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Bethany & Rufus Define Their Own American Music

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Bethany & Rufus Define Their Own American Music

Bethany & Rufus Define Their Own American Music

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(Soundbite of song, "East Virginia")

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Here's a song that's traveled well. Its roots are in 17th century England, but it crossed to our side of the Atlantic, and the melody's been variously known as "The Wayfaring Stranger," "Dark Collar Blues," "Red Rosy Bush," This version is called "East Virginia," played here in 1950's recording by Roscoe Holcomb.

In the 1960s, it was covered by Pete Seger and Joan Baez, and today it has a new incarnation.

(Soundbite of song, "East Virginia)

Ms. BETHANY YARROW (Singer): (Singing) And I was born in East Virginia, North Carolina (unintelligible)...

ROBERTS: That's "East Virginia," as interpreted by Bethany & Rufus on their CD "900 Miles," which comes out Tuesday on Hyena Records. It's a collection of traditional American tunes sung by Bethany Yarrow, accompanied by cellist Rufus Cappadocia. Bethany and Rufus join us from our New York bureau. Welcome to both of you.

Ms. YARROW: Thank you so much.

Mr. RUFUS CAPPADOCIA (Musician): Thank you.

ROBERTS: Bethany, you grew up surrounded by folk music. Your father, Peter Yarrow, was in Peter, Paul and Mary. Did you always want to be a musician?

Ms. YARROW: Not always. When I was a little girl, I always sang, and I always thought that one day I'd be a singer, but then I started making movies, so I was a documentary filmmaker for a while, and then at about the age of 22, I decided it was time to get serious with my life and decide what I wanted to do, and then I went back to singing because it was always what I thought that I would do. But I've taken a circuitous route.

ROBERTS: And did you always want to sing folk?

Ms. YARROW: No, God no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YARROW: I was - I ran away from - I was into hardcore and punk rock for a long time and never, ever listened to folk music. I mean, folk music was what I listened to when I was a little girl to go to sleep at night. But I spent a long time running away from folk music.

ROBERTS: What brought you back?

Ms. YARROW: Rufus and I had to do some gigs in a school, and I didn't really want to sing my songs. I was writing my own songs, and they were kind of sexy rock songs and it didn't seem appropriate for third graders.

And so I went back to the songs that I knew when I was a little girl and my dad used to come in and sing in my classroom. And the kids loved it and really responded to it, and we were having so much fun with it.

ROBERTS: Most of the songs on this CD are traditional: "St. James Infirmary," "If I Had My Way." How did you choose what went on it?

Ms. YARROW: Just which songs we liked the best. A lot of the time Rufus would come up with a groove, and I'd go, oh God, there's a great song that would go with that groove, and then I'd start singing the song, and...

ROBERTS: Can you give me an example of a groove that Rufus came up with that you matched with a song?

Mr. CAPPADOCIA: Oh, let's see.

Ms. YARROW: "If I Had My Way."

Mr. CAPPADOCIA: "If I Had My Way." Yeah, this is a groove I'd worked up - I played a lot with the dance company. I was like, oh, we should use this, that's this...

(Soundbite of song)

ROBERTS: I want to talk to you about your instrument because it's not necessarily easily identifiable from hearing it on the radio. Can you describe what it looks like?

Mr. CAPPADOCIA: It looks like regular cello with a wider bridge and a wider fingerboard and five little pick-ups projecting off the end of the fingerboard under each string that sort of look like a strange assortment of dentures or something.

And there are other people making sort of stick-like, solid body ones. I've got the only one that's a real acoustic cello that's I've wrapped - I've put pickups on, and I added a low string.

So the regular strings of the cello are the A, B, G and C, and I added a low F, and then I added a semi-tone extension so that I would be a bass player. So it's cool because it lets me be a bass player and a cello player without having to really change up my instrument. You know, I can go with more of a straight-ahead cello sound...

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. YARROW: I think because Rufus has played with so many different folkloric, rhythmically based musics, there's a whole pulse that kind of infuses this American music, which was what we were looking for in a lot of the songs.

ROBERTS: Do you think you sing them differently than you would with more traditional accompaniment?

Mr. YARROW: Oh sure. I mean I think that I wouldn't be singing them with more traditional accompaniment. I mean, the point really was to take these old, traditional songs and find inside of them that pulse and that groove that really is like a deep gut reaction to it.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. YARROW: I'm not necessarily that interested in traditional arrangements of these songs. They've been done a million million times. But when you go back to songs like "Linin' Track," and all of a sudden it just becomes alive with this different kind of groove, or "900 Miles." And when we play for younger audiences, they don't even know that they're folk songs.

It's really exciting to bring it into a more contemporary place and into a place where it feels like world music. A lot of the songs in the American traditional music, they come from a place of real sorrow and struggle, and a lot of them are very political in where they come from. There are a lot of prison songs. Others came from the fields of Georgia and the slave fields, and there is just a place of longing and of sorrow and struggle that these songs come out of, kind of fountain of emotion.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. YARROW: (Singing) I am walking down this track, I've got tears in my eyes. I'm trying to (unintelligible). Well if this train runs me right, I'll be home tomorrow night because I'm 900 miles from my home.

ROBERTS: And do you think the messages in some of these songs are still relevant or are they sort of artifacts?

Ms. YARROW: No, I think a lot of them are really relevant.

Mr. CAPPADOCIA: It's even more relevant in some of them.

Ms. YARROW: Yeah. I mean I remember singing the eve that we began our Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq, and we had a gig that night in New York City. It was so moving, and we were both so relieved not to be at home just watching CNN. It was really a huge relief and release, and all of a sudden these songs became incredibly relevant, and they gain relevance.

"St. James Infirmary," also the same thing happened after Katrina, because it's an old, typical New Orleans barroom song. I never really understood it and what the St. James Infirmary blues really was until Hurricane Katrina hit, and all of a sudden I'm singing this New Orleans song, this - and you're going down to St. James Infirmary to see your beloved lying dead on a table, and that kind of anguish that the country was feeling. And without being preachy, you know, without being kind of preachy political music, it just resonates so deeply because it's part of national consciousness and our national music and part of our collective history and collective memory, and it makes them incredibly powerful.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. YARROW: (Singing) Let it go, let it go, God bless her wherever she may be. You can search the whole wide world over, but you'll never find a guy like me, no you'll never find a guy like me.

Ms. YARROW: After we made the record, my dad heard the record, and he loves the record. And so he kind of wanted to join the band. So - but we really starting putting together a musical trio with Rufus, and so we'll do some shows in Wisconsin and in North Carolina, and we do festivals together, and we're just finishing a record also with my dad.

It's been so fun because he's - I don't know, 68 or something, and he's discovering this whole other musical palate through what we're doing. And it's really moving to be able to do that with your parent, to make beautiful music together that's not just nostalgic but really means something in the world of today.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Bethany Yarrow.

Ms. YARROW: And thank you so very much.

ROBERTS: And thanks to you, Rufus Cappadocia.

Mr. CAPPADOCIA: And thank you, too.

(Soundbite of song, "900 Miles")

Ms. YARROW: (Singing) And if this train runs me right, I'll be home tomorrow night because I'm 900 miles from my home. And if this train runs me right, I'll be home tomorrow night because I'm 900 miles from my home.

ROBERTS: "900 Miles" by Bethany & Rufus comes out Tuesday on Hyena Records. You can hear full audio cuts from the CD, as well as a special NPR studio performance, on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "900 Miles")

Ms. YARROW: (Singing) Yes I'm 900 miles from home.

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