Allison Crowe: Heavy Graces

Allison Crowe has been a very busy girl this year. After a surprise cameo in the summer blockbuster movie Man of Steel and the release of her exquisite traditional folk covers album, Newfoundland Vinyl, Allison quickly rushed back into the studio to write, record, engineer, produce and create the cover art for her upcoming album, Heavy Graces. She only announced the album’s existence at the end of last month and Heavy Graces will be released tomorrow, October 15th, via Allison’s own Rubenesque Records.

Heavy Graces is comprised of five new, original Allison Crowe songs, a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” and two versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

Allison’s delving into traditional folk music for Newfoundland Vinyl seems to have influenced her own songwriting. Songs like the opener “Through These Heavy Graces” and “You All Haunt Me” layer Allison’s lovely voice over simple but heartfelt folk acoustic arrangements. You can see the premiere of the “Through These Heavy Graces” video, featuring footage from Buster Keaton’s classic film The General, below.

Though Allison apparently only took up the fiddle for the recording of this album, she already sounds like a folk fiddle pro in the standout track “Words.” What a lush piece of work that song is! There’s a touch of Celtic folk in the instrumentation, haunting backing vocals and a slow building, seething tension until Allison unleashes her wail toward the end of the song. I’m very happy to be able to premiere and share the mp3 with you below. Update: I also created and premiered a new video for “Words” on November 22, 2013 and added it to the review below.

As I wrote when we premiered the video for her choral version of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” I couldn’t imagine even someone as talented as Allison successfully matching, let alone improving, Cohen’s original or Tori Amos‘ beautiful piano rendition. Yet where Cohen took the song to a melancholy depth and Tori gave it a bittersweet wistfulness, Allison gives the song a new feeling of suspense with a slightly faster pace and choral embellishments. Her cover at times recalls the elegance of Joan Baez‘ operatic folk rendering. And, as always, Allison’s vocal is gorgeous, multi-faceted and full of emotion and grace. You can stream the track and watch the video below.

Allison’s piano makes a very welcome return on her striking cover of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man.” I’m a Pearl Jam fan, so I don’t say this lightly: Allison Crowe’s cover of “Better Man” is better than the original. You can watch the video, featuring footage from the classic silent film Broken Blossoms, below.

On those two covers as well as the captivating original “Dissolve,” Allison once again uses layers of her own voice to mimic a backing choir. It’s a technique she developed for Newfoundland Vinyl, but she seems to have perfected it on Heavy Graces.

The original song lyrics on Heavy Graces seem to deal most often with regaining control of one’s own life, venting anger at and breaking free from oppressive influences and starting fresh with integrity intact. Whether such fierce and independent themes were born from the death of a relationship or Allison’s brief brush with Hollywood, it seems our favorite independent singer-songwriter is more determined than ever to forge her own path. I predict we’ll be seeing Allison Crowe not once but twice on our best of the year list.

Buy @ Amazon

Allison Crowe Official Site

Rayna Gellert & Nathan Salsburg

By: Brendan

Nathan Salsburg worked with Rayna Gellert on arranging and performing traditional and original songs for her Old Light collection. You can stream and purchase selected tracks at Bandcamp and buy the full album at Amazon.

A curator of the Alan Lomax archive, Salsburg is doing great work in keeping traditional music alive. He was interviewed on this fascinating episode of WFPK After Dark, which features recordings from the archive. Salsburg also exhibited his talents on this NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and his debut album as a solo performer, Affirmed.

Bob Dylan: Pretty Saro

Editor’s Note: Coincidentally, Brendan had already prepared the following post about the folk song “Pretty Saro” before the news this week of the unearthed, previously unreleased (not even on bootleg) Bob Dylan version. Recorded in 1970 during the Self Portrait sessions, Dylan’s “Pretty Saro” will be featured on the new 35-track box set Another Self Portrait. The box set will be released on August 27th and features outtakes, demos and live versions of songs from Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning. You can watch the video for Dylan’s recording of the song below.

By: Brendan

“Pretty Saro” is an old ballad that was featured in the movie Songcatcher, and the novel Revival. Listen to or purchase Sam Amidon’s performance below and Elizabeth Laprelle‘s version at Amazon.

As with many 19th century songs, lyric’s vary – here’s one version:

I came to this country in eighteen-forty-nine,
I saw many true loves but never saw mine.
I viewed all around me and I am alone,
And me a poor soldier and far from my home.

It’s not the long journey I’m dreading to go,
Nor leaving the country for the deads that I owe.
There is nothing that grieves me nor troubles my mind
Like leaving pretty Saro my darling behind.

I wish I was a poet and could write a fine hand,
I’d write my love a letter that she might understand.
I’d send it by the island where them waters overflow
I’d think on pretty Saro wherever I go.

Farewell, my dear father, likewise mother too,
I’m going for to ramble this country all through.
And when I get tired I’ll sit down and cry
And think on Pretty Saro with tears in my

Highlights from The Alan Lomax Archive

By: Brendan

The sheer amount of recordings available at the Alan Lomax archive can be daunting, so I thought I would highlight some of my favorite works here at Muruch

Liam Clancy:

Here‘s a collection featuring Liam Clancy and friends at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. I particularly enjoyed the song “Shoals of Herring.” Clancy also wrote a wonderful autobiography, The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour.

Vera Ward

I’m willing to bet you’ve heard Vera Ward’s voice even though you may not know it. Her rendition of “Trouble So Hard” recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959 was heavily sampled by Moby for his song “Natural Blues.” Hear the remarkable original here.

Horton Barker

This was the first recording I heard from the Lomax Archive – I searched for ballads and was drawn to the “Irish” in the title. It’s a compelling document – you can hear Alan Lomax trying to coax the ending from Barker when his memory fails him in the final verses. You can sample or purchase a collection of Horton Barker’s performances at Smithsonian Folkways.

John Quincy Wolf Jr. recorded another version of this song in Arkansas 1963. So we get the rest of the story, thanks to the Wolf Collection at Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas.

And I love Mr. and Mrs. Berry Sutterfield. Here‘s their version of “Barbrara Allen,” complete with light bickering and confusion.

A Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax

By: Brendan

An excerpt from a letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax…

“You hadn’t ought to try to be too funny because if you just tell folks the truth they’ll laugh at every other word. The best of all funny songs have got a mighty sincere backbone. These are the old deathbed and graveyard and parted lover songs that I sing more than any others when I need to cheer myself up. And there is something very funny about almost everything that happens if you do a good job of a telling just exactly what took place.”

Read or listen to the rest of the letter at the following link…

A Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax (mp3 download page)