Death, unlike taxes, is the great equalizer. From the mewling preemie in the neonate ward to former President Gerald Ford, from the lowly fruit fly to the august giant tortoise, from the pope to the Dalai Lama to the highest-ranking officiant in the Church of Satan, we can all look forward to that long dirt nap. It’s the reason for religion, the kick in the keister for science and art, the looming deadline that keeps the poets scribbling sonnets instead of smoking crack and watching daytime television. As much as we’re engineered to dread it, death — or, more precisely, our awareness of the inevitability of death — is what gives our lives shape and meaning, so, instead of distracting ourselves with anodyne myths and Billy Crystal movies, we’d do well to think about nature’s big ol’ booyah! now and again. Let the Pollyannas call us morbid; they’re gonna rot, too. As luck would have it, there’s no better time to contemplate one’s impending extinction than autumn, with its long, dreary evenings and its faint tang of decay, and no better soundtrack than Death Songs for the Living, Gob Iron’s self-explanatory debut, which, like all the best memento mori, is both a caution and a comfort.
Gob Iron, which is Britspeak for “harmonica,” is the new side project of Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo) and Anders Parker (Varnaline). Recorded over two days in the fall of 2004, the album contains nine reconfigured folk songs and a new Farrar original set off by nine short instrumental interludes. Farrar and Parker trade off on lead-vocal duties and play all of the instruments; both men also selected, arranged, and occasionally augmented the songs that they contributed, from a radically rejiggered take on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” which Farrar learned from his late father, and a sepulchral, piano-based version of A.J. Buchanan’s “Death Is Only a Dream,” which Parker first heard on a Stanley Brothers record. Farrar’s mournful baritone and Parker’s high-lonesome tenor blend beautifully, particularly on the opening cut, a haunted cover of the Rev. J.M. Gates’ “Death’s Black Train” that somehow splits the difference between gospel and raga. Their voices don’t sound enough alike to evoke the chilling close harmonies of sibling singers, but they set each other off to perfection in the same way that a dash of cinnamon brings out the sweetness in a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.
Although wrongheaded purists might sniff that the duo takes too many liberties with the source material, adding new verses and appropriating melodies and using all manner of anachronistic instrumentation, the project is paradoxically truer to the spirit of folk music than are strict re-creations. Folk music, after all, is an oral tradition, its songs passed on from generation to generation and adapted, like sturdy hand-me-downs, to the exigencies of the moment. What might be called intertextuality in academic circles or just plain stealing among less lofty types is part and parcel of the folk process. The club kids might think they invented the mash-up, but their ancestors were hip to that trick centuries ago. So when Farrar takes the lyrics from an old miner’s ballad and grafts them onto the melody of “Paul and Silas in Jail,” as he does on “Silicosis Blues,” or when he writes entirely new lyrics for the Anthology of American Folk Music staple “Coo Coo Bird,” as he does on “Nicotine Blues,” or when Parker changes the storyline of Carter Stanley’s “Wayside Tavern,” they’re embracing a tradition that prizes permutation over permanence. Death, of course, is a constant, but change keeps our death songs alive.
Contact René Spencer Saller at email@example.com.