Corpse Reviver: Culture got a kick in the ass from the Anthology of American Folk Music
Photo by Bryan Aaker
You may have never heard Corpse Reviver, but if you have an interest in traditional or "the old, weird America," there's a good chance you know their songs. Mikkel Beckmen, most often heard performing with Charlie Parr or the Brass Kings, is the group's percussionist. Adam Kiesling sets aside the string bass he plays with Pert Near Sandstone and performs on guitar and banjo. And when not leading her own band, or playing with the Brass Kings or the Brian Just Band, Jillian Rae joins on fiddle. They perform songs from Harry Smith's storied 1952 compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music.
Gimme Noise met with them after a performance at the Turf Club to ask about the Anthology, as enthusiasts know it, and their plans for this side project which has taken on a life of its own.
The group performed a set during Jack Klatt's Monday residency. Many in the crowd surely recognized the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven," and if they had never heard Colley Jones' "Drunkard's Special," it didn't matter. The chemistry between Kiesling and Rae singing a centuries old song about a wife's increasingly absurd excuses for her lover's presence was inspired -- the song the sort of music people have been hearing in bars for generations.
Folks waltzed in front of the stage as Kiesling sang Uncle Eck Dunford's "Old Shoes and Leggings," and later sat quietly captivated during Rae's soaring performance of "The Wagoner's Lad," a ballad first recorded by Buell Kazee in 1928. The range of these two songs, light-hearted one moment and soul-bearing the next, represent the potential of the trio's limited repertoire. Even as lines from either may seem quaint, even queer to turn an old term to its contemporaneous use, this their most recent revival is part of a natural and ongoing tradition.
All three contend the project is hardly as simple as a tribute band. "We bring ourselves into this music - we're links in a chain," says Beckmen, who in his passion for the Anthology and the traditions it documents is the group's spokesman. Usually fluid in his gumby-like percussive work on stage, he becomes more scholarly when discussing the Anthology and it's place in history. "Some of these songs are very old, dated as far back as to the 16th century, to other countries and languages."
"Bringing ourselves into it is the exciting part, because the music becomes new and vibrant. It's not an orthodox conservative things that's boxed in, It's alive."
"My original idea was to produce a single show to celebrate the Anthology," Beckmen continues. "Charlie [Parr] and I talked about it, drawing together some of the people we had been working with. The first idea was to be a loose affiliation of people, with or without an audience, performing the old songs."
"At the same time I was reading Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan journalist who had written a history of the Americas. A central theme was that people need to remember the past in order to move forward, and that those in power want us the people to forget their stories, especially the traditions and songs that tell the struggles of ordinary people. The whole history of the Americas is a battle between those who forget and those who are trying to remember as a people."
Beckmen was naturally drawn to Harry Smith's epic Anthology of American Folk Music, first issued by Folkway Records in 1952 as a series of three double albums. It's 84 tracks, all dating from 1926 to 1932, were culled from Smith's extensive collection of 78rpm records. An unfinished fourth volume was finally released nearly a decade after Smith passed away in the Chelsea Hotel in 1991, expanding the collection by twenty-eight more songs, some from as late as 1947.
The widespread dissemination of music long isolated by ethnicity and economics was a watershed moment in American culture. Smith almost single-handedly inspired the folk boom, a cultural movement that gave rise to artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and re-introduced still-living blue performers such as Mississippi John Hurt, coaxed by a record collector into performing again after decades of farming near his hometown, Avalon.
America's post-war culture shifted dramatically away from the rootsy, rural base of traditional music. "These crazy guys hung onto those records which people had forgotten about, and culture got a kick in the ass. It veered in this direction no one could have predicted," explains Beckmen. "It opened things up dramatically, and underneath all of the '60s is the Anthology. This was the era of Civil Rights, of human rights and struggle, and here was a document of Americana, an American history of struggle."
The liner notes Smith created for the collection constituted a unique work of art in its own right. His cut-and-paste montages of insight and history presaged punk rock fanzines by decades. He gave songs humorous headlines, but also provided background information that may have been otherwise lost to the ages.
"The 1920s is the pinnacle of recorded music," offers Kiesling. "With electrical recording you have an advance in this relatively new technology. You could transfer sound, which previously was fleeting, into any setting. A band could release a 78rpm disc and you could take home a slice of that immortality."
"Music wasn't commercialized yet. At the time they had no idea what would sell and what wouldn't. John Carson was a fiddler who played 'Little Old Log Cabin,' and the even the guy who recorded him thought it was a piece of hillbilly shit. They were all shocked when it went on to sell out. That ushered in a new era." Carson's 1923 record was the first to find success in capturing the traditional music of rural white people.
"It was music people weren't ashamed of," adds Beckman. "I hate to say it was more pure, but people played what they played."
Electrical recording allowed for performances to be captured by microphones, which greatly improved the potential to produce a quality recording of traditional music. Smith selected the records on his Anthology because they fit in the time frame between this advance and the precipitous drop in rural recordings caused by the Great Depression. While it represents but a fraction of the extant recordings from the era, the Anthology is to Smith's credit uncannily representative.
"I used to play with a jug band at the Viking Bar. I was about 22 years old, this was my first experience getting out and playing. I had cut my teeth playing bluegrass, but this was my first experience getting into heavy traditional music. Charlie and Mikkel were hanging around, and they told me the Anthology had just been reissued on CD. I worked in a furniture store and when I got a Christmas bonus of $100, I took the delivery van to Roadrunner to buy it. It became one of those moments where your life changes."
Rae, who describes herself as "the novice of the group," offered a similar recollection about her first experience hearing the collection, on discs given to her by Beckman. "I could not stop listening to it. With each new song I would hear so many other things that I knew were influenced by the songs. It was an awesome learning experience but also déjà vu."
"In all these other things I have been playing throughout the years I can hear and feel the connection so many musicians had to the Anthology."
Beckmen's idea for a single show evolved into Corpse Reviver, and the trio took their interpretation of the Anthology to a variety of venues, notably a regular Sunday afternoon gig at the 331 Club. Audiences didn't need to know the group's ambitious mission to appreciate Rae's lively fiddle and moving performance on songs like "Wagoner's Lad," Beckmen's creative combination of washboard and djembe percussion, and Kiesling's sense of showmanship. "Part of what I look forward to on our Sundays at the 331 Club is what kind of jokes Adam is going to tell," says Rae. "It's fun to anticipate where's he's headed."
"We are all in too many bands, this is the fun one that doesn't require all the thinking. We feel it and go."
Corpse Reviver will release their first album Volume I: I'll be Rested when the Roll is Called, at the Cedar Cultural Center on Monday September 16. Charlie Parr will be joining them, as well as performing a set of his own. All ages, 7pm. Tickets are $10 advance, $12 at the door.
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