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.
Traditional Tunes - Folk duo The Vox Hunters chronicle the state’s music history with The Ocean State Songster
Posted October 26, 2018
By Tony Pacitti
Folk music is about people, obviously. It’s right there in the name. It’s an entire category of music that, when you dig deeper than mandolin-wielding hipsters, is about the traditions and times of a group of people and the place they lived. Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi, the local duo behind the fiddle-heavy The Vox Hunters, understand this and have taken it upon themselves to take that dive into Rhode Island’s own musical heritage. The result is The Ocean State Songster, a collection of ballads and folk tunes reaching all the way back to the state’s origins.
“The idea for the Songster was spurred by our desire to have a repertoire of old music from our own locality,” explains Aromin. “When we attend various festivals and singing weekends in and around New England, we often hear folks introducing a song or tune with, ‘I learned this song from my mother back in Vermont, who learned it from an elderly woman down the road, who learned it from her mother who…’ or ‘This is an old logging song that lumbermen used to sing in Minnesota.’ Thanks to the digital age, we’ve since found that researching your own local music isn’t terribly difficult once you know what to look for.”
Funded in part by the Rhode Island Council for the Arts, Aromin and Gagliardi turned to digital resources, local libraries, and the Library of Congress. The songs they uncovered trace their roots back to the Revolutionary and Civil wars, the Dorr Rebellion, and ad jingles form the late 19th century. They tell of shipwrecks and murder, but more to the point, they tell what life was like in Rhode Island in a way that history books can't.
Of their many musical discoveries, one of the more exciting came during a performance in England earlier this year. After playing a song about Roger Williams, someone in the audience shared that it reminded her of a song that she’d sung in the schoolyard as a young girl. Turns out the two songs were related, which speaks to the enduring power of folk music. Though it had been written in Rhode Island, the ditty had made its way across an ocean, was changed by the people who carried it with them, and became a playground game for children who had no idea that the “Old Roger” they sang about was our own founding father.
With the research done and the book in print, The Vox Hunters are already thinking about the next volume of the Songster, as well as a new album of traditional, Rhode Island-centric music.
“We’re proud to say that our Rhode Island repertoire is sizable enough that we can play two 45-minute sets and still have plenty of material leftover.” Find The Ocean State Songster and upcoming Vox Hunters shows at thevoxhunters.com
THE VOX HUNTERS
by Mike Wild
The Vox Hunters, “voice hunters”, are Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi who play and sing in Rhode Island state in New England and around Providence. They bring to life old songs and tunes from their locality. They visited the UK quite recently and a lot of people were impressed by their enthusiasm and talent as multi-instrumentalists and tight harmony and unison singers. This is their first CD and their book, The Ocean State Songster, has been well received. Their motto of “play local and play often” has the same ethos of the early folk clubs of the folk revival in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Anything was lapped up and belted out in an eclectic spirit, even in different accents! They have researched and tweaked and injected new life into the material as well as writing tunes and songs of their own in the traditional and folk idioms.
Armand plays fiddle, a Lachenal English concertina with some buttons moved around and air buttons near the pinkie fingers, and also does step dances; Ben plays a Jeffries Anglo concertina in C/G, from the 1870s, one row Hohner melodeon in C and tremelo harmonica. On the CD they are joined by Kyle Forsthoff who adds percussion on bodhran, snare drum, bones, chapchas (Andean goat hoof rattle) and Cajun triangle. They also bring to the music their experience in Irish and old time playing and acknowledge the influence of Irish fiddle and concertina players and have gone back to older players on German-made boxes, like Mrs Elizabeth Crotty and Kitty Hayes, as well as innovative cross-row players like Noel Hill and Cormac Begley. They are familiar with the effective use of ornamentation, chords and drones and were influenced by the sea-song accompaniments of John Townley and by Jeff Davis, who applauds their approach and contribution to the tradition.
Ben has obviously absorbed the “British harmonic style”, on Anglo, of using both ends concurrently for chords and melody, as used by Brian Peters, John Kirkpatrick, Will Duke and Jody Kruskal. This is an excellent album and one that has many echoes for an old skiffle and Americana fan who got into playing in the 1950s via campfire songs, shanties cowboy films and recordings by Leadbelly, Lonnie Donegan, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. In fact I still have my little brown paper-backed school notebook with a guitar drawn on the front from 1956.
The programme includes traditional songs brought in by early settlers, several of which were collected by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in Appalachia. Come My Little Roving Sailor is like No Sir No. William And Polly is a version of William And Nancy or Lisbon; Edward is the murder ballad (Child no13). There is a sea song, Round Cape Horn, from Martha's Vineyard which they learned from Jeff Davis. Tin Pan Alley is represented by songs such as Before I Met You and Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me with a tune by Mississippi John Hurt. Irish traveller Mary Delaney was the source of Green Grow The Laurels and What Will We Do If We Have No Money. Songs influenced by new social and economic situations and Minstrel shows such as the banjo tune Groundhog, with words from various sources and coupled with a tune by Armand, Pawtuxet, Little Falls in the local native language. This has a rollicking accompaniment with a whole range of instruments such as fiddle, jaw harp and percussion. The Old Moose and Wing Dance were from Long Island and collected by William Mount.
There is a feel that will be familiar to singers who came through the early British folk clubs and the influential movement in the US with the Kingston Trio, Seeger family and Woody Guthrie etc. plus the many great artists that led to the playing of a wider range of instruments than the guitar, washboard and tea chest bass. They have been influenced by the greater instrumental ability and the impact of Irish and other traditions. The CD is in the spirit of amity in the exchange of tunes and songs between the US, Europe and Africa with the energy of the New World added. It is gratifying to see the swapping of influences by a younger generation of talented singers and players.