by John Sewell
Whenever the term traditional folk music comes up, people generally seem to think of the milquetoast (read: waspy, whitebread, collegiate) warblings of Peter Paul & Mary and the like. While the folk genre may have become, at least in terms of well-attended public performances, the mellow domain of bearded, Birkenstock-clad, herbal-tea-guzzling post-bohemians, the genre is actually rooted in some pretty dark stuff. Traditional songs usually feature some kind of story line boiled down to a basic element anyone can relate to. So it’s totally logical that death, in all its grandeur and guises, is a strong presence in folk music. The murder ballad has become folk music’s sturdiest and most weathered monolith, and its presence might be strongest here in the hills of East Tennessee. Ever hear of a li’l ol’ song called “Knoxville Girl”?
Scotsman Alasdair Roberts has become something of a murder ballad specialist. His latest album, the Will Oldham-produced No Earthly Man (Drag City), features nothing but traditional murder ballads, in this case British tunes. Of course, when one traces the lineage of American murder ballads, the trail of blood leads directly back to Europe, most often to the UK. So, in his way, Alasdair Roberts is a distant cousin, coming to regale us with lore of the olde country.
Asked how he feels about bringing European murder ballads to an area that’s probably the North American capital of the style, Roberts refers to the similarities between the two traditions. “I have heard it,” says Roberts of “Knoxville Girl.” “It’s similar in theme to an English song called ‘Oxford Girl,’ I think. I wonder to what extent the Louvin Brothers adapted it from tradition. I have to say that, being British, and wanting to make music of Britain, whether by singing traditional songs or by writing songs informed by British landscape, myth, history, ‘the matter of Britain’ and so on, I’m more aware and knowledgeable of the British tradition than the American.”
Wherever the source, Roberts delivers the songs with the authority of a weathered troubadour. A UK counterpart to Nashville-based traditionalist Gillian Welch, Roberts’ records are beautifully stark affairs. Roberts’ subject matter might lean toward the dark side, but he isn’t such a Gloomy Gus in person. “The live shows aren’t totally serious,” says Roberts. “Hopefully you’ll see that. I joke around, throw in some banter, and throw in the occasional jaunty tune when flagging is detected among the crowd.
“I suppose a broader definition of ‘humor’ is called for with regard to these songs,” Roberts continues. “It’s interesting, with regard to the humor question, that songs like ‘Lord Ronald and The Cruel Mother’ also exist in comedic playground versions sung by children, or at least they used to be. They’re like mini-pantomimes or Punch and Judy shows. ‘Mother come quick ‘cause I want to be sick and lay me down to die’ is the milk-chocolate version of the 70-percent cocoa-solid ‘weary o’ hunting and fain would lie doon.’”
No Earthly Man is actually a one-off project. And while Roberts’ own material (he’s released several previous albums as a solo artist and with the band Appendix Out) is also a bit on the depressive side, he doesn’t
“As to why I made the record, I don’t really know why I was drawn to those songs—or why they were drawn to me. I don’t regard myself as an especially morbid person, in that I don’t think I spend any more time than anyone else thinking about death. But then, I don’t regard those songs as especially morbid either, despite their themes. I just find them beautiful and life-affirming, in my very marrow.”
There’s more to life than just making the eventual final exit, and Roberts’ compositions approach a variety of experiences. He generally mixes traditional murder ballads with his own work, thereby allowing for a more well-rounded and representative concert experience. When Roberts does tackle a traditional tune, he always manages to make it his own somehow.
“Some changes I make to songs are conscious, some subconscious,” he says. “I don’t regard the material as historic. I see what’s important about it as trans-historic, somehow outside of linear time. So in that sense I don’t have any desire to contemporize it. There’s no point in consciously contemporizing: if instincts are trusted, and those instincts are the instincts of contemporary human beings, then the music will necessarily be contemporary music regardless of how ancient the songs might be.”
Who: Alasdair Roberts w/ Sara Griscom and W-S Burn