On his third and most finely wrought album yet, guitarist, singer, and master interpreter Jake Xerxes Fussell is joined for the first time by a full band featuring Nathan Bowles (drums), Casey Toll (bass), Nathan Golub (pedal steel), Libby Rodenbough (violin, vocals), and James Anthony Wallace (piano, organ). An utterly transporting selection of traditional narrative folksongs addressing the troubles and delights of love, work, and wine (i.e., the things that matter), collected from a myriad of obscure sources and deftly metamorphosed, Out of Sight contains, among other moving curiosities, a fishmonger’s cry that sounds like an astral lament (“The River St. Johns”); a cotton mill tune that humorously explores the unknown terrain of death and memory (“Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”); and a fishermen’s shanty/gospel song equally concerned with terrestrial boozing and heavenly transcendence (“Drinking of the Wine”).
Jake has written a fascinating essay, below, about the nine songs he chose and his journey to them (a longer version is available on the PoB website, along with a short essay about Jake by Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy).
Like all things having to do with traditional music, there are multiple sources for these songs, many layers of transmission and interpretation. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” I heard from my friend Art Rosenbaum, who learned it from a Pete Seeger recording from the late ’40s. Seeger had picked it up from an older source, an unattributed singer at an industrial school for women in western North Carolina. I like thinking of the song as a sort of resistance piece sung created by overworked and underpaid textile workers, which it is, but I also love the sardonic humor and imagery: an inscrutable floor manager who’d “take the nickels off a dead man’s eyes / To buy Coca-Colas and Eskimo Pies.”
I first heard the Irish tragicomedy “Michael Was Hearty” via my pal Nathan Salsburg, guitar wizard and curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, who played me a YouTube video of an Irish Traveller and ballad singer named Thomas McCarthy, whose a cappella delivery of the song is striking and singular. I immediately wanted to commit the words to memory, but I had to come up with another way to perform it that worked for my way of singing, so I worked out a waltz arrangement on my guitar and taught it to my band. Some great imagery in there too: “High was the step in the jig that he sprung / He had good looks and soothering tongue”—don’t we all know somebody like that? This one dates to probably sometime around the end of the 1800s.
“Oh Captain” is my bastardized reinterpretation of a beautiful deckhand’s song recorded by the singer, composer, and musicologist Willis Laurence James for Paramount Records in the early 1920s, with piano accompaniment. It’s a very unusual recording. James spent much of his life collecting and interpreting and writing about African American worksongs, yet few have recognized his short, obscure stint as a recording artist. Turns out he was a trained singer who taught in the music department for years at Spelman College, whose library still holds his archive. I became fascinated with him and his work, so this song is my little homage to Dr. James.
In the mid-2000s when I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, I went to an estate sale at an antebellum house in town and found a first edition of Carl Sandburg’s famous 1927 book The American Songbag, which contains “Three Ravens.” Inside was an index card with a charming calligraphed “If found, please return to,” written by the banjo player and singer John Hartford, along with his Tennessee address. I’d been listening a lot to the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger, a member of the Seeger family of folk music fame, but also an important and influential avant-garde composer. Her music resides in that interesting place where modern abstract forms and traditional abstract forms collide. Her collection 19 American Folk Songs for Piano includes a wonderful minute-long version of “Three Ravens.” I couldn’t get enough of it, so I went back to my Hartford copy of the Sandburg book (from whom Seeger herself got the tune) and learned it.
The great ballad singer and collector Bobby McMillon, of western North Carolina, has recorded a fine version of “The Rainbow Willow” under the title “Locks and Bolts,” the more common title. My friends Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise (aka House and Land) have also recorded a beautiful rendering. I combined various versions from the Ozarks into the one that I sing, but the story is pretty much the same. Murder is so commonplace in old songs that I don’t know if the term “murder ballad” is very useful. Maybe we should be breaking it down to which type of murder, and what was the motive, and what sort of weapon was used, things like that. I’d say this is more of a love song than a death song, anyway.
“The River St. Johns” comes straight from one of Stetson Kennedy’s Florida WPA recordings of a gentleman named Harden Stuckey doing his interpretation of a fishmonger’s cry, which he recalls from a childhood memory. What compelling imagery there: “I’ve got fresh fish this morning, ladies / They are gilded with gold, and you may find a diamond in their mouths.” I can’t help but believe him.
“Jubilee” is from the great Jean Ritchie’s family tradition. Her father probably sang it as more of a play-party type piece, or at least that’s what Art Rosenbaum tells me, but it’s taken on different forms since. I’m not sure where I first heard it, but it’s been making the rounds in old-time music circles for decades now, and I’ve always appreciated its basic insight: “Swing and turn, live and learn.”
“Drinking of the Wine” is a spiritual number, you might could say. The version to which I’m most faithful is one that was recorded by a group of Virginia menhaden shermen singing it as a net-hauling shanty on a boat off the coast of New Jersey in the early 1950s. Clara Ward also recorded it, as have many gospel singers, as well as the great North Carolina banjo player and folk music promoter Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
“16–20” is my very loose rearrangement of a tune that I’ve known for years. This was a popular dance piece among guitarists in the lower Chattahoochee River Valley of Georgia and Alabama, including my old friends George Daniel and Robert Thomas, from whom I learned it. I can’t say that this current working of it bears much resemblance to their “16–20,” which was more of an upbeat buckdancer’s choice, but it’s always evolving for me, which is good because it’s one that I will never stop playing. – Jake Xerxes Fussell, Durham, NC, 2019