The Lost Forty's "The Lonesome Hours of Winter" can trace its roots to Adventure magazine's 1920s column “Old Songs That Men Have Sung.”
By Daniel Neely
Happy New Year, everyone! With Christmas over it’s time to return to more elective fare, and this week I’ve got something really great in the player, the Lost Forty’s new album “The Lonesome Hours of Winter.” Inspired by 1920s field recordings of Minnesota-based traditional singers, the collection features gorgeous songs and really wonderful research that lovers of Irish music – and folk music more broadly – will undoubtedly enjoy very much.
The Lost Forty are Brian Miller (vocals/guitar/bouzouki/harmonium) and Randy Gosa (mandola/guitar), two men who are no strangers to the traditional music of the upper Midwest. A member of the brilliant Chicago-based group Bua, Miller grew up in the lumberjack town Bemidji, Minn., a place that inspired him to explore the songs of Minnesota’s 19th-century logging industry. It was an interest that yielded the 2012 album “Minnesota Lumberjack Songs: Irish & Scottish Music from the North Woods” as well as the 2013 album, “The Falling of the Pine: Traditional Music of the Northwoods,” that included Gosa (who comes from Wisconsin and founded the trio Cé) and explored the music of the lumber camp bunkhouses of the Great Lakes region.
This, Miller’s third excursion into the region’s music, his second with Gosa, and their first as the Lost Forty, takes what is now a familiar artistic approach. Great songs are fashioned around meticulous research and these find fine footing in the very flowing, robust musical treatment Miller & Gosa give them. The result is a sound lovers of Irish song will be very familiar with, but it’s also one that makes old Minnesota folk songs feel relevant and alive, much like they might have felt when the pulp magazine Adventure was popular in the early 1920s.
Why Adventure, you ask? Well, were it not for the magazine’s immense popularity, this album might never have happened. In the early 1920s, it carried a column called “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” that solicited and published folk songs from its readers. Two such men were singers Michael Cassius Dean (1858-1931) of Virginia, Minn., and Reuben Waitstell Phillips (1850-1926) of Chamberlain, Minn., who both sent large collections of their own repertories to the column’s editor Robert Winslow Gordon.
Inspired by the strength of each of their contributions, Gordon traveled in 1924 to document, with cylinder recorder in hand, both Dean and Phillips singing some of their songs. The result was two sets of recordings that were filed away, unlabeled, and ultimately left to languish in safe keeping for decades in the Library of Congress after Gordon himself founded its Archive of American Folk Song in 1928.
Recently rediscovered, however, these recordings became newly available for scholarly consumption and the basis for the Lost Forty’s new album.
I love the pulp magazine’s role as connective tissue here. That there were people who sent in “their” songs in the mail to collectors for mass market publication (Adventure was published monthly from 1910 through 1971) opens a window on the “folk” of folk songs and says something very human about how this sort of material lived and moved at the time. It also makes for an interesting contrast to the new life Miller and Gosa breathe into them here, which is enjoyable and fulfilling. Surely, the ghosts of Minnesota are listening to their songs, reimagined, with pride.
There are some quite lovely tracks here. Songs like “The Clipper Ship Dreadnought,” “The Lonesome Hours of Winter,” and “The Persian Crew” are grand, wide open ballads with warm, open string arrangements over which Miller sings with a sensitive touch. Although the vocals are more pointed in their delivery, the string arrangement of “A Shanty Man's Life” is great and reminds me of something that fans of the Murphy Beds or even John Doyle might find real affinity with. Then there are tracks like “Jerry Go And Oil That Car” and “Lovel” that speak conspicuously to an Irish America of old. “Jerry” is a song about railroad work that would be deeply embedded in Irish American memory (particularly, I seem to find, in the Midwest, but that just may be small sample size on my part), while “Lovel,” a song about a highwayman who finds a regretful end, is a lyric that appears distantly related to “Whiskey in the Jar.” With that in mind, its treatment here that would be unfamiliar but intriguing to those who only know the better known favorite.
“The Lonesome Hours of Winter” is a fabulous album. Although I thoroughly enjoyed their previous work, Miller and Gosa seem to have enhanced their chemistry. The music here feels very fresh and engaging and it does a great job exploring Midwestern Irish (and Irish adjacent) musical identity. But it’s the research into the music’s background, research rooted in a series of old field recordings of period performances that are tied to a pulp magazine music column, that really gives this album the depth and sense of connectedness it radiates. Great stuff here that will hopefully inspire more work like this. Rush out and get this one, especially you fans of vocal music. For more information, visit thelostforty.com.