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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!

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2 Responses to Can a Kirtan Singer Really Record an Album of Appalachian Murder Ballads?

  1. Lanie says:

    Mr. Uttal, I sing bluegrass music and Kirtan…and if you would ever need a Kentucky girl to join you making those songs, it is my hearts greatest desire to sing with you someday as you have sang with me through your Kirtan on my laptop for so many years. I know it sounds silly but, it is my sincerest dream. My husband and I have waited such a long time for you to come to our beautiful Kentucky.

    I’m a native Kentuckian but also a lover of Hindu devotional music and makes for a lot of beautiful singing here on my hill. Both types of music are full of such joy. much love<3


  2. Tony Godwin says:

    Blessings,
    Hello Dear Jai, Here are some random thought about your connection to bluegrass. I guess your blog post was right on target for me. Music moves the human heart. And Kirtan music moves the human heart to God.
    I know that there is true soul connection in all forms of “folk” music. It is the music of love and longing sung by real people. You told me, at a kirtan camp, that kirtan was Indian Folk music. It has always helped me feel more capable of doing the public chanting to remember that I can be a “folk musician.”
    I have always been a “non-orthodox” chanter. I chant in English, Sanskrit, Hindi, and Arabic. I play guitar, harmonium, flute, or just clap my hands. It is the divine play of love that I want. I did an English version of Shankara’s Six Stanzas for Salvation to the tune of House of the Rising Run and played it for a yogi and we laughed and laughed. When I can’t take the “commercial yoga” that seems to be dominant in the West, I go and sing with the Shape Note groups (http://fasola.org/) and love that they have been “chanting” in Texas for two hundred years and never made a nickel.
    I saw Doc Watson here in Austin in 2009. He sang “Stand By Me” and there was such bhakti in his voice, in his connection to God. I wept. You can’t tell me we weren’t doing kirtan.
    When the storm of life’s a ragin’,
    Stand by me.
    When the storm of life’s a ragin’,
    Stand by me.
    When the world is tossing me
    Like a ship out on the sea,
    Thou who rulest winds and waters
    Stand by me.

    Much Love to you, Nubia, and Ezra,
    Tony Godwin


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