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On Among The Oak amp; Ash, Pennsylvania-born New Yorker Josh Joplin and the Mississippi-bred, Nashville-based Garrison Starr lend their distinctive voices to a dozen folk songs (two of the twelve: "Joseph Hillstrom" and "High, Low amp; Wide" were composed by Joplin and Starr, and the rest are traditional) drawn from rural Appalachian and Anglo-American musical idioms.
1. Hiram Hubbard
Hiram Hubbard recounts the brutal story of a sheriff and his rogue posse carrying out their version of justice; arresting then executing an innocent man without so much as a warrant. It's a very real possibility this song is based on a true story. This ballad reflects in many ways the condition and the inequity that existed for those living in the mountainous regions of the American south thought too poor and isolated to matter, people who could simply disappear without any one remembering them. But Hiram Hubbard will be remembered and for evermore he will be exonerated!
This song has been covered many times over the years by various artists and for good reason -- it's a beautiful song. We approached this song as if we had found a shoebox full of letters hidden in a seldom-used closet by someone who couldn't bear to throw them out. Perhaps they are the only relics left, evidence of a war rarely mentioned, of a communiqué that would satisfy neither correspondent, or the aftermath of two people kept apart by circumstance. As for our account of this Captain's doomed love for a girl from Fanario, we tried to tell it like we remember it.
3. Angel Gabriel
The canon of American music is defined largely by its journey through the ages and how the generations who carry it with them ultimately shape it. With that said, nothing added to the uniqueness of Appalachian music more than the influence of the African-American experience. The banjo itself derived and evolved from the akonting, an ancient African instrument. Field hollers or work songs, spirituals, blues and gospel all play a monumental role in the amalgamation of this music and Angel Gabriel is a beautiful example of this confluence.
4. Shady Grove
A very popular traditional song, Shady Grove is probably based on a much older song from the 16th Century called Mattie Groves. To our ears it represents a quintessential style that is very much entwined in Old Time music; a lyric that playfully recalls the joys and euphoria of first love while its melody foretells its futility. Although it has been recorded many times, because of its place in the folk canon we chose to cover it too.
5. The Water Is Wide
Love, like the human condition, has been pondered throughout our history. And unlike mortality with its inevitable outcome, love has so many variations. The Water Is Wide may have started out all those hundreds of years ago as a quiet proclamation of new love's magnificent hold, but as it was ferried through time, verses gradually became more prudent and love itself, more distant.
6. The Housewife's Lament
This tune is likely Irish and/or Scottish and came to these shores along with so many other wonderful songs which were carried here by the hard-working immigrants who originally settled in the foothills and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. Our version is only the essence of the story - the grit, the grime, the chore of everyday life lived on the margins. With so many struggles it is easy to understand why there are well over a dozen stanzas to this song.
7. Pretty Saro
A song might visit you one evening while you're doing something mundane like the dishes and you're completely surprised because you know every verse even though it's been years since you've heard it. For us that sums up how Pretty Saro came to be on the record - always returning. Perhaps songs like these are never learned, they are just remembered.
8. All The Pretty Little Horses
As the legend goes, All The Pretty Little Horses was supposedly written by an African slave forced to work as a nursemaid. She was unable to care for her own child and had to let her die in order to follow her Master's demands. This song became a popular children's lullaby most likely at the end of the 18th Century. The lyrics to this uniquely American tune are immortalized in a modest monument that stands next to the carousal in New York's Central Park.
9. Come All You Young amp; Tender Ladies
Here is a perfect example of an exhortation from a wiser woman to a wide-eyed one: "Don't trust the morality and virtues of men," she says. She's right, she always is. There are thousands of these cautionary tales! "Come gather round me... and I will tell you how it is." These warnings cover everything from dancing too close to cocaine addiction. Soundness set to music, offering sage advice that young listeners are simply unable to hear but are usually happy to sing along to.
10. Joseph Hillstrom 1879-1915 PLEASE NOTE AN UMLAUT MUST BE ADDED ABOVE THE `O' IN HILLSTROM
First off, yes, this is a real person. In 1900 or so, he immigrated to the United States from Sweden. Upon his arrival his name would be shortened from Joseph Hillstrom to Joe Hill. He was a day laborer and a songwriter who eventually went on to work for the IWW to organize unions. His most famous songs may be Hallelujah, I'm A Bum! and Pie In The Sky When You Die. His style of taking melodies already in existence and changing the lyrics to fit his particular need would eventually be adopted by Woody Guthrie and later still by Bob Dylan. This approach itself is now very much a part of the folk convention.
11. Look Down That Lonesome Road
John Lomax, one of the most important and according to some, one of the most controversial characters in the development of this musical genre, probably recorded this lament of unrequited love sometime in the early 1900's. Mr. Lomax along with his son Alan, Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly), The Carter Family, The Ritchie Family, Harry Smith, The Seeger Family, The Watsons, and so many others took it upon themselves to make and/or preserve countless recordings of this music. We can't remember what recording we heard this sad, pretty song on, but when we did hear it we both agreed it would be a perfect tune for two friends to sing.
12. High, Low amp; Wide
High, Low amp; Wide was inspired by grief - the absence of someone whose loss compels us to reflect on our own lives. Like the Wayfaring Stranger who will someday meet his mother, there is a journey we all must go through to get there. It is said that each year we are inscribed in the book of life and as such we are required to acknowledge our own transgressions before it is sealed. Simply put, in the words of another great old spiritual: "Ain't nobody here who can do it for you, you've got to cross that lonesome valley by yourself."