By Daniel Neely
One of the interesting things about traditional music is that despite the shared repertory of tunes and songs, there exists a great deal of variation that makes different places sound distinctive and interesting.
It’s something that isn’t hard to hear and there seem to be myriad examples of books, manuscript collections, and recordings that celebrate this idea.
One excellent (and perhaps oft-overlooked) example of this in practice are songsters. Songsters are small, ephemeral booklets that were commonly published in the 19th century. Narrow in scope, they contained songs that might focus on a popular subject, such as ethnic humor, renowned songwriters, a particular political party and the like. They’re brilliant little windows into other worlds and times that had interests and values that could be quite different from those of today.
Recently, two Rhode Island based musicians, Benedict Gagliardi and Armand Aromin, borrowed this old fashioned concept to compile “The Ocean State Songster: A Sampling of Old Songs, Broadside Ballads, & Folk Tunes From and About Rhode Island & Providence Plantations.” Like McElwain’s album above, it’s a studied celebration of place in written form. Wonderfully curated and beautifully presented, it’s a work that merits serious attention from singers and song collectors.
Aromin and Gagliardi are multi-instrumentalists based in Rhode Island. I know Aromin primarily as a fiddle player, with his own full service lutherie practice (in addition to a repairman he’s also a very fine builder, see his work at www.arominviolins.com), and Gagliardi as a concertina player, but both play a variety of instruments. Both are also wonderful singers and inveterate song and tune collectors, and they perform as a duo called the Vox Hunters, which plays at folks and Irish festivals throughout New England.
The collection, as they write in the foreword, “contain folk songs of Rhode Island historical relevance or authorship, broadside ballads with local connections, orally transmitted ‘family songs’ and migrant ballad variants collected in the state; and additionally, dance music, fiddle and fife tunes, and other instrumental ditties and compositions that might do well in a folk repertoire.”
The book arranges this material into three song sections – “Old Songs of Local Relevance,” “Migrant Songs & Local Ballad Variants” and “Broadside Ballads & Other Songs of Rhode Island Authorship” – and a section that contains 27 related tunes. The material here is interesting and all the songs have a very “New Englandy” feel to me, as one might expect. In addition, there are is two sections, one for the songs, one for the tunes, that contain well written and soundly researched descriptions of all the volume’s contents.
There is a lot of interesting material here and the effort Aromin & Gagliardi have made to bring it to contemporary light is admirable. I particularly appreciate their “faithfully interpretive” approach in regard to how they’ve presented the songs. The minor liberties they’ve taken with words and melodies not only facilitate ease of interpretation, but they make the songs and tunes more appropriate to modern contexts. That they encourage those who would perform them to also be creative with their interpretations is commendable.
A window into Rhode Island’s history through music and song, “The Ocean State Songster” is an excellent little volume that plumbs the historical depths of old New England. It reminds me of books like Cazden, Haufrecht, and Studer's “Folk Songs of the Catskills” and Phillips Barry’s “The Maine Woods Songster,” and even of albums like Brian Miller’s “Minnesota Lumberjack Songs” and “The Falling of the Pine” in how it celebrates American folklife from a musical point of view. The songster will appeal to singers looking for new repertory and should be in the collection of anyone who feels passionately about Rhode Island. Also: I’m not sure I’ll ever have reason to mention the show “Family Guy” again in this column, but if Seth MacFarlane doesn’t make it a point to reference “The Ocean State Songster” his popular television show some day, he just isn’t doing his Rhode Island due diligence. (I mean, song #3 in the collection, “Narragansett Clams,” is literally about quahogs.) It’d be a great thing to see.
For more information about the songster, visit www.thevoxhunters.com. There, readers can buy the book, but also become acquainted with the Vox Hunters’s recording. In addition, there is also find a “contact” link, should anyone with Rhode Island-specific songs and tunes wish to submit them to the compilers for consideration in future volumes.