Same As It Ever Was: Eli Smith and Brooklyn’s “Down Home” Music Scene

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Photo by Jane Bruce

“I’m not a big believer in things that are new or original,” says Eli Smith. “I think that’s usually pretty bullshit.” We’re sitting in the Jalopy Tavern, in a quiet section of Red Hook, Brooklyn, figuring out what to call the music Eli plays with his string band, The Down Hill Strugglers. Eli is rubbing his forehead with one hand and gesturing with the other and staring out over his formidable beard at a point somewhere between our booth and the front door. He is thirty-two years old and slim, even slight, wearing a grandfatherly black cardigan. In the dimness of the bar he resembles a cross between the actor Timothy Olyphant and Rasputin.

“Nobody knows what old-time music is, so it’s a disaster if you say old-time music,” he tells me.

How about folk music?

“That’s a term that’s really corrupt and means tons of different things to different people,” he says. Eli doesn’t want to be mistaken for a singer-songwriter in the mold of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. “And anyway folk music is not really used by the so-called folk, you know? They just thought of it as music.”

How about roots music?

“I don’t like the term roots music. I mean it’s fine, I don’t mind it…”

But…

“But it’s a little bit pejorative or just kind of shitty, like, we’re the roots, and then here’s all this other music that’s the real music, the now music that can be popular and that everybody can like, and maybe we can show the roots sometimes for shits and giggles.” He goes off on Eric Clapton for praising old blues musicians as the “roots”—because who is Eric Clapton, anyway, that we need him to vouch for old blues musicians who are valuable in their own right?

“I kind of hate the word traditional,” he says. “But I like down home music.” Indeed, he named his sporadic podcast (a “hardcore, unreconstructed, paleo-acoustic folk music program”) the Down Home Radio Show. “That’s a term that really has been used by country people and rural working class people to describe their own music. Like, down home, that’s back where I come from.”

“Down home” for Eli means Greenwich Village. He grew up there, and aside from college at Oberlin and a couple years working at a record store in California, Eli has lived in New York City his entire life. Incongruous origins, perhaps, for someone so dedicated to folky-old-time-roots music. But, then again, Greenwich Village is among the most important sites in this music’s cultural topography. “Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly used to play at my high school,” he says. “That was fuckin’ long gone by the time I got there, but I knew about it and I was like damn it, I missed that.”

Down Hill Strugglers courtesy of Eli Smith

These days, it’s as though Eli is making up for lost time. Most of his waking hours are devoted to performing and practicing with The Down Hill Strugglers and organizing the Brooklyn Folk Festival, the seventh installment of which is coming up on April 17 at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights. He’s also behind the Washington Square Folk Festival in the fall and is putting together a traveling roadshow for the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress. On top of all that, he’s working on his first book, The Oral History of Folk Music in New York City, 1935-1975, recording a new Down Hill Strugglers album, and producing two new CD collections. (One is a compilation of field recordings made by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax commemorating Lomax’s 100th birthday; the other is an “inverted” version of the famous Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith in 1952, containing all the B-sides of the 78s that Smith used for his anthology.)

When I met Eli at the Jalopy Tavern, he’d just returned from a month-long tour with The Down Hill Strugglers, which took them from a Hot Tamale festival in Mississippi to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. All three of them (Eli, multi-instrumentalist Walker Shepard, and fiddler Jackson Lynch) and their gear (guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and harmonicas) fit easily into Eli’s station wagon. They often perform at festivals, small clubs, coffee houses, and house parties, but they’ve played in weirder places too, like a folk festival in Bulgaria where every other band hailed from countries in the former Soviet Union. (“We drank some incredible moonshine with a Romanian band and got hammered,” Eli recalls. “That was fun.”) Or next to a runway during fashion week, when the designer Yoli hired them to provide music for her show. (“She was bringing back the jerkin, which is like a long medieval vest,” he says. “There were these incredibly hot models who looked like six-foot tall aliens, and a million fashion photographers and crap. It was far out.”) Or a club upstate that also hosts Mixed Martial Arts cage matches. (“I wish they combined those. I’d love to play at a cage match.”)

And yet finding gigs isn’t always easy. The Down Hill Strugglers don’t write original songs, but draw their material from commercial 78s recorded mainly in the 1920s and 30s or from field recordings made throughout the century by folklorists—songs like “The Roving Gambler” and “Arkansas Pullet.” Unless you are already familiar with this body of music, it’s unlikely you will recognize any song at a Down Hill Strugglers performance. The sound of the music itself is unusual: all three musicians play at once, entangling their parts into a cohesive sonic jumble rather than trading solos like bluegrass musicians or separating the parts into fully distinct rhythms and leads. They play, in other words, in the old-time style, and they insist on giving the music a raw, unpolished quality, the way it might have sounded drifting through some Appalachian hollow or the back room of a trading post. The effect is truly uncanny, in the sense that the music is strange but strangely familiar, as if it were bubbling up from the deeper recesses of American culture.

Even among folk music enthusiasts, The Down Hill Strugglers’ anachronistic approach is not always welcome. “Our booking agent was recently told by the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival upstate that they have a policy of not booking old-time music,” Eli tells me. “I mean, what? You’re a folk festival and… that’s insane!” When Eli speaks he vacillates between open-mindedness and forthrightness, as if he has a tolerant angel on one shoulder and an opinionated devil on the other. “That festival is controlled by people who have a very different vision,” he says, “but who are also very self-righteous. So fuck them.”

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As we talk, the Jalopy Tavern is invaded suddenly by a pack of little kids, with mini guitar cases strapped to their backs, swarming around the nearby booths and tables. They’ve no doubt just finished a music lesson at the Jalopy Theater next door, where Eli also teaches banjo lessons. A couple of adults are ordering them food from the bar. Eli either doesn’t notice the kids or doesn’t care; the f-bombs keep flying. He’s explaining how The Down Hill Strugglers morphed out of an earlier band, The Dust Busters.

When he isn’t touring, Eli is usually at the Jalopy Tavern or next door at the Jalopy Theater and School of Music, which sit side-by-side on Columbia Street. The Down Hill Strugglers, and The Dust Busters before them, have made the Jalopy a kind of spiritual home. The theater is split into a café and instrument shop up front (time-worn banjos and guitars hang from pegs on the walls; CDs and records by local musicians are displayed for sale), and a brick-walled performance space in back (a stage, flanked by heavy red curtains, facing a few rows of rutted wooden church pews).

“The Jalopy’s the only folk club in New York,” Eli says. “There’s a million other clubs but no other folk clubs, as opposed to the Greenwich Village folk music era when there were tons.” He sighs. “We live in a horrible, fucked up time.”

The Jalopy is an oasis in this bleak landscape, and someone performs there nearly every night. On Wednesdays, they host the Roots & Ruckus showcase, which Eli helped re-locate from its original home in a Thai restaurant on MacDougal Street. Since then, Roots & Ruckus has become something like the heartbeat of the Jalopy scene.

A few nights after our talk, I meet Eli for a Roots & Ruckus performance. I order a mason jar full of beer and then head back toward the performance area—and there, on stage, I swear to god, is the ghost of Dave Van Ronk, that towering figure of the 1960s New York folk revival, singing the traditional song “Tell Old Bill,” just as Van Ronk used to the sing it. Later I learn that this is Feral Foster, who organizes Roots & Ruckus and performs at nearly all of them. (His ability to channel Van Ronk’s vocal style, along with Foster’s big frame, his dark beard and eyebrows—just like Van Ronk—is chilling.)

Once Foster finishes his set, the sound guy appears with a collection basket on a pole—the kind used for collecting tithes in a church—and moves it up and down the pews. “Let’s hear it for Feral Foster,” he says. I oblige, and so does everyone in the room, and I see Eli throw in a few dollars. I find myself wondering how many times those crumpled bills, those exact ones, have circulated among the Jalopy musicians in the room, on how many Wednesday nights, by way of that collection basket.

***

Eli Smith lives in a decently sized place, neat, full of books and records—and banjos, which Eli has been accumulating since he was a kid, when he would save up his allowance and then spend it all at the Music Inn on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. “I probably have about ten banjos, at least eight guitars, four mandolins, two fiddles, two old fashioned pump organs, a bunch of harmonicas,” he says. Musicians who play electric guitar might have more than one instrument but can use pedals and amps to achieve all kinds of sounds. When it comes to acoustic instruments, though, a variety of sounds requires a variety of individual instruments. “I try to have one banjo of every style, a good one,” Eli says and rattles off banjos of assorted shapes and constructions. He shows me one banjo that belonged to a performer in the CBS in-house orchestra during the 1930s. Another banjo, the first decent one he ever bought, was sold to the Music Inn by John Seeger, Pete Seeger’s brother. Eli figures it was built in the early 1900s.

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“Old instruments are like old people. They’re kind of crotchety and set in their ways. All the parts don’t work like they used to.” He chuckles. “But in general old instruments can have better sound. The action of the sound waves of the strings going through the wood seasons it or gives it a character over time.” I ask whether the old instruments, having been played for so many years, possess a special kind of aura or power, but Eli doesn’t much go for the metaphysical stuff. “I like new instruments, too,” he says with a shrug. “They tend to actually work. And I like new harmonicas.” The idea of a second-hand harmonica, I admit, is kind of gross.

Eli’s bookshelves sag with titles on folklore and cultural theory, suggesting how deeply he’s immersed himself in the history and historiography of American folk music. “He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around,” Walker Shepard from The Down Hill Strugglers later tells me. “I think he really respects folklorists. I mean, he is one himself. He’s really interested in the work of folklorists throughout history.” John Cohen, an elder musician who is something of a mentor to the band, tells me the same thing. “Eli is a rare, special person in this realm of music because he’s the only one of his age who knows about the old concerns of the folklorists and the ethnomusicologists,” Cohen says. “He knows about the politics of it. He respects that history.”

It is hard to overstate the influence John Cohen has had on the direction of Eli’s life. In the late 1950s, Cohen co-founded a string band called the New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley. They were based in New York City but were fully committed to playing the old songs of rural America. They didn’t write original material. They didn’t want the music to sound too slick. They hunted through archives and recordings for forgotten songs that they could introduce to a younger audience, and they wanted those songs to sound alive. In other words, they did what The Down Hill Strugglers are doing, but half a century earlier.

Eli met Cohen during a bleak period in Cohen’s life. Mike Seeger, Cohen’s long-time collaborator and brother-in-law, had just died. So had Ray Alden, another close friend and musician. Cohen tried to console himself as he always did, by picking up a guitar or a banjo, but the effort left him cold. “It didn’t feel right at all,” he tells me. “These two key people in my life had died and I didn’t feel much like playing.” Not long after, he joined a group recording session hosted by Peter Stampfel, another folk revival figure who played in the psychedelic folk group The Holy Modal Rounders. During the session, Cohen was startled to hear someone playing his part—the exact same part, effectively doubling it. He looked up and saw Eli across the room. “I thought, what’s going on? Is he copying me? I didn’t resent it. I was just puzzled. So I played something different, but I came to realize then what a great understanding Eli has of the music.” (Eli remembers the event differently: “I’m sure I pissed him off.”)

Eli, of course, knew who John Cohen was. They had met before, after a screening of one of Cohen’s documentary films, and Eli had been studying Cohen’s recordings for years. In fact, when Eli formed The Dust Busters, he intentionally modeled the band on The New Lost City Ramblers and their approach. Soon Cohen was playing with the group and spending time with Eli and Walker, especially. He appeared on a Dust Busters album, Old Man Below, which was released by the venerable Smithsonian Folkways label, and he performs with The Down Hill Strugglers to this day. “John is our old man friend and mentor and just a wonderful person,” Eli tells me. They talk on the phone every few days, and see each other when they can.

John Cohen is also the reason for Eli’s biggest brush with fame so far: a song on the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis, a film by the Coen brothers about the 60s Greenwich Village folk scene. The directors and soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett wanted to include Cohen, and The Down Hill Strugglers came along as part of the deal. They were summoned to a fancy studio in midtown Manhattan, complete with sushi buffet and vaulted cedar ceilings. (By comparison, The Down Hill Strugglers used one microphone to record their first album, two for the second, and plan to splurge on three for the third.)

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“The Coen brothers were there, T Bone, some actors,” Eli recalls. “T Bone was like, prancing around on the balls of his feet and lighting incense and shit. He’s a pretty weird guy.” They recorded several songs and one, “The Roving Gambler,” ended up on the soundtrack. Shortly before the film was released, there was a concert in New York, featuring marquee names like Jack White, Marcus Mumford, Joan Baez, and Patti Smith. The Down Hill Strugglers were not invited.

Eli is less put off by the snub specifically than by the overall experience, which left him feeling alienated. “It was an encounter with the machine,” he says. “It was crazy. The pure marketing money they put behind that album is unbelievable, and you just see what that shit is really like.”

Eli’s voice changes when he talks about “the machine,” and he talks about it often. He means the music industry, but he also means the whole modern experience of mass culture, and he also means capitalism.

“I’m a revolutionary socialist anarchist,” he tells me. “I would probably be characterized as an extremist.” His parents are longtime radicals and former members of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group. When Eli was six, they brought him to a Pete Seeger concert. “I remember Pete actually chopped wood on stage, which I was impressed by,” Eli remembers. “He, like, brought his own log and sang a work song and chopped wood. That was cool.” Eventually, Eli embraced an approach not unlike Seeger’s, one that married enthusiasm for folk music with radical politics. While he learned banjo and dug old 78s out of crates, he also read Marx and Trotsky and hung around with activist groups. He is less politically active these days, although he did get involved with Occupy Wall Street (“a clusterfuck”). But Eli still sees himself as a kind of cultural organizer.

“By promoting and perpetuating the music of America’s rural working class, black and white, you bring honor to them, to the memory of all the people who actually built the country,” he says. “Because the capitalists and the vampires and all the bloodsuckers, what did they ever do? Forget them. Let’s talk about the everyday people who did the grunt work and created their own culture before it was destroyed by the forces of mass media and so-called progress.”

“I’m making these big statements but that is the way I really feel,” he insists. “I love those people, even though I don’t know them, because of their music. It’s what spoke to me since I was a kid and it’s been the most powerful force in my life.”

***

One November weekend Eli hits the road for a three-gig mini-tour with Ernie Vega and Samoa Wilson, who perform as a folk duo called The Four o’clock Flowers. They’re all friends from the Jalopy scene. It is the first time Eli has toured by himself, without a band, but it allows him to play some songs he otherwise might not perform.

The last stop of the tour is in Jamaica Plain, near Boston, at someone’s home. Outside, Eli’s station wagon—with a Down Home Radio Show bumper sticker and one that reads “Jesus [Hearts] Wikileaks”—is parked in the driveway. Inside, Eli is tuning his banjo, preparing to face his audience: around thirty people resting on couches and folding chairs in the living room. It’s an older crowd with first-hand memories of the 60s folk revival, which is true of most house shows like this.

Eli opens with an instrumental performed on guitar with a slide. He plays nine songs that night, and a few, like “Darling Corey” and “The Cuckoo Bird,” elicit murmurs of recognition from the crowd. “I learn these songs by ear,” he says, “either from old records or in person, from old guys like John Cohen, who’s a friend.” (Brief applause at the mention of Cohen’s name.) “These songs used to be passed down from generation to generation, that’s how anyone knew them. But that tradition has been broken now.”

He picks up his banjo and fusses with the knobs, looking for the right tuning. “The banjo has a lot of different tunings and that’s part of the magic of it,” he says. “But it’s also a pain in the ass.” (Uncomfortable laughter from the room.) “Oh man, how does this work?” He plucks the strings and modulates the tone by twisting the knobs, but to no avail. A few people chuckle; someone yells, “You’re on your own!” Then suddenly he finds the note, and the two strings plucked at once sing out through the room in perfect unison. “Oh wow,” he says. “Wow.”

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The next day Eli, Ernie, and Samoa drive back to New York. They’re listening to the 1939 Library of Congress recording of Jelly Roll Morton interviewed by Alan Lomax, an oddly engrossing eight-hour mélange of personal testimony, pure bullshit, and the near-constant presence of Morton’s piano as he speaks and occasionally sings. “I can listen to this all day,” Ernie says. “Actually, I have.” The ride comes to resemble a seminar on early American music as Ernie and Samoa toss around references with Eli, who seems to know at least one thing about everyone who recorded a traditional song in the decades before and after the Second World War. Eventually Eli starts scrolling through his iPod, looking for other songs to play and discuss. A song by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, for instance, prompts biographical sketches of each of them.

“Are they still alive?” Ernie asks.

“Unfortunately Hazel Dickens passed away a few years ago,” Eli says. “But Alice Gerrard is very much alive. I booked her for the Brooklyn Folk Festival once.”

Next is a song by Arthur Miles, a cowboy singer from the 1920s. It is one of two known recordings he ever made. “Basically nothing at all is known about this guy, nothing,” Eli says. “But listen, he’s playing a cowboy song and doing this kind of throat singing.” And, in fact, there is a weird droning sound on the choruses, along with what appears to be simultaneous whistling. It is thoroughly spooky. “It’s like the only documented example of throat singing in North America at this time,” he says. “Throat singing and yodeling, two kinds of mountain music.” Eli ponders the connection. “Where did he learn to do that?”

From here the conversation drifts to another singing cowboy, in fact, the “Singing Cowboy,” Gene Autry, who was once a huge commercial star of film, television, and radio.

“The thing is, Gene Autry was a good white blues player,” Ernie says, in his defense. “But in the late 30s and early 40s he decided to, like, Hollywoodize himself so he could make some money. You can’t just play Blind Lemmon Jefferson songs and make any money.”

“Blind Lemon Jefferson basically froze to death,” Eli interjects.

“Yeah. There’s no money in that music. Just like today.”

“Same as it ever was,” Samoa says.

“Same as it ever was,” Ernie says.

Eli scoffs—he won’t defend or rationalize Autry’s decision to go Hollywood—but he doesn’t dispute his friends’ conclusion. He just keeps scrolling through his iPod, searching for the next old song to play as the station wagon speeds through the gray afternoon, over the rolling highway, one more mile closer to home.

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