Come see Frank perform Monday, July 23rd at 8pm. Tickets available here.
âA young Californian who sings and plays as someone whoâs crawled out of the Virginia mountains carrying familiar songs that in his hands sound forgotten: broken lines, a dissonant drone, the fiddle or the banjo all percussion, every rising moment louder than the one before it.â â Greil Marcus
âOne of Americaâs best conduits of antiquityâ â Pitchfork
Whatâs the saddest song you play?
Frank Fairfield: A lot of the old British ballads can be pretty rough on you. They were mostly morbid about murder and lost love and all that kind of thing. I guess many of them were pretty sad. âPoor Ellen Smithâ is one that comes to mind. Just about any of those. Lately when I play âPoor Ellen Smith,â I find that it kind of brings on one of those really lonesome times.
When youâre singing an old ballad, does that story become yours?
Frank Fairfield: In a sense. I remember Alan Lomax asked Texas Gladden that when she sang the balladsââCan you see whatâs happening when youâre singing about a man running off with Gypsy Daisy?â And she said, âYeah, I can just sit and admire it and I can see the whole story happening.â And I think that happens when I get the imagination going. You go there when you sing those songsâyou can see the dagger going in and you can see the limp body floating in the water. It can be rough.
What attracts you to these stories and songs?
Frank Fairfield: I guess we all like to feel kinda lonesome sometimes. Theyâre not all so morbid. Theyâre just the things that people remember. A lot of these are not topical songsâa lot of this is just lyricism. Especially those British ballads. The American ballads tend to be more topical. The popular ones are about actual events. People like sensationalism maybe.
What typifies a topical ballad?
Frank Fairfield: Oh my goodness, itâs all such a big mess. The most beautiful thing about America is that you got such a big mess of things going on, particularly in what they call Appalachian songs, which is really nothing more than vaudeville songs and British ballads and plantation music. Itâs pretty hard to distinguish what is actually British and what is actually American. A lot of the British ballads that survivedâthe real old ones, many of which are five to seven hundred years old at leastâare mostly lyrical. Written just to be written. A lot of songs about John Hardy or John Henry for the most part, people sang songs about themâthings like the boll weevil. Events happened that were very particular and people started singing about them. In a sense, you can use a song to do just about anything. Maybe itâs more of my opinion, but music was a lot more useful then. The reason that these songs were kept alive is because when the pioneers came to America, they brought a precious cargo of songs with them that they didnât even know they brought. Itâs slightly argued, but for the most part itâs seen that English balladry survived in America far stronger than it survived in Britain. The pioneers needed the songs. The closer you are to the ground, the more you really need those songs. Music is a luxury now. Itâs kind of a thing thatâs for fun. It doesnât seem as necessary as when you didnât have anything.
When you talk, itâs like getting wrapped up in another time-world.
Frank Fairfield: I just feel like a hundred years ainât nothing. Few have been able to figure this thing out. This big spurt of what they call progress I guessâa lot of things have appeared to change. But a hundred years ainât nothing. People were just as well singing ballads that were a thousand years old as if they were neither old nor new or black or white or British or African. Itâs all just the peopleâs song. Itâs a natural occurrence.
Do you feel a connection to the past in the music that you choose to play?
Frank Fairfield: People do what they do because they dig it. I do what Iâm doing because I dig it. I found some kind of enjoyment over it and I like it. I donât want to say I feel a connection to something. Itâs a feelingâI just want to feel that Iâm trying to walk in the tradition. Trying to get back connected to the chain that was rather brokenârather split open. I want to get back to hold ground on something. I feel like a lot of us are just floating around in the air with nothing. When we were talking earlier, you said that nowadays people were trying to come up with the most original thing they can come up with. Maybe they misunderstood the meaning of the word âoriginal,â meaning really having to do with the origin, containing or having the qualities of origin, and thatâs what Iâm interested in. Iâm interested in the origin of things. Music is something that could swing a lot more. It seems like weâve squared it away. When things started getting a little more simplified to satisfy the masses and whatnot. It might sound like a harsh thing to say but the way I see the facts music seemed to be a whole lot more free. You could come in whenever you want. A lot of string bands played together all their lives since they were kids and knew the melody so well. And understood that melody is a thing all of its own. Itâs not something that you make up. Itâs something that you work out like the water. The waterâs flowingâyou can make a channel and let the water flow through there. But youâre not making up the water. Youâre just setting the course. Youâre setting the path, and thatâs what a tune is. Thatâs what any fiddle tune is. It happens on its own. You can ride it one way or another. But a tune is a thing all of its own. You know the tune and you can do anything to it. You can swing it one way or drag it another, come in whenever you want on it. And itâs a natural thing too. You just do it.
What music are you into right now?
Frank Fairfield: Iâve been rediscovering Ed Bells. He was a blues singer from Alabama. He recorded in 1927, I believe, until 1934 or something like that, mostly for Columbia. Iâve got one of his records under the name Barefoot Bill. I think thatâs one of two that he did under that name for Columbia. He was a fantastic singer. He had some pretty nice and good lines, so I been listening to him. Itâs a bit of mixed bag with me usually. Lately Iâve been playing a lot more than listening to anything too novel.
How did this album come together?
Frank Fairfield: On this record itâs more the standardsâthe old songs that everybody knew and everybody did. I planned to do more songs that are somewhat more of my own. But I was advised to do the ones that people like to hear me play. They like âCall Me A Dog When Iâm Gone.â The next time Iâm going to put more things that Iâve done. Sometimes I try to sneak them in live and see if nobody notices.
How do origins reveal themselves in your songs?
Frank Fairfield: I do what I feel comfortable with, I guess. Start playing an instrumentâmaybe something new pops out of it. Every single blues is song is basically the same progression. People put some words on it. I try not to think about it too much and leave it alone for the most part. I play with it and see what happens. I donât believe in pushing this stuff out or concocting.
How did you and Blind Boy Paxton come across each other?
Frank Fairfield: We passed each other on the street and stopped to talk to each other. Heâs about as good as they come. He plays mostly the guitar but he plays some banjoâthe way he plays the piano for the time heâs been playing it is phenomenal. Iâm the third wheel with him. Heâs the first two all by himself.