Story by Jared Davidson, Photo By Christina Kiffney
Folk music is often nostalgic, ringing with echoes of a bygone era. Its lyrics can be an exercise in recalling—remembering lost love, missing an old home, or eulogizing a departed friend. This can be true of other genres, but folk music’s connection to the past is at its core: the music itself, the harmonies, the chords and the song structure, is built on a tradition that stretches back generations. Every folk song recalls that tradition, some more explicitly than others.
On Wednesday night, banjoist Jayme Stone showed just how explicit that connection could be with an intimate show at the NAC’s Fourth Stage, as part of NAC Presents. Stone and company were performing music from Stone’s Lomax Project, which fully embraces the nostalgia of folk music. The project uses the work of Alan Lomax as a conduit to nearly a century of folk music traditions that span the North American continent and much of the rest of the world.
Alan Lomax was an archivist and folklorian who began his career working for the Library of Congress as a sound collector. He became fascinated by folk songs, and recorded thousands of people performing the music upon which they had been raised. The result was an enormous archive of music and stories that anyone can access. The archive has proved an excellent resource for artists like Jay Z, who have used Lomax’s recordings to create hit songs.
Stone’s approach has been different. Stone, in collaboration with some very talented musicians, has selected parts of Alan Lomax’s and brought them to life with new arrangements and with a clear love for the original material. The result is a recording titled Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, which features beautiful renditions of “Shenandoah,” “Lazy John,” and “Goodbye Old Paint,” as well as many other lesser known folk tunes from Lomax’s archive.
Those in attendance on Wednesday night will know just how intimate, how personal they have managed to make these songs. Coupled with Stone’s occasional scene-setting, the music was powerfully evocative of a place and a time. These were songs of the land being sung, and though they have been adapted, the heart of each tune was the same.
A perfect example is “Goodbye Old Paint,” which I have had in my head ever since the show. The version that Lomax recorded features a very different rendering of the line “I’m leaving Cheyenne,” but the one sung on Wednesday by Moira Smiley, brings a deeper sense of longing and trepidation to the song. And their version of “Shenandoah,” which can be heard above, is breathtaking.
Wednesday’s concert was one of those rare ones where everyone in the room seems to understand that they’re witnessing something special. It’s a shared enjoyment that is, I think, the goal of music, and folk music especially. As if to compound that feeling, the night ended with three sing alongs of songs like “I Want to Hear Somebody Pray.” The NAC’s Fourth Stage is brilliant for that. For hardcore folkies or casual folks both, this was a night that will likely stand out as one of the better concerts of 2016, replete with incredible performances from Stone, Smiley on accordion and vocals, Sumaia Jackson on the fiddle and Joe Philips on bass. All of the artist involved have created a project that pays beautiful tribute to Lomax and to folk music as a whole.