Folk festival uproots tunes from Appalachia to Asia

By Isaac Wolf

Step back 200 hundred years in Appalachia to meet Abner Vance. Red with rage, Vance demanded revenge after a neighbor stole his daughter’s virtue. Vance was a hunter or preacher or both, depending on who tells the lore. He had a verbal altercation with the neighbor, Lewis Horton. And then, unsatisfied, Vance did what any self-respecting 19th-century Appalachian hunter/preacher would do: He aimed his shotgun squarely at Horton for “suiting her wrong” and squeezed the trigger.

Apprehended and sentenced to death, Vance composed a poem during his two years in jail. He was often heard singing it. Like any great death-row hymn, it had pizzazz. It became a mainstay through the backwoods of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. In his poem, Vance describes the injustice of his trial, explaining how the slain family lied to convict him. Vance opines on his forced separation from his wife, who was also considered a prime suspect in the murder but not convicted.

Steeped with illusions of the afterlife, “Vance Song” accentuates its religious tone through a dirge-like tempo. “Vance no more on Sandy behold/ Nor drink its crystal waves/ The partial judge announced his doom/ The hunters found his grave/ Farewell, farewell, my old sweetheart/ Your face I’ll see no more/ I’ll meet you in the world above/ Where parting is no more.”

Sung slowly, solemnly and without the trademark fiddle snuggled into his neck, Bruce Green’s performance of “Vance Song,” with Loy McWhirter, highlighted this year’s folk festival. It’s without irony that their instrument-free performance topped a weekend filled with superlative combinations of fiddle, accordion, bagpipe and drums. Performing a song passed down verbally for two hundred years, Green and McWhirter conveyed beautifully the difficult life of times past.

“Folk music” is an overly broad term. It describes any region’s idiosyncratic character or a culture that dominant society has not appropriated. The Folklore Society, which sponsored last weekend’s events, has in the past featured music from around the world, including Asian, Native American, and cowboy tunes. With “folk music” defined so broadly—it seems anything not broadcast on MTV could fit the bill—Green and McWhirter’s “Vance Song” carried extra beauty in its simplicity.

This year’s festival was less a concert than a geographical tour. It took listeners on a trek from Scotland to Appalachia to the Deep South to Spain and through Ireland. At the Saturday night session, each musician had less than half an hour to perform, and some sets felt rushed. Barely warmed up by the time they had to stop, most groups could have stood alone as an entire performance.

Séamus Connolly fiddled ferociously, bringing Ireland to Mandel Hall. He opened with a slip jig, an Irish step dance. He later played with a pianist, and he invited a violinist onstage for a duet. Connolly, a champion in competitive fiddling circles and an artist-in-residence at Boston College, created a dulcet sound unrivaled by anyone else who took the stage.

The Pine Leaf Boys, a Creole and Cajun group from Lafayette, Louisiana, added a welcome French influence to the festival. Wilson Savoy’s accordion combined mellifluously with Cedric Watson’s fiddle. Along with the instruments, Watson sang in either Creole or Cajun, though I couldn’t tell which—my Louisiana dialects have fallen out of use in recent months.

To be sure, the Pine Leaf Boys were not the only group muttering indecipherably. Nancy Sluys and Friends won the award for least understandable lyrics, though Sluys’s banjo performance made me consider taking up the instrument.

One musician who did not have trouble belting out lyrics was Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, who could have been playing across Hyde Park at the Checkerboard Lounge. Dolled up in a purple suit, a green Fedora, and a gold necklace, Belfour sang as he rocked back and forth in his seat. Each of Belfour’s songs had bass lines so strong that they would invariably push Belfour into the rhythm.

During the Pine Leaf Boys’ performance, Savoy coaxed the audience out of their seats. “It was 75 degrees when we left,” Savoy said. “It’s a lot colder here. There’s a lot of ice to break in Chicago.” The audience broke into dance, climbing onto the stage’s wings and moving to Savoy’s sweet accordion.