Culture  A new riff on the old

Sam Amidon embraces a traditional approach to playing folk music, while bringing it into this generation

Folk musician Sam Amidon may look like your typical doe-eyed indie crooner, but behind his innovative acoustic folk arrangements is a genuine old soul. One of the few successful musicians who has never recorded a song of his own creation, Amidon’s career is based almost entirely off of re-arranging and covering centuries-old American folk songs. On all of Amidon’s first three albums, every song is actually a modernized cover, though folk fans may not realize it on their first listen.

That’s because Amidon is able to preserve folk’s familiar rawness by using raspy vocals and acoustic guitar picking, while simultaneously adding a modern, refined element through soft horns and light spatterings of piano in a style reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. The music from his most recent album, “All Is Well,” feels entirely fresh. It’s still folksy, but folk with a bit of the dust brushed off.

For such a die-hard folk fan, Amidon’s love for folk music wasn’t immediate. Though both of his parents are folk musicians, Amidon admits that he originally dismissed old-time folk music as “scratchy and crude” compared to the ornate beauty of the Irish fiddle songs his parents encouraged him to play as a boy. “Free jazz” artists like Albert Ayler would later influence Amidon as well, and he eventually fell for the similar intensity and raw, scratchy feel of folk.
While he enjoys performing these songs, Amidon himself has yet to compose one of his own. When asked if he had ever been interested in writing his own material, Amidon replied that after the time spent learning, arranging, and performing old songs, he comes to view them as his own. “People tend to make a huge distinction between somebody writing their own songs or doing a ‘cover,’ but to me it doesn’t matter a whole lot,” he said in an email.

Actually, most of the songs Amidon plays have been ‘covered’ time and again by a slew of folk and rock musicians over the years. No two versions are the same, as every artist is unique in the way they add to and interpret each song. “When you listen to all of these amazing Irish fiddle players, they are all playing the same twenty tunes, and yet you love one and not another because of the power of the interpretation,” Amidon said. “Same with jazz: all those classic Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins albums are mostly standards, but that doesn’t matter because they are still creating music all the time while playing.”

In fact, before the record player, folk music only existed when it was played live. Plenty of old American folk songs were originally unwritten and passed on orally by travelers who changed and re-interpreted their sound and lyrics. Songs like “O Death,” a wonderfully grim dirge Amidon has covered that originated from somewhere in Appalachia, became popular when multiple versions began circulating throughout the American south.

In this sense, American folk music has always been treated as a public good, so calling Amidon’s songs “covers” seems incorrect. One of the songs Amidon plays, “Saro,” was taught to him by a friend, who learned to play it from bluegrass singer Doc Watson, who probably learned the song from someone else: thus the lineage of a single song’s re-incarnation under the various artists who have played it can be traced back over a hundred years. By playing these antique songs anew for his audiences, Amidon continues the tradition of keeping them alive while adding his own interpretation and sound as his predecessors did before him.

However, not all of Amidon’s songs are centuries old. His most recent album “All Is Well” sports one indie-folk re-vamp of R&B popstar R Kelly’s “Relief.” Although it doesn’t sound musically out of place amongst Amidon’s folk ballads, one has to ask how an R Kelly cover made it onto a folk album in the first place. “I realized that he had written a folksong,” explained Amidon. “It is very hard to actually write a folksong, and he did it!” Though R Kelly’s version of “Relief” falls a bit flat, Amidon’s cover actually breathes a little life, and a lot of re-envisioned meaning into the original. Not treating it any differently than a folk ballad from the 1880s, Amidon’s acoustic arrangement and performance adds a bit more weight and folksy sorrow to R Kelly’s pop lyrics.

For Amidon, however, it’s not about a song’s content. The strength of his music lies in his performance, arrangement, and in capturing the song’s overall soul in the context of folk. Regardless of what century his songs originate from, Amidon’s re-envisioned tributes leave listeners with an entertaining, fresh interpretation of the sound and language of folk music.