Interview and story by Don Wilcock
The Canadian group Sheesham & Lotus & Son – playing at the Old Songs Festival this weekend at the Altamont Fairgrounds – describe themselves as “at once ancient and refreshingly new.” They dress old timey and play fiddle tunes, ragtime, good-time blues and use old time vocal harmony applying “old techniques and new sonic ideas presented to the audience in a bombastic and friendly fashion.”
I can remember as a college student during the ’60s “folk scare” being totally put off by the movement’s reticence to accept fresh ideas for music that at the time was slavishly copying decades-old songs and resisting new technology and even original songs. Dylan’s going electric and San Francisco going psychedelic pushed the academic attitude off the table, and today anything goes. Sheesham & Lotus & Son are a Canadian group that, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, are revising a style of music popular in the ’20s and ’30s that largely has been forgotten with the revisionist popularity of delta blues and modern folk idioms.
As Sheesham Crow explains it, there is no utility in resisting a euphonium or trumpet in an old timey band. “If I walked across the holler, and I happen to bring an accordion, (my friend) wouldn’t say, ‘Wow, I’m playing old time. You can’t play that accordion.’”
“The thing that bugs me is the gentrification of old time music. You can lose some of that crusty, wild energy that comes from the real old time music.”
Q: I think that’s why, when I was I school, I veered off from folk into the delta blues, because they didn’t seem to have that prejudice.
A: Yeah, the delta blues and early ’20s blues was kind of in the middle between jazz and old time fiddle music. They really occupied this funny ragtime place that was loose and fun, and anybody could walk up and play along if you just sort of knew your way around.
Q: You can hear it if you listen to the lyrics back then, too. Talk about lack of gentrification.
A: Yeah, oh, yeah. It’s great. The thing is there are so many things that people would sing in such a simple way. It’s really tricky to write as people would sing back then because they would say things that appeal still to people now about government, politics, environment, labor. All those things would be in such a simple song, a simple blues or simple early raggy folk blues.
We do a lot of children’s entertainment. I call it an educational program. It’s called “Old Time Ways,” and what we do is go into the school and just play – like, we do it for kindergarten right up to university – and it appeals to all of them. We don’t change anything about the show, and we keep a lot of humor in there, and the little kids get some of the humor, and the grown-up university students get the other parts of the humor. It appeals to all of them.
Q: It’s like Rocky the Flying Squirrel. It was supposed to be for kids, but the humor was about 60% adult.
A: Yeah, yeah. So the idea is that it’s for everyone. It’s acoustic music and requires no batteries. Another point is to write about current issues and feelings that I find really difficult to say in a way when you’re speaking directly. It’s more metaphor and simple poetry. The things they were writing about in the ’20s and ’30s were so poetically written and so simple that you can apply it to any time period and find something that it represents. I can write tunes, but for writing lyrics, I find it tricky to be as simple and as poetic as can be because it’s really difficult to do that.
It’s easy to write stuff that simply knocks people over the head with a two by four, but it doesn’t appeal to me. So I want to be able to say the things I want to say, but without having them too pointed, but also having them painted in a totally poetic way where people get it, and they go, “Oh, that applies to this.” The other thing is, I guess for people in Canada there’s this huge thing – and probably down there, too – but up here we have this thing where you have to write original material.
Q: Well, do you sing anything of your own?
A: We have a few things. We play a lot of tunes that we write, but our job as traditional musicians is to keep singing other people’s songs because they’re important and they’re dead. So they can’t sing them. It’s a huge responsibility to maintain this, and, yes, you can listen to it on a record, and sure, you can go to the Smithsonian and listen to the archives or the Library of Congress or whatever, but 80%, 90% of the population up here has never ever heard of the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress. So, if you said, “Oh, the Lomax Collection,” some people know, but they’re not going to find the stuff. It’s still a total mystery, and people think that half the stuff we sing is our own in spite of the fact we say, “This is from 1933.” I find it really frustrating that there’s this bent in Canada to come up with original material all the time.
The fact is, we don’t make bluegrass music, and we don’t make great old time fiddle and banjo music all the time. We do tour, and we do dance tours, but we’re sort of filling a small pocket. There aren’t many people in this pocket with us.
We do play some blues festivals up here, and we apply for them, but half the time they say, “Well, you’re kind of an old timey band.” I say, “Yeah, but if you listen through, we play a pile of harmonica rags and all kinds of stuff. They either get it, or they don’t ’cause they’re looking for Chicago style blues or that kind of thing. Anyway, I just always love the fact that there’s a place for us to be that’s not really occupied by many people. It opens up a whole world of possibilities.
Like playing the fiddle… When you listen to Big Bill Broonzy rippin’ on a fiddle on his records, it sounds like an electric guitar. You hear all these Jimi Hendrix kind of licks. It’s killer. People have just forgotten that, and there aren’t a lot of people doing that today. It’s just a thing where you have to say, “Hey, check this out. Don’t forget that before the electric guitar came about, there was this slidey, crazy way of playing the fiddle. You can distort it like mad without any kind of electricity or anything and just get sounds out of it that’s like nothing else.”
Q: I like the complete change of mindset in my lifetime from the anal obsession with copying old folk songs to what you’re doing.
A: In your lifetime, too. You’ve been writing longer than I’ve been alive. (He’s 41.)
Q: I’ve been a published writer since 1969, and I’m still excited about it.
Q: Because the older I get, the less pretense I have.
A: Cool, yeah.
Q: I’m not trying to be cool. I’m trying to be honest.
A: Yeah, that’s the thing, too, age! That’s the thing. The honesty is in music now again. Honesty in the new meeting the old, and an honest take on the music they love to hear and make and the genuine honest reactions that we get from our music. When we play on the street, everybody reacts in usually a positive way. We get everybody – rockers, punk rockers, total emo, whatever they’re called. No matter who, everybody stops and goes, “You guys, that’s really something I’ve never heard.” So often people come to the shows, and they say, “You know, if somebody had told me we’re gonna go see this old timey band, I probably wouldn’t have come.” Or they see us and say, “I didn’t realize I love this music so much.” I say, “Well, great, our pleasure.”
Q: You’re playing the Old Songs Festival on the Friday night (June 28) concert. What will we hear?
A: Well, we do a lot of singing through old horns and stuff. We sing through this old radio horn called the sepiaphonic monophone, and it takes our two voices and condenses them into one beautiful mono sound. It gives it that tinny ring. Because we play a lot at outdoor festivals, and we try to play acoustically as much as possible, we use horns to amplify our harmonica and our voices and everything, and it not only gives it that sort of authentic old time sound, but it amplifies it at the same time, but with sort of taking out the bottom end a little bit, which adds a whole theatrical side to things. We have to keep moving around to this horn and re-configurate. I think that must be really appealing to people because we move around.
Sheesham & Lotus & Son will be performing throughout the weekend at the Old Songs Festival at the Altamont Fairgrounds in Altamont. They’ll be featured in the Friday night (June 28) main stage concert, as well as a concert at 4:15pm on Saturday (June 29). They’ll perform “Old Time Ways” at 12noon on Sunday (June 30), in addition to participating in a number of workshops and other presentations throughout the festival. The festival gets underway with classes and workshops at 3pm on Friday, followed by the main stage concert at 6:30pm. GO HERE for more info and the line-ups for the main stage performances…