A Songbird's Tears

When the Redbuds Bloom (Independent)

Sarah Elizabeth Whitehead

By Tim Roberts

Think for a moment about folk music. If you're a music connoisseur, if you're the kind of person who can pick out a musician's inspiration in a single chord of a single song like a wine lover can, with the smack of her tongue against her palate, pick out the taste of wood from the cask where the wine aged, then you can doubtlessly find and appreciate the dark, sometimes tragic tones that run throughout folk songs. Now think for a moment about some the best-known traditional folks songs: "Pretty Polly," "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," "Barbara Allen," and many others. All sad, all dark, all an integral part of folk music.

Keeping in that tradition is Sarah Elizabeth Whitehead, wife of poet Ron Whitehead. With a voice that dips into whispers and soars into piercing clarity and songwriting skills that tap into the richness of traditional folk music, she brings us When the Redbuds Bloom, a recording loaded with traditional sounds cut through with mystery and subtlety. Consisting of nearly a dozen original and traditional folk ballads, Redbuds is a lush sampler of folk music's darker side, which, considering the genre's history, is rich and deep.

With help from a strong team of backing musicians including Peter Rhee, Tyrone Cotton, John Paul Wright, Karen Elsie McKenzie, Dave Humphrey, Joe Manning and her husband, Whitehead's Redbuds takes on environmental issues of preservation versus suburban sprawl in the title cut, the joy of good eats after a hard day's work in "Burgoo," a shattered heart in "I Love You Crossed My Mind Today," a murder told first-person by the victim in "Fair Butchertown," which Whitehead sings a capella in the tradition of an Irish dirge (complete with a bagpipe finale from Karen Elsie McKenzie).

What Whitehead does in Redbuds is proof that folk music isn't limited to the sunny bounce of "Blue Tail Fly" or "This Land is Your Land," or even to the protest songs from the 1960s. Its thread runs deep and far back into the history of music and that history is dark, often sad, sometimes deadly. Yet it doesn't seem to be Whitehead's intention to bring us down. Like a willow tree, Where the Redbuds Bloom is large, shady, drooping. But like the willow's foliage, it is filled with life.

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