Wednesday, February 27, 2008

creating a legacy: from ballads to cowboy songs

WHAT'S UP THE PIKE: Ike Leggett wants a bigger County Council; Marilyn Praisner's widower considers running for his wife's old seat.

Part TWO of a series about Lisa Null, Silver Spring folk artist, who will be performing solo for the first time in twenty years this Thursday.

Forming a set list for your first solo concert since 1989 might seem like a difficult proposition, but for singer Lisa Null, the time's been a big help in an unexpected way. "Your repertoire erodes" over time, says Null. "You're just singing what you like, and you forget."

While she once knew over five hundred songs, the 65-year-old East Silver Spring resident now has about 150 pieces to choose from for her show this Thursday in Laurel, celebrating the re-release of her albums Feathered Maiden and American Primitive, both recorded over twenty years ago.

Nonetheless, Null's drawing from an incredibly wide range of musical influences, from centuries-old English ballads to 1930's singing cowboy Gene Autry to jazz and gospel. "For a long time, if you asked me what kind of music I do, I'd say 'Afro-Celtic.'," says Null, laughing. "There's a lot of places where black and white music bump up against each other."

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Coming from a family where she "grew up very comfortable with all kinds of music," Null explored a bevy of musical styles. Classical training in college proved too rigid, and it left her ill-prepared to sing blues at bars in the years following in order to pay rent. Discouraged but unwilling to give up, she looked to the music from her native New England for inspiration and found a place in folk ballads. While ancient in origin, the ballad's heyday was in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were the era's popular music, mostly a means of retelling well-known fables, fairy tales and, of course, dirty jokes.

"Ballads deal with all the darker sides of the human consciousness in a very frank sort of way," says Null. Death is a common theme in ballads (specifically so-called "murder ballads"), as is forbidden or lost love. Decades of research have yielded many unusual and especially obscure pieces. "I would find a lot of strange songs . . . songs in old books that nobody sang," says Null, who has been incorporating those finds into her repertoire.

The concert will be given a cappella, a departure from Null's past work with guitarist Bill Shute, with whom she performed on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion throughout the 1980's. Arthritis has reduced her ability to play the guitar herself, and moving heavy equipment has become increasingly difficult. "We've reached that point where I can't schlep my own piano, and if you're playing in the area, you have to bring your own sound system," she laments.

But the lack of instrumentation will be an asset for her show, Null insists. "The songs I love - the old traditional songs and ballads - are meant to be sung unaccompanied," she says. "People were doing work, using their hands, and they weren't holding a guitar."

Laurel resident Dennis Cook will be hosting the show in his home. Private residences are common venues for folk concerts due to the small crowd they attract, Null explains. And besides, it's an environment best suited for the music she'll be performing. "It just takes me back . . . I've always been singing a cappella, and I don't see why I can't bring it into someone's living room," she says. "That's where it was meant to be: in porches and living rooms."

For more information, check out the Folklore Society of Greater Washington's website, where you can find out about Thursday's concert and other folk events in the region.

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