I’ll Sing the Song When You’re Gone

sam amidon’s digital folklorica.

The opening chord sequence of “Sugar Baby,” the first song on Sam Amidon’s album of traditional American folk songs, All Is Well, announces that this record is up to something other than merely replicating Appalachian tunes. No Songcatcher here. Instead, the chord’s suspended bass notes and more darkly-hued, cosmopolitan, almost bossa nova-ish harmonies place the listener one step removed from the original setting, as if we were listening to coal-streaked, boney fingers frailing silver-banjo strings while sitting in a space-age bachelor pad (or better said a Dwell magazine loft studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) instead of on a mountain cabin porch.

That is to say, the music acknowledges, even celebrates its inauthenticity. But it does so by sonically signaling a relocation and displacement of one era’s folk music to another context. The old folk lyrics are so capacious, of course, that they make this transit well. Their allegorical dimensions only widen and encompass more in the new setting. No sepia tones in this digital photo album: place names and old, weird Americana jump into the present, pertinent and resonant.

On All Is Well all is not. Horns, strings, and other orchestral textures coat the raw songs in a kind of eerie, haunted soundscape. Reverb and multilayered vocals add to the feeling of hearing music once removed. Moreover, Amidon sings the songs in a kind of flat, affectless, hypnotized daze—it’s a voice that ventriloquizes old mountain singing, but with a hint of self-consciousness about the imitating. Amidon doesn’t want to become a mountain singer himself, but rather, in his timbre and tone, he seems to connect his own deep listening to mountain music to the production of meaning and feeling in the contemporary, sleek, synthesized city. He’s a new kind of New Lost City Rambler.

In one sense, the formula is simpler than all this: Amidon’s album merely sounds like traditional American folk music covered by Sufjan Stevens. But as the music washes over you, there is the feeling that there is more here than meets the ear. Amidon does not tap into the wellspring of American folk music itself, but rather, more intriguingly, spins his listener around on the whirlpool of figuring out exactly what makes folk music folk.

We can always rely on Louis Armstrong’s famous bit of philosophizing on this topic: “All music is folk music—I never heard no horse sing a song.” True enough. But then maybe all music needs to be heard by someone else besides the singer in order to count as music. Which is to say that Amidon’s album connects to a long-running debate about folk music.

The question goes as follows: are vernacular sounds always-already folk music or do they only acquire folkiness after being assigned the category by some outside force, usually a representative of some higher, more supposedly modernized socio-economic class?

The first position imagines that music counts as folk for insiders who may not have even heard of that label. From this perspective, if folk music is made in the forest, and no one is there to hear it except for a small, remote, closed-circle of forest dwellers, then it’s still folk music for this special group of people known as the folk, no matter how they themselves might understand the music.

The second position, by contrast, locates the authenticity of folk music in the ear of the beholder, in this case the outsider, the culture broker, the recorder and adjudicator from on high, who doles out the label of folk where he or she sees fit. From this perspective, folk music and musicians are only created from without. Reception is all. Listening is what imbues music with its folkiness. If it’s played in the forest, and no one from outside overhears it, then it can’t become folk. Musical sound must become reified—heard and situated (and in the process inevitably recast) by an external force—in order to become suffused with the magic of folk’s spell of authenticity.

What is intriguing about Amidon’s album is that it seems to defy these two positions, or rather, it combines them. There are times when the music gets a bit boring and rote—it’s almost too mellow and reserved—but on songs such as “Sugar Daddy,” “Saro,” “Little Satchel,” and “O Death,” the new sonic setting makes the music at once heard at a distance and heard with an immersive, almost overwhelming immediacy. Your perspective, far away, close up, see saws.

For a moment you can’t tell the folk forest from the digital trees, and you get lost where once you were found, and found where once you were lost.

Listen to Sam Amidon’s All Is Well.

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