When you set out to record an entire album of traditional murder ballads, most of which have already been covered by the likes of folk icons (Baez, Dylan) and country legends (Cash, Louvin Brothers), you are entering hallowed territory. Said album better be good. Said album requires a unique voice to ensure these traditional ballads are not bastardized to account for today’s tastes. Having already survived generations, there is no need to put a stamp on these age-old tales.
Drawing inspiration from locales as diverse as the Scottish highlands to the mountains of Appalachia, Washington, DC-based Vandaveer presents their latest release, Oh, Willie, Please… Rooted in English, Irish and American folk traditions — some dating back as far as the 17th century — Oh, Willie, Please… recounts tales that can only stand to reflect man’s timeless indifference to humanity.
But the villagers point out the spot
Where the willow droops over the door
Saying “There Mary died, once a gay village bride
From the winds that blew across the wild moor”
Like the oral tradition that passed down such tales over the centuries, the narrators of the 11 songs on Oh, Willie, Please… range from admitted murderers (“The Banks of the Ohio”), community folk recounting local tragedies (“The Murder of the Lawson Family”) to perhaps Death itself, claiming retribution for those he met not by his own hand (“Ornie Wise”).
He made no confession but they carried him to jail
No friends or relations would go on his bail
John Lewis escaped from the Carolina County Jail
And he fled for Kentucky on his way to hell
Death came a-calling ten years to that day
John Lewis fell ill and he met his rightful fate
Recorded in their former home state of Kentucky, Vandaveer’s founding duo of Mark Charles Heidinger and Rose Guerin provide the trinity of voices that drive the album’s first single, “Pretty Polly.” Joined by J. Tom Hnatow (The Mynabirds) and Phillips Saylor (Stripmall Ballads), the foursome fill out these age-old tales with instruments notably American in nature (dobros, pedal steel and banjos) yet more closely associated with country and bluegrass traditions than folk music.
However, it is the voices of Oh, Willie, Please… that deliver the album’s sheer power. From the voices of those singing to the voices of those for whom they sing — the murderers, their victims and those affected by such loss — Oh, Willie, Please… is a testament to the original power of these voices that they have lingered for generations.
Such tales of murder, fate and retribution can’t be reinterpreted; they can only be reiterated time and again. With Oh, Willie, Please… Vandaveer achieves this end. They do not attempt to update or modernize the stories that haunt our collective history. With a deft touch Vandaveer merely serves as a vessel from which history is relayed and sadly, likely to be repeated. Demonstrating the murder ballad still resonates as a powerful music form, Oh, Willie, Please… delivers further proof of the evil inherent in this world.
Vandaveer’s Oh, Willie, Please… is available today on CD, limited edition vinyl and digital formats from the band’s site.
Watch the video for “Pretty Polly” below and download the single here.
The band will begin their tour in support of today’s release this Thursday in New York. Tour dates are available here.