On a summer night last July BOMBlog contributor Richard Goldstein came across something out of the ordinary in a Chelsea gallery, among Bill Beckley’s photographs was experimental folk musician Sam Amidon. Intrigued, Goldstein picked Amidon’s brain about free-jazz, the history of American folk music, and the skills you can pick up on a beach in Nova Scotia.
Last July, it wasn’t just art that was on view at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, but a small gathering for a concert by Sam Amidon on the occasion of his latest release I See the Sign. Hosting a concert, the gallery seemed suddenly more ’80s—not because of Bill Beckley’s photographs—and certainly not because of the banjo and fiddle playing Amidon. It was a matter of energy and spirit that marked that time-before-Chelsea where art and music crossed paths in and sometimes more often outside gallery walls—the piers, clubs, and beach.
Amidon found his way to Shafrazi via the West Fourth subway station. He had been playing banjo on the platform hustling some money to catch a film. A man approached him with two dollars and asked for some banjo lessons. Amidon went to the man’s house where work by LeWitt, Acconci, and Judd dotted the walls. The two were in for more than they expected and pleasantly surprised by each others’ talents. For Amidon, it turned out the man was Bill Beckley, a photographer who had been making story-art in the 1970s and now large quasi-abstract photos; and for Beckley, it turned out the subway player was an accomplished musician and story teller in his own right. In time, Beckley introduced Amidon to Tony Shafrazi as he had done with Keith Haring.
At the gallery that night, Beckley’s photographs set the stage for the musician. Reflected on a frame’s glass, Amidon’s silhouette played against the blood and lollipop reds of a large Beckley photograph. Softly, Sam Amidon started playing his fiddle then began sawing at it with his bow. It let out a torqued call like his voice and those shape noted ones from 1700s New England and the Northern Revivalists that influence him. He spun the song back to melody and proceeded to take the audience on a rustic journey well beyond Chelsea.
Listen to a live recording from the show here:
Richard Goldstein: You come from a pretty musical family. What was that like growing up?
Sam Amidon: The great thing about it was just being in the world of music. Many of my adult friends and my parents’ friends were musicians, so that was the most important thing for me. It’s not so much that I performed, though I did perform as a young child, the most important element was being in an environment of tunes. I played fiddle mostly growing up, but I don’t have any claim to authenticity for folk songs—I didn’t grow up singing and playing the banjo, but I discovered a lot of these old folk songs the way a lot of more indie people did. When the Harry Smith anthology was reissued and the Dock Boggs CDs started showing up at a CD store downtown I had a frame of reference. My parents played that style of banjo, so I could learn that from them.
RG: Is that the point that triggered a looking back to folk music?
SA: No, it took a little longer. At this point, I was still in high school and was thinking more that what I really wanted to do was go to New York and play free jazz. I came to New York to get away from folk music because I felt that I’d done what I could with it…that sounds horrible, I felt like I wanted something different.
RG: You mention Sonny Rollins as a major influence. Were you playing sax or something?
SA: No, violin. I do talk about Sonny Rollins a lot because I’m a total jazz nerd, and I listen to jazz all the time. I especially love a set of his recordings called Live in London 1965. He was quite scared of the recording machine and these recordings were made when he didn’t know he was being recorded.
RG: So he wouldn’t be good in this situation.
SA: Exactly. I think he was fine in interview, but playing not so much. So these recordings were bootlegged under a table or something and his playing is so beautiful on them. But no, I always played the violin which is why I never really made it as a jazz musician—jazz violin is a pretty terrible instrument.
RG: What brought you back to folk music?
SA: I don’t really think of this project as folk music in the sense of folk songs. That’s the source material and just a coincidence, it’s what I have to offer. The people I’m working with are not folk musicians, Nico [Muhly], Shahzad [Ismaily], and my reworkings of the songs are just what I do to them. Whereas if I’m going to play folk music, I’ll get together with my friend Eamon O’Leary or Rhys Jones and play traditional irish fiddle tunes for three hours. That’s what I think of as folk music—going to play tunes in a traditional setting. But at the same time, they are, of course, folk songs—but the way I came back to them was because I really wanted to try and learn to play the guitar—I was a fiddle and banjo player. So as a way of learning to play I just learned some of those songs. And as an approach to learning to write songs, I would come up with little guitar riffs that were different to change the songs around. I just got stuck at that phase…never made it to the songwriting part—I’m a failed songwriter basically.
RG: But that’s an interesting point, what you define as an authentic writer.
SA: Absolutely. Those are super vague categories, and if you think about it, it depends on what you are considering as writing. Though I’m not writing the words in my case, there’s a lot of music that I am. Often, I’ll come up with the music before knowing what song it’s going to be.
RG: Do you think that “reinterpret” is a better word than “cover?”
SA: Yes, and that’s a great point. The reason it’s a better word—reworking, reinterpreting, whatever you want to call it—is because a “cover” is somebody doing somebody else’s song; whereas, a folk song doesn’t belong to anybody. There is no original; there is no one copy. You’re kind of copying 10 versions but those were all copies of 15 other versions. But most of all, it’s a malleable object to begin with.
RG: Looking back seems like a really fashionable thing to do now. Take the New Antiquarian look. Is there a certain moment that brought about that enthusiasm?
SA: I think it’s true that that’s happening right now, but I also believe that each moment in music and in US history has a corresponding interest in folk music. People are interested in different aspects of it depending on what their interests are. In the ‘60s you had a huge folk revival—people were into the community and the idea of it as a worker’s thing. So it was political, this sort of Woody-Guthrie-Pete-Seeger-thing. Then in the late ‘60s it was more of a communitarian thing; and then in the ‘70s…actually, I think there was a kind of Punk-old-time-string band movement that happened around the same time as the punk movement among people in hard core bands—
RG: like Captain Beefheart or—
SA: …yeah, Camper Van Beethoven, maybe and a group called The Horse Flies, who were like a half New Wave band half old-time-string-band, and The Chicken Chokers. It was kind of an obscure scene, but it was like they were obsessed with authenticity and rawness and that kind of intensity. And then Kurt Cobain sang the Lead Belly song and with it, the whole indie side of things and the New Weird America/Freak Folk thing. I’m not really in any of those scenes, but I do like to see the ways people are interested in something different about it. So sometimes it’s the words, sometimes it’s the melody, sometimes it’s the wackiness or weirdness of these recordings. But I just love the mystery of the songs, the mystery of where they came from.
RG: How are you transforming the song? Are you transforming it to your initial feeling when you hear it?
SA: There’s no real rule to any of it. I mean, often I’ll just love the song so I’ll sing it. It will take on a shape or other times as I said, I’ll just come up with a piece of music and a song will fit over it or maybe the ways it doesn’t fit are nice and I leave those alone. The main thing is that mystery quality of what is in there, what is confusing, strange, or comforting.
RG: You mentioned the shape a song may take, what was the shape note singing?
SA: The only reason it was called shape note is because it was a way of helping to teach people music by putting the notes into shapes on the score, like the root of the chord is a square and the triangle…But it was used specifically for a kind of choral singing, Sacred Harp music. That’s a tradition of choral singing that started in New England 200 years ago which was pushed West and South and continues in Alabama and Georgia. And now there has been a revival of it since the ‘70s across the country. 200 years ago, the dominating culture, the Puritain culture, was religious. Many of the younger people in that society were bored with the church music because it wasn’t harmonically interesting. But they knew they couldn’t go singing drinking songs or murder ballads because they would be ostracized. So they took the melodies to murder ballads and drinking songs, put religious words in instead, and harmonized it all. That was exciting to them and what’s cool about it is that they were totally untrained musicians. So, the harmonies are really weird and very powerful and strange, and modern and bizarre. It continues as a more religious tradition down South as a Baptist thing but still never in church—it’s a Saturday barbeque kind of thing. In the ‘70s all these hippies got into it ‘cause they saw that it was an early form of intense rebellious weird music. I just love those songs; I grew up singing a lot of them.
RG: And you site Sonny Rollins as an influence and the charge his music has on the body. What does the singing do to your body? You get to some strange pitches and chords.
SA: For me playing fiddle is way more physical. Playing fiddle tunes is like doing tai chi. You know if you go to a Sacred Harp singing you sing loud and it does feel good. It feels really good to sing quietly, I suppose, especially with a microphone which makes it really loud anyway. (laughs)
RG: What do you think the orchestra brings to the work, the story-scape?
SA: Well the orchestrations and arrangements have been done by Nico Muhly. Often I feel that Nico has ideas about what the story really is about. Those might be really different from what my take is like. So it just adds this other dimension that I love. The same has been true working with Shahzad Ismaily, who plays pretty much all the nonorchestral instruments on I See the Sign. Though it’s a little bit different because he’s not thinking in the way Nico is necessarily in terms of narrative, but he is getting into the sound with me in a different way. Collaboration takes it into a different zone which is another element of alien mystery.
RG: It seems like everything is touched by video now. What does video bring to the whole process for you?
SA: I love making videos and I would like to make more. The main connection for me to the videos is the idea of field recordings which captured so much of the personal quality of folk music. It isn’t always performance music. Very often some of the “original versions” of the songs are just sung by a woman while her kids are asleep in the other room. Another element of those folk music recordings that inspires me is that often the musicologists, the people recording the fiddle players or singers, were getting to them way after the music had kind of died out. By definition those musicians were eccentric. I mean these are people who were living in a culture that had been very rich but basically doesn’t exist anymore. So the field recordings have this great element of bizarre insight. You’re kind of inside somebody’s whole personal space that way. The videos for me are like self-inflicted field recordings of myself.
RG: What you just said has me thinking of the early life of the songs you sing and their intention or lack of it, how you said they were never owned. So, it’s like by making field recordings of yourself, you’re tapping into a zone of no intention, which must be really refreshing, maybe it’s similar to that jazz impulse to be free?
SA: That’s absolutely correct. I’ve had a real block about “creating” things new, like composing or writing a song from scratch. Somehow, I have to trick myself towards it by starting from something else or going into a zone of just playing. And somehow the following things all have that sense of flow: playing an old traditional fiddle tune, playing free jazz; pressing record on a video recorder while I’m rowing a boat, and then talking; mumbling things with my eyes closed on a stage at an audience.
RG: What was it like producing? You produced your mom’s album.
SA: That’s true!
RG: Did you produce anything else?
SA: Nope, just my mom’s record. I mean I’ve been involved in the making of a ton of albums through a folk band I had in high school with my friend Thomas and my brother Stefan. So it wasn’t like I was doing something that was that strange to me but it was really wonderful to get her to come out of her comfort zone from what she’d done before and she wanted to. She kept on telling me how happy she was to not have to consult with my dad about material, and I told her to keep me out of the marital disputes. But she did a great job and it’s a beautiful album.
RG: And are you…writing a novel? I saw that on your Twitter page.
SA: I may have claimed that! (laughs) Yeah, I have all kinds of mischievious things going on but we’ll see where those things go. That would be really fun, though I’m reading some novels.
RG: You’ve got Ulysses right here.
SA: Yeah, I picked this up at my grandparent’s house. Good summer read.
RG: And who would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t already?
SA: Um, there’s a couple of people. That might happen, but I might as well keep them a secret because it’s more fun that way. Maybe if Sonny Rollins needs help. Instead of just collaborating, I could help Sonny Rollins—musically help him. But, maybe he doesn’t need help. One of the things that inspires me about him is that, I think, he made a decision 40 years ago to put his personal well-being and happiness above the actual quality of music. He sacrificed his art for his life, which I find to be extremely inspiring. So that could be a goal.
RG: What do you mean?
SA: He just started to suck, but you got the sense that he was sucking because it takes a lot of energy and potentially stress to play with only good musicians, even if they are more difficult people, or to fire somebody ‘cause they are not that good because they are a friend of yours. So he just put all those things aside and he said I’m just going to have an easy-going beautiful life and do a lot of yoga and if my music is terrible that’s okay. So it’s going to be the new thing to get into.
RG: What about your liturgical dancing? How did that come about?
SA: Well, I do love to dance, and I learned how to do that on the beach in Nova Scotia six years ago. One day, when I was living on a little island, I started doing liturgical dance because it was morning time. You have to do a morning dance and an evening dance. The Prodigal Son, for example, is a story that’s been told for many centuries. It seemed like you could describe it in a different way, there’s the words way, and the song way, and the dance way. There’s a lot of different ways to tell stories.