Music for a Friday

The Fall River disaster of 1874, as depicted in Harper’s. (Credit: ATHM)

For the past week I’ve been driving by the gates of our local General Motors assembly plant on my way to work in the morning, honking my horn to signal solidarity with the striking UAW workers walking the picket line.

Organized labor has taken a beating in this country over the last few decades. I suppose folks have forgotten the abuse and exploitation of workers that made unionizing necessary.

The lyrics of The Granite Mills, a haunting song which I first heard some 25 years ago on a recording by the punk-influenced Amherst, MA folk band Cordelia’s Dad, are a reminder of why we have a labor movement in this country:

In this vain world of trouble,
many accidents occur.
I’m going to sing about one,
as sad as you ever heard.
It was in Fall River city.
They were all burned up and killed,
imprisoned in the factory
known as the Granite Mills.

The origin of the song is a bit of an historical mystery. The Granite Mills tells the story of a disastrous 1874 mill fire in Fall River, MA. Yesterday, Sept. 19, was the 145th anniversary of the catastrophe. A contemporary news account (the original source has been lost) described the incident this way:

FIRE AND GREAT LOSS OF LIFE! DESTRUCTION OF GRANITE MILL NO. ONE! 

A TERRIBLE CALAMITY!

This morning, a little before 7 o’clock, an alarm of fire was sounded from boxes 72 and 74, and it was soon found that Granite Mill No.1 was on fire in the central part – the spooling room in the fifth story. The fire is supposed to have been occasioned by the friction of one of the mules. It spread so rapidly that the help were immediately bewildered and panic stricken, and could not avail themselves of the fire escape, which was ample to save all. The room was instantly filled with smoke, and the help huddled into the south end where the flames had not come.

Men, women, and children rushed to the windows gasping for air, pushed their arms through the glass and screamed for help. Some in their desperation broke through the glass and frames, and pitched themselves headfirst to the ground, where they were killed instantly or shattered in a terrible way. The sight to the spectators was sickening in the extreme. The screams of the injured and the groans of the dying with the roar and crackle of the flames made a scene of horror which was terrible to every beholder. 

The origin of the song is a bit of a mystery. A version appears in a collection of traditional songs and ballads from Nova Scotia published in 1932, but it puts the scene of the fire in New York rather than Massachusetts. It’s unclear where the lyrics of the Cordelia’s Dad’s version came from (you can check them out here), perhaps the band’s own an adaptation of some of the other examples. For those of you with an interest in traditional music and ballads, The Mudcat Cafe, where I found this background information, is a fantastic resource.

I’ve been singing this song for a long time, almost since I first heard it. My hunch is that the tune was written for the lyrics by Tim Eriksen, the lead singer of Cordelia’s Dad, but that’s just a guess. Sometimes I try to accompany myself on the mountain dulcimer. This morning I picked up my old 1890s-era banjo and tried that for the first time while I ran through the lyrics. I was pretty pleased with how it went.

Click on the video below to see and hear the band perform The Granite Mills at their 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA, way back in 2007.

‘Two voices, perfectly paired’

(Credit: Austin City Limits)
(Credit: Austin City Limits)

 

It has been a pretty grim couple of weeks, in a pretty grim season of what’s been a pretty grim year or two. And this blog has been a grim read of late.

All the more reason to roll into the weekend with something to lighten the load the little. The Milk Carton Kids, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, as NPR music critic Bob Boilen puts it,

… sing with harmonies steeped in the great duos of days gone by, like The Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel.

Fellow NPR music writer Stephen Thompson elaborates:

The history of folk and pop music is littered with gorgeous intertwined voices: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, The JayhawksMark Olsonand Gary Louris, and many others have found their own delicate blend of chemistry and charisma. The Milk Carton Kids‘ Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale operate in those pairs’ rich tradition, singing sweet but intricate songs of melancholy when they’re not dishing playful banter between songs.

Ryan and Pattengale get a lot done with subtle gestures — their ballads, like “Michigan” and “Stealing Romance” here, have a way of smoothing over many of their moving parts — but there’s real sophistication.

If you’ve not heard the Milk Carton Kids before, click on the video below to hear them perform one of my favorite songs, “Michigan,” recorded live at Austin City Limits.

If you like what you heard, you can click here for a live recording of their set at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival. The duo are currently touring in support of a new album, this time backed by a full band to support their evolving sound and creative growth:

It helps that, while their influences haven’t gotten lost, Ryan and Pattengale have long since acquired a willingness to stretch out creatively. Take the Joe Henry-produced All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do, whose centerpiece (“One More for the Road”) spans more than 10 minutes as the pair reflect on a desire to prolong a doomed relationship just a little bit longer. Even for a song about lingering, it takes its time — with the help of a full band, a welcome addition — and gathers emotional heft along the way. …

Together, they’ve written a batch of wearily delicate (and, in the case of the rambling and rootsy “Big Time,” zingy) songs about major transitions — both personally and, in “Mourning in America,” politically. But the darkness that seeps in is leavened, as always, by the sun-dappled beauty of two voices, perfectly paired.

Check them out if they come through your neck of the woods.

 

And to thy glory …

That's me on the right leading with my friend Sam Somers in Henegar, AL last summer.
That’s me on the right leading with my friend Sam Somers in Henegar, AL last summer.

 

I’ve mentioned to people off and on that one of the things I do for fun is sing a kind of music called Sacred Harp, or shape-note singing. This usually elicits a polite smile and a “that’s nice” sort of response. Basically, unless they are a bigger music geek than the norm, most people have no idea what it is I’m talking about.¹

In the proto-version of this blog, back in the days when Facebook notes were a thing, the very first note that I posted was about Sacred Harp singing. I had come across a short article online that  laid out some of the basics of the music, its roots, traditions, and modern practice.

The link is now dead, so I can’t direct you to the piece, but here’s a short excerpt:

The Sacred Harp repertoire draws upon late 18th- and 19th-century hymns from the Christian tradition. These fuguing tunes are set to four-part, archaic harmonies that hint of medieval “organum,” with strong fifths and frequent note doubling. Performing them is an exercise in musical democracy. Each participant gets a turn at leading a song and making important musical decisions.

Shape-note singers sit or stand in a hollow square, which to Jessica Beers, chairperson of Portland’s All Day Singing, “is a living manifestation of the ‘different but equal’ axiom. The notation makes it possible for anybody to learn how to read the music, and the community makes it welcoming for anybody who is interested in participating in the tradition as we know it.”

It’s important to point out that this is not a performance tradition, but rather a social and spiritual one. When we get together, whether in a small local monthly session or in larger all-day singings, we sing for ourselves, for each other, for all those who came before us in this tradition, and for all those who will come after.

While the music is Christian in its theology, singers today come from all religious backgrounds and none. All are welcome. It is an inclusive tradition.

In the Sacred Harp community we are admonished to “bring nothing to the square that divides us.” Whatever our differences in religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, social status, or political beliefs, when we come together we sing as one.

To give you an idea of what this music is like, check out the videos below.

This first is the trailer from the documentary film, “Awake My Soul.” In the 11 years that I’ve been singing this music I’ve had the honor to get to meet, sing with, and become friends with some of the folk featured in the film and who appear in the trailer.

This next one is from the 2017 Ireland Sacred Harp Convention held in Cork. While this is an American musical form, in recent years the music has spread abroad with regular singings in Canada, Ireland and the UK, Germany, Poland, Sweden, France, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and even Israel.

This next one is from the 2016 Michiana Convention held each July outside of Goshen, IN. This clip picks up with a song being led by my daughter, Sarah, who started coming to singings with me soon after I started in 2006. Now that she’s in college in Tennessee, not far from the epicenter of the living Sacred Harp tradition in northeastern Alabama, she sings nearly every week.

This last is once again from our singing friends in Ireland, from their 2012 convention. I picked this because the song, Consecration, is one of my favorites, and this recording captures beautifully the power of the music.

For those who want to learn more, the place to start is fasola.org. From there you can learn all about this form of early-American sacred music and find locations for singings. In my part of Michigan, the largest monthly is at the Ark in Ann Arbor, every second Sunday of the month (except for July and August). We sing in my town of Lake Orion on the fourth Sunday, and there are also regular monthly singings in Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Lansing.

Singings are always open to the public, and no experience is necessary. You can learn more about Detroit-area and Michigan singings at the Detroit Sacred Harp website.

If you’re in the Detroit area tomorrow (Saturday, April 22) and want to experience this for yourself, the first Detroit All-Day Singing will be held at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Woodward Avenue starting at 9:30 a.m. All are welcome.

¹I also play the banjo, but that’s a tragic tale for another time.

Music to start the weekend

Anais Mitchell and Jonathan Hamer.
Anais Mitchell and Jonathan Hamer.

 

My blog has been way too dark lately. So here’s a little something different. Old songs, sung and played beautifully.

While some of you may rock out on a Friday evening, this is how I usher in the weekend. Hope you enjoy it.