“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So goes one of the most famous lines from William Faulkner, the eminent Mississippi novelist commended for his unflinching view of the American South.
The phrase is also relevant to Joseph Decosimo’s new album, While You Were Slumbering, out November 11 on Sleepy Cat Records. Sourced from Decosimo’s work befriending older artists and plumbing the multigenerational depths of music sprung forth from his native Cumberland Plateau in the Appalachian Mountains, these 14 tracks update old-time tradition for today’s fractured world.
These aren’t just “distant interpretations of exotic repertoire,” as Decosimo writes in the album’s extensive liner notes. Instead, old English ballads like “The Fox Chase” and “Young Rapoleon” enter the modern lexicon, with Decosimo adding his dearly departed corgi, Charlie, to the first song’s venerated pack of hounds.
Other tracks retain their primordial narrative power while riding a wave of sonic dexterity. Decosimo’s delicate vocals transform “Trouble” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” from haunting laments into supple jaunts. Thoughtful instrumental contributions from young collaborators like Stephanie Coleman, Joe and Matt O’Connell, and Cleek Schrey add ethereal texture to “The Lost Gander” and “Clear Fork,” elevating hidebound Appalachian fare into the experimental cosmos.
Most stunning among the mix is “Possum up a Gum Stump.” Adapted from a 1940s western North Carolina field recording, the song—its title provincial to the point of pantomime—is made eerily transcendent thanks to resonant Hardanger d’amore (a 10-string bowed instrument) and pulsing bass clarinet from Alec Spiegelman.
Still, the strongest moments on While You Were Slumbering might be the most traditional. The keening voice of bluegrass legend and fellow Durham resident Alice Gerrard animates “Shady Grove,” “Apple Brandy,” and “Come Thou Fount,” all traced to old field recordings and recorded en plein air in Gerrard’s backyard. Meanwhile, the songs sourced from Decosimo’s mentor, Clyde Davenport, who died in 2020 at the age of 98, start with simple fingerpicked banjo before building outward into expansive contours of dissonance and consonance.
The Davenport repertoire exists in few other corners of the recorded American canon. That makes Joseph Decosimo a savior of sorts—who else could expose us to the microtonal pleasures of “Will Davenport’s Tune” and “Wild Goose Chase”? But far more is afoot on While You Were Slumbering.
You can feel the exultation and veneration informing Decosimo’s trained folklorist methods. You can hear joy, anguish, satisfaction, and sorrow—all the same emotions braided into these songs’ old-time roots.
“Never dead,” indeed.
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