This is the first article in a series where Music is Good contributors discuss the albums that have most influenced them musically. They will include some favourites that they play regularly now, but other choices will be music that they rarely listen to anymore, but had a major influence on their musical development at the time.
My selection begins with the Beatles:
The Beatles inevitably had a major influence upon me musically as I was teenager in their early days. For me this is a turning point album moving from the early fairly straight forward recordings that could be replicated on stage to the later studio based albums like Sgt Pepper. To some extent it reflects my growing up as a person alongside the Beatles ‘growing up’ musically. It is still an album I play regularly with many standout tracks for me such as “Dr Robert” and “Got to Get You Into My Life”.
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English Folk Music and Christmas carols are closely linked together. Carols like The Holy and the Ivy are many centuries old, based on an oral tradition, just like a number of folk songs. Many of these carols actually have elements of paganism and religiosity mixed together, just like many folk songs. The Holy and the Ivy is a good example of this. If you want to learn more about this carol, go to the Wiki article about it.
Right up until the end of the last century, still continuing in some areas, carol singers used to go around houses and pubs in the UK singing sometimes playing instruments, collecting money, usually for charities. Nowadays the most likely carol singers are actually Salvation Army bands in shopping centres. But a number of contemporary English folk artists have continued the tradition of Christmas and Winter songs with their recordings.
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Bluegrass has been known for its virtuosity as much as its conservatism. As much as it can be thrilling with its rapid improvisations, audiences expect musicians to sound like the men who created the genre. Nonetheless, a few people have come along over the last decade who have tried to update the genre, incorporating the ethics of Alternative without abandoning Bluegrass’ sound. For the banjo, this means honoring the Scruggs sound.
Noam Pikelny would never be mistaken for an acolyte of Earl Scruggs. He did not come to the banjo from Bluegrass, through listening to the classics of Bill Monroe and his collaborators; rather it was the other way around. He learned from players of his native Chicago and listened to the “Newgrass” records of the 1970s, particularly Bela Fleck. Playing the banjo has instead brought him to the edges of Bluegrass, developing an intuitive approach to the instrument that has made him a rising star on the “Progressive Acoustic” scene as part of Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers.
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Bruce Cockburn - Christmas
Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn comments in the liner notes to his 1993 album Christmas about the realization that numbingly familiar seasonal standards “are still songs, written by songwriters, with lyrics that often make sense and are beautiful.” He refers to his own creative process of retrieval in terms of discovering that “a little nudge in one direction or another would help to revive their ‘songness’.” The notion of reviving their “songness” stuck with me, and he’s clearly not the only artist who has felt this while listening to Christmas music. The combination of curiosity, lament, and hope that is implied in his comments strikes a chord with me at this time of year. It may well be some defect in me, but the fact is I struggle to appreciate Christmas music. Much, perhaps most of it evokes for me neither warm nostalgia nor childlike faith, but something more akin to the taste of plastic. To my ear, a lot of what I hear at Christmas is testimony to the tragic fact that it is possible to take a memorable and enduring tune, combine it with a lyric deserving of profound meditation (no, I’m not thinking of Rudolph here), and through a potent witches’ brew of forced jollity, mall marketing, kitchsy, schmaltzy arrangements, and sheer over-exposure kill it deader than the slow-moving squirrels whose remains I occasionally pass on my walk to work. For Christmas music to work, it has to contain a hint of resurrection. Here are a few recordings that I think meet the mark – not new releases, but rather musical friends old and new that continue to make Christmas musical.
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Time flies. It’s hard to believe that another Christmas season is already upon us. Didn’t I just get through wading through holiday shoppers in crowded malls? It seems to me our modern, technologically advanced world has set the clock at warp speed. Every Christmas, perhaps as a subconscious survival tool, I find myself turning to holiday music composed in what I think must have been simpler times – sort of my way of turning the clock back to a time when life somehow seemed to move slower and was perhaps a little more human. I play two very special CD’s every Christmas which fit that bill perfectly (heck, I have been known to still be playing them in July because they are too good to hear but once a year). The two disks have similar titles – All On a Christmas Morning by the traditional Irish group, Aengus, and The First Christmas Morning by Dan Fogelberg (yes, Fogelberg – although one may not necessarily view his music as coming from olden times).
Here’s the first CD in my Christmas survival kit:
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Nathan (photo by Jon Schledwitz)
“If David Lynch had directed ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?,’ Nathan’s music would be the soundtrack.” – Michael Wrycraft, CBC Radio
Two women and two men.
Acoustic and electric guitars, 6-string banjo, accordion, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, drums and percussion, piano, organ, some horns (trumpet, French Horn, and tuba) – even the eerie howling sound of a theremin, a motion-sensitive synthesizer. Add some Appalachia to the pot and throw in a little jazz – a dash of country, Tex-Mex, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and some cabaret for good measure.
That’s the Canadian band Nathan. No wonder they’re hard to categorize. One thing is not hard to figure, though – this is some seriously good music.
Nathan’s debut album Stranger was released independently to much acclaim in 2001, and won a Prairie Music Award for Outstanding Independent Album.
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An on-going musical interest of mine is contemporary English Folk Music. I first became interested over 40 years ago in the late 1960s when I was a student. The late 1960s was a period of renaissance for folk music in the UK. My college had a Folk Club with another club weekly in a local pub. It was whilst he was on his way to play for us that Paul Simon wrote Homeward Bound when he was sitting on the Widnes station platform. There has been another renaissance in recent years led by a number of bands and solo artists playing in a more contemporary approach while bringing in music from other genres. This is the first of a monthly series of articles to introduce the key artists and albums of the current English folk music scene.
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Photo by John Ramspott
Yes, at some point I referred to the Bluegrass banjo as the “hillbilly continuo.” I could think of no better way of explaining the spray of notes that rolls off the musician’s hands, propelling the music rapidly, but steadily, forward. Indeed, the comparison to the role of the basso continuo in Baroque music would seem to hold. My own prejudices about mountain culture perhaps deserved more scrutiny.
Give Me The Banjo, the documentary that just aired nationally on PBS and can be viewed online, provides more perspective. The banjo is at the middle of a nation’s long struggle to understand both its genius and its divisions. The product of The Banjo Project, a nine-year oral history, the documentary could not come at a more appropriate time, just as the instrument is enjoying a renaissance. Pricier and heavier than the ukulele, the other instrument of the moment, the banjo rings authenticity for a new cosmopolitan generation. It is genuine. It is restless. And as narrator Steve Martin has “banjoked” in the past, it is the sound of happiness.
The documentary begins, luckily for me, with the banjo’s role as a symbol of African-American culture. Giving only a casual explanation of the instrument’s genesis and its refinement by slaves, Sweeney‘s black-faced minstrel sets off a wider discussion about how the banjo was a caricature of African-Americans. No other part of the film better attempts to connect the instrument to social changes and a broader public consumed with understanding its identity. Indeed, the efforts of enthusiasts and scholars to balance the story of racism with the genius of American music makes the beginning sections somewhat explosive.
Sections on Gus Cannon, Charlie Poole, and Pete Seeger connect the banjo to the mobility of Americans in the early 20th century. Gus Cannon’s story is interwoven with interviews with the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, who helps to make cannon’s jug band blues sound vibrant. This is the film at its most irresistible, feeling both erudite and homespun at the same time. By the time “Walk Right In” becomes a revival hit in the 1960s, it’s hard to see Cannon as anything other than a genius who wrested the black image from the minstrels.
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