I want to recommend a CD to my fellow Banjo Hangouters. It's called Delia's Gone, Murder Ballads & Other Songs of Love and Death, a solo album from BHO member Marc Nerenberg, who lives and sings up in Montreal, Quebec. Marc is the host of the open mic night at the city's Yellow Door Coffeehouse, and a frequent poster of wonderful video performances with his banjo and harmonica here in the BHO, on YouTube and on Facebook. Now he has put some of those performances together in one place, where it has joined the rotation in the compartment next to my car CD player. You can watch the video performances of all the cuts on the CD unfold on his Vimeo page.
Now, "songs of love and death" is certainly the theme one would expect from someone recently retired from a long career as a criminal defense lawyer, and when Marc sings and plays the eleven songs on this CD, it is clear he has spent some time personally navigating this terrain. But the disquietude of the subject matter is tempered by a subtle wry burlesque tone that often peaks through the woven curtain of tragedy, a tone that snarkily suggests it is a fool who expects much from a human species so fundamentally flawed. This is the blues.
The first song is Delia's Gone, Marc's rendition of the classic murder ballad as recorded by blues legend Blind Willie McTell in 1928. In McTell's version, Delia "was a gambling girl," murdered in a barroom with a .44 by someone named Curtis, who gets ninety-nine from the judge, but we don't know exactly who the narrator is, or why, exactly, he shot her, other than "on account of those gamblers, trying to drive me out." But Marc is as much a storyteller as a singer, and after researching the actual murder upon which the song is reputed to be based, of one Delia Green, on a Christmas morning in Savannah, Georgia, in 1900, he has filled in the details, expanding McTell's two and half minute song to six minutes. We learn that Delia was a scrub girl in a brothel, and that she was shot by a "boy-child" when she called him an S.O.B. for calling her a whore. We also learn that the narrator who sings "now all I ever had is gone" is her father. As he pilots this story, Marc accompanies himself with an elegantly simple two finger back-up, the banjo countermelody closely interweaving with his voice in a careful way that I have not heard anyone else do, proving to me yet again that Marc has taken the use of the banjo as vocal accompaniment to a new level of perfection, a worthy musical descendant of our greatest balladeer, Pete Seeger. Occasionally he adds a wailing interlude on harmonica (now I have to figure out where I put my old harmonica rack from my Dylanesque days in the mid 60s). This is the blues.
Marc takes a similar "the poet as bard" approach to the other five traditional songs on the CD, Little Sadie, Dink's Song, Darlin' Corey, Pretty Polly, and St. James Infirmary. With Pretty Polly, he takes the basic murder ballad that old time and bluegrass musicians learned form B.F. Shelton, Dock Boggs, and Ralph Stanley, and fleshes it out with narrative details from the earlier and closely related British ballad The Cruel Ship's Carpenter. He also doesn't mince words as the Victorian songsters were want to do; in Marc's performance, Polly laments "Oh, Willie, oh Willie, I guess you've brought me here to die, for you wish not for a wife, nor to hear your baby cry." Marc's Pretty Polly is eight minutes long, and like most of the "cuts" on the CD, wouldn't have been able to fit on one of the 78 RPM records the originals were first issued on some ninety years ago. But you are under hypnosis, and won't notice the time passing.
There are also four original songs by Marc on this CD, and one that he performs that was written by his friend Brien Lavene, who he met decades ago, when Lavene, a draft resister who had fled to Canada, came by the Yellow Door Coffeehouse in its early days. All of these compositions have that same anecdotal feeling as the traditional ones, like they had been composed after an encounter in a New Orleans saloon. This is the blues with banjo.
I confess this review calls forth in me a lament for the demise of the CD form, as the consumers of recorded music around the world in recent years have gravitated to the downloading and streaming of digital music, rather than the purchase of "hard disks." What is lost, besides a substantial amount of income for the musical artists themselves, is the synergy that comes when an artist carefully selects the specific recordings and order of performances to achieve a narrative harmony. Marc has done that here. If you like good storytelling, and want to listen at your leisure, you can download the entire audio CD at CDBaby. If you still have a CD player in your car, and want to add this one to your rotation, you can contact Marc directly through the BHO, I understand he still has some for sale.
Marc's BHO Homepage
I have always loved Marc's work.
- Don Borchelt
Edited by - Don Borchelt on 10/02/2019 07:59:27
Good to see you posting here again, Marc. You too Mr. Borchelt!
Nice review Don. I’ve always liked Marc’s rendition of ballads. Hope to hear more of them posted up on the Hangout in future.
I have praise here for both the reviewer and the reviewed. Don, your review is remarkably well crafted and spot-on. I was a happy customer for Marc's remarkable album before I read this, and I can testify that every word you sad is true.
Well-said, Don and well-played Marc. I'd give three thumbs up to both, if I had that many.
Just one thing to add--one should watch those videos to see the intimate connection between the performer and the music. This isn't just playing to show off. Marc becomes one with the music and the stories.
Marc is a mega-talented performer who imparts genuine feeling and adds depth to whatever he touches. I wish him the best and say “Mazel Tov!” on this lifework accomplishment.
Marc has almost single-handedly kept the "Folkies" group going here on BHO. He's an amazing asset here and back in my old home town.
Thank you all so much for your encouraging comments. In response to Bill's comment advising you to watch the videos, I have posted the entire video version of the album (from Vimeo, where they reside) in a Sound Off thread, here: https://www.banjohangout.org/topic/357668 This will make it easier for you to find the video version, should the spirit move you to want to watch it. Best regards to you all!
I have also now added the album's liner notes at the end of the video album in the Sound Off thread.
'Tabledit guidance' 4 min
'Prewar parts banjo' 45 min
'1923 Gibson '0' open back' 50 min
'Go ahead and Stuff it!' 3 hrs
'Happy Day .' 4 hrs