American fiddler Jenny Scheinman has created an album of music to accompany a film that celebrates the legacy of North Carolina Photographer H. Lee Waters. Here on Earth consists of 15 tunes, all of which stand securely on their own, each a mini-masterpiece of deceptively modern Americana.
I’ll backtrack a bit, because this project has many layers. From 1936 to 1942, portrait photographer H. Lee Waters traveled around the Piedmont, the plateau area of the Carolinas between the coast and the Appalachians, making short films of everyday folks going about their business. Working, playing, going to school, walking the streets, driving their cars.
Scheinman and director Finn Taylor were commissioned by Duke Performances to create a short film with music, using Waters’s raw footage. One of the products was a live show, with Scheinman and her collaborators playing their music to accompany the film in front of an audience. You can see some footage of it and hear Scheinman talk about it here.
This CD Here on Earth is another creation that sprang from this project. Its 15 tracks are all instrumental, although you can hear Scheinman sing selections of some songs that she wrote for the film on the video above.
“I grew up in a small town obsessed by ideas of self-reliance, community, and life off the grid,” Scheinman says. “The folks that H. Lee Waters filmed display all the characteristics that we aspired to—poor and proud, theatrical, resilient—real toughies. It resonated with the way I want to make art. Something that feels real. Real expression.”
These tunes sing the song of a bygone America. The images from Kannapolis, a town of textile mills on the Piedmont, all were taken a few months before the United States entered World War II. More importantly, though, these people were filmed before anybody had televisions in their homes, much less tiny video cameras they carried around in their pockets, the way many of us do today. As Scheinman points out in the video, these folks look at the camera with an openness and guilelessness that is remarkable and all but impossible today.
And Scheinman’s music has somehow captured that paradox, the nostalgia that today’s viewers are presented with by these images of folks living solidly in their moment. The tunes like the Irish-tinged “Up On Shenanigan” or “Bug In The Honey,” with its African-American colors and driving rhythm are simultaneously of the past and the present. They’re nostalgic and rooted in the past but not backward-looking; knowing but never ironic; heart-felt but not sentimental.
Much credit goes to Scheinman, of course, and much also to her collaborators. Jazz/Americana guitarist Bill Frissell, with whom she has played on many other projects, adds his inimitable colors and tones to tunes like the gentle “Annabelle And The Bird,” and his ringing harmonics and bluesy feel to the hoe-down fiddle tune “Bark, George!” Don’t miss the edgy dissonance he introduces to the ham-bone tune “Delinquent Bill.”
Then there are the two Robbies. Robbie Gjersoe is one of the most overlooked sidemen today; here he adds amazing resonator guitar accompaniment to a couple of the best tunes, including the hard-driving “Deck Saw, Porch Saw.” And Robbie Fulks (who got some well-earned recognition with a Grammy nomination this year) can pick guitar with an Americana spin on music of any style, from jazz and standards to heavy metal to the shiniest pop. His guitar is the first sound you hear on the album, his flat-picking introducing the loping “A Kid Named Lily.” A lot of the images in the film are of Kannapolis’s black residents, and this is another song that to me has one foot in the black American stringband experience – it sits comfortably beside work such as Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort and The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Genuine Negro Jig.
Finally, Americana’s jack of all trades Danny Barnes plays on nearly every track, banjo on most but also some guitar and tuba.
But the star of the show is Scheinman with her fiddle, and of course her considerable skills of composition. She demonstrates a lot of talent, leadership and humility throughout. Here on Earth is a joy. It’s available now electronically, and on CD in late April.
(Royal Potato Family, 2017)