Katie Avery is awesome. I stumbled on her album, Lake Annie, by accident when looking for a recording of “Coleman’s March.” I’ve become interested in old-time fiddling recently — not the same as bluegrass, though they are often mistaken for one another. Bluegrass is rooted in the same traditions, but it’s a more modern, urban, jazz-influenced music. It’s great music, but the deceptive simplicity of old-time fiddling has its own appeal.
“Deceptive simplicity,” in a nutshell, describes Lake Annie, and it describes Katie too. She’s a classically trained musician, but, as she explains on a Youtube video, “the thing I like most about fiddle music is the grooviness of it . . . it’s really groovy and rhythmic and it makes you dance.” In the Youtube interview, she appears as a soft-spoken, self-assured young woman, if a bit shy, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, carefully clutching an electric five-string violin. As she speaks, the tape cuts away to one of her live performances at the Gold Rush Saloon – she sings and fiddles “Sinner Man,” a great song with its own wonderful history, also on the album. Here she wears granny glasses, a sleeveless dress with a big buckle and a flared skirt, and thick wool stockings. Shoeless, her feet manipulate a looper on the floor. She plays that fiddle so effortlessly, and so gracefully, that breathing hardly seems easier. She’s a natural.
The power of this little video is hard to put your finger on, but I think it lies largely in the understated quality of her performance. This is the nature of the power of Lake Annie, too – an album filled with subtleties so sneaky, and so compelling, they creep up on you in a series of surprises. The more you listen, the more you are blown away by the genius of her music.
Take track 6, for instance — “Sam Hall.” The lyrics of this beautiful old melody tell the tale of a condemned man hanged for robbery. The words are his own, sung from the grave. The events of the story are based on the real-life hanging of Jack Hall in England in 1701, and the first version of the song appeared a few years later.
In the earliest version we have, “Sam” is still “Jack,” and he is an unrepentant thief and chimney sweep, resigned to his fate. The song is full of pathos and is clearly social commentary on the plight of the poor. The opening lines are, “Oh my name it is Jack Hall, chimney sweep, chimney sweep,” and the song ends, “oh never a word said I coming down” as the trapdoor is sprung.
Over three centuries, the song has morphed in many ways: Jack became Sam, the thief became a murderer, all mention of chimney sweep disappeared, and the defiant criminal speaks plenty of words on the scaffold, most of them profane. Two very different melodies have emerged, the British and American versions. The song has always been popular and, at least since the 1960s, has been covered by artists in many different genres, including folk, punk, country, and heavy metal. Johnny Cash and Tex Ritter released two of the most famous American versions, but the most notorious version is the U.S. Air Force’s “Sammy Small,” which has been around since at least the Vietnam war and is unequaled in its profanity.
This all makes for a rich history of possible artistic choices, and the song is still performed today for both its lyrical possibilities and its shock value. The most remarkable choice for Katie, in my opinion, is that she chose the song at all – so far as I know, she is the only woman ever to record it. But when you hear her sing “My name, it is Sam Hall,” you understand there could be no more perfect voice than hers for the task. That voice — delicate, thin, clear as cold water, if sometimes a little off-key — makes the melody almost unbearably heartbreaking.
The recording, in fact, contains many contrasts so skillfully put together that, lost in the beauty of the melody, you’re hardly aware of what you’ve heard until the song ends – and then you have to listen again. After singing lyrics more or less faithful to the original version – “ne’er a word I said tumblin’ down” — Katie adds another stanza, making a liar of the chimney sweep: “My name it is Sam Hall, and I hate you one and all. You’re a bunch of muckers all, damn your eyes.” Her voice never loses its sweet beauty — which is, of course, quite shocking – and only then do you realize you’re in the hands of a maestro.
To appreciate this track even more, you might want to listen to all of the other recorded versions of “Sam Hall” you can get your hands on. This in itself is a lot of fun, but only afterward can you truly appreciate the originality of the haunting arrangement of Katie’s “Sam Hall.”
The entire album is a study in contrasts – light vs. darkness, old vs. new, gender vs. gender. I’m currently stuck on the opening track, so full of joy –“Turkey in the Straw” – a tune with its own long, dark, jubilant history. See if you can listen to it more than once without getting goosebumps during the infectious rhythm of its 32-bar opening.
Here’s to Katie – may she give us many more such treasures before she’s done!