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In the mid-1960s, upstate New York ballad singer Sara Cleveland was discovered by folklorists like Dr. Ken Goldstein, festival promoters like Fox Hollow’s Bob Beers, and record entrepreneurs like Folk Legacy’s Sandy and Caroline Paton. Cleveland passed away in 1987, but thanks to her singing granddaughter Colleen, the family’s rich musical heritage, from Ireland and from the Adirondacks, is still very much alive and kicking.
Ballads and story song take center stage on this recording. Sara Cleveland’s vast repertoire included some very unusual Child ballad variants, and the CD opens with her version of “The Cambric Shirt,” called “Every Rose Grows Merry in Time.” Listen to Colleen sing this ancient ballad, and you will know a master storyteller is at work. Her late father Jim Cleveland, also a fine singer, contributed three songs, including the comic numbskull ditty “Lather and Shave,” and two tragic ballads, “Bury Me Out on the Prairie” and “The Gay Spanish Maid.”
Other songs from the family repertoire sung by Colleen include: “The Nobleman’s Wedding,” a tragic tale of betrayal and unrequited love; “In the Daylight Before the Morning,” one of the bitterest marital complaints found anywhere in song; the classic lumber camp song “The Woodsman’s Alphabet;” and another comic ditty with noodlehead overtones, “Three Men Went A-Hunting.” Two other delightful renderings by Colleen are “The Dying Drummer’s Sweetheart,” which takes the art of loving them and leaving them to new heights of fancy; and “Mushadorrinanon,” also known as “The Kerry Recruit,” with its tale of a young lad’s less-than-stellar stay in the army. The appearance on several tracks of George Ward on whistle and concertina, and of Frank Orsini on fiddle and viola, make the recording even more enjoyable.
The last cut, “The Boy Who Lived Here,” is a bit of a departure, because it was written by Sara Cleveland herself, honoring two sons who became Marines in World War II, and a nephew who died in Vietnam. It is sung and played here by Colleen’s brother Curt.
This CD is a fine and delightful tribute to both an excellent traditional singer, Sara Cleveland, and to her family and its ongoing musical legacy.
—Robert RodriquezRUSS BARENBERG, When At Last.
This is Russ’ first solo album in about 20 years. When I first heard the Grammy-nominated opening track, “Little Monk,” I immediately thought that the lyrical melody line had a 1970-ish new acoustic sound reminiscent of Russ’ monumental “Skip, Hop and Wobble” album with Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas. Sure enough, “Flux” is back on dobro and the piece written back in those days has been reincarnated with the contemporary flavorings of Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Viktor Krauss (bass). As ever, Duncan is especially noteworthy, with fluid bow work that periodically offers harmony lines.
From Pennsylvania and now Nashville, Russ is a superior guitarist familiar with bluegrass, jazz, folk, Cajun, Celtic, Caribbean and Latin elements. He demonstrates accomplished understanding of his fingerboard, dynamics, ornamentation, syncopation, vibrato, damping, pick direction, and much more. His axes of choice include both vintage and newer guitars and mandolins spanning from 1918-2005. They cover a broad range, just like his music.
The textures and shapes of Russ’ big open guitar sounds make concise yet meaningful and merry musical statements. With the exception of the closer, a French folk song called “Aux Marches du Palais,” the tunes are original instrumentals that reinforce the importance of personalized musical expression. Whether writing a lively contradance tune like “Fat Mountain,” Celtic-tinged “Pleasant Beggar,” old-timey “On Milo’s Back,” or the new acoustic title track, Russ’ music speaks with many moods from playful to reflective.
Russ’ publishing company is appropriately called Laughing Hands Music, and that joviality will keep you smiling and amused throughout this set. Plenty of the jollity on this disc is also the result of Ruthie Dornfield (fiddle); Kenny Malone (drums, percussion); Jeremiah McLane (piano, accordion); and Dennis Crouch (bass). They’re a fun bunch who work well together. McLane’s embellishments are a very nice touch, and I hope to track down some music from his trio Nightingale. A minor criticism: I might have put Douglas’ dobro out there even more in the conversational mix of “The Man in the Hat.”
Russ’ ideas have grown into some splendid natural melodies. Song notes acknowledge his son, daughter, friends and dogs for inspiration. Russ Barenberg gives us a set of very enjoyable Nashville chestnuts. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another couple decades until his next solo album.