Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur, |
Happily and remarkably, the leading lights of the 1960s Cambridge/Boston folk scene remain among us, sounding as compelling as ever in the middle of the 21st-century's second decade. Besides Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Maria Muldaur and Tom Rush, we have, not least at all, Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur. These last two have joined forces to bless us with Penny's Farm, a simple but perfectly executed re-imagining of traditional American grassroots songs, plus the 1930s pop tune "My Mary," by Stuart Hamblen, and Bobby Charles' "Tennessee Blues." The late Mr. Charles, best known for r&b and novelty numbers (e.g.,"See You Later, Alligator"), managed at some point in his life to write a regularly covered, enduring modern folk song.
Long ago, Kweskin and Muldaur performed alongside each other in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, which alerted many of us to a genre we'd never heard of and sent us digging for the dusty source recordings by Cannon's Jug Stompers, the Memphis Jug Band and many more. Familiarity with those in no way diminishes one's appreciation of what Kweskin's outfit accomplished, which was something like musical nirvana.
In the same way, even if you know the versions by Clarence Ashley, Mississippi John Hurt, Henry Thomas, Vera Hall and other authentic carriers of the tradition, the interpretations of songs associated with them ("The Cuckoo," "Louis Collins," "Frankie," "Fishing Blues," "Boll Weevil") are here so sincerely felt and lovingly sung that they stand proudly on their own. Of course, Kweskin & Muldaur were exceptional singers and players coming out of the gate, as their early recordings eloquently attest, but they've grown ever more refined after decades of staying at it. Not to mention maintaining an undiminished affection for the American folksong tradition.
As an additional virtue they fashion the songs in ways that don't mimic the originals but suit them personally. Nearly every modern revival of "The Cuckoo," a lyric song of mostly floating verses that migrated from the British Isles to the American South, recreates the clippity-clop banjo rhythm of Ashley's classic 1929 recording of "Coo Coo Bird" (as he called it). Kweskin & Muldaur, on the other hand, slow it down to afford it a meditative, mournful sensibility. It's almost another song in their handling.
"Downtown Blues," learned from the 1928 78 cut by Memphis songsters Frank Stokes & Dan Sane, is a variant of an African-American song Hurt recorded as "Monday Morning Blues." Not the wry cowboy song usually associated with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, "Diamond Joe" is the older, direr lament, which Alan Lomax collected from the singing of prison inmate Charlie Butler; the title character is not a treacherous ranch foreman but a river steamboat the singer longs to board and escape on. Speaking of Elliott, for most of my life I have been familiar with his amiably garbled reading of "Gwabi Gwabi" but hadn't known it derives indirectly from (quoting the liner notes) "the legendary George Sibanda from Zimbabwe" and directly from "Jim's earlier recording of this song which introduced it to the folk community at large." It's a delight to hear this more authoritative arrangement, presumably without mangled words.
Most of the songs on Penny's Farm are backed by a shifting collection of musicians who include fiddler Suzy Thompson and dobro/steel master Cindy Cashdollar. They do a magnificent job, as you'd expect if you know their work. Penny's Farm is just what this sorry world needs: American folk songs treated the right way, with all the respect and discernment they deserve. One wearies of them, I believe, when one wearies of living. You will not weary of what Kweskin & Muldaur do here.
music review by
1 October 2016
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