Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons Carry On the Songster Tradition
“In the beginning the earth was without form and void. Then, street singers were born.” – Anonymous
Before the radio, the phonograph, before cassette tapes and compact discs — long before downloads and streaming music on-demand — there were the street singers, the buskers, the troubadour tramps we’ve come to call songsters today. They were the field laborers, the rural gypsies, the medicine show hucksters, and back alley vaudevillians. They gave us the music born between the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I. They provided the undercurrent for much of the popular music that would grow through the 20th century. It was primitive in the truest sense of the word. It was the first pure musical spirit of people rising out of oppression, slavery, poverty, and hard times into a celebration unique in American history. Although they have been traditionally referred to as ‘blues,’ ‘folk,’ or ‘country’ artists, they couldn’t be bound to one stream of musical expression. They roamed the country throwing down songs that were popular in the churches, show places, and homes of America. When the phonograph and radio were invented, their repertoire became limitless.
And, always, there were the children who followed them in all of their wide-eyed presence, absorbing and learning at their feet. It was their church. They would grow up to become Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and others.
Today fiddler Ben Hunter and guitar/banjo man Joe Seamons aren’t so much a throw-back to the music of the pre-war era songster tradition as they are alchemist-shamans, seemingly sent from those times to the 21st century to wake us up to the music that is embedded deep within us. It is our national heritage. They have been the same wide-eyed children caught by the magic of the songs they learned from their elders. They have grown to be today’s songsters. Their debut album, Take Yo Time, draws its soul, its first and last breath from that pivotal historical swing time — the turn of the 20th century. This important debut has the inspired energy and edge of the best of today’s roots music.
Take Yo Time opens with the Mississippi Sheiks’classic “Jazz Fiddler.” Throughout the album rarely is there heard more than a fiddle, banjo, and guitar to accompany the duo’s vocals. The recording sessions were live in the studio with no effects or enhancements. The result is an energizing celebration of what is best at the heart of the American song tradition — a clear and engaging invitation to join in. It is a living testament to the endurance of the American musical experience unlimited by the boundaries of time or genre.
For this album they have intentionally paid tribute to those often anonymous street musicians alongside well-known icons like Duke Ellington and the lesser known but equally influential, Sheldon Brooks. In a recent interview fiddler, Ben Hunter elaborated on this:
“People ask us if we are writing our own music. We are. But, on this first album, we wanted to explore the wealth of music that’s already been written. It’s a way of looking at American history through a unique lens.”
Hunter was born in Lesotho, a small nation on the southern part of the African continent. His family soon made their home in Phoenix, Arizona. However, as a child, he spent two years of his childhood in Zimbabwe. He was raised in a family devoted to music. Since he was the age of five he was trained on classical violin. However, the music of the world around him would soon find its way into his music. He remembers:
“In college, I started to improvise and explore other forms of music. I’d listened to world and alternative music all of my life. I didn’t really start playing folk music until college.”
After college, Hunter moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he began busking and jamming with folk musicians. It was natural for street musicians to play guitar, but it left Hunter at a disadvantage.
“That was when I had an epiphany,” he says. “I didn’t play guitar. I had to play the violin. I realized as I began to play that I can do anything with this thing! I can play any kind of music. I began to feel like a gypsy. It was a great joy to take the fiddle into any musical context I chose.”
When he moved to Seattle, Hunter was so impressed with the diverse culture of music that he discovered there, he founded a non-profit organization, Community Arts Create, to reach out the inner-city to help break down social barriers through the arts. It was during this time he would meet guitar/banjoist, Joe Seamons.
While Hunter’s gateway to music was through his family, Joe Seamons found his musical highway through his community, his family connections with folk music and an early obsession with Bob Dylan.
He was born in rural Northwestern Oregon where fishermen and loggers made their trade. His earliest memory is hearing his mother sing to him in her arms. It was through his folk singing family and friends and the record collection of his parents that ensured Seamons would be saturated in folk songs, bluegrass, hymns and rock. His parents were people of the land. They even built their own cabin in the backwoods of Northwestern Oregon. From them and the world around him, Seamons learned to play and sing the folk music of the workers of the saw mills, the loggers and fishermen. However, in his mid-teens, his sphere of influence enlarged.
“I got obsessed with Bob Dylan when I was 16,” he says. “I learned to play Dylan and Beatles tunes on guitar. I went to college in Portland and then moved on to Seattle where I began to hear blues in a new way. I began to understand how the music taught me to be joyful amidst the gloom and the political climate of the times. I started writing in the Dylan style of pulling obscure melodies for original songs.”
In 2006, Seamons had the unique college experience of independent study in London, following his interest in the British folk song. He studied the influence of the music on American folk songs by day and busked at train stations by night. Seamon’s education and experience was further enhanced when, in 2010 he was given a BMI Fellowship to spend a week exploring the Woody Guthrie Archives. He went to New York City, where he studied the songs and letters of the famous folk singer’s time in Portland, Oregon, when he wrote the Columbia River songs.
On returning, he began learning banjo with Northwest musician, folk artist, and family friend, Hobe Kytr. This is when he formed an acoustic quartet called Timberbound. They focused on Northwest ballads. As though being directed by the spirit of Woody Guthrie, Seamons then began working with Hobe’s musical partner, a former logger and fisherman, Dave Berge, who had written songs about his labors in the Northwest. This led to the eventual formation of the Renegade Stringband, which is where he met Ben Hunter.
Since 2012, Hunter and Seamons have moved forward as a duo in both career and activism. They continue to be both the children, taking in the music of their elders, and the songsters, bringing the same traditions to the children of their community.
In 2014, while playing Port Townsend Blues Festival, they met Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They were invited to record and tour for his Prospect Hill project with Guy Davis. It gave them the opportunity, not only to learn from a great mentor, but to reach out to local communities nationwide.
But, most impressively and in keeping with the songster tradition of mentoring youth, they have also launched the Rhapsody Project. It is an outreach with the goal of spreading folk and blues music to the community at-large, especially youth. Through this program Hunter and Seamons have been teaching roots folk, blues, and jazz on fiddle, guitar, and a variety of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments to inner-city, underserved children at Washington Middle School.
As they describe on their website, their intention is to bring everyday people the opportunity to participate in this music rather than be spectators. They hope to entice students into further study of their culture, history and the music they describe as “a playground for the imagination.”
“Even if you don’t have a voice to sing with,” Seamons says, “you can drum out rhythm with your limbs to talk about your sorrow, tell your story and drive your blues away.”
Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons are artists and activists in the truest sense of both words. Take Yo Time demonstrates their songster roots while it brings alive a tradition that, as they say, is not something they are preserving so much as it is preserving us. They have only begun to tap the resources of the roots of the music that helped to provide healing and celebration over a century ago. Today, they are songsters, once again on the road bringing the music to a world thirsty for a drink of something real and joyous.