Ari & Mia Reinvigorate Old-Time Folk with "Sweet Morning" (premiere)

Photo: Kat Waterman

With their haunting mix of stirring instrumentation and melodious vocals, sibling Americana duo Ari & Mia resurrects an old-time arrangement from the Sacred Harp songbook.

Originating in 1844, The Sacred Harp is a ubiquitous songbook that helped to define choral music in America—first in New England, followed by much of South. For sibling duo Ari & Mia Friedman, this folk tradition has played a definitive part in their lives since a small age. Their brand of Americana tends to follow traditional roots whilst expanding on them with their suave performances. As much is especially evident in their newest, self-produced album due on, Sew the City, which often calls back to early American fiddle compositions and folk tunes along the lines of "Sweet Morning".

Ari & Mia are sharing "Sweet Morning" with PopMatters readers ahead of the 1 March release of Sew the City. Their rendition on the classic song refers to its darkly original arrangement which, when held parallel to its lyricism, makes for an exercise in haunting acerbity. Frailing banjo and stirring fiddling make for a compelling take on the old-time song betwixt the sisters' shared euphonious vocals.

Tell me about choosing to record this song—what prompted you to want to arrange it and record it?

Mia: I was leafing through the Sacred Harp book a few months before recording Sew the City and happened upon "Sweet Morning," arranged by H.S. Reese in 1859. I was struck by the dark and foreboding melody juxtaposed against the literal meaning of the words. I could hear banjo and cello working really well, so I called Ari up and told her to learn the alto part with her voice and the bass part on her cello. I was inspired by Sacred Harp songs arranged by the Ephemeral Stringband that featured banjo, and could hear how banjo, cello and voices might create the powerful sounds I was hearing in my mind. Lyrically and harmonically, the song has a very different flavor than the music we tend to compose, and I really liked the idea of finding our own sound inspired by the bones of the original piece.

This is a sacred harp song. What exactly is this tradition and why is it important to you?

Mia: The Sacred Harp tradition has been a part of our lives since we were young. Car rides with our parents and other sister often featured the five of us belting out some of our favorite numbers. A few times a year, we would go to Sacred Harp gatherings in Vermont and leaf through the thick book of songs, joining in harmony with many others. The tradition features hymns and anthems sung in powerful four-part harmony. It originated in New England in the 18th century but is still very much alive and breathing today. These songs are traditionally a cappella, and, about eight years ago, we got inspired to arrange some of our favorites to include fiddle and cello. We continue to do this, though this is the first arrangement we have done that features banjo.

How do you think this song fits in overall on the album?

Ari: This is one of a handful of songs on the album that we'd call "dark but hopeful," yet it stands alone in its ominous, driving feel. It is also more traditional and straight-forward in the way we've arranged it which offers a welcome change of pace and mood.

What do you hope listeners take away from hearing this song?

Ari: As is the case in many texts set to Sacred Harp music, "Sweet Morning" speaks of finding glory in the afterlife. While this is not a belief we subscribe to, we are drawn to the juxtaposition of the seemingly cheerful lyrics ("We'll all shout together in the morning") with the darkness of the melody. We think there are many ways to interpret the song and hope that listeners take away whatever makes sense to them.

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