Seamons and Hunter, “Take Yo Time”

(For Sing Out! magazine) For anyone who has learned to play an instrument in the usual way – lessons, scales, exercises, practice, recitals – Joe Seamons can make you feel like you’ve missed something. He grew up in a rural setting in the Pacific Northwest in a log cabin that his parents built. There he learned music in a way that most of us these days simply can’t: through active transmission, sitting and listening to the neighbors and, then, having a go himself.

It’s a (sadly) unique approach in our day and age when skill development, whether it’s math or hockey or music, tends to be prized more than having a bit of fun together. Because of that disparity, Seamons and Ben Hunter founded the Rhapsody project, an organization based in Seattle that intends to bring children to music. The goal, Seamons said recently, is “letting kids know that they don’t have to play music off a page … they can play music just by making noise with their instruments.” The project then shines a light on the kind of songs that allow children to do that, ones that are comfortable, familiar, and approachable. The point isn’t to keep perfect time, or to impress an audience with solos, but to exercise the spirit of the songs, and to encourage participation within a distinctly American musical tradition.

While Take Yo Time isn’t entirely derivative of the Rhapsody project, in that it can and will stand on its own, it’s nevertheless emblematic of it. Here Hunter and Seamons present the kinds of songs that invite participation, and they give lots of indications of the various forms participation might take. A hand slapping a knee on “Some of these Days,” a gloriously goofy kazoo on “Jungle Nights in Harlem” a pair of bones on “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” the solo callouts on “Jazz Fiddler” – whether you actually do grab something and play along, the point is made that this is not music for the stage, it’s music for the living room, specifically your living room, not just theirs. The very sympathetic production across the album underscores that idea. For those of us who aren’t able to be in the room with them, this disc is so inviting, so intimate, that you’ll feel like you were.

While the album needn’t be anything more than that, scratch the surface a bit and you’ll see that Hunter and Seamons are quite cunningly surveying the length and breath of American music in the pre-war years, that time when most music was still largely being made at home. They’ve beautifully chosen songs that might easily seem a bit like strange bedfellows. Duke Ellington’s “Jungle Nights in Harlem,” is placed with a Child ballad, Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues,” the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Jazz Fiddler.” The musical styles that Hunter and Seamons adopt beautifully reflect the genres that these pieces represent – the Appalachian fiddle drones on “Tom Dooley,” for example, contrasts the jazz phrasing on “Beaumont Rag” – though, despite those kinds of differences, they bring all of these various musical ideas together and demonstrate not the contrasts, but rather what they have in common. Which is America, after all. It’s not jazz or jug band, it’s not blues or old-time, it’s just songs to learn, to play, to play with, to clap along to. These are our songs to teach, to learn, and to share, if for no other reason that this: because it’s fun.

Michael Cleveland, “On Down the Line”

(KDHX) Sometimes fiddle players can be hard to get a handle on, if only because it’s a kind of music making that we are less familiar with than, say, guitar. On this album as on all the albums Cleveland has made, it may not be obvious why he gets lead billing: he doesn’t sing, or write songs, and those are the things that general audiences tend to focus on. In performance, likewise, he also doesn’t move around, like Leahy or Sythian. His band, Flamekeeper, does all the singing and moving, and even some of the songwriting. Apparently nobody thinks too much about wardrobe.

But if you need to know why the world needs more Michael Cleveland, listen to the one solo track on this album, “Jack O Diamonds.” It’s an old-time standard that, when set beside any other recording (such as one by Bruce Molsky) demonstrates exactly what Cleveland is up to. He takes the piece entirely out of the old-time context, quoting phrases from bluegrass while also giving a few nods to jazz here and there. He adjusts the chord accompaniment, dropping a tone here, adding a minor there. He’s playing in the truest sense of the word, and as with any kind of play, there’s some humour in there, too.

And, indeed, that’s what he’s doing in all the other pieces on this album. They, too, are full of nods and winks, a masterful presentation that includes a wonderful sense of empathy and joy. The players he has with him are truly excellent, and it’s clear that they are there entirely because Cleveland is. That, precisely, is why this recording should demand your attention. These people are excited about it, and with very good reason.

The album ends with “The Orange Blossom Special,” a piece that Cleveland has been playing since he was a child. There is video of him at perhaps 12 years of age playing it with Doc Watson, and it’s a moment that I think of whenever I see Cleveland. They are backstage at the IBMA and, afterword, Watson asks if he has been blind since birth. Cleveland says “yeah, but I don’t think of it too much. You know, there are some things I can’t do, but I’m going to make do with what I can do.” Good lord, does he ever.