Thomm Jutz on Nothing But Green Willow: The Songs of Mary Sands and Jane Gentry
On September 29th, 2023, Thomm Jutz and Martin Simpson are releasing Nothing But Green Willow: The Songs of Mary Sands and Jane Gentry via Topic Records. It’s a project with a fascinating question at its core and is even more interesting in its execution. Multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer Thomm Jutz is German-born and Nashville-based and Martin Simpson is an English folk guitarist. The two had never met in person when Simpson flew to Nashville to work with Jutz on bringing to life a set of songs from folklorist Cecil Sharp’s seminal 1917 collection English folk songs from the Southern Appalachians.
The songs in Sharp’s songbook had journeyed from the UK to Appalachia where they’d led a long life of change and inflection before the British folklorist traveled there, gathering them, and Jutz and Simpson chose a particularly fruitful set to examine, the large cache of songs contributed by Western North Carolinians Mary Sands and Jane Gentry. Having selected the songs they’d like to record, Jutz and Martin recruited artists from both sides of the Atlantic to take part, including Sierra Hull, Angeline Morrison, Odessa Settles, Tim O’Brien, Tammy Rogers, Seth Lakeman, and many more. Those who collaborated brought a great deal of personal perspective to these songs, taking them in thought-provoking directions, but the overall feeling of antiquity in these tracks shines through.
I spoke with Thomm Jutz about the background for this project and the many careful choices that he and Simpson had to make in bringing these songs to this new incarnation with such a sense of freshness and vitality.
Americana Highways: I knew that the original tracks from this project were from Appalachia, but I was surprised to hear that they were gathered outside of Asheville, North Carolina, where my family’s from, and I know the setting where these people lived, too.
Thomm Jutz: This record, by coincidence, does consist of songs that were gathered in Western North Carolina, though by no means are all the songs in the Cecil Sharp collection from Western North Carolina, actually. They were all collected in Southwestern Appalachia, though. But the songs that Jane Gentry and Mary Sands contributed are the ones for our project and they happened to live very close to each other. Jane lived in Hot Springs, and Mary lived about ten miles away.
AH: So those women were the ones who shared this set of songs with Cecil Sharp?
TJ: Yes, those were women among the people who shared songs with Cecil Sharp when he came to Appalachia between 1916 and 1918, but there were many more people, and that was part of the complexity of how to approach this project. I had long been a fan of this collection, but there are so many songs in there, roughly 300, in many different versions. I just didn’t know how to approach it and select the material. But when I was introduced to Martin and we discussed it together, we decided that because those women lived close together and because they shared a large number of songs, with Jane Gentry sharing 80, and Mary Sands about 40, that might be a good place to start.
That was fascinating. Did they know each other? Did they ever see each other. It’s so unusual. It also explains so much about Appalachia that two women who live close together sing the same songs but sing them in different versions. All of that adds to the mystique of the whole thing. I also think it’s a wonderful thing that Jane Gentry was a farmer’s daughter, later a farmer’s wife, who moved into Hot Springs to run a boarding house, and Mary Sands was a farmer, and that two women who had no desire to do so arguably changed the course of folk music today.
AH: Do you think that the fact that they each knew so many songs suggests that this was a personal interest of theirs? Or would that have been typical of the time and place?
TJ: I don’t think everybody knew lots of songs, but I do think everybody knew more songs than we do today, because singing and playing was the only form of entertainment. Those people were too poor to have a radio at that time. It was also a little too early for that. It’s implied that somebody like Jane Gentry, knowing so many songs, was a little bit of an extraordinary figure. I grew up in Germany, and I don’t think my grandmother knew 80 songs. Also, Jane was known to be a great storyteller of sort of weird tales of ghosts. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the bottom of that.
AH: How did your conversation with Martin start? It’s such an intricate project. Were you both familiar with Cecil Sharp’s collection and that’s how you got talking?
TJ: Yes, we were both familiar with the collection. In fact, Martin’s mother-in-law had given him an old edition a couple of years ago for Christmas in England. Anybody who’s been working in the English folk scene is familiar with it since it’s such a monumental collection, and there’s a Cecil Sharp House in London with folk music and folk dancing. But we both had to dig deeper once we decided to work on this project.
The cool thing is that I knew of Martin but didn’t know him, but we had a couple of conversations on the phone and figured out the logistics. He flew down to Nashville, and I picked him up. We had never met before! Later, we sat down and played together, and after two minutes, we both knew that this was going to work great.
Our playing styles are very different. Martin plays pretty much exclusively in open, alternate tunings and he’s a finger style player. I play with a flat pick more. For this, it was cool that I stuck with flat picking and he stuck with finger picking because those styles complement each other well. I stayed in standard tuning most of the time while he was doing all this open-tuning, so there’s a really broad tonal range. What was so cool about our collaboration was that our sense of timing was so similar. None of this was recorded to a click track or any kind of rhythmical reference. Martin has played with very good singers over the years, and I have played with a lot of singers, so that experience really came in when we played with all these different singers on this album.
There was nothing premeditated on this album. The singers came in and we recorded the songs. None of these songs took longer than two hours per session. You really have to listen, and on one song, “Pretty Saro,” that Odessa Settles sings, you have to listen to her breath to understand where the next phrase starts. That comes pretty natural to me and Martin.
It’s very unusual to know that something is going to work well within a couple of minutes of playing together! Particularly with guitar players, since guitar players are all selfish and a pain in the ass. [Laughs]
AH: What a wonderful project. It’s ambitious, it’s complex. I haven’t seen Cecil Sharp’s songbook, so I’m wondering how detailed the notation is and what exactly it conveys for you to work with on these new performances. Was it quite open to interpretation?
TJ: That’s a super-cool question. Let’s say, for instance, with the song “Gypsy Laddie,” there are probably five or six versions of that song in the collection. All include musical notation written by Cecil Sharp, and his assistant collected the lyrics. So all of these versions differ slightly musically and lyrically. Some have a lot more verses. Sharp was also very detailed about where he collected songs, from whom, and the date. He also described the scales being used.
This was music that was all sung a cappella for him, so there’s no indication of whether it’s supposed to be harmonized. That was something that was up to Martin and me, to decide what the chordal structures were meant to be. A lot of these songs are “modal,” meaning they are not in a clear major or minor key. They are in between. The music is fluid. Also, for instance, if a song is in the key of G, a lot of them end on a dominant chord, which in our modern way of thinking, leaves everything feeling open and unfinished. In this music, it’s perfectly fine. That was an adventure, too, to invent those harmonies.
It was interesting to see what preferences English singers had on this, and it was also seeing what preferences people had on the American side. Some of the Americans knew some of these songs, but they knew them more in their bluegrass incarnations, whereas the English knew them more in their “pure” folk version. All in all, it was a musical adventure where we tried to be respectful of the source, but we also tried to be inventive. We also didn’t try to be inventive in a way that wouldn’t feel natural, like putting a drum machine on something. We didn’t want to do stuff just to be weird.
AH: Since there wasn’t instrumentation indicated, how did you decide how much instrumentation to bring in? Were you intentionally minimal about it?
TJ: The only concept we had for this was to use two guitars, and to have a fiddle or mandolin here or there. We didn’t want it to be a whole band. We didn’t want to have a piano player, or bass player, or whatever. That was one rule. The other rule was, “There’s not going to be any rules.” We actually did not use people on either end who were known as ballad singers since they might have certain ideas of how things should be done.
On the song “I Whipped My Horse,” that Faye Hield sings, she totally changes the timing of it from a 4/4 time signature to a 3/4 time signature, but on the chorus it goes back to 4/4. However, as to the melody, we stuck fairly close to the original. In terms of lyrics, too, there were some songs where they didn’t really match the phrasing when placed with musical accompaniment, so we changed things to make them more symmetrical. To us, it felt like a good balance between being true to the source, but also not being chained to it.
AH: I’m glad that you didn’t let all the decision making that was necessary get in your way. I noticed some of the concerns in these songs that speak to the times quite clearly, like an awareness of class, and the extent to which these kinds of songs extend beyond class or are limited by them.
TJ: That was pointed out to me by Martin and by Faye Hield, who actually teaches at the University of Sheffield. These songs express a strong sense of class. If you listen to “Fair Annie,” she’s someone who is apparently well-off, but as a woman, she’s being treated like crap by her husband. Then she also figures out how to get revenge. In “Gypsie Laddie,” you see the difference in class between the traveling minstrel and Lord Thomas, whose wife leaves with the minstrel, leaving behind wealth and home.
But also, these songs are obviously highly mythological in their content. They tell a story, but I think everything in those stories means something. In “Fair Annie,” she drinks “cool well water” while other people are drinking “beer, ale and wine.” There’s something there, a whole sub-layer of meanings to it. It’s not just that she was drinking water.
When these songs came to Appalachia [from the UK], there was a class divide there, too, fairly soon. It was a kind of last frontier of America, and was seen as being remote and closed off, and therefore backward. But there was also diversity in Appalachia that people may not be aware of. The Appalachian people infused these songs with their own sense of class, which is fascinating. It gives people power when they have songs and can reinterpret them in ways that other people can’t. That’s an expression of class, too. I think the idea of class in these songs is something that absolutely needs to be considered.
AH: I have heard previously from speaking with Terry Klein that you tend to take a similar stripped-down approach to recording albums when you’re acting as a producer. Is this a particular philosophy of yours?
TJ: I say, “Let’s just play. We’ll get a small band in here.” In Terry’s case, we get in a drummer and a bass player, have me on vocals, and him on vocals and guitar, and we lay down the framework. Then we can decide if we want to add something later. In a perfect world, I might actually have everyone together on the floor, but sometimes organizational details prohibit that. It’s really wide open and I don’t want to over-think anything. I think Terry was fascinated by this in the beginning, but was also a little nervous about it. It can come across as not committing to anything by phone, so this approach requires trust. Terry’s one of the smartest people I’ve met, and also an incredibly dedicated writer, a joy, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to work with him.
I certainly am no Daniel Lanois, but I have enough of my own music and there are enough things that I can do that I’m very selective about who I work with. It’s not about how much money a person has, but if I have the slightest feeling that if someone is going to be a pain in the ass, I’m not going to do it. You can have differences of musical opinions, and that’s great. But if we get in the studio, and someone immediately tells me how to do my job, I don’t want to work like that, and it’s not good for the music. It’s not that it’s bad for my ego, there’s just no joy in making music like that. The joy of making music with other people is that you trust them. You have to have an open mind. Otherwise, it’s like hiring Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house and then telling him what you want.
Thanks very much, Thomm Jutz, for chatting with us. You can discover more details at his website or the link below. http://www.thommjutz.com
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Tammy Rogers and Thomm Jutz Surely Will Be Singing