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I had never really sat down and listened to bluegrass before I was in grad school. I had heard it, of course, but I did not appreciate it until I saw it performed live, by a band from England no less: Kidnap Alice.
Seeing Kidnap Alice perform live was both revelatory and nostalgic for me. I was awestruck by the purity of their bluegrass, a genre that had somehow escaped my deeper affections when I lived in West Virginia for four years. During college, I had become increasingly fond of Appalachian culture and grew to appreciate West Virginia’s unique status as the only state that is totally encompassed within the geographical region of Appalachia. Twelve states other than WV contain parcels of Appalachia within their borders.* West Virginia is Appalachia.
Kidnap Alice reminded me of my time in the Wild and Wonderful state, and made me realize just how much of that state’s culture I had glossed over or missed out on entirely. Some of Kidnap Alice’s songs are covers of famous bluegrass, folk, gospel, or country artists. Others are remarkably similar to popular songs in those genres. I’m not an expert, but I’ll do my best to provide alternate versions if I come across them.
“I’m goin’ where the climate suits my clothes”
I went to a pub with a group of friends one Friday evening. One of them knew the owner, and he had encouraged us to come check out a band that would be playing in the basement that night. The chill night air was heavy with fog, dampening our voices as we walked through the city towards the river. The pub sat on a hill overlooking the river Exe, so walking through the neighborhood gave us a great view of the wharf district – at least what we could see through the fog. Winter in southwest England is chilly and very wet. Strolling down cobblestone lanes to the wharf was the perfect prelude to huddling around a table with a cool, dark ale, our coats being dried near the fireplace.
The pub was small, with a single central bar on the ground level and dozens of patrons packed around small round tables. Dim, overhead lamps swung lazily from the ceiling, casting shadows along the walls and the faces of anyone standing. This was the type of pub that looked like it had stood in that spot for at least a century. Everything was dark wood, with brass coat hangers and bar rails catching glimpses of golden light. All of the beer was casked and chilled in the cellar, which also served as a tiny music venue.
I didn’t find an earlier version of “Chilly Winds” matching the lyrics sung by Alice Ballantine. However, I did come across a young gospel quartet who sing a song similar in overall structure. Check out The Walls Group‘s take on Keith Wonderboy Johnson’s popular song, “Hide Behind the Mountain”.
“He moved his body like a cannonball”
“Fare Thee Well” is one of my favorite songs off of this album. It’s the first song in which you really hear the range of lead singer Alice Ballantine’s voice. She starts out in a soft, soothing lullaby. By the end of the song her voice rises to a soulful, pained cry. This song, commonly known as “Dink’s Song”, was recorded as early as 1909 and has been covered by a range of artists, including Bob Dylan, Peter Seeger, and more recently, Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.
The calmer, more folksy tones continue in “Softer Cloth”, which builds into a melodic sort of chant. Through three songs, we can already see that the storyteller has grown and learned from rather painful experiences: “If only they made me of stronger cloth, I could put my needle away.”
“A winter chill waiting for spring”
I went to the bar and ordered a dark English ale, red-brown in color, with enough malt to warm the chest on a cold night, but still bitter enough to refresh the tongue. Drinks in hand, we headed down the narrow stairwell in the back corner of the pub into the basement. We had a group of nine or ten in total, and we took up about a third of the seating in this venue. On the far side of the room was a small square stage with instruments already laid out. I expressed my anticipation to one of my American friends.
I did not really know what to expect. No one knew anything about the band we were going to be seeing. But I was intrigued by the instruments on stage: acoustic guitar, banjo, double bass, fiddle, mandolin — we were seeing a folk band.
Six people came on stage, most wearing suspenders and plaid, and one man with a shaggy beard wearing nothing but denim overalls. The clothes were clearly a gimmick, but it worked — the band had the audience’s attention. With barely an introduction, they jumped into a roiling bluegrass jig. One of my Middle Eastern friends could not help but laugh; he had never actually seen such music performed, but they could all see the enjoyment I took from it.
The speed and energy of “Fits” was not lost on stage. Kidnap Alice’s music is genuine and infectious, and Alice Ballantine’s vocals lend a layer of emotional depth to their songs that accentuate the power of their music.
“Mother May Be” is somehow ominous and sorrowful at the same time. Ballantine’s voice is present, like she’s sitting right next to you. But is also has an ethereal quality as if it were being carried on a far mountain wind. You could almost picture her strolling down a narrow road through a valley, dust caking on her boots while she sang to the sky. Where is she going? Why does she continue to run?
Kidnap Alice’s cover of “Sweet Sunny South” is a more rounded composition than the version popularized by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, though the picking of the mandolin is similar to the 1989 version. Kidnap Alice fills out the composition with a strolling line on the double bass and harmonizing melody on the fiddle. When I first listened to this song, it did not occur to me that it was a well-known bluegrass song. Exmouth, sitting on the Jurassic Coast of southwest England, is a popular summer vacation destination for Brits. I found it quite fitting that a London-based bluegrass band would be performing about escaping to warmer climes while I was living in England’s own Sweet Sunny South.
“This space it lies empty, empty of what we have lost”
Our traveler, whoever she may be, finally finds some respite as a family welcomes her into their home, promising that “nobody’s coming to fight”. This song too hints at an emotional struggle, comparing the wolves lurking in the forest to “the dark woods of your mind”.
We sat and listened to Kidnap Alice perform for what felt like hours. I had finished my single pint of ale long before they finished their set, but I did not want to leave my seat to get another. I just wanted to listen, enraptured by Ballantine’s voice and the animated dancing of the shaggy-bearded banjo player. I just wanted to hear more.
“Jerusalem” is closer to gospel, at least in lyrics, but the music actually reminds me of Eastern European folk music, with a waltz-like strum along the double bass and accompanying accordion. The song climaxes as Ballantine raises her voice to a high call: “You’ve got to dig deep and find your soul”. I assumed that this was surely a cover, given its gospel overtones, but I was unable to find anything similar.
This is followed by a very old song, “Lonesome Road Blues”, recorded as “Goin’ Down This Road Feelin’ Bad” by Woody Guthrie and a range of other artists going back to 1924. Kidnap Alice’s version is faster, and again, a more rounded composition. Ballantine’s vocals are also less woeful than Guthrie’s, although the music behind her has more kick as well.
Kidnap Alice closed their set with a slow, pacing droll, with Ballantine singing softly about the Resurrection Day. The harmony of the fiddle and double bass climbed, slowly but inexorably, seemingly lifting the air in the room with them. Ballantine’s voice grew more deliberate, more exhilarating with every verse. The vocals and instruments continued to climb upward, never quite reaching their summit.
And yet, the droning of the instruments lingered, filling the cellar with a melodic hum. They began climbing once again, louder and higher. The breath in everyone’s chest was bated, as if not wanting to spoil this fermata with a single whisper. The other musicians prepared their instruments, the droning rose into methodical strumming, and all at once the band burst into a crescendo jig, swirling the room around them like a whirlwind. And then they were finished.
“And on your journey your soul learned how to fly”
Nearly two years after I had left Morgantown, WV, I was reminded of just how much I missed it. I have no clue how the other people in that audience felt after Kidnap Alice’s performance, but I only wanted more. They were selling their CD’s for 10 quid each. I had to buy one, and some of my friends wanted to as well. But my friends gave me all of the money, so I walked up to Ballantine, handed her £40, and asked for four copies of their album. She was taken aback by this, and by how impressed I was with the authenticity of their music. I still am.
On the surface, this album tells a loose story of love, loss, running away, and finding home again. But by digging just a little bit deeper, we see that these songs are part of the much wider legacy of American bluegrass. From Alice Ballantine to Oscar Isaac to Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Peter Seeger, Woody Guthrie, all the way back to Henry Whitter — and who knows how much further? I would argue that these songs are the purest form of American ancestry, coming down to us and spawning new genres even today: Blues, Country, Rock, Jazz, R&B, Rap. I just happened to learn about this history from six musicians from London, and I am barely scratching the surface.
Kidnap Alice last released an EP in 2013, which I plan on buying and absorbing, but their online and social media pages seem to have been inactive for at least a year. I doubt that they will ever know the impact that their music has had on me, or the chills I still get listening to Ballantine’s voice. Every time I hear it though, I think fondly of those foggy, chilly, Wessex nights and the rolling green hills of West Virginia, wild and wonderful.
*In case you’re wondering, they are: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.