A record which displays a deep affection for traditional music while placing it at the heart of a living process.
‘While You Were Slumbering’ takes its title from the penultimate line of Joseph Decosimo’s version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and in a way describes the twin themes of the record in the old-time language and music and the dream-like reimagination of the past in the characters and stories that inhabit the songs.
One of the so-called New Young Fogies – a generation of younger traditional Appalachian musicians – Decosimo has spent a long time researching the musical traditions of that part of the world; he was awarded his PhD in American Studies by the University of North Carolina with his thesis Catching the “Wild Note”: Listening, Learning, and Connoisseurship in Old-Time Music.
The traditions of the past feature throughout the album with its focus on traditional tunes albeit in lesser-known versions and the collaboration with giants such as Alice Gerrard. However, this is also a modern record with Decosimo bringing in his own style and arrangements as well as involving younger players like Stephanie Coleman, Cleek Shrey and Joe O’Connell.
Opening track ‘The Fox Chase’ features fiddle and banjo underpinned by a pump organ drone leading into a lyric referencing the hunt in England and Kentucky and the singer’s old hound. The organ chord bleeds straight into banjo instrumental ‘The Lost Gander’. After this we get Decosimo’s take on ‘Will Davenport’s Tune’. Clyde Davenport was a fiddle and banjo player in Kentucky and Decosimo’s mentor. Will was his father. It’s also the lead-off single.
Next up is ‘Trouble’ performed as a soothing duet, despite the subject matter, followed by the more up-tempo dual fiddles on ‘Possum Up A Gum Stump’. Pretty much anyone reading this will be familiar with ‘Shady Grove’ and ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’. The former comes in with a fiddle and pump organ blend conjuring up images of misty mountainsides. The latter is banjo-led underpinned by an infectious percussion beat.
The short ‘Wild Goose Chase’ banjo instrumental is another tune learned from Clyde Davenport which sounds like it might have been recorded in a living room and the hunting theme continues with fiddle tune ‘Coon Dog’. ‘Apple Brandy’ features a lead vocal from Alice Gerrard over Decosimo’s banjo while he joins her on harmonies for a wistful tale of separation.
Alex Spiegelman’s clarinet opens ‘Young Rapoleon’ – a variant on ‘Bonny Bunch of Roses’ – joined by pump organ guitar and banjo. Decosimo is clearly a fan of ballads and his delivery here is soft and intimate. The closing instrumental, ‘Clear Fork’, is led out with the banjo before the fiddle joins in and the two instruments dance around the tune and with each other before slowing to a close.
‘While You Were Slumbering’ is a record which displays a deep affection for traditional music while placing it at the heart of a living process. For those familiar with Decosimo only as part of MC Taylor’s supporting cast on Hiss Golden Messenger records this is well worth checking out.