The history of folk music could – and probably already does – fill a thousand doctoral theses. With its antecedents in the Celtic story-telling tradition, folk music is rich with narratives of human experience, perseverance and tragedy. New England performer Sam Amidon has spent much of his musical life exploring old folk tunes, and constructing his own idiosyncratic folk music identity. But Amidon sees himself as much more than a folk singer. “I don’t think of my albums as folk music at all, they’re very much personal albums that reflect my life over the last few years – the musicians I’ve encountered, the melodies I’ve heard,” Amidon says.
Amidon was born and bred in the town of Brattleboro is the New England state of Vermont. “Brattleboro is a beautiful little red brick town by a river with a mountain across the river. It used to be a small industrial New England farm town. Then in the '70s a lot of young hippie folkie types moved there and a lot of them were great musicians, including my parents! Vermont is a powerful place!” Amidon says.
With his parents both notable folk singers in their own right, the fact that Amidon ended up as a folk singer in his own right isn’t particularly surprising. “[Music] was all around us, inescapable, but at the same time we were never forced to do it,” Amidon says. “But not just folk music – one of the first concerts my dad ever took me to was the David Moss Dense Band which was crazy downtown-style avant-jazz, when I was seven years old,” he says.
By the age of three Amidon was playing fiddle, and quickly immersed himself in fiddle tunes. Amidon benefited from the tutelage of his parents, and many other seasoned jazz musicians. In the early 1990s Amidon formed Popcorn Behaviour, subsequently renamed Assembly in 2002. While Assembly has been described as ‘avant folk’, its style owed more to the exotic ‘contradance’ dancing style found in New England. “Contradancing is a New England predecessor to square dancing,” Amidon explains. “It’s similar moves to square dancing but the scene is more like puritan New England meets hippy, as opposed to cowboy hats. But what was interesting to Thomas and my brother Stefan and I was the music, which was a highly rhythmic and repetitive form of fiddle tunes music,” he says.
Amidon’s current repertoire is replete with old folk tunes dragged out, dusted off and buffed into contemporary form. “These aren’t ‘covers’,” Amidon says. “A cover is when you do your version of somebody else’s song – which means there’s your version, and the original version. A folk song is something else entirely, it’s an enigmatic little thing that has been tossed from singer to singer, with parts left out and added each time. So there’s not really any such thing as an original version, there’s just many different version,” he says. “I guess that means that there is no story behind the song as far as I think about, it – there’s just about a million mysteries hidden inside the song itself. And since nobody actually wrote it, nobody knows what they mean!” Amidon says.
Amidon’s choice of covers isn’t limited to classic folk tracks. A few years ago Amidon covered Tears For Fears’ pop classic Head Over Heels on the 2007 album But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, recorded under the Samamidon moniker (which included Amidon’s brother Stefan). Having missed Tears For Fears’ ‘classic’ period, Amidon had stumbled across the track and found himself slightly obsessed with it. “I heard it on the television, on VH1 Classic, I saw the words “Tears For Fears” and “Head Over Heels” and I had no idea which one was the band name and which was the song name,” Amidon recalls. “So I ran through the house shouting both phrases until I was able to sort it out, what a great melody!"
Amidon’s appeal has now transcended the folk scene and migrated into the indie community. It’s difficult to ascertain whether it’s Amidon who’s moved closer to the indie world, or whether the indie community has broadened its horizons into the folk scene. Amidon, however, doesn’t see much of a distinction to start with. “In a sense it is the indie community that led me to actually sing these songs in the first place,” Amidon says. “Because when I was growing up, my parents sang and I sang a bit with them and I’d hear folk songs and there were albums I loved; but really I was obsessed with fiddle playing. In high school, I didn’t sing at all as a soloist, only fiddle and some choral singing,” he says.
Amidon continues to seek out new musical partners to help him push his music into new artistic territory, including Nico Muhly and Doveman. “It’s not so much important as it is just really, really fun!” Amidon says of his regular musical collaborations. “I mean that’s one’s dream I suppose – to seek out the musicians you love and have a little shred with them,” Amidon says.
Back on the defining elements of folk music, and Amidon recognises that there are certain structures and assumptions that define the genre, though such structures aren’t necessarily limiting. “Folk music, if you take something like traditional Irish tunes, yes there are deep structures within that music – that’s part of what makes that music “traditional,” is the sense that you aren’t doing something personal, you’re playing within the form, not because you arbitrarily feel the need to obey that form, but because it’s deeply satisfying, because it’s been developed over time in that collective way,” Amidon says.
BY PATRICK EMERY
SAM AMIDON plays the Northcote Social Club with special guests Otouto on Thursday January 19.