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People's Picks: David Pajo

People's Picks: David Pajo
People's Picks: David Pajo | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

The Folk Origins of Whatever, Mortal
In 2001, Drag City Records released Whatever, Mortal by Papa M… my third full length solo album. The first two solo albums were strictly instrumental, so this was a pretty significant departure. These were lyric-based songs that echoed the traditional music I was listening to, but irreverently mangling it for the ears of my generation. It’s no secret that I was lifting lyrics and melodies from regional traditional music. But here are some of the sources, via the extensive and illuminating Smithsonian Folkways catalog.

As a musician it is your duty to take from others. This is how music evolves. The problem is, when you cosplay someone else’s idea you aren’t owning it. You’re just a mediocre reflection. You have to steal or cherry-pick what you like and translate it into a language you can connect with. Tradition, in my mind anyways, isn’t carved in granite, it’s constantly transmuting itself.


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Track 1

It Isn't Nice
By Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers
From Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers

I started the playlist with this song because I love the way it feels, the dignity of the words, and because it’s just damn near perfection.

Track 2

He'll No Sit Here
By Glasgow Song Guild
From Ding Dong Dollar: Anti-Polaris and Scottish Republican Songs

This might sound like the mice in Disney’s Cinderella to the modern listener but this was the first Smithsonian Folkways record I ever bought. Even though I was a teenager into hardcore punk, something drew me to this record and I played it over and over. I didn’t understand the protest, I didn’t understand the dialect, I hadn’t even a concept of Scotland. But I loved the community, I loved the drunken conviviality, and especially when they break into laughter as they do on this song.

Track 3

Who’s Goin’ To Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot
By John Jacob Niles
From The Ballads of John Jacob Niles

A fellow Kentuckian and folk song historian, John Jacob Niles was an enormous influence on me. In one of his songbooks I found “The Lass of Roche Royal” and I sang it word for word. I tried to evoke, in my limited nature, the haunting quality his voice evokes in me.

Track 4

Springfield Mountain
By Woody Guthrie
From Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs

There’s nothing I adore more than a nonsense word. When a singer makes “too too de nay / too too de noo” part of the lyrics, I know they’re chirping straight from the deepest part of their heart.

Track 5

Rolling Along
By Lucinda Williams
From Happy Woman Blues

A childhood friend hipped me to this album and I couldn’t stop listening when it came out. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t heard any other music by Lucinda Williams. But the ecstatic youthfulness on this album is a pure vibe that cannot be composed.

Track 6

Moonshiner Song
By Buell Kazee
From Buell Kazee: Sings and Plays

Another esteemed Kentuckian, Buell showed me how you can slow down a fast-paced song with long, stretched out vocal phrasing. I tried out simple musical concepts like this on Whatever, Mortal, using banjo and acoustic guitar.

Track 7

Black Is The Color
By Jean Ritchie
From Singing The Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family

I covered this song on a single in the early 2000s and it bears no resemblance!

Track 8

Wayfaring Stranger
By Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys
From Live Recordings 1956-1969: Off the Record Volume 1

Many people have translated this song into their own voice and my version opened the Whatever, Mortal album—I prefer Bill Monroe, most all the time.

Track 9

He Was A Friend Of Mine
By Dave Van Ronk
From Folksinger

I recycled this melody verbatim on my song “Many Splendored Thing.” I was on a long road trip and it was stuck in my head but I didn’t remember the words, so I made up my own.

Track 10

Cumberland Gap
By Buell Kazee
From Buell Kazee: Sings and Plays

I had to close this little playlist with "Cumberland Gap" because it gives insight into how a good song is malleable, how it is shaped to fit the moment. Plus I remember visiting Cumberland Gap as a kid, the park near London, Kentucky.

David Pajo is a founding member of the influential post-rock band Slint, and has played with Tortoise, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Stereolab, Gang of Four, and more. His solo projects include Papa M, Aerial M, and Pajo, which range from folk to alt-rock and punk.