Subtropical Spin

Matthew Sabatella has carved out a distinctive niche for himself over the past several years or so by re-creating the songs of America's past, complete with instruments of the era — fiddles, banjos, Jew's harps, and the like. He takes his traveling band to schools, libraries, and just about anywhere else that folks with a fondness for traditional tunes might gather.

His Ballad of America series of recordings charts Sabatella going back to the nation's origins and completing a broad examination of its musical trajectory. These archival folk songs are hardly the type of thing to garner broad appeal, especially in a place like South Florida, where tradition is measured in months rather than centuries. Synths, samples, and back-up dancers don't find a place in music of this sort, and only those content to tap their toes and relish some homegrown sentiments will likely appreciate its appeal.

Still, the charm remains intact on his third installment in the series, Ballad of America Volume 3: Songs in the Life of Abraham Lincoln. He's tapped into a timely theme — the 200th anniversary of the birth of our 16th president. Honest Abe apparently didn't have an iPod, but Sabatella's done his usual thorough research. He's documented Lincoln's link to this music via extensive liner notes containing historical anecdotes and (of course secondhand) quotes from those who were there. It seems the prez was a sentimental sort, and the more morose ballads like "Twenty Years Ago," "Home Sweet Home," and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" (one of the few tracks still heard in modern times) frequently left him misty-eyed.

There are a few rousing examples of what might have been considered party tunes back in the day: "Old Sister Phoebe," "Old Dan Tucker," and an original campaign song, "Lincoln and Liberty." (After all, there was no Springsteen, Mellencamp, or Fleetwood Mac to authorize Lincoln's handlers to expropriate a crowd pleaser for their purposes). Regardless, we get the point. The 19th Century might not have been a whole lot of laughs — kinda like nowadays, come to think of it — but as Sabatella suggests, tapping into tunes can help get you through it.

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Lee Zimmerman