Weaving Strands of Music: Threads of Scotland and North America
Over the centuries and across the years, the songs, stories, and melodies of Scotland and North America hold strands of music that musicians weave together, stretch, and use to find ways to create traditions anew. Take a listen to the tunes and songs, words, melodies, harmonies, and stories told in these albums and see how many threads you find that pull through and connect.
Alice Gerrard was first drawn to the music of the Appalachian south back in the 1960s. As she began researching songs and stories, her musical partnership with fellow singer Hazel Dickens created a unique sound that for more than a decade illuminated the heart of bluegrass and old time music. Gerrard collaborated with other artists over time, and began to include a song or two she’d written herself on her recordings. Bittersweet, though, is the first time all the songs on an album have been ones Gerrard herself has written. There’s a country tinge to Play Me a Song I Can Cry To -- a phrase she heard in conversation one day that gave her the spark for the song -- while Somebody Have Mercy leans toward the bluesier side of mountain music. The title track, Bittersweet, is a reflection on time and memories, as in a different way is Tell Me Their Stories, which finds the singer wandering an old homestead and thinking about those who passed the way before her. Gerrard has a voice that’s at once sweet and with a bit of a frayed edge, both of which suit her stories, well framed in acoustic instruments by producer Laurie Lewis, herself an award-winning roots music artist.
Side note: read about Kathy Mattea’s album Calling me Home, on which she sings song by both Gerrard and Lewis.
Ken and Brad Kolodner could call their album Skipping Rocks homemade music, certainly: they recorded it through several weeks in the summer of 2013 in the house in Maryland where their family has lived for twenty one years. It’s a recording that blends the welcoming, relaxed feeling that making music with family and friends holds with the crisp sounds of completely professional playing and production. Their choices of what to record shows a depth of musical imagination and creativity, as well. The title track, Skipping Rocks, is a tune Brad wrote. “One of my favorite activities while on vacation with my family in Vermont is to skip rocks on the banks along Lake Champlain,” he says. The tune finds son Brad on the banjo and dad Ken on the hammered dulcimer, with tasteful backing from Robin Bullock or guitar and Alex Lacquement on bass. The bright sound of the banjo and the melodic ring of the hammered dulcimer weave a dance of sound that holds touches of music of the American south and of the sounds of Celtic lands. That holds true across the music on Skipping Rocks, in fact, through a number of classy original compositions by both father and son and music sourced from minstrel music, bluegrass, a recording by Woody Guthrie, and a performance with Doc Watson. Among the standout cuts on along this musical journey are Falls of Richmond, Red Rocking Chair, Reuben’s Train, and Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom.
The Paul McKenna Band has been blazing a rising trail in the folk music scene in Scotland these last few years. They tour in Europe, the USA, and Canada, too, where audiences across the board are engaged by their often fiery take on tradition and their classy blending of traditional and original material. A recent signing with Compass Records of Nashville for the their album Elements makes the band’s music more readily accessible to listeners in North America. The distinctive vocals and guitar of bandleader McKenna along with bouzouki from David McNee, fiddle from Mike Vass, flutes and whistles from Sean Gray, and the percussive beat of Ewan Baird’s bodhran define the band’s sound. Their ensemble and individual talents shine on fast paced numbers such as the traditional song Mickey Dam and the set of original tunes called Flying through Flanders. They have a quieter side, as well, best heard in the reflective song of an emigrant returning to Scotland after many years away called Indiana.
Karine Polwart is another artist whose music until recently you often had to source from Scotland. She’s signed on with the newly-formed world music division of Borealis Records, who are based in Canada. To celebrate Polwart’s joining the label, they’ve brought out her most recent album, Traces, and Borealis has also created an album called Threshold by way of introducing her to wider North American audiences. It includes eleven songs chosen from across her earlier releases. On both recordings Polwart shares her gift for original insight, her interest in social justice, and her ability to create memorable characters. She has a fine storyteller’s voice and an understanding of Celtic tradition, as well. On Traces, King of Birds brings together the Occupy Movement, the history of London, and the work of Christopher Wren, while Strange News is a spare, poetic song of dealing with unexpected grief. On Threshold, there’s Follow the Heron, a song of resilience and hope framed in the natural world of Scotland, and Rivers Run, a different sort look at hope inspired by Polwart’s reflections when first she became a mother.
Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com
You may also find her work at Music Road, Journey to Scotland, Strings, Perceptive Travel, National Geographic Traveler, and other places online and in print.
Feature photo of Karine: Photo by Phil Wilkinson
Take a listen to the tunes and songs, words, melodies, harmonies, and stories told in the albums by Alice Gerrard, Ken and Brad Kolodner, the Paul McKenna Band, and Karine Polwart and see how many threads you find that pull through and connect Scotland and North America