Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cory Seznec: Beauty In The Dirt


The roots-music group, Groanbox, has been a friend of this blog for some time now. You can find them on YouTube performing versions of "St. James Infirmary," or their own variation, "DarlingLou." Each member of the trio are accomplished musicians (accordionist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Ward-Bergeman, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Paul Clifford, and guitarist/banjoist and multi-instrumentalist Cory Seznec) who branch out into multiple projects of their own, some of them of a most esoteric nature. Earlier this year Seznec released his first solo album, Beauty In The Dirt.

Two of the songs on this album are covers - "East. St. Louis Blues" was written by Blind Willie McTell, and recorded by him in 1933. "East Virginia" is a traditional song with very long roots, recorded by- among many others- banjoist Buell Kazee in 1927 and guitarist David Bromberg in 2007. Seznec credits the influence of string duo The Alabama Sheiks' "Travelin' Railroad Blues"  on his song "(21st Century) Traveling Man." Well, the Alabama Sheiks were in the studio in 1931 for that one. (The Alabama Sheiks recorded a total of four songs - you don't get much more obscure than that.)

I mention this because while Seznec did not include "St. James Infirmary" on this disc, the blog you are reading covers not only the song itself, but the period in which it found popularity. And this, from the blues to Appalachia, is the musical period that resonates throughout Beauty In The Dirt

The CD opens with a brief instrumental, "Southern Bound 1" which, in variations, appears three more times as a kind of unifying theme. And then . . . "Dragon Tree." As with many of these songs you might find  yourself scratching your head and searching your memory: it sounds familiar, like a traditional song from the early days of American settlement. But it is an original composition. And so it goes, song after song.

For instance, "Sisyphus" opens with a traditional sort of lyric/melody:

You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
The world can't do me no harm

And then:

The stolen throne of Sisyphus hath crumbled beneath his feet
Condemned to push a giant boulder borne of his own greed and deceit

Even with a lyric like this, the song feels as if it had been written in a bygone time.

There is also a significant African influence here, both in the strength of his melodies and in the restrained use of percussion. Seznec - who spends much of his time in Africa - plays ngoni, a sort of gourd-lute, on some of these songs.

This might be the best album I have heard this year, with superlative musicianship throughout. A chorus from Seznec's "Dragon Tree" gives a hint of how we might approach these songs:

Hey children let's go down
Down to the creek get mud on our feet
Hey children let's go down
And leave the future behind us


To put a bit more of an SJI spin on this, two of the early musicians mentioned earlier, Buell Kazee and Blind Willie McTell, recorded their own versions of "St. James Infirmary." Buell Kazee was - in 1928 - the second person to record the song, which he titled "Gambling Blues." Blind Willie McTell recorded SJI for record shop owner Ed Rhodes in 1956. That recording has never been released.