Friday, February 12, 2016

Apollo’s Fire. Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering.
Avie, 2015.  Apollo’s Fire:

In 2015, Apollo’s Fire released Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering. When I think of Apollo’s Fire, baroque music immediately comes to mind. I was unaware that the group had delved into the folk tradition. The following is a description of this “crossover” tradition from the CD liner notes, which helped me to understand the background of Sugarloaf Mountain:

"Since 1999, Apollo’s Fire have developed a unique ensemble of crossover artists who are steeped in the folk traditions as well as the improvisatory idioms of the 17th and 18th centuries. Exploring British Isles, early American, and Sephardic traditions from a historical perspective, the ensemble strives to break down the modern barrier between art music and popular music to revive the “crossover” spirit of the 17th century, when great composers regularly wrote artful variations on street tunes and tavern songs."

This is their fourth crossover album, with Scarborough Fayre, Come to the River: An Early American Gathering, and Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers preceding this. A new album, Sephardic Journey, is just coming out.

On to the content of Sugarloaf Mountain--a series of ballads and reels brought to the Southern Appalachian region from the British Isles, combined with American minstrel tunes and African American spirituals. And who better to interpret this music than Jeannette Sorrell (having lived in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley from age 14), and Amanda Powell (who lived in the same valley within sight of Sugarloaf Mountain). The musicians, including Sorrell and Powell, play these airs, jigs, reels, ballads, and spirituals on period and folk instruments, including fiddle, wooden flute, pennywhistle, cello, lute, hammered dulcimer, guitar, gourd banjo, long-neck dulcimer, and harpsichord. The music is arranged in sections, invoking first the melancholy and sadness of leaving home (the British Isles), and last the enthusiasm of begging those still in the old country to come to this lovely land. Let me take you on this journey and comment on some of the highlights.

The Prologue. “The Mountains of Rhùm” sets the sorrowful mood of the leavetaking--”how can I leave you, my mountains of Rhùm?” (from the traditional Scottish). Crossing to the New World. “Farewell to Ireland/Highlander’s Farewell” introduces a different atmosphere, with dance music (Irish and Appalachian reels), while “We’ll Rant and We’ll Rave/Farewell to the Isles” is a sea shanty with lovely fiddle and voices filled with false bravado--a looking forward to the shores of America. Dark Mountain Home. “Cruel Sister”--now this is where the Scots-Irish darkness takes hold. In this ballad’s bizarre telling, there are two sisters, the younger of which is courted by a young man. The jealous older sister pushes the younger off the cliff into the sea. The younger sister begs to be saved, but is ignored by the elder. Later, the suitor finds the body, makes a harp of her breastbone, and strings of her yellow hair. He takes the harp to the father’s house, and plays a song. “Hang my auld sister,” it cried. Cruel sister indeed. For me, a dismal story, but beautifully performed.

Cornshuck Party. “Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” is quite vivacious--lots of fiddle, flute pennywhistle--and a great story! I picture Peter Spier’s illustrations in a children’s book of the same name. “Oh Susanna!” is a song most of us will recognize, but do we realize that it’s a minstrel song from 1845, written by one Stephen Foster of Pittsburgh, PA? Love and Loss.  “Once I Had a Sweetheart” is a haunting piece laced with misery, which morphs into “Wayfaring Stranger” by way of a slow fiddle, moaning low and mimicking a spiritual (Kentucky Harmony, 1816). “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” from 1864, is a lovely but mournful solo interwoven with another Southern spiritual, “Go March Along.” Glory on the Mountain. “Glory in the Meeting House” is a lively, upbeat Kentucky fiddle tune accompanied by hammered dulcimer and flute, while “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” a Souther spiritual, is sung by male and female voices. Appalachian Home. In “Sugarloaf Mountain” the contented immigrant tries to convince his love and his family to join him. “Oh, leave our sad island, its troubles unending…. Come to our mountain and stay with me.” (Adapted from the traditional Scottish).

And finally, there is happiness! Interwoven into these appealing vocals are several instrumental interludes, showing the various talents of all the musicians. My absolute favorite is the enchanting hammered dulcimer. Those of us who pay attention to Northeast Ohio traditional music should be humbled by Tina Bergmann’s prowess on this instrument. I remember hearing her way back when she was a teenager at the Cuyahoga Valley Folk Festival, and she was good even then.

I was captivated by everyone on this CD. I now want to go back and listen to Come to the River: An Early American Gathering, from 2010. If you like this traditional vein of music, give this a listen. If not, try it anyway, because you never know.

Personnel:  Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell (harpsichord, direction), Amanda Powell (vocals), Ross Hauck (vocals), Tina Bergmann (hammered dulcimer), Susanna Perry Gilmore (fiddle), Kathie Stewart (wooden flutes), Brian Kay (lute, guitar, banjo, long-neck dulcimer), René Schiffer (cello).
Tracks: Prologue: The Mountains of Rhùm. Crossing to the New World: Farewell to Ireland/Highlander’s Farewell, We’ll Rand and We’ll Roar. Dark Mountain Home: The Cruel Sister, Se Fath mo Buart Ha (The Cause of All My Sorrow), Nottamun Town (Round #1044), Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, I Wonder as I Wander/The Gravel Walk/Over the Isles to America. Cornshuck Party: The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night, Oh Susanna!, Pretty Peg/Far from Home. Love & Loss: Once I Had a Sweetheart, Wayfaring Stranger, Pretty Betty Martin/Katy Did/Red Rockin’ Chair, Just Before the Battle, Mother, Go March Along. Glory on the Mountain: Glory in the Meeting House, Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep. Appalachian Home: Sugarloaf Mountain.

Linda Spear
Jeannette Sorrell