Sara Grey, well-known for the emotional power of her singing, her mesmeric frailed banjo style, and her deep knowledge of traditional song, has been around the British folk scene so long that she's been more or less adopted as 'one of ours'
When this article was commissioned I had a good idea of the shape it would take. I've admired Sara Grey's music for twenty years, been in a band with her, become a good friend along the way, and feel that I know pretty well what she's about. When we were rehearsing at her place some ten years ago, I remember her son Kieron Means (the name comes from Sara's first husband) talking to me about his teenage dream of 'making it' with a band. And here he was now, Sara told me, doing gigs on the folk scene and playing back-up on her new album. I was pleased; it's fun to play music with your kid. Then I saw Kieron Means perform, and realised that my feature about a great American singer whose son plays a bit too, was going to become a write-up of not one but two unique and compelling performers.
Sara Grey, well-known for the emotional power of her singing, her mesmeric frailed banjo style, and her deep knowledge of traditional song, has been around the British folk scene so long that she's been more or less adopted as 'one of ours'. She moved to Edinburgh in 1970, sick of the long-distance travelling involved in touring the US: "With the distances and the lack of traditional venues over there it's always been very difficult to make a living from my kind of music. I came back from a tour one day and saw that the odometer on my virtually new car was already reading 150,000 miles!" Sara's dwelt for most of the years since then in Britain, living these days on the Isle of Skye with husband Dave. After the demise of her successful duo with Ellie Ellis, and a period working with combinations of Roger Wilson, Dave Burland and your correspondent in a variously potent or chaotic outfit known as the Lost Nation Band, Sara has reverted to what she does best: playing solo.
Seated with her, overlooking the River Clyde and interrupted occasionally by Glaswegian youths convinced that the presence of a microphone signals celebrity presence, I begin by asking Sara how a gal from New Hampshire got mixed up with traditional music and banjos in the first place. Surely she didn't hear a lot up there? "Well, my Dad was stationed before the war in North Carolina, so I got to hear some banjo music when I was young. As I grew older, I started listening to more of it and begged my Dad for a banjo, and he got me one when I was about fifteen. By then my Dad was playing the fiddle: a bit of Cape Breton, a bit of classical stuff, some Quebecois tunes. And there were songs around me all the time, too, so it just seeped in, like osmosis. I was in a band with a guy I knew from school called Sterling Klink, and an old boy, R. J. Plunkett, a champion fiddler from Vermont. Then I got involved with the Golden Ring, which was a strong nucleus of traditional singers - people like Ed Trickett and Gordon Bok - and it snowballed from there. I started singing, and travelling, and collecting, and never really stopped. When I came over here in 1970, the scene was really rolling in England and Scotland, and I never looked back."
Sara's song collecting is something not too many folk revival singers ever found time for. It started in the late sixties with a venture into Northern Ontario accompanying Shelley Posen, now a member of leading Canadian trio Finest Kind. "There was a lot of singing in the logging camps, and I began to realise how little of that stuff had been collected. We got a lot of wonderful songs, and it helped that we were singers ourselves, who could exchange a song for a song, not just folklorists who stuck a microphone in somebody's face and said 'give us everything you've got'. It's bothered me over the years to see people like Jeannie Robertson get badly exploited. Lizzie Higgins used to tell me how difficult it was for her Mom, and Sheila Stewart said the same. Some of those American collectors were good at their job, but they were like bulls in china shops, they just wanted to get as much as they could. That's the last thing I've ever wanted to do. I don't like the idea of music being treated as a dead anthropological artefact; it's a living thing. When Jeannie had her stroke and couldn't give any more, the collectors just went away and forgot about her; she was expendable, an object rather than a living, breathing human being whose songs were an integral part of her life. To me it's important not to cut the songs off from the singer - they're inextricably bound together."
Sara also collected on South Uist, in the Hebrides, in 1970, living in an old 'black house' with an earth floor. "It was an amazing experience, with this gal called Kate Nicholson.. a gal?" Sara laughs, "she was ninety-four! She spoke only Gaelic, and for four months we communicated mostly in sign language, but we formed a great relationship. She was the strongest singer outside the Balkans that I've ever heard; I think the School Of Scottish Studies has the tapes."
When I first heard Sara's music, around twenty years ago, she was appearing with Ellie Ellis in a high-profile duo which held down prime slots at folk festivals and got rave audience reactions. Ellie's guitar acted as foil to Sara's banjo, and their repertoire contained a lot of contemporary material alongside old-time music, but perhaps the key to their appeal was a certain bubbliness and girlish humour. I remember a soundman at Bromyard festival adjusting a drooping mike stand with the words "It won't stay up," and Ellie bringing the house down with the eye-rolling reply, "Oh, poor baby!" Sara, though wasn't happy with the direction things were going. "We worked together constantly for eight years, which is a long time for a duo, and that sort of thing began to creep in more and more. I felt it was too frothy and there wasn't enough depth to what we were doing. There was so much inside me that wanted to come out in terms of strong traditional songs, whereas Ellie was perhaps leaning the other way. But she was having a lot of immigration problems anyway, so really it ended naturally. After we parted company I heard a few people muttering: 'Ah, but can Sara hold a night on her own?' They didn't realise I'd worked on my own for years before that! And, though I sometimes feel a bit swamped at festivals where I'm a solo acoustic singer in the middle of all those bands, I've never felt as confident as I do now working on my own, and - of late - working with my son." Sara's repertoire has certainly headed back towards the tradition since the duo parted. "Bob Coltman is the only songwriter whose songs I still sing. He has a way of drawing on the old themes and sliding them forward right into the 21st century, so people can relate to them. But mostly I just hang on to my belief in the old songs. They've always been near and dear to my heart, and when Ellie left I started to really think about the movement of songs across to America, which is my main interest these days. Not many people had looked at it back then; there were pieces of the puzzle on both sides of the Atlantic, but nobody had tried to connect them all together. I suppose I was on a mission - one that I loved."
It's a mission that forms a large part of Sara's musical life now. Her workshops on the subject, sometimes including the Scots singers Anne Nielsen and Jack Beck to provide comparative versions of ballads, have become very popular, particularly back home in the States where traditional folk enthusiasts are fascinated by the ancestry of their own songs. Sara has a huge store of American ballad variants such as her Little Musgrave, in which the cuckolded Lord Donald exacts his revenge not with sword, but with gun. Her interest was initially a reaction to British misconceptions. "When I first came over here, Tom Gilfellon, Mike Harding and Christy Moore were trying to get me work, but they were getting feedback from some of the so-called Traditional Folk Clubs saying: 'we like her singing, but she's American and we're a traditional club'. That used to really gall me, when people refused to gather in the whole picture of songs making their way across the Atlantic, and all the permutations that resulted. It kicked me off thinking that maybe I could quietly show that these songs did migrate. It's taken years for some people to admit it; folk singers can get very 'precious', and sometimes they try to claim possession of the songs, and pretend they're unique to a particular place. But of course they travelled, that's the beauty of them."
The way in which old British ballads got honed down, mislearned, or improved by singers in the Appalachians or the Canadian Maritimes is a source of wonderment to those of us who've studied the results, be they magnificent or amusingly garbled. Last year I was delighted to hear Suzanne Mrozak of Boston, Mass., perform a version of Bonnie George Campbell in which Mr. Campbell lived in Texas and "met a rounder who shot him till he died" instead of merely disappearing in the Highlands, as the Scots version has it. But Sara points out that even when ballads didn't change, the reasons are fascinating. "I sing a version of the broken token song Her Mantle So Green, which comes from County Fermanagh, but is also sung in just the same way in New Brunswick, just North East of my old home in New Hampshire. Why? Maybe it was printed on a broadside, and people learned it without losing the story or the tune, or maybe it was because of the isolation up there, with no outside influences to bring about change. Then there's Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still, which I learned from the version by Mrs. Martha Tillett on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but which is also sung in Selkirk, in the Scottish Borders, where it's part of the old tradition of Common Riding. It's the last song they sing when the riders return to the square, and folks there reckon it's about the beauty of Selkirk! People sometimes say to me, don't you get tired of old songs, but I get really excited about the things that happened to them."
Sara's new CD, Boy, She's A Daisy, named after a line from a classic Fiddling John Carson song, includes an Ozark version of that vigorous Transatlantic migrant The House Carpenter, but otherwise leans toward indigenous American material. That she's singing better than ever these days is amply demonstrated by her rendition of Parting Hand, which sounds so much fuller and more relaxed here than on a previous recording of the same piece. Several unaccompanied songs are delivered beautifully, but elsewhere the presence of fiddler Kate Lissauer and son Kieron's guitar lends the album an old-timey feel, and Sara's certainly playing more banjo than she did on her previous CD. Back then I felt that her love of unaccompanied singing was beginning to relegate the banjo to a minor role. "Yes, I began to realise I was putting the banjo down more and more often. But it's such a lovely instrument to accompany a lot of the songs I do. To me the song is the main thing, and I never try to push in an instrument just for the sake of it, but if it needs something to move it forward then I pick up the banjo."
The way Sara plays the banjo is the antithesis of the wall-of sound bluegrass merchants to whom more is always better. A firm believer in the principle that the spaces are as important as the notes, Sara plays with a very open style and a slow, hypnotic pulse, and it can work even on British material. "I've been using it lately on Tiftie's Annie in a G modal tuning; it sounds so plaintive. I do tend to pulse a song with a banjo, like Rosianne (Bob Coltman's rewrite of Lucy Wan). The banjo is soft but there's something menacing about it in the modal tunings that works really well."
The banjo players that helped to shape Sara's style aren't household names: "Reed Martin and Pete Hoover influenced me a lot. They're fairly unknown in the UK, though banjo afficionados know them well. Pete's a great big fellow about six foot eight, huge guy with hands like melons, but he plays with the softest touch. Same with Reed Martin - huge hands, gorgeous player. Kyle Creed was an influence as well, because I tend to play up the neck. I recently got an old Weymann banjo which I used on some of the tracks on the CD. It's a very simple old banjo with a vellum head and a lovely sweet resonance. It's got a plunkier sound, not as bright as the Whyte Ladie." Sara's referring here to her regular instrument, once famously left in the back of a taxi in Oslo - her frantic attempts to explain to a non-English-speaking operator that she'd left a banjo in an unidentified cab somewhere in the city are fondly remembered.
There are more people - especially younger ones - performing the old songs these days, but few get as deep into them as Sara Grey does. She seems to connect with them at an unusually deep level emotionally. "I do, yeah. I identify with them and they have great relevance for me. And I think if I've achieved anything at all in all these years it's that I've been able to pass that on to Kieron, that's what pleases me the most. He has such a tremendous passion when he sings, it goes right to the very core of himself, he's totally immersed in them."
At the time Sara said this, I hadn't seen Kieron Means perform. A few weeks later, though, I witnessed the truth of her words at Whitby Folk Festival; Kieron is a terrific performer on account of just that passion. His voice is especially striking, achieving the rare combination of a high lonesome edge with a warm richness of timbre, and it has a power to move the listener that few of his generation can match. His guitar playing is unconventional, its spareness a mile away from any notion of fancy picking, but it's highly effective, while his stage presence is charismatic, yet laid-back. His songs range from old-time, through the blues - which he sings with startling conviction - to the work of tradition-influenced songwriters, and his own composition The Shark has people who know a good song when they hear one nodding in approval. If Whitby audiences' enthusiasm is anything to go by - and I hear similar stories from other festivals - Kieron Means has a great future in folk music.
Meeting him in the back room of Whitby Rifle Club, a festival venue he's just wowed, I ask Kieron about his exposure to folk music: was he taken around festivals by his mother, and did he relate to what he heard? "I can't remember all the festivals she took me to as I was growing up. I always enjoyed it, never resented going, I was always keen to listen to my Mum and whoever else was on." Yet despite spending many of his formative years over here, and hearing so much English folk music, his repertoire is almost entirely North American. "I often wonder why I don't have more British songs in my repertoire, because I've grown up with them as much as I've grown up with American songs, and I've heard many that I'd really like to do. I think a lot of it is down to my guitar playing rather than my singing; I'd be comfortable singing English songs, but I've spent a lot of time playing blues or American style guitar, which might not fit them so well."
That teenage rock band I remembered (named Heartleap Well after a Wordsworth poem - something you couldn't imagine Noel Gallagher doing), mutated over the 1990s, selling their electric instruments and moving away from straightforward blues-based material into more acoustic realms. On the break-up of the band Kieron found himself absorbing material from his mother. Some of it's still there in his current repertoire, from traditional songs to things like Derroll Adams' The Sky and Bob Coltman's heartbreaking Lonesome Robin, both resurrections from Sara's back catalogue. His style, too, bears some of Sara's hallmarks, notably the use of vocal vibrato. "Definitely," Kieron replies to my suggestion, "it's not something I did consciously, but it's the mocking bird effect - I listened to my Mum a lot and it comes through in what I do. And I don't object to people telling me they've noticed it, in fact it fills me with pride when they do. Everything about the way I sing is really down to my Mum."
The emotion he puts in to his singing, without getting histrionic, is another point in common. "Mum's often said to sing things as you say them, and I just do that. But I try to think about what the song is saying as I'm singing it." His delivery of the blues is particularly passionate. He doesn't try to imitate black singers, but neither does he sound like the usual run of white bluesmen, and there's an almost other-worldly feeling about the way he slides up to high notes on songs like Hard Killing Floor. "The blues just struck me, I always loved it. I think the important thing is to approach it as naturally and as simply as possible, not to try to imitate. It's not necessary to play things in the style of the people you heard it from - if you sing a blues song it doesn't have to sound like Robert Johnson, although a lot of people try to do just that."
Even Kieron's guitar style, using the thumb to pick out melodies, betrays the influence of the banjo. "Obviously I had the frailing style in my head, though I never played banjo myself. I've always loved acoustic guitar but, from the first, when I was learning a song, I would pick out the melody - which is the most important part of the song apart from the story - on the guitar. That would leave it sounding a bit bare, so I'd add a drone to it, and that in turn would often get me involved with playing in open tunings. I try to play the melody with my thumbnail but in fact it often ends up on the flesh of my thumb (here he shows me an impressive callus). It's all about trying to keep things simple, and never putting anything in that isn't necessary. It's not the only style I play in; sometimes I approach things as a conventional guitar player might, and pick in the standard style, and I like to do the odd instrumental. Sometimes I like to sing unaccompanied as well; it all helps to vary the set, and you do need to remember you're putting on a show, not just getting up and playing the songs the way you do in your bedroom. It took me a while to realise that," he adds, with a rueful smile.
Having been based for the last four years in Arizona, Kieron has done a lot of his performing there and along the West Coast. "A lot of the gigs are coffee houses, bookshops, house concerts, libraries - wherever I can get them. I did play some bars as well but I do a more bluesy set there, since that's what they want. Most of the actual folk clubs and festivals I've played have been over here in England."
Kieron's debut CD is called Run Mountain, after an old-time song, and he describes it as a sister album to Sara's new one: mother and son act as accompanists on each other's albums, and the presence of Kate Lissauer on fiddle is common to both. "I really wanted to record an album with my Mum, and we had a lot of fun doing it," he says, "I'm really pleased with the result." When I ask him whether he's ambitious for a career or just playing music for fun while the opportunity presents itself, Kieron is disarmingly frank: "I'll tell you the truth. I love to play music, but I love it mostly because it connects me to things that are important to me, rather than having great ambitions as a performer to do this or that. A lot of the motivation to do gigs comes from other people who encourage me. Years ago I did dream of reaching a high level, but now I just enjoy going along to festivals, playing my stuff and seeing other people play theirs. And that's it. I'm happy - it's all I could ask for."
by Brian Peters
Published in Issue 50 of The Living Tradition, January/February 2003