When immigrants from the British Isles came over to North America, they brought the songs of Ireland, Scotland and England with them. As these people came into contact with other cultural influences (Spanish, African, French and the continent’s indigenous population) the music evolved to reflect a region’s population diversity. Today you can hear traces of this meeting of cultures in most North American popular music. However, it’s in the music’s most basic form, one man and one instrument, we hear the purest and most direct link back to its origins.
Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) are probably two of the names most of us associate with the popularization of what we call folk music today. Between the two of them they wrote and popularized some of the most well-known songs in the folk music catalogue. Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is probably one of the most popular songs in North America, while Lead Belly’s versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Rock Island Line” are staples for almost every folk, blues and country singer around. However, if you’ve ever heard recordings of either man, you’ll know neither sounded anything like the polished and well-produced folk singers of recent eras, but more like what we’d call country singers along the lines of the Carter Family or Hank Williams.
While many have tried to emulate these old style folk singers, few have been able to capture both the sound and feeling of the music with any sort of credibility. One who has is former member of The Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Watson. His new solo release, Folk Singer Vol. 1 on Acony Records, is a collection of nine covers of traditional folk songs and one original that not only captures the sound, but the spirit of folk music as few have done in this generation.
The songs on this disc are like an oral history of American life over the last 150-odd years. Written by musicians from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, the songs create a picture of life and beliefs that few history books deliver. For they aren’t concerned with what so-called movers and shakers had for breakfast, they are about the lives of those on whose backs their empires were amassed. However, these aren’t what you’d call political songs in the way we understand them today. Instead, they remind us of the social conditions people lived under and the things which gave them reasons for hope.
It’s only fitting Watson has included two songs associated with Lead Belly and opens the album with arguably his most famous song, “Midnight Special”. While considered a traditional song, meaning it’s not known who wrote it, the song was attributed to Lead Belly when he was recorded performing it while serving time in Angola Prison in Texas in 1934. The version of the song Watson has recorded doesn’t sound much like the one made popular by Creedence Clearwater Revival most of us are familiar with, as he’s playing it solo and on acoustic guitar. However, it sounds far more like the song might have sounded when it was recorded by Lead Belly. The slow pace gives emphasis to the song’s plaintive lyrics and reminds you the song is about the hardships experienced by African Americans, or anyone, doing a hard labour prison sentence in the early part of the 20th century.
Another song recorded by Watson on this disc attributed to Lead Belly, “Stewball”, is actually an adaptation of a British folk song from the 18th century about a racehorse named Skewball. Credit for the American version of the song is shared between Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie who adapted their version from one sung by American slaves in the 19th century. It was the slaves who changed the geography of the song from Ireland and England to America with the horse being born in California and its most famous race taking place in Dallas, Texas instead of Kildare, Ireland.
This is a perfect example of not only how the folk songs of Great Britain migrated to and evolved in North America, but of how they came to reflect the passions of their new home. In the 1930s and 40s, when Guthrie and Lead Belly released their versions of the song, horse racing and the thoroughbreds who ran in them held the same iconic status among the general public as baseball players and boxers. Not only did the chance of winning big at the track offer people the hope they could break out of the cycle of poverty which gripped North America during the depression, there was always the hope the long shot, or the little guy, could triumph over the favourite – something any number of people could easily identify with, and dreamed about, at the time.
Aside from the covers, which also include the very familiar “James Alley Blues” by Richard “Rabbit” Brown (famously covered by some guy named Bob Dylan) and the less well-known “Rock Salt & Nails” by Utah Phillips, Watson has also included an original tune, “Mother Earth”. Probably the most overtly political song on the disc, with its lyrics reminding us no matter who we are or how much wealth we accumulate during our life time, we’re all going to end up in Mother Earth’s embrace. It sounds like it could have been written by any of his famous predecessors.
Authenticity isn’t just about the lyrical content of the songs, it’s about the way they are sung. By that I don’t mean how polished they sound, as I’ve heard some truly great folk songs ruined by people singing them like slick pop songs, but how well whoever is singing is able to make you believe in the song. Call it heart, call it soul, but whatever word you want to use there’s no denying Watson has the almost indefinable quality to his performing which makes everything he sings on this recording ring true. His voice isn’t the prettiest, and his adaptations of the songs aren’t ornate or fancy, but there is a purity and clarity which gives them a potency you don’t often find in solo performances.
With Folk Singer Vol. 1, Watson has not only breathed new life into classic folk songs, he reminds us of their cultural and historical value. Not only are they are a passionate and intelligent oral history of North America, they are a reminder of the deepest roots of our popular music. We may have heard plenty of versions of these songs before, but I’ll wager you’ve not heard them sung like this too often. Watson is like the missing link which ties the music of the past to the present. For while he has an obvious reverence for the songs’ origins, he’s not afraid to put his own stamp on them. Folk music has found a new champion, and it couldn’t be in better hands.