Marah Presents MOUNTAIN MINSTRELSY OF PENNSYLVANIA
Album Revitalizes Rare Folk Songs of Pennsylvania From A Song Catcher In Early 20th Century out February 25
Rock Band Detours Into A "Ghost World" Of Long Lost Pennsylvania Folk Songs, Waltzes, Rafting Chants and Mountain Ballads
It all started with an obscure book, Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, written in the early 20th century by Henry Shoemaker, a folklorist and song catcher in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Via the route of flea markets and auctions, it found it's last home with Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith, core members of the critically acclaimed Rock n Roll band Marah, who relocated from Brooklyn, NY to Central Pennsylvania Amish Country a few years back. Coming from the city, it was the book's atmosphere and enormous "sense of place" that drew them in. Bielanko has often written with that in mind, perhaps most notably on "Kids In Philly." Bielanko and Smith put together a band of local musicians for the project, including an 8-year-old fiddle prodigy, and welcomed many community members as guest players and singers. The resulting album "Marah presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania" is to be released February 25, 2014.
The music is wholly original and it's not a traditional folk album as they have come to be known. As for the songwriting, "Most of the lyrics were fragmented and there was no record of the music," said Bielanko. "We realized it was possible to co-write new songs with the ghosts of Pennsylvania. We could create an era blurring patchwork of re-imagined, re-invented, mountain music from folk songs that could have been lost for good."
The album was recorded in an old de-sanctified church now called St. Luke's Cultural Center in Millheim, PA where Bielanko and Smith put together an analog recording studio. The band recorded in the loose and joyous ramshackle spirit of Rock n Roll, and very much in the now. As the recording sessions commenced, it was decided to leave the church doors permanently open. In came a steady stream of curious neighbors, music fans, folks with big jugs of beer, oil painters and photographers, followed by a long line of tuba players, whistlers, tap dancers, etc. All were welcome.
While Bielanko and Smith wrote much of the album, it was 8-year-old Gus Tritsch who invented "Harry Bell." "He instinctually knew that this song could only work in the old "major chord/minor theme" tradition...somehow Gus knows a lot of stuff that takes other people lifetimes to figure out," says Bielanko. "He stepped up to the microphone with his banjo and simply laid it down. One take."
Although the album will be released in all formats, it was always intended to be a mono 12 inch vinyl LP. The band recently released a 7 inch vinyl single from the album called "Ten Cents at the Gate" that features a local Barbershop Quartet, 14 players, and about 100 people singing the chorus in the church. "After Dave taught everyone the chorus, I told them we'd rehearse it once but I actually ran back into the control room and hit the record button and got the take. I knew they were ready, that the moment had come," said Smith.
"Make no mistake about it, these are raw and unprocessed recordings by today's standards, and that was the whole idea. Here we play together and all at once, one mic bleeding into the next, right down the line. We are proud to say that the songs have managed to retain an element of guts and soul that are becoming non-existent in today's world of digital manipulation and mistake correction. Mountain Minstrelsy utilizes none of those tools/tricks and rather was made on a Studer 8 Track tape machine and mastered directly to a vinyl lathe. Beyond that we approached this as if we were making any other rock and roll album," said Bielanko