by Devon Leger
Sam Amidon’s new album, Lily-O, dropped in 2014. Again pulling from the deep wells of American ballads, he creates a sparse and haunting landscape for these old songs in new settings. Here are four interview questions I wanted to ask him:
Question 1 - Do you ever worry about the effect your songs will have on others? I once spoke for a long time to a great master musician from Zimbabwe, did you know that when he played the mbira for his class, he knew that there was a very real risk that one child would fall possessed? Did you know that above those children in his classrooms, there were many spirits and some particular children were tied to a particular spirit? Do you see that the music of this man was the connecting point between that one child and that one spirit and that once the spirit was connected to the child, they were bonded for life? Or do you think maybe I got it wrong and that the child was born connected to this spirit and had always been connected and always would be? Do you ever wonder why people in our culture don't talk about these spirits and don't acknowledge them? Does it make sense that they would exist for one culture but not for our own culture? Do you think that there are people among us, maybe close friends of ours, maybe you or me, who are tied to one ancestral spirit but because they never hear the right song, the connection is never known or acknowledged? Would you like to hear the rest of this story? The man who spoke to me got in trouble in Zimbabwe because many of the parents of these children were Christians, and the fact that their child was now inextricably tied to an ancestral spirit meant that their lives had been touched by something much older than Christ. So the man who spoke to me decided to build a new kind of mbira with new, more modern scales. He did this and no child ever fell into possession again because of his music. Do you think that at some point in the history of Irish or Scottish or Appalachian folk song, that someone decided to change the words or change the notes or change the scale or change the lyrics to cut these ties to an ancient world, just like this man did with his mbira music? Do you think that many hundreds of years ago a song like "Lily-O" might have been the gateway to the spirit world? Do you think that the lyrics, which are really very simple and boring, might be a code, or a chain of commands to open a door? Do you think that now the cords have been cut, we might ever be able to go back to this old world? Do you think maybe there's a song out there in an old old book, maybe a book that you've read, that might open these ancient doors again? Do you ever worry about that when you're singing?
Question 2 - Would you consider the folk tradition more of a rabbit hole or an ivory tower?
Question 3 - If it's a rabbit hole, how deep do you think you can tunnel? Do you think there's a limit to how deep this hole goes? Many others have plumbed these depths before, but what if you went deeper than they have? What if you could go so deep into this hole that you were actually transported? Has this happened to you? I mean, what if you searched so long and so hard for meaning in these unknown, foggy songs, pushing aside curtains of mist that almost seem to have physical form, hurrying past echo upon echo of ancient voices, ignoring the lives of entire generations flashing by next to you, that you actually touched through to the other side? What if the world around you started to shimmer, and fell away, and you stepped into the life of another person in another time and became that person with no hope of return? Do you think that's happened before? Maybe we've lost some of our best folklorists and song collectors to this? We don't know what's in these old songs, could there be a cantrip hidden within some of the words, that when said or sung or wished upon in the right manner, your presence in this part of the river of time reaches backwards to touch the original bearer further back down the stream? Do you ever worry about pushing too far and being unable to come back?
Question 4 - If the folk tradition is an ivory tower, how many songs can be stored there, do you think? Is it like Borges' Library of Babel in that its size has no meaning and can encompass all songs ever made and that will be made? Do you think there are librarians that walk in silence under these ancient domes, their breath as still as a sepulcher, their faces half hooded, their arms full of handwritten books that are half-full of spells, half-full of songs, and it's impossible to tell the difference between either, their steps muffled with bound woolen strips, their shadows non-existent for no sun shines into these old halls which radiate forth like re-iterating mirror images unto infinity, but which hold no human warmth? Do you think that angels watch over this library, passing from the firmament into these torch-lit hallways to commit a grand thought of one human being to paper? That they fly in the heavens, listening to our deepest thoughts and hoping for that moment when the spirit bound inside our meat becomes too much for the flesh to contain and something new is said that hasn't ever been said before? Or do you think the tower is finite? That all the songs that will be have already been written and stored away and that the best we can hope for is to echo an earlier grand thought and forget, as all humans forget, that this thought was said before, that we've existed before, that our lives have unwound before, that our loves have loved before, that our deaths have already come to pass a thousand times? Have you read Robert E. Howard's "Tower of the Elephant"? Do you see yourself as a lone warrior scaling the heights of this tower looking to pillage its contents? If all these songs have been sung before and are stored in this tower, would you fight your way to the top to get ahold of them? What would you do with the songs once you'd spirited them forth from the tower? What have you done with the songs you took from this tower? Why did you take these songs?