Sometimes, when I’m exhausted or overwhelmed by the superficial machinations of modern life, my mind retreats to one particular PBS-inspired fantasy: I imagine myself to be as intrepid and resourceful as the families depicted on many a publicly funded show, taking a one-way trip into the Alaskan wilderness to start a homestead from scratch with only a sack of barley, an ax, and a few pairs of home-stitched breeches. Oh, and Ken Waldman provides the soundtrack.
Waldman has lived in Alaska for 20 years, and the Last Frontier has been both his musical and poetic muse. His fifth recording is the sprawling, two-CD All Originals, All Traditionals. Each disc contains exactly what it describes; the first compiles Waldman’s own original fiddle tunes, the second traditional and public domain songs augmented by original poetry (also presented in the liner notes). The combination of music and written verse makes for a unique and rewarding listening experience.
All Originals is direct and unpretentious, a back porch jam session among friends; the entire recording gives off a feeling of sharing rather than showboating. The band is comprised of Waldman on fiddle, Jerry Hagins on banjo, multi-instrumentalists Hogie Siebert and Jordan Wankoff, and bassist Mitch Reed. The fiddle is the featured instrument throughout, sawing away over a variety of bluegrass and old-time structures. Although the band keeps steady time, there’s a loose, scrappy quality to the performances. The players all have evident skill and deep knowledge of Appalachian (and older) music tradition, but this is neither the polished sound of young Nashville upstarts, nor the stuffy preciousness of folk music antiquarians.
With the backdrop of Alaska’s dramatic landscapes firmly ensconced in one’s imagination, songs like the melancholic “Summer Snow” and banjo-led “John Michaud’s” sound relevant and true. Then there are tunes like the Opelousas, Louisiana-inspired “Swamp Puddle” and “Gonna Find Me a Door”, which are dripping with humidity and draped in moss. The playing can be a little scratchy, not always perfectly in tune, but in fine participatory folk tradition it encourages and welcomes you to play or pick along.
The second disc features traditionals like “Yellow Rose of Texas”, “Camp Chase”, and “Cumberland Gap”, with Waldman reading his poetry over the top. Traditionals is a perfect companion for the wordless marathon of Originals, as Waldman’s poems make it easier to distinguish one track from another—on a project with 57 total tracks that is definitely an issue. Waldman’s verse is as straightforward and unvarnished as his playing, appropriately enamored with Alaskan place names like “Sitka”, “Kotzebue”, and “Kachemak Bay”. He reads “Iliapuq” over “Camp Chase”, a one-stanza sketch about a former student, an Inupiat Eskimo who fought in Vietnam, tripped on acid in San Francisco’s Haight, and ended up on Nome’s skid row. “Iliapuq” is Siberian Yup’ik for “orphan,” which we learn is also slang for one who finds parents in a bottle. Waldman’s skill is in his avoidance of pathos, a refusal to editorialize on or judge his subjects — he wisely leaves it to the reader and listener to make what they will of his words. Even though many of the poems’ subjects meet sad, sometimes tragic fates, they receive neither pity nor glorification.
“Into the White”, which Waldman reads over “June Apple” in his warm, friendly tenor, details the rise and fall of a young Yup’ik woman who flunks out of college and ends up walking away from her village onto the sea ice beneath a full moon, presumably to die. Waldman describes the piece as “spooky” in the liner notes, but I’m not sure I agree. It’s definitely not spooky in the macabre sense. What’s spooky about the poem could be the way in which it elicits emotion without demanding it through the use of flashy or overwrought language. As representative of Waldman’s entire deal, “Into the White” is humble, and therefore powerful.