Re-Compositions, Not Covers: Sam Amidon's Personal Folk Collages

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Sam Amidon's new album is titled Lily-O. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sam Amidon's new album is titled Lily-O. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sam Amidon knows how to juice the drama out of a folk song. His version of the old murder ballad "Lily-O" — from which his new album, Lily-O, gets its name — begins with a solo voice, but by the time the story reaches its bloody climax, the music has swelled with jangling drones and a roar of electric guitar.

That roar of guitar comes from the great Bill Frisell, who joins Amidon's trio for this set of 10 songs. Frisell is a perfect foil for Amidon. Both artists love American folk music — Amidon grew up in a folk-music family in Vermont — but with a sense of adventure, not reverence. Amidon describes his repertoire as "recomposed folk songs." "Blue Mountain," for example, is a collage: a melody from one song, words from another, and a guitar riff he'd kept on the shelf for years, waiting for its moment.

Amidon and his musicians recorded these songs during four days in a studio in Iceland, and you can tell they were enjoying themselves. Every little unexpected twist shimmers with casual originality. Amidon's voice is relaxed and silky, even when he growls like an old-timer, as in the banjo song "Walking Boss."

In spite of subject matter that's often dark, the music on Lily-O somehow feels deeply reassuring. Amidon is not exactly a folk revivalist, nor has he any interest in writing songs himself. But his highly personal approach opens a window on the American past and lets us feel it like nothing else around.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Sam Amidon reinvents American folk songs. He's made a career of it. He came of age playing Irish fiddle tunes and listening to jazz and new classical music. Our reviewer Banning Eyre says Amidon's fifth album showcases his ability to transform music. The new release is called "Lily-O."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LILY-O")

SAM AMIDON: (Singing) There were three ladies playing at ball. Oh, Lily-O. There were three lawyers come a-courting them all. Lily-O sweet high O.

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: Sam Amidon really knows how to juice the drama out of a folksong. This version of the old murder ballad "Lily-O" begins with his solo voice, but by the time the story reaches its bloody climax the music has swelled with jangling drones and a roar of electric guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LILY-O")

EYRE: That roar of guitar comes from the great Bill Frisell who joins Amidon's trio here. Frisell is a perfect foil for Amidon. Both artists love American folk music, but with a sense of adventure, not reverence. Amidon describes his repertoire as recomposed folksongs. This one, "Blue Mountains," is a collage; a melody from one song, lyrics from another and a guitar riff he kept on the shelf for years, waiting for its moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOUNTAINS")

AMIDON: (Singing) One morning, one morning, one morning in May. I overheard a married man to a young girl say.

EYRE: We wait a long time to hear what that married man says, but when we do, the payoff is great, an ethereal evocation of love in rural America long in the past yet somehow so fresh in the present.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOUNTAINS")

AMIDON: (Singing) Go dress you up, pretty Katie. Come along with me across the Blue Mountains to the Allegheny. I'll buy you a horse, love, and a saddle to ride. I'll buy myself another to ride by your side.

EYRE: Amidon and his musicians recorded these songs during four days in a studio in Iceland and you can tell they were really enjoying themselves. Every little unexpected twist shimmers with originality. Amidon's voice is relaxed and silky even when he growls like an old timer, as on this banjo song, "Walkin' Boss."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' BOSS")

AMIDON: (Singing) Walkin' boss. Walkin' boss. Walkin' boss well, I don't belong to you. I belong. I belong. I belong. I belong to that steel driving crew.

EYRE: Despite often dark subject matter, the music on "Lily-O" is somehow deeply reassuring. Amidon is not exactly a folk revivalist, nor has he any interest in writing songs himself, but his highly personal approach opens a window on the American past and lets us feel it like nothing else around.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' BOSS")

AMIDON: (Singing) Ask that boss for a job. For a job...

SIEGEL: Banning Eyre is senior editor at afropop.org. He reviewed "Lily-O" by Sam Amidon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.