For Penguin Eggs
The Foghorn Stringband was founded more than 15 years ago, and their origin story is as charming and unexpected as the music that they play. Sammy Lind is from Minnesota, and Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms are from Washington state, one from the farmland in the east, the other from the coast. They started playing Appalachian folk music—old-time music—together in Portland, Oregon, though when the original bass player left to start a food truck, they took on Nadine Landry, a native of Quebec. They had met her in Juno, Alaska, at a festival, though she was living in Whitehorse at that time. “She had the same group of friends, and we’d run into her once a year.”
That’s the short version, anyway, but it says a lot about the state of old-time music in the world today. It’s a bit rangy, and it’s about getting together with friends, sharing time within the values that the music presents—inclusion, participation, and joy. Says Lind, it’s a chance “to experience a different way of life.”
“We’ve always loved how those tunes made us feel,” he says. “It’s a lost way of writing, singing, and conveying feelings. I’ve always loved a simpler lifestyle, and I think there’s something just so powerful and timeless about the music, and that non-commercial element.” I reached Lind by phone at his home in rural Quebec, calling just as he was coming in from checking the water supply. Our conversation began with the sound of him kicking snow off his boots. “Our water is gravity fed. I’ve got to check it every once in a while.” He adds, “it’s OK for the moment” as if to put my mind at ease. In weather like they had this February, it apparently can be a bit touch and go.
The band, truly, has a very non-commercial approach, one that is common to the culture of the music. For more than 12 years they played every Sunday at an English pub in Portland, not so much to perform as to add a sound and a warmth to the room. There was a dedication to the gig that existed out of all proportion to any remuneration, which was largely limited to the experience itself. Nevertheless, they would even book their flights home from tours to arrive in time to play that Sunday slot. “The pub is called the Moon and Sixpence, so we’d call it the moon landing.”
The motivation was to participate in something larger, an experience that is a hallmark of social music, here and around the world. Lind recalls during a trip to Ireland some years ago “sitting around a table and seeing these guys playing music, the young people looking at their elders as if thinking ‘I’m going to be like that someday.’” It’s a motivation that Lind had even before he knew there was an outlet for it, or a kind of music associated with it, or a table to sit around. “It gave me a nice perspective on life, and to do something that delivers a positive message.”
The band’s latest release, “Rock Island Grange,” is a window onto that world. If you come at this not knowing anything about what you’re looking at, you’ll miss much of what it really is and what it represents. On one level, it’s old time music, played beautifully, with all the character and ease you’d want to hear. On another, it’s a patchwork, a whole made up of parts that can only be put together by this band, in this time. There are some old-time standards, two Carter Family tunes, and a Child ballad. You’d expect that, but there’s a Cajun tune, too, as well as an original.
The tunes are like stones polished by all the hands that have touched them. “They go through a filter of everything you’ve ever experienced in your life,” says Lind, “the music you’ve heard, the people you’ve met. Where you grew up. It just comes through this filter.” Nadine is 12th generation on the Gaspé Coast, and has spent time in Louisiana and Whitehorse. Add to that the time spent on the road, moving between all of those tables that she and the others have sat around, often late into the night. If you listen closely, as indeed you absolutely should, you’ll hear all of it. “You can’t help but think of the generations before you,” says Lind, “but also where you learned a tune, or who you learned it from.”
The culture of old-time is one that floats a fair bit below the radar. Like the Chrysalids, it’s a society that exists in the world as a shared experience and a shared language between people who, for whatever reason, are drawn to it. “People have become lifelong friends,” says Lind, despite only seeing each other at intervals, through the festivals and the camps and the workshops. “We just had two 18-year-olds who came out to study with us for a week.” They spend the week living together, making music, checking the water supply. It’s all part of it, Lind notes: being together, with and without the instruments in hand, “just gives it more … it puts it more in the context that it came out of it, rather than looking at a DVD trying to get something out of it.”
“We joke that sometimes we set up tours because we miss people,” he says, though, in fact, that is indeed a driver. The day after I spoke with him they set out for a tour of Alaska that begins, improbably, in Moncton. From their they head to Winnipeg, then rent a car to drive to Saskatoon. And so it goes. The life of the band reflects their origin story, moving though a big world full of kindred spirits. You can visit that world, too. Among other destinations, they’ll be at Nimble Fingers, a premiere Old-Time festival held each summer in Sorrento, BC.