Thursday, April 16, 2015

Digging the Roots: Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project & Ken Whiteley’s Beulah Band

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was one of the great field collectors of American (and international) music. Together with his father John he traveled the countryside in an old car, lugging a 300 lb. recorder to track down the authentic musicians, and capture their songs and performances. Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and many more in the USA and across the sea Elizabeth Cronin, Hamish Hamilton, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger are among the hundreds of names with whom he worked gathering songs and stories recordings of which now reside in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. His biography is entitled Alan Lomax: the Man Who Recorded the World and that’s no exaggeration.

Jayme Stone is a Canadian banjo player. He won a Juno Award in 2008 for his instrumental album The Utmost, and another Juno the following year for Africa to Appalachia (with Mansa Sissoko). His records dig into the history of the banjo, its roots in Africa, and the variety of sounds it makes. Now he combines his interest in the sound of the banjo, with a collection of songs from the Lomax bag to “renew this material [nineteen…songs…collected by…Lomax].” The result is startling. These songs were captured on the road with an acetate disc-cutter and cactus needle stylus. Wherever Lomax found a player he stopped, the sounds on his records were full of the surrounding lifestyle of his subjects. Wind, rain, ocean roar, kitchen noise, neighbourly chitchat and intricate finger-style guitar, rough-hewn vocals, tin whistles, whatever. These sounds influenced Stone to bring together some like-minded friends to update this homemade music. It all remains handmade and homemade, (in the studios of Canterbury Music, Toronto and eTown Hall in Boulder Colorado) by friends and collaborators like Tim O’Brien, Eli West and Julian Lage (guitar), Brittany Haas and Bruce Molsky (fiddle), Joe Phillips and Greg Garrison (bass) and a handful of other singers and instrumentalists including Stone’s own banjo.

The CD begins with “Lazy John,” a song Alan Lomax wrote himself, based on a variety of folk songs, and sung by Margaret Glaspy. Lomax was inspired by Jean Ritchie’s song of the same name, and a record by Fats Domino (believe it or not). The interplay of the stringed instruments (guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo) is inspired and gives off heat. It’s the perfect introduction, high energy and catchy. The next song is “Before This Time Another Year” sung and played by Tim O’Brien backed by a chorus of singers who provide a gospel setting for a tune that was originally done by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers from 1960. Next up is a moody version of “Shenandoah” again sung by Margaret Glaspy. Stone’s fascinating notes tell histories of each song, in this case suggesting that Shenandoah was the name of a Native American Chief whose daughter was the object of affection for a Missouri river trader. Lomax recorded this one in 1939. Remarkable guitar solo from Julian Lage on this tune! O’Brien and Glaspy join voices to sing “Goodbye, Old Paint” and the listener is convinced that they are truly sorry to say farewell to this pony, as they leave Cheyenne. “Sheep, Sheep, Don’tcha Know the Road” is a work song sung by a chorus of seven, accompanied only by handclaps. There are fourteen more songs included, all the usual suspects appear in various configurations, and although Jayme Stone’s name appears on the front cover this album is a communal celebration of the songs and the traditions from which these songs come. A brief word about the package, designed by Travis Ladue and art directed by Jayme Stone, it is one of the most beautiful packages I’ve seen in some time. A 52 page booklet includes a Foreword by Stephen Wade, song notes by Stone and a wealth of photographs. Gorgeous and available from Borealis Records.

Also from Borealis comes a new disc from Toronto’s Ken Whiteley and the Beulah Band. It makes sense to combine these two discs as Ken has been one of our most dependable folk musicians for decades. He’s coming up to his 64th birthday and here surrounded by a band of younger musicians he maintains a spirit of youthful exuberance throughout. The Beulah Band is comprised of Ken’s son Ben Whiteley on bass, Frank Evans on banjos, Rosalyn Dennett playing fiddles and Ken on guitars (and a whole pile of other instruments). Everybody sings. Produced by Ken in Casa Wroxton Studios (Whiteley’s basement studio) the record sounds great. It has the same feel as the Jayme Stone album, it pays tribute to the past while moving into the future.Whiteley has been nominated for seven Juno Awards and played at just about every folk festival in Canada. From the early days in the Original Sloth Band, to backing Leon redbone on Saturday Night Live, to supporting people like Tom Paxton in concert Ken is the consummate folk musician. His bio tells us that he’s worked on more than 135 albums. Beulah Band is the latest, and it’s a corker.

The psychedelic cover (designed by A Man Called Wrycraft) is just the first cool thing about the album. The songs are mainly written by Ken, three traditional tunes and one co-write with Arthur Renwick but they all sound as though they could have come from the Lomax file. From the first banjo frailing of “The Moment We’ve Been Waiting For” and then the harmonies and fiddle you get the idea. This is deep music, with roots buried in the past and a little funk, gospel, folk and a bit of swing. “Beulah Land” comes at the song differently than Mississippi John Hurt did, and turns it into something new. “How Fast Flies Time” showcases Ken fingerpicking on a National guitar with the other vocalists arriving to back him on the chorus and a haunting slide guitar refrain showing up in a couple spaces. “Try Not to Fall” turns the band into a bass section, Ken sings over guitar and fiddle and Ken hums mouth trumpet. Blues, gospel and a little touch of jazz highlight the rest of the songs. Roots music and Americana are the current buzzwords, but when Ken and company do it, it’s Canadiana through and through. It’s great to hear the odd special guest too, like old friends Mose Scarlett, Bucky Berger and Eve Goldberg.

Borealis Records deserve a thumbs up for their continuing devotion to this music and the musicians who make it!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.     

1 comment:

  1. Ken Whiteley is one of the most accomplished – and underrated – musicians in Canada, and the head of a sprawling family of musicians of all ages and styles. Nice to see him getting this kind of recognition.