Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Music: Curtis Eller

Well! Now that I'm back at my own computer, preparing for school and another all-too-short semester, how about some late Sunday Music?

Curtis Eller. "Sugar in My Coffin." Live at Dr. Sketchy's.

A nice performance that picks up as it goes along and the audience gets involved. A wonderful spoken part in the middle.

I still have yet to pick up a couple of Eller's albums so I can't quite comment on his growth as a songwriter, but I've spun his Taking Up Serpents Again more than a few times in the last year. Like many of the new folk/Americana acts appearing these days, he seems to take a slightly detached (some say 'ironic') approach to his craft. Though his stage presence is full of life, it seems that he typically writes about experiences of others, particularly historical figures (Lincoln above, Amelia Earhart and Buster Keaton also get songs on the same album) or characters immersed in the sort of America one doesn't expect from a NYC native (like the snake handling of the title song).

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It describes some of my favorite acts as well (Tom Waits, the Decemberists), and there certainly wasn't any shortage of folk, blues and country being written internally within the recording and sheet music industries of the Big City even during the supposed heydays of the genres. But it seems to me that many of these genres are still waiting for another American songwriter who has genuinely lived an interesting life through the highs and lows of our culture and stumbled onto some interesting ground without having searched for it.

Which, of course, brings me to fellow banjoist, John Hartford.

John Hartford. "Steamboat Whistle Blues."

I became a fan of Hartford after hearing only his performance on Béla Fleck's second Tales from the Acoustic Planet in 1999. I bought and borrowed Hartford's 70s albums quickly after as well as his more recent Ed Haley fiddle albums. The man wrote charming, original music that was deeply rooted in tradition and his own obsessions. Despite rarely writing a true love song, everything he did seemed to come straight from his strange, strange heart.

One of the things missing in the NYC trad school is being in touch with the techniques of the old guard. Hartford was a veritable encyclopedia of American traditions, particularly when it came to fiddle and banjo styles. Like the movement from regional traditions to a generic 'celtic music' in the seventies, the movement toward a generic 'Americana' has removed much of the liveliness and diversity. (The same happens in other genres as well. Witness the recent boom in 'gypsy music' that seems ignorant of so much Roma music.)

I can't help but feel with artists like Eller that their banjos are props. It's certainly hard to imagine Eller without his banjo, but something about the way he plays it seems generic and impersonal. His technique is neither traditional nor new. There's few echos of Doc Boggs and even fewer voicings never heard before.

But I'll grant that Eller knows his own voice quite well, but then, the power of a song - the part that makes it iron-clad in Hartford's terms - is often what the song allows others to re-interpret. A rather zen-like strength in bending.

Oh, and Hartford also knew how to kick it up on stage too.