern listeners' idea of what this strain of Southern folk sounded like, Clifford and Wintle revel in melancholy harmonies, fiddle, guitar and banjo to fashion affecting readings of often-visited repertoire. While most albums in just about any genre open with a peppy number, the Farwells choose to introduce the show with the dark "Look Up, Look Down That Lonesome Road," like many folk songs not so much a narrative as a collection of floating verses, in this case given to expressions of loss, separation and distance. Not only is it awfully good, but it prepares the listener for the bad news, exquisitely delivered, to come.

Another lyric piece, "Sugar Baby" from Dock Boggs (from whom Bob Dylan would steal the title for a cut on his 2001 release, Love & Theft), is a variant of the well-known "Red Rocking Chair," in the Farwells' reading slowed down and meditative. They recreate "Hang Me" in a way that seems more than others to underscore the horrific fatalism of the lyrics, which concern the impending execution of an outlaw for unspecified crimes. Dave Van Ronk's influential version does something of the same, but its stress on the narrator's stoicism alters the song's tone. The first version I ever heard, called "I've Been All Around This World," which Mike Seeger learned from Grandpa Jones, was up-tempo and cheekily defiant in the face of the singer's imminent demise. Clearly, it's a song, among the most evocative in the American Folksong Book, that without much shift in interpretation can call up radically incompatible sentiments.

The three fiddle tunes, only "Pretty Little Indian" often covered, are lovingly sweet and archaic, the emphasis rightly on the tune and the emotion as opposed to the hot lick. There is also some touchingly sincere unaccompanied harmony singing, especially inspired in the hymn "Little White Robe." It's hard to find anything to complain about on this finely considered and fully accomplished recording.

Though Jesse Milnes and Emily Miller also traffic in old Southern mountain music, their vision of it is a more raucous, good-timey one on Deep End Sessions, Volume II. Nodding to such, they introduce the music with the tongue-in-cheek "Fun's All Over," which communicates the opposite. If the album has a living-room sound, that's fitting enough; it was recorded in the living room of the Deep End Ranch in rural California. The uncluttered vibe enriches these mostly celebratory sounds, though some darker moments, intrude. The rarely recorded unaccompanied ballad "Hiram Herbert" (aka "Hiram Hubbard"), from the Civil War era, is grim enough to cloud the sky and chill the heart, and "Come All You Roving Gamblers," from the dour Dock Boggs, ponders the wages of the sinful life. The cheerfully up-tempo chestnut "Roving Gambler" seems to be praising the pursuit, but only if you aren't listening to the words.

Milnes and Miller each play guitar and fiddle, and each is an adept singer, whether lead or harmony. Generally, their recording showcases more obscure material than the Farwells'. Still, each CD does the tradition proud. Putting them on the player and hearing them end to end, you'll be rewarded, as the song says, with a satisfied mind. Ear, too. It's amazing how, done right, this old music never feels worn out.

music review by
Jerome Clark

31 October 2015

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