Lisa Null - From The Roots

Sat, 01/31/2015 - 01:57
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Lisa Null - From The Roots

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1942, Lisa Null is a respected singer throughout the US and beyond.  Over the years she has developed many links with the folk scene in the UK and she has a special interest in the music and song of Ireland.  She co-founded the Green Linnet record label with Patrick Sky in 1973, which went on to become one of the most prolific record labels of its time, specialising in Celtic music.

Though she passed on the ownership some years later, Lisa continued to make a career for herself performing music from her roots.  She tells us part of her story.

When younger people start asking me how I ‘discovered’ folk song, they assume I must have reached out, like so many, from the stifling contours of my family and upbringing.  They assume folk music must have been half-buried from view, deep in the counter-culture, and that only a rebellion on my part could have propelled me beyond the elitism of classical music, the banality of commercial music, to encounter a genre of pure, honest and more incendiary song.
In my own life nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, my family had its difficulties, but singing was one of the things that held it together.  Often, my father played piano and my two older brothers and I gathered around to sing from The Fireside Book Of Folksongs.  In our family’s repertoire, traditional folksongs were intermixed with the pop music of my parents’ childhood.

When I could barely read, I poured through The Fireside Book Of Folksongs in search of songs I found especially intriguing.  I got my brother Dick to sight-read the tunes on piano, and I quickly learned my favourites by heart.  Our family loved classical music too and my father and his mother, as well as my oldest brother, were fine classical pianists. Me?  Not so good.  

Neither of my parents saw much of a division between ‘classical’ music or ‘folk music’ - all forms of music were interesting and beautiful to them. In the late 40s and very early 50s, I grew up listening to Carl Sandburg, Josh White, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Susan Reed, the Almanac Singers and also the old-time and ‘hillbilly’ music stacked beneath my grandparent's old windup Victrola.  

During my mother’s divorce, we moved to St. Augustine Florida, where I began my formal education at Orange Street Public School.  Our very old-fashioned teacher kept us quiet by telling us an ongoing story about Lil’ Rabbit who always risked being turned into a goon.  Later, I learned that this was part of a well-known cluster of Southern folktales.  Here also, we had many jump rope and playground games along with their accompanying rhymes and songs.  A year later, my mother and I moved to New York City where I went to The Brearley School.  There, a very young Jean Ritchie sang her family songs for us in the gym.  Her music touched my heart indelibly and as soon as I was old enough to babysit, I spent my first earnings on her recordings. 

Cecil Sharp’s influence on music education for children was heavily felt at The Brearley School and many of the songs I sing today came from the folk music we learned during those early years.  I’ve seen other folksingers grimace at the notion of modern school kids dancing under maypoles and dramatising little play-party games for school productions.  To me back then, however, it made perfectly good sense when I thought about the games and jump rope rhymes of the Orange Street Public School play yard.  Costumes and ribbons and a stage just seemed to ratchet it all up a notch.

Throughout my childhood, I enjoyed pop music on the radio.  Knowing which tunes were moving up and down the hit parade lists improved my popularity with other students.  We began singing the songs on our school bus.  By the time I was in my pre-teens, Lonnie Donegan with his Rock Island Line had become a top hit as had various songs by the Weavers.  They were particularly easy to sing, so kids my age belted them out, verse and chorus in unison.  Pop and folk music seem to have merged in the fifties.
Still, there were songs, especially some of the Child Ballads, I learned for my own pleasure.  I did not have a community of family or friends who wanted to sit back and listen to songs in which they could not actively participate.  By the late 1950s, however, my friend Fran introduced me to the songs of a folksinger named Cynthia Gooding who sang the ballads and lyric songs I loved so much: Queen Eleanor’s Confession, In My Garden Grew Plenty Of Thyme etc.  In her liner notes, she even said where she’d gotten some of them.  I did not hear her live for years, but her songs, which I memorised off recordings, became my own.

I began looking up some of Gooding’s sources at the major branch of the New York Public Library.  Not too far away was a cut-out store where you could get Folkways records, without their jackets or notes, for just a dollar or two.  Baby-sitting money and a clothing allowance from my father all went into acquiring these albums, often purchased with no more information than the title.  I also soaked up songs from Peggy Seeger and others who emerged during the folk revival of this period.  Pete Seeger, still blacklisted, was pouring out traditional folksong for Folkways: ballads, historical songs, labour songs.  They are still precious albums to me. 

Like many Americans, I date the crest of the commercial folk revival to the 1960s.  The McCarthy Era, with its blacklisting of leftwing folksingers, was drawing to an end; the Beat coffee house scene of Greenwich Village had developed and my weekend evenings shifted between attending its offerings of poetry readings and songs.  Coffee houses drew a listening crowd who paid rapt attention to what you sang.

By the early 1960s, the civil rights struggle and a burgeoning anti-war movement fostered new interest and a national audience for folksong of many varieties.  Young white performers were going out of their way to learn instrumental techniques and songs from traditional black performers: Rev. Gary Davis taught guitar in New York City; young blues enthusiasts sought out blues masters in the Delta; northern musicians trekked off to the Appalachian fiddle festivals and sought out the old-time pickers and singers.  The Newport Folk Festival was broad enough in its programming to include everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary to Ozark balladeer, Almeda Riddle.  Prestige, Stinson, Elektra and above all, Folkways Records, were circulating a wide range of songs to expanding audiences with eclectic tastes.
In 1960, I started performing in guest slots at some of the commercial cafés and clubs.  Few people ever came to hear me and I never thought to advertise.  Still, that’s where I began to think about sets and how best to connect or contrast my songs thematically.

That fall, I went to the University of Colorado where I met students less interested in performing than in using folk music as a social tool.  We sat around in a big circle and shared songs and tunes.  Some students, mostly from the Ozarks, seemed to have an insider’s feel for old-time music; others had funny topical songs, mostly from the Young Peoples’ Socialist League Songbook.  I tried singing British songs of seduction (successful and unsuccessful), but this led to trouble when I was taken too seriously. In Colorado, I was first introduced to the songs of Sandy Paton, who later founded Folk-Legacy Records with his wife, Caroline.  Because he had collected so many of his songs from Scotland, I began realising the songs I loved most were part of a living tradition with a life of their own outside of books.

My brother Mark was killed that same fall, so I returned to New York City, restarting college closer to my Mother’s apartment.  This time I chose to go to Sarah Lawrence, a progressive school just a quick train and subway ride to Greenwich Village and Israel Young's Village Folklore Center.  There, I acquired a good working library of traditional folksong books.  During those college days, my favourite books were Colm O’ Lochlainn's Irish Street Ballads and More Irish Street Ballads.  I would sight sing the beautiful airs: they seemed so wide and sweeping, though far beyond my limited vocal range.
In 1971, after 10 years in Scranton Pennsylvania that ended in divorce, I bought myself a dulcimer.  The instruction book by Jean Ritchie suggested using a turkey quill to strum the strings.  As she lived in Port Washington, the New York suburb where I was staying for the time being, I called her up.  "Come on over,” she said, “and I'll show you what to do."  Over coffee in the kitchen, she admitted that margarine tops worked just as well as turkey quills and were more easily come by.  She also told me all about the Pinewoods Folk Music Society, a New York area organisation named after the Pinewoods folk music camp, run by the Country Dance and Song Society of America.  There, people would dance and learn traditional songs or share them with great source and revival performers.  I signed up for Folk Song Week and connected with lots of musicians and singers who loved the songs I loved.  Jean also told me about the Fox Hollow Folk Festival - a family-friendly gathering in the woods where singing traditional or traditionally rooted songs was central to its program.  I soon felt caught up in an overlapping web of folksong societies and small festivals that nurtured and shared the very songs I'd rarely sung to anyone but myself. 
I started studying voice in order to expand my vocal range.  I worked with a wonderful teacher, Tom Roszinsky, who used bel canto techniques to help actors learn to sing for musical theatre productions.  As a result, he was very eclectic in his tastes and marvelled at Doc Watson's singing as much as he raved about the sonorous tone of Caruso.  We'd listen to recordings of Joe Heaney or Jean Ritchie, trying to figure out what they were doing as traditional stylists.  His teaching methods remain at the heart of my technical singing approach today.  A growing part of my livelihood now comes from teaching voice and I still pass on many of the valuable things he taught me over 40 years ago.

I started Green Linnet in 1973 - I’d bought a home in New Canaan Connecticut and was looking for the sort of work that would keep me involved in folk music while raising two sons.  My domestic partner, Pitt Kinsolving (a music teacher who built dulcimers and banjos) and I had a regular singing gig at Brock’s Irish Pub in Norwalk: $75 a night and all the steak we could eat for five sets of 20 minutes each.  We practically memorised the Clancy Brothers Songbook and did a good job of rousing the audience - at least at first.  The more I got into Irish music, however - the airs and Irish emigration ballads - the more contemplative our audiences grew.  Unfortunately, they stopped drinking whiskey, preferring to sip one or two Irish coffees long into the night.  Good for the singer, bad for the bar. 

A friend, Patsy Margolin, put us in touch with Pat Sky, a brilliantly successful singer-songwriter and folksinger from the mid-sixties, who now devoted himself to Irish piping and reed-making.  Pat became my partner at Green Linnet and Pitt became our recording engineer at Golden East Recording Studio.  Through Pat’s connections, we first put out one album of Pat Sky, two albums of Peter Bellamy (including The Barrack Room Ballads), Rosalie Sorrels (The Lonesome Roving Wolves) and went off to Ireland to work on Pat’s pet project, Forty Years Of Irish Piping - an anthology of Seamus Ennis’s uilleann piping.  During our time away, a new bartender took over our gig at Brock’s Irish Pub, and by the time we returned, he had restored whisky-drinking to its former glory.  Audiences roared and sang out to Johnson’s Motor Car and all the old Irish vaudeville songs.  Our own time at Brock’s was at an end.

But what a trip to Ireland we had!  While Pitt and Pat went out at night, I spent a lot of time with Seamus Ennis, whose health was failing.  He had been sharing a flat with the piper, Liam O’Flynn, who was only too happy to step out for a while and leave me to care for his housemate, Seamus.  Maybe it was only a few hours for a few days, but it could as well have been a lifetime.  After I’d sat in on the singing competitions at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, I was quite depressed because I did not see how, as an American, I could ever master the art of sean nos singing.  “You can’t,” said Seamus bluntly.  “Even when good sean nos singers are not native Gaelic speakers, they have the accents and stresses from that language in their bones.  You don’t.”  But he suggested that there was a wealth of Irish songs in America, particularly in New England and the Northeast, where my own accent and way of speaking would guide me more intuitively into where to place the ornaments and how best to interpret the songs.  He went on and I went on, talking about where to find the songs, where they came from, how to sing them.  Some of his ideas I have discarded, most I have kept, but it was the best voice lesson I ever had.

Returning from Ireland, Pitt and I began performing more frequently together on the local folk circuit.  By now, I was learning ballad after ballad and lament after lament.  I could not help it, the melodies overwhelmed me.  I also began putting together thematic and historical workshops for WBAI, New York City’s Pacifica network radio station.

Much of my approach during the 70s was formed in direct reaction to the American commercial folk music boom of the 1960s.  Except for gospel, I stopped using dynamics in my singing.  I stopped wearing my fanciest clothes on stage but tried to dress in clothes my audiences might wear.  I learned to project without a microphone, which even now I regard as an opportunity rather than an absolute necessity.  Thanks to Seamus Ennis’s advice, I began letting the words dictate the details of how I’d deliver the melody - learning to tell a song rather than just to sing it.  I was deeply influenced by the performers and performance philosophies coming over to America from England, Scotland, and Ireland.  Not only Seamus Ennis, but Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, urged singers to explore the songs of the communities where they lived or grew up.  Americans may be too mobile and homogenised always to be clear about their regional origins, but I began to think hard about where a version I sing was collected and the historical context in which it survived. 

I emphasized my own region (New England and, more generally, the Northeastern parts of North America) but also the regions where I would be singing (the Midwest and Canada).  Somewhere along the line, I heard Bruce “Utah” Phillips talk about how he researched the towns where he was about to perform, trying to shape the patter that introduced his songs with the history and cultures of those towns in mind.  I also tried to learn old songs that had been collected in the areas I would be touring.  This was important to me for traditional English-language folksongs were usually considered ‘British’ or ‘Appalachian’ and were rarely seen by my audiences as part of their communities’ past or present culture.  I supported the idea of non-profit folk clubs and societies that encouraged local singers while also inviting touring performers to play. 

Sandy and Caroline Paton, performers and the prime movers behind Folk-Legacy records, encouraged my habit of singing and promoting good songs still trapped in books and archives, just waiting to be released to a broader public.  “We record as much for the songs as for the singers,” Sandy once told me.  Peter Bellamy, who I met when recording his albums for Green Linnet, also encouraged me to sing with more respect for the stylistic devices of traditional ‘source’ singers.  

“They know so much,” he would say.  “Not just the songs but how to sing ‘em.”  An ornament, a slide, a voice shake, a heavy consonant, a shifting movement between major and minor thirds or sevenths - these were, what Peter called, “a bag of tricks” to dip into and combine in a way that kept a song interesting and move it along.  Through Peter and his wife Anthea, I eventually made two unforgettable singing tours to England with guitarist, Bill Shute.
I don’t know when the British commercial folk revival hit its peak, but I believe it crested at a different time than our own, however much they influenced each other.  Performers, such as Louisa Jo Killen said they were influenced by the skiffle bands which, in turn, drew upon American material.  I know Rambling Jack Elliot adapted his cowboy persona in England because he felt that's what people in England expected of an American folksinger.
I relish some of the differences between both parts of the revival.  Many of the UK club goers I met in the seventies (late) had formal education and economic security, but they were proudly rooted in working class origins and anxious to reclaim that heritage.  Many American folk performers of the same period cast themselves as wandering troubadours who spoke or sang for ‘the American people’, even though they often sprang from middle-class origins and were not always comfortable among the people whose music they espoused.  This is a hypothesis hard to track as most Americans call themselves ‘middle class’, even as that economic sector is being crushed by job uncertainty, financial instability, educational erosion and the lack of a social safety net. 

American songwriters sometimes pen their best songs about hobos, street people, drunks, and drifters rather than about working-class people who have a certain core of stability, however meagre or transient.  Maybe this is because American folksingers, both commercial and grassroots varieties, are themselves outsiders, with outsider perspectives.  Unless they get a day job, thus restricting their touring, they are likely to be poor and marginal.  Middle class parents sometimes worry that their performing sons and daughters are wasting their education and prospects for success; their spouses often find that the romance of the road wears thin - especially when they are left behind with children to raise and rent to pay.  Thus American folksingers sing about drifters because they too have lived so very close to the edge.  We do not have much of a social safety net over here.

I quit the road in the mid-eighties, even though my career was going relatively well.  Wendy Newton had taken administrative control of Green Linnet and I was performing up to 100 concerts a year with Bill Shute.  But the romance of the road came to a sudden stop.  One of the men who helped take care of my sons tried to commit suicide while I was on tour.  I came right home and spent the next several years facing the reality that my kids needed me very much.  Between baby-sitting fees and airfares, touring had been a break-even venture at best.  Green Linnet was losing money too even as it was growing by leaps and bounds, riding the crest of the global Irish music revival.  Wendy Newton was putting out fine music, but it was not the sort of music Pat Sky and I had originally pursued.  We both divested ourselves of the company’s ownership and it eventually moved from my house to Danbury Connecticut.  I used my time at home to finish college and go on to graduate school in history (Yale) and folklore (The University of Pennsylvania). 

Songs were still very much alive to me, but I was now looking at them intellectually.  They were my windows into social and cultural history from the bottom-up.  By 1989, when my sons were in college, I sold our house when Green Linnet moved out of the wing it occupied.  I was doing research in Washington and decided to move there.  It’s a perfect place for a performer to get off the road without losing the ability to grow musically.  Because of the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the nearby Appalachians, immigrants from all over the world, supportive radio shows and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (as well as other groups for bluegrass, blues and Cajun music), there are musicians here of the highest calibre who congregate to jam and sing.  Most of them have day jobs.  Because of this, their performances tend to be informal, voluntary and abundant.  Washington is a terrible place to earn one’s living musically but there are endless opportunities to pick a few tunes or swap a few songs.  One can bemoan the fact that so much talent is improperly compensated or one can say, “well perhaps folk music has come full circle here”.

For 20 years, I have lived with Charlie Baum, who for many years was manager of the Yale Russian Chorus and who also co-founded The Kartuli Ensemble, America’s first Georgian singing group.  His heart is committed to building musical community and though he performs as a singer quite frequently, his emphasis in on the production side of music, so vital to sustaining the folk movement and passing along its legacies.  He never expected to make money from art, but took on work as a printer and later as a desktop publisher in order to sustain himself while supporting the music he loves.  By having a trade rather than a career, he bypasses the compromises so many musicians make when choosing between art and commerce.  I think he also feels folk music does well when rooted in the lives of working people, as it has for so many centuries.  He has been elected to most executive offices with the Folklore Society for Greater Washington and has a key role in producing its major festivals.
As for me, I taught at Georgetown University for seven years - courses on anything I wanted in the field of American music.  Mostly, I explored the junctures between American music and American history.  I also worked on virtual historical and theatrical collections at the Library of Congress.  Like Charlie, I’ve been involved with organising the local festivals and running concert series for the Society.  Still, I need to sing - it is my vocation.  I perform, for money when I can, and for pleasure at all times. 

After I began having mobility problems, I retired on disability and now work as a virtual researcher and writer-editor from home.  In the last two years, teaching voice has become a major part of my livelihood.  Most of my students wish to sing folksong and have listened to it all their lives.  While I help them with singing technique, a lot of what I do is to coach them on delivering their words, aligning a singing style with their own vocal personality and figuring out what they can incorporate vocally from the particular singing traditions that interest them.  I feel that I am just channelling back all that I was given from the singers who influenced me.

Recently, I’ve become active with our area’s Frank Harte Memorial Singer’s Circle and am thrilled to see the growing interest in traditional Irish song, too often ignored in the midst of jigs and reels.  As Seamus Ennis once suggested, I focus more closely on Irish song in America.  From time to time I still do festivals and out-of-town concerts, but my performing is primarily regional.

Are there good young performers coming up in America?  Well, our clubs and society audiences are aging, but certain sectors of the folk music world are very, very strong: Irish traditional music and bluegrass are booming among musicians of all ages.  Contradance and step-dancing (as well as sean nos dancing) flourish in the greater Washington area.  We also have a number of fine young Scots and Scandinavian fiddlers.  Nationally, I am amazed at the numbers of outstanding young old-time players and - yes, singers!  Mostly, they sing material from the early days of recorded music but some, like Elizabeth LaPrelle, Tim Eriksen, and Julia Friend, excel at old ballads too.  Some of the newer energy in Irish singing comes from the fleadhs but much also comes from those who studied with Frank Harte in a summer music camp (Augusta) in Elkins, West Virginia.  One of my partners on a ‘War of 1812’ project, Peter Brice, is just pushing thirty.  He studied folklore at the University of Limerick and also studied with Louisa Jo Killen, Donal Maguire and Len Graham. 

Most young people here do not expect to make money from singing - they need remunerative jobs, if they can find them, as they are often $50,000 or more in debt from their college educations.  They use the songs and the dances as a means of connecting with other young people with similar interests.  Last year we went to a spectacular ‘Youth Traditional Song Weekend’ of about 150 singers.  It was organised by ten fine singers in their 20s for other young singers from throughout America - older people were welcomed as well but the emphasis was on youth.  Many of the young singers came out of Morris Dancing, for singing is an essential part of that world.  They sing a lot of chorus songs including prison songs, chanteys and drinking songs etc.  They lift the roof off with superb and heartfelt harmonies.  Singing is as social for them as it was for me during my brief stay at the University of Colorado. 

Irish, Cajun, blues and old-time instrumental jams have never been better among the young and the level of musicianship can sometimes be staggering.  Still, even more is needed to strengthen the singing component of America's folksong revival.

Taken from Issue 102 of The Living Tradition.  

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