Sensitive crafting of original folk for a new generation.
At first glance the appeal of an album of reworked traditional music might be limited only to the folk purist. But if applied to this second release from Oregon based duo Fellow Pynins, that would be to miss the lifeblood of music that comes from the continual adaptation of old songs for another generation. Fellow Pynins are Dani Aubert, who plays clawhammer banjo and bouzouki, and guitar and mandolinist Ian George. In making ‘Lady Mondegreen’ their aim was to pass on to a contemporary audience musical customs crafted by previous generations. Though simple in intention, to succeed in making ballads originating from Europe, the British Isles and Ireland accessible and relevant today is a demanding. This is a well-travelled road littered with many crashed new versions but ‘Lady Mondegreen’ reaches its destination with ease. All eight songs are infused with the sparse playing, atmospheric vocals with harmonies that shimmer in fables of mystery, love and grief. Regardless of origin each song is invigorated with the affection and care that Aubert and George, ably assisted by several others, put into their interpretations.
The travelling theme is not only metaphoric but literal as ‘Lady Mondegreen’ is the product of Aubert and George’s extensive travels throughout North America and Europe in their camper van ‘Big Blue’. In keeping with tradition they learned these songs from people they met on the way. If the connection between their music and their wanderings appears serendipitous Fellow Pynins also possess but the determination that motivated their pioneering antecedents. As George sums up, “we had two kids, built a house from scratch, moved a few times, grew gardens, lost a few friends and relatives, watched our valley burn down, lived through a pandemic and traveled a ton”.
Gentle clawhammer and acoustic guitar introduce Aubert’s warm, longing vocal on opener ‘Silver Dagger’. Pure Appalachia from the back porch, this interpretation came about as she got back into playing after having her baby. Like the newborn there is an innocent wonder enhanced by George’s open tuned guitar. Anything is possible.
From the new to the old world George sings lead on ‘The Road & the Miles to Dundee’ with Aubert joining in on their lilting harmonies before taking over. It is not hard to imagine them around the fire first learning then adding their take on this beautiful ballad as “Cold winter was howlin’ o’er moorland and mountain”. Turning south to the English folk tradition ‘Bonny at Morn’ Aubert laments the perils of being ‘Thou’s ower lang in thy bed Bonny at morn’. Danny Diamond’s viotrumpet haunts. The language may be arcane but the messages do not lose their potency. Their stark yet welcoming sound beckons the listener towards the story.
Fellow Pynins do not limit their reinterpreting to arrangements, they are not afraid to alter the story either. ‘Pretty Polly’ was originally a ‘murder ballad’ that saw the end of Polly at the hands of her husband Willy. Aubert and George turn it into a tribute to the lives and dignity of migrant workers. Polly and Willy settle down, have a family and work the land. Here is a perfect example of adapting an old song for more recent times (following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie whose ‘Pastures of Plenty’ has the same tune) while preserving the song’s authenticity.
Aubert and George’s American interpretation of ‘Streets of Derry’ serves as a stark reminder of why so many left Ireland for a better life. Theirs is every bit as melancholic as so many other versions, the spacing adding to the sense of hopelessness.
The drone that opens ‘She’s Like the Swallow’ sets a scene of apprehension that passes through loss, catharsis and acceptance. The horns that might sound out of place among such intimacy remain for ‘Son David’, so ethereal that you almost think you have imagined this sonic muse. A little chat before Aubert begins ‘The Galway Shawl’ gives an insight into how they learn these songs. Building up a gentle strum, other voices join in as the song develops from solo into harmonies laden with sadness as, “Said she goodbye sir, she cried and kissed me/ But my heart remains with, with the Galway shawl”.
The term “mondegreen,” was writer Sylvia Wright’s idea in 1954 to mean a creative mishearing of a line in a song or a poem. Fellow Pynins apply that to rework a whole collection of songs without losing their original character. Their efforts preserve a storytelling tradition should appeal to anyone interested in the roots of Americana.