[Editor's note: When writer, musician, producer, former A&R man and sometime L.A. Weekly contributor Tim Sommer shared with us the first track from his latest musical project, Uncommon Folk, we immediately asked him if he would give us the honor of premiering it. “This Land is Your Land” (feat. Glen Campbell on vocals) reimagines Woody Guthrie's beautiful, often misunderstood ode to America as a stately, meditative electro-acoustic drone, with a haunting vocal recorded by Campbell back in 2011. Here, Sommer explains the origins of the project and what it was like to work with one America's most masterful vocalists.]
I had long found a great commonality between the keening, droning, heart-humming, simple and ecstatic music of Sid Hemphill, The Carter Family, Lead Belly, etc., and the slowly shifting, seismic drones and minimalism of avant-garde composers like Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros, Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young. It all vibrated in me the same way, whether it was coming from Soho or the Georgia Sea Islands. Song remains the same, y’see. It was the Great Chord, lost and found again, rebuilt by different cultures, but every time releasing the same primitive growl and goose bump within us.
Uncommon Folk wanted to approach traditional American folk songs and protest songs with the same kind of spatiality, bliss, dissonance and planetarium grace that we heard in the music of Dempster, Arvo Pärt, Moondog or Charles Ives. There was even some Krautrock — especially Roedelius and Neu! — and some exotica that snuck into the mix, because when you decide to bring folk music into outer space, those things are bound to arise.
The Uncommon Folk project originated when Dr. Jennifer Jo Brout approached me about recording music to raise money for research she was involved in at the time (related to a children’s neurological disorder). She had been familiar with my work with Hugo Largo in the 1980s, and was also very interested in the connection between music and physiology. For example, Jennifer thought that music had to be “emotionally engaging” before it could be “calming.” The idea was to attract the listener emotionally, and then the soundscape would help them calm down. My ideas about creating electric ambient music based on American folk songs came from this perspective.
From the beginning, Stuart Chatwood joined the project as an engineer, co-producer and musician. In the 1990s I had worked closely with Stuart’s group, Canadian alt-prog band The Tea Party, so I was keenly aware that he was a skillful, inventive and open-minded musician who also was a very creative recording engineer.
Stuart and I began to play around with certain familiar folk compositions, laying out the basic chord patterns and a simple melody guide. We then added different textural, musical, sonic and harmonic palettes to the initial sketches, working in a painterly fashion. In this manner, we recorded an entire album’s worth of spatial, sparky interpretations of traditional folk songs, along with a few original compositions inspired by the tone of these songs. From the very beginning, Stuart, Jennifer and I were calling this project Uncommon Folk; it seemed the best description for a kind of music, both astral and organic, of the stars and down in the dirt, which we were trying to make.
It was always our intention to bring in guest vocalists for many of the tracks, and before long we had recorded Mavis Staples, Blind Boys of Alabama and others.
Glen Campbell was an absolute pleasure to work with. He was pleasant, funny, charming and could not be more enthusiastic. He was in the relatively early stages of his illness, and while he seemed to have some trouble with his short-term memory (e.g., remembering our names), his long-term memory was in great evidence when he sang. He nailed the song in one take.
Glen and I also had a detailed conversation about the contributions he made, as a session guitarist, to the Pet Sounds album. He shared wonderful stories about the songs he played on, what his string gauges were, where he set the capo on specific songs, and where the other members of the studio band were sitting in relation to him. Before the session ended, I asked him about “I Guess I’m Dumb,” the phenomenal and affecting Brian Wilson/Russ Titleman song that Glen released as a solo single in 1965. He sang me the song, communicating through music, joyfully, beautifully.
I hope “This Land Is Your Land” and the Uncommon Folk project will help fund research in neurologic disorders, and will honor Glen, someone who spent his life as an explorer in the amazing terrain of American music, from bluegrass to pop to evocative sighs of patriotism and protest.
I like to think there are few borders under the dome of the great chord, and I honor and thank Glen for coming into the great astral campfire with us, before he went on his own mysterious voyage.
To download “This Land Is Your Land” (feat. Glen Campbell on vocals), visit uncommonfolkmusic.com. All proceeds benefit Alzheimer's and misophonia research.