Elizabeth Mitchell’s New Album Resounds with Joy
Folk singer Elizabeth Mitchell is arguably the flagship artist for revered record label Smithsonian Folkways (along with Ella Jenkins). Her ability to breathe new life into old traditions, and her thoughtful, subtle music-craft make her not only one of the best folk singers today, but also an artist who’s brought a lot of comfort and beauty to people. Elizabeth Mitchell’s new album, The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook, is a long look at the legacy of composer and intellectual Ruth Crawford Seeger, but also shines a light on how the erudite folk music collectors of New England came to influence and create the concept of American folk music. The album itself is recorded with Mitchell and her family and her close circle of friends in and around Woodstock, New York, including well-known names like Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, Peggy Seeger (Ruth Seeger’s daughter), Amy Helm (Levon Helm’s daughter), Jay and Ruthy Unger, Dan Zanes, Aoife O’Donovan, and more. If there are a lot of families (including Mitchell’s own) in this list, it’s because Mitchell makes handcrafted music from a family perspective, and is often known as a children’s music artist (in fact, she’s up for a Grammy now for her previous album blue clouds). But this music is made for all ages, and though it’s a Holiday album, it’s still some of her best work.
We caught up with Elizabeth Mitchell by phone at her Woodstock home and got the inside scoop on how the album was made and what this music means to her and her family.
Hearth Music Interview with Elizabeth Mitchell
Hearth Music: Let me ask about the album because it’s a Christmas album. I read in the liner notes that you recorded this album in spring which seems a funny contradiction to be doing that.
Elizabeth Mitchell: We started it 4 years ago and we would work on it at different times of the year. We finished it in the spring. That was when we came to a push and we said, “I can’t let another Christmas come and go and not release this music.” I could’ve very easily done that; it would be a whole ‘nother year because you can only release a Christmas album at one time of year. I said, “If we don’t finish it now, it’s going to be a whole ‘nother year before this thing is shared.” We really pushed hard this spring to leave no stone unturned and all those songs in the back of my mind that I’d wanted to try, I said, “Okay, it’s now or never. We’ve got to call Gail Ann Dorsey and get her over here today and have her sing this song that I think will be perfect for her.” That was how we spent March, April, May, really deep in the Christmas thing, which was a fun thing to do here in Woodstock. People have a really good sense of humor and we’ve got great neighbors. They were like, “Sure, I’ll come over here with the daffodils blooming and try singing another crazy Christmas song you’ve got in mind.” We’re lucky that our friends here have a lot of patience and generosity and an adventurous spirit and came together to help us pull it off.
It seems that there’s a really strong folk music community in Woodstock. Is that right?
EM: There is. It’s really exciting. It’s a really great community that we have here right now and people are really interested in what’s old but also in what’s new and making what’s old, new again. They have a shared adventurous spirit with the willingness to try to re-invent things or just re-interpret things and I’m grateful to have a lot of co-conspirators.
Ruth Crawford Seeger is an inspiring person to me in so many ways. I’m inspired by how her personal creative path was transformed by her motherhood. She had been a composer before marrying Charles Seeger and then having four children. That experience led her into the classroom working at the Maryland preschool where her children attended. She brought every ounce of her own creativity and knowledge and intelligence into the classroom, into working with children. She brought it all forth: treating children with respect as creative beings that she could engage on a creative level. That coincided with her work with Alan Lomax, working with the Library of Congress, working on the songbooks with him, Folk Songs U.S.A., the book that they did together. The combination of those two things brought forth some great music that is still being shared itself now and many generations later in the songbooks that she created during a very brief time: American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folk Songs for Children, and finally, The American Folk Songs for Christmas. I’m really inspired by how she worked with her 4 children but also, never really compromised her creativity and treated it as an art form worthy of every bit of intelligence and sensitivity as anything else that she did with her life. That’s one of the many ways that I’m inspired by her life.
In the liner notes, Daniel talks about Seeger as an experimental composer, more than a transcriber. Do you feel that what she created was more than just transcriptions or simple arrangements. What in the sheet music she created went beyond the tradition?
EM: She brought her experience as a composer to bear in those arrangements. She was dedicated to the goal that the arrangements would be simple enough for someone with rudimentary piano skills to play. She really wanted it to be for everyone to have the experience of getting to know these songs and playing these songs but she did it in such a deft and skillful way that, just because an arrangement is simply played, doesn’t mean that it has to be simply voiced. She really succeeded in making the voicing interesting and rich and beautiful, so that you could sit down and be playing simple 2 note chords with an easy stretch of the hand but they were exquisite. They were dark, they were complicated, mysterious, all the things that I’m looking for when I’m going to sit down and play a folk song. That’s the real genius of the songbooks that she created.
She’s working from traditions, some of them were outside of western scales or pre-tempered scales, her experience in atonalism, all that Schoenberg stuff, do you think that that helped her better transcribe the traditional music?
EM: I think so. I think you’re exactly right about that. There’s also the fact that folk songs–ones that have been passed from generation to generation, that have stood the test of time–the melodies have been refined over time like a stone in the river getting smoother and smoother and more beautiful and more essential. She was working with material that already had, over time, been passed from voice to voice and hand to hand and given these beautiful gems of melody to transcribe and then, like you said, she brought to bear her experience of dissonance and atonal music to create these gorgeous arrangements that we had so much fun re-interpreting.
A lot of the music that she was writing about came out of the oral tradition but she came from the classical tradition, do you think that the music that she ultimately created, hurt the oral tradition or was part of a break in the oral tradition? What’s your take on that?
EM: At the time when she was transcribing, she was transcribing these songs from field recordings. It was a really exciting moment of technology meeting the oral tradition. There’s a great story about Mike Seeger, who was her son, who became one of the great interpreters of traditional music that we have in our time. He, as a child, listened to her playing those field recordings over and over again, so that she could hear, “Is that note a B or is it a B flat?” He always said that time he was with her, listening to those field recordings and that the music has got inside him. It was his own; it became a part of him. You can call that oral tradition but Mike Seeger wasn’t, as a child, sitting there with a sharecropper in a field, he was listening to the field recordings that they had there in their home. So, it was an exciting moment of technology accelerating things and taking them into a new realm. I think, personally, that that just enriches and complicates the situation which is ultimately good.
You’re probably passing it on through oral tradition. Your daughter is not necessarily learning through sheet music and probably the people you were playing with weren’t taking off the sheet music.
EM: Right, but now we’re actually creating songbooks for the records that we have put out so far with Smithsonian Folkways. We’re compiling a songbook. I think that both are really important and that the oral tradition is important as is the transition of handing someone a book to learn music from. You can absorb certain things by ear; then, there’s also something really exciting about learning from a songbook, seeing someone’s direct arrangement of something. If you don’t have a listening device or someone sitting there to teach you a song, this is another way to pass it on that I would not like to lose sight of, so we are making a songbook.
When is the songbook coming out?
EM: I don’t know. We’re working on it right now, literally right now.
Is it one book for multiple recordings or one book per recording?
EM: That’s the goal; we’re hoping to be able to put it all in one.
Cool! Let me ask you, one of Seeger’s missions that it mentions in the liner notes is that she wanted to give back to the people the songs that belonged to them. Do you think that there’s a need for that today?
EM: For me, there’s never enough song sharing. It’s always a way to be learning, especially as someone who has spent a lot of time in the classroom with young people. A song is a great way to share knowledge, to learn about a new culture, to learn about your own culture. They’re really lovely teaching tools. Whether it’s about a culture or a holiday or a religion, whether or not it’s your own, it’s good to know and understand it, even if it’s not your own personal faith, to build cultural bridges and create connections. I think that songs are one of the easiest, most beautiful ways that we have to do that.
There’s a fair amount of Christian content in the album. Do you think that it excludes listeners by including people that are not Christian? That’s the reasoning of the public schools…
EM: It was a risk in making a Christmas album; I’ve always tried to be inclusive in my work; that’s always been something so important to me. So, this was one record that might be an exception to that because there will be people that won’t be interested for that reason and that’s okay. I didn’t put out the record as something that could only be enjoyed by someone who’s of the Christian faith because it really is the telling of a story: the story of a mother and child. Those were the songs that Ruth Crawford Seeger gravitated towards in the songbook that she created. So many of the songs were about Mary’s experience as a mother, a surprised mother, a new mother, a frightened mother, a proud mother. That is something that can be accessed by people whether or not they’re of the Christian faith. It can be something to enjoy whether or not that’s your faith or not. If you’re not looking for a Christmas record that’s fine. I have other records. [both laughing] It was a risk for me to say, “Well, this one isn’t as inclusive as the other records that I’ve done but it’s beautiful music that can be enjoyed whether or not you celebrate that holiday.”
I love what you said about how it’s more than just a biblical story. It’s about a mother’s story and that song, The Cherry Tree Carol is an amazing song that is taken from the biblical Apochyphra, so it’s not in the bible but the idea that Joseph would be mad at Mary about the unknown father is such a primal human feeling. Do you feel that Seeger understood that in the music, that she was looking for these primal, human feelings in the music?
I think so. I think she definitely was and I think that, when I look through the content of the book, the songs that she chose, because most of them were done because she would do Christmas pageants with her children’s school. Most of the songs she found were woven into a pageant that she would do with children. So again, finding songs that would be most accessible to them, most understood by them, most appropriately brought forth in the context of a family and so many of them are Mary and the baby and that song in particular is such a human song. It’s this marital moment and then it’s the child coming forth to defend the mother in this beautiful, mysterious way, to show the bond of a mother and child is that strong that it can speak even from another realm. Those are the things that really move me and that I think did move her as well.
Do you take that perspective when you look at folk music in general that you’re looking at your own personal journey and maybe, a human journey. Folk music is so antiquated and archaic in some ways; some of these lyrics were so old, but do you feel like you’re looking for a personal aspect that can travel through it?
EM: I’m looking for a thread that we can pull through time that’s still… songs that still resonate today even if the language might be antiquated, the sentiment or the meaning still resonates now. I try to keep pulling them forward, to not let them get lost. I’m not the only one these days, there’s a lot of people doing the same thing and keeping this human and creative music forum alive.
DOWNLOAD The Sounding Joy now and you can play it for your own family’s Christmas and sing along.
THE SOUNDING JOY: CHRISTMAS SONGS IN AN OUT OF THE RUTH CRAWFORD SEEGER SONGBOOK
Thanks to Elizabeth Mitchell for being so kind and open to these questions. And thanks to Smithsonian Folkways for putting out this beautiful music.