2:03am

Fri May 17, 2013
Music Interviews

Sam Amidon: Reshaping An American Folk Tradition

Originally published on Fri May 17, 2013 9:55 am

Shape-note singing is a communal form of music that began in New England 200 years ago, mostly from townsfolk without any musical training. It's music that surrounded folk singer Sam Amidon during his childhood in Vermont.

"These are some of the melodies that are the deepest-seated for me," Amidon says. "That was the world I was born into. And in terms of the shape-note music being a social tradition, it was something that happened, yeah, once a month in our town. You know, it would move to different people's houses, sometimes ours. It was a potluck on a Saturday afternoon."

Now, in a new album titled Bright Sunny South, Amidon reimagines the song his parents sang. Amidon says he takes an old tune that gets stuck in his head and ends up adding something new.

"I often am playing the guitar, and I'll write a guitar part that's totally just on its own," Amidon says. "And then I'll realize that some melody that has been bonking around in there in my brain, you know, will fit over what I've written on the guitar."

Another one of those melodies came from 1920s banjo player Dock Boggs. "Bright Sunny South" is actually a Civil War-era song, about a young soldier leaving home to fight.

"I knew this song for a long time, but it wasn't until the last couple of years that I really started to sing it. And for my version, I was playing those two chords on the guitar, and that song came back out — and I'm sure it did for a reason," Amidon says, laughing.

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEPING MARY")

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What you're hearing here is a new spin on very traditional American folk music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEPING MARY")

SAM AMIDON: (Singing) Are there anybody here like Mary a-weeping? Call to my Jesus and he'll draw nigh. Glory...

INSKEEP: That's Sam Amidon singing "Weeping Mary," originally an old shape-note hymn from the mid-1800s. Shape-note singing is an American a capella choral tradition with roots that date back to colonial times.

AMIDON: It was basically farmers and tavern keepers, you know, normal people, writing four-part choral songs without having had any musical training. You know, it's these crazy harmonies and really boisterous, intense songs.

INSKEEP: To give an idea how that music originally sounded, here is a traditional take of "Weeping Mary."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEPING MARY")

WORD OF MOUTH CHORUS: (Singing) Are there anybody here like Mary a-weeping? Call to my Jesus and he'll draw nigh.

INSKEEP: That recording actually features Sam Amidon's parents singing with the Word of Mouth Chorus. It's the kind of music he was surrounded by while growing up in Vermont.

AMIDON: These are some of the melodies that are the deepest-seeded for me. That was the world I was born into. And in terms of the shape-note music being a social tradition, it was something that happened, yeah, once a month in our town. You know, it would move to different people's houses, sometimes ours. It was a potluck on a Saturday afternoon.

INSKEEP: So he was a part of this folk tradition. And now in a new album, Sam Amidon re-imagines the same song that his parents sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEPING MARY")

AMIDON: (Singing) Glory, glory, glory, glory. Glory be to my God on high.

INSKEEP: Amidon says he takes an old tune that gets stuck in his head and ends up adding something new.

AMIDON: I often am playing the guitar and I'll write a guitar part that's totally just on its own. And then I'll realize that some melody that has been bonking around in there in my brain, you know, will fit over this - what I've written on the guitar.

INSKEEP: Another melody bonking around in his brain is a tune by 1920s banjo player Dock Boggs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT SUNNY SOUTH")

AMIDON: (Singing) In the bright sunny South, in peace and content. These days of my boyhood, I scarcely have spent.

INSKEEP: That's the song "Bright Sunny South" - a Civil-War-era song, about a young soldier leaving home to go fight. It ended up being the title track of Sam Amidon's new album.

AMIDON: I knew this song for a long time, but it wasn't until the last couple of years that I really started to sing it. And for my version, I was playing those two chords on the guitar, that song came back out and I'm sure it did for a reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT SUNNY SOUTH")

AMIDON: (Singing) In the bright sunny South, in peace and content. These days of my boyhood, I scarcely have spent.

INSKEEP: Sam Amidon's new album, "Bright Sunny South," is out this week, and you can watch a music video at NPRmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT SUNNY SOUTH")

AMIDON: (Singing) Ever dear to my memory, sweeter is my dream. I...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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