BIG EARS: Sam Amidon loves the mystery, melody of folk music

Sam Amidon

Sam Amidon

Sam Amidon

Sam Amidon

Sam Amidon

  • With: Eric Jon, The Paper Hats and Mountains of Moss
  • Where: Square Room, 4 Market Square
  • When: 5 p.m. Saturday, March 27
  • Tickets: $10

Sam Amidon doesn’t take a purist approach to folk songs. When the multi-instrumentalist/vocalist appears at the Big Ears Festival, audiences will likely hear ancient songs that sound contemporary, rearranged or with instrumentation that sounds slightly classical. Amidon credits the songs as folk songs “recomposed.”

“There is no original,” says Amidon. “With folk songs there is no one original. They’re always changing. What I love about that is there’s incredible mystery in them. The way a story gets told in a murder ballad, sometimes there may be a huge part of the story missing. You don’t know if the guy forgot that verse when he taught it to somebody or he didn’t like the details and changed them or he put in another verse that has residue of a different story. There’s so much mystery as to what the songs really mean, but yet they reflect this intense experience.”

Folk music was no mystery while Amidon was growing up in Vermont. His parents met through folk music in the 1970s.

“My dad played fiddle and my mom taught at a day care center and was doing lots of games and folk-songy things with the kids,” says Amidon.

Both parents (who perform as the Amidons) were into fiddle songs, old hymns and gospel songs, English folk music and other folk songs.

“I grew up in a community where people were into that. It wasn’t like we were old folkies from the mountain. It was more like a revival thing. They had traveled to Alabama to sing sacred harp music and learned fiddle stuff. I grew up in a community where people would try to create that for their kids. We’d go to folk dances on the weekends and it was very wholesome!” Amidon laughs.

“But it was great. There were tons of great musicians.”

Amidon began learning how to play the fiddle at age 3 and sang a little at parties. By age 8, he was making money performing with his parents.

“I really wanted to be a fiddle player and I wanted to learn from fiddle players, both old-time Appalachian fiddle players and Irish traditional music,” he says.

In high school Amidon started listenting to jazz and rock and experimental music, as well as digging deeper into old-time.

“There was this really good indie CD store down the street that starting stocking Dock Boggs and all these field recordings. I’d buy it and bring it home and my parents said, ‘Oh, we have this on LP.’”

When Amidon was 13 he and his best friend Thomas Bartlett (who performs in the act Doveman and will play with Amidon at Big Ears) and Amidon’s younger brother Stefan Amidon formed the group Assembly. Amidon played fiddle, Bartlett played piano and Stefan was on percussion. The group put out several albums and earned national acclaim.

When Amidon moved to New York City in his 20s he began playing free-jazz and working with an indie rock band.

“None of that stuff made any money so I essentially stopped being a professional musician in order to pursue that stuff and get closer to what I’m doing now,” says Amidon.

He took a job typing television interview transcriptions while honing his current style. It may be that the time is right for what Amidon has come up with.

“You can almost look at every phase in popular music and there’s like a correlating folk revival that goes along with that,” says Amidon. “Even with punk there was a sort of interest in old-time music, sort of the pureness and authenticity of it, and then, later, Kurt Cobain sings Leadbelly songs. ... Each time there’s different aspects that people are interested in.”

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