Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania
We are constantly haunted by the past: ghosts of our mistakes and missteps, loved ones and lovers lost, ancient buildings with the lingering dust of generations long gone. Virginia Woolf believed in ghosts, as did Henry James, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Jim Morrison — at the very least they believed in the idea of them as vehicles to help tell a good story.
As prelude to the opening track (truly past as prologue), the album’s backstory is fascinating enough. David Bielanko and Christine Smith, founders of country rock band Marah (with a peaks-and-valleys history all their own), were given an obscure book published in 1931 by Henry Shoemaker (first official state folklorist of Pennsylvania) called Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania. The book, an expanded edition of 1911’s Pennsylvania Mountain Stories, is a collection of “folk songs, waltzes, rafting chants and mountain ballads” Shoemaker gathered from the state’s lumber camps, farms and taverns. Bielanko and Smith, after moving from Brooklyn to a Pennsylvania farmhouse, flashed on the idea of penning music to the book’s 200-plus lyrics. This is the sort of project that can bring out a band’s genius, or reveal its shortcomings.
“The Falling of the Pine” opens with a gospel sample invocation that chimes “Passing the faith along!” setting the tone before simple banjo, fiddle and jaw harp enter. Seventeen seconds in, the harp player bumps into the mic. Rather than a glaring mistake, this low-tech mishap lines up perfectly with the spirit of folk music. Not only that, the 100% analog album was recorded (in an old church in Milheim, PA) to tape on a Studer A80 MKI 1 8-track and Neve Kelso “Broadcast” console, and then mastered directly to a vinyl lathe.
“Melody of Rain” is an uptempo folk-rocker espousing the joys of natural beauty and joyous rhythm of music, while “Luliana”, “Mountain Minstrelsy” and “The Old Riverman’s Regret” play out in lilting waltzes and melancholy rafting chants. “Sing! O Muse of the Mountain” seems a bit overtly epic with its regionalized Homeric reference.
The album’s absolute highlight is “Ten Cents at the Gate”, a neo-gospel gem of glittering joy. The band opened the church’s doors to the community, which brought bagpipes, a tuba, a barbershop quartet and about 100 background singers: “There’s a land that’s much better than today, boys./Paradise, where the blessed angels are.” The song is a sonic circus, carnival sideshow, tent revival, and New Orleans jazz funeral, all rolled into one.
Gus, an 8-year-old fiddle prodigy, is featured on “Harry Bell” and “Rattlesnake”, the former’s music written by the kid himself, the latter a folk-punk nightmare evoking the likes of Elliott Brood’s ghostly Mountain Meadows album or Those Darlins’ raw cover of “Who’s That Knockin’ at My Window.” My only complaint is that the songs would be improved 110% if they’d let someone else sing — Gus’ grade-school vocals are nearly unintelligible, and the songs that begin as interesting anomalies quickly become tiresome.
When Bielanko says he wanted to put a band together “that didn’t sound like your average public radio folk show”, he means it. Marah has breathed life into these old song lyrics, conjuring ghosts, new life and form out of thin air and an old dusty book. This album doesn’t merely retell old folk songs, it reimagines and a reinterprets them for future generations. Ultimately, there is a pulse-quickening thrill when we dig up a long-forgotten past and shine upon it a contemporary light. These are the things that make this album so unique and attractive. How we shape these ghosts — or how we let them shape us — makes all the difference, in art and in life. Marah have done well by these Pennsylvania spirits.