It all started back in 1987 when Cambridge Ph.D candidate Wesley Stace, soon to be known as musician John Wesley Harding, was struck with the opening lines for a song: "I was born with a coathanger in my mouth/I was dumped down south/I was found by the richest man in the world/Who brought me up as a girl." Six years later the song was completed as "Miss Fortune" and performed live by Harding many times before and after its release on his 1998 CD, "Awake" (reissued in expanded form by Appleseed in 2000).
But, as Harding, a.k.a. Wes, told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, "When you sing a song for years onstage ...you think about the song. The one thing I thought about that song is that I never ended it. God, what about that character?"
Wes answered his own question by writing a 500-plus-page 19th Century historical novel, "Misfortune," published under his original name in April 2005 by Little, Brown, to dazzled critical huzzahs in USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post and many other publications. The book chronicles the adventures of an abandoned baby boy adopted by wealthy Lord Loveall, who names him Rose in honor of his dead sister and raises him as a girl on his Love Hall estate. Dickensian complications ensue as Rose grows through adolescence and must cope with his true sexuality and the equally confusing and frequently brutal world around him.
Much historical research was undertaken in Harding's six years of writing "Misfortune," and the book is studded with
traditional British folk songs and song fragments uncovered and adapted by Harding, as well as some camouflaged original compositions and an apposite Leonard Cohen song, "Joan of Arc." The songs "demanded to be sung," says Wes, and "in order to record this very specific group of songs in a very specific way, The Love Hall Tryst was convened. I wanted to make something that felt right, was inspired by the music that inspired me, and (most difficult of all) could possibly have been made in 1830!" The "very specific way" to record these songs was as a largely unaccompanied quartet, four voices raised in mesmerizing and period-authentic a cappella harmonies. To fill his quota of vocalists, Harding tapped his friend and occasional collaborator, Kelly Hogan ("my favorite singer of all"); her favorite singing partner, the rising country/folk performer Nora O'Connor; and actor Brian Lohmann, who provides the deep bottom voice. To prepare for the recording, "tapes started changing hands" among the singers - recordings by The Young Tradition, The Copper Family, The Watersons and other historically-minded British folk groups. For a recording studio, the Trysters used the Troy, NY, Savings Bank, a cavernous building turned recording hall with an incredible natural reverb that adds further luster to their vocal blend.
Like the book that inspired it, "Songs of Misfortune" is not exactly a carefree romp in the Victorian meadows. Harding's mordant sensibilities drew him to a selection of traditional British folk songs in which, he has noted, "the number of gruesome deaths depicted" totals 13 - a high body count for 11 songs, two of which are heard in both unaccompanied and blazing, Fairport-ish electric arrangements, the latter provided by The Minstrel in the Galleries, Harding's occasional "mediaeval rock" band of Seattle musicians, including lead guitarist Kurt Bloch and bassist Jim Sangster of the Young Fresh Fellows, among others.
As Wes told the Tacoma News Tribune, "None of (the old songs) have happy endings. Everybody dies in them. The sheer carnage of babies on the new album is almost like a comment on the current political climate in America." Most of the worst human impulses - greed, envy, treachery, murder - are on full display here in songs such as "Lambkin," "Lord Bateman," "The Sanguinary Butcher" (one of Harding's originals, but based on a 1742 homicide), and "The Lady Dressed in Green." That trad-folk staple, the double suicide, is the outcome in "Lord Lovel," in which a swain's tardy return leads to tragedy.
Redeeming these tales of literal misfortune are the ringing but respectful voices of the Tryst - tiers and cascades of harmonies and counterpoints surround the melody lines, which are shared by all four singers. Among the least blood-spattered songs: the wistful my-love-is-leaving ballad "Shallow Brown," with lovely unison vocals from Kelly and Nora and gentle acoustic guitar accompaniment; "Jack in the Green," based on a children's game, is fast, spirited and precise, with a tambourine for emphasis; "The Abandoned Baby," penned by Harding, features a talking dog as one of its characters and a cheery arrangement that borders on doo-wop. And even the grimmest scenarios are enlivened by the beauty of the singing and the authenticity of the presentation.
Whether you've read Harding's extraordinary novel or not, "Songs of Misfortune" stands on its own as a daring and rewarding adventure in musical scholarship, sublime arrangements and the eternal strength of the human voice.
About The Love Hall Tryst
Wherever John Wesley Harding goes, the words "witty," "literate," "passionate" and "acerbic" are sure to follow. In the course of more than a dozen solo albums since his 1989 debut, recently reissued by Appleseed as an expanded 2-CD set called "It Happened One Night & It Never Happened At All," Harding has established himself as a masterful observer of the human condition and a riveting performer. The self-proclaimed "bastard son of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez" left Cambridge University with a degree in English Literature, which came in handy during the gestation of Misfortune. Relocating to the US in the early '90s gave Harding the opportunity to view another culture firsthand, and his artistic palette has expanded to encompass all manner of folk and rock hybrids, including experiments with traditional British musical forms, as on "Trad Arr Jones," his tribute to UK folksinger and guitarist Nic Jones, and now "Songs of Misfortune."
When Wes was looking for vocalists to comprise the Love Hall Tryst, his first choice was Kelly Hogan. The singer was a member of the Georgia-based Jody Grind, an early-'90s band that released two CDs before the death of two members in a car accident. After a stay in the Rock*A*Teens, an arty garage band, during which time Kelly recorded her first solo CD, she left the band to devote time to her own career and collaborations with indie rock artists such as Will Oldham and the Waco Brothers. She met Harding in 1989 and the two have sung together on several CDs, including Harding's "Awake" and an improbable duet version of Donny and Marie Osmond's "I'm a Little Bit Country (I'm a Little Bit Rock 'n' Roll)" on a Pravda Records compilation. Kelly, long since transplanted to Chicago, has subsequently recorded two more solo CDs on the Bloodshot label, most recently 2001's "Because It Feel Good."
As Kelly recounts her Tryst recruitment, "When we were standing in Antone's in Austin last Spring, and Wes tipsily asked me, 'Would you please record a four-part a cappella CD of ye olde folk tales and ballads in an 1873 opera house in Troy, New York?,' I was compelled to tipsily answer, 'Yes, of course - and, by the way, have you met my friend Nora here? She sings a little too.'"
Nora, of course, was (and still is) Nora O'Connor, another Chicago-based vocalist with a strong taste for country, folk, soul and jazz. She has worked with some of the city's most interesting musicians, including Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, The Blacks, and soul/blues artists Mavis Staples and Otis Clay, earning critical appreciation as a singer "with brass enough to match Neko Case and Kelly Hogan for every coo and wail" (No Depression). "Til the Dawn," Nora's first CD since 1996, was released by Bloodshot last year.
Brian Lohmann, the Tryst's bass vocalist, is an actor, comic and singer who first met Wes at the 1987 Edinburgh Festival. His credits include past membership in an a cappella group and theater and nightclub performances in the US, Australia and Europe. He currently hosts "The Tiny and Les Show" in Hollywood, an improvised salute to imaginary composers and their works.
Although Nora O'Connor's pregnancy will curtail all but a few full Love Hall Tryst gigs in August 2005, the Slighter Love Hall Tryst (Wes, Kelly and Brian) will perform these songs on tour as a trio and Wes will feature them in his frequent solo shows.
Check out the artist's website:
1. Do Not Fear the Dark
2. Joan of Arc (The Ballad of La Pucelle)
3. Lord Bateman
4. Female Rambling Sailor
5. Lord Lovel
6. The Sanguinary Butcher
7. Shallow Brown
9. The Lady Dressed in Green
10. The Abandoned Baby
11. Jack in the Green
12. Do Not Fear the Dark (electric)
13. Lord Bateman (electric)