NORTH HILLSDALE, NY—When I told people I was going to an old-time music festival, they asked me who might be playing that they’d know. “Bill and the Belles,” I said. “Anna and Elizabeth. The Foghorn String Band. Big stars all.”
They certainly are to me, and to a widening coterie of fans who make the trek up to the rural three-state region (Connecticut and Massachusetts are minutes away), even braving the cold to stay up late into the night—when honky-tonk, Cajun and square dancing rule.
If you don’t know these acts, you may soon. Move over, Beyonce. Let’s start with Anna and Elizabeth, who are ballad singers and tradition explorers, but also a great deal more than that. Along with fellow adventurers Sam Amidon (from Vermont) and House and Land (from North Carolina) they aren’t afraid to add an electronic sheen to their music—at least on record, at Oldtone it was shivery pipe organ and fiddle that added the effects.
Elizabeth LaPrelle has been described as the best ballad singer in America, and I second that, with a nod to June Tabor, who’s the best ballad singer in England. LaPrelle sings with a sense of high drama, and I absolutely love that. Murder ballads are, after all, about murder—something that gets lost as bluegrass folks rush to show off their hot licks.
At Oldtone, Anna and Elizabeth made each song a dramatic event. They used tools (some centuries old) such as the pre-movie “crankie”—painted scrolls that tell a story—to heighten the effect. On one song, Anna Roberts-Gevalt started out playing a frantic banjo part, which got more and more percussive until she was pounding on it and screaming. Believe me, it worked.
On another song, “Margaret,” Elizabeth held up a laptop and played a scratchy 1940 Margaret Shipman recording from the archives of Vermont’s Helen Hartness Flanders. Then they played the song themselves. That worked, too. Just before I left, I heard Elizabeth sing an eight-minute version of “Pretty Saro” accompanied only by two sax players providing drones. Check out the results here:
Providing effects was fiddler/organist Cleek Schrey. A highlight was his luminous fiddle tune, with Anna dancing and Elizabeth providing wordless vocals. Schrey is the perfect tour partner, an almost avant-garde folkie.
The first act I saw at Oldtone was Run Mountain, sadly lacking the multi-talented old-time pioneer Bill Dillof, who died this year. His wife, Paula Bradley, bravely carried on without him, in a duo with Vermont-based fiddler and singer Jim Burns. They were wonderful. Did you know that the “Diamond Joe” in the song of the same name is a steamboat? I didn’t, either, but as Burns said, it makes sense of the song.
There’s a nice tribute to Dillof (1948 to 2018) in the Oldtone program book. He said that with music “I just get lost in the rhythms and the chord changes, the hum and the resonance all around you…It’s as strong as the need to eat when you’re hungry to sleep when you’re exhausted. You just float right into the music. That’s what I do…I’m a musician.”
Cedric Watson was ubiquitous at the festival. It’s great to see young musicians so capable. He played Cajun, blues and folk stuff on accordion and fiddle and sang in a resonant voice that made the cows perk up. He was mostly solo, but sounded great with a band on some things.
I’ve been closely following the Foghorn String Band since seeing Sammy Lind and Nadine Landry at The Hoot recently. Along with fellow Foghorns Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms, they were the festival’s MVPs, playing in every conceivable combination. Lind, who’s an incredibly versatile fiddle player with a voice that doesn’t get used enough, was on the bandstand half the time with various combinations.
The Downhill Strugglers were ragged but right. I’ve written so much about them via the Brooklyn Folk Festival that suffice it to say they make the pre-war music come alive. John Cohen, an original New Lost City Rambler, was in good voice, and Jackson Lynch and his fiddle were on the bandstand when Lind was not.
An Oldtone innovation is to offer between-set acts on the small “Tweener” stage, and it was there I heard a darned nice newcomer named Esther Rose. The festival is not averse to singer-songwriters, though it’s not the regular fare.
A highlight of the excellent Jimmy C. Newman tribute (organized by Klauder and Willms) was a song called the “H. Brown Shuffle.” Newman composed it for a local auto parts store to finance the release of the flip side, “Cry Cry Darling.”
I’d just seen Bill and the Belles at the Hoot, so was surprised to see a new banjo player, Helena Hunt. She seemed to know all of Grace Van’t Hof’s parts. But maybe she was just filling in. Of course, they brought alive a tradition that never really existed but should have. What if 1930s crooners had loved the Carter Family and classic jazz? Absolutely nobody sings like Kris Truelsen. He’s a 78 come to life.
It was a pleasure to see Jill Turpin up on stage during Nadine Landry’s gospel feature on, of course, Sunday. She just promoted the very first Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival, but she can sing very credibly, too! It figures, since you have to do these events for love, not money.
Oh, and don’t let me forget Hubby Jenkins, who triumphs in the art form known as the solo set. Not only did he do a song written by a white guy from the perspective of a black guy regretting the end of slavery (and put it in context), but he read a suspenseful ghost story—with chapters after each song. What a showman! He played fine banjo and slide guitar, as well.
Little Nora Brown was a delight, as always. She’s more mature—in her banjo playing and backwoods singing—every time I see her, even if the interval is mere months. I love her song patter. She gets tied in knots sometimes trying to explain her love for this music, but it’s sincere and charming.
As usual, the cows seemed to enjoy the scene. Cool Whisper Farm must be more placid the rest of the year. Here’s Elizabeth LaPrelle with saxophones, performing “Pretty Saro”:
And here’s one more Anna and Elizabeth video. their performance of “Margaret,” using the original field recording: