Sara Grey and her son, Kieron Means, play American music, as distinct from Americana - theirs is the real deal. Old-time ballads, cowboy songs and Primitive Methodist hymns are all grist to their individual mill. Sara's unique frailing banjo style and Kieron's blues-inflected guitar are in perfect harmony and this, instinctive, family symbiosis is what sets them apart. Passionate and heartfelt vocals are the icing on the cake.
Kieron and I wanted to make this CD together….just the two of us as a statement of our love for old songs and tunes.
I have racked my brain to try and recall where I learned the wonderful old-time song that I have known forever and, for the life of me, I cannot remember. Back in the dim recess of my mind I wonder if I learned if from Joe Newberry, but I don’t think so, more likely it came from my friend Chester James from Indiana. Anyway it’s a great old-time song.
This song is also known as “The Honest Farmer” derived from a dialect song by a person called Phorns Westend of but not as plaintive and haunting. This is a rare version from the singing of Everett Pitt, a backwoods man from the eastern Ramapose in New York State. He eventually recorded it in the 1940s. He learned it from his family.
Elk River Blues
This lovely soulful little tune was composed by West Virginia fiddler Ernest Carpenter who made it into a lament for his homestead which was flooded over when the Sutton dam was built on the Elk River. What I love about this tune is that it went through a migration to the west, and I learned it from three wonderful musicians from Prescott AZ; Warren Miller, Tony Norris and Bill Burke of Flagstaff AZ. To me it seems like the slow sad way they play it out in AZ fits the background of the tune better than the sprightly pace that is played in WV.
Partly from the singing of Maggie Parker Hammons of WV. In this version the heroine never reveals her true identity but her lover knows it is her. There is another fine version from Mary Sawels of NC and the version from Roy Palmer’s “Oxford Book Of Sea Songs” is far more complete and clear particularly about the cannibalism of castaway mariners. Deli North from Madison County, NC also sings a ballad called “The Silk Merchant’s Daughter” but it is a totally different version and tune. The ultimate sources seem to indicate that it is a lengthy 18th Century broadside with the common motif of the female in disguise in search of her lover. In this version the scene is initially set in Fore Street in Liverpool Docks.
I learned this wonderful song from Benedict Gagliardi and Armand Aromin from RI. They in turn got it from a small fragment sung by a woman called Jessie Grindell from Providence RI 1945 and also from Helen Harkness Flanders collection. They came across a fuller version sung by a Ms Shipman in East Jaffrey, NH from where they took the refrains and more lyrics. There is a lot of strength in these lines especially the last verse “Better days a Comin’” We are all waiting for this.
Written by our dear friend Joe Newberry. It began its life as a Rudyard Kipling poem called “Mother o’ Mine”. His poem was read at Sara Carter’s funeral. The original is “If I Were Hanged On The Highest Hill I Know Whose Love Would Follow Me Still” Joe added three other couplets and the melody.
A mysterious bachelor who knew hundreds of songs from Madison County, NC. He sang with precision and often a strong sensual undercurrent. His songs gravitated to murder, revenge, infidelity and abandoned children. This is a version of “Daniel and The Lion’s Den” and also of “The Lady’s Fan”
From the collection “Going Down To Raleigh” old-time North Carolina Piedmont music from late 70’s, 80’s, 90s from two great musicians and singers; A. C. Overton and Jack Jones. This is a wonderful quirky old-time song. There was a lot of “whistling through the teeth” when they were singing! Not sure which fellow was minus a few teeth.
We learned this beautiful NC version from our good friend Joe Penland of Marshall NC. There are many common motifs in this song that appear in many other mountain ballads such as “Heart of Glass”. Joe in turn learned this version from Mary Sands of Madison County NC. She gave the second highest number of songs, 29 in all, to Cecil Sharp when he was collecting in Madison County NC.
Craig Johnson was a member of the Double Decker String Band and consummate musician and singer from the Midwest, later settling in Michigan and Virginia. In addition to his traditional repertoire, Craig wrote songs with tremendous insight into our culture. This song describes the lives and challenges of Southern workers who moved up to Detroit to work in factories during the war effort when every factory and car manufacturer had to contribute. ‘Henry’s lines’ were those of Henry Ford.
The tune and text is a variation of “Buffalo Skinners” from Woody Guthrie but Woody’s version is more likely derived from this version. This is one of my favorite songs – so plaintive such a common theme. I heard this version from Roscoe Holcomb, it’s ironic the way songs can move in opposite directions. We doubt Roscoe ever travelled west, someone probably had migrated back to the South East and he heard it there.
I have added on to the song a wonderfully quirky tune from Doc Boggs. I use his “Last Chance” tuning on the banjo and the song and tune seem to fit perfectly together.
John Jackson was a Piedmont blues guitar player and singer from Fairfax Station, Virginia. The late Chuck and Nan Perdue met John at a gas station where he was picking with friends and introduced him to the greater folk scene. Steamboat Whistle is likely a version of Charley Patton’s Pea Vine Blues.
Derroll lead a very nomadic life in his early years and often he and his step-dad and mom lived in the back of an old Chevy, they never knew where the next bite of food would come from. The psychological effect of his childhood experiences influenced his song writing tremendously. Songs like “The Sky” in particular, the line that says “ And in that old car and it’s Christmas time, filled with kids and they all were cryin’, they had no place to go, I know” This line brings me to tears every time I sing it. When Derroll was discharged from the Navy for health reasons he took up painting and went to art college and also took up collecting songs. He was a political activist before leaving America and often toured with Rambling Jack Elliot. He eventually settled in Antwerp, Belgium where he lived out the rest of his life. He was a fine man and a fine writer of songs and more fun to play the banjo with than any one I could think of.
We learned this version from my dear friend Alice Wylde, originally from rural West Virginia, now living in the UK. An Irish/American song concerning work on the Arkansas railroad, and the migration of Irish coming to America and taking their songs into the logging camps and onto the railways. In this case, an Irishman desperate for work is duped into taking a job onto the Arkansas railroad with a promise of good wages but he almost starves to death working for a pittance as the last verse suggests “I grew so thin on sassafras I could hide behind a straw”. My Dad said that this expression was very common amongst the Irish loggers in Northern New England and Canada. On the surface there’s humor in some of the fine descriptive words, but they are deceptive. It’s a multi-layered ballad with undertones of abject poverty and deception. I am so attracted to these types of song.
Sometimes called “Rainbow Mid-life’s Willows” This version is from the singing of Ollie Gilbert of Timbo, AR. She and her fellow singer and companion Almeda “Granny” Riddle each had their own version of this ballad. We are convinced more than ever that often a singer will unconsciously gravitate to a version that suits their personality and circumstances. The ballad has it’s origins in Ireland and England and it is known as “Locks and Bolts”.
Many versions are so dark and they end in a total blood bath. Almeda’s version is slower and more of a lament with a very plaintive tune and text but all does not work out well for the fellow. His sweetheart is taken away by her brothers but no blood bath ensues. However, strangely enough, Ollie Gilbert’s version ends quite pleasantly. The two lovers walk away from a potential blood bath hand in hand! Ollie lead a much happier life and this is often reflected in her choice of songs and style whereas Almeda had so many tragedies befall her, she lost her infant son and husband in an AR tornado and her songs sometimes reflect the dark side of her life.
(Child 90 adapted by Bob Coltman)
This is a rare ballad – few version have been found: one in Scotland and one in the Appalachians. In this reworking of the ballad Coltman gets rid of all the complicated versions – with witchcraft – with sisters of the dead woman educating the child. The ballad is made up of other ballads indicating it’s probably not that old, maybe 19th century.
When This World Is At Its End
We heard this old gospel song years ago on a compilation of gospel vinyl recording and I can’t for the life of me remember who sang it and I can’t find background on it
Brian Peters talks ballads, blues and banjos with Sara Grey and Kieron Means
This year marks a significant milestone in the career of the seemingly ageless Sara Grey. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of her arrival on these shores, initially to tour, then to collect songs in the Outer Hebrides, and finally to live for most of the following 46 years. For over four years now she's been back in her native USA, but she still finds plenty of opportunities to return to these islands and re establish her status as one of the UK's best loved American performers. This year she's touring and recording once again with her son, the prodigiously talented Kieron Means, in a duo which seems to go from strength to strength.
I've followed Sara's career for a long time as a fan, journalist, friend and musical co conspirator. My 2002 article, 'Grey Means Business' can still be read on The Living Tradition website (www.livingtradition.co.uk/ magazine/articles), and readers wishing to catch up with the background could do worse than go back to it.
Seventeen years ago, the motherson combination was relatively new and still developing, Sara's trademark banjo frailing receiving effective accompaniment from Kieron's unconventional but highly skilled guitar picking, and the kind of instinctive harmony for which family members are famous. All these elements are to be found in abundance on their new CD for Wildgoose, which will be launched at Whitby Folk Week in August. Taking a line from one of the songs, it's called Better Days Are Comin' "let's hope so!" sighs Sara, rolling her eyes. Not surprisingly, they're bubbling with enthusiasm when I listen through the final mixes with them. "I feel that Doug Bailey (producer) has captured the essence of the two of us very well," declares Sara. "I love the warmth of the sound it's just like we were sitting in a living room." "Doug is very invested in our music," Kieron adds, "he's offered us good advice and we had a great time recording with him."
Sara's recording career has been a long one, going back to a 1970 LP with Ed Trickett just re released in the US by the prestigious Smithsonian Folkways label, to Sara's obvious delight and three albums with her 1980s duo partner Ellie Ellis. Kieron has been present on the last four CDs, whilst releasing two of his own on which Sara played. How does the new album differ from its predecessors? "It's much more of a duo project," insists Kieron, "not just one of us playing back up for the other." Describing the breadth of material traditional songs still very much to the fore, of course Sara muses: "It's almost like a musical journey through America we didn't set out to cover every region or anything, it just seems to have happened organically." Certainly there is a wide geographical spread, from Ontario in Canada, through New England and the mid West, and of course the Southern Appalachians where the banjo developed from its African American origins to become an important instrument for song accompaniment. Some of the material has been added recently to Sara and Kieron's repertoire, but there are some familiar songs from their past too: "We've gone back and selected a few that have been our favourites over the years," enthuses Kieron, "songs I've known since I was a kid and always liked." One such is Derroll Adams' The Sky, an almost mystical song first recorded by Sara on Promises To Keep in 1990, now given a new and emotional treatment, while Goodbye My Lover, which surfaced on Back In The Airly Days in 1998, is also revisited.
New material includes the Appalachian ballad, My Dearest Dear, collected by Cecil Sharp in North Carolina in 1916, which they've arranged very effectively as a wistful, slow piece in waltz time. The Hills Of Mexico is from Roscoe Holcombe, possessed of a stark, plaintive melody given extra depth by a strange sounding banjo tuning. "That's 'Last Chance tuning', which came not from Holcombe but from Dock Boggs," Sara explains. "It's an adapted C modal tuning, but you drop a couple of strings and it comes out as basically an F tuning. It's a bit dissonant, but the minute I heard it I thought, oh my God, that will work! So we follow the song with the actual fiddle tune, Last Chance, that Boggs invented it for." "Last Chance has a note in it that only exists on the banjo not in any conventional Western scale!" puts in Kieron drily.
Another newly learned song is On The Way To Jordan, a call / response gospel number that comes not as I'd assumed from the South, but from New England, and the repertoire of the stunningly talented young Rhode Island musicians Benedict Gagliardi and Armand Aromin, aka The Voxhunters. "Benedict and Armand have done a lot of research in their home area, which isn't known for being a centre for balladry, and they've done an incredible job finding material," says Sara. "I love their humility; I love their passion."
There is actually something of a revival of traditional music going on in the North East of the US right now, after a long period when it seemed that most young musicians only wanted to play old time string band stuff. Sara is full of praise for an organisation called YouthTrad which, led by the ballad singer Julia Friend, has turned a lot of young people on to the delights of singing old songs, through camps and social events. The vibrant Cape Cod summer school, TradMad, is now seeing the benefit, with a strong and enthusiastic youth element. "TradMad brings young and older singers together without any discrimination there's such a lot of respect for the source singers and the veterans, it's wonderful to see," says Sara with enthusiasm. "These kids are not first and foremost career musicians they've got this great passion for the songs and the sources, same as me! That's what 1 love about them."
Those of us who have followed Kieron Means' development over the years know very well his talents as a singer of the blues, and the new CD doesn't disappoint there either. Steamboat Whistle is an opportunity for him to show off his talent as a blues guitar picker, a skill he's been working on. "As I grew up listening to my mother's repertoire and learning her songs, I would try to emulate the banjo on the guitar, looking for a way to accompany those modal tunes, which often didn't have a lot of interesting chord changes. So I would work on the principle of playing the melody over a drone, with the guitar in an open tuning. People used to say I 'frailed' the guitar, although I didn't actually do that, but I did use hammer ons to get that roll on the rhythm, and that was pretty much a frailing effect. But then several years ago I was lucky enough to take a week's class with Andy Cohen (a highly respected piedmont style blues picker) at Common Ground Festival in Maryland. We became buddies and he's been very generous with his time, taken me right back to basics, encouraged me to work on my technique, and helped me to learn some more traditional ways of accompanying songs on the guitar, so I've got more variety in the locker. Now I'm living in the Adirondacks I have a neighbour who's another fantastic player in that style, a wonderful lady named Joan Crane, who used to be a touring musician. Joan is my mother's generation, but we've become really good friends. That kind of blues is a very primal music but it's also controlled a lot of those guys played for dances, and it's all about rhythm you gotta be hitting that down beat at the start of the bar."
Quite apart from expanding his guitar technique, Kieron has really matured as a singer, his voice acquiring that 'old as the hills' sound that lends a real authenticity to his blues songs and traditional ballads. His unaccompanied performance of Dillard Chandler's A Sailor Being Tired at one live show I witnessed put him up there with Tim Eriksen as a top class interpreter of an archaic song. Meanwhile Sara's voice is as sweet and expressive as ever, and one notable feature of their work together these days is the amount of vocal harmony. Both feel that the way they're working now, both live and on the new recording, is much more of a partnership, and less a case of one backing the other. Songs like The Silk Merchant's Daughter are sung unaccompanied in two part, while Joe Newberry's powerful I Know Whose Tears marries harmonies with Kieron's bluesy, open tuned guitar.
Sara is clearly enjoying life in her adopted hometown of Rockland, Maine, where there's a lively folk scene: "I love the way I've been welcomed back into the music community over here. After 46 years away I didn't really know what to expect, but to be involved here has been so good it's given me new enthusiasm." Although they live over six hours apart, that's not a big deal in US terms. As Kieron says, "We have more time to play together, to select songs together, and to talk about the songs. We've been singing a lot with the whole family with my stepfather Dave MacLurg (a fine singer formerly with Liverpool's shanty group, Stormalong John), and my brothers Jeff and Dave. We performed together at the sea music festival at Mystic, Connecticut, and it felt really special. You know, Mom and I have been doing this for over 20 years now! I feel so lucky after all those years to be still playing music together."
A few sparkles of that distinctive banjo; a few notes of that unique voice and this can only be one person - Sara!
This comes from a different label for this mother and son combination, but like nearly all their predecessors this is on a British label from two artists who now live in the USA. Unusually, there is no guest fiddler this time and in some ways this adds to the strength of this offering.
What is certain is that every aspect of the music - choice of material, singing and musicianship - is excellent and the close familial empathy of their performance is an enduring delight. Their voices have different qualities but the blend when they sing together is very pleasing.
There are so many highlights. Kieron is in particularly good voice here and his solo blues this time is Steamboat Whistle and the sense of space and commitment make this a high point. Sara has that knack of choosing items that bring out the beauty of her voice and Derroll Adams' The Sky is one of these, one from her huge repertoire that is often included in her live performances. The songs are mainly traditional, but old or modern, a narrative quality predominates leaving the listener with the feeling of a story well told.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Sara Grey’s been a cornerstone of the traditional and old-time music scene for close on half a century. She grew up in New Hampshire, and soon became immersed in the mountain music tradition – banjo and songs – of North Carolina, devoting her life to studying and collecting this music, especially the migration of songs from the British Isles to North America (and back); the ongoing process of continually updating the fruits of her studies enables her to keep her own performing repertoire fresh (and her approach and personality both timeless and seemingly ageless).
Sara’s one of the most charismatic personalities on the folk scene. She possesses a truly lovely singing voice that displays a companionable warmth, great feeling and depth of knowledge; she’s also a seasoned exponent of the five-string banjo. Her son Kieron has definitely inherited Sara’s passion and talent, for his own singing and guitar playing is clearly from the same stock and displays an equal enthusiasm for embracing, researching and carrying on the tradition. Sara and Kieron have been touring together for a good ten years now, and their bond is palpably close and empathic; an evening spent in their company is a treasurable experience indeed – as is this CD.
Better Days a Comin is Sara and Kieron’s second jointly-billed album (although Kieron contributed plenty to Sara’s 2009, nominally-solo outing Sandy Boys), and it’s a proudly exclusive duo project – says Sara: “Kieron and I wanted to make this CD together… just the two of us, as a statement of our love for the old songs and tunes”. Amen to that! This new CD follows the same tried-and-tested pattern as its immediate predecessor (the 2013 Fellside release Down In Old Dolores). In other words, an intelligently sequenced collection of real-deal American music, ranging from old-time songs, ballads and laments through to country blues, gospel and prime newer compositions in the traditional idiom. Although this is a brand new album, within a couple of bars of hearing its opening song (Goodbye My Lover I’m Gone) you feel like you’re greeting an old and very dear friend (just like the feeling you get when you attend one of Sara & Kieron’s gigs!). This is one of those old songs you quite honestly believe you’ve known for ages, yet one for which even Sara in her liner note fails to recall the source after much brain-racking… It’s a feelgood opener for a feelgood disc – but don’t let that adjective mislead you into expecting something light or insubstantial in any way. It’s indicative that (the aforementioned track aside) some of the most feelgood renditions on the disc are also the most plaintive in character and seriously haunting. Going To Kansas, which follows, is a good example (it’s a version of The Honest Farmer, taken from the singing of Everett Pitt, and leads beautifully into the soulful, gently mournful banjo tune Elk River Blues). The distinctly bluesy I Know Whose Tears, written by Sara and Kieron’s friend Joe Newberry and derived from a Kipling poem, also brilliantly fits this bill.
The plaintive The Hills Of Mexico is obviously a variation of the Woody Guthrie number Buffalo Skinners – but, as Sara points out, Woody’s version is more likely derived from this one; Sara then caps the song off with a wonderfully quirky Dock Boggs banjo tune Last Chance. A deeper poignancy characterises Sara’s rendition of “Banjo Man” Derroll Adams’ highly evocative song The Sky, with Kieron’s delicate harmonies reinforcing those qualities. Further down the line, My Dearest Dear finds another instance of the satisfying combination of the thematically familiar and the interestingly unusual that Sara and Kieron have over the years made their trademark. As indeed in their different ways are Red Robber (a variant of the Child 90 ballad adapted by Bob Coltman from diverse elements), and the truly exultant call-and-response song On The Way To Jordan.
Sara and Kieron bring an intimate sense of companionship to their singing and storytelling on all songs and ballads, a quality which is ideally – and impeccably – mirrored in the simple but intense and tremendously close-knit guitar-and-banjo instrumentation. And yet there’s also a quite unexpected degree of forward thrust in the playing – witness Kieron’s forthright, rhythmically-driven guitar on album closer When This World Is At Its End, a rousing old gospeller of whose provenance even Sara cheerfully admits to remaining ignorant. And it’s great to hear how Kieron’s voice has matured apace even since the Down In Old Dolores set, for it’s developed a distinctive burr and gravelly tone that’s every bit as attractive in counterpoint as in his solo work. In this respect, intriguingly, Kieron’s account of Rainbow Willow is a fine illustration of Sara’s liner note postulation that “often a singer will unconsciously gravitate to a version that suits their personality and circumstances”.
Silk Merchant’s Daughter finds Sara and Kieron duetting in spine-tingling a cappella mode, a striking demonstration of how marvellously Sara and Kieron’s mother-and-son voices work together in vibrato-rich close harmony. The factory worker’s song Away Down The Road (written by West Virginia musician and singer Craig Johnson) provides another example of this closeness, this time with Kieron taking the lead. Sara also delivers a couple of brief solo songs – The Carolina Lady and State Of Arkansas – with clear relish and panache. Indeed, the delivery of every individual song is both exemplary and insightful.
The recording of this disc also mirrors those very attributes; the expert Doug Bailey production in the best traditions of the WildGoose house, and firmly in tune with the performers themselves. The CD’s presentation is bright and attractive, with a nicely homespun cover painting by Sara’s son David, while Sara’s own liner notes furnish the ideal combination of detail and economy. And I just love the built-in optimism of the album title too (hey, we can still but hope…!).
There is something special about real traditional folk music. It doesn’t matter where it comes from or what language it is, it stands out as something special and that’s what Better Days A Comin provides. Sara Grey and her son Kieron Means have never been into over-arranging their music although they have been known to employ Ben Paley’s fiddle – but not here. Two voices, banjo and guitar: what you see is what you get. It particularly struck me listening to Sara’s plaintive banjo on ‘Elk River Blues’ at the end of the second track.
The material ranges over a variety of sources. The opener, ‘Goodbye My Lover I’m Gone’, is an old-time song that is far too cheerful for its title. Two tracks on we have ‘Silk Merchant’s Daughter’, probably from an old broadside which begins its story in Liverpool docks. Although the song was originally British the language and harmonies here are definitely American. ‘My Dearest Dear’, ‘Red Robber’ and ‘Rainbow Willow’ also crossed the Atlantic sometime during their evolution, ‘The Carolina Lady’ sounds as though its origins lay in Europe but it’s found all through the Maritime from Nova Scotia southwards.
‘On The Way To Jordan’ is the first of two gospel songs, this one full of optimism in contrast to ‘When This World is At It’s End’ which, appropriately, closes the set. There are some modern songs here but without being told which they were you’d need to listen carefully to pick them out. Joe Newberry’s ‘I Know Whose Tears’ comes from a Kipling poem and Craig Johnson’s brilliant ‘Away Down The Road’ is set in the 1940s but it’s structured in such a way that it could be a century older. ‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is the origin of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Buffalo Skinners’ and I suppose that any banjo player has to sing a Derroll Adams song so Sara does.
There are sixteen songs on Better Days A Comin and not one is superfluous. Amongst the fun of ‘Railroad’ and the rolling blues of ‘Steamboat Whistle’ there is a sense of melancholy and hardship which is entirely appropriate in our current climate.
Sara Grey, whose voice has been a familiar sound on the world folk scene over the last half century, is joined here by her son Kieron Means, whose own voice is reminiscent of Doc Watson, which brings a sense of authenticity to this fine collection of both traditional and contemporary songs. Sara’s reputation on the Old Time music scene, both as a fine solo singer and banjo player, as well as a collaborator in her popular duo with Ellie Ellis, is well documented. Those of us who remember the 1980s will remember some of the duo’s engaging shows on the British folk club circuit at the time.
Unsurprisingly, both mother and son sound good together here, their empathetic voices melding like honey. Both Sara and Kieran are steeped in the traditions of American folk music as opposed to what we like to refer to as Americana, which the two musicians are only too keen to point out. With over half a century as a performer behind her, Sara has a rich repertoire to draw upon and on Better Days a Comin, the sixteen songs and tunes showcases the duo’s familial unity, especially on such songs as the lilting “On the Way to Jordan”, from which the album gets its title, the blues-drenched “I Know Those Tears”, the apocalyptic gospel of “When This World is at its End” and the unaccompanied “Away Down the Road.”