Review by Ian Preece
He didn’t really need convincing, but I once sold a Glenn Jones gig to my mate Clive by reassuring him that the Boston solo guitarist was a great wit and raconteur. He is, but needless to say he barely said a word between songs that night. I also wish I’d taken a notebook on the couple of occasions I’ve seen Marisa Anderson live – she too has an excellent dry wit, as warm and earthy as her devastatingly beautiful solo guitar playing, be it lap-steel, slide or her fabulous mint green, 1960s-looking Stratocaster.
Traditonal and Public Domain Songs first appeared on CD four years ago. It’s receiving a timely reissue and first widely available vinyl pressing on the ever-relevant Mississippi records out of Portland, where Anderson now resides. Apparently she dropped out of college at 19 and set off to walk across America, learning her jazz and guitar chops in travelling circus bands. Portland feels a natural place to wash up. Back in 2013 she released a lovely, dreamy instrumental medley of traditional songs called ‘Canaan’s Tune’ on the B-side of a 7-inch released by Portland’s KBOO radio. The A-side featured a couple of tracks from what sounds a great night: Elizabeth Cotten at the Euphoria Tavern, Portland in February 1975. (The Euphoria itself looks to have been some place: Mimi Farina, the Flying Burrito Brothers, John Fahey, Captain Beefheart and Hüsker Dü all rolled through at various times in the late seventies and early eighties, and it seems that to get into the old warehouse you literally had to wait to cross the tracks – while freight trains in the yard uncoupled and switched lines.)
I love plenty of those old sacred harp records, but it can be difficult sometimes to put to the back of your mind what some of those rural communities, way back, could have stood for in the segregated South. Similarly, the traditional folk songs or frontier songs with their beautiful ringing open melodies, surely indivisible from the…er…land of the free, could also be fiercely patriotic and were adopted by the church. Exactly which church, I’m not certain, but I don’t think we’re talking about the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama here. Marisa Anderson has spent a year or so as artist in residence at KBOO Community Radio in Portland (a great station), researching the link between ‘evangelical Christianity and state-sanctioned violence’. On the one hand I wouldn’t mind a few more sleevenotes about the church and the state’s unhealthy collusion in song; on the other, Anderson is a fine guitarist with a great ear for a folk tune, not Ken Burns, and so Traditional and Public Domain Songs doesn’t spell it out, but moves continually from the light into the shade and back again.
The brief blast of notes that came with the press release doesn’t pull any punches either. I didn’t actually know that ‘Amazing Grace’ was written by a slave trader who’d offered to repent, begging for salvation from a fierce Atlantic storm. John Newton made landfall safely in 1779, wrote hymns, then continued to trade slaves for another seven years. Anderson’s is a gentle, fuzzy rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ which trundles along – one of the extra tracks not included on the earlier edition of Traditional and Public Domain Songs – and, as it plays out, bears an increasingly loose resemblance to the original hymn, more a tentative blues – just beautiful. I looked up an old session on WHBO Community Radio in Bloomington, Indiana, and Marisa spoke of travelling back in time to discover that plenty of these melodies associated with church and state songs pre-date a lot of the inscribed church or state meanings and lyrics. Traditional and Public Domain Songs is her attempt to free up the songs ‘for an unknown future’. As she mentioned in her NPR Tiny Desk concert, she thinks of the public, traditional songs ‘as like our national parks, they belong to all of us. If we don’t use ’em we’ll lose ’em . . . or someone will buy ’em.’
In fact, listening again to the old CD, it’s a darker and angrier record (in places) than I remembered. There’s a churning roil to the waves on ‘Bella Ciao’; ‘Pretty Polly’ is a pretty angry slice of desert blues; ‘Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?’ sounds a bit more of a sullen rebuke than an innocent question. Many of the songs start out like ‘Uncloudy Day’, boy scouts or Sunday school kids around the flagpole beneath a blue sky, but before long cumulonimbus of reverb, delay and distortion are boiling up to spoil the picnic – ‘Uncloudy Day’ itself is a tremendous track. ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ is similarly magnificent – a broody opening blossoms triumphantly, before that shimmering chord burns up after too long in the sun and you cascade down the fretboard into the inferno. In a way, a few of the storms whipped up remind me of Neil Young’s Weld, particularly his sweetened, fuzzed-out version of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but slowed down and stripped down for solo guitar, and obviously all instrumental. And I think this record’s all natural – all furious, dexterous fingerwork, making the guitar sing and holler like old blues players used to, rather than drenching everything with effects pedals. ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ is kind of hopeful, but also crushingly sad. The longer the tune grinds on into more fuzz, the more you realise there’ll always be hard times.
‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ sounds a bit of a distant cousin to ‘Amazing Grace’; ‘Bread and Roses’, the other new song, has a lovely chiming grace, and is a terrific opener, followed by the glorious slow-burn of the old Mississippi Fred McDowall and Reverend Gary Davis number ‘Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning’. ‘Farther Along’ and ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew You’ lollop in like the themes to old westerns – ‘Farther Along’ is the cheerier of the two, but you sense that if these were Old West trail songs, they wouldn’t really be leading to the Promised Land.
Traditional and Public Domain Songs is released by Mississippi Records on 17 November, when it will be available from all the usual suspects. Check in with your local record shop nearer the time.