Roots for a Rounder: A Talk with Benny Sidelinger
Hearth Note: The Shiftless Rounders came on to the scene back when MySpace was all the rage, and they had a remarkably compelling byline that excited my youthful imagination: “If Kurt Cobain had been from West Virginia….” And then I heard “Pink,” their version of the old mountain ballad Little Pink and I fell in love. Most folks cite the Harry Smith anthology or Dock Boggs as their moment when they glimpsed the dark, beating heart of American old-time music, but for me that moment came thanks to The Shiftless Rounders. So I’m pleased to present this thoughtful guest article from Olympia, WA author LLyn De Danaan. It’s a visit with Benny Sidelinger of the now defunct Shiftless Rounders and thoughts on the power of American roots music.
Roots for a Rounder: A talk with Benny Sidelinger
Guest Post by LLyn De Danaan
Benny Sidelinger has lived in the Olympia area for about seven years. You might say that, after a lot of travel, he has settled down. I first met Benny when he was working with local luthier Brady Anderson. Brady was overbooked the day I walked in with my two Martins. Not surprising. Brady’s reputation is rightfully earned. I was willing to get in line. Brady introduced Benny. Benny quietly told me what my guitars needed and was almost apologetic about the cost (which I thought was a bargain), and when he was finished, a couple of weeks later, my guitars sounded better than they ever had. I didn’t realize then that Benny was not only a luthier but also a musician and performer. Nor did I realize that he had built three dozen or more guitars himself.
Some months later, I attended an Alice Stuart house concert in Olympia. Alice does marvelous, well-attended acoustic house concerts and these concerts are probably my favorite way to listen to her. Alice, a phenomenon all on her own, is at the top of my list both as person and musician. Originally from eastern Washington, her career began in the early 1960s in Seattle. She traveled south and became part of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival in 1964. Alice was on the bill that year with Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Mississippi John Hurt, and The New Lost City Ramblers among others. Her career from then on made her one of the most important folk, rock, and blues musicians of her generation and many rightfully consider her a pioneer. Those who revere her work and gutsy firsts in the business include countless women musicians. Even those women who don’t know her work owe her a debt.
During the course of her evening house concert, Alice introduced Benny. He accompanied her on a couple of tunes then did two solos, “Cherry Street” and “White Bucket.” The latter he credits to his former Shiftless Rounders partner Phill Saylor Wisor. It is on their 2008 Warm Clothing Line album. The songs Benny sang at the house party featured unusual, hauntingly familiar tunes, compelling rhythms, and original, poetic and imaginative lyrics. Benny’s sweet, plaintiff, voice and technical proficiency knocked me out. I grabbed him for a short conversation right after the concert.
Benny was one of the duo Shiftless Rounders with Phill Saylor Wisor whom he met in Western Massachusetts. Originally based in Vermont, the band made several recordings including Ghost in the Radio (2004), Places (2005), and Warm Clothing Line (2008).
These albums are unquestionably auteur pieces, reflective of an ongoing creative vision and with a distinct and undeniable mission and sound. The Ghost in the Radio album has tracks that are tips the fedoras to Woody Guthrie (their version of “I Ain’t Got No Home”) and Townes Van Zandt (“Dollar Bill Blues,” released as a single in 1978 from the period when some say he was doing his best work).
The lyrics of “Dollar Bill Blues,” if not literally about Townes’ life, is certainly about the lives of many drifters and lonely men who just don’t quite fit in anywhere. Articulating that feeling and that life is what so much of Van Zandt’s work is about:
“If I had a dollar bill
yes, I believe I surely will
go to town and drink my fill
early in the morning”
Townes was influenced by Lightening Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Doc Watson among others. He covered their songs as well as songs by Bob Dylan. Then he began writing him own songs. The melancholy “Tecumseh Valley” from his album Legend is a good example.
Understanding these sources and their sources in this music makes listening to each new rendition and version all the richer. Everybody is standing on somebody’s shoulders. Roots upon roots upon roots. The Shiftless Rounders’ study of and homage to their predecessors is evident. And yet Townes, who died in 1997, Benny says was not only important to them, but a really “a big hero.” To call Townes a hero is to say a lot about Benny and The Shiftless Rounders. Townes didn’t grow up hungry. But he, like so many musicians, walked away from a life of security and paychecks to pursue his music. It’s not easy as the The Shiftless Rounders wrote in their “Communiques from the Highway” during the time they were touring. One entry, from early 2006, captures the feeling and the life:
“Aside from being a musician it’s about being an absent lover, a missing husband, a regular working stiff, a wandering sleep deprived emotional masochist, a distant friend, a worrisome child, an underpaid migrant, a loafer, a no-good, a crack-slipper, an unexceptional exception to the rules, a gas-guzzling capitalist, a penny-begging socialist, a good friend, a bad friend, a bathroom stall poet, a passenger side politician, a slave to the credit card companies, a slave to the cheap bad food machine, a slave of the beer-pushers, a willing cog in the great machinery of shitty clubs and a nipping participant in the ground work of beautiful happenings. What I’m trying to say is that we wish being a rounder was as easy as climbing up behind the microphones and singing every night for and hour and a half and having all the energy in the universe to do it night after night after night after night till the very last cow wonders home, BUT the truth of the matter is the harder you work at it the less you feel human and the more inhumane you begin to feel the deeper it sinks into your mind that you’re ONLY human and humans, like anything, need rest, water, good food, shelter, love, space, non-movement.”
Townes, unlike Benny and Phill, was arguably killed by this life and as such is a hero of mythic proportions who suffered for his choices; He is a classic tragic hero with a tragic flaw. His frailties’ drive his music and doomed him. The album’s title, Ghost in the Radio, however, Benny says, is not a reference to Townes or any other particular musician, “the ghost in the radio …is a reference to how we can be visited from spirits of the past by listening to old music,” An authentic articulation of that chill, “can run up your spine following a particularly poignant lyric.” The chill factor is present on many of The Shiftless Rounders tracks.
Townes is among the many in country/western music who created his own chills, and though his life was more than troubled and short, his influence on other musicians is immeasurable. He too, like Wisor and Sidelinger in their three albums, was a passionate poet of the American condition.
The poetry of the lyrics on Ghost is what sets The Shiftless Rounders apart from many others. Their engagement with shape note singing and old time music is all there. But its all been made their own.
“Over the Water,” on the Places album, is told from the point of view of the past lives of people and features in the American landscape: a depression era brick building has become the site of an overpass that spans a waterways and a buck trail for wagons has become a beltway. Thus, it is a song from the heartland lamenting the loss of the country’s innocence (like Don Edward’s lament “Coyotes”), progress, and, maybe chaos, followed by the hope of redemption:
“I am the future and the rivers run up hill…..and the lord is my keeper he walks over the water…..”
“Over the Water” began working its way into The Shiftless Rounders’ sets in early 2005. It is mentioned in a “Communique” from Lawrence, Kansas where the “coldest winds” are under railroad bridges. They “people watch” in coffee shops and have a conversation with a man who has muffin crumbs in his beard. “Our culture’s becoming rotten teeth,” someone in a Lawrence cafe says. “Communiques” are philosophical and engaging. You want them to keep writing. You want to see the film.
The Shiftless Rounders: Over the Water
Benny was drafted by Canadian roots band Po’ Girl (An interview with them during one of several European tours that included Benny is found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTjcG6b7KxU. This piece includes a great demonstration of gut bucket bass.) According to the interview, Benny custom-built guitars for group members Awna Teixeira and Allison Russell. Po’ Girl‘s style has been called “urban roots.” Benny is on the group’s 2010 album, Follow Your Bliss (among others). One reviewer called it “brilliant.” He said, “there isn’t a duff track…” and each track was produced by a “very talented set of musicians.” This same reviewer concluded that, “this is one of the best Americana/roots albums I have heard this year.
When I got down to having a real talk with Benny in his Olympia home, I asked him about “roots” music. He said that his perspective comes from his start on the East coast. He attended Hampshire College and spent time with master luthier Rodolfo Cuculelli in Buenos Aires, “studying the art of guitar building.” Benny still makes guitars and showed me his workshop and a look at the guitar “in progress” he is currently building. It is based on a 1920s Martin he met on his travels. “One strum and I wanted to cry,” he said. He’s using that guitar’s measurement for bracing, shape, and depth,” but has added some “modern bits” for sound.
While still in the East, he sang with a shape note group. Benny says, however, that he “cut his teeth” as a professional musician traveling in the Appalachian range with Phill in the The Shiftless Rounders (in thus traveling, living up to their name “rounders”) and “soaking up” fiddle music and old time music from various traditions including Québécois, New England style, West Virginia style, East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and the Smokey Mountains. “One thing we noticed is that we’d hear something called the same thing but it would be a different song …you go to Tennessee and they say ‘that’s not how that goes’ or maybe the same tune with a different name very different stylistically. There were such differences or very similar tunes but differences. There were mountain ranges that separated peoples, communities, and styles and some areas have kept those local cultures and traditions.” In point of fact, some historians and geographers would say the rural “isolation” of people in the Virginias, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Carolinas has been exaggerated. They point out the great mixing of peoples that came with mining, the railroads, and even the civil war. What seems truer is, as Benny suggest, styles that had developed earlier were preferred and clung to and even guarded against infusion from other cultures. We are the richer for it, whatever it is that has sustained those differences.
“Out here, the lines are far more blurred.” For example, he says, the line between bluegrass and old time is blurred. “There are so many categories and sub categories in this music. But out here they are far more amalgamated…and fewer people are aware of those differences. If you are into historical preservation it is nice to know the differences…for example I have a friend, Doug Van Gundy, who is into the preservation of west Virginia fiddle” It is a style, one of many, he notes, a music unto itself that is worth knowing about and passing on.
Gundy was a guest of The Shiftless Rounders at a sold out crowd in Gunnison, Colorado in April of 2004, just five weeks into their first west coast and Rocky Mountain tour. They had met Gundy in San Diego at a North American Folk Alliance conference.
Urban people, and western people especially, have for the most part learned their “roots” music from archival recordings, concerts, workshops, and each other. Not to say that people who were part of the early migration west didn’t carry their music with them. They came from the east, from Missouri, from Appalachia, from Ireland and Scotland and many other countries. But, as Benny says, styles and traditions mixed in the West. The lines were blurred. Yes, there were still “ethnic” communities or neighborhoods, but even these have lost their power and vigor in the past fifty or so years as young people have left home territories for work or school.
“We have a mini new world over here” Benny opines, and it is a fallacy to get hung up on the right and wrong way to play.” Even back East, there were Irish and Scottish jigs and reels and ballads that were combined with or influenced by African rhythms and banjo. Bluegrass is synergistic music, both in its sources and, in its early days, its use of instruments to create a new dramatic effect. “Monroe was singing in church with his mom, listening to his Uncle Penn play the fiddle…and all the other elements and styles” became what we call bluegrass. To use the term, ‘traditional bluegrass’ is an oxymoron…it was fusion music…”
It’s funny, Benny says, “when people say ‘that ain’t bluegrass’ Monroe was a ‘rebel.’ It is all, this Appalachian music, reinventions” of music, tunes, lyrics from Britain, from Africa that came in to the American south. The lines blurred there and now new versions of that are being invented out here ..incorporating different sounds from different places.”
Though the tunes are old and the rhythms may have originated in Africa and Europe, “old time” music is, as a conceptual category, a fairly recent cultural invention. The term “old time music” can be traced to 1923. Others still use terms like “country music” or “mountain music,” for example. Bluegrass itself has been described as folk, hillbilly and country western. The term “bluegrass” came into use in the late 1950s. It’s all emergent and still emerging as blends of styles, instruments, and lyrics are heard and are themselves copied and promulgated.
I ask about the interest in roots music in the Pacific Northwest. We wonder aloud as we talk if “roots” as a “movement” is perhaps really about “the inventions of rootless people, creators, and movers, who simply love the grit of the old music.”
“People who use the term roots,” Benny believes, “are intentionally vague while people who use the term bluegrass are accidentally specific. Roots music is the safe term that encompasses music that is a nod to American traditions.”
If ever we needed roots and at least a nod to tradition it is now. In fact, let’s make that nod a full body hug. It is, for many, uplifting and, and, at the same time, grounding to find and identify with ethnicity and form a background identity. And to do that through music is joyous. The discovery and celebration of those roots allows an escape from the humdrum sameness of so many American cities and their ubiquitous trademark, branded stores, restaurants, and malls. The Russian joke, depicted in the 1976 Soviet film, Irony of Fate, about a fellow waking up drunk in a Leningrad and thinking he is still in Moscow because the Soviet style apartments and stores and streets look so much the same, is not quite true but almost in many American suburbs and neighborhoods. The film imagines a world packed tight with buildings that are indistinguishable from each other. In America, we might be able to figure out the city we are in until we walk into a multi-national box store or chain restaurant and realize we’re not quite certain.
Roots harmonies, plaintive melodies, and sobering lyrics also speak across generations to heartaches and losses that are universal. They beg, some of these songs and lyrics, to be brought forward, adapted, and listened to by new ears in a new time. It is not an accident that so many of them are about looking for home.
I was interested in why Benny and Phill recorded “House Carpenter” and why its been recorded by so many “roots” inspired musicians. This brought up more conversation about research, not just in the hills and with living legends, those aged practitioners who carry the oral tradition, but in vast archives and collections. Musicians, composers of all stripes, are also researchers.
Many roots musicians of the last 50 or 60 years have longed to know the history of the music they love and have studied recordings of specific people whose work they admire. Alice Stuart, for example, often refers to and honors Memphis Minnie as an influence on her work. She even has a song, “Channeling Memphis Minnie.”
But doing the research and listening to recordings of other roots musicians doesn’t mean trying to duplicate what they did. That’s why “roots” is about a living music, not a dead tradition. Roots, you will know, hold a tree stable and upright in times of change. It is from the roots that the plant draws up nourishment and moisture. It’s that nourishment that this generation of “roots” musicians rely upon.
Benny’s process as a musician is very self-conscious. He listens to versions of a song first. For example, for the Places album version of “House Carpenter” he listened over and over to Kelly Joe Phelps’ version on his Shine Eyed Mister Zen album and Ruth Unger’s on The Mammals’ Evolver album. Of course, these artists follow a string of musicians who have “covered” the song first published in Pepy’s collection of broadsides around 1675. Pepy’s broadsides can be found online at the site of the University of California Broadside Ballad Archive where the original can be viewed in facsimile. The Pepy’s version of the song is titled, “A Warning for Married Women,” and, as in some other versions, the woman married to the house carpenter is clearly carried off by a spirit or devil. Pepy’s broadside tells us that the text was set to the music of a “West-country tune, call’d, the fair Maid of Bristol.” Also known as “James Harris” and “The Daemon Lover,” it is found in Francis James Child’s late 19th century collection of ballads from England and Scotland (with American variants). “James Harris” is ballad number 243. Roots musicians can turn to these sources for lyrics and historical information about songs. They can also turn to the vast archive of folk song in the Library of Congress and listen, for example, to 1930s recordings made by Alan Lomax of the Virginian singer Texas Gladden singing “House Carpenter” and other ballads such as “Barbara Allen,” “Mary Hamilton,” and “Lord Thomas.”
The Shiftless Rounders: House Carpenter
Benny listens to older versions of songs then “intentionally forgets” and plays what he’s heard and has retained. While he’s doing that, he is, essentially “rewriting.” He might also, for example, translate fiddle parts to dobro. That was, he said, the starting point for “Cherry Street.” He based that piece on Crooked Jades’ version of “Sandy Boys,” a well-known fiddle tune from Virginia allegedly based on the story of the men who worked logging camps along the Sandy River.
About a year ago, Benny wanted to begin to focus on his own music. Happily for us, Benny can be heard playing banjo, guitar, dobro, foot drums and singing in occasional western Washington venues. He occasionally plays for a faithful following at the Union Deli and Robin Hood Pub, both in Mason County, Washington. He is writing, working on his voice, and performing luthier services but living a life with family that I imagine has less drama than the many weeks and months Benny spent on the road with The Shiftless Rounders and Po’ Girl. Perhaps this is a life, for now, that is more comfortable than that of a constantly touring musician. And besides, Benny and his spouse Brooke now have a wonderful baby girl named Poppy. She is fast becoming Benny’s biggest new fan.
LLyn De Danaan is a Northwest writer and anthropologist based out of Olympia, WA. Her latest book, Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, is out now via The University of Nebraska Press. It’s a look at the Northwest Native experience at the dawn of the 20th century through the eyes of Katie Gale, a fiercely independent woman with a tragic story.
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