The Rough Guide to Folk: Jake Xerxes Fussell

Upon the release of his third solo album, the delightful Out Of Sight, US folklorist Jake Xerxes Fussell walks Chris Parkin through the folk and country blues records that are important to him…

Brad Bunyea

One of traditional folk music’s less pleasing traits has been the tendency for its protagonists to engage in bouts of territorial pissing. But Jake Xerxes Fussell is having none of it. After watching bluegrass enthusiasts and old-time string bands stare daggers at each other at fiddlers’ conventions across the Southern states, he isn’t much interested in any inhibiting and arbitrary divides.

Fussell grew up in Columbus, Georgia, the child of folklorists, and is steeped in the Southern folk vernacular. And yet his easy-going albums, all back-porch guitar and homespun vocals, offer more than that, weaving in pre-war jazz, early country and obscure, centuries-old ballads. On 2017’s name-making album, What In The Natural World, he found room for Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy alongside Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing On A Sweet Potato Vine? by Worth County folk-blues man Jimmy Lee Williams. His latest (third) album continues in the same vein.
Out Of Sight – Fussell’s first album with a full band – is a collection of intimate but pepped-up and eerily topical songs about working, loving and drinking, made more prescient still by its contemporary-sounding flourishes and river-clear electric guitar. With his song choices, Fussell paints a fuller and richer picture of folksong than most self-declared traditionalists ever manage.
“I’m not an obscurantist,” he tells us, “but part of what I’m doing is turning the audience on to something they might not have heard. I’ll draw out some aspect of a song that might be interesting to me that’s not just impersonating whatever recording I heard. Sometimes I’m more faithful, but sometimes it doesn’t need any embellishment or trickery. It just needs to be what it is.”
Fussell would, however, be forgiven for taking a strict preservationist line. His father Fred documented folksong for decades, introducing him to musicologists and song collectors such as Art Rosenbaum and George Mitchell. “They were just as interested in material culture, too,” he says about his folks. “They documented quilting, cabin building, pottery – the traditional craft ways.” It was an introduction to “a bigger world of documentation” – a world that’s larger now.

‘I can’t get away with singing it like Thomas McCarthy because I’m not a traveller.’

Folksong is no longer solely an oral tradition passed on by ballad collectors such as Sheila Kay Adams and Bobbie McMillon. Songs now live on in a jumble of contemporary archives: on old vinyl records and new compilations, in antiquated songbooks, on digital streaming services, and in YouTube videos. Fussell says this is keeping modern-day folklorists on their toes as they consider newer traditions beyond those that Harry Smith and Alan Lomax collected.

“Where I live, in North Carolina,” he explains, “there’s a rich Mexican music tradition, because there are so many young immigrant families here. As they move here, they sing these corrido ballads about their lives as immigrant workers, and all of that becomes part of the landscape, too. It talks about our time and place.”
Out Of Sight might not feature any of these ballads, but its songs do come from multiple sources. Michael Was Hearty, he learned from a YouTube video shared by musician and curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, Nathan Salsburg; Three Ravens came from an old 1920s songbook; and the wonderful Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and Drinking Of The Wine were discovered on vinyl. Three more songs on his 2017 album were learned from record, too.
Today, Fussell is a lapsed cratedigger, but vinyl has left an indelible mark on him, and he retains a Mastermind-like knowledge of folk and blues records, evidenced here. But ultimately, if a song moves him, then it doesn’t matter where it comes from. He’ll find a way to inhabit it.
Michael Was Hearty is an Irish song,” he explains. “I can’t get away with singing it like Thomas McCarthy because I’m not a traveller. I damn sure don’t sound or look like one. Well, maybe I do look like one. But I have to find a new way that’s right for me.” Mission accomplished, we’d say. 

William Robertson South Georgia BluesWILLIAM ROBERTSON – GET YOUR COPY HERE NOW
South Georgia Blues
Southland Records
“My dad was into face-to-face recording, learning about music, all that, but we certainly had records. He had a couple of apple crates he kept them in, and it was a funny selection. Typical baby-boomer stuff, like Dylan and the Stones, but my dad was born in ‘42, so there was Chuck Berry in there, Fats Domino… In addition to that was a lot of what I would later find out to be rare field recordings. At a certain point, those held more interest than the Dylans and Beatles. There was one in particular: South Georgia Blues by William Robertson. His real name was Cecil Barfield and my dad’s friend, George Mitchell, recorded it. When I got really into country blues, when I was about 13, I remember seeing it and being like, what’s this? And then realising, Oh, this extremely hard-to-find record is something my parents were involved with! They had a lot of other rare recordings by George Mitchell on vinyl. Of course, they’re all at my house now.”

Reverend Gary Davis

Gospel, Blues And Street Songs
Riverside Records
“I remember buying this when I was 12 or something – it was one side of Pink Anderson, and the other side was Reverend Gary Davis. The Anderson side was recorded by Samuel Charters, an intellectual who wrote about country blues and folk traditions, but also about music in West Africa and the beat poets. I remember really getting into it because George Mitchell told me about Anderson, but I didn’t have any of his music. I remember liking it because he played all these songs you wouldn’t expect. I’d heard he was a blues singer, but hardly any of these songs were blues; he played The Ship Titanic, He’s In The Jailhouse Now and Wreck Of The Old 97, so it was kind of an African-American guitar player doing country stuff, old-time music and event songs. That was interesting to me, and I became aware of black and white interchange and the controversy over race records. With hillbilly, there was more interchange than there was in segregated music forms. It made me aware of the black string band tradition.”

Andy Irvine/Paul Brady
Mulligan Music Ltd
“This was a huge deal to me when I first heard it. It has Arthur McBride and Mary And The Soldier, a beautiful record from the mid 70s. Another one is Frank Harte’s Dublin Street Songs, a record he put out on Topic. When you start out looking for records, you might notice that records have a similar design aesthetic, but increasingly, as you dig through records again and again, you put the pieces together. Like OK, Atlantic’s records look like this, and they sound like this at a certain time. It’s the same with Folkways and Topic. And it happens with old folk songs themselves. You’ll hear a version of a song, like Going Down The Road… and you hear another string band do that in addition to Bill Monroe, and then another, and then you realise it’s one of the greatest hits of string band tradition, but that it’s also played by blues musicians and everyone has their own take. Then you find out there’s a bunch of other records that have the same song but use different titles. I think this way now; if I hear something, I attach it to a broader lineage or family of songs.”

Virginia Work Songs

Virginia Work Songs
BRI Recordings
“There’s a wonderful series of LPs called The Virginia Tradition, and Drinking Of The Wine was originally on one called Virginia Work Songs. It’s music from the state of Virginia and I love it because it’s combined from different traditions and from different sources. Some are from 78rpm commercial recordings from the pre-war era, and some are from small bluegrass labels from the Blue Ridge Mountains, but then there are field recordings, like Drinking Of The Wine. I think that’s the audio track from a piece of footage from the early 50s of a shanty group off the coast of Virginia. Actually, on my second record, there’s a song called Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine, which came off another LP in the same series, Native Virginia Ballads. It was from a 45 by Helen Cockram and The Highlanders. I really wish somebody would reissue that as a boxset.”

Jimmy Driftwood Tall Tales In SongJIMMIE DRIFTWOOD
Tall Tales In Song
RCA Victor
“I knew he wrote Tennessee Stud, which is a great song; Doc Watson‘s version is more well-known than his. And, of course, I knew the really big hit he’d done was Ballad Of New Orleans, Johnny Horton’s hit from around 1960. I liked both of those, and both were historical songs. And I knew he taught high school history in Arkansas in the 40s and 50s, and that he got students interested in historical topics by singing his songs. But I wrote him off as a silly hillbilly or something and couldn’t get into his recordings. Then, seven or eight years ago, I realised he’s fantastic. His records are really wonderful. They’re highly produced; like, I think Chet Atkins produced a few, and he was recording for RCA Victor, so he had a budget.”

New Lost City Ramblers Remembrance Of Things To Come

Remembrance Of Things To Come
“I write sleevenotes on my releases because the records I grew up loving did it. I admired certain artists who were transparent about their sources, because you can go down a rabbit hole from there. One group in particular was always good about that: the New Lost City Ramblers, like on their Folkways LPs Remembrance Of Things To Come and Modern Times. All Art Rosenbaum’s records would have a paragraph about each song, telling you exactly where he heard it. And the Folkways releases came with a booklet, that’s part of their approach: the context is as important as anything else. There was a period of time when folk releases would have lots of layers obscuring or obfuscating the music. Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music had a mystical bent, which is interesting, but not particularly helpful. I find it more interesting when someone does the work and there’s something more forthcoming about what’s going on.”

Pete Seeger American Industrial BalladsPETE SEEGER – GET YOUR COPY HERE NOW
American Industrial Ballads
“I grew up in Columbus, Georgia. At one point, they called my home town the ‘Lowell of the South’, because Lowell, Massachusetts was the other big cotton place – lots of spinning and weaving. I was attracted to that history because of my home town, and when I heard Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues on this Pete Seeger album I thought it was so great. There’s a lot of 20th-century modern imagery in there that I really like – Coca-Colas and Eskimo Pie and all that. Of course, a big part of that snack food industry came out of the industrial world too, because people needed something to keep them going. Coca-Cola also came from my hometown, so that’s another part of it. It’s very tragic in a way, because it’s talking about being exploited by this system that’s failing its workers, but at the same time the perspective of the singer is tongue-in-cheek. It’s a great subversive song.”

Jimmy Lee Williams Rock On Away From HereJIMMY LEE WILLIAMS
Rock On Away From Here
Swingmaster Records
“That’s on a Dutch label, based in Groningen. I was there a couple of months ago and walked by their store; I’d always dreamed of going there because of the records they put out. George Mitchell released quite a few things on Swingmaster, including this. And the guys who ran the label would bring people over. They made wonderful footage in their store, in the early 80s, of RL Burnside and Johnny Woods playing at the back of the store. Before Mitchell’s recordings were available on Fat Possum you had to order those Swingmaster LPs. Jimmy Lee Williams was from Georgia, but a couple of hours from where I’m from, so I had never met him and only knew him through that record. He’s got this great guitar style that’s minimal, tight and kind of monotonous, in a good way. And this great vocal delivery. I knew I wanted to do Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing On A Sweet Potato Vine? So I worked up my own version.”

Chris Parkin
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