Saturday, February 13, 2016

Rainbow Mid Life’s Willows

Ian Nairn once described the view from 'decent quiet Duquesne Heights onto the roaring heart of Pittsburgh' as the epitome of terribilità.  If he were there today, half a century later, he could look across to the city's cultural district, where the Wood Street Galleries are hosting an exhibition of British landscape art.  Pastoral Noir is curated by Justin Hopper who grew up in the city but now lives over here, in Suffolk.  He has been responsible for some interesting recent experiments in the fusion of image, sound and text on themes of place and memory.  In 2014 he recorded Ley Line, 'a series of poems based on walks in Pittsburgh along a fabricated ley line connecting the central church with a handmade shrine to the Virgin Mary overlooking the river - passing, on the way, the house in which Andy Warhol was built and the one in which Keith Haring lived, as well as many local and personal landmarks.' These pieces were 'bookended by two poems based on Anglo-American folk songs found in both Sussex and Appalachia, read by myself and Shirley Collins' and there was music too by The Belbury Poly and Host Skull.

Justin has now sent me his new album, 'I Made Some Low Inquiries', which again combines words and music and draws connections between the old weird American and English folklore.  Its title is a line in an old song that Almeda Riddle recorded under the poetic title 'Rainbow Mid Life’s Willows' for Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins, during their field recording trip through the South in 1959.  Justin's texts also draw on stories told to George Ewart Evans, poems by Seán Ó Ríordáin and the writings of French psychogeographer Jacques Réda.  You can see in the video clip below how this sounds with musical accompaniment from Jem Finer, Susie Honeyman of the Mekons and others.  Justin has a great voice for spoken word performance - from an English perspective his American accent sounds neutrally classless, not immediately identifiable either with those who live and work on the land or those who own, walk over and contemplate it.  Folk music always raises awkward questions around our position as listeners, our yearning for authenticity and lost connections with the land.  But Justin is prepared to risk romanticising a singer like Almeda Riddle in order to convey some of the emotional intensity, the terribilità, in her songs...   
'Throughout Collins’ and Lomax’s recordings one pictures oneself at the scene hearing these men and women sing, an act so normal to them as breathing and yet an act of alien beauty to the visitor.  It is, of course, wrong to produce an ‘other’ of one’s subject.  But this Ozark songstress is alien – not in place, but in time.  Hers is a song of the landscape – an intersection of history and now, of weather and sorrow.  It is untranslatable, and yet, here, we attempt to translate it. It is a song worth imbibing – despite its powerful, uncanny taste.'

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