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Sam Amidon mines the ‘intensity & strangeness’ of tradition to make music uniquely his own

Transcript

Hari Sreenivasan: Singer, songwriter and musician Sam Amidon has been onstage for more than 35 of his almost 40 years. With 11 albums and collaborations with the likes of guitar maestro Bill Frisell, as well as with his wife, the noted British singer-songwriter Beth Orton, Amidon has developed a shining reputation for taking something very old and making it sound brand new.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Tom Casciato has our story.

Tom Casciato: Sam Amidon is a musical enigma of sorts. You might consider him a folk purist if you only heard him sing a traditional Appalachian tune like "Across the Blue Mountains."

Sam Amidon: I'll buy you a horse love

And a saddle to ride.

Tom Casciato: But listen to his re-do of another tune, "Georgie Buck," and you'll hear why Amidon's known for taking old-time music into sonic areas the old-timers likely never imagined.

Sam Amidon [sings]:

I'm going to the shack

All the way back

Going to the shack in my mind.

Tom Casciato: You've been described as a folk experimentalist, which sounds like a complete oxymoron. It sounds like -- like being an "outgoing homebody" or something.

Sam Amidon: Absolutely. I would say I'm primarily a singer/song reworker, a folk song reworker.

Tom Casciato: A reworker yes, but one who makes the songs his own to the point of achieving what the music site Pitchfork calls "a resounding personal statement out of songs in the public domain."

The story of how he arrived thereā€¦ well, it starts early.

Sam Amidon: So my parents met in the folk scene in their 20s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the mid-70s. And they both sort of discovered folk dancing, contra dancing, you know, traditional ballads, whether Appalachian ballads or English or Scottish. And they moved to Vermont. And I grew up as a generation of kids whose parents had really come to this area to be able to -- to have folk dances on the weekends, and it was all these different sort of community folk music-making.

Tom Casciato: He could carry a tune right from the go.

Sam Amidon:

Baa baa black sheep

Have you any wool
Yes sir, yes sir

Three bags full

Sam Amidon: My dad had a brass band that was sort of hippie-ish folk music, brass band played for dancing. I mean literally music was everywhere in the, sort of, folk music community.

Tom Casciato: Soon he took up the fiddle and took to the stage with his folks.

Were you born and raised to be a musician? I mean, the music industry of the last 50 or so years is strewn with people who picked up an instrument and went out to play as an act of rebellion.

Sam Amidon: My parents were smart because it wasn't -- there was no pressure around it in the sense of, you know, "You're going to do this. You have to do this." It was more like just immersion. I mean, it was everywhere around us. I was just drawn to the fiddle. I really was drawn to the fiddle at a young age. And I just loved fiddle tunes.

Tom Casciato: He would also become adept at guitar and banjo, but just as important as his playing was his skill as a listener -- not to music on the pop charts, but on old American field recordings.

Sam Amidon: There's a ballad singer named Almeida Riddle.

Almeida Riddle [singing]:

I love my little rooster and my rooster loves me.

I'm gonna cherish that chicken 'neath the green bay tree

Sam Amidon: And then Bessie Jones is a foundational musician for me, who was in the Georgia Sea Islands.

Bessie Jones [singing]: Mmm tell Moses Lord

Tom Casciato: But it was what he added to his folk listening that helped him become the artist that he is today.

Sam Amidon: There was a Eureka moment that happened to me when I was about 16, which is that I sang a lot of Appalachian folk songs. But I was really much more interested in Miles Davis, especially electric 70s experimental, wild Miles Davis. And I was really interested in things like free jazz, people like Ornette Coleman who took jazz and made it completely abstract, and the intensity and weirdness of it was entrancing to me. And then I went back and I started listening to these field recordings. I heard something similar. I heard a similar intensity and strangeness in a lot of the recordings. Cause in the 1950s when they were making these recordings some of these people had been very isolated. And they would they played in this really scratchy kind of way. And yet it was super rhythmically compelling. And I heard this connection between this super experimental creative music and yet on the other side, this deep old field recordings seemed to me just as strange and just as mysterious. And so that took a while for me to figure out how I would make that music of my own.

Tom Casciato: He did figure it out. While he tunes up, listen to a 1940s version of a traditional tune done by the Stanley Brothers in their famed high lonesome style -- "Little Maggie."

The Stanley Brothers [singing]:

Yonder stands little Maggie

With a dram glass in her hand

Sam Amidon: So the original kind of version would go something like this.

Sam Amidon [singing]: Yonder stands little Maggie

With a dram glass in her hand

She's drinking away her sorrows

She's courting some other man

Tom Casciato: But when he went into the studio for his 2020 self-titled album, he renamed the song simply "Maggie." He had come up with an entirely different banjo riff and a driving new rhythm.

Now, with the banjo augmented by electric guitar synth, and percussion, a brand new version of a very old song was born, thoroughly contemporary yet steeped in tradition.

Sam Amidon [singing]:

Yonder stands little Maggie

With a dram glass in her hand

Tom Casciato: There's even some singing with that old-time strangeness and mystery he talks about.

There's one bit toward the end of your version of Maggie where the vocals get way out ahead of the beat. What's up with that?

Sam Amidon: I just, I just drifted off (laughs).

[singing]

She's drinking away her troubles

And courting some other man

Tom Casciato: A lot of people would have said, oh, man, I blew that. Let's do another take.

Sam Amidon: Absolutely. Well, here's the thing. One thing that's really beautiful about listening to the field recordings is that you're hearing the person in their house. And there's just a quality of sort of accident. And it makes listening to them really beautiful. And I've always tried to leave some element of that into my records.

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