Maybe having an arsenal of Tennyson and Yeats really was the key to survival for songwriter, composer, and fiddle player Jenny Scheinman. “Okay, Jenny,” I imagine her mother telling her, “One more time, repeat after me…‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands.’” “What does any of that have to do with an album of fiddle tunes?” Scheinman asks. “The fiddle has that same raw, outlaw, dirt-on-your-knees spirit of prison poetry. The fiddle can be played by anyone with rudimentary musical skill,” her mother says. “It can entertain a crowd. Its songs are the people’s music. And honestly, if I ever end up in prison, I’d much rather have a fiddle on me than a poem,” retorts Scheinman. Her instrumental album Here on Earth is a reflection of that storytelling through the voice of the instrument Scheinman knows best.
The fifteen-song album has seen many of its songs find a home in Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a collaboration with filmmaker Finn Taylor that was commissioned by Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances. The music completes the picture, which collects archival footage taken between 1936-42 by H. Lee Waters (1902-1997). Waters was a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont, a region spanning much of central North Carolina that includes parts of Appalachia. During his travels, he made short movies of people living ordinary lives during the Great Depression. This backdrop for the music makes the album extraordinary.
Scheinman based her band for these recordings on a specific scene from the movie, where three musicians (fiddle, banjo and guitar) are playing at a dance party. Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, tuba), Robbie Fulks (guitar, banjo), Bill Frisell (guitar) and Robbie Gjersoe (resonator guitar) were brought in not just for their brilliant skills and deep-rooted understanding of fiddle music, but because they brought the barn-stomping, slightly unhinged energy she was trying to conjure.
By collecting this authenticity in the studio, the magic of a specific period in time is captured in Here On Earth. From the opening song “A Kid Named Lily” to “Broken Pipeline” and all those in between, each sings Americana in the purest form. It’s a treat for the ears to listen to American history. Scheinman makes the fiddle sing, delivering elegant beauty in the time capsule. The songs here are diverse: listeners will hear a jig (“Up On Shenanigan”) coupled with mournful work from Robbie Faulks (“Pent Up Boy”). It seems pointless to single out an individual track when they are part of a whole evoking deep emotion. The best suggestion is close your eyes and listen. Listening to Here on Earth by Jenny Scheinman is a joyful, haunting, hopeful journey that is not to be missed. For those lucky enough to be on the east coast, there are two upcoming opportunities to see this piece live in Maine or New York. Don’t miss out. —Lisa Whealy