Anonymous 4 have made music as a collective for 30 years. The five women who have during different periods occupied the group’s four seats over the course of their 30-year history—Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Johanna Maria Rose, Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek—have earned a reputation as one of the most critically and commercially successful vocal ensembles specializing in early music. They are beloved of classical fans and have the distinction of having crossed beyond that specialized audience into broader sales.
Their first successes English Ladymass and On Yoolis Night predated and predicted the early ’90s Chant fad (but did it better) and they’ve drawn additional audience attention for their recordings of Hildegard von Bingen. I’ve been a casual fan of their distinctive melodies for well over a decade, but must admit to treating the band as something of a pleasant, new age-ish curiosity: interesting, non-intrusive mood music for working hours or for late-night de-stressing. I’m probably not alone in this listening habit, and while there’s surely no harm in such practice, it remains nonetheless a disservice to the depth of the collective’s academic work and musical artistry. They’ve devoted their career to unearthing long unheard works and drawing attention to long overlooked musical traditions. What’s more, the smooth sheen of their artistry can sometimes disguise the downright adventurous nature they have exhibited in their choices of repertoires.
As a case in point, this group, best known for their Medieval musical works, has, with the release of 1865, completed a trilogy of recordings devoted to the American folk and spiritual songbook. Yes, folk elements have long inspired the world’s composers (Charles Ives, Bela Bartok, Franz Liszt, and Isaac Albéniz being prime examples), but bringing the common folk song wholesale into the conservatory can be a tricky thing. The inherent roughness of folk songs and their origins among amateur performers creates a sense of organic authenticity that can be lost amidst the professional’s precision within the concert hall. Particularly in the case of spirituals, where the mannered precision of a formally trained musician can inadvertently erase the untamed passion of the song sung in the field, there’s a difficult balance to be tendered here. Too much attention to sonic form can sterilize the source material’s function.
In the years since the Anonymous 4 first launched their great Americana experiment, there have been other noteworthy attempts. Dick Connette’s late ’90s project, Last Forever, with Sonya Cohen suffered a bit from studio sterility, but was equally capable of reaching sublime emotional heights, as on their adventurous reworking of “O Lazurus”. The conservatory trained members of Crooked Jades have taken a different direction, seeking to recreate the roughness of the source material that inspires them, and their work is effective and rewarding. But, I would argue that Anonymous 4’s collective re-examination of the American spiritual and folksong tradition is the most surprising and rewarding of these sonic experiments. Their artistic precision brings something to the mix that was always, arguably, intended if absent or rare in practice. Put it this way, when I hear Johnny Cash sing of the “Angel Band”, I believe that he had in mind the very sonic purity that this group of deeply talented and historically informed women brings to this music. If Heaven is a place of perfection, then these will be the voices greeting us at the gates.
To those who would criticize Anonymous 4’s bold experiment as elitist or a commercializing of the common folk, Elijah Wald’s intriguing thesis from Escaping the Delta, that the great blues artists of the late 1920s and 1930s had already been influenced, tainted if you will, by commercial radio by the time they recorded their classic cuts and that the broader audience was rapidly shifting in favor of the “artificial” sonic purity of the studio, holds some sway here. Yes, in the field and around the alter, these folk hymns exhibited a roughness born of passion, but in the mind’s ear of the common folk, these songs represented the perfection of the Holy Spirit and, if they could be made sonically perfect to match, then holy mission accomplished.
The first of Anonymous 4’s Americana trilogy, 2004’s American Angels was an exclusively a capella affair and a brilliant reimagining of 19th century shape note singing, which was based upon hymnals written for those unable to read music, replacing the complicated staff system with four simple shapes representing the notes fa-so-la-do. The practice of voicing the notes first, followed by the chant-like singing of the hymn created something ancient sounding to contemporary ears, even as the tradition lives on in pockets throughout the American South. 2006’s follow-up Gloryland featured the same lineup of the band, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Johanna Maria Rose, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, with the addition of instrumentalists Darol Anger and Mike Marshall. Another collection dominated by spirituals, the occasional accompaniment of guitar, fiddle, and other bluegrass instruments added a grounding and depth to the collection.
1865, which along with closing their Americana trilogy will stand as the group’s final recording of their 30-year career, stands as the perfect closure of this rewarding experiment. Bruce Molsky, a master of fiddle, banjo, and guitars, also provides vocals to this collection, joining Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek in a collection of melancholy yet hopeful folk ballads capturing simultaneously the fatigue of the conflict that split this country and spilled more of its countrymen’s blood than any other while evoking, as well, the hope of future restoration.
That future is evoked in some odd and surprising ways. One can hear the melody that inspired Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” in the saccharine strains of “Aura Lee”. In the next song, “Listen to the Mockingbird”, it takes a few disconcerting moments to realize that we are hearing a song that would seventy years later become the defining melodic theme used in the Three Stooges comedy shorts. North and South may still suffer divisions, but the lasting brilliance of Moe, Larry and Curly is, in the least, one area upon which we can all share in American pride. If that seems to trivialize this beautiful music, be assured that the intention is quite the opposite. Returning to the question of whether the art of the common folk and the formal conservatory can ever be reconciled, this bit of cultural archaeology demonstrates that the two weren’t always so separated and that any barriers between them are apt to be artificial, more a reflection of our own imaginative limitations than those of our forbearers.
Anonymous 4’s 1865 is a vibrant and lively collection that will please a wide variety of listeners who open their ears to its many layers and surprising connections. Fans of the sixties folk revival will recognize “The Maiden in the Garden” as the source material for the Byrds’ “John Riley” while Molsky’s guitar playing resembles here that of Bert Janch or John Renbourn. Molsky’s hornpipe fiddle melody accompanies the vocals in “The Southern Soldier Boy” then masterfully shifts into the reel “Rebel Raid”. Repeated listens continue to reward with centuries-spanning connections.