Stories of struggle, resistance, and hope from African-American women lays the groundwork for the recent album Songs of Our Native Daughters from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The set of songs brings together the singers Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell, all of whom also share a love of the banjo, to both reinterpret historical works and create new ones from those old ones. To say the least, it is a consciousness-raising collection worthy of ears for its unflinching approach. Beautifully packaged, it leads off this week’s Ear Bliss joined by an album from Mississippi bluesman Willie Farmer called The Man From the Hill. This collection of deep blues from the sixty-something is as funky as it is wall-shaking and reaffirms faith that the Mississippi blues tradition is still alive. Let’s take a look.
Songs of Our Native Daughters
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Drawing from sources as far back as the 17th century, the 13-song collection Songs of Our Native Daughters presents powerful reinterpretations of songs describing the plight of African American women from that period onward. A collaboration between singers and banjo players Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, the Southern gothic songster Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell from the group Birds of Chicago, of the four Giddens is the highest profile what with a Grammy award for her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops which she co-founded and a Grammy nomination for her recent solo work. The project was begun by Giddens after time spent reading slave accounts in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington. Fueling things even further was the 2016 film “The Birth of a Nation” in which she noticed how a scene portraying the rape of a female slave on a plantation focused more on the reaction of her husband than the woman herself. It infuriated Giddens prompting her to begin the project. She envisioned a collaboration of black female artists whom she knew had something to say and soon after, Songs of Our Native Daughters was born. The songs, all from the black female perspective, confront many of the injustices in our American history against African American women from slavery to racism to misogyny. Central to much of it is the banjo, a multifaceted and timeless instrument that has been around as long as many of these songs and can be as melodic as it is percussive and as mournful as it can be raucous. In the voices of such talented singers and kindred spirits as Giddens, McCalla, Kiah, and Russell, the material takes on even greater resonance. An extra bonus is the 36-page booklet accompanying the collection featuring an introduction on how the project came to be, song lyrics, the stories behind the songs and annotations by the performers, and producer notes. Recommended. Visit www.folkways.si.edu.
The Man From the Hill
Big Legal Mess Records
By day, “Little” Willie Farmer runs his own auto repair shop in Duck Hill, Mississippi located in the hills east of the Delta. When he straps on a guitar and begins playing, the sixty-something is a throwback to another era. It is then that his lifelong love of blues legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, along with plenty of Mississippi Hill Country blues bump and funk, comes shining through. Farmer grew up on his family farm and like many in that region, was first introduced to songs and music of the church. His first encounter with the guitar, an acoustic one, was in his early teens. He dug it and began playing blues. Picking cotton enabled Farmer to eventually save enough money to buy an electric guitar. Radio was his outlet for music and through it he discovered Hopkins and plenty more. He began playing area juke joints in his 20s before tiring of the scene and moving in a spiritual direction playing with regional gospel groups. By his mid-40s, he got the pangs to play blues again and started doing solo gigs. In 2003, he helped found the Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill which is still active to this day. The Man From the Hill is Farmer’s second album and first for Mississippi-based indie label Big Legal Mess Records which are distributed by Fat Possum Records. The album is an old school-ish blast of rough and tumble Mississippi blues that can stand toe to toe with many of the great albums of mostly unknown Delta artists released by Fat Possum from the 1990s through the early aughts. Simply put, Farmer is the real deal when it comes to deep blues. Playing guitar and singing lead vocals (his voice is terrific!), this stuff is grungy and soulful with plenty of bump and grind to its grooves. Kudos to producer Bruce Watson and Delta-Sonic Sound Studio for capturing the authenticity of this electrified brand of Delta blues while adding some pretty cool touches in the process. When it comes to the blues, cats like Farmer are few and far between these days making The Man From the Hill one valuable artifact. Visit www.biglegalmess.com.
After more than a half a century on the professional stage, the singer/songwriter Joyce Katzberg plans to retire from performing in November. Referred to as the “First Lady of Rhode Island Folk” and known for her activism which often carries into her songs, in the late and legendary Pete Seeger she found a kindred spirit, not to mention a major inspiration. How fitting she lead a celebration of the centennial anniversary of Seeger’s birth at the Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland (549 Broad Street) on Saturday night. With partial concert proceeds from the evening going to benefit Seeger’s environmental organization, The Clearwater Fund, joining Katzberg in the festivities will be the duo of Partington & Sweeney, Jimmy Warren, and Bob Drouin. Show time is 8 pm.
A double dose of the blues at Chan’s Restaurant (267 Main Street) in Woonsocket this weekend with Jeff Pitchell & Texas Flood on Friday night and guitarist/singer Troy Gonyea leading his excellent band on Saturday. Show time is 8 pm each evening.
Johnny Marr of The Smiths fame with Yella Belly are at the Fete Ballroom in Providence (103 Dike Street) on Friday night at 8 pm. Two days later on Sunday, Insane Clown Posse brings its “Fury Tour” with special guests Rittz, Mushroomhead, Mac Lethal, and Kissing Candace for a special afternoon show at Fete with doors opening at 3:30 pm.
Celebrate Cinco de Mayo at The Knickerbocker Music Center in Westerly (35 Railroad Avenue) on Saturday night when the San Antonio Tex-Mex sound meets Outlaw country with New England super group Los Souper at 8 pm. In Providence that same evening, Portuguese singer and musician Tito Paris with Orchestra appear at The Strand (79 Washington Street) at 9 pm.
Looking into next week, another songwriting legend will be in the area, South County to be exact, when Tom Paxton with the Don Juans take the stage at Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston (3481 Kingstown Road) on Thursday night at 8 pm.
Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3.