Every so often I get preoccupied with a song or a body of music., In part I think simply because it’s new to me and interesting, but in part because it meets a felt need of some kind. I’m not interested here in the relationship between the music and that need at a personal level, as indirect autobiography, although some element of that may be inevitable. Instead I’m interested in how music, in this case that of Brown Bird, particularly their recordings between 2009 and 2015, can no longer be ‘placed’ by a conventional genre – ‘dark Americana’ – and occupies a new (but also, ironically, perhaps very old) place.
Brown Bird was the name used by the musician and song-writer David Lamb for both his solo and band work. Between 2007 and 2015 various incarnations of Brown Bird released the following records: tautology (2007), such unrest (2007), Bottom of the Sea (2008), The Devil Dancing (2009), The Sound of Ghosts (2011), Salt for Salt, (2011), Fits of Reason (2013), The Brown Bird Christmas Album (2014), and Axis Mundi (2015). A book of song lyrics – The Teeth of Sea and Beasts – The Poetry of Brown Bird – was published in April 2014. Sadly, David Lamb died in 2014 from leukaemia at the age of thirty-five.
Brown Bird are often referred to generically, as a ‘folk band’, a label both Lamb and his musical and life partner MorganEve Swain rejected. ‘Folk’ as a term can obviously be understood in various ways. ‘Folk music’ generally refers to traditional vernacular songs and tunes that have evolved and mutated through oral transmission over a long period of time and is often linked to a particular region. But is also used to identify the genre that evolved from traditional folk music during the various 20th century folk revivals. Brown Bird clearly never performed the first, traditional, form of folk music. However, its music can be related to strands of ‘contemporary folk music’ that grew out of the second folk revival that, despite peaking in the 1960s, went on to produce what is now called folk rock, folk metal, electric folk, and so on. Each of which strand stands in some relation, however oblique, to traditional folk music.
To call something ‘contemporary folk music’ seems to me to raise two questions. Put simply, these are: ‘who else’s voices and tunes resonate here and where, literally or imaginatively, are those other voices and tunes to be located’? Taking the work of Brown Bird as my focus, I want to explore these two questions as a way of thinking about a strand of ‘contemporary folk music’, and what relationship, if any, it has with ‘place’. That’s to say, I want to continue a line of questioning I’ve been pursuing in various ways for some seventeen years, throughout my Debatable Lands project. However, while in that project my concern has largely been with the traces and resonances of what I’ve tended to call a ‘quasi-pagan’ mentalité as these moved through time and space – specifically from a pre-historic Eurasian shamanistic culture to the English/Scottish Borders and then, via Ireland, to the USA – that’s not quite the case here. But I need to clarify some things before I can get to my main concern.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops describe themselves as an old-time African-American string band from Durham, North Carolina. They learned much of their repertoire, largely drawn from the traditional music of the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, from the eminent African American old-time fiddler Joe Thompson. As such, what they play can legitimately be called the ‘traditional folk music’ of the Piedmont region. In the case of Brown Bird, the question of ‘whose voices and tunes’ is not so simply answered, nor would any answer allow us to identify their music with a place in the same sense. Their music clearly references certain American ‘folk’ or ‘roots’ music and its offshoots – traditional folk, bluegrass, outlaw country and jazz. But it also references Klezmer, Middle Eastern, Balkan Romani and Eastern European music; all of which became increasingly inflected in their work by the type of international Psych-Rock represented by a musician like the Anatolian Erkin Koray, and by that of various rock and heavy metal bands.
In thinking about ‘placing’ this complex musical blending, we also have to consider Lamb’s lyrics. These, particularly once he gave up his demanding day job working as an electrician at a shipyard to promote Salt for Salt (2011), draw as heavily on his voracious reading of philosophy, religion and contemporary authors as on the type of life observation (filtered through a somewhat Gothic sensibility) that carry traces of the folk idiom as ‘dark Americana’. Asked about influences informing his lyrics, Lamb referred to a childhood characterized by his being required to read the Bible every day, and by the fact that he left the church when he left high school. He also implied that the darkness in his lyrics was a reaction to an over-idealistic and unrealistic Christian optimism that ignores the dark or negative aspects of reality. Something resulting in a lack of realism that leaves people ill-equipped to deal with the world’s admixture of darkness and light. This sense of living in a ‘place-between’ is picked up in imagery related to water, boats, and the type of maverick or marginal mentality associated with harbors and ports, influenced no doubt by his shipyard work. Arguably, it’s this sense of admixture, of living in an uncertain ‘place-between’, rather than any particular form of, say, instrumentation, that is central to the legacy of traditional folk music to its contemporary offshoots.
‘Placing’ Brown Bird?
Lamb appears to have spent much of his early life moving from place to place, living at various times in Charleston, Champaign, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Maine, and so on until, finally, he made his home with MorganEve Swain in Rhode Island. This peripatetic life was a consequence of his being the third and youngest child of Roger and Marcia Lamb, members of the Boston Church of Christ, and founders and leaders of Disciples Today, the official non-profit media company for the International Churches of Christ. The family’s moves were necessitated by Roger’s call to serve in numerous ministry roles. In the last six years of his life, following his meeting with MorganEve Swain, who became the other half of Brown Bird in its final form as a duo, they were based in the small town of Warren, Rhode Island.
David Lamb founded Brown Bird in 2003 as a solo project. It later became a band and went through various incarnations until, in 2010, it settled as a duo consisting of Lamb and Swain. They met while on tour in the summer of 2008, when she was playing violin in Barn Burning and, after three days, she began toured as a member of Brown Bird. And the end of that tour, Lamb decided to move to Warren, Rhode Island, to be closer to her. As Swain has indicated in relation to her song Tortured Boy (on Axis Mundi), this was a contradictory and difficult time for Lamb. He was in love with her but also going through a divorce, had ended another relationship to be with her, and felt he’d become someone he didn’t want to be. He also took on full time work boat building without overtime pay, often working for forty-five to fifty hours or more each week, while simultaneously trying to write, practice and record, book shows and then find time to tour. All this fed into his writing.
In 2011 Lamb and Swain decided to dedicate themselves to Brown Bird full-time. They toured extensively, played the Newport Folk Festival following the release of The Sound of Ghosts, and then toured again to support Salt for Salt. Their reputation grew during 2012, when they played the Newport Folk Festival as a major act. However, their progress came to an abrupt halt in May 2013, when Lamb was admitted to a hospital in Houston, Texas, suffering from fatigue and shortness of breath. After extensive tests he was found to be severely anemic and was later diagnosed with leukaemia. As a couple supporting themselves as working musicians, Lamb and Swain’s income was largely dependent on touring and, without health care, they now found themselves in serious economic difficulty. Fortunately, fellow musicians and the band’s fans found more than $70,000 to assist with the cost of three rounds of intense chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. In 2014 Lamb appeared to be recovering but, in late March, suffered an aggressive return of the leukaemia. He died on April 5th.
Recently MorganEve Swain has begun to record and play again, both as an individual musician singing and touring with various bands and using the name The Huntress and Holder of Hands, taken from a line from the song Avalon. This was written specifically for her by Lamb and recorded on Brown Bird’s final record, Axis Mundi. Her recognition of the richness of imagery in that brief song and her adoption of it as an identity through which to develop the trajectory of Brown Bird’s music seems to me significant on a more than personal level, since I see it as again placing their work together in the ‘place-between’ referred to earlier.
Brown Bird as an example of a ‘progressive’ American ‘folk music’?
The various styles of contemporary American music that are conventionally identified as folk or folk-influenced – blues; old time, Appalachian or mountain music; bluegrass, some elements within country music, and so on – while not without innovative elements, tend to conform to a self-contained, and ultimately conservative, sense of genre. One that can all too easily be related exclusively to particular regions or ways of life and so as ‘belonging’ to a particular, given, social constituency. It’s in contrast to this that I have begun to think of Brown Bird as creating a ‘progressive’ American ‘folk music’. By blending together the elements they do, they make a musical ‘place’ that is American in the best sense; that is both individual and inclusive, distinctly their own yet open to a spectrum of musical voices that can all-too-easily be taken as ‘other than’ the folk, bluegrass, and country music elements in their music. Yet in this respect their music is, ironically, perhaps more truly reflective of American vernacular culture – always located in a ‘place-between’ origins and a the dream of a ‘new home’ than, say, a modern form like bluegrass can ever be.