Tim Eriksen - Josh Billings Voyage
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Imagined Communities, Real Mice:
Like the quiet disturbance of mice in an old house, far-flung connections are everywhere, even in the remotest village—and have subtly changed the nature of music. For singer, composer, and thoughtful listener to tradition, Tim Eriksen, these bits and pieces are not curiosities, but part of a net of lived experience that defies time and geographic distance, that unites the hills of Western Massachusetts with the shores of Madras and Zanzibar.
On Josh Billings Voyage, Eriksen transforms global fragments into a tale of an imaginary town, told with a keen emotional edge. The melody from the subcontinent now sung at the back of the school bus (“Hindoo Air”), the hit penned by 18th-century Native American college buddies (“When Shall We All Meet Again”), the peculiar scratchings in the margins of old books all serve to tell a story that has fascinated Eriksen since childhood: how the past and what seems “elsewhere” resonate here, right now, in this small place.
“I’ve been fascinated by the presence of the world in every place, and the presence of every place in the world. The influence of travel and contact on music in small places,” Eriksen explains. “When people talk about traditional music or folk songs, they often imply isolation. But even in the smallest places, travel has more to do with how music develops than isolation does. By making this sideways, half-told story, I can get at a number of things by implication, that take me hours to say in complete sentences.”
To tell this story, the story of the New England village of Pumpkintown, Eriksen draws subtly on decades of intensive study of the South Indian veena and its repertoire, on years of wrangling with the difficult but rewarding bajo sexto, and on a lifetime of singing deeply rooted, highly emotional traditional ballads. In Pumpkintown, young men set out on journeys over the sea, people live and love and die and dance, and the graveyard and hills mark time.
“It struck me early on that ‘Yankee’ culture has always been deeply multicultural, in ways that may not be as obvious as the kinds of hyphenated multiculturalism that is most often talked about,” Eriksen reflects. “It's the kind of multiculturalism that's invisible if you don’t recognize the distinctions or sources of influence.”
One of Eriksen’s originals on Voyage, “The Mice,” is as unexpected, as rife with twists and turns as the song’s singing, baffling heroes. While living in an 18th-century house in New Hampshire, Eriksen had repeated, strange run-ins with the ingenious mice who filtered into the house, into the car’s glove box, even into a boom box.
“I found a mouse nest in my stereo speaker. Sometime later I was dubbing a tape, forgot about it, and eventually noticed a barely audible, high pitched singing in the next room. Every hair stood on end, because I really believed that the mice were singing,” recounts Eriksen. “I was shocked what I was capable of believing, even for three seconds. The song speaks to those things, to the presences and beliefs and our attempts to understand what’s going on—and our failures to do so. Mice mess with our heads. They reveal our insecurity and doubt.”
Eriksen has the same uncanny ability to quietly shift listeners’ worlds, while remaining strikingly grounded as a composer and performer. He is perhaps the only musician to share the stage with both Kurt Cobain and Doc Watson. He made extensive contributions to Anthony Minghella's 2004 Oscar-winning film Cold Mountain and was nominated for two Grammys for his 2009 album Across the Divide with Afro-Cuban world-jazz pianist Omar Sosa. Like Josh Billings, Eriksen has traveled and explored: he spent time learning music in India, singing and teaching shape-note singing, performing Bosnian and East African music, picking up unexpected instruments and mastering them.
One of these is the bajo sexto, a tough beast of a twelve-stringed acoustic bass guitar central to bands in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. It intrigued Eriksen because it worked so perfectly with his powerful, resonant voice. But in the tunings he found most useful, “it was a pain to play.” So Eriksen spent several years trying different songs and approaches until he got what he wanted.
“I did it intuitively over a long period of time, and I hammered away until I found something that flowed. There weren’t too many rules.I wanted Josh Billings Voyage to be about New England. And I wanted it to be bajo sexto driven, because I’m sick of the acoustic guitar,” Eriksen laughs. “This album is for me largely about the joy of surprise and gift giving, of finding unexpected and often strange delight in humble places: the attic, the woods, the beach, the dumpster.”
The often serendipitous instrumental innovation—bowed glockenspiels and bowed banjos (“Every Day is Three”), bamboo “fifes” (the stunning, South Indian-inflected “How Come that Blood”) and plastic tambourines rescued from attics—all serve to highlight the complexity and beauty hidden in some of America’s potent hymns, tunes, and ballads.
“Gabriel’s Trumpet” hints at the deep West African roots in many New England hymns, born when black and white believers mingled at camp revivals and as part of the major religious movements that rocked 19th-century America. “Hindoo Air,” published by a returned missionary who claimed to have overheard it in South India, has morphed into other, surprising forms, familiar to any kid who rode the bus (and anyone who recalls the 1980s Slade hit, “Run Runaway”). The stately, moving “When Shall We Meet Again” was supposedly written by three early Native American graduates of Dartmouth College.
Like the songs, the towns where people sang and played them have a multifaceted past, one lost to many 21st-century observers. “Many of the towns here in Western Massachusetts were much more ethnically diverse in the 17th to 19th centuries than they are now,” Eriksen notes. ”The town of Northampton, for instance, was for more than a century a very hybrid Native American-Anglo culture with influences from a fair number of Africans, French and others. Deerfield, which is now almost entirely white, had sizable Native and African American populations until the 20th century.”
These historical contours and connections, however, are only part of the power of Eriksen’s work. His sense of place—evoked by the sound of spring peepers, the rippling of water—is intertwined with his knack for finding the emotional center of songs, even ones that appear as worn as “Old Lang Syne” (which Eriksen renders in raucous form on “Song of the Old Folks”). Lovers parting and reuniting, the promise of redemption and adventure all vibrate with a life rarely rendered by contemporary folk performers.
“The album is mostly traditional folk songs, New England songs from a fictional village,” muses Eriksen. “This village has been an important organizing principle for me, but the anguish and parting and frolic are real. The mice are real. That may be the most important thing. The sorrow and the parting and the mice.”
-Rock Paper Scissors press release