Banjo Picking Girl She's a Banjo Picker
Rye Whiskey Beefsteak
Short Life of Trouble Long Way to Run
Knoxville Girl Knoxville Boy
Columbus Stockade Blues Son of Tennessee
St. James Infirmary Old Joe's Barroom
Over the Hills to the Poorhouse Miss Emma's House
Who Will Sing? I Will Sing
Wayfaring Stranger Jordan's Cross
This album is a celebration of the telephone game that is music. There are traditional songs paired with an original that 'answers' it. These recordings continue the process of jumbling the sentiments of the original songwriter on the far end of the line with those of the most current singer, in this case, Sarah and me. The nine 'answers' are a continuation of the story originally told or a different perspective that gives new information about the characters from the traditional songs. Aside from the one instrumental, each song pairing shares the basic plot as well as some musical component such as timing, key, mood or structure. The lyrics may show an obvious enough relationship but the musical resemblances may take a listen or two.
Another layer to these recordings is that all the songs are arranged to tell a story from youthful love to unrequited love, from vengeance to justice, and from death to voices from beyond the grave. Each song pairing is a new chapter in that lifespan.
Enjoy the story.
Perhaps you'll answer the call.
Banjo Picking Girl & She's a Banjo Picker
I had a banjo made for Sarah by our friend Will Mosheim a few years back and she picked it up pretty quick. She has liked to play Banjo Picking Girl from out of Wayne Erbsen's “blue book” and so I was inspired to cast her as that very banjo picking girl in the less-than-originally titled She's a Banjo Picker.
Rye Whiskey & Beefsteak
Many old-timey and bluegrass songs are narrated by a drunk with a history of mistakes but, because he (it's almost always a 'he') has suffered the consequences we, the listeners, must empathize with him. The protagonist in Rye Whiskey is one of these. He has a propensity for drinking and gambling, knows this is causing him harm, has people tell him as much, and yet still dreams of oceans of whiskey. If that doesn't pan out, he'll settle for gambling. The narrator in Beefsteak is one of the unfortunate people that has attempted to reason with the drunk gambler but whose empathy has run out. The well (wishing) has gone dry and now, “there just ain't enough to go around.”
Short Life of Trouble & Long Way to Run
Short Life of Trouble is one from the core of bluegrass music and a heartbreaking waltz about a boy abandoned by love and destined for a life of roaming. Like any story, I thought, it should have more than one side. So, I've invented the female's perspective, painting a picture of the poor boy as one not worthy of the pity he asks for in the traditional who has much growing up to do in Long Way to Run.
Knoxville Girl & Knoxville Boy
The ubiquitous murder ballad continues to live on throughout the genres. Even though I really don't care for the tune of Knoxville Girl I enjoy the macabre matter-of-factness of the senseless violence in the lyrics. It is the song equivalent of a B-horror movie. This is perhaps the result of the story being so old that the consequences of the original murder are rendered mythical. In Knoxville Boy I take the victim's voice and try to freshen the emotions and consequences. We hear the last thoughts of the victim as she drifts dying downriver.
Columbus Stockade Blues & Son of Tennessee
A set of prison songs and cautionary tales run rampant—our good friend Rick “Linchpin” Lilligard taught us a version of Columbus Stockade Blues in a minor key. That helped set the idea for Son of Tennessee; the story of fatherly advice for the son that is incarcerated. This one is dedicated to the memory of Lorne Blair and the talented musical family he left behind. His father, Tim Blair, plays dobro & mandolin on this album. We miss you dearly, Lorne.
St. James Infirmary & Joe's Barroom
St. James Infirmary is considered a jazz standard but has been covered hundreds of times in many genres. The song has been credited to “Joe Primrose”, publisher and lyricist Irving Mills' pseudonym, but traces back to the 18th century English song The Unfortunate Rake. The “rake” in the story contracts a sickness, perhaps syphilis or leprosy, from a prostitute and withers away at the St. James Hospital on Poland Street in London. My answer to this is from the perspective of the bartender pouring the last drinks for the infirm rake and happily taking his last dime before the sickness claims him.
Over the Hills to the Poorhouse & Miss Emma's House
Birthday candles, T-shirts and sundry gifts are emblazoned with the phrase “over the hill” for those that may or may not be feeling past their years. This phrase was taken from a Will Carleton poem called Over the Hills to the Poorhouse that was made into a song that had enjoyed a stint of popularity in the later half of the 1800s. Flatt & Scruggs revived it as a bluegrass version in the early 60s and I have added the voice of the Poorhouse staff to Carleton’s story. Though poorhouses were an abysmal form of welfare for those most in need from the Civil War Era to the mid-1900s this song, Miss Emma's House offers a glimmer of hospitality to the father from the traditional rendition. This comes mostly in the form of morphine however, and my answer is titled after and filled with references to this comfortable chemical end of life experience.
Who Will Sing? & I Will Sing
My wife and I have sung Who Will Sing for many years—first hearing the Ricky Skaggs/Doc Watson/Earl Scruggs version from the Three Pickers album. It's a great melody and another sweet song questioning the afterlife. Sarah hopes that I die before her so that she won't be left with loneliness. I hope there's plenty of time before we see how that pans out. I Will Sing honors the good times Sarah and I have had singing together. If I'm still around after her, I will always sing for her. She's a healthy gal though and I'd be lucky to out-live her. Statistics are against me.
Wayfaring Stranger & Jordan's Cross
Speculation about the afterlife and reuniting with loved ones is the theme to Wayfaring Stranger, a tune still recognizable in early 1800s tunes of various titles. Faith in that post-humus reunion is a personal expression so, my instrumental version says all I needed it to say about spiritual life. It’s entitled Jordan’s Cross for a couple reasons. The first is that the Jordan River has been burdened with the chore of being the boundary between this life and the next for the faithful and I like the metaphor that the river begrudgingly has that ‘cross to bear’, so-to-speak. We are listening to the river’s perspective in my version.
John Gillette - vocals, guitar, banjo, bass, percussion
Sarah Mittlefehldt - vocals, fretless banjo
Pam Burlingame - fiddle
Tim Blair - dobro, mandolin
Gary Lindroff - harmonica
Released May 2015
Background and album cover photos from the Library of Congress digital collections.