Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania


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Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania Review

by Mark Deming

Of the many musical detours Marah have taken since releasing their first album in 1998, this is far and away the least expected (yes, even more so than their faux-Brit-pop album Float Away with the Friday Night Gods): in 1931, one Henry W. Shoemaker published a book called Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a collection of lyrics to folk songs associated with the Keystone State, and when Jimmy Baughman, a collector of musical arcanum, found a copy of the book, he passed it along to his friends David Bielanko and Christine Smith of Marah, thinking they'd find it interesting. And it appears Baughman was correct; Bielanko and Smith were taken enough with the lyrics that they decided to set a few of them to music, and on Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, they've recorded them on an old eight-track reel-to-reel machine in a barn, with Marah's core members joined by a handful of friends and neighbors, including eight-year-old Gus Tritsch, who plays fiddle and banjo and even takes lead vocal on "Harry Bell." If that makes it sound like Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania is supposed to be Marah's credibility-earning move into folk music, well, that isn't quite it: while a few tunes like "Luilana" and "The Old Riverman's Regret" sound organic and evocative, more of them feature a wild gumbo of electric and acoustic flavors that sometimes sounds like rootsy pop ("A Melody of Rain") or rough-hewn rock ("Sing! O Muse of the Mountains"), and other times recalls the bracing chaos of the Red Crayola's The Parable of Arable Land ("Rattlesnake," "Ten Cents at the Gate"). But the melodies Marah match to these lyrics generally fit well indeed, and if the why behind it all seems elusive, most of this album is an experiment that succeeds in its own curious way, finding a common ground between past and present in the fervor of the performances. Maybe this is the last place you'd expect Marah to go, but Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania turns out to be a better destination than some of the places they've ended up before. (By the way, you can read Shoemaker's book online, scanned from an edition at the University of Michigan Library. Isn't the folk process something?)

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