“Art is Appropriation”: Folklorist Jake Xerxes Fussell Connects Forgotten Tunes to Our Time | Music
For more than a decade, Jake Xerxes Fussell tried unsuccessfully to sing an old American folk song he had loved since he was a teenager. The melody, The rolling mills are burning, combines an accident at work with personal misfortune, culminating in a violent verse: “Oh, get your gun / And come and blow my brains out / For I’d rather be dead and in my grave / Than be in this mess I’m in.”
Folk lover John Cohen captured Rolling Mills during a foray into the ancient mountains of western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. He recorded banjoist George Landers singing it in a raspy voice, fingers tapping anxiously on his strings. It resonated with Fussell generations later, after a blaze ripped through Bibb Mill, a century-old textile mill that served as the economic engine of his hometown of Columbus in western Georgia.
Yet Fussell struggled with his own version this way and that, unable to sell his images. “There was no real spirit,” he says. But then he spoke it slowly, as if under a great burden, with this violent piece recast like an ordinary argument between sad lovers.
“Once I would have thought it took too much license,” says Fussell, 40, who speaks with the same affable Southern cadence he sings with, strolling through his North Carolina backyard on a chilly summer day. January. “But as I get older, I think it’s getting closer, because it feels more real to me. If I connect emotionally, that’s as important as anything else.
Fussell, who has won admirers such as Will Oldham, Wilco and Bill Callahan, is one of America’s great songwriters, collecting forgotten and tarnished gems with the zeal of a folklorist – on his standout 2019 album Out of Sight, these ranged from violent murderous ballads to the vigorous cries of the fishmongers. His renditions aren’t so much covers as composites, and Fussell’s sad take on Rolling Mills is the centerpiece of Good and Green Again, his fourth – and most poignant – album.
This flexibility came slowly for Fussell, whose parents met at a living history museum in Georgia, where blacksmiths and tailors demonstrated the traditions of yesteryear. Fussell describes himself as an obsessive “folk music jerk” in high school, browsing through piles of dusty blues compilations and field recording collections in the back corners of record stores. He absorbed archival lessons from family friends, American folklorists Bill Ferris and Art Rosenbaum.
However, he was not keen on sharing this aspect of his life with his peers. At his first paid gig, playing double bass with local bluegrass substitutes at a regional barbecue chain, high school buddies rushed for dinner and were stunned. “I was happy that my social life and my school were separate from my interests,” he says. “It was my thing, the stubbornness of my identity.”
But as he learned more, especially earning his Southern Studies degrees at the University of Mississippi, he began to realize he didn’t have much to keep, because the musicians he respected had never wanted their work sealed in amber. He remembers meeting members of the Skillet Lickers, a revered Georgia string band formed in 1926, at a Georgia folk festival in the 90s and realizing that they were more than a static stereotype. “They weren’t wearing ties,” he laughs. “They were wearing windbreakers and puffy Nikes. That’s what folk singers wear.
On his first three albums, he pulled decades of archival material for songs that seemed relevant to his time, often recombining them with others or recontextualizing them with updated arrangements. Its 2019 version Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, chronicled decades earlier by Pete Seeger, turned a raw lament of labor exploitation into a tragic country ballad that felt so contemporary it could be called Amazon Warehouse Blues.
There were times, however, when he felt he was too hesitant to add anything new, such as with his atmospheric version of Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine, an exquisite piece on the never-ending quest for wealth delivered in 1980 by singer Virginia. Helen Cockram. “I almost regret recording it,” he says. “For people who know his original, why don’t you listen this?”
Good and Green Again quells that anxiety with budding confidence. Fussell, who became a father during the pandemic, directs tunes such as Georgia Carriebelle’s wayward love song to his own life, and includes a handful of originals for the first time. The album ends with Washington, a song Fussell constructed from boastful lines about America’s first president – “the noblest of men” – which he saw woven into a old wool rug. His voice carries a soft contempt mirrored by the uneven bite of his guitar, slyly praising the myth of American exceptionalism.
Fussell lists all the references in his liner notes, intended as a breadcrumb trail and not a recitation of allegiances. “Ownership is an important consideration in my work, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line,” he says. “Art is appropriation. But I don’t feel like I’m doing anybody justice by trying to look like anybody else.
Yet the original material is still within sight, twinkling like a beacon to suggest just how much something is truly changing. “I’m not doing this to push boundaries,” Fussell says. “I find connections in these songs with what is happening now. They have to be there for me to want to sing them.