January 6th - Songs of a New York Lumberjack

Songs of a New York Lumberjack - Ellen Stekert, 1958 

When we think of folk music we almost always think of Southern music - and being from Kentucky myself I must admit a partiality to Southern folk music. But, living in New York and spending a lot of time camping in the Catskills and Adirondacks, I've often wondered about the early white settler folk music of New York - what settlers sang and played before we got a sort of homogenized "rural" culture that gets you stars n bars hanging from houses in Sullivan County.

I picked up the excellent, exhaustive Folk Songs of the Catskills from a used bookstore in Kingston, and from that knew that a lot of the songs were lumberjack songs, but I'd never actually heard any of them performed before hearing this charming album. These 18 songs were collected by the singer, Ellen Stekert, from Ezra "Fuzzy" Barhight, a retired lumberjack living in Cohocton, NY. Stekert sings in a handsome voice that is extremely unlike the standard "woman folksinger" voice, and I deeply wish I could find something else by her so I could tell if this is her natural singing voice or if she is singing in a deeper register to imitate Barhight's voice.

The songs are great - there's a version of The Fox that I've never heard before, and a version of The Two Sisters  that just ends after the murder. The latter is especially interesting because I always wonder how much the old Child ballads were actually sung in America versus the humorous story songs and broadsides that make up the rest of this album - but if Barhight, who insisted that he had only learned songs through hearing them sung, sang The Two Sisters, it means it was actually common among lumberjacks. And I had never heard the awesome The Trouble Down at Homestead, a fiery union song from the 1892 Homestead strike. And The Singular Dream is great, as is The Black Cook and Poor Old Anthony Rolly and Lakes of Ponchartrain - I could go on and on. They're great songs, performed masterfully.

Trying to find other recordings by Stekert only emphasizes how precious the Smithsonian Folkways archive is - the liner notes mention she had recorded two other albums, but it's difficult to find information on them. A lot of folk labels - like Folkways! - were driven largely by one individual, and when that individual retired or passed away, a lot of culture just disappeared. It's a very rare thing for these works to be available, and part of the reason I wanted to begin this project in the first place.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways

Mark PophamComment