One True Folkie

One More River
by Bill Staines
Redhouse Records, 1998

Our long car trips up north would seem endless without our basket of cassettes to accompany us, especially once we venture beyond the range of familiar radio stations. One of our favorite travel tapes has been, appropriately enough, Happy Wanderer by Bill Staines (Redhouse Records, 1993).

Now this folkie from New Hampshire has released his second children's album, also on Redhouse Records, One More River, and it has already joined the stack of favorites next to the stereo (on top of the piano and never put away). It also makes a fine travel companion, as the tag line "More songs for kids, cars and campfires," suggests. It only took one play-through for my ten-year-old daughter, Nora, to start singing along with the title song, a traditional gospel tune with a lively and catchy rhythm and an irresistible repetition that just naturally invites listeners to join in.

As with any true folkie, Staines employs accoustic instruments almost exclusively, with the one electric guitar fitting in so well I wouldn't have known it was there if I hadn't read it in the credits. In the hands of another well-worn folk musician, Guy Van Duser, it becomes a folk instrument anyway. Other instruments include the banjo, organ, piano, chimes, sax, clarinet, penny whistle, congas and, of course, the accoustic guitar.

This album begins in a prayerful mood, opening with Glen Campbell's "Less of Me," whose lyrics may well recommend themselves to parents: "Let me be a little kinder, let me be a little blinder/To the faults of those about me, let me praise a little more . . ." Staines's smooth baritone lends this pop tune a richness that it really didn't have before.

Staines also mellows the folk traditional "Ol' Blue," a popular old tune recorded by several folk artists, including Minnesota's own Jack Pearson ("Tooth Fairy and other Kidbits," Jack Pearson, ca. 1989). But while Pearson parts from the melody to tell a delightful original story inspired by it, Staines sticks closer to the melodic version. Which isn't to say there are no stories on this album. Indeed, another traditional, "The Fox," is a song-story, and one that always leaves me uncertain of who is the bad guy. Sure, the fox steals and kills the chickens, but he does have a family to feed, "Well, he ran till he came to his cozy den/There were the little ones eight, nine, ten . . . "

There's one original Staines song among all these traditional ones; it's the lovely and evocative "So Sang the River," which begins, "I am the Missouri and I travel on down/Across the Dakotas by the Midwestern towns./Oh, I water your farms with my silvery hand,/And forever I'll travel in the heart of the land . . ." He also sings for the Ohio, the Rio Grande, the American (in California), and a few others, but not the Mississippi. It makes me think that it would be fun to invent another verse, or two, honoring Minnesota's great rivers, thus making this musical geography our own. It's chorus, like any good folk or gospel chorus, invites us to join in: "So sang the river, as it's waters glided low/So sang the river, I've a long, long way to go." As with everything Staines writes and sings, the melody flows as effortlessly as the rivers he praises.

Staines has a way of creating new music that sounds like it belongs in the ancient folk cannon, and makes us feel instantly that it belongs to us. In fact, the folks at Redhouse relate a story about his popular and catchy "A Place in the Choir,"--"All God's critters got a place in the choir/ some sing low, some sing higher . . ."--included in "The Happy Wanderer." It seems that some years ago a friend of Staines's was in a Dublin pub when he heard an old man singing the song. He told the singer that he knew the composer, and was met with the man's insistence that his grandfather had written it.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that this composer and singer of classic folk music, should end this collection on a prayerful note similar to the way it began, with the classical hymn from Jean Sibelius's "Finlandia," translated into English here as "A Song of Peace,"--"This is my song, oh people of all nations/ A song of peace for lands afar and mine . . ."

Sharon Parker is a frequent reviewer of music for Minnesota Parent.

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