Turning the Songbag Inside Out

Photo of Carl Sandburg, courtesy of June Glenn, Jr., via the Carl Sandburg Home.

Photo of Carl Sandburg, courtesy of June Glenn, Jr., via the Carl Sandburg Home.

Once a year, the Carl Sandburg Folk Music Festival celebrates a side of the icon some may be less familiar with — Sandburg the Archivist.
The prolific poet/biographer was an early “songcatcher,” traveling the country extensively to collect songs for his 1927 written anthology The American Songbag.

Performers at the festival often find that pieces from the series of “Dramas & Portraits,” “Bandit Biographies,” “Railroad and Work Gang” or “Hobo Songs” that caught Sandburg’s ear appear on their own playlists.

To borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman, Sandburg contained multitudes. John Akers, playing this year, acknowledges Sandburg’s love of Spanish classical guitar by interpreting folk songs in that mode. The Wofford College professor (and author of two books on Sandburg) is the only classical guitarist to ever perform at the event.

Another John, slide guitarist John Emil, mines the Southern end of the Songbook’s reach, bringing a Delta-blues sound to Connemara.

Emil plays the Dobro, or resonator guitar, and Hawaiian lap steel, although he admits that, “honestly, the music that I love is psychedelic blues-based rock from the ’60s.” He began playing conventional guitar and learned from a jazz teacher who was versed in the work of guitarists including Tal Farlow and Wes Montgomery.

“I was having a problem with jazz improv. I just wasn’t getting it,” Emil recalls. “So I saw the blues as a fundamental stepping stone to help me better understand jazz. Then when I started studying the blues, I became fascinated, obsessed with it, because I started to see where Hendrix got it, and Led Zeppelin got it, and where it was coming from.

Carl Sandburg collected vernacular songs throughout the country and published them in The American Songbag.

Carl Sandburg collected vernacular songs throughout the country and published them in The American Songbag.

“I got very deep into it and went from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf, and then down the line to Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and then tracing it back to African music.”

Emil’s father had listened to psychedelic, progressive, and hard rock when he was younger, and his mother had favored Neil Young, Carly Simon, and the singer-songwriters from the early ’70s.

“It’s funny, because when I got out of high school I was listening to a lot of the same music that they were listening to. But they never inspired me to be a full-time musician. To this day, they still want me to get a real job,” says Emil with a smile.

While teaching yoga in Florida, Emil met slide guitarist Keith B. Brown, and began learning everything he could about the bottleneck style. A few years later he was introduced to a lap-steel guitarist named Kelly Joe Phelps.

“When I play slide guitar, Dobro, I play with finger picks, and then when I play lap steel I just use my nails and the tips of my fingers. I taught myself how to finger pick and play slide through years of trying different things. I first learned finger picking with my right hand from playing certain Beatles songs — ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Julia’ — and a couple Crosby, Stills & Nash songs.

“It was a little frustrating at first playing lap steel, but after several months I started to see a progression. I thought it would be unique to be able to play lap-steel guitar and also bottleneck guitar, to be able to present two ways of playing slide at one show.”

Emil’s repertoire includes songs from Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Blind Willie Johnson. “Some things that I play on the Dobro I play exact, but there are places within the song, things that I learned from jazz, as far as being able to open up certain sections and then adding improv and different chord structures, different arrangements.”

The 28th Annual Carl Sandburg Folk Music Festival happens at the Carl Sandburg Home (Connemara) in Flat Rock on Monday, May 25. Performers include John Akers, Steve and Jean Smith, The 42nd Street Jazz Band, John Emil, The Chuck Beattie Band, and Underhill Rose. 10am-4pm. Free. 828-693-4178. www.nps.gov/carl

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