Corpse Reviver is a trio of great local musicians – Adam Kiesling, Mikkel Beckmen and Jillian Rae – and they didn’t get their name from your grandad’s super gross cognac-heavy hangover cure. And they’re not a metal band either, although Corpse Reviver would be a freakin’ sweet name for a metal band. They’ve taken on that name because their sets are derived from the 112 songs on the four volumes of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
Of course, the name suggests the music on Smith’s legendary collection of 78s from the 1920s (primarily) through the early 1940s is dead and forgotten. This was surely the case when the first three volumes were issued by Folkways Records in 1952, but less so today – American roots music is enjoying a healthy renaissance in recent years, and the Twin Cities has been more than welcoming to the trend. Many songs from the period, on and off the Anthology, have been adopted by local artists, and as Corpse Reviver proves, they have a robust relevance still today.
So this awesome trio with ties to so many other other local favorites of ours – including Steve Kaul’s Brass Kings, Pert Near Sandstone, Charlie Parr, the Brian Just Band and the Blackberry Brandy Boys, to name a few – has been folk, blues and country tunes off the Anthology for a while now, and just finished recording an album at Underwood Studio this spring.
They played a set at Trampled by Turtles’ anniversary extravaganza at First Avenue a couple weeks ago, and brought with them a limited, numbered edition (of only twenty-five!) of their not-yet released album, Volume 1: I’ll be Rested When the Roll is Called. You can hear the entire record on their bandcamp page here or by using the handy player below. They are planning a full release of the album for this summer, or perhaps the fall if they decide to press LPs (yes, contact ’em through that Bandcamp page and tell ’em you’d buy an album!).
Mikkel Beckmen was kind enough to bring a couple copies of the disc to the shop, where it has taken up a residency in our CD player. We thought a fun way to introduce the album would be to present it above, and then collect the ten original recordings from the Folkways compilations below.
What is the Anthology of American Folk Music?
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a 1952 compilation album (actually a series of three double LP sets) culled from an incredible stash of shellac collected by Harry Smith. The eighty-four songs split over its six records had been commercially released on 78 rpm discs between 1927 and 1932, but were for all intents lost to the listeners even just two decades later. The range was chosen because it captures music created between the dawn of electronic recording and the substantial dip in country, folk and blues recordings that is caused by the Depression.
Smith is variously described as a Bohemian, an experimental filmmaker, an ethno-musicologist, and an eccentric (and he was all of these things), but his great contribution to the ages was as the coolest record nerd of his generation. Smith amassed blues, folk and country 78s at a time when they were considered worthless relics. Fortunately Folkways founder Moses Asche shared his feeling, and the label issued what is essentially the first and most awesome mixtape anybody ever made. The three sets were originally issued with identical covers – a sixteenth century engraving by Theodore de Bry – but have also appeared with other covers and packaging. Our own collection is on CD and has long since lost it’s original packaging, so all that is left is a series of plain-looking double disc sets.
Original lps are fairly rare these days but the liner notes alone are worth the price of admission – Smith cut and pasted together his elaborate, idiosyncratic notes in a manner equal parts post-modern art and high school fanzine. His synopses for each track are thorough, insightful and witty. In all our years of collecting records we’ve found few examples of better, more compelling liner notes than Smith’s.
The Anthology is credited as the single strongest catalyst of the folk revival that began in the early 60s, making its release a watershed moment in the history of traditional American music. Many musicians who had long ago laid aside their guitars and banjos were re-discovered by enthusiasts after their recordings were heard on the Anthology, most famously Mississippi John Hurt, who’s 1928 recording of “Frankie” was included. Collectors found a 78 of his recording of “Avalon” shortly thereafter, and using its lyric “Avalon, my home town” tracked Hurt down, then give or take seventy years old, near Avalon, Mississippi. He recorded and toured for the remaining three years of his life.
Many musicians were inspired to launch their folk and blues careers by the music on the Anthology, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave van Ronk and others from the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 60s. The music enjoyed an additional revival in the 90s when alt-country bands began to cover the songs – and others from the same time period. One of our favorite bands from that time is Uncle Tupelo, whose recording of “No Depression” by the Carter Family, led that song title to become a sort-lived buzzword for their genre and a healthy antidote to the woeful doom n’ gloom of grunge rock.
A fourth volume of the Anthology was created in collaboration with the Harry Smith Archive in 2000, nine years after his death. It included music from a later period (records from as late as 1940) but followed the original collections’ unique system of organization. Each volume had a distinct theme – the first three were Ballads, Social Music and Songs (usually about everyday subjects). Volume 4 took the theme Labor Songs. It also followed Smith’s correlation of each volume with a classic alchemical element – water, air, fire and earth (volume 4 correlating to earth). Many songs on the fourth volume had already become revived favorites, and others have since. Volume 4 is currently out of print, which is sort of ironic when you think about it.
Corpse Reviver Volume 1: I’ll be Rested When the Roll is Called
For your listening pleasure we have sequenced the ten songs selected by Corpse Reviver in their original form below. The intention isn’t to compare them, but to provide a context and for those unfamiliar with the Anthology of American Folk Music an introduction.
Corpse Reviver have created exciting and new interpretations of each. Adam Kiesling and Jillian Rae perform the topical songs from the fourth volume with humor and warmth, and the ballads are approached with characteristic drive and fervor. Kiesling’s playing throughout is subtle and evocative, just as it had been on his solo album, Unclouded Day, one of our picks for the top 10 albums of 2012. Jillian Rae steals the show in several numbers, including compelling solos in “John Johanna” and “East Virginia.” Our favorite track on the album is “Wagoner’s Lad” in which Kiesling’s clean and sparse banjo picking is matched by Rae’s rich and soulful voice, a perfect combination made all the better by Mikkel Beckmen’s hypnotic rhythm.
Beckmen originally conceived the project, and in tracks like “Wagoner’s Lad” his contribution is quiet but essential. At times his percussion sounds almost like a drum machine, having been expertly recorded and mixed by engineer Mark Stockert. At other times Beckmen strums and picks his washboard with the energy we’ve come to expect from his work with Steve Kaul’s Brass Kings and Charlie Parr. Throughout, I’ll be Rested When the Roll is Called, is one of the most enjoyable percussive albums we’ve heard in a long time.
These original recordings are from our CDs and LPs of the Anthology of American Folk Music. Most are from 1928 to 1932, but a few were recorded a little later. Several may be familiar to you, or contain lines or melodies you recognize from other sources. We hope you enjoy them, as well as the new recordings by Corpse Reviver.
“How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” by Blind Alfred Reed
“Old Shoes and Leggins” by Uncle Eck Dunford
“The Wagoner’s Lad” by Buell Kazee
“My Name is John Johanna” by Kelly Harrell
“Drunkard’s Special” by Coley Jones
“No Depression in Heaven” by the Carter Family
“Country Blues” by Dock Boggs
“East Virginia” by Buell Kazee
“Down on Penny’s Farm” by The Bently Boys
“I’ll be Rested when the Roll is Called” by Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother