Jefferson Hamer - bringing folk home
When Jefferson Hamer stepped out onto the Royal Albert Hall stage in February he knew that it was a moment he should savour. He and his fellow singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell had been called onstage to sing Willie of Winsbury, one of the collection of traditional songs that made up their Child Ballads album. It had just won the Best Traditional Track prize at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and this performance was the equivalent of their lap of honour.
“I’d never played in a venue anything like that before,” says the New England-born Hamer who is back in the UK to tour with another singing partner, Kristin Andreassen. “To walk out and be the focus of attention in a hall so big and so grand was really quite a thrill. We just sang the one song but it was an honour, quite a step up from our usual circuit of venues. Of course, the next day we were back on our usual circuit of venues, so it doesn’t change your life even though it’s a great experience.”
The success of Willie of Winsbury in particular and the Child Ballads album in general was especially sweet given the taking coals to Newcastle nature of two Americans being lauded for singing songs from the British Isles by a British audience. Although the ballads gathered by the American song collector Francis James Child, who gave his name to the album, were in circulation in the US, they generally originated in Scotland, England and Ireland and Hamer and Mitchell’s sources, on record at least, were primarily the English singer-guitarists Martin Carthy and Nick Jones.
Hamer would love to be able to say that folk ballads gave him his entry into singing and writing his own songs, as it might have aided his own self-editing process at an earlier age, but discovering the ballad repertoire was a by-product of going to university in Colorado.
“I first discovered the joy of making music with a friend in high school,” he says, “and enjoying that collaborative aspect is something that’s stayed with me to this day. We were writing silly songs back then, jokey things, really, because that’s the kind of music we were listening to. Later I got into Jethro Tull and one day a professor at university made an indirect reference to one of Tull’s songs and I picked up on this. So I asked him about it and he said, Oh, I don’t listen to them so much now, I’m more into … and he rattled off a list that included Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention and Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick. He then gave me a whole bunch of CDs by these people and I liked them all but Martin Carthy made a particularly big impression. I’d never heard anything like him before.”
Drawn to Carthy’s very precise finger-picking guitar style, a distillation of folk-blues syncopation, morris dance rhythms and various other influences, and his clear articulation of songs that told vivid, often very dark stories, Hamer found a door opening onto a vast repertoire of songs that he never knew existed.
“I’d grown up playing rock and pop music and I was playing bluegrass by then – I’d be in my early twenties – and it really opened my eyes,” he says. “It’s true to say that I haven’t been the same since. All these long-form narrative songs were like a different world to what I was used to. I don’t have any regrets about what I’ve done in music but sometimes I think it would have been nice if I’d been immersed in folk music, instead of other things, right from the start.”
Hamer’s musical partnership with touring partner Andreassen dates back to 2008, when he moved from Colorado to New York. He had no plan, just felt it was time for a change of scene. He also had no work, so he called everyone he knew, including Andreassen, looking for opportunities to play. Andreassen, who has previously sung and played with bluegrass band Uncle Earl, hired him as a guitarist-singer for a tour and they’ve been close friends since then. They’re now neighbours, which makes getting together for rehearsals easy.
“Kristin’s great fun to work with and because she runs an Appalachian dance music session, she’s developed this really strong rhythm guitar style,” says Hamer. “We play music together as neighbours as well as playing together on tour and we can usually find things that suit the two of us quite easily. We can also vary things because I have my mandolin with me this time and Kristin’s likely to launch into a body percussion solo. So not that there’s anything wrong with being two people with guitars, we can be a bit more than just two singer-songwriter-guitarists.”
From The Herald, September 17, 2014.