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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
Snakefarm - Snakes Still Alive Shock!
What they do musically in Snakefarm bears quite a lot of relation to what she did as Anna Domino, except it’s these old weird traditional songs.
“I tried to separate them, I thought this will be my big chance to get some big heavy rhythm section dance beat things, but I don’t really know how to write dance beats. We have the most fun we can with this stuff. And we take great liberties. The funniest things about these songs is that they lend themselves to it. When I first worked with St James Infirmary, and I stuck to the original melody pretty much, the walking bass and the shuffling timing just fit perfectly. It works and I don’t know why and I didn’t know that it would. I thought that there would be too much to say. It was done completely in a spirit of fun, but I also knew that the songs could take it. They’ve been around for hundreds of years and they’re still with us. This is music that has been adulterated, re-worked, re-done, re-thought. I mean Streets Of Laredo and St James Infirmary actually come from the same British street ballad, The Unfortunate Rake, and that came into it too – doing the research has been really interesting.”
“I was invited to write a story for a collection called The Rose And The Briar, and selected the song Omie Wise. I was able to get court records from this county in North Carolina where Omie Wise had met her end. Omie Wise, whose name was probably Naomi Weiss, came from the East Coast with two children, no husband. She was employed as a domestic, and she got pregnant again. And there was a law on the books that said if a pregnant woman named the father, he was responsible for the child for the first two years of its upkeep. Which explains a great deal about why there are so many of these songs about taking a girl down to the river and saying ‘We will get married,’ euphemism for having sex, and then having to kill her. You have to kill her because otherwise you have to take care of the baby. So the fact that the women had this power was a surprise to me. So Omie Wise died at the hands of John Lewis. He was arrested, but then his friends broke him out of jail, he ran away and he later died as a result of wounds during conflict. Anyway, all this is on paper and it’s just fascinating. So you wonder, Naomi Weiss, was she Jewish, and was her family recently settled on the East Coast? It just opens up a whole world. So I wrote the story as a letter that she is writing to her family back East before she sets off to meet John Lewis that night. And she’s happy and excited about that she’s finally gonna marry her sweetheart and unaware of what awaits her.”
Photo: Judith Burrows
If they’re going to do these songs live, presumably they won’t just be going out on stage with Michel playing guitar and banjo, because it’s not what they do.
“We couldn’t, because we would want to be true to the arrangements, to a point, and the arrangements are full of effects and oddball things like the twirly tube and seven guitars, and Michel can only play one at a time so far as I know. And we are not a band. There is a live drummer on some of the songs, and a living, wonderful bass player on some of the songs. And we don’t have the same instrumentation on any two songs. It’s always different. That’s part of the freedom of the thing.”
“So what I would really like to do – and this is only letting the cat out of the bag because we won’t be able to do it – is there would be Michel and I and a few instruments, and two other people. And this will sound a little creepy at first but it will involve a little bit of theatre. Now we are not going to act these songs out, but for instance, Omie Wise, it starts out ‘I’ll tell you a story about Omie Wise, how she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies’. So we would also use film, maybe black and white so it looks like it has some date to it, and it’s on a screen and you see a woman sitting at a vanity table and she’s brushing her hair. And then I’m sitting at a table and I am the old woman telling the story. I start singing the song, and it’s just as if I’m telling the story to someone who’s right in front of me. In the background is the woman looking at herself in the mirror, and maybe mouthing some words. Anyway, she’s dressing herself up nicely. She’s putting her hair up and she’s lacing herself up.”
“And then the lights fade on that scene, and comes up on a scene to the left of the frame and there are the two babies asleep. She goes over and she kisses each one of them goodnight and she’s picking things up and putting things down as she goes, and then she walks out of that frame, and that dims and then the light comes up in the centre of the frame. This could also be live, as a set. It could be just in a frame of film, and now you’re towards the front and centre, and she puts on her coat and she puts on her hat and she walks out of that light, and lights comes up again, but this is light in the distance. And silhouetted against the light is a man on a horse, and she begins to run towards the man on the horse… I see this as being filmed the way Cocteau did the running-up-the-stairs scenes in La Belle Et La Bête, where you film it backwards. And so her clothes move in strange ways as she runs towards the horseman in the distance.”
Anna had said that she starts off with rhythm tracks, but does she have any clear idea of where it’s going to go before she starts? Does she just explore, with Michel trying things, or is there already a mapped-out skeleton of how it’s going to work?
“I have a mapped-out skeleton that I do myself. Yes, there’s a rhythm track even if it’s just a click, and that suggests the rhythm of the words. Then I try to stick to the original melody, but sometimes a melody that I have, that I learned from my grandfather, has nothing to do with other people’s melodies, and sometimes I flatten it out.”
Her grandfather? She’s a proper folk singer who learnt at her grandfather’s knee?
“Yes, my grandfather on my mother’s side – he was from the Ozarks. But these were also songs that were sung a lot when I was a kid. They were all songs that I grew up with. We would spend a lot of time with cousins in Missouri and in the Ozarks, singing. My grandfather grew up in the Ozarks, in rural Arkansas, the last of a family of 11 children. His father was married to the twin sister of his brother’s wife. Each family had 11 children, they had identical houses that were five miles apart. That’s 22 children in these two families, and everybody played an instrument. My grandfather played the concertina and so his children – four daughters, each one of which played a musical instrument, were expected to. But the songs were just in there.”
“We went to this wonderful place in the Ozarks last time I was there visiting family. There’s a centre, and they have an archive, a musical trove, and you go in and there’s a guy there with his glasses taped together with gaffer tape and his pants held up with string. I went there to do research on Banks Of The Ohio, and he said ‘Oh, you want the murder ballads. So do you just want the ones that feature a woman and a river or do you just want the women that come to unfortunate circumstances?’ So I said ‘whatever you have’. It is all in his head. I had an hour, so I just wrote down the titles of several dozen murder ballads. I haven’t had time to go back. I wandered through the Centre where you have these family bands that just get up on stage and with absolute expressionless faces play the songs that they know, with their concertinas and banjos, and that funny dancing which is a lot like Irish dancing. And then there are people making split oak furniture, beautiful stuff. Anyway, it is just an extraordinary place to visit.”
From the Ozarks to the Ozarks via Japan, California, Michigan, Italy, Canada, Mexico, New York, Belgium, the Mojave Desert and 48 stops around Europe. A fascinating life for a creative person. And that’s without Michel saying a word: for all I know he’s been an astronaut and gone to the moon. Small wonder that Snakefarm are the future of folk music, again. Perhaps this is, deservedly, third time lucky.
Photo: Judith BurrowsSnakefarm
From fRoots 340, October 2011
This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down