Bonny Light Horseman: Old Songs Made New, New Songs Made Old

Music Features Bonny Light Horseman
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Bonny Light Horseman: Old Songs Made New, New Songs Made Old

The first album from Bonny Light Horseman, released in 2020, was named after the trio and featured 10 traditional folk songs from the British Isles. The band’s second album, released today (Oct. 7), is called Rolling Golden Holy, and contains 11 new songs written by members Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman. What’s astonishing is that all 21 songs—both those written before the American Civil War and those written this year—sound as if they were written by the same people, at the same time.

This is a difficult trick to pull off. It’s not easy to shake the dust off songs from Jane Austen’s time and make them sound like the confessions of a tattooed computer geek. It’s not easy to erase the expiration date on songs written last month and make them sound like the yearnings of a dairy maid in a starched bonnet. It requires a special gift to unmoor a song from its harbor in a particular year and send it out into the timeless ocean.

Bonny Light Horseman accomplished this by messing with the language and note choices of the old songs to make them sit comfortably in modern mouths. They did it by rooting the new songs in phrases and devices that have been used for centuries. Mitchell and Johnson unified the material by applying to every track the same rounded vocals of deep secrets reluctantly shared to every number. Kaufman further threaded the material together by producing the sessions with a mix of electric and acoustic instruments that framed the voices without ever getting in the way.

“The first album was old stories made to sound new,” says Johnson, the singer/songwriter and bandleader of the Fruit Bats. “This new album is new stories made to sound old. They’re both like ancient love songs, but also like the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie.”

“Why do we go back?” Mitchell asks. “Because it’s too inspiring not to. I can stand in my shoes and sing this song of longing for a lost lover, and someone did it a hundred years ago and someone did it a thousand years ago and someone else will do it in a hundred years. When we approached this record, we wanted to reach forward and write new material, but we wanted these songs to be in conversation with the first record.”

“We never wanted the old songs to sound like a research project,” explains Kaufman. “We wanted them to feel like we were singing our own texts. Even though 80% of the texts for the first record were traditional, and 80% of the texts for the new record were us, the personalities are the same. It does feel like it’s the same characters in both albums, and they’re speaking through us.”

Mitchell has long been drawn to older songs and older texts. She emerged from the Vermont folk-music scene, won the New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival at age 22, released two albums for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, and released an album with Jefferson Hamer of Child Ballads from pre-industrial England. Most famously, she adopted the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into the folk musical Hadestown, which became an improbable Broadway hit and won her both a Tony Award and a Grammy.

“I’m the real folkie in the band; I enter the spectrum from Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins and Nic Jones,” Mitchell says, referring to three legends of British folk music. She’s calling from a London hotel where she’s preparing for a solo show at the Greenbelt Festival. “Eric and Josh, on the other hand, came to folk music from rock ‘n’ roll, from the Grateful Dead and The Byrds. Now they’re admirers of Martin, and I’m fascinated by the Dead.”

Her friend Kaufman was best known for producing rock albums by the likes of The National, The Hold Steady and Bob Weir. So Mitchell was pleasantly surprised to learn that he, too, had a secret love of traditional folk music. The two pals got together to play some of those songs, and it was so much fun, they wanted to pursue it further.

“We were both living in Brooklyn at the time, 2017,” recalls Kaufman over the phone from his current home in the Hudson Valley, “and we started talking about traditional music and getting better at playing guitar in an open tuning. My wife was listening to those old Shirley Collins records, and I sent Anaïs a version of a Shirley song called ‘Lowlands’ that I had disassembled and put back together by changing some of the music and words. Anaïs really liked it, so when we were both on tour with Josh Ritter—I was his guitarist and she was the opener—we started doing versions of ‘Lowlands’ and ‘Bonny Light Horseman’ together during her set.”

When he was invited by co-curators Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner to play the 2018 Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival in Wisconsin, Kaufman mentioned that he’d been working on these old folk songs with Mitchell. Dessner was enthusiastic, but Kaufman felt that the music needed a third voice, a better male singer. But who?

“One night when I was about to get onstage in Colorado,” Mitchell remembers, “the Fruit Bats’ ‘Humbug Mountain Song’ came on the PA. It was so great that I wouldn’t go on until I found out whose song that was. That was my introduction to Eric.”

“I was back on tour with Josh Ritter,” says Kaufman, picking up the story, “when Anaïs called me all excited. ‘I just discovered the Fruit Bats,’ she said, ‘and they’re so great.’ I told her I was just on my way to have dinner with Eric in L.A., and I’d let him know.”

“Josh and I were old friends, and we were hanging out,” adds Johnson over the phone from London, where he’s starting a Fruit Bats tour. “He told me he was doing this collaborative and folkie thing with Anaïs. And I hadn’t even told him yet that I was hankering to take a break from the Fruit Bats to do something collaborative and folkie.”

They weren’t sure it would work. Mitchell and Johnson are both distinctive lead singers, and such vocalists don’t always mesh well as harmony singers. But these two did, and after Eaux Claires, the fledgling trio was getting excited about the possibilities.

They accepted an invitation to the 2018 People Festival at Berlin’s Funkhaus. With help from such festival performers as Vernon and Dessner, the new trio tried out their new arrangements of old songs. Their engineer got it all down on a hard drive, and the results became the core of the group’s first album. By now, things had gotten serious enough that they needed a name.

“It was the classic case of sitting around and thinking of a band name,” Johnson reports with a chuckle. “‘Bonny Light Horseman’ was already on the album, and it seemed emblematic. The song had turned out really well, and we realized it was a powerful moment on the record. But it was also the music of the words in the title, the way they sounded.”

“I felt very strongly about it right away,” says Mitchell. “I loved that series of words—they felt kind of epic, wide open and beautiful. Eric joked, ‘It sounds like a librarian from Northern California: ‘Hi, I’m Bonnie Light Horseman; can I help you?’”

The song that provided the name was a sterling example of how these old songs could be revitalized. The original song, also known as “Broken Hearted I Will Wander,” is set in the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. The lyrics have been passed down in many versions with many different verses.

“In the original,” Mitchell explains, “more information is supplied, more military stuff, more cannons and horses, but it felt more emotional to us to have just that beautiful chorus and that bird imagery. That was an example of us changing a song by subtraction. But we also changed songs by addition, as on ‘Mountain Rain,’ where we were generating lines that weren’t there before.

“Of the three of us,” she adds, “I’m the most aware of the hard-nosed folk people who might say, ‘That’s not the second verse of that song.’ But as Martin Carthy says, ‘These songs are not fragile; they’re meant to breathe; anything that brings life to them is good; it won’t break the songs.’”

Mitchell and Kaufman whittled the song “Bonny Light Horseman” down to its psychological crux: the despairing bewilderment of a young woman who has lost her true love to war and geopolitics—forces beyond her control or even her comprehension. For the song “Bonny Light Horseman,” Mitchell articulates the helpless anger of any individual whose life has been shattered by larger forces by speaking directly to the man in charge: “Napoleon Bonaparte, you’re the cause of my woe, since my bonny light horseman in the war, in the war he did go.”

Mitchell’s vocal betrays the sense of an all-consuming sorrow carried for so long that it has softened like a bruise. When her two bandmates lend the voices in harmony, it’s as if that weariness has spread throughout a community. Kaufman’s acoustic guitar and harmonica, wrapped in reverb, have the same fatalism. When that harmonica evolves into Michael Lewis’s tenor-sax solo, a surprise element in an old folk song, that ache bleeds into the listener, as well.

The song was the climax of the group’s appearance at the 2021 Newport Folk Festival. Mitchell wore black hoop earrings, long bangs and a black pullover with the sleeves pulled up in the August heat. Johnson had a straw cowboy hat, a braided red ponytail and a white shirt with his sleeves also rolled up. Kaufman boasted a salt-and-pepper bushy beard and a plaid shirt unbuttoned over a white T-shirt. Behind the three singers was the rhythm section of drummer J.T. Bates and bassist/saxophonist Lewis.

In addition to a generous helping of songs from the first album, the group played both sides of their 2020 non-album single, “Green, Green Rocky Road/Greenland Fishery.” In the midst of these traditional numbers, Mitchell announced the world debut of a song, recorded just the week before for their forthcoming second album. “Comrade Sweetheart” was recently written, but it fit in with the old songs seamlessly. In it, Mitchell declares her love by asking a series of questions, such as “Who’s gonna bind up your wounds?” and “Who’s gonna loosen my braid?” and then answering them, “No other lover but me” and “No other lover but you.”

This question-and-answer framework has been used for centuries, dating back to Child Ballad #1, “I Gave My Love a Cherry” (later recorded by Sam Cooke and Joan Baez as “The Riddle Song”). Mitchell used the technique in “Wedding Song” from Hadestown, and she uses it again in “Comrade Sweetheart,” proving once again that the oldest devices are often the best.

“Even though we wrote everything on the new album,” Mitchell says, “there are elements in songs such as ‘Comrade Sweetheart’ and ‘For Annie’ that I can trace them back to the trad world. But they’ve changed so much that no one’s going to object. ‘Sweetbread’ comes out of songs like ‘Rye Whiskey’ and ‘Jack of Diamonds.’ But it’s no different than a filmmaker saying, ‘I’m going to make a new Western.’ You’re working in the genre but it’s an original work.”

“Melodically, those songs on the first album were very original,” Johnson points out. “Josh and Anaïs started this project with the idea of honoring those songs but taking them someplace else. It wasn’t just playing instruments from the 18th century and recording them on a wax cylinder. Messing with the material was always in the plan. This second record is almost a response to making that first record. What if we took that sound and wrote new songs?”

Work on the second record was complicated by the arrival of the pandemic. When the three singers gathered in Woodstock for several days of songwriting, they each arrived with demos of songs-in-progress. As their colleagues chimed in with new ideas, the songs morphed into something else entirely.

Soon they were leaving the demos behind and writing new songs that fit the emerging theme of separation—separation of lovers, of friends, of families and their old homes. This was pretty much the same theme as the first album, only with brand new songs written in a time of virus-enforced isolation.

“The way we work together,” Kaufman suggests, “is like the improv-comedy technique of “yes, and…” That’s good, what about this? Anaïs is an incredibly talented writer, and Eric has a gift for shaping a song. We haven’t stumbled upon a template for how we write a song. Once we’re in a room, I’m always surprised what doors open. Sometimes it’s ‘Hey, I wrote this for the band, and help me finish it,’ but once it’s run through the three of us, it’s sounds like Bonny Light Horseman.”

“We weren’t sure if the second album would be originals or even more worked-on traditional songs,” says Johnson. “As soon as we started writing, we knew it would be original. But these new songs seemed to involve the same characters in the same world.”

The character who worried about the transience of love on the first album’s “The Roving,” for example, is still worried about it on the second album’s “Gone by Fall.” The character who regretted letting love slip away on the first record’s “Blackwaterside” is haunted by the same on the new record’s “Summer Dream.” The young soldier who was slain by the French in the namesake tune “Bonny Light Horseman” gets to speak for himself on the new project’s “Someone to Weep for Me.”

“Both of these records are very much a three-headed monster,” says Kaufman. “We’re lucky that when we’re collaborating the three of us are different enough that we don’t block each other out. There’s nothing in the way I sing and play that has anything to do with the way Anaïs and Eric play. The way we convey our skill sets are very different. There’s an emotional barometer that lets us know who we are. On both records, there have been songs that didn’t feel like us, like we were putting on costumes.”

But it’s not just the three singer/songwriters who give Bonny Light Horseman its musical identity. Bates and Lewis, who have been onboard from the first recording sessions through all the live gigs to the studio sessions for the second album, have also been crucial. “We worked with Mike and J.T. again,” says Kaufman, “so we still have the tenor saxophone and the melodic drumming.”

Kaufman first heard Lewis at the Berlin festival where Bonny Light Horseman first appeared and first met Bates when they were both in the band for a Hiss Golden Messenger tour. Lewis and Bates had played music together, often in jazz bands, since they were kids in the Twin Cities. Both players struck Kaufman as “soulful singers” on their instruments. Bates actually tunes his tom toms to the key of each song, so he can play more tunefully.

“J.T. plays around the singing,” Kaufman points out, “more like you would accompany a jazz vocalist rather than a pop vocalist. Sometimes he plays a pocket thing, but he’s more likely to do a watery thing that finishes vocal phrases; he’s a very gluey player. Mike’s saxophone is not an instrument you associate with trad music. But there’s a lot of intense emotion in these songs, and the way he plays the horn adds a lot of sexiness.”

Being in a democratic band was a different experience for the three principals. Mitchell has spent most of her career as a solo artist, or as the bandleader who writes all the songs and sings all the leads. Johnson played the latter role in the Fruit Bats. And Kaufman has mostly been the hired producer or hired guitarist trying to bring other people’s projects to fruition. To share the load equally with two others has been a welcome change.

“Bonny Light Horseman started when I was in the most intense part of Hadestown, which was lyric-heavy and was taking every ounce of my energy,” Mitchell recalls. “I was missing the folk music world; I wanted to take a long drink of cool water from that deep well. With this band, I didn’t feel I stand at the helm or come up with all the material stuff from scratch. No one person owns this band; it’s all about getting in the sandbox together and see what happens. It’s freeing to not be the frontperson all the time. When I’m not singing lead, I get to look around and see what’s happening.”

“Anaïs and I talk about this all the time,” says Johnson, “and we agree that not being in the center all the time is a relief. Being in charge means you get all the pleasures and the sorrows. And I like that, but I like to step away from it now and then and be part of a band. Anaïs likes to joke that this is her rock band and it’s my folk band. We all supplement each other’s strengths. We’re not a baseball team, where she’s only a starting pitcher and I’m a shortstop all the time. We all do a bit of everything.”

“We’re so giddy about this music,” Kaufman adds. “Here we are, grown-ups, some of us with kids, and it feels so good to be starry-eyed about something new.”

Rolling Golden Holy is out now on 37d03d.


Watch Bonny Light Horseman’s 2021 Paste session below.