I keep saying that these guys can't get any better, but they somehow do. When I first heard them, I thought they were a cross between the Blue Sky Boys and The Delmore Brothers, two groups which dominated my parents' console when I was a child. The more I listened, the music began to morph and twist and I found myself introduced to a look backward at a discombobulated music scene I thought I knew but had only brushed against, that of what became known as "old-timey." Sure, I knew old-timey, I thought. Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, the Delmores and a whole slew of groups, many of them recorded in makeshift studios or even in the field. Uncle Dave Macon. Sons of the Mountaineers.
In my mind, the music conjured up scenes of backwoods shacks with rickety porches made from rough-hewn lumber which aged before its time. Black and white, they were, or sepia-toned, and reeked of the past—a past I never knew but which I heard about from my father and some of the old loggers who had moved from various areas of the country to my old hometown of Sweet Home for the work. Loggers from Minnesota and Michigan and Arkansas and Georgia. Some talked with accents as thick as the timber they cut and made me laugh at all the wrong times, but there was something that struck a note. Something I could not quite put together.
I remember one night, a living room full of friends and the radio on and everyone singing Goodnight Irene, the men holding up their glasses of whiskey and beer and swaying arms to the music as they sang, the women doing the same with cups of coffee. Oh, the coffee. I listened that night and other nights as the men told tales of the places they had come from and tried to understand, but it is hard for a young boy to capture the scenes painted by those words when all he knows is a warm safe life with family and friends always there. Some of those families had led hard lives and would always look it. But their kids had a chance and that is all they asked.
That is what Morrison and West bring to my mind—thoughts of what was. And hope. A room with an old couch and a few bare-bones chairs and one light bulb hanging from the ceiling by a cord. A guitar and sometimes a banjo or a fiddle. An unbelievable attachment to life and to the music which makes it better.
If you had met some of those old-timers, you would have played hell to find a musical bone in their bodies. When some sang, it was a bullfrog beneath the bare floorboards. But they loved the music. Oh, how they loved it.
I get that when I hear I'll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands. I hear joy and I hear sadness, but mostly I hear reverence. For the past. For those now gone. For the simple things which are not so simple anymore. It makes me want to see weddings and the parties afterward just the way they used to be, to hear the real joy in the voices of the young. To see barns raised. I am getting old, but that's okay. Whereas I don't totally understand some of the pictures painted by these songs, I do understand what lies beneath.
I love Morrison and West's last two albums, The Holy Coming of the Storm and Our Lady of the Tall Trees (here). The titles alone strike a note with me. But I do believe that I like I'll Swing My Hammer even more. Perhaps it has to do with the participation of producer Tim O'Brien, who has championed the old-timey music of old as if it is necessary for life to go on and who shows his expertise and love for the music on every track. Perhaps it is the overwhelming idiocy of what is happening to a country in which I once had faith, the music allowing me escape from those who have not an iota of compassion towards anyone but the like-minded. Perhaps I am just tired.
Whatever it is, I find this album just what I need at this moment in time. Morrison and West are musicians to be treasured. All they ask is that you give them a listen. It is not too much to ask. It is just enough.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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