By Ashley Zimmerman
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As any driving school instructor will tell you, you can't teach people who don't want to learn. Miraculously, Hollywood-based folkie Matthew Sabatella has packaged a history lesson in the guise of a strikingly good album (Ballad of America Volume I: Over a Wide and Fruitful Land, released last month) and a nerdaliciously compelling live show that tell the story of western expansion across the American heartland through song. This past week, Sabatella took to the Bamboo Room's Hot Tin Roof-flavored confines for a CD-release party-cum-tutorial.
"To me, it's the kind of thing that will appeal to just about anybody," Sabatella says of the songs on Ballad, most of which date back to the early 1800s. The crowd at the Bamboo reflected that sentiment, as moms, grandmoms, longhairs, blue collars, and a gaggle of wine-sipping, Virginia Slims-puffing ladies all clapped along and sang like ornery lumberjacks to lines like "And we'll range the wild woods over/and once more a-lumbering go!"
Both an unofficial musicologist and a devout musician, Sabatella is as interested in a song's origins as in its proper tuning. Though he says he was never into history, he was caught up in the personal stories that music can convey. "I was vaguely going backwards in time through the music I grew up with," he says, describing the path of discovery he took through American roots music. "The Beatles were my favorite, and then I got into the Byrds and in particular Gram Parsons -- that was the first country music I liked. I realized he was doing older songs by the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard, things that got me looking backwards at Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie but not understanding what I was listening to."
Sabatella's unearthing of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, an encyclopedic anthology of the earliest American field recordings, was an epiphany. "That really opened up the whole world to me," he says. "It's all music -- six CDs of stuff -- recorded in '27 and '28. This is when the Lomaxes first recorded hillbilly music and urban blues. Some of these guys were the initial rural artists to come into the studio and record a song, stuff they'd learned through their parents that had been passed on through the ages."
From there, it was an easy transition to the actual classroom. "I pretty much started teaching school two years ago because of the work I was doing with Ballad of America," he says. "I started singing the songs and understanding the history." Now he teaches music at an elementary school in Miami, doing "an arts integration thing," working with teachers of non-arts subjects to incorporate music into regular lessons.
The reason for Ballad's high knowledge-to-note ratio? "A lot of my selections were chosen for their lyrical content," Sabatella says. "I wanted each song to be vivid in its imagery and the way it advances the story of America." Set to Sabatella's own arrangements ("Most of the songs on the CD I've never heard recorded," he said), lyrics and melodies culled from antiquated journals, historical documents, and other sources are all part of Sabatella's curriculum. These tunes tell the tales of early immigrants and settlers in their own words -- lusty, tragic, and poignant. They're about as far from a standard history text as Les Miz is to The Oxford History of the French Revolution.
"I don't strive for authenticity," Sabatella said of the selections, "because how could you know how it sounded in 1803? I do stick to original acoustic instruments, so it's in the ballpark. But I sing it however it's comfortable to me."
Beyond the live setting, Sabatella has a savvy -- if far-fetched -- approach to marketing. "You put [the album] on the shelf at the grocery store checkout counter, and if you put a blurb on it, people might pick it up because it sounds interesting," he said. "I see just about anyone as a potential customer. And I'm also looking specifically at libraries, educators, colleges, and companies that cater to home schoolers. It's a great tool for understanding history in a way you can't get from a book."
God forbid music might actually teach kids something more than postmodern angst and ridiculous acquisitiveness. For high schoolers, learning history might rate high on the Dork-O-Meter, but putting it to music brings the rating down a bit. "As far as I'm concerned, this is my life's work," Sabatella says. "I plan to have plenty of volumes and other materials. There're enough songs and enough stories to be told that I can keep going with it as long as I feel like it, which will probably be forever." At this rate, Sabatella will be teaching Cobain to toddlers in 2040.
Now that March Madness is over (Musical March Madness, that is: the hat trick of Langerado, South by Southwest, and the Winter Music Conference), Beatcomber is ready to settle down into the local groove again. Show us your tracks! If you're in a local band and have something worth listening to, send it in. If you're playing a gig outside your mom's garage, tell us about it. And if you're an experienced music writer looking to get some ink, send in a résumé and a few samples of your published work. Beatcomber is always looking out for the freshness.