3rd Annual Harry Smith Festival – November 14, 2010 – Millheim PA
The third annual ‘Harry Smith Festival’ was, like the Anthology of American Folk Music the Festival celebrated, exhaustive. Beginning at just after two on a warm Sunday afternoon in the comfortable and roomy Elk Creek Café & Aleworks, the festival unfolded over the next eight hours: an elegant, lurching train with ninety nine cars that ribboned through the primeval river valleys and clattered by the hill towns of the Appalachians and beyond. Songs that were old when they were first recorded on those 78s in the 1920s, and older when they were collaged by Harry Smith in the 1950s, and even OLDER when the Anthology was re-issued in 1997, came ALIVE on the stage. Folks from every point of the time/space omnisphere came together to celebrate the weirdness, to breathe life into that ecstatic musical experience, and to distill further and anew the essence of the human condition –life/death/fear/glory– that is so rich and plentiful on the Harry Smith Anthology.
The music began with The Butcher Boy and Steve, whose lo-tech/hi-tech approach set the tone perfectly. Playing a couple of old guitars (including a 1920s National steel resonator), and an I-Pod with pre-recorded drum tracks, these guys laid down some blues thick with authenticity, including “John the Revelator” (HS Anthology Song No. 52)and “Sugar Baby” (62). The interchange of growling cracking voice and weeping slide guitar bypassed the heart and mind and went right to the gut. Banjoist/madman Curtis Eller playing with Chris Moore & Sons opened their set with “Sugar Baby,” a different but also 100% authentic version as the Butcher Boy’s – THIS is what the anthology and this Festival is for! These songs are the clay, YOU are the potter! Curtis and Chris and boys powered out some serious high-energy old time, up on the tables during the shout out of “Mole in the Ground” (63), and in general leaving no doubt that these tunes are alive!
After a quick set change, the living breathing songs continued to inspire with Little Silver. Steve Curtis (of the countrypolitan band Hem) and Erica Simonian (of NYC’s indie Sprinkle Genies) and their new band achieved a sublime and unhurried atmosphere with their natural interplay and harmonies. The self described ‘ballad’ approach on “Willie Moore” (10) and “East Virginia” (58) made for a beautiful set. The beautiful voices and arrangements continued with Hannah Bingman and Doug McMinn. Their explorations of the powerful melodies in “Single Girl Married Girl” (67) and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (76) help the rest of us clarify what it is we love about these tunes. The clarinet was cool, too. The first half of the festival ended with the Wringers – clunky, plinky, occasionally lovely, occasionally screechy. The crowd especially appreciated the Scottish Smallpipes in the guit/uke, mando/squeezebox mix on “Home Sweet Home” (39), which seemed to bring a taste of the Old Country to the New. Again that old with the new!
During the intermission, some brief remarks regarding the Penn’s Valley Hope Fund and also the East Penn’s Valley Branch Library grounded the room in the here and now, and reminded us ‘we’re all in this together.’ That the Harry Smith Festival is a benefit for these worthwhile causes, and NOT a for-profit happening, only makes sense. Harry Smith paid little attention to money during his lifetime. He was serving a Higher Master, a Great Spirit, always trying to tune in to the Celestial Monochord. This searching was further celebrated with the screening of ‘Harry Smith-like’ 16mm Film. Harry Smith was, among many other things, an innovative and groundbreaking animated film maker. The Festival film was a found Maryland Game Commission film from the 1950s that was hand colored/stylized/animated by Festival founder and MC, Kai Schafft. Purple hillsides, spinning mandalas, a great single eye in the sky – and these men in the film plant their trees, thin their herds, mow their meadows! Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The WHOLE Of The Law!
The volume got cranked up to 11 with the start of the second half. Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith from the band Marah really rocked a couple including a wrenching “Butcher Boy” (6), before unplugging and turning in a fabulous and reverential reading of “Charles Guiteau” (16). Dear Lord remember me! The terrific musicianship of the KC Rounders followed – four guys, each taking a tune or two, proving their debt and gratitude to the Anthology more and more with each passing song. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times?” (102) called out across the decades the despair and fear; “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” (55) recalled the … hope? light? Don’t give up! The sun will rise again! Strong stuff!
Peter Stampfel, legendary founder of the Holy Modal Rounders and all around force of nature was up next. Peter is the living, breathing Anthology. These songs (which he has been playing for fifty years) inhabit him fully. In the liner notes of the Anthology reissue, Stampfel writes about Volume 2, Social Songs: “I was most strongly moved by the Cajun version of ‘Home Sweet Home.’ After the first few bars I collapsed on the floor, rolling around with hysterical laughter, which continued to the end of the cut. I had never had a reaction to music like that in my life.” Peter is still hysterical, and ecstatic about these songs, these melodies, these feelings. Beginning his extended set on the fiddle with the magnificent and rich mystery that is “La Danseuse” (31), Peter, along with a few of the Ether Frolic Mob multi-instrumentalists Hubby Jenkins and Jane Gilday, treated the room to many of the best fiddle tunes from Volume 2, including “Wake Up Jacob” (30) and “The Wild Wagoner” (29). Hubby took the vocal on “The Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues” (26) and “Casey Jones” (24), fantastic! Another highlight was the young guest fiddler who left no doubt the tradition is in good hands – even seeing it with our own eyes we didn’t believe it! The set ended with Peter’s spot on and classic take on “He’s Got Better Things for You” (48), which brought home the idea that here, in this man right here, is a direct connection back through the decades to the very birth of the folk revival in all its gotten, begotten and misbegotten glory. The Anthology has arguably influenced ALL American music since its release, and Peter Stampfel has been in the eye of that transcendental hurricane since the beginning.
Penultimately, Catherine Irwin took the stage around 8 pm. Standing with her guitar (or banjo) among the other band’s amps and cables and drumkits and instruments, Catherine’s understated performance enchanted everyone. The initiated marveled at her abilities of interpretation – we know her Black Sabbath and Bee Gees and Louvin Brothers covers; the uninitiated just marveled: that voice! that honesty! Irwin’s knowledge and love of old time American music is so evident in all of her work, and her renditions here of “John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man” (17) and “Ommie Wise” (13) were a powerful testament to the stripped down, raw beauty of these tales of tragedy and triumph. Besides being a major and important songwriter in her own right, Catherine is well known for finding other musical gems in the American songbook and giving them her own heartfelt (heartache-felt?) reading. She probably could have sung the liner notes, and it would be spare and unflinching – “The House Carpenter” (3) and “Down on the Banks of the Ohio” (88) were positively riveting. Catherine was joined by Chicken Tractor Deluxe for two Carter Family tunes from the anthology, “Hello Stranger” (99) and “No Depression” (106). These songs were touchstones for just about everyone in the room, and the energy and ecstasy was in abundance. Catherine’s rock-solid and rich voice was the perfect complement to Kai and Nell from CTD – everyone seemed to be a little delirious but Filled with the Spirit at this point.
Chicken Tractor Deluxe did not miss a beat as they thanked Catherine, and everyone else, and launched into a guitar-and-bass rich set of driving versions of “Train on the Island” (82), “When That Great Ship Went Down” (22), and “Dry Bones”(51). CTD has that sort of Gram Parsons/Scotty Moore thing going on, and these tunes are both a reverential send up and a crazed, twenty-first century wah-hootenanny. Also as special (spatial) treat, Kai Schafft and Co. treated the crowd to a tune they claimed was on (the as-yet-fictional) Volume 5 of the Anthology, the Peter Stampfel penned “Bad Boy” (113?) from the Holy Modal Rounders 1999 release Too Much Fun, which was also brought out by Stampfel the night before. Some of that mojo must have still been on the stage because CTD plugged right into the whacky silliness, and really closed that gap between the sacred and the profane. “He knows illegal people, he does illegal things, but he doesn’t seem illegal when he plays guitar and sings…..!” Finally, eight full hours after it began, Chicken Tractor Deluxe closed the 3rd annual Harry Smith Festival with “My Name is John Johanna” (14), a song that is both a century old and at the same time brand new, right now, right here in front of your face. Circle complete.
It doesn’t get much better than this sunny November weekend: a night of inspired and inspiring music, a sunny hillside morning of coffee and community (co-unity), an entire day of tall tales, whacky instruments, and our favorite songs and musicians. The energy came together, the Whole being more than just Parts, the Circles spiral in and spiral out, Light across space is bent, tuned by the gravity of nearby celestial bodies, the Spinning of the Spheres and the ever-changing/ever-unchanging way is the WAY. It was a day of testifying and spiritualizing, a celebration of all that is good in the sacred and the profane, and sometimes just good clean fun with age-old melodies that are in our blood. The tunes call, we respond – PLAY and SING what THOU WILT shall be the WHOLE of the LAW! Can I get an AMEN? Amen.