Our close friend TC Costello has toured all over the world and spent quite some time in Korea so he was the perfect person to put pen to paper on the new album from Seth Martin that fuses Americana and American Folk with traditional Korean music.
Singer, songwriter and folklorist based Seth Martin has been honing a rare sound for the last decade, travelling back and forth between between his native US and adoptive home of South Korea, absorbing Korean traditional music into his already rootsy American sound. For some time, he’s been hosting shows throughout Korea where he’s strummed his banjo and guitar alongside musicians playing traditional Korean instruments, all while leading bi-lingual singalongs. He works for Seong Mun-Bakk Mountain school, a Korean traditional music school in the mountains nearby Seoul. He’s even taken his primary school-aged students on a tour of America’s Pacific Northwest.
One of the most memorable nights of music I had in Korea was a concert he organised with his students and some local, mostly American, folk musicians in Seoul. His students performed, Pansori, Korean drum-and-vocals storytelling music and and samul nori, Korean drum music, which sounds a bit like 100 bodhrans caught in a thunderstorm! We foreign folkies played songs from our backgrounds. I did some American tunes, an Irish immigration ballad, and tried a Gypsy-Punk reworking of a Korean indie hit. These shows he organised brought together people of different ages and backgrounds who would otherwise never meet, let alone end up performing alongside one another. At these occasions, Martin created a melting pot of folk music that was unlike anything else in the massive capital city.
On the third of May this year, on what would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday, Martin released a live album, Live at No Country: An Introduction to Seth Martin, and I could imagine no better introduction to Martin nor a more fitting tribute to Mr. Seeger.
The album starts with the Korean folk song ‘Bird, Bird, Blue Bird,’ a lament on the death of Jeon Bung-Jun, a farmer who became a rebel leader in 1894 during time of growing Japanese influence – though 16 years before Korean became a proper colony – It’s a complicated political situation that I don’t care to get into now. ‘Bird, Bird, Blue Bird’ is a song I’ve known for a few years, but had no idea it was about Mr. Jeon. That’s because much of Korean folk music is heavy in nature metaphors. Martin fully embraces nature metaphors in his English songwriting on this album, too. The gentle lament features Martin on Banjo and Kim Jungeun on Janggu, an hourglass-shaped traditional Korean drum, as well as a chorus of vocalists. Contrasting with the mellow opening track is Martin’s jaunty rendition of ‘Motion of Love’, set to the tune of the American folk song, ‘Shady Grove’. It is mediation on wanting all the narrators actions to be fore the good of all mankind, a motion of love. It’s originally by Bill Jolliff and is inspired by John Woolman, a 19th century Quaker, anti-consumer and abolitionist (someone who wanted to end slavery in America as soon as possible). For me, the highlight of the song is a nearly two-minute breakdown during which Martin only bashes out only one chord on banjo with with whooping and hollering that would put Shane MacGowan to shame. The instrumentation features Kim Jungeun again on Janggu and Zoë Youngmi Blank on violin.
Next, Seth performs a medley of two introspective love songs: ‘I Still Love You’ and ‘Pushmipullyou’. After that, he grabs a another song from Korea’s tragic history with a rendition of ‘Mother, Sister (Let’s live by the River)’ – I added the brackets. The song was by Kim Sowol, a famous – and famously hard-to-translate – Korean poet and journalist who worked during the Japanese occupation, and he seems to have taken his own life at the age 32. He follows Kim’s poem with the original anti-war song, ‘Feeling so Cold’, telling of a soldier returning home after seeing, and indeed committing, unspeakable wartime atrocities. While it seems to fit the narrative of an American soldier returning after the Korean War or a Japanese solider’s return after the occupation, Martin says it’s not specifically about Korea, though “it fits certainly in that narrative.” After the heavy subject matter, Martin follows with a an another song about returning home, though not without darkness. ‘Winding Down’, is a reflection upon return home and seeing familiar roads, mountains and rivers.
True to Mr. Seeger on his birthday, Martin provokes a full audience sing-a-long, both with ‘da da da’, and the simple refrain of
“I am winding down my old road again. I am winding down.”
True to the theme of nature metaphors, he speaks of the old river:
“And old river, old river, can you still make things new?
And old river, do you remember all the things i said I’d do?”
Next, on ‘Children of Sod’, Martin sings what he describes as “A love Song to the Tancheon River” in Korea. He asks at the beginning and end of the song:
“Don’t we all feel better when
The smell of dirt clings to our skin
Pervades us, loves us
And waits for us to ask it to come in?”
‘The Ballad of Eric Gardner’ channels the likes of Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and of course Pete Seeger with a song about Eric Garner, famously choked to death by a New York City police officer after he was allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. In a hard-to-listen-to but powerful song, Martin sings:
“After Garner stopped resisting, well the cops just stood there watching
they picked his pockets and they rolled him on his side
Several minutes slowly passed
EMTs they came at last
No CPR, they said he still was breathing then
An hour later Garner’d never breathe again”
With ‘Looking for the Leatherwinged Bat’, in a shocking reversal of nature metaphors, Martin takes an old English Folk song about different species of birds’ courtship rituals, and takes most of the birds out of the song. Instead it becomes a less-than-flattering walk through an America consumed by corruption poverty and pollution, replacing the birds with such characters a bigoted billionaire, a police officer harassing kids and “the dog at the top of the pile.”
Martin follows this with ‘If I Had my Way’, by Blind Wille Johnson:
“If I had my way
If I had my way
If I had my way, oh lodry, lordy.
If I had my way, I’d tear the whole thing down.”
The closing number of the live show is medley of ‘Arirang’ and ‘Rooster’. ‘Arirang’ is by far the most popular folk song in Korea. There are countless variations of the song, and Martin uses a version known as ‘Lonely Arirang’, which he describes as
“a celebration of the relationship between the Korean people and the Korean landscapes that have sustained them for millennia.” But for a more global appeal, Martin calls the song “a challenge to all listeners to not forget this unity that comes from an ancient relationship to the land.”
‘Rooster’ is an original instrumental and, without getting too much into music theory, has a melody that fits remarkably well with Korean traditional music. The jaunty banjo and “Yap-da badabum” singalong are hard to not smile to.
Following his live album are some songs recorded around Korea, and highlights include Utah Phillips’ ‘Trooper’s Lament’, based on Phillip’s time in the Korea, and ‘God Bless The Grass’, originally by Malvinia Reynolds, which keeps to the nature metaphors:
“God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.”
Live At No Country: An Introduction To Seth Martin will easily be one of the most unique albums you’ll hear this year. Many foreign musicians in Korea learn some Korean music while over there, myself included. But with me, It’d be a Korean folk song or a Korean punk cover in the middle of my more-Western set, and I’d describe as nothing more than a Westerner’s version of a Korean song. With Live At No Country, Martin fuses his command of American folk with his love of Korean folk to create something new. This album, while inspired by the old and traditional music, is truly a new and original experience.
(you can stream Live at No Country: An Introduction to Seth Mountain on the Bandcamp player below)
Buy Live at No Country Bandcamp
You can catch TC Costello live at the moment over here in the UK as he is doing a bunch of dates with his friends The Brandy Thieves as well as a load of solo dates including a special London Celtic Punks show at The Lamb in Surbiton in SW London. TC will be supported on the night by Suckin’ Diesel a new traditional Irish folk band featuring current and auld members of The Lagan and headed by Lagan front man the mega talented Brendan O’Prey. All happening on Monday 17th June live at the best boozer in the area The Lamb just a couple of minutes walk from Surbiton station which is only 20 minutes from Waterloo. Live music begins at 8pm and ends at 11pm. Entrance is **FREE** you lucky devil’s so you can spend more on the lovely beer on sale at The Lamb.
More details available over at the official Facebook event here.
For TC’s other dates then go check on his Facebook page here.