Rock Band Detours Into A "Ghost World" Of Long Lost Pennsylvania Folk Songs, Waltzes, Rafting Chants and Mountain Ballads
It all started with an obscure book, Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, published nearly a century ago as a collection of song lyrics gathered in the mountains of Pennsylvania by Henry Shoemaker, a folklorist and "song catcher." The book eventually found its way into the hands of David Bielanko and Christine Smith (members of the rock band Marah) shortly after they relocated from Brooklyn to rural central Pennsylvania. Excited by the idea of creating a new and relevant album based upon the lost writings, Bielanko and Smith took liberties in writing new original music, as well as reworking the 100+ year old song lyrics that were often fragmented - and at other times admittedly inaccurate. Finally they put together an analog studio in an old church in Millheim, PA and recruited a band to tackle the recordings, including Gus, an 8-year-old fiddle prodigy. The album Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania is out February 25, 2014.
The record was made on a Studer 8 Track tape machine and mastered directly to a vinyl lathe. "Mountain Minstrelsy is a collection of raw and unprocessed tape recordings (by today's standards) and that was the whole idea. Here we play together and all at once, one mic bleeding into the next right down the line," said Bielanko who feels that the limitations of the old technology line up perfectly with the spirit of folk music. "There's nothing casual when tape is rolling. You're forced to make it happen in that moment. There's a tension and sense of urgency in the room that I have never experienced in the digital world. Beyond that we approached this as if we were making any other rock and roll album."
To further add to the wild and freewheeling spirit, the church doors were left open during the recording sessions so that curious music fans and neighbors could come and go as they wished. Through those doors also came tuba players, bagpipers, tap dancers, whistlers and barbershop singers. On the song "Ten Cents at the Gate" a hundred folks from the 'one traffic light town' are singing along.
It was the atmosphere and enormous sense of place of the book that drew them in. Bielanko has often written with that precisely in mind, perhaps most notably on Marah's album Kids In Philly. "We realized it was possible to co-write new songs with the ghosts of Pennsylvania." Although Bielanko and Smith wrote much of the album, it was 8-year-old Gus Tritsch who invented "Harry Bell."
"He instinctually knew that this song could only work in the old 'major chord/minor theme' tradition," said Bielanko. "Gus seems to know a lot of stuff that takes other people lifetimes to figure out," added Smith. "He stepped up to the microphone with his banjo and simply laid it down in one take."
Although the album will also be released in digital format, it was always intended to be a 12-inch vinyl LP. The band recently released a 7" vinyl only single from the forthcoming album called "Ten Cents at the Gate" featuring a local Barbershop Quartet.
"Mostly we are just proud to have played some role in keeping these songs on the planet. It seemed to us that they were in grave danger of vanishing all together, and they are too good for that."
Minstrel- (.) (Historical Terms) a medieval wandering musician who performed songs or recited poetry with instrumental accompaniment.
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