When most people think of electronic-pop music, they probably don’t associate it with folk music.
That is not the case for Amelia Meath. The singer-songwriter behind the internationally acclaimed synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso, Meath cut her musical teeth writing and performing sparse, tightly harmonized ballads in the band Mountain Man. In 2011 she offered musician and producer Nick Sanborn of Made of Oak the opportunity to remix the Mountain Man song “Play it Right” with an electronic flair. Three years later, that song, along with nine others penned and recorded as a duo in Sanborn’s Durham apartment, made up Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut.
Meath writes her songs “in the air,” while on walks around her neighborhood. She chooses not to limit her melody building with accompaniment or an existing beat, instead writing hooks and choruses with her voice and building in the instrumentation with Sanborn as the final step – a technique that harkens back to Western North Carolina’s ballad singing tradition. The appetite for the band’s sound is big, and Sylvan Esso has risen to fame with hit songs like “Hey Mami”, “Coffee”, and “Radio.”
“Radio” is perhaps the greatest example of Meath's skill as a melody writer and thoughtful lyricist. The melody sounds conventional, but a closer listen reveals intricate melodic intervals accompanied by a driving and repetitive synth backdrop. The song’s lyrics serve up a harsh criticism of the music industry – attacking consumerism and mocking dated song-length guidelines for pop success in the chorus’ lyrics, “Slave to the radio, three point three oh (3:30).” Her roots in folk music – long recognized as a powerful tool for marginalized voices – are made most apparent when she criticizes the very genre she’s found success in. One can only imagine what Durham’s Amelia Meath has in store for us next.
Nina Simone’s first musical love was Johann Sebastian Bach.
In her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You she noted that Bach “is technically perfect… Each note you play is connected to the next note, and every note has to be executed perfectly or the whole effect is lost. Once I understood Bach’s music I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music.”
In a 1984 interview with Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, Simone recalled her early ambitions to be the first Black classical pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall. In the summer of 1950, when she was 17, her hometown of Tryon, N.C. raised money to help her attend a summer session at the Juilliard School before auditioning for the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia. The trip probably felt like a step towards her dream, but despite what she recalled as a well-received audition, her acceptance was not granted, which Simone credited to the color of her skin. This event not only pushed her to the world of jazz, but also to her work as a major player in the Civil Rights movement.
Simone ultimately did make it to Carnegie, after gaining fame with her version of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” though she remarked in a letter to her parents, “I’m finally in Carnegie Hall, but I’m not playing Bach.” Today she is remembered primarily for her impact on jazz and blues music, but she never did hide her classical training. Her piano prowess stood tall alongside her powerful contralto and political messaging, and her love for Bach is no more evident than in a 1987 performance of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” in Montreux, Switzerland. She abandoned her full band and played an elaborate fugal accompaniment on piano, perfectly blending her lifelong training with her inimitable jazz vocals. Her genius and propensity to push boundaries – musical and cultural – is on full display and encapsulates how intensely she changed the sound of American music forever.
In the world of classical music, bricolage is the name of the game.
A French word and academic theory, bricolage refers to the “construction achieved by using whatever comes to hand.” Classical music has existed for hundreds of years and the exchange, blending, and reimagining of ideas is what drives the genre through its many evolutions. Beethoven borrowed from Mozart’s model for sonatas and string quartets, expanding on his stylings to launch the world into the Romantic era. Stravinsky and Copland borrowed from Russian and American folk music respectively, bringing a populist appeal to what was previously the music of the elite. For Greenville, N.C. native Caroline Shaw, everything from synth-pop to square-dancing have contributed to her sound.
“I don’t really call myself a composer,” she told the New York Times after becoming the youngest recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013. She prefers the title “musician,” which is appropriate given her prowess not only in composition but performing - both as a violinist and a vocalist with her group Roomful of Teeth. The open definition of her craft is what allows her to masterfully combine ideas, sounds and genres, made apparent in her Pulitzer-winning composition Partita for 8 Voices.
Opening the piece with a cacophony of spoken word commands taken straight from a square-dance and finally settling into one triumphant eight-voiced chord, Shaw set out to push the boundaries of what acapella music could be. Inspired equally by Philip Glass, throat singing, and the Baroque works she practiced under North Carolina Award winner Joanne Bath’s Suzuki method classes, Caroline Shaw stitched together a musical quilt that didn’t go unnoticed. She has since been commissioned by orchestras across the globe, scored films, and teamed up with the likes of Kanye West, the National, and tUnE-yArDs, lending her unique blend to the contemporary music world. From Carnegie to Kanye, Caroline Shaw has changed the sound.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and for an early matriarch of American folk music, that sentiment rings true.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1893–1987) was left-handed. Raised in a musical household near current day Carrboro, she gravitated to her brother’s banjo and guitar, which were set-up to be played right-handed.
For most aspiring musicians, that obstacle would have been enough to extinguish the creative flame, but Libba played on, developing an unconventional style now known to the world as “Cotten Picking.” Playing the lower strings with her index finger and the higher strings with her thumb established a unique sound, placing more emphasis on the bass lines and effectively serving as her own accompanist when playing.
By working odd jobs around town – picking vegetables, sweeping porches, and setting fires in wood stoves – Cotten eventually saved up the $3.75 needed to buy her first guitar, a Stella from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. It was on that guitar that she wrote “Freight Train,” her most famous song. “Freight Train” was popularized in the 1950s thanks to recordings done by the Seeger family, who Elizabeth Cotten worked for as a maid, launching the 60-something songwriter to newfound fame in the folk revival movement.
“Freight Train” has been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Doc Watson, and Taj Mahal. Cotten’s debut album Folksongs & Instrumentals with Guitar (1958) is credited as one of the most influential folk albums of all time. Often imitated, but never replicated, Libba Cotten and her “Cotten Picking” changed the sound forever.
-Story by Samuel Gerweck