The trend of young musicians researching and interpreting Appalachian music provokes discussion. Much of this music–vocal and instrumental songs based on folk tunes from England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland–is location and condition-specific, (southern states, rural landscapes). Yet, these songs’ revival in the hands of Chris Thile, Brittany Haas, Josh Goforth, and scores of others introduces them to new audiences long removed from the past. Relocated and reinterpreted, what do these songs mean today? How should we approach them as performers and listeners?
North Carolina-based duo House and Land pay homage to the melodies and stories from Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the UK while championing both historic and modern sensibilities. With Across the Field, their sophomore recording, vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Sarah Louise and Sally Anne Morgan interpret their source material with resources old and new. Electric guitars and recorders mingle with clawhammer banjo and penny whistles, building unique textures that serve the narratives in their songs with sight unobtrusive updates.
Banjo and electric guitar perfectly complement one another on opening track “Two Sisters”. Folk purists can damn electric guitar all they want, but the tenderness and fragility of Louise’s finger plucked melodies add a tasteful dimension to the track. Likewise, Morgan sings with a shyness and persistence that makes the vocal melody sound fresh throughout each repetition. The 12-string guitar on “Rainbow ‘Mid Life’s Willows” adds a lovely, shimmering texture that gives the track a sense of space and air a regular six-string guitar can’t provide.
It would be a crime to ignore the use of overdubbing and multi-tracking throughout Across the Field. Most, if not all of the songs collected on this record, were typically performed with minimal accompaniment, save perhaps banjo or guitar to support the harmony. Mixing acoustic and electric instruments on folk and ballad songs makes a bold statement about subverting the historical tradition. “Blacksmith” is interpreted with the addition of shruti (a box-like drone instrument) and glockenspiel, a choice that enriches the narrative and adds a sense of longing and dread to the recording.
The kick drum and distorted guitar on “Carolina Lady” add a gritty voice, wavering the tune between dirty blues and psychedelic meditation. Their take on the song – itself a resulting evolution of a British ballad – is an updated take more interested in finding new avenues in storied melodies than pleasing folk purists. Likewise, the shruti and alto recorder on duo’s take on the Robert Burns tune “Ca the Yowes” might not be historically accurate, but they add a depth that prizes musicality over period performance practice.
House and Land operate under the philosophy that these collected songs are timeless, but they should not be museum pieces. There is a value to performing folk songs as they’ve been presented for ages – unaccompanied voice, period-appropriate acoustic instruments – but there’s something to appreciate in reviving them with contemporary sensibilities and instruments. Adding electric guitars and multi-tracking parts opens them up to unique musical possibilities, appropriate so long as they honor the text.
Louise and Morgan are open about modifying some of these songs’ text, but this isn’t new; the history of countless folk and ballad songs feature a fluidity to words depending on travel, local customs, or any other number of factors. These songs fit their times and their performers, and Across the Field is notable for examining just how relevant these songs still may be.