Can a Kirtan Singer Really Record an Album of Appalachian Murder Ballads?
“I COURTED PRETTY POLLY THAT LIVE LONG NIGHT
AND LEFT HER NEXT MORNING BEFORE IT WAS LIGHT
PRETTY POLLY PRETTY POLLY COME GO ALONG WITH ME
BEFORE WE GET MARRIED SOME PLEASURE TO SEE
I LED HER OVER HILLS AND VALLEYS SO DEEP
UNTIL PRETTY POLLY SHE COMMENCED TO WEEP
OH WILLY OH WILLY I’M AFRAID OF YOUR WAYS
I’M AFRAID YOU WILL LEAD MY POOR BODY ASTRAY
PRETTY POLLY PRETTY POLLY YOUR GUESS IS ABOUT RIGHT
I DUG ON YOUR GRAVE TWO THIRDS OF LAST NIGHT”
About two months ago my oldest friend, Charlie Burnham, a very well known and respected jazz violinist, called me up and asked me if I wanted to record a CD of old-timey hillbilly music. This might seem to be coming totally out of left field, but Charlie’s known me for a long time and knows of my deep love for Appalachian music and antiquated, pre-bluegrass styles of banjo playing.
(Old-timey banjo has popped up here and there on many of my CDs, but always somewhat disguised and cloaked in Indian-ness or psychedelia. But, really, I’d have to say that hillbilly music was my first real love….. Before Jimi or the Beatles. Before Ali Akbar Khan or the Bauls of Bengal. Before going to India in 1970. Actually, I should add for the sake of history (hmmm…. whatever that is…) that it was Charlie who paid for our first trip to India where we met our Guru, Neem Karoli Baba. So we go back pretty far together.)
Anyway, we were on the phone talking about this possible project and I said: “Uh, well, sounds cool, but, well, uh, who’s gonna pay for it?” Charlie quickly replied, as if it was totally obvious: “Our godson, of course! He’s starting a record company. Sub Ek records.” You see, by a strange twist of love and fate, we both have the same godson, Mbira Isaiah Ram Klein, known simply as Bira, who, aside from being a sweet, lovely young guy, is a self-taught musical genius. But a businessman? Well, that’s another story……
So we talked, we emailed, we conferenced, we texted, all the ways of communicating these days, and realized that we had no idea what we were doing but that we should get together and do it anyway. For me, the preparation was a gas. I dug into my collection of old-timey music, my Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb records, pulled out my banjo and practiced a bunch of great old songs. Forgot about the harmonium for a minute and found my heart in songs of love, death, murder, and religion. Songs that had been sung for a very long time. Perhaps not as long as ‘Shri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram,’ but still quite a while.
And last week Charlie, Mbira, myself and, of course, my buddy Ben Leinbach went into the studio to start tracking.
Did we make an album? No. But we made a start and, most importantly, had a wonderful, extremely funny and loving time together. My oldest friend, my main musical partner, and my GROWNUP godson! Spending an afternoon laughing, singing, praying, attempting to be productive and not really caring about the results; how could we go wrong? Will this CD be completed and released? Well, actually I have absolutely no idea. Maybe, maybe not. I sort of don’t really care. But when Charlie calls me up to plan another session, you know I’ll be there!