IRA BERNSTEIN & RILEY BAUGUS – Appalachian Roots (Yodel-Ay-Hee CD-0046)

Appalachian RootsI’m pretty sure I saw Ira Bernstein demonstrating his Appalachian clogging and flatfooting when he was the sensation of the festival circuit back in the 1980s. I have a vivid picture in my mind of a man impossibly high off the ground given that he was step-dancing and I hope I’m not mistaken. Riley Baugus I don’t know but here they are together on Appalachian Roots, Riley on banjo, fiddle and vocals and Ira showing that he also plays a mean fiddle. Ira and Riley explain that this is their first recording and was done live off the floor with any fluffs left in. It was actually recorded in 2002 and, reading between the lines a bit, it seems that it is now being released (or re-released) in the UK to tie in with a short tour by Riley.

If you’re familiar with the music of southern Appalachians you’ll know what to expect but you probably won’t be prepared for the banjo to break off for a flatfooting solo, which is what happens in ‘John Hardy’- not once but twice. Some of the titles will be familiar but the content behind them may not. ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, which Riley is adamant was written by Dick Burnette, has points in common with the “traditional” song but with a very different feel. As for ‘Shortenin’ Bread #1’; remember the horribly sanitised version that entered the skiffle repertoire? Forget it. Riley begins with what he calls “preaching”, the roaring tale of a preacher going to a parishioner’s house for some home cooking – Ira taps the percussion accompaniment. In between these is ‘Callahan’s Reel’ featuring the best fiddle sticks playing I’ve ever heard – Ira again.

Other Appalachian classics in this set include ‘Roustabout’, ‘Old Joe Clark’, ‘Cluck Old Hen’ and ‘Wild Bill Jones’ but there really isn’t a dull track and Riley and Ira are scrupulous in noting the sources of their songs and tunes. If you like folk music raw and authentic, you really must listen to Appalachian Roots.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘John Hardy’ live with a guest appearance by Dirk Powell:

JOAN BAEZ – Whistle Down The Wind (Proper PRPCD146)

Whistle Down The WndJoan Baez is about to embark on her final world tour. I guess that after more than fifty years of music and activism she has earned the right to kick back for a while. I’d like to think that Whistle Down The Wind won’t be her last album, however. I hope there is still some gas left in the tank. At 77, her voice is still sweet and strong but if you’re hoping for a full-on political treatise, and heaven knows we’re in need of one, you’ll be disappointed. I have no firm information on Joan’s band here but it’s safe to assume that multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and percussionist Gabriel Harris are in the line-up.

The first two songs lean a little towards the radio-friendly which is surprising given that ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ is penned by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Of course, it doesn’t sound anything like it did on Bone Machine – here it’s given a big sweeping arrangement – but I suppose it’s an expression of restlessness – perhaps a signal to anyone who would write Joan off. Josh Ritter’s ‘Be Of Good Heart’ is next, built on a rich acoustic guitar and minimal bass and percussion. It’s not one of his best known songs but nice enough.

With Anthony And The Johnsons’ ‘Another World’, the album takes off. The song is based on stripped down percussive guitar and it’s about…ecological concerns, the desire for the next life? It is nicely ambiguous. ‘Civil War’, written by producer Joe Henry is intriguing. On the surface, it’s about civilians becoming soldiers in the civil war but beneath that it’s a personal story. ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’ is, I guess, a moving-on song and then we come to Zoe Mulford’s wonderful ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ with big piano chords giving it real grandeur.  I had the great good fortune to hear Zoe sing this on stage a few weeks ago and I can’t help contrast the song with Trump’s take on the latest school massacre. If you’re looking for a political song; here it is but it’s real life that has made it so.

Joan returns to Waits and Brennan with ‘Last Leaf’, an unambiguous railing against aging. Fortunately, there are a few leaves left on the tree and Tom and Joan are among them. Ritter’s ‘Silver Blade’ harks back to Joan’s early days. It’s no relative of ‘Silver Dagger’ but it sounds very much like a reworked traditional ballad of the sort that made Joan famous. Eliza Gilkyson provides another political song in the shape of ‘The Great Correction’ which is also a companion piece to ‘Another World’ and finally we have Tim Eriksen’s retelling of ‘I Wish That The Wars Were All Over’. Once a traditional British song, it encapsulates both the style of Joan’s early repertoire and one of her enduring concerns.

Whistle Down The Wind succeeds in looking back and looking to the future and it needs time to settle into your consciousness. I do hope that Joan will be back, though.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Last Leaf’ – live:

Grammy Award-Winner Susan McKeown Releases New Album ‘Belong’

SusanMcKeown2The Irish-born singer, who spent half her life in the States, has finally come home with an exploration of American roots-derived music that delves deeply into matters of the heart.

Belong debuted on the American Folk Chart with #1 Song (‘Everything We Had Was Good’) and #11 album. Opening with ‘On the Bridge to Williamsburg,’ a duet with Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke, ‘Belong’ is Susan at her most personal, charting intimate details of relationships, plotting their trajectories, examining the shards and remnants as though on an archaeological excavation. James Maddock (from Wood) and banjo and accordion player Dirk Powell (Irma Thomas, The Raconteurs, Joan Baez) join Susan for ‘Everything We Had Was Good,’ a break-up song about ending well. ‘The Cure for Me’ was in part inspired by lines from ‘Night Ferry,’ Seamus Heaney’s elegy for poet Robert Lowell. Erin McKeown guests on ‘Fallen Angel.’

In a distinguished career, McKeown has performed with Pete Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Linda Thompson, Billy Bragg, Arlo Guthrie and The Klezmatics. McKeown has recorded mariachi music, klezmer music, African music, Celtic music, and contemporary songwriting. She won a GRAMMY for ‘Wonder Wheel,’ in collaboration with the Klezmatics on lyrics by Woody Guthrie. In 2010, she made ‘Singing in the Dark,’ a fascinating exploration of creativity and madness.

She has performed throughout Europe and North America including Glastonbury, The Edinburgh Festival, Carnegie Hall and Disney Hall. In a concert review, Rolling Stone said, “McKeown grabbed both song and audience by the throat, dragged them through heaven and hell and back again, and left the stage to the loudest applause heard all evening.”

‘On The Bridge To Williamsburg’:

“Absorbing from beginning to end, ‘Belong’ is a trans-Atlantic marvel… Sublime… enchanting… rich sonic diversity… smart lyrics.” –Scripps Howard News Service/Knoxville News-Sentinel

“I just love this woman’s work. I really believe ‘Delph’ is one of the best songs written in the last ten years, truly amazing.” Mike Harding, The Folk Show, UK

“A great songwriter.” Mark Radcliffe, The Folk Show, BBC