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Sam Amidon: A universe of American folk tradition

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Vermont-born folk singer Sam Amidon has a sound which is absolutely unique yet immediately warm and familiar, even when it's artfully abrasive or unsettling. Through him, old American folk songs sound personal and tender, as if it's his own story he's telling you for the very first time. He's known for the unassuming and unadorned way he reinvents traditional sounds, parsing every component of the music and playing each aspect of it individually.

As hard as I might try, Sam's music speaks for itself better than any writer can. No combination of words can satisfactorily convey the experience of listening to it. Ahead of his upcoming Sheffield show at the Merlin Theatre on Saturday 16 November, he took the time to tell me a bit about his influences and creative process.

You've described your upcoming EP, Fatal Flower Garden, as a tribute to Harry Smith and his understanding of American folk music in general as a "heterogeneous category". Can you talk about the significance of that?

I'm inspired by the world that Harry Smith creates in his Anthology [of American Folk Music] and how varied it is, way beyond the idea of folk music as just a guy strumming his guitar. There's a wide variety of cultural practices within the collection, from blues to fiddle tunes, to all different kinds of ballads, to Cajun and Zydeco tunes.

I know that at this time Smith was learning the Cree Native American language and was interested in the hidden zones of mastery in the different American cultures: string games, jokes and poems, Thelonious Monk's piano phrasing, knitting and crafts. You don't get a sense that he's trying to narrow it down or make sense of what 'American folk music' means. Instead he's revelling in all the multiplicity of the different universes it entails.

I've always loved music on the edges of experience

What in your mind distinguishes the American folk sound from all the other folk traditions it draws from?

The fundamental fact of American folk music is the meeting of African and European musical worlds. An instrument like the violin, with the English, Irish and Scottish tunes in that tradition, making its way to the southern American states and that instrument and repertoire being taken up by black musicians, who brought in an entirely new way of phrasing and rhythmic attack.

Meanwhile you have the banjo, which came from Africa, with the original clawhammer style being directly linked to north African styles of playing similar instruments. This is true of many of the ballads and folk songs as well.

Of course, since the 1960s that influence has gone back and forth in both directions. The idea of 'open tunings' on the guitar, which has been a huge element of Irish and English folk music since the 1960s, came through the influence of Joni Mitchell and Keith Richards, who in turn had learned these tunings off of blues records.

Your most recent album, The Following Mountain, felt like a real dive into the most experimental aspects of your music and a bit of a departure from the American folk canon. But that exploration of the relationship between tradition and innovation has always been present in your music to some degree. How much is that tension a part of your process?

I've always loved music on the edges of experience. For me, the field recordings of rural black and white musicians - such as Bessie Jones, Almeda Riddle, Sid Hemphill, Vera Hall, Fred Cockerham, Luther Strong - recorded by people like Alan Lomax and John Cohen, have always been connected in my mind to the intense free jazz and experimental music of the 1960s and onwards - musicians such as Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Carla Bley, Tony Conrad.

The abrasiveness of tone, the intensity of expression, the hermetic musical language, the sense that you're hearing something being made in that moment and not a polished product, and the spirit of improvisation. There's always been a connection there for me between those worlds, the same energy between the two zones.

On my earlier albums, the experimental or improvisatory element had been bubbling around the edges and under the surface, through my choice of musicians and at certain moments in the arrangements. On The Following Mountain I wanted to flip it and bring those elements all the way to the front. I also felt at the time like I needed to put the folk songs aside so that they didn't become a crutch. I went down to zero just to see what I could build back up and The Following Mountain is what emerged.

Of course, traditional fiddle tunes, songs and melodies are always a part of me, and so there are elements of that music throughout the album. One of the elements of folk music is the idea of elder masters. When you're in Ireland, they ask you: 'Who did you learn your music from?' Meaning 'Who was the elder master fiddle player from whom you learned your music?' The answer in my case being Sue Sternberg and Tommy Peoples.

For this album the elder master in question was percussionist Milford Graves, who played on albums by Albert Ayler, Paul Bley and Sonny and Linda Sharrock in the 1960s, and who has also developed an incredible solo music, philosophy and artistic system of his own since then. A lot of his ideas about music have been deeply inspirational to me for a long time and I think a lot of them apply as much to fiddle styles and folk music as to experimental music and improvisation.

For example, the idea that metronomic time is not the only kind of rhythm. There's a deeper human rhythmic feel that you will hear in a fiddle player or a banjo player which may not match to a metronome, but it's a deeply powerful human rhythm unto itself that can't be quantified in conventional musical notation.

Do you see yourself moving in any particular direction as far as that goes?

The future is unknown!

How much does the musical context you were raised in influence your current work?

I was lucky to grow up in the folk music community of the northeastern US, with deeply musical parents who are community singing leaders and great folk singers and banjo players. It influenced me in ways that are obvious: growing up as a fiddle player playing Irish and New England fiddle tunes, learning the banjo as a teenager, hearing folk music everywhere I went.

But it also influenced me in some other equally important but less obvious ways. For example, the idea of music as simply part of life. None of my parents or their friends would have claimed or cared about the idea of 'authenticity' - whether you were born into this music or had come to it as an adult. They simply loved the songs and tunes and wanted them to be part of their lives. Whether it was your living or not was not important.

Similarly there was no sense of nostalgia or vintage-ness around the idea of folk music. To them it was not some ancient dusty thing that we had to save or revive. It was simply great music, great dances, a good way to spend an afternoon with friends.

So the idea of music being integrated in the context of life was very important. This is something very much present in my albums. The cast of collaborators is drawn from my own life and friends and musicians who I am inspired by, or happen to have made a connection with in one way or another.

Alice Flanagan

Sam Amidon plays at the Merlin Theatre on Saturday 16 November, with support from Rachel Sermanni.

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