Frank Fairfield is old school. His pocket watch is set to about 100 years back in time. With a banjo and a fiddle, he busks on the street and later congregates with the Los Angeles record collector mafia to watch piano rolls played by ghosts. He’s stepping indoors for a residency at the Redwood with his friend Blind Boy Paxton, who he describes as ‘the face of God’ on a guitar. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
What’s the saddest song you play?
Frank Fairfield: A lot of the old British ballads can be pretty rough on you. They were mostly morbid about murder and lost love and all that kind of thing. I guess many of them were pretty sad. ‘Poor Ellen Smith’ is one that comes to mind. Just about any of those. Lately when I play ‘Poor Ellen Smith,’ I find that it kind of brings on one of those really lonesome times.
When you’re singing an old ballad, does that story become yours?
Frank Fairfield: In a sense. I remember Alan Lomax asked Texas Gladden that when she sang the ballads—‘Can you see what’s happening when you’re singing about a man running off with Gypsy Daisy?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I can just sit and admire it and I can see the whole story happening.’ And I think that happens when I get the imagination going. You go there when you sing those songs—you can see the dagger going in and you can see the limp body floating in the water. It can be rough.
What attracts you to these stories and songs?
Frank Fairfield: I guess we all like to feel kinda lonesome sometimes. They’re not all so morbid. They’re just the things that people remember. A lot of these are not topical songs—a lot of this is just lyricism. Especially those British ballads. The American ballads tend to be more topical. The popular ones are about actual events. People like sensationalism maybe.
What typifies a topical ballad?
Frank Fairfield: Oh my goodness, it’s all such a big mess. The most beautiful thing about America is that you got such a big mess of things going on, particularly in what they call Appalachian songs, which is really nothing more than vaudeville songs and British ballads and plantation music. It’s pretty hard to distinguish what is actually British and what is actually American. A lot of the British ballads that survived—the real old ones, many of which are five to seven hundred years old at least—are mostly lyrical. Written just to be written. A lot of songs about John Hardy or John Henry for the most part, people sang songs about them—things like the boll weevil. Events happened that were very particular and people started singing about them. In a sense, you can use a song to do just about anything. Maybe it’s more of my opinion, but music was a lot more useful then. The reason that these songs were kept alive is because when the pioneers came to America, they brought a precious cargo of songs with them that they didn’t even know they brought. It’s slightly argued, but for the most part it’s seen that English balladry survived in America far stronger than it survived in Britain. The pioneers needed the songs. The closer you are to the ground, the more you really need those songs. Music is a luxury now. It’s kind of a thing that’s for fun. It doesn’t seem as necessary as when you didn’t have anything.
When you talk, it’s like getting wrapped up in another time-world.
Frank Fairfield: I just feel like a hundred years ain’t nothing. Few have been able to figure this thing out. This big spurt of what they call progress I guess—a lot of things have appeared to change. But a hundred years ain’t nothing. People were just as well singing ballads that were a thousand years old as if they were neither old nor new or black or white or British or African. It’s all just the people’s song. It’s a natural occurrence.
Do you feel a connection to the past in the music that you choose to play?
Frank Fairfield: People do what they do because they dig it. I do what I’m doing because I dig it. I found some kind of enjoyment over it and I like it. I don’t want to say I feel a connection to something. It’s a feeling—I just want to feel that I’m trying to walk in the tradition. Trying to get back connected to the chain that was rather broken—rather split open. I want to get back to hold ground on something. I feel like a lot of us are just floating around in the air with nothing. When we were talking earlier, you said that nowadays people were trying to come up with the most original thing they can come up with. Maybe they misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘original,’ meaning really having to do with the origin, containing or having the qualities of origin, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the origin of things. Music is something that could swing a lot more. It seems like we’ve squared it away. When things started getting a little more simplified to satisfy the masses and whatnot. It might sound like a harsh thing to say but the way I see the facts music seemed to be a whole lot more free. You could come in whenever you want. A lot of string bands played together all their lives since they were kids and knew the melody so well. And understood that melody is a thing all of its own. It’s not something that you make up. It’s something that you work out like the water. The water’s flowing—you can make a channel and let the water flow through there. But you’re not making up the water. You’re just setting the course. You’re setting the path, and that’s what a tune is. That’s what any fiddle tune is. It happens on its own. You can ride it one way or another. But a tune is a thing all of its own. You know the tune and you can do anything to it. You can swing it one way or drag it another, come in whenever you want on it. And it’s a natural thing too. You just do it.
What music are you into right now?
Frank Fairfield: I’ve been rediscovering Ed Bells. He was a blues singer from Alabama. He recorded in 1927, I believe, until 1934 or something like that, mostly for Columbia. I’ve got one of his records under the name Barefoot Bill. I think that’s one of two that he did under that name for Columbia. He was a fantastic singer. He had some pretty nice and good lines, so I been listening to him. It’s a bit of mixed bag with me usually. Lately I’ve been playing a lot more than listening to anything too novel.
How did this album come together?
Frank Fairfield: On this record it’s more the standards—the old songs that everybody knew and everybody did. I planned to do more songs that are somewhat more of my own. But I was advised to do the ones that people like to hear me play. They like ‘Call Me A Dog When I’m Gone.’ The next time I’m going to put more things that I’ve done. Sometimes I try to sneak them in live and see if nobody notices.
How do origins reveal themselves in your songs?
Frank Fairfield: I do what I feel comfortable with, I guess. Start playing an instrument—maybe something new pops out of it. Every single blues is song is basically the same progression. People put some words on it. I try not to think about it too much and leave it alone for the most part. I play with it and see what happens. I don’t believe in pushing this stuff out or concocting.
How did you and Blind Boy Paxton come across each other?
Frank Fairfield: We passed each other on the street and stopped to talk to each other. He’s about as good as they come. He plays mostly the guitar but he plays some banjo—the way he plays the piano for the time he’s been playing it is phenomenal. I’m the third wheel with him. He’s the first two all by himself.
FRANK FAIRFIELD AND BLIND BOY PAXTON IN RESIDENCY EVERY MONDAY IN SEPTEMBER AT THE REDWOOD BAR AND GRILL, 316 W. 2ND ST., DOWNTOWN. 9 PM / FREE / 21+. THEREDWOODBAR.COM. FRANK FAIRFIELD’S SELF-TITLED ALBUM RELEASES TUE., SEPT. 29, ON TOMPKINS SQUARE. VISIT FRANK FAIRFIELD AT MYSPACE.COM/FRANKFAIRFIELD.