Sam Amidon’s “Blue Mountains”

Sam Amidon (b. 1981) is an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Vermont born of folk musician parents. His surname is of French extraction and, oddly enough, means “starch.” Amidon tours extensively all over the world using New York City as a home base.

His song “Blue Mountains” was included in Amidon’s 2014 album entitled “Lilly-O” which was recorded in Reykjavik by Icelandic recording engineer Valgeir Sigurðsson. The album also features, among other talented musicians, master guitarist Bill Frisell.

The Blue Mountains are usually referred to as the Blue Ridge Mountains, a large Appalachian mountain range. The Alleghenies region is the rugged western-central portion of Appalachia.

Much of Amidon’s music consists of reworkings of traditional folk songs, bringing out their haunting dreamlike qualities. His parents performed and recorded in the early shape-note and Sacred Harp traditions common to sacred choral music and rural American church music in general. Their influence on their son’s music is significant.

In Appalachia, a particular type of ballad which singles out tragedies came to the front during the 19th century. Train wrecks, mining disasters and murders became the subject of many popular songs – dozens were written about the sinking of the Titanic alone. Murder being a purely human venture, those particular songs became very popular and were known as “murder ballads.” Murder ballads originated in Scandinavia, England, and lowland Scotland in the premodern era. These ballads came to America with European settlers, many of which populated Appalachia, a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from New York State to Alabama and Georgia.

It can be argued that the song “Blue Mountains” is a murder ballad although murder is never overtly mentioned in the song. At best, it is about philandering – a married man lures a young girl into the wilderness, “past dark cabin windows where eyes never see.” Evil lurks palpably.

The treatment of death in early Appalachian songs is something most of us have never experienced. In the 19th century, as much as 46% of all babies did not live past their 5th birthday. Infant mortality rates are higher in rural Appalachia than in other parts of the United States. The region’s low income, geographic isolation, and low levels of education all reduce access to modern medical care. Folk beliefs and superstitions, a very poor substitute for medical care, continue to influence birth practices : a dove mourning outside the window is considered a bad omen, as is a member of the household sweeping the steps after sundown.

The early recordings of Appalachian music are unique and the sharper edges of private and personal pain emerges from the very grooves of these recordings. The voices have their own notions of tragedy. How many times had these people seen, in their own valley, righteous innocent people senselessly wiped away by car accidents, drownings, tuberculosis, children falling down wells. A.P. Carter’s sister Etta was a 13-year-old schoolgirl picking berries one afternoon, fevered in bed that night and dead by morning. There was no reason and, worst of all, there was no time to mourn. There were other children to raise, planting, weeding, cooking, sewing, feeding hogs, milking cows, chopping firewood. Appalachia’s most famous author, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) from Asheville, North Carolina, described his 12-year-old brother’s death in his novel “Look Homeward Angel” like so : “He was a quiet boy, and there were many, and he had gone unnoticed.”

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Blue Mountains

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