Tim Eriksen: “I Love These Old Songs!”

by Stephen D. Winick

From Dirty Linen No. 113 - August-September 2004

Mention musician Tim Eriksen’s name these days, and someone’s likely to say “Oh, the guy from Cold Mountain?” Eriksen’s involvement in the film, which included appearing as a singer on screen, arranging sessions of Sacred Harp singing, appearing in the soundtrack as the singing voice of actor Brendan Gleeson, and ultimately helping arrange two songs for the Oscar telecast, has raised his profile, so that such people as producer T Bone Burnett and actor Billy Bob Thornton are singing his praises. He’s part of the public face of folk music, something he may struggle a little to come to terms with. Of an earlier flirtation with the folk scene, Eriksen once commented, “the folk scene had many, many agendas and sometimes the agendas were more important than the music, more often than not… I don’t like folk music…no offense to anybody, but that’s one of my least favorite genres in the world. I would go to a concert because it said South Indian classical music on it, I might go to a concert because it said hardcore punk on it, I would stay away from a concert because it said folk music on it.”

What Eriksen is experiencing now is a little different, though. It’s folk music seen through the prism of Hollywood, a world where image is everything. That has a separate set of challenges. A recent press release claims that Eriksen is “a leader in the back-to-the-roots musical movement that turned the bluegrass/folk soundtrack to the 2001 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? into a surprise multi-platinum hit and Grammy winner.” In fact, he does not consider himself to be leading any such movement, and he was not involved with O Brother in the slightest. A different set of agendas, then, are being ascribed to him this time, for commercial reasons. And while he doesn’t complain, he also doesn’t embrace them. Of his appearance in Cold Mountain, he can be slightly dismissive. “It’s not necessarily the most interesting project I’ve been involved in,” he said in an April 2004 interview. “But it’s definitely the easiest to explain.“

In fact, Eriksen’s prominence in this popular film—and thus in any movement it may represent—came about more by accident than by design. As he explains in the liner notes to his album Every Sound Below, it began with a tape he found in the basement of his teacher David Reck. Not knowing anything about the singer, who had an eerie, high-pitched voice and was equally proficient on guitar, banjo and harmonica, Eriksen was nonetheless captivated by the music’s quality. He learned several of the songs and added them to his repertoire. Several years later, after a concert in New York, an audience member who was a friend of the promoter came to speak with Eriksen. It was John Cohen, a member of the New Lost City Ramblers, as well as a record producer and a filmmaker. The tape Eriksen had used as a source was an album that Cohen had produced, featuring the Kentucky singer Roscoe Holcomb, and Cohen had recognized Holcomb’s influence.

Some years later, Cohen was approached as a musical advisor for Cold Mountain. Asked if he knew anyone who could sing old-style rural music, Cohen thought of Eriksen. Eriksen was initially hired to be Brendan Gleeson’s singing voice, a role he recorded in a Nashville studio. But his parts in the film soon multiplied. Director Anthony Minghella uses musical sounds as a point of entry, getting a sense of how films will sound before he starts. Just as he used Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás to define the sound of The English Patient, he seized upon a recording of Sacred Harp singing as a key to the sound of Cold Mountain. Eriksen, as it turns out, is an expert on this tradition.

Named after the 1844 hymnal The Sacred Harp, Sacred Harp singing is a form of religious music common to several protestant denominations. Also sometimes known as shape note singing or fasola, it was once widely distributed across the country. It is primarily sung in the South today, and has its earliest roots in Ereiksen’s home territory of New England. “It’s unaccompanied four-part harmony singing,” Eriksen explained. “People sit in an inward-facing hollow square, and often for a whole day—or two days for a convention—from 9:30 to 2:30 or 3:00 or later, people just call songs from The Sacred Harp and take turns leading them. It’s an interesting intersection of social and religious practice. For many people, it’s church, but for everyone, it’s also a real good time.” Eriksen himself has been involved in Sacred Harp for years, and sings at least once a week. “Just about everybody I know now sings Sacred Harp, so pretty much if I see anyone, we’ll wind up singing a couple of songs. There’s a couple of big annual sings that we always go to, we always go to our home singing out in western Massachusetts, and then here in Minnesota now that we’re living here, and then we try to get down to Alabama and Georgia whenever we can. So it’s probably musically the thing I do most.”

Wherever he goes, Eriksen always has his ears open for the strains of Sacred Harp. “These shape note books, it’s amazing. Anywhere that the missionaries went they wound up. That’s one of those tantalizing things, where you hear about some Sacred Harp singer friend who went to Hawaii and heard people singing this stuff there, not as a sort of revival practice, but just Hawaiians, because apparently someone had learned it from missionaries in the 19th Century.”

Eriksen’s thorough familiarity with the tradition and lore of the Sacred Harp made him a perfect advisor for Minghella and his musical director, T Bone Burnett. The presence and role of Sacred Harp singing in Cold Mountain changed significantly under Eriksen’s guidance. “They had actually transcribed a song off of the recording,” he remembered. “Initially, they had this idea of getting a professional choir and trying to teach them the music. Then they found out I was into it, and they thought maybe I would teach [the choir]. Then I thought, well, we gotta use real sacred harp singers. I talked with a bunch of my sacred harp singing friends, to see if people thought it was a good idea to get mixed up with this big Hollywood film.” Ultimately, Eriksen found about sixty-five people from fifteen different states, who congregated in the town of Henegar, Alabama. “We brought T Bone and Anthony and Brendan Gleeson, and some of the other movie folks down there, and we spent about three hours just singing,” he said. “We sang about 45 songs, plus Anthony chose two songs that he wanted to do a number of times for this one scene in the film.”

After Henegar, it was time to visit Romania, where much of the film was shot. “They wound up using one song for the battle scene, and one song for the Church singing scene, so they brought me over to help the actors learn how to sing the stuff, or at least look like they were singing it,” he explained. “They were following the camera with a shotgun mic, so you hear mostly what we did in Alabama, but then you hear a little bit from Romania mixed in. They did it well, I thought.” Eriksen also took his wife and baby son along for the ride, and the parents ended up with small screen roles. Baby Luka, on the other hand, became a star at eight months old. In Nashville, when both parents were in the studio, Minghella had looked after Luka, and the director had developed a fondness for the boy. When he saw the parents again in Romania, he asked if they would let Luka play Renee Zellweger’s child.

Eriksen’s involvement in Cold Mountain did not end when the film had been shot and the sound recorded. He continued to work at various promotional events surrounding the movie’s release. He performed at a concert at the film’s premiere, and then was asked to help out again on Oscar night. “T Bone asked me if I could get together a group to sing on the Elvis Costello song. I initially said no, because I just thought it’s not really musically compatible to have Sacred Harp singers singing on the Elvis Costello song. [Sacred Harp] is community music, it’s absolutely not commercial. You hear a lot of people talk about how Bluegrass isn’t a commercial music, but compared to Sacred Harp, bluegrass is like Britney Spears, you know?”

“Then my wife, who’s way more smart than I am, said, ’duh, just do it! You can make it work one way or another!’ So I did.” In the meantime, however, he was advocating for some real Sacred Harp singing at the award show. For a while, it looked like this might happen, but their song was cut at the last minute in the interests of saving time on the notoriously overloaded Oscar broadcast. “I didn’t care for the TV thing, but it would have been very cool live,” he said with regret. “We definitely would have rocked the house.”

Rocking the house is something Eriksen understands better than your average folkie. Raised in a musical family, he was always interested in music, and became a hardcore punk musician in his teens, but he already had eclectic musical tastes. In addition to hardcore, he was seriously studying south Indian classical music, and participating in avant-garde happenings. He first rose to prominence in folk circles fronting the innovative electric folk band Cordelia’s Dad, the seeds of which were sown when some persistent acquaintances pestered him into playing bass in a frat-party blues band. “The idea was to try to make money,” he confessed. “It was called the Lobstermen. It was kind of lame.”

Lame or not, the experience did lead to bigger and better things. Eriksen, guitarist Tom King and drummer Peter Irvine decided to move forward, in a new band with a new musical direction. That direction, of infusing folk songs with the noise and energy of punk, began more or less as a lark. “It was a dumb joke,” Eriksen admitted. “I knew we all liked old folksongs. Two of us had just been to something that was called a ‘folk and blues coffeehouse,’ or something, and it was basically just new age crap. So we said, let’s play those old folk songs, but let’s do them obnoxiously loud, because of how wimpy most of the stuff that we heard was.” Still, Cordelia’s Dad worked an acoustic set into their live shows. “Aside from complaining about the wimpy stuff, we actually liked the wimpy stuff!” Eriksen explained. “So we did an acoustic set and a noisy electric set. And for whatever bizarre reason, people also liked it.”

The reason was not so bizarre. Cordelia’s Dad was doing what Elvis had done in 1950s Memphis. It’s also what Steeleye Span had done in 1970s Britain, and what the Pogues were simultaneously doing in London and Manchester: taking old folk music and adding young, edgy noise. The public responded, as they often do to bands that strike the right balance. “I actually really liked it,” Eriksen said. “I like the early stuff …there’s a certain joie de vivre, or kind of an abandon. Nothing was in tune, and we didn’t really care. We never practiced. We’d just go…let’s do ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’ Everybody knows that one! Why practice it?”

They did well as an underground rock band, even sharing the stage at one point with Kurt Cobain. “The thing that was funny with that band was that it had such a pop appeal,” Eriksen recalled. “I was almost kind of embarrassed because I thought it was so poppy. We could have totally been Nirvana. We could have had that experience. Which I’m glad we didn’t.” Instead, they played for a couple of years, and broke up. Eriksen went away for a year, spending six months in India and six months in England, studying Carnatic classical music. While he was away, Irvine sent a tape of Cordelia’s Dad to a record executive, who encouraged them to record. Two weeks after his return from abroad, Eriksen was in the studio with a reincarnated Cordelia’s Dad.

Over the next twelve years, Cordelia’s Dad played all over the country and released seven CDs, the last of which was 2002’s What it Is. They also toured a lot, as Eriksen recalled. “We’d come up with different ideas of how to spend a lot of time on the road and not make any money. How many different ways can you think of to do that?” After the 1995 acoustic recording Comet, they became well known on the folk scene, but generally felt misunderstood by folkies. In the meantime, they maintained only a cult following among rock fans. This allowed them to experiment a lot, change their sound, and see what happened. “We had an incarnation as an all acoustic four piece, and we had an incarnation as an experimental noise band,” he recalled. “We tried to split the electric side off, and called it Io, and called the acoustic side Cordelia’s Dad. It was our brilliant marketing strategy, which was don’t give anybody a really good handle on what you’re doing. We’d show up for acoustic gigs, and promoters would say ‘where are all the amplifiers?’ And then we’d show up for what we thought were electric gigs, and people would say ‘what are you doing? What’s all those amplifiers about?’”

Since then, although Eriksen avowed there has never been a breakup, Cordelia’s Dad is on hiatus, with no active plans to tour or record. Irvine has become an entertainment lawyer, which Eriksen attributes to the influence of Cordelia’s Dad fans. “The very first time we ever played together, after the show somebody said, ‘how do you guys know each other?’ Because I had long green hair with stupid patches shaved out of it, and he looked like he does now, other than wearing a tie. So this person said ‘he looks like a lawyer!’ So many people when we did gigs would say ‘this guy looks like a lawyer.’ So one day as a joke, he said, ‘well, the LSATs are next week, maybe I should take em.’ He did it, and he actually did really well. So now he’s a lawyer!”

While Irvine studied law, the band’s current third member Cath Oss married and moved to Newcastle, England, where she plays in punk bands. Eriksen moved west to join his wife, Mirjana Laušević, who is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Minnesota. He met Laušević in another now-dormant band, Zabe i Babe. “We did Bosnian traditional and popular music, and our own stuff,” he explained. “Minja’s from Sarajevo, so right when the fighting broke out over there, we started this band. Partially, she wanted to show something good coming from that part of the world, rather than just all the violent stuff.” In addition to concerts, the group recorded one album, in collaboration with the Macedonian Roma group Ansambl Teodosijevski. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of Esma Redžepova, but over there they call her the queen of gypsy music and dance,” he explained. “Minja grew up watching Esma on TV, so we met her at her first gig in the states that she ever did, and we had an opportunity to record with her band. That was one of the most exhausting and fun records I ever made.”

Since both these groups have stopped performing, Eriksen’s career has consisted of mostly solo gigs and two solo recordings, plus all his work on Cold Mountain and its related spinoffs. Indeed, as this goes to press he is on tour with The Great High Mountain Tour, featuring songs and performances by artists from the O Brother Where Art Thou, Down From the Mountain, and Cold Mountain soundtracks. The tour includes Eriksen and a host of old-time and bluegrass talent, including Alison Krauss & Union Station, Ralph Stanley, The Cox Family, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, The Whites, Norman & Nancy Blake, Dirk Powell, Riley Baugus, and Ollabelle. It’s another example of how movie soundtracks are transforming the public perception of roots music.

The solo CDs, on the other hand, avoid all the trappings of commerce; they were recorded live in the studio, in mono, with no overdubs or mixing at all. Every track is just one voice and/or one instrument; he plays fiddle, guitar and banjo. “I knew I wanted to do solo acoustic, and I knew some other things, like I didn’t want to mess with overdubs, just because I don’t like listening to stuff that sounds like that.” Another thing he planned from the first was to perform traditional songs and new ones written in that vein. “Let’s put it this way, it’s nice to have some boundaries or some organizing principles,” he said. “I didn’t want to be jumping all over the place. Like, people just sit down to dinner, and then have to jump up and turn the thing down or something. At some point I’d like to make a record that shows a little more of the kinds of things I’m doing, but…there’s some days when it all seems really clear, all the connections, and it all just seems like it’s one thing. But then other days it’s a mess, and I don’t want to inflict that on anyone!”

If selecting the first principles was easy, selecting the final set of tracks was a more involved process. For his latest CD, Every Sound Below, this began with getting a lot of songs on tape (or more accurately, in this postmodern era, on hard drive). “I recorded, like forty songs,” he explained. “And as I was recording, I got a sense of what the shape of the recording would be and what it was going to be about. I didn’t set out with the idea of having ‘Every Sound Below’ as a concept or a theme throughout the record, but that really emerged through the songs that sounded the best. “

Eriksen has a few favorites on this disc, beginning with the title track, a song he wrote himself. “I like all of them, but I think ‘Every Sound Below’ is probably the one I’m the most excited about. I like the way it came out. That kind of sounds a little bit self-important, because it’s one of the only ones that I wrote from top to bottom, but I think maybe that’s why I AM excited about it.“ He cites an unaccompanied version of “The Two Sisters,” learned from the singing of Lee Monroe Presnell in the Frank and Anne Warner collection, as the best singing he does on the disc, and says that “The Southern Girl’s Reply” and “The Cumberland and the Merrimac” are two of the most evocative Civil War narratives he’s ever heard. “I kind of go back and forth,” he said. “Like, I was all into ‘John Colby’s Hymn’ for a while, I was playing that every day for our babies. Some days I’ll just want to play that ‘Bassett’s Creek’ tune for two hours straight, other days I just don’t really want to hear it. Some days ‘Omie Wise’ really hits me. But not all days.” Eriksen is quick to point out that as a musician who sings constantly and in many different contexts, he changes his relationships to each song all the time. That, to his mind, is part of what being a musician is all about.

His solo discs may concentrate on nineteenth century American folksongs, but Eriksen continues to be eclectic in his musical tastes, activities and ambitions. “We’ve been playing with these Ethiopian folks in town here in Minneapolis. I’m planning on doing a record with this friend of ours from Western Ethiopia. And I’m also working toward playing with this guy Milo Fine, who’s somebody I respect as much as anyone in music. He’s a ‘free music’ guy, I guess you’d call it Jazz…actually I’ve never asked him what he calls it! I find it really exciting. He plays percussion, piano and horn and I’m singing. So I’m looking forward to doing some gigs.”

In addition to his work as a musician, Eriksen has been active in the scholarly world. He has earned degrees from Amherst and Wesleyan, and has taught at Dartmouth. He’s interested in playing and singing all kinds of music, but also in exploring and documenting how music is played in different communities. Currently, he is helping Laušević write a book about Americans who play Balkan music, for Oxford University Press. The couple is also working on a project called A World in Two Cities. “It’s a music ethnography of the twin cities, and you wouldn’t believe the stuff that’s here,” he explained. “I’ve lived in the New York area, and I’ve lived in the Boston area. Minneapolis has all those same folks, but because it’s a small city you actually see them. It’s not like ‘oh, this is the Greek quarter,’ there’s Somalis and Hmong and Sudanese and Ethiopians and Vietnamese and they just all…you see them!”

Another project they have in the works is a compilation CD of Lutheran music in Minnesota. “I love it because it sounds like the essence of a boring project,” Eriksen said. “But actually there’s a Hmong Lutheran church, and these Oromo Ethiopians have their own Lutheran church.” Eriksen even knows a south Indian Lutheran community that sings in Aramaic. “St. Thomas went to south India, so there have been Indian Christians longer than there have been white folks,” he explained. “The Syrian Orthodox church in southern India has this tradition of chanting in Aramaic, at least the Lord’s Prayer and some of the others. This guy had been an Orthodox priest and then moved here and became a Lutheran bishop. Go figure, so there’s this whole community of south Indians that sing a combination of old Aramaic Orthodox hymns and Martin Luther, and these things that sound like Bollywood! So even without going outside the borders of the Lutheran church, you have this incredible diversity of music.” The great diversity interests the various Lutherans as much as anyone. “They get it! We played at a big service that had two Oromo choirs and Homng and Lao, and Sudanese and a bunch of other folks, and they’re all way into it.”

Eriksen is not sure how long documenting and recording the project will take. “It’s the kind of thing that could come out next month or it could come out in three years. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Garrison Keillor, because I think he should be interested. Unless it would threaten the stereotype of Norwegian bachelor farmers! I have this idea that if I could get in touch with some of the [Public Radio] folks, they’d be interested in helping to fund some of this research into Lutheran music. Because it’s not only curious, but it’s really cool!”

It’s hard for Eriksen to say what the future might hold; he is committed to continuing his eclecticism. On his website, he comments: “The way to get famous is to do one thing, or a very small set of things, and do them reasonably well and do them over and over and over again…. But the thing that happens then is that you wind up becoming ... sort of a two-dimensional version of what you might have become if you’d really pushed it a little more and based your life less around what was going to get you to a certain place than around why you really felt like going there, or going anywhere.”

As for “folk music,” Eriksen doesn’t much like the term, and he’s not too fond of the organized community that uses it. What he likes is music; in fact, his rebus-like logo, which appears on both his solo records and on his web page, means “I love music.” Some of the music Eriksen loves happens to be old folk songs, and he counts many folk fans and musicians as friends and mentors; people like Cohen and Martin Carthy have helped him a lot, and he is quick to acknowledge them. But that doesn’t make him any happier about the folk label or the folk scene.

At one point in the interview, he laid it all out. “You know,” he said, “I love these old songs!” For Eriksen, that’s pretty much all there is to it.