Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Josephine Foster and a way with songs

Last week, Josephine Foster spent several days in Nashville, playing a show at Angle of View, an in-store at Grimey’s, and recording with the Cherry Blossoms. I’m not sure where she and the Cherry Blossoms first crossed paths, but they’ve known each other long enough for her to give them an acknowledgment in her new recording and she covered a CB song for a disc going out with a magazine (I think).

She makes sense with the CBs, or vice versa. She sings in a quaint, quavery voice that could have come straight out of the Folk Revival. The 60s translation of folk music is the real reference point, not Alan Lomax field recordings of crofters or miners. Her voice and songs are polished, and reflects too much other listening. But at this point, the early 60s culture and its optimism are like a distant past, and contrast deeply with the brutality of attitudes and forces that govern now. Rather than go back to some notion of a pre-commercial Eden, we can get plenty of mileage from reconnecting to a fairly commercial recent past that offers compelling suggestions of alternate paths not chosen or lost.

Josephine’s songs have a patient pace. They never rush, and in performance you notice her willingness to let a phrase break into silence, hang there a moment, and then pick up the next few notes. This patience and ability to bring music down to these calm, motionless points marks much great music. It is a quality that abounds in Christina Carter and Charalambides, who are one of my touchstones for a perfectly formed and spiritually intense expression in sound. My friend Susan Alcorn, who does miraculous things with the pedal steel guitar, describes this quality so well when she says that “music should reflect a kind of ‘suchness’ or stillness of reality.”

One thing that struck me hearing her live is that her voice is richer and fuller than on the recordings I’ve heard. Part of this contrast comes from listening to the recordings on poor playback devices, and also the effect of digital translation on a high voice. I’ve had a similar experience listening to Joan Baez. When I first picked up one of the early Baez Vanguard recordings on CD, I thought there must have been a mistake, it sounded so different from the sound I remembered on LPs. I’m not very sensitive to fine points of audio fidelity, but I could hear the digital coldness there. I think the same thing happens for Josephine, and she’s got the new release out on vinyl and that’s probably the way to hear it. Hearing her live, I kept recalling the sonic image of early Joan Baez – a high voice, sometimes quivering, with a crystalline quality. And this was just one more way her performance called up associations with the 60s.

I’ve been listening to the first song on the CD closely, “The Siren’s Admonition.” Like the pentatonic melody of many Anglo-Celtic songs, it is ambiguous whether it’s in a major key or mixolydian mode (the 7th shifts between the natural and flat). It also does something I know I’ve come across in old songs and ballads, which is to modulate temporarily towards the end of a phrase and come back home at the end. The first phrase modulates either a half-step or tritone away from the home key – lots of sharps all the sudden – and then back, and the second phrase ends with a bit that I think is a minor third up. The modulation in the first phrase seems to destabilize the tune briefly, but the second one grounds things more firmly to my ears. All of this is to say that the song is thoroughly drenched in the spirit of primordial Western songs without sounding like a historical reenactment. It’s a matter of absorbing a language, music’s grammar, not trying to copy its surfaces. The balance and the transitions work so well that she must have heard each shift – it is hard to imagine choosing them through an analytical process.

I haven’t listened carefully to all the lyrics yet, but there’s a similar process of absorbing and interweaving the vocabulary of older material with new expression. She uses archaic language, like “Wherefore hide your fleeting pearls,” and phrases echoing the language of old hymns. Like the old songs, she will take a traditional formula like “Hush little baby don’t say a word” but combine it with new things to take the entire lyric in a new direction.

Even without breaking down the songs like this, the thing about Josephine Foster is that this quality of something simultaneously familiar and strange strikes you strongly and intuitively, and even when you do look at the details you aren’t going to put your finger on where it comes from and how it happens.

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