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Sam Amidon

Monheim Papers The Reworker: Sam Amidon von Christina Mohr
Photo: Sam Amidon. John Spinks for Monheim Triennale

Artists are often said to be versatile – which is not always true, but in the case of Sam Amidon it really is. His folk music unites multiple new and old influences. However, it does not mean that he simply ticks the box of a folk musician. The musical approach of this multi-instrumentalist (he plays violin, banjo, guitar, piano) ultimately does not follow suit to any genre, and each of his albums has a different sound and yet unmistakably sounds true to himself.

‘Folk is my starting ground’, Sam elaborates, incorporating jazz, pop, and classical influences, making his music feel both individual as well as rooted in tradition. ‘I believe in a global flow of music. But I also believe in musical languages – or rather genres – which follow their own logic and traditions, and that you can invest a lot of time in mastering these. At the same time, these languages are always in flux and change through interaction with other musical styles and musical languages’.

‘Folk is my starting ground’, Sam elaborates, incorporating jazz, pop, and classical influences, making his music feel both individual as well as rooted in tradition. ‘I believe in a global flow of music. But I also believe in musical languages – or rather genres – which follow their own logic and traditions, and that you can invest a lot of time in mastering these. At the same time, these languages are always in flux and change through interaction with other musical styles and musical languages’.

Photo: Sam Amidon. John Spinks for Monheim Triennale

He loves to rework well-known folk songs which is different from just covering these songs. Sam calls his method ‘reworking’, because he approaches folk music like a jazz improviser. He takes a melody from one place, borrows a lyric from another one and combines these bits with his own surprising chord progressions and arrangements. Since his 2014 album 'Lily-O', his unique way of working has earned him a lot of praise and respect by tradition-conscious folkies as well as indie hipsters.

'Folk music belongs to us all’, Amidon remarks. 'We often don't know who wrote it, nor do we always have a written record or sheet music for it. So many well-known tunes are only played by ear and passed on and change over time.' This 'living music' offers room for improvisation and modification.
One example is the song 'Cuckoo'. Originally an English folk song called 'The Cuckoo / Coo-Coo Bird', it was first recorded in 1929 by American folk singer Clarence Ashley for Columbia Records. Ever since, there have been well over a hundred well-known recordings of this song by musicians as diverse as Townes Van Zandt, Kristin Hersh and Taj Mahal. Amidon's version revolves around the banjo, but the song seems much gentler than the oldest recording conveyed.

Apart from traditionals and folk songs, Amidon also reworks pop songs, such as 'Walking On Sunshine' by Katrina & The Waves, Mariah Carey's 'Shake It Off' or 'Relief' by R. Kelly (!). The effect is amazing: With Amidon's arrangement, the boundaries between traditional and contemporary music disappear. He unearths the soul of a piece and thus enables a completely new reception thereof. 'A song has to speak to me, its genre doesn't matter', says Sam. ‘However, folk music covers a much wider range of topics than pop music. That's what has always excited me. Pop songs are predominantly about love: boy meets girl. That's great too, but folk is about so much more, they tell about arduous work in the mines or cotton fields, about building the railway, adventures, about being on the road, about poverty and violence. There are murder ballads and crime stories – like in today’s hip hop.' When asked if he could also imagine using rap for his reworks, he starts to laugh: ‘Maybe I'll start to rap, who knows?’ With his wife's 15-year-old daughter and their joint 10-year-old son, there is ‘a lot of hip hop in the house’ for sure.

For Sam Amidon, being versatile means to be active not only as a musician, but also, for example, as a comic artist and video artist. In 2011, he published his collected tweets in the book ‘Notes On The Twitterographer’, in the early 2000s he performed his multimedia programme ‘Home Alone Inside My Head’, combining storytelling, videos and music on stage. He also offers fiddle and banjo tutorials on the internet, which suggests a certain pragmatism. While making music is something like an innate talent for him (more on that later), there has been a time when Amidon did not touch his fiddle at all, and instead worked in a journalist office and transcribed interviews. In an interview by the Irish Times some years ago, he basically stated that he felt no need to climb up an imaginary career ladder.

Hippies, Black Musicians & Appalachian Musicians

His fortunate return to music after his self-imposed time-out is simply because he enjoys creative exchange. Making music together with others has defined Sam's life from the very beginning: He is the son of Mary Alice and Peter Amidon, who, after being exposed to folk music in the early 70s, moved from Cambridge/Massachusetts to Vermont and joined the socially conscious Bread and Puppet Theater group and lived on a farm. ‘I grew up surrounded by this great community of musicians, which had a significant impact on me and my younger brother. The social element was very important to my parents.' On Nonesuch Records (also the label for Sam's records) they released folk songs that had their origins in Appalachian music.

Appalachian music has long been an established genre term that encompasses diverse musical styles imported to the Eastern parts of the US in the 17th and 18th centuries by migrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland, but also by African-American slaves. Apart from simple percussions, various stringed instruments are characteristic features for this music: the violin, or rather the fiddle, and the banjo, which was added by African-Americans. Although the banjo is essential for bluegrass, blues, and country music, it was denigrated as a ‘slave instrument’ for a long time. The participation of Black musicians on recordings was suppressed, just like the existence of Black cowboys was denied (Amidon strongly recommends the 1972 film ‘Buck And The Preacher’ with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in this context – what does this man not know about, actually?).
'Appalachian music is to a large extent genuinely Black music’, notes Sam, 'literally global music. By the way, my parents never tried to pretend to be black. They were hippies who wanted to try out different traditions. That was very popular in the 1970s.’

Fanboy & Admirer

It's fascinating to hear Sam Amidon talk about music – his knowledge is vast, his enthusiasm infectious, whether it's about the Irish music scene in Boston or the hip hop band ‘A Tribe Called Quest’, whom he loves dearly and who, like him, incorporate a wide variety of influences into their tracks, for example jazz piece samples.

Amidon always refers to that idea of community, the love of working in communities, as he once did on his parents' farm. As a teenager, he founded the contra dance band Popcorn Behaviour with his brother Stefan and buddy Thomas Bartlett. ‘Thomas was into the same kind of folk music as I was. I guess my other friends thought it was a bit weird. However, it wasn't that they were against it, it simply had nothing to do with my life at school. It was part of a different world. At school I was interested in basketball cards and cartoons.’

Photo: Sam Amidon. John Spinks for Monheim Triennale

Later on, he continued to play in Bartlett's indie bands when the latter went to New York and Amidon lived there for a couple of years also. ‘In New York City I discovered downtown music – people like the Lounge Lizards and Marc Ribot. When I moved to New York and first heard live concerts – mostly at a club called Tonic – it was very inspiring for me. Some of the first bands I saw were Charles Burnham, Don Byron, Elysian Fields, Chocolate Genius and Chris Whitley. Seeing those bands perform broadened my horizon, my musical understanding.’

Later on, Amidon played with Ribot on several occasions, because Amidon is not only a fanboy and admirer of these great musicians – these are exactly the people who want to play with him! If one were to try and make a list of all his collaborations and guest appearances, it would be endlessly long. Worth mentioning at this point are his collaborations with Kronos Quartet, with experimental jazz musicians such as multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily (with whom he will also perform at the Monheim Triennale 2022) or indie pop musician Tune-Yards. Sam was part of the Icelandic label collective Bedroom Community, played with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and – an extraordinary moment for him – improvised spontaneously with Irish folk legend Martin Hayes in the Lower East Side.
His cooperation with his great role model, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, started out in Germany. In 2011, Amidon performed as guest musician with Frisell's band Beautiful Dreamers in Ludwigsburg. Sam begins to rave when he talks about Frisell: 'I've always admired him for his incredibly free playing style, nobody does it the way he does. 'The Ludwigsburg concert was the start of a long-term and fruitful artists’ friendship that led, among other things, to work on Amidon's album 'Lily-O'. Sam Amidon brought Frisell and Shahzad Ismaily together in a studio in Iceland, where Amidon first presented the music pieces he had selected. The arrangements were created together and spontaneously, combining folk and jazz traditions with improvisation.

With his wife Beth Orton with whom Sam has lived ‘on and off’ in London and Los Angeles for the past twelve years, he carries on the Amidon family ideal of living and making music together. They often perform together and play on each other's records. He does not formally play together with his brother Stefan Amidon, who is, among other things, the drummer and singer of the folk band Sweetback Sisters, but they do perform at the New Year's Eve concert in Brattleboro (Vermont) together with their parents. He describes his own children as ‘great musicians’ but doesn't want to put any pressure on them to follow the same path as himself.

On his latest self-titled album from 2020, Sam covers – or rather reworks – eight traditional folk songs as well as ‘Light Rain Blues’ by Taj Mahal, with support by Beth Orton, acoustic bass player Ruth Goller and sax player Sam Gendel. For Sam, the album is the most coherent expression of his creative mission so far, which is interesting, because three years earlier he released ‘The Following Mountain’, his record with exclusively original compositions. But this also reflects Amidon's artistic self-image: He does not claim to be the only outstanding composer. It's the songs that count.

‘It's not as if I'm a preacher!’

On his album ‘Sam Amidon’ there is also the traditional song ‘Hallelujah’, with its unaltered, deeply religious lyrics:

‘Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,

But let me find them all again
In that eternal day /

[Chorus]
And I'll sing Hallelujah
And you'll sing Hallelujah
And we'll all sing Hallelujah
When we arrive at home’

In the video for ‘Light Rain Blues’, Amidon runs through nature playing the banjo and re-enacts a Baptist baptism in a river. The tracks on the EP ‘Fatal Flower Garden’ – his tribute to the proto-hippie, responsible for the famous folk music anthology, freaky all-round artist, bohemian and ‘neo-gnostic bishop’ Harry Smith – are also spiritually influenced. Amidon does not give a straightforward answer to the question about his own religiousness, but instead explains that musicians don’t have to be religious to play hymn-like songs. ‘I have been involved with hymns and religious or moreover sacred music for a long time, I love sacred harp singing’ (a Christian spiritual style of choral singing, especially in the southern states of the US). ‘Many folk songs use a spiritual language. Or think about classical music. If you listen to Bach's St Matthew Passion, the sound of the music and the singing will grab you, whether you're a believer or not.’

Amidon's own unusual vocal style, which on the one hand is strongly restrained and on the other seems detached from the rest of his music, is – according to Amidon – influenced by the British singer/songwriter Nick Drake. Drake, who has been cited as an inspiration by so many, is known for his melancholic, delicate intonation. ‘Folk vocals can be very harsh, downright piercing. I wanted to be different from that, sound brighter and softer. But I also love the crystal-clear singing style by Almeda Riddle, a traditional singer from Arkansas. Or Paul Brady, an Irish folk singer who incorporates rock elements into his songs.’

There it is again, Amidon's great admiration of other people's artistry – which shows even, or especially when he is supposed to be talking about himself. When asked if he explains the songs when he plays live, Sam replies, ‘Not on stage. It’s not as if I am a preacher! I want people to feel challenged to follow-up on the tracks later, to find out what the song in question is about, or where it came from. But of course I'll answer questions if people come up to me after the concert.’

Instagram concerts & real gigs

On that note, during the last couple of months, live performances have hardly been possible. How did you experience this? ‘Oh, I was lucky because I was able to do some stuff!’ Instagram concerts, for example. ‘Of course, this is not the same thing as performing in front of other people in the same room. One should also not pretend that these are ‘real’ concerts, it is something completely different. But I am happy about these opportunities, and I take advantage of them. The feedback, the comments are very important to me. In November 2021, I was even able to travel to Japan to play live. That was incredible. I performed there with Terry Riley, the legendary minimalist composer. And let's not forget the Monheim Prequel last summer! That was a wonderful, special experience to play with the other musicians in ever-changing constellations on that boat. I'm looking forward to the ‘real’ Triennale, also because it's definitely to be completely different again. This time we can bring our own musicians, and all the participants work on exclusive programmes.’

For his "Signature" project at the Monheim Triennale 2022, Sam Amidon has invited Chris Vatalaro, Shahzad Ismaily and US avant-garde guitarist and composer Marc Ribot for a joint performance.

Artist Page Sam Amidon Signature Project: Sam Amidon Band & Very Special Guest Marc Ribot