The annual October-long Halloween celebration of dark music comes to a close today with one of the most somberly beautiful songs ever featured here. Guitarist Chris Jentsch was inspired to write Meeting at Surratt‘s by the events surrounding the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman in American history executed for a federal crime.
She may have been innocent.
Surratt owned the Washington, DC boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators hatched the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. She was convicted based on the testimony of others convicted in the conspiracy, who asserted that she’d assisted in providing and hiding their weapons. Evidence at the trial was conflicting; she proclaimed her innocence, and several of those arrested offered supporting testimony. One of her slaves testified as a character witness (although it’s hard to imagine a slave saying anything other than complimentary things under the circumstances).
So is this song an elegy for a woman murdered for being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Or an anthem for assassins who call themselves patriots? Either way, it’s a gorgeous, melancholy, Ashokan Farewell-style folk ballad. Jentsch’s background is jazz, but no style is off limits in his wide-ranging work. The nonet version on his 2019 Topics in American History album is more ominously robust and guitar-fueled, with lush multitracks. The quartet version from the 2018 album Fractured Pop, seems a little faster, with a warmly wistful, gorgeous Pharaoh Sanders-ish Matt Renzi sax solo.
And the way Jentsch ends the big band version, especially, will give you chills. See, Mary Surratt, age forty-three, mother of two children, didn’t so much fall from the gallows as she slid to the end of the rope.