Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

Published in the July issue of Rhythms Magazine

William Elliott Whitmore, for his fifth record, lays down a modern field recording.

Early last century, along dusty rural roads and deep within cotton fields, on front porches and in juke joints, an oppressed people sang.  They sang of their torment and their tumult, they sang from the heart and the soul and the blues was born and we know this because people like Alan Lomax and his father, John, were there to record these songs, during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.  These field recordings, as they became known, provided an incredibly important part of musical history, still recognised to this very day, still to be recognised in the years to come.

From those dusty roads and scorching cotton fields then, on the wings of the blues, this music has marched ever forward and informs so much of what people listen to today.  Not many acknowledge this, or perhaps are even aware of it, but some are and it’s through them and their take on this music that we’re transported back to those early days, back to where it all began.

Today then, out in the backblocks of Iowa, resides one William Elliott Whitmore.  Only 32 years of age, yes, and born a long time after those oppressed people overcame their plight and their oppression, bringing this music with them, but a man whose music touches so closely on that original sound, it’s almost like he’s flown forward through time, straight from 1929 to 2011.  Whitmore’s latest record, his fifth, is Field Songs, and as the name suggests, this is a record as deeply rooted in that sparse-yet-strong ethos, those early field recordings, as it’s possible to be in an age of modern technology and bells and whistles.

“Well, it was a conscious choice to not really add anything to the songs,” Whitmore tells on the sparse approach he’s taken to Field Songs, his first record played entirely on his own.  “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna add a single thing’, there’s a drum you’ll hear a couple of times but that’s me, I didn’t want to add anything else, so really the idea, hopefully, is it sounds as if you’re right there with me.”

I remark to Whitmore that it does feel like this, and the addition of birds chirping in the background, the crickets and frogs you can hear behind the music, makes it feel like you’re sitting on his front porch on a summer’s evening, just watching him play.  “Yeah, I guess in that way I did use some studio trickery because we went out and recorded those sounds and added them in later,” he admits with a laugh.  “But it just seemed like a good way to put nature’s music with the music of man, you know?  Overall, it was just a fun juxtaposition to use all these modern recording techniques to capture this old music.”

For those not so initiated with the music of Whitmore, allow me to expand.  Armed with just a banjo and a guitar, this is a man who weaves tales of life as he knows it into simple yet complex blues-based patterns, perhaps not something too out of the ordinary, but it’s Whitmore’s voice that sets him apart.  I’m often drawn back to the opening track of his last record, 2009’s Animals In The Dark, an a capella track, ‘Mutiny’, which, with it’s raw power, it’s gravelled sound, was just made for a field recording, and it’s captured again here, on Field Songs to a tee.  This is a man immersed in this music of old, turning it his own way, and taking us back to those dusty rural roads from so long ago.

However, despite Whitmore’s strong links with the musical past, not all is as it seems.  Field Songs, whilst technically a bluegrass record with a more than generous smattering of country blues, carries with it a strong punk ethos; eight tracks, just over half an hour long, simple chords, a strong lyrical message.  For Whitmore though, this is merely an evolution, not something to raise one’s eyebrows over.  “Well I grew up listening to a lot of country and soul music, my folks had a lot of records, but I discovered punk music a bit later, in my teens,” he explains of the punk origins.
“I’ve always related to punk music because it just doesn’t seem that distant from the blues, it’s not a big jump to go from Robert Johnson to Minor Threat,” he adds.  “So it’s the same chords here, the take on the message, so as far as the song structure goes here, I was always intrigued by the punk way of doing it.”  To listen to Field Songs, you’d not automatically think of the Ramones or Black Flag, but the idea is there, the fact Whitmore regularly opens for punk bands the evidence that he’s made the connection and made it well.

Overall though, whatever is informing this music (whether it be the Sex Pistols or old field recordings), the fact it’s pure is what makes it so strong.  Field Songs is huge in its emptiness, one man and a banjo recorded in a small studio shack in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a modern day field recording, true to its roots, but striving to move onward.  “Yeah, it meanders, it’s like a river, you know?  It’s a snapshot in time,” he muses.  It’s a snapshot in time and it’s timeless, music recorded in a small shack that’ll last many a lifetime, just like those field recordings of old.

Samuel J. Fell

Field Songs is available now through Anti.

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