photo: Betse Ellis

photo: Betse Ellis

photo: Emily Evans Sloan

photo: Emily Evans Sloan

RIVER STILL RISE

EXTENDED liner notes

... a companion to the physical CD...

 

I’ve given myself leave to tell a few stories here in addition to giving contextual and practical information about the songs and tunes on this album. To begin, a note about the title. The phrase River Still Rise appears in the journals of Meriwether Lewis, and to me, most notably when the Corps of Discovery readied their boats and supplies for the beginning of their river journey. Documenting all the details of the excursion included aspects of the weather, the general demeanor or specific behavior of the crew, and most certainly the level of the river. The river needed to be high enough to be navigable, and in that way, Clarke and I have been putting together our gear and supplies, building our boat, and watching the weather signs for about a year and a half at this point. The process of recording RSR took several months, beginning in early 2016. We made this recording at home with the best gear we could acquire at this point, and with Clarke’s long-built engineering and producing knowledge. As the river of inspiration rose, we captured moments, and re-captured some of them later if the water receded. We were energized by the talents and energies of our Brushy Creek bandmates, Brett Hodges and Alex Mallett. We were encouraged by our parents and loved ones. We were assisted in the final mixing/pre-mastering stage by long time friend and collaborator Chad Meise. The making of this album has been a journey, one that continues after the recording is over, and one that teaches us those things that we cannot plan for and accept as we are able. In memory of a dear friend and mentor, Louis Jay Meyers. Thank you for listening. We’d love to hear from you.

- Betse Ellis, July 2016

 

 

 

1. Stepping on Ghosts (2:31) — Composed by Clarke Wyatt with Betse Ellis.

Banjo: gDGBD
Fiddle: ADAE

Clarke takes the pen to illuminate his composition… I’ve always been fascinated with how simple moves on a banjo can create complex musical passages that sound like much more is going on than actually is. This tune was composed by exploring a basic undeviating picking pattern and moving a single finger around on one string. It is so simple to play yet it sounds almost as if there are two banjos playing together. After I formalized the banjo part, Betse composed a haunting melody to evoke a sense of reflective anticipation. The title was inspired by a quote from “The Rockford Files” in an episode where Jim and his client had broadly differing perceptions of someone who had been influential in each of their lives. In a clash about their conflicting versions of the past, Jim remarks, "Well I guess we're just stepping on each other’s ghosts here". As the prelude to our album, I believe it is an analogy to our relationship with traditional music. We listen and we learn, but there is no singular version of what came before. We can only honor the old musicians we have learned from as we make something new.
    

2. The Two Brothers (4:06) — Traditional ballad (Child 49), from the singing of George Lay in the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection. New melodic and musical composition, setting, and arrangement by Betse Ellis with Clarke Wyatt. 

Banjo: gDGCD (modal)
Fiddle: Standard tuning
Harp: Irish style harp in G, played by Betse Ellis

I first learned this to sing at the first Murder Ballad Ball in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2009. I was taken by the sweet singing of George Lay contrasting with a very dark, esoteric, and eventually ethereal content. The oldest versions of the song tell more details, but I love this weathered, brief version. I imagine the dying young brother suddenly gifted with second sight and an adult perception… perhaps cutting in his statements to his murdering brother (why kill him just because he didn’t want to play?), giving him (sarcastic?) excuses for their parents, and then finally tell the truth to their sister… at this point in the song, I imagine his spirit leaving his body as he visualizes his sister taking birds, berries, and fishes from their homes, with the final act of removing his body from the sea… brutally beautiful. My first performance of it was singing solo with cello. The adaptation to fiddle and banjo lends an evocative setting in the mind’s eye.

And he came before his own parents’ door, long yellow hair for to comb; say brother, can you toss a ball, or can you roll a stone? No, say brother, I’m too little and too young; go ‘way and let me alone. He pulled his knife from his side and pierced it into his little brother’s hide, and out the blood did flow. He tore his shirt from his back, ripped it from gore to gore, bound up those bleeding wounds, but still they bled the more. Say brother, go and dig my grave, go dig it wide and deep; there a marble stone at my head and feet, where none, no sound, no sleep. Say brother, now when you go home, my father will ask for me; o say tell him I’m alone with my little school-mates, so early at home I’ll be. Say brother, now when you go home, my mother will ask for me; o say tell her I’ve gone to England, my long long lesson for to learn. Say brother, now when you go home, my sister will ask for me; o say tell her I’m lying in my own grave cold, so no more she’ll see of me. She’ll harve the birds all from their nest, and the mulberry out of the tree; and she’ll harve little fishes out of the sea, and her own brother out of his tomb….

3.  Shelvin’ Rock (1:53) — Tune from the Carpenter family of West Virginia.

Banjo: gDGBD
Fiddle: GDGD

We learned this from the playing of Ernie Carpenter. There are many stories passed down from the Carpenters about this tune, and their treasured place of shelter up Laurel Creek off the Elk River. Fiddle scholars and celebrants Gerry Milnes, John Lilly, and more have written about the Carpenters and their tremendous contributions to the old time canon. We found a miniature version of a shelving rock at Cave Spring, Missouri, near Kansas City, and played the tune there in tribute prior to making this recording.

 

4.  In This World (3:48) — Composed by Betse Ellis with Clarke Wyatt.

Banjo: dADF#A
Fiddle: Standard tuning
Guitar: Brett Hodges

I wrote this song many years ago, without a chorus. It lived in several different melodic and chordal settings, with drastically different moods. A contrasting example is on my album “High Moon Order” under the title The Complainer… This time around, the words revealed themselves to me with a melodic sense that now feels like home. Clarke helped me to write the chorus and we decided on this arrangement. Our Brushy Creek bandmate Brett Hodges joins us on guitar.

It’s a hard time in this world to walk the right path; you may be lost if you travel too fast. When you don’t know the way, it can darken your day… in this world. It’s a hard time in this world to speak with your heart; you may be faced with hurtful remarks. You search for the words and hope that you’re heard… in this world. Give of your love as you do; for others and the ones next to you. Live in this world. It’s a hard time in this world to do what’s best; you may mean well and still make a mess. It can make you tired if you try too hard… It’s a hard time in this world to know your role; all the world in world, where is your soul? Want to feel safe, search for your place… in this world. Give of your love as you do; for others and the ones next to you. Live in this world.

    
5.  Calico (3:50) — from Jim Bowles. New additional music and arrangement by Clarke Wyatt & Betse Ellis.

Banjo: gDGBD
Fiddle: GDGD
String Bass: Alex Mallett

I am not sure when I first heard the term Calico (the fiddle tuning often played in AEAC#) . I sure didn’t know a melody with this title until fairly recently, though I believed at least one existed. I simply didn’t research it until we found some Calicos in the Milliner-Koken collection of North American fiddle tunes (what I call the “fiddle bible”). And thanks to the Slippery Hill website, the sound recordings of these tunes (and many others) are so easily accessed in one place! We learned the Marcus Martin Calico as well, a truly enjoyable tune (and, research shows, the possible source for this term in regards to tuning). But something happened in the process of internalizing the Bowles Calico (and interesting to note that it is tuned in [near] G cross tuning). Clarke found a wormhole (timey-wimey?) to open up in the middle of the tune, and it allowed me to go somewhere completely new, along with the inspired artistry of Brushy Creek bandmate Alex Mallett on bass. I now think of Calico as a magical land, probably an animated place with areas alternating in gingham-patterned landscapes and swirling dancing flatfoot disco trees.

 

6.  Requiem for Little Sadie (3:42) — from the traditional ballad, inspired by Clarence Ashley. String quartet composed by Betse Ellis. Arranged by Betse Ellis & Clarke Wyatt.  

Banjo: bF#BEF#  (modal capo 4). Second banjo, one octave lower on fretless Bouché model.
Fiddle: Standard tuning
String quartet: Violins and viola played by Betse Ellis. Cello played by Clarke Wyatt.

We have always performed Sadie with an instrumental introduction, a freely improvised prelude that eventually drops into the banjo motif just before the singing begins. During our recording process, the feeling of this quartet came to me and we enveloped the song in what became a requiem, a somber counterpart to the nearly emotionless tone of the song. Who was Sadie, anyway? Multitudinous versions of this song exist, under this and other titles. Theories exist as to her relationship to the narrator. But she’s dispatched in the second line of the song, no question, no explanation. It seems to me, no matter who she was or what her way of life, she deserves to be mourned.

Went out one night, to make a little run; met little Sadie and I shot her down. Went back home, got into bed, forty-four smokeless under my head. Up the morning ‘bout a half past nine; the hacks and the buggies all waiting in line. Gents and the gamblers standing all around, taking little Sadie to her burying ground. Began to think what a deed I’d done; I grabbed my hat and away I run. Made a good run, a little too slow; overtook me in Jericho. Standing on the corner, reading the bill, up steps the sheriff from Thomasville. He said hey man, is your name Brown; remember the night you shot Sadie down. Yes sir, my name is Lee; I shot little Sadie in the first degree. First degree, second degree, got any papers won’t you read them to me. Took me downtown, dressed me in black; put me on the train that set me back. Send me back to the county jail; had no money for go my bail. The judge and the jury they took their stand; judge had the papers in his right hand. Forty-one days, forty-one nights, forty-one years to wear the ball and stripes.


7.  The Quail is a Pretty Bird (3:32) — traditional tune, from Gene Goforth, and inspired by John Hartford. Arranged by Betse Ellis & Clarke Wyatt.

Banjo: aEAC#E (standard capo 2)
Fiddle: Standard tuning
String bass: Alex Mallett

Let it be known the world over, we are forever fans of John Hartford. And he in turn was such a great representative for his musical sources, even when he played tunes far from their established melodies. One thing I learned about myself thanks to Hartford’s playing: it’s truly okay to express my self today through music of the past. I’m not prolific like John was, but I do create my own music. Clarke creates his own music. We create music together. We honor the sources and we celebrate where the music comes from. And we live for adventures in music. This tune is often associated with the tune Sandy Boys as played by Edden Hammons, traceable back to the mid-19th century at least. We find it to be in the category of very beautiful, lyrical tunes worthy of exploring.

 

8.  Fair and Tender Ladies (3:03) — traditional, various sources. Additional lyrics by Betse Ellis. Arranged by Betse Ellis & Clarke Wyatt.
    

Banjo: aEAC#E (standard capo 2)
Fiddle: Standard tuning

We first learned this for a Gene Clark tribute concert. Gene was a Missouri native, a member of the New Christy Minstrels, a founding member of The Byrds, and a collaborator with Doug Dillard. He recorded a version of this song with Carla Olson and we were reminded how well-known songs are sometimes left by the wayside… and it can be a good idea to pick them back up. I drew from multiple text versions of the song and created some new lyrics to shape the song the way it feels to me. Clarke’s two-finger banjo style here propels a rhythmic contrast to forlorn emotions.

Come all ye fair and tender ladies; take warning how you court your man. They're like a star on a summer's morning, first they appear and then they're gone. I wish I was a little sparrow, with tender wings and I could fly; I’d fly away to my false-true lover, and when he'd talk I would be nigh. Well I be no little sparrow, neither wings nor can I fly; I’ll sit down here in grief and sorrow, sing and pass my troubles by. They'll tell to you some loving story, and make you think they believe it true; but love grows cold as loves grows older, and fades away like the morning dew. I wish I was in some dark valley where the sun could give no light; I might forget my false-true lover in that land of ever night. But here I sit, with my heart broken, like the wings I do not own; no hope for me, no consolation, I am left in sorrow alone.

 

9.  Arkansas Traveler (2:24) — traditional, various sources. Arranged by Clarke Wyatt.   

Banjo: dADF#A, on fretless Bouché model
Fiddle: Standard tuning

Continuing the theme of remembering to remember the standards. A classic tune has the power to remain fresh forever. That said, we believe in the power of bringing ourselves to the music. Partly inspired by the black string band field recordings we love so much, where standard tunes shine brightly through individual expression.

 

10.  Diamond Joe (3:21) — traditional, as far as we know… from The Georgia Crackers. Additional lyrics by Betse Ellis. Arranged by Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt.

Banjo: cGCEG
Fiddle: Standard tuning
Guitar: Brett Hodges

Lyle Lofgren wrote an insightful article about this song for Inside Bluegrass that can be found online. Many many versions of a song with the title Diamond Joe can be found on various recordings. But most of them are a completely different song from this one, save the title. The Georgia Crackers (aka The Cofer Brothers) recorded this in 1927. I think of it as a wishful thinking song… a reminder that for so many people, then and now, simple staples of life are sometimes great luxuries. There’s much more to consider with regards to the band’s name, and their lives in rural Georgia, and more writings about the Cofers can be found with a bit of searching.

Diamond Joe, better come get me, my wife she done quit me, Diamond Joe you’d better come get me, Diamond Joe. I’m gonna buy me a sack of flour, cook me a hoecake every hour; Diamond Joe you’d better come get me, Diamond Joe. I’m gonna buy me a bucket of lard, take me a hoecake to the yard. I’m gonna buy me a side of meat, cook me a slice once a week. I’m gonna buy me a jug of brandy, I’m gonna give it all to Mandy. I’m gonna buy me a jug of whiskey, I’m gonna make my baby frisky.

 

11.  Jericho (1:49) — traditional, from Violet Hensley. Arranged by Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt.

Banjo: gDGBD
Fiddle: GDGB

Violet Hensley learned this from her father, George Washington Brumley. I’ve been a student and friend of Violet since about the year 2000. Over the years, I have learned a good portion of her repertoire. It’s meaningful to me to maintain her bowings and notes the way she plays them. There’s an indescribable feeling when we are playing together and I beam with joy just thinking about it. This tune eluded me for some time - I tried to play it with her at her home, and it just wasn’t coming together. So I set to learning it from one of her recordings (Traditional Fiddle Music of the Ozarks, Vol. 1). Next time I went to visit Violet, I couldn’t wait to show her how hard I’d worked on it. After I played it, she said, “That’s not how I play it!” What?? “Well, they wanted me to play it like my dad did, on that recording.” Oh… So then I learned it her way (Violet is a great practitioner of playing tunes how she feels them). I decided from that point on, when I perform the tune, it’s to play it both ways, like a conversation between Violet and her dad. Notice, too, this is played in G “Calico” tuning (this is Violet’s tuning for the piece, and as GW Brumley tuned it). Clarke had a session with Violet at the Folk Alliance Conference in 2016 and learned it directly from her.

 

12.  Fill My Way With Love (3:10) — by George W. Sebren, from Violet Hensley. Arranged by Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt.

Banjo: dADF#A
Fiddle: Standard tuning
Guitar: Brett Hodges
Harmony vocals by all of Brushy Creek (Brett Hodges, Alex Mallett, Clarke Wyatt, Betse Ellis)

My favorite song that Violet sings. She learned it as a young girl in church. This song sums up how she lives her life, and is a powerful reminder to me every time I sing it. Violet plays it in the high register through the entire song. I have a little bit of my way with it, as I enjoy playing it in the low register when I sing. We added a small motif halfway through the chorus. Also, Violet plays the entire verse and chorus instrumentally, and most often, has a measure of three beats at the halfway point of each section when she plays it. At different times when she sings it, the same moment may either be four beats, or sometimes three. And it makes sense when she does it, whichever way. My life has been enriched by this precious friendship.

Let me walk, blessed Lord, in the path of the storm; lead me straight to the land up above. Giving cheer everywhere to the sad and the lone; fill my way every day with love. Fill my way every day with love love love, as I walk with the heavenly dove. Let me go all the while with a song and a smile; fill my way every day with love. Keep me close to thy side of my savior and guide; let me never in darkness rove. Keep my path free from wrath and my soul satisfied; fill my way every day with love. When this life shall be o’er and I’ll travel no more, but abide in the land up above; let me sing, blessed king, all the way to the shore… fill my way every day with love.

13.  Rolling River (3:29) — traditional, as far as we know… from John Lusk, Murph Gribble, and Albert York. Arranged by Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt.

Banjo: gDGBD
Fiddle: Standard tuning
Guitar: Brett Hodges
String Bass: Alex Mallett

A number of the tunes and songs recorded by black string bands have entered the old time festival jam circuit. I hear this one played out rarely, and it’s a romp to be sure… I once counted the iterations of the B part as played by Gribble, Lusk, and York, and found it to average 11 to 13 1/2 times… therefore, I refrain from counting when playing it, and as of this writing, have yet to count what we recorded. The topic of black string band music is meaningful to us and in fact, in the midst of today’s cultural tragedies and upheavals, we find ourselves thinking about what has happened over the generations of white and black musicians playing the old time music together in the States. There is so much music we wouldn’t have were it not for people from different backgrounds getting together and sharing ideas. There is so much more to think about on this and related topics.

 

14.  Take a Drink on Me (2:28) — by Charlie Poole and Norman Woodlieff. Additional lyrics by Betse Ellis. Arranged by Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt.

Banjo: aDAC#E
Fiddle: Standard tuning
Guitar: Brett Hodges
Bowed String Bass: Alex Mallett
Harmony vocals by Brushy Creek

A bit of a goof of a song, or perhaps a sneaky statement on certain slivers of society? Perhaps I overthink these things sometimes with old time songs. Maybe it’s my early interests in certain eras of poetry, what was modern in its time… I’m such a fan of brevity carrying larger meanings. I did feel it was potentially a lot to shoulder historically with the verse about a monkey and ape; I wrote a different angle to that verse and hopefully still made a statement that boils down to all of us being thrown together on this planet, and can we try to get along?

What did you do with the dollar you had? Gave it to the rounder and he shot it to the bad. Oh, lord, honey take a drink on me. Take a drink, take a drink, take a drink on me; all you rounders take a drink on me… oh, lord, honey take a drink on me. See that gal with the hobble on? She’s good looking just as sure as you’re born. Oh, lord, honey take a drink on me. Can’t get along, how do you do? Got a tiger and a money in the Kansas City Zoo. Oh, lord, honey take a drink on me.

15.  ASB Bridge Blues (2:33) — by Betse Ellis.

Banjo: eBEG#B
Fiddle: Standard tuning
Guitar: Brett Hodges
String Bass: Alex Mallett

I wrote this some time ago, with The Wilders in mind. In fact, we recorded it but it was not released on our final album. It’s been sitting on a mental shelf for a while. Such a pleasure to get it going again with Brushy Creek! ASB is the Armour-Swift-Burlington Bridge in Kansas City, Missouri, once used for both autos and trains, now solely a train bridge, one of several bridges over the Missouri River at Kansas City.  At the time it was completed, 1911, it must have been an exciting accomplishment. Finishing the album with this tune carries us forward to the next chapter, wherever that may take us. Onward, for the river still rise…

 

 

If you have questions or comments, please send an email to betseandclarke@gmail.com -- thanks for reading and listening.