As Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons launched into their first song, I felt an odd sensation, a buzzing or tingling, like the air contained electricity. It wasn’t just the composition, haunting as it was, but that the very sound seemed to emanate from beyond, like I’d been transported back in time. The song was an obvious antique and yet here it was breathing and beating right in front of me.
There is a freshness and immediacy fused into these old tunes; one reason the duo will be representing the Washington Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis this winter. Hunter & Seamons have been playing their laid-back mix of traditional folk-blues together locally for more than three years, so I’m a little embarrassed they didn’t show up on my radar until just recently.
From the moment they walked on stage at the regional IBC finals at Taste of Snohomish in August, their unique yet unassuming style, their impressive collection of instruments and their quiet confidence had the crowd taking notice before they ever played a note.
Seamons, 31, shouldering a small acoustic guitar, and wearing short dark hair and beard, seemed to harken from an earlier time, with his neat slacks, rolled up plaid sleeves, button down vest and porkpie hat.
Hunter, 30, with dark dreadlocks, shades, brown fedora and breezy print shirt, raised a fiddle to his chin as gladly and as nonchalantly as some of us raise a glass of beer. And played it just as easily.
But it was the surprising blend of their acapella voices that seemed to draw an instant hush over the audience. Harmonies curled into the air like smoke rings, seeming to hover and linger with a hypnotizing sweetness. Body percussion was added by Ben, and then some “bones,” a clacketyclicking percussion instrument akin to castanets or spoons. I’ve seen and heard Ben and Joe do this a half-dozen times; each time, it never fails to make me catch my breath.
For some modern-day blues fans, new to this genre, their quickest connection to this music is what they remember from the Coen Brothers film, “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” And indeed, a Hunter & Seamons show is the only time I’ve ever heard a college student in a Seattle bar request the song, “Constant Sorrow.” But that’s kind of cool and here’s why: Ben and Joe are educating listeners of all ages—through performance and storytelling— to the music and narratives of North America from the Civil War years to the mid-20th century. It is a narrative only touched on in history books. And as Seamons reflected, some of these stories might be only mostly true, but they describe the truth of the people who experienced them.
Eric Steiner, Bluesletter editor and former board member of The Blues Foundation, says he was instantly impressed by their performance at a Washington Blues Society event earlier in 2015. “Few acts capture the sounds, emotions and feelings of acoustic blues like this duo. After their set, I encouraged them to compete in our local International Blues Challenge.”
Other industry professionals have been taking notice. Well-established DJ, promoter and creator of Blues-To-Do TV, Marlee Walker, booked the duo for several shows in Seattle this fall. She holds them in high esteem, calling them “strikingly talented” in presenting “their deep repertoire of old folk, blues and mountain music featuring delicious harmonies.”
At one such show, Seattle-based guitarist, composer and storyteller Steve James, considered one of the top interpreters of early folk blues, and student of blues great Furry Lewis, has been spotted coming in to catch their sets when he’s not touring. The three sat hunched at a table during a recent break at downtown Seattle’s J&M Cafe, swapping stories and examining instruments.
Here in Washington, there seems to be a fresh swell in the popularity of this kind of music— carried from town to town from folks like James, Terry Robb and Lloyd Jones—music that builds bridges between Dixieland and gospel, country blues, folk, jazz and ragtime.
An organizer for the Far-West Folk Festival and well-respected multi-instrumentalist Joel Tepp has shared the stage with Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat, and traces his blues roots lineage back to first-hand experiences with legends like John Lee Hooker, Shakey Jake Harris and Sippie Wallace. He says Ben and Joe represent a true embodiment of the roots music tradition. “They combine artistic skill with enthusiastic delight to remind us all why this music was so engaging to audiences in its original time and continues to inspire and delight listeners almost a century later.”
In their performances, the pair samples selections from their recording, “Take Yo Time,” a title originally derived from something Ben was overheard singing to himself in the recording studio; a fragment of Bill Broonzy’s Long Tall Mama. They said it just seemed to fit the music, which recalls a simpler way of life, perhaps, when things were not so hectic and friends could take time to tell or listen to a story, and enjoy playing music together informally, just for the joy of it. “What we want to incite is a revival,” Says Seamons, “A revival of the good things that have been lost: elements of life, a quality of art, music made for social purposes and pure selfexpression.” He says they want to encourage people not to hurry through life, to make music for its own sake.
And that is exactly what their music calls to mind: the warm scents of coffee and bacon in the morning, laughter over big shared meals and gatherings on the porch at sunset, tipping back a few and remembering songs learned at a grandparent’s knee.
So where did they learn this stuff? Well, they arrived from different paths and then developed it on their recent journey together. Joe Seamons, who plays guitar, banjo, harmonica and sings, was raised in Oregon in a musical community. Folklorist Hobe Kytr was a key member of that community, and taught him to play banjo. Seamons calls Kytr a living repository of the northwest logging and fishing culture, whose original songs described those traditions in detail. “He’s my Mr. Miyagi,” he adds. Not surprisingly, Seamons earned his degree in English Literature with a minor in music. During college he studied American balladry and British folk songs in London. He also began listening to his parent’s Bob Dylan records and from there, dug deeper into Dylan’s influences, which lead him to the blues.
Ben Hunter is classically trained in performance violin, graduating from Whitman College. He also plays mandolin, guitar, the bones, and sings. Once in a while he even pulls out a kazoo. Born in Lesotho, a mountainous country within South Africa, and primarily raised in Phoenix, with a few formative years in Zimbabwe and Seattle, Hunter draws on a very broad musical background. Travelling through Africa, Europe, Central and North America with his mother as he was growing up, he was exposed to many musical environments. He says he eventually found himself drawn to folk, blues and world music, and just kept digging till he found the roots of what he was hearing.
The two found each other through an interesting twist. When Seamons happened to meet Hunter’s college buddy Lauren at a festival, she suggested the two should meet. They finally made that happen when their respective bands played a Portland show in spring 2011. Within a year they began playing together regularly.”
At the 2012 Centrum Acoustic Blues Festival in Port Townsend, WA, the then-new Program Manager, Mary Hilts, remembers meeting and hearing them both for the first time. She says since then she has happily watched them develop their musical relationship and become fantastic performers. “They are brilliant,” she says. “I’m so impressed by their integrity. They have a constant hunger and seeking for the old music. They do their due-diligence. They travel and seek out the ones who are still with us. They do the research.”
Hilts says the two performers live the music. “They dress that era. Their culture and their sense of community is of that era.” She says she respects that the duo plays the music in the spirit in which it was developed; more than a band presenting on a stage. “Everyone in the room is involved. It’s about the whole community.”
Vocalist Farren O’Farren is program assistant for the Port Townsend program and is well-acquainted and enthusiastic about their music. “From Lonnie Johnson to Duke Ellington, from fiddle tunes to blues, Ben and Joe bring a crisp authenticity to the music they play. They wake up your senses and carry you to a different time with good energy, good dynamics, gritty vocals, deep harmonies and polished instrumentation.”
One set from these two can include a 1920s gospel tune, a mournful blues song recorded in the 1930s by a quartet in a Georgia prison, and, as the performers explained in a bit of tragic trivia, a piece written by a white man as a “victory” song to be used to rouse and recruit ex-slaves to fight in the Civil War. These songs, and the stories that travel with them, are a link to our collective past, replete with much of the ugliness humanity has to offer, and some of the beauty of which we are capable. This knowledge creates compassion and community, and this links to the duo’s partnered passions of social justice and creative cultural collaboration.
Joe and Ben are intensely involved in South Seattle educational non-profits, including their their own Rhapsody Program, which features monthly concerts of local talent. Through Rhapsody, they also introduce folk and blues traditions to youth through reaching out to local schools. They teach a program for junior fiddlers at Washington Middle School in South Seattle. They’ve also brought their Rhapsody Program to kids across the country, including Chicago, Portland, and Davenport, Iowa.
The Hillman City Collaboratory advertises itself as an “Incubator for Social Change.” It is a foundational space where Seattle arts meet social needs, where social justice is cooked up alongside delicious meals. Hunter started one of the founding groups, CommunityArtsCreate, and he was recently recognized by the Washington State Arts Commission with a 2015 Governor’s Arts & Heritage Award. The “Young Arts Leader Award” winner has been described as “a talented musician, a dedicated music teacher, and an incredible arts activist with a bold vision of how the arts create community.”
Despite their involvement in several ongoing projects, Hunter and Seamons really do ”take time” to create community wherever they go, and likewise, they are driven to explore the people and areas that create these historical musical hubs across the country. Earlier this year they raised funds to film their travels along the Mississippi
River. They visited, interviewed and played with Artists throughout the region, making good on their mission to build community through arts events and to learn from and connect with the culture bearers of the genres they explore in their music. Now in the editing process, the documentary will debut sometime in 2016.
In addition to editing their film footage, and preparing for their Memphis debut, they are also putting the finishing touches on their new album, due to be released in February.
If you find yourself on Beale Street this January, take the time to get a spot at one of their shows. Because they both play several instruments and sing, and both have different and varied influences and interests, the compositional configurations are endless.
The experience satisfies in the same way as an old-style family reunion dinner: so much to choose from, new takes on old recipes, and many delicious nuances we don’t get to experience in our everyday lives. One leaves the table spent and satisfied, and full up with gratitude and the knowledge that this moment is at once unrepeatable and part of a grand tradition.