Corpse Reviver: Culture got a kick in the ass from the Anthology of American Folk Music

Categories: Album Release
Photo by Bryan Aaker

You may have never heard Corpse Reviver, but if you have an interest in traditional or "the old, weird America," there's a good chance you know their songs. Mikkel Beckmen, most often heard performing with Charlie Parr or the Brass Kings, is the group's percussionist. Adam Kiesling sets aside the string bass he plays with Pert Near Sandstone and performs on guitar and banjo. And when not leading her own band, or playing with the Brass Kings or the Brian Just Band, Jillian Rae joins on fiddle. They perform songs from Harry Smith's storied 1952 compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music.

Gimme Noise met with them after a performance at the Turf Club to ask about the Anthology, as enthusiasts know it, and their plans for this side project which has taken on a life of its own.

The group performed a set during Jack Klatt's Monday residency. Many in the crowd surely recognized the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven," and if they had never heard Colley Jones' "Drunkard's Special," it didn't matter. The chemistry between Kiesling and Rae singing a centuries old song about a wife's increasingly absurd excuses for her lover's presence was inspired -- the song the sort of music people have been hearing in bars for generations.

Folks waltzed in front of the stage as Kiesling sang Uncle Eck Dunford's "Old Shoes and Leggings," and later sat quietly captivated during Rae's soaring performance of "The Wagoner's Lad," a ballad first recorded by Buell Kazee in 1928. The range of these two songs, light-hearted one moment and soul-bearing the next, represent the potential of the trio's limited repertoire. Even as lines from either may seem quaint, even queer to turn an old term to its contemporaneous use, this their most recent revival is part of a natural and ongoing tradition.

All three contend the project is hardly as simple as a tribute band. "We bring ourselves into this music - we're links in a chain," says Beckmen, who in his passion for the Anthology and the traditions it documents is the group's spokesman. Usually fluid in his gumby-like percussive work on stage, he becomes more scholarly when discussing the Anthology and it's place in history. "Some of these songs are very old, dated as far back as to the 16th century, to other countries and languages."

"Bringing ourselves into it is the exciting part, because the music becomes new and vibrant. It's not an orthodox conservative things that's boxed in, It's alive."

"My original idea was to produce a single show to celebrate the Anthology," Beckmen continues. "Charlie [Parr] and I talked about it, drawing together some of the people we had been working with. The first idea was to be a loose affiliation of people, with or without an audience, performing the old songs."

"At the same time I was reading Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan journalist who had written a history of the Americas. A central theme was that people need to remember the past in order to move forward, and that those in power want us the people to forget their stories, especially the traditions and songs that tell the struggles of ordinary people. The whole history of the Americas is a battle between those who forget and those who are trying to remember as a people."

Beckmen was naturally drawn to Harry Smith's epic Anthology of American Folk Music, first issued by Folkway Records in 1952 as a series of three double albums. It's 84 tracks, all dating from 1926 to 1932, were culled from Smith's extensive collection of 78rpm records. An unfinished fourth volume was finally released nearly a decade after Smith passed away in the Chelsea Hotel in 1991, expanding the collection by twenty-eight more songs, some from as late as 1947.

The widespread dissemination of music long isolated by ethnicity and economics was a watershed moment in American culture. Smith almost single-handedly inspired the folk boom, a cultural movement that gave rise to artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and re-introduced still-living blue performers such as Mississippi John Hurt, coaxed by a record collector into performing again after decades of farming near his hometown, Avalon.

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