Marah Reinvents an Amazing Collection of Obscure Pennsylvania Folk Songs
There’s a serious imbalance of folk music in this country: so much of what we hear is from the southern states. But there’s tons of great old songs from the northeast as well, which so often get overlooked. Credit Marah for rediscovering a whole slew of them and presenting them in a ramshackle, aptly high-energy package titled Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, streaming at Spotify. All these songs were originally collected over one hundred years ago by musicologist Henry Shoemaker; this is the first full-length recording based exclusively on the lyrics he collected throughout the region. Marah do here what Wilco did with Woody Guthrie, setting (and sometimes rearranging) the words to a mix of period-perfect folk melodies livened with harder-rocking and sometimes more modern arrangements. The band are going to air them out at Bowery Electric on July 12 at around 10:30; edgy, lyrically-driven, 90s-style alt-country band Butchers Blind open at 9:30 or so.
Marah have earned plenty of props for their meat-and-potatoes, four-on-the-floor rock anthems, but as it turns out they’re just as good at roots music from their home state. There are no sizzling solos or virtuoso moments in these songs: instead, the band seems to be shooting for the sound of a raw, celebratory family band, employing the usual Americana string band instrumentation in addition to dulcimer, glockenspiel, tuba, simple drums and piano along with occasional electric guitar that adds an offcenter psychedelic edge.
The album opens with a joyously swaying one-chord timber-cutting jam of sorts with fiddle, harmonica, banjo and jaw harp: “Prepare for the shanty life before your health declines,” singer David Bielanko insists. A Melody of Rain shuffles along witha brisk 60s pop feel – it’s the least archaic of all the songs here. The album’s hardest-rocking number, An Old Times Plaint offers more than a hint of circus rock, bringing to mind recent adventures in that style by M Shanghai String Band.
With its unabashedly romantic strings, insistent piano and harmonica, the most lushly orchestrated number is Luliana, a wistful love ballad: “If I could be anyone but myself, I would be the one who stands beside her,” the narrator affirms. By contrast, Sing O Muse of the Mountain is another mostly one-chord jam, akin to the White Light White Heat-era Velvets doing a Pennsylvania folk tune.
Glockenspiel and pump organ double each other, a la Springsteen, on Ten Cents at the Gate, which veers unexpectedly from country gospel to eerily phantasmagorical rock. Mountain Minstrelsy has the album’s most regionally-specific lyric set to a warmly catchy midtempo sway. A sad, vividly resigned waltz, The Old Riverman’s Regret looks back nostalgically on 19th century commercial river rafting. The album winds up with a raggedly rustic dance instrumental. There’s also a shambling, punk blues-inflected track and a brief, skeletal stab at a Celtic-tinged anthem. The way the album was recorded – live, in a Millheim, Pennsylvania church with lots of natural reverb – more than suggests that Marah has a great time onstage with these songs.