The Roots And Branches Of American Music
[Les Cousins LC010 (2009)]
The cover of Duck Baker’s new CD overtly suggests his operative thesis: it shows a large tree with branches spreading in all directions (and its roots doing the same). The branches cross and re-cross each other in silhouette against the sky. Baker’s liner notes make clear that he is a musical syncretist: he believes that all vernacular music forms contribute to each other.
According to Baker, “Whistling Rufus” was originally a ragtime tune (composed by Kerry Mills), but was absorbed into the old-time fiddling repertoire and adopted by Scottish accordion players. Doc Watson then turned it into a flatpicking tune. Baker restores the original ragtime arrangement.
Baker writes that he never understood why Watson should be considered as somehow separate from, say, Skip James, but the only tune he presents that overtly crosses the color line is “Somewhere Around a Throne,” which he describes as a “little known” spiritual based on a “well known” shape note song, “Parting Friends.” This jibes with what academic syncretists are often looking for. The frequently cited examples are the influence of African-American syncopation on Appalachian fiddling and the European melodic sense on the blues.
The fingerstyle guitarist has long been known for his wide-ranging interests in music, but he has previously demonstrated it largely by accumulating an impressively disparate series of successive collaborators, ranging from Stefan Grossman to Eugene Chadbourne, and recordings focused on everything from Celtic music to free jazz.
On Roots and Branches, Baker has decided to sample from all his musical interests and put them side by side. In going from “Chief O’Neill’s Favorite Hornpipe” to “Souareba” (by Malian singer-songwriter Salif Keita) to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Baker seems to be saying, “OK, here’s Europe, and here’s Africa, and this is what you get when you blend the two.”
Thelonius Monk’s “Blue Monk” is a piece of art music growing out of blues and gospel like an offsshoot laden with exotic flowers springing from the trunk of a magnolia. Baker’s approach to this complex and unorthodox tune makes you acutely aware of his skill at voicing each note. Under Baker’s fingers, notes have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is also apparent in the very different “Mother Ann’s Song,” a Shaker composition in which Baker sustains notes just so. Many roots, many branches, all treated with reverence by a master guitarist.
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)
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