During the Dunwells’ June 24 appearance at the Santa Fe Bandstand, David Dunwell pulled out a banjo for an encore piece and made a joke to the effect that every touring British musician must at one time or another face the delicate process of playing an inherently American instrument in front of its native audience. He proceeded to perform a banjo-based song (with the backing of his indie-pop rhythm section) that proved his competence with the instrument and his modesty but left few other lingering impressions.
As the sometimes rocky soil of American folk continues to be ploughed and overturned in the laborious quest of musical reanimation, its nutrients seem at times near the point of depletion. Britpop bands aren’t the only ones seeking to capitalize on the banjo’s unlikely current status as a mainstream darling. American bands (with animal-inspired names) like Modest Mouse, Fleet Foxes, and Grizzly Bear are just a few of the numerous indie groups known to have plucked a tenor or five-string on stage at one time or another. Then there are the countless young bluegrass, nugrass, alt-folk, roots, old-timey, Americana, and so-called “beard-rock” groups out there adding to the general cacophony in barrooms and on street corners across the land.
The benefits of this current musical movement (which, having been going on for several years, no longer qualifies as a mere craze) are certainly numerous. New interpretation of old material continues to expand our awareness of both the role of traditional instruments and the songs that showcase them, and, even more important — at least from a musicological point of view — the recovery of previously lost or fading folk songs greatly helps expand and preserve the musical heritage of this and other countries.
Here’s where Sam Amidon comes in. The 32-year-old folk singer and musician from Vermont (who plays the banjo, among other instruments) recently released his seventh album, Bright Sunny South, on Nonesuch Records. In this and previous work, Amidon continues digging deeper into the ground of traditional music, rather than just sifting through the topsoil. So instead of tackling standards by the likes of Leadbelly, Dylan, or either of the Guthries, he focuses on much more antiquated material, which he reworks in surprising ways.
“Weeping Mary,” the last song on the album, might be the oldest: it dates back to at least the ’30s ... the 1830s, that is. Liner notes explain that the piece “can be found in print in John G. McCurry’s 1855 collection, The Social Harp.” Similarly, the title track, “Bright Sunny South,” is a Civil War-era piece which tells the tale of a young man saying his plaintive farewells to his family before shouldering a musket and marching off to war.
Amidon takes oxymoronic “obscure classics” like these and separates them from their traditional melodies or reworks their rhythmic aspects to fit his own personal aesthetic. In “Bright Sunny South,” his interpretation has few frills, the most obvious modern touch being some very light ambient synth noise underlying the guitar and vocals. Such simplicity draws one in to the extent that the song, not the singer, is of utmost importance. His voice, soft and haunting but occasionally raspy, summons the ancestral specters of past centuries, complete with their long-forgotten hopes and despairs, while his creative embellishments lend them added life. In fact, it’s this voice that gives the music much of its folk authenticity, especially when compared with the studio polish found on similar efforts by major-label bands. At times he comes across as somewhat oversimple and untrained but in a natural, rather than an affected, way. Overall he sounds more like a timeless everyman than a rising folk star.
Amidon only occasionally verges on the radical, as when he takes the unusual step — heresy to some traditionalists — of excising half the title of the woeful and antiquated folk ballad “Short Life of Trouble,” reducing it to “Short Life.” However, even here his interpretation is respectful and driven by a deep-rooted thoughtfulness. Bright Sunny South came about from his musings during a 600-day walking journey, and in the liner notes he describes the amalgamation of songs and sounds that resulted as a “sculpture garden of personal relics.”
Amidon has spent considerable time living and touring in the U.K., where he’s been able to mine the rich music traditions of that region — while bands like the Dunwells tour his native land and sharpen their own banjo skills. Such cultural exchange is a good thing for music. The banjo and other elements of American folk music are in no way off-limits to exploration from people of all skill levels and background (musical and cultural). However, the right to experiment with or co-opt a particular sound does not guarantee that the resulting byproduct won’t come across as stale, especially when it’s overproduced. To that effect, David Dunwell’s banjo joke immediately brought to mind an even more successful British “folk-lite” band, Mumford & Sons. These winners of the 2013 Album of the Year Grammy have expanded the banjo’s mainstream popularity immensely, thanks to the instrument’s prominence in their sleek though uninspired pop songs. According to Billboard, this year Mumford & Sons became “the first band to chart as many as six concurrent Hot 100 titles since the Beatles more than 48 years ago.”
Compared with Amidon, musicians like Mumford & Sons and The Dunwells are not furthering folk traditions so much as capital- izing on them. By riding (and fueling) the current wave of neo-folk popularity, these bands pack stadiums and sell digital downloads by the millions. However, the half-life of their hits seems limited, whereas the more modest and profound songs on Bright Sunny South promise a quiet staying power and might stick around for another 150 years.
Calling out mainstream music for being shallow, and bemoaning the lack of recognition given to more profound creators, is nothing new. Then again, neither is the banjo. ◀