If a song is strong, it's gonna last a long time," says Jake Xerxes Fussell. He should know. Fussell is a folksinger—not just a ballad crooner with an acoustic guitar, but a sincere champion of traditionally rooted tunes. Fussell, who hails from Columbus, Georgia, but makes his home these days in Durham, comes by his calling honestly. His father, Fred Fussell, is a folklorist who's been documenting traditional songs for decades, and Jake grew up surrounded not only by recordings of that music but also the musicians themselves. It couldn't help but rub off.
Fussell's own take on traditional music manages to mix in everything from pre-World War II jazz tunes to early country singer-songwriters and centuries-old ballads. He's got a knack for digging into the deep well of American roots music history and coming up with something he can add his own spin to, while maintaining a distinct reverence for the source material. On What in the Natural World, his second album for Carrboro's Paradise of Bachelors label, he finds a fundamental connection with songs from a broad spectrum of sources.
We asked Fussell—who's recently been busy doing some opening slots for Wilco—to talk about the sources and stories behind each of the tracks on the album, giving us a glimpse into his big bag of songs.
I just learned it straight from a Duke Ellington record from the early forties, with a woman [Ivie Anderson] singing the lead vocal. Not long after I moved to North Carolina, I started playing that song. I just naturally gravitated to it. Even though there's a full orchestra arrangement on that Duke Ellington recording, I knew that I could try to work up my own little version on the guitar. It's got some interesting imagery in it; it's simultaneously evocative and pretty mysterious. I tend to appreciate that in songs—I like an element of mystery in there.
That one I knew from a recording of this guy Jimmy Lee Williams from Poulan, Georgia, by my friend George Mitchell, who is a folklorist and a blues documentarian. George and my parents are good friends; I grew up knowing George and was interested in a lot of the music he recorded. I really liked that song as soon as I heard it. Some of these songs conjure up some specific landscape images—that's a song from Georgia, and you think about Georgia and peaches. Of course, they grow sweet potatoes in Georgia too. There's something kind of nonsensical in there that I appreciate as well, and there's clearly something sexual going on at some level, or at least sensual.
"PINNACLE MOUNTAIN SILVER MINE"
I just heard it from this one recording of a woman named Helen Cockram, who was from Hillsville, Virginia. She recorded that song with her bluegrass group The Highlanders in the early eighties. It's on a compilation of native Virginia ballads. I think she wrote it—there might be some elements in there that are traditional, but I'm pretty sure she was the composer of that song. It's really beautiful.
I started playing that when I was nineteen or twenty years old. I don't know why I didn't put it on my first record. I learned that from a recording from 1930 by this guy Lil McClintock, who was from, I think, Clinton, South Carolina. That version sort of stands on its own, but there are other "Furniture Man" songs out there. When I was growing up, I knew these guys, Doug Booth and Joe Berry, and they used to play a version of the song "Cocaine Blues" that had a verse about the furniture man. It was part of a family of songs, I think. There's sort of a defiant quality in that song too, a song about being dispossessed.
"BELLS OF RHYMNEY"
That one, I first heard from Pete Seeger's recording. Somebody started saying, "Oh, I really like that Byrds song," and I didn't know the Byrds had done it. And I didn't know much about the history of the song—I thought it might have been a Dylan Thomas poem or something. But since then I've been learning more about the history of the song that I hadn't known about. [Welsh poet Idris Davies] adapted some of that imagery from older children's songs, from what I understand, so he was kind of a people's poet. I didn't know much about that landscape, about Wales. I didn't know who wrote it, I just started playing it blindly without much idea about the context. I did find out a little more about the poet and where he came from.
"Billy Button" I learned from my friend Art Rosenbaum, who is a painter and great musician, and also folk music field recordist in Athens, Georgia. Art's been making field recordings of folk music all over America since the mid-fifties. There's a woman named Mary Ruth Moore, who works in the art department at the University of Georgia—she knew some older songs from her father in North Georgia who would sit around the house and sing songs. That was one of them. There's a lot of nonsensical stuff going on in there, kind of comedic imagery. I think some of that comes from nineteenth-century minstrel show stuff. I went back and found different versions of it in songbooks, but I've never heard too many recordings of anybody doing it. That's just a really unusual sort of absurdist song.
I first heard that on a Folkways LP [Folk Songs of the Colorado River] by this woman named Katie Lee, and I thought it was beautiful. The chord progression was really unusual, kind of unsettling to me. In her liner notes, she said the song was written by a guy named Loy Clingman. He'd written some things for Lee Hazlewood, but he was more like a honky-tonker, he made some rockabilly records back in the fifties. That's one of the fun things about doing this—a lot of these songs, they go through so many different channels at different times that, when they get to you, it's hard to say what type of song they are. But that one was really beautiful, I really loved the story there, and the imagery. And I've never done too much Southwestern music before, so I thought that might be interesting.
"ST. BRENDAN'S ISLE"
That's another narrative song. Jimmy Driftwood wrote that. I already knew a few Jimmy Driftwood songs just because they're famous, like "Battle of New Orleans," which Johnny Horton recorded, and "Tennessee Stud," which a lot of people recorded, including Doc Watson. I didn't know a ton of his other songs, and then I started listening to his records from the early sixties and I thought, "Oh, god, there's so much more going on here." I heard that one and I thought it might be something I would like to sing. I was attracted to the story. He's sort of imitating Irish folk music, so it's like a faux Irish song. There's sort of a big, colossal mythical element in there, too, that's kind of fun. It's funny because not a whole lot of Americans know that song—it seems like more Irish people covered that song.
I got it from Jimmy Tarlton. I didn't learn it from him directly—I never met him—but he was from Phenix City, Alabama, which is right across the river from where I'm from. He recorded that song around 1930, I think. He was part of the duo Darby and Tarlton, they were country music pioneers back in the twenties. That's from a family of songs called "Henry Lee" or "Loving Henry Lee," some of those jealous murder ballads from long ago, probably the eighteenth century if not older, I think. There's a million versions of that out there. Dick Justice's version is the first track on Harry Smith's Anthology [of American Folk Music], Bob Dylan did a version of "Henry Lee" on his World Gone Wrong record, but that one is unusual. It's a creepy-ass song, really. It's got some powerful stuff going on. I didn't know if I wanted to put something that dark on this record, but then there was something too good about that one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "From the Vaults."