Oh Lovely Appearance, the new album by The Dickens Campaign, is music that has its eyes on the far horizon and its feet on the front porch of America.
Deric Dickens is a New-York-based drummer who hails from south Georgia, and those Georgia roots run deep under the earth of this music. He’s chosen as bandmates two people who share his respect for tradition and his willingness to push beyond it. Cornetist Kirk Knuffke is one of the New York’s busiest players, both as a leader and a sideman, particularly in the quartet of celebrated drummer Matt Wilson, who is Dickens’ primary mentor. Guitarist Jesse Lewis cut his musical teeth in New Orleans and spends much of his time these days exploring the intersection of country, pop and jazz as one of New York’s in-demand guitar players.
The music on Oh Lovely Appearance originates in a place more specific than “general Americana,” namely the work of musicologist Alan Lomax. In the 1930s, Lomax traveled the country in a Model T Ford and recorded the songs and sounds of America. From work songs to folk ballads to the blues, Lomax created an invaluable archive of American musical history at a time when few people were paying attention to the music of the poor and working class.
“I spent time in school thinking I was going into ethnomusicology,” said Dickens. “I was mainly interested in African and Southern music and I had written a few papers on Alan Lomax. What I really loved was that his work could still be seen today in modern music. This is a living music.”
The album begins with what may be its most obviously Lomax-inspired track, “As I Went Out For A Ramble.” Dickens’ easy shuffle is like a train going down the line, pushing along Lewis’s steel strings and the warmth and wistfulness of Knuffke’s cornet. It sets the tone and lets the listener know that this music is coming from a deeper place than just the heads of these musicians.
The focus shifts into a tougher, grimier area with “Roustabout Holler,” which sounds like music for a very hip roadhouse. Lewis shines on electric guitar on this track, as he does in a wholly different, more ethereal way on Knuffke’s “Poem.” It’s at this point that the album first diverges from the broad river of Americana and explores a world closer to that of New York’s improvising scene. But the music never loses its footing, never gets swept away in the current.
“Lomax’s idea was to show the United States as a place with enormous musical creativity,” said Dickens. “The challenge however, was how to communicate this musical creativity in a way that could be used by all.”
And then just like that, we’re in bayou territory with a Dickens original, “My Baby Likes To Sing.” It’s easy to imagine this music sliding off the bandstand as dancers circle one another, sizing up the competition and the prospects. The transition from “Poem” to “Baby” highlights the flexibility of the The Dickens Campaign. They’re comfortable anywhere the music needs to go. It’s worth noting that this album really benefits from the experienced ears of recording engineer Matt Balitsaris, who brings just the right amount of unadorned clarity to the proceedings.
The album takes its name from the fifth track, “Oh Lovely Appearance Of Death,” a plaintive tune recorded by Lomax in October of 1937, as sung by Mr. & Mrs. Boyd Hoskins. It’s here that this album plants its flag, taking the bitter with the sweet, taking the whole fabric of American music as one garment. The song was written by a minister, to be sung at his funeral. The lyrics sing the praises of a corpse, and the luck of the dead person to now be released from his or her troubles and to have found peace.
Oh, lovely appearance of death,
What sight upon earth is so fair?
Not all the gay pageants that breathe
Can with a dead body compare.
A grim thought that hearkens back to a darker time in our nation’s history. Is it so hard to imagine that, in the midst of the Great Depression, the idea of rest – eternal rest – would be appealing? And yet, in the hands of these skilled musicians, there’s an undeniable beauty that emerges from the pain. A refusal to go down easily, a tenacity born from the power of music to transcend and to lift.
The tune “I Should Have Known” comes from the experience Dickens had with his neighbors in Knoxville, TN. “I lived next to them for five years,” said Dickens. “They gave me my fair share of moonshine cherries and Bush beer after long work days. They’d sit outside and drink beer while I would have late sessions at my house. We’d finish a tune and we’d hear clapping outside. They’d be there just hanging and enjoying the music.”
“Paul Motian” is, of course, an homage to the drummer of the same name who died in 2011. Dickens described Motian as “a folk musician who was accidentally thrown into a jazz musician’s body. The way Paul writes, with an emphasis on phrase marks over note length, is very reminiscent of the way some of the field hollers and songs were written out by Alan Lomax and Ruth Crawford Seeger.”
Although an argument could be made that the entire album is suffused with the spiritual, it is most pronounced on William Walker’s “Hallelujah,” a shape note hymn from the 1800s. Shape note notation was developed to facilitate group singing by notating music in a more simplified form. Walker was a master of this style of singing, which Dickens describes as having a very distinctive sound.
Kirk Knuffke’s other writing credit comes with “Twice My Heavy.” The title comes from Knuffke’s experience growing up in an area of Colorado populated primarily by Spanish-speaking migrant workers. In high school, when Knuffke’s classmates would describe something as very heavy, they would say it was “twice my heavy.”
The album closes with “Waiting,” a tune by guitarist Jesse Lewis and the album’s longest track. It’s a perfect ending, bringing together the beauty and rootedness of this project, and giving each player room to express himself.
In short, The Dickens Campaign’s Oh Lovely Appearance is about knowing where we’ve come from so that we can better decide where to go next. It’s about acknowledging the past without be tethered by it. It’s the sound of three musicians, three human beings, who are using art as a means of communicating their understanding of the human experience.